Three Novels 

Local fall releases cover classic cars, Shanghai and Richmond’s own “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

click to enlarge Paula Champa - NICK BALLON
  • Nick Ballon
  • Paula Champa

The average American’s attention span is now shorter than what’s required to finish this sentence. As a result, we learn and, therefore, know very little in any intimate way. Outside of school and work, I challenge you to think of any private mental nonphysical exercise you engage in continuously for more than a single hour.

But there’s a way to unlearn the soul-flattening, self-imposed tortures of a frenetic life and add depth to your existence. So let’s take a look at some recently released first novels by authors with Richmond connections.

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“Tomorrow City”
by Kirk Kjeldsen
Signal 8 Press, $15.95

Kjeldsen takes us to China. The protagonist is Brendan, a young man trying in vain to go straight after spending time in prison. In New York, he struggles with business and a love interest that are tanking for any number of reasons, so, naturally, he decides to join his former gang to pull an armored truck job. OK, you have to go with it a bit, but the action scenes are quite good and reminiscent of gritty movies such as “The Town.”

Immediately regretting his crimes, and with his spoils from the robbery, Brendan disappears to China. The story picks up 12 years later. The book’s title refers to a section in Shanghai that is, Kjeldsen writes, “a sham, little more than a hastily-built group of generic-looking buildings surrounding a small and forgettable park.” And yet, this is where Brendan is able to flee his inescapable past and start over. By the time his former gang catches up with him, he has a new wife and child and a nice business.

Kjeldsen is an accomplished member of the faculty in the cinema department at VCU’s School of the Arts. He obviously knows a thing or two about bridging the visual and the page, and pacing a story in a way that manipulates a modern reader’s response. He also doesn’t let his writing get in the way. Shanghai itself is what most interests me and that’s where the best writing is in this novel.

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“The Afterlife of Emerson Tang”
by Paula Champa
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26

Champa earned her badge of fiction in Virginia Commonwealth University’s master’s degree in fine arts program in 1997. Her meticulously designed novel is about the dream of a wealthy, dying man to restore a classic automobile — only to realize the engine isn’t the original. He enlists his research assistant to become both archivist of his collections and ultimately his emotional well being. She goes searching for the lost engine. She watches him die and, in so doing, truly becomes his disciple.

I’ve never encountered a novel that so painstakingly expends its capital on the deterioration of a man who finally is reduced to a singular urge — not just to live, but to have lived a complete life. And the book’s insights about art and design are stunning at times. Champa suggests that if design inhabits our lives at all, then we have a responsibility to become custodians to our own potential for encountering beauty. But we fail, after all, because life is sloppy, and this, too, is part of the design.

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“Forbidden Fruit”
by Lashawn Hewlett-Wilson
Bittersweet Publications, $9.99

This self-published novel from a lifetime Richmond resident was, according to Hewlett-Wilson, inspired by a dream — and it might have been a wet one. You need to wade through a bit of relationship drama to find the juicy scenes, which are graphic, erotic and not purely hetero, breaking from traditional romance novels. So, if you’re after quick soapy filthiness — and who isn’t? — go for it. Given the crazy success of “Fifty Shades of Grey” (now the No. 1 requested novel among inmates at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba), who can blame Hewlett-Wilson for trying her hand? Like Kjeldsen’s work, this book doesn’t try to make the lives of its characters into deeply meaningful symbols. It’s more interested in presenting people as flawed, filled with lust, hidden agendas, treachery and other less-than-enviable characteristics.


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