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Books in Brief: 'The Cheerleaders' by Kara Thomas, 'Nightbooks' by J.A. White, 'The Lying King' by Alex Beard

The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas; Delacorte Press, 384 pages ($17.99) Ages 14 and up.

This suspenseful, well-crafted thriller, from the author of "Little Monsters" and "The Darkest Corners," will appeal to fans of E. Lockhart's "We Were Liars," Sara Shepard's "Pretty Little Liars" and television's "Veronica Mars" and is a terrific summer read. At Sunnybrook High School somewhere in upstate New York, the cheer squad is disbanded after the deaths of five cheerleaders. Two were killed in a terrible accident at night on a rainy highway. Two more were murdered, and their apparent killer shot and killed by police. The fifth cheerleader – beautiful, smart, kind Jennifer Rayburn – killed herself.

Five years later, Jennifer's younger sister, Monica, has barely survived a traumatic fling with an older guy and is still grieving the death of her sister when she finds Jennifer's cellphone in their stepfather's desk. He's a police officer; the officer, who in fact, killed the neighbor thought to have murdered the two cheerleaders. Why does Tom have Jennifer's cellphone? And will Monica find any clues there as to why Jennifer killed herself? Can she figure out who was the last person to have seen her sister alive?

Thus begins Monica's investigation of what happened to her sister – a search that will have her begin to question whether all five deaths are somehow connected, and the real killer is still out there. Thomas cleverly casts suspicion on a wide array of characters before the thrilling finale, and ties everything up with a bow in an unexpected, and satisfying, postscript.

The Nightbooks by J.A. White; Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, 294 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.

This deliciously creepy reimagining of "Hansel and Gretel," an inventive mashup of Grimm and "The Arabian Nights," is set in an urban apartment building and comes from the author of the excellent "Thickety" series. Young Alex Mosher sneaks out of his family's apartment in the middle of the night to dump the contents of his backpack in the furnace in the basement, but is mysteriously waylaid by the sound of his favorite movie – "Night of the Living Dead" – playing in a stranger's apartment.

He finds himself a prisoner of a witch named Natacha, and forced to read a different scary story from his notebooks every night if he wishes to stay alive. He and a fellow prisoner Yasmin, although constantly under surveillance by a creepy cat named Lenore, eventually team up in hopes of figuring out how to escape the apartment, trying not to arouse Natacha's suspicions as Alex struggles to write new stories to satisfy the witch and helps Yasmin tend the witch's nursery of very creepy plants. (A scene in the nursery is brilliantly done, and truly terrifying.)

Alex, considered a weirdo at school for his obsession with horror, proves to be a most clever and resourceful hero. The fantastic layout of the enchanted apartment is wondrously done, and White cleverly engineers the twists and turns for a surprising and thrilling finale.


The Lying King: A Tale From the Watering Hole by Alex Beard; Greenleaf, $17.95. (Sept. 4 publication)


A warthog ascends to the throne by telling lies about the other contenders, then continues his lying ways as king in this whimsical, witty, very pointed political fable dedicated to "Uncle Sam." (How pointed? "He turned loyal subjects against one another, by making each question the aims of the other: 'White zebras with black stripes are better than black zebras with white stripes.'") Beard's droll ink-and-watercolor depictions of his animal characters are marvelous. Other titles in his "watering hole" series are: "The Jungle Grapevine," "Monkey See Monkey Draw" and "Crocodile's Tears."  Beard, an artist and conservationist who lives in New Orleans, will be coming to Buffalo in October for an event at Talking Leaves bookstore.

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