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> CHILDREN'S

If Rocks Could Sing, a discovered alphabet by Leslie McGuirk; Tricycle Press ($15.99)

An author illustrator has been collecting oddly shaped rocks on a stretch of Florida seashore for years, and she shares the fruits of her labors in this beguilingly bizarre, witty alphabet book of rocks in the shape of every letter in the alphabet and more oddly shaped rocks to depict the words she is using.

For the letter "A," there is an A-shaped rock; "A is for addition" comes with the equation (1 8=9) with rocks in the shapes of numbers. "C is for couch potato," and behold, a giant potato-shaped rock reclines on a satin couch. "B is for bird" features a bird-shaped rock in a nest with a lovely spotted egg. "D is for dog" features a dog-shaped rock with a cute red collar, tied to a cunning little doghouse. McGuirk finds rocks in the shape of a sea horse, a rabbit, a penguin, a question mark, a mitten, a nose, a lemon. This amusing book will inspire both kids and adults to look for alphabet rocks of their own.

-- Jean Westmoore

> SUSPENSE

Darkness, My Old Friend by Lisa Unger; Crown, 368 pages ($24)

Lisa Unger uses the fears found in everyday life to pump up her exciting psychological thriller "Darkness, My Old Friend." In this enthralling follow-up to last year's "Fragile," Unger again tackles family secrets, the legacy of violence and the complexity of relationships.

"Darkness, My Old Friend" returns to the Hollows, a seemingly idyllic town that should be far enough away from New York City that it is not affected by the Big Apple's crime and problems.

Jones Cooper retired last year from the Hollows Police Department. He works around the house and reluctantly attends therapy. It's been suggested he get his private detective license, but he doesn't have the energy.

Across town, businessman Kevin Carr's debts are piling up."

Jones is pulled into an old case when Michael Holt returns to his hometown after his father's death. Michael is determined to find out what happened to his mother, who left the family when he was 14 years old.

Unger skillfully pulls together the various stories in an exciting and logical way. The Hollows is filled with people who have known each other all their lives and it is hard for many of the residents to separate memories of the past with the realities of the present.

-- McClatchy Newspapers

> FICTION

Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin, translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell; Farrar, Straus & Giroux (194 pages, $23)

Let's just say that when we react to self-indulgent bureaucrats eating blini and driving Mercedes in the political future, it tends to be that dark laughter that rolls off the precipice of fear.

"Day of the Oprichnik" is set in Russia in 2028. It follows a day in the life of Andrei Danilovich Komiaga, a character reminiscent of Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) in "Iron Man" (before his revelation) or the hedonistic Oblonsky in "Anna Karenina." Komiaga is a member of the secret police -- on any given day he rounds up the orphaned children of murdered nobles, squeezes his constituency for bribes, maybe even murders a dissident or two. With his finger-lickin', luxury-lovin' persona, he's a bit of a caricature. "Health isn't the least thing in our dangerous life," he earnestly tells the reader. "I take care of mine: I play skittles twice a week, then I swim, I drink maple juice with ground wild strawberries, I eat overgrown fern seeds, I breathe properly." The height of Komiaga's day is a series of bizarre sexual rituals with his fellow secret police that involve fish and steam. Sorokin writes (here and in his recently republished "Ice Trilogy") about the absurdities of power. "Day of the Oprichnik" is an arrow in the heart of the Russian mafia; 50 years ago it would have been aimed at the Communist Party.

-- Los Angeles Times