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 August 2009 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction

 

Duchess of Death


by Richard Hack

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

 

Agatha Christie, despite the fact that she became, and still is, the world's best-selling novelist, lived a simple and relatively uneventful life—except for The Eleven Days. In 1926 she mysteriously disappeared for nearly two weeks, leaving a trail of baffling notes and letters that set off a nation-wide search and worldwide headlines. After she was found, she refused to discuss the matter for the rest of her life. Hack makes this the centerpiece of his biography. Much of the ground has already been covered in Jared Cade's 1998 Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days. But where Cade postulated that the clues were designed to make it look like she had been murdered in order to bring her husband to the attention of the police and expose his adultery, Hack argues credibly that the stunt was a romantic plot to inspire her wayward husband to “come and rescue her, driven by a deep-seated love that went beyond flirtations or girlfriends.” Duchess doesn't delve deeply into Christie's creative process, but that's because Christie herself didn't. She merely enjoyed plotting and writing good mysteries. And here we can read charmingly about her travels that inspired Murder on the Orient Express and Murder in Mesopotamia and of her problems with the various adaptations of her work. Like many of Christie's books, this one is a cozy.

 

 

 

 

         
 

Exposed! Ouija, Firewalking, and Other Gibberish


Henri Broch, translated by Bart K. Holland

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

This relatively slim volume applies simple logic and basic chemistry to explain several “mysteries” that persist in the popular imagination. One man claims to have telekinesis:  the ability to move objects through the power of his mind. In a controlled environment, he does move a door without touching it, but Broch's team demonstrate that it was done by moving the air in the room through rapid contraction of his abdominal muscles. Lest you pity the poor people of Lapland (or any Norwegians, Russians, Alaskans, or anyone else born above the Arctic Circle), who, because of geography lack astrological ascendants and, in some cases, whole “houses,” and so can never have accurate astrological charts, Broch comes to the rescue with statistics that dismantle the pseudoscience. The Shroud of Turin dates back at least six hundred years, but that only means that it's that old a hoax. Broch not only makes his own Shroud, but explains that the famous 3-D image of Jesus on the cloth, when rendered by a computer, reveals itself to be anything but that. Even older is a jug dating from 600 B.C.E. from which you can pour much more than it appears to be able to hold. Suckers have been born every minute for at least a few thousand years. Your children could probably make their own such jar in pottery class when they aren't rubbing glowing embers in their bare hands (the rubbing divides the heat and cuts off the oxygen necessary for more burning). Backed up by easily understood charts and diagrams, Exposed is witty but substantial science for the layman.

 

 

 

 
         
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

The Siege


Stephen White

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

The campus of Yale University hosts several secret societies and their “tombs”—the windowless, fortress-like buildings where they conduct their business. In White's compulsive page-turner, someone has taken over Books and Snake's tomb and is holding an unknown number of students . . . who are slowly and publicly being killed. Readers hoping to learn lots of juicy inside information on secret societies like Skull and Bones will be disappointed. White spends no time inside the tomb or discussing society histories. This book is about the audacity and cleverness of the terrorists who have kidnapped the children of the rich, famous, and powerful. The bad guys know how the police and hostage negotiators think, and they confound the authorities at every turn. Policeman Sam Purdy joins the security and media circus on campus as a favor to a friend, and finds himself enmeshed in the conflict. How can you defeat an enemy inside a building with no “soft spots,” who makes no demands, and who uses YouTube and the internet to work around you? White ratchets up the tension and stakes to a near-maddening level in this thriller that actually thrills.

 

 

 

 

 

         
 

The Year of the Flood


by Margaret Atwood

reviewed by Neal Swain

 

 

Ren and Toby survived the collapse of the world as they knew it: a world policed and governed by corporate interests, where the unlucky poor strive to stay one step away from becoming someone else’s happy meal, and doomsday cults pray to saints Wayne Grady and Steven Jay Gould. Almost everyone they knew is dead. The old world is gone and a new one, filled with dangerous animal hybrids and roving criminals, has taken its place. Now Ren and Toby must struggle to find a niche in the new world. 

The Year of the Flood is a parallel story, rather than a sequel to, Oryx & Crake. Writing mostly through flashbacks and the oral history of the Gardener cult, Margaret Atwood charts the decay of a decadent, destructive culture through her characters’ memories, from their escapes from the dangers of their society to their disenchantment with the Gardener co-op they thought might free them, or at least keep them safe. They follow, from afar, the characters at the heart of the action in Oryx & Crake. 

Though many will argue that this is solely a literary book, it is also a deeply speculative one, nearly ur-speculative fiction, with something of A Brave New World in tone and Sheri S. Tepper’s The Family Tree in topic, and it may serve to draw readers to other notables in the genre. This is a book about human irresponsibility, loss of empathy, and the earth getting its own back.

 


 
         
 

The Baker Street Letters


by Michael Robertson

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Sherlock Holmes is such a fixture in our consciousness that even today some people write letters to the great detective and mail them to 221B Baker Street in London. Attorneys Reggie and Nigel Heath have just rented space for their practice in the building occupying that address, and their lease requires them to send out form letter replies to any missives sent to Holmes. Repeated letters from Los Angeles referencing a note written 20 years ago by a then-eight-year-old girl whose father had disappeared pique the interest of the impulsive Nigel, and he leaves for California. Unfortunately, a dead body turns up in his office, sending Reggie to find his brother and solve a mounting series of mysteries—and bodies—involving the case. The characters are likeable and believable, with Reggie narrating as Watson to his brother's would-be (though much less brilliant) Holmes, complete with a handful of nods to Doyle (a young lady keeps a St. Bernard, a “huge hound”). Robertson makes good use of the Los Angeles setting, and the mystery is well-structured, with lots of clues staring you in the face that nonetheless lead to a satisfying and surprising conclusion.

 

 


 

 
         
 

Smash Cut


by Sandra Brown

reviewed by Jon Land

 

So describes the creepy Creighton Wheeler, villain of Sandra Brown’s spectacular new thriller, the aptly titled Smash Cut, which once again reminds us why she’s enjoyed nearly sixty consecutive New York Times bestsellers.  Creighton, the ultimate spoiled rich kid, may well be involved in the murder of his mega-powerful uncle Paul; at least that’s what Paul’s girl friend Julie Rutledge claims in spite of Creighton’s ironclad alibi. 

“It was a murder,” she insists to the book’s hero, criminal lawyer Derek Mitchell.  “An assassination . . . .  The robbery was to disguise that it was premeditated and planned.” 

This after Julie seduces Mitchell on a transatlantic flight that gives new meaning to the friendly skies.  The result is a potboiler of a tale, with Julie alternating between classic femme fatale and equally classic woman-in-jeopardy as Mitchell sorts through the muddled morass of the Wheeler brood en route to a shocking final twist that is vintage Brown. 

Indeed, she’s as close as we’ve got today to James M. Cain, her work every bit as dark and twisty as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, as well as films like Body Heat and Fatal Attraction.  Certain to continue her long streak of bestsellers, Smash Cut is a devilishly brilliant masterpiece of steamy, postmodern noir.

 

 

 

 
         
 

Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight


by Cat Rambo

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

 

This is an often-touching collection of twenty stories, a dozen of them in the fantasy genre. Although full of magic, they are character-driven, with the fantastical settings intensifying the struggles, emotional and physical, of the characters. Eight of them are set in a world known as Tabat, but each works well on its own. “I'll Gnaw Your Bones, the Manticore Said” is a standout, developing slowly, almost a mystery, with a sudden burst of action followed by a swell of emotion that underscores how much the reader has come to care for the characters. Cat Rambo has a slow-burn style, carefully building her worlds and characters within them until reaching well-wrought conclusions. 

Two stories are best described as science fiction, one an allegory which, although amusing, left me uncertain as to what the author was trying to say; the other was a satisfying and creepy little story in a very automated future. 

The six remaining pieces are set in the modern world, but in each a bit of magic intrudes upon unsuspecting people in surprising, emotionally wrenching ways. One, “Magnificent Pigs,” plays lovingly off the classic Charlotte’s Web. Another, “The Towering Monarch of His Mighty Race,” weaves together the true story of the elephant Jumbo, his life in the London Zoo and the Barnum & Bailey Circus, a hint of the supernatural, and a dash of narrative from Jumbo’s point of view, all to great effect.  

Recommended, but save the often spoiler-laden introductions until after you’ve read the stories.

 

 

 

 
         
 

The Doomsday Key


by James Rollins

reviewed by John Land

 

 

“World domination,” James Bond muses to Dr. No at one point of the film that helped create the action thriller genre, “same old plan.” 

Well, nearly 50 years later that plan is alive and well and living in the brilliant storytelling mind of James Rollins whose latest book, The Doomsday Key, further solidifies his status as the modern master of the action thriller. 

This time out Rollins’ vigilant and forthwith special operatives team, Sigma Force, led by Gray Pierce, find themselves on the trail of a shadowy cabal that’s after control of the world’s food supply.  And at the heart of the plan lies the Doomsday Key itself, the roots of which stretch all the way back to 11th century England.  Pierce, Monk and company follow the trail of what seems to be a hunger plague from a massacre in an African village to modern day pagans and ancient Druid prophecies, leading them ultimately to another confrontation with the Guild, Rollins’ postmodern version of Ian Fleming’s SPECTRE. 

The Doomsday Key is like an elegant mosaic, the various pieces assembled with a skilled and expert touch that has become his trademark.  It never lets up and never lets go, perhaps the best yet in Rollins’ continuous series of bestsellers timed perfectly for summer.  To quote Carly Simon in another Bond theme song, simply stated, “nobody does it better.”

 

 

 

 
         
 

The Magicians


by Lev Grossman

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

The Magicians is the story of Quentin Coldwater and his friends (a very smart girl and less-smart boy) as they attend a school of magic, start to deal with adult emotions, and eventually fight a great evil. The difference between this work and another you may have read is that Quentin is a college student, and this is a grown-up book for adults who have grown up reading fantasy. Firmly grounded in the otherwise “real world,” the students are all familiar with Tolkein and Rowling. They are also fans of the Fillory books, a Narnia-like series. I usually don't like bloated fantasy trilogies, but the three sections of this novel might have worked better as separate, short novels rather than making each of them even shorter to fit into one book. The school part doesn't really delve into the “collegey” (to use a Joss Whedon-esque term that the hip students at Brakebills might themselves apply) aspects of the school. Hogwarts is very much a British high school, but Grossman doesn't really exploit the American college nature of Brakebills. For one thing there are only 80 students in the whole school, and not much variety among them. Brakebills reminds me of nothing so much as CalTech (There are even “brute force” stacks. Google it.). The second section, which takes place post-graduation, is little more than a short story, and likewise doesn't substantially explore what one is actually supposed to do as a magic user in the Twenty-first century. The third section, however, more than makes up for any earlier shortcomings.  Here, transported to Fillory, our heroes ask all the questions we would ask, and apply the same logic we would apply . . . except they have the added benefit of real magic.

 

 

 

 

 
         
 Young Adult

 

 
 

Once a Witch


by Carolyn MacCullough

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

Unlike the other members of her Talented family, Tasmin Green has no magical powers—despite her grandmother’s prophecy on the day of her birth that she would be the most magical among them.  Now, at seventeen, she feels like a disappointment, and relishes her time away from her family at a boarding school in Manhattan.  When a stranger appears in her grandmother’s bookstore and asks for her help, Tasmin can’t resist taking on the challenge in an attempt to prove, to herself and to her family, that she is not entirely incapable of being useful.  This decision leads to a rapid chain of events that include time travel, a quest for magical objects, the revelation of secret family history, a romance, and Tasmin’s realization that she may not be as powerless as she had previously believed. 

With likeable characters and believable teen dialogue, Once a Witch is a cut above the average contemporary urban fantasy.  The first in a series, it is likely to be a hit with fans of Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely and Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones.

 

 

 

 
         
 

When You Reach Me


by Rebecca Stead

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

This is one of those books that it's best not to know too much about before you read it, lest some of the subtleties and surprises be ruined. Suffice it to say that it's 1979 and twelve-year old Miranda spends much of her free time helping her mother prepare for an upcoming appearance on the game show The $20,000 Pyramid. She also goes to school and she visits her friends . . . But odd things are happening at the edges of her ordinary life. Someone keeps leaving Miranda notes insisting that she is in danger, and asking her to write about her life. The apparently homeless Laughing Man who spends his days by (and sometimes under) her corner mailbox never harasses her, but why does he spend so much time kicking at imaginary threats? This short tale is not a thriller, nor is it scary, and Miranda's first-person voice is instantly likeable and keeps things light. As Stead cleverly drops threads along the way pointing to what exactly is happening, many, at first glance, may seem pointless, but by the end, the book has formed a perfect whole. Note that it's useful, but not essential, to have first read Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, since the characters discuss it frequently.

 

 

 

 

 

 
         
 

The Miles Between


by Mary A. Pearson

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

Des, boarding school student at Hedgebrook Academy, is tired of all the injustice in the world.  She’s been cycling through boarding schools since she was seven, though her younger brother has never been sent away from home.  Her classmates (not friends—she has a policy against close relationships) at school are punished for attempted kindness.  So when a new teacher asks her what she wants most in the world, she answers, “One fair day”—a day when the good guys when, the bad guys lose, and everything works out as it should.  Immediately afterward, she spots her dream car parked with the keys in the ignition.   Soon she and three classmates have escaped from campus and hit the road. 

What promises at first to be a rollicking road trip turns into an outing of a tamer sort as the students spend the day exploring a neighboring town.  Des hides significant secrets that she gradually shares, though acute readers are likely to guess at least some of them in advance.   This is an enjoyable if somewhat tame adventure, but does not measure up to Pearson’s excellent science fiction drama The Adoration of Jenna Fox (2008).

 

 

 

 

 
         
My Reading Log
  by Jeff Ayers, Associate Editor

 

 

 
 

After tucking her daughter into bed, a mother disappears.  The husband appears to be the likely suspect, but with no body or other evidence, is he guilty? The Neighbor by Lisa Gardner (Bantam Books, $25.00) is an x-ray of modern suburbia that radiates long after the final page is turned.

 

 

 

 

 
 

Killer Summer by Ridley Pearson (Putnam, $24.95) has Sheriff Fleming foiling an attempt to steal priceless bottles of wine that might have been given to Thomas Jefferson by John Adams.  Of course, something more sinister is at work.  Another solid endeavor from the always reliable Pearson.

 

 

 

 
 
 

With his life in shambles and the woman he loves married to the Catholic Church, Conrad Yeats stumbles upon a major conspiracy in The Atlantis Revelation by Thomas Greanias (Atria, $25.00).  A worthy follow-up to the Atlantis Legacy that calls to mind a mixture of Cussler and Brown.

 

 

 

 

 
 

Nick Heller investigates the problems that other people are afraid to uncover.  When his sister-in-law is attacked and his brother disappears, Heller must use every trick he knows to find the truth in Vanished by Joseph Finder (St. Martins, $25.99).  This is the first of a new series, and readers will eagerly demand the next installment right after finishing this one.  Get it quick because it will vanish off the shelves.

 

 

 

 

 
 

The latest collection of old Harvey comics examines Little Dot, Little Audrey, and Little Lotta in The Harvey Girls (Dark Horse, $19.95).  Memories of reading these as a kid replayed in my head as I enjoyed these all over again.  There is a note that says this one is the last volume and I hope that’s not true.

 

 

 

 

 
 

One of my all-time favorite novels by Ray Bradbury has been adapted into a graphic novel.  Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation (Hill & Wang, $30.00) does a marvelous job putting Bradbury’s elegant words into visual form. 

 

 

 
     
     
     
     

 

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