Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver; HarperCollins, 480 pages ($17.99) Ages 14 and up.
A 26-year-old author makes an impressive debut in this coming-of-age novel about a high school senior who transforms her life from "mean girl" to human being after dying in a car accident, then waking up a la "Groundhog Day," to keep reliving that final day over again until she gets it right. Oliver offers a harrowing inside look at the mean girl posse of high school senior Sam Kingston and her nasty friend Lindsey and the casual way they terrorize teachers and classmates. For Lindsey and her former best friend Juliet Sykes, the terrorism has gone on for years, since an incident at summer camp. Oliver is a skilled writer; Sam Kingston starts off as a totally believable mean girl but redeems herself by the end. Oliver paints a very disturbing picture of this affluent suburban high school, of students wallowing in crass consumerism, mired in toxic relationships and suffering from eating disorders, depression and alcohol abuse.
-- Jean Westmoore
The Devil's Star by Jo Nesbx; Harper, 464 pages, ($25.99)
Jo Nesbx is a celebrated Norwegian noir writer, a member of the current class of superlative Scandinavians showing the rest of the world how to write a mystery. This one is his fifth starring detective inspector Harry Hole, alcoholic and existential agonizer.
Harry is a hunk of human wreckage, a severe alcoholic, smoker and saboteur of human relationships. He's also a fabulously effective detective. There are two mysteries, both of visceral urgency. A dead woman is found with a tiny red diamond, cut into a five-pointed star, beneath an eyelid. The "devil's star" and the number 5 assume fatal significance. Hole sees it early on: The twisted killer is toying with his pursuers, executing insoluble crimes while deliberately trailing behind him a path of clues.
Left over from "Nemesis," the previous book, is the death of police colleagues while performing their duties. Harry believes a colleague, rising star Tom Waaler, is responsible. He has no idea what an abyss this will open up. Especially since Harry's boss assigns him to work these murders with Waaler.
The book is marvelously structured, each joint in place as true carpentry. Narration moves among minds, giving us unforgettable pictures of a variety of human lives. We pass from daydream to daydream, from cop to journalist to actor to guy at the counter.
Remorseless suspense marks the final third of the book, which opens out to post-Communist Europe, the unruly subconscious of the Scandinavian novel.
-- McClatchy Newspapers
Kokoro by Natsume Soseki, translated from the Japanese by Meredith McKinney; Penguin Classics, 238 pages ($15 paper)
This elegant novel of the Meiji period captures the opening in Japanese Confucian culture and the 250-year-old Tokugawa shogunate to the West and Western culture. It was published in 1914, two years before Natsume Soseki's death. "Kokoro," which means "heart," is the story of a friendship between the young narrator and a wise elder -- "sensei" -- who is like a "great gingko tree," a man full of beauty, love and haunting memories. Both characters, one at the end and one at the beginning of their lives, struggle to understand their destinies -- burdened by culture and memory. They swim, they walk, they argue. They watch Japan change before their eyes. The novel suffuses the reader with a sense of old Japan.
-- Los Angeles Times
The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage by Anthony Brandt; Alfred A. Knopf, 448 pages ($28.95)
Growing up in New England, we read writers like Kenneth Roberts and dreamed about explorers. The Northwest Passage held a special allure because hero after 19th century hero hurled himself into the Arctic wilderness searching for it. Body parts were eaten, urine was drunk, skeletons were left to weather leaving only sinews and clues.
Today, as global warming opens the passage a little more each year and ice becomes a thing of the past -- an artifact -- the stories left by those expeditions become as exotic and thrilling as the skeletal remains. History, fate, delusion and hope play out in the story of John Franklin, in particular during his last expedition to find the passage OVER 2 LNsin 1845.
-- Los Angeles Times