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Book Reviews

June 2014

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NON-FICTION

 

AmericanCornballAmerican Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny

by Christopher Miller

 

If you've ever listened to a golden age radio program or watched a Warner Brothers cartoon, you may have wondered why everybody fears castor oil (or even what it was: a laxative). Likewise, what exactly is alum, which Tweety uses to pucker Sylvester's mouth so that he can't eat him? It’s an astringent, frequently used in home pickling. Miller covers almost two hundred items, from absentminded professors to zealots, found in pop culture comedy throughout the first two-thirds of the twentieth century: “long enough ago, but not too long ago” that they aren't part of the public consciousness anymore. Why did America's fascination with hillbillies peak during the Great Depression? Perhaps they represented “a pastoral of contented and voluntary poverty” in contrast to the millions living the involuntary kind. Miller theorizes that there was so much physical pain in early comedy because we, as a culture, were so out of tune with not only our own feelings but also those of our fellow humans. Why were suicide attempts so common in cartoons? It was the only way for characters to show they were suffering emotional distress. Meanwhile, traveling salesmen, who see more of the world than door-to-door salesmen, ranked higher in the humor pantheon in the same way that “itinerant hoboes are more glamorous than stationary bums.” There are indigestion nightmares (Bugs Bunny swears off mixing radish juice and carrot juice) and Ladies' Clubs (“Today Mr. Chatfield is going to show us a little—but not too much—of the horror in Spain.”). Miller does not shy away from the animalistic depictions of African Americans (and, now long-forgotten, the Irish). The book is well-illustrated with animated cartoon frames, newspaper comic strips, and numerous postcards—the memes of their time.

 

Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

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AuthorismsAuthorisms: Words Wrought by Writers

by Paul Dickson

 

Dickson gives us a lighthearted survey of words (and a few phrases) invented by writers and used in their works: neologisms. He takes us from “A man got to do what he got to do” (through frequently misquoted with added 'ses) from Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath to “Zombification,” poet Andre Codrescu's term for how consumerism saps our souls. The entries are short and make for entertaining reading. They cover the gamut from Homer (“odyssey”) to J.K. Rowling (“muggle”) and Stephen Colbert (“truthiness”). What's most interesting is to learn when we started using terms that today seem so commonplace. F. Scott Fitzgerald coined “t-shirt” in 1920. The garment itself had only come to America after World War I. There were neither “scientists” nor “physicists” until 1840 when the Rev. William Whewell recognized that we needed to talk about science and not “natural philosophy.” Likewise, prior to 1972, there were no “slam dunks” in basketball. Thank, you, voice of the Los Angeles Lakers, Chick Hearn. On the other hand, the concept of “space” as in outer, dates back as far as 1667 with John Milton's Paradise Lost. Readers might even find a few words they are unfamiliar with, yet are imminently useful. We all know “Lilliputian” from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, but let's not forget its opposite: the huge “brobdingnagian.” And it turns out there is a word for misheard song lyrics (Jimi Hendrix did not sing “'scuse me while I kiss this guy”). Back in 1954, in Harper's Magazine, Sylvia Wright neologized “Mondegreen,” correcting a line in a poem she had misheard as child. The Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl o' Moray” does not contain the lines “They hae slain the Earl o' Moray / And Lady Mondegreen” but rather “And laid him on the green.” If, as a writer, you can't find just the word you want, make it up yourself.

 

Reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

FICTION

 

Rollins6thThe 6th Extinction

by James Rollins

 

In the stunningly effective and lightning paced The 6th Extinction, James Rollins tops even himself, fashioning an end-of-the-world thriller that offers the perfect mix of science fact and fiction in rewriting the rules for a sub-genre he practically invented.

Rollins sets up his latest tale with a sequence of catastrophic destruction that’s the best of its kind since the town of Piedmond in Michael Crichton’s classic The Andromeda Strain. Lucky for us that Gray Pierce and his stalwart Sigma Force team are on the job this time to prevent the sixth extinction from following in line with the first five. In a brilliant opening with echoes of both Alistair Maclean’s Ice Station Zebra and John Carpenter’s seminal horror flick The Thing, we witness the effects first-hand at an isolated research station.

“There’s been a breach,” a desperate voice calls out in a distress call. “Fail-safe initiated. No matter what happens: Kill us . . . kill us all.”

The malady here, as opposed to a germ bred in outer space or an otherworldly alien, is a blight that wipes out all life its path. A rolling force of death that’s as unprecedented as it is unstoppable. Set against that backdrop, Sigma Force must once again do the impossible as Pierce and company span much of the world in trying save to. The amazing thing about Rollins is that he keeps coming up with new and blisteringly imaginative ways to envision extinction level events, always with a firm technological and historical backdrop, helping to make The 6th Extinction a tour de force of suspense and pacing. As close to a perfect thriller as you’ll ever find.

 

Reviewed by Jon Land

 

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TheLateScholarThe Late Scholar

by Jill Paton Walsh

 

The last mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers featuring her aristocratic, amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey was published in 1937. Since 1998, Jill Paton Walsh has continued the series. She has seen Wimsey (along with his wife, Harriet, and his valet, Bunter) through World War II and into the England of the 1950s. In this fourth adventure, Peter—now His Grace, the Duke of Denver— is called to Oxford University in the capacity of Visitor, an official adjudicator. At issue is whether one of the small, cash-strapped colleges should sell a medieval manuscript in order to purchase some profitable land. The voting fellows of the college are deadlocked, and tradition calls for Peter to decide the matter. Of course, this doesn’t remain a simple matter of real estate vs. parchment for long. Soon bodies are piling up, the college’s Warden is missing, and there have been a couple of near-fatal accidents. In the world of cozy mysteries, surely the coziest of settings must be academia. Sayers herself had sent Peter and Harriet through Oxford in her 1935 novel Gaudy Night. Fans will be pleased that Walsh continues to recreate Sayers’ characters’ voices and complications in an uncanny manner, and that, once again, Oxford itself becomes a character. Investigations take our heroes through college wine cellars, libraries filled with calf-bound volumes, and the mysterious process behind the unassailably anonymous book reviews that appear in the Times Literary Supplement. The result is a solid mystery and a perfect anglophilic treat.

 

 

Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

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RosenfeltHounded

by David Rosenfelt

 

Rosenfelt continues his streak of writing terrific mysteries mixed with laugh-out loud humor (and a cute dog figuring into the main storyline). This time attorney Andy Carpenter receives a phone call from a policeman friend to go to a crime scene. He arrives to find a dead body along with a now orphaned four-year-old boy and an adorable basset hound. Officer Stanton wants Andy to temporarily take custody of the boy and dog until a decent home can be found for both of them. Andy agrees, but soon regrets the decision when the evidence points to Stanton as the murderer. Now Stanton needs Andy to represent him, and uncover what really happened that tragic night. Rosenfelt has a knack for keeping Andy Carpenter and his cases fresh and exciting, while also making it easy for newcomers to the series feel at home right away. Give him a shot even when you feel “dog-tired.”

 

Reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

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TheBlondeThe Blonde

by Anna Godbersen

 

Godbersen takes what could be an outlandishly comic premise and spins a tight, fascinating historical drama from it: What if Marilyn Monroe were a Russian spy connected to the assassination of John F. Kennedy? Here the Russians approached a desperate, starving Monroe at the start of her career. She was offered guaranteed stardom in exchange for a Godfather-like promise that “a long time from now . . . you'll do something for us.” Now it's 1960, and her handlers want some sort of dirt on the up coming Senator Jack Kennedy. They also tease Monroe with the prospect of reuniting her with the father she never knew if she can come up with something juicy and secret. The novel traces the next three years, through Kennedy's nomination and presidency and Monroe filming The Misfits with Clark Gable. There are plenty of extended cameos by Arthur Miller (Monroe's husband at the time), Frank Sinatra, and Bobby Kennedy. Meanwhile, Monroe is under observation by an FBI agent who can't quite make sense of what he's seeing. Although, he muses, being under Russian protection might explain how Monroe manages to remain famous despite the fact that she makes so few movies. The novel is packed with keen-eyed observations, both historical (Kennedy at a party: his tie was “loosened, but not undone, as though to remind everyone that he was just a visitor in carefree California, and would be going back to the grown-ups' table shortly.”) and personal (Monroe speaks “in the small, breaking voice of a girl whose father has gone down to the racetrack for too long and forgotten about her.”). Sure to be a hit with fans of both Hollywood novels and political novels.

 

Reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

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BeowulfBeowulf

by J.R.R. Tolkien

 

Christopher Tolkien’s posthumous editions of his father’s work often appeal more to the scholarly than the popular audience (which is not meant as a negative) and Beowulf is no exception. But even though this book may not be for everyone, its contents appeal to a number of niche interests. Fans of Beowulf will want to see what Tolkien does with this translation; Tolkien completists will, of course, be on board; and language geeks will be fascinated by the challenges of translating Old English.

Beowulf was a lifelong study of Tolkien’s, and Middle-earth fans will enjoy spotting elements that influenced those writings. The translation is prose, not verse; Tolkien felt that he could better capture the full texture of the original without the limitations of rendering its Old English alliterative verse into Modern English. The result is a kind of hybrid, as Tolkien still pays close attention to the rhythm of the original language and its archaic sentence structure.

The complete translation is only a quarter of the book, however. Extensive commentary on the text, drawn from lectures, provides fascinating insights into the translation process and the history of the period, showcasing Tolkien’s wide-ranging linguistic knowledge as well as occasional literary jokes that surely drew laughter from the audience. The book also includes “Sellic Spell,” Tolkien’s short fairytale version of the Beowulf story shorn of all its historical underpinnings, and two verse songs that also retell the story. Notably and inexplicably absent—except for two short quotes—is Tolkien’s unfinished verse translation, the only substantive shortcoming of this volume.

Recommended for hard-core Tolkien, Beowulf, and Old English fanatics.

 

Reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

 

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MeanStreakMean Streak

by Sandra Brown

 

Emory hurt all over. It hurt even to breathe.

Little does marathon runner and physician Emory Charbonneau know that’s about the best she’s going to feel in Sandra Brown’s sizzling and scintillating Mean Streak. Turnabout, the saying goes, is fair play. But so many twists and turns follow an accident Emory suffers while training in the wilderness of North Carolina that the book should come with a whiplash warning to keep our necks intact from following them all.

Once regarded as the queen of romantic suspense, Brown continues to expand her horizons in becoming the queen of suspense period, and Mean Streak shows why. Continuing her Flaubert-like plot theme of family strife and derision, Emory’s inexplicable disappearance casts both suspicion and aspersions on her husband Jeff. Is he a red herring or co-conspirator of the secretive man who’s either her rescuer or captor? That alone could make for a really good book and it comes before we get to a plot twist that turns the tale on its ear. Imagine Alfred Hitchcock directing the James Dickey classic Deliverance and you’ll have some notion of what I’m getting at and I’ll say no more.

Indeed, Mean Streak is one of those books that invite spoilers, but resist them at all costs. This is a book much better consumed cold to best enjoy all the jolts and jars. Brown has been on such a roll that it’s difficult to proclaim this her best book in the decade that’s spawned her reinvention, but it’s certainly her most ambitious. A rousing tale of emotional angst spun like a pretzel around physical anguish. Foreboding and fantastic fun..

 

Reviewed by Jon Land

 

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CaliforniaBonesCalifornia Bones

by Greg van Eekhout

 

“Our bodies are cauldrons . . . and we become the magic we consume.” So said Sebastian Blackland, magician, to his son Daniel just shortly Blackland senior was killed. Now it is ten years later, and Daniel is just eking out a living as a thief in an alternate-reality Los Angeles suffused with magic. Daniel is an osteomancer—he can draw magic from the bones he ingests. The older the better, with the bones of dinosaurs and magic creatures (griffins, wyverns) being the most powerful. Despite the fact that he can turn invisible and wield electricity, it wouldn’t be a good idea for Daniel to draw too much attention to himself. He’s supposedly dead, and the master magician who rules Southern California, The Hierarch, would want to correct that. But, when Daniel and his friends are recruited to pull off a lucrative heist of some basilisk fangs, he leaps at it. It will also be a chance to reclaim the sword his father was forging just for him when he was murdered. The problem is that the job is in the middle of the best-protected spot in the city: the Ossuary, the Hierarch’s personal stash. Meanwhile a government agent who uses a human “hound” with incredible olfactory abilities to sniff out magic is hunting Daniel. van Eekhout brilliantly makes magic a metaphor for every other natural resource we’ve dug out of and /or depleted from the Golden State. His California is in turns whimsical and dark. People travel not in cars on freeways, but by gondolas in equally congested canals. Along with magically twisted references to the Beach Boys, the Magic Castle, and the confusing multitude of Tommy Burgers, California Bones is jam-packed with action and snappy one-liners. It’s the best novel of Los Angeles in years.

 

 

Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

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CatonaColdTinRoofbyMikeResnickCat on a Cold Tin Roof

by Mike Resnick

 

The record holder for the most Hugo Awards nominations (36), and winner of 5, has turned from writing science fiction to composing cozy mysteries. His latest in the Eli Paxton mystery series shows he still writes clever and fun books regardless of genre.

It starts off as a simple case: find a missing cat. This cat wears a collar that is worth a fortune, and since Paxton needs the income, he jumps on the case. He soon tracks down the missing feline, but the collar is nowhere to be found. Now the real fun begins as he discovers himself knee deep in a vast conspiracy with nobody to trust. The clever dialogue and truly intriguing mystery will please anyone who enjoys stories without all of the excess gore. Mike Resnick could write the phone book and make it worthwhile to read from cover to cover.

 

 

Reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

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IKillTheMockingbirdI Kill the Mockingbird

by Paul Acampora

 

Lucy, Michael, and Elena have been friends since kindergarten, and now it’s the summer before high school. On their school’s summer reading list are a half-dozen of the usual choices: Fahrenheit 451, The Giver, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Lucy loves Mockingbird, and had their late English teacher, Robert “Fat Bob” Nowak, lived, it would have been the only book assigned. As a tribute to Fat Bob (everyone called him that – he even called himself that), Lucy and her friends decide to raise awareness of Mockingbird by making it hard to find. People want what they think they can’t have. Even better, they’ll really want it if they think it’s been banned. The trio begins misshelving (never stealing) the book in every bookstore and library and they can get to. Then, with just a little work on the Internet, and some judiciously placed flyers, they generate mystery and controversy around the disappearances. Soon their prank becomes and all-out, multi-state media event. This is a short, enjoyable, burst of a book, perfect for summer reading by smart teens and adults who love books. It’s filled with funny one-liners, and—if you haven’t read it lately—will undoubtedly accomplish its goal of sending you off to read Lee’s masterpiece.

 

 

Reviewed by A.B. Mead

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