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Books in brief

>CHILDREN'S

Under the Green Hill by Laura Sullivan; Henry Holt, $16.99, 320 pages, ages 9 to 12.

Four siblings are sent out of harm's way in a plague-embattled United States to stay with distant relatives in a mysterious old mansion in the British countryside and find themselves in the middle of a fairy war -- a war in which someone likely will die.

This beautifully written first novel from an American author is a little bit like C.S. Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," but has its own considerable charm, memorable characters and richly drawn fairy world based on Middle English folklore. (There is the fearsome Jenny Greenteeth, the selkie forced to live with humans, a Latin-speaking Wyrm.)

The siblings (Meg, Rowan, Priscilla and James) are accompanied from the States by hangers-on: nasty Finn Fachan, a bully whose inclination for evil-doing creates all kinds of havoc, and asthmatic Dickie, a bookish boy who shows his bravery in the end. Young readers will delight in the suspense and Sullivan's meticulously created fantasy world.

-- Jean Westmoore

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>FICTION

The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb; Penguin Press, 312 pages ($25.95)

It begins and ends with pho -- in a noodle shop in Old Hanoi. Old man Hung is a true professional -- his delicious soup is a metaphor for a dying way of life. Each morning, he spoons the broth for customers, a broth that depends on his long-standing relationships with local butchers. He remembers the days back in the '50s when his shop was a gathering place for dissident artists, until many of them were taken to re-education camps where they formed the Beauty of Humanity Movement, celebrating poetry and art that had little to do with the party line.

One morning, a stranger appears at the shop -- a young woman named Maggie, born in Vietnam but raised in America, who has come back to look for clues to her father's disappearance after his escape from the camps. Gibb drapes her story over good strong bones -- characters (including the grandson of a poet friend of Hung's) that span several generations, the nobility of the artists in contrast to the war. But the true beauty of the novel radiates from the details -- the smell of the soup, the feeling of the early morning streets, the sense of community in poverty and the community woven by memories.

-- Los Angeles Times

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>SUSPENSE

Afraid of the Dark by James Grippando; Harper, 416 pages ($25.99)

James Grippando's 17th novel touches on terrorists, the treatment of political prisoners, cyber security, the war in Iraq and even teenage sexting. It's a heady brew of plot points, but Grippando skillfully balances each tendril. "Afraid of the Dark" never feels overwrought because Grippando keeps the focus on his very believable characters.

"Afraid of the Dark" brings back Miami defense attorney Jack Swyteck. Working pro bono, Jack has been appointed lawyer for a young Somali man who is jailed in Guantanamo, accused of being a terrorist. Jack learns that the man also is known as Jamal Wakefield, suspected of killing his 16-year-old ex-girlfriend, McKenna Mays, and blowing up her Coconut Grove home three years before. Vince Paulo, a former cop, was blinded in that explosion.

Jamal maintains his innocence, claiming that he had been kidnapped by a government agency and was being interrogated overseas at the time of the murder. But no one believes his story, least of all McKenna's vengeful father Chuck Mays, who built his massive wealth on a data-sharing business that sometimes mines confidential facts for unsavory uses.

Grippando powerfully weaves a noir look at the fears that seep into each corner of society. Jack proves himself to be a man of action, but Grippando is careful to keep Jack's decisions realistic. To say more would spoil the myriad twists that Grippando deftly adds to the multilayered plot of what may be his best thriller yet.

-- McClatchy Newspapers

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