By Simon Winchester (Harper, 492 pages, $28.99)

And now, the Pacific's turn.

Simon Winchester wrote a "biography" of the Atlantic Ocean in 2010, telling its story by means of what happened on it, from Columbus' voyage to the laying of transatlantic cables. The bestselling author marshals the same strategy for "Pacific," with the subtitle doubling for the chapter headings within: "Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers." Whew! But it works, revealing a vast expanse of water ("all the continents could be contained within its borders, and there would be ample room to spare") but also linking historical events in a way that brings fresh insights — or first exposure.

Of the history he plumbs concerning the Vietnam War and Korean War, he writes: "Many of these people, places or events have now to be looked up in indexes; and as one generation is succeeded by the next, those who struggle to remember are fast being overturned by those who never knew."

Winchester may well have said this of the Pacific. How many know much about the nuclear tests (so many!), the continental drift theory (so recent!) or the impact of climate change (so extensive!). The bonus is that he writes with clarity and humor, and while his final chapter on China is a little chilling, it's better to know the history as we inevitably create more.


Staff writer


By Taylor Brown. (St. Martin's, 276 pages, $26.)

In his debut novel, Taylor Brown has produced a literary gem set in the violent final months of the Civil War. Callum, a teenage orphan-immigrant from Ireland, has thrown in with a band of murderous robbers led by a former Confederate colonel. On a raid in Virginia, Callum meets the slightly older Ava, whose family has been lost to the war.

Together the two flee on horseback, only to be pursued into the middle of Sherman's march to the sea. It's a tale of brutality and compassion, hatred and love as the young people travel the Blue Ridge and Smoky mountains into Georgia. If you liked Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain," you probably will enjoy "Fallen Land."