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Books in Brief: Mayday by Karen Harrington, Outliers by Kimberly McCreight

CHILDREN’s

Mayday by Karen Harrington; Little, Brown, 340 pages, $16.99. Ages 8 to 12.

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Tragedy strikes, and then disaster, and seventh-grader Wayne Kovok loses his voice, then finds it again in this compelling novel of family, loss and self-discovery from a master of such books for this age group (“Sure Signs of Crazy” and “Courage for Beginners”).

Wayne’s parents are divorced and his father is a deadbeat; Wayne feels pressured to be a track star like his dad and also feels intimidated by his tough military drill sergeant of a grandfather who expects Wayne will serve in the military as all the Daltons have. Wayne is something of a nerd and likes to hide behind facts (“Did you know poinsettias originated in Mexico?” etc.) to fill up uncomfortable gaps in the conversation. After Wayne’s beloved uncle Reed is killed in Iraq, Wayne and his mother are flying back from Arlington to Texas when their plane crashes. Wayne is missing an eyebrow, has stitches on his face and has temporarily lost his voice, but is most upset that the commemorative flag from the U.S. government was lost in the crash. Wayne is determined to find the flag, and his quest helps him find a way to get his voice back as well. Harrington offers an insightful and sympathetic portrait of a military family – along with a revealing portrait of a young person resisting the pressure to carry on that tradition.

– Jean Westmoore

YOUNG ADULT

Outliers by Kimberly McCreight; HarperTeen, 336 pages, $18.99. Ages 12 and up.

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The author of suspenseful thriller “Reconstructing Amelia” offers a fast-paced thriller for Young Adults, the first in a trilogy with sci-fi elements that may or may not appeal to fans of her first book. Sixteen-year-old Wylie hasn’t left the house since her mother’s death in a car accident, but desperate texts from her best friend Cassie, “Please, Wylie, I need your help,” send Wylie out of the house and on a journey north into the wilds of Maine with Cassie’s boyfriend Jasper. The texts indicate Cassie is in grave danger, and the issue may be Cassie’s performance in psychological research conducted by Wylie’s father into people with extraordinary intuition into what others are thinking. The cliffhanger ending will leave readers eagerly awaiting the next installment.

– Jean Westmoore

nonfiction

Dear County Agent Guy by Jerry Nelson; Workman, 207 pages, $14.95.

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I should have seen this coming, seen that Jerry Nelson’s essays about farming weren’t quite what they seemed. I’m a farmer’s daughter, and familiar with the irresistible corniness that comes with telling stories about rural life – the “don’tcha knows” and the punchlines about winter temps rivaling Siberia – “and that was just in my bedroom.”

Many of the essays in “Dear County Agent Guy” have been published in various farm magazines, no doubt offering a welcome levity amid reality. Well and good. Then Nelson, who farms in South Dakota, wrote about a cow that went lame. Its future became limited to, as he wrote, “working at McDonald’s – and I don’t mean as a cashier.” So true. And so hard to accept.

The family tried nursing the cow back to health and succeeded, but it made her spoiled, which led to all sorts of mischief. I’ve lived that. Nelson nailed it. Then he wrote about farm dogs. And mean bulls. And the weirdness of getting a street address. Suddenly I was back on the farm. By the time I got to the essay called “Visiting,” I was hooked by Nelson’s honest observations of farming life.

There aren’t any great truths here – and thank goodness. Sometimes, modest truths are all that’s necessary.

Kim Ode, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)