Iron House by John Hart; St. Martin's Press, 432 pages ($25.99)

John Hart's three novels have meshed the vagaries of family dynamics with a respect for the traditions of the Southern novel. That approach has earned him three Edgar Award nominations and two back-to-back wins.

In "Iron House," Hart's lovely prose delivers a solid, forceful tale about family bonds and the legacy of violence set against the streets of Manhattan and the mountains of North Carolina. "Iron House" is both a moody Southern novel and an intense urban tale as Hart keenly explores human foibles.

Hart builds on two brothers' unshakable bonds to show that family ties can last through years, distance and separation. Michael was 10 months old, his brother Julian a sickly newborn when they were found abandoned and brought to a North Carolina orphanage called the Iron House. During the next decade, Michael grows stronger, learning fighting skills to protect himself and the weaker Julian. When Michael isn't nearby, Julian is mercilessly bullied.

The brothers' lives radically change when a bully is found stabbed to death. Michael flees the orphanage, eventually making his way to Manhattan where he becomes a hit man for a mobster who treats him as a son. Adopted by a wealthy senator and his young wife, Julian remains weak and fearful, despite his success as a best-selling children's author. Michael's attempts to leave the crime family put in danger his fiancee and Julian, whom he hasn't seen in 23 years.

Hart has proven to be an inspired storyteller. With "Iron House," he surpasses his own fine work to deliver a terrifying yet emotional story.

-- McClatchy Newspapers


If I Never Forever Endeavor by Holly Meade; Candlewick Press, $15.99.

Meade, a Caldecott Honor winner for her illustrations in "Hush!," flies solo as a writer-artist with this lovely picture book targeted at anyone afraid to venture far from the nest. The illustrations are a beguiling mix of watercolor paintings and linoleum block prints and each one is calendar-keepsake gorgeous, whether it's a vista of treetops against a sky of sun and clouds, a thick forest at night with the full moon peeking between the trees or a gallery of colorful birds all testing their wings. The simple but eloquent text has a lovely rhythmic singsong lilt and an ageless wisdom that inspires without being sappy.

-- Jean Westmoore


The Inverted Forest by John Dalton; Scribner, 325 pages ($25)

Novelist John Dalton follows up "Heaven Lake," his widely praised debut set in China, with a novel set in the summer of 1996 at the Kindermann Forest Camp in the Missouri Ozarks.

As the novel opens, camp director Schuller Kindermann has just fired most of his staff for cavorting nude around the swimming pool two days before campers were due to arrive.

The hastily hired replacement crew has a big surprise, when they learn that the summer's first crop of campers is made up of adults with severe developmental disabilities.

Dalton details the activities, appearances and quirks of many of the campers and counselors, but focuses on two emergency hires: Wyatt Huddy, whom we first meet at his job at a Salvation Army store, and Christopher Waterhouse, whose application to be a lifeguard was at first rejected.

The fates of Huddy and Waterhouse will intertwine in a strange scene, foreshadowed skillfully. As he introduces us to the campers, counselors and others, Dalton cleverly creates an undercurrent of unease, an almost Hitchcockian feeling that something bad is about to happen. Eventually it does, though some readers may feel it takes a little too long to take place.

It's all a result of what camp nurse Harriet Foster calls terrible decisions that lead inevitably one from another until the entire situation gets away from those in charge.

Then, the action shifts forward 15 years, to 2011, where readers may find that what they thought they understood about the novel may not precisely be true.

-- McClatchy Newspapers