The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart; Little, Brown, 480 pages ($17.99). Ages 8 and up.
The unfortunate orphan, the hideous orphanage, the terrible food, the onerous chores, the depredations of stern headmaster and bullies, the decaying mansion, the clues to a possible treasure. Arkansas writer Trenton Lee Stewart magically transforms these familiar plot elements into something completely original and entirely wonderful in this marvelous prequel to his "Mysterious Benedict Society" books. Nicholas Benedict is the 9-year-old orphan, blessed with genius but cursed with a hideous nose. He also suffers from narcolepsy, which gives him terrible nightmares and a tendency to fall dead asleep at the most inopportune times. He has never known kindness from an adult in his life. At his new orphanage, Rothschild's End -- the unfortunately nicknamed Child's End -- Nicholas is locked at night into a windowless room. His only friend is John, whose face is scarred by chicken pox, until they meet Violet, a neighbor girl whose dreams of art school were dashed by the greed of a mining company. Stewart is a master of suspense, character and setting, but his book goes well beyond a classic adventure yarn. As Nicholas uses his genius to solve puzzles around him (including finding the Rothschild treasure), he slowly becomes aware that life is a voyage of self-discovery, that it's possible to stumble upon hidden treasure and surprising truths. This is a wonderful book, rich in wisdom about the human condition.
-- Jean Westmoore
The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen; Putnam, 384 pages ($25.95)
In his excellent debut, Owen Laukkanen mixes the economic downturn and a bleak job market for a suspenseful and insightful thriller about four out-of-work, newly graduated college friends who become kidnappers.
Laukkanen's action-packed plot delivers finely honed characters we care deeply about, even when their behavior is despicable. "The Professionals" works well as a vivid illustration of contemporary economics while exploring how a sense of entitlement and selfishness can shade people's logic. Laukkanen skillfully shows how the kidnappers' amorality and lack of empathy for others allow them to become criminals while still thinking of themselves as good people.
Kidnapping begins as a lark for Arthur Pender, the leader of this band that includes his girlfriend Marie, computer expert Mouse and muscleman Sawyer. For two years, they crisscross America, kidnapping businessmen just high enough in their company to be worth millions, but not so high-profile as to draw attention. Then they abduct someone connected to the Detroit mafia. Soon, the kidnappers are being chased by the cops and the mob. Laukkanen wisely makes the real heroes of his novel Kirk Stevens, a Minnesota state cop, and Carla Windermere, a young FBI agent. Kirk and Carla are sturdy characters who could easily carry a series.
-- McClatchy Newspapers
Heroes for My Daughter by Brad Meltzer; Harper, 144 pages ($19.99)
Meltzer's follow-up to "Heroes for My Son" features more talented individuals who prove one person truly can change the world. The subjects are diverse, from Helen Keller and Rosa Parks to Carol Burnett and Bart Simpson's sister, Lisa.
One of the best stories tells of Mallory Holtman and Liz Wallace, players on the women's softball team of Central Washington University. During an important game, Western Oregon University senior Sara Tucholsky hit her first home run. While running the bases, she tore a ligament in her leg at first base. Holtman and Wallace checked with the umpires to make sure it was OK if they carried her around the bases so she could have her home run. That run cost Central Washington University the game and a playoff spot. But the team gained something more valuable.
-- Associated Press