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The Associated Press Book Reviews

Thursday, July 10, 2014 - Updated: 6:03 AM

"Land of Love

and Drowning"

Riverhead Books

by TIPHANIE YANIQUE

For most of us, if we think about the U.S. Virgin Islands at all, we think just of tropical resorts and hurricanes. Tiphanie Yanique's debut novel, "Land of Love and Drowning," is a deft argument that a rich and complicated culture is waiting just beyond the tourists, if we dare ask some uncomfortable questions about who we are and whom we love.

Yanique is herself from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, and she draws on her family heritage to craft a saga that spans generations. She makes a handful of overlooked Caribbean islands seem like a vast and vital landscape.

In "Land of Love and Drowning," three generations of beautiful Bradshaw women bewitch the men of St. Thomas through the islands' transfer to American control, World War II, segregation and the aftermath of a catastrophic hurricane. Secrets and jealousies shadow the relationship between two sisters and set them apart from other islanders as they all lurch through historical changes.

In less confident hands, "Land of Love and Drowning" would have faltered and failed to reconcile its blend of myth and modernity. Yanique has written the best kind of summer read -- lurid, yet layered and literary.

-- Jennifer Kay

"The High Druid's Blade: The Defenders

of Shannara"

Del Rey

by TERRY BROOKS

Terry Brooks is a grandmaster of the fantasy genre, and his latest will both captivate and surprise readers.

Epic fantasy usually details world building with a large cast of characters. The land of Shannara has been detailed extensively in past books, so Brooks takes a different route this time in "The High Druid's Blade: The Defenders of Shannara," creating a more intimate and personal narrative with the story of Paxon Leah.

Paxon runs a shipping business, but dreams of exploring the world. He contemplates a better life for himself, his mother and his brash younger sister, Chrys. When Chrys overindulges, she ends up being abducted by a dark sorcerer named Arcannen. His powerful magic terrifies everyone, and his ultimate goal is to take out the power structure of the Druids, the watchers of the land.

A family heirloom, the Sword of Leah, is pulled off the mantle and Paxon rushes to grab his sister. He has no magic to help him with the rescue, and neither does his sister. What Paxon doesn't realize is that Arcannen doesn't want Chrys, he wants the sword, and he will do everything in his immense power to possess it.

Fans of Brooks' earlier work will be mystified not to see many of his usual side characters or heroes, family members of the Ohmsfords. Brooks has done an amazing job of conveying the sights, sounds and environment of the world with just a few characters. It's truly magical how he delivers these elements, and readers will feel like they have actually visited the land of Shannara when they turn the final page.

The novel is meant to stand by itself, and the story wraps up enough to leave the reader satisfied. Another book with these characters would be welcome, but it's nice to see a self-contained story from Brooks.

-- Jeff Ayers

"Act of War"

Atria

by Brad Thor

In Brad Thor's latest thriller, "Act of War," Scot Harvath finds his hands full when a snag-and-grab operation for a terrorist unveils surprising information. It involves a top-secret operation by a few key individuals in the Chinese government with the goal of devastating the United States. The ambitious plan has every chance of success and would take down the country before a response could be mounted.

The president wants answers, and implements two missions that if known could mean the end of his career. One involves Harvath and the other will send a group secretly into North Korea. Failure in either case would mean the end of everything.

Thor's novels work at a higher level than most thrillers of this subgenre involving special ops and the war on terror. These soldiers utilize everything at their disposal to keep the United States safe. And Thor creates a read that feels like the TV show "24" on the page.

-- Jeff Ayers

"Close Your Eyes,

Hold Hands"

Doubleday

by Chris Bohjalian

Wiser than the adults around her yet convinced she's a hopeless loser, Emily Shepard is a literary descendant of Holden Caulfield.

Like J.D. Salinger's famous teenage misfit, Emily relates her harrowing story of escape and survival from within the confines of a mental institution, where she's being treated for anti-social behavior and self-mutilation.

Unlike Holden, who went AWOL from his fancy prep school and wandered around New York City for a few days, excoriating phonies, the resourceful heroine of Chris Bohjalian's "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands" is on the run from a full-blown nuclear disaster.

Bohjalian models the industrial accident at the center of the novel on the catastrophic meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in March 2011. Emily's parents, who work at the fictional plant in Vermont's rural Northeast Kingdom, are both killed in the explosion.

Emily, who's 16 at the time, is evacuated from the contaminated zone with her schoolmates but flees to Burlington, some 80 miles to the southwest, when locals and the media start blaming her dad, a plant engineer previously disciplined for drinking, for the disaster. It turns out both her parents were alcoholics, partly explaining, at least in her mind, why even before the calamity, she was one messed-up kid.

For a time Emily lives in a teen shelter, then she moves on to a squalid apartment filled with other runaways and druggies and presided over by a latter-day Fagin, who forces the girls into prostitution and makes the boys steal. Later, living on the streets in Burlington's frigid winter, she befriends a 9-year-old homeless boy and builds them an igloo out of black plastic garbage bags filled with wet leaves.

Eventually Emily makes her way back to her family's abandoned McMansion in the contaminated woods near the plant to search for her beloved dog and to make peace with the memory of her basically decent but flawed parents.

Bohjalian delivers a thoroughly engrossing and poignant coming-of-age story set against a nightmarish backdrop as real as yesterday's headlines from Fukushima and Chernobyl.

And in Emily he's created a remarkable and complicated teenager, a passionate, intelligent girl equally capable of cutting herself with a razor blade and quoting Emily Dickinson, then explaining it all to us in a wry, honest voice as distinctive as Holden Caulfield's.

-- Ann Levin

"The Great Glass Sea"

Grove Press

by Josh Weil

Twin brothers Yarik and Dima were virtual lookalikes as boys growing up in rural Russia. Their joys and dreams entwined. Often when one spoke, the other would finish his sentence.

Their innocent world of fantasy and mirrored lives began to change along with their country, however. As they reached adulthood, the Russia of collectivist Soviet solidarity gave way to the capitalist Wild West of the oligarchs, and Yarik and Dima became, in many ways, opposites.

This tale of the changeling Russian twins, told by Josh Weil in his captivating first novel, "The Great Glass Sea," is a kind of sweeping historical fable. It is set in a fictional Russia in a future time, but it encompasses the former land of struggling Communist workers and apparatchiks and more recent billionaires full of "loot-fueled dreams."

It also includes a youngish vagabond crowd -- the alluring Vika and her motley cohorts, perhaps a rough Russian version of Yippies. They dream of a time before capitalists or Communists, even before the autocrats of old, a dream era when people "owned themselves, their work, their play, their time."

The narrative is enlivened by an element of magical realism, Russian-style: The lives of Yarik and Dima and their countrymen are being overtaken by a billionaire's futuristic scheme to build the world's largest greenhouse. This tall, vast glass construction -- the title of the novel refers to this barrier sea above the fields and populace -- nurtures growth from the soil with clockwork light from space mirrors.

Called the Oranzheria, the great glass sea is expanding over bought-up farms and lost peasant homesteads with no end in sight, "creeping over the land like a glacier in reverse."

The twins both land jobs there, but similarities will soon end.

Weil, who first visited Russia as a 14-year-old exchange student in 1991, shortly before the Soviet Union fell, depicts the land and its people with affection, fascination and an unsparing eye. Memorable scenes abound. In one, an unwilling Dima is treated to a steam bath by Communists, who believe he is a new leader, and they smack naked bodies with birch branches. In another, Yarik endures a feast -- lamb, charred sturgeon, fried onions -- as the billionaire behind the great glass sea consumes the food heartily and explains his lethal business.

While this is Weil's first full-length novel, his highly regarded first book of fiction, "The New Valley," published in 2009, was made up of three novellas. They were set in the hill country of Virginia and West Virginia.

But Russia became his consuming fictional subject after a return visit in 2010. He also drew the fine illustrations used throughout "The Great Glass Sea," including a sea monster that appears to look out amid a scaled body of spired Russian domes as delicate as Faberge eggs.

-- Kendal Weaver

     

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