Off the Bookshelf Pop Fiction


by Dean Koontz

Knopf, $25 hard

Chyna Shepherd is determined to avoid intensity or involvement of any kind. Chyna, whose life has been shaped by a traumatic childhood of abuse, wants a life without risk. But when she becomes the only survivor of a mass murder, she is forced to struggle against a killer whose fulfillment lies in intensity of experience. Intensity, by novelist Dean Koontz, is a pin-you-to-the-chair tale of suspense, with a protagonist who is possibly the best female character that I have seen yet in the thriller genre.

Intensity traps the reader in two nightmares: the nightmare of attempting to defeat its protean killer, and a remembered nightmare of helplessness. As a previously victimized woman who finds strength and redemption, Chyna Shepherd is probably Dean Koontz's most fully human female character to date. Chyna is good without being needlessly angelic, and traumatized without being a cowering victim. Koontz makes her a resourceful woman in a desperate situation, illustrating her dilemma of fear and self-doubt through vivid flashbacks of Chyna's violent past. While her predicament occasionally strains belief, she herself never does, remaining sympathetic, vital, and real throughout -- I felt almost that she should be in a book a little classier than a suspense-thriller novel.

Not that Intensity isn't pretty classy in its own right. The book is swiftly paced, and as largely and sharply detailed as an IMAX movie, while Chyna's epiphany of redemption feels wholly natural. In Intensity, Koontz achieves a nearly perfect blending of spiritual, if conventionally Christian, inquiry and suspenseful horror. Koontz is no C.S. Lewis; his villain is too dislikable to encourage pondering his nature.

Intensity not only kept me insensitive to ringing phones and dirty dishes until the last page, it provoked me to theological and ethical considerations that I haven't had since I was 14: Does evil -- does God, for that matter -- exist? What would I do if faced with evil? What do most of us do?

-- Barbara Strickland

I've been mindlessly jabbering about how I want to get something into print so my friend talks to her editor and I am given two books of poetry to review. This is like having twins for your first pregnancy. If I can pull this off, anything else should be a piece of cake.

Red Suitcase by Naomi Shihab Nye (BOA Editions Limited, $12.50 paper) and Drop Zone by Gail Peck (Texas Review Press, $10 paper), are full of poems from women who have embraced life in its extremes. Nye lives in San Antonio, and has traveled the world. Peck is from the Deep South, and gives us bittersweet stories of her life.

Red Suitcase lets us know that Naomi Nye is at home both in Jerusalem and the capital city of Texas. Strong love and deep reverence for humanity threads its way through her work. While watching a father carrying his sleeping son across the street in the rain she says it all: "Fragile, handle with care." Her writing captures the richness and dignity of the human spirit with simplicity. The way she charms words, putting them together unexpectedly, is delightful. "...A shawl of sun on our backs..." conjures up an image so lovely that I cherish it even in Austin's scalding summer heat. The chilling and yet funny comparison of fashion models to skulls in the catacombs will stay etched in my mind. Anyone who has watched her child growing up and away from her will grasp the sudden yank of the heart felt in "What Is Supposed to Happen." With Nye's boundless compassion she presents her subjects as extraordinary human beings. She offers us hope. Nye's observations make a big family of lives and tales from 20 places on the planet. I laugh and cry in the same breath and wonder what happened to these people long after I put the book down.

In Drop Zone, Gail Peck, named for the "...wind that blew against the house in the month I was born..." pulls me directly into her life and touches my heart. Some poems are filled with torment, and hard to forget. Her experiences are so painful you wouldn't wish them on anyone. Peck reminds us of the searing truth that deep hurts won't go away: "...I wake at four a.m..The bodies wash up. They won't open their mouths. So I tell their stories while my husband sleeps..." Her poem "Bugsy" illustrates how violence toward women breeds violence toward children. "...One of the worst things my mother ever did was to call Elford Pruitt a cocksucker..." made me laugh. Not because the story was funny; it wasn't, but that this woman, filled with fear, got up enough courage to tell her drunken brother-in-law to get out of her yard. It occurs to me that her mother was a very good woman if that was one of the worst things she ever did. Her direct language cuts with its sharpness. Those with similar experiences will appreciate her poems; this collection was the 1994 winner of The Texas Review Southern and Southwestern Poets Breakthrough Series.

Naomi Nye and Gail Peck, women with notably different experiences in life, write with clarity and compassion. As seasoned poets, both have garnered numerous awards. Naomi Nye includes family, but also reaches out to lives in distant countries. Gail Peck's work is personal and focused closely on her experience of family ties. We need both of these writers to keep us tuned in to life. I don't often pick up a book of poetry, but I am inspired to read more by these women. -- Jean Bonnen

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