Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits
By John Merriman. (Nation Books, 328 pages, $28.)

Twenty years before Bonnie and Clyde blasted across America, the Bonnot Gang was at it in France. And with typical French panache, this gang had a philosophy.

"Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits" follows the trail of a committed cadre of "illegalists" — anarchists who believed that robbing banks and looting stores were fair game in a corrupt society. In 1911, they stole a car, shot a bank courier and made off with a fortune. Their spree of cop killings, car thefts and shootouts set off a panic that changed policing forever.

Author John Merriman delivers a ripping good yarn with a lineup of compelling characters. It was a pivotal time in France, with World War I looming. Cars, planes and automatic weapons were transforming daily life — and crime. Criminals carrying Browning automatic rifles confronted police still using bicycles and canes.

Until then, French society had largely tolerated the fractious anarchists who quarreled over theories of illegalism, individualism, Marxism and even vegetarianism. But by the time the desperadoes were caught, it was no longer safe to be any kind of anarchist. Thanks to new "Scoundrel Laws," the innocent would pay along with the guilty.

With so many people to introduce and so many intriguing asides — Arthur Conan Doyle even gets a mention — the narrative drags a bit in early chapters. But it picks up speed as it goes and leaves the reader with some timely questions about where a country should set the balance between security and civil rights for people with unpopular views.

Maureen McCarthy

Little Soldiers
By Lenora Chu. (HarperCollins, 368 pages, $27.99.)

Journalist Lenora Chu tells a perceptive and personal story in "Little Soldiers," which examines what works and what doesn't in the vaunted Chinese educational system. Her story, subtitled "An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve," recounts her family's experiences after enrolling their 3-year-old, Rainey, in an elite Shanghai preschool.

The book provides a telling window into Chinese culture, which includes an admirable respect for education and teachers, but which is also a regimented system that doesn't leave room for questions and sometimes turns a blind eye to cheating and bribery. The system also brings intense pressure to parents and students, including "pre M.B.A." classes for the preschool set and hours of drilling at home.

Chu and her husband were perhaps more likely than most foreigners to give the Chinese schools a shot. She was raised in Texas by first-generation Chinese immigrants who directed every move in her educational journey, even as she protested and finally managed to choose her own college. Her husband, NPR correspondent Rob Schmitz, worked in rural China during a stint in the Peace Corps and not only speaks Mandarin but also developed an appreciation for many aspects of Chinese culture. Even as Chu recounts her family's rocky experiences adjusting to the school — including her son being force-fed eggs, which he intensely disliked — she also delves into the country's rural-urban divide, which provides wildly different educational opportunities to children.

Chu, who worked for a time in Minnesota, also befriends two high school students — one a successful striver perfectly working within the system to achieve a top college experience, the other biding her time until she can escape what she considers a strangling system. Even as Chu finds a mixed bag for her son and family, readers will appreciate how the book provides a well balanced look at the school system and at Chinese society as a whole.

Colleen Kelly