a cup of light

by Nicole Mones

(Delacorte Press, 296 pages, $24.95)

Portland novelist Nicole Mones' second novel starts on a heist-movie premise: Lia Frank, a thirtysomething expert on Chinese porcelain, is sent to Beijing to appraise and authenticate a breathtaking collection of antique pots offered for sale under mysterious circumstances. While Lia meticulously catalogs the objects, subplots introduce the shady world of China's ah chans, or porcelain smugglers, and their patrons.

Mones' plot jumps cinematically from scene to scene, lingering just long enough to acquaint us with each character's all-consuming motive. There's the mogul, driven to accumulate wealth by the memories of his famine-stricken youth; the Hong Kong collector with a gambler's heart; the smuggler lusting for renown and bourgeois prosperity. As a cerebral woman who is insecure about her attractiveness to men, Lia is a bundle of traits we've seen together before.

Gestural characterization would be fine if a terse adventure plot picked up the slack, but the novel jumps genre tracks in midstream. Early, we're coached to care whether or not the porcelain is a legal sale, but when Lia falls in love with a rugged expat these concerns are abandoned, leaving curious readers high and dry.

Lia's job is to distinguish authentic wares (Quing masterpieces, e.g.) from world-class forgeries, and she excels at this because she's a memory artist who tends an elaborate interior "memory palace." Sadly, Mones often trashes this intriguing device by reducing her heroine's mnemonism to clairvoyance. Attempts to raise the concepts of "real" and "fake" to metaphorical status also flounder.

Mones' clear prose style keeps the pages turning, but like a Tinseltown blockbuster, the novel skimps on depth and withholds the thrilling plot twists that can keep us glued to the screen in spite of ourselves. Katherine Sharpe

a common pornography
by Kevin Sampsell
(Future Tense Books, 59 pages, $8.95)

"Dad gave me a vibrator once. Sort of oval-shaped. He gave it to me so I could wrap it up and give it to Mom for a birthday present." Here--halfway through Kevin Sampsell's collection of vignettes--you know you're deep inside the sticky Heart of Darkness that is family life at its most stridently strange-but-true.

The 26 pieces here are tiny windows into the childhood and youth of a speaker who may or may not be Sampsell himself (though he's aided by Melody Owen's frightening collages and Mike Daily's bizarre footnotes). Sex is omnipresent--the kind to be found in "dirty magazines," the clumsy flesh-and-blood kind, and a powerfully ominous mixed type, as in the haunting vignette of nearly averted violence that begins, "Darren and I wanted to feel the skin of the cashier at Mayfair."

Though it's barely chapbook-sized, the volume is a powder-keg dense with emotions and unexplored plots. Indeed, some readers will wish that Sampsell had routed his vignettes through the writer's workshop a few more times and worked up a bigger, meatier final product that tells all instead of hints. Other readers will admire Sampsell's ability to be evocative on a tight economy of words. To them, presenting childhood and adolescence in a fragmented, oblique way will seem profoundly appropriate, since we remember our own pasts in bits and pieces, not in narrative wholes.

Both kinds of reader will notice that Sampsell has a gift for relating secret inner worlds. His trick is to do this in a way that gives his readers voyeuristic pleasure while also forcing us to reflect on the sum of our own remembered fragments. Katherine Sharpe