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Two Richmond writers weave history and fiction.

Non-devotees of war stories should not avoid this book. The battle scenes are graphic but never gratuitous, and Robbins' painstaking research makes learning about a critical moment in history thoroughly entertaining. Even the annotations are compelling, and the closing scene, both powerful and tender, is a satisfying final reward.

By using familiar character types like the guilt-ridden Jew and a conniving French marquis, Robbins maintains the novel's momentum but misses an opportunity to create a more complex, thought-provoking story. The only snag in the book is the occasional tendency of characters to suddenly give two-page history lessons. This interrupts the hurtling pace and does not further the plot. However, these flaws are minor distractions from Robbins' engrossing tale. Readers seeking an escape from the winter doldrums will find an invigorating antidote in the thundering pages of "Liberation Road."

Robbins, who has published five previous novels, lives in Richmond.

For a heartwarming read, nothing satisfies quite so much as a story where the underdog triumphs against overwhelming odds. In "Electric Dreams: One Unlikely Team of Kids and the Race to Build the Car of the Future" (Carroll & Graf Publishers, $24), Richmond writer Caroline Kettlewell relates a winner.

Kettlewell's underdog is a team of Northampton County, N.C., high school students competing to build an electric car against far-better-funded and -equipped schools. Stumbling blocks and setbacks abound in this real-life tale that makes the ending all the more thrilling.

Kettlewell's ambling pace and gentle humor reflect the rhythm of rural life in Northampton County. Into the telling, she neatly weaves the larger story of the struggle of the electric vehicle movement against the giant automakers and the behemoth oil companies. Sadly, the electric vehicles fare less well than the students.

If "Electric Dreams" suffers any flaws, they are largely the result of unmet expectations. The story is less about the kids and more about the quirky pair of teachers who organize and shepherd the team to victory. Also, Kettlewell describes Northampton County as predominantly black — a place where many kids grow up thinking all of America is the same. But she never explores this intriguing angle. In spite of some unfulfilled promises, "Electric Dreams" delivers a charming story that will keep you rooting for the students and their humble retrofitted Escort, "Shocker." S


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