by Laurence Leamer

Did JFK have leukemia? Was he addicted to amphetamines? Learner, who wrote The Kennedy Women, suggests the answer to both is yes but doesn't have definitive proof. They're the most thought-provoking details in what is otherwise familiar Kennedy fare: skirt chasing, social climbing and, depending on your perspective, unshakable confidence or appalling arrogance. Leamer mines previously unpublished letters JFK sent to the mistress, Gunilla Von Post, he met in Europe just before his wedding (he wrote her that he wanted to sail the Mediterranean "with you as crew"). But Leamer's view of the Kennedys' rise is nothing new: Thank (or blame) the determination of patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy. (Morrow, $35)

Bottom Line: Plenty of dish, mostly warmed-over

by Elizabeth David

British food writer Elizabeth David, who died in 1992, was revered as a foodie prophet for teaching her countrymen in such works as A Book of Mediterranean Food that there is more to dining than fish and chips. Nutmeg is a bouillabaisse of her magazine articles, essays and recipes. At her best David mocks the gourmet craze, calling incompetent food writers "psoodies" and denouncing trendy kitchen gadgets ("Garlic Presses Are Utterly Useless"). Her essay on the aristocratic lineage of a 16th-century-cookbook author, though, is about as exciting as last week's bread, and the recipes are confusingly organized. (Viking, $29.95)

Bottom Line: Could have used one more pass through the sieve

by James Neff

It was that year's trial of the century, and the unsolved murder of Dr. Sam Sheppard's beautiful wife, Marilyn, remains one of the great true-crime stories. Neff's review of the facts is a gripping and meticulously researched book.

On the morning of July 4, 1954, Sheppard told police that he had been asleep in the living room of his suburban Cleveland home when he was awakened by his wife's screams, had run to her aid and been knocked unconscious by an unknown assailant. Later, he discovered that his wife had been bludgeoned to death. His story seemed improbable, and when it emerged that Dr. Sam had dallied with several stunning mistresses, he became the prime suspect. Local newspapers called for his head, and a jury handed it to them. The sentence was life. Represented by the young F. Lee Bailey, Sheppard won a new trial and acquittal in 1966, but public suspicion clung to him until he died an alcoholic at 46 in 1969.

In 1998 his son Sam Reese Sheppard sued to clear the family name, armed with DNA testing and revelations about one Richard Eberling, the Sheppards' window cleaner in 1954—who was later convicted of an unrelated murder. The portrait of the astonishing Eberling is the highlight of Neff's admirably fair study. (Random House, $25.95)

Bottom Line: First-degree murder mystery

by Meryle Secrest

The composer of hundreds of the most hopeful and romantic songs of all time for such beloved musicals as Babes in Arms, Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music was a depressed boozer who kept an outwardly happy marriage while chasing chorus girls. These are the surprising revelations in the first thorough biography of Richard Rodgers (1902-1979). Secrest (Stephen Sondheim: A Life) had the cooperation of Rodgers's two daughters (though they didn't have editorial approval). Her book is well researched but sloppily written, filled with run-on sentences and digressive anecdotes.

Secrest's unsettling portrait of Rodgers, whose primary musical partners were lyricists Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, paints him as a gifted artist unable to express much emotion except through his music. Only in a theater was he truly at ease. "If I'm unhappy," he said, "it takes my unhappiness away; if I'm happy, I get happier." (Knopf, $30)

Bottom Line: A life out of tune

by Robert Ludlum

Page-turner of the week

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Ludlum always had a way with endings, and he still has more twists in store. Although the master suspense writer died in March at age 73, he left at least two more books to follow this, his 24th thriller.

The Sigma Protocol centers on investment banker Ben Hartman, the emotionally wounded son of business genius and Holocaust survivor Max Hartman. Four years after his twin brother, Peter, died in a plane crash outside Zurich, Ben has returned to Switzerland to take a ski vacation. Instead, he suddenly finds himself the unlikely target of assassins.

Barely a step ahead of the killers, Hartman desperately searches for the reason he is being pursued. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Justice Department agent Anna Navarro tries to solve a puzzle of her own: the suspicious deaths of elderly men whose names all appear on a mysterious World War II-era list code-named Sigma.

Packed with all the classic Ludlum elements—Nazis, secretive government agencies, macabre global conspiracies—the intricately engineered plot thunders forward at breakneck pace. By the time Hartman and Navarro join forces to confront the bad guys, Ludlum has the reader "hopelessly hooked. (St. Martin's, $27.95)

Bottom Line: Perfectly executed

by Diana Gabaldon

No, this isn't a book about the Ku Klux Klan. Burning crosses were once a Highland Scots symbol that had nothing to do with racism. But the misleading title of this epic about a 20th-century woman in 1770s North Carolina is the least of this novel's problems. It's a 350-page story that spills across 979 pages.

In the fifth installment of a wildly successful series, Scottish laird-turned-colonial-landholder Jamie Fraser, joined by his time-traveling British wife, Claire, a former "WWII nurse, helps end the real-life Regulator War. Gabaldon is obsessed by extraneous detail (we learn way too much about lactation and poopy diapers) but doesn't enlighten new readers as to who the characters are, how they got to the colonies and why we should care. Claire, who has morphed into an amalgam of Dr. Quinn and Patricia Cornwell's medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, has lots of hot sex when the plot isn't venturing into murders, rampaging wild animals and a ho-hum whodunit. The most memorable parts are the typos: "sausage on a girdle," anyone? (Delacorte, $27.95)

Bottom Line: Smoke but no fire

by Christina Adam

Snakes and bats and cats—oh my! This slim collection of 26 stories is an A-to-Z menagerie of animals that change the lives of the humans who cross their paths.

In medieval times bestiaries were allegorical fables that used animals to teach moral lessons. Adam's modern take is less preachy and more literary. Despite the cutesy story titles—"A is for Asp," "B is for Bat"—this isn't a kiddie collection or gimmicky pseudospiritual tome. Each entry is a well-crafted piece of fiction told in understated prose that highlights the stories' tiny moments of magic. It's a book for literature lovers and spiritual seekers alike.

The characters despair in that quiet way that comes with everyday life: a middle-aged wife whose husband has turned cold, a grown woman still vaguely haunted by the fat jokes of her childhood. The lessons they learn are subtle revelations, brought on by the cool touch of a snake against a bare heel or a close encounter with a bear in the forest. Not all the stories—particularly one about a fortune-telling cat named Nostradama—are serious. But all are unsentimental reminders, in their beauty and simplicity, of love. (BlueHen Putnam, $18.95)

Bottom Line: Absolutely fable-ous

  • Contributors:
  • Debby Waldman,
  • Max Alexander,
  • Roger Parloff,
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Cynthia Sanz,
  • Bella Stander,
  • Michelle Vellucci.