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Books in Brief: Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse by Brian Farrey; The Fireman by Joe Hill

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Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales; Little, Brown, 40 pages, $17.99.


As he did in his marvelous autobiographical Young Adult work “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian,” Sherman Alexie offers a humorous and heartwarming exploration of the unique issues involved in growing up in a Native American family amid universal questions of identity and forging one’s own path. Thunder Boy Jr., named for his father, laments the lack of a “normal” name (“I am the only Thunder Boy who has ever lived”) and confides “I hate my name.” His dad is Big Thunder for short, he is Little Thunder: “That nickname makes me sound like a burp or a fart.” Thunder Boy muses, “I want my own name” and launches into a very funny litany of names that might better fit his personality or reflect something he’s done: “Not Afraid of Ten Thousand Teeth” (for touching an orca on the nose); “Touch the Clouds” (“I once climbed a mountain”); “Mud in His Ears” (“I love playing in the dirt”) or “Drums, Drums and More Drums” (“I love powwow dancing.”) Alexie resolves Little Thunder’s dilemma in a lovely, entirely satisfactory manner. Morales’ vibrant illustrations perfectly suit the whimsical tone of the story and the loving bond between father and son. Morales won Caldecott honors for “Viva Frida.”

– Jean Westmoore


The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse by Brian Farrey; Algonquin, 243 pages, $16.95. Ages 8 to 12.


“Happily ever after” – and other fairy tale conventions – are turned upside down in this thrilling adventure set in the land of Monarchy where for 1,000 years people have lived in peace and happiness and no one has experienced grief or sorrow. The exception is a young girl named Aon, whose mother disappeared and whose father has been taken by the mysterious Crimson Hoods. The queen is near death, and a grieving Princess Jeniah, annoyed with the mysterious lessons of her tutor, is intrigued by the warning that the Monarchy will fall if any monarch sets foot in the desolate bog known as Dreadwillow Carse. She delegates Aon to go in her place while Jeniah tries to find Aon’s father. Farrey has crafted his fairy tale world with care, but most interesting are the two girls and the risks they take for those they love, their willingness to question long-accepted commonly held beliefs that may in fact not be true. A wise and thrilling fairy tale.

– Jean Westmoore


The Fireman by Joe Hill; William Morrow, 752 pages, $28.99.


“The Fireman” is only the fourth novel by Joe Hill. And two of the first three – the killer debut, “Heart-Shaped Box” (2007), and the whopping, immersive “NOS4A2” (2013) – have felt like major events on the sheer strength of Hill’s imagination. Now he’s written another big book, “The Fireman,” that reaffirms his gifts for riveting attention and pushing genre conventions to new extremes. This may be the first horror novel to turn its heroine’s singing (“A Spoonful of Sugar”) and quoting Mary Poppins (“spit spot”) into new ways to make the skin crawl.

What ravages our world this time around? A really good-looking plague that leaves victims with a pretty gold-and-black tattoo-like marking. Yes, it’s very lethal, and it causes victims to burst into flame.

Our heroine, the one who sometimes sings Helen Reddy when “A Spoonful of Sugar” won’t do, is a 20-something nurse named Harper Grayson. Harper lives in Seattle, where people are jumping off the Space Needle to escape death by Draco incendia trychophyton, which is known as Dragonscale for short. Harper is compassionate enough to treat infected patients, and one of her first is a mysterious Fireman who shows a telltale sign of illness: He gives off smoke. But the Fireman brings two children for Harper to save. She then spends a tender night of lovemaking with her husband, Jakob, who turns into a raging beast when he realizes Harper has infected both of them. A major plot point is born.

A baby is conceived, too. And Harper spends the rest of the book determined to survive for that baby’s sake. But because the gold-and-black markings make it hard for the infected to hide, there are colonies of secret camps. And the book soon loses its global scale as it zeros in on one refugee zone.

“The Fireman” is shot through with time-warp references, and they are the perfect comedic element to offset any sense of global doom.

– Janet Maslin, New York Times