By Alexandra Robbins

We all talk blithely about the dumbing down of our culture—about the slackers more concerned with cruising MySpace than reading a book. But for a subset of students, school is as cutthroat as a corporate boardroom. Robbins follows superstars at a public high school in an affluent Maryland suburb as they battle to see who can score the highest GPA and the most extracurriculars on the least amount of sleep. We fret over "AP Frank" (he aced 16 AP courses), whose mom sits behind him while he studies and slaps him on the head if his attention seems to wander. And we pull for Julie, the track star who yearns for Stanford but is told to settle for Williams or Dartmouth by a pricey college consultant.

Along the way, we also see how such pressure is trickling down: Some preschools are pickier than Harvard. The Overachievers is rather terrifying. But for anyone who has held an envelope from a prestigious university while, heart pounding, asking herself, "Thin or fat?," it will be impossible to put down.

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By Adam Davies

Entering middle age and teaching freshman composition, Jack Tennant, the hero of Davies's new novel, thinks it might be time to go home. Rather, his girlfriend does: Tennant only half wants to confront the ghosts that have haunted his family since the drowning death of his brother. But the answers that he gets when he returns are life changing in ways he never imagined. Jack is affable enough and Davies gets off some funny lines, but the book is oddly sketchy; its slightly mannered breeziness makes it hard to know how seriously we are meant to take the guilt and sorrows of its characters.

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By Lolly Winston

In Lolly Winston's follow-up to her '04 hit Good Grief, Elinor Mackey is down in the dumps after failing to conceive and learning that her podiatrist husband is having an affair—with his trainer. The two go through the reconciliation motions—therapy, introspection, fury—until complications arise in the form of the trainer's 10-year-old son. Yet this is no stock relationship novel. Elinor's wit, as well as Winston's keen eye for humor in moments of despair, elevate this touching, comic tale above the crowded pack.

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By Meg Rosoff

Here's another powerful blurring of the lines between young adult and mainstream fiction from Rosoff, the author of How I Live Now. After snatching his baby brother off a window sill as he's about to fall, 15-year-old David Case becomes obsessed with avoiding Fate. Renaming himself Justin, he strikes out on his own, falls in love with an "older" woman, makes his first real friend and witnesses death and betrayal. Though he pulls it together, he's seriously troubled, and Rosoff's treatment of his mental problems is unsettlingly ambiguous. Parents who find the book riveting, despite its patches of talky philosophy, may want to think twice before handing it to sensitive teens.

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Thrills and Chills

The Grays by Whitley Strieber: One government faction believes aliens are trying to save us; another thinks they want to conquer in this truly spooky sci-fi tale from the author of Communion.

Still Life by Louise Penny: Set in an artistic haven outside Montreal, this cerebral mystery about a bow-and-arrow murder and a detective who works out of a local bistro is a rare treat.

Snow Blind by P.J. Tracy: A killer encases his victims—cops, no less—inside snowmen. The startling imagery from the mother-daughter team known as P.J. Tracy powers the novel along, as does the instantly likable cast, back for a fourth outing.

Learning to Kill by Ed McBain: A gripping collection of the late mystery writer's earliest short stories from the '50s is a must for fans who want to see how the master honed his skills.

No Good Deeds by Laura Lippman: This slice-of-Baltimore-life mystery finds PI and ex-journalist Tess Monaghan following a street kid into a maze leading to a controversial unsolved murder; the suspense is relentless.

In This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin looks at the neuroscience behind rocking out.

1. Those songs that stick in your head? They're called "ear worms."

2. Monkeys like the sound of fingernails screeching on a blackboard and rock music equally.

3. Emotions triggered by music involve structures in the brain's primitive, reptilian regions.

4. Profits from Beatles hits helped their record company develop technology for MRI machines.

5. Americans spend more on music than on prescription drugs.