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August 2011 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

         
 

Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past


by Simon Reynolds

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Concentrating on music, but occasionally touching on other aspects of pop culture, Reynolds examines why much of what has been produced over the past few decades has relied so heavily on references and retreads of the past rather than on breaking new ground. The fact that so much music had become accessible, first through CD reissues, and now through the Internet, has resulted in an “archivist” attitude. Here, music has become not a creative moment, but merely an index to our choices as consumers. Hip-hop songs are built out of samples of preexisting pieces of music. The constant search for new samples in order to keep material “fresh” (“There are no oldies rap stations,” noted rapper Young MC), means that engineers have to dig into ever more-obscure and lesser-quality records, leading to a race to the bottom, creatively. Music, unlike almost any other aspect of culture (art, fashion) affects us emotionally. Listeners “can get temporarily tired of a song through overexposure, but music rarely becomes unlistenable over time the same way that a garment becomes . . . too dated to be seen in.” Classic rock reunions are more successful than new bands because our brains are wired to prefer the familiar, and with each passing year the amount of what's familiar grows. Unsurprisingly, Reynolds is a champion of punk as a music and ethos, since it stood in opposition to what many saw as the early 1970s’ commercialization of rock. But, just as punk was exploding, the era of 1950s nostalgia swept the U.S., led by American Graffiti and the faux doo-wop group Sha Na Na. Retromania began at the end of the 1960s, when the 1970s began to fetishize the 1950s. Ironically, there was no nostalgia for the immediate past in the 1960s because people then were so busy being incredibly progressive and innovative, thus sewing the seeds of future creative ennui. We long for simpler times, even if those times were only a couple of years ago. While there is nothing wrong with appreciating the past, if your frame of reference isn't far enough away, then mere novelty (something merely different, as opposed to truly new) replaces actual innovation.

 
         
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

The Gentlemen's Hour


by Don Winslow

reviewed by Jon Land

 

Boone Daniels lies face up on his board like it’s an inflatable in a swimming pool. 

So opens, in especially appropriate fashion, Don Winslow’s latest counter-culture, post-modern, flat-out terrific crime thriller, The Gentlemen’s Hour.  Winslow defies description as a writer; he doesn’t just break the mold ordinarily, he shatters it and this follow-up to The Dawn Patrol is no exception. 

Once again the action is driven by surfing private detective Boone Daniels and this time out, against his better judgment, he takes on a messy divorce case.  It’s the kind of work a laid-back surfer dude would normally avoid, but Boone’s got bills to pay too.  Fear not, though, since that case is swiftly eclipsed by his investigation into the murder of a surfing community icon at the hands of a would-be gangbanger.  Since Boone is working for the defense, not surprisingly he finds himself at odds with his extended family of surfers who form the Dawn Patrol and threatens to exile him to the far less cool Gentlemen’s Hour.  From there we’re treated to Winslow’s typically quirky twists and turns, several of them at the hands of Boone’s extended “family” of characters who are as colorful as they are effective.            

No writer leaves you as wholly satisfied as Winslow.  His nontraditional, often zany style is balanced perfectly by his brilliance as a stylist.  The Gentlemen’s Hour isn’t for everyone, no more than surfing itself is.  But for my money it’s the literary equivalent of the perfect wave. 

 

 
         
 

A Dance With Dragons


by George R. R. Martin

reviewed by Neal Swain

 

 

It would be no exaggeration to describe the latest installment of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance with Dragons, as one the most-anticipated publications -- certainly within the genre -- in recent memory, and readers will be gratified by the fact that this latest volume lives up to Martin's well-earned reputation for crafting a gritty, sophisticated storyline with developed and plausible characters.
 
That being said, fans should expect little conclusivity out of A Dance with Dragons. This is undeniably a middle book, and suffers somewhat from mid-series syndrome. Martin delves further into world-building in this volume than in his previous ones, and familiar characters evolve in ways which, while always natural, may sometimes be surprising. But the overall timeline of the series doesn't advance much past A Feast for Crows. The story arcs of most of the major characters end in cliffhangers.
 
Such quibbles aside, A Dance with Dragons is inarguably an immensely satisfying read and indispensable for any fan's collection.

 

 

 
         
 

The Map of Time


by Felix J. Palma, translated by Nick Caistor

reviewed by
Kevin Lauderdale

 

Set in late-Victorian England, this sprawling neo-Victorian novel (the author addresses the reader, there is occasional flowery language) plays with our and the characters' expectations about time travel. Its no spoiler to say that time travel is impossible. The two instances of it depicted early this book is revealed to be frauds, one part of an elaborate, proto-Disneyesque business. Where other novels might have ended with these reveals, that's were this one gets started. And because all of it is fake, that's what makes the story so much more interesting and human than if it had been real. We have the pleasure of watching the characters scramble to make what they have set in motion seem inevitable rather then the result of complex machinations. Because it's not real, there's the possibility that they might fail, which raises the stakes for everyone. The multiple plots center on poor, benighted H.G. Wells who soon wishes he had never written The Time Machine. People keep coming to him hoping he possesses the secret of time travel, and he's drawn into their desires and lives. One man wants to go back just eight years to stop the woman he loves from becoming one of Jack the Ripper's victims, while another has seen the future year of 2000 where mankind battles steam-powered automatons in a devastated London. The Map of Time is an absorbing page-turner that succeeds both in honoring and emulating the style and spirit of the nineteenth century's early, adventurous science fiction masterpieces. Required reading for any fan of the time travel genre, and highly recommended for anyone who likes a rollicking good yarn.

 

 

 
         
 

Portrait of a Spy


by Daniel Silva

reviewed by Jon Land

 

The first bomb exploded at 11:46 a.m., on the Avenue des Champs-élysées in Paris. 

With that Daniel Silva’s typically well polished and oiled thriller, Portrait of a Spy, is off and running—or, should I say, flying.  That’s because this time out the modern day Le Carré sprinkles in a dash of Robert Ludlum and Vince Flynn at their respective political and action bests. 

Portrait of a Spy is Silva’s most timely and accessible entry yet in his sterling Gabriel Allon series, pitting his formidable hero against terrorists jockeying for leadership in al-Qaeda in a post-Bin Laden world.  Much of the action centers on a bombing campaign coordinated by a figure clearly based on the radical American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.  But Portrait of a Spy is far more than a cat-and-mouse thriller, exploring all manner of societal, political and economic factors behind terrorism in general and Islamic radicalism in particular. 

Silva is often compared to Ian Fleming for his realistic approach to the functioning of the intelligence community, but Allon hardly aspires to be branded with a double-0 number.  He represents a more polished, literary cousin to Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone or Flynn’s Mitch Rapp.  A modern day sentinel standing as the last line of defense against those seeking our ultimate destruction.  Indeed, figures like Allon help us sleep easier—if you can sleep at all before finishing the superb Portrait of a Spy, that is.

 

 
         
 

Pulp! Summer/Fall 2011


edited by Chris Gabrysch

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

 

Inspired by the pulp magazines of yesteryear, this collection runs the gamut of genres. “A Stranger in Ferrview” is an edgy science fiction mercenary tale. “The Man in the Barn” would make a great 1950s sci-fi movie, preferably in black and white. The fantasy tale “Darmok and the Mermaids of the Sea,” unfortunately, seems unsure if it’s serious or parody. “Darwin’s Demons” is a fun little cryptozoological yarn. “A Reason for Living” has well-written characters but hangs on a predictable ending. “Good Fences Make Good” is an explosive noir thriller. “Wonderboy” brings an amusing tabloid twist to a superhero story. A spot-on Jeeves & Wooster pastiche, “James and the Gentry” adds a dash of the supernatural. “Radon’s Daughter” is a spooky sci-fi detective story. The steampunkish “The Ball” has hints of Firefly in its airship crew. “A Reversal of His Fortunes” is a solid story of spies and assassinations. The Western revenge story “The Lone Rider” is atmospheric, but a bit by the numbers. “Stirrings in Hell” is an epic tale of demons, the underworld, and hell on earth. “Weep Not, Fair Freya, for I Will See You in Niflheim and We Will All of Us Be Dead” overcomes its overwrought title to become a dark moody story of a spaceship gone off course. Although a couple of the contributions fell flat for me, well worth picking up for the variety of stories that really hit the mark.

 
         
 

Valentino: Film Detective


by Loren D. Estleman

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Before UCLA film preservationist Valentino starred in Estleman's excellent series of novels (Frames and Alone to date), he appeared in several short stories, all 14 of which are collected here for the first time. In each adventure Valentino searches for a lost film or investigates a private matter for a Hollywood big-shot—usually in exchange for the promise of a rare film for the school’s archives. Some of these, like Bela Lugosi’s screen test as Frankenstein before the role went to Boris Karloff, and half of Erich von Stroheim's epic Greed, are actual missing films. Other stories contain substitutes for famous people and films. Red Montana and Dixie Day stand-in for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans in a case where someone is blackmailing Red with a stag film Dixie made back in the 1950s, before she became “the Sweetheart of the Range.” On a visit to Italy, Valentino searches for a Felliniesque director. The last of the “Pint-Sized Pirates” is modeled on Spanky McFarland of the “Little Rascals.” Mixing reality with fantasy, in one story Valentino meets a ninety-eight-year-old woman who claims to be Carole Lombard—supposedly dead for 60 years. There's murder and robbery, but this being Hollywood, sometimes the greatest dangers are those posed by unstable nitrate film stock and the shadows of the Blacklist. Two of the stories, “Greed” and “Garbo Writes” were the seeds of the novels, so if you enjoy them, try the longer works. These stories are love-letters to Hollywood’s Golden Age, meant to read by fellow fans. If you don't need a throwaway reference to Fatty Arbuckle explained, and you don't need to Google to see what Audrey Hepburn looked like when a character is described as resembling her, this collection is for you.

 

 
         
 

Witches of East End


by Melissa de la Cruz

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

North Hampton, Long Island isn't on any map, and is surrounded by mists, but outsiders still stumble upon this quaint little town. And, although the magic of the mists has kept away strip malls, this is no Brigadoon (despite what the author says in the very first paragraph). There's a police force, bars, and the mayor would like to sell the library because the beachfront land where it sits has become increasingly valuable. Here live the Beauchamp family—mother Joanna and her daughters:  thirtysomething Ingrid and hot, nineteen-year-old Freya. Although they think of themselves of witches, they are actually fallen Norse goddesses. They have lived here in peace on the material plane for centuries, forbidden from using their magic by “the restriction” imposed by “the Council.” But when impulsive Freya becomes engaged to one rich, handsome newcomer, all the while having an affair with his younger, bad-boy brother, their fealty to the restriction begins to crack. Soon Freya is adding a little love magic to the drinks she mixes at the bar, Ingrid is helping patrons at the library with fertility and faithfulness issues through her hand-made charms, and Joanna starts off by just restoring a burned pie, but is soon bringing back the dead. At first it seems like no one from the Council notices. No one visits to complain. But no good deed can go unpunished for very long. The book is clever and moves along at a fast pace. It’s peppered with references to Norse mythos (a ring, young lovers in a secret forest glade), but they're so subtle that anyone not looking for them might miss them.

 

 
 

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