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 April 2009 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

 

Emergency


by Neil Strauss

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

Alarmed by what he saw happening to the United States politically and financially (circumstances some of which have improved, some of which have become worse since the start of the Obama administration), in 2004 Strauss decided to "get out before it's too late." This book chronicles his meetings with lawyers, foreign real estate men, and a great many paranoid conspiracy theorists as he searches for a country with nice weather, that probably won't be attacked by terrorists, and in which he can buy his way to citizenship. This turns out to be the tropical paradise of St. Christopher and Nevis, commonly called St. Kitts. The first half of the book details Strauss in the world of conventions of offshore bank account enthusiasts (Rhett Butler had one. That's why the Civil War barely affected him.) and the grueling paperwork and check-writing stages of changing his citizenship. Anyone who has read one of the How I Bought A House In Paris / Olive Orchard in Tuscany genre will be familiar with his trials and tribulations. But Strauss soon decides that he needs to go further. To be truly safe, he needs the skills of a survivalist. In the second half he buys a pistol and takes shooting lessons. He gets a permit and memorizes exactly what to say to the airport guards so that he can fly with it. He learns the art of camouflage and of breaking plastic police flexi-cuffs. He takes courses in disaster management from FEMA and becomes an Emergency Medical Technician in Los Angeles. Most of us don't really have the inclination, nor the resources, to "bug out" like Strauss does, but Emergency is an amusing read, and you might pick up a few tips—like how to open a pad lock with a soda can.

 

 

         
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

The Eternal Smile: Three Stories


by Gene Luen Yang (author) and Derek Kirk Kim (illustrator)

reviewed by Neal Swain

 

 

At first glance, The Eternal Smile is a trio of very forgettable stories left to marinate in a pool of vintage nostalgia. Don’t be deceived.  

Yang and Kim have presented their readers with three very different stories that share one common theme: each contains a hidden epiphany. Whimsical, written around fantastical concepts, these stories have layers. Dull stereotypes and trite scenarios crumble and shift, resulting in a series of small changes, the revelation of inner truths, and the potential of happiness. Because the stories are bite-sized, not much can be written about them without giving everything away, but each one is a pleasant gem. Kim has done a stellar job on the artwork for each story, taking visual cues from Disney cartoons and the Sunday comics page and interpreting them with irony instead of nostalgia. 

Like American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang’s award-winning graphic novel, The Eternal Smile appeals to a wide audience. The stories seem aimed at teens but adults will still find them entertaining, particularly for the illustrations.

 

 

         
 

The Man In The Window


by K.O. Dahl

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Norwegian best-seller and award-winner Dahl’s mysteries have arrived in the United States. Here the owner of an antique shop is found dead in his shop window with numbers written on his chest. Inspectors Gunnarsranda and Frølich work homicide in Norway’s capital city, Oslo. Into this staid, Scandinavian setting, Dahl has injected a plot that moves along, as unstoppable as any ticking bomb. The possible suspects are a crowded field. The victim’s wife was having an affair. There was a much younger girl who would come and strip for him. His two brothers wanted to sell the business, but he blocked them. Meanwhile, his son’s wife is being evasive about her husband’s whereabouts that night.  Or has the murder something to do with unsettled business from World War II? Dahl vividly and accurately depicts contemporary Norway (heated bathroom floors, the constant shoveling of snow off car wind shields). The only problem is that this novel clearly was written in Norwegian for a Norwegian audience and then directly translated (though quite gracefully) into English.  Unlike, say, a British novel, it’s harder to pick up some of the references. Nonetheless, any reasonably intelligent reader should be able to deduce from the context that, for example, Dagbladet is a newspaper and Narvesen, a convenience store. Gate (pronounced got-uh) is “street.” 



 

 
         
 

Hollywood Buzz


by Margit Liesche

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

It’s World War II, and Pucci Lewis is a WASP:  one of the Women Airforce Service Pilots. She’s been assigned to the military’s Hollywood branch in order to make sure that a documentary short about her fellow pilots isn’t just cute girls in tight flight suits. But she’s also there to investigate what happened to her predecessor, an expert pilot whose suspicious plane crash has left her in a coma. It isn’t long before more bodies and sabotage begin to complicate matters even further. Liesche has packed her novel with historical detail and wonderful recreations of this very specific time and place. This is the world where Ronald Regan makes training films about identifying Japanese fighter planes, and movie-mogul yacht owners have loaned their boats to the Coast Guard to prowl the shores near Santa Monica for Axis submarines. Former Dracula star Bela Lugosi leads Red Cross blood drives, and his niece works as a maid in the Beverly Hills mansion where Pucci is billeted. But the niece is more than just another pretty face in Tinseltown; her Gypsy background means that she was perfectly positioned to act as a smuggler for the Hungarian Resistance not so long ago. Liesche makes sure that conversations about sexism and war-time propaganda never bog down the plot, and her action and flight scenes are appropriately cinematic.

 

 
         
 

Deadlock


by Robert Liparulo

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

 

The death of Michael Crichton has threatened the very sub-genre he helped create.  So it’s a good thing Bob Liparulo has stepped in to fill the void as witnessed in Deadlock, a superb thriller that doesn’t just trample on Crichton’s hallowed ground, but blazes its own high-tech trail. 

Crichton’s problem, especially in his latter books, was blending humanity with technology.  So often, in fact, the machines and manufactured monsters had more personality than their creators and antagonists.  Not so in Deadlock.  This sequel to Liparulo’s equally bracing Deadfall finds John Hutchinson hot on the trail of Cheney-like military industrialist Brendan Page, whose latest wunderkind discovery pits juvenile soldiers against training avatars who may or may not be real.   

“Some people call it a privatized army,” Hutchinson notes early on of Page’s power.  “Its tentacles reach into every aspect of defense and security.” 

No small task, then, to take Page on, but Hutchinson is more than up to the task, even after Page kidnaps his young son Logan.  Bringing down Page once and for all means rescuing Logan, the emotional and structural plotlines meshing perfectly and in truly big scale, wholly satisfying, Bondian form. 

Reading Deadlock is like revisiting Crichton at the height of his powers.  All that’s missing is the dinosaurs, but Liparulo more than makes up for this by injecting humanity into his characters instead of DNA in crafting an adrenaline rush of a thriller.

 

 
         
 

We’ll Always Have Paris: Stories


by Ray Bradbury

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

 

 

Bradbury’s latest collection is a pleasant trip back in time through unspecified years of previously unpublished stories. Most, like “Ma Perkins Comes to Stay,” revolving around the Ma Perkins radio show which debuted in 1933, are clearly many decades old. “Fly Away Home” features “rocket men” who break out cigarettes and brandy upon reaching Mars, like a good old black-and-white movie.  

Although adults still exclaim “That’s rich!” and kids say “gosh,” the art deco atmosphere doesn’t seem too dated. Three stories touch upon homosexuality in a matter-of-fact, nonjudgmental way; with such modern sensibilities, it would be interesting to know when these were originally penned. A number of the stories, most notably the title story—an unresolved slice of life during an evening in Paris—are reminiscent of the works of Raymond Carver.  

Bradbury’s talent for evocative imagery is on display throughout. He describes a houseful of animals in “Massinello Pietro” as “filled with feather whisper and murmurings of pad and fur and the sound that animal eyelids make blinking in the dark.” The voices of a weary married couple in “Arrival and Departure” are “like the motions of dim moths through the shadows.” 

Although a gathering of slighter stories, still recommended for Bradbury fans as well as non-genre readers (of the twenty-one stories and one poem, only three have definite genre elements). Bradbury is a master of the craft, and these read like fond memories with only a slight, and agreeable, patina of age.

 

 
         
 

Sherlock Holmes in America


Edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Jon L. Lellenberg, and Daniel Stashower

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

This anthology brings 14 new tales of the Great Detective in America. Fortunately, the unexpectedly wide variety of settings, time periods, and points of view (there are several that Watson does not narrate) prevent this anthology from making it seem like Holmes spent half his career steaming across The Pond to the U.S. Watson recalls some odd events from his brief sojourn in San Francisco, and Holmes solves the mystery decades later from his arm chair in Lyndsay Faye’s “The Case of Colonel Warburton’s Madness.” Mycroft Holmes’ diary tells of a New England vacation with his father and younger brother where the two Holmes boys debunked a pair of spiritualists. Robert Pohle’s and Loren D. Estleman’s stories make the best use of the uniquely American setting (a couple of the tales might just have well taken place in London). Pohle’s sequel to “A Study in Scarlet,” “The Flowers of Utah,” sends Holmes to the land of the Mormons, while, in “The Adventure of the Coughing Dentist,” Estleman brings Holmes face to face with gunslinger Wyatt Earp, who wants him to free Doc Holliday from a bum rap. Holmes serves only as a source of inspiration in Daniel Stashower’s “The Seven Walnuts,” where twenty-four year old Harry Houdini—a devoted reader of the Canon—investigates why a master card manipulator would shoot a regurgitation artist. Sports fans will enjoy Jon L. Breen’s “The Adventure of the Missing Three Quarters,” with its background of the developing game of football and cameo by “Pop” Warner. Carolyn Wheat’s “The Case of the Rival Queens” tells you everything you ever wanted to know about beekeeping but were afraid to ask. Michael Walsh wraps things up with “The Song at Twilight,” involving an aged Holmes with Irish nationalists just before World War I.

 

 

 

 
         
 

I Can See Clearly Now


by Brendan Halpin

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

From the title and Farrah-in-Foster Grants blonde on the cover, you would be correct in assuming that this novel is about music in the 1970s. But there is nothing to tell you that the music being created is educational pop songs to be run between Saturday morning cartoons a la Schoolhouse Rock. In this sweet, entertaining story, four young men and women musicians are brought together to create Pop Goes The Classroom. Under the (pot-fueled) direction of a rapidly-fading folk-rock queen, they turn their skills to grammar (“Over, under, with and through / Polly Preposition’s here to help you”) and the American Revolution (“Years ago in a town by the ocean / A bunch of guys had a funny notion”). The book is not a flat-out comedy, but spends its time studying the artistic aspirations and motivations of the group. (And, alas for a book about music, I think we readers have the right to expect the lyrics to a lot more of the songs than the mere handful we get.) There are the inevitable hook-ups between the musicians and battles with the corporate suits, but the interactions among this creative team are never dull.

 

 

 
         
         
Young Adult

 

 

 

Exclusively Chloe


b
y J.A. Yang

 

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

 

Sixteen year old Chloe Grace is the adopted Chinese daughter of a movie star mother and rock star father.  Though she isn’t quite the spotlight hog that some of her friends are, being the first famously adopted kid in Hollywood means that the paparazzi follows Chloe’s every move.  When her parents’ marriage begins to sour, this attention is more unwanted than ever.  She decides to leave her ritzy high school, which is attended by all the children of the rich and famous, and put the word out that she’s on a film shoot with her mother in Europe.  The she enrolls in ordinary school on the other side of town, simultaneously beginning a search for her brother and her birth parents. 

Exclusively Chloe is light, fun chick lit that touches on serious topics without getting bogged down.  A good choice for teen girls who keep up with all the celebrity gossip.

 
         
 

Enchanted Hunters


b
y Maria Tatar

 

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

Literature has the power to stimulate children’s imaginations and start them wandering the intellectual landscape:  to make them the “enchanted hunters” of the book’s title. While not the most original of theses, Tatar gives her readers a very good time in this brief survey of children’s fiction, from the couplets of nursery rhymes to the doorstops that make up Harry Potter’s world, along with the likes of Little Women, Peter Pan, and The Tale of Despereaux. While the book does dip into academic theory, it is not laden with jargon, and anyone with even a casual interest in the topic will enjoy it. Tatar starts off with a study of how paintings and illustrations from the 1800s depicted children being read to (staving off the darkness with the light of familial comfort) and rapidly moves to the intellectual power of words. Aslan’s mere name (one word) is capable of provoking four entirely different responses in the Pevensie children. Words are only marks (and spoken words are only sounds), yet Charlotte saves Wilbur’s life with just a few well-chosen words, and Max in his wolf suit conjures up an entire world out of nothing at all when he visits the land of the Wild Things. And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street’s young Marco sees how things might be—the possibility of turning boredom into wonder and replacing scarcity with abundance—regardless of what his father might say.

 

 
         
 

Flygirl


b
y Sherri Smith

 

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

Ida Mae Jones, 19, lives on a farm in rural Louisiana in the early 1940's. She knows how to fly her father's crop duster, and dreams of saving up enough money to go to Chicago to get her pilot's license. She’s heard that in Chicago, even Negro women like Ida are allowed to take the test. When WWII breaks out, Ida thinks she's missed her chance to fly. But then her little brother shows her an article about the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) program, and she makes up her mind to go to Texas to sign up. Women of color aren't allowed to be WASP, but Ida Mae is light-skinned enough to try to pass for white. So she does, not even telling her closest friends who she really is.  

Flygirl suffers a little from a desire to teach, sometimes focusing more on historical details of the WASP program than on the story itself. But it does bring to light an extremely interesting and worthy piece of history, and is worth recommending to teens for that reason.

 

 
         
 

The Dust of 100 Dogs


b
y A.S. King

 

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

The dread pirate Emer Morrisey cut a swath through the Caribbean in the 1600s, but she came to a bloody end, and was cursed to literally live the life of a dog 100 times. Now, 300 years later, she’s at last been reincarnated as a human, and she remembers everything. From the moment she could talk, people have noticed her remarkable knowledge of history and her interest in Jamaica. As Saffron Adams, she can’t wait to turn 18 and go there to reclaim her buried treasure. Far from the wacky comedy this premise might suggest, Dogs is a deadly serious novel. Though Young Adult, the presence of sex, drugs, and violence distinctly mark it for the older end of that market.  The book moves back and forth between Saffron’s life with her highly dysfunctional Irish-American family (alcoholic mother, junkie brother) in contemporary America and Emer’s days in the even rougher and more unpleasant Ireland and on the sea. Anyone with visions of the romance of the ol’ sod and swashbucklers will learn quite a lot about how things really were.  And, to make matters worse, Emer’s old nemesis has been reincarnated as well.  But something went wrong, and his now-twisted mind makes him more dangerous that ever.

 

 
         
 
My Reading Log
  by Jeff Ayers, Associate Editor
 
 

This has been a busy reading month with me tackling eleven different novels for three other magazines and review sites.  Even so, I can’t stop reading!

 

 
 

A new comic strip collection that is drop dead funny and intriguing at the same time is Ink Pen by Phil Dunlap.  (Andrews McMeel, $12.99).  Out of work cartoon characters and super heroes still need to earn a living.  Thank goodness they signed with a temp agency that can get them work.  Twisted and silly in a good way, this will appeal to fans of comic books and graphic novels.

 

 
 

Another brand new collection is Argyle Sweater by Scott Hilburn.  (Andrews McMeel, $12.99).  These strips will immediately remind readers of the old Gary Larson Far Side cartoons.  Hilburn loves to use animals to enforce the punchline, and many of them need to be looked over again to appreciate the nuances of the humor.  Definitely one to watch.

 

 
 

The work of Charles Schulz, master and genius, lives on in the latest Complete Peanuts, 1971-1972.  (Fantagraphics, $28.99)  I remember a lot of these from when I was a kid, and it brought back wonderful memories.  I didn’t fully appreciate them when I was young, and I’m happy that I can enjoy them and pass them on to my children. 

 

  
 
 

I plan to be first in line to see what J.J. Abrams has done with Star Trek.  In the meantime, the writers of the film have conceived of a prequel to the movie set during the time of the Next Generation.  Star Trek: Countdown (IDW, $17.99) tells the origin of the Romulan Nero, who will supposedly be the antagonist in the movie.  This story rocked and I can’t wait until May 8th.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

Last, but certainly not least, James Rollins has decided to dominate more than just the adult thriller field.  The first of a series for Young Adults, Jake Ransom and the Skull King’s Shadow (Harper, $16.99) tells the exciting tale of young Jake and his older sister, Kady, who are still trying to adjust to life without their parents (who disappeared on an archaeological dig).  The two of them receive an invitation to a special exhibit of Mayan artifacts and get drawn into a life and death struggle.  Rollins has taken his love of Indiana Jones and made it fresh and fun for the younger set.

 

 

 

 
     
 

See you next month…

Jeff

  

 
     

 

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