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Books in Brief: Lucky Caller by Emma Mills, From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks; Wild Honey From the Moon by Kenneth Kraegel


Lucky Caller by Emma Mills; Henry Holt, 323 pages ($17.99) Ages 14 and up.


Emma Mills has a gift for creating appealing characters, believable family situations and funny dialogue, and "Lucky Caller" is a well-crafted gem of a teen romance.

Hoping for an easy and fun elective her senior year, 17-year-old Nina signs up for a radio broadcasting class where she is teamed up with a volleyball player, a wooden-voiced guy named Joydeep and Jamie, a childhood friend she has been trying to avoid since an awkward incident in 8th grade. Her parents are divorced, and her absentee father is actually a popular deejay in California, but Nina struggles to master the technical side of broadcasting, accidentally broadcasting remarks that weren't meant to be public. Her team's grade will depend on how many listeners they can get for their "Sounds of the '90s" music show.

But classmates find ingenious ways to sabotage each other's radio shows, and Nina finds herself in a pickle when she invites her dad to guest-host a broadcast and a rumor spreads that the frontman of an obscure '90s band is going to appear on the show. The drama at school unfolds while Nina's home life is undergoing a major change: her mother is getting remarried, to a dentist who has a popular YouTube show offering paint-by-numbers tutorials. An unlikely hero emerges to save the day, offering a perfect ending to this sweet story.

Even the setting for much of the action – an old apartment building called the Eastman in Indianapolis where Nina and Jamie both live –  is charming. There's also an incidental STEM aspect to the book. Nina's mother works in science; the author finished her PhD in cell biology while writing "Lucky Caller."


From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks; Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, 286 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.


A 12-year-old girl works through conflicts with her mother and her best friend and turns her passion for baking into more than a hobby, all while fighting for justice for her imprisoned dad in this marvelous debut novel by Janae Marks for middle-grade readers.

Zoe lives with her mom and stepfather in the Boston area and knows very little about her biological dad, Marcus, who has been in prison since he was convicted of murder at the age of 19 before she was born. Then Zoe gets a birthday letter from Marcus, mailed from prison (he calls her "My Little Tomato"), and without telling her mother, she writes him back.

With each letter and song recommendation, she feels as though she's getting to know her real dad. He says he is innocent of the crime he was convicted of, but Zoe isn't sure whether to believe him. Why would an innocent person be in prison? Marks offers a compelling mystery as Zoe and her friend Trevor research the crime and then search for the alibi witness who was never called to testify at Marcus' trial.

Marks has managed to write a middle-grade novel that explores racial justice issues and addresses the routine bias Zoe faces (funny looks when she's out with her white stepfather, being tailed by clerks at stores while shopping with her mom) while also dealing with such coming-of-age issues as changing friendships with boys. She also offers a compelling portrait of a girl with a serious interest in pursuing her passion for baking, interning at a bakery where she experiments at inventing a new cupcake flavor that will wow the owner. The book also serves as a valuable introduction to The Innocence Project for its target audience.



Wild Honey From the Moon by Kenneth Kraegel; Candlewick Press ($17.99)


A mother shrew is willing to go to the moon and back to cure her sick young son in this whimsical, sweet story with delicate and distinctive illustrations by a self-taught artist. Young Hugo's "feet were hot, his head was cold, and he just slept and slept." According to "Dr. Ponteluma's Book of Medical Inquiry and Physiological Know-How," the only cure is "a teaspoon of wild honey from the moon." In  lyrical and humorous style,  Kraegel spins storyteller magic – his appealing tale is divided into short chapters – as mama shrew outwits a Great Horned Owl, falls into a raging stampede of "night mares," hitches a ride with a butterfly and braves swarms of angry bees to get what she came for.

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