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July 2012 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction

         
 

Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Biggest Bestsellers


by James W. Hall

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Novelist and teacher Hall examines twelve of the best-selling novels of the twentieth century to see what made them “spectacular megahits.” His analysis of Gone with the Wind, Peyton Place, To Kill a Mockingbird, Valley of the Dolls, The Godfather, Jaws, The Exorcist, The Dead Zone, The Hunt for Red October, The Firm, The Bridges of Madison County, and The Da Vinci Code is intended for writers who would like to see their books sell millions. But Hall isn't interested in mere plot formulas. Rather, this book studies the “genetic matter” of these stories, as endlessly reshuffled by each new generation of writers. The novels all tell “high concept” or “dramatic question” stories:  Will Scarlett marry Ashley?  Will the shark kill the hunters before they kill it? The characters are passionate and resolved, which leads them to “gutsy and surprising deeds.” They may not be introspective, but they act. Similarly, readers “don't want to miss what happens next, because something is always happening.” And it's Big.  The Da Vinci Code is a catalog of superlatives used to describe situations and surroundings. Everything Robert Langdon sees or interacts with is Important. Each of these novels also offers a privileged glimpse into a closed society, be that the mafia or small-town cliques. And the careful use of details makes us feel like insiders, whether it's The Firm's “unvarnished story of the inner workings of a high-powered law firm...with snapshots of the interview process and the bidding wars” or Red October's “blueprint walk-through of a nuclear sub,” complete with product model numbers, and fetishizing descriptions. Like the books it discusses, Hit Lit is itself an entertaining, “pop” read. Even readers who aren't interested in writing will enjoy Hall's examination of what makes some of their favorite novels so unputdownable.

 

 

 
         
 

The Disneyland Encyclopedia, 2nd edition


by Chris Strodder

reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

 

The original book was published in 2008 and was voted by Library Journal as one of the Best Reference Books of the Year.  Strodder’s update only four years later has a ton of new material, making the original title obsolete.  More photos, history, and lists make this an essential read for fans of the Happiest Place on Earth. 

Each entry is easy to find since it’s alphabetical.  There are also handy indexes and maps. This encyclopedia’s design is perfect for a quick look at a favorite attraction, restaurant, or person. Though it is unauthorized, the author is clearly a fan, and his love for the park shows. After I was finished reading, I wanted to book my flight!  For folks who have either purchased or read the first edition, you are probably asking: Is it worth the new investment?  The answer is, without a doubt, yes. 

 

 
         
 

Not Taco Bell Material


by Adam Carolla

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

TV, radio, and podcast comedian Carolla tells the story of his formative years up to the start of his entertainment career. Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and '80s, his family practiced a sort of benign neglect, never doing anything that required “burning calories.” A typical Christmas present was a $1.29 shrimp de-veiner, purchased at a grocery store on the way to the family Christmas party—despite the fact that no one in his family could afford shrimp. His desire to simply be away from his family led to years of Pop Warner football, which he credits for teaching him discipline and determination, something that he feels is sadly lacking in this age of participation trophies:  “The criteria for a trophy should be more than being born and having a mom who owns a minivan.” His stories here are wild and funny, whether it's almost burning down a house by leaving a pot of body wax unattended on the stove or Carolla and his friends sneaking into a country club late at night in order to jump from the three-story roof into the pool. True, some of his and his friends' shenanigans were fueled by alcohol or drugs, but they also “did plenty of really stupid shit stone-cold sober.” As he frequently reminds readers, this was before the internet, and he and friends were poor; they had to entertain themselves. The book is packed with plenty of the observational digressions that fill Carolla's podcasts and comedy shows, like his one on name tags:  “the farther away from your chest the better.” If you're wearing one on your vest, you've got a lousy job.  Your name outside your office door is better, and “if your name is on a building on the other side of the ocean, you've really arrived.” Carolla barely made it through high school, attended some community college, and spent his young adulthood engaged in back-breaking manual labor (his application to the titular Taco Bell was rejected). Still, in the back of his mind was always the drive to entertain. No one reading this book will be inspired to follow in his footsteps, but they might learn that even after decades of poor decisions, it's still possible to overcome inertia and follow your muse.

 

 

 
         
 

Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives


by John Sutherland

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

Sutherland presents a history of English-language novelists, ranging from the seventeenth century's John Bunyan (The Pilgrim's Progress) and Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe) to the twentieth century's Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones) and Rana Dasgupta (Tokyo Cancelled). The entries in this over-800-page tome cover the writers' lives and works in an average of three pages each. Most of the novelists are from the last two hundred years, and, along with the obvious choices—Dickens, Melville, Wharton, Cheever, Plath, Rushdie—there are a great many writers you won't find in similar books. Here Sutherland's selections may stir up controversy. It's good to see genre fiction so well represented; Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke are included, but not Robert Heinlein, C.S. Lewis, or J.R.R. Tolkien. Mystery writer P.D. James made the cut, but not Rex Stout. Margaret Mitchell is here, but not Harriet Beecher Stowe. Of course, Sutherland couldn't include everyone who's ever written a novel. He admits that his selections are “idiosyncratic,” but it seems odd that he found room for V.C. Andrews (Flowers in the Attic), yet left out the creator of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse, despite the fact that Wodehouse is mentioned in six of the other entries. But Sutherland didn't merely include his favorite writers. His entry on Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged) begins, “If there were an award for the most influential bad novelist in literary history...,” and Harold Robbins' (The Carpetbaggers) ends by noting that the writer's death at age eighty-one proved “the preservative powers of cocaine, gambling, and lechery.”

 

 

 

 
         
 Fiction

 

 
         
 

Hard Target


by Alan Jacobson

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

Everybody dies, it’s just a matter of when. 

With that opening, Alan Jacobson’s latest thriller Hard Target races off to a bracing and wrenching start.  Jacobson, known best for pitting his series hero Karen Vail against the best serial killers this side of Hannibal Lecter, does an abrupt one-eighty here and the result is a smashing success. 

His foray into the high-action political thriller arena postulates an ultimate nightmare scenario of a president-elect being targeted for assassination on election night, of all things.  Before you can say Day of the Jackal, FBI agent Aaron “Uzi” Uziel is on the trail of terrorists who may, or may not, have been behind the plot.  To his credit, Uziel isn’t one to accept the simplest solution, suspecting from the beginning that Al Qaeda is a bit too convenient a suspect.  But if not our modern-day catchall boogeymen, then who, and what may the truth portend for our political system? 

Hard Target rivals not only the best of David Baldacci, but can also stand toe-to-toe with the best of Alan Drury and even the ultimate genre classic Seven Days in May.  It combines the best of the genre with the pulp relevance of such high-concept Washington-centered tales as The President’s Plane is Missing or Irving Wallace’s vastly underrated The Man and The R Document.  Jacobson may not be a veteran of these corridors, but he walks them with a seasoned step and polished hand, and as a result, Hard Target scores a bulls-eye.

 

 

 
         
 

A Raging Storm


by Richard Castle

reviewed by by Jeff Ayers

 

 

Derrick Storm finds his hands full in the second installment of this marvelous e-book series.  The action never relents from the very first page, when a U.S. Senator is murdered.  Soon, a secret involving the Russian government and a defector proves to be the only solid lead Storm can follow.  Of course, he has help from a beautiful FBI agent who doesn’t trust Storm at all.  Romance and high stakes: what else could one want from a book? 

Fans of the television series Castle will find this a must-read.  This is clearly the second in a trilogy so reading the first title in the series, A Brewing Storm, is mandatory to get the full enjoyment.   I can’t wait for the third and final one!

 

 

 

 
         
 

Strong Vengeance


by Jon Land

reviewed by by A.B. Mead

 

Caitlin Strong returns in her fourth adventure, and it's the best of the series so far. As always, there's  something ancient and something cutting-edge coming together for the Texas Ranger to contend with. This time, it's a centuries-old sunken treasure and a plot by an underground Islamic terrorist cell right in her own backyard to kill half a million Texans. But Land goes himself one better, adding a third level:  an adventure shared by Caitlin's father and grandfather back in 1979 also turns out to be connected. The two investigated the murders of five fraternity brothers whose bodies were found ravaged out in the woods. The case, where the only clues were an oddly-shaped piece of metal and the strange claw marks on their bodies, was never fully resolved . . . until Caitlin ties it all together. The series' antihero—and Caitlin's sometimes boyfriend—Cort Wesley Masters also returns, after getting sprung from a Mexican jail, in order to fight those same terrorists via a commando raid on a Houston mosque. With side trips to an oil rig and a trash processing plant, the series continues to take readers to interesting, out-of-the-ordinary settings (as opposed to, say, the White House, which turns up in half of today's thrillers) where the unfamiliarity becomes part of the atmosphere and boosts the tension. Add in hints of pirate treasure and a legendary Cajun swamp monster, and the result is a page-turner that relies as much on mystery as excitement.

 

 

 

 
         
 

POD


by Stephen Wallenfels

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

Stephen Wallenfels’ debut novel, POD, is an alien invasion story with an apocalyptic twist. One day thousands of black spheres arrive in the skies of Earth. They make no effort to communicate. They simply destroy every person who goes outside. Within moments, all survivors are trapped indoors. Josh and his father are in their house in Washington state. Fourteen-year-old Megs has been ordered to stay in the car until her mother gets back; now she’s alone in a hotel parking ramp in Los Angeles. 

The alien invasion becomes subtext to the survival stories. Josh and his dad had been waiting until Josh’s mom got home to go grocery shopping, but they have some food. They face increasing challenges as the power goes out and their supplies dwindle. Josh nicknames the spheres “pearls of death,” or PODs. Megs, afraid of the adults in the hotel, scavenges in the ramp after getting up the nerve to leave her own car.  

Wallenfels does a great job of cutting between these stories, ratcheting up the suspense. The desperation builds as Josh’s dad plans how to survive as long as possible. Megs plays cat-and-mouse with the dictatorship that’s arisen among the hotel guests. Occasionally the behavior of the PODs changes, and the alien presence returns to the forefront. 

The storylines eventually come together in a way that provides a satisfying ending while also setting up the next book (unfortunately, it doesn’t have a pub date yet). Heartily recommended, and looking forward to the sequel.

 

 

 

 
         
 

Criminal


by Karin Slaughter

reviewed by Jon Land

 

A cinnamon brown Oldsmobile Cutlass crawled up Edgewood Avenue, the windows lowered, the driver hunched down in his seat. 

With that opening, Karin Slaughter lays claim to being the best crime novelist working today in the aptly titled and wondrously crafted Criminal.  Slaughter has always been good, very good in fact.  But there’s something truly special, even seminal, in her latest effort that clicks perfectly on all cylinders like the finely oiled machine that it is. 

Georgia Bureau of Investigation detective Will Trent has plenty of skeletons in his closet.  But he’s moved on, building a new life for himself that begins to unravel when his supervisor Amanda Wagner keeps her top dog off the case of a missing college student.  Turns out Wagner’s got a few skeletons of her own, dating back forty years to her early tenure with the Atlanta Police Department when she found herself driven to solve a vicious crime no one else cared about, just as Will Trent cares now.  That these two crimes may be somehow connected should come as no surprise to anyone; it’s the emotional fabric Slaughter uses in stitching them together that’s special, an intricate web wrapped around pursuit of one elusive truth after another.  Revelation after revelation follows until we’re left with a Chinatown-like puzzle reminiscent of John Sayles’ brilliant Lone Star as well.           

Criminal reminds me of Greg Isles at his best and James Lee Burke, who is never anything but at his best.  Slaughter seems to be painting on a much richer and fuller canvas here, and the result is a dark tale that leaves just enough room for light to peek through.  Surely the perfect book for summer, but it’s hard to imagine a better or more satisfying read for any season.  Not to be missed.

 

 

 
         
 

The Family Corleone


by Ed Falco

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

This prequel to Mario Puzo's The Godfather is based on a screenplay that Puzo himself had written, and Falco has turned it into a very exciting novel. Set at the end of Prohibition, ten years before the start of the novel and first film, it fleshes out things only mentioned briefly in the original material. Vito Corleone is just moving his family and “business associates” out of the slums to a compound on Long Island. We learn how Tom Hagen (here, still in college) first came to live with the Corleones. Michael and Fredo are just kids, and Sonny is a young hothead anxious to follow in his father's footsteps. So anxious that he and Bobby “Cork” Corcoran, a young Irish hood, have started pulling small heists of their own, highjacking alcohol being smuggled in from Canada. But the smuggler they're stealing from, Giuseppe Mariposa, is a powerful don himself. When Mariposa decides to flex his muscles, the result is gang war. The conflict between Irish gangs, used to running New York, and the encroaching Italian Mafia plays a big part in this story, as does the transformation of Luca Brasi. Those who remember him as Vito's somewhat dim enforcer, will here find him sharp as a tack and all but an enemy of the future Godfather. Though not as epic in scale as the films or novel, this book stays true to their spirit and feel, and fans will not be disappointed. Throughout, we see how Vito intelligently and quietly commands respect, and how, from the very start, the criminal life was not the one he wanted for his children.

 

 

 
         
         
 Young Adult

 

 
         
 

172 Hours on the Moon


by Johan Harstad (translated by Tara F. Chace)

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

It's the year 2019, and NASA has conceived a plan to generate public interest in the moon in order to restore funding for its lunar projects:  a world-wide lottery to send three teenagers there for a week. None of the winners turns out to have any particular interest in science. French Antoine is doing it to forget / impress his ex-girlfriend; Midori wants to avoid “the Japanese trap” of a dull future living in a tiny apartment married to a salaryman; and Norwegian Mia thinks it will drum up publicity for her high school rock band. Although this may sound like a comedy premise, the novel is deathly serious. There is more going on behind the scenes than the kids are led to believe. NASA scientists are concealing a big secret about the moon—one that will eventually prove deadly. (This book was originally published in Norway, so be forewarned that a typical “Hollywood Ending” is not guarSanteed.) Readers will learn a little about the history of the American space program and the discomforts of space travel, but not much about the practical problems of life on the moon. The kids and attendant adult astronauts quickly move into a previously-secret moon base, and a couple of difficulties, which would have made it harder to have pulse-pounding action, are quickly eliminated:  the base has artificial gravity and an air generator. Still, the silent, alien setting is appropriately eerie. The book is peppered with actual photos taken on the moon and fictional blueprints of the base, which give it a nice touch of verisimilitude.

 

 

 

 

 
         
         

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