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Vivid details dont help weak mystery

The elements are in place, but the plot doesn't quite thicken
by: Courtesy of Atria Books, <b>‘Twenty Questions’</b> by Alison Clement
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<i>Atria Books</i>
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<b>Alison Clement</b>
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<b>When:</b> 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 18<br />
<b>Where:</b> Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651<br />

It's frustrating when a book doesn't live up to its potential.

Such is the case with 'Twenty Questions,' the second novel by Corvallis resident Alison Clement. The synopsis on the book jacket is inviting. A review in Publishers Weekly referred to 'intriguing plot elements' and a 'compelling protagonist.'

And the plot is an interesting one.

One night after she leaves her job as a cafeteria worker at the local elementary school, June Duvall experiences car trouble. The father of one of her students offers her a ride, which she declines. The next day the same man is arrested in the death of Vernay Hanks, the mother of one of June's students.

Understandably, June feels as if she has dodged a bullet. She begins to believe that somehow she's responsible for Vernay's death and, subsequently, the orphaning of Vernay's 10-year-old daughter, Cindy. So, by means of a few white lies, she inserts herself into the life of the child and the uncle who is looking after her.

Clement writes, 'Everything had a beginning, even murder, and every one of those beginnings must start out seemingly logical and innocent, or anyway, not too bad, certainly not unthinkable.'

In this case, the novel's strong beginning is logical, but what follows is not. While professing great concern for Cindy's well-being, June stacks up one falsehood after another. Far from being 'compelling,' June comes across as a woman who could use multiple sessions with a therapist. And in a bizarre twist, June learns of a connection between the dead woman and June's husband, Bill.

All of this makes the first third of the novel a bit, well, creepy. The reader shrinks away from the confused June and roots instead for Cindy, the most well-drawn of Clement's characters. The author does a fine job of portraying an energetic, lively child caught between her natural vivacity and overwhelming grief and loneliness. When Cindy disappears later in the book, we want to be transported to wherever she is. Instead, Clement ties us to June, who by this time has lost most of our sympathy.

Other characters come across as either one-dimensional, like the self-involved Bill, or barely sketched, like Cindy's dark-haired and handsome uncle, Harlan. There is the sense that given a tougher editor, these two characters and June could have evolved into much more interesting people.

Clement redeems herself in several places, with an ability to focus on small, intimate moments and gestures. At one point, June tries to comfort a new friend: 'June put her hand on Mona's back. There is a place on the back, the same place we pat when we are holding babies, and June put her hand there and pressed.'

Maternal scenes like these, along with characterizations of Cindy and several classmates, are where the author's talent comes to the forefront. Portions of the book where June interacts with the troubled children banished to work with her in the school cafeteria provide the most compelling and believable moments.

With this in mind, Clement, an elementary school librarian and the author of a previous novel, 'Pretty Is as Pretty Does,' may want to think about changing her focus to children's literature.

Also reading this week

Readers who enjoyed the misadventures of Edgar Donahoe in 'God Clobbers Us All' will be pleased to hear that he's baaaack. Poe Ballantine's latest novel, 'Decline of the Lawrence Welk Empire' sets Donahoe on an island in the Caribbean along with a sinister native and a looming hurricane. Ballantine will read at 7:30 tonight at Annie Bloom's Books (7834 S.W. Capitol Highway, 503-246-0053).

A gang of four young men in London is the focus of the debut by Gautam Malkani. 'Londonstani' is a comic novel where Muslim meets Sikh meets Hindu in a unique look at multiculturalism. Malkani will read at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651).

If you wonder what Raymond Carver's early career and life was like, pick up a copy of 'What It Used to Be Like,' by his first wife of 25 years, Maryann Carver. She'll read from her memoir at 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 24, at Powell's City of Books.

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