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Books in Brief: Full of Beans by Jennifer Holm, Zap! Nikola Tesla Takes Charge by Monica Kulling

CHILDREN’s

Full of Beans by Jennifer L. Holm; Random House, 208 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.

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Beans Curry, featured in Holm’s Newbery Honor book “Turtle in Paradise,” returns in this funny, heartwarming sequel set in Key West (where Holm’s ancestors hail from) in 1934 during the Great Depression. There are no jobs and no money, and the town went bankrupt so there’s no garbage pickup. Beans’ dad has gone to New Jersey looking for work, so 10-year-old Beans is the man of the family, scavenging with his kid brother through garbage dumps for condensed milk cans to sell when he’s not babysitting his troublesome baby brother, trundling him around town in a wagon. Kids play marbles in the streets, dogs run wild, nearly everyone in town is on public relief, the businesses are boarded up, the houses are dilapidated and in bad need of a paint job, (“Our town looked like a tired black and white movie”) and times are so desperate a grown man might hire a kid to smuggle liquor to his customers. The unforgettable voice of Beans narrates the tale. “Me and the gang were sitting on Duval Street watching our toenails grow.” Bean loves “the pictures” and dreams of being a star in Hollywood. Help comes to town in the unlikely form of a stranger who rolls into town in a shiny automobile. (Readers will be fascinated to know that help came through the intervention of New Deal Federal Emergency Relief Administration and one Julius Stone Jr., who came up with the idea of transforming Key West into a tourist destination, through marketing, painting, and the help of volunteers – including kids – to pick up garbage and rake seaweed off the beach.) Beans’ first meeting with Stone is hilarious: Stone is wearing Bermuda shorts, which Beans considers underpants: “Maybe he was someone’s relative who had just gotten out of the loony bin. Wouldn’t be the first time.”

– Jean Westmoore

PICTURE BOOK

Zap! Nikola Tesla Takes Charge by Monica Kulling; illustrated by Bill Slavin; Tundra Books, $17.99.

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This latest installment of the excellent “Great Idea Series” offers a marvelous picture book biography of Croatian-born Nikola Tesla, the genius inventor behind harnessing the power of Niagara Falls. Kulling uses colorful anecdotes and lively writing to swiftly chronicle Tesla’s life, starting with his arrival in New York in 1884 with a letter of introduction to Thomas Edison, the “electrical wizard” of America. Edison wanted to stick with direct current, but Tesla knew better, and in partnership with George Westinghouse, built the first hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls in 1895.

– Jean Westmoore

FICTION

The Inseparables by Stuart Nadler; Little, Brown and Co. (352 pages, $27)

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The best fiction illuminates life’s realities, and Stuart Nadler spotlights the fact that we all skate on a very thin edge between joy and sorrow, respectability and shame, life and death.

Or, as Henrietta tells her granddaughter Lydia in “The Inseparables,” you can be sitting next to a window in a restaurant having a perfectly nice lunch and, “A bird could come through the window right at this instant and impale you.”

One of the defining events of Henrietta’s life was writing a book, which “had in it the first in-depth diagram of the vagina that had ever appeared in a mainstream book, or, more accurately, a book that was being sold in the supermarket.” Think “Valley of the Dolls” mashed up against “The Joy of Sex.”

Henrietta intended it as a feminist statement that was “supposed to symbolize some epochal generational shift. Women assuming some whiff of a man’s primal violence.”

The book and its author were misunderstood. It sold well, but the book was roundly mocked and made its author infamous. In private, men assumed that the author of a racy book would be sexually promiscuous.

Nadler’s novel examines a predatory sexual environment America’s daughters confront as they explore the jagged terrain of early adulthood. Here, it’s Lydia who becomes the prey.

For all the serious topics this book tackles, Nadler takes a light tone. He doesn’t preach; he reveals.

– Martha Sheridan, Dallas Morning News

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