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Book Reviews

September 2014

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NON-FICTION

 

covergameshowsv1JanMar770x1167This Day in Game Show History

by Adam Nedeff

 

Whether it was playing along trying to estimate how much things cost on The Price is Right, or the perfect clue to win at Password, I grew up watching and playing along with game shows. Up to this point, there has been no truly captivating book on the history of this wonderful institution. Why are they so popular? Why were certain people perfect candidates to host a game show over others? What made a show be successful? It is hard to grasp truly how many games there have been over the years. Nedeff had the brilliant idea to write a history book on the subject, but instead of just a straight timeline, he decided to write about them over 365 entries with each one reading like a day in a diary or calendar. The end result is fascinating history that delivers small bite size pieces that leave the reader feeling neither too full nor too light.

The historian in me felt giddy while reading this. I’m sure the game show aficionado will salivate and the novice will find hidden treasure as well.

 

Reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

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TheRushThe Rush

by Edward Dolnick

 

When gold was discovered in 1848 at Sutter's Mill, just outside of what would become Sacramento, it set off a massive migration and a shift in the American consciousness that still has repercussions today. Gold is precious because it's so malleable and enduring, but it's also incredibly rare. Yet, in California, it was literally lying around. Some needed to be mined, but a man could also become rich just from what he found in a river or under a half-inch of dirt. It changed all the rules. In the 1840s few people could improve their condition, no matter how hard they worked. But with gold there were no gatekeepers to grant permission or say no. No one already owned California's gold, and, since it was distributed so widely and at random, it was impossible for anyone to hoard all of it. All anyone had to go was get there. That, however, proved difficult and deadly. One could travel from the east overland in about five months, all the while battling cholera, scurvy, and Native Americans. Or you could travel by boat around the tip of South America (five times the distance and the same five months, though at sea). Even failing prospectors supported a massive infrastructure that grew to serve them. The most commonplace of items could be sold in San Francisco for up to ten times what they cost back east. Many women in town made their fortunes by selling food that they prepared, or providing the most basic of shelters as rustic “hotels” for exorbitant prices while their husbands failed to hit “pay dirt.” During the rush years, over one percent of everyone in American moved to California. San Francisco's population alone boomed thirtyfold in the three years following the discovery. Dolnick draws on a wealth of diaries kept by '49ers as well as the newspapers of the time, the number of which multiplied like poppies. The Rush brings new excitement and insight to a topic we thought we knew all about from school.

 

Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

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SNLLive from New York

by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales

 

I was an enormous fan of the original book and it’s insight into a television institution that will be celebrating its 40th anniversary on the air this year. The previous edition ended with the departure of Will Farrell. The expansion (and it is not just a cursory few pages) covers the years from him leaving through the departure of Tina Fey, Kristin Wiig, Bill Hader, and Jason Sudekis among others. Like a fly on the wall, the authors drop the reader into the lives and backstage shenanigans of a show that continues to defy the odds. Worth picking up for the extra material alone, but if you have not read this book at all, it is an absolute must. Miller and Shales showcase quality writing mixed with nostalgia for the connoisseur.
 

Reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

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TheCrosswordCenturyThe Crossword Century

by Alan Connor

 

This brief, entertaining book provides a breezy survey of the history and world of the crossword puzzle. We owe the crossword to Arthur Wynne, the British journalist, who, in 1913, took his newspaper's venerable word square puzzle and spun it on its head by having different words across and down. This was quickly refined and codified by Americans, and, by the 1920s, it was a bona fide fad. Movie theaters complained that attendance was down because people stayed home to do crosswords, and the Pennsylvania Railroad printed puzzles on their dining car menus in order to boost business. For those only marginally familiar with crosswords, Connor reveals that we should be checking the words around the rims and the diagonals for hidden messages from the puzzle's composer to us solvers. It's also a good idea to start with the bottom right questions; those clues are usually the last written, and the composer might be too tired to be really tricky by then. Clues can be tricky, but must be also fair. Said one early sage of the puzzle, “You need not mean what you say, but you must say what you mean.” Hence “die of cold” can be “ice cube” (a cube being the single die of dice). During World War II, some particularly cryptic answers were planted in The Daily Telegraph to draw out solvers who might be unexpectedly adept at cracking Nazi codes. Crosswords in murder mysteries get a chapter, as does the argument over the place of slang in crosswords. Even if you aren't a devotee, you're sure to enjoy the examples of linguistic brainteasers found in British puzzles and the details of the complexity that went into making all the crosswords actually work in The Simpsons episode “Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words” (they're all real—even the one with all those Q's).

 

Reviewed by A.B. Mead

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TinseltownTinseltown

by William J. Mann

 

Mann makes the 1922 shooting murder of film actor and director William Desmond Taylor the fulcrum of his brilliantly entertaining study of early Hollywood. The case, which was officially never solved, was filled with both the glitz and the seediness of the industry. Was it the ingénue who had an unrequited crush on Taylor? Was it the older female producer / actress who had been busted for prostitution and ran con jobs on Hollywood's down and out? Was it the former valet? Or was it someone who knew Taylor before he had abandoned his family in New York and reinvented himself—as so many before him and after had done—in Tinseltown? The murder was part of a perfect storm hitting Hollywood at the time. The trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for rape and manslaughter was just more evidence of Hollywood's moral decay, as seen by the women's groups and other social reformers who organized protests over the licentious sex, violence, and drinking that was seen in films. The prospect of government censorship was a constant threat, and Hollywood hoped to circumvent it by creating its own governing body, the Hays Office. All this was overshadowed by the megalomania of the man who had founded and controlled Paramount Pictures, Adolph Zukor. The motion picture industry earned three quarters of a billion dollars a year, and Zukor's goal was to increase that, preferably with himself heading a globe-spanning monopoly. In order to accomplish this, he needed a stable, uncontroversial industry. Using his influence to spin Taylor as a martyred anti-drug crusader in order to make the him the Hollywood figure everyone was talking about instead of Arbuckle was no easy task. Relying on meticulous research, Mann paints a vivid portrait of that hectic time and place, and, in the end, he makes a plausible case for what really happened the night of the murder.

 

Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

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WhenParisWhen Paris Went Dark

by Ronald C. Rosbottom

 

Amherst professor Rosbottom delivers the best popular history book of the season as he explores the bizarre Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II. The city was taken without the Germans firing even a single shot when the French government surrendered to Hitler and installed a collaborationist government in Vichy, hundreds of miles to the south. The German plan was to “keep Paris Paris,” as if nothing had changed. A large percent of the city’s population had fled, and those who remained endured random curfews, “appropriated” hotels and apartments, and an eerie quiet since there was now no construction or street venders. The Nazis and Parisians engaged in a four-year-long act of Kabuki theater, with the Germans pretending they were tourists and the locals pretending the occupiers simply weren’t there. There were rare instances of physical resistance, such as throwing a grenade into a crowd of Germans, but mostly La Résistance took the form of leaving museum rooms when Germans entered and not riding in first-class metro cars because they were favored by the Nazis. Rosbottom details the genuine privations many suffered—particularly during the winter months—and explores why artists such as Picasso and the writer Camus decided to stay in Paris (Camus’ The Plague can be read as an allegory for the occupation, with his town’s quarantined residents feeling forgotten and abandoned by the rest of the world.). In the end, the necessities of war elsewhere, and the encroaching Allied army, drove the Germans from Paris. French general Charles de Gaulle went through many machinations to ensure that the first troops into Paris to “liberate” the city were French. But they were only a handful, and were immediately followed by much larger divisions of Spanish and Americans. The myth of the noble peasant struggling against the Third Reich may have been true in the French countryside, but around the arrondissements of the City of Light, everyone, occupiers and occupied alike, were just trying to maintain business as usual.

 

Reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

FICTION

 

PersonalPersonal

By Lee Child

 

“I can’t even a rent a car. I don’t have a driver’s license or a credit card.”

So says Jack Reacher early on in Personal, Lee Child’s scorching and pitch perfect addition to his seminal series featuring a hero whose possessions are limited to the clothes on his back (temporarily) and a toothbrush. Of course, Reacher does carry some baggage of the personal variety that comes back to haunt him a bit in the form of former army sniper John Kott whom he put in prison fifteen years before. Kott just may be involved in a plot to create world havoc at an upcoming summit of world leaders, including the president of the United States. So who better than “Sherlock Homeless” to pick up the trail of a quarry he already caught once before?

With that, Personal stretches the legs of the series by whisking us off to Paris and then London on the trail of Kott and the dastardly plot which, of course, comes with plenty of twists and turns along the way. Along for the ride is a female CIA officer named Casey Nice who makes for the perfect complement and foil for the grizzled, jaded Reacher who’s been there and done that.

“No big deal,” Reacher tells Nice, explaining the intricacies of his wardrobe. “I’ve never had a bag. All part of the experience. You change in the store.”

Same old Reacher. It’s the stakes this time that are different, much more than just personal, ironically enough, as the clock ticks down toward the summit where a sniper’s bullet(s) is about to ignite an international crisis. Throw in a villain who’s big, I mean really big, and you’ve got the recipe for reading entertainment at its absolute best, this era’s finest hero immersed in his biggest story yet. All told, the best thriller of the year.

 

Reviewed by Jon Land

 

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alienseaAlien: Sea of Sorrows

by James A. Moore

 

The new novel in the universe of the Alien franchise is set nearly three centuries after the previous book, Out of the Shadows, which itself was set (somewhat awkwardly) between the films Alien and Aliens. That first novel had a plot twist left hanging at the end; strangely, that goes unmentioned in Sea of Sorrows. Instead, we are back on planet LV178, the setting of Out of the Shadows, where we meet Alan Decker, a bureaucrat trying to enforce safety guidelines. This puts him at odds with the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, still in pursuit of the xenomorphs with the big heads and extra teeth, and he’s sent back to Earth.

Since the last novel, LV178 has been terraformed and colonized. When things start to go bad with the awakening subterranean hive, Decker, whose empathic powers give him an insight into the xenomorphs, is returned to the doomed world with a group of mercenaries to help achieve Weyland-Yutani’s goals. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s essentially the same thing that happened to Ellen Ripley in Aliens, when she was sent back to LV426 with the Colonial Marines.

As with the previous novel, Sea of Sorrows makes generally effective use of the motifs that have come to define an Alien story. But, again, there are no true surprises, as we all know about queens, facehuggers, and chestbursters, as well as the mine on LV178 from the previous book. Making Decker a descendent of Ripley, a “this time it’s personal” twist, seems forced and unnecessary, and his empathic powers just telegraph when the xenomorphs are about to attack.

Diehard fans of the Alien universe will get a small, if by-the-numbers, fix, even as they try to figure out its nebulous relationship in continuity with Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection, which seem largely ignored (we’ve all been there). Apparently there’s no new ground to be broken in the series, as the next book, River of Pain, will be looping back to the colonization of LV426.

 

Reviewed by Scott Pearson

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InTheCompanyOfSherlockIn the Company of Sherlock Holmes

edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger

 

Writers and scholars King and Klinger present an anthology of 15 stories inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes adventures. The tales cover a wide variety of interpretations, from comedic to dark, and range from straight pastiches in Watson's voice to modern settings with Holmesian investigators. There are several standouts. “Dr. Watson's Casebook” retells The Hound of the Baskervilles as a series of Facebook posts (“Dr. John Watson has joined the group Physicians Who Like Atmospheric County Houses.”), while “The Memoirs of Silver Blaze” reinterpret that adventure from the point of view of the stolen race horse. “The Problem of the Empty Slipper” is an eight-page comic strip. In “Dunkirk,” it's 1940 and an elderly “Mr. Sigerson” from the Sussex Downs helps with the repatriation of British soldiers from France. It's more of an adventure than a mystery, but it still hinges on Holmes' intelligence and is an evocative piece of historical fiction. Nancy Holder's “The Adventure of My Ignoble Ancestress,” a sequel to the “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet,” turns out to have a bearing on that best-selling author's own life. My favorite is the outstanding “The Adventure of the Laughing Fisherman” by Jeffrey Deaver, author of the Lincoln Rhyme novels. Here a young man with anxieties and depression employs his analytical skills to help the police with a murder investigation—with surprising and twisty results.

 

Reviewed by A.B. Mead

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EdgeEternityEdge of Eternity

by Ken Follett

 

Rebecca Hoffman was summoned by the secret police on a rainy Monday in 1961.

So opens Edge of Eternity, Ken Follett’s long-awaited final volume of his Century Trilogy that masterfully reimagines the history of the 1900s through the eyes of five disparate and dissimilar families across the world. Epic, in this case, would be an understatement in describing the task Follett has taken on. Brilliant would be the best word to describe the level to which achieves it here in the series’ penultimate tale. Covering an era spanning the tumultuous 1960s through today would be an impossible or ruinous task in lesser hands. Follett, though, employs an amazingly deft touch in stitching the times and characters together, somehow managing to weave the worlds of five nationalities into a quilt that’s seamless in terms of span, scope, and sensibility.

Each central character, from the aforementioned Rebecca Hoffman to a young aide to Nikita Krushchev to American Freedom Rider George Jakes, commands his or her own stage with history itself unfolding around them. They’re all Zelig-types serving as our tour guides through events among which the last two generations have lived from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War, and Vietnam while they interact as fictional insiders with the likes of Bobby Kennedy.

If you like your history shaken, not stirred, Edge of Eternity is for you. It’s Follett’s masterpiece, a Game of Thrones for the less fantasy imbibed among us. The kind of book, in retrospect, that James Michener was forever trying to write and Stephen King almost wrote with 11/22/63. Hey, at over a thousand pages it may not be for everybody, but it has instant classic written all over it.

 

Reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

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PhoebePhoebe and Her Unicorn

by Dana Simpson

 

Dana Simpson has crafted something quite wonderful in this comic strip that is perfect not only for kids, but also for the child in all of us. Reminiscent of Calvin and Hobbes (and I don’t toss that out lightly), Phoebe and Her Unicorn is exactly what you expect from the title in that a little girl named Phoebe is throwing rocks near a pond one day and hits a unicorn. The unicorn was mesmerized by her reflection, and soon Phoebe and Marigold Heavenly Nostrils are the best of friends. Of course Marigold has the power of invisibility, and all of Phoebe’s friends think she is nuts to believe her friend that can’t be seen is real. Like Mr. Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street, soon the reluctance to believe is rewarded and some learn that Marigold is quite real.

The combination of Phoebe’s child wonder with an egotistical and a confused unicorn that doesn’t understand what it means to be human are a wonderful pair and will bring a smile to anyone’s face who dives into this marvelous collection.

 

Reviewed by Jeff Ayers

item2 mercer2 softtargetTMB1 WWYS IMG2655 AftersightCoverFinal covergameshowsv1JanMar770x1167 TheRush SNL TheCrosswordCentury Tinseltown WhenParis Personal aliensea InTheCompanyOfSherlock EdgeEternity Phoebe