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 December 2009 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

Return to the Little Kingdom: Steve Jobs, the Creation of Apple, and How it Changed the World


by Michael Moritz

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

 

Moritz tells the tale of the early years of the Apple Computer Company, starting with young Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak as high-school students and ending with the creation of the Macintosh. Even in the 1960s, the Mountain View-Cupertino-Sunnyvale area of Northern California was a hotbed of engineers and companies like Sylvania, Intel, and Ampex who made early electronic devices for Lockheed, which had large military contracts. The two Steves were “phone phreaks,” early hackers who built their own “blue boxes” that could fool phone company computers into allowing free long-distance calls. The lessons in circuitry and design that they taught themselves while “phreaking” soon led to building their own computers. Moritz recreates for us the wild, seats-of-their-pants days of Jobs and Wozniak scrambling to obtain funding (Jobs sold his car, Woz his personal calculator) for their project, and then getting friends and family to help assemble the first Apples in garages and bedrooms, surrounded by bags of computer chips. From the start, though both were highly-skilled, Jobs was clearly more interested in style and appearance, while his partner tackled technical aspects. The lesson of Apple may be that Jobs' obsession with details has always paid off. Younger readers will particularly enjoy learning about the Homebrew Computer Club, the 1970s bastion of geek power that launched Silicon Valley back when programs like BASIC came on cassette tapes. Older readers will thrill to the tales of backstabbing and greed that hit the Valley when Apple went public. This is a great entrepreneurial story, well-researched and well-told.

 

 

         
 

The Big House


by Stephen Cox

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Yet another excellent entry in Yale's “Icons of America” series, this short and engrossing volume examines American prisons during the “the big house” period. From the 1860s until the 1960s, when reform changed the institution, the image and reality of massive prisons housing thousands of prisoners in striped uniforms was an integral part of American culture. Many prisons held regular tours, and experiments in prison design reflected America's slow shift from the ornate but functional to the cold and scientific. Cox touches on the full spectrum of experiences “inside.” There are chapters devoted to daily life (the food was so uniformly bad that it was the cause of most of the riots), sex (homosexual activity viewed as everything from preventable/curable perversion to the full-scale “projection of conflicts and fantasies” in Jailhouse Rock and Oz), and the near-impossibility of running institutions where those in control are so vastly outnumbered by those being controlled. Robert Stroud, “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” who wrote books and ran a bird-centered mail-order business out of his cell, stands as the symbol of prisoner individualism. Whether their aim is to punish or reform, prisons, by definition, need to control all aspects of their inmate’s life. But, in doing so, the only thing they succeed in without question is generating resistance.

 
         
 

Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present


by Hank Stuever

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

Stuever studies the suburb of Frisco, Texas over three years in order to paint a picture of the 21st-century American Christmas. Even in times of economic uncertainty Christmas there is all about BIG. All his life Jeff Trykoski has wanted his house to be “that house”—the one with all the lights. Now he and his wife Bridgette illuminate their home and yard with a show that clogs traffic for miles. (They are not alone. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra's “Wizards in Winter” can be heard blasting across America. There is a thriving subculture of people who “put tens of thousands of Christmas lights on their suburban houses and program them to blink to music.”) Stay-at-home mom for the first nine months of every year, Tammie Parnell spends the remaining three decorating other people's houses for the holidays. She earns  a couple of hundred dollars an hour for dealing with all that plastic. “Fake is okay here,” she says.  Really, who want the hassle of real trees and garlands? It's easy to laugh at the big hair and people with whole rooms devoted to model Christmas villages year round, but underneath all that everyone seems to be striving to find some sort of real meaning in the holiday. More successful than most at that are the volunteers of the Frisco Family Services Center who run a food bank and “angel trees” at churches, where parishioners can fulfill the requests of the less fortunate. One year they served 245 families with 535 children in total. That's the spirit of the season.

 

 

 
         
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

Unseen Academicals


Terry Pratchett

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Pratchett continues to strike comic gold in his latest Discworld novel. This time he's spoofing the world of sports, in particular soccer—or “foot-the-ball” since it's British soccer and soccer fans/hooligans he's concerned with. Of course, the humor is so universal that fans of any sport (or even those who are fans of none) will understand and have a wonderful time. One of the bequests that keeps the wizard college Unseen University well-funded (and its inhabitants well-fed) requires that the school field a soccer team in a game at least once every twenty years. That time is now. But the stuffy academics have a lot to learn before they're ready to go out there and win one “for the sake of the cheese board!” without magic. From what they can tell, it all seems to center on the meat pies that concessions stands sell.  Working hard to assist the wizards is Nutt, a goblin who is incognito from a neighboring city-state; Trev, a hooligan who's about to have a Romeo and Juliet style romance with . . . Juliet, a U.U. kitchen girl, who, coming from another neighborhood, is a supporter of his team's arch rivals; and Glenda, Juliet's long-suffering friend, boss, and mistress of the crispy pickled onions in U.U.'s ploughman's pie. As always, Pratchett has a genuine affection for the things he satirizes. Along with jokes about how low the scores in soccer are, there are truly affecting passages about the thrill of the game and being part of the rooting crowd.

 

 

 

         
 

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein


by Peter Ackroyd

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

 

To paraphrase a pithy film review I once read, The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is 350 pages of entertaining fiction . . . unfortunately it is 353 pages long. It begins with a clever conceit, a reimagining of  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where Victor Frankenstein befriends Percy Shelley at college. Many signature events of the original novel then unfold, but entwined with the biographies of Percy, his first wife Harriet, second wife Mary, Lord Byron, and Dr. Polidori. Their lives and the original story are altered by this blending, playing off each other in meaningful ways, such as the fictionalized use of the  real-life death of Harriet. Early nineteenth century London, the primary setting, is richly textured—the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the culture. Even the famous trip to Geneva (where, in the real world, the novel Frankenstein grew out of the telling of scary stories) is woven into the tragedy of Victor Frankenstein and his drive to create life from death. The story is engaging and literary and creepy, everything a reader could want in a Frankenstein pastiche—until an abrupt and staggeringly unsatisfying ending. Because of that, Casebook is recommended only for Frankenstein completists; if you’ve read the original multiple times, you will appreciate much of what Peter Ackroyd has done here, in spite of the disappointing conclusion. Others will probably just be disappointed.


 

 
         
 

Inherent Vice


by Thomas Pynchon

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

When a writer of Literature tries his or her hand at genre writing the results can be mixed.  Inherent Vice is a solid, funny crime novel, but you can not say, "Only Thomas Pynchon could have written this." Stylistically it isn't that far removed from one of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum "between the numbers" novels. Okay, a Plum novel starring Cheech or Chong, and set in the Los Angeles beach communities of the early 1970's, but it's all groovy, man. Along with hundreds of local pop culture references (from half the streets and eateries in the City of Angels to the music of the time to riffs on Charlie the Tuna's death wish and how Charles Manson messed up hippie-straight relations forever), Vice is packed with Pynchon's usual obsessions. The characters' marijuana-induced paranoia and hallucinations might just be actual alien/time-travel conspiracies centered on counterfeit Richard Nixon $20 bills and lost continents. Fortunately, all that psychedelic madness lends itself quite well to this tale of a stoner private investigator.  Larry "Doc" Sportello has an "ex old lady" (girlfriend for those of you under 40) who needs his help, and, like every fictional P.I. worth his salt (or Gold Colombian), he soon finds himself on a case that balloons into so much more. There's a foreign drug cartel, a supposedly dead surf-rock star who keeps turning up everywhere Doc goes, and a couple of sexy "stewardii" (a delightfully neo-Grecian term of Pynchon's coinage), not to mention characters with last names like Dopple and Velveeta. This would made a good entry point for Pynchon.  Start here, move on to The Crying of Lot 49, and then, if he still has you, tackle Gravity's Rainbow.


 

 
         
 

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart


by Jesse Bullington

reviewed by Neal Swain

 

 

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is a primer on degeneracy. Its eponymous characters, Hegel and Manfried, rank among some of the most debauched protagonists in the history of modern literature: murderers, heretics and graverobbers, their corruption taints everyone they encounter on their pilgrimage to ‘Gyptland’ where they plan on plundering whatever tombs have been left untouched by their ancestors. Their exploits are gruesome, violent, and morally suspect.

And also delightful.

Jesse Bullington’s debut novel takes us hostage in a medieval world where demons roam the wilds and happy endings and good hygiene are scarce. This is not a modest story by any meaning of the word: in the front matter of the book is an excerpt debating the origin of the word ‘fuck’; Bullington doesn’t spare a single detail about the brothers’ afflictions and inflictions; and the book employs conceits of style that could ruin a story if they weren’t so well used for its benefit. The book also culminates with several pages of bibliography, a prime example of good fiction, especially given that some of them are faked…

 

 


 

 
         
 

In Great Waters


by Kit Whitfield

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

In this fantasy alternate history set in the late 1600s, European human royalty have mixed with the merfolk “deepsmen.” No country with a coastline is safe unless its blue blood is partially briny. In order to prevent potential threats to the established power system, any new such mixing is illegal. The subsequent inbreeding among royal houses has produced the inevitable occasional weak bodies and minds.  But some are strong, and all mixed-bloods vary in their need for water. Young Henry, a “bastard” (illegal, commoner mer-human) risks being burned at the stake if the British crown learns of his existence before the mysterious powers that found him raise an usurping army in his name. Meanwhile young Princess Anne of England watches the political machinations of the others in her family, particularly her much-prettier, older sister Mary, who is being married off to a French prince.  The realpolitik demands of land-bound politics still exist. As much as In Great Waters reads like a straight historical novel, this fantasy world is well-drawn. Anne walks with sticks to help support her not quite human legs, and her uncle is attended by the Privy Sponges to keep him moist in public.

 

 

 

 

 
         
 

I, Sniper


by Stephen Hunter

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

He still walked with a limp from a bad cut picked up a few years back.  His hair was gray, his face bleak, his body old and achy. 

Which doesn’t stop Stephen Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger from being one of the finest series characters ever to grace the thriller genre, now and forever.  Swagger’s back at it in I, Sniper, and when I say back at it I mean back being the sniper that made him a household name in 1993’s brilliant Point of Impact. 

“Let me hunt this bastard,” Swagger implores the FBI after a fellow Marine corps sniper is set up to take the fall for a series of assassinations.  And, faster than he can zero a target in his cross hairs, Bob is off on the trail of a deadly rival at the center of massive conspiracy he alone is left is unravel.  In addition to being a splendid treatise on all things sniping, I, Sniper once again casts Swagger as the quintessential loner hero, sure to be abandoned and yet emerging victorious nonetheless.  

Hunter’s last two books can be aptly summed up as Bob Goes Japan (The 47th Samurai) and Bob Goes NASCAR (Night of Thunder).  Both serviceable entries to the series for sure, but not nearly as effective as I, Sniper, a fact not lost on the author himself.  “Bob was alone in the world of the scope,” he writes fairly early on.  “He was home, really.”  And so is his creator.  I, Sniper is pure, reading bliss, a solid bulls-eye that places Hunter on the level David Morrell, James Lee Burke and Lee Child, as good a novelist as he is a storyteller.

 

 

 
         
 

A Rumpole Christmas


by John Mortimer

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

Tales of Rumpole of the Bailey, the late Mortrimer’s poetry-quoting, small cigar-smoking, “very ordinary red”-drinking barrister are always welcome. This slim volume of five short stories, previously uncollected in earlier Rumpole anthologies, all center on the most magical time of the year. The first, “Rumpole and Father Christmas,” is little more than an anecdote where Rumpole recognizes the man hired to play Santa at the annual office party. After that we move on to meatier fare. “Rumpole’s Slimmed-Down Christmas” finds Horace and his wife Hilda (“She Who Must Be Obeyed”) at a health farm where a death in the steam room take’s Rumpole’s mind off his diet of steamed vegetables and yak’s milk. “Rumpole and the Boy” has our hero back in the more familiar setting of a courtroom as he defends in a blackmail case and befriends a young boy who studies sensational trials. “Rumpole and the Old Familiar Faces” is the best of the tales, combing two adventures where Ghosts of Cases Past pop up to confound and assist Rumpole. One of these centers on the tradition of the good old-fashioned Christmas pantomime, a raucous sort of vaudevillian musical. Court is not in session during the holidays, so “Rumpole and the Christmas Break” should have given Horace a rest.  But no, on vacation in the countryside, Rumpole bumps into “The Old Gravestone,” Mr. Justice Graves, the judge in his current murder case.  That during their last exchange in the courtroom Rumpole insulted the judge does not help matters.

 

 
         
 

The Paris Vendetta


by Steve Berry

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

 

“That was the reality of the Egyptian campaign.   A bloody, hard-fought conquest.  But I assure you what happened there is why you and I are having this conversation.” 

Cliffhanger chapter endings like that have become part and parcel of thriller writer extraordinaire Steve Berry’s well-honed style, on display once again in The Paris Vendetta.  Ex-intelligence operative Cotton Malone is lured back to his old game again, in spite of his best efforts to retire peacefully to a life selling rare books. Malone, you may recall, was last seen on the trail of the truth behind his father’s death in The Charlemagne Pursuit.  While the stakes are considerably less personal this time out, they’re equally high. 

Indeed, Berry adeptly juggles converging plotlines dealing with the search for the lost treasure of Napoleon and a massive conspiracy to destabilize, if not destroy, the world economy undertaken by a shadowy cabal known as the Paris Club.  “It could be argued,” Malone is warned at one point,  “that [economics] is the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.”  And, as a result, it’s hard to imagine a more timely thriller. 

The research is spot on to the point where The Paris Vendetta becomes as much history lesson as potboiler, and that’s the point.  Berry has become the modern master of the thriller form, balancing his various subplots and multiple characters with a smooth and seasoned hand.  The Paris Vendetta, and everyone of his conspiracy-themed thrillers for that matter, is like a giant jigsaw puzzle in which all the pieces fit perfectly together.

 

 
   
   
Young Adult

 

 
 

The Demon King
(The Seven Realms, Book 1)


by Cinda Williams Chima

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

 

The powerful (but not necessarily beneficent) wizard community has shared power with the clans for a thousand years following a cataclysmic magical event called The Breaking.  But now the balance of power is shifting as wizards exert a heavy, possibly magical influence on the queen.  Raisa, the princess and heir to the throne, worries that the queendom is spinning out of control, and strains against the confines of her position as princess.  Meanwhile, Han Alister, a former street lord, struggles to stay alive and take care of his family in the gritty world beyond the castle gates. 

Demon King has everything traditional fantasy fans are looking for: a vaguely “long ago, far away” setting, a lovable rogue, a rebellious princess, and of course, maps on the end pages.  But it is also more politically complex than the average contemporary fantasy, containing at its core a struggle between a darker-skinned local people (the clans) and the fair-skinned ruling class (the wizards).   Chima’s follow up to her Wizard Heir series promises to be even more popular than that series.

 
         
 

Leviathan


by Scott Westerfeld

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

 

It’s 1914, and the world is on the brink of World War I—but it’s not quite our world.  The Clanker nations of Europe, who have built terrifying industrial machines of war, are lining up against the Darwinist countries, including Britain, who have created fabricated creatures—entire ecosystems, really—as their own weapons systems.  The continent spirals into violence after the murders of the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who also happen to be Alek’s parents.  Alek himself is whisked away by loyal servants in the dead of night, and remains on the run.  Meanwhile, Deryn’s attempt to pass herself off as a boy to join the British Air Service leads her to an assignment on the Leviathan, a giant living airship on a secret mis sion. 

Though both protagonists seem younger than their fifteen years and character development takes a back seat to the action, most middle school readers who are fans of Westerfeld’s hugely popular Uglies series will also enjoy this fast-pasted novel. 

 

 

 

 
         

 

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