Picks and Pans Review: Toy Monster

updated 03/02/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/02/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Jerry Oppenheimer |

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People PICK


You can tell it's Mattel—it's swell! That was an early slogan of the toy giant, but this juicy exposé shows that life inside the 64-year-old company was hardly always fun and games. Outsize personalities helped ensure that: There was cofounder Ruth Handler, who bought a sexy little doll in Germany and remade her into Barbie (without bothering to obtain a licensing agreement). Engineer Jack Ryan claimed design credit for the new doll too, and urged girlfriends to get Barbie-curves through plastic surgery. The book covers more serious corporate dysfunctions as well—the image-tarnishing '07 recall of toys containing lead, for instance. But it's the Barbie tales that are most delectable—and just in time for the ageless one's big birthday.

Cutting for Stone

by Abraham Verghese |

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Conjoined twins, Shiva and Marion Stone are separated by the doctor whose caesarean fails to save their mother. Raised near the Ethiopian hospital where they were born, the brothers lock into a struggle that mirrors the country's political tension: Their family is touched by murder, a coup, betrayal. Physician and memoirist Verghese plays straight to the heart in his first novel, which will keep you in its thrall.

The Agency

by Ally O'Brien |

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Literary agent Tess Drake is 36, successful and the kind of sexy that makes other women "take a second glance and pinch their mouths unhappily." Cocky and aggressive, she handles her needy authors, barracuda-like office politics and scandalous love life with stilettoed aplomb. Until the day her boss is found dead—and Tess is under suspicion. The plot is entertaining enough, but the real draw is the witty heroine, who's prone to observations like, "We were as close as two attractive women can be. Always one little mistake away from...a bitter feud." Not PC, perhaps, but a delight.

The Vagrants

by Yiyun Li |

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The brutal execution of a young woman who has spoken out against her government affects each of the fascinating characters in Li's debut novel, set in 1979 China. Ten years before the Tiananmen Square Massacre, citizens are struggling under oppressive Communism, knowing defiance has a high price. Ordinary people show extraordinary strength as they work, scheme, love—and dare to speak truth to power. "If we don't," says one mother to another, "there will be a next time, another child.... We each have to do what we can." Li has done what she can, brilliantly.

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