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A Gift of Fiction
By David Pitt

Here are some more novel Christmas gifts....

Mysteries and Thrillers

The Babes in the Wood (Doubleday, hardcover) is a new Chief Inspector Wexford novel from Ruth Rendell. This time out, Wexford tackles a tricky case: two teenaged girls are missing, and so is the young woman who'd been hired to stay with them while their parents were on vacation. As usual, it's a smart, well-constructed mystery that keeps us nailed to our chairs until the very end.

Speaking of smart and well-constructed, here's Thief of Souls (Delacorte, hardcover), the new cross-time thriller from Ann Benson. Like her previous novels, The Plague Tales and The Burning Road, this one tells two stories: two women, living six centuries apart, each trying to stop a serial killer, a particularly reprehensible maniac who preys on children. Benson tells the stories in alternating chapters, written in different narrative styles; each story is completely gripping, and the parallel structure allows the author to make subtle comparisons between past and present. Highly enjoyable.

In No One to Trust (Bantam, hardcover), Iris Johansen tells the story of a woman who's on the run from a serial killer -- and the only man she can trust is, in his own way, potentially just as dangerous. Johansen, who several years ago made the leap from historical romances to contemporary thrillers, just keeps getting better.

The Art of Deception (Hyperion, hardcover) is the new Daphne Matthews / Lou Boldt mystery from Ridley Pearson. Here, the Seattle cops are working separate cases: Matthews, the forensic psychologist, is investigating the death of a woman found under a bridge; Boldt, the detective, is trying to solve a series of strange disappearances. But then, of course, the two cases start to become one ... Well crafted, spooky, moving -- a typical Pearson yarn, in other words.

Also well crafted, spooky and moving is Jonathan Kellerman's The Murder Book (Ballantine, hardcover), an Alex Delaware novel. This one takes the psychologist-sleuth deep into his friend's past; when someone sends Alex a 'murder book' (the term used to describe the police file on a homicide case) relating to one of Milo Sturgis's first cases, Alex and his long-time partner team up to solve the old case, and find out who out there is still interested in it.

Prey (HarperCollins, hardcover), by techno-wizard Michael Crichton, finds a small group of scientists cooped up in a Nevada research lab, trying to stop a seemingly-alive swarm of nanoparticles before it grows too big for anyone to handle. I reviewed the novel elsewhere on this website, but it's worth repeating myself here: the book is perhaps his most far-out, but it is also entirely believable, a shining example of Crichton's narrative skills.

Similarly, Stephen King's From a Buick 8 (Scribner, hardcover) is an unlikely story made thoroughly believable by the storyteller's skill. In Pennsylvania, a state police troop has a secret hidden in a shed behind the station house: a 1954 Buick Roadmaster that turned up, driverless, at a gas station nearly a quarter-century ago. The car's just been sitting there, in the shed, all these years ... but now it may be getting restless. Utterly compelling, a gift from the master to his legion of fans.

Reversible Errors (HarperCollins, hardcover) is the latest legal thriller from Scott Turow, whose first novel was 1987's stunning Presumed Innocent. This one's the tale of a court-appointed attorney who learns one of his clients, a death-row inmate, may be an innocent man; as he investigates, he uncovers a conspiracy that, he fears, may prevent him from getting to the truth. It's a very good novel, one of Turow's better offerings -- it's no Presumed Innocent, but I doubt he'll ever reach that level of excellence again.

For fans of Anne Rice's vampire novels, there's The Vampire Chronicles Collection, Volume 1 (Ballantine, paperback). Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, and The Queen of the Damned, the first three, and the best three, of the vampire novels are here under one roof. They remind us just how good Rice was, before fame, or deadlines, or boredom turned her from an artist into just another writer who cranks out tedious bestsellers.

Also very good is Nine (Simon & Schuster, hardcover), by Jan Burke. When people on the FBI's Most Wanted list started turning up dead, an L.A. detective takes on a vigilante group which appears to be at least as vicious as its victims. Gritty, suspenseful, shocking: Burke has broken new ground, here.

James Patterson doesn't break any new ground in Four Blind Mice (Little, Brown, hardcover), his latest Alex Cross adventure, but who cares? This new novel, in which Cross assists in the defense of an Army sergeant accused of a triple homicide, is as energetic and satisfying as its predecessors (except Violets Are Blue, which was surprisingly weak).

In The Eighth Day (Ballantine, hardcover), John Case tells the story of a part-time private eye who's hired by a reclusive billionaire to find out who's trying to destroy his reputation. Soon, our hero discovers he's merely a pawn in a devilishly convoluted plan concocted by a madman. The novel lacks the fantasy elements of Case's previous books (The Genesis Code, The First Horseman, The Syndrome), and that's a good thing: this solid, realistic, well-plotted thriller is his best one yet.

Red Rabbit (Putnam, hardcover) is the latest Jack Ryan adventure from Tom Clancy -- well, actually, it's an early Jack Ryan adventure, set way back in the at the beginning of the 1980s, when Jack, a historian by trade, has just taken a new job in England, as an analyst for the CIA. On his first day, Jack sees a document that immediately thrusts him into the world he'll soon become familiar with: the world of international intrigue. It's nice to skip back in time and see Jack when he was young and naive, to see him learning to use the tools he'll need a couple of decades down the road. An excellent addition to the Ryan canon.

Other Stuff

Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club and other eccentrically brilliant novels, continues his hot streak with Lullaby (Doubleday, hardcover), a weird and wonderful tale featuring a newspaper reporting doing a story on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome; a realtor who specializes in haunted houses; the realtor's assistant, a devout Wiccan; the assistant's boyfriend, a clever insurance fraudster; and a book of poems with strange, evil powers. Peculiar, amazing stuff.

Speaking of eccentrically brilliant, here's The Cheese Monkeys (Perennial, paperback), the debut novel by graphic designer Chip Kidd. Kidd, whose book-jacket designs are among the most original and memorable in recent years (he designed the cover for Jurassic Park, among others), gives us a delightfully comic and inventive novel, set in the 1950s, about an art student whose 'Introduction to Graphic Design' course is about to change his life ... The book is hugely entertaining, a true one-of-a-kind. (See, if you'd like more ranting about this fine novel, my review of the hardcover edition, elsewhere on this website.)

Another one-of-a-kind is Extravagance (Broadway, hardcover), a different kind of cross-time adventure by Gary Krist. Unlike Ann Benson, who tells two stories set half a millennium apart, Krist is telling a single story that flows between London in the 1690s and New York, three hundred years later. The first two chapters find young William Merrick coming to the big city (London), where he hopes to make his mark in the stocks trade. He meets an attractive young woman. Chapter three continues Merrick's story, as he settles in, makes a few friends, tries to pursue a relationship with the young woman -- only now the city is New York, and the story is told in a more contemporary narrative style. This time-travelling novel, with a single story set in two entirely different places and times, is -- well, it's just splendid. I loved it.

In The Navigator of New York (Knopf, hardcover), Wayne Johnston chronicles the adventures of Devlin, a young orphan whose father deserted his family to join the explorer, Robert Peary, on one of his North Pole expeditions. Years later, Devlin finds himself the protegi of Frederick Cook, Peary's competitor in the race to the Pole; he also falls in love with a woman who has a strange connection with his long-dead mother. This is one of those lyrical, poetic novels that succeeds, or fails, entirely on the strength of its author's storytelling abilities. This one succeeds spectacularly.

Frances Mayes has written a handful of books about Tuscany, her adopted home. Now, in her first novel, Swan (Broadway, hardcover), she tells the story of an archaeologist working in Italy who returns home to Swan, a small town in Georgia -- Mayes was born in Georgia -- when her mother's body is found, inexplicably exhumed, after nearly twenty years. A gentle, moving novel, not entirely unexpected if you're familiar with Mayes's gentle, moving nonfiction.

Last but not least, here, for lovers of romance fiction, are two novels by top names. Answered Prayers (Delacorte, hardcover) is Danielle Steel's portrait of a proud, happy wife and mother who's forced, when her stepfather dies suddenly, to confront the secrets she's kept buried deep in her past. This is Steel's fifty-sixth novel, and yet it doesn't seem tired, doesn't feel like a retread of her other stuff. For her fans, it's a perfect gift.

Nights in Rodanthe (Warner, hardcover) is only Nicholas Sparks's sixth novel -- he wrote The Notebook, Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, all of which have been snapped up by Hollywood -- but he's already showing signs of exhaustion. This is a nice story about a woman who's abandoned by her husband, moves to a small North Carolina town to look after a friend's inn, and meets an attractive guest who helps her heal her broken heart -- nice, as I say, but nothing new. Sparks has said almost all of this before, and, while the novel is elegantly written, it seems a little old hat. Still, for die-hard fans, it should make a pleasant gift.

Editor's Note: This is one of a series of articles on books, on a variety of subjects, as holiday gifts. Find more suggestions in our Columns.
Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.