Anne Ursu, . . Theia, $23.95 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-7868-6779-0

Alternative realities and parallel plot lines coexist in Ursu's surreal but psychologically acute second novel (after Spilling Clarence), in which a boy chosen from a circus audience to disappear during a clown's magic act really does disappear. Hannah and Justin Woodrow bring their daughter, Greta, to the circus for her seventh birthday, along with her five-year-old brother, James. Greta is outgoing, quick-witted and full of energy, while James is so quiet his mother plans to bring him to a specialist for tests. Both parents thrill when James is selected from the audience and responds charmingly to the clown's every request. Then, suddenly, James is gone. The police assign someone to watch over the family, but the officer turns from friend to aggressor while Mike the Clown is transformed from suspect to victim. Hannah dissociates, Justin obsesses and Greta does research. The child is the only one who is able to confront the loss directly. Ursu mixes realistic depictions of police interrogations and domestic tensions with fantastic interludes like a chapter imagining the day after James's disappearance as it would have been if the disappearance had not occurred. She delicately probes the worry and longing, guilt and rage, protectiveness and resentment that characterize parental love. James's "disapparation" is even more a mystery at the end of the novel than at the beginning, but it doesn't seem to matter, since Ursu wins the reader over with her humane wisdom and charming vision of the limitless possibilities of a child's imagination. One only wishes that Greta—the novel's pivotal character—were not quite so cloying. National advertising. (Jan. 8)

Forecast:A creepy-cute jacket image of two children's faces suits the novel, and should attract browsers' attention.