Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby; Houghton Mifflin Books, 267 pages ($16.99) Ages 12 and up.
This marvelous debut novel weaves Gothic horror, a vivid portrait of Great Depression-era America and a traveling carnival of circus freaks into a unique entertainment starring a singular heroine. Portia Remini is abandoned by her father at the height of the Great Depression and left to the care of her indifferent Aunt Sophia. (It's not a good match, as Portia is "willful, stubborn and prone to daydreams.") Sophia ships Portia off at 13 to a life of misery at the McGreavy Home for Wayward Girls, a barracks-like establishment of castoff girls forced to slave at sewing uniforms and doing chores for a creepy caretaker referred to as "Mister." After losing her only real friend at the home, Portia runs away with the circus on Mister's red bicycle and discovers a kind of family among the Armless Knife-Thrower, the Fat Lady, the bearded woman, the giant, the dwarf and the wild albinos of Bora Bora. Portia's guilt about a friend's death and her need for answers about her past draw her back to the McGreavy home for a most satisfying finale.
-- Jean Westmoore
Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man by Mark Kurlansky; Doubleday) 272 pages ($25.95)
"Birdseye" -- from the author of "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World" and "Salt: A World History" -- is a look at the life of inventor Clarence Birdseye, who died with more than 200 patents in his name. The name sounds familiar because there's a package of vegetables in your freezer with his name on them. Without him there are no Hungry-Man dinners, no fish sticks and no frozen peas to bring the swelling down.
Best known for inventing a process of freezing that made it possible to "fresh freeze" everything from poultry to potatoes, Birdseye's life was marked by an insatiable curiosity and a thirst for adventure. Those are the traits that Kurlansky celebrates throughout the book.
We begin with Birdseye's birth in Brooklyn in 1886 and end with his death in 1956. In between we're treated to chapters about his time as a government biologist in the American West, a fox breeder and fur trapper in Labrador, Canada, and finally as an industrial tycoon in Gloucester, Mass.
The stumbling blocks Birdseye had to overcome -- from packaging to consumer distrust -- are hard to imagine from the modern perspective. Consider this note the company felt compelled to insert into each box of Birds Eye frozen fish fillets in 1927: "The product in this container is frozen hard as marble by a marvelous new process which seals in every bit of just-from-the-ocean flavor."
-- Associated Press
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain; Ecco, 320 pages ($25.99)
An embedded Fox News crew has filmed a bloody firefight between Bravo Squad, a 10-member unit of the U.S. Army, and Iraqi insurgents. Bravo Squad prevails, thanks to the courage of Spc. Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old from Texas.
The Bush White House has brought Bravo home for a two-week "victory tour" of the country to pump up support for the war. Bravo's last stop, before boarding a plane back to the war, is Texas Stadium, where the Dallas Cowboys will play the Chicago Bears and Bravo Squad will appear during the halftime show.
"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" takes place on this single day. On one level it is a description of that extraordinary time processed through the mind of Billy Lynn. On other levels, the thousands of fans in the stadium become a microcosm of America in an age of almost suffocating phoniness, especially phony patriotism.
In the Stadium Club and owner's suite, the Bravos rub elbows with the Dallas rich, many of them Vietnam-era draft-dodgers but now fervent supporters of Bush's war. But the constant presence -- the real reality -- is the war and its pain and grief including the death of Billy's best buddy, who died in his arms.
Fountain's debut novel is a powerful, heartbreaking story of the great gulf between what the country thinks it is and what it is.
-- Dallas Morning News