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PAPERBACKS: You've seen the movies, now read classic novels

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Two classic novels that were turned into classic movies have been reissued. First up: True Grit (Overlook Press, 268 pages, $9), Arkansas novelist Charles Portis's 1968 story of a young girl who, seeking revenge for the murder of her father, hires a U.S. marshal to help her track down the killer.

The key to the book's success is its narrator, Mattie Ross, an adult now but a mere child when her father was gunned down by a coward and a thief. U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn is the best-known of the novel's characters, thanks mostly to the 1969 John Wayne movie, but in the book it's Mattie who drives the story, and it's through her eyes that we see her world.

There have been two movies made out of the book (the Coen brothers recently did one), but a lot of people aren't aware there was a novel. That's unfortunate, because it's splendid.

The 1973 thriller The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Berkley, 328 pages, $16), by New York's John Godey, is a taut, compelling story about four men who hijack a New York City subway train, demanding $1 million in exchange for the lives of the passengers.

Godey uses a shifting point of view -- chapters alternate among the hijackers, the transit cops, the mayor and the passengers -- to create an atmosphere of hectic action and suspense.

The big mystery is how the hijackers intend to get away -- they're underground, remember -- and Godey milks it for all it's worth, keeping us guessing until nearly the end. The terrific 1974 movie is almost a literal rendition of the story; they basically just filmed the book, a cleverly constructed, economically told story that demands the attention of anyone who enjoys a good thriller.

-- -- --

Nexus (Angry Robot, 460 pages, $17), by Seattle's Ramez Naam, hasn't been made into a movie, but a story this exciting won't stay on the page very long.

Rogue foreign scientists are using a new nanotechnology, Nexus, to turn people into killers. Kade Lane, an expert in Nexus, is recruited by the American government to infiltrate the enemy, but soon he's forced to question not only his ideas of good and evil, but his loyalty to his own country.

Naam takes some risks here. A lot of the action and dialogue take place inside the characters' minds (there's a thrilling action scene in which a character makes changes to the Nexus program inside his own head), and the story, which has deliberate echoes of Richard Condon's classic The Manchurian Candidate, requires us to pay close attention if we don't want to get lost.

It's Naam's first novel, but he writes it so well, you'd think he was a science-fiction veteran.

-- -- --

The Games (Del Rey, 406 pages, $12), by Indiana's Ted Kosmatka, is also a debut novel. In the near future, the most popular Olympic Games event is the gladiator competition, in which genetically engineered combatants fight to the death. Silas Williams, the geneticist who runs the American gladiator program, is upset that the latest warrior was designed by a computer, and not by Williams himself. But that's nothing compared to his anxiety when nobody can figure out exactly what this new creature is -- or how dangerous it can be.

Kosmatka takes an intriguing idea -- genetically engineered killing machines as Olympic competitors -- and runs with it, so fast that we wind up flipping the pages frantically, trying to keep up with him.

But we still get a good look at the characters, especially one fellow whose relationship with the computer that designed the gladiator is, um, perhaps a bit abnormally close. Great stuff.

Halifax writer David Pitt's column runs on the first weekend of the month.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2013 J9

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