Howard Owen's seventh novel, "Turn Signal" (Permanent Press, $26), chronicles the struggles of Jack Stone, an ex high-school football star turned family man, as he abandons his career as a truck driver in order to pursue his dream of becoming a novelist.
After picking up a ghostly hitchhiker who mysteriously leaves Stone the beginnings of a manuscript, Stone develops a deep, almost monomaniacal belief that he should finish the hitchhiker's book as if it were his own. Soon, Stone's personal life begins to deteriorate, as he repeatedly neglects his responsibilities to his family in order to feed his obsession with publishing the novel.
While it seems at times that "Turn Signal" yearns to be about something larger, in the end it is the story of a man's midlife crisis spiraling so far out of control as to brush shoulders with the psychotic. Owen's firm command of the story allows him to thrust his plot forward with fervor, providing a natural momentum that whips the tension up into a frenzy by its climax. A somewhat leaden, unsubtle prose permeates too much of the book, however, and with an ending that is as absurd as it is nail-biting, the novel finishes unconvincingly, shutting the door on any and all hopes that a deeper relevance might emerge from its pages. Hutch Hill
You can't wrap your mind around the causes and mechanics of the recent tsunami without understanding plate tectonics. In "Upheaval From the Abyss: Ocean Floor Mapping and the Earth Science Revolution" (Rutgers University Press, $29.95), writer David Lawrence, who teaches in the science departments at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and Virginia State University, zigzags from the desolation of the Arctic to the shifting decks of battleships and research vessels and into the halls of scientific academia fraught with political maneuvering. He unravels how the theory of plate tectonics came to be. The reader will come away understanding the subject, with a deep appreciation for the complexity of the evolution of scientific theory.
Lawrence's ambitious book requires diligent concentration because it jumps around in time and subject matter to detail the struggles of researchers in widely diverse fields whose work coalesced into theory about the earth's surface. In addition, readers who did not study plate tectonics in school may yearn for more visual illustrations of the theories discussed. "Upheaval From the Abyss" demands much, but it rewards the persevering with a bounty of knowledge about the earth and how we come to understand it. Mary Mullins
In her newest book of prose poetry, "Into Stillness" (Station Hill Press/Barrytown, $16.95), local writer/dancer Cheryl Pallant practices the intention to "allow the greater wisdom of the body to step forward." Her prose poems can be labeled "language poetry" i.e., no subject matter but where other such poets are satisfied to do impressive syntactical back-flips, sidestepping the barrier of personal narrative, Pallant rigorously melds rhythmic language to movement as meditation. "Into Stillness" delivers a tapestry of wordplay plus structure: the body emerges from hiding this oh marvelous temple embracing lift gaze gauze opening wounds to unwind in remind unbody embody inspire empire of bone and flesh, scabs and burs
Pallant, who is an adjunct professor at the University of Richmond, embodies her poems in the workplace, too. In "Writing From the Body" her students respond in ink to movement exercises still vibrating within, or move to visual phrases, such as "walking along a sparkling stream."
"How distant and how numb we can be in our own bodies," she muses. "Survivors of atrocities numb themselves, only to suffer decades later," she says, a central theme of her book. Saturnine for a moment, she laughs, quoting James Joyce: "Duffy lived a short distance from his body."
Pallant is a former Style Weekly dance critic who sits on the board of the James River Writers. She will be performing at New York's famous Poetry Project venue, St. Mark's Church in the Bowery, May 11. "Uncommon Grammar Cloth" is her previous collection. Susan Hankla
Reading "Inside" by I.C. Smith (Nelson Current, $26.99) feels just like a long conversation with Mr. Smith, a former police officer who spent more than 25 years with the FBI. His firsthand experiences include encounters with Chinese spies, Cuban defectors, Russian double agents and a host of ladies who had a certain rapport with Bill Clinton. Smith's accounts of little-known incidents, such as an Arkansas loner who committed suicide after the FBI arrested him, though he had committed no crime, are much more compelling than his recounting of political entanglements such as Travelgate. But do not expect a titillating, gossipy tell-all. Despite his frequent, candid criticisms of the FBI's handling of certain cases, Smith remains loyal, and his book, judging by the frequent omissions of names and details, has been thoroughly vetted by the FBI and CIA. The book is, rather, an absorbing account of recent history by one who truly was on the inside.
I.C. Smith is working on two new books; one on "three remarkable individuals" who battled the Ku Klux Klan over school desegregation in Monroe, La., in the 1960s, and one about the FBI and CIA investigation of Chinese spy Larry Wu-Tai Chin. Melissa Scott Sinclair