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Dear John

By Nicholas Sparks Published by Grand Central Publishing Available at Asia Books, Bt595

Published on November 26, 2007

Just in case the reader has missed the three banners on the cover proclaiming American author Nicholas Sparks the "#1 New York Times bestselling author", the publisher has helpfully devoted the first five pages of this book to review snippets of his previous novels. The words "romance", "emotion", "true love" and "spiritual" occur over and over again and no doubt will be recycled to describe "Dear John", a love story set against the backdrop of America's "War on Terror".

The tale is told through the eyes of John Tyree, who we join in 2006 on a hillside overlooking the ranch of the woman he once loved, wondering at what might have been as he watches her from a distance for what he knows will be the last time.

How did he get there? It's a long ... well, 325-page, story.

John begins with his time growing up in the North Carolina city of Wilmington with a single-parent father who is endlessly patient but emotionally distant. Our hero describes how he became an angry rebel as a teenager, spending his days surfing and his nights propping up the bar. By 20 though, he's disgusted with his dissipated life and makes a snap decision to join the army.

Three years later, back on leave from uneventful tours of duty in Kosovo, he meets Savannah, a university student whose inquisitive, kind nature has him hooked straight away. The feeling is mutual and that same night they're swapping life stories by a campfire on the beach. Hers is idyllic, a childhood with a loving Christian family on a ranch in the mountains followed by a university course in special education to fulfill her dream of a career helping kids with special needs.

By the end of the week John's leave is over and he returns to Kosovo, where their love is fed in the intervening months before the early discharge he requests by the regular, passionate letters they exchange. But 9/11 arrives just months before they can be reunited, and John makes the choice to put his colleagues first, signing up for another two years in the army.

In his acknowledgements at the beginning of the book, the author has this to say about his ambition for his tale: "It's my hope that the characters reflect the honour and integrity of those who serve in the military." But in the few pages dealing cursorily with John's time in Iraq the reader never gets a believable picture of a soldier who's made a heroic sacrifice to stand shoulder to shoulder with his fellow grunts. And the further you get into the book, the more Spark's statement sounds like empty patriotic sentiment.

The characters seem like ciphers - he the all-American surfer rebel turned protector of the homeland, she the churchgoing innocent at home on the range. The author has used ready-to-hand ingredients to cook up a version of the American Dream - wide-open spaces, the building of the homestead and a simple faith in God - but the results are stale and unappetising.

As a straight love story, the book fares little better. John's deepest thoughts never get beyond well-worn saws like "love meant that you care for another person's happiness more than your own".

Integrity and honour there is plenty of, but at the expense of less worthy virtues like fully rounded characters and the complexity of their relationships.


His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass

By Philip Pullman

Published by Random House

Available at Asia Books, Bt275


It will be interesting to see what the film adaptation - out next month - makes of the first instalment of Philip Pullman's grown-up fantasy trilogy for children. Drawing on big ideas from religion and modern physics, this is certainly no "Harry Potter".

Noble-born Lyra Bellacqua is living out a feral childhood among the scholars of Jordan College in an Oxford of a parallel universe. Hiding in a cupboard one day she and her daemon familiar overhear talk of a discovery in the arctic North, a particle called Dust that streams from a vast city in the sky.

Her destiny seems mysteriously bound up with Dust, and when her best friend disappears her quest to find him takes her North into a world of witch clans, armoured bears and sadistic religious authorities.

Nothing is sentimentalised or softened up for children in this book. Lyra is caught in an adult world of powerful and convincing adult characters and the threat of death is always palpable.

The dramatic tension was enough to sweep this reader into another world, then back in this one, to keep him thinking for a week or two about the rich brew of good and evil, multi-universes and Eastern philosophy encountered there. For readers in Thai, a translation has recently hit the bookshops.

Roll those opening credits.

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