The Dark by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen; Little, Brown ($16.99) (ages 3 to 6)


The always-surprising Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler using his “Unfortunate Events” series pen name here) teams up with a gifted illustrator for this imaginative and original picture book exploring the universal childhood fear of the dark. A little boy named Laszlo (how Snicket adores those odd names!) is afraid of the dark in his big house with its “creaky roof, smooth, cold windows and several sets of stairs.” (Leave it to Snicket to evoke something sinister about a “smooth, cold window.”) The dark is a living creature in Snicket’s story, hiding in a closet, sitting behind a shower curtain, mostly spending its time in the basement “in a distant corner, far from the squeaks and rattles of the washing machine.” The lyrics often read like poetry, especially when night falls: “The dark went out and spread itself against the windows and doors of Laszlo’s house.” The balance of text and pictures follows the storybook norm, until Snicket launches into an eloquent full-page oration in defense of darkness toward the end. Klassen’s illustrations are a marvel, a small boy valiantly brandishing a flashlight against a black background, the setting sun framed in a tall window, Laszlo gazing down sets of stairs in shadow, the dark hiding in a chest of drawers.

– Jean Westmoore


Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach; W.W. Norton & Co., 352 pages ($26.95)


We love food. We savor it, digest it, absorb the best and pass the rest.

That journey between the tip of your tongue and the seat of your pants might seem like a humdrum subject for a science book. But Roach – an author who has written smart but irreverent books about sex, corpses and space travel — manages to make it not only fun, but also funny.

The wonders of digestion are a launching point for Roach to explore all sorts of oddities. Readers learn about the song sung during meals at chewing enthusiast John Harvey Kellogg’s sanatorium (“I choose to chew/ because I wish to do”), researchers who pump pythons full of air, and get tips on rectal smuggling from an inmate in California (it’s called “hooping” behind the wall).

It turns out a person’s plumbing can malfunction in many strange ways. Roach appears to go over most of them, from the poor soul left with a peekaboo hole in his stomach after a gunshot wound and people with stretchable colons – which brings up Elvis. Did The King suffer from a “mega-colon”? And did it contribute to his death? Roach investigates.

Roach is a smart writer and light on her feet. She seems to have a fondness for the scientists who devote their careers to things peculiar but important. Roach synthesizes a bunch of fascinating biological research, and, yes, really does make it easier to digest.

– Michael Hill, Associated Press


The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout; Random House, 336 pages ($26)


Jim and Bob Burgess, the title characters of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, grew up fatherless in a small Maine town after an accident in the family car when they were young.

They were smart, though, and became lawyers in New York City. Now Jim, at 55, is a high-powered corporate attorney who once gained national media attention. Bob, at 51, is a legal aid lawyer with a more modest sense of himself. As the novel unfolds, they are drawn back to their hometown, revisiting old scars while struggling with a new shock to the family psyche.

This is Strout’s first book since her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Olive Kitteridge,” and her extraordinary narrative gifts are evident again.

“Olive Kitteridge” is built on the scaffolding of separate short stories that, to lesser or greater degrees, involve the title character, a teacher in a coastal Maine town. “The Burgess Boys” follows a more traditional, more sweeping novelistic track, with the marital discord and conflicted feelings of the Burgess brothers set around their attempts to help a young nephew avoid jail.

The Burgess brothers are not depicted in a wholly agreeable light but become unforgettably alive to the reader.

Bob’s twin Susan lives in a cold, quiet house in Maine with her friendless teenage son, Zach – the nephew who lands in serious legal trouble, even facing a possible hate crime charge, after throwing a frozen pig’s head into the mosque of Somali immigrants.

The cultural chasm between white Maine locals and dark-skinned Muslims, along with efforts by both sides to bridge the distance, is a developing element throughout the book.

But the distance between Bob and Jim – painfully wide at times, lovingly close as well and turning on “a terrible secret” from childhood – gives the novel a level of intrigue and human depth with lasting impact.

– Kendal Weaver, Associated Press