"The Assassins Gallery"by David L. Robbins (Bantam Dell, $25)
What if President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1945 fatal cerebral hemorrhage were caused by an assassin's poison? This intriguing premise propels local author David Robbins' latest novel, in which an aging history professor and special operations trainer, Scotsman Mikhal Lammeck, desperately tries to outwit and capture Judith, a ruthless, gorgeous Persian assassin.
Robbins adds a big dose of myth and middle-aged male sex fantasy to his usual brew of history, military trivia and suspense, but the concoction never quite gels. After opening with a series of cold-blooded murders, Robbins takes a laborious detour, introducing us to a group of unimportant characters and giving lessons on history and weapons trivia that do little to serve the story.
When Robbins finally homes in on Lammeck, his sidekick "Dag" Nabbit and their pursuit of the licentious, lethal Judith, the plot rocks along at a more satisfying pace. Unlike the characters in his previous novel, "Liberation Road," however, who naturally inhabited their moment in history, the characters in "The Assassins Gallery" sound and act like stowaways from the 21st century. Judith in particular seems better suited to play the villain in an R-rated video game than in a World War II novel inspired by real events. One wonders if her Middle Eastern heritage was calculated to play on the current climate of mistrust and fear.
Robbins' fluid prose and in-depth research on the impact of assassination on the arc of history make for thought-provoking reading. Unfortunately, the suspense story misses the mark. Mary Mullins
"World, Other World"by Simon Just (Farrell Tallman Publishing, $13.95)
In his collection of playful and uncomplicated short stories, Richmond author Simon Just confronts the oft-times arbitrary divisions between fiction and science fiction by designating an equal portion of his book to both genres.
The first half, titled "World," contains seven simple stories set in the recognizable context of everyday reality office work, moving into a house, etc. Yet the characters inevitably rub shoulders with the magical and abnormal. Ghosts, conspiracy theorists, invisibility, and so forth are the guiding forces in these stories.
The second half of the book, "Other World," which is printed upside down and begins from the back cover, takes the opposite course. These seven stories take the more traditional science-fiction approach, making use of such subjects as space travel, parallel dimensions and alien species to address the more fundamental aspects of the human experience.
From a conceptual standpoint, its unorthodox presentation and gamesome engagement of the two genres make "World, Other World" an amusing and, in its better moments, interesting read. Unfortunately, the stories are altogether blithe and too brief to be rewarding. Just is too preoccupied with explaining his clever settings to attempt character development, and often the stories end just when they are about to get interesting. Even the best of them, "Any Normal Time" and "What If We Lose Saturday?" barely skim the surface of their potential and feel more like rough beginnings than they do complete works in their own right. Hutch Hill
"The Sitting Sisters"Martha Randolph Carr (Cumberland House, $22.95)
"The Sitting Sisters" centers on Taliaferro "Tollie" Elaine Ervin, a cynical and loveless photographer; Douglas, her butch and self-confident older sister; Carter, their younger and coiffed but abused housewife sister; and Wallace, the fretful runt of the litter who's never left home.
We meet Tollie straddling the bookends of her parents' lives. Her first ferry ride home since the death of her mother leads her to tend to her dying father. Fueled by an irritated ambivalence about her quirky family, Tollie is ultimately led to rewrite her childhood, spark a romance with an interim Episcopalian reverend, sustain several bodily injuries and solve some of the "dark" secrets of her family's mysterious past.
Richmonder Martha Carr's fictional island of Kelsal, S.C., serves as a miniature version of any other segregated town in the South, where the lines of separation between black and white are more like blurry shades of gray. Carr, a descendant of Thomas Jefferson, and her fictional depictions of interracial love affairs have received attention as far flung as the National Enquirer.
While Tollie's myriad self-discoveries are universal and compassionate, they err on the side of being overstated and predictable. Carr's treatment of AIDS and race relations is brave, and her characters are full of philosophical, offbeat and witty things to say, but until the very end, the prose often feels disjointed and out of sync. The last two chapters are so fluid, interesting and alive, one wishes they marked the beginning rather than the end. Valley Haggard
"Archie and Amélie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age"by Donna M. Lucey (Harmony Books, $25.95)
If Armstrong "Archie" Chanler and Amélie Rives were alive today, their comings and goings would be all over People magazine. Chanler was the great-great-grandson of New York City real estate titan John Jacob Astor; Rives was the great-great-granddaughter of a founding father of Charlottesville, Dr. Thomas Walker.
Charlottesville author Donna M. Lucey's well-researched material from letters and newspaper articles offers a very human glimpse into the late-19th-century world of the wealthy. She successfully strings together correspondence and history so that urgency permeates each page.
Like many a glamorous couple (think Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald), Chanler and Rives held court from Paris to London to Newport, R.I., counting Oscar Wilde and Henry James among their friends. Lucey portrays Rives as an intriguing modern woman a writer who uses feminine wiles to get published, is addicted to morphine and driven to spells of depression, forever tied to her beloved Castle Hill family estate in Albemarle County. Chanler's tragedy is that he was both in love with and overshadowed by his wife's beauty and success.
Lucey details this meticulously and sympathetically, with such material as Chanler's own writings and letters between family members concerned about his financial support of Rives and her second husband (a Russian prince, no less). With patents on everything from a self-threading sewing machine to a roadway for horse-drawn carriages, Chanler's madcap ambitions ultimately went up in smoke, his family committing him to the Bloomingdale Asylum for the rich. Unlike a celebrity exposé, Lucey's book goes beyond sensationalism, delivering a finely detailed portrayal of two intertwined lives. Shannon O'Neill