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CHILDREN’s

Once Upon a Memory by Nina Laden; illustrated by Renta Liwska; Little, Brown, $17.

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A boy is playing in his room, surrounded by his stuffed animals, with all eyes turned toward the window, when a feather is blown by the wind into the room. “Does a feather remember it once was a bird?” the story begins. This beautiful picture book, a treat for all ages, continues in that magical vein on a wondrous odyssey, tiptoeing between imagination and reality, the stuffed animal friends fully participating in Liwska’s delicately colored, sweet, playful illustrations on every page. (“Does a chair remember it once was a tree?” ”Does an ocean remember it once was rain?” “Does the world remember it once was wild?”) Author and illustrator share “some of our favorite things to remember” at the end.

– Jean Westmoore

MYSTERY

The Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly; Little, Brown (416 pages, $28)

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The gods of guilt is more than a phrase that attorney Mickey Haller – best known as the Lincoln Lawyer – likes to say when referring to a jury’s verdict. It refers to the judgments that people make about others on a daily basis, questioning their motives and dissecting their actions. But Mickey also grapples with his personal gods of guilt, knowing that sometimes being a good attorney has a price.

Michael Connelly delivers a compelling, suspense-laden plot that accelerates at high speed from the first page in his fifth outing with Mickey. “The Gods of Guilt” stretches the legal thriller’s boundaries, making the novel as much of a character study about a very flawed man haunted by the fact that doing his job well can have fatal reverberations. While Connelly includes the de rigueur courtroom scenes and focus on legal ethics, “Gods of Guilt” also works as a novel about unbridled ambition and the greed for recognition.

Workwise, Mickey’s practice has taken a turn for better so that he no longer has to rely on foreclosure cases. Personally, Mickey has become estranged from his daughter, whom he deeply loves. The teenager wants nothing to do with her father ever since a client he got off killed a family in a horrific car accident. But a new case requires all of Mickey’s attention. Andre La Cosse, a tech-savvy pimp, is accused of murdering Giselle Dallinger. But the case turns personal when Mickey learns that Giselle’s real name was Gloria Dayton, a former client he tried to help. From the start, the evidence points away from Andre and toward a bigger conspiracy. Mickey galvanizes his team of investigators to sort through Gloria’s life and determine why she didn’t make a new start as she had told Mickey she would. As Mickey prepares his case, he wonders if his own actions years before somehow led to Gloria’s death.

Connelly keeps the tension high as he leads “The Gods of Guilt” on an edgy, labyrinthine path through Mickey’s psyche and the streets of Los Angeles. Connelly shows the daily grind of a law practice as well as the excitement of a big case.

– Oline Cogdill, Orlando Sun-Sentinel

FICTION

Stella Bain by Anita Shreve; Little, Brown, 265 pages ($28)

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There’s no doubt that public education has neglected World War I, with history teachers squeezing in a few lectures before launching into succeeding conflicts. Literature has been kinder to the Great War, offering many opportunities to remedy that oversight. Shell shock alone has been the subject of scores of novels (most notably Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy) that remind us how WWI inextricably altered the trajectory — and the mythology — of the heroic soldier.

Now Anita Shreve, the bestselling author of “The Pilot’s Wife” and “The Weight of Water,” has joined the ranks of writers who want to plumb the depths of shell shock’s despair and disruptions. “Stella Bain” attempts to solve the mystery of a woman who regains consciousness in a French field hospital in March 1916 with little memory of her past.

When we meet Stella, “she floats inside a cloud. Cottony, a little dingy.” In a few weeks, a few memories start to return — she can assist in surgery, drive an ambulance. A British nursing sister thinks Stella is an American. But further clues to her identity prove elusive — until she hears a man utter the word “admiralty” as he speaks of his brother who apparently died on a sinking ship. She ponders its significance — it becomes “a kind of mythic goal” — and decides a trip to London, home of the British Royal Navy’s headquarters, is her best hope. So off she goes, on an improbable quest for answers.

Stella’s journey of self-discovery allows us to encounter the horrors of the first World War, groundbreaking treatments in psychotherapy, early acknowledgments of domestic violence, and the glimmer of first-wave feminism. Shreve even references, briefly, a gay love story. But the historic backdrop and foreshadowing of social revolution cannot overcome a critical shortcoming of her latest tome: It’s difficult to work up much of a sweat over Stella.

Maybe it’s the uninspired dialogue. “‘Living with memory loss has meant a life of frustration,’ Stella says. ‘How did the soldiers I met in the hospital camp survive the affliction? Did they go mad, as I sometimes think I will?’” Maybe it’s all that writing in the present tense, which in certain passages reads like stage directions. Or maybe it is simply this: Despite the extraordinary times in which she lives, Stella is a bit of a snooze.

Shreve takes her time filling in a back story that starts in late 19th century New Hampshire: Stella has a love affair that ends badly, a misguided marriage to a man with a propensity for cruelty, and a friendship with another man who flees the U.S. after his reputation is destroyed by her husband. All of which are preludes to the moment when Stella leaves her family and signs up for duty as a nurse’s aide in France. She must somehow find her friend, now driving an ambulance for the British Red Cross, and make amends.– Alice Short, Los Angeles Times