Friday, October 29, 2010

You *are* what you read

The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide
by Eva Talmadge & Justin Taylor

I've never considered getting a tattoo. They're fine, but never held any personal appeal... until I saw The Word Made Flesh. It's a photo essay of literary tattoos, and in addition to the fine editors who put the book together, it owes its success to the creativity and literacy of the individuals pictured within. Don't expect to see a lot of smiling faces. Most photographs are disembodied arms, legs, and other assorted body parts.

The tats pictured take all forms. Many are literary quotations, and it's quite fascinating to see the words that moved a reader so profoundly that he or she literally wanted them to become part of their selves. Other tattoos were recreations of cover art, illustrations, bookish logos, punctuation marks, and even portraits of authors.

One of the sequences that interested me most was a press release and a series of photographs from "The Skin Project." Writer Shelley Jackson has penned a 2,095-word short story entitled "Skin." It will never be published anywhere. The only place it is being printed is word by word on the bodies of volunteers. The only individuals who will ever be privileged to read the entire text are the tattooed "words." Five of them are pictured. And once the "words" die, the story will be gone. Very cool.

While the photographs are the central focus of the book (and they're nicely shot and pleasingly laid out), the text is likewise pleasing and diverse. Much of the text is made up of brief discussions of the tattoos in the bearers' own words, which are almost always interesting. The editors do a good job, as well, keeping things mixed up. I mentioned the press release earlier. At one point, a two-page short story that inspired a tattoo is printed in its entirety. Elsewhere, a man talks about his tattoo, and the writer quoted responds to being immortalized in this manner.

The pictures in this book are awesome! But after I'd done the quick flip, I went back and read every word of text. Literature is my greatest love, and I dig people who have been permanently marked by their reading. And I really dig this little book!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

BOOK GIVEAWAY: Eight weeks of winners!

So, for the past couple of years, I've done a pretty good job keeping up with this blog... Until this September. What can I say? The past few months have been brutal. I've spent so much time traveling and attending literary events (the National Book Festival, Bouchercon, the Northern California Independent Booksellers' Association Trade Show, Thrillerfest, Litquake, etc.) that I haven't had time to write about them. September was a month of exhaustion and writers block. Happily, with some hard work I've caught up with most of my reviewing.

To reward the readers who have stuck around (I know you're out there. The site counter records you lurkers.) and new readers who visit the site, I've decided to give away a book a week (most of them Advance Reader Copies) for the next eight weeks. I've got some really fantastic titles to share! (A few of them are pictured above.)

Here's how it will work: Every Monday, starting November 1st, I'll make an announcement about the giveaway of the week. You'll have until the following Friday to leave a comment on the book of the week post. That comment is all you need to do to enter. On Friday afternoon, a random number generator will pick that week's winner. I'll post the name of the winner, and you've got one week to contact me with a mailing address. I'm really sorry, but I'm going to limit this contest to those with a U.S. mailing address. I have to do the shipping and pay the postage, and I need to keep this fun and managable. I'll post a new giveaway for the next eight weeks, with the final book drawn on December 24th. Uh, it's like eight weeks of Hannukah!

A clue to next week's giveaway: This hardback novel goes on sale on November 2nd, and will surely race up the bestseller list. Any guesses? Check back on Monday and enter to win!

These Tales never grow old

Mary Ann in Autumn: A Tales of the City Novel
by Armistead Maupin

I'd never been to San Francisco when I read the first five Tales of the City books. Armisted Maupin had created this wacky, wonderful city that seemed as fictional as the setting of any fantasy. I saved book six for my first visit to San Francisco, and once I arrived, I discovered the magical city that Maupin had created was exactly as described. On that first visit to San Francisco, I called my best friend and said, "I'm pulling a Mary Ann." I've been here nearly a decade.

I relate the above to explain that these books have had a fairly significant influence on my life. These characters are dear friends. And at one point I did very much empathize with series protagonist Mary Ann Singleton. Over time, we grew apart. I didn't understand all the choices she had made. Now Mary Ann and I are both a lot older than we were when we first met. After all this time, it is such a pure delight to catch up with her!

Alas, things aren't going so well on her end--on a variety of levels. Robert Frost once said, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." For Mary Ann, that place is San Francisco, with Michael "Mouse" Tolliver. He and his husband Ben don't let her down. In addition to Mary Ann's crises, this novel spends significant time checking in with Michael's business partner, Jake, and Mary Ann's adopted daughter, Shawna. An extra bonus in this novel, for long-time devotees like me, is that one of the plot elements ties back to the very first Tales novel.

I read this novel in no time flat. It was a joy from start to finish! (Oh, and if I weren't blurring the lines between fact and fiction enough already, a real life acquaintance of mine makes a cameo appearance in the book! That's a first.) Armisted Maupin makes what he does look so easy, almost as if he's channeling the members of this non-traditional family. (The "logical family" as opposed to the biological family, as Anna Madrigal would say.) He imbues his tales with such humor and such heart. The stories are completely over the top, yet grounded in an emotional reality. No one does this better.

Armisted, I am so grateful that you're again telling tales of the city. I hope to visit with these friends for many years to come.

"Something happened to little girls that grew up watching their mothers being hit... It was a peculiar law of attraction."

Law of Attraction: A Novel
by Allison Leotta

Until reading Allison Leotta's novel, Law of Attraction, I'd forgotten just how much I enjoy legal thrillers. This debut is a pleasure from start to finish. The central character is Anna Curtis, a freshly-minted Assistant U. S. Attorney. Anna prosecutes misdemeanor domestic violence cases, and as the novel opens we witness the Laprea Johnson case from the first intake. Anna's opposing counsel for the trial is an old law school pal, Nick Wagner. Despite a strong attraction, Anna knows that she can't get involved with a public defender--and certainly not one she's up against! But after the unsatisfactory conclusion of the Johnson case, Anna and Nick's relationship changes. And it changes once more when they find themselves on opposing sides of the Johnson case for a second time.

While it is no doubt annoying for a novelist to be compared to her fictional creation, it is clear that Allison and Anna share more than a hair color. Allison Leotta also graduated Harvard Law and became an AUSA in Washington, DC. Her intimate familiarity with Anna's world really shows. She is unquestionably strongest when writing from Anna's POV, and somewhat weaker when channeling her inner city characters. At one point one of them claims, "All due respect, Ms. Curtis, but you don't know my life." `Nuff said. Still, Leotta manages to create some interesting and layered characters.

For a novice novelist, she does an excellent job with exposition, and really explains the ins and outs of what prosecutors are up against. The prose and dialogue are strong as well. It's not that the writing is particularly beautiful, but it isn't clunky either. It's just easy reading without being dumb. The pages fly by and there's a welcome vein of humor throughout the book to relieve the dark subject matter.

With any mystery or thriller, it's really the plot that makes or breaks the story. I basically figured the whole thing out about halfway through the novel. (I'm clever like that.) When, 50 pages later, the protagonist was thinking along the same lines as me, I realized that perhaps the novelist was more clever than I had given her credit for and had tossed a few red herrings into the mix. In the end, I did get some of it right, but there were a heck of a lot of surprises along the way. This is a fast-paced book, and if somehow the mystery doesn't keep you completely riveted, there's a good chance the romantic aspect will. Things get a bit steamy.

While Law of Attraction isn't going to win any literary awards, it was a terrifically entertaining debut and was more than enough to satisfy me. This is an author to watch. I'm looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next!

And out of the Darkwood Mr. Toppit comes...

Mr. Toppit
by Charles Elton

When a reader decides to give a debut novel a try, all they have to base the decision on, really, is the book's description. That's what grabbed my interest in Mr. Toppit, Charles Elton's debut, and I was not disappointed. It's not a work of literary fiction that's going to set the world on fire, but is some pretty good story-telling.

The novel revolves primarily around two characters with a most unusual bond. The first is overweight, middle-aged Laurie Clow of Modesto, CA. It didn't take me long to see there was something a little... off about Laurie, a sort of desperation, almost. But even now it's hard to articulate exactly what it is about her. It's 1981, and Laurie is vacationing in England. She witnesses a terrible accident; a stranger is hit by a truck. She rushes to the scene and tries to comfort this man, Arthur Hayman, as he lay dying.

Later, at the hospital, Laurie somehow becomes attached to Arthur's grieving family: his wife, Martha; 17-year-old daughter, Rachel; and 13-year-old son, Luke. It is while visiting the family's home that Laurie learns Arthur was the author of five not especially successful children's novels called The Hayseed Chronicles. The protagonist of the series is Luke Hayseed, a character based on his son, and it is Luke Hayman who is the other central character of the tale.

The first half of the book relates how Laurie comes into the Hayman's dysfunctional lives, and how she is somehow transformed by her experience with Arthur. She's a bit obsessed by him, his family, and certainly by the books he wrote. As a character, I found her to be bizarre, and yet still entirely believable. There are a lot of odd people in the world, and by and large they're fascinating to watch.

Roughly the second half of the novel takes place five years later in LA. Laurie, almost single-handedly, has turned The Hayseed Chronicles into a world-wide phenomenon. Imagine that Harry Potter was identifiably based on a real kid. That's what Luke Hayman has been contending with. During a summer visit, we get to see the myriad ways his and Laurie's lives and relationships have changed. Throughout the novel, Elton manages to insert small mysteries and questions in a not too heavy-handed way, but gradually revelations do come about.

Not everything in this novel is a slam dunk. I wasn't sure that all the changes of perspective and POV were necessary or elegantly handled. Perhaps not every narrative thread paid off in the end, but I kind of enjoyed the diversions along the way. And there was so much to like. Amidst the darkness and drama, there is a lot of excellent satire going on. At times I was almost laughing aloud. And I found Luke to be sympathetic in a way that Laurie was not, and I cared about him and those he loved.

You may be wondering who the eponymous Mr. Toppit is. He's the mostly unseen villain of the Hayseed Chronicles. The events of all five books revolve around him, but he doesn't make a true appearance until the last line of the last book. As I read Mr. Elton's story, I wondered if Mr. Toppit would make a last minute appearance. It's not that simple. The final pages of the book cover several years, from the late 80's to the mid 90's. Did Mr. Toppit make an appearance? Maybe...

Not so tragic after all

Our Tragic Universe
by Scarlett Thomas

It has now been several weeks since I read Scarlett Thomas's Our Tragic Universe. The novel's description sounded hugely appealing to me, but 30 pages in, I wasn't loving it. In response to a friend's query I wrote, "My immediate response to the opening is slightly negative. I haven't really connected with the first-person narrator, the struggling novelist. And the book is not overtly funny yet. So far, it's sort of gray and gloomy and British, and seems to be peopled with not wildly likeable characters preoccupied with adultery. Of course, I have a nasty cold, and that could be coloring my perceptions. That said, I suspect that I will finish reading it, and I have a feeling that it will take a turn for the better."

I was right. It did get better, and I certainly did warm up to central character. Meg is a novelist. Sort of. She makes a living churning out ghost-written genre dreck and book reviews. She's been working on a serious literary novel for years now, but can't seem to get more than 43 words on the page. Yes, that's correct, 43 words. As the story progresses, we watch Meg struggle with her relationship, her friendships, finances, temptation, and her craft. There are many philosophical ruminations on the nature of story-telling. It's quite interesting--to a point. (Thomas lost me at the Zen koans.) Along the way, we meet some lovely characters and some not-so-lovely characters, and we get to laugh a bit. (Although the humor never was as overt as I expected.)

I've subsequently read and heard so many raves of this novel that I felt the need to marinate a bit before writing my review. While I did warm up to Our Tragic Universe, I'm afraid I still don't quite get the raves. It was enjoyable and well-written, but that's about as far as I'm willing to go. Give it a read and decide for yourself. If, however, it doesn't grab you right away, consider giving Ms. Thomas a bit of latitude to win you over.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Culture vultures, prepare to feast!

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes
by Stephen Sondheim

If you are lucky, you will discover artists whose work speaks to you in a very profound way. For me, it's the paintings of Henri Matisse, the novels of John Irving, the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. I'm an unabashed fan.

Mr. Sondheim's new coffee table book, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes, is a gift to us all. Before you even start reading the text, flip through it and you'll see that this is a gorgeous book. It is chock full of photographs--more than 200--many of them full page blowups. There are pictures and artwork from the productions, candid photos from Mr. Sondheim's personal collection, and images of his hand-written notes, lyrics, and sheet music. This book is richly and beautifully illustrated. The only small disappointment is that all images are black and white, but it is truly a minor complaint.

Once you've feasted your eyes, dive into the text. Almost immediately, you'll see that Mr. Sondheim has written his book with the care and precision with which he writes his songs. There's a slight formality to the tone (with the laying down of copious rules along the way), but at the same time, it's a very candid look at his work, his collaborators, his predecessors, and his life. For musicians or composers, there is much substantive information on his process. And for theater buffs like me, this book is a treasure! Mr. Sondheim's contributions are the apotheosis of musical theater. The shows recounted are theatrical history. Sadly, I'm too young to have seen the original productions of any of these 13 shows, but now I've heard about the drama behind the scenes of Merrily We Roll Along straight from the horse's mouth. I know his two regrets from West Side Story, what he really thinks of theater critics, how he wanted to plot A Little Night Music, and the influence of Hammerstein's Allegro on his career. The truth is, there is just so much packed into this book, it is simply impossible to even begin to summarize the contents.

This book is specifically dedicated to Mr. Sondheim's lyrics, and what a joy it was to sing, er... I mean, read my way through them. To give you an idea of how comprehensive Finishing the Hat is, every lyric of every song from the original production of Follies is included. Nine songs cut from the show are included, along with the reasons behind the changes. A revised lyric for a later London production is included. And altered versions of "I'm Still Here" (for Barbara Streisand and for the film Postcards from the Edge) are included. And always Mr. Sondheim's thoughts, observations, and occasional criticisms are shared, often through the use of extensive footnotes.

The book ends at Merrily, 423 pages in, with a provocative statement and the word INTERMISSION. This is indeed the intermission between the volumes of Mr. Sondheim's collected lyrics/memoir, the second of which will encompass the remainder of his storied career. I can only hope the second book is well into its production. As excited as I was to get my hands on this book, it is truly more than I could have hoped for. In the end, it's a fitting testament to an immense talent.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Entertaining, but unworthy of Gruen's talent

Ape House: A Novel
by Sara Gruen

Add my name to the long list of readers who were enamored with Sara Gruen's last novel, Water for Elephants. I could not have been more excited when I learned that her follow-up would deal with ape language experiments, as that's been a subject of great interest for years. This novel should have been a slam dunk in Sara Gruen's capable hands. But while it's undeniable that I enjoyed reading The Ape House, the word that came to mind over and over was "unworthy." In the hands of some average Joe writer, I would have been perfectly happy with this book, but Sara, you're better than this.

The novel opens with the New Year's Day visit (because apparently these people don't believe in holidays) of Philadelphia Inquirer reporter John Thigpen and two colleagues to the Great Ape Language Lab in Kansas City. John is there to talk not only to primatologist Isabel Duncan, but also to her charges--six bonobos who communicate very effectively with their human friends using American Sign Language or typing on a special computer.

The novel gets off to an absolutely charming start as we witness John's meeting with the apes. Things go reasonably well, and John is satisfied as he and his colleagues head home. Almost upon arrival, however, he learns that a shocking act of violence has taken place back in Kansas City, sending the lives of Isabel and her primate family (for that is what they are) into turmoil.

I had read this book prior to publication, and I didn't know what to expect plot-wise. Ms. Gruen certainly managed to surprise me with where she went. And it was all very interesting in a lurid, slightly sleazy way. I definitely kept turning the pages, but I felt the story being told was beneath her.

The bonobos were great, and I don't know how anyone could fail to fall in love with them, in person or on the page. Additionally, reporter Thigpen made an appealing everyman protagonist. I don't know that Isabel Duncan was his equal. I get that she's passionate. I get that she's traumatized. But I didn't feel that I ever got a sense of the woman behind her most obvious, plot-driven character traits. And while there are plenty of antagonists in this story, they're consistently painted in shades of black and white with no complexity at all.

What bugged me most of all, however, was that some of the plotting was absolutely by-the-numbers, and shockingly amateurish--nothing more so than the entire Pinegar sub-plot. Cringe-worthy. Look, there's a lot to like in this novel, but if you're expecting anything even nearly on par with Water for Elephants, you're going to be bitterly disappointed.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Tragicomedy, my favorite

Skippy Dies: A Novel
by Paul Murray

A 672-page novel is an investment, but Skippy Dies by Paul Murray gets so much right that I hardly know where to begin. Okay, I'm going to begin at the beginning...

The novel opens with the death of the eponymous Daniel "Skippy" Juster as the 14-year-old collapses in a donut shop. From there, we are taken back in time to the myriad events that lead up to that moment. And we spend the next 450 pages falling in love with Skippy, hoping for a different outcome. The following 200 pages are the aftermath, and are arguably the most compelling of a very compelling tale.

Now, a book about the death of a young boy sounds like a bummer--and Skippy's death is far from the only tragedy depicted--but as in life, the tragedy is balanced with high comedy. The novel is set at Seabrook College, an upscale private preparatory school in Ireland. This, the institution's 140th year, is a time of transition. The Catholic priests who have been in control for more than a century are beginning to take a back-seat to secular influences. (Yes, contemporary scandals in the Catholic Church are touched on within the plot, which may be objectionable to some readers, but it's not the focus of the story.)

While Skippy is certainly a central character, the novel is an ensemble piece. We meet Skippy's school pals, the older boys that bully them, the teachers and priests that teach them, the girls from the neighboring school, a smattering of parents and significant others. There's a plot. Many of them, in fact; it's an expansive novel and much happens along the way. But this story is character-driven, and that's where Murray excels. His characters are so, so delicious! Ruprecht, the idiosyncratic genius; Mario, the teenage lothario; Howard "The Coward" Fallon, a teacher searching for himself; and an acting principal you'll love to hate. He perfectly captures the sweet innocence of young boys, right along with their monstrous side. Every word, every action rings true. In Murray's novel, protagonists disappoint. Good things do not always happen to good people. But through it all, there is still so much to laugh about.

I could not be less interest in Irish school boys, but Paul Murray has written a universal tale that simply shines. The writing is fantastic, and just gets better and better as the novel unfolds. I loved it from start to finish. Don't let the length deter you from one of this year's finest reads.


DRACULAS (A Novel of Terror)
by Blake Crouch, Jack Kilborn, Jeff Strand, & F. Paul Wilson

For a girl who claims to dislike vampire novels, I sure seem to be reading a lot lately. Five since the start of the year. From this, we can infer that either Susan is lying about her literary predilections, or that roughly eight percent of all books published today feature vampires. I think the truth lies somewhere in between.

The refreshing thing about the current glut of vamp-lit is that no two writers take the same approach to the legendary beasts. Some are traditionalists, some are epidemiologists, some are humorists, and some just like gore. And in Draculas by Blake Crouch, Jack Kilborn, Jeff Strand, and F. Paul Wilson, there's a bit of all of the above. Back to that in a moment.

First, I'm going to comment on the collaborative nature of this novel. I've read books by a pair of authors, but never a quartet before. You could be forgiven for thinking that it's choppy or doesn't fit together properly. However, the truth is that Draculas is seamless. It was not the least bit obvious to me that different sections had been written by different men. For readers or writers interested in how the book was written, you're actually in luck. After the text of the novel, there's a section of "extras" (like DVD extras) including interviews, extra content, and extensive material (including correspondence between the four authors) detailing how the book was written. This won't be of interest to all readers, but it's a bonanza for those who want to go behind the scenes. The book is value added, if you will.

Okay, back to the story... The novel opens with a few tabloid accounts of a "vampire skull" with "thirty-two elongated, razor-sharp teeth" being unearthed by a Romanian farmer and being purchased by a wealthy Coloradan. He is Mortimer Moorecook, elderly and dying. At this point he's got more money than time, and it seems he's looking for a way to cheat death. When the skull finally arrives, he opens it in the company of his hospice nurse and a "biological anthropologist" he's hired to research the vampire legends. After a quick toast to celebrate his acquisition, he plunges the skull's horrific teeth into his neck and immediately goes into convulsions. The nurse and anthropologist get him to the hospital where, to their amazement, elderly Mortimer transforms into a kind of monster. A "dracula." And it's contagious. Soon, remote Blessed Crucifixion Hospital (ha!) is lousy with draculas and survivors are fighting for their lives and their humanity.

In the introduction, Joe Konrath (eschewing his Jack Kilborn pseudonym) explains that back in his day vampires were scary. They weren't sparkly heartthrobs. "This novel is an attempt to make them scary again." And it succeeds to a point, but it's also kind of funny. Not as overt as Christopher Moore's Bloodsucking Fiends, but on par with a film like Zombieland. (A funny film that completely freaked me out. I'm SUCH a lightweight.) Draculas is definitely taking the premise seriously, but there's a lot of humor in vampire tropes. Plus, several of the characters are downright amusing, such as the gun-toting sheriff's deputy who likes to quote Clint Eastwood dialogue to calm his nerves. And the fact that one of the characters is a clown. The little girl vampire that wanted to drink the "red candy" was just a touch precious in my opinion, but mostly the authors get the balance just right. It's creepy. It's fast-paced. And it may be just what you need to get in the Halloween spirit. Enjoy!

Yu's fanciful debut would have benefited from warp drive

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Novel
by Charles Yu

There's a great deal to like in Charles Yu's debut novel, and not much to hate. It's the story of a reclusive time machine repairman also named Charles Yu. Yu has sort of been drifting through life, a not very active participant. He lives in a closet-sized time machine with a fictional dog:

"It's not comfortable in here. But it's not not comfortable either. It's neutral, it's the null point on the comfort-discomfort axis, the exact fulcrum, the precise coordinate located between the half infinity of positive comfort values to the right and the half infinity of negative values on the left. To live in here is to live at the origin, at zero, neither present nor absent, a denial of self- and creature-hood to an arbitrarily small epsilon-delta limit. Can you live your whole life at zero? Can you live your entire life in the exact point between comfort and discomfort? You can in this device. My father designed it that way."

He has a crush on his computer's operating system:

"Is TAMMY's curvilinear pixel configuration kind of sexy? Yes it is. Does she have chestnut-colored hair and dark brown eyes behind pixilated librarian glasses and a voice like a cartoon princess? Yes and yes and yes. Have I ever, in all my time in this unit, ever done you know what to a screenshot of you know who? I'm not going to answer that."

For me, the principal joy of this novel was Yu's delightful use of language, often amusing and Jasper Fforde-clever, but also philosophical and even poignant at times. Where Fforde mostly sticks to peppering his novels with literary references, no aspect of pop culture is off-limits to Yu:

"Client call. Screen says


And my first thought is oh, man, wow, but when I get there, it's not you know who, with the man-blouse and soft boots and the proficiency at wielding light-based weapons. It's his son. Linus."

So, this is all charming, right? Where the book falls down is narrative drive. The novel opens with Yu offering some exposition about his life, the world, and the ins and outs of time travel. So far, so good. However, it bogs down in the middle. After the set-up, there's a meandering plot about Yu's search for his lost father, the inventor of time travel. The meta-fictional Yu reflects at length on his dysfunctional family and rambles in circles about the physics of time travel. As short as this small novel is, it's a bad sign that it tended to drag due to a lack of real plot. At one point, deep in the middle, Yu mused, "But what if I were to skip forward? Just cut out all of this filler in the middle?" I found myself wondering the same thing.

Mayans and divers and scares--oh my!

Black Sun: A Thriller
by Graham Brown

I'm just going to put this out there--I loved Graham Brown's debut novel. In my review of that book, I basically concluded with, "I want more." And I was very fortunate, because not only was the follow up, Black Sun, released a mere seven months later; it's basically the second half of the story begun in Black Rain. (And it's not that you can't read them both as stand alone novels, but I certainly think you'll get far more from reading them sequentially.)

So, Black Rain had a complete arc and came to a satisfying conclusion, but it was fairly obvious that the story would continue. In fact, it picks up two years later in Black Sun. Four of the surviving characters from Black Rain are back, and eventually they are united in a quest that involves the Mayan prophesy regarding December 21, 2012 and the fate of the world. Sigh.

Oh, sorry, did I sigh aloud? Just what we need, yet another 2012 thriller. (Do these things expire once that date passes?) Anyway, suffice it to say, despite the goodwill Mr. Brown had banked with his debut, I wasn't too enthused about the concept. I'll say this for him--he actually went somewhere quite interesting and different with it.

In Black Rain, I was delighted with Brown's use of exotic locations, ancient puzzles, and cutting-edge science. All of the above are back, and this time he adds a whole lot of sharks to the mix! (Oh, Mr. Brown, I think I love you.) Add sharks to any thriller and that's a winning recipe right there. As it happens, I'm kind of an expert on all things shark- and dive-related, and Brown does a reasonably good job with the material. Just when I'd think I was going to catch him writing something completely implausible, he'd add a little something or explain something that fixed it. He made his larger-than-life tale just plausible enough every step of the way. Nowhere was this more important than in dealing with the science in the book. There's a fair amount, from marine biology to astronomy, geology, and some really snazzy physics. I'm not an expert on all of those subjects, but I know enough to know when I smell a rat. Time and time again Brown sold it. He made me believe the science, and the science is the backbone of the story.

As mentioned above, we're dealing with characters we already know, but I'm honestly not sure if that's a plus or minus here. I think Mr. Brown used that familiarity as a short cut to character development. Picking back up with this cast after just a few months, it took a surprisingly long time to get a feel for who they were again. And I can't really say that I learned much more about them, or that their individual arcs moved forward very significantly. Of the antagonists, there were three different men of three different nationalities, and the primary baddie was just a bit too Bond villain for me. (Someone get a white Persian for Mr. Kang!) Fortunately, the other two were more believable in their motivations and their flaws. Finally, there was one especially interesting new character introduced latish in the book, and I was frustrated not to learn more about him. But the way the novel ends leaves me hopeful that we may see him again.

The story begun in Black Rain is now completely and satisfyingly resolved. But the door has been left wide open for further adventures with at least some of these NRI operatives. While I don't believe that this second novel was quite as strong as his debut, I had a rollicking good time reading it. Mr. Brown is writing science/adventure thrillers at a level head and shoulders above most of the field. I'm definitely on board for further adventures!

Disease personified

The Strain: Book One of The Strain Trilogy
by Chuck Hogan

It would be a significant understatement to say that I am not a vampire fan. I haven't avoided the genre entirely (It's almost impossible to do so these days.), but even a hint of fangs is usually enough to send me running in the opposite direction.

Fortunately, there are no fangs in this first collaboration between filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro and novelist Chuck Hogan. They're not that kind of vampire. Oh, no, these vampires are far worse. These vampires are just the slightest bit... plausible. Enough so that, frankly, this book scared the hell out of me. It didn't help that I read it on a plane.

The novel opens with a 777 landing normally at JFK. Once the plane is safely down, however, all systems go dead. There is no power, no communication, no one opens a door. Nothing. Fearing they've got a hostage situation on their hands, the authorities are called in. What they find is infinitely more disturbing.

I don't want to say much more than that this is a novel about an epidemic. Two of the central characters are CDC epidemiologists who take a very scientific look at the events unfolding in New York. And that is why the book was so effective in frightening me. I don't believe in supernatural boogeymen, but the monsters in this book were presented in an all-too-believable way. Aside from that, it was just plain gross and creepy as hell.

I've read Chuck Hogan's solo work, and he's a fine prose stylist. Guillermo Del Toro, on the other hand, knows how to tell a story and has a fine visual sense. The two of them working together are a truly powerhouse combo. In addition to scaring the heck out of me, they kept me turning the pages at a lightning pace. While The Strain is clearly a horror novel, it is also very much a thriller.

Fortunately, I had the sequel, The Fall, immediately on hand for when I finished The Strain's cliffhanger ending. I dived straight into the second book, but I'll take my time reading it. I've got a year to wait for the third and final book in the trilogy.

And then what happened...

Stories: All-New Tales
by Jeffery Deaver

Above are the four words that Neil Gaiman writes about in his introduction to the collection edited by himself and Al Sarrantonio. "And then what happened."--the four words that every storyteller longs to hear. That child-like impulse is the essence of what he and Sarrantonio wanted to evoke with this collection. On that basis, they were largely successful. These diverse stories, written by an impressive array of writers, kept me turning the pages and, yes, wondering what would happen next.

In some cases, I didn't have to wonder long. The stories range in length from a mere three pages to an impressive 48. Despite his name appearing in 72-point font on the book's cover, Mr. Gaiman contributes only one story in addition to his introduction. So, die-hard Gaiman fans, don't be disappointed. Instead, revel in the embarrassment of riches that have been brought together. This story collection features contributors who are among the best in genre fiction (Gene Wolfe, Joe R. Lansdale, Michael Swanwick, Peter Straub), literary fiction (Stuart O'Nan, Joyce Carol Oates, Walter Mosley, Roddy Doyle), and popular fiction (Jeffrey Deaver, Jodi Picoult, Joe Hill, Chuck Palahniuk). Honestly, I barely brushed the surface of all the big-name contributors, so very many of whom are long-time favorites of mine.

I'll be honest, not every single story is a slam dunk, but not one was a stinker. The one I liked best (possibly Carolyn Parkhurst's featuring an unreliable narrator) might be the one you liked least. These things are so subjective. The overall quality of contributions is high. Whether you're looking for quick palate cleansers between longer works, or you're looking forward to reading this collection cover to cover, I feel confident in asserting that there's something for everyone to be found within these pages.

The trail of what-ifs and if-onlys

Fragile: A Novel
by Lisa Unger

When I read Lisa Unger's breakout novel, Beautiful Lies, a few years ago, I fell in love with the novel's protagonist. The jacket copy on her most recent novel, Fragile, makes it sound like it's built around psychologist Maggie Cooper, wife of a police detective and mother of a potential suspect in a girl's disappearance. But the truth is that Maggie's not a strong enough character to build a novel around. Fragile is more of an ensemble piece, and Unger spends the first 50 pages introducing a sprawling cast of characters.

As noted above, the plot revolves around the disappearance of Rick Cooper's 17-year-old girlfriend, Char, who may or may not be a runaway. Taking place in The Hollows, a small town in upstate New York, Char's disappearance is an eerie reminder of another teenage girl's disappearance a generation before. That earlier crime touched the lives of many of the novel's central characters.

The first chapter of Fragile, set in the present, seems to be incredibly damning of one of the characters. After that opening scene, we go back in time a month to see the events leading up to that scene, and as expected, guilt and innocence are not at all cut and dried. As with any good who-done-it, there will be several suspects to consider, and in this case any number of crimes that may or may not have taken place. At one point a character reflects, "What gave her comfort when she did choose to walk that dark terrain, follow the trail of what-ifs and if-onlys, was that she wasn't the only person in The Hollows with memories and buried secrets. Not by a long shot."

Unger sets a dour tone for the tale, with plenty of sentences along the lines of, "On the wire above him, a mourning dove cooed, low and inconsolable." It felt a bit heavy-handed, but whatever. I don't believe this is Ms. Unger's strongest work, but her strongest work is pretty darn hard to top. Fragile is actually an enjoyable psychological thriller. I can't rave about it, but for fans of the author or the genre, it's well worth your time.