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July 2011 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

         
 

Reveille in Washington 1860-1865


by Margaret Leech

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

As we observe the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, it's nice to have unusual topics to read about instead of the same handful of generals and battles. This book, originally published in 1941, and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History, has just been reissued by the New York Review of Books in a handsome paperback edition (though I have to ding it for nor including the 16 pages of contemporary illustrations found in earlier editions). As the title suggests, Reveille gives us a detailed portrait of Washington DC and its inhabitants during the War Between The States. In 1860 most of DC's major buildings were still under construction. The Executive Mansion was on a swampy flat that locals blamed for the annual malaria outbreaks. There were no theaters or operas, but plenty of brothels and places to gamble. Well-heeled residents took picnic lunches and opera glasses down to Virginia to the view the Battle of Bull Run. Over time the city was fortified by a thirty-seven-mile-long ring of fifty forts and defended by the Army of the Potomac. DC was tangled in contradictions regarding slavery. Escaped slaves from the rebel south were employed by the government as manual laborers, but those from neighboring Maryland—still loyal to the Union, though a slave state—had to be captured and returned to their owners. After emancipation, the army formed its first “Negro regiments,” though even a black officer could be ordered by a streetcar conductor to ride on the less-comfortable outside of the trolly, even in the rain. For free citizens, the war soon meant a period of unparalleled prosperity. Northern states, unable to spend their money in the south, bought their necessaries from DC. Newly-rich investors were happy to finance theatrical entrepreneur John T. Ford's theater, named after himself, which featured the very latest improvements in acoustics and ventilation, not to mention a special double box seat for whenever the president attended. At nearly 600 pages, this is a hefty read, but if you're going to read a book about the Civil War this summer, make it this one.

 

 

 
         
 

Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops?: The Lost Toys, Tastes, and Trends of the 70s and 80s


by Gael Fashingbauer Cooper and Brian Bellmont

reviewed by by Jeff Ayers

 

 

Being a child of the 70’s, there are things I remember and some things I want to forget. The two authors reflect back on those times with this marvelous book.  Remember Marathon Bars or Freakies cereal?


The toys, fads, and downright bizarre things that strangely made sense at the time are listed in alphabetical order like an encyclopedia, which makes better sense than grouping by subject.  The authors have a keen sense of the subject matter and maybe readers should feel sorry for them. The descriptions have a snarky edge that makes one laugh out loud at times, while also muttering, “I remember that.”   They also discuss if the item is gone for good or has been revised.  Admittedly, some of the stuff covered is a bit of a stretch and not really worthy of coverage (I’m talking to you, Debbie Gibson), but that’s a minor quibble for a great nostalgia flashback.

 

 

 

 

 
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown


by Paul Malmont

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

It is a matter of fact that, during World War II, Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp, who also happened to be scientists, worked under fellow science fiction writer Robert Heinlein at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. If official sources are to be believed, they spent their time conducting chemical tests on products intended for naval aircraft in order to make sure they met specifications. But in Malmont's novel that’s just the cover for a top-secret project to have some of America's biggest imaginations turn their talents towards the sort of superweapons they created for pulp magazines. This book is not Robert Heinlein, Laser-Wielding Nazi Hunter; Malmont has not “pulped” his characters. Instead, he extrapolates only a little to create an engrossing and entertaining tale. Accompanied by failed writer (and failed serviceman) L. Ron Hubbard, the team sets out to find a supposed superweapon left behind by Nikola Tesla. I have read several of the biographies and autobiographies Malmont draws upon for characterization, and his portraits of the leading characters are spot-on. Heinlein's troubled marital life was made worse by the fact that he had given up writing because after Pearl Harbor “rocket ships and aliens seemed so frivolous.” de Camp was an upper-class adventurer with a true gift for words. Asimov was an eager, sometimes dangerously naïve, youth prone to showing off his genius-level intelligence. And we see the weird religious and scientific experiences that would eventually lead Hubbard to Scientology. For all its exotic science (and there is enough of that to satisfy anyone who enjoys the hero's writings), several of the book's best scenes, including one involving chemical dye in someone's food, are twists on actual events. Remove the superweapons, and this book is still fairly accurate historical fiction. Malmont even provides a workable explanation for the mystery of “The Philadelphia Experiment,” where a Navy ship seemed to disappear into thin air.

 

 


 

 
         
 

You're Next


by Gregg Hurwitz

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

You’re Next, Gregg Hurwitz’s latest pulse-pounding thriller, is a tour de force in all respects.  Hurwitz, whose thrillers have run the gamut from big-scale adventure tales to more introspective, almost claustrophobic psychological suspense, hits this one out of the park in what is a mixture of the two. Harlan Coben on steroids, essentially. 

The book opens in truly shattering fashion with a young boy being abandoned on a playground by his father.  Years later that boy grows up to become Mike Wingate, a father himself now with a deceptively simple and happy life.  Anyone who knows thrillers knows that the old Faulkner quote that “the past isn’t dead; it’s not even past” is never more true than in tales like this.   And, sure enough, Mike’s past comes a calling in the person of a mysterious visitor to his car dealership showroom who gives a whole new meaning to the word creepy as he boasts of his many surgeries.  Truly chilling stuff that sets Mike off on a downward spiral into a netherworld of denial and depravity. 

There’s a brilliant simplicity to Hurwitz’s writing here, sparse and often provided in present tense.  As a result, You’re Next has the sense of a writer scraping ambitiously for more, something great, and finding his way there in almost magical fashion.  The book resonates emotively, moving in a way not seen since John Hart’s brilliant The Last Child.  All great thrillers make you think, but this one makes you feel as well.

 

 

 

 
         
 

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti


by Genevieve Valentine

reviewed by
Neal Swain

 

The wars have been around for longer than almost anyone can remember, and they have given civilization more than a few hard knocks: now the world is divvied up into armored city states, with heavily guarded gates and job descriptions like "farmer-soldier." Almost nothing is older than the wars, and few things are almost as old. One of them is a traveling circus. Admission is whatever you can barter, but to join the act and live forever -forever by the standards of a war-torn world, at any rate- first you have to die.

Genevieve Valentine invites us to admire a unique performance in her debut novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti. Her prose is elegant, navigating freely and gracefully between narrative voices and time periods. Mechanique unfolds in a strange world, fascinating to observe but emotionally arid; her characters and their stories are interesting but not truly compelling, being subject to passions and imperatives that even broad-minded readers might find difficult to empathize with. This is a strong first work, however, and well worth reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 
         
 

Hot & Steamy: Tales of Steampunk Romance


by Jean Rabe & Martin H. Greenberg

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

Some stories in this uneven collection successfully blend romance and steampunk; others force the romance without much development. “Chance Corrigan and the Queen of Hearts” is one of the successful ones, with a well-developed romantic subplot. “Absinthe-Minded Archaeologist” is a thin tale requiring the archaeologist to be more myopic than justified by the absinthe (he even prepares the drink incorrectly). “The Problem of Trystan” is a nice love story, but burdened with exposition detailing its delayed setting, which features Queen Diana appointing Viceroy Reagan over the American colonies. “Clockworks” is literally a story of the heart; a steampunk pacemaker makes it the strongest blend of steampunk and romance. “In the Belly of the Behemoth” is a strong tale of a steampunk Civil War. “Automata Futura” entertainingly blends together a number of Victorian elements. “Love Comes to Abyssal City” is post-apocalyptic retro steampunk with a creepy Big Brother flavor. “For the Love of Byron” is a moving romance in the New World. “For Queen and Country” is well balanced and amusing. “Grasping at Shadows” has a lost city/Lovecraftian element along with the romance. “Go Forward with Courage” is another well-done New World story. “Her Faith is Fixt” is a gentlemanly adventure with a twist. “Kinetic Dreams” is a confusing mash of time travel and alternate timelines. “For the Love of Copper” takes the time to develop a romance intertwined with the steampunk elements. “Cassandra’s Kiss” doesn’t have much going on. “Dashed Hopes” is a heart-wrenching story somewhat weakened by humorous contemporary references. Generally entertaining, but not as strong throughout as the editors’ previous collection, Steampunk’d, featuring some of the same authors and characters.

 

 

 
         
 

Inmate 1577


by Alan Jacobson

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

Alan Jacobson has already distinguished himself in the crowded serial killer sub-genre of thrillers. But his smooth and seasoned approach reaches new heights in Inmate 1577, a stunner of a tale that is structurally flawless. 

Henry sat deathly still in the corner watching the life drain from his mother’s body.  He stared at the blood seeping from her pulpy wounds, poking forth from between strands of matted hair. 

That we are witnessing the birth of a monster is hardly in doubt.  The distinction lies on the twisty, turny path on which Jacobson takes this particular monster, leading ultimately to secrets long buried in Alcatraz of all places.  Those secrets will be unearthed in typically professional fashion by Jacobson stalwart FBI profiler Karen Vail who returns to San Francisco from wine country following the discovery of the latest victim. 

Inmate 1577 moves deliberately along a circuitous path lined with secrets, surprises and subterfuge that have been a staple of the genre since Will Graham pursued the Tooth Fairy with help from Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’ true masterpiece Red Dragon.  Like Harris, Jacobson builds the suspense to a pulsating crescendo that will ultimately bring the walls down upon Vail, not quite literally but in immensely satisfying fashion.

 

 

 
 

 

 

     
  Young Adult

 

 
 

Notes from the Blender


by Brendan Halpin and Trish Cook

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

16-year-old Declan’s main interests are black metal, video games, porn—and Neilly Foster, the cutest girl in school.  Neilly may be popular and beautiful, but she has her own problems:  her boyfriend just made out with her best friend.  And although she supports her father’s upcoming marriage to his same-sex partner, she spends a lot of time defending him to her less enlightened peers.  When Neilly and Declan find out that their parents (his dad, her mom) are about to get married—and that they will soon produce a new little brother or sister—the two teens bond from a shared sense of shock and outrage. 

Despite subject matter that touches on masturbation, death of a family member, and the inevitable pain involved in combining two families into one, this is essentially a light-hearted, often funny read.  The chapters narrated by Declan are stronger than those narrated by Neilly, but even so, this is a book that should appeal to both boys and girls—especially those from blended families.

 

 
         
 

The Fox Inheritance (Jenna Fox Chronicles #2)


by Mary E. Pearson

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

This follow up to The Adoration of Jenna Fox (Henry Holt, 2008) is not quite as strong as the first offering, but still well worth the read.  There were two other teens in the car crash that caused Jenna’s near-death and amnesia:  Locke and Kara.  Jenna believed that they had died in the crash, but Locke narrates the story of what actually happens to them.  They find themselves living in a United States 260 years in the future, a country no longer united and filled with strange technology and unfamiliar people—some of whom would like to use Kara and Locke’s scientifically generated bodies for their own purposes. 

The Fox Inheritance problematizes some of the ethical questions that were brushed aside perhaps a bit too quickly at the end of the first novel:  What does it really mean to be human?  How much original genetic material must remain before a person crosses the line into becoming something else?  Fans of the first book will be clamoring for this next installment.

 

 

 
     
 

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