by Dan Chaon |

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Twins Miles and Hayden Cheshire—whose midwestern, middle-class dad works variously as a clown, a magician, a motivational speaker and a hypnotist—are taught early on that identity is an illusion. "Learn what it is like in another life," the mutable Larry Cheshire tells his sons. "People choose their lives. What will you choose for yourselves?" In this dark, deliciously disturbing literary thriller, Chaon sends the twins—and other lost souls—into ominous settings where they shed their old personas, with startling consequences. Hayden, a schizophrenic, seems to vanish into the Arctic; another unsettled character fakes his own death and becomes a con man. Chaon's protagonists are limned with supreme skill: Even before her parents died, precocious Lucy Lattimore (who runs away with her high school English teacher) saw them as insubstantial, Chaon writes: "She herself had come from a long, long line of . . . nobodies, stretching back for generations. You could draw her family in two dimensions, like characters in a comic strip." In the end, Await Your Reply is a story that unfolds with chilling precision. You'll be spellbound from start to finish.

by Lev Grossman |

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Quentin Coldwater, the "nerdiest of the nerds" at his Brooklyn high school, is tapped to enroll at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, an exclusive, secret academy in upstate New York. There he befriends studious Alice, who shares his devotion to a series of fantasy novels they both read as kids, set in an alternate world called Fillory. Quentin and Alice eventually discover that Fillory is a real place, ruled by evil—and the rest of this somewhat familiar, albeit entertaining, story (Harry Potter, anyone?) involves their magical efforts to tame this malevolent force. Grossman's writing is intelligent, but don't give this one to the kids—it's a dark tale that suggests our childhood fantasies are no fun after all.


A BIG LITTLE LIFE by Dean Koontz

Megaselling Koontz pens an amusing love letter to his golden retriever Trixie, who died in 2007.

HOMER'S ODYSSEY by Gwen Cooper

This memoir about adopting a special-needs kitten teaches that sometimes in life, you have to take a blind leap.

THE ELEPHANT KEEPER by Christopher Nicholson

An 18th-century drama about the bond between Jenny, an elephant, and her keeper.

>In his memoir Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater, Frank Bruni shares his journey from chubby kid to bulimic young man to, finally, a healthy weight—only to be asked, in 2004, to be the restaurant critic for The New York Times. Despite dining out nightly—sometimes twice in an evening!—he managed to stay slim. Here's how:

HE EATS LIKE AN ITALIAN Before his critic gig, Bruni was the Times' Rome bureau chief: "Italians love food, but it's not all-you-can-eat. It's one lamb chop and some potatoes. They don't supersize."

HE NEVER STARVES BEFORE A BIG MEAL "If you go to an extreme of deprivation, when you end it, you go crazy. At least I did. So I eat during the day in measured portions."

HE SWEATS Four days a week, he works out—hard: "If you can calmly read this magazine on the treadmill, you're not exercising hard enough."

HE ORDERS WHAT HE LIKES "If you want the pork belly, get the pork belly—and push it away when you begin to feel full. But don't get the halibut and go home, then eat a pack of Oreos."

>• James McWilliams's new book, Just Food, takes on farmer's market foodies by challenging the idea that local, organic eating is better for us

WHAT DO YOU HAVE AGAINST EATING LOCALLY? Locavores are right that when you eat foods closer to you, you know more about them. But that doesn't necessarily make them better.

SO HOW SHOULD WE BE EATING? Eat out less, cook more. Eat much less meat, eat a lot more fruits and vegetables. And eat the right kind of fish. Then you're being responsible without being fanatical.

LOSE ANY LOCAVORE FRIENDS? Writing about food is like writing about religion: It has inevitably created tension—but there's nothing wrong with a healthy tension!