Monday, February 15, 2010

Amazonian adventures and Mayan mysteries make for a dynamic debut!

Black Rain
by Graham Brown

I like the wild places of the world. Not in real life, mind you, but on the pages of a book I can't resist them. With his debut novel, Black Rain, Graham Brown has added all the elements for a perfect adventure thriller--at least one written with me in mind. He's got the exotic location, the mysterious beast, the ancient puzzle, the cutting-edge science, and he integrates all of these elements into a smart and thoroughly engaging page-turner. It's the kind of debut I absolutely love to see, and all I want from Brown is... more.

What's the story? Well, it's too complex to go into real detail, but basically the National Research Institute believes there's an artifact lost deep in the Amazon that may hold the key to a limitless source of clean energy. An expedition sent to search for it has to contend with hostile natives, terrifying creatures, and cut-throat competitors who will do anything to beat them to the discovery.

I'll admit that none of these story elements is especially unique or original. But Brown's novel is--for lack of a better description--just darn entertaining. And he does so much right. The plotting of the novel is nice and tight. I won't swear that all of his science is accurate, but the stuff I know about rings true. And based on the creature he creates in Black Rain, it's obvious he knows a thing or two about animal biology.

Finally, it's worth mentioning that Brown does an unusually good job with character development. And this is great news--because it looks like his central characters are coming back in his next novel, Sun. I can't wait!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Emotional complexity and situational ethics

Union Atlantic
by Adam Haslett

With his debut novel, Adam Haslett has written a nuanced story for our times. Arguably, it is the story of self-made banker, Doug Fanning, as the story begins and ends with him. On the other hand, Fanning is just one of a small ensemble of richly-drawn characters orbiting and intersecting each other. Fanning, the banker, is embroiled in a lawsuit and property dispute with Charlotte Graves. Charlotte is an aging schoolteacher who is in the process of slowly, sadly loosing her mind. Witnessing this is Charlotte's brother, Henry, who also happens to be the President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Henry is the ultimate authority to whom bankers like Fanning, who play fast and loose with their clients' money, must answer. And finally there is 18-year-old Nate Fuller, infatuated with Fanning and Charlotte in very different ways.

These characters and several others defy easy classification. It's far too simplistic to paint Fanning as the villain of this story. Although this story is set in 2002, Haslett sheds a great deal of light on the banking environment that led to the recent bailouts. No one sets out to defraud the public. No one thinks they're the bad guy. One small decision leads to others; events snowball and grow out of control. Fanning relies on situational ethics in both his professional and personal life, with devastating consequences. Charlotte, on the other hand, brings to bear an unyielding moral code that does almost as much harm.

The story that unfolded on the pages of Union Atlantic was filled with ethical and emotional complexities that defied all easy categorization. It made the novel feel like so much... more... than a mere story in a book. It had the complexity and messiness of life. Haslett's prose shines throughout, but does not overshadow, the tale he's telling. Wow, talk about a writer to watch. Surely, this is one of the strongest debuts of the year.