Picks and Pans Main: Books

updated 11/30/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/30/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

A Good Fall

by Ha Jin |

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REVIEWED BY VICK BOUGHTON

STORIES

They leave their homes in China with high expectations for a new life in a country bursting with opportunity. But what the characters in Ha Jin's latest collection of stories mostly find in the United States, specifically in and around Queens, N.Y., is how elusive a fresh start can be. In one tale, a young woman working long hours as a waitress is forced to send her savings home to China, where her spoiled younger sister has threatened to sell one of her organs online to pay for a pricey new car. In another, a graduate student feels obligated to help one of his former professors, who's visiting the Chinese consulate in Manhattan, defect to the U.S. And in the charming, quirky title story, an ailing monk, left penniless by his temple's unscrupulous master, determines that suicide is the only way to avoid shaming his family back home. (He botches the attempt, becomes a local celebrity, sues the temple for back pay and finds true love!) The author, whose novel Waiting won the National Book Award in 1999, writes with warmth and humor about what it means to be a bewildered stranger in a strange land, no matter where one was born.

Sisters

Edited by Jan Freeman, Emily Wojcik and Deborah Bull |

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REVIEWED BY ANNE LESLIE

ANTHOLOGY

Writers including Margaret Atwood and Alice Walker explore sisterhood in this intelligent collection. Don't look for sugar sweetness here; do expect heartache. One woman mourns the younger sister she lost. Another recalls trying to be "a good daughter" while her wilder sister broke loose. The book makes clear that sisters don't outgrow their bond. "Life doesn't go backwards and I want to know you," poet Daisy Zamora writes. "To recognize you./ That is, to get to know you again." Once a sister, always one.

Thank Heaven

by Leslie Caron |

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REVIEWED BY CAROLINE LEAVITT

MEMOIR

In this charming memoir, the Gigi star dishes on men and delves into her drinking and depression. Feeling aged out of Hollywood (lover Warren Beatty said she was too old to costar in Bonnie and Clyde), Caron, now 78, reinvented herself as a writer and innkeeper. "The best part of my life is over," she insists. Don't believe her.

Pirate Latitudes

by Michael Crichton |

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REVIEWED BY RICHARD EISENBERG

NOVEL

Discovered after the Jurassic Park author died in '08, this swashbuckler is like an R-rated Pirates of the Caribbean. Capt. Charles Hunter, a randy pirate who prefers the term "privateer," pulls together a gang of marauders to plunder a Spanish galleon and split the booty with Jamaica's corrupt governor, Sir James Almont. Along the way, Hunter's men and a wily French female pirate named Lazue encounter deadly snakes, perilous cliffs, poison darts, storms and even a dragon. One pirate turns on the crafty captain, leading to a surprising twist. Not as riveting as Crichton's best yarns, Latitudes nonetheless offers unexpected turns and plenty of yo ho ho's.

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