NOVEL

By Jacquelyn Mitchard

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There are chick lit writers, and then there are novelists like Mitchard who write about—and for—flesh-and-blood females who must cope with the vagaries of life and marriage. Nine years after her debut novel The Deep End of the Ocean (the first book that Oprah Winfrey picked for her Book Club), Mitchard again examines a family in peril. In her sixth novel Mitchard, who also writes children's books, mines the landscape of a shattering family to illuminate the moments of forgiveness and grace.

College sweethearts Julieanne, a dancer turned advice columnist, and Leo, an attorney, have two teenagers, Gabe and Caroline, a 2-year-old named Aury and a seemingly solid union. But Julieanne, so skilled at dispensing clear-headed advice to readers, is blind to the hairline fractures that threaten her own marriage. "We're in a rut, Julieanne. And we call it life," explains her self-important husband.

Resenting his responsibilities, Leo flees, leaving no forwarding address or funds. And Julieanne, who has been troubled by numbness in her legs, is diagnosed with MS. Confined to her bed when the disease is particularly active, she comes to depend on her best friend and Gabe to write her column when she finds herself flagging and to care for Aury. As their mother struggles with the effects of the disease and reactions to the powerful cancer drugs she takes to keep it from progressing, Gabe and Caroline undertake a cross-country journey to bring their errant father home. But what they and their mother learn at the end of the journey proves that Breakdown is more than the story of a dying marriage; it is a tale of the life-giving—and often strained—ties between parent and child.

NOVEL

By Cheryl Howard Crew

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Instead of gearing up to write a fictional industry tell-all like some Hollywood wives might, Cheryl Howard Crew (wife of director Ron Howard) researched her first novel by spending three months in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, escorted by ex-military officers to spy on drug lords and visit gun bazaars. The resulting tale centers around Christine, a tough but naive Californian who makes frequent buying trips to South Asia with her sister Liz for their import business. But then Liz disappears, and, frustrated by the Indian government's inaction, Christine sets off through the desert to find Liz herself. Howard Crew deftly uses her knowledge of the area to create daunting images, including dark streets where mothers maim their kids to make them more effective beggars and markets where old women hide knives in their head scarves. But toward the end the plot unravels. Though the idea of a lone American woman trekking through Central Asia requires readers to forgive some implausibility, an unlikely love connection and a far-fetched ending might be too much for even the most imaginative audience.

FICTION

By Megan Marshall
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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This monumental biography answers every question about its subjects but one: Why aren't the Peabody sisters famous? Born just after the turn of the 19th century into a once-prominent New England family, Elizabeth, Mary and Sophia authored their own fortune, schooling themselves in languages and philosophy and talking their way into intellectual circles above their station. Goaded by their mother, who insisted that they find meaningful work in an era when few professions were open to women, Elizabeth became a publisher and founded a magazine, which she edited with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Mary wrote books, eventually marrying Horace Mann, the so-called father of public education. Sophia won renown as a painter, despite a lifelong battle with migraines. She wed Nathaniel Hawthorne after a courtship kept secret because, among other reasons, Elizabeth had loved him first. This portrait of New England between the Revolutionary and Civil wars brings its characters to vivid life. There's vibrant history inside this thick volume—and probably a screenplay too.

NONFICTIONTHE WORLD IS FLAT by Thomas L. Friedman

The Pulitzer winner explains how globalization has leveled the playing field and why post-9/11 isolationism could be perilous for the U.S.

A MONTH OF SUNDAYS by Julie Mars

The death of her adored older sister led Mars to write a moving (but never mawkish) account of her own search for spiritual sustenance.

LUCKY CHILD by Loung Ung

In this riveting sequel to her memoir First They Killed My Father, about surviving the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Ung limns her new life in the U.S.

DON'T EAT THIS BOOK by Morgan Spurlock

The filmmaker behind surprise documentary hit Super Size Me, takes a sobering look at the country's obesity crisis.

ON BULL by Harry G. Frankfurt

This quotable gem by a philosophy prof argues that the rhetorical scourge is worse than lying since it fosters a disregard for the truth.

Want to be a star? In her new book, Paula Froelich, a reporter at the New York Post's Page Six, shares guidelines culled from celeb-watching.

YOU SAY THAT FAME'S A GAME, WHAT'S THE SECRET TO WINNING? Lesson No. 1: Always be nice to the waiters; the people you meet on the way up are the ones you'll need on the way down. Also, there's no excuse for bad manners. And don't be a diva.

HOW ABOUT PLAYING UP WHAT YOU'VE GOT?

Look at Paris Hilton. She doesn't say, "I'm an actress." She knows her [message] is, "I'm beautiful; I'm a Hilton." And Jennifer Aniston—in her pre-famous photos she's pretty homely. She's an ode to good grooming.

WHO EMBODIES YOUR RULES? Julia Roberts. She's worked extremely hard. She's never been really nasty to anyone. And she's got a great attitude.

WHO'S IN DAGER OF SLIDING Tara Reid. She's said, "I'm young, I'm allowed to make mistakes." But you're not. You're in the public eye.

  • Contributors:
  • Kay Greissinger,
  • Beth Perry,
  • Sue Corbett,
  • Natasha Stoynoff.