Express Reviews 

Hot new books for your delectation.

The Boys Are Back in Town
By Christopher Golden
Bantam, $12

Will James attends his ten-year high-school reunion and finds that time has wrought more changes than just receding hairlines and pot bellies -- his memories have been altered as well. While reconnecting with classmates, he learns that an old friend was killed in a hit-and-run during senior year, a shocking discovery considering that Will remembers receiving an e-mail from the guy the previous week. As the reunion weekend progresses, his memories continue to shift, each change causing a disturbing flux in the present. He soon traces these ripples in time back to his teenage experiments with magic. Calling on the dark arts one more time, Will returns to his senior year to try to set things right. Perhaps Golden has toiled too long with his Buffy the Vampire Slayer novelizations, but this book plays out like John Hughes directing Carrie. We get a cardboard cast of high-school characters -- the jock, the geek, the slut, the sensitive artist -- and cookie-cutter dialogue that does little more than fill space in a story that gets more ludicrous as it unfolds. Golden explores some compelling themes -- the link between experience and identity, the myriad ways in which past choices shape the present -- but he focuses on these morals at the expense of building a compelling story. -- Michael Ansaldo

Join Me!
By Danny Wallace
Plume, $13

Journalist and layabout Wallace put an ad in a London newspaper urging, "JOIN ME," and asking readers to send him their passport photos. Oddly, people did so, without the slightest notion of what it was they were joining. The trouble was, Wallace didn't know either, and found himself acquiring hundreds of "joinees" while scrambling for a purpose, constantly protesting -- to new members and the reporters who began contacting him from all over the world -- "It's not a cult, it's a collective," while only halfway believing it himself. Wallace is a hilarious and likable storyteller, willing to let himself appear barking mad for the sake of a good yarn, and his true story has a great supporting cast: the "President of the Galactic Government" who claims to own the moon and serves as a mentor to the budding leader, the friend who treats the whole mess as a friendly pub wager, the overly enthusiastic joinee who threatens to form a schism in the ranks, the girlfriend who is sick of Wallace's "boy projects" and will leave him if she finds out about Join Me at all. As Wallace describes his aimless, ludicrous journey, it's impossible to resist wanting to join him. -- Sam Hurwitt

The Working Poor
By David K. Shipler
Knopf, $25

"Poverty is a peculiar, insidious thing," Shipler writes. The people he interviewed for this book work hard, but hardly get ahead. They land jobs, but then must buy cars to get there. When those cars break down, they skip payments on phone bills to pay for repairs. Late payments send credit ratings down. And so on. Although this sounds like a worst-case scenario, Shipler heard it over and again across America. Among those newly emerged from public assistance, most find that work puts them barely ahead of where they were before. Take Debra Hall, who was forced into the labor market after Congress passed term limits on welfare in 1996. A career-training course in shipping and receiving taught her how to operate a forklift, yet the only job she could find was on a factory assembly line from 3:30 to 11:30 a.m. at $7 an hour; her bank account often has a balance of less than $10. One of this book's great strengths is that Shipler is unafraid to take on the Horatio Alger myth. Everywhere he looks, ironies -- rather than inspiring truths -- flourish. Work simply doesn't work. True, some people make bad decisions, such as the New Hampshire couple who spent their tax refund on tattoos. But the majority of Shipler's subjects flounder in a Sisyphean bind, nearly reaching solvency only to have small events roll them back down the hill. -- John Freeman

The Rapture Exposed
By Barbara R. Rossing
Westview, $24

It is an odd fact that while Christians are taught to live in constant expectation of the Second Coming, the Bible itself provides only scattered and contradictory testimony about that event. Fundamentalist Christians have filled the void with an elaborate doctrine of the end times known as "dispensationalism," largely based on the Book of Revelation. According to these teachings, the Second Coming will begin with the snatching of the faithful up to heaven (the Rapture), followed by the rise of the Antichrist, seven years of tribulation, and the final battle of Armageddon. But Rossing, a Lutheran minister and professor of theology, argues that this Hollywood-ready apocalypse is sheer bunk -- a cherry-picked selection of Bible passages held together by excessive literalism and wild-eyed conjecture. Rossing particularly abhors the militant slant of Rapture theology and provides hair-raising examples of the ways it influences American foreign policy. But the book is less successful in its meandering latter chapters, where Rossing advances her own sunny, "earth-affirming" reading of Revelations informed by the conviction that "the whole Bible is the story of God's mystical river ... bringing life and healing to all that it touches." One suspects that the first-born sons of Egypt might feel differently. -- Chris Ulbrich

The Crazed
by Ha Jin
Vintage International, $13.95

The title of this novel could refer to Professor Yang, whose sudden stroke reduces him from distinguished literary scholar to delusional old man. But narrator Jian Wan, Yang's student at Shanning University and now his caretaker, discovers in his teacher something more than madness. Though Yang's ravings -- a mix of poetry, communist propaganda, and memories from his life -- at first seem random, they coalesce into a wrenching lament on the futility of the scholarly life in a country where boot-licking counts for more than genius. Jin masterfully renders Jian's changing view of these ravings, from initial pity for his demented teacher to the realization that he himself might also be leading an ultimately empty existence. Jian's struggle with this realization, and with the question of what constitutes a meaningful life, gains greater urgency as riots brew in Tiananmen Square. The novel has weak points; Jian's relationship with his fiancée Meimei, for instance, lacks emotional heft. But the author deserves high praise for his union of the specific and the universal. The Crazed shines in its portrayals of the particular insanity of China in 1989, and of Jian's quest -- one we can appreciate even in our comparative safety -- to live a life of which he can be proud. -- Anna North

War Haiku
By Geoff Edwards, Wilmer McLean, and Jonathan Hughes
Waiver, $10

You've read comic books about war (Maus). You've read poetry about war (The Iliad and the works of Wilfred Owen). You've heard jokes about war (Q. How many Vietnam veterans does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A. You wouldn't know, man, you weren't there!) and revelations about war (it's hell). But never before have all these disparate realms been tied together in a single package. Deployed to Kuwait and then Iraq last spring, infantryman Edwards wrote postcards home, which were adapted and transformed into this brief but biting graphic novel by journalist McLean and artist Hughes. Edwards is a contemplative soldier who describes Operation Iraqi Freedom with all the grim perceptiveness ("One man's bloodthirsty killer is another man's best friend"), irony ("These Iraqis are good little capitalists"), frank terror ("I've never been more scared"), and gallows humor ("We had four scud alerts today. But things are calm. All these capitulations are putting us in a good mood") of someone who was -- well, who was there. What does a soldier really see in Iraq? Blood, sand, and self-important embedded journalists. No pat answers here, no knee-jerking. In a quiet way, it's explosive. -- Anneli Rufus

The Donkey Show
By Michael Patrick Welch
Equator, $13.95

Narrator Patrick flees the segregated and air-conditioned confines of Florida for New Orleans, where he's delighted to get the chance to finally interact with black people. For some reason, they're less than delighted themselves. One of his high-school writing students dubs him White Bitch -- a nickname Patrick embraces. It's not just interracial acceptance he seeks, though maybe he doesn't realize it at first: Love, a sense of belonging, and professional fulfillment (sort of) all come to call by the time the book ends. Welch, who seems to have put more of himself into Patrick than is possible to safely extract without severe bodily harm, isn't overly ambitious with the scope of the book, and that's commendable: The Donkey Show draws a neat triangle whose points consist of FLA, NO, and Costa Rica -- the narrator's past, present, and (ideal) future -- but the novel mostly follows a year, from one Mardi Gras to the next, in the life of a guy who is stumbling toward happiness, or something like it. The question is, do we want to stumble too? The writing fluctuates between often choppy stream-of-consciousness episodes and narrative, with deft dialogue interspersed. Certain scenes work well -- a Lundi Gras spent on Ecstasy is particularly exhilarating -- while others fall flat. But that's life: Shit happens, and then there's a parade. -- Nora Sohnen


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