The Terminal Man, Michael Chrichton, Harper Collins, ISBN 978-0061782671, 331 pgs, $7.99

Harry Benson has a medical condition. He gets seizures, uncontrollable, violent ones. He is also under police guard for attacking two people. There does not appear to be a solution. At least not until Dr. Roger McPherson, head of the Neuropsychiatric Research Unit at University Hospital in Los Angeles comes up with a procedure called Stage 3.

The Terminal Man

The procedure involves sticking electrodes into Benson’s brain and then using a computer to send monitored, soothing pulses to the pleasure centers. This should, alleviate the seizures and the attacks. the only problem is that the pulses are, indeed pleasurable and Benson soon learns how to control them. Not only can he control them but he increases their frequency, and, essentially, can use them to his advantage. But, Benson is a homicidal maniac and what he considers to be his advantage is surely going to be a disadvantage to everyone else in the city. He can be stopped. At least they think he can.

For a book that came out ten years ago this is amazingly fresh. The research that Crichton uses is still cutting edge today and the effects he details could still happen. I don’t know if this speaks more to Crichton’s ability to see that far ahead, to the field’s slowness in getting there, or to some ethical consideration that may have stepped in a stopped things from getting this far along. Whatever the case the book is as relevant now as it was then.

Simply put,if you like Crichton then you’ll like this book. His ability to take a simple idea and then project it forward to dire consequences is showcased perfectly here. The tight plotting and driven characterization is also present leaving you with a book that is fascinating and hard to put down. A must read for all Crichton fans and not a bad book if you’ve not read any Crichton up to this point. Interesting, twisted, driven and more entertaining than you would imagine. Highly recommended.

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Brains: a Zombie Memoir, Robin Becker, Eos, ISBN 978-0-06197405-2, 183 pgs., $13.99.

Zombies as portrayed in the movie Night of the...

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Zombies seem to be the new vampires.  I mean that it seems like these shambling undead have taken the spotlight in the supernatural fiction genre away from the bloodsuckers.  Whether or not it will last remains to be seen.  Zombies seem, to me at least, a hard sell character wise.  But maybe Robin Becker has found a solution.  Her idea is that in any typical Zombie outbreak there are bound to be at least a few zombies who retain an ability to think.  Her choice for the book is one Jack Barnes, college professor.  So, not only do we get a zombie that retains some ability to think (this is assuming you believe academics retain that ability to begin with) as well as some ability to analyze and adapt to the change.  So, we have Jack Barnes, who is now zombie Barnes, trying to do three things: survive, find other zombie thinkers, and get to the guy who created all the zombie havoc in the first place, Howard Stein.  The problem is that Stein is in an entirely different part of the country than Barnes and, what with his deteriorating body, a cross-country trip is going to be problematic.  And that’s the basic idea of the book–following zombie Barnes as he tries to make his way to Howard Stein, the zombie God.

The basic problem with zombies is that they are dead things.  This means they decay.  And, depending on what sort of climate you are in, this decay can be rather rapid.  The more important point is that they don’t breath and you need breath to make sounds or to talk.  Becker gets around at least one of these issues by positing that there will be special zombies who retain some human skills. So, there is a nurse who remembers how to stitch (which comes in real handy when things start falling off) and a zombie who can run and another who retains a fast reaction time, and they all end up with Barnes, heading toward Chicago.

This book is all about balance.  Balance between the inherent problems of zombies and story; balance between the stuffiness of the main character and the need to have an intelligent main character who can also chronicle events; balance between a need for a quest and a need to trivialize alternatives to a cross-country trip.  For the most part the uniqueness of the idea keeps discrepancies to the side. I mean this may be the first zombie novel told from the perspective of the zombies.

Ultimately, though, this may simply be a one-off.  Zombies just aren’t very sympathetic as characters.  They eat babies, they chew through peoples faces, they fall apart at the most inopportune time, and they tend to be single-minded about who’s got the brains.  I liked that book overall. It’s short which works to its advantage, it’s fairly fast paced, and it’s novel as a novel.  Kudos to Becker for coming up with the idea and managing to actually put it into print.

Night of Demons, Tony Richardson, EOS, ISBN 978-0-06-147467-5, $7.99, 390 pgs.

Pentagram with a circle around it

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This is the second book in what will likely become known as the Raine’s Landing series. The town of Raine’s Landing is a peculiar place just a couple of hours outside of Boston and set deep in the woods of New England. Created by witches from Salem, the town is protected from outsiders by some heavy-duty spells that generally keep people out and quickly convince those who manage to get in that they don’t want to stay. This continues to keep secret the fact that many of the town’s members continue to practice witchcraft. Ross Devries has lived in Raine’s Landing his entire life. Pretty much everyone in town has. He’s an ex-cop who lost his wife and child and who sometimes still manages to get involved in police work because he has a nose for supernatural trouble, even though he doesn’t have any supernatural ability.  His partner is Harley riding Cassandra Mallory, who has suffered similar losses and never goes anywhere without her arsenal. This time they will have their hands full as a serial killer, Cornelius Hanlon, also known as the Shadow Man, manages to get into town and almost immediately hook up with some nasty sorcery, which only makes him more powerful and more dangerous.  When Cornelius begins to wield his new power people begin to die with regularity and it soon becomes a question of who is controlling who; Cornelius or the thing he has become a part of.  And then, Lieutenant Detective Lauren Brennan from Boston arrives, which only makes things even more complicated.

Tony Richards has created an interesting environment for his characters to inhabit.  The closed community of Raine’s Landing, inhabited by witches and warlocks as well as the normal people who are born there, is basically a place where anything can happen.  And yet there are fairly rigid rules, as one would expect from any insular and secret society.  So, to have this community invaded by not only a psychopath serial killer but the singularly minded cop who has been hunting him, is problematic in any number of different ways and Richards takes full advantage of these complications as well as the more human complications internal to his characters brought about by loss, desire, loneliness, self-pity and need.  There’s also plenty of corruption, family secret keeping, insanity, and more than a few twists to make things even more interesting.

I found Night of Demons to be an interesting read.  Richards’ style is engaging and he’s managed to create a very interesting universe.  He’s also not playing all of his cards in the first couple of books so there seems to be plenty more stories to be told here.  While the events portrayed are certainly fantastic in nature, Richards tempers them by utilizing ‘normal’ characters as his main story telling vehicles.  It would certainly have been easy to make the protagonist one of the magic users but this way Richards is able to use his main characters as counterpoint to the action, establishing a base of normality against which the fantastic community can be measured.  This is certainly a well thought out device and it works well in this situation.  I liked Night of Demons, found the book to be fast paced and enjoyable, and I look forward to seeing more from Tony Richards.

Shadow of Power by Steve Martini, (A Paul Madriani Novel), Harper, ISBN 978-0-06-123089-9, $7.99 Paperback, April 2009

For those who do not know, Paul Madriani is defense attorney who has been around the block a few times. This means that the cases he gets are typically atypical. This time he’s handed the case of a young man who has been charged with the murder of a writer best known for his craving of headlines and publicity. The book in question, portends to present evidence of a secret language within the US Constitution, one that supports slavery and presents the whole document in an entirely different light. There’s also supposed to be a letter, now missing, written by Thomas Jefferson that supports and provides even more evidence towards this conspiracy. The young man charged with the murder has the motive, the connections and the shady background to make him not only a prime suspect but the only one. But Madriani thinks things are just a little too pat and when a Supreme Court Justice disappears under mysterious circumstances, Madriani begins to think that the two events are more than related and begins to dig. As things heat up he finds himself closer and closer to what could be some devastating answers about the shadow of power.  All he has to do is survive the hornet’s nest he’s stirred up.

Steve Martini writes an honest thriller. No gimmicks, no phony twists, no cheap escapes, or shock disclosures. Sure there are surprises, there have to be in this kind of novel, but they all make sense and fit the story in what turns out to be a very well crafted plot. As usual, Martini writes with flair and fast pace and his protagonist is not only smart but fun to be around.  The action moves along and is definitely worth following.

I liked this book–read it in two sittings which is unusual for me these days. I found the writing to be crisp, the dialogue to be genuine and interesting and the story to be first-rate. Martini creates a mystery plot with just the right amount of suspense and twist. Definitely recommended whether you’re a current fan or coming to the series as a new reader.