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Suspense

Crooked Numbers by Tim O’Mara; Minotaur, 320 pages ($25.99)

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Tim O’Mara gives the academic mystery – too long mired in the machinations of university politics – a fresh view by imbuing it with elements of the police procedural. Instead of the usual disagreements and one-upmanship among professors and deans, O’Mara’s intricate plot delivers an exciting look at the inner workings of education and the economic boundaries that separate people.

The difference is O’Mara’s unusual hero – Raymond Donne, a former New York City police detective turned middle school teacher in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Introduced in last year’s gripping “Sacrifice Fly,” Raymond is a complex character who has found a fresh start as a teacher.

For Raymond, the jobs of a cop and of a teacher often intertwine as both are interested in doing the right thing whether it is on the streets or in the classroom. Both careers can be a powerful influence.

Raymond’s past and present again meld in “Crooked Numbers.”

Although his new position as a middle school dean has taken him momentarily away from grading papers, Raymond is still vitally interested in his students, even when they transfer to a better school. Raymond was pleased when one of his former students, Douglas Lee, received a scholarship to a private school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But just before his 17th birthday, Doug is murdered. Police believe he is just another inner city kid lost to the gangs and drugs. With a promise to the teen’s grieving mother to look into the murder, Raymond finds evidence pointing to other motives.

O’Mara delivers an intricate but believable plot enhanced by strong characters. Because he is no longer a cop, Raymond must devise new investigative skills.

Once again, O’Mara goes to the head of the class with the intriguing “Crooked Numbers.”

– Oline H. Cogdill, Orlando Sun

YOUNG ADULTs

Hostage Three by Nick Lake (Bloomsbury, 369 pages, $17.99. Ages 12 and up.

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This powerful new novel from the winner of the Michael Printz Award winner for Best Young Adult novel for “In Darkness” (about the 2010 Haiti earthquake) is part coming-of-age tale, part thriller, part love story and part searing lesson in current events, set against the backdrop of the continuing disastrous anarchy in Somalia.

“Hostage Three” is actually 17-year-old Amy Fields, taken hostage by Somali pirates during an around-the-world cruise with her multimillionaire father and her stepmother (Hostages One and Two). Amy, a talented violinist, has been in full rebellion since her mother’s suicide. She strikes up conversations with the young Somali translator and soon learns his tragic story: Farouz and his older brother Abdirashid were young boys when they witnessed gunmen kill their parents. Abdirashid is in prison; only by helping the pirates can Farouz free his brother. Lake’s narrative racess along, the suspense ratcheting up as arrangements are made for ransom and things go wrong.

– Jean Westmoore

NONFICTION

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 112 pages ($18)

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Flannery O’Connor’s “A Prayer Journal” is a moving glimpse of a young writer seeking to balance her art with her faith.

In 1946, O’Connor began writing the prayers in a common black-and-white schoolbook, when she was 21 and studying in Iowa. At the time she was just beginning to perfect her craft, but the journal shows the same sense of humor, tragedy and suffering that would distinguish her later American masterpieces such as “Wise Blood,” “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “The Violent Bear It Away.”

In real life, O’Connor could mix a polite, reserved Southern demeanor with almost brutal frankness, and the entries that begin with the words “Dear God” are no different.

“Hell seems a great deal more feasible to my weak mind than heaven,” she writes in one. “I can fancy the tortures of the damned but I cannot imagine the disembodied souls hanging in a crystal for all eternity praising God.”

O’Connor is hard on herself, too – as a person and as an artist. Reflecting on her lack of charity to another writer, she laments her own failings. “I have nothing to be proud of yet myself. I am stupid, quite as stupid as the people I ridicule.”

Readers from all walks of life may appreciate the mixture of faith, self-doubt, determination and resignation that runs through “A Prayer Journal,” but book-lovers will be pleased to note that she presumes God is quite well-read.

Various passages mention Coleridge, Kafka, Proust, Freud and Lawrence, and at times O’Connor seems to be seeking a patron saint of literature.

“Please let the story, dear God, in its revisions, be made too clear for any false & low interpretation,” she writes in one prayer, and in another, gives voice to a feeling that every writer in the world can relate to. “Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work.”

Like Andy Warhol, O’Connor was a devout Catholic, and she tried to attend Mass every day. “God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me,” she says, and concludes another entry with “Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to You.”

For O’Connor, like some characters in her books, faith played out as a fierce battle between the realities of an unjust world and the absolute belief that there is more to life.

O’Connor stopped writing the journal in 1947, and she died of lupus in 1964. “A Prayer Journal” is a slim book but a powerful one, since even at this young age O’Connor was writing sentences that startle with their clarity.

– Kevin Begos, Associated Press

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