Think of the delicate balancing act involved in creating a child narrator—a 9-year-old, say, with a single mother and a baby sister. The boy has to be cute, of course, and also wise in unexpected ways, fragile, protective, funny, solemn and, well, childlike. Matthew Kneale achieves all that brilliantly in When We Were Romans (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $23.95, Jul. 22), then gives it another turn of the screw: We begin to realize that young Lawrence’s mother is going off the rails, convinced that she’s being stalked by her ex-husband. Lawrence gamely tells the story of her desperate flight from London to Rome, children in tow. He bravely watches over his mother and sister (“I can’t get upset too actually or there will be nobody left”), but the scary truth—which dawns on us even as we delight in the Eternal City as seen through 9-year-old eyes—is that it’s our valiant young narrator who needs protecting.—Adam Begley
Prep Me, Baby!
If you count yourself among those who eagerly await the second season of Gossip Girl, Anisha Lakhani’s debut novel Schooled (Hyperion, $23.95, Aug. 5) might be just the thing to tide you ove
r, as it takes yet another peek into the gilded lives of Manhattan’s über-rich. Coming from the same family tree as The Devil Wears Prada and The Nanny Diaries, Schooled is about recent Ivy League graduate Anna Taggard, who lands her dream job teaching at Langdon Hall School, an oh-so-exclusive Upper East Side private school (Ms. Lakhani taught English at Dalton). Anna is disturbed to find out that the majority of her students get by through the use of expensive private tutors—who basically do the work for them—until she’s lured into taking advantage of the lucrative benefits herself. The plot will be familiar to anyone who has sampled the assistant-to-the-wealthy oeuvre; and much like its predecessors, Schooled’s writing is breezy and fun, with winking references to fashion labels and N.Y.C. hot spots sprinkled generously throughout.—Sara Vilkomerson
Running to Write
Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Knopf, $20, Jul. 29) will appeal to two groups of people: long-distance runners and fans of his fiction. If you are both a runner and a Murakami fan, you’ll have truly hit the jackpot. “Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day,” he writes, and in a series of linked essays, the Japanese author (and Raymond Carver translator) meditates at length on that thought. As he chronicles his training patterns and locales, as well as the changes in his body that come from running every day (approaching 60, the author is in training for the New York City marathon), Mr. Murakami also explains how for him, the discipline of being a long-distance runner mirrors that of being a novelist. Both require discipline, hard work, focus and a certain amount of natural talent—and neither is right for just anyone. “If they’re not interested in it, no amount of persuasion will make any difference,” Mr. Murakami writes of running. For better or worse, the same could be said of this book. —Hillary Frey
Dirk Wittenborn’s Pharmakon (Viking, $25.95, Jul. 31) is an epic novel in the sense that it’s long (446 pages) and covers many years. But epic … it just sounds so heavy. In fact Pharmakon is pretty breezy—just plot-driven enough that you’ll stay hooked, but also literary, so that if you take it at a leisurely pace, you’ll notice some very nice turns of phrase. The novel, which begins in the ’50s, tells the story of the Friedrich clan: Will and Nora and their four kids. As the title implies, pharmaceuticals are in the mix. Will is a Yale psychologist and researcher who discovers a primitive kind of antidepressant. But one of his test subjects goes nuts when the requisite drug trial is done, and commits crimes that destroy the family order. Picking up the pieces takes decades. Pharmakon isn’t scary, but it is spooky. The Friedrichs are all haunted—not just by the crazy guy, but by their own desire to be O.K., to be happy, in a way that no pill can make them. —Hillary Frey
What’s the Matter With Washington?
Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter With Kansas, leads into this election with a colorful history of conservatism called The Wrecking Crew (Metropolitan, $25, Aug. 5). He defines the term relatively loosely, though it certainly includes the present administration, for which he reserves his most enthusiastic scorn. Business serves government, and government serves business when conservatives are in charge, Mr. Frank explains—and this sinister symbiosis is against the interests and the will of the people, who don’t totally understand what it is the conservatives are up to. Winning elections was the means by which conservatives thought they could get power, he argues, adding, “the end, as we have seen, was capturing the state, and using it to destroy liberalism as a practical alternative.” Indeed. —Katharine Jose