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July 2010 Book Reviews:



Chasing The White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw's Adventures in Moonshine

by Max Watman

reviewed by A.B. Mead




Watman alternates between the history of corn whiskey (the titular “white dog”) in America and his own experiments in home-distilling in this absorbing read. Technically, even adding wine to your coq a van is illegal because when the alcohol boils off that's distilling, and, without a permit, everything involving distilling is illegal. But hobbyists will always find a way. When building his own still, Watman has a hard time finding pieces at Home Depot because nobody uses those kinds of valves anymore, and he has to turn to YouTube to figure out how to solder copper. As a journalist writing about moonshine, he gets hassled by the practitioners who think he's a cop.  Meanwhile, the cops are happy to talk to him but warn him that if they find him anywhere near a still they'll arrest him. America was founded by men who made money distilling. George Washington's Mount Vernon had (and has) a distillery, and by 1810 there were over 14,000 stills in the U.S. Licensing started in the 1860s as a way to raise revenue for the Civil War; hence the term for those who enforce the liquor laws:  “revenuer.” We see how moonshine runs led to the creation of NASCAR, and explore the world of “nip joints” (the alcohol equivalent of crack houses, where you can get 9 ounces of terrible, but potent, 100-proof booze for $2). Prohibition launched a home brew and distilling revolution, not to mention home wine making:  a company that sold cakes of dried raisins packaged them with detailed warnings about what not to do with them, lest they ferment and turn into wine. As Watman presents it, the world of moonshine is divided into two camps. There are “micro-brewers” dedicated to craft and flavor, and there are the criminals who produce large-scale amounts of utility-grade alcohol to sell in poor communities for untaxed profits. Both realities are a far cry from the romantic image of the overall-clad hillbilly who brews up a jug or two. 








by China Miéville

reviewed by Neil Swain



In London—a London full of elaborate cults, magical crime lords, urban hiruspices, unionized wizards’ familiars on strike, and magicians who can fold one another into origami—the gods are restless, and omens of doomsday flood the city. A preserved giant squid has disappeared, bottle and all, from the Darwin Center, and in its wake Billy Harrow, a curator, finds himself sought after by a special wing of police and other more deadly parties. Rescued by a museum security guard who works a double-shift as an enforcer for the Krakenists, who consider the missing squid a god, Billy becomes a very confused prophet with just a few days to save the world from resetting. Fortunately he has allies who know a sight more about London’s magic than he does—less fortunately, they aren’t always on his side.
China Miéville’s dark humor and sharp prose stretch over the armature of a plot that takes a little of the goofiness of Un Dun Lun and twines it with the literary depth of his Baslag series. The cast of characters is magnificent; his main villainous duo, Goss and Subby, are shiveringly horrible, and Miéville pleasantly doesn’t relegate minor characters and love interests to the margins and instead gives them their own stories. His most recent paean to the city is marvelous.



Live to Tell

by Lisa Gardner

reviewed by Jon Land



Thirty years ago, Thomas Harris’ masterful Red Dragon ushered in the age of the post-modern horror story.  Post-modern because all of a sudden the monsters were no longer invading our world, they were woven into the fabric of it.  Well, Lisa Gardner’s most recent titles have moved that motif into the heart of suburbia and her latest, the mesmerizing Live to Tell, reads like a taut twist on the American dream turned nightmare. 

“We got five bodies, right?” queries her recurring hero Detective D.D. Warren on the scene of the brutal murder of an entire family.  “Four dead, one in critical condition.  Five bodies for five family members.  Then why is the [dining room] table set for six?” 

Against that chilling backdrop, Warren begins an investigation that will involve multiple, interconnected sub-plots featuring both villains and victims alike linked by the intrusion of devastating violence into everyday life.  In Gardner’s world, even children are cast as both victims and victimizers; her inexorable point is that no one can escape the monsters, no matter how safe the underside of that bed may seem.  The mere possibility that a normal, happy family man could murder his entire family is frightening enough, never mind that the actual denouement is even scarier. 

Harlan Coben has been following this same path for several books now too.  But in Live to Tell Gardner blazes her own terrifying trail that brands her a master of the sub-genre she helped create.  Chilling in every respect, this journey to the dark side is not to be missed.



Elliot Allagash

by Simon Rich

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale



It's amazing what you can do with unlimited resources. An Allagash ancestor invented paper centuries ago, and now, thanks to the royalties (on every envelope, every baseball card, every piece of toilet paper. . .), high school student Elliot Allagash can afford pretty much anything. What he chooses to spend his time and resources on is fellow student Seymour Herson. Part Election, part twisted Pygmalion, Elliot wants to help schlub Seymour be a real success. Unfortunately, the only way Elliot knows how to do anything is by throwing his money around behind the scenes.  In other words:  cheating. Through a series of complex plots, Elliot begins by wiping out the competition so Seymour can be class president. But what Elliot really wants is the ultimate makeover for Seymour: admission to Harvard. Filled with delightfully dark exercises in low-level crime and exploitation, the book follows the two boys through their mutual high school career. Of course, their exploits can't continue forever. Eventually it takes more energy to keep cheating than it would for Seymour to just study for his classes and work on a real community service project. You know that in the end Seymour is going to learn that money can’t buy happiness, but his bumpy ride is well worth your time.




Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America

Robert Charles Wilson

reviewed by Scott Pearson



New in paperback, Julian Comstock is a sprawling tale set in the post-oil world of the twenty-second century, when the United States encompasses all of North America. As civilization climbs up from the collapse of industry and ravages of global epidemics and environmental catastrophes, it has re-created  nineteenth-century technology: there is steam power and electric light, but no airplanes, television, or radio. The war with Europe over the northern states in historical Canada is fought by infantry and cavalry on horseback. Ancient stories of technology, such as human flight to the moon, are declared heretical by the Dominion, the official Christian church. Although some of these elements have become standard in clichéd post-apocalyptic stories, Wilson breathes new life into them, and the global situation seems disturbingly believable. 

This is the backdrop to the story of Julian Comstock, the nephew of the current president and a potential rival since the office has become inheritable. As Julian and his companions are caught up in a conscription effort to feed the bloody war in Labrador, Julian begins a climb to fame and power that he has been trying to avoid. He is a heretic and an intellectual, a believer in the ancients' technology as well as evolution, and with this outlook it is inevitable that he will clash with those in power.  

Engaging characters, a compelling narrative, doses of adventure on land and sea during battles with European forces, and political intrigue combine for an entertaining story well worth reading.


Inside Out

by Barry Eisler

reviewed by Jon Land




Fox News commentator Glenn Beck hitting #1 on the New York Times bestseller list with a thriller makes you appreciate Barry Eisler all the more.  A veteran intelligence operative himself, Eisler brings all of his experience to bear in Inside Out, and the result is a tour de force of both storytelling and social commentary by someone who actually lived the life instead of just imagining it. 

“Even in the grand panoply of CIA incompetence,” reads the first paragraph, “this one would be a standout.”  Indeed, Inside Out is the first thriller in our post-Iraq world that dares delve into torture, cover-ups and military intelligence malfeasance.  Front and center in the action is Ben Treven, a specialist in black ops who, though a bit jaded, is nonetheless committed to his craft and country.  Especially when he’s dispatched to track down a bunch of tapes proving the U.S. guilty of the worst brands of torture the Cheney minions have long disputed.  The potential of these tapes to wreak havoc is no less real than the multitude of players who want to acquire them.  And the fun lies not only in the chase itself, but also in watching the evolution of Treven’s sensibility from functional automaton to questioning everything he’s always believed in. 

Eisler’s latest makes for a welcome respite from the endless tirades where facts play second fiddle to fantasy.  Never has a title more aptly described the world created by its author, in this case not just fashioned but actually lived, helping to make Inside Out the very definition of what a thriller is supposed to be.  Glenn Beck take note.



The Mills of God

by Deryn Lake

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale


There's nothing more cozy than a British mystery featuring a vicar. Young Reverend Nick Lawrence has just received his first parish assignment: the charming village of Lakehurst. Of course the tiny local is populated by the usual assortment of characters:  the busybody, the amateur poet, the rough-hewn farmer . . . But there is also the handsome Russian doctor and the lovely professional violinist who spends her weekends in the country. And there might even be an Elizabethan ghost making non-threatening noises in the vicarage. This book is billed as “A Reverend Nick Lawrence Mystery,” but Nick and his parishioners come and go in the story, and really this tale belongs to local police inspector Dominic Tennant. Divorced (his wife ran off with the star of a amateur dramatics production in which Tennant had only a minor role), the inspector throws himself into his work, taking us from the pub to stables, as he tries to solve a series of murders by someone leaving clues suggesting that his victims have sinned again the Ten Commandments. We see the town through Nick's eyes and the investigation through Tennant's. Hints that murders have something to do with Hollywood’s Golden Age of Cinema add a layer of glamour to the otherwise mud-caked trousers of this rural community.





Beyond Justice

Joshua Graham

reviewed by A.B. Mead



First-time novelist Graham has produced a genuine page-turner with a twist that makes it stand out from most thrillers and legal dramas. Sam Hudson, a San Diego tax attorney, returns home one night to find his wife and daughter murdered and his son in a coma. All the forensic evidence points to him as the assailant. Child pornography turns up on his work computer, and his wife's parents are suing for custody of their grandson and have placed a restraining order barring Sam from his son's hospital. Newly-minted, but clever and determined, defense attorney Rachel Cheng tries her best, but Sam ends up in jail. It's there that some very odd things begin happening—things which clearly have a divine origin. 

What sets this thriller apart is the deft handling of religion. Rachel took Sam's case on the recommendation of his late wife's pastor.  Sam is an atheist, but his wife was active in the community church. The members of the church step in to help in simple ways.  They provide support without proselytizing. This could have been a clunky, preachy aspect that would have sunk the thriller elements, but it does not.  When Graham turns to courtroom drama, the writing is tense; when he's inside Sam's mind, the emotions are wringing. Likewise, Sam's slow conversion is a natural part of the story and born of his circumstances and character. This is not “Christian fiction” a la Left Behind. Many jailhouse memoirs contain conversion stories. There's no reason why what we accept in non-fiction we should find peculiar in fiction.




Houdini Pie

by Paul Michel

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale


As you might expect from a novel steeped in baseball and 1930s Los Angeles, Houdini Pie reverberates with echoes of Bernard Malamud and Nathanael West. What really drives this book is the titular “Houdini Pie”—a slang term for flip-flam and fakery. Twenty-four-year-old Halley Gates was born when the Comet came around in 1910. Now it's the middle of the Depression, and he plays AAA baseball in the Pacific Coast League. A good and simple young man, he's been surrounded by tricksters and hucksters all his life, from his father to his girlfriend's mother, who ekes out a living as a psychic. So he really doesn't know what to believe when he's drafted into a plot so outrageous it might even be true. Did Hopi Indians leave a huge treasure buried beneath what is now Los Angeles thousands of years ago? Who were the mythical Lizard People? And does an ancient map in the possession of an aged Hopi really lead anywhere? Little questions like truth aren't going to stop Hal's boss, who's in cahoots with the mayor, from digging up west L.A. For all its flummery, Houdini Pie is based on a true footnote to Los Angeles history.




Young Adult



As Easy As Falling Off the Face of the Earth

by Lynne Rae Perkins

reviewed by Hayden Bass



On his way to a summer camp on the West Coast, Ry steps off his delayed Amtrak train in an effort to find cell phone reception.  But then the train unexpectedly pulls away, taking his luggage with it and leaving Ry stranded somewhere in the wilds of Montana.  Ry must depend on the kindness of strangers to help him find his way back home.  Perkins, author of Newberry winner Criss Cross, delivers again with an excellent novel that will have particular appeal for middle school boys.  Though some adults may have concerns about Ry’s basic trust in the people he meets, it’s hard to argue with the novel’s premise that most people will do a stranger a good turn when given the opportunity.  The novel’s understated humor, likeable characters, and road trip narrative should win it lots of fans.



The Summer of Skinny-Dipping

by Amanda Howells

reviewed by Hayden Bass



Mia feels out of place spending the summer with her beautiful, wealthy cousins at their Hamptons beach house.  Her cousin Corinne, with whom she used to be close, has essentially turned into a Gossip Girl; she drinks heavily, uses drugs, juggles boys, and ignores Mia.  But just when Mia thinks she’ll be miserable all summer, she meets Simon, whose family rents the beach house next door.  Simon doesn’t fit in with the fast young Hamptons set either, but he’s learned not to mind it.  Soon he has Mia out of her shell and out of her bikini, skinny-dipping during their late night swims.   

What seems like a light, frothy summer romance story takes an abrupt turn into tragedy at the end.  This will no doubt disappoint some readers and delight those looking for a good tear-jerker.   Hand this to high school girls looking for a beach read.



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