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Book Reviews

April 2014

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NON-FICTION

 

DaveBarryYou Can Date Boys When You're Forty: Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About

by Dave Barry

Dave Barry has been writing laugh-out-loud material as long as I can remember. Though he quite writing his weekly humor column in 2004, he has still been a presence in publishing with his novels both by himself, and the ones written with Ridley Pearson. Even so, his warped view of the world has been missing, and now he has a new book of essays, and thankfully his humor is still funny and relevant. Barry explores topics such as taking his daughter to a Justin Bieber concert, air travel, death, and how to become a professional author. Here's an example of how he helps the reader with an opening line for the fiction writer so it grabs them and makes them want to read more:

Wrong: "Hurry!" said Jack.

Right: "Hurry!" said Harry Potter to the Hunger Games woman.

Thankfully he has not given up the humorous essay writing, and though the book is sadly too short, it still fills a void. Barry remains the best humorist in the business, and hopefully he has more advice and insight to share with readers in the not too distant future.

Reviewed by Jeff Ayers

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OperationPaperclipOperation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America

by Annie Jacobsen

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States undertook a classified project to bring former Nazi scientists to America. Their expertise in rocketry and chemical and biological weapons had nearly led the Third Reich to victory, and America was desperate to scoop them up before her new enemy, the Soviet Union, did. Relying on recently declassified documents as well as personal journals and interviews with the descendants of those involved, the book tells an amazing tale of political and military expediency over morals. It also reveals just how much of America's eventual space race success was owed to Nazi technology. Right behind the liberating Allied army traveled squads of scientists, engineers, and translators whose jobs it was to study abandoned factories and universities in search of nearly anything that might be a of use, and to identify and capture their creators. In order to make their presence in America more palatable, the FBI whitewashed the scientists' background reports. The Germans were also largely kept from the limelight, working in "gilded cages," like Hempstead House, the 160-acre former home of the Guggenheims on Long Island. What little the public knew about German scientists in America was limited to Commerce Department propaganda about German tech leading to run-proof stockings and improved fruit juice sterilization processes. Yet, Wernher von Braun, who would eventually appear on Walt Disney's television program promoting space exploration, had personally procured slave labor from concentration camps for his V-2 rocket factory.

Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

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SNLFAQSaturday Night Live FAQ: Everything Left to Know About Television's Longest-Running Comedy

by Stephen Tropiano

I have grown up watching Saturday Night Live (SNL), and this is the first book I've discovered on the show that gives an overview of the creation, the initial cast and the various changes of the performers over the years, the hosts, the musical guests, and even the catchphrases ("That's the ticket") that sprung from the talented people associated with the show over the years. There is even a section devoted to censorship and the accidental use of a certain word over the years. It's hard to believe the show has been on the air since 1975! Tropiano has done a fantastic amount of research, and is not hesitant to express his personal feelings and beliefs when it comes to his obvious love for the show. A familiar refrain today is "SNL is not funny anymore," or "The show won't survive without (insert a performer here)." This celebration reveals that belief for some has been prominent since the days of John Belushi and Bill Murray. The book includes an episode guide up through May 2013, and that alone makes it worth checking out. The memories of favorite skits and shows are a bonus.

Reviewed by Jeff Ayers

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DisneyThe Imagineering Field Guide to Disney California Adventure: An Imagineer's-Eye Tour

by The Imagineers

Disney California Adventure (DCA) was initially maligned when it opened in 2001, but is now considered a success. The next-door neighbor to Disneyland, DCA has showcased several of the Pixar features including A Bug's Life, Cars, and Toy Story. Some of the rides are technological marvels, and now the folks who designed the park and the rides give a glimpse behind the magic. A couple of my personal favorite attractions are located at DCA, and learning why it looks and feels a certain way elevates my appreciation of them, plus also makes me want to hop on the next plane! This book is part of a series that highlights each park, and the sketches, schematics, and creation stories make this an absolute must for the Disney fan. This is not a travel guide telling the reader what to ride and how to navigate the park, but rather a history book told by the men and women responsible for every aspect of what a person sees when they walk into the gates. And even they admit the park was initially a failure until they had a clear vision of what they wanted the neighbor of Disneyland to be. Fascinating reading is ahead, and please remained seated while the vehicle is in motion.

Reviewed by Jeff Ayers

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SitcomSitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community

by Saul Austerlitz

Austerlitz manages to be both fun and informative as he traces the evolution of the American television situation comedy. Early sitcoms like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners celebrated our post-war domesticity with the comfort of a world where crises were solved and order was restored by the end of a half-hour - though sparked with subversion and rebellion (the soul of comedy, after all). Meanwhile The Phil Silvers Show ( Sgt. Bilko) mined "amoral territory" as its star successfully conned those around him week after week. This foreshadowed Seinfeld, a show which also eschewed hugs and lessons learned for an obsession with the details of everyday life (being therefore "about nothing"): its stories had no arcs, it's characters didn't learn, change, or grow; nor even have emotions other than pettiness. It was hyperrealism so specific that it ultimately became fantasy. The 1960s tried to break away from the artificial constraints of domestic life, only to stumble into the even more artificial world of genies, witches, castaways, and Martians. The 1970s slowly broke new ground with single "career girl" shows. On Mary Tyler Moore, your family became the people you work with. Archie Bunker in All in the Family hated the entire world around him because it was changing. "And every time it changes," he said, "it gives me another kick in the butt." The 80s evolved from paternalistic, upper-middle class Reagan-era The Cosby Show to working-class Roseanne, a sitcom where there were no easy solutions. Curb Your Enthusiasm and 30 Rock are shows about other television shows. In a twisted circle of self-reference, sitcoms have become about sitcoms. This book is bound to send you searching out several of these shows (the ones you remember, and the ones you may have just learned of here) on Netflix.

Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

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TheLastPirateThe Last Pirate: A Memoir

by Tony Dokoupil

Dokoupil presents a romanticized history of his father, a marijuana smuggler during the 1970s and '80s. Along with revealing several of the tricks of the trade (like having an assistant call in a phony SOS to the Coast Guard in order to clear your smuggling ship's path), the book also details the history of the U.S. government's War on Drugs. Marijuana was on its way to being decriminalized throughout the country, until some late 1970s scandals led the Reagan administration to brand pot "probably the most dangerous drug in America." Suddenly "hippie merchants of marijuana were redefined as true enemies of the state, pursued like terrorists." For Dokoupil's father, smuggling wasn't just a way of earning a lot of money. It was participation in the American mythology: becoming another in a long line of "righteous heroes," pirates bringing in goods by sea that were outlawed by an unjust government. When dealing pot to everyday people, he was helping them "flip off" the Establishment. When dealing to rock stars, Dokoupil envisioned himself as the one who fueled their creativity, a "ghost writer." Through the ups-and-downs, Dokoupil's mother, a former teacher, was complicit in the activity. Still, knowing that they could all end up in jail some day, she determined to give her son the one thing the Feds could never take away: the best possible education. Dokoupil's father's money bought him a private school education in Miami, where he rubbed shoulders with the Bush grandchildren. His father's end was unglamorous: too much use of his own product, plus the cocaine, took him from five-star hotels to homelessness. From Robin Hood to The Wolf of Wall Street, we love characters that are free to act seemingly without any consequences. For Dokoupil's father, the constant danger was all just "part of the fun."

Reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

FICTION

 

GrosslargeEverything To Lose

By Andrew Gross

I read somewhere that every life is the story of a single mistake, and then what happens after.

So says Hilary Blum at the opening of Andrew Gross's wondrously topical Everything to Lose. This is a scary book, truly scary, as it probes how far a person who's reached desperate financial straits will go to protect themselves and their families.

Just ask Hilary who has an autistic son, a worthless husband, and has just lost her job. Facing financial ruin, she gets to look a gift horse in the mouth when the aftermath of a traffic accident provides her with the opportunity to abscond with a cool half million in cash without repercussions or tax bills. Too good to be true, you say? Of course it is, and in Gross's vision of suburban depravity it serves as a marvelous jumping off point for a tortuous journey that will test Hilary's mettle in every conceivable way. Hey, you think she's the only one who knows about and wants the money? And that's just for starters.

Andrew Gross never makes it easy for his characters and Everything to Lose mines the same territory the late great Richard Matheson did in his short story "Button, Button." He's fashioned a brilliant, poignant and often gut-wrenching morality play that's the flip side of Wall Street. A cautionary tale that's hands down the best job any writer has done in capturing the latest of times that test men's, and women's, souls.

Reviewed by Jon Land

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w7tfRaising Steam

by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett's Discworld books are at their best when they are about the introduction of something new to the fantasy world of the Disc. What's new to the Disc is always something old to us. This allows Pratchett not only to examine the social alterations these changes bring to the various communities of dwarves, trolls, vampires, and humans, but also to wreck his patented comic havoc upon all of the clichés and expectations we readers have about the item in question. Soul Music covered rock and roll, and Moving Pictures, the film industry, back in the 1990s. Recent novels have centered on the creation of a postal system (Going Postal), and the idea of paper money (Making Money). Now, for his 40th Discworld tale, Pratchett rocks the Disc with the invention of trains. The introduction of a purely mechanical, non-magical (as opposed to the venerable golem horse) technology into a fantasy setting triggers chaos and amazement. Pratchett explores our obsession with novelty and our fear of the new. On one hand, Discworld gets its first trainspotters, complete with their "very useful clothing" (anoraks!)-though they only get as far as train #3, locomotives here being in their nascent stage. On the other hand, who knows what sorts of things can happen once pretty much anyone is free to move about. Travelers' horizons might be expanded, and they might start thinking new thoughts. The Discworld novels have lost some of their purely goofy aspects in recent years and taken on more serious themes. The novel remains a comedy, but one of the plots involves the crumbling peace between the Disc's various races. There is a little bloodshed, and Pratchett's heroes grow angry at the willful obstinacy of cultural and political institutions that refuse to progress. Still, this is a solid entry in the series, and its celebration of the history and minutiae of locomotives make it an absolute must-read for any fans of trains.

Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

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LondonFallingUSLondon Falling

by Paul Cornell

Out now in mass market, Paul Cornell's urban fantasy introduces three officers and an intelligence analyst of the London Metropolitan Police working to take down an organized crime network only to stumble into something much larger: they inadvertently develop "the Sight," an ability to see the ghosts and dark magic infused into the fabric of London.

London Falling takes a slow-burn approach to developing the gritty, real-world nature of undercover police work. After placing the reader firmly into the kind of police procedural so familiar through TV, the supernatural elements that appear are that much more surprising and disturbing. The four main characters are stunned by the surreal turn their investigation takes, and their sudden paranormal abilities threaten to overwhelm them. Luckily, they have each other to turn to as they pursue the evil forces at work just beneath the surface of modern London and face up to the personal burdens they all carry.

Although augmented by the Sight, the team's reliance on good old-fashioned police work in their battle against their supernatural enemy is a fun twist in the genre, as is the so-very-English nature of the backstory. This tale could only be told of London, embracing the long history of the city, the bloody reigns of royalty, and, yes, football rivalries. It's all part of the magic the characters are forced to face, with hints of an underlying supernatural power they are only beginning to understand.

London Falling is scary, clever, and funny, and it leaves the reader looking forward to the next book, The Severed Streets, due in hardcover this May

Reviewed by Scott Pearson

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collectorofdyingbreathscoverThe Collector of Dying Breaths

By M.J. Rose

It is with irony now, forty years later, to think that if I had not been called a murderer on the most frightening night of my life there might not be any perfume in Paris today.

So opens M.J. Rose's latest standout, and wondrously original, thriller The Collector of Dying Breaths. This elegantly written tale is like a luxury car with all the extras built in, the kind that don't get manufactured on an assembly line. Indeed, the brilliance here lies in Rose's bold willingness to write in a box all her own.

That opening from the sixteenth century time of the de Medicis sets a gothic stage that includes a player who sees preserving the final breaths of loved ones as a means to bring them back to life. Impossible, you say, at least to our post-modern minds. But Rose's suspension of disbelief lasts all the way to the present where series stalwart Jac L'Etoile picks up the ball for her own personally tragic reasons. The fact that Rene le Forentine may not have succeeded in his original 1533 quest hardly means he wasn't on the right track that a pinch of modern technology might turn into one of mankind's greatest achievements. That easy mix of science and superstition, of mythos and dogma, helps The Collector of Dying Breaths transcend genre even as it challenges the very nature of life and death while we follow Jac on a journey that will see her rediscover love and purpose along the way.

Few other writers, other than Anne Rice, have ever dared to flaunt the impossible with such class and consistency. Rose, for her part, manages to utterly suspend our disbelief in a book that leaves us, appropriately enough, breathless.

Reviewed by Jon Land

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TheHereAndNowThe Here and Now

by Ann Brashares

A century from now, the earth is ravaged by plagues. But a large number of people have escaped the desolation back in time to contemporary New York. An entire community: almost 1,000 adults, children, and teenagers are here. Like religious immigrants, they try to follow strict doctrines laid down by their leaders. They must not seek medical attention outside of their community because the time travel has altered their biology in ways that would draw attention. They must not enter the historical record. And above all, they must not be "physically or emotionally intimate" with any of us "time natives." Even as they get jobs and go to school, they struggle not to influence the timeline. Seventeen-year-old Prenna James is having a particularly difficult time because she is love with a non-Immigrant, fellow high-school student Ethan. When a crazy old man starts talking to Prenna about things no one else should know, it soon becomes evident that he's a fellow Immigrant, and he knows how and when to alter history to stop the plagues. Brashares proved her skill at creating strong, believable young women with her Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. For someone who has been lied to and kept under control for most of her life, Prenna is quick to grasp reality and jump into action. The result is a very satisfying read, dramatically and in terms of Prenna and Ethan's relationship.

Reviewed by A.B. Mead

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