Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver; illustrated by Kei Acedera; HarperCollins, 320 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.
In her first novel for middle-grade readers, the author of acclaimed teen novels "Before I Fall" and "Delirium" weaves familiar fairy tale elements, magic, echoes of myth, brave orphans, a Dickensian backdrop and a ghost story into a wondrous story of grief and healing. (Oliver says that her inspiration came from a dream she had after the death of her best friend.) A horrid stepmother keeps Liesl locked in the attic, her only friend a ghost named Po who can move between this world and the Other Side. Will, an alchemist's young apprentice, mixes up a delivery, switching a box of magic with a box of something else. (There is a hint of Roald Dahl in Will's alchemy tasks, "grinding up cow eyes and measuring the blood of lizards into different-sized vials"). Liesl, who is in mourning for her father, decides she must bury his ashes near their old home in the country and the journey takes her into Will's path as well as an assortment of colorful characters including the villainous Lady Premiere and a big-hearted, simple-minded night watchman. Acedera's dramatic black and white illustrations add to the enchantment of Oliver's suspenseful tale, as she deftly brings it to a most satisfactory conclusion and a gray world regains its color.
-- Jean Westmoore
Mama Sees Stars by Deborah Sharp; Midnight Ink (327 pages, $14.95)
Deborah Sharp's entertaining fourth novel has Hollywood coming to Himmarshee, a fictional town in central Florida. And whatever story makes it to screen pales to the shenanigans that occur on the set.
Mace Bauer takes a break from her job at a nature park to be an animal wrangler for the filming of Florida author Patrick Smith's classic "A Land Remembered." Mace discovers the body of Norman Sydney, a nasty executive producer who delighted in denigrating everyone from the staff to the high-paid actors. Few mourn his passing, but Mace still is astounded at the vehemence that the man inspired. Police detective Carlos Martinez -- who's also Mace's on-again, off-again boyfriend -- heads the investigation, but Mace does a little sleuthing herself. A series of near-fatal accidents plague a set filled with scheming crew members and spoiled actors used to getting their way. Energetic plots and laugh-out-loud humor are staples of Sharp's series.
-- McClatchy Newspapers
Travels: Collected Writings, 1950-1993 by Paul Bowles; Ecco (512 pages, $16.99 paper)
Paul Bowles, author of "The Sheltering Sky," dearly loved his North African desert and his cannabis, as bits of "Travels: Collected Writings, 1950-1993" make clear.
But there's a lot more to Bowles. This new collection (with an introduction by Paul Theroux) reminds us that, in and out of Morocco, Bowles saw and heard a great deal and put it on paper, creating the same strong sense of place that won his fiction many admirers. These 41 pieces resonate with more empathy and humor than you might expect (Bowles on the perils of parrot ownership!) but also show the deadpan precision of a scientist pinning up dead butterflies.
His eyes and ears -- the ears of a musician and translator -- are dagger-sharp. Even the introspection, of which there isn't much, can sound chilling and clinical.
Besides the pieces about Morocco, we get accounts of Bowles' early digs in Paris, trips to Spain, and reminiscences about life on the island he briefly owned in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). (Travelers take note: As recently as last year, that five-bedroom estate could be rented for $1,000 per night and up.)
-- Los Angeles Times