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Books in brief


Chomp by Carl Hiaasen; Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 304 pages ($16.99). Ages 10 and up.

Following in the grand tradition of "Hoot," "Flush" and "Scat," Hiaasen offers yet another wacky, action-packed, enviro-friendly yarn for middle-grade readers set in the state of Florida. Wahoo Cray is the son of Mickey Cray, a wildlife wrangler who has been temporarily laid up after a dead iguana fell from a tree and gave him a serious concussion. This means Wahoo has to tend the family menagerie, including snapping turtles, pythons and a 12-foot-long alligator named Alice ("who looked ferocious but was tame as a guppy," although she did chomp off Wahoo's thumb when he got too close while feeding her a frozen chicken). The Crays are hard up for money so Mickey signs a contract to assist a popular reality show, "Expedition Survival!" starring Derek Badger, by supplying the alligator, turtles and snakes required for the staged and scripted wildlife scenes. The action really ramps up when Badger insists on staging the rest of the filming in the Everglades with wild animals, a young girl shows up fleeing from her abusive father -- and the nasty gun-toting dad comes looking for her. Hiaasen outdoes himself in this adventure, throwing in a hilarious caricature of a "reality" star, amusing behind-the scenes detail about shooting a reality show along with real environmental problems facing the Everglades (including the huge snakes which are taking over the place).

-- Jean Westmoore



Stay Close by Harlan Coben; Dutton, 400 pages ($27.95).

A hallmark of Harlan Coben's best-sellers has been his precise look at ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations, forced to deal with violence and the seamy side of life.

In his 22nd novel, the excellent "Stay Close," Coben shows us three people who know too well the sleazy side of life and how they have either risen above their past, or fallen in its mire. "Stay Close" works well as a novel about past mistakes, fresh starts and regrets, showing the fragility of orderly lives. Are we defined by our past or by the present we have made for ourselves? Coben's perceptive look at people facing the worst situations of their lives soars in "Stay Close."

Ray Levine, police detective Jack Broome and Megan Pierce are each bound, in some way, by the disappearance of Stewart Green 17 years ago in Atlantic City. Back then, Ray was a talented news photographer whose photos on the battlefield brought him acclaim and awards. Now he ekes out a living as a fake paparazzo "covering" events for celebrity-fixated wealthy. Jack's investigation into Stewart's vanishing has become a mission for himself and for the man's family. Megan has reinvented herself as a suburban wife and mother of two, leaving behind the days when she was known as Cassie, an exotic dancer at an Atlantic City strip bar. The disappearance of another man, 17 years to the day that Stewart vanished, pulls all three back together and kicks Broome's investigation into high gear.

In "Stay Close," Coben again shows his acumen for delving into our most intimate fears as he moves his engrossing story from quiet domesticity to sheer terror while keeping us highly entertained.

-- McClatchy Newspapers



The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey; Harper, 464 pages ($25.99).

Scottish-born author Margot Livesey brings the country of her birth to blazing life in the thoroughly winning "The Flight of Gemma Hardy."

A delicious updating of "Jane Eyre" to the mid-20th century, the book shares many elements with Charlotte Bronte's 1847 classic: an intelligent, plain-featured heroine who's emotionally and physically abused by her aunts and cousins after being orphaned; privation and hardship as a "working student" at a boarding school; death of her only friend; escape to work caring for a withdrawn child; and falling in love with the girl's brooding benefactor.

Eyre aficionados should not expect the novel to follow that book's trajectory explicitly, however. Especially in the latter third, Gemma takes dramatic, and exquisitely gratifying, departures from its inspiration. There's a madwoman, and there are ghosts, but they'll appear in different guises than you expect.

Gemma is portrayed as even more of an outsider than Jane was, having been born in Iceland and brought to England as a child after her parents' deaths. She longs for whatever family she might have left there, and for the revelation of her real Icelandic name.

Livesey centers the story much more around Gemma's search for home and identity than the love story with Rochester stand-in Mr. Sinclair, who doesn't, truth be told, brood all that compellingly.

The author is most brilliant at sketching character and place.

You probably won't fall in love with Mr. Sinclair, as generations of female readers have done with Mr. Rochester, but you'll definitely feel emotionally connected to the novel's spirited heroine.

-- McClatchy Newspapers