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Scorched Earth, Losing Gemma, The Rail

Redemption for anyone involved would seem impossible. But "Scorched Earth" surprises. Robbins is a former attorney whose keen eye for detail, coupled with a narrative style that's both poetic and searingly precise, makes the story jump to life. Although his story is set in a place oft-visited by authors, the small Southern town, Robbins resurrects no stereotypes to populate Good Hope. Every character is both solid and surprising, from the church's conflicted pastor who raises money for Waddell's defense to the dead infant's grandmother, who upholds the deacons in their tragic decision.

In creating a tale that is so appalling yet believable, Robbins undoubtedly drew on his experiences as a native of Richmond, a city known for its dynamic, and sometimes crippling, racial debates. "We've fiddled over race while Richmond's vitality burned," he wrote in a recent essay for Style. The same happens in Good Hope, literally, albeit on a smaller scale. What arises from the smoldering ashes of Victory Baptist Church? It's not clear until the very end of "Scorched Earth." In the last few pages, the plot takes so many rapid turns the reader may feel like a water skier tied to a careening motorboat. The conclusion still satisfies, although the reader may be loath to leave Good Hope for good.

— Melissa Scott Sinclair

Lost & Found

If you are looking for a book in which the main character's ego and pride cost her her best friend and nearly her life, then "Losing Gemma" (Riverhead Books, $13.) by Katy Gardner is for you. The story is set in the jungles of India during the '80s. The high-spirited Esther and the reluctant Gemma are best friends from childhood. They leave the comforts of British civilization and go on a search for adventure. Their destination becomes a spiritual haunt where both Esther and Gemma will come face to face with both their pasts and their destinies.

"Losing Gemma" is full of action and beautifully descriptive images of the culture and scenery of India. It is not hard to smell the heat and stench of the crowded streets and tattered hotel rooms. Gardner does a wonderful job of putting the reader there, in the middle of the action.

While the narrative fluctuates between first and third person in a somewhat futile attempt to give a glimpse into each character's point of view, the overbearing egotism and selfishness of Esther completely overshadow what perhaps should have been Gemma's story. Her transition in the end from a stepping stool to a powerful, clever "spiritual guide" is both fascinating and chilling. Gardner's work isn't a didactic literary piece, but an admirable attempt to show the importance of the journey and not the destination.

— Rebekah Pierce

Head's Up

Local author Howard Owen will read from, discuss and sign his new novel "The Rail" on Thursday, June 20 at 7 p.m. in the Gellman Room of the Richmond Public Library. There will be books available for purchase and a small reception afterward. For more information call (804) 646-4514.

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