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Books in Brief: Me and Sam-Sam Handle the Apocalypse, If You're Out There


Me and Sam-Sam Handle the Apocalypse by Susan Vaught; Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster, 304 pages ($17.99) Ages 8 to 12 (Publication May 14)


"When the apocalypse came to Avery, Kentucky, I thought Great-Aunt Gustine was out getting a pedicure at Nails, Nails, Nails, that salon with a big pink foot on the door, Dad was teaching English on the senior high side of Avery Junior/senior High School ... and Mom was working with her bomb-sniffing dog near a place called Mosul in Iraq. The person who stole $2,103.15 from my father's desk was pretending nothing bad had happened, and our principal Ms. Jorgensen was someplace she had no business being. Again."

Thus begins this wonderful mystery from Susan Vaught, told in the unforgettable voice of Jesse Broadview, a girl on the autism spectrum. Jesse can get stuck on words and phrases and numbers and smells; clothing that itches drives her wild. (At one point, she lights a fire in the yard to burn itchy tank tops she can't stand wearing.) Sometimes she says inappropriate things. She is bullied at school by kids who call her "Messy Jesse." Sometimes she hits back; sometimes she just has to scream. At those times her dad and her great-aunt (and her mother, via Skype), know exactly what to say and do to make her feel better again.

Jesse has a hideout in the woods near her house where she takes refuge and works on training her Pomeranian, Sam-Sam, with bacon treats to become a bomb-sniffing dog like the dog her mother works with in Iraq. When police officers arrive to arrest her father in the theft of more than $2,000 for the library fund from his classroom desk, Jesse is devastated but determined to clear his name even though she isn't very confident in her ability to solve the crime. With her new and only friend Springer, she starts investigating suspects, a perilous quest that lands them in a confrontation with three extremely nasty school bullies. Vaught amps up the suspense by switching back and forth in time, as a tornado bears down on Avery, and gives Jesse, and Sam-Sam a chance to show what they're really made of. Vaught, a neuropsychologist, won the Edgar award for her first middle-grade novel, "Footer Davis Probably Is Crazy," and an Edgar nomination for  her second, "Things Too Huge to Fix By Saying Sorry,"and she offers a vivid, empathetic portrayal of what it's like to be Jesse Broadview, a heroine to root for.


If You're out There by Katy Loutzenhiser; Balzer + Bray, 303 pages ($17.99) Ages 13 and up.


This promising debut novel is equal parts poignant tale of friendship, beguiling romance and fast-paced thriller.

When her best friend Priya moves to California, Zan is bereft. Especially since Priya seems to have fallen off the face of the earth. She won't respond to Zan's emails, texts or calls, and her social media presence has changed so completely she sounds like a different person. Everyone in her life is telling Zan to move on; no one understands her sense of betrayal or her uncomfortable sense that something truly could be wrong. Zan has never had a boyfriend but she opens up to Logan, the new guy in her Spanish class, and he's willing to go along with her theory that the Priya situation merits a full investigation. But there's a mystery involving Logan's past as well; can he even be trusted?

Loutzenhiser writes with assurance, developing a compelling portrait of the deep friendship over many years between Priya and Zan, and the devastation and betrayal Zan would feel at losing such a friendship. The constellation of characters in Zan's orbit are all interesting: Arturo, her boss at the vegan restaurant; her mom with new partner Whitney, her divorced and mostly absent dad, her kid brother Harrison. The mystery involving Logan's past is cleverly revealed and the dramatic finale is perfect.


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