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May 2012 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

         
 

That's What They Want You to Think: Conspiracies Real, Possible, and Paranoid


by Paul Simpson

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Simpson provides a broad examination of over two-dozen conspiracy theories, from ancient times to modern, and all across the world. For instances where there actually were conspiracies (Lincoln's assassination, Watergate), he provides the historical context and aftermath. For those that remain speculative (the deaths of Pope John Paul I or Marilyn Monroe), he explains where the investigations went wrong and muddied the historical record. Simpson's goal is “to sort out the probable from the possible,” allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. He does not, however, hesitate to point out the ridiculous:  writer Stephen King did not kill John Lennon, no matter what pictures you may have seen on the Internet. Aside from assassinations, the book discusses possible conspiracies and cover-ups involving the military (Pam Am 103), extraterrestrials (Roswell), secret societies (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), and governments (9/11). Of interest to Americans will be two British conspiracies they might not have heard of. The Rendlesham Forest Incident is frequently called “The British Roswell.” In 1980, lights flew over a U.S. Airbase in England. Airmen later chased some form of mechanical lights through a forest and found possible evidence of a UFO landing site. Alternative 3 was a fake documentary shown on British TV in 1977 in the tradition of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast. It involved a supposed plan to send Earth's best and brightest to Mars so that they could avoid our coming environmental collapse. To this day, some people insist it's real. (You can find the “expose” on YouTube.) For topics that are out in the open, like The Council on Foreign Relations, the book explains what they actually do and how they have come to be misinterpreted. The book is well-footnoted, but still very “pop,” and has appropriate historical images on almost every page, including both forms of President Barack Obama's birth certificate. Note: this is only available as an e-book. That's good for folks with e-readers because it gives them something interesting to read besides the obvious best sellers. It's bad for everyone else who would like a copy on their shelf, or—as I surely would have done as a high school or college student—to pass around with friends.

 

 

 
         
 

Mile Marker Zero


by William McKeen Margolin

reviewed by A.B.Mead

 

 

It's rare to find a fun, racy book about sex, drugs, and booze that also has a literary focus. McKeen's history of Key West, Florida, which has been home to many of the 20th Century's most-celebrated writers, makes it seem inevitable. From here on out, I won't be able to think of Hemingway or Hunter S. Thompson without thinking first of daiquiris, girls in bikinis, and gorgeous sunsets. Key West is popularly known as the southernmost city on the continental U.S., and tourists flock to pose beside the titular concrete mile marker. Hemingway made it his home during the 1930s, and during the 1960s and '70s other writers came to wrestle with Papa's ghost or just live somewhere warm and inexpensive. Residents, or “Conchs,” as they like to be called, have long practiced “the Bubba system,” where one hand washes the other, but people also tend to leave each other alone. This not only allowed shrimpers to pick up a little extra cash smuggling marijuana, but also made Key West attractive for gay writers like Tennessee Williams. Tom McGuane, now largely forgotten, but a very hot property in the 1970s when he was frequently called “The Hemingway of his generation,” was part of the migration that eventually included gonzo journalist Thompson, Superman star Margot Kidder, and songwriter Jimmy Buffett. McKeen depicts Buffett as a poet who songs portray his embodiment of the Key West lifestyle. Buffett’s song “Margaritaville” spread the word (and the fantasy) of his adopted home to all “the secretaries and middle managers who dressed in JC Penny.” Like so many things, Key West has become a victim of its own success. Now only the very rich and the homeless can afford to live there, and what was once authentically ramshackle has become Disneyfied quaint.

 

 

 
 Fiction

 

 
         
 

The Columbus Affair


by Steve Barry

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

“Christopher Columbus realized that the decisive moment was approaching.” 

With that, Steve Berry’s prototype for the perfect thriller, The Columbus Affair is off and running at breakneck speed.  There’s something truly special about an author at the top of his game rising to even greater heights, maybe because so many bestselling authors disappoint by the time their “Also By” page reaches double digits.  Not so here.  Indeed, in book number eleven Berry daringly lays the ever-reliable Cotton Malone aside in favor of  new, and considerably more flawed, protagonist Tom Sagan who’s, almost literally, at the end of his rope when the book opens. 

Sagan, a once famed journalist, thought he had seen it all.  But the wartime reporting that ultimately led to his disgrace is nothing compared to a story that holds both hope and redemption for him.  This after he receives a visit from the enigmatic Zachariah Simon who enlists Sagan’s aid and expertise in solving a centuries-old mystery that exposes new truths about Christopher Columbus himself.  Not that Sagan has much of a choice, given that Simon has Tom’s own daughter to use as a calculated bargaining chip, ratcheting up the stakes, both personal and professional, even more. 

“Let us hope that the secret of this day will long stay hidden,” a character notes early on.  

But in the world of Steve Berry we know it won’t, as he once again magically blurs the line between fact and fiction, infusing his potboiler with a perfect blend of historical speculation and contemporary adventure that would make Indiana Jones proud and helps raise The Columbus Affair into the rarified air of early Robert Ludlum.  There is simply no one today writing better or more satisfying thrillers than Berry and this one is not to be missed.

 

 

 
         
 

A Brewing Storm


by Richard Castle

reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

Fans of the Castle TV series know that the author Richard Castle wrote a series of novels starring Derrick Storm prior to writing about Nikki Heat.  The last Storm book killed off his main character.  With the release of the first e-book short A Brewing Storm, the reader quickly learns he faked his death.  

Enjoying retirement, he’s called back to the CIA by his old boss.  Under an assumed name so Storm can technically stay dead, he’s given an assignment that at first seems routine.  A powerful senator’s son has been kidnapped, and strangely two different sets of ransom notes appear.  Storm has to fight the FBI, the CIA, and the senator to get answers.  Everyone seems to have secrets. 

The author ghostwriting for Richard Castle has the formula down cold.  The narrative teeters between pulp parody and classic mystery without going over the top.  Readers might complain about how short the story is, but to me it felt like the first episode of a multi-story arc.  Can’t wait for the second one.

 

 

 
         
 

Blood in the Water


by Jane Haddam

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

Haddam's 27th mystery featuring Gregor Demarkian takes us inside the nouveau riche, gated community of Waldorf Pines, just outside of Philadelphia. Here among the mock Tudors that abut a golf course, the residents like to think of themselves as wealthy inhabitants of a small town. But they lack the self-assurance of old money. Waldorf Pines' residents still fear for their reputations, and they all have secrets and something to lose. Among the ladies who lunch and ladies who committee, and the stockbrokers and girls who appear on My Super Sweet 16, there is a murderer. Demarkian used to work for the FBI, and now he's police consultant. As he says, “people hire me when they know who committed the murder, but it's somebody they don't want to take the responsibility of arresting.” This time nobody knows who did it, and, at first nobody knows exactly who's dead. One body in the clubhouse pool is the ne’er-do-well, college-aged pool boy, but the second is that of another man, not Mrs. Heinrich, with whom he was thought to have been having an affair, and who disappeared when the pool house caught fire. The story is told from multiple perspectives aside from Demarkian, the most absorbing being teen-ager LizaAnne Marsh. The quintessential Mean Girl, LizaAnne rules the cool table at the cafeteria with an iron fist and uses the term “retarded” to refer to anything of which she doesn't approve. And she doesn't approve of much. From her lofty perch, she observes, but does not truly see. The novel comes to a brilliant solution that, like all the best mysteries, is obvious only in retrospect. Even those who read very carefully are likely to solve only half of the puzzle.

 

 
         
 

Cliff Walk


by Bruce DeSilva

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

 

There’s a lot to be said for an author owning a city.  The way Robert Parker does Boston, Carl Hiaasen for Florida in general, Stephen King in Maine or how Robert Crais and Michael Connolly share Los Angeles.  Added to that list now is Bruce DeSilva who returns the action to Rhode Island in Cliff Walk, a smooth and savvy follow-up to his Edgar Award-winning Rogue’s Island that further establishes DeSilva as a major crime writer.  This as his intrepid reporter hero Liam Mulligan once again gets down and dirty.  Literally this time when a child’s severed arm is found amid that squalor of a local landfill. 

Not long after the body of a murdered porno king is found at the base of the majestic Newport locale of the title.  Ugly things, DeSilva (a former reporter  himself for the Providence Journal) is telling us, lurk in pretty places too, and it’s left to the coffee-chugging Mulligan to make distinctions that involve an Internet pornography ring.  Seems like everything in the world DeSilva expertly fashions, including sex, is dark and sordid and that’s even before we meet a luscious array of colorful characters like Attila the Nun, Blackjack Baldelli and Knuckles Grieco.  

With Cliff Walk, DeSilva neatly carves out his own noirish niche among the living legends with whom he is frequently compared.  A twisty, tightrope of a tale that satisfies on every level and makes you wonder why some writer didn’t lay claim to Rhode Island before.

 

 
         
 

Darkroom


by Joshua Graham

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

Mixing the end of the Vietnam War with a young woman’s paranormal visions of a murder in today’s New York, Graham has created a modern political thriller wrapped in a historical puzzle inside a tale of redemption. The short chapters, told from the point of view of the various characters, give it a cinematic feel and a break-neck pace. Xandra Carrick is the daughter of a Vietnamese woman and an American photojournalist who met during the war all those years ago. Like her father, she’s a photojournalist. Xandra begins to see images of a dead college girl whenever she’s in her darkroom developing pictures. Richard Colson, a California senator running for President, is a Vietnam veteran whose dying wife also has ties to the girl’s death. To make matters even more eerie, the dead girl was stalking Xandra for no reason she can fathom. After telling the police about her visions, Xandra is soon arrested for the murder, and that’s just the start of her troubles. Like Graham’s first novel, Beyond Justice, this is a thriller threaded with religious themes. Also like his first novel, and unlike most “Christian thrillers,” Darkroom does not proselytize. The faith comes naturally as part of the characters and situations, and—most importantly—it doesn’t interfere with the characterizations or pace of the story. 

 

 

 
         
 

The Wind Through the Keyhole


by Stephen King

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

It's been eight years since Stephen King finished his magnum opus, the seven-volume saga of The Dark Tower, the tale of Roland the gunslinger and his quest through the Old West/fantasy setting of Mid-World. This novel technically is set between the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, and the fifth, Wolves of the Calla, but because almost all of it actually takes place before the saga proper begins, new readers don’t have to worry that they won't understand what's happening. In fact, “Constant Readers” (as King calls his fans) might be disappointed that Roland and the companions who make up his “Ka-tet” appear only at the very start and very end, as a framing device. As they hunker down to wait out a deadly, freezing storm, Roland tells a story from his youth. When he was just starting out as a gunslinger, Roland and his compatriot Jamie traveled to a dusty frontier town to investigate reports of a “skin-man,” a shape-shifter who could take the form of many a monstrous beast and who was killing locals. But this story proves to be only a longer framing device itself. While hunting the skin-man, Roland tells a young boy a Mid-World fairytale, the eponymous The Wind Through The Keyhole, and it's here that we have the bulk of this novel. Wind concerns Tim, a woodcutter's son, whose widowed mother marries a man who turns out to be an abusive lout. This sets off a series of dark and mysterious events that will eventually lead Tim on a quest of his own. His tale starts prosaically, like many a Western, but it's not long before Mid-World's patented mix of magic and technology come into play. From a dragon to a Siri-like computer assistant, and through encounters with a treacherous man in black who never ages and a green fairy, Tim will learn that he is capable of more than anyone might have expected. His adventure is laced with flashes of elements from the rest of the series, and, though there's no Roland, we do get to explore more of the strangeness that is Mid-World.  King remains a master storyteller who knows what his readers want, and he delivers.

 

 
         
         
 Young Adult

 

 
         
 

It's Our Prom
(So Deal With It)


by Julie Ann Peters

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

Though they don’t realize it, high school friends Azure (a lesbian) and Luke (a bi guy) have one major thing in common: they’re both in love with their friend Radhika.  When the school principal asks Azure to lead a committee to transform senior prom into something all students (rather than just the popular kids) will want to attend, she convinces Luke and Radhika to help her—with lots of unexpected results.  Sparks fly, although seldom in the directions that the characters hope or predict.  Alternating between Luke and Azure’s points of view, It’s Our Prom features lots of wit and a diverse cast of well-rounded characters.  High school students getting ready for prom should add this to their must-read list.

 

 

 

 
         
 

Lost Girls


by Ann Kelley

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

Bonnie is a Scottish teen living in Thailand while her father serves in the Vietnam War.  She’s excited about the camping trip she’s taking with a group of girls who also have parents serving in the war, and a glamorous young woman who will be their leader.  But when a terrible storm blows their boat off course, they are forced to land on an island that their boatman describes as “forbidden”—and that is only the first of many things to go wrong.  This children-against-the-elements story will remind many readers of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, although this story focuses less on the girls’ potential cruelty to each other and more on the worthlessness of the adult leader who should be caring for them.  Middle school readers looking for thrills will be drawn to this survival story.

 

 
         
         
         
         
         

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