Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, art by Maira Kalman; Little Brown, 354 pages ($19.99). Ages 15 and up.

The author otherwise known as Lemony Snicket offers a poetic, poignant, pitch-perfect exploration of the thrill of first love between an "arty" girl and a jock, through the lens of the heartbreak that followed, relayed as a letter accompanying the mementos (bottle caps, a toy truck) of their relationship she kept in a box and then dumped at his front door. Cinema buff Minerva Green (who views every experience through the prism of an art house movie reference) falls hard for jock Ed Slaterton, a fellow with long experience in the romance department. Handler captures the breathless thrill of first intimacy between opposites and convincingly evokes a teenage girl's voice (sitting at her first basketball game, "It was like an apple running for Congress, a bike rack wearing a bathing suit.") Min's despairing disillusionment at the end is a perfectly constructed monologue of heartbreak. Handler previously collaborated with Kalman on the picture book, "13 Words," and her distinctive illustrations of Min's mementos add a bittersweet, almost tactile, dimension to this handsome book.

-- Jean Westmoore


Breakdown by Sara Paretsky; Putnam, 448 pages ($26.95)

V.I. Warshawski's 30th anniversary novel continues the approach that Sara Paretsky has always followed -- melding current events, politics and old-fashioned gumshoe detecting. The riveting plot mixes the mania for vampire and supernatural novels, especially among tweens, virulent TV broadcasters, tabloid journalism, xenophobia and dirty politics.

In "Breakdown," V.I. heads to a cemetery in the middle of the night to round up a group of middle school girls who belong to the "Twilight"-esque Carmilla Club. The girls' initiation ritual is interrupted by V.I., who finds the body of a man stabbed vampire-style a few feet away. V.I. wants to get the girls away from the cemetery before the cops arrive, but she is especially concerned about the media learning the identity of two of the girls -- the daughter of a liberal U.S. Senate candidate and the granddaughter of a wealthy Jewish businessman and Holocaust survivor. Both have been targets of extreme mudslinging by hate-spewing TV host Wade Lawlor.

Intense suspense complements the complex plot, which never slows down. Paretsky skillfully juggles the myriad story threads, while never making "Breakdown" feel overloaded.

-- McClatchy Newspapers


Rode by Thomas Fox Averill; University of New Mexico Press, 204 pages ($24.95)

More than a half-century ago, Jimmy Driftwood wrote a song about a man and his horse, "Tennessee Stud," that told the story of a man's lost love, travels with the horse and eventual reunion with his sweetheart.

Averill took the song and filled in the gaps, rounded out the characters and created a thoroughly enjoyable novel, one that reflects the American spirit of independence and fresh starts.

Framed for a murder he didn't commit by the disapproving family of his sweetheart, Robert Johnson flees on his horse, with a bounty hunter in pursuit.

He becomes an outlaw and a horse thief and even a killer despite having fled false charges of being the very same.

When he finally returns to settle his score and claim his bride, the novel plays out a little differently than the song does, but it fits well with the character of Robert Johnson whom we've come to know -- and we're proud of him.

-- McClatchy Newspapers