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March 2011 Book Reviews:



Cinderella Ate My Daughter

by Peggy Orenstein

reviewed by A.B. Mead



Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein details the unease she felt with Princess marketing when Ms. Orenstein’s daughter turned three. Instead of buying into the overly pinkness of early girlhood, Ms. Orenstein investigates the phenomena and how marketing affects our daughters not only at three, but through girlhood and beyond. She explains how pink was not the dominate girl color of our youth, and how it was marketed to our daughters and us. In fact, the original Easy Bake oven was turquoise. Gender-specific, and even tinier age-specific, marketing categories these have proven to be big profit boosters for corporations.  

The increasing early sexualization of children through such tactics as selling cosmetics to girls as young as three, leads older girls to view themselves only through their looks, and not be tuned into their true self-worth. She also details how Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan have been sold to parents as wholesome entertainment only to become very unwholesome young women.  

Not all is lost. The author describes different ways to combat the overly commercialized, overly pinked childhood. She recommends reading the original Grimm’s fairy tales, becoming media savvy parents and getting our girls outside as antidotes to the hi-jacking of childhood by corporations only interested in making money, not in creating emotionally healthy children. This is a fascinating book for all parents of young girls. Cinderella Ate My Daughter helps parents be aware of the pitfalls of Princess culture and helps us help our daughters to develop healthfully as individuals.





Sherlock Holmes for Dummies

by Steven Doyle and David A. Crowder

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale



At last the Dummies methodology is applied to something interesting. Instead of feng shui or Excel 2007, we get Sherlock Holmes. This book covers all of the expected material such as Doyle's stories and the Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett adaptations, but it also pays careful attention to Holmes' many other incarnations. There are notes on hundreds of additional stories (including a list of half a dozen Holmes-Dracula novels alone). The many films mentioned range the gamut from the brilliant The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and They Might Be Giants (starring George C. Scott as mentally ill judge who believes he is Holmes) to Disney's The Great Mouse Detective and the regrettable TV movie Sherlock Holmes in New York (with Roger Moore as Holmes, Patrick Macnee as Watson, and John Huston as Moriarty). I was delighted to see that the authors also devote a few pages to E.W. Hornung's creation, the anti-Holmes, A.J. Raffles, aka “the Amateur Cracksman.” The book fills readers in on the Holmes’ Victorian world, telling us about issues of class, the Empire, and  all that pollution. Not to mention commissionaires: those retired soldiers working as a doormen or messengers. On the topic of smoking, the obligatory Dummies “Reminder” icon tells us that the calabash pipe doesn't come from Doyle but from William Gillette, who first played Holmes on stage; and the “Technical Stuff” icon fills us in on “shag,” Holmes' favorite type of tobacco. We read about the great unsolved mysteries like the location of Watson's wound (sometimes it's a shoulder, sometimes a leg) and the color of Holmes' dressing gown. There are chapters devoted to Sherlockian (or Holmesian – the difference is explained on page 2) places to visit and the many societies a fan might like to join. This lively and logically-structured guide through Holmes's life and times is fun for devotees of the Great Detective and the Good Doctor, as well as for those who are merely curious.






Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood

by Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley, Jr.

reviewed by A.B. Mead



Who would image that a book about the publication history of a novel would be so fascinating? If you are a fan of either the book or movie Gone With the Wind, this will be unputdownable, but even those without “Scarlett Fever” will enjoy it. Mitchell had written her novel over many years and out of sequence, and the publisher had set an overly optimistic publishing date.  GWTW was still being written even as it was being typeset. It wasn't until the last pages came in that anyone realized the novel would be 1,000 pages long. But as galleys were circulated, word-of-mouth buzz developed an unparalleled level of interest. Even though it was the middle of the Depression, everyone who read the love story set against the backdrop of the Civil War (including independent film producer David O. Selznick) wanted to take a chance on this first novel from an Atlanta housewife. 

Here, Brown and Wiley give us a view of vanished time when most business was carried out through telegrams and you could lose out on a business deal if a storm delayed a mail plane carrying a important letter (copies of Mitchell's and her publisher's extensive correspondence are what make this book possible—and contribute to its liveliness.). The novel's instant popularity meant that it was the victim of a relatively new crime: copyright infringement. For the rest of her life Mitchell was embroiled in lawsuits around the world as she fought to protect her intellectual property. Magazines ran contests asking readers to submit happier endings, and musical producers staged Civil War-era productions and cavalierly called used the names of characters in the novel, even if the action had nothing to with the story. GWTW was just too popular for the less-scrupulous not to try to cash in on. Photos include a gallery of covers from international editions of GWTW, some of which are very odd.







My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

edited by Kate Bernheimer, introduction by Gregory Maguire

reviewed by Neal Swain


My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me is a delicious -often horribly so- collection of new fairytales compiled by Kate Bernheimer, the founder of the literary magazine Fairy Tale Review. The contributors (including Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Francine Prose, Wales Literary Agency client Karen Brennan, and Hiromi Ito) chose from a broad territory of fairytales, though most focused on Western European fables and many writers were drawn to the same stories: for example, the Swan Brothers provide some of the book's most recurrent characters, and a surprising number of people apparently harbor not-so-secret sympathies for Rumpelstiltskin. While many of the pieces in the collection draw heavily off the fantastic motifs found in fairytales, a number of writers took a less direct approach, working with emotional influences more than they did magical.
With forty stories in the collection, there are too many to write about here, but among them are:

A drug-sodden and just-as-hopeless retelling of 'The Little Mermaid,' called 'The Mermaid in the Tree' by Timothy Schaffert.

Joy Williams' 'The Pelican Child,' in which Baba Yaga's bird-daughter faces danger from an unexpected naturalist.

And 'Halfway People,' by Karen Joy Fowler, who takes the tale of the swan brothers and casts it on a poverty-stricken beach where the rich summer and the poor work to keep afloat.
This is a solid and illuminating collection, full of vibrant stories.




Live Wire

by Harlan Coben

reviewed by Jon Land



The ugliest truth, a friend once told Myron, is still better than the prettiest of lies. 

Myron, of course, is Myron Bolitar, sports agent turned avenging angel in Harlan Coben’s spectacular series.  His occasional return, sprinkled in among Coben’s stand-alones, is welcome in the same way reconnecting with an old friend is; it takes a while to get to know him again, but before you know it nothing’s changed. 

What’s changed in Live Wire is that Bolitar has never been better, and neither has Coben.  As much as I enjoyed his pulpier tales dating back to the mid-90s, his redefinition of himself as a crime writer of unparalleled depth and pathos has helped set a new benchmark for the genre as a whole.  This time out, Bolitar and his trusty (as well as deadly) friend Win are helping out one of his sports clients when the investigation reacquaints Myron with his own personal baggage and heartache in the form of his long-lost, estranged brother.  Finding that brother becomes Myron’s quest, one both personal and heartbreaking as it takes him on a journey into his angst-ridden past to find the truth. 

Several of Coben’s latest books, like Caught, are seminal tales of suburban nightmares come true and the choices ordinary people must make.  In Live Wire, Myron Bolitar finds he is no different from everyone else and that’s probably Coben’s point. Live Wire is a stunning achievement in all respects.  Everything a thriller, and a novel, is supposed to be.




Vlad: The Last Confession

by C.C. Humphreys

reviewed by Scott Pearson


As a historical novel of the real Vlad Dracula, Prince of Wallachia, Vlad: The Last Confession is  vampire free, but there is still plenty of blood. Vlad was known for impaling his enemies—on one occassion thousands were impaled outside the gates of Targoviste, the capital of Wallachia. Humphreys does not skimp on the violence, but places it within the context of the fifteenth century, a time of political conquests and religious crusades, with intense conflict between Christian and Muslim as the Turks expanded their influence into Europe. 

Against this complex backdrop, Humphreys takes what is known, fleshes it out, and ties together disparate incidents to create a rich life story for Vlad. He neither excuses nor glorifies the bloody behavior, but simply shows what Vlad does, exploring the possible causes and goals that drove the man to such extremes—mostly the defense of his homeland from the invading Turks. Some of the worst accusations are dismissed as the propaganda of Vlad’s enemies. 

But this isn’t just about politics and war; Vlad’s personal relationships drive the story too. The fates of his brothers, his two wives, his children, his best friend, and the love of his life (some true, some fictional) are intertwined throughout. It makes for compelling story, a lead character that the reader sympathizes with but who enforces a zero-tolerance policy with the blunt end of a stake. A rollicking, bloody, surprising novel of the fifteenth century which, in effect, reinvents Dracula as himself: a driven, vengeful, God-fearing human being.





Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan

by Jeff Greenfield

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale


Most alternate histories have centered on twists in the far past: What if the South won the Civil War or the Allies lost World War II? Greenfield, who for several decades has been involved in politics as a writer and analyst, asks “What if” of the events he's seen in his lifetime. The level of detail is remarkable, and, though technically fiction, the book is not novelistic. It reads more like Robert Caro or Doris Kerns Goodwin than Harry Turtledove. 

In “Palm Beach Florida,” an anti-Catholic, retired postman car bombs John F. Kennedy after his election, but before the electoral college has formally cast their votes, leaving Lyndon Johnson president, but only after a complex series of back room negotiations. Bobby Kennedy does not become Attorney General, but takes his brother's seat in the senate, setting the stage for his own presidential run four years early. The Cuban Missile Crisis still happens, but goes “tactical nuclear” in a very tense Sixty-Minute War. 

Bobby Kennedy survives Sirhan Sirhan's assassination attempt in “Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, California.” Because this scenario centers on the subsequent five months leading up to the 1968 election, with RFK running neck-and-neck with Vice President Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic nomination, it's even more back room and wonky than the first one. But Republican candidate Richard Nixon is still there, and president LBJ hates Bobby so much he just might help Nixon win. Plus FBI director Hoover has a treasure trove of damning evidence about both Kennedy brothers.  

“Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, California” postulates that Gerald Ford recovered from his “there is no Soviet Domination of Eastern Europe” gaff during his debate with Jimmy Carter, and so went on to second term covering the late 1970s. That sets the stage the for a 1980 race between Ronald Reagan and Gary Hart. A strengthened Shah and the early death of Ayatollah Khomeini mean the Iranian hostage crisis lasts only five days, and a more democratic Iran becomes a strategic partner with Israel. Looking for a way beat the gender gap, Reagan's vice presidential running mate is Sandra Day O'Connor. 

The ripples extend in a million tiny ways. JFK's death means that he never mentions his fondness for Ian Fleming's James Bond books, and 007 never gains traction in the U.S., let alone Hollywood. In two of the tales, John McCain, still a heroic Vietnam vet, ends up a Democrat. Greenfield ends with a handy afterword that spells out what was really happening at the time, and how close we came to living these histories.




Love You More

by Lisa Gardner

reviewed by Jon Land


I watched her run away and wished, not for the first time, that I didn’t have to know all the things a woman like me had to know. 

That line from early on in Love You More forms the essence of Lisa Gardner’s recent string of truly terrifying bestsellers featuring families in jeopardy, and her latest is no exception.  This time out, Gardner offers up a double whammy; not only does Tessa Leoni kill her apparently abusive husband but her toddler is missing.  It’s left to Gardner stalwart Detective D. D. Warren to sort through the mystery and the morass in solving a puzzle riddled with emotional complexity and pain a la Dennis Lehane in his brilliant Mystic River. There are no easy answers and sometimes just posing the questions hurts. 

Gardner has carved out the dark underbelly of suburban Americana as her niche and she does so remarkably well in crafting an entirely new thriller sub-genre.  You can’t hide from evil when it lives next door or even in the same house, confronting her heroes with the awful realities of domestic abuse and the price it extracts on the victims and community at large.  In Love You More, Gardner continues to break ground no other writer dares tread.  And the result is a tour-de-force of psychological suspense that solidifies her claim as the finest female thriller writer working today.




Young Adult




by Sophie Littlefield

reviewed by Hayden Bass


Hailey lives in a dead-end town with her evil, abusive grandmother, who deals drugs for a living.  She lavishes her devotion on Chub, a developmentally delayed 4-year-old boy who her grandmother adopted, took a brief interest in, and then promptly discarded.  Suddenly, Hailey discovers she has healing powers.  An unknown aunt shows up out of nowhere and offers to take her away from all this.  Can she trust the aunt?  Her powers? 

Banished is a suspenseful, refreshing addition to the contemporary fantasy genre.  Romance is suggested at the end, but is not a major theme (and Hailey’s romantic interest appears to be fully human).  The ending is satisfying, but leaves room for the inevitable sequels.  Recommended for fans of contemporary fantasy as well as stories of teens overcoming abuse and other obstacles in their lives.





by Eishes Chayil

reviewed by Hayden Bass


The Hassidic communities of Brooklyn live in the heart of 21st century industrialized urban culture, but are completely separate from it.  They have never heard of Oprah.  They don't know how babies are made until the day before they get married.   The protagonist of this book is Gittel, whose best friend Devory died when they were both nine years old.  Devory had been suffering terrible abuse, without anyone heeding her pleas for help.  Gittle struggles to make sense of what happened, while the entire Hassidic community does everything possible to keep it quiet.

This is a book about child abuse, but perhaps its greatest appeal is as a peek into a culture that most teens know nothing about.  And unlike most teen books about ultra-religious sects, it's not the story of one teen's escape from that culture.  The author is still a Hassidic Jew, writing under a pseudonym that means "Woman of Valor" in Yiddish.  It's not quite clear from her author's note if this story of abuse is hers, or of other children she knew.  But she makes it plain that many of the details are real.  Hand this book to high school students, perhaps particularly those who are fans of fantasy and historical fiction, and so have the patience for elaborate world-building.





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