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Books in brief

>YOUNG ADULT

Dragonswood by Janet Lee Carey; Dial Books, 403 pages ($17.99). Ages 12 and up. (Publishes Jan. 5.)

Romance-starved "Twilight" fans would do well to check out this beautifully written, thrilling fantasy of humans, fairies and dragons, a companion novel to "Dragon's Keep," which was an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults in 2008 and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. The novel is set in 1192 on fictional Wilde Island, amid the chaos following the death of the Pendragon king, as a royal witch hunter rides the land, searching for half-fey girls to feed to the fire. Tess is the fiercely independent daughter of the blacksmith, a girl who longs for more than her likely fate -- to marry a man she doesn't love, who will likely beat her as her father does. Her home is near Dragonswood, a sanctuary that is off-limits to villagers. After her mother loses yet another baby in childbirth, Tess blames the lazy midwife, but the midwife's angry husband accuses Tess as a witch and Tess is jailed, tortured and forced to face the water trial. Mysteriously a dragon seems to come to her aid, but she and two friends find themselves on the run, starving and cold, until a mysterious stranger gives them shelter. And Tess finds herself drawn ever deeper into the intrigue over who will succeed the king, and whether the sanctuary for dragons will remain. Carey has crafted a vivid fantasy brilliantly set amid the harsh realities of life in the Middle Ages, the kind of world where a charge of witchery might be levied against a woman who was alone or odd or different in any way, where common folk would view a witch burning as entertainment.

-- Jean Westmoore

***

SUSPENSE

Ranchero by Rick Gavin; Minotaur, 258 pages ($24.99)

In his debut, Rick Gavin offers a comic romp through the Mississippi Delta, "less a place than a boot on your neck," where eccentricities thrive, pathetic criminals flourish and the absurd can pass for the norm. Yet despite its outlandishness, Gavin shows a deep affection for this area of Mississippi and its residents via his hero, Nick Reid, a former cop turned repo man for a low-level rental shop.

Gavin's eye for the odd turns out dark, slapstick humor akin to Tim Dorsey's Serge A. Storm novels and Ben Rehder's series set in Blanco County, Texas.

The "Ranchero" of the title is a gleaming, 1969 calypso coral car -- that Nick borrows from Pearl, his kind-hearted landlady. Nick needs "the boxy coupe" to pick up a plasma TV on which Percy Dwayne Dubois forgot to make payments. But Percy and his wife knock Nick unconscious and steal the Ranchero.

"Ranchero" works equally as a chase mystery and a heist tale as Nick and his best friend and co-worker, Desmond, a 350-pound African-American, travel through the Delta -- in Desmond's Geo Metro -- to find Dubois.

Gavin's fine eye for details, his compassion for humanity and his dark sense of humor make "Ranchero" work.

Gavin's dialogue is Elmore Leonard-perfect, a mixture of homespun philosophies and incorrect grammar. "Ranchero" is a wild ride in a car few would call cool, but Gavin makes it so.

-- McClatchy Newspapers

***

HUMOR

Holidays in Heck by P.J. O'Rourke; Atlantic Monthly Press, 288 pages ($23)

In his collaborations with Douglas Kenney, P.J. O'Rourke helped birth the subversive humor of the 1970s -- before going solo with pieces for Vanity Fair, Playboy and a long association with Rolling Stone. These days, he makes more news by virtue of his conservative political views and viral talk-show appearances. Indeed, his transition from lampooner of the stuffy to conservative patriot is one of the more vexing turns of the past 2,000 or so years. Court jesters should mock the king, not the serfs.

Fortunately, O'Rourke continues his prolific outpouring of solid humor writing with the new "Holidays in Heck," the follow-up to the best-selling "Holidays in Hell." This is a collection of magazine travel pieces -- the title refers to the European notion of "holidays" as vacations. And this time the former war correspondent has the family along for much of the ride, which takes him to a terrific assortment of outposts near and far.

His weakest piece is the opener, in which he and a bunch of Texans head off to the Galapagos Islands to ridicule the wildlife and speculate on how some of the rare beasts may taste. But that soon gives way to some very fine travel writing, the best of which is wickedly droll -- O'Rourke at his very best. "There were three package tours of Europeans on board, mostly British of a certain age and divided between the earnestly dull and the simply dull," he writes of an excursion to the Yangtze River. "The earnestly dull were deeply concerned with the fate of the Yangtze sturgeon. The simply dull were like a house party in an English murder mystery without the murder."

-- Los Angeles Times