By Aryn Kyle

Alice Winston, the 12-year-old heroine of Aryn Kyle's involving and accomplished first novel, has a lot on her plate. Her adored older sister Nona has eloped with a rodeo cowboy. Her depressed mother spends all day crying and hardly ever manages to get herself out of her bed. Alice has a murky telephone relationship with Mr. Delmar, a seventh-grade English teacher at her school. And with their expenses climbing during an unusually warm summer, Alice and her overworked father are trying desperately to hold on to the family's small-town Colorado horse ranch—and to resist the predatory attentions of the rich women who board their horses there.

Kyle has a gift for creating character, for making even the most minor players in Alice's drama come alive on the page. And she ties up the strands of her plot in nervy and satisfying ways, so that nothing is predictable as The God of Animals twists and turns toward its conclusion. Aryn Kyle's debut delivers all the fun of the books about horses that you loved as a kid—but with the added weight and seriousness of a novel for grown-ups.

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By Rebecca Walker

In her bestselling Black, White, and Jewish, Walker—daughter of The Color Purple's Alice Walker—explored her life after her parents' divorce; she now uses her sharp intelligence to examine the joyful, terrifying ride to parenthood and the complex roles of mother and child. As Walker, now 37, begins her pregnancy in 2004, she is torn between the desire to be a loving daughter—to a brilliant, difficult woman who has her own ambivalence about motherhood—and the desire to love unconditionally as a mom. Hoping for healing, she e-mails her mother about past hurts. Alice answers that she is "no longer interested in the job" of being her mother; later, according to Rebecca, she cuts her from her will. The pain of that rejection emanates from Baby Love's pages, as does Walker's determination to find a better way. "I consider the fact that I, once terrified of spiders, will now reach into my son's crib to kill one," she writes. "I am struck by the human ability—propensity, even—for regeneration and change." You know she'll do just fine embracing motherhood, in all its sloppy, intimate selflessness and glory.

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By Lisa Lutz

If Isabel Spellman, 28, didn't say her parents were San Francisco private investigators, we would guess she was the love child of Dirty Harry and Harriet the Spy. A hard-drinking, fashion-challenged screw-up with a jones for Get Smart reruns and a talent for tailing people, Izzy works in the family business but can't escape scrutiny of her own private life since nothing she does goes unnoticed. (Her family's motto? Surveillance begins at home.) To that end, Izzy's parents don't just Google every boy she dates—they run criminal background checks.

Nominally, the plot churns on Izzy's work deconstructing two missing person cases (one of the MIAs is her little sister Rae, a juvenile delinquent-in-progress)—investigations that cause her to question just how much family dysfunction she can tolerate. It's not the mystery of how these cases ultimately resolve that will pull readers through, but the whip-smart sass of the story's heroine, ace detective of her own heart.

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"Because mothers make us," Walker writes, "...they know just where to stick the dynamite."

TEA LEONI: "Lipshitz 6 or Two Angry Blondes by T Cooper and The Echo Maker [by Richard Powers]. I like to have a few going at a time. Lipshitz is a great tale; Echo Maker is stunning."

JIMMY KIMMEL "The Best Seat in the House by Allen Rucker. One morning he woke up and, for no good reason, his legs didn't work. It should be sad, but it's inspirational and heartbreakingly funny."

MEREDITH VIEIRA "I am actually reading Barack Obama's second book [The Audacity of Hope]. The guy's running for President, so I want to be up to speed! He's a really wonderful writer."

Understanding what goes on in that fallible white-coat's head, says How Doctors Think author Jerome Groopman, M.D., can help you receive the best care.

1. BEWARE OF GETTING TOO CHUMMY A doctor who really likes you may want to spare you a needed procedure because it's painful. Emotions can blur a doctor's ability to think.

2. IF YOU'RE INCOMPATIBLE, MOVE ON Physicians who dislike a patient close their minds and don't think well about their problems.

3. DON'T GET STEREOTYPED If you're a middle-aged woman with two kids, too often doctors attribute symptoms to stress. To prevent this, ask what some other possibilities might be.

4. DON'T BE REASSURED BY "WE SEE THIS SOMETIMES" Patients should never accept that as a first answer to a serious event. When you hear it, reply: Let's keep looking.

5. ASK, "WHAT'S THE WORST THING THIS CAN BE?" It's not neurotic. It can slow the doctor's pace and help him think broadly. What we say to a physician, and how we say it, sculpts his thinking.