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March 2012 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

         
 

First Girl Scout: The Life of Juliette Gordon Low


by Ginger Wadsworth

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts of America. This heavily-illustrated—almost a coffee table book—biography is sure to be a hit with older and former Scouts. Juliette Gordon Low (nicknamed, as every Girl Scout knows, “Daisy”) did not invent scouting for girls. But she did befriend the creator of the Boy Scouts in Britain, Robert Baden-Powell, and his sister, Agnes, head of the Girl Guides, on a visit to Europe. Low grew up with a privileged lifestyle in post-Civil War Georgia and New York, but, though she excelled at “ladylike” skills, such as art, she also reveled in time spent outdoors:  swimming, climbing trees, and studying nature. Low's Girl Scout activities comprise only the second half of the book, but they proved to be the inevitable combination of two facets of her life. She hoped that her Scouts would learn to be “active, healthy, and strong-minded girls who would eventually make their own life choices,” yet it was only because her family was so well-known and respected in Savannah society that the parents of the first Girl Scouts “trusted Daisy with their daughters.” Low continues to serve as an inspiring figure for girls today. Here they can read about her tirelessly spreading the word about the Girl Scouts to anyone who would listen, while for most of her life she herself was all but deaf.

 

 

 
         
 

Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the '60s and Beyond


by Jane Maas

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

Billed as written by “a real life Peggy Olsen,” this memoir from the woman advertising copywriter who created campaigns for Dove dish washing soap and directed the “I Love New York” campaign during that Mad Men era lives up to its promise. Though Maas herself was happily married, she had ringside seats while all around her people at her agency and others were conducting supposedly discrete affairs. As for the drinking, TV exaggerates. In the words of one former ad man, “We never drank in the morning.” The smoking on Mad Men is only exaggerated a little. Maas smoked while she held her baby daughter for the first time in the hospital, though. Why was it that the most senior men had the most affairs? “They had big private offices with doors that locked. And couches.” Also, the demands of business necessitated long hours. “By the time we got home to Connecticut,” one ad man recalls, “we were beat.” Maas herself was only harassed once. Though, as she points out, the term didn't exist back then. Women “were expected to handle things like this without making a big fuss about it.” Women made substantially less than men doing comparable jobs, the usual excuse being that a man had a wife and children to support. Women were expected to quit when they married or became pregnant.  Fashion:  not only were the bullet bras (see Joan Holloway) uncomfortable, but Maas couldn't get into the restaurant '21' wearing a pantsuit. Hats:  Don Draper puts his on for sixty-second-long stroll from car to house, and that's also not far from Maas' reality. Her priorities had to be “job first, husband second, children third,” and Maas freely admits her family only remained intact because she had a housekeeper. The book is a short, breezy read, full of juicy, gossipy tales of that era when it seemed like there weren't any consequences—except the occasional divorce. But Maas also gives readers an inside view of the time when advertising went from boring and declarative to interesting and occasionally sexy.

 

 
         
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

Stay Close


by Harlan Coben

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

There are plenty of reasons why Harlan Coben is a number-one bestselling author, and all of them are keenly on display in Stay Close, a standalone as Coben once again puts Myron Bolitar on hiatus.  If I had one word to describe his recent string of thrillers that are as riveting as they are groundbreaking, it would be angst -- and his latest fits that bill perfectly. 

“Sometimes in that split second when Ray Levine snapped a picture and lost the world in the strobe from his flashbulb, he saw the blood.” 

Poor Ray.  Once a fabled photojournalist, he saw his storied career vanish in the wake of a tragic accident seventeen years earlier that ultimately banished him to the soiled world of the paparazzi.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, his girlfriend Megan ran away at the same time and has gone on to build an idyllic, suburban life like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.  Since this is Harlan Coben, though, it turns out to be more like Norman Bates.  Add to this already taut mix a persistent detective still chasing the ghost of a missing person case, also from seventeen years ago, and you’ve got another magnificent puzzle of a tale.  

What’s different and special here is Ray himself, a protagonist both physically and morally flawed who must overcome at least the latter to emerge from his own self-loathing. Stay Close

 

 
         
 

Reefs and Shoals


by Dewey Lambdin

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

I'm new to the adventures of Captain Alan Lewrie of the Royal Navy, who sails the same seas as Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey. But, since this is the 18th Lewrie adventure, I assumed that author Lambdin must be doing something right. You might start, as Lambdin did, an Age of Sail series in 1989, just as O'Brian's was ending and daring the inevitable comparison with the master, but readers would have deserted the series long ago had there been no substance. I dove in without any previous knowledge of the characters or situations, and found that I had no trouble gaining my sea-legs. The first quarter of the book moved a little slowly, but once the actual plot started rolling, I was captivated. It's 1805, and Captain Lewrie and his frigate HMS Reliant have been dispatched to the Bahamas. Lewrie is to put together a small squadron to “hunt and harry French and Spanish privateers.” The result is a series of well-paced small adventures as Lewrie explores the inlets and islands, as well as Florida's swamps and keys, which are still popular with pirates today. Readers learn everything they ever wanted to know about smuggling, and shipboard life is well represented. There's even a cocky Frenchman to taunt the captain in the neutral port of Charleston, South Carolina. Solid nautical adventure.

 

 

 
         
 

Empire State


by Adam Christopher

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

 

Things take a turn when Bradley is mugged by a couple of mysterious thugs wearing gas masks and demanding answers to questions Rad doesn’t understand. Then a new case turns up, a missing person that leads him to the house of a fanatic preacher; shortly thereafter a body also turns up, discovered by his reporter friend Kane Fortuna. All these disparate events seem connected in strange ways involving robots and, just maybe, a mysterious place known as New York City. As Rad pursues his case, he begins to understand the link between the Empire State and New York City—and the danger both cities are in.  

Christopher spins a good yarn in his first novel, mixing several genre conventions together in a fresh new cocktail. Although some of the character names seem a bit forced, this is a small quibble for a fun novel that keeps the reader guessing with a number of plot twists. If any of the individual story elements appeal, give this mash-up a try..

 

 

 
         
 

Throne of the Crescent Moon


by Saladin Ahmed

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Sixty-year-old Adoulla is the last true ghul hunter in the city of Dhamsawaat, “the King of Cities,” famed for its domes and minarets. What starts out as just another hunt to destroy a couple of undead that have killed the distant relatives of an old flame soon spirals into a battle against the darkest of magics. Assisted by Raseed, a young but over-zealous dervish, and Zamia, an equally young Bedouin woman who can take the form of a lioness, he's up against a new kind of ghul:  one that doesn't just kill, but can take the soul as well. Souls, God, and religion play integral parts in this novel which vibrates with the echoes of Arabic and Muslim culture and faith. Adoulla's magic is powered by a combination of material components and invoking the appropriate one of the many names of God, evil is allied with The Traitorous Angel, and characters quote from The Heavenly Chapters. Throne passes the ultimate test of a fantasy novel: the magic is perfectly logical, and explanations make you think, “Of course that's how it works.” The book is also laced with wit that will remind fans of the 1940 film The Thief of Bagdad. A friend insults Adoulla by calling him “the master of the half-day nap,” and contradictions are “two words that refuse to share a tent.” Ahmed's wonderfully rich tale evokes the best traditions of the Arabian Nights adventures and infuses them with lush and vivid world building.

 

 

 
         
 

Cinder: Book One of the Lunar Chronicles


by Marissa Meyer

reviewed by Neal Swain

 

 

New Beijing is the center of the Eastern Commonwealth, member of a united world whose peace is threatened by a fast-acting plague and a slow-burning conflict with the lunar colony.  Linh Cinder is a mechanic, a cyborg still under the guardianship of her stepmother. Her life is tolerable-- until she meets the heir to the throne and loses her beloved sister to the plague. Her stepmother, blaming Linh for her daughter's death, "volunteers" her to participate in the testing of a cure. No one has survived the tests yet.

Linh is the first. Her survival is the beginning of her rediscovery of her past.

This is not a Cinderella retelling that wraps up neatly with a ball and a wedding. Linh Cinder is much more active and serious than the usual Cinderella served to a teen audience, perhaps because she doesn't expect anyone to come to her rescue. Political intrigue takes place on a scale larger than matchmaking. Marissa Meyer's debut book showcases a sympathetic heroine and an intriguing far-future premise, but glosses over history and emotions that would have helped take the story to its fullest.

 

 

 
         
 

The Book of Lost Fragrances


by M.J. Rose

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

There is simply no more daring a writer out there today than M.J. Rose, and her blisteringly original The Book of Lost Fragrances shows why.  This is literally a feast for the senses, especially that of smell as indicated by the title. 

“Giles L’Etoile grabbed the papyrus scroll that Abu had thrown into the coffin, added it to the contents of the gold box, and then shoved the box deep inside his satchel.” 

With that 1799 scene set in Egypt, Rose’s latest is off and running on a mystery that spans centuries ridden with long-held secrets.  The action actually centers on the fashionably strong Jac E’Toile, descendant of the aforementioned Giles and current head of Paris’ House of d’Etoile perfumery.  But what if there was more to perfume than mere scent?  What if a fragrance, specifically one lost to history, holds the key to unlocking secrets both ancient and modern?  Throw in Cleopatra, the French Revolution, and modern day China, and you’ve got the formula for a supple and elegant thriller, as Jac embarks on a dizzying chase that spans time and continents in search of her brother who disappeared after unlocking part of the puzzle. 

The Book of Lost Fragrances is as captivating as it is enthralling, a tour de force of storytelling that lingers, literally and figuratively, like the perfect scent.

 

 

 
Young Adult

 

     
 

Beneath a Meth Moon


by Jacqueline Woodson

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

Laurel lost her mother and grandmother to Katrina. When she and her father and baby brother begin a new life, she's thrilled that the captain of the basketball team shows an interest in her. But he also introduces her to crystal meth. Soon, her life spirals out of control, and she finds herself living on the streets.  There is nothing unpredictable here, but good strong writing and a believable protagonist raise Beneath a Meth Moon a cut above the average addiction fiction.  Teens who have struggled with addiction, or have watched their friends struggle, will be eager to get their hands on this one.

 

 

 
         
 

Born Wicked (The Cahill Witch Chronicles #1)


by Jessica Spotswood

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

It’s the late 19th century and New England is a stand-alone nation, founded a couple of centuries earlier as a safe haven for witches and their families from all over the world.  But since then, the Brotherhood has taken over, eliminating powerful witches either by putting them to death or by locking them away in horrific asylums. Women in this society are subservient and always at risk.  They may be accused of witchery at any time—and an accusation is as good as a conviction.

Cate and her two younger sisters are all actually witches--a fact she must keep carefully hidden from the world in general and the Brotherhood in particular. She is also facing down her sixteenth birthday, at which point she must decide if she will join the Sisterhood, where she might at least gain some independence, or marry one of her two potential suitors. Cate's sometimes overly wordy narration muddies the narrative, and the love story is a bit rushed.  Even so, teen girls who enjoy historical fantasy will likely be clamoring for the next title in this unique series. 

 

 
         
         

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