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What We're Reading: Nov. 24 - 30, 2009

This week, Michael Crichton's last book, ever, sails the seas of pirate adventure. In story collections: Alice Munro's strong and subtly mysterious women; Ha Jin's immigrants caught between two worlds. And a space-program history finds surprising drama in the unmanned voyages.


Pirate Latitudes

A Novel

By Michael Crichton

After Michael Crichton's death in 2008, the manuscript for Pirate Latitudes was discovered among his files — apparently his last completed book. It reaches all the way back to the Caribbean in 1665, where the daring Capt. Charles Hunter assembles a band of compatriots to commandeer a Spanish ship packed with gold. An adventure novel in the most unapologetic sense — the first chapter actually features a character commenting, "Warm day for a hanging" — Pirate Latitudes embraces the wenches and cannons of the genre while providing plenty of historical detail.

This novel is great entertainment without ever becoming bad history. Based on an actual event, the story moves along like a ship with a great wind in its sails, carrying us through the siege of the island, an ocean chase, gun battles at sea, a hurricane, war with a giant squid, and cannibals — with a terrifically satisfying ending that is doubly surprising because it never veers from the historical record. Arrghh! Thriller fans, book lovers, here is your great fun of the early winter season.-- Alan Cheuse, reviewer


Hardcover, 320 pages, Harper, list price: $27.99, pub. date: Nov. 24

Too Much Happiness


By Alice Munro


Fans of Alice Munro will find much that is familiar in Too Much Happiness. Her stories are filled with smart, self-contained characters, mostly women, who seem in control of their lives. Yet under the surface there is something dark, even perverse, which takes the reader by surprise and makes these seemingly simple lives so much more complex than they first appear. Her characters are not necessarily lovable, or moral, but the way Munro reveals what lies beneath is always fascinating. And in the story that gives the book its name, Munro leaves behind contemporary Canada for a work of historical fiction set in 19th century Europe. In it Munro explores the life of Sophia Kovalevski, a mathematician and a novelist whom Munro discovered while browsing through an encyclopedia. It's a departure for Munro and makes one wonder where her imagination might take her in the future.

If you love short stories, and I do, then it's pretty hard not to be a fan of Alice Munro. Emotionally her stories can be as chilling as the cold Canadian landscape where most of them are set. But whether it's a woman fending off an intruder with a poisonous tale or a college student finding the best way to get revenge for a disturbing encounter with an older man, Munro manages to be pitch perfect every time. After reading Too Much Happiness I remain in awe of her ability to create a fully realized world in each of her stories. -- Lynn Neary, books and publishing correspondent

Hardcover, 320 pages, Knopf, list price: $25.95, pub. date: Nov. 17


A Good Fall


By Ha Jin

Ha Jin, who came to the United States from his native China in 1984, won a National Book Award in 1999 for his novel Waiting. His first book of short fiction since 2000's The Bridegroom, A Good Fall gathers 12 stories set mostly in the Chinese immigrant community of Flushing, N.Y. The stories are often deceptively simple, relying less on storytelling hooks than on intensely personal perspectives. One is, on the surface, little more than a sister's moan of aggravation about her needy sibling; one traces the life and death of a parakeet.

Ha Jin is a verbal miniaturist. The atmosphere in some of these stories can be almost claustrophobic. And yet I became as involved in the lives of these Chinese immigrants and first-generation children as it is possible to be. I've often speculated that what makes Ha Jin's work so fascinating is that the theme of China meeting America is one of the great themes of our time. One or two of the stories are too thin and feel almost like sketches. But this delicate, precise yet daring tale-telling kept me reading until the very end.-- Jacki Lyden, contributing host and correspondent

Hardcover, 256 pages, Pantheon, list price: $24.95, pub. date: Nov. 24

Ambassadors From Earth

Pioneering Explorations With Unmanned Spacecraft

By Jay Gallentine

This book is the latest in a fascinating but little-known series on the U.S. and Russian space programs called Outward Odyssey. The University of Nebraska Press plans to publish 12 books, and so far the authors have explored areas not touched on before — especially on the Russian side. Even for well-chronicled missions like Gemini and Apollo, the researchers for the series have added new details to the record. This latest installment, Ambassadors From Earth, details the failures and successes of U.S. unmanned systems like Ranger and Voyager. Manned spaceflight has always elbowed money and attention away from unmanned systems. But the relatively inexpensive robotic explorers have given us some of the most intriguing discoveries of our universe.

I grew up in Florida and from my front doorstep could see rockets blasting off into space. So it's not surprising I was bitten by the "space bug" at a young age. I've followed NASA for years and have read dozens of books on the program. But the Outward Odyssey series contains some absolute gems. Ambassadors is written in an accessible and engaging style, introducing readers to behind-the-scenes players most of us have never heard of — like graduate student Gary Flandro. In 1965 he began to sketch out an idea of using gravity to bounce from planet to planet to explore the outer solar system. That, of course, turned into Voyager. This entire series is filled with remarkable and rarely told stories about the early years of the space program. You can't go wrong reading any of them.-- Russell Lewis, Southern Bureau chief

Hardcover, 544 pages, University of Nebraska, list price: $34.95, pub. date: Nov. 1

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