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December 2012 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

         
 

Citizen Soldier


by Aida Donald

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

This slim volume serves as an excellent introduction to the career and character of our 33rd president, and it’s perfect for anyone who doesn't want to tackle David McCullough's 1,100 page, Pulitzer-prize winning Truman. By frequently quoting correspondence between Truman and his wife Bess, from whom he was parted often and for long periods, Donald keeps this book intimate and familiar. Along with covering his early life and two terms as president, the book delves into the primary contradiction of Truman's life:  that, despite owing the start of his political career to the corrupt machine politics of the time, he went on to make his mark in the Senate by fighting corruption and fraud. And, although others benefited personally from the abuse of power, Truman himself maintained his integrity, no matter what the cost. “Everybody in Jackson County got rich but me,” he wrote to his wife. “But I'm glad I can sleep well.” Donald isn't overly-psychological in her analysis, yet by drawing on the recently released “Pickwick Papers”—a diary Truman wrote while staying at the Pickwick hotel in Kansas City, where he frequently went to rest from spells of mental exhaustion brought on by the conflict of being an “honest man in a den of thieves”—she concludes that his fundamental character trait was loyalty. So much so that he brewed up controversy when he was vice president by attending the funeral of his former political “boss,” convicted felon Tom Pendergast. Full chapters are devoted to his most critical moves as president. Truman was a great student of the Civil War, and knew that even one fully engaged battle could claim tens of thousands of lives. That informed his decision to drop the atomic bomb and sacrifice two cities in order to save millions of lives that would have been lost in an Allied land invasion of Japan. His leadership was not always appreciated at home, as when he temporarily nationalized the striking steel mills rather than let them close, threatening to harm production needed for the Korean Conflict. For Truman that was part and parcel of his character, his leadership skills having been honed in World War I, where as an artillery regiment commander, he was known as a man who “means business” and who got things done.

 

 

 

 

 
         
 

Every Day is an Atheist Holiday!


by Penn Jillette

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Magician, social commentator, and avowed atheist Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) turns to the topic of holidays—sort of. Jillette starts off by comparing and contrasting Handel's “Joy to the World” and Isaac Hayes' “Theme from Shaft” and discussing the “joyless” nature of holidays, which for him are “full of North Korea.” Plenty of praise, but not joy. For atheists, he argues, “everything in the world is enough and every day is holy.” Although he occasionally returns to this theme, mostly the book uses the conceit of holidays as a launch pad for Jillette to tell tales of the crazy things that have happened during his decades-long career with Teller, and of his life in general. Like his other books and podcasts, the results are at once insightful, funny, and irreverent (in both the common and literal senses of the word). Some of these are not exactly “holy days.” His commentary on the 4th of July tells the evolution of P&T's routine where they burn an America flag. Canadian Thanksgiving becomes an extended commentary on the proper use and usefulness of ethnic insults and offensive language in general. For Martin Luther King Day, Jillette delivers a fascinating and well-argued analysis of Dr. King's “I Have A Dream” speech, which, though filled with Biblical imagery, “backs off” on the topic of God, thus making it inclusive rather than exclusive. Groundhog Day is an essay on his craft. Starting with why, even when Jillette was merely a street magician, he always wore a suit (most street performers look like they need the money, he got money because he looked like he deserved it), Jillette segues into how doing the same thing on stage repeatedly is not boring. Repetition hones skill. Over the years, he has learned to convey the same thing with a small head move that used to take a full turn of the body. “It takes so little, but it takes time to get that little.”

 

 

 
         
 

BBXX: Baby Blues Decades 1 & 2


by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott

reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

 

It’s hard to believe that one of my favorite comic strips, Baby Blues, debuted with Darryl and Wanda MacPherson’s birth of their daughter, Zoe, on January 7, 1990.  Over two decades later, the clan has grown to a son, Hammie, and another baby, Wren.  The humor comes from the real life struggles that every parent faces, both good and bad.  Being a parent myself, I regularly laugh at the strip, and soon realize I had experienced a similar circumstance in my household. 

The beauty of this treasury is that not only have the creators of the strip picked out their favorites from 20 years of material, they also reflect on the strips, revealing new insight and how much their own lives provide the comedy.  The hardcover layout makes this the perfect gift for either the parent or comic strip fan in your life.

 

 

 

 

 
         
 

Star Trek: The Complete Unauthorized History


by Robert Greenberger

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

This massive, full-color, hardcover traces the history of the Star Trek franchise from before the original series to the J.J. Abrams reboot and beyond. It's the beyond that separates this book from the many Trek surveys that have already appeared over the years. Along with covering the individual series, Greenberger (himself a Trek novelist and former editor at DC Comics) branches out to include publications, merchandizing, and fan activity. Consequently, the book is lavishly illustrated with candid snaps from conventions; book, magazine, and record covers; and images not only of the more familiar toys and models, but rarities like cereal boxes and perfume. Because the book is unauthorized, it's free to discuss behind-the-scenes conflicts such as the twisty development of William Shatner's Star Trek V and the many disappointments of Enterprise. Greenberger also details projects that never came to fruition, like 1970s films that were scrapped in favor of a revival TV series, Star Trek: Phase II, which was, in turn, scrapped in favor of the first motion picture. This book captures the complete experience, as fans—the book's target audience, after all—might have lived it. The result is a must-have, multi-generational scrapbook of all things Trek.

 

 

 
         
         
         
         
         
 Fiction

 

 
         
 

Clockwork Angels


by Kevin J. Anderson

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

 

Clockwork Angels is a novel based on a story and lyrics by Neil Peart, drummer of rock trio Rush, tying into their new concept album of the same name. In order to judge the novel on its own merits, I avoided listening to the album. The book’s story is likable enough, but thinly plotted and missing a lot of the world-building details expected in novels.  

Owen Hardy is a country boy, expected to take over his father’s apple orchard, marry his sweetheart, and settle into life in little Barrel Arbor, where nothing much every happens. Nothing much ever happens in the entire land of Albion, as its ruler, the Watchmaker, runs everything to a schedule. Hardy, however, is a dreamer looking for a little excitement. He gets more than he bargained for when, on a whim, he catches a steamliner into Crown City and finds himself in a power struggle between the Watchmaker and public enemy number one, the Anarchist. 

While a lyric can get away with pat names like “the Anarchist” or “the Watchmaker,” a novel requires more meat on the bones. Lyrics need such verbal shortcuts because of the limited time, but casually dropping storied place names like Albion or Atlantis into a novel leaves the reader wanting to know how it all fits together. Such details are few and far between in Clockwork Angels, so it ends up reading more like a fairy tale, where everything is “just so,” than a steampunk novel. 

Fans of Rush will likely enjoy this expanded version of the concept album, but if you’re looking for a steampunk novel this is more of a snack than a meal.

 

 
         
 

Fobbit


by Scott Pearson

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

“Fobbits” are the U.S. Army desk jockeys stationed at Forward Operating Base Triumph, one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces and hunting preserves in Baghdad. Unlike the soldiers proper, who mostly work outside the concrete and barbed wire, the Fobbits enjoy the luxuries of air conditioning, a PX with its own Burger King and Starbucks, and time to kill. Set in the summer of 2005, the novel follows several Fobbits, but most of the attention centers on the ill-fated Captain Abe Shrinkle. Shrinkle himself is simply incompetent in the field, but back at the FOB he shrewdly exploits the desire of folks back home to do “something that mattered” by putting his name on every CARE package request web site he can find and hoarding the loot. He also adopts a second identity in order to party with the Australian army at their pool, complete with unlimited Foster's lager and sunbathing female soldiers from Sydney. The purely reactive nature of the Fobbits’ jobs makes the war feel like an unending game of Whac-A-Mole, as they deal with problem after problem, popping up out of nowhere, day after day. We see life on patrol where every trip contains the danger of a roadside bomb or indigenous sniper, but for the main characters, the most action they see are the continual revisions of a press release (“Somewhere in Oregon, a tree whimpered.”). This is a novel filled with very dark humor, and it doesn't shy away from occasional descriptions of the horrors of war and what it can do to the human body.

 

 

 

 
         
 

Not Dead Yet


by Peter James

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

Gaia Lafayette was unaware of the man out in the dark, in the station wagon, who had come to kill her. 

There is simply not a better crime writer alive today than Peter James and all his considerable skills are firmly on display in his latest mystery Not Dead Yet, again featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace of Scotland Yard.  But don’t let the impressive moniker fool you.  James’ latest has a particularly American feel to it, in large part because its heroine, actress Gaia Lafayette has already escaped one attempt on her life when she arrives in Brighton to shoot her next movie.  It’s here that Not Dead Yet becomes a riveting potboiler that pits Grace against an obsessive fan who’s got Gaia kind of literally in his crosshairs. 

In that respect, the book is reminiscent of the underrated Kevin Costner film The Bodyguard.  And Not Dead Yet has a pace to match that as well as more typically “American” thrillers, as if Gaia brought that influence with her from Hollywood.  Her issues are pretty much the last thing Grace needs, especially in view of the personal baggage he’s carrying that gets heavier with each book.  But Not Dead Yet is the best entry in the series so far and the best mystery of the year hands down.

 

 

 

 
         
 

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore


by Robin Sloan

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

The economic slump has hit Clay Jannon. Formerly the webmaster/marketing director/typeface designer for failed start-up NewBagel, he now works the night shift at the titular bookstore in a dicey part of San Francisco. Almost nobody ever comes in to shop. Instead, Clay's primary duty is as keeper of the Waybacklist, a lending library of ancient tomes that eccentric readers borrow and return in the middle of the night. To pass the time, he writes a program to graph the locations and borrowing patterns of the books. Joined by “supercute hacker girl” Kat, a Google employee (Google gets so many plugs in this book, you'd think Sloan is hoping to get hired, but these and other Bay Area references lend a healthy verisimilitude), he finds that the patterns form a face. When his boss, the mysterious Mr. Penumbra, disappears shortly thereafter, Clay is well into a personal quest to unlock an ancient secret. While a key dramatic scene features an army of Googlers keyboarding away at Google HQ, and the denouement is a PowerPoint presentation, the world of 15th century printer and font-designer Aldus Manutius is also integral. Here cutting-edge information processing joins forces with its very old school equivalent for a celebration of centuries of geekdom and what technology can accomplish. Note: the dust jacket of this book actually glows in the dark.

 

 

 
         
 

Project Nemesis


by Jeremy Robinson

reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

 

 

A Department of Homeland Security agent stumbles into a conspiracy, and puts his life, and a local sheriff’s in jeopardy in Robinson’s latest page-turner.  Jon Hudson receives a call to investigate a Bigfoot sighting.  He thinks it’s a crank call, but heads out and finds a supposedly abandoned military base.  When the sheriff, Ashley Collins, investigates with him, they don’t find a Sasquatch, but they do find a lab that appears to be conducting secret experiments.  A wealthy man will stop at nothing to get a heart transplant, even if it means murder.  Unfortunately for everyone, the experiments unleash a horror unlike anything they have ever seen.

Robinson provides a twist on a classic monster tale, and the result is a fun thrill ride.  He is able to provide the balance between sympathetic characters and beast carnage.  Fans of monster movies from the 50’s will want to read this for sure.

 
         
 

The Twelve Clues of Christmas


by Rhys Bowen

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

 

Lady Georgiana Rannoch—twenty-something, still single, and 35th in line for the British throne—returns in her sixth mystery. It's Christmas of 1933 and the perpetually hard-up Georgiana has taken a paid position as “social hostess” over the holidays. She's to lend an air of impeccable class to a country house party where a dozen guests are paying to experience a proper English Christmas. She's barely arrived when a wave of mysterious deaths hit the village. They look like accidents, but locals are more inclined to blame them on the curse put on the village by a witch burned at the stake two centuries ago. As Georgiana investigates, the book takes readers through the coziest of mysteries. From Gorzley Hall, where it takes four men to put up the Christmas tree and the sideboards groan under the weight of silver tureens loaded with kidneys, bacon, and mice pies, to talk of pantomimes and the Yule log, the setting is quintessentially Christmas and charming. Will there finally be romance between Georgiana and her on-again-off-again boyfriend? Is Colonel Rathbone really in India's Bengal Lancers regiment? Is the village's “wild woman,” Sal, bearing a grudge because she's descended from the witch? This is the perfect holiday, Anglophilic treat giving us, as one character puts it “Ye Olde English Christmas with ye olde aristocratic family”. . . plus murder.

 

 
         
 

Two Graves


by Doug Preston and Lincoln Child

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

“I’m on an emergency mission of the highest priority,” FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast tells a Georgia highway patrolman who has the misfortune of pulling him over. 

He is indeed, likely the biggest mission of his career in Doug Preston and Lincoln Child’s spectacular Two Graves.  The great thing about their latest is that it blends the mystery and intrigue from earlier entries in the series with the mysticism and blisteringly high stakes of the earlier titles that made them go-to names in thriller fiction. 

The last few books have pretty much been dominated by Pendergast’s search for his missing, perhaps murdered, wife and/or the perpetrators behind the crime.  When Two Graves opens, that obsession remains but it’s swiftly joined by an equally perplexing and interconnected plot involving multiple murders at the hands of a mysterious boy with apparent supernatural powers.  The NYPD turns to the ever-reliable Pendergast for help and the result is a dizzying, cross-continent chase leading ultimately to the jungles of South America where terrible truths both old and new await. 

Unquestionably the best paced and most satisfying entry in the series so far, Two Graves clicks on every level, from character study of a truly tortured soul to an eerie, impossible-to-put-down classical tale of good versus evil.  Pendergast remains the closest thing contemporary pop fiction has to Sherlock Holmes and his latest adventure is not to be missed.

 

 
         
 

The Wizard of Macatawa and Other Stories


by Tom Doyle

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

This collection of a dozen science fiction stories by the award-winning Doyle has something for everyone. “The Wizard of Macataw” is set in both 1899 and 1979 (as well as bits beyond) and hints at the secret origins of L. Frank Baum’s Oz series. The story stands alone for readers who might only be familiar with the 1939 film, but for those who know the Oz canon, this is a must-read. “A Sense of Closure” looks at a future where the population is split into the “Youngers,” who never age, and the “Old Ones” who did not benefit from genetic manipulation and are now aging and dying. A police procedural, it centers on the mandatory investigation of all deaths (“closures”), the rarity of which has wrought new societal assumptions and complications. “Hooking Up” reminds us that some things never change. In the high school of the future, digitalization means that even after the pretty girls have left the room, their avatars can still hang around to mock you, and jerks can “attack” you at the school dance with weapons that are virtual, but still hurt. Artificial intelligence assistants / implants and worlds packed with ads fill these stories. As Doyle says in one story’s introduction, some of his tales are “science fictional attempts to find good jobs for the insane.” The spy / hooker / artist protagonist of “Crossing Borders” is at best a sociopath, but nonetheless good at all her jobs. Some stories just skirt the speculative world. “The Floating Otherworld” is a kaleidoscopic trip through Japan’s Bon Festival—a sort of Halloween / Día de los Muertos, and “Sea and Stars” is about Brazilian spiritualism. My personal favorite, “Noise Man” follows the career of a young1930s radio enthusiast as he becomes part of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. “The Garuda Bird” deconstructs Indian myths and wraps them up again Bollywood-style.

 

 
         
         
         
         

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