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Book Reviews

July 2014

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NON-FICTION

 

AHistoryOfBritainA History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps

by Christ West

 

West presents a breezy survey of British history from the Victorian era to today using postage stamps as prompts. The world’s first stamp, the Penny Black, arrived in 1840, just three years into Victoria’s reign. It was a time of burgeoning economies and technologies. A hundred years earlier, there would have been no way to mass produce such an item, and only with social changes brought by the Industrial Revolution could people afford—and need—to communicate frequently and across distances. The 1971 Machin decimal definitive marked the UK's changeover from the days of shillings and half-crowns to the decimal pounds and pence. Alas, First Day Covers don't exist because the Post Office was on strike. That was a time of labor union problems, unemployment, and the continuing tension between the pre-war and young Britons. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway 150th Anniversary stamp (1980) features sheep being taken to market, good old fashioned redcoat soldiers and respectable top-hatted gentlemen and bonneted ladies. Just the sort of “Victorian values” that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher espoused and encouraged. A “stony-faced intolerance of commercial failure” brought Britain the Yuppies of the 80s. And they even won a war—the Falklands. The Princess Diana Commemorate of 1998 launches West into a discussion of all that Diana represented. The outpouring of grief the nation felt was not a reflection of her royal stature, but due to her work on behalf of the poor and the sick. In modern England, “respect was something you earned by your actions, not something due to social position.” A 2007 stamp depicting the World Wide Web as a globe connected to a computer by a thread reminds us of the great changes in communication in the past 150 years. Email has not killed the post any more than telephones did.

 

Reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

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CusslerThe Clive Cussler Adventures: A Critical Review

by Steven Philip Jones

 

Clive Cussler has been writing terrific adventure novels since the early 1970’s, and there has not been a scholarly look at his works until now. Jones takes a keen eye at the books and writes several essays showcasing the various characters (both heroes and villains), influences from the early days of TV, film, and pulps, and how the various titles hold up today. Jones includes the other series that have sprouted up with Cussler’s name with various co-authors over the years, and how others have been influenced. At first the scholarly approach seems a bit much, but soon the readers realizes the love Jones has of Cussler’s work makes the narrative not scholarly at all but in-depth and well researched. The notes and bibliography take up almost 60 pages! Jones is now the go-to expert on anything Cussler, and it will be fascinating to see if he has another author in mind for his next exploration. And this reviewer has discovered a deeper appreciation for the books that have kept him up so many nights over the years.

 

Reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

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TibetanPeachPieTibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life

by Tom Robbins

 

Robbins, author of several best-selling comedic novels including Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Still Life with Woodpecker, here delivers his autobiography. Robbins grew up in Blowing Rock, North Carolina during the Great Depression. Each summer—and only summer—this small town became a resort community for the wealth, importing first-run movies and “fruits (avocados, papayas, yellow plums) that no hillbilly could identify let alone afford.” These seasons of famine and feast were the seeds of the transformations that Robbins writes of so frequently in his novels. Likewise, he spent his nearly-feral youth among “banjo pickers, moonshiners, tramps, . . . and bib-overalled raconteurs”—exactly the sort of characters you’ll find in Robbins’ novels. He lived as a young adult in bohemian New York when rent was $51.50 a month, and eventually moved to the Seattle area way ahead of the hipsters. Robbins writes in-depth about being one of the first to experience LSD, and he details how he was almost suspected of being the Unabomber. An inveterate traveler, he adventured Cuba, where he and a friend were the only Americans for hundreds of miles, and in Timbuktu, where he and his wife were the city’s only non-natives—and source of income—period (and where he accidentally offended an “old crone” resulting in a black magic curse that caused him months of illness). Like his novels, this memoir is filled with wildly brilliant metaphors. Describing an attack by a black mamba while in Namibia, he says, “It resembled a self-propelled licorice whip from the Marquis de Sade’s candy shoppe.” Of his brief stint working construction, he writes: “I possess less mechanical aptitude than a rheumatoid squirrel monkey.” Even if you have no interest in his novels, Robbins is captivating storyteller, and this book is a picaresque trip that vividly depicts the bygone eras and places he has lived.

 

Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

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yearsugarYear of No Sugar

by Eve O. Schaub

 

Eve and her husband came to the decision after watching a lecture by Dr. Robert Lustig (available on YouTube) to try and give up sugar for an entire year. Their daughters were hesitant to the point of crying at first, but soon had no choice but to participate. They quickly learned by how much sugar exists in the processed food world now, including such seemingly unsweetened places like chicken broth, ketchup, processed deli meats, and soup. It became a challenge for them to find recipes and items to purchase in the store without added sweeteners. They tried buying a loaf of bread, for example, and discovered that only two out of all the choices did not have sugar as an ingredient.

Based on Eve’s blog, Year of No Sugar truly showcases how much this seemingly innocent item around for centuries has become so prevalent in the American diet. The end of the book details the journey back and how they reincorporated sugar into their lives along with some of the recipes they discovered to motivate others to try to diminish their sugar intake. Sometimes it gets a bit personal (bowel movements, etc.), but this is still an enlightening and frightening read that will make you look at labels with a more discerning eye.

 

Reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

 

FICTION

 

ActofWarAct of War

by Brad Thor

 

Once they were alone, the President spoke. “Dennis, I want you to do something for me and you need to be very quiet about it.”

A fitting line early on in the thrill-a-page Act of War, given that secrets about in Brad Thor’s latest. Seems like everybody’s got one, even stalwart series hero, ex-Navy SEAL Scott Harvath, who faces his biggest challenge when he’s tasked to lead not one, but two of the most missions of his career, both aimed at thwarting strikes by a cabal of enemies both new and old and uniformly committed to the destruction of the United States.

Thor’s most ambitious, prescient and wondrously realized book yet reads like the best of James Bond sprinkled with just enough Mitch Rapp-like edge. Long on the forefront of thriller speak, this time out Thor envisions an all-too plausible chain of apparently random events leading to an attack that could make 9/11 seem like a drill. And to that scenario missing students, duplicitous airline passengers and a potential double agent, and the book takes on the feel of something John le Carre might have penned, albeit with substantial less action.

Because, make no mistake about it, that’s where Thor truly shines. Like Rapp and Reacher, his Scott Harvath offers a seasoned mix of brains and brawn, of morals and missiles, of conscience and calamity. Act of War is a thinking man’s thriller’s quilted in an action-adventure fabric that’s Thor at his very best.

 

Reviewed by Jon Land

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SilkwormThe Silkworm

by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

 

In Rowling’s (writing as Robert Galbraith) second mystery involving London private detective Cormoran Strike, she proves that The Cuckoo’s Calling was no fluke. Rowling was born to write mysteries. Her skill at laying out clues, cleverly misdirecting the reader, and creating believable, likeable characters is top-notch. Here, Cormoran is hired to look for a writer who has disappeared, leaving behind a potentially libelous manuscript that obscenely caricatures members of the London publishing world while portraying himself as a genius abused by all around him. When he turns up dead, murdered in a fashion that parallels his unpublished novel, the pool of suspects at first appears to be limited to the couple of people who have read it. That soon changes. As engaging as the mystery is, it’s hard not be captivated by the time Rowling spends fleshing out Strike and his assistant, Robin. Cormoran lost half a leg in the war in Afghanistan, and it’s always giving him problems. Money is constantly in short supply. Robin wants a more active role as an investigator, and both she and Cormoran have problems with their significant others. When every dinner date can be interrupted by cell phone calls that have to be taken because they might contain urgent news about a case, it can really put a strain on a relationship. Rowling depicts the unglamorous side of the detective business and ties everything up in brilliantly elegant solution that we all should have seen coming but didn’t.

 

Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

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firestormoftheapesDawn of the Planet of the Apes: Firestorm

by Greg Keyes

 

Firestorm , a prequel to the new movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, picks up where the 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes ended; the chimpanzee Caesar, his intelligence boosted by an experimental Alzheimer’s drug, has led his troop of chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans—many of whom Caesar exposed to a newer form of the viral drug—across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the redwoods north of San Francisco.

The authorities are covering up the details of the augmented apes and the fight on the Golden Gate Bridge, and a shady private security firm is trying to capture Caesar and his troop. As more details leak to the public, and a deadly virus spreads through San Francisco and around the world, it becomes clear that nothing is ever going to be the same.

Firestorm is an entertaining novel on its own merits. The characters, both human and simian, are varied and compelling. Koba, the very damaged (both physically and psychologically) ape from the first film, is fleshed out as a troubled but loyal member of Caesar’s troop. Maurice, the wise orangutan, and the independent chimp Cornelia, grow in importance. The human Dreyfus, who will be an integral part of the new film (as played by Gary Oldman), is also a key figure in Firestorm, and is given a rich back story to set up his role in the film.

Recommended for any fan of the first movie. Insights into the apes’ point of view and background on the changed world of the new movie draw the reader deeper into this expanding reboot of the classic film series.

 

Reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

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ArtfulArtful

by Peter David

 

Charles Dickens' Artful Dodger returns . . . as a vampyre hunter. David's clever and exciting novel starts off as a comedy. A winking, appropriately Victorian-voiced narrator informs us there was a lot more to the minor characters in Oliver Twist than Dickens revealed: Fagin and police magistrate Mr. Fang were both vampyres. The narrator continues to break the fourth wall throughout the book, but the story rapidly shifts from lightheartedness to action-heavy excitement. In this sequel to Oliver Twist, Jack Dawkins, better known as the Artful Dodger, meets the young, soon-to-be-queen Victoria, who's slumming it and has just mistaken for a prostitute. The two chase, and are chased by, the undead throughout London and its environs. This wouldn't be a proper riff on Dickens without appropriately Dickensian commentary. We are reminded of the hypocrisy of fat city councilmen “who eat at one of their meals more food than a workhouse full of orphans sees in a week.” We tour Bedlam mental hospital, where on Tuesdays anyone with half a crown to spend can take a tour and gawk at the inmates. There are plenty of nods to that other Victorian vampyre novel as well. We go inside Carfax Abbey, meet young Abraham van Helsing, and find out what happens when you expose the undead to a Star of David instead of a crucifix. This is a good old-fashioned tale from the days when the risen dead weren’t brooding and sparkly.

 

Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

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OneMoreThingOne More Thing: Stories and Other Stories

by B.J. Novak

 

TV writer and stand-up comic Novak’s collection of 64 short (and some very short) stories and vignettes are laugh-out-loud funny like nothing I’ve read in years. In “The Rematch,” the hare tries to challenge the tortoise to a second race. Alas, the tortoise is “focused full-time on inspiring a new generation with the lessons of dedication and persistence through his popular speaking tours and his charitable work with the Slow and Steady Foundation.” “The Man Who Invented the Calendar” cuts February short because it’s so cold and later finds himself in competition with the man who invents the diary. Novak actually runs the numbers on what would happen if he had a nickel for every time he spilled a cup coffee, and when Wikipedia Brown is called in to find a school friend’s stolen bicycle, we go down the rabbit hole of distracting side facts. The real Duke of Earl visits the U.S. in 1962 and finds himself annoyed by a certain song. Novak moves effortlessly from the ridiculously obscene (a transcript of “The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela” featuring the Dalai Lama and Gilbert Gottfried) to the erudite (a parody of Jorge Luis Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” this time about the man who translates Don Quixote). Every page—even those with only a couple of dozen words—is a winner.

 

Reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

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SilvaHeistThe Heist

edited by Daniel Silva

 

It began with an accident, but then matters involving Julian Isherwood invariably did.

Following that opening and the mechanization of events that follow, if I didn’t know better I would have thought I was reading John le Carre in his pre-George Smiley years. It’s actually the next best thing for fans of sophisticated spy tales that nobody pens better these days than Daniel Silva. The truly elegant and wondrously structured The Heist, his latest, lets his smooth and seasoned hero Gabriel Allon stretch his legs a bit in the course of pursuing both killers and art thieves who may, in fact, be connected.

A true international thriller, Silva whisks us through London, Paris, Lake Como and Austria en route to unraveling an intensely personal and intricate plot of vengeance at the hands of a woman horribly scarred on the inside as opposed to the out. This is one of those classical spy tales where you can’t blink for fear of missing a key clue or misspeak that holds the key to unraveling the truth that lies along a path of unconnected dots Allon will ultimately string together.

There’s a wonderful irony to his being a professional art restorer, even as he tries to patch the holes constantly springing in the post-9/11 world. In addition to the wonderful counterpoint of beauty versus death, the notion of a man (Think the assassin Jaubert in Six Days of the Condor played brilliantly by Max Von Sydow in the film version.) approaching wet work and art work with the same passion for perfection distinguishes Silva from the pack never likely to go more than twenty pages without an explosion. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but sometimes you just wonder what everyone’s thinking.

 

Reviewed by Jon Land

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