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May 2011 Book Reviews:



Space and the American Imagination

by Howard E. McCurdy

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale



Coming from a university press (Johns Hopkins), this history of how Americans first thought about, and then tentatively explored, outer space straddles the line between pop history and academia. But McCurdy never gets bogged down in equations nor too-fine levels of detail; he's writing for the general reader who already has an interest in the “the final frontier.” That America would lead the way into space was far from a forgone conclusion. The heavens had always seemed like a fairy tale. In order to gain popular support (and thus government funding), Americans had to first view space flight as a possibility, rather than the stuff of pulp fiction. Early Twentieth-century proponents of space exploration found greatest success by promoting it as “the new frontier,” as the director of the Aeronautics-centric precursor to NASA called it. Man had recently conquered Africa and the Polar regions, and now it was time to move upwards. A group of writers, artists, and scientists launched a well-orchestrated public relations campaign, including, in 1952, a multi-part series that ran in the popular magazine Collier's, “Man Will Conquer Space Soon.” Encouraging articles accompanied by the exquisite artwork of Chesley Bonestell’s rocket ships and moon bases fired the imaginations of a generation of future engineers (The book reproduces in black and white several of his paintings, along with the usual NASA photos and concept art of space stations.). By the time of the Soviet launch of Sputnik a few years later, America was ready to make space a priority, if only out of fear. Once America had broken through with the Apollo missions, space was no longer a frontier, and it had to earn its keep in the popular imagination through business. The satellites that fuel international trade and communications have helped, but the realities of modern economics have made large space stations, a distinct possibility as late as the Reagan administration, now a financial impossibility. NASA also missed out on popularizing space with women by sticking too closely to its aeronautics-era prejudices. The loss of public will, so necessary in creating America's space program, may ultimately doom any future American exploration of space.




Swimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making It in the Office

by Lynn Peril

reviewed by A.B. Mead



In the pre-high-tech, pre-feminist world of the 1930s – 80s, a steno pool was a group of “girls” who could be called upon by executives to take dictation. They were the interchangeable cogs of business. This pop history of the pink-collar workforce takes readers inside the world of stenos, typists, and secretaries as seen in the advertisements, handbooks, and magazines of those times. The “mad men” (aficionados of 1960s office culture will love this book) who wrote office equipment ads stuck to stereotypes. For harried male bosses, a calculator ad featuring a leggy secretary absentmindedly doing her nails claims that their machine has passed “the dumb blonde test.” For harried female secretaries, whether advertising dictating machines or typewriters, the selling point was often that the machine would help you get out of the office on time to keep a date. Writers examined the concept of the secretary as “office wife” in variations ranging from sexy pulp novels like Private Secretary (“Kim's climb to success cost many broken hearts. One of them was hers!”) to How to Be a Super-Secretary, which advised secretaries to give all the credit to their bosses when they came up with successful ideas because “when he advances you advance with him.” Although as early as 1953 the Los Angeles Times railed against drunken parties at the office, in 1964 the doyenne of single girls in the big city, Helen Gurley Brown, offered her recipe for a successful office bash:  fruit punch mixed with one gallon of white wine and three or more bottles of vodka.







The Ancient Guide to Modern Life

by Natalie Haynes

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale



Although this book doesn't exactly fulfill the promise of its title (for instance, there's no advice from Xenophon, author of the first domestic management handbook, Oeconomicus, for the recently-downsized), Haynes succeeds in pointing out that studying ancient Greece and Rome helps us “to understand the way we live today, partly because of the incredible similarities between ancient and modern worlds, and partly because of the huge differences.” They are far enough away to be providing a different angle, but not so alien as to be unintelligible. The book presents a brief, but wide, survey of the classical world grouped into general topics such as business, philosophy, and the role of women. Haynes makes that era more accessible through occasional contemporary parallels. Buffy the Vampire Slayer contains much of the epic structure and themes of The Iliad, and if calling The Simpsons “the most obvious descendant of  Aristophanes' comedies—anarchic, satirical, parodic and political” doesn't make you want to go read The Knights or The Frogs, her brief descriptions of these 2,500-year-old comedies will. She also clears up any misconceptions you might have picked up about Socrates from Monty Python's “Bruces' Philosophers Song”; the philosopher could indeed hold his liquor. The ancients had the same problems we did, from war to ostentatious publicity hounds. Looking to their reactions to their world is instructive (though we won’t be adopting slavery or summary executions, of course), and this book makes it interesting and entertaining.








God's War

by Kameron Hurley

reviewed by Neal Swain


Kicked out of the bel dames, an elite force of government hit-women, for ferrying contraband genetic material in her uterus, Nyxnissa so Dashim emerges from prison and disgrace still on her feet. To rebuild her livelihood, she assembles and runs a disheveled company of bounty hunters and manages to keep them fiscally solvent some of the time. She's halfway content to let the years pass that way.

Then she gets a note from the Queen -a note encouraging her to pursue an unusual bounty into the country her people have been at war with for generations- which she accepts in the hope that success will bring her back into the bel dames. And that's when everything goes to shit.
God's War is Kameron Hurley's gritty and beguiling debut novel. It has the kind of plot that will lure in fans of Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon, dangerous and bleak. But where this book truly stands apart is in the world-building: set so far into the future that the human colonizers of other worlds think of each other as aliens (and probably are, given how much they've modified their genes), on a planet whose hostile suns virtually ensure the entire population will have frequent brushes with cancer and some people have developed the 'magical' ability to mentally manipulate insects at a cellular level, Nyx's story unfolds during the titular war between a matriarchal and a patriarchal society who no longer remember why they're at war.



The Jefferson Key

by Steve Berry

reviewed by Jon Land



Andrew Jackson faced the gun aimed at his chest.  A strange sight but not altogether unfamiliar, not for a man who’d spent nearly his entire life fighting wars. 

Thrillers with historical backdrop are nothing new.  But in the hands of Steve Berry, The Jefferson Key feels so fresh and exciting it might as well be the first.  That’s because Berry’s wondrous reinvention of historical fact to serve his fictional needs is so seasoned his latest reads like one long dizzying chase in which the present and past mesh seamlessly together. 

This time out, Berry grounds the action closer to home, bringing his essentially expatriate hero Cotton Malone back to American soil just in time to foil an assassination attempt on President Danny Daniels.  That attempt, Malone will later learn, is actually rooted in a secret, coded clause in the Constitution somehow connected to the other four presidential assassinations, Kennedy and Lincoln included.  And from that point the race is on, with Malone and the trusty Cassiopeia Vic taking on a centuries-old cultish clan that calls itself “the Commonwealth” and has its own now ignoble intentions to pursue.  Truly scary stuff. 

Brad Meltzer recently handled similar material with great aplomb in The Inner Circle.  But Berry goes him one better by adding a hefty complement of gunfights, fistfights and catfights to the mix, further solidifying his status as the modern master of the high-action thriller.  Forget Clancy and Cussler.  When it comes to this genre, there is simply no one better.





Revolution World

by Katy Stauber

reviewed by
Scott Pearson


Katy Stauber is a first-time novelist with plenty of over-the-top, post-apocalyptic ideas all whipped through a zany salad shooter of a plot. Unfortunately, the stilted dialogue and uneven pacing make it hard for the fun-filled promises to pay off.

The novel starts out well, as Clio Somata works late in her family’s gene-splicing lab until interrupted by thieves trying to steal her techniques. Soon giant mutant rabbits are on the loose, the thieves are on the run, and the Somata family is getting pressured by the evil Malsanto company for help with a Federal military contract.

At the same time, computer-security firm Omerta is building a new server farm in the same small Texas town where the Somata family lives. Clio falls for klutzy computer genius Seth just as Seth’s uncle falls for Clio’s mom. Hi-tech hijinks ensue as the two quirky companies and families, both with plenty of secrets, try to outsmart the jackbooted DARPA soldiers that are after them.

There are a lot of entertaining elements here, but Stauber’s unpolished prose creates hurdles for the reader. The frequent lack of contractions in the dialogue reads awkwardly, and the characters’ scolding of the U.S. government’s overzealous police-state is a bit preachy and obvious. What could be interesting backstory is sometimes delivered through dry exposition. Although Stauber’s geeky heart is in the right place—I love how close “Malsanto” is to “Monsanto”—her debut could have used a little more work in the lab before it was released into the wild.




The Tragedy of Arthur

by Arthur Phillips

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale


The Tragedy of Arthur tells you on the cover that it’s a novel, so you know that this is all made up, but there are times when you might forget. Ostensibly what you are reading is the first publication anywhere of a lost play by William Shakespeare, the titular Tragedy about the early British king. But the play is only the last 100 pages of the book. The first 256 pages are an “Introduction” by Arthur Phillips, the real best-selling author of several novels. This introduction is a (we presume fictional) memoir of his life with his father, an art forger and Shakespeare enthusiast who claims to have found the 1597 script in the library of a manor house in England. Philips, who thinks little of his convict, con-man father, insists that the play is a fake, but Random House (the actual publisher of this book) insists that it's authentic. Letters from the publisher (on letterhead, but with phone numbers blacked out) even appear in the book to back up its authenticity. The play itself is fairly entertaining. It's a variation on the King Arthur myth (no magic, just the politics), told in believably Shakespearean language. But half of its entertainment comes from the dueling footnotes between the debunking Philips and one Professor Roland Verre, the scholar who has authenticated and annotated the text. Is a shepherdess' cry of “Turnmelon!” as Verre asserts, “an error of type-setting,” or is it, as Philips insists, a reference to a song by the alt rock band Happy Mondays that his dad tried to sneak in? Not overtly comical, but unrepentantly clever, this book reminds me of the film Adaptation, where so much is plausible that it's a shame not to believe it.




The White Devil

by Justin Evans

reviewed by Jon Land



The White Devil, Justin Evans’ daring tale of an American ne’er-do-well teenager adrift in the famed English boarding school Harrow, reads like A Separate Peace with murder thrown into the mix.  And our hero, Andrew Taylor, morphs into a kind of Holden Caulfield on steroids as he battles his own angst-riddled alienation and races to solve the mystery at the same time. 

That mystery involves none other than a giant of a literary figure in the form of Lord Byron, himself enrolled at the school centuries before.  Think Harry Potter meets Tom Brown’s Schooldays.   In fact, the gothic overtones are so apparent Harrow might just as easily be called Hogwarts II.  But there’s far more than just ghosts and goblins afoot here.  Evans smoothly turns his follow-up to the very well received A Good and Happy Child into a darkly beautiful tale that makes Taylor and his would-be mentor Piers Fawkes into amateur sleuths who must find the killer before other students fall victim to the paranormal madness. 

Never before have I used this page to proclaim the introduction of a potentially major literary figure onto the scene.  But The White Devil reminds me of John Hart’s brilliant The Last Child, last year’s Edgar winner for best novel.  A similar honor may well await Justin Evans and, if so, it will be the first of many.  A wonderful book in all respects.







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