Copyright 2013 Pacific Northwest Writers Association. All Rights Reserved
by Neil MacGregor
MacGregor examines twenty representative objects from Shakespeare's time in order to provide insight into that fascinating culture. Living in one of the first great eras of social change, the Elizabethan establishment was always on the lookout for ways to control the "unruly world" that surrounded it. An apprentice's cap embodies the Parliamentary law requiring all non-noble males over the age of six to wear a wool cap on Sundays and holidays (when they would be mixing with people who might not otherwise know them). When Ophelia sees Hamlet "his doublet all unbraced / No hat upon his head," she knows something is very wrong. Nearly everyone wore some sort of hat as an identifier of status and profession. A noble, looking at a hat, knew whom to ignore, insult, or bow down to. What did theater attendees eat? A brass-handled iron fork (nine inches long) with monogrammed initials emphasizes the fact that that most people ate with their daggers (perfect for shucking oysters) or their hands. Anyone using a fork to handle their sweets would have purchased it while traveling in Italy. That when this fork was excavated, it was found to be next to some poor grounding's mussel shells tells us of the broad range of Shakespeare's audience, and of his appeal. Alas now gone, but recorded in detail in a souvenir pamphlet (burgeoning capitalism!) are the seven triumphal arches (of wood and plaster, not stone) temporarily put up throughout London to celebrate the coronation of King James I. The King's procession stopped at each of them to provide the local citizens with a little spectacle and a chance to actually see their king. Seeing London turned into Rome for a day reminds us that anyone who had any education would have been able to read the Latin inscriptions on the faux arches. An Elizabethan reading for pleasure read Ovid, not Chaucer. It also reminds us that history flows both ways: in Shakespeare's Roman plays, the ancient world was a stand-in for contemporary English politics. This solid, pop history is well-illustrated not only with images of the objects in question, but also with period maps and engravings.
Reviewed by A.B. Mead
by Andy Weir
This is it! The first unputdownable novel of the year. Originally self-published, then picked up by a major publisher, Weir's novel will now receive the mass attention it so richly deserves. Astronaut Mark Watney was one of the first people on Mars. When an unprecedented sandstorm supposedly kills him and forces his crewmates to return to earth, he's left behind in an unforgiving environment. Luckily, Watney is a botanist, and, with a lot of hard work, he's able to grow his own food-at least for a while. Even if he can turn a handful of potatoes into 500 days of food, the next scheduled mission to Mars won't arrive for three years after that. Watney is a worthy successor to, and example of, Heinlein's Competent Man in dire circumstances who uses his intelligence and training to survive. He's also sort of charming, which keeps this tale of survival from becoming unremittingly grim. Watney runs the numbers on the amount of water he needs to generate, how many calories he'll need to consume, and how to maximize the surface area in his habitat that he can use as farm land. (He uses a spare space suit to hold water. ) Meanwhile, on earth, satellite imagery shows an inexplicably clean solar array and the habitat's two emergency tents deployed. Instantly NASA joins the race to save him, despite having no way to communicate. I was sucked in from page one, but I kept thinking, "He can't possibly maintain this level of interest. What's left for Watney to overcome?" Turns out: 367 pages, without a chapter going by where I didn't utter, "Cool." The Martian is exciting, clever, and it lays out how an actual, sustainable program for multiple Mars missions could work.
Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale
by Patrick Lee
Fighting insomnia, Sam Dryden decides to go jogging at 3:00 am. As he runs, he stumbles upon a young woman who begs for his help. He hides her as men with guns search the area. Dryden knows these guys are experts, but he is able to use his ex-military skills to elude them initially. But he expects that the thugs will be able to track their every movement, so he goes into hiding with her to find answers. He cannot get them from the girl, because she has been shot full of torture drugs and has no memory of who she is, why she was being held captive, or how she escaped. What could easily have become a typical chase scenario becomes so much more in the master hands of Lee. The surprises are quite shocking, and he skillfully mixes thrills with science and humor. Lee's previous three books were a trilogy that showcased his tremendous imagination, and Runner proves that those previous novels were no fluke. He's definitely a writer to watch.
Reviewed by Jeff Ayers
By Tim Dorsey
The naked couple ran screaming out of the hotel, covered with fire extinguisher foam.
There are a few writers out there who can make you laugh out loud and the irrepressible Tim Dorsey is one of them. His wondrously sardonic musings on the human condition in general, and Florida in particular, are kind of like holding a funhouse mirror up to the world.
His latest, Tiger Shrimp Tango, goes that one better by seizing upon just about everything that was already making us shake our heads through the eyes of his once medicated stalwart series hero, and serial killer, Serge A. Storms. Dorsey's clicking on all cylinders here, in large part because his primary targets are the kind of predatory villains responsible for a host of modern day scams that include the mortgage meltdown of the recent past. This scam in particular has led to some especially unsavory deaths in Serge's beloved Florida, something he has absolutely no tolerance for. Bad guys beware, and readers prepare, for Serge's typically creative ways of dispatching those who have run afoul of him and the Sunshine State. Also along for the ride is the perpetually stoned Coleman and a former adversary who's come over to the dark side, or whatever you want to call Serge's side.
The comic timing is spot on and the deliciously perfect, as Dorsey once again out-Hiaasens Carl Hiaasen. This is splendid farce with just the right amount of cold reality tossed into the mix. And Serge's monologues on all things Florida are as acerbic as ever. Sidesplitting, zany, and as much fun as you will ever have reading a book.
Reviewed by Jon Land
by Karen Perry
A father named Harry puts his son, Dillon, to bed, and plans a birthday dinner for his wife, Robin, who has to work late in the opening of Karen Perry's (the pen name of Dublin writers Paul Perry and Karen Gillece) novel. Harry steps out of the house for a second, and an earthquake hits the area at that precise second. He arrives back at his house to find it completely gone. Five years later, they are both still devastated by their loss. Although they cannot grasp it yet, their marriage is crumbling. Harry sleeps around and seems to be oblivious to Robin's feelings. She discovers she's pregnant, and questions if she could keep the baby. One afternoon, Harry is walking on a crowded Dublin street when he sees Dillon. Is it wishful thinking, or real? Can he convince Robin that he's not delusional? Or is he slipping into madness? Both Harry and Robin are difficult characters to like, but the setting and mystery will force the reader to turn the pages for answers.
Reviewed by Jeff Ayers
by Ben Bova
In Ben Bova's latest paperback, the building of telescopes on the far side of the Moon is complicated by the egos of the people involved as they race to image a newly discovered Earth-like planet in the Sirius system.
Although successful in creating a nuts-and-bolts air of reality reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke, there is really not much going on in Farside. An act of sabotage which ratchets up the drama does not take place until nearly halfway through the novel; prior to that bit of excitement, the story is largely composed of character introductions and scenes of people discussing the difficulties of building the telescopes. The slow-burn pace is made more challenging by a number of the key players being fairly unlikable and self-serving.
The pace does pick up a bit as things start going wrong at the isolated Farside Observatory, but the characters are slow in suspecting the people with the most obvious motives for sabotage. There are also some odd disconnects in the narrative: At one point a main character meets an investigator right after she arrives by rocket. They introduce themselves then and there, but just four pages later they both attend a meeting and are introduced again as if for the first time.
Completists following Bova's Grand Tour series of interconnected novels and stories may well want to read Farside despite these shortcomings, as a couple of Bova's recurring characters are involved in this installment. Without any previous investment in the series, however, I suspect most readers will find Farside to be overlong for its premise.
Reviewed by Scott Pearson
by Alan Bradley
The sixth British murder mystery novel featuring the gifted, but never annoying, youngster Flavia de Luce brings big changes to her little universe, previously bounded by Buckshaw Manor and the tiny hamlet of Bishop's Lacey. It's 1951 and Flavia is "almost twelve." The body of her mother, dead and preserved for nearly a decade in a Himalayan glacier, is coming home. When her coffin arrives draped in a flag and accompanied by former Prime Minister Winston Churchill (who mutters something about "pheasant sandwiches" to Flavia), wheels begin to spin. All of the village streams through the estate to pay their respects to the dead, but that only provides more suspects for the murder of the man at the train station who warned Flavia about "the Gamekeeper." International politics and spying ("the Great Game") seem to be playing out their chess-like moves all around her. Is the handsome RAF pilot the same man glimpsed in a home movie from just before her birth? What are her strange cousins, from the Cornish branch of the family and whom she's never heard of, up to, besides familial duties? Meanwhile, Flavia, ever-obsessed with chemistry, wonders if she could bring her mother back from the dead with super-doses of vitamins. As always, it's Flavia's signature narration that carries the story. A pre-teen obsessed with poisons, she is at turns sweetly naïve and brilliantly analytical. For long-time readers, certain elements which were previously comically outlandish now take on a whole new meaning. For newcomers, this entry may be the perfect jumping-on point as Flavia begins a new chapter in her adventures.
Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale
By Carla Buckley
Birthdays are supposed to be happy occasions, so Eve plans a party. There are the usual anxieties. Who would come? Would Tyler like his presents? Then there are the special worries, the ones other people didn't have to think about.
Those "special worries" form the heart of Carla Buckley's sensational The Deepest Secret, an exceptionally moving and unrelentingly suspenseful yarn that grabs you tight and never lets go.
The somewhat overwhelmed Eve Lattimore's plight is obvious right from the start. Her son Tyler suffers from the rare condition of xeroderma pigmentosum, a disease that renders him so sensitive to sunlight that exposure to it can be almost instantly fatal. That burden, together with a husband and daughter to care for, makes Eve something of an expert at multi-tasking, which includes texting while driving. One stormy night this unfortunate proclivity results to an unthinkable tragedy that threatens to tear her tightly managed life and entire neighborhood apart, even as a mystery arises from the residue of tears and raindrops. Eve struggling to hold her world together is balanced magically by Tyler struggling to forge one of his own against impossible odds. He's the true star of the book, a kind of Huck Finn/Holden Caulfield sentenced to a vampire-like existence minus the immortality. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The Deepest Secret isn't just a splendid treatise on the fragility of the modern family and human condition in general. It's also a cautionary tale of brave, everyday souls battling the very minutia of life, of optimism rising out of hopelessness. In that respect, Buckley's latest is a wonderful mix of Judith Guest's Ordinary People, Rosellan Brown's Before and After, and William Landay's Defending Jacob. Everything a great novel, and thriller, should be.
Reviewed by Jon Land