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September 2010 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

 

97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement


by Jane Ziegelman

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

Ziegelman's absorbing social history follows the story of one New York City tenement, 97 Orchard in the Lower East Side, and five families who lived in it during the Age of Immigration from 1863 to 1935. Focusing on what these immigrants ate, Ziegelman explores how their diets affected the city and later influenced our country's culinary culture over five waves of immigration:  German, Irish, Jewish, Russian, and Italian. We learn how each group brought its own food customs to America, and, through food substitution, food abundance, and the changing culture, how they adapted and thrived. Jewish cuisine traces the source of fat, from geese (which were to kosher), to chickens (which were cheaper), to Crisco—the first commercial vegetable fat—which was pareve and even more versatile than goose fat. It was mostly men who came from Italy, and they clung more tightly to their ancestral food than any other immigrants. For them, proper Italian food wasn't just dishes made in the Italian manner, it required actual ingredients from Italy. The family meal was a time to be together as well as eat, and attendance was mandatory. Even if the school lunch was free, most Italian children ate lunch at home. Germans would gather for 30,000-strong cultural festivals and enjoy the spirit of their nation through beer and sausages—something that today we don't find unusual (Miller Lite and a Dodger dog anyone?), but at the time was exotic. Delicatessens boomed because they made it easy to buy a small amount a good food. And, in a crowded, windowless tenement, who wanted to cook? Especially with a wood-burning stove and no running water. Food for these immigrants was not just a source of nourishment, but, by serving as a reminder of all they had left behind, of comfort as well. The book includes a few recipes in each chapter to help explain food customs and to encourage readers to experiment at home.


 

 
         
 

Civil War Humor


by Cameron C. Nickles

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

At last an aspect of the Civil War that hasn't been beaten into the ground. With the exception of Abraham Lincoln's instructions to find out what General Grant was getting drunk on every night and to make sure the rest of the Union's generals got some, we don't really laugh when we think of the 1860's. But American culture wasn't all that different 150 years ago. Magazines, songs, and especially newspapers produced during The War Between The States were filled with satire both as sophisticated as Doonesbury and as broad as Saturday Night Live. A Currier and Ives lithograph titled “The Old General Ready for a 'Movement'” depicts Union General Winfield Scott atop the city of Richmond supposedly waiting for the Confederate Jefferson Davis to “move in,” but his squatting position over Davis, suggests “it is not a military evacuation he is ready for.” Southern papers depicted Lincoln as a monkey handing the Emancipation Proclamation to a jubilant black man, and as an ineffective stick figure made of rails. On the home front, army contractors who grew fat on the public's dollars were warned of their sins by doggerel verse, and those who shirked their duty by not joining up were caricatured as effete “swells.” The book does not shirk from the unpleasant use of African Americans in some of the “humor” of the time, but Nickles employs that as springboard to detail the little-known position of “contrabands”—escaped former slaves living in the north. The book is well-illustrated with reproductions of political cartoons and broadsides from the period. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Nickels' examples of humor in advertising. Today's President's Day car dealership ads aren't too far removed from the “Proclamation” issued by Charles Baker of Philadelphia warning that “General JOHN FROST aided by his Irresistible Warriors” hail, rain, snow and sleet were “about to INVADE THE HOMES of Loyal Northerners.”  Therefore Baker was advertising “for the purpose of EMANCIPATING the people from the Tyranny” of the elements and coal dealers—by selling weather stripping.

 

 

 
         
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

Bitter Seeds


by Ian Tregullis

reviewed by Neal Swain

 

For a thousand years, British warlocks kept a secret: an inhuman language that can be learned only by children and used only with blood sacrifice.  Tradition had it passed down by father to son and practiced in private—and sparingly, because the speaker doesn’t get to set the blood price of their negotiations. And so tradition was kept, until Nazi u-boats threatened the coastlines of the British Isles and the Germans sent their secret weapon -children tortured by a scientific mystic until they developed superhuman abilities- into the field.  

Out of desperation, British spy Raybould Marsh asks a longtime friend, with whom he’d once borne witness to something uncanny, to call on every warlock he knew of. They gave the Allies the edge they needed... but now there will be consequences. 

Bitter Seeds, Ian Tregullis’s debut novel and the first of a trilogy, is a horrific story written well and executed brilliantly, giving life to London's wartime streets and its citizens. Strongly recommended.

 


 

 
         
 

Night of the Living Trekkies


by Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

 

This latest zombie mash-up brings together the flesh-eating undead and a Star Trek convention. In the style of Galaxy Quest, this is a loving parody, playing with the stereotypes of science fiction and science fiction fans without being mean-spirited. It’s packed with references to Star Trek (every chapter title is the name of an episode or movie) and other genre fare, making it a fun read from start to finish for those on the inside.  

The in-jokes occasionally backfire, however. Although you can’t do a Trek parody without joking about Red Shirts, the cannon fodder security guards, the stretched-out routine here is played for dark laughs but falls flat. A Trek convention in a hotel named “Botany Bay” without a single attendee making a joke about it? Inconceivable. The same could be said for the lead character with the  mash-upped captains’ name “Jim Pike” . . . like no one would notice that. There are other misteps; the hero’s back story is a bit heavy-handed, and the soldier-with-a-sixth-sense bit was both cliched and then strangely underused.   

But the reader doesn’t pick this book up for subtly crafted fiction. The authors create sci-fi zombies and heap on the Trek trivia, zombie gore, and a variety of edged weapons from Klingon bat’leths to Jem’Hadar kar’takin. What more do you need? Although some of the metafiction references seem a bit well-worn, there are enough plot twists to keep this geeky romp worth reading for anyone who’s been to a sci-fi convention.

 

 
         
 

So Cold The River


by Michael Koryta

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Pluto Water—a bottled spring water with a sulfurous smell and a dancing devil logo—was a popular cure-all during the roaring Twenties, and it put West Baden, Indiana on the map. But, when the Depression hit, the factory closed and most of the townsfolk left. A century later, Eric Shaw is there to work on a video biography of the one famous person ever to come out of West Baden, the very wealthy Campbell Bradford, now on his death-bed. Eric has always had psychic flashes, and sips from some still-sealed bottles of the water begin to give him detailed visions of the town's dark past. (Eventually, Eric becomes dependent on the water, and Koryta's use of this as a metaphor for alcoholism is striking.) As this excellent supernatural thriller progresses, Eric and Kellen Cage, a graduate student looking into West Baden's African American history, turn up mystery after mystery. Were there two Campbell Bradfords, or is the millionaire just impossibly old? What is the destination of the ghost train that Eric sees, and who is playing the violin elegy that haunts him? Perhaps most confounding, what is in one particular bottle of Pluto Water that keeps it ice-cold no matter what? The pair's investigations are hampered by Josiah Bradford, the rich man's great-grandson, a young punk with a string of petty crimes behind him who dreams of a big score. The strange whisperings he hears will draw them all together.

 

 

 
         
 

Velocity


by
Alan Jacobson

reviewed by Jon Land

 

He was not going to kill her immediately.  No—if there was one thing he had learned, it was to save the moment, to be deliberate and purposeful. 

“Deliberate and purposeful” may be the perfect description of Velocity, Alan Jacobson’s latest book to feature FBI agent Karen Vail, raises the stakes as well as the scope of the story.  That’s because in addition to the serial killer caught at the close of Crush, there’s another at large here.  And one of them, if not both, may be responsible for the disappearance of Vail’s lover, Detective Robby Hernandez. 

This time out, Vail’s pursuit of that second serial killer with a fondness for leaving his victims in public places takes her out  of her comfort zone, both figuratively and literally.  His trail and Hernandez’s whisk Vail away from wine country to Washington where the tale takes a sharp curve into the unexpected confronting her with professional challenges  that clash harshly with her personal ones. 

The picturesque Napa Valley settings aside, Velocity is a rare and exquisite vintage of the genre, a thriller with heart and soul to go with its proverbial muscle.  This is The Silence of the Lambs gone conspiratorial.  Think Hannibal Lecter connected to some dastardly, Washington-spawned plot.  Now that Thomas Harris’ rare writing has dissolved into drivel, Jacobson seems more than ready to replace him as king of the serial killer form.

 

         
 

The Thieves of Manhattan


by Adam Langert

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

 

Ian Minot is a struggling short story writer in New York who gets a shot at fame and success—if he's just willing to lie. He meets Jed Roth, who's written a rollicking thriller full of romance, tough-guy action, and the flavor of New York City. Roth's problem is that nobody wants to publish his novel.  It's too far-fetched. But, based on the success of another recent book about life in a street gang—a book almost as far-fetched, yet billed as a memoir—Roth has an idea. He'll get Minot to say he's the author and that the book is completely true. That book is also called The Thieves of Manhattan, and . . . well, throughout the book, Langer tosses around neologisms based on other writers' names (“franzens” are glasses like Jonathan Franzen wears), so when Ian, who's telling the story, mentions that Roth's book uses neologisms and has a glossary at the end explaining the literary references he's tossed in, you turn to the end of this book . . . and find a glossary. Langen's novel relishes in playing with that line between the real and the unreal. And, after all, isn't the point of fiction to tell the truth? Roth's plot is carefully thought-out. He has Ian actually re-type the book so that he's intimately familiar with every word. The two choose an editor with a sterling reputation, yet who's known not to bother with fact-checking.  Thieves (Langer's book, not Roth and Minot's) is filled with the gossip and backstabbing of the publishing world, and its second half is a rollicking thriller full of romance, tough-guy action, and the flavor of New York City.

 

 
         
 

Go, Mutants!


by Larry Doyle

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

It's the mid-1960's, and every '50's sci-fi movie cliché has come true. Earth is swarming with aliens, atomic-spawn monsters, and mutants.  And some of them are going to high school. J!m Anderson is a blue-skinned, hyper-cephalic teenager who nobody understands nor appreciates. He's James Dean with a finger than drinks crude oil (if he eats anything more-recently deceased, he picks up on the “psychic aftertaste” of how it was killed), and he's in love with a human girl, Marie Rand—daughter of the neighborhood mad scientist. This satiric monster mash-up fuses horror with the angsty high school melodramas of the period. “Hygiene” classes teach about the dangers of inter-species sex, and the cafeteria lady is a mole woman. There are throw-away in-jokes on almost every page:  A radio reporter announces “Henry Kissinger returned from Arkansas today with welcome news in the War on Schmoo,” and J!m ironically quotes from Singin’ in the Rain by reminding his mother, “I'm not people.” And, as if high school life weren’t embarrassing enough, his cat-woman mom works at a cocktail bar called simply SHE (if you spotted that as an H. Rider Haggard reference, this is definitely your book), and everybody in school knows that J!m’s alien dad almost destroyed the world. This is a funny book that rewards you for all those hours you spent with Gort and Klaatu.

 

 

 
         
 

The Thieves of Darkness


by Richard Doetsch

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

 

Richard Doetsch follows up his bracingly original mindbender The Thirteenth Hour with a return to his master their series hero Michael St. Pierre and almost pulls it off.  Almost.  Thing is, it’s not fair to compare The Thirteenth Hour to any thriller that plays by the normal rules, much less one by the same author.  But judged on its own, The Thieves of Darkness is solid in all respects as complex heist drama and equally complex character study. 

“Michael had been a thief, had been being the important words.  That was a world he had promised to leave behind.” 

And had his wife not died eighteen months, you honestly get the feeling St. Pierre would indeed have put away his picks and codes forever.  When he gets the opportunity to pursue a long lost relic of incalculable value both financially and historically, though, it’s just too much to pass up.  Especially when a friend happens to be in a prison St. Pierre must break into in order to break him out.  From there, we’re off on a dizzying cross-continental chase for a relic somehow tied to the births of every major religion. 

I guess after Doetsch’s last book, only one entitled The Fourteenth Hour would have totally sufficed.  The Thieves of Darkness is a bit too familiar to stand out in this overstuffed genre, but it’s a strong and sure effort all the same.

 

 

 
         
         
Young Adult

 

 
         
 

The Grimm Legacy


by Polly Shulman

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

High-schooler Elizabeth Rew has just taken an after-school job at the New-York Circulating Material Repository. This library of rare objects houses and loans out such things as Lincoln's stovepipe hat, centuries-old globes, and a doublet that probably dates back to Shakespeare. But the Repository also houses The Grimm Collection. The brothers Grimm didn't just collect fairy tales; they also collected the magical objects associated with them. There's the magic mirror of “on the wall” fame, the seven league boots that can carry you twenty-one miles in one step, and lots of other objects from fairy tales throughout the world, including a flying carpet. While theater companies are always borrowing doublets for their costume departments to copy, these magic items circulate only to a select clientele. At least they're only supposed to. But recently things have been missing from the shelves, and the girl Elizabeth is replacing was fired for theft. As Elizabeth learns the ropes (and magic spells), she and her fellow teen-aged pages at the Repository are drawn into mysteries and situations right out of classic fairy tales—the original, scary ones, not the sanitized Disney versions. With it's retro-cool / steampunk setting (pneumatic tubes to carry messages!) and familiar magic, there's something for everyone.


 

 
         
 

Shutout


by Brendan Halpin

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

Soccer has always been the foundation of Amanda’s friendship with Lena.  But as they start high school, Lena makes the girls’ varsity soccer team, while Amanda is left behind playing JV.  Can their friendship survive, especially when Lena is pulled into the orbit of the popular crowd?  In Amanda, Halpin creates a funny, likeable narrator with a very believable voice.  The dynamics the relationships within her blended family, as well as her friendship with Lena, ring true.  Teen athletes will appreciate the fact that she takes her sport seriously.  Highly recommended for middle school.

 

 
         
 

Blindsided


by Priscilla Cummings

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

Natalie has been losing her vision for a long time, but she’s never quite faced the possibility that she might lose it completely.  So when she first arrives at the boarding school for the blind, she doesn’t want to learn how to read Braille or walk with a cane—she doesn’t need those skills, because she’s not blind.  But as her world slowly narrows, Natalie realizes that sooner or later, she must choose between taking charge of her life and hiding in the dark.  Though obviously well researched, Blindsided is sometimes a little too earnest in its effort to educate its readers about the daily life of the blind.  A series of extremely dramatic events at the end of the novel seem improbable, but teen readers likely won’t mind.

 

 
 

 

 

       
My Reading Log
  by Jeff Ayers, Associate Editor

Since I’ve started reviewing for the Associated Press as well as RT Book Reviews, it’s becoming more difficult to find time to read books that I’m not reviewing for other places.  But I do have a few.

 
 

Complete Peanuts 1977-1978 (Fantagraphics, $28.99).  This is another wonderful Peanuts collection that highlights for me, personally, the period where I stopped reading the cartoons on a regular basis.  Lots of new characters are introduced including the latest Van Pelt, Rerun.  Schulz was a genius and he is still missed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

Terry Brooks remains the king of the fantasy genre with his latest look into the early beginnings of the Shannara world in Bearers of the Black Staff (Del Rey, $27.00).  The barrier that protects the world from evil is disintegrating and the last Knight of the Word, Sider Ament, must convince everyone to prepare.  But powerful forces inside the protected zone seek to take advantage of the situation.  Great characters are Brooks’ strength, and some of his strongest to date permeate this amazing read.  Can’t wait for the conclusion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

The summer movies were not all that great this year, but Pixar continued its streak by producing another terrific film.  In the Art of Toy Story 3 (Chronicle, $40.00), Charles Solomon takes the reader behind the scenes into the development and struggle to make this the perfect end to the Toy Story saga. It’s fun to learn more about their creative process.  Also, the artwork is amazing.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

I was sad when the powers at NBC cancelled Law and Order.  I know that a new series set in Los Angeles is premiering at the end of the month, but it’s not the same.  (I’ll still watch, though).  Since I enjoy a great courtroom drama, I can’t recommend Perfect Alibi by Sheldon Siegel highly enough.  (MacAdam/Cage, $26.00).  Attorneys Mike Daley and Rosie Fernandez are worrying about their daughter and her new boyfriend.  When the boyfriend’s father is murdered, they are shocked to learn the boy’s only alibi is their daughter.  As they uncover the evidence to prove his innocence, their story of what really happened that night begins to unravel.  Siegel is in the top echelon of legal thriller writers and his latest doesn’t disappoint.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

Scott Meyer’s latest collection of his comic, Basic Instructions, provides a bunch of belly laughs with some insightful analysis thrown in for good measure.  Made with 90% Recycled Art (Dark Horse, $10.99).  Learning how to do various tasks and handle your responsibilities has never been funnier. 

 

 

 
 

 

 
 

See you next month...

 
     
     
     
     

 

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