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  January 2011 Book Reviews:
         
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

The Inner Circle


by Brad Meltzer

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

He knew that this room held presidential secrets, national secrets, and pine-box secrets, as in, the kinds of secrets that came with coffins. 

There’s a reason why the National Treasure movies have grossed a billion dollars between them and, believe me, it’s not Nicholas Cage.  The fascination with archival secrets kept by mysterious cults also gave birth to the Dan Brown phenomenon but Brad Meltzer does it much more effectively in his latest potboiler The Inner Circle, going Brown one better by actually setting his tale within Washington’s cavernous National Archives. 

That’s where young Beecher White (“Mysteries are my specialty.”) toils as an archivist whose most recent assignment is helping the President himself on his regular, supposedly casual visits.  Then his boyhood crush Clementine Kaye shows up and all bets are off.  Before you know it, he’s giving her a tour of the room where the President has been doing his reading, where a secret compartment in a simple desk chair leads to a conspiratorial mystery that’s not so simple at all, dating all the way back to George Washington and the Founding Fathers.  The requisite chase ensues with betrayals, double-crosses, and murder abounding in wholly satisfying fashion. 

Simply stated, Brad Meltzer is the finest storyteller going today.  No other writer spins a yarn with so many expertly crafted layers and The Inner Circle is probably his best ever.  An extraordinary accomplishment not to be missed.

 

 

 
         
 

The Attenbury Emeralds


by Jill Paton Walsh

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

Walsh’s third novel continuing the adventures of Dorothy L. Sayers' master amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey rivals Sayers' original works. It's 1950, and Peter, now age 60, and his manservant Bunter, pass a few rainy afternoons telling Peter's wife, mystery novelist Harriet Vane, the previously-untold story of their first case. Just after World War I, a shell-shocked Peter was slowly making his return to society. He was attending a country house party when the fabulous Attenbury family emeralds disappeared shortly after the arrival of a foreign emissary wishing to buy the jewels, which belonged to his employers' ancestor. The gems were eventually recovered. This was the first of several adventures for the King Stone, the magnificent emerald at the center of the collection. Over the ensuing decades it would be lost, pawned, and used as security against debts of honor. Now, after the relative calm of the Second World War, the Attenbury family is in trouble, and the King Stone is again the cause. As Peter reminisces and investigates, and bodies begin to pile up, Patterson paints a portrait of that fairy-tale world of upper-class English life during the years between the wars. The characters are keenly aware that those times are gone for good, and that England in the second-half of the twentieth century is going to be very different. The story is laced with the aftereffects of the two world wars and particularly their disruption of class distinctions. The mysteries are intriguing, and the educated wit that has always been a staple of the Lord Peter mysteries is here in abundance  (The horses at a stable look at Peter's wife “with long, intelligent faces, making Harriet think simultaneously of Houyhnhnms and Virginia Wolfe”), and along the way we learn plenty about jewels and horseflesh. A great read, even for those who are not mystery fans.

 

 

 
         
 

Damage


by John Lescroart

reviewed by Jon Land

 

The Curtlees are clearly just what they seem—good people, wealthy beyond measure, who bring young Latinas here to work for them out of the goodness of their souls. 

Well, not exactly since the smarmy scion of the family, Bo, apparently raped eight of those young women and murdered one for which he ended up in prison until an appeals court overturned the conviction.  Power, you know, and power lies at the heart of John Lescroart’s spectacular Damage.  Best known for his wondrously staged courtroom tales, Lescroart breaks new ground here, fashioning a multi-layered thriller ringed with decadence and cultural complexity. 

Whether Bo Curtlee is or isn’t guilty of murder takes a backseat to what happens after he’s freed from jail while awaiting a new trial.  Specifically, all those who lined up against him to see justice done have their lives and careers derailed in devastating fashion.  But the vengeful Curtlees have met their match in Lescroart stalwarts Detective Abe Glitsky and prosecutor Wes Farrell.  Glitsky and Hardy aren’t about to get pushed around, much less let justice go undone, and the result is a titanic battle akin to David versus Goliath in a perfectly staged metaphor for our own culture’s current class struggles.  

A perennial bestseller and terrific storyteller, Lescroart elevates himself to an entirely new level here, capturing big city politics in a fashion akin to James Carroll’s brilliant Mortal Friends or the classic All the King’s Men. Damage is a great thriller but an even better novel, Lescroart’s voice as crisp and true as his vision.

 

 

 
         
 

Steampunk'd


edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

An entertaining anthology of stories from across the spectrum of the genre, from straight technological tales, like the too-obvious environmental theme of “Foggy Goggles,” to the Faerie-versus-science war of “Imperial Changeling,” one of the stand-out stories. “The Battle of Cumberland Gap” is a nice bit of military fiction, while “Portrait of a Lady in a Monocle” features a female character bucking the traditional role of women in Victorian society. The Egyptian setting of “Chance Corrigan and the Tick-Tock King of the Nile” and the frozen Russian wilderness of “Foretold” are a nice stretch from steampunk's Victorian origins. “The Echoer” is a weak link, offset by the compelling horror of “The Whisperer,” which shares its theme of a man searching for his lost love. “Of a Feather” and “Scourge of the Spoils” feature driven female characters, but I prefer the former's rollicking Lost World adventure to the bleakness of the latter. The disparate elements of “Edison Kinetic Light & Steam Power” didn't gel for me, and the twist ending seems like it belongs to a different story. “The Nubian Queen” features the most-changed alternate history of the group, and its royal intrigue in a nineteenth-century Europe dominated by an Egyptian empire is complex and exciting (although slightly marred by a too-clever historical reference at the end). “Opals from Sydney” is an entertaining adventure if a bit pat, and “The Transmogrification Ray” overcomes its slow start with a strong ending. Well worth reading.

 

 

 

         
         
         
Young Adult

 

 
 

The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman


by Ben H. Winters

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

Winters, famous for his mash-up novels Sense and Sensibility And Sea Monsters and Android Karenina, demonstrates a deft hand with purely original material as well. In this short, light-hearted story, we follow the adventures of Bethesda Fielding, a seventh-grader who has just pulled off the greatest Special Project in the history of Mr. Melville's Social Studies class. Told to solve a mystery, she eschewed such mundane matters as why hot dogs are sold in packs of twelve while buns are sold in packs of eight or whether Happy, the dolphin in the local aquarium, is really happy or just faking it.  Bethesda wanted to know what their music teacher, Ms. Finkleman, is like outside of school. No one seemed to know anything about her. Bethesda soon learned that Ms. Finkleman was Little Miss Mystery of The Red Herrings, a 1990's punk band. But this is only the start of the real mystery:  why did Ms. Finkleman give up the rock lifestyle, and why has she hidden her past for so long? Will being forced to teach her students rock music instead of Sixteenth-century English folk ballads for an inter-school choral competition bring her back to her roots?  Before it's all over you can bet that Bethesda will feel sparks for a boy, and a piano genius raised on classical music will learn to rock out, but Ms. Finkleman's twists and turns will surprise.

 

 

 
         
 

Matched


by Ally Condie

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

This latest addition to the exploding genre of teen dystopian fiction will likely win many readers, particularly among fans of Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Cassia lives in a world where everything, including your life partner, is chosen for you by The Society. (It's assumed that everyone in The Society is heterosexual. Presumably, The Society would find any other sexual orientation unacceptable, but it’s a problem that goes unaddressed.) As the book opens, Cassia is happy to go along with the Society's plan for her life, but when she begins to fall in love with someone who is not her Match, the fabric of her faith in her world begins to unravel.  

The romance element is very much in the foreground here, so Matched may not be as big a hit with boys as with girls. In the beginning, when she's supposed to be a true believer, Cassia’s narration is less convincing, but she gains believability as a dissident.  Readers will be clamoring to find out what happens to her in the second installment of the planned trilogy.

 

 


 

 
     
 

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