April 2013 Book Reviews:



Salt Sugar Fat

by Michael Moss

reviewed by Jeff Ayers



Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss explores the world of processed food and reveals the truth behind what we are eating.  Every label design and even the layout of the supermarket have a singular purpose: to sell products to the consumer, and have that same person come back and purchase more.  The “food” the companies are manufacturing that goes into our toasters and microwaves has led to our country’s obesity, high blood pressure, and short attention spans.  The solutions to the problem are not self-evident.  Moss tries food lacking in salt at several companies, and for example discovers that an unsalted frozen Eggo waffle tastes like straw.  Corporations that have manufactured food with less fat, sugar, or salt, notice a huge decrease in sales, so the incentive to tone down the stuff that is bad for us is lacking to the makers.  What makes consumers crave the junk so much?  Moss talks to the scientists responsible for finding the average person’s “bliss point,” and describes the truth behind what we eat.  Science and history blend into an amazing read that should be mandatory for everyone. 




When Variety Was King

by Frank Peppiatt

reviewed by A.B. Mead



Peppiatt grew up in Toronto, Canada listening to American and Canadian radio shows in the 1940s. His fascination with the medium led him to radio advertising, and then, due to the constant need for material, to a writing partnership with John Aylesworth. With the advent of television, the two neatly segued into comedy writing for the Canadian market. Soon Hollywood and New York were calling, with much bigger stars and much bigger paychecks. Peppiatt's breezy memoir recounts his and Aylesworth's adventures in writing and creating the variety shows that were the mainstay of 1960s and 70s American television. These programs featured a mixture of songs and comedy sketches. A Frank Sinatra special might seem nearly spontaneous, but the two worked hard crafting the themes and content. Likewise, the seemingly off-the-cuff remarks between songs were carefully scripted. Alas, the book contains only a couple of examples of their material (probably due to legal rights; their writing was work-for-hire), so we don't really see why exactly they were so in-demand. But the book is nonetheless packed with anecdotes about the TV and movie stars of yesterday, such as when they were called in to save the day for Judy Garland's and Doris Day's programs. The most interesting material concerns the creation of their surprising success, Hee Haw. Critics almost universally reviled the country music and cornpone-joke-based show, yet it was number one in the ratings and ultimately ran for two decades. The story of how the show was filmed—a year's worth of certain segments shot back-to-back over the course of just one or two days before striking one set and putting up another for more marathon filming—and how, after the show was canceled by CBS, Peppiatt and Aylesworth gave it away directly to hundreds of smaller, syndicating stations and made a fortune, should be required reading for anyone interested in show business.



Monty Python's Flying Circus

by Darl Larsen

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale


Back in 2008, possibly the most useful book ever written for American Anglophiles was published:  Darl Larsen’s annotated guide to every episode of the 1970s British television phenomena Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Now the book has been reprinted in paperback and has been split into two volumes, covering episodes 1 – 26 and 27 – 45, respectively. The paperbacks together cost less than the hardcover, and they are much easier to handle than the massive, encyclopedia-like predecessor. The volumes are organized first by episode, and then, within each episode is an alphabetical listing of all the references mentioned or seen. Half of Monty Python’s humor relied on the audience understanding the literary, pop culture, sports, and historical allusions that flew by faster than an unladen African swallow. The Pythons having been educated at Oxford and Cambridge, these were sometimes obscure and erudite. Even 1970s British viewers probably didn’t catch everything. Now, almost four decades later, these volumes are invaluable if we are to understand references to Antony Armstrong-Jones (film-maker and Princess Margaret’s former husband) and all those “football clubs” (soccer teams). And Larsen’s work is, as the title promises, truly comprehensive. If you pick, say Episode 8, which features the “Dead Parrot” sketch, you’ll find 22 references to just that sketch alone, ranging from notes on other episodes where you can find the “thesaurus sketch” technique employed by John Cleese (“He's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be!”), to the simple definitions of “pining” (including a bit of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem) and “fjords.” Larsen’s work is simply a must-have for any fan of the Pythons.




Words from the White House

by T. Jefferson Parker

reviewed by A.B. Mead



Even the most casual student of politics and / or language probably knows that Harry Truman popularized the phrase “The Buck Stops Here,” adopting it from the game of poker to mean that, ultimately, responsibility rests with the President. Or that Dwight Eisenhower warned against a “military-industrial complex,” which would result in an ever-increasing arms race and expenditures. But few might know that many more common turns of phrase also originated at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Dickson's brief, browsable book covers the gamut, from “administration” to “XYZ affair.” Franklin D. Roosevelt coined “Cheerleader” in 1903, decades before becoming president, when describing his and his friends' rooting for Brown University in a ball game. “Iffy” also came from FDR, who lived in uncertain times. “Indoors” is an invention of George Washington, who, writing in his retirement, took note of the work one could do despite “Hail, Rain, or Snow.” The phrase “wall of separation between church and state” isn't in the Constitution, but Thomas Jefferson first used it in a letter to a group who had asked him to define the First Amendment. George W. Bush's “embetter” was not a neologistic flub; it dates back to 1583, and so is a “real word.” And “misunderestimate” (to underestimate by mistake) may turn out to be a popular term given time. We don't really have anything similar. As Bush noted, Thomas Jefferson, “contributed more new words to the language than any other U.S. President.” Bush was just carrying on a long tradition, even if by accident.






The Famous and the Dead

by T. Jefferson Parker

reviewed by Jon Land



Charlie Hood’s first big undercover assignment began with a nineteen-year-old girl living in a small town in Russell County, Missouri. 

T. Jefferson Parker has carved out a niche for himself as the Hemingway of thriller writers.  And all his talents are firmly on display in the flat-out terrific The Famous and the Dead, his sixth (and last) entry in the series featuring Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy Charlie Hood. 

Hood has already been morally battered and beaten by a long stretch serving in the New West, the stretch of the Mexican border where smugglers practically collide with each other trekking contraband, drugs mostly, into the U.S.  You wonder how much he’s got left in the tank when Parker’s latest gets underway, but rest assured it had better be a lot.  That’s because once again Hood finds himself at odds with his surrogate son Bradley Jones who straddles both sides of the law and Mike Finnegan who comes down squarely on the side of evil. Kind of a modern take on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but rising to a crescendo of violence more like The Wild Bunch.

Parker’s sparse, melodic prose is as simple as it is haunting.  Along with John Hart and James Lee Burke, he joins a rare breed popular fiction authors whose work transcends genre and approaches brilliance in style as well as substance. His writing is a wonder to behold and The Famous and the Dead is a riveting read.



Alive! A Valentino Mystery

by Loren D. Estleman

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale



Estleman’s UCLA film preservationist / “film detective” Valentino (that’s his nickname) returns in his third novel. Expanded from a 1998 short story, here Valentino goes in search of something that has actually been rumored to exist: Bela Lugosi’s screen test as the Frankenstein Monster before the role went to Boris Karloff. When an acquaintance is murdered, and Valentino finds a suitcase full of books about the Universal monster movies of the 1930s, he begins to piece it together. Meanwhile, there are gangsters (Hollywood gangsters—they control the stagehands’ and projectionists’ unions), and the ongoing saga of Valentino refurbishing an old movie palace. This is my favorite mystery series of recent years. Not only are the mysteries themselves cleverly constructed, and the dialog snappy, but the books are suffused with Hollywood history. And, while the first two were excellent, they were about the missing silent film Greed and Greta Garbo, respectively; Alive! is all about the monsters. The peculiar affection we have for these creatures and the actors who played them is threaded through the book. There’s even an analogue to Forrest J. Ackerman, the late publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland, (if you recognize that name or that title, this is exactly the book for you) and a tour through his mansion turned science fiction and horror memorabilia museum. The book concludes with 20 pages of Estleman’s notes on various biographies, histories, and the films themselves.




Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain

by A. Lee Martinez

reviewed by Scott Pearson



Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain is a light, funny read in the same breezy neighborhood as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It is, however, on the other, slightly less satisfying, side of the street from that iconic story. While it’s creatively bursting with enough sci-fi conceits and references to keep the reader happily flipping the pages—like a big, geeky bowl of popcorn you can’t stop eating—it’s also about as filling as that popcorn. 

Emperor Mollusk is the conqueror of Earth, a largely benevolent dictator who has grown weary of the role. But now that he’s stepping back from ruling Earth, it seems that someone else wants to take his place, and Mollusk will not allow harm to come to his former subjects. He’s originally from Neptune, and, indeed, in this version of the solar system all the planets have their own natives. It’s one of the entertainingly retro elements of the plot, hearkening back to a late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century outlook on Martians and Venusians and such.  

There are plenty of twists and chases and last second escapes to keep the story moving briskly along, but you can never really feel concern for Mollusk. Not only is he a mollusk-like creature in a robot body and a former dictator, but his somewhat-reformed evil genius gets him out of most seemingly fatal situations without much effort. Although he’s largely likable, and you root for his victory, there’s no real emotional hook in the story. It keeps the reader smirking and amused throughout, but Mollusk leaves your mind as soon as the last page is turned.




Let the Dead Sleep

by Heather Graham

reviewed by Jon Land 


No writer working today manages a more even balance between the normal and paranormal, the natural and the supernatural, than Heather Graham.  And her spellbindingly irresistible latest, Let the Dead Sleep, features the absolute perfect blend of all. 

Much of the action, appropriately enough, takes place in an old antiques shop Danni Cafferty has inherited in the wake of her father’s passing.  But the shop, in true Stephen King fashion, is not what it appears to be, chock full of secrets, spells, mysterious writings, and one especially evil statue that may have a mind of its own.   

“I threw it in the trash, and it was back in the study the next day,” rants the statue’s owner, Gladys Simon, who wants desperately to part with it.  “I dropped it in a dumpster on Bourbon Street, and it was back the next day.  I buried it—and it was back!” 

Kind of a hellish version of the Maltese Falcon and before you can say “Twilight Zone,” Danni and ex-cop Michael Quinn are on the trail of that statue after it vanishes in the wake of Simon’s very suspicious death.  Scouring the dark underbelly of the French Quarter to stop the evil it both magnifies and spreads. 

Let the Dead Sleep is as close to a perfect paranormal thriller as you’ll find these days, a sprinkling of The Exorcist added to Needful Things.  Classic horror-suspense that will leave you looking at your curio cabinet wondering if anything inside is staring back.



Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made

by Stephan Pastis

reviewed by Jeff Ayers



Stephan Pastis, creator of the comic strip “Pearls Before Swine,” has written and illustrated his first novel for children, “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made.”  It tells the heartwarming and funny story of a young boy detective named Timmy and his partner, a giant polar bear named Total.  The agency is named Total Failure, Inc.  The cases he receives include who stole someone’s candy and who is stealing a young girl’s shoes.  But the demands of the firm affect his schoolwork and his life at home.  His cluelessness might just prove to be his undoing.  He blames another student for the theft of his mom’s Segway, and sees a girl in his class as being behind a string of crimes, not realizing she just has a crush on him. The silly humor and funny illustrations help tell the tale.  Recommended for fans of both Pearls as well as kids who enjoy the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books.



Crap Kingdom

by D.C. Pierson

reviewed by A.B. Mead



Tenth-grader Tom Parking has just learned that he is the Chosen One. He is to be the savior of a mythic kingdom. There's a prophecy and everything. Too bad the kingdom, which has an unpronounceable name, is basically crap. Not literally, of course, more just “crappy.” The secret entrance is a clothes donations bin outside a Kmart, and the kingdom's subjects wear the cast-off clothes from our world. Their cars are made of junk, and the castle looks like a high school drama department set, unpainted side out. There is a princess, and a king, who at least has a British accent. But it's just not the sort of place anyone would want to be the Chosen One of. It's a kingdom of “meh.” The people are filled with low expectations and a bummer of an attitude. Besides, Tom's just starting to connect with his lovely classmate Lindsy. Little wonder then that he declines the offer to be their Chosen One and returns home to knuckle down on his homework. But when inspiration strikes, he returns only to find that his best friend Kyle has already replaced him . . . and he's doing a much better job. Soon the magic from the lousy kingdom begins to stir up trouble in our world. Although the book's language isn't any saltier than the title, some of the situations are more adult, making it a better choice for teen readers rather than young fans of Narnia and Hogwarts.






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