Book Reviews

Reviewing a mystery novel is an enterprise fraught with peril; reveal too much and you've spoiled the whole game for everyone. Reveal too little, however, and you might as well not say anything at all. With that in mind, then... The last surviving member of the Rawlins family, 29-year-old Amelia Caswell, turns up in a small New Mexico town to claim her inheritance, the ranch and land owned by her grandfather, Hector Rawlins. Physically and emotionally scarred by the violence that destroyed her family 13 years ago in Houston, she wants only to come home. But even as she begins to recover the memories of an earlier, gentler time, the memories of that murderous night are close by. Events -- a mysterious fire, threatening letters, poisoned feed -- make it clear that the devil will return to engulf everything and everyone she has come to love.

Walking Rain by Susan Wade (Bantam Books, $5.99 paper) is the writer's first novel, a solidly crafted, mostly straightforward mystery. Ingeniously, Wade tells her "back story" -- the story of the events leading up to the murder of Amelia's family -- through fabricated news clippings. This method allows her to build intense suspense. It's almost like getting two mysteries for the price of one, as the reader waits to find out not only what is going to happen to Amelia, but what actually did happen to Amelia. And the climactic scene, in which the events of the night that has kept Amelia guilt-ridden and on the run are revealed, is properly gut-chilling.

There are touches of romance and mild flourishes of the gothic in Walking Rain, not to mention a sprinkling of what resembles Magical Realism. It's an odd blend that turns out to be rather tasty. As the understandably paranoid heroine surrounded by very real danger, Amelia Caswell is traumatized but still engagingly plucky. Wade surrounds her with a fine ensemble of substantial male and female characters, including her ghostly grandparents who appear in times of loneliness or stress. The ending of Walking Rain is a bit deus ex machina, but it manages to emotionally satisfy without being cloying or overly sweet. Out just in time for summer, Walking Rain is fine warm weather fare. -- Barbara Strickland

Social humorist P.J. O'Rourke writes in the preface of the new collection, Road Trips, Head Trips, and Other Car-Crazed Writings (edited by Jean Lindamood, Atlantic Monthly Press, $22 hard), that without cars "a walk-up movie wouldn't be much fun, standing outside in the evening damp with big metal speaker boxes hooked to our belts. If we had a wrecked horse on cement blocks in our front yard, it would smell" and goes on for a while before settling into the fate of the U.S. government, "And can you picture the president of the United States scooting along a parade route with one knee in an armored Radio Flyer?" Cars have become the vehicle, for lack of a better word, for provocative essays, poetry, and fiction. Unfortunately, like a movie whose humor lasts only as long as its trailers, this collection finds more interest in automobiles themselves than it does in the accompanying "road trips, head trips, and other car-crazed" things.

The collector behind Road Trips is Jean Lindamood, an "automotive journalist," who has spent her adult life driving a cab, test-driving cars for Chrysler, and most recently, starting her own car magazine, appropriately enough, entitled Automobile magazine. Lindamood appears to be the kind of editor who finds delight in races, racers, and land speed records -- "A Fascination That Was" by Denis Jenikson, "Tragic Superhero of American Racing" by Griffith Borgeson, and "The Man Who Could Do Everything" by Ken Purdy -- but not much interest in the characters of the road. And though Lindamood includes Charley, the French poodle who accompanied John Steinbeck on one of his last journeys, Hunter S. Thompson's 300-pound Samoan attorney, and the wine-laden Dean Moriarty of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, those characters are better met in their entirety, in the originals. This collection does contain some gems like poet Allen Ginsberg's "Hiro Yamagata's Holy Ghost XX Century Automobiles" and "Heck, Mes Amis, It's Only Ol' Cale" written by Bob Ottum, but these are few and far between.

Road Trips, Head Trips, and Other Car-Crazed Writings is meant for those on their way to Chief Auto Parts, and not for those who seek the hallucinations and insight that the Nevada desert can provide after 20 hours on the road, with 20 more to go. -- Jeremy Reed

Too much hype can kill almost anything. Ammonite, Nicola Griffith's first novel, was completely unable to deliver what well-meaning editors and friends said it would. The plot wandered and was chock-full of great ideas but lousy characterizations. But with Slow River (DelRey, $11), Griffith has written a tight, touching story that redeems her and proves how precise her writing and how warm her characters can be.

The story starts predictably, however. Lore Van de Oest, the youngest daughter in a dynasty that has made its fortune with water-cleansing bacteria, is kidnapped. The kidnappers -- like all fictional kidnappers -- keep her drugged and naked in a desolate location. But it is at this point where any similarities to your traditional "trapped-little-rich-girl" story end and the real journey begins. "She has read many fairy tales and understands instinctively that those who are dragged places unwillingly must find their own way back." But how do you get back when your own family, who has more money than Croesus, refuses to pay your ransom?

And how do you define home when you are stripped of all of the privilege that you once enjoyed? If Slow River is Griffith's idea of a fairy tale, then it is one where there are no real monsters, only fallible and traumatized human beings, and no real destination, only a place where you can sleep safely.

Griffith's non-linear, post-industrial fairy tale motif works well because of Griffith's finely drawn characters, particularly when they are compared to Ammonite's one-dimensional mouthpieces for the author's agenda. In Slow River, her women, who make choices based on lofty ideals as well as petty jealousy, draw you in. You want to see them finish their journey, despite the fact that their destination is hard to define, being intellectually straightforward but emotionally amorphous. Plus, Griffith has drawn a realistic world, full of interesting possibilities, that provides an intriguing background.

Believable characters are the key to any novel, but are usually the first thing disposed of by a science fiction author, which may be why so many people refuse to read the stuff. But the genre is full of more than great concepts, soul-less science, and high powered techno-babble. By layering fully formed characters on a well-planned and plausible future, science fiction can be powerful stuff, as well as the key to an author's redemption. -- Adrienne Martini

A nine-year-old sneaks out of his home in the dead of night, climbs onto his trusty bike, and pedals miles to a secluded location, where he joins with other children in a clandestine class that may or may not be run by extraterrestrials but through which he traverses time and space, watching worlds collide and setting foot on Mars.... Sounds like something out of an old Ray Bradbury story, yet Whitley Strieber swears that it happened. To him. In 1954. In San Antonio.

To those familiar with Strieber's other autobiographical books -- Communion, Transformation, and Breakthrough, in which he wrote of strange visitations by unearthly beings that have haunted him much of his life -- this extraordinary claim won't come as much of a surprise. But newcomers to this Strieber series, of which I am one, might be amazed to hear of some alien academy being conducted in the shadow of Fort Sam Houston. And that's pretty much what Strieber describes here. He delves into his boyhood, struggling to recover and make sense of his vague memories of midnight journeys to the Olmos Basin in the heart of the Alamo City. In The Secret School by Whitley Strieber (HarperCollins, $24), fragments he has pieced together have convinced him that he spent several childhood summers as part of a secret school run by a mysterious nun-like figure who exposed him to visions of Earth's ancient past and clues to its future and who may have opened within him an ability to travel through time.

All this would be one whopping pailful of paranormality to choke down if it weren't for Strieber's open acknowledgment that this is some pretty weird stuff, and he isn't sure himself how much of it he can claim to be real. All he is willing to say for certain is that these memories exist and they weigh on him. They are like visions, and like visions, he believes they have meaning, not just for him personally, but for humankind. The sincere conviction with which Strieber sets forth his interpretations of these incredible experiences and their role in the future of this planet may strike that aching chord in the "I want to believe" crowd. And what if you're not among that crowd? Well, there's still a crackerjack story in here of a boy who takes an astonishing journey into the beating heart of the cosmos. Either way, you'll find a tale that inspires you to reconsider the possibilities of the mind. -- Robert Faires

Caroline Preston's wry debut novel combines two of my favorite subjects: Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and graduate school.

Well, graduate school isn't exactly a favorite subject, but it happens to be my life right now, and Preston's protagonist -- American Civilization doctoral candidate Josie Trask -- comments on that life as accurately as any real-life graduate student could. Set in New England during the summer immediately following Mrs. Onassis' death, Jackie by Josie (Scribner, $22 hard) chronicles Josie's life as a research assistant for celebrity biographer Fiona Jones. Struggling to jump-start a languishing dissertation while juggling her three-year-old son Henry and her handsome, accomplished, and perhaps unfaithful husband Peter, Josie agrees to work as Jones' assistant despite her qualms about the unauthorized status of the Jackie biography. Plus, with her husband in California teaching summer classes at Berkeley, Josie hopes this assignment will give them some much-needed income and herself some time to work on her dissertation. Complicating matters is Josie and Peter's stylish single friend and fellow graduate student Monica, who also has a teaching assignment in California. So Josie waves good-bye to her husband and Monica as they begin their trek westward, and she and Henry return to "the Trask homestead" to live rent-free with her mother and Mrs. Trask's new boarder Fred, a rehabilitated con. As Josie becomes more enmeshed in the life of one of the world's most fascinating women, she begins to see connections between Jackie's marriage to JFK and her own relationship with Peter. For Josie, the summer research assistantship becomes more than a job; it gives her insight into her relationships and reminds her of the person she was before she became a wife and mother.

Jackie by Josie clocks in at over three hundred pages, but it's so funny and knowing that I was dying for a sequel before I finished the first three chapters. Discovered by author Elinor Lipman (Isabel's Bed), Caroline Preston combines material gleaned from archival research at the Kennedy Library with those tantalizing Jackie rumors that have been circulating for years. Each chapter begins with a quote attributed to or about Jackie, subtly setting the tone for the fiction to follow. Preston's smart writing and even smarter characters make Josie's story as appealing as Jackie O's. -- Alison Macor

Mark O'Donnell may be this country's best-kept humor secret. With the release of his well-paced initial novel, Getting Over Homer (Knopf, $21 hard), one can only hope that secret spreads.

Is love generous or selfish? Lovelorn New Yorker Blue Monahan isn't sure, but he knows well enough "the one pain you volunteer for." He's an overly big-hearted fool, always trying too hard. Yet he presses on, in spite of his own weakness for the kind of person who, when told "I miss you," replies, "It's the past you miss. Accept it."

Youngest of 12 midwestern siblings ("We were the Kennedys without the money"), Blue's first-person musings ("I was a pariah waiting to happen") bring to mind the inner thoughts of some of contemporary fiction's most clever characters -- J.D. Salinger's "Glass family" siblings, or John Irving's unforgettable Owen Meany. But where Blue differs is with his fatal flaw: persistent affection misdirected at romantic interests who inevitably refuse it. Amidst a swirl of comic confusion and near despair is songwriter Blue's musical version of Homer's epic work The Odyssey, which Blue has penned for the stage as Odyssey!

The book is crammed with one-liners ("Psychiatry is a vain variation on a pedicure") and witty observations about everything from Catholic upbringing ("every bedroom did have a crucifix... I think Mom was just observing the technical requirements, like with fire extinguishers.") to large families ("It's great to know a whole crowd of people who know exactly what you're talking about when you bring up Mom").

O'Donnell launched his humor writings at the Harvard Lampoon and on Saturday Night Live, then began crafting seamless comedy gems -- essays, plays, and short fiction -- examples of which have appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, Esquire, and The New York Times. A sort of "greatest hits" collection, Elementary Education, appeared in 1985 and was followed a couple of years ago by a second anthology, Vertigo Park. His "Laws of Cartoon Motion" (from Elementary Education) has become something of an Internet classic, posted in countless humor archives. One of these cartoon-character physics laws states that "a body passing through solid matter will leave a perforation conforming to its perimeter."

With Homer, O'Donnell has created voices that ring true and a hopeful protagonist whose relentless sentimentality produces his own self-deprecating odyssey. We sympathize with him, but also end up screaming for him to figure out his own screw-ups, such as guzzling Absolut en route to an AA meeting. Getting Over Homer is a "coming of middle age" first novel about alternative relationships that finds its author warming up for what might be a long and fruitful performance in comic fiction. -- Stuart Wade

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