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By Jonathan Lowe

NOV 2012

by Jonathan Lowe

THE ENDGAME is a meticulously researched account of the Iraq war and its aftermath, taken from all angles: political, social, and military. At 800 pages in print or 32 hours on audio, it's also an in-depth chronicle of every battle, both major and on the back streets, as well as in the minds of those who participated. If you're wanting to understand the hows and whys of the war from 2003 until today, this is the book. Narrated by Rob Shapiro, it reveals what we didn't know and should have, the blunders, the insanity, and the motives and thoughts of those on the ground, including interviews with principals from all sides.

Luckily for listeners, Shapiro's pleasant voice and crisp diction make the experience no feat of endurance.

Author Philip K. Dick was an imaginative seer who enjoyed playing with alternate realities and perceptions. In his SF novel THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH he explores the subjective nature of reality. In this future age the Earth is hot, but escape to the colonies is not a pleasant alternative, although you could be drafted to go there against your will, in which case you may want to hire someone to help you fool the required psych exam (including, for one enterprising resister, the acquisition of epilepsy). As in another of Dick's stories, made into the Tom Cruise movie "Minority Report," pre-cogs exist who can see the future, or at least the possible derivations. However, here most are not cops, but "pre-fash" cogs, meaning they can anticipate what will become fashionable. Enter Palmer Eldritch, who has returned from deep space with a new designer drug that he claims can open one's eyes to the ultimate mysteries, if not immortality itself. Except then we learn that Eldritch is dead. Or is he? Everything is not spelled out here, even in Dick's typically muscular prose, all of which gives the reader a disconcerting yet oddly satisfying sense of the miraculous. Remember the director's cut ending of "Blade Runner," (based on another Dick story), where Harrison Ford's eyes seem to glow in the dark for a second, causing speculation among viewers as to whether he too was an artificial human? Sometimes it's good to leave a few question marks lying around. This new recording of The Three Stigmata is by actor and voiceover talent Tom Weiner, whose delivery embraces the ethereal nature of the text while evincing yet another sign (or rather stigmata) that Dick still lives in the imaginations of readers.

Next, here's a couple oldie-goldies. First or early novels are sometimes the best which writers produce in their careers because it takes a dazzler to break into the market. After all, you have no audience yet, and so publishers are taking a huge risk with you. Meaning they must be truly impressed. Such was the case with Brian Haig's "Secret Sanction," and even John Grisham's "The Firm." In DERAILED James Siegel's breakthrough novel, an ad man named Charles Schine takes a ride with destiny on his daily train into New York from Long Island. Destiny takes the form of a beguiler named Lucinda, a fellow commuter who lures him into a dangerous affair. The title refers to Schine's life, which is diverted into blackmail and murder, all the result of his cheating heart. How does this happen? He is robbed and Lucinda is raped on their first night together, and the man who did it wants much more. What makes this story unusual is the way in which it is told. An English teacher at Attica State Prison asks his incarcerated students to write about why they're in prison, and he is given Schine's story. You begin to see why Schine is there, after that part of the story emerges, revealing that a hit man was hired by Schine, and that hit man was killed instead. There's more, but I can't reveal what here. Suffice it to say that affairs of the heart can be dangerous in more ways than one, and that self deception is the most dangerous of all. Actor Gregory Harrison does a superb job reading this engrossing thriller, nailing Schine's inner fears and ultimate emergence from cowardice, as well as the antagonist's chilling playfulness with his victim. Never over the top, Harrison unerringly interprets the tone as the story unfolds, and is equally at ease with female characters, and also with occasional Hispanic accents and street lingo. Twists are many, and pacing is tight, so you will not be bored here, despite two easy outs taken by the plot at critical moments--one involving a gun's safety, and the other a bizarre unrelated explosion. My theory as to why these novels seem to work better than many police dramas or procedurals? Victims stories are more interesting, as the possibility that we may be victims ourselves is somewhat greater than that we may be cops. And, of course, a new viewpoint is always better than the same old thing.

While sampling dozens of possibilities, you sometimes stumble upon a gem. This being my first hearing of author Rick Riordan, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a literate and original writer possessing depth, wit, instinct, pacing, and a knack for capturing character. In THE DEVIL WENT DOWN TO AUSTIN Riordan displays the kind of gifts one wishes more well known writers approached, while the only thing he lacks are clichés. And who needs them? Like James Lee Burke or Les Standiford, Riordan creates his own clichés, and uses them only once.

Here is a mystery about a teacher who is rooming with his brother for the summer when the brother's business partner is murdered. The business is computer software, and Tres Navarre has his hands full sorting out the killer while watching out for his sibling, who is in a wheelchair. There is a murky lake holding secrets from the past, and the images of being trapped amid the old sunken trees there below are drawn so well that the effect is lasting and real. The aftermath is just as profound.

We lay like that, the fan at the top of the dome pinwheeling shadows across the ceiling. I thought about dark green water through the branches of frozen pecan trees. She kissed my neck. "Stop, okay?"



That's the best thing about this novel--the thoughtful atmosphere it exudes. . . the local color, the original observations, and the succinct descriptions, all told with aplomb by narrator Tom Stechschulte, who is just as believable as two other veteran mystery readers, Ron McLarty and Richard Ferrone. One never gets the impression that Stechschulte is doing anything but telling his own first-person story, and his acting talent is equally at ease with a gruff curmudgeon, a haughty matriarch, and a snide boss. It's not easy to write a novel like this, or to tell it, which makes the naturalness of it all a joy to hear. Totally believable, and not to be missed.

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