'The Saturday Night Ghost Club'

Craig Davidson's "The Saturday Night Ghost Club" has a totally delightful cover, for starters, and the delights go on from there.

Jake Baker grew up in Cataract City, a down-at-the-heels town near Niagara Falls. He has great parents (a signal departure from most coming-of-age novels), but he finds comfort during his heebie-jeebie times with his Uncle Clarence, who not only believes in the monsters Jake is afraid of, but has the means of taming them or driving them away.

Uncle C runs the Occultorium, a small shop specializing in shrunken heads, wards against evil spirits, etc., and it is while he is there that Jake meets a friend, Billy Yellowbird, who wants help to get his grandmother's spirit back to the home she loves.

Uncle C suggests Jake, Billy, Billy's sister Dove, and Lex, a friend and neighboring store owner (who bet the farm that BetaMax was the wave of the future), form a club to explore various haunted locales around town.

"The Saturday Night Ghost Club" is a charming, and often very funny, book, with a deep sorrow underlying it all: a near-perfect narrative of growing up. Jake narrates the book from the vantage point of adulthood -- he becomes a neurosurgeon. But what he comes to understand about the human brain doesn't at all explain everything he learned as a 12-year-old from his Uncle Clarence, his friends, and his mom and dad. A great read.

'Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II'

And now for something completely different, Svetlana Alexievich's compilation of oral histories of World War II, told by the Russian children who survived it: "Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II."

Alexievich is a recent winner of the Nobel prize for her lyrical yet profound collections of forgotten humanity's stories. "Last Witnesses" was first published in Russian in 1985, which explains why these "children" were still alive to share their stories of their papas leaving suddenly for war -- " 'Papa!' We all ran out to the porch: 'Papa!' Father saw us and, I remember it like today, covered his head with his hands and walked off, even ran."

These children lost their mother almost immediately in an air raid, and sat by her grave not wanting to leave her alone with what might be in the dirt with her. Multiply this story by many thousands, even millions, of children instantly bereft of their parents and often their siblings, and you will have a picture of what the Soviet Union suffered in World War II -- 22 to 28 million people, 14% of their population, dead.

"Winter came and we had one pair of shoes for the four of us. Then we began to starve. ... There were 250 children living in our orphanage, and once we were called to dinner and there was nothing to eat at all. The teachers and the director sat in the dining room, looked at us, and their eyes were full of tears."

It is impossible to read this book without one's eyes frequently being full of tears. These children's stories will break your heart over and over again. But this is an important -- even necessary -- text, about what was suffered, and what was endured, when the world was at war.