The Most Dangerous Thing by Laura Lippman; Morrow, 384 pages ($25.99)
Memories can be deceptive. Two people can think they have the exact recollection of an event only to discover that each has distinctly different memories.
Childhood remembrances especially are fleeting, as Laura Lippman skillfully and subtly explores in "The Most Dangerous Thing." Lippman's seventh stand-alone novel -- and 17th work of fiction -- also is a look at how children often have little idea what goes on in their parents' lives. In addition, the novel serves as homage to more innocent times when, in the not too distant past, children could roam beyond their neighborhoods without their parents fearing where they were.
It was a heady time when children could leave their houses in the morning and return only for dinner. That's the kind of summer five youngsters enjoy in Baltimore during 1979. The three Halloran brothers and two girls, Gwen Robison and Mickey Wickham, are children on the cusp of becoming teenagers who forge an unshakable friendship for one summer.
Daily, they escape to the woods behind their homes, going further every week until they find a ramshackle cabin where an old man lives. What happened next in the woods both bonds them and drives them apart. Decades later, the friends reunite for the funeral of Gordon Halloran. Uncomfortable reminiscences, unsettling revelations and the uncertainty of what was going on in each child's household permeate the four survivors' thoughts and their time together.
"The Most Dangerous Thing" builds quietly as Lippman's character-rich plot turns on the influence that summer in the woods had on each person. Lippman doesn't follow any predictable route as she illustrates how connections between people and the consequences of actions vary with individuals. Her acumen with the intricacies of the psychological thriller and her recurring theme of the fragility of memory excel in "The Most Dangerous Thing."
-- McClatchy Newspapers
Shine by Lauren Myracle; Amulet Books/Abrams, 350 pages ($16.95) Ages 12 and up.
Myracle has been called "this generation's Judy Blume" for her place on the American Library Association's Top 10 Banned Books list. Her latest novel, a coming-of-age mystery centered around a hate crime against a 17-year-old homosexual, is set in the backwoods of Brevard County, North Carolina, where Myracle grew up. Her vivid setting, fictional backwater Black Creek, comes alive, with its toxic stew of poverty, meth addiction, alcoholism, child abuse, fundamentalist intolerance, gossip, moonshine, desperation and green beans boiled with fatback.
Sixteen-year-old Cat has cut herself off from her childhood friend Patrick -- from everyone, in fact -- after a sexual assault suffered at 13 in her home and witnessed by both her aunt and her brother. Then Patrick is found savagely beaten and brutalized and strung up on the gasoline tank at the overnight convenience store where he works. The local sheriff seems clueless, so Cat decides to investigate, certain that the perpetrator is someone she knows.
Myracle breathes life into these vivid characters, and as Laurie Halse Anderson did in "Speak," explores the traumatic aftermath of assault. "Shine" though also explores the extreme difficulties of coming-of-age in a toxic environment in the form of a page-turning thriller with a heart-stopping finale.
-- Jean Westmoore
Too Big to Fall: America's Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward by Barry LePatner; Foster Publishing, 234 pages ($27.95)
After the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed four years ago, killing 13 people, investigators blamed the disaster on undersized steel "gusset plates" that connected its giant beams.
The episode infuriates author Barry LePatner, who accuses the National Transportation Safety Board of avoiding the larger picture: Minnesota officials, citing tight budgets, procrastinated by delaying a strengthening project until 2020, despite warnings by independent engineers I-35W could fail.
LePatner, a New York construction attorney, argues the entire nation is in similar denial.
Elected officials crave the fame of cutting the ribbon on a new highway, rather than maintaining an old bridge, he argues. Even in enlightened Washington State, only about $1.1 billion of the $9 billion 2011-12 transportation budget goes directly to highway preservation or maintenance, using mainly federal funds.
Some politicians this year have awakened to the maintenance crisis, making "Too Big to Fall" a timely book. The American Society of Civil Engineers famously rates U.S. roads a D-minus and bridges a C. Nationally, about $96 billion is needed to fix existing roads and transit, LePatner says.
While the crumbling continues, LePatner urges states to install strain gauges, weight scales, cameras and corrosion sensors to gather bridge data around the clock, instead of trusting sporadic visual inspections.
-- McClatchy Newspapers
Fair Play by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal; New York Review Books, 100 pages ($14 paper)
Perhaps it's the simplicity, the clarity of the language; maybe it's the invocation of Finland -- the sea; short, sweet, green summers -- something in this novel leaves a reader feeling the natural kindness of the world, the goodness and simplicity of people, the possibility of ideas to make us happy. "Jonna had the happy ability to wake up every morning as if to a new life." Jonna is an artist, and Mari is a writer. "There are empty spaces that must be respected," Finnish writer and illustrator Tove Jansson (the "Moomin" children's books) tells us in describing the relationship of the couple, "those often long periods when a person can't see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone." Can you hear the breeze blowing through the words? They talk about movies and hunting, sculpture, mothers, fog, war. They travel. They talk each other through sculptures and illustrations. "Fair Play," in a most subtle way, describes the bare bones of a successful relationship.
-- Los Angeles Times