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November 2011 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

         
 

Voice in the Box: My Life in Radio


by Bob Edwards

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Almost from its inception, Bob Edwards was the voice of public radio. Here he tells the story of his career, and you can hear his mellow cadences in every line. He started in 1968 at a tiny station in New Albany, Indiana, across the river from his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. WHEL played the sort of music where Frank Sinatra was considered “up-tempo” and had equipment so old that “Marconi would have recognized every tube.” Edwards admits that at first he didn't “get” NPR. A devotee of Edward R. Murrow, he viewed himself as a serious journalist, and stumbling into “All Things Considered,” where people “having fun with a radio program,” was disconcerting. But in 1974 there were no rules. Obtaining a transcript of Nixon's White House tapes, Edwards, Nina Totenberg, and others broadcast a multi-hour reading. Edwards had longed to work at CBS, home of Walter Cronkite, but changed his mind and decided to stick with NPR when the Vietnam War ended. NPR was doing an in-depth retrospective, and CBS dealt only in sound bites between commercials. Like so many things in his life, his stint on “Morning Edition” was only supposed to be temporary, but lasted 24 years. Edwards recounts his slightly hardscrabble youth and two failed marriages. (Getting up at 1 AM to host “Morning Edition” didn't cause one, but it didn't help.) He has the usual comments about who makes the worst interviewees (politicians who stick to their talking points and don't answer the question), and who makes the best (musicians and writers, because their art is made from their personal lives and they have nothing to hide). Fans of Edwards will revel in the last few chapters of the book where he details the efforts of NPR to fire him. Despite millions of ardent listeners, he didn't fit management's idea of what NPR should sound like. The suits' misguided, deceitful, and ultimately very expensive machinations only resulted in Edwards taking his dream job, for more money, on satellite radio. Contains a generous assortment of pictures.

 

 
         
 

Steve Jobs


by Walter Isaacson

reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

Steve Jobs was a legend, and the technological changes he helped oversee and create changed the world forever.  Walter Isaacson had unparalleled access to his subject, and the numerous interviews with both Jobs as well as his family, friends, and colleagues have turned what could have been a simple book to cash in on Jobs’ recent passing into one of the best non-fiction books of the year. 

I was in high school when that “1984” commercial came on during the Super Bowl.  That instant classic is still considered the best Super Bowl commercial of all time.  From that point on, I had to have a Macintosh.  Twenty-seven-years later, I still work on Macs.  (And yes, I have other Apple products as well).  They are intuitive and never glitch, not like some other products I could name.   

The book not only looks at the life of Jobs, but also covers the beginning of the computer age when men and women were bold enough to experiment in garages with circuit boards and other electronic equipment.  That history, along with the beginnings of the Apple Corporation, are compelling and enlightening. The man himself proves to be a fascinating blend of charisma and genius.  He also could be cold-hearted and easily piss people off.  Isaacson reveals a fully rounded individual, flaws and all.  

Volumes will no doubt be written about Steve Jobs for years to come, but I can't imagine one better than this.

 

 
         
 

Better Than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives


by Arthur Plotnik

reviewed by A. B. Mead

 

 

“Our words and phrases of acclaim are worn out, all but impotent,” writes Plotnik. Remember when “awesome” was reserved for God or the Grand Canyon, not your favorite beer? Since we have become a culture obsessed with using praise as a way of codifying our enthusiasms, we need to bolster our vocabularies. When even a lowly mattress can be called “fantastic,” writers and speakers need to stretch themselves. Plotnik's mini-thesaurus is arranged in 15 categories, ranging from such concepts as Sublime (Elysium, heaven-minted), Large (monumental, strapping), Trendy (dapper, ready for prime time), and Challenging Belief or Expression (mind-cleaving, sandbags logic). Each category is loaded with scores of more specific superlatives. Plotnik also provides lists of “Vintage Gold.” Forget “the bee's knees;” in the roaring 20s, a real flapper praised that bathtub gin as “the clam's garters.” Not that Plotnik skips contemporary references: The Wire gives us “Them joints is wet!” and in texting, something can be wkewl (way cool). There's red and then there's Percy Bysshe Shelley's “hectic red” and Diane Ackerman's “seismically red.” And don't forget turning a name into an adjective. Writing can be Dickensian, but someone's other skills might be (Michael) Jordanesque. A fun read even for non-writers.

 

 
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

The Drop


by Michael Connelly

reviewed by Jon Land

 

Christmas came once a month in the Open-Unsolved Unit.  That was when the lieutenant made her way around the squad room like Santa Claus, parceling out the assignments like presents . . . 

Returning to his old unit in The Drop after two years in homicide presents Michael Connolly’s detective Harry Bosch with a host of challenges, not the least of which is new DNA evidence from a 1989 rape case.  Add to that a politically charged potential murder at Hollywood’s famed Chateau Marmont and you’ve got a recipe for a terrific tale even by Connolly standards, one that ranks with Roderick Thorpe’s seminal classic The Detective at the very top of the genre.  No stranger to having a lot on his plate, even Bosch has trouble negotiating the challenges of his dual cases that may or may not be connected and, in any event, represent a minefield laid across the dark underbelly of Los Angeles city politics. 

Seems like every noirish tale featuring L.A. as a backdrop draws comparisons and/or allusions to Roman Polanski’s brilliant Chinatown.  But Connolly is one of the few worthy of the comparison and the crusty Bosch is every bit the equal of private eye J. J. Gittes as played by Jack Nicholson in the film.  Jack’s too old to play Harry now, but fortunately both Bosch and Connolly will be around for a long time giving us more of the same.

 

 
         
 

Snuff


by Terry Pratchett

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Pratchett's 39th Discworld novel continues in the same brilliant vein as the previous entries. As always, Pratchett picks a topic of satire and spins a funny mystery around it. This time it's British village life—the country houses, the gentry, and the constant social warfare—that come in for a ribbing. Snuff finds City Watch Commander Samuel Vimes, who is also the Duke of Ankh due to his marriage to Lady Sibyl, on holiday with his family at his wife's ancestral hall. Borrowing a little from Downton Abbey, Vimes, a simple “copper,” struggles to find his place among his supposed inferiors, who behave like his superiors. There are also the girls right out of Jane Austen looking for husbands, and, of course, even while vacationing Vimes is destined to find some dark goings-on. So when a young goblin girl is murdered, Vimes is delighted to have a case to work on. And, like any other self-respecting country village, there's a much bigger secret to be discovered. Simple tobacco smuggling (the titular snuff) turns out to be a cover for “crystal slam,” a troll drug so deadly and illegal that selling it is a hanging offense. Even though previous novels featuring Vimes and his City Watch have dealt with murder, this one has a more serious feel, and the Commander struggles with several demons within—one literally. A mix of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, Snuff is more somber and less wacky than previous Discworld books, but there's still plenty to smile about.

 

 

 
         
 

11-22-63


by Stephen King

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

“Talking’s done for now.  You need to find out for yourself.  Go on, open the door.” 

Stephen King’s been opening doors like that for thirty-plus years now, but the wondrously entertaining 11/22/63 ranks as his best effort in nearly half that.  A perfectly executed throwback that pitches noble-enough high school teacher Jake Epping into waters previously tread by the likes of Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone

Turns out there’s a time portal in the pantry of Jake’s favorite local diner and with current proprietor Al Templeton on, literally, borrowed time he needs someone to complete the job he now won’t be able to:  prevent the world-changing assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  Now, since this particular portal always goes back to the same Lewiston, Maine day in 1958, that certainly presents some challenges, not the least of which is Jake’s ability to fit into a long-gone world for which cell phones, credit cards, the Internet, computers, and even color television are nonexistent.  And he’s got to live in the past for five years just to get to that fateful day in question, something that presents a host of challenges in itself even though his return to the present, inevitably, will find only two minutes have expired. 

Of course, anyone who’s read time travel tales dating back to H. G. Wells brilliant The Time Machine knows complications and consequences inevitably ensue, as the rules keep unfolding and rewriting themselves.  Sure, King has long thrived on fashioning new worlds in which order is a relative term, but the hefty 11/22/63 may go down as his masterwork, a brilliant treatise on the limits of love and fate laced with an uncanny level of nuance and subtlety.  The only thing harder than lifting the book up is putting it down.

 

 
         
 Young Adult

 

     
 

White Crow


by Marcus Sedgwick

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

Rebecca's father is a cop who leaving behind a dark secret in London.  Now, the two of them are essentially alone together in a tiny town that's in the process of falling into the sea. Rebecca meets a strange girl called Ferelith, who seems friendly but may be hiding darker intentions. Meanwhile, alternating chapters relate pages from the diary of a local pastor who was a party to some local dark deeds in the late 18th century.

It's a testament to Sedgwick’s skill as a writer that though the book is light on action, he maintains a creepy atmosphere and builds suspense throughout.  A good read for teens looking for light horror.

 
         
 

Ashes


by Ilsa J. Bick

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

Ashes is the start of an apocalyptic trilogy set after electromagnetic pulses fry solid-state electronics and computers. Damaged nuclear plants and storage facilities erupt radiation, and the modern world is plunged back to nineteenth century technology, although older cars and vacuum-tube radios still function. The EMPs kill most middle-aged people, and many children who survive eventually go insane, turning into bloodthirsty killers. 

One of the survivors is seventeen-year-old Alex, a young woman suffering from a brain tumor—or at least she was. Her symptoms disappear after the EMPs, but there’s no technology left to confirm what has happened. Stranded in the wilds of Michigan after running away on a solitary trek to figure out what to do with what remains of her life, she finds herself caring for eight-year-old Ellie, whose grandfather died during the EMPs. The pair ends up traveling with Tom, a young veteran of Afghanistan who has his own dark troubles. 

Bick artfully evokes the crumbling civilization that remains after the EMPs. Desperation and fear drive people to their best, but also to their worst. The surviving population of elderly need—but distrust—the youth who may yet turn into murderous brutes, which adds another layer to the story, as do the almost supernatural abilities that a few survivors discover they now have, including Alex. Ostensibly aimed at the young adult/teen market, this grim but engaging adventure is just as compelling for adults, and the cliffhanger ending will leave you eager for the next book.

 

 
         
 

Daughter of Smoke and Bone


by Laini Taylor

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

Karou was raised by devils.  She didn’t think of them that way, of course; they were just her family.  And though she was always curious about the secret doorways that led from our world to theirs—and from theirs to somewhere beyond—she learned not to ask too many questions.  Then one day, she is attacked by a beautiful angel, and discovers that she is in the thick of an ancient, brutal war.

This star-crossed paranormal romance is likely to be wildly popular among Twilight fans, though the romance may be a bit too steamy for some of that book’s younger readers.  Excellent writing, detailed world building, and lots of suspense make this a stand-out addition to the burgeoning angel genre. 

 

 
 

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