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 March 2009 Book Reviews:



Passing Strange:
A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line

by Martha A. Sandweiss

reviewed by Scott Pearson




Passing Strange is the perfect title for this true story of love and race in the nineteenth century. Clarence King—a well-known white geologist with wealthy friends and a prominent family—kept a secret common law wife for thirteen years. Not only was Ada Copeland, his wife and the mother of his children, black, King told her that he was black, a light-skinned black man named “James Todd” who worked as a Pullman porter. This improbable tale has the feel of fiction, and Sandweiss brings it to life with the artful language of a novel. Even when her meticulous research uncovered little documentary evidence of the Todds’ hidden lives, she richly crafts the environment in which they lived, evoking the struggles that Ada must have faced given her unusual life: a black woman with light-skinned children in a middle-class neighborhood, her husband gone most of the time while, unbeknownst to her, he traveled the world as Clarence King. Although Sandweiss sometimes imagines what the Todds experienced, she couches such observations in appropriate language: “maybe King worried” or “presumably [Ada] had quit her job when she married.” It’s a sympathetic tale of a couple who couldn’t have had the life they did if King had been honest about his race, which he confessed on his deathbed. Highly recommended.





An American in Victorian Cambridge: Charles Astor Bristed's “Five Years in an English University”

dited by Christopher Stray

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale


This book has an admittedly small potential readership outside of academics interested in the world of 1840s British college life. But if your favorite part of Brideshead Revisited is Charles and Sebastian’s days at Oxford, this may be the book for you, as well. In the 1840s, Charles Astor Bristed, grandson of millionaire John Jacob Astor, attended Cambridge University. Much like the My Year of Doing ____ titles of today, it was common then for Americans and Britons to visit each other’s countries and write books exploring aspects of the other’s cultures, which sold briskly. Bristed’s Five Years in an English University (he was sick for two of them, which is why he took more than the usual three) went through multiple printings. Now it is has been reissued with explanatory material, footnotes, and an index. Five Years remains a classic portrait of university life at the time. This is still the world where each student had servants to clean and run errands for him, and where people genuinely cared who came in first in the Latin composition contests. Indeed, the only course of studies was one that combined Classics and Mathematics. (That was enough to prepare any English gentleman for life running the empire.) Though a memoir, the book is filled with the telling details and wry observations that you would hope to find in a well-researched historical novel. Those who bring their interest to this work will not be disappointed. There are reading parties, rowing contests, and (this will either make or break your decision) a several-page transcription of Bristed and a friend painstakingly translating several lines of Greek for their tutor.  Pass the port, old chap.









Blood and Ice

by Robert Masello

reviewed by Jen Baker




Framed by the ill-fated 1850s voyage of the sloop Coventry and its crew’s secret, hidden on the ocean floor, this modern-day adventure steals the reader’s breath with fast-paced action and startling imagery. You’d think a research station at the South Pole would be a fairly sedate place, but when photojournalist Michael Wilde makes the hazardous sea and air journey to check out an anomaly seen on a satellite reconnaissance photo, the pace picks up for everyone at Point Adelie. On his first polar dive, Michael comes face to face with history in one of the most shocking scenes I have ever read. I won’t spoil the surprise, but suffice it to say you won’t be able to stop reading from that point on, so pack a moveable feast, light the fire, and plan to stay a few hours! Masello, author of Bestiary, once again brings a mystery from the past into today’s world and forces a small community to handle the consequences. Polar scientists at the base, accustomed to dealing with foul weather and fouler close quarters, now grapple with unimaginable ethical choices as they break the ice hiding a nasty secret for over a century. This story combines the starkly gorgeous descriptions of Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal with the thrills and chills of a great Clive Cussler and the occasional hints of Robert Service (to elicit a grimace or two). Don’t miss this adventure!




Living With Ghosts

by Kari Sperring

reviewed by Neal Swain




Gracielis de Varnaq (prostitute and spy, among other things) has made a decision against his better judgment: he’s agreed to help discover why–and how--an unquestionably dead old friend haunts the city of Merafi.
The wealthy nobleman Valdarrien died in a duel several years earlier, but his ghost has just returned. Investigating on the behalf of Valdarrien’s best friend and brother-in-law, Gracielis soon realizes that Valdarrien’s return is not happenstance, but the herald of serious danger. Trouble has woken beneath the capital, and now only a few people, bound together by a shared past, can save it— at great cost. 
Kari Sperring’s writing is seamless and strong. She shows a knack for depicting not just the powerful emotions but also the caution and second-guessing that underlie many human interactions. It is not entirely to the book’s credit when this caution is applied to the reader’s exploration of Merafi, a world filled with bold cultures and mythologies that often seem pushed aside for the sake of pacing, to the detriment of both. However, this debut novel still provides all the elements of an enjoyable read, and those who like fantasy with dark edges and decadent underpinnings might want to keep an eye out for this and Sperring’s future books.



In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

by Daniyal Mueenuddin

reviewed by Paige Byerly




I realized while perusing this collection of short stories that I’d already read three of them in The New Yorker over the past year: Mueenuddin’s debut work is receiving considerable attention, and deservedly so. The stories are set in modern Pakistan, and the characters in them all feature as a common link a connection to an aging patrician landowner who represents the feudal ways of old society. Beyond that often-tenuous association, however, the characters vary widly, showcasing a fascinating glimpse of a country and a people in transition. The protagonists include a spoiled and promiscuous society woman, an ambitious politician, a devoted butler, a scheming servant girl, and an American-educated only son, and all are brilliantly constructed, fully-fleshed people, and are treated with the same impartial and open-minded respect by the author. Women tend to fare badly in these stories, as Mueenuddin seems determined to show the true nature of the patriarchal society he portrays, but it is not the typical “woman as victim” fare that one might expect. These women are given choices and make them, for better or worse; they have goals and ambition, and are not simply buffeted along by the whims of the men around them. Also refreshing is the lack of a strong religious overtone: Pakistan is a country often defined by Islam, but Mueenuddin outstrips this expectation, showcasing the country that exists beyond its religious association. It’s an amazing portrayal of a society, rendered even more impressive by the beauty of the prose and the depth of insight that Mueenuddin achieves. A remarkable debut from a strong new voice.






by Eric Kraft

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale




I hope I don’t jinx any future MacArthur Foundation fellowships coming his way when I say that Eric Kraft is a genius. His life’s work, the dozen volumes of The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy continue with this volume. The central conceit of the series is that Peter Leroy is writing his memoirs of growing up in 1950s Long Island as novels specifically so that he can be free to modify the truth as necessary. (He always takes us aside to reveal the truth about what really happened as well.) Kraft’s books are filled with all the humor and social observation—frequently peppered with just a touch of raciness—that that time and place could possibly entail. 

Flying is a single-volume trilogy containing the previously published Taking Off and On the Wing along with the brand-new Flying Home. (I assume it was economics that led the publishers to do this rather than simply releasing the third volume by itself as hardcover. I applaud anything that will get Kraft’s books into the hands of new readers.) These three books tell the story of how Peter built his own flying machine (think winged-motorcycle) and flew across the country to take part in a special summer school for would-be (teen-aged) spies and weapons builders. Except he didn’t really fly. The aerocycle didn’t work. That everyone thinks it did, and the attendant fame his trip engendered, is the story that Peter is telling/correcting in these volumes. In reality he took to the road, where his adventures—as always—ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime. Actually, for Kraft the ridiculous is the sublime. His works never fail to entertain at the highest possible level, and with three books for the price of one, here there is no excuse not to plunge in.





Dante’s Numbers

by David Hewson

reviewed by Jen Baker




After last year’s Nic Costa mystery, The Garden of Evil, readers may have wondered if his career was over.  Thankfully, Nic is on the job again, albeit not one of his liking – guarding artifacts sent to San Francisco with a movie cast and setafter a disastrous film opening of Roberto Tonti’s Inferno in Rome. The chilling murder of the movie’s main star, a random shooting of an armed mounted soldier, and the theft of Dante’s death mask set the stage for a labyrinthine puzzler only Hewson could create. The ensuing turf war between Falcone’s Roman police and the senior Caribinieri officer, Gianluca Quattrocchi, who eventually wins official control of the case (hence Falcone’s team guards the artifacts), carries forward to the City by the Bay where the plot thickens and the local police step into the fray. Enter also one self-confident female police captain to bring an unprecedented blush to Falcone’s cheeks and one gorgeous movie star inexplicably attracted to Costa; déjà-vu references to Hitchcock’s Vertigo; a floundering dot-com company; missing twin security guards; a poisoned apple and one ancient movie director hell-bent for destruction. All nine rings of hell in evidence – only the few escape. Smart, entertaining, and superbly creative, this is Hewson at his best.






by Christopher Moore

reviewed by A.B. Mead




There is always at least a little sex and humor in each of Shakespeare’s plays. Here Moore takes the dourest of the Bard’s works, King Lear, and gives it a bawdy spin. Working around the periphery of the original plot (Lear is dividing up his kingdom among his three daughters and isn’t pleased by the lack of appreciation shown by one of them, thus launching political strife and parental angst), Moore shows us the comic, seamy, steamy underside of the events. Narrated by Lear’s court jester, Pocket, we travel from haunted battlements (where, as Pocket laments, “There’s always a bloody ghost”) to miladies’ various bedchambers (and dining hall floors and up against the walls—if there’s a shag to be had, some two are having it), to woods populated by three witches and a boiling cauldron. Wrong play, you say? Never mind. On with the rapid-fire one-liners, puns, and general craziness. It is not necessary to be familiar with Lear or any other Shakespeare play in order to enjoy this. It would help, however, to have eyes of asbestos. The anglo-saxonisms fly thick and furious throughout Fool, and anyone not in the mood for characters who are—and language that is—“in the mood” won’t find even the footnotes safe. Using the technique perfected by Terry Pratchett, Moore applies them to obfuscate as often as to clarify. I may require therapy due to his note on Weetabix.





Pretty Monsters

by Kelly Link

reviewed by Paige Byerly




Kelly Link is the current darling of the slipstream movement, a genre that strives to marry post-modern literary sensibilities with surreal themes and magical realism, and thank God her new story collection is every bit as amazing as her previous two. As always, it’s her pragmatic, chatty prose that carries the stories along and allows the reader to relate to the characters, be they ghost or werewolf or a boy named Onion. Link’s imagination is prodigious and almost alarming—I can’t say that I would relish an opportunity to peek inside her head, but I’m thankful that she’s chosen to share her visions with the world. A typical Link touch can be found in the story “The Constable of Abal,” where the fashion in town is to collect ghosts on anchors made of magic charms and ribbon and wear them as jewelry. Another story concerns a village concealed in a magical handbag, which has been unfortunately misplaced. Link has developed a unique structure—rambling and loose—and several of the stories in this collection suffer for having been tightened up and made to follow a more linear pattern, complete with the obligatory Big Finish. (Confidential to Ms. Link: Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.) The best story in this collection, “Pretty Monsters,” epitomizes the brilliance of her work: an unusual, meandering narrative structure, a strong feeling of menace and unease, and a relevant theme (teenage girls are terrifying). Oddly, several of the stories in this book have appeared in her other collections, leading me to believe that her publishers are attempting to introduce her best work to a more mainstream audience. If so, I applaud their endeavor: everyone should be reading Kelly Link. 





Silent on the Moor:
a Lady Julia Grey Mystery

by Deanna Raybourn

reviewed by Jen Baker




When you open this delicious new chapter in Lady Julia’s adventures you can already feel the frigid wind of the moors of Yorkshire , and see the bleak hills that go on forever, broken only by rugged rock walls that keep the ubiquitous sheep corralled. Grimsgrave Hall in outback Yorkshire is the setting for Lady Julia’s latest romantic foray into romance and danger, but this time her motives are mixed: Grimsgrave belongs to Nicholas Brisbane. Uninvited, Julia and her colorful lesbian sister, Portia, travel the uncomfortable miles to Yorkshire by train and then in the back of a farmer’s cart, to a reception worthy of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. Formerly besotted by Lady Julia, Brisbane cold shoulders her at the door and, like everyone else at the crumbling manor, seems steeped in chilly depression and convinced nothing good can come. This is Wuthering Heights redux in some ways – the frosty windy moors, the poverty-stricken gentry bent on regaining power, a suspicious death, and a doomed love affair. In other ways, a spunky heroine who won’t take no for an answer and isn’t afraid of a gypsy seer, a pain-wracked “beast” lover or a trio of witchy connivers redeems the hope that love will out and Lady Julia will bring new life to the moors.




Young Adult




Forever Princess

y Meg Cabot


reviewed by A.B. Mead




This, the tenth entry of the Princess Diaries series, is the concluding volume. Cabot skips ahead two years since the previous book, and Mia is a now a high school senior about to graduate. What’s kept Mia from journaling for two years? She’s been working on her senior project. She’s told everyone that it’s a history of her country’s olive oil presses, but it’s actually a romance novel called Ransom My Heart . . . and it’s been rejected by every publisher who’s seen it. Meanwhile, she’s been accepted by every college she’s applied to, but, in true Mia fashion, her self-confidence remains shaky and she believes that it’s only because she’s a princess. Her old boyfriend Michael returns from Japan, launching the usual emotional confusion since—as she hastens to remind herself over and again—she already has a new boyfriend. Over the years there have been a couple of clunky entries in the series, but this is not one of them. The snappy dialog (much of it in the form of e-mail) that was always the series’ highpoint remains. Missing, however are the many pop culture riffs and references. Perhaps Mia has grown up. She’s not quoting Kierkegaard, but I expected a couple more Buffy references (or, perhaps now, Lost references). Forever is also spiced up with a couple of extracts from Ransom (The entire book is actually available separately, credited to Princess Mia with Meg Cabot. Proceeds go to charity.). There’s a lot of talk about romance novels in this book, and, in the end, that’s what this series has been:  a strong (if uncertain; she is a teen-ager, after all) heroine, the man she loves, multiple problems keeping them apart, and (in this case, after ten volumes), a very satisfying conclusion.

My Reading Log
  by Jeff Ayers, Associate Editor

Miss Piggy dishes and gives sage advice about her relationship with Kermit in The Diva Code.  (Hyperion, 14.95).  She also describes what makes her perfect and gives the rest of us suggestions for catching up.  If you are a fan of the Muppets, this one’s worth checking out.







With all of the concentration on the election, I found it fun to go back and read about our previous presidents.  In Don’t Know Much About the Presidents, Kenneth Davis reveals each individual in a colorful cartoon-style layout (to appeal to the younger readers) and inserts tidbits that even a guy who majored in history didn’t know.  (Collins, $17.99).  Two presidents had alligators for pets!  Warren Harding actually gambled away the White House china!  Fun facts in an easy to swallow package.





Harder down the throat is the biography of Herbert Hoover.  (Times Books, $22.00).  Part of the American Presidents series, this profile by William Leuchtenburg examines a man who was beloved by millions when he was first elected and by the end of his term was lucky to be alive with the sheer revulsion everyone felt for him and his apparent lack of concern for the suffering of people during the Great Depression.  The author does a great job showcasing the human aspect of a very complicated individual.






Of course I have to get my comic strip fix in.  Big Nate stars an eleven-year old boy fighting cluelessness, scary teachers, and hormones, as he struggles to make it to the end of the school day.  I Smell A Pop Quiz (United Media, $12.95) covers over a year of the strip.  So good, you will swear the cartoonist is really eleven years old. 





On the opposite side of the spectrum, Lola is an old lady who is forced to move in with her dopey son and his wife she can’t stand.  At least she has a grandson to teach bad habits.  Gimme a Break (United Media, $12.95) is funny and appropriate for both the young and old.






When you look up the word “genius” in the dictionary, Harlan Coben’s face should be there.  He consistently writes extremely tense and relevant suburban thrillers that will have even the tepid reader flipping pages.  He brings back his favorite sport agent, Myron Bolitar, and sends him to France to answer a strange phone from his ex in Long Lost.  (Dutton, $27.95).  Once again he doesn’t disappoint and the ending will make you want to throw the book across the room (In a good way). 





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