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Books in brief


The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen; Scholastic Press, 342 pages ($17.99). Ages 8 to 14.

This marvelous, old-fashioned adventure is an entertaining thrill ride from the opening sentence (an orphan trying to hold onto a slippery hunk of beef stolen from the market) to the final page and is the promising first book of "The Ascendance Trilogy" by an author from Utah. (Like all great adventures, it comes complete with a map, of the fictional land of Carthya and neighboring lands of Avenia, Mendenwahl, Bymar, Gelyn and the Eranbole Sea.) The novel has a marvelous portrait gallery of characters, led by the irrepressible Sage, an orphan who is purchased with other orphans by a regent who plans to train one of them up to claim the throne as Prince Jaron, now that rumors swirl that the king, queen and elder son have all been slain. (The orphans are told Jaron was killed in a pirate attack at sea.) A plot involving royals allows all kinds of entertaining action, whether swordplay, horseback chases or skulking in hidden tunnels. With the skill of a juggler holding several balls in the air at once, Nielsen deftly carries the scheme forward, hurtling with page-turning suspense to its very satisfactory conclusion.

-- Jean Westmoore



Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed; Alfred A. Knopf, 336 pages ($25.95)

Toward the end of "Wild," Cheryl Strayed loses one of her hiking boots while hiking 1,100 miles alone across the West Coast's formidable Pacific Crest Trail. She stands at the edge of a precipice and gasps. But the moment has passed and the shoe is gone. "The universe, I'd learned, was never, ever kidding," she writes. "It would take whatever it wanted and never give it back. I really did have only one boot."

This line about the universe could be the catchphrase for the book itself, which pivots with unflinching honesty around the author's loss of her mother to lung cancer when Strayed was 22. This crushing blow leaves Strayed unmoored. Her marriage collapses and she begins to experiment with heroin and casual sex.

Then she makes the decision to launch herself into a three-month journey so physically and emotionally taxing that it's a wonder she emerges from it at all. But she does, and she emerges stronger -- healed -- and finally willing to forgive herself for her mistakes.

Strayed, now in her early 40s, catalogs her epic hike at 26 from the Mojave Desert to the Bridge of the Gods, which connects the borders of Oregon and Washington State, with a raw emotional power that makes the book difficult to put down.

She has been writing for years but has only one other book to her name -- a novel titled "Torch" -- and a forthcoming collection of her popular and frank "Dear Sugar" advice columns for called "Tiny Beautiful Things." As such, the potent literary voice she exhibits in "Wild" comes as a bit of a surprise.

"Wild" is at the height of its power when Strayed confronts her demons with clear-eyed intensity, allowing for the heartbreaking messiness of life to be just that.

In walking, and finally, years later, in writing, Strayed finds her way again. And her path is as dazzlingly beautiful as it is tragic.

-- Los Angeles Times



Nights of Awe by Harri Nykanen, translated from the Finnish by Kristian London; Bitter Lemon, 247 pages ($14.95)

The protagonist of Harri Nykanen's "Nights of Awe" is named Ariel Kafka, and he's one of two Jewish police officers in Helsinki.

Kafka's Jewish identity figures in the crimes that drive the story, a series of killings of Arabs that eventually involves drugs, trains, cars, Israeli diplomats, the Mossad intelligence service and friends and others from Kafka's past. To say too much more would risk spoilers, except that things, as in all good mysteries, are not what they seem, even when you think you've figured out what's what and who's who.

Nykanen is part of the blinding ice storm of Nordic crime writing that has buffeted the world since Stieg Larsson died, but he stands out from the crowd for at least two reasons: his deadpan humor and his thrilling ability to sustain narrative pace on little but routine details, personal interactions and professional observations over the course of a police investigation. He's a worthy successor in this respect to Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, the supreme and supremely influential masters of Scandinavian crime writing.

-- McClatchy Newspapers