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 May 2008 Book Reviews:


Cool: A Year In An American High School

Horses Conformation
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Elisha Cooperby
Dial, $17.95
272 pages
ISBN 978-0-8037-3169-1

reviewed by Hayden Bass



For this teen nonfiction book—essentially a documentary in book form—Cooper spent a year recording the lives of eight very different high school students.  Each chapter is a month of the school year, punctuated with doodle-style drawings. Teen readers (and curious adults) will be engrossed as the students lose soccer games, anguish over relationships, apply to colleges, and go to prom.   

Since the high school in question is a top magnet school in Chicago, some of the students selected have a stronger sense of self than many of their peers.  Seniors Maya and Anais are very focused on acting and dance, respectively.  Daniel, who dresses in suits more often than jeans, is the senior class president, and looks forward to applying to Harvard.  But other students are struggling or worse.  One is a small-time drug dealer stuck on a girl who doesn’t care about him, and another doesn’t return to school after the winter break. 

Cooper does not ask his subjects probing questions or attempt to discuss subjects the teens are uncomfortable with,  nor does he provide in-depth analysis of their lives.  He learns and presents only what the students might know about each other.  But he treats his subjects with respect and compassion, resulting in a thoughtful, true-to-life perspective on what the kids are up to these days.  And it seems that for the most part, the kids are all right.


Courageous Dreaming

The Hamburger

(Click Cover to Buy)

by Alberto Villoldo
Hay House, $24.95
216 pages


reviewed by Terry Persun



Alberto Villoldo has written a number of books on shamanism, including his popular book “The Four Insights.” In “Courageous Dreaming” Villoldo again focuses on the shamanistic approach to life and dreaming. He loosely uses quantum physics to assert that “we’re all dreaming the world into being” and continues along those lines using stories and examples from times he has spent with a number of shamans.  

Villoldo begins his journey by explaining how we might escape from the nightmare that he suggests has claimed our lives. He explains how we have scripted our own lives, and how to awaken from the dream we’ve created for ourselves.  

As with his other books, he covers the four directions, relating them to four kinds of courage. This leveled approach helps the reader to see through a purely physical association with the world, so that it is possible to elevate that perception into a more spiritual outlook.  

In putting your courage into action and practicing the truths you find within your analysis of your awakened state, Villoldo suggests that we have the power and the responsibility to create a new life. All we need is the courage to dream it into being.

  Manuscript Makeover

The Hamburger

(Click Cover to Buy)

by Elizabeth Lyon
A Perigee Book, $14.95  
368 pages


reviewed by Terry Persun


Elizabeth Lyon has written many books for writers. She has covered everything from query letters and proposals to writing and marketing. “Manuscript Makeover” is for the author who is ready to rewrite their book for ultimate impact. Lyon provides examples from published books for every method she discusses. She leaves no stone unturned.  

Whether you are a novelist or a non-fiction writer, Lyon addresses ways in which you can flesh out and pump up your writing to make it more engaging, more fluid, and more saleable. She covers items such as style, craft, characterization, and marketing. She suggests ways to revise for genre as well as provide a “whole book” five-stage structure.

What I like most about the book is that it spends time talking about character-driven scenes and narration.  

For those who are unfamiliar with Elizabeth Lyon and her great set of books for writers, “Manuscript Makeover” can be a perfect beginning. For those who are familiar, the book may very well complete your set and lead to publication and beyond. This book comes highly recommended. 

The Science of Sherlock Holmes: From Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, the Real Forensics Behind the Great Detective’s Greatest Cases

The Hamburger

(Click Cover to Buy)

by E. J. Wagner
John Wiley & Sons, $16.95
244 pages
ISBN 978-0-470-12823-7

reviewed by Scott Pearson


Crime historian E. J. Wagner illuminates the history of forensic science through the magnifying glass of Sherlock Holmes in this atmospheric volume, which reads like an episode of CSI: Victorian London. Drawing examples from Holmes’ cases and real Victorian crimes, Wagner showcases the importance of science and scientific reasoning in catching criminals. Along the way, she points out when Doyle borrowed from the headlines, and sometimes even when investigators borrowed from Doyle.  

A surprising level of forensic science was already in practice by the late 1800s. The use of insects’ invasion of corpses to establish time of death (a specialty of CSI’s Gil Grissom), was used as early as 1850. Ballistics, rudimentary blood tests, crime scene photography, and early fingerprinting, among many other techniques, were already in use, although inconsistently.  

The book has some minor flaws. Modern examples compared with the earlier cases make the history of forensic science more complete, but detract from the overall Victorian atmosphere. The book also ends a bit abruptly, which relates to one last critique that is really a compliment. The book could have been twice as long; the subject matter would have remained just as compelling.  

Wagner occasionally has some macabre fun with the true crime cases, and her comments on Doyle’s stories are insightful. The Science of Sherlock Holmes will captivate fans of Holmes, CSI, and mysteries in general. The book would also be a great source for writers working in a Victorian setting, especially those in the mystery genre.


The Fourth of July and the Founding of America

The Hamburger

(Click Cover to Buy)

by Peter de Bolla
The Overlook Press, 195 pages
ISBN 978-0-8032-5996-6

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale


Starting with the date itself, Englishman de Bolla studies the Fourth of July and related symbols and tears down the mythology surrounding them. Not everything happened on July 4th, 1776. The Declaration had been written earlier, and it wasn’t completely signed until much later. Consequently, there is no precise moment when the U.S. can be said to have come into being. Indeed, if you want to tag declaring independence as America’s Birthday, then the honor might go to the Mecklenburg Resolves, a sort of Declaration issued by citizens of North Carolina a year earlier. The Flag: there is almost no evidence for the Betsy Ross story. The Liberty Bell: the one we see today is actually its third incarnation, the original having been melted down twice with each recast version cracking. Uncle Sam: Sam Wilson provided meat to the military labeled “U.S.” for United States, but soldiers who knew that Wilson was the contractor joked it came from “Uncle Sam.” (The cartoon figure’s whiskers were later borrowed from Lincoln.) Covering all aspects of the Fourth, de Bolla goes into some depth about the project to have all U.S. magazines in July of 1942 from Look and Time to the in-house industrial organ Boeing News carry an American flag on their covers as a sign of Post-Pearl Harbor unity, and analyzes Frederick Douglass’ 1852 “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” oration. For a slim, popular history, the book occasionally ventures into academic territory as the author discusses the “narrative code” behind the stories and legends. But in the end, de Bolla approves of a sort of cognitive dissonance and bears America no true ill will. We can know the facts and still revere the myths.




Child 44

Horses Conformation
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Tom Rob Smith
Grand Central Publishing
, $24.95
400 pages
ISBN 978-0-4464-0238-5

reviewed by Jeff Ayers



In Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel, Child 44, Leo Demidov has achieved his dream.  He has a wife he adores and a job working for the State Security force helping defend the paradise of Stalin’s Soviet Union.  With the admiration of his superiors, Leo has proved to be the star of the squad.  When he uncovers evidence of a serial killer, Leo must question his loyalty to the State because to admit such a gruesome murderer exists is considered a crime against this Utopian society.  Then he receives photos proving his wife’s disloyalty, forcing him to choose between keeping his ideal life or fleeing with his wife and becoming a traitor to the State.  The bleak life of the post-war Soviet Union is brought so vividly to life that the reader truly feels transported back in time.  Shocking, brutal, and compelling on many levels, Child 44 will go down as a classic.





The House at Riverton

(Click Cover to Buy)

by Kate Morton
Atria, $24.95
473 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4165-5051-8

reviewed by Jen Baker



Servants often live vicariously through their employers, and Grace Reeves is no exception. At age 98, Grace’s repressed memories of the Hartford sisters, Hannah and Emmeline, vividly come to mind when a filmmaker contacts her, inquiring about her views on the “events” at Riverton over 70 years ago. Grace is the only person still alive to shed light on the supposed suicide of a well-known poet, R.S. Hunter, and the only one who can bring the extended family and the decaying manor house to life.  Hesitantly, Grace relates everything to the inquisitive actress and filmmaker: from the siblings’ childhood games to servants’ gossip to flapper dresses, wild parties and casualties of war. In the telling, Grace is drawn back to the secrets and motives of the characters whose intertwined tragedies she both reveals and relives. Mesmerizing and inexorable, the vivid scenes cascade one after another in what reads as slow motion until truth, brought to light through Grace, becomes less important than the journey, leaving reader and narrator melancholy and fatigued. This poignant exposition on the nature of memory and love, the dysfunction of war and British classism, by Australian first-novelist Morton, treads a delicate line between the gothic style of DuMaurier’s Rebecca and the emotional impact of McEwan’s Atonement.



Wild Nights

The Commoner
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco, $24.95

256 pages

reviewed by Paige Byerly





In Wild Nights, Joyce Carol Oates’ latest story collection, five iconic American authors wrestle with dwindling creativity, sexual perversions and their own humanity as they face their last days. Fictionalizations of famous authors are ubiquitous these days, and are all too frequently transparent (and often embarrassing) attempts to ride to fame on the coattails of geniuses. In Wild Nights, however, Oates uses the authors’ factual lives and works only as launch pads for her own inventions, which are fiercely original and frequently disquieting.

The collection opens with what is assuredly the most bizarre of the stories—“Poe Posthumous”—in which the notoriously troubled poet, seeking sanctuary from the vagaries of human intimacy, takes a post as lighthouse keeper on a deserted isle. There he is forced to overcome his finicky and rigid sensibilities and find solace in the fauna of the island—brilliantly conjured creatures worthy of Alice in Wonderland. The stories, which vary wildly in both topic and form, have a common denominator in that they force their subject to confront that which most repelled them in life. To wit Poe faces his own need for intimacy, while in the entertaining “EDickinsonRepliLuxe” a robot Emily Dickinson is subjugated to the bourgeois class she once regarded from aloof and unassailable heights. In later stories Henry James confronts the physical realities of the human body so absent from his fastidious writing, while Samuel Clemens evades responsibility for a child’s loss of innocence.

Wild Nights concludes with the most realistic and moving of the five stories: “Papa at Ketchum, 1961,” in which a broken-down Hemmingway plans suicide. Oates imitates Hemmingway’s prose admirably, albeit a bit self-indulgently (who among us has never yearned to “do” Hemmingway?), but in any case the story’s haunting imagery soon eclipses the writing. Papa’s adversaries are old age and the diminishment of a once infamous virility, and his struggle is painful to witness. Oates is a prodigious writer, but this newest addition to her pantheon of works reveals a hitherto unprecedented and risky display of creativity and freshness, heartening to see in such an established author.


Blackman’s Coffin

The Guilty
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Mark de Castrique
Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale





Sam Blackman is a vet who left a leg behind in Iraq, but his recuperation in an Asheville, North Carolina V.A. hospital won’t be very restful. Fellow vet Tikima Robertson thinks she might have a job for him, but she’s murdered before she can give him any details. Sam soon finds himself looking into her death assisted by her sister, Nakayla, and a century-old handwritten journal that recounts the events leading to the death of the Robertson’s great-great-grandfather, Elijah, who once traveled a very long distance with a coffin for a mysterious purpose. Blackman’s Coffin is filled with local scenery and history. As the mystery slowly unreels, we’re treated not only to biographical details about novelist Thomas Wolfe, whose Look Homeward Angel is set in a thinly-disguised Asheville, but we learn quite a lot about the nearby Biltmore Estate, the Gilded Age mansion built in the 1890s by the grandson of the legendary Cornelius Vanderbilt. When the novel introduces a treasure hunt, there are even forays into the world of mineralogy that prove unexpectedly interesting. From the first pages, de Castrique hooks us with interesting and sympathetic characters. Parallel to the mystery, we experience Sam’s adjustment to his artificial leg, which certainly marks him as a very contemporary hero.


Little Brother

Fiction Class
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Cory Doctorow
Tor Teen, $17.95
384 pages
ISBN 978-0-7653-1985-2

reviewed by A.B. Mead




If 1984 is required reading in high school, then Little Brother should be as well. It won’t be, however, because while Orwell’s book is about people powerless in the face of a nameless, future authoritarian government, Doctorow’s novel is about young people fighting an increasingly authoritarian and explicitly contemporary American government, making this a dangerous read. When a terrorist attack on San Francisco spurs the Department of Homeland Security to begin mass surveillance in the name of safety and security, high school senior Marcus and his friends have the temerity to be “unpatriotic” and fight our government. Marcus and a slowly spreading “army” become cybercriminals—in all sorts of cool and clever ways—in order to confuse the authorities and prompt an end to the madness. Of course things don’t go exactly as planned.   

Marcus is a well-rounded, believable teen. He buckles under to some authorities and resists others. He has girl problems. But he remains the poster child for the glory of outlaw geekdom, and Little Brother just might inspire some “normal” (Doctorow’s term) kids to learn more about how their cell phone cameras and MySpace actually work. Fortunately, the future is not unremittingly grey, and Marcus’ tale does not end with “a boot stamping on a face forever.” Still, this book serves as a wake-up call for the teens who read it: It’s your future. If you want it back, you will have to actively reclaim it.



The Cure for Modern Life
(Click Cover to Buy)

by Joseph O'Neill
Pantheon, $23.95
255 pages

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale


Like Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and Henderson the Rain King, O'Neill’s novel draws the reader in, absorbing you in its language. Plot-wise, not a whole lot actually happens, but that’s not the point. The meanderings of Hans, a Dutch banker, through a post 9/11 New York are presented so truly and artfully that had this been published as memoir, I would have believed every word. Hans’ wife has taken their son back to her native England, leaving him friendless and aimless until he stumbles upon Chuck Ramkissoon, another transplant—this time from Trinidad—who has big dreams involving the game of cricket. The South Asian population of the New York City area is expanding and Chuck wants to capitalize on that by founding the New York City Cricket Club and building a huge cricket arena. Through Chuck and his plans Hans meets all manner of residents of this New Amsterdam while frequently reflecting on his youth in Holland. Like Hans, the reader is swept up and swirled around for the ride. O'Neill’s use of language is remarkable. Paragraph-long, and sometimes page-long, sentences roll along effortlessly. There is a wistfulness throughout the book, but there are frequent smiles as well. And, in any case, as Hans observes, “wistfulness is a respectable, serious condition.”


Peach Blossom Pavilion

(Click Cover to Buy)

by Mingmei Yip
Kensington Books, $14.00
421 pages
ISBN 978-0-7582-2014-1

reviewed by Judy Bryant




What is this fascination we have with the East, especially the East of the 19th and early 20th century - those beautiful Asian women, the tea service, the music, the grace? In Peach Blossom Pavilion Mingmei Yip takes us into this world at a Shanghai qinglou – or turquoise pavilion – the refined word for whorehouse. Xiang Xiang is a beautiful 13-year-old girl when her father is murdered. Her mother in desperation joins a nunnery in Peking and is tricked into sending Xiang Xiang to Peach Blossom Pavilion, a famous qinglou. The first half of the book follows the fascinating and horrifying description of her transformation into a fabled courtesan. Yip spares us no details of the abuse she suffers, as well as the enviable education she receives. The second half of the book picks up considerably as Xiang Xiang, or Bao Lan as she is now named, escapes the qinglou with her lesbian lover. She goes in search of her mother and to avenge the murder of her father. The story ends in 1931 with Bao Lan only 26 years old and soon to marry an American. It’s a great rambling story, full of love, tragedy, suffering, courage, and redemption This is all told in a long flashback as the 98 year-old Bao Lan, now living in San Francisco, tells her story to her very Westernized granddaughter and her American fiancé. Unfortunately, I found the writing to be rather flat, and had difficulty being drawn into the story. I felt the character of Bao Lan came most alive, and the writing to be most compelling, in the chapters where she and her granddaughter and the fiancé are talking, and the differences in the two cultures are most apparent. Bao Lan’s story as she moves to America and deals with her American husband is only hinted at, but it’s one I’d like to hear.



Atmospheric Disturbances
(Click Cover to Buy)

Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Tachyon Publications, $14.95
373 pages
ISBN 978-1-892391-75-9

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale





Steampunk is a branch of science fiction that assumes that modern or futuristic technology came into being during the Industrial Revolution (or some similarly anachronistic setting), and so contains the trappings of that time.  Steam locomotives run on uranium, not coal. . . Tanks are used in the Wild West. . . This excellent survey reprints the best of over 30 years worth of steampunk in 13 stories. Highlights include:  Molly Brown’s droll (the only word for it) “The Selene Gardening Society,” about an attempt to mend a rift in Baltimore high society by starting—what else?—a lunar garden. “Lord Kelvin’s Machine” by James P. Blaylock posits the ultimate steampunk question:  Which is the better way to save the earth from colliding with a comet:  nullify earth’s gravity by reversing its poles, or set off a chain of erupting volcanoes in order to knock earth out of the comet’s path? Fortunately for anyone new to the genre, this volume contains the two best examples of the genre in short form to date:  Ted Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters” and Paul Di Filippo’s “Victoria.” With Chiang, golems (robots) are becoming more and more common as the art of creating words to power them (programs) progresses, and “preformation”—the idea that all future generations are nested with the current generation’s sperm like Russian dolls—is a scientific fact. When research shows that mankind has only five more generations left, the two ideas come together in unexpected ways. Di Filippo starts with the problem of replacing a vanished soon-to-be-crowned Queen Victoria with a genetically-modified newt (shades of P.G. Wodehouse!) and takes us on a tour of the byroads, backwaters, and brothels of London. (That “Victoria” contains a brilliantly-twisted reference to nineteenth century intellectual John Ruskin is merely a bonus.) All these tales represent the best tradition of steampunk:  ridiculous ideas explored seriously.



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