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Showing promise 

Dark books are flawed but worthwhile

The graphic novel represents a genre that has been slowly making its way to the foreground of contemporary fiction and is no longer being limited to the sweaty fingers of comic book conventioneers.

Marjane Satrapi is winning praise across the board for her ability to tell complex and engaging stories with simple black and white illustrations and bubbled dialogue, which carry the story along like a stationary film. She has gained significant recognition with her graphic memoirs, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (both are currently being produced into a single animated feature to be released in 2007).

Satrapi's Chicken with Plums takes place in 1958 Tehran, with political unrest prior to the Iran-Iraq war set as the backdrop. Satrapi interweaves cultural folk tales and historical political facts as she tells the story of her great uncle Nasser Ali Khan, and she does this with a tremendous ability to keep the story flowing without disrupting it to catch the reader up on Iranian history.

Nasser Ali Khan, a highly adored tar musician (a tar is a stringed instrument belonging to the lute family), is desperately searching for a replacement for his favorite tar, which has suffered irreparable damage. Unable to find a comparable substitute, he decides that he no longer wants to live. Because he doesn't have it in him to commit outright suicide, he waits for death to come to him, giving himself eight days to live. And in eight days he does just that -- die. The story then flashes back to the first day after he made the decision to die, and the meat of the tale begins.

The narrative is primarily organized in a day-to-day format. The tension of the story is not necessarily created by if or when he's going to die. As each day passes, the reader discovers why he has made the decision to die and if death is really what he wants. The secrets and important events in Nasser Ali Khan's life are revealed by the usage of dreams, flashbacks and flash forwards that show the lives that he cannot be apart from. The story takes its readers through decisions these characters have made that have consequently defined their lives as well as the lives of those around them, and it leaves the reader with the ultimate question: What makes life worth living?

My only problem with Chicken With Plums is that there's no real buildup for the suspense. Satrapi tells the reader from the beginning that Nasser Ali Khan is going to die, so that's no real surprise. His reasons for wanting to die are pretty clear three quarters of the way through the book. It feels as though Satrapi just drags him down a gravel road for a few more miles, just for good measure.

Overall, I did enjoy the book, and it was a satisfying move from the traditional forms of storytelling. The illustrations were beautifully haunting, and the story was dark with the appropriate amount of humor to lighten things up a bit. Chicken With Plums is worth picking up if you're a fan of the Persepolis stories or graphic novels in general.

Often, short story collections are propellants for an author cooking up their first major work. The short story is a category of fiction that is often overlooked and overshadowed by the almighty novel. But we as readers shouldn't be limited to such biases. Most novelists start out writing more short stories than they know what to do with. No matter what you're reading, you can find great stories and great writing if you look in the right places. Voodoo Heart is hardly an exception.

Voodoo Heart is Scott Snyder's debut collection that packs a strong but unusual punch. Snyder's strength as a writer is the ability to create intrinsically mysterious and real characters. This is a collection of seven short stories that have no apparent or outright connection. However, there are certain elements that lightly thread the stories together -- like a song on the radio or a blimp in the sky.

These stories are intriguing because each is unique in its own right. One story takes place in 1918 as a man obsessively chases a blimp across the country in his Model T, searching for his lost love Clair. In another, a Wall Street trader finds himself guarding a dumpster with only a spear gun at the ready, while another character finds himself spying on a minimum security prison located not far from the backyard of his new home. Each character takes a tenebrous path, but the questions "how" and "why" are what keep the pages turning.

Snyder's writing is dark, whimsical and heartfelt. He spends a tremendous amount of time developing the main characters and showing the reader that his characters are complex, authentic and relatable -- even the ones who find themselves lost inside their own minds. Snyder pushes his characters to cross a blurry line that varies from morality to madness.

Particular stories in the collection, however, leave the reader without a sense of completion. One may spend 20 to 30 pages investing in these characters, yet as the final page is turned, the story either drops off without a resolution or ends on the same exact depressing note on which it began. Perhaps one could chalk it up to realism, but after reading a few stories, I admittedly started to feel a little down.

Despite the often drab tone that occasionally lurks inside some of these stories, Snyder does have an ability to write an engaging story with a combination of excellent prose and authentic characterizations that are difficult to find. Snyder is currently working on his first novel for The Dial press -- it'll be a book I will definitely be keeping my eye out for.

Chicken With Plums by Marjane Satrapi

Pantheon, $16.95, 96 pages

Voodoo Heart by Scott Snyder

The Dial Press, $24.00, 288 pages

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