By Laurence Learner
BIOGRAPHY

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President John Kennedy's potent charisma and enduring popularity bestowed cachet onto his brothers Bobby and Ted, his son John Jr. and even his many nephews. This exhaustive family biography examines how well the "sons of Camelot" have dealt with a legacy of power and fame unprecedented in American history.

This being a Kennedy book, you expect—and will find—plenty of stories about violent death, sexual misconduct and substance abuse, but in his third Kennedy book Learner provides a fair account of the family's accomplishments in the past 40 years. He describes Ted Kennedy's success in the Senate and gives the Shrivers credit for making the Special Olympics a global movement. But he is unsparing of the late Michael Kennedy, who enriched himself as president of the supposedly nonprofit Citizens Energy while carrying on an extramarital affair with a teenage babysitter.

Learner draws on an impressive list of new interviews, which make his portrait of John Kennedy Jr. particularly credible and vivid. But since the book is structured chronologically, John's story is chopped up and interspersed among the stories of his many cousins, some of whom are less memorable than others. (It's hard to go from dirt about Daryl Hannah's relationship with Jackson Browne to a dutiful retelling of Tim Shriver's triumphs in an inner-city public school.) The chronological structure also underscores the fact that this is a story of decline. By the end of the book, you get the impression that the family's only remaining political hope is in-law Arnold Schwarzenegger.

By Samantha Gillison
NOVEL
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Nelson Rockefeller's son Michael was last seen in 1961, swimming toward the coast of New Guinea. His fate is unknown: Did the millionaire drown in turbulent waters? Or was he captured and eaten by the same headhunters he'd been living among and studying? In a fictionalized retelling, Gillison follows a young anthropology student, whom she calls Stephen Hesse, to New Guinea, where he collects native artifacts. Combining elements of travelogue and domestic drama, plus adventure and romance, Gillison ends up exploding hoary notions of what happens when the Park Avenue set comes face-to-face with the "primitive" world, and Hesse's stubborn, poetic personality takes on a life of its own. Gillison has a gift for detail and her sentences fall and fold like fine fabric: "Ms. Lyle was smarter than him; he admired her for it. She was beautiful too, but she had no sex." The King of America, too, is smart and beautiful and contains a great deal to admire.

By Lawrence Block
MYSTERY

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Block's long-running antihero Bernie Rhodenbarr is a burglar who lives by a simple set of rules: "I don't play cards with men named Doc, or eat at places called Mom's. Or drink before I burgle." Despite strict adherence to this code, Bernie always manages to get into trouble. This time Bernie is planning to steal cash from the home of a plastic surgeon with criminal connections, but first he gets the urge to go on the prowl and commits a spontaneous robbery. Though he's not caught stealing, he does find himself wrongly accused by the police of being involved in a triple murder. When the murderers come after Bernie, he decides to help his old friend on the police force solve the case.

This is one of the best in Block's 10-book "Burglar" series. He weaves together seemingly unrelated events—okay, the laundry list of coincidences can verge on absurd—so that Bernie can explain all in an ending worthy of the best of Miss Marple or Charlie Chan.

By Wendy Holden
NOVEL

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Holden's fizzy tale, set mostly on the French Riviera, is like an all-night bender: It has giggles, hookups, mischief, a couple of burps and some very embarrassing moments. And when it's over, there's no guilt for the pleasure, nor much memory of it.

This Cristal-lite story stars Kate Clegg, an aspiring trash novelist who slogs away at a dutiful newspaper in Slackmucklethwaite, England, but dreams of the Cote d'Azur. She follows a smarmy lover there but is abandoned during the Cannes Film Festival and must find a job (or three). In her spare time, the little trouper gets swept up in an international real estate scam, a mystery involving a skull-faced menace and a romance with a French artist, among other mini escapades. The mad jumble of story lines occasionally becomes preposterous and confusing (again, why is Kate being held hostage by a banana-wielding decorator?). But Holden glosses over the gaps with quick-paced scenes. No prizes will be awarded to those who guess that in the finale, Kate's champagne wishes will finally come true.

By David Liss
MYSTERY

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Benjamin Weaver, the pugilist turned investigator of Liss's 2000 first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper, returns in this intricate historical mystery. Weaver is convicted unjustly for murder in 1722, when brokers advertise EVIDENCE in their shop windows and provide "witnesses" for a price. But a mysterious blonde hands him a lockpick during sentencing, so he escapes from prison and tries to find out why he was framed. The trail takes him through gin mills and hovels to a divisive election (the title refers to it) and back to his true love, now married. More ominously, he tangles with radicals who want to install the Pretender, son of the deposed Catholic King James II, on the throne. The plot is densely patterned and requires concentration, but Liss is a superb writer who evokes the squalor of London with Hogarthian gusto: "On these streets a perambulator is likely to step in turds or bits of rotting dog or the discarded tumor of some surgeon's labors."

By Guy Vanderhaeghe
WESTERN

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A bestseller in the author's native Canada, this brisk travelogue of 19th-century western U.S. and Canadian territories unfolds after two English brothers cross the Atlantic. Addington (the arrogant one) and Charles (the sensitive one) are searching for their lost third, Simon Gaunt, who came to the New World to convert Indians to Christianity. Along the way they encounter Lucy Stoveall, who claims to be chasing a stray husband but is really hoping to avenge her sister's murder; a comically pathetic horse trader who pines after Lucy; and a Scots-Blackfoot half-breed who serves as a guide. The characters take turns narrating, and the author adeptly inhabits very different minds (well-bred Englishman, gruff barkeep). But in his enthusiasm for adventure Vanderhaeghe loses sight of the big plot picture. Rather than forming a satisfying arc, Crossing plays out more as a flat string of incidents. There is, however, a fine sense of frontier justice. By the end, the right folk are paired off, returned home or eaten by bears.

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Conroy,
  • Alex Abramovich,
  • Rob Taub,
  • Andrea L. Sachs,
  • Edward Karam,
  • Allison Adato.