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Books in brief


Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter; Penguin, 277 pages ($16 paperback)

Novella Carpenter wells with tears to see her turkey mourning his mate, ripped by a rottweiler in the Oakland, Calif., ghetto she calls home. Harold circles what's left of Maude, puffs and preens as if asking her to mate, then thumps his head by her side. So much meat wasted. But she still had Harold for the Thanksgiving feast.

That's how it is with Carpenter, who loves animals, in lots of ways. She's a complex character, like none you've likely met -- part foodie, part greennik, part hunter-gatherer. A farmer by nature. She defends animal rights, but not as you might imagine.

First published in hardcover a year ago and now out in paperback, "Farm City" tells of the urban farm that Carpenter and boyfriend Bill started on a weed-choked lot next to their apartment in GhostTown, a neighborhood of thugs and crackheads.

She begins with herbs and vegetables, adds a beehive, then chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese. Rabbits. Pigs. What was desolate now brims with bounty. The homeless pilfer her produce by night, usually with her indulgence.

To her landlord, an immigrant from Benin, an urban farm seems normal. Her Vietnamese neighbor tosses scraps to her pigs, like back home. The Yemeni shopkeeper is thrilled to get live chickens and honey. Bobby gives her tips on pig butchering that he recalls from another world he once knew, Arkansas.

-- McClatchy Newspapers



Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst; Random House, 288 pages ($26)

It's one thing to write great spy novels; it's another thing to write great characters into spy novels.

And that distinction is what makes Alan Furst a modern-day master of the genre: He knows that good intrigue is much easier to follow with a rich, captivating character as your guide.

In "Spies of the Balkans," Furst has another one: Costa Zannis, a police detective in the port city of Salonika, Greece, who specializes in resolving dicey cases involving the city's powerful and/or unsavory.

The book opens in October 1940 as sabers and artillery are rattling closer to Greece's borders. When Zannis is called to investigate a suspicious German "tourist" on a tramp steamer, the ensuing pursuit convinces him it's time to choose sides. And when he decides to help a German woman who is trying to help fellow Jews flee her country, his choice leads him deep into a tangle of European espionage that stretches from Turkey to Paris.

Furst's 11th spy novel set during the years leading up to and into World War II isn't a carefully plotted chess match, nor is it a good guy/bad guy melodrama. It's is a story of survival, of passion, of good people making difficult choices and bad people making good choices for their own reasons.

-- McClatchy Newspapers



Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm; Random House, 208 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 11.

A two-time Newbery Honor author draws on family lore and her talent for voice, historical period and locale for this vivid, entertaining but uneven novel set in 1935 during the Great Depression. Growing up observing her mother's succession of loser boyfriends and insecure employment as a housekeeper, Turtle at 11 has already learned that life is not like the movies and she's no Shirley Temple. When her mother sends her off to stay with her overburdened aunt in the Florida Keys, Turtle finds herself surrounded by boys who have dubbed themselves "the Diaper Gang" -- they use their wagon to trundle fractious babies around the neighborhood in exchange for pennies for candy. Holmes vividly evokes the hard-scrabble lives in this Florida community and the camaraderie of the Diaper Gang is great fun. (The author has four brothers, and her pitch-perfect evocation of boys is a hoot.) Three-quarters through, the novel shifts into Disney mode but fans of Holm's other work (including "Penny From Heaven" and "Middle School Is Worse Than Meatloaf") will enjoy it.

-- Jean Westmoore



A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan; Alfred A. Knopf, 288 pages ($24.95)

In her audacious, extraordinary fourth novel, Jennifer Egan uses the pop-music business as a prism to examine the heedless pace of modern life, generational impasses, and the awful gravity of age and entropy.

The spine of the book is Bennie Salazar, a record-label owner frustrated with trying to create meaningful music in the age of Autotune. We follow Bennie back to his teenage years as a mohawked punk musician in San Francisco. We venture with him into the future, where marketing is almost exclusively viral and music is promoted by tweet to an alarmingly young target audience.

The book shifts over four decades and among a daunting cast of characters, most of whom have some connection to the music business and each other. The novel is fascinating for its daring scope and fractured narrative. Along the way, Egan crafts some brilliant scenes, including a and the most disturbing magazine profile of an emerging starlet you will ever read.

-- McClatchy Newspapers