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 June 2010 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

 

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory


by Ben Macintyre

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

The first major Allied victory in Europe during World War II was the taking of Sicily. To help accomplish this, the British intelligence service devised a plan to trick the Germans into thinking that their intended target was Greece or Sardinia. With Nazi forces deployed elsewhere, the path would be more or less clear. In a classically British piece of misdirection and understatement, the evidence was to be (mis)information found on the body of a dead British courier that would wash up in Spain. Spain was neutral but riddled with German spies and sympathizers. The entire operation hinged on the verisimilitude of the corpse.  Fake letters and receipts were planted on “Major Bill Martin.” Secretaries throughout MI5 were asked to provide photographs, and one was chosen to become “Pam,” Martin's fiancé. The real trick was the intelligence evidence.  It couldn't be too good, lest it be obviously false. They settled on personal correspondence that dropped names and hints. Then there was the problem of keeping a corpse fresh while you transported it from London to Spain. Would the ocean currents cooperate? An incredibly detailed background and life story were constructed for Martin (His father didn't agree with the engagement; he thought Pam was a bit of gold-digger.), including  an obituary—never used—to be  planted in the London Times. Would the Spanish coroners believe that Martin had drowned? Would the Gestapo agents fall for it? Although the reader knows the outcome, Macintyre writes so well, and supplies so much detail, that there are times you wonder if our heroes might not make it after all.

 

 

 
         
 

Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training


by Tom Jokinen

reviewed by Neal Swain

 

 

 

In this memoir, Tom Jokinen pulls back the curtains -it had to be said- on the funeral trade to give his readers a peek in. Quitting his job at a radio station to intern at a Winnipeg funeral parlor, he sets out to learn everything about the business of death from selling caskets to cremation. On the way, he drops a couple of corpses, attends a Mennonite funeral, tours a pricy eco-graveyard, visits an industry conference, and weighs in on a legal dispute between two rival funeral parlors.
 
Curtains is more than a collection of sometimes gruesome anecdotes (if you think you know what body bags are, you may revise your opinion after reading this book) or a day in the life of a modern undertaker. Jokinen’s steady sense of humor is showcased but in this book, he’s undertaken a broader theme: the modern funeral, both its history, how funeral parlors are faring today, and how burying the dead has changed now that cremation is firmly established in North American funeral culture and a much greater degree of freedom and flexibility has been introduced into the rites for mourning –and celebrating- our dead.

 

 
         
 

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison


by Piper Kerman

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

Piper Kerman is not the typical inmate at the women's Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut. She's in her thirties, a college-graduate, white, and middle-class. But ten years after a youthful drug indiscretion, the sentencing guidelines of the War on Drugs finally catch up with her, and she finds herself serving 15 months. All things considered, the FCI isn't that bad. The food is terrible, and there's not much else to do but exercise, so she loses weight, and she's soon in the best shape of her life. There's no abuse by the guards, and her fellow inmates are more or less supportive of each other.  It's a bit like a sorority, but with much stricter rules. Anyone looking for an exposé of harrowing conditions and the terrors of the modern prison system will have to read elsewhere. Instead, Kerman portrays the women around her with such sympathy that when any little good thing happens—someone passes the GED, someone gets an early release—you cheer. The most exciting part of the book is the end where she endures an “air con” trip to Chicago to testify against the leader of the drug ring who landed her in prison in the first place. The contrast between the chaos of her temporary facility and the relative calm of Danbury is striking. It's always interesting to go inside closed societies, especially ones you only want to see from the outside.  Recipe for “Prison Cheesecake” (made from things you can smuggle out the kitchen) included.

 

 

 
         
 

The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto


by Bernard DeVoto

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

Small press Tin House Books has reissued this long-out-of-print peon to those mainstays of the 1950s and 60s, the cocktail and the cocktail hour. Small, short (you can read it in a little over an hour, which makes the $16.95 cover price positively usurious—until you remember that this comes from a small press. Buy a copy; be a patron.), but filled with sly, snide wit as dry as a classic martini. Mad Men has brought back an interest in the drinks of our grandfathers, though DeVoto insists that properly there are only two. Anything other than a straight whiskey or a martini is “a heresy.” Tongue in cheek, DeVoto begins with a history of American booze-making, from the Indians who regarded corn as “mere food”  to those Nineteenth-Century gents who bellied up to the bar and ordered whiskey “in confident expectation and awareness of national destiny.” When he's not calling anything with fruit or rum  heresies, he insists they are “a regressive fantasy, a sad hope of regaining childhood's joy at the soda fountain.” As for all those recipes for beverages found in the back of cookbooks, they are “emetics and mickey finns.” DeVoto praises six o'clock as the perfect hour, and expounds on the importance of a cool, dark club in which to sip, perhaps accompanied by a young lady named Marjorie. The Hour is the perfect gift book for the retro hipster in your life who digs Markers Mark and likes his martinis “Montgomery.” (The British general preferred to attack when he had overwhelming advantages.  Hence a martini in which there is practically no vermouth:  the gin conquers.)

 

 

 
         
 

The Journal Keeper: A Memoir


by Phyllis Theroux

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

 

 

Through journals from 2000 to 2005, Theroux shares her life during personally momentous times. She is living with her elderly, dying mother; tentatively re-entering the dating world following many years alone while haunted by divorce; and dealing with the financial challenges of being a full-time writer. Throughout she tries to maintain old friendships, make new ones, repair lost ones . . . a life much like anyone's. The reader quickly gets to know her, like a close friend, faults and all. Theroux does not censor when her acerbic outlook goes a little too far or when moments of selfishness push away those close to her. Writers will certainly relate to this scene: “An innocent question from someone at the gym— 'Still writing?'—caused me to strike out. 'Why do people ask that?' I shot back. 'I'm a writer. That's what I do.' She was embarrassed and taken aback and I regretted my words instantly. But they were out, like a snake that has struck a victim, before I could control myself.” Of course, it's a simile fitting for any ill-tempered outburst, so even though the memoir might have extra depth for writers, it still speaks to all. Like any basically good person, she acknowledges her missteps and tries to do better. She does not linger on problems; her journal isn't “a garbage can for . . . dark developments” but a “personal light box.” Her general hopefulness and curiosity more than balance out her bleaker moments. Recommended, especially for writers and lifelong readers.

 

 

 
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

Strong Justice


by Jon Land

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

Land's second novel featuring Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong is even better than the first. Land uses the same template as Strong Enough to Die, translating the sensibilities, atmosphere, and history of Wild West lawmen to modern times, but centering the underlying plot around something that even people who don't like “westerns” will enjoy. In Die that something was a torn-from-tomorrow's-headlines tech weapon. Here, it's the 2012 Mayan End of the World scenario and a rash of unexplained violence that's affecting ordinarily-normal Texas suburbanites. Rest assured that this is no apocalyptic fantasy novel; Ranger Strong's world is gritty and grounded in reality. The world isn't ending. Instead we have the more plausible and much more dangerous situation of a deluded Mayan / Mexican army officer who thinks that a war with the United States will trigger the end times and make him powerful. The violent madness and Strong's investigation of a steroid-fueled murderer and a ring that's smuggling young Mexican girls across the border into prostitution collides with the Mayan explosively (how else?). Flashbacks reveal that an enemy's grandfather and her's knew each other (as well as some Chicago mobsters) back the days of Texas oil wildcats. As we slowly learn the backstory, we see that the past is not nearly as far away as we might think. Or hope.

 


 

 
         
 

Super


by Jim Lehrer

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

It's 1956 and the Super Chief—the mighty passenger train that streaks from Chicago to Los Angeles in a mere 39 hours—still has a shine of glamour, though airplanes are starting to make their presence felt. Super is a short mystery set on the cusp of the old and the new. Several Hollywood folks are aboard, and they aren't handling change well. A depressed Clark Gable isn't able to “perform” with the female passengers like he used to, and a film producer isn't sure that television is a viable market to sell films to: Everybody's already heard “Gable say 'Frankly, lady'—or whatever . . .and you don't want to hear him say it again.” Former president Harry Truman is also going to California to deliver a speech. He's just trying to enjoy the ride, but someone else has a bone to pick with him—a legacy of the atomic bomb program. Nearly everyone has secrets, from the porter who makes a little money on the side by sneaking unticketed riders on the train for a small fee to a very ill man who rides the train back and forth looking for a mystery woman from his youth. A murder on the train can't be allowed to stop the silver streak's schedule, but it's a great opportunity for one of the train's lowly passenger assistants to explore his passion for investigation. Packed with period details and cozy charm (what's more cozy than a sleeping berth?), this is an unabashedly fun read.

         
 

Stairway to Hell


by Charlie Williams

reviewed by A. B. Mead

 

 

 

Rik Suntan has developed a small following as the house singer for a pub on the outskirts of London. He specializes in the best of Sixties and Seventies rock, with a particular talent for Cliff Richard. When he both loses his job and gets shot at by a dwarf in one night, you know he's about to take a long, strange trip. It turns out that Led Zepplin guitar legend Jimmy Page was an actual warlock who, during the drug-fueled days of the Seventies, stole the souls of fellow rockers David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix (Here talent and personality are separate from the actual soul) and stored them in a couple of babies for safe keeping. He'd need these “High Denomination Souls” to gain more and more dark, cosmic powers—to  climb not the Stairway to Heaven, but the other place. Now it's 30 years later, and Rik, who's been hosting Bowie, is part of a deadline involving the souls and the Devil. Luckily, Rik's manager Ted is in on the tale and has plans to return Bowie's wayward soul, as well as that of failed heavyweight boxer turned grill-master George Foreman, currently residing in Eggy the aforementioned dwarf. This is dry British wit of a high order.

 

 

 

 

 
         
 

Fever Dream


by Doug Preston and Lincoln Child

reviewed by Jon Land

 

Doug Preston and Lincoln Child’s have confronted their recurring hero, FBI agent and troubleshooter Aloysius Pendergast, with any number of challenges over the years, but nothing like what he faces in the blisteringly hot Fever Dream

“My wife died twelve years ago when we were on safari in Africa,” he tells his police pal and partner Vincent D’Agosta early on.  “She was attacked by a lion.  At the time I believed it to be a terrible accident.  Now I know different.  Now I know she was murdered.” 

Pendergast proceeds to plead with D’Agosta to help him unravel the mystery.  Good thing since that mystery turns out to be layered in conspiratorial subterfuge that tests Pendergast’s normally stoic mettle.  Turns out his wife Helen enjoyed a fascination with a painter and his lost masterpiece entitled the Black Frame, a painting that may hold the reason for her elaborately staged murder.  That Hitchcockian McGuffin makes for great literary theater, as Pendergast and company embark on a twist-laden journey that will remind genre purists of Arthur Conan Doyle at his thoughtful best. 

Indeed, in Pendergast we are witnessing the modern incarnation of Sherlock Holmes.  And, true to his spirit, Preston and Child imbue Fever Dream with a class, elegance, and wit that makes it stand above and apart from the crowd.  A great book in all respects.

 

 

 

 
         
 

Alembical 2


by edited by Lawrence M. Schoen and Arthur Dorrance

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Last year's Alembical from small press Paper Golem gave us four novellas in the fantasy and science fiction genres. This year's volume has only three, but they're longer and stronger. The implied themes of this volume are longevity and shape-changing, with each story featuring the topics in some manner.  “The Paragon Lure” by Tony Pi is a fantasy set in contemporary London. Felix Lea is a centuries-old shape-shifter who now specializes in antiques. When a priceless pearl—an object that connects him not only to his fellow semi-immortals but to his days in the court of Queen Elizabeth I and acting in Shakespeare's company—goes on display, he's got to have it, even if he knows it's a trap. “Second Chance” by David D. Levine is hard science fiction with a sexual politics undercurrent. In the future, clones of scientists are sent on a deep-space mission searching for other  planets suitable for human colonization. Someone is keeping several secrets from Chaz, and his curiosity will soon out. The shortest of the stories, but the one with the most realistic characters and a half-dozen well-explored ideas. J. Kathleen Cheney's “Iron Shoes” takes place in the early 20th century. Imogen Hawkes is a young lady beset by an overdue mortgage on her horse stables, a landlord who wants her hand (and more), and a puca—an Irish fae who can transform from horse to man. Paranormal romance by Dick Francis out of All Creatures Great and Small. A must-read for any horse fan with a taste for genre.


 

 
         
 

The Burning Wire


by Jeffrey Deaver

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

That’s what had killed the young passenger.  A shower of molten metal drops flying through the air at a thousand feet a second. 

Leave it to Jeffrey Deaver.  Just when you thought the means to scare us had been effectively exhausted, he comes up with a new concept and entirely new brand of serial killer for his quadriplegic hero Lincoln Rhyme to confront in The Burning Wire

Electricity is that killer’s weapon of choice, specifically something called an “arc flash.”  Leaving the technical specifics aside, suffice it to say that the initial attack that claimed only a single victim is merely a test run for something much, much worse.  The fact that it’s personal will come as no surprise.  And with oil spilling nonstop from the remnants of BP’s Deepwater Horizon, effectively holding the Gulf Coast states hostage, a whole new and scary meaning has been given to technology’s ability to terrorize. 

That makes The Burning Wire eerily prescient and timely.  Watching Rhyme lead the investigation via video feeds and his loyal, wired-up partner Amanda Sachs makes for some of the most clever and original staging in thriller fiction today.  But Rhyme is also dealing with his old nemesis “The Watchmaker,” lending the ninth entry in the series an especially frantic and whipsaw pace that provides the perfect balance to its bed-bound hero.  Rhyme is to brain what Lee Child’s wondrous Jack Reacher is to brawn and the result is a cutting edge classic of the form.

 


 

 
         
Young Adult

 

 
         
 

Birth Marked


by Caragh M. O’Brien

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

Hundreds of years in the future, on the shores of the now dry Great Lakes, two separate societies exist side by side:  a subsistence-level village culture and the mysterious, wealthy, walled Enclave that rules it.  As midwives in the village, Gaia and her mother are required to “advance” three of the babies they deliver each month to powerful forces within the Enclave.  But when her parents are arrested and taken away, Gaia begins to question the system of advancement, and decides to infiltrate the Enclave to find her parents.  With help from Leon, a young soldier, and others who resist the Enclave’s power, she works to follow the clues her parents have left her about the secrets of the advancement system.  But who, if anyone, can she really trust?  O’Brien skillfully builds suspense within a believable dystopia.   Recommended for fans of dystopian fiction ages twelve and up.

 


 

 
         
 

The Red Pyramid


by Rick Riordan

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

Rick Riordan has said that when he was a teacher, the only topic more popular than Greek mythology was Egyptian. Having covered Zeus and Co. in his Percy Jackson series, Riordan now moves on to Ra, Anubis, Osiris, and all the rest whose images can be found inside pyramids. The format is basically the same as the Percy Jackson books, so fans of that series will find a lot to like here. Teenagers Carter Kane and his sister Sadie take turns narrating the adventure. Their mother is dead, and their father, an archeologist, disappears while performing a ritual over the Rosetta Stone—a process that destroys the stone and damages the British Museum. There is no equivalent to Jackson's Camp Halfbood, though. Instead, the Kane kids spend their time on the lam, racing from Egyptian object to object (the reconstructed Temple of Dendur at the Met in New York, tunnels under the Sphinx at Giza), all the while learning a little something about the mythos. Instead of being the half-children of the gods, the Kanes soon learn that they are descendants of the great magicians of Egypt, and so have inherited the ability to use magic. The magicians were the enemies of the Gods, charged with keeping them in check. When their father blew up the Stone, he turned loose the evil god Set, who now plans to destroy the world. The kids have one week to stop him and his various nightmare minions (armies of scorpions, etc.). This book promises to be the first in a new series, but it doesn't quite have the same impact as the Jackson books. Egyptian mythology just isn't as strong as Greek in our culture. The Greek gods are familiar; they seem like your squabbling relatives at a dinner table, while the Egyptian are too flat and alien.

 


 

 
         
 

The Prince of Mist


by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

reviewed Hayden Bass

 

 

It’s wartime, and Max and Alicia Carver’s family has moved from the city to a small coastal village where their father believes they will be safer.   But strange things happen in their new house—icy breezes, voices, and statues that seem to move.  When they meet Roland, a local boy, Max and Alicia begin to learn more about the village’s past, including a shipwreck and a mysterious presence called the Prince of Mist.  Roland’s guardian, the lighthouse keeper, seems to know more about these secrets than he is willing to share.  This atmospheric ghost story will appeal to middle school readers who can handle less than completely happy endings.


 

 
         
 

Sparky: The Life and Art of Charles Schulz


by Beverly Gherman

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Three years ago David Michaelis published his biography of Peanuts creator Schulz. That was a thoroughly-detailed, warts-and-all telling suited to adults who had grown up reading the comic strip. Sparky—Schulz's nickname—is a biography for younger readers. His affair and divorced are simplified (“Sparky and Joyce were no longer getting along.”), as is his now-legendary depression. But because one of the purposes of biographies for young readers is to inspire, Gherman does that too:  “Sparky was extremely sad. Some days he felt like a failure. But his feelings didn't keep him from drawing the Peanuts strip every day.” All the classic tales of Schulz's life are told. We read about his Minnesota upbringing, where, like Charlie Brown, his father was a barber. Donna Mae Johnson, the red-headed woman who was an accountant at the art school were Sparky worked became “the little red-haired girl.” CBS executives worried about A Charlie Brown Christmas, but Sparky's simple, old-fashioned material launched a whole sub-empire of Peanuts animation. Hard work, perseverance, and how he turned some of his experiences (including a brief, successful stint in the army) into his art abound. The book is printed in the same style as Schulz's own Happiness is a Warm Puppy (1962) with every page a different color and using a variety of colors of ink (Tiffany blue on gold!). Each page of text alternates with an image, usually a Peanuts strip. But there are a good number of family photos, as well as my personal favorite:  a high school art assignment to draw trios of common objects. Even then, his golf bags, cigars, and tombstones show a whimsical genius.


 

 
         
         
My Reading Log
  by Jeff Ayers, Associate Editor
 
 

Known for his thrillers and his comic book writing, Brad Meltzer detours from them to create a wonderful gift book called Heroes for My Son (Harper, $19.99).  The heroes vary from the Wright Brothers to Brad’s mom, but the vignettes for each prove that each person mentioned is worthy of inclusion.  A great book to read and then pass on to your son or daughter.

 

 

 

 

 
 

Bill Amend disappointed a lot of comic strip fans, me included, when he retired the daily strips of Foxtrot.  Thankfully, he still does them on Sunday and the first treasury of these Sunday only strips is compiled in Foxtrot Sundaes (Andrews McMeel, $16.99).  Very funny and worthwhile seeking out even if you don’t usually read comic strips.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

Sam Deker saves a mosque from being blown up in Israel, but is promptly captured and taken to Jordan, where he undergoes horrible torture in Promised War by Thomas Greanias (Atria, $24.00).  What happens next is truly astounding and will force you to frantically turn the pages to solve the events as they unfold.  His Atlantis trilogy was a blast, and now he amps up the action while forcing the reader to once again question history. 

 

 

 

 

 
 

Phillip Margolin writes novels that Alfred Hitchcock would have loved to make into films.  His latest,   Supreme Justice (Harper, $25.99), finds a policewoman on death row for the murder of her lover.  The Supreme Court of the United States begins looking into reviewing the case when a justice barely survives an assassination attempt.  The mysteries pile up and Margolin doesn’t let up until the final shocking twist.  It’s a sequel to his 2008 novel, Executive Privilege, but it’s not necessary to have read that one to enjoy Supreme Justice.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise That Saved the Union by Robert Remini (Basic, $24.00) takes a look at Clay and the deal he made in  1850 to keep the United States together.  Though the deal would eventually lead to succession by the southern states, it paved the way for the strengthening of the north and the emergence of Abraham Lincoln.  A fascinating period in history that Remini reveals in a book that finishes too quickly.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 
 

See you next month...

 
     
     
     
         
         
         
         

 

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