Thomas Keneally, . . Viking/Lipper, $19.95 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-670-03175-7

Keneally offers up a new volume in the popular Penguin Lives series of short biographies. Some writers appear to benefit from the forced brevity. Keneally, however, seems inhibited and constrained by the limitation in his life of Abraham Lincoln. Unlike his previous, lengthier nonfiction outings (notably The Great Shame and the recent American Scoundrel), his life of Lincoln reads not as a great illuminating narrative placing past events in a fresh perspective, but rather like a Cliffs Notes version of better books by such scholars as David Donald. The facts of Lincoln's life as related are both true and readable, but the author offers no new insights, no imaginative or interpretive leaps, no poetry. Keneally is at his best, perhaps, in presenting Lincoln in his final stage, a calculating and at times ruthless war leader. This is the Lincoln whom Keneally's "American scoundrel," Dan Sickles, knew best and with whom Keneally also seems to be pretty well acquainted. Still, all the other Lincolns here—the wilderness child, the prairie lawyer, the husband, the father, the fledgling politician—come across as little more than hollow robots walking doggedly from one well-known benchmark to the next, lacking that one element so essential to real life: a soul. (On sale Dec. 30)

Forecast:Lincoln sells, and so does Keneally. So, despite its flaws, will this brief bio.