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 February 2010 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

Facing Future


by Dan Kois

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

Continuum Books' “33 1/3” series is made of up pop dissertations on albums from artists as diverse as Black Sabbath and Celine Dion. This latest examines the history and significance of Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo'ole's Facing Future (1993), the first Hawaiian album ever to go platinum, and one that has now become what Kois justifiably calls “the shining apex of a brilliant career and a crucial artifact” of Hawaiian culture. If you own the album, you probably bought it for Iz's otherworldly medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World,” but there is so much more, and this book is the guide. Starting with a biography of Iz and recounting the sessions that produced the album (much of it was recorded in 1993, but several songs, including the medley, date from an inspired late-night jam session five years earlier), Kois traces the musical inspirations that led Iz to an admittedly hodgepodge album of Hawaiian sovereignty protest tunes, tributes to the land, and “Jawaiian,” a sort of island reggae. Each of the album's songs is carefully studied with very accessible cultural and musical notes—for instance how Iz gave the medley a traditional kahiko spin by ignoring the melody’s arpeggio, performing it as a “chant, standing pat on two or three notes.” The book also provides something the album doesn’t:  English translations of the Hawaiian lyrics. Finally, Kois covers Iz’s brief post-Facing Future career (he died in 1997) and cultural impact. An excellent book in the series, and the perfect volume for mainlanders who want to not just know but understand the man and his music.

 

 

         
 

Over Here!: New York City During World War II


by Lorraine B. Diehl

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Coming as it does from Smithsonian Books, it's no wonder that this book is lavishly illustrated. With its images of Mickey Mouse-faced gas masks for kids and thousands of soldiers marching past the Flatiron  Building, one could imagine that this is the catalog to an exhibit at the National Museum of American History. But, despite the breezy paragraphs accompanied by film stills and newspaper images from the late 1930s to mid-40s, Over Here is not just frothy nostalgia. New York City was a far cry from the small towns we think of as “Home Front America.” Diehl begins with the Nazi sympathizers who thrived in New York prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They carried swastika flags as they marched in German Day parades and held rallies in Madison Square Garden. Once America was in the war, the required nightly blackouts meant that the Empire State Building and Broadway's “Great White Way,” along with all the neon of Times Square, were dark for the duration. While, for most of the east coast, the blackouts served no real purpose (were the Nazis going to invade Maine?), New York was under a genuine threat.  A major naval construction and transportation hub, it was targeted by the Germans, who successfully deposited a squad of would-be saboteurs on Long Island.  It was only by chance that the plan to bomb key cites, including Newark's Pennsylvania Station, failed.  New Yorkers did their part for the war effort in inimitable style. The Ansonia Hotel was stripped of tons of decorative metal roof ornamentation, which was donated to a scrap metal drive. Rockefeller Center's flower beds were turned into a victory garden, growing broccoli, lettuce, and corn. Soldiers passing through, or on leave, might hear Benny Goodman at a dance, and the Stage Door Canteen offered free sandwiches served by Broadway stars.

 

 

 
         
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

Impact


by Doug Preston

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

            Abbey saw the sudden light before she saw the thing itself.  It came from behind the church, the harbor instantly as bright as day. . . .  

With that meteor strike in Maine, Doug Preston’s new devastatingly effective thriller Impact is off and running.  There’s no shortage of intrigue here, three interconnected plotlines worth which Preston balances with the aplomb and skill we’ve come to expect from him. 

But he outdoes himself in Impact, crafting a tale that takes us to Mars where deadly gamma rays may or may not be emanating.  This as old friend, CIA spook Weyman Ford (from Blasphemy), hits the road on the trail of radioactive gemstones and young Abbey Shaw digs around in search of meteorite chunks to sell on E-Bay of all things.  Watching Preston tie up these apparently disparate ends makes for great fun, the suspense building page by page to a wholly satisfying denouement. 

In many ways, Impact is a throwback, an old-fashioned potboiler bred from the tradition of such genre classics as Lucifer’s Hammer and Mount Dragon or The Ice Limit, a pair of titles Preston penned with Lincoln Child.  Impossible to put down and blisteringly paced, Impact further solidifies Preston’s status as the master of the conspiracy-riddled, potentially end-of-the-world tome practically invented by Michael Crichton.  The recently passed Crichton has nothing on him here and Preston seems poised to inherit his mantle.

 

 

         
 

Eggsecutive Orders


by Julie Hyzy

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

Olivia “Ollie” Paras is the head chef at the White House.  In this, her third adventure, a high-ranking official dies hours after a dinner with the president.  He was a vegetarian and was served different dishes from  everyone else.  Suspicion immediately turns to the kitchen staff.  It might have nothing to do with the food, but the  media are already painting it as Ollie's “role in the unexpected death of one of our most revered public servants.” Now Ollie and her staff are banned from the kitchen while the investigation proceeds.  Since she already had something of a reputation as an amateur sleuth, the security office has assigned her boyfriend, a presidential bodyguard, to make sure that she doesn't start investigating on her own.  After all, she's a suspect.  Now who's  going to boil the thousands of eggs for the upcoming White House Easter Egg Roll?  If that event gets cancelled it will be the end of her career. Despite the frothy set-up and chick lit trappings (boyfriend, Ollie's mother and grandmother visit, the book ends with handful of egg recipes, including an easy Hollandaise sauce you can make in a blender), Eggsecutive Orders rises above its “cozy”s roots as it progresses.  As more and more is revealed about the victim, past actions and unexpected connections rise up to cast a dark tone on the story.

 


 

 
         
 

Vampire Stories


by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

Vampire Stories is marred by two problems: sloppy proofreading and an absence of vampires. If there had been as many vampires as typos, it would have earned its title. The editors engage in literary backflips to spin the vampire theme. Regarding a mummy story of love and revenge, “The Ring of Thoth,” they say that “when the quest for immortality is combined with resurrection from the dead, these revenants take on a vampiric coloring.” For the eerie ice-bound tale, “The Captain of the Pole-Star,” they say the supernatural presence “may be a ghost, but it could just as easily be an Eskimo vampire which . . . drains heat from its victims.” 

Shameless marketing ploys aside (as well as pesky misspellings and misplaced punctuation), the stories in this collection are entertaining. “The American’s Tale” is a tall tale of the Wild West and oversized carnivorous plants. (Yes, a flytrap as a vampire.) “The Parasite” is a creepy story about psychic control, as are “John Barrington Cowles” and “The Winning Shot.” There are three Holmes stories, the obvious being “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” which, of course, has no vampire. The editors include a Holmes pastiche by Bill Crider, nice enough for what it is, but all it serves up is Bram Stoker, no undead. 

This is a slim volume; discounting Holmes, there are only six stories. Although they are all enjoyable, you might want to pass, just to punish the publisher for so unapologetically jumping on the vampire bandwagon.

 


 

 
         
 

Shades of Grey


by Jasper Fforde

reviewed by Neal Swain

 

 

 Life as we know it ended in the presumably massive Something That Happened, and a new civilization has been built up according to the chromatic laws of Albert Henry Munsell. On coming of age, every citizen takes the Ishihara Color Test to determine their level of color perception-- and thus social class and profession. The colorblind provide menial labor and are segregated off from the rest of society; marriage is forbidden among those with complimentary color-perception; and artificial color is a commodity for the wealthy, the same as spoons, which are registered and passed down along family lines. Swans are a deadly threat. The leading cause of death is mildew. Only fragments of our culture remain, mostly in the form of broken-down salvage used to produce artificial color, the occasional pick-up truck, and famous paintings from Caravaggio to Picasso, which are now held in public trust and viewable to anyone who asks even though their history has been lost.

Eddie Russett is about to discover something rotten at the heart of his orderly society. Curiosity and general good intentions lead him down a perilous path, and he is waylaid by color addiction, bullies, arranged marriage and murder—and that’s all before he gets eaten by a carnivorous tree.      

Jasper Fforde has created a cheerful dystopia in the spirit of his Thursday Next books, with a gentle dose of 1984.

 


 

 
         
 

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones


by Alexander McCall Smith

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

McCall Smith's “44 Scotland Street” novels portray the interconnected lives of a charming cross-section of contemporary Edinburgh. Originally published as a serial novel in the newspaper The Scotsman, they are a more whimsical version of Amistead Maupin's Tales of the City. Like any good serial, dating back to Dickens, the characters' lives go up and down at an alarming rate. Bruce is engaged to a rich and pretty, but dim, girl one day, and the next wakes up to find not only that he isn’t, but that her father has taken back the Porsche and there are two of his bouncers at the door to “help” Bruce move out of her apartment. Bertie is the precious (but not annoying) six-year-old son of a helicopter mother (or helicopter “mum”) who fills her life by shuttling Bertie from his Italian lessons to yoga to psychotherapy. He’d like to join the Boy Scouts, but his mother thinks they’re fascists. Domenica is convinced that her neighbor Antonia has stolen one of her teacups and goes through exquisite mental gymnastics to justify stealing it back. Or, rather, she convinces Angus to retrieve it. But Angus has troubles of his own. His dog Cyril has fathered six puppies, which he has to find homes for. Meanwhile Angus has also come into possession of a painting that just might be a rare and valuable portrait of the poet Robert Burns. Too bad the painting belongs to a gangster. This is the fifth volume in the series, but newcomers will have no trouble diving right in (though reading at least the previous book, The World According to Bertie, couldn't hurt since many of the plot threads that end here began there).

 

 

 
         
 

Gator A-Go-Go


by Tim Dorsey

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

            “I’ve just got my new documentary.”
            “What’s the subject?”

            “Serge and Coleman do spring break!” 

Take a Florida history loving, compassionate serial killer, add his perpetually stoned pal, mix in some particularly nasty Colombians and blend them with a few thousand collegians in the Sunshine State for spring break and you’ve got the recipe for another Tim Dorsey laugh fest.  There’s never a simple way to summarize the plot of a Dorsey tale and Gator A-Go-Go is no exception because plot is not really what his Serge A. Storms tales are all about. 

This time Serge hits the road with video camera in hand to highlight Florida’s historical hotspots, with the ever-present and always altered Coleman riding shotgun.  The trip takes on the feel of a reunion tour as they revisit some of our favorite haunts and characters from past treks into the ribald lunacy that has come to define this series.  Meanwhile, a klatch of murderous Colombian gangsters, on the trail of an informant’s son, are on a collision course with the whacky pair even as Serge continues to come up with incredibly unique ways to take the lives of traffic violators and those who dare deface or defile his beloved home state. 

For me, the Carl Hiaasen books haven’t been the same since he retired the wondrous Skink, aka former Florida governor Clinton Tyree.  Dorsey, on the other hand, continues to please at every level.  The hilarity level in Gator A-Go-Go is flat off the charts.  Riotous entertainment of the highest level.

 

 
         
   
   
Young Adult

 

 
 

Split


by Swati Avasthi

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

 

When 16-year-old Jace shows up at his older brother’s door, he has no money, his face is swollen and bloody, and he’s been driving all night from Chicago to Albuquerque.  Jace hasn’t seen Christian for years—ever since Christian vanished to escape their abusive father, leaving Jace alone to try to protect their mother.   Now Jace isn’t even sure that Christian will take him in, and he wonders if he himself may be on his way to becoming another version of their father.  How can he start a new life, or even a new relationship, when he fears that at any moment he might turn into a monster?

Jace is a well-drawn character, but some of the supporting cast remains a bit murky.  Teens looking for high drama may be disappointed by the book’s slow pace, but fans of Nancy Werlin’s The Rules of Survival and other stories of teen struggle against abuse will likely be drawn to Split.

 

 

 
         
 

Tangled


by Carolyn Mackler

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

 

Though not Mackler’s best work, this is a quick, enjoyable read.  Four teens converge in Paradise, a resort in the Caribbean, during spring break. Though they don’t all cross paths right away, their lives become intertwined over the following months, and each teen takes a turn telling a piece of the story.  Insecure Jena begins the narrative, followed by Dakota, whose girlfriend died the previous year.  Skye is a beautiful aspiring actress whose story focuses on depression, and Owen is learning to live in the real world, rather than primarily online.

Each character’s basic fate is eventually revealed, but some readers may be disappointed that characters are never fully revisited once their narrative ends; this is really more a collection of connected short stories than a novel.  Recommended for fans of Sarah Dessen, Deb Caletti, and Mackler herself, though new readers may wish to start with Vegan Virgin Valentine (2004) or The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things (2003).

 

 

 

 

 
         
My Reading Log
  by Jeff Ayers, Associate Editor
 
 

My son has been raving about this book for some time, so I finally broke down and read it.  And, I have to say, The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (Hyperion, $7.99) rocks!  Percy Jackson gets kicked out of another boarding school and when creatures from Greek mythology start to attack him, he learns the shocking truth that his father is actually Poseidon.  Needless to say, my son and I will be seeing the film version on opening weekend and I’m excited to know there are four other books that continue Percy’s adventures.

 

 

 

 
 

I heard the authors John Heilemann and Mark Halperin interviewed on 60 Minutes about their new book, Game Change (Harper, $27.99) and the history buff in me had to read it right away.  The election of 2008, the players, and the revelations, make this a phenomenal piece of journalism and the rare book that makes historical events read like a page-turning thriller. 

 

 

 

 
 

A comic strip I grew up with (I know I say that a lot) was The Wizard of Id.  Cute with funny punchlines told in three panels and a character always looking at the reader with a look of exasperation.  Now a wonderful tribute to the work of Brant Parker and Johnny Hart exists in hardcover.  The Best of The Wizard of Id (Titan Publishing, $19.95).  For some reason, the first few years are not included, but it’s still worthwhile for the curious and the fan.

 

 

 

 
 

Confessions of a Swinging Sea Turtle (Andrews McMeel, $12.99) continues the saga of Sherman the shark and his friends in the lagoon named after him. Funny and twisted, it’s another great collection.

 

 
 

See you next month…

 
     
     
     
         
         
         
         

 

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