Slog's Dad by David Almond; illustrated by Dave McKean; Candlewick Press, $15.99.
This inspired combination of Almond's resonant storytelling and McKean's unearthly images is a mix of graphic novel and storybook like nothing else published for young readers. Set in the coal-mining town where Almond grew up, it ambitiously tackles the small, particular heartbreak of one death amid the vastness of the universe, and keeps open the possibilities of life beyond the grave in a uniquely eerie, poignant way. The child narrator, Davie, is Slog's friend. Slog's dad, Mr. Mickley, is a garbage man, a chain-smoking, hymn-singing simple soul who falls ill and has to have one leg amputated, then the other. ("They can hack your body to a hundred bits, but they cannot hack your soul," he will cheerily tell passers-by.) Slogs is confident he will see his dad again, in the spring, and a mysterious bloke does show up, different from Slog's dad but his dad nonetheless (he's been "transfigured," the stranger says). The graphic novel elements add an intriguing layer of mystery.
-- Jean Westmoore
Silent Mercy by Linda Fairstein; Dutton, 400 pages ($26.95)
Linda Fairstein has delivered another compelling crime novel set on the all-too-real streets of New York in "Silent Mercy."
Someone is leaving body parts on the steps of churches throughout Manhattan, and Alexandra Cooper, prosecutor in the sex crimes division, teams up with police officer Mike Chapman to stop the killer before he strikes again.
The institutions of church and religion go under the microscope as Cooper and Chapman explore the history of the targeted churches to see if the killer has a vendetta against the buildings -- or perhaps has a God complex.
Fairstein was the chief of the sex crimes unit in the district attorney's office in Manhattan for more than 20 years, so she brings the authenticity necessary to make the story believable.
The historical facts sprinkled with the compelling crimes and characters create a worthwhile read that fans of the "Law & Order" TV series will savor.
-- Associated Press
Cricket Radio: Tuning In the Night-Singing Insects by John Himmelman; Belknap/Harvard University Press, 260 pages ($22.95)
"The game is to listen," Rachel Carson wrote in 1956 of the night-singing insects. "Not so much to the full orchestra, as to the separate instruments, and to try to locate the players." In this ear-opening book, Himmelman shows us not only how to identify the songs these insects have sung for 250 million years but what those songs mean and how they are made.
He writes about the effect of these songs on human dreams; about the Ensifera (the night-singers: crickets, katydids and the like) and how the sounds they make stimulate the human brain. Himmelman is also the author of a 2009 field guide to the night-singers, but this book, he writes, is more about the why than the how: "Why should we care?" and "Why are they calling in the first place?" These insects are not singing for our pleasure, Himmelman reminds the reader. They are singing for survival, for propagation of their species. "It is trilling because it has to," he writes of a lone Carolina ground cricket, "and it is giving it everything it's got. It is the violinist playing as the Titanic is going down." Areas rich in singing insects suggest a healthy habitat and a source of beauty. . Learning to listen to these songs is nothing less than soul-stirring.
-- Los Angeles Times
The Gospel in Brief: The Life of Jesus by Leo Tolstoy, translated from the Russian by Dustin Condren; Harper Perennial, 180 pages ($12.99 paper)
Leo Tolstoy began studying the Bible in 1879, when he was 51. He was fascinated by the pure teachings of Jesus: "I sought the answer to the question of life, not to theological or historical questions." It took him three years to collapse all four Gospels into one 12-chapter life of Jesus, purged of doctrine and Scripture. This is the first English translation in more than a century; Condren worked from Tolstoy's original and restored material deleted in previous translations. The result is not unlike Hermann Hesse's "Siddhartha," the story of a life that illustrates a path.
-- Los Angeles Times