Hate Crime in Maine, Date to Slay Hitler, Plath’s Party

What if when you died you were instantly whisked back to the moment of your birth, to start over and try to get it right?

If you were born in 1910 -- like Ursula Todd, the heroine of Kate Atkinson’s astonishing “Life After Life” (Little, Brown, $27.99) -- you would probably get many quick do-overs, since there would be so many ways to die young.

You might be born with an umbilical cord wrapped around your neck and no doctor attending. You might fall out the un-child-protected window, or drown in the non-lifeguard-protected ocean. You might get caught in a war or flu epidemic before you hit 20.

All these things happen to Ursula, and a feeling of deja vu helps her avoid them in later lives.

Atkinson pulls this off with a perfect sense of pacing, combining an engrossing story of family life in Edwardian England with a high-concept tale of suspense. For once she makes it past childhood, Ursula is heading straight toward World War II -- and, as we learn in a brief prologue, the chance to kill Hitler. (Muchnick)

Two Brothers

Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for her last book, “Olive Kitteridge,” a novel-in-stories that burrowed deep into the life of a small Maine town.

Her new novel, “The Burgess Boys” (Random House, $26), widens the scope, following two brothers, both lawyers, who fled Maine for Brooklyn. Jim is famous for getting a rock star acquitted of murder, while Bob schleps along at the public-defender’s office.

Things are changing back home, where their sister, Susan, still lives. A community of Somali refugees has developed, living in uneasy equilibrium with the native Mainers. Then Susan’s oddball son, Zach, throws a frozen pig’s head through the door of a storefront mosque, and the brothers return to Maine to help forestall hate-crime charges.

Strout is known for her deep understanding of family relationships and the emotions that underlie them -- especially the unattractive ones like irritation and embarrassment -- and that’s here in full force. Adding a political element is an ambitious step that makes the “Burgess Boys” a fascinating and unusual mixture. (Muchnick)

Bubbly Girl

Sylvia Plath, writer of some of the 20th century’s most anguished poems, was once a bubbly partygoer who went out with hundreds of men.

This is among the findings of Andrew Wilson’s meticulous biography “Mad Girl’s Love Song” (Scribner, $30). Wilson says Plath first tried to kill herself at the age of 10 by cutting her wrists. She had written 200 poems before she met and married Ted Hughes.

This book is the best of many released for the 50th anniversary of the 30-year-old Plath’s suicide. A close second is the scholarly “American Isis” by Carl Rollyson (St. Martin’s, $29.99), which draws on the recently opened Hughes archive. (Beech)

(Laurie Muchnick and Mark Beech are editors for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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