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Books in Brief: Nooks & Crannies by Jessica Lawson


Nooks & Crannies by Jessica Lawson; Simon & Schuster, 316 pages, $16.99. Ages 8 to 12.


This marvelous mystery, set in England in 1907, has a lovely Dickensian flavor, complete with orphans, eccentric recluses, secret passageways, hidden keys, thieves and scoundrels. (And a pet mouse named Pemberley.) Our Cinderella-like heroine is 12-year-old Tabitha Crum, the unloved child of horrid parents who are planning to move to Spain and leave her at an orphanage. Then Tabitha and five other 12-year-olds receive a mysterious invitation to the supposedly haunted mansion of wealthy, reclusive Camilla DeMoss. Tabitha has learned quite a bit reading detective novels starring one Inspector Percival Pensive. But she must use all her wits to figure out how to explain the bizarre behavior of the countess, a babbling elderly maid, hidden files about gruesome murders and hideous paintings of crime scenes. Lawson amps up the suspense as the children are stuck in the isolated mansion in a snowstorm, with the electricity flickering on and off, and strange moans and howls reverberating through the walls. She also offers a cast of very colorful characters including two dreadful children somewhat reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s best creations. Her beautifully structured mystery has a most satisfying ending. Lawson previously wrote “The Actual and True Adventures of Becky Thatcher.”

– Jean Westmoore


The Hand That Feeds You by A.J. Rich; Scribner, 273 pages, $26


“The Hand That Feeds You” goes from zero to terrifying in about five pages.

The novel’s narrator, Morgan Prager, a 30-year-old graduate student working on a thesis on the psychology of crime victims, comes home from a lecture to find the front door of her Brooklyn apartment ajar. There’s a mess of some kind on the floor, and her three dogs – Cloud, a Great Pyrenees she has had since puppyhood, and Chester and George, two pit bull mixes she’s fostering – are badly frightened and smeared with what she realizes is blood.

The worst is what’s in the bedroom: the mangled body of her fiance, Bennett.

All at once, she has lost the man she loves – and the dogs she loves, since they’re confiscated as evidence in Bennett’s death.

In short order she feels as if she’s losing her mind as well. The trauma of Bennett’s death is part of it, but nothing seems to add up, starting with the fact that her dogs have never been at all aggressive, much less capable of a savage, fatal attack.

How Bennett died is one question, but she soon discovers there’s another: who he was. His name, his job, his address – all fake. The further Morgan delves into researching him, the worse it gets. She can’t find his real name, but she does find his other fiancees, including one who was recently murdered.

“The Hand That Feeds You” keeps up a breakneck pace and a tensely creepy tone, and its spare, well-crafted writing is a cut above many thrillers.

That comes as no surprise, given its authors. On its cover, the book is credited to A.J. Rich, but that’s a pen name for authors Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment, who wrote it together.

Both women are on the faculty of the creative writing program at the University of Florida, and both are critically acclaimed authors of literary fiction. Hempel and Ciment have addressed dark topics in their fiction before, but “The Hand That Feeds You” is a straight-up foray into the genre of psychological thriller, and an irresistible one.

The slippery nature of the novel’s reality is intensified by Morgan herself. As a narrator, she’s sympathetic, but many things about her will raise questions for readers.

Once this thriller gets its teeth into you, it doesn’t let go.

– Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times