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June 2011 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

         
 

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit


by Mark Seal

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Everyone loves a good fraud, and, like Catch Me If You Can, what's most interesting is how the perpetrator manages to dupe people who you would think should know better. Seal tells the story of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a young German man who made his way to the United States in the late 1970s and throughout the '80s and '90s rapidly moved up the social ladder by passing himself off first as minor English nobility and then as American nobility: a member of the Rockefeller family. Christian's success came from his mix of brains, charm, and chutzpa. He perfected his upper class accent by watching Gilligan's Island reruns and studying Thurston Howell, III. Every time he moved, he immediately sought out connections by joining an Episcopal church. He was only unmasked in 2008, when his wife, who, for over a decade, believed he was a Rockefeller, divorced him. Then his con, and also his connections to possible murders become apparent. Only a few decades ago, it was that much easier to pretend to be someone else. It's not just that there was no Google to search, it's that in upper class enclaves like the Los Angeles suburb of San Marino and the paneled offices of Wall Street no one bothered to question identities. He wore a nice suit (or, more often, Top-Siders without socks), he said the right things (thanks to an incredible ability to absorb information), and he was seen in the right clubs (due to a policy of reciprocal membership with a cheaper, less-choosy one). Christian knew the ultimate con-man secret:  people have preconceptions; you just need to play into them.

 

 

 

 
         
 

Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America


by Eric Dregni

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Native Minnesotan Dregni explores Scandinavian culture as it has come to be expressed in the United States. In this series of short essays he explores the world created in the Midwest by those Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, and Danes who arrived in the 1800s, lured by the promise of free land and exaggerations by the steamship companies that brought them over. Dregni treats his real subjects with a no less warmth than Garrison Keillor does his fictional, but with greater seriousness. He's not afraid to joke about how Jell-O came to be considered a “salad,” but he also writes about Minnesota's socialist politics. It was Iron Range miners, backed by members of the Industrial Workers of the World, who staged the three-month strike in 1916 that made the eight-hour workday the norm in America. Individually reticent, Scandinavians show their cultural pride in superlatives. Mora, Minnesota hosts the World's Largest Dala Horse (their capitals; if your ears just pricked up, this is the book for you). Meanwhile the biggest ball of twine wrapped by a single person, the result of nearly thirty years’ work by Swedish immigrant Francis Johnson, put Darwin, Minnesota on the map. There is much larger twine ball in Cawker, Kansas but that Lars-come-lately was wrapped by a bunch of people. It was Johnson who had the originality and vision—not matter how skewed—as well as the determination that marks it as Scandinavian. And only Darwin celebrates Twine Ball Days. The book is well-illustrated in thrifty, Lutheran black and white with pictures on almost every other page that range from the silly (the giant coffeepot-shaped water tower in Lindström, Minnesota) to the majestic (the ornate beauty of a stave church in Minot, North Dakota).

 

 

 

 

 
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

Buffalito Contingency


by Lawrence M. Schoen

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

Schoen's Buffalito series follows The Amazing Conroy, a human stage hypnotist who travels the galaxy in the far future accompanied by his buffalo dog, Reggie. The tiny buffalito eats literally just about anything and passes oxygen. This is the second installment, but newcomers will have no problem jumping right in. Those who read the first novel, 2009's Buffalito Destiny, will find this even cleverer, in terms both of humor and plotting, than the first. Here Conroy finds himself unwillingly teamed with (saddled with?) Billi, a tiny alien, who years ago as part of a coming-of-age ritual on his home planet of Pelk, received from the gods a complete knowledge of Earth history, culture, and languages. All it cost him was the ability to say words beginning with M and N, rendering “news” as “booze” for instance. Now he wants to be Conroy's agent. But first he has to work as Conroy's lawyer, since nothing ever goes easy for Conroy. That there's an unauthorized play about the hypnotist’s life making the rounds and causing trouble is just the beginning. Conroy is supposed to have a date with destiny in the form of a meeting with a Celestial—one of those cosmic entities as big as a solar system with an unfathomable intelligence and motives. But everything else keeps getting in the way, especially the lizardish captain of the cruise starship Conroy is aboard who wants to utilize Reggie's unique abilities for a little smuggling. Schoen mixes inspired and occasionally anachronistic silliness with well-designed aliens and hard science fiction tropes admirably.

 


 

 
         
 

The Devil Colony


by James Rollins

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

Talk about trends!  Like his fellow bestselling author Steve Berry last month, James Rollins’ magnificent The Devil Colony brings the action home with a historical mystery rooted in the country’s very founding.   

In this case that mystery takes us back to an infamous mass disappearance from Colonial times and is steeped in Native American lore that becomes especially vital with the discovery of   hundreds of mummified bodies in an area claimed by a Native American Heritage Commission.  But Rollins is just getting warmed up here, serving up a steady diet of the wondrously improbable, staring with the inexplicable death of anthropologist at the site where the bodies were discovered.  To that already savory and violent mix, Rollins adds the niece of none other than Sigma Force’s Painter Crowe, witness to the murder and perhaps the only one with the answers to what’s really afoot.  That, of course, makes her an immediate target of villains determined to protect their covert cadre that happens to be safeguarding a deadly truth going back the very birth of the nation. 

It’s been two years since Rollins’ last entry in the genre, and I didn’t realize how much I missed him until reading The Devil Colony.  This is wild, unrestrained storytelling at its level best, and Rollins is the best pure action writer out there today, bar none. The perfect summer book, or any season for that matter.

 

 

 

 
         
 

Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders


by Gyles Brandreth

reviewed by
Scott Pearson

 

The fourth Oscar Wilde mystery takes place in 1890 and again features Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Robert Sherard, Wilde’s biographer, who serves as narrator. Bram Stoker is along for the ride, with cameos by additional historical figures. Brandreth does a fine job of evoking the many contrasts of Victorian England: the modernity of telephones alongside British tradition, the privileges of the upper class and the squalor of the poor, the veneer of proper behavior over the underbelly of opium dens.

While Brandreth also captures Wilde’s flamboyance and Doyle’s propriety, this is where the series’ conceit wears thin. Wilde is the star, making Holmesian leaps of deduction from minute details, putting Doyle in the Watson role of exclaiming surprise at Wilde’s insight; it seems a disservice to Doyle’s intelligence and creativity. At times Brandreth tries too hard; not only does Wilde frequently speak in aphorisms, the other characters repeatedly comment on how witty he is.

The mystery itself is a bit flimsy, but provides a functional framework for Wilde and Conan Doyle to dash about within. A final confrontation between Wilde and the killer is staged “offscreen,” an anticlimactic way to resolve the story, exacerbated by the lurid title and cover; the original British title, Oscar Wilde and the Nest of Vipers, is a better fit. Perhaps a comfortable addition to the series, but a trifle underwhelming on its own. 

 

 

 
         
 

Strong At The Break


by Jon Land

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

Land's third adventure of Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong delivers the same mixture of punch and quality as the previous entries. Like the earlier novels, Land has multiple plots hurtling towards each other at breakneck speeds. The first involves Mexican drug-and gun-runners and the kidnapped son of Caitlin's some-time friend, some-time nemesis Cort Wesley Masters (Many characters from the previous novels return, and this one directly builds on events from last year’s Strong Justice, making the series feel more developed and lived-in, though first-time readers will have no problem starting here.). Through all the explosions, gunfights, and chases, Caitlin remains a kick-butt, yet three-dimensional character. But for those who might not be interested in mere criminal activity, Land always weaves in a torn-from-the-headlines second story. Here there are two:  several billion dollars sent to rebuild Iraq apparently never arrived, and the son of a David Koresh-like “preacher” has set up a compound in Texas with the goal of revitalizing the patriot/militia movements. The preacher's father was killed by Caitlin's father, so you know that the demands of the Texas Ranger and Old West ways, ever-present in this series, will not go unfulfilled. 

 

 

 

 
         
 

Fallen: A Novel


by Karin Slaughter

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

The bloody print showed a left hand.  It was about eighteen inches above the knob.  The door had been pulled closed but hadn’t latched. . . . 

Talk about your suburban nightmares.  That’s what Georgia Bureau of Investigation detective Faith Mitchell finds herself walking straight into when a routine visit to her childhood home reveals her mother missing and that bloody print as pretty much the only clue.  Already facing a major life change thanks to her pregnancy, Faith plunges herself into an investigation that will ultimately churn up secrets and subterfuge that give a whole new meaning to morning sickness.  Slaughter’s latest would have been a great book anyway, but adding Faith’s pregnancy to the mix creates true peril at every juncture as her investigation hits surprisingly close to her own police home, spotlighting Faith’s concern for her mother even as she’s about to become one herself. 

The spectacularly executed The Fallen marks the third recent voyage into suburban life gone bad, following on the heals of Lisa Gardner’s Love You More and Kathy Reichs’ Save Me.  That a trio of our finest female thriller writers would choose such similar themes isn’t coincidence so much as a realization that the most chilling tales lie on our own front doorsteps instead of somebody else’s.  As a result, the emotion in The Fallen is palpable and the suspense relentless.  A masterpiece of angst-riddled terror where you’d least expect to find it.

 

 

 
 

 

 

     
  Young Adult

 

 
 

Across the Universe


by Beth Revis

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

In the very near future, things on Earth aren't looking so good. Amy's scientist parents have been recruited to go on a mission to a distant planet.  It will take a while to get there, so they will be cryogenically frozen for 350 years. Amy's dad gives her the option to back out and live out her life on earth with other family members.  But Amy decides to throw in her lot with her parents, and she is frozen as well.

And then she wakes up—decades before she is supposed to. Onboard this giant ship, Amy finds that a strange, self-sustaining civilization exists—and that somebody is going around unplugging, and in many cases killing, the frozen scientists.  A boy her own age, Elder, helps her adjust to her new life and get to the bottom of the murder mystery aboard the ship.

Although the romantic element of the plot is featured prominently on the cover, this title is not primarily a romance. Instead, give this to science fiction fans who might also enjoy a who-dun-it.

 

 

 
         
 

Rosebush


by Michelle Jaffe

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

Jane wakes up in the hospital the day after the party to find that she is paralyzed. She also can't remember the events that led up to her injuries.  Was she really the victim of an accident, or did one of her friends try to kill her? And if so, what if that person keeps trying?

This is a fun mystery with lots of potential suspects.  Was it her semi-abusive boyfriend? His best friend who never liked her? Her new, popular friends? Maybe even her stepfather?  Although Jane can be a bit self-involved (rightfully so, in many cases), teens will root for her as she slowly regains movement and memories, and pieces together the events of that fateful night.

 

 
         
My Reading Log
  by Jeff Ayers, Associate Editor

 

 

 
 

I couldn’t believe it when I realized that the cartoon Ziggy has been around for forty years.  You would think he would put on his pants by now.  (Ziggy: 40 Years, Andrews McMeel, $24.99).  Some of the best of the four decades of material are including in this wonderful retrospective.  While some cartoons are extremely dated when looking back, Ziggy seems timeless.

 

 

 

 

 
  Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance Comics (Harper, $29.99) showcases a forgotten era of comic books from the 40’s and 50’s.  Michael Barson has compiled some screamingly dated stories and quizzes that appeared in such comics with titles like Love Problems and Advice and Love Lessons.  Story titles like “Did I Give My Lips Too Freely?” and “I Was Engaged to a Puppet” are just two of the dozens of examples.  Finish with a story?  Then take the quiz, “Will you be a Bride or an Old Maid?”  Way too much fun.

 

 

 

 
 

David McCullough is one of my favorite historians and I’ll read anything he writes.  His latest, The

Greater Journey (Simon and Schuster, $37.50) explores Paris between 1830 and 1900 and the various Americans whose lives were changed by visiting the City of Lights.  Before flight, the journey was long, but for these men and women, their lives were changed forever.  Another terrific and surprising book from McCullough.

 

 

 

 

 
  The latest collection of the comic strip Argyle Sweater delivers more belly laughs than most. Puns of Steel (Andrews McMeel, $12.99).  The creator of the strip, Scott Hilburn, comes close to delivering the same spark of ingenuity and humor not seen since Gary Larson and the Far Side. 

 

 

 
   

See you next month…

 

 
     
     
 

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