The Associated Press

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965: (Little, Brown and Co.), by William Manchester and Paul Reid

The long-awaited third and last volume of William Manchester's masterful biography of Winston Churchill covers the final 25 years of the subject's life -- nearly as long as it took to research and write the book.

It was worth the wait.

Even if it had ended in 1940, Churchill's career was remarkable enough to justify the first two volumes that span a neglected childhood, a search for glory on the battlefield and years in the political wilderness in which he warned his countrymen about the looming threat in Nazi Germany.

For most of us, however, the years before he was appointed prime minister in 1940 merely set the stage for the Churchill we remember: the bulldoglike leader who inspired Britain during its darkest days when Hitler was master of Europe and the island nation stood alone.

Manchester had finished the research for "Defender of the Realm" when he suffered a stroke and in 2003 asked his friend, journalist Paul Reid, to complete the project. Manchester died less than two months after Reid came onboard. All told, it took more than 20 years for the nearly 1,200-page book to see the light of day.

Happily, the collaboration completes the Churchill portrait in a seamless manner, combining the detailed research, sharp analysis and sparkling prose that readers of the first two volumes have come to expect.

The focus, of course, is World War II, and the book doubles as a history of the conflict. Shocked by the swift fall of Singapore -- Churchill called it "the greatest disaster in our history" -- he was buoyed less than nine months later by the tide-turning victory at El Alamein. Along with the battles, the authors provide vivid accounts of the prime minister's meetings with Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, where we see Churchill's role diminish to that of third fiddle among the Big Three as his concerns about the Soviet dictator's designs on eastern Europe prove to be prophetic.

Throughout the book, Churchill comes across as a man of action, an energetic leader with an indomitable spirit whose strength and vitality belie his age. His prodigious drinking and late-night work schedule didn't appear to hamper his effectiveness, and the authors reject the notion that he suffered from depression, or what Churchill called the "black dog."

He found the war "exhilarating," viewing it as "the supreme chapter" of his life. He was drawn to the battlefield; he sought to get close to the action at critical times such as D-Day and eagerly visited anti-aircraft crews and bombed-out sections of London during the Blitz. But his words proved to be his mightiest weapons, inspiring Britons when they fought alone. His tribute to his nation's fighter pilots who won the Battle of Britain -- "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" -- retains its power today. "Certainly he demonstrated that powerful words could alter the course of history," the authors write.

Readers who might be put off by the length of this doorstop of a book need not worry. This is popular history at its most readable and absorbing. It captures the drama of the war years and the leading players while providing a balanced and memorable portrait of the man viewed by many as the 20th century's greatest statesman.

Dirk Pitt fans will enjoy 'Poseidon's Arrow'

Poseidon's Arrow: a Dirk Pitt Novel: (Putnam), by Clive Cussler and Dirk Cussler

Dirk Pitt and the NUMA crew are back to save the world in the Cussler (Clive and son Dirk) family's latest adventure, "Poseidon's Arrow."

The government has secretly created a submarine capable of moving through the water at over 100 miles an hour. Stocked with advanced weaponry and almost stealthlike abilities, this new submarine will dominate the seas.

Then the prototype is stolen and the inventor is found dead.

Pitt and his wife are enjoying a sailboat cruise when a freighter crashes into them. They barely escape, and soon discover the crew of the freighter that slammed into them is nowhere to be found. Pitt and his team have to once again save the day because it appears that a traitor high up in government wants to thwart their every move.

Cussler fans know what to expect when they pick up one of his novels -- a rollicking adventure with much banter and derring-do.

The Dirk Pitt novels are the mainstay of Cussler's vast empire. The last few novels have been written with his son, and the stories have become more of a family affair with Dirk Pitt Sr. taking over NUMA and his son and daughter tackling the field investigations. Since he now has a desk job, it has become a bit of a stretch to keep him operating in the field.

The novels usually rely heavily on history, and this time it's more about the future of marine technology rather than a quest for a past artifact. The previous novels also had so much material it felt like reading three books in one package. Now the formula has become a bit bloated and padded.

However, Cussler fans will still grab this one. It's no "Inca Gold," but it's one of the better ones in the series written with Dirk Cussler.

'Room' author imagines snippets of history

Astray: (Little, Brown and Co.), by Emma Donoghue.

How do you follow up an international best-seller like "Room"? With a collection of short stories inspired by snippets of history, naturally.

"Astray" is obviously not a book Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue wrote to build on the audience she gained from that chilling piece of 2010 fiction about a captive 5-year-old and his mom. But it is a book that shows her confidence as a writer, bringing to life the characters that piqued her interest in everything from 19th-century letters to a line in a New York newspaper in 1735.

If you're not sure whether you want to give it a chance, commit a forgivable sin and read the Afterword first. Donoghue writes eloquently about what binds the stories together: "Emigrants, immigrants, adventurers, and runaways -- they fascinate me because they loiter on the margins, stripped of the markers of family and nation; they're out of place, out of their depth."

All the stories are brief, featuring characters far from home who find themselves not just geographically astray, but morally, too.

Donoghue is gifted at imagining narrators from all walks of life. She writes one in the voice of a slave in 1864 Texas who murders his master and runs away with his wife: "She turn, she look in my face, she say I packed my bag. Her hand like a knot in mine." Another tells the story of a pair of 1896 gold diggers in the Yukon who create their own "Brokeback Mountain" when snowstorms force them inside their tent for days at a time.

Anyone who appreciates a well-told tale will enjoy these 14 short stories. It's perfect for the bedside table or the quiet commute -- rich tales by a writer near the top of her game.