NOVEL

by Gish Jen

CRITIC'S CHOICE

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In her vibrant, multilayered third novel, Jen once again explores the dilemmas of maintaining cultural identity in the American melting pot. Does a family require shared blood and ethnic heritage? Or can it be constructed of disparate elements and held together by good intentions and force of will?

Tech-company exec Carnegie Wong, the son of Chinese immigrants, and his Anglo investment-whiz wife, Blondie, are sure if s the latter and take great pride in their blended family, including Asian adoptees Lizzy, 15, and Wendy, 9, along with surprise biological baby son Bailey. But when Lan, a distant cousin from China, arrives to act as nanny to the children (an arrangement that Carnegie's mother, who wants to be sure her grandchildren speak Chinese, has stipulated in her will), life gets more complicated. Blondie and Lan are soon competing for the children's—and Carnegie's—affections, and it's easy to see that trouble is on the way. Yet it's impossible to predict the deft plot twists and surprise revelations that ensue. Like a radio play, Love Wife is all dialogue, with the characters providing the narration and exchanging comments in vivid prose. (Recalling his mother's failing faculties shortly before her death, Carnegie observes that she "looked puzzled, like someone trying to remember what was delicious about chocolate.") Wise and compassionate, Love Wife unflinchingly probes the ties that bind—and separate—people, races and nations.

FANTASY

by Stephen King

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After six gunslinging, blood-spilling and time-tripping books, The Dark Tower, the seventh and final installment of King's fantastical series of the same name, finally reveals what's lurking at the top of that tower. And the answer is...a year's supply of Turtle Wax! Not really, but many series fans are going to be miffed when they find out what metacowboy Roland of Gilead encounters at the end of his odyssey to save both real and surreal worlds. It's a long way to go for an ending that doesn't—ahem—necessarily end.

As in previous Tower books, King resorts to such ego-boosting horse-play as making himself a character and dotting the Tolkienesque good-vs.-ghoulish plot with references to his own bestsellers. But give him credit for keeping the adventure entertaining. For every mention of rat-headed nurses and mystical vampires, there are pop-culture gags about Robert Goulet and Darth Vader. And as for that finish, Roland's fate might be frustrating, but hey, it's the journey that counts.

NOVEL

by Heather Cochran

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When bad-boy actor Joshua Reed is nabbed for drunk driving, his punishment is 90 days of house arrest—in the West Virginia home of the 25-year-old president of his fan club, Leanne Gitlin. Starting with this whimsical premise, Mean Season deftly swings between the comedic living situation and some serious undercurrents: "the strange run-ins that can alter everything in the blink of an eye, or the shift of a single season." Joshua and Leanne fight and flirt, but she is also forced to deal with the death of her father, the disappearance of one brother and the disabling football accident of another. Meanwhile she reheats her schoolgirl crush on Max, a handsome Winn-Dixie employee Joshua's pals threaten to steal away from her by sending him to L.A. for a screen test.

Unlike most plucky-heroine stories, this first novel has considerable emotional heft that works seamlessly with the comic relief. The pathos never gets too unwieldy or the humor too frivolous. Whether describing a passionate first kiss or a fatal tragedy, Cochran makes this story sing.

NOVEL

by Marc Acito

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Ah, 1983, when a year's tuition at a primo college was only 10 grand. But high schooler Edward Zanni doesn't have that kind of cash, and his CFO dad—who works for a company called Wastecom—is willing to pay only for business school, not the acting schools Ed wants to go to. What's a budding thespian to do? When he tries to work, he is instantly fired from every job, which he concludes is a sure sign that he's "best suited for a life in the arts." When he's admitted to his top choice, Juilliard, he decides that crime is the only way to pay. So Ed and his friends use their acting skills to bilk some sleazy figures.

Acito has fantastic narrative chops, writing funny, fast and satisfying chapters, even when the plot isn't always as sharp as it should be. The casual raunchiness can be surprising at times and completely unbelievable at others, as is the constant coupling and un-coupling that goes on with Ed and his friends, at least a couple of whom are bisexual. This is a book for mature readers that reminds us what a blast immaturity can be.

THRILLER

by Kim Wozencraft

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Plumbing the secrets of cop shop and cellblock alike. Wozencraft writes with equal authority and pathos about their opposing worlds. Diane, an unjustly imprisoned Texas cop who compares her job to being in a gang—"you hang out wearing your colors and drive around looking for trouble"—plots escape with her cellmate Gail, a one-time nonviolent revolutionary. Many inmates are misguided young women busted as drug mules working for their men; others are just unlucky. "When the enormity of prison, of doing time, hit them," Wozencraft writes, "they did the crash-and-burn thing. Some got suicidal. Some got hysterical. Most, like Diane, wept. Some for hours, some for days."

Wozencraft, who chronicled her own descent from cop to con in the book and film Rush, is chilling in her descriptions of life on the inside as well as on the lam. Though it ends abruptly and leaves the fate of a pivotal character hanging, Wanted is a deftly told jailbreak caper that provokes thought—and goose bumps.

BIOGRAPHY

by Steve Turner

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Like Elvis, Johnny Cash was a God-fearing boy from the Bible Belt who felt torn by the marriage between sacred and secular music that gave birth to rock and roll. As one friend puts it in this warm biography of Cash, who died last Sept. 12, "God was always tugging at his soul."

Though presented as an authorized biography—Cash's five children all spoke with Turner—this portrait is hardly sanitized. There are bright shards of detail: Cash's father scarred him for life by blaming him for his brother's death in a circular-saw accident; Cash had a long but apparently chaste love affair with Hank Williams's widow, Billie Jean; his relationship with Presley was so contentious that Cash left when the King came to visit. Throughout, Turner returns to that tug of God. Said Cash, who recorded two albums at prisons: "I found it part of my religion...to perform for people in bondage, especially those behind bars."

The Apprentice's winner Bill Rancic's You're Hired: How to Succeed in Business and Life and third-place finisher Amy Henry's What it Takes: Speak Up, Step Up, Move Up are the first of a slew of Apprentice-related books. Here's how The Donald's protégés stack up:

AMY ON BILL "[Nick, Katrina and I] tried to rein in his tendency to micro-manage, so we could do our jobs."

BILL ON AMY Her dispatching a casino hostess to poach VIP high rollers from his turf during an Apprentice task "was amateurish, a clownish tug-of-war for business, and it made all of us look bad."

BILL AND AMY ON OMAROSA "She was deceitful, disorganized and completely unprofessional," says Bill. Amy's take: "I may not have liked Omarosa personally, but I recognized her professional strengths."

THEIR DIGS AT THE OTHERS Amy: "On The Apprentice, one of the other women, who didn't care for me personally, criticized me by saying that I used relationships to try to win the game. Of course I used relationships!" Bill: "If I spoke out against a member of my own team, I was perceived as disloyal. If I spoke out in favor...I was perceived as lying... If I chose to stay out of the fray, I was perceived as being indecisive."

AMY'S BIGGEST BLUNDER Posing in her undies for the laddie mag FHM. "I regret it. I took a lot of heat from professional women."

BILL'S BIGGEST REGRET Disparaging what he calls those "scantily dressed" casino hostesses as "hookers" on camera. "I realize now that this didn't exactly endear me to millions of viewers."

AMY SETS THE RECORD STRAIGHT She wants us to know that (a) she has been bleaching her hair blonde since sixth grade, (b) she and Nick "went out a couple of times but decided to remain friends," and (c) she and Bill were not "canoodling," as reported in a Manhattan gossip column.

SUCK-UP AWARD To Bill for describing his new boss as "an innovative, risk-taking, media-sawy businessman...a living, breathing embodiment of the Dream." (Okay, okay, you're still hired.)

  • Contributors:
  • Bella Stander,
  • Sean Daly,
  • Andrea L. Sachs,
  • Jeremy Jackson,
  • Steve Dougherty,
  • Mike Lipton.