Half Bad by Sally Green; Viking, 394 pages ($18.99). Ages 12 and up.


This brilliant debut novel, the first in a trilogy, publishes March 4 with a huge amount of advance buzz. (The publisher reports it was acquired in a highly contested auction at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, has already sold in 45 countries and been optioned for a movie by Fox with Karen Rosenfelt of “The Book Thief” producing). Set in modern-day England among two warring factions of witches, the novel opens with 16-year-old Nathan shackled, living in a cage outdoors, wearing an acid-filled wristband that will eat his hand off if he tries to escape. The novel then backtracks to explain how he came to this point: As the illegitimate son of Marcus, a terrifying and violent Black Witch, Nathan is viewed as an abomination. He feels true affection for his White Witch-aligned grandmother and his half-brother and half-sister but must escape his captors and the Hunters who are stalking him to track down his father to realize his own magical powers at 17. Nathan, who narrates the novel, is one of the most fascinating characters to come along in awhile in Young Adult fiction, as he bravely navigates his way in an uneasy universe where the lines between good and evil are not entirely clear. Green expertly weaves page-turning suspense of the fantasy with the concrete detail of the every day, making her characters vivid and real (Nathan’s struggles learning to read, his talent for drawing, his first love). The next book will be published in spring 2015.

– Jean Westmoore


After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman; Morrow (352 pages, $26.99)


Laura Lippman explores how a disappearance of a loved one affects a family for decades in the enthralling “After I’m Gone.” In her eighth stand-alone novel, Lippman tracks the history of five women united by the betrayal of one man. “After I’m Gone” is a quiet mystery – no car chases, barely a gun in sight – that derives its tension from the delicate balance that affects each woman. “After I’m Gone” works well as a story of misplaced love, of consequences and the fragility of memory, as well as a solid private detective story. “After I’m Gone” also explores a history of women through the decades, from the late 1950s through 2012, wrapped around the rituals such as weddings, baby showers, bat mitzvahs that define and unite people, and sometimes pull them apart.

Shady businessman Felix Brewer faces a 15-year prison sentence when he disappears in July 1976. The Baltimore man leaves behind a wife, Bambi; three daughters, ages 16, 14 and 3, and a mistress, Julie, a former stripper. He thinks he has made sure that he has left his family and Julie provided for. But Felix’s plans quickly go awry and his family scrambles for every dollar.

A decade later, Julie also vanishes. It’s not until 26 years after Felix left that Julie’s body is uncovered deep in a Baltimore park. The cold case falls to Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez, a former cop turned consultant. Sandy follows a labyrinth of relationships and secrets to find the truth behind Felix’s disappearance and Julie’s murder.

Lippman insightfully delves into each character, showing how each woman matures or falters through the years. Through it all, the shadow of Felix colors their lives, his absence a part of each.

The tension-filled “After I’m Gone” succinctly examines the greatest mystery of all – crimes of the heart.

– Oline H. Cogdill, Sun Sentinel