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"The Institute" by Stephen King

By Stephen King (Scribner, 557 pages, $30.)

It appears that when Stephen King was in town this year for the inaugural Wordplay book festival, he did a little studying up on us. One of the protagonists in this gripping story is from Minneapolis. Only a few pages of the action take place here, but there are repeated nods to the city throughout. And not just obvious ones, such as the Mall of America. King includes references to neighborhoods and even the streets that run through them.

Luke Ellis, a 12-year-old with minor telekinetic powers - he can make an empty pizza pan rattle on a table - is kidnapped from his Minneapolis home and carted off to a super­secret special ops center in Maine that is trying to develop telekinesis and mental telepathy as weapons. The experiments are starting to get results - although in the process, they're killing the test subjects, a situation addressed by simply kidnapping more subjects.

Luke escapes and hitches a ride in a boxcar. Fearing that the institution has agents all over the country (an assessment the reader knows to be true), he decides to exit the train before it arrives in a major city. He ends up in a small backwater town in South Carolina, where he's befriended by Tim Jamieson, a former cop. Tim sets out to help Luke, although neither of them knows exactly what they're getting themselves into.

This is a thriller - and a good one, at that. There's little in the way of King's usual emphasis on the occult beyond the topic of psychic powers, which, according to surveys, as many as 40% of Americans believe are real. But there's no shortage of monsters, that's for sure. They just come in the coldblooded, end-justifies-the-means, laws-don't-apply-to-us human variety. We have no trouble believing that those types of people are real. And they are plenty scary.

- JEFF STRICKLER

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"Miracle Creek" by Angie Kim

By Angie Kim. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 355 pages, $27.)

"Miracle Creek," a debut novel by former trial lawyer Angie Kim, is at once a gripping courtroom thriller with twists and turns, a deftly told, multigenerational immigrant family drama and a book about being an "autism mom."

Two people are killed when an oxygen chamber, run by the Korean immigrant Yoo family as an experimental medical treatment for autism, explodes in rural Miracle Creek, Va. At first, it seems like an accident. Then, Elizabeth Ward, who had devoted her life to seeking out therapies, diets and regimens for her autistic son, is accused of setting the fire that killed him.

As her murder trial begins, Kim uses seven narrators - including Young and Pak Yoo and their teen daughter Mary, as well as Ward herself and some of the people who took part in the therapeutic "dive" that went wrong - to move, shift and twist the story along and keep the reader guessing about what actually happened that day.

It ends up all fitting together in a uniquely compelling puzzle.

- ERICA PEARSON

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