Sunday, November 1, 2009

Bookviews by Alan Caruba

November 2009

My Picks of the Month, Reading History, People (Biographies and Autobiographies), Health, Military Matters, Kids and Teen Books, Novels

My Picks of the Month

Here’s a book to put on your Christmas list. It’s Celebrating Peanuts: 60 Years ($75.00, Andrews McMeel Publishing) and it comes in a deluxe, slip cased edition. It is filled with all the many things a generation of Americans came to love about this wonderful comic strip creation by the late Charles Schultz. Peanuts fans will find quotes from Schultz that shed light on how his mind worked, how his life shaped the strip, and how in turn it shaped his life. There are more than 500 pages of classic Peanuts strips, including many full color Sundays. It doesn’t get much better than this. Another large format book that will please fans of the late actress Betty Davis is a tribute written by two noted film critics, Richard Schickel and George Perry. Betty Davis: Larger than Life ($35.00, Running Press) captures the life of a quite extraordinary woman, outspoken and unapologetic. Her career spanned six decades and more than 100 films and few actresses rival her for longevity and appeal. As she put it, “Until you’re known in my profession as a monster, you’re not a star” and she was the epitome of a star. “Of Human Bondage”, “Jezebel”, and “All About Eve” became classic films in part from her performances. She broke ground for actresses who followed her, but she left an indelible imprint on an era we sometimes call the golden age of Hollywood.

If you know someone who loves to travel or someone who prefers to do so from an armchair (that’s me), then one of the most fabulous gifts to give this year is Visions of Europe ($99.99, a boxed set of 12 programs on ten discs, Acorn Media), good for over 15 hours of some of the most extraordinary views of Europe, all shot in high definition video from a helicopter-mounted camera. Seen frequently on PBS, in this great set, you will find “Visions” of Italy, France, Greece, Germany and Austria. There’s also the “Great Cities of Europe”. Either for yourself or as a gift, you will float above places whose names reflect the history of Western civilization. The music and the narration is never intrusive. It’s a trip of a lifetime without every leaving home.

Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America is an intriguing book by Rich Benjamin ($24.99, Hyperion). He begins by pointing out that, by 2042, whites will no longer be the majority population in America. As people of color driven by the massive illegal immigration across our southern border increase, more whites are moving to small towns and exurban areas that are predominantly, even extremely white. It goes way beyond prejudice and it goes straight to the heart of American values of “individual liberty, shared civic responsibility, and equal opportunity.” Benjamin writes, “Insecure over the strength and prospects of American values, many white Americans fear for the nation’s ability to absorb newcomers.” This is especially true when they arrive poorly educated and with cultural dispositions to neglect wherever they live. It is hard to claim prejudice given the fact that Americans elected the first black president in its history, though the election, says Benjamin, obscures the racial and economic segregation still vexing America. Benjamin advocates “diversity” even though it looks more and more to me like termites eating the foundations of American society. At the book’s conclusion, the author opts for a more liberal approach to the demographic changes occurring, something that struck me as the antithesis of the theme of his book.

For an administration that has promised greater “transparency”, it is increasingly clear that much of the information on which decisions are based is kept from public view. Over the years, the Freedom of Information Act has been utilized by journalists and those dealing with public affairs issues to learn more about what the government is doing and why. Jacqueline Klosek has written The Right to Know: Your Guide to Using and Defending Freedom of Information Law in the United States ($44.95, Praeger). An attorney practicing law in New York City, it need be said this book will be of greatest use to those engaged in these battles to pry open the doors of government agencies. There are, she notes, many exemptions to the law that prevent access, but she does provide practical methods for citizens to use the act to protect themselves and their communities. The most dangerous aspect of what is occurring is the increasing effort to deny Americans access to government generated information with which to make an informed analysis of what is really occurring. Tom Fenton is a four-time Emmy winner from his years with CBS News, so one might expect his analysis, Junk News: The Failure of the Media in the 21st Century ($14.95, Fulcrum Publishing) to be more incisive. However, his association with CBS News reminds us of the expose of Dan Rather’s appalling bias (a court recently dismissed his case against CBS) and it similarly infects Fenton’s examination of trends. He now works as a freelance commentator for the BBC. This little book rather swiftly loses much of its credibility when he veers into political opinion, but is worth reading when Fenton addresses the actual mechanics and costs of news gathering. His lament about the closing of foreign bureaus by U.S. media rings true, along with some other complaints. He devotes too much time blaming the former Bush administration for all the ills of the world, much as the present administration does. Those of a liberal persuasion will enjoy this book.

Cornelia Dean has written Am I Making Myself Clear?: a Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public ($19.95, Harvard University Press). This is a book for scientists who want to share their expertise, analysis and opinions with the general public and I recommend it because I see lots of scientific information that often defies the understanding of even a seasoned science writer like myself. A distinguished science editor and reporter, Dean makes a case for the importance of scientists taking an active role in making their work accessible to the media and, through them, to the general public. This book is especially timely given the decades of junk science regarding a “global warming” that was a natural climate cycle, barely one degree Fahrenheit, to a previous “little ice age.” And the kicker is that the Earth has been in a new cooling cycle for at least ten years. It’s not likely you’ve heard about that!

One cannot help being impressed by The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries by Michele Borba, Ed.D. ($19.95, Jossey-Bass, an imprint of Wiley, softcover). The initial reason being its sheer size. It’s truly a big book at nearly 700 pages as it addresses common parenting challenges for kids from age 3 to 13. The answers to bedtime battles, chores wars, tantrums, bad friends, sibling rivalry, cheating, growing up too fast, eating disorders, selfishness, anger and countless other common problems are addressed, along with Internet safety, stress and much more. The solutions are time-tested and, for today’s time-challenged parent, the ability to go to specific chapters on problems they are encountering is invaluable.

For the sports nut in your life, a great Christmas stocking-stuffer would be No Dribbling the Squid: Octopush, Shin Kicking, Elephant Polo, and other Oddball Sports are the subject of a book by Michael J. Rosen with Ben Kassoy ($12.99, Andrews McMeel, softcover. It would appear that just about anything humans do can be and has been turned into some kind of sporting activity as it takes a look at those from around the globe that are weird and entertaining, from Wife-Carrying races to professional Rock-Paper-Scissors competitions and Extreme Ironing. This book is just plain fun.

Reading History

There is no understanding of the present or hint of predicting the future if you have not read history.

The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America its Name by Toby Lester ($30.00, Free Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster) tells of the way Europeans believed that the world consisted of three parts, Europe, Africa and Asia. These parts of the world had been visited by traders and seafarers to an extent that they were known to exist. For the Europeans, they existed to be exploited, a noted trait. The “fourth part of the world”, however, was largely a land of myth until, in 1507, Martin Waldseemulller and Mathias Ringmann, two obscure scholars working in the mountains of eastern France created a map. It depicted a new world beyond the vast Atlantic Ocean. It would draw on the explorations of Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus. It would set Nicholas Copernicus to thinking that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Thus was life in 16th century Europe. Eventually, in 2003, the Library of Congress paid $10 million to add it to its treasures. The story of the map is one of the great stories of discovery and it is fascinating.

From the earliest civilizations to our own there have always been people ready to predict the end of the world and people ready to believe them. As we draw closer to 2012, the ancient Mayan calendar, said to predict this is gaining renewed attention. Simply put, it does not make such a prediction, but the long, more complex story is told by John Major Jenkins in The 2012 Story: The Myths, Fallacies, and Truth Behind the Most Intriguing Date in History ($25.95, Tarcher/Penguin). There have been some 200 books written concerning December 21, 2012 and some movies based on the myth. Jenkins is an expert on the Mayan civilization and that is the crux of his book and, if that interests you than you will not be disappointed by this portrait of the cultural and scientific roots of what, in fact, was a Mayan belief in transformation and renewal. (See the Novels section for one based on the end of the world theme.)

If you have been trying to figure out why the Middle East is such a mess, a good place to start is the Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East by Karl E. Mayer and Shareen Blair Brysac ($18.95, W.W. Norton, softcover) which looks at the Middle East as the geographic, geostrategic, and religious center of the world; one that Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon tried to control long before oil was discovered and in which, at varying times France, Britain, Germany, and the United States have all sought to extend their hegemony. The modern Middle East is the result of a secret treaty between England and France that divided it between them following World War One and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. For anyone who loves to read history, this book is high adventure full of folly and a cast of characters Hollywood could not have invented. Beyond America’s Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East by Stephen P. Cohen ($27.00, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) rapidly turns out to be a disappointment and the tip-off is the first sentence of its preface. “Right after the 1967 Six-Day War, I set out to educate myself about the Zionist conflict with the Arabs in Palestine.” The “Zionists”, not the Israelis. Because, despite the wars waged against it, the sovereign nation of Israel has demonstrated that Jews have a right to their ancient homeland. And, largely ignored or unmentioned is the fact that Israel has a million Arab citizens! Cohen, a Harvard-trained social psychologist is the founder and president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development. He is a dreamer who, while he has a grasp of the basics of Middle East history, views it through the gauzy hope for a peace that has always been beyond reach in a region whose dominant faith and culture makes it impossible

People, People, People

The favorite subject for people to write about is, well, people. And, of course, there is often much to be learned by reading about people since one can hardly cram that much experience into a single life.

I will begin, for no particular reason, with a memoir by a wonderful singer and entertainer, Moon River and Me by Andy Williams ($25.95, Viking). I was surprised to learn that he is 82, but only because, being ten years younger, he has been a part of my life before and since he became a superstar on television by the 1960s. There are few achievements in show business he has not garnered, but it was his warm tenor voice and seemingly effortless delivery that earned him his position. The book tells of a humble beginning in Iowa, an ambitious father who encouraged his sons to form a singing group, a move to Los Angeles, and the gradual climb to a place in the hearts of Americans who embraced him. Along the way he became friends with other famous folk like Bobby Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Elvis and others. He relates stories about them and his success on television, in Las Vegas, and with his theatre in Branson, Missouri. This is a memoir worth waiting for.

William Rehnquist was a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for a third of a century and served contiguously with four presidents and yet I cannot help but think that most Americans were and are largely unaware of him because of his modest demeanor. He did not seek the limelight, but now those for whom the Supreme Court, its decisions, and the men and women that made them in modern times are of interest, Rehnquist: A Personal Portrait of the Distinguished Chief Justice of the United States meets the need for a greater insight and understanding of the man ($27.00, Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon and Schuster). Herman J. Obermayer provides a candid look at one of the most influential men to hold the job. He takes the reader on an interesting journey from his dissenting opinion in Roe v. Wade to his strongly stated positions on issues as various as freedom of the press, school prayer, and civil rights. It was Rehnquist who played a visible role in two very contentious events, the impeachment trial of President Clinton in 1999 and the decision that made George W. Bush the winner in the presidential election of 2000. Obermayer, a journalist, was friends with him for nineteen years and the result is a book well worth reading for a better understanding of the man and times he influenced

From an earlier era, the 1920s and 30s, a name synonymous with those times is Amelia Earhart, one of the first women pilots and, in many ways, a woman who demonstrated that her sex could equal the exploits of men. Amelia Earhart: The Thrill of It by Susan Wels ($35.00, Running Press) is a large format book to match her personality and exploits which famously ended with her mysterious disappearance somewhere in the Pacific in 1937. Well written and extensively illustrated, the woman that emerges from its pages does much more than fly planes. She was a polymath, a poet, photographer, fashion designer, wife, friend and lover. She was, above all, someone who lived for adventure. “Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace,” she wrote. She lived life on her own terms and broke the glass ceiling long before the term existed.

The Holocaust, the deliberate killing of six million Jews by the Nazis during World War Two has generated hundreds, if not thousands of books, but it remains essential that later generations and humanity in general not forget it. Surviving the Angel of Death: The Story of a Mengele Twin in Auschwitz by Eva Mozes Kor and Lisa Rojany Buccieri ($15.95, Tanglewood Press) is actually written for younger readers, aged twelve and up. One of the worst chapters of the Holocaust was the selection of some 300 twins for Dr. Josef Mengele’s cruel medical experiments. Only about 200 survived. The author and her sister were only ten years old at the time. A lesser known story from that period is told in They Dared Return: The Untold Story of Jewish Spies Behind the Lines in Nazi Germany by Patrick K. O’Donnell ($26.00, Da Capo Press). Some Jewish refugees, by 1942, had found safe haven in America, but with courage that is hard to imagine, were eager to serve in the armed forces to stop the persecution of their overseas families and friends, some of whom languished in concentration camps. The book focuses on “the Jewish five” who joined the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of today’s CIA, to become spies, parachuting into enemy territory to gather information for the Allied forces. O’Donnell, a military historian, has done a great service in writing this intriguing book. (See History section below for more on this topic)

Writers often find their own lives more interesting than anything they could invent or report, so it is not surprising that two books reflect that trait. The Face in the Mirror edited by Victoria Zackheim ($25.00, Prometheus Books) brings together recollections by writers such as Malachy McCourt, Joyce Maynard, among some twenty writers of fiction and non-fiction who relate the choices they made, their achievements, and their disappointments. Their stories are a cautionary tale for all would-be writers, but they answer the question of who it is they see when they look in the mirror. Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives ($24.99, Free Press) collects essays by writers ranging from Joyce Carol Oates to Edmund White, at least two are Pulitzer Prize winners, six won National Book Awards, and others who saw their work become bestsellers but who recall how either encouragement or criticism shaped their careers, each thriving or surviving to make a name for themselves.

After decades of reviewing, I have seen my share of memoirs. Most lives fit into comfortable patterns, but occasionally someone comes along with a truly nutty notion, divorced from reality, and a path to a life that strays from the ordinary. Such is the case of Jerramy Fine who was born in 1977 in western Colorado, but possessed of the idea that she was switched at birth and her “real” parents must surely be English aristocrats. Ms. Fine was convinced that she was born to marry into the British Royal Family. She is what is called an Anglophile, in love with things and men who are British. She writes about it in Someday My Prince Will Come: True Adventures of a Wannabe Princess (15.00, Gotham Books/Penguin Group, softcover) While attending the University of Rochester, she spent a semester working in the House of Commons and later completed her master’s at the London School of Economics. She did not marry an English prince, but she lives in London with an English boyfriend and she forgives him for being a commoner. The result of this is a whimsical real life story of a girl who began writing to Buckingham Palace around age six, gets to London, dives into the party scene and discovers life is not the fairy tale she imagined. Turns out that London is very expensive and too many British boys are a real pain. This one is strictly for the girls, but it will resonate with any one of them who wanted to be a princess.

The Topic is Health

Americans are taking a greater interest in maintaining their personal health these days, perhaps in response to the national debate on proposed, controversial revisions to Medicare, arguably the most popular government program other than Social Security. It also reflects the endless coverage of health-related topics in the nation’s media. An excellent place to start is The Intellectual Devotional: Health ($24.00, Rodale) with 365 daily entries on all aspects of health that cover seven categories on health and wellness such as drugs and alternative treatments, the men, sexuality and reproduction, children and adolescents, diseases and ailments. It is endlessly fascinating for its facts.

Smoking: 201 Reasons to Quit by Muriel L. Crawford ($19.95, plus $5.50 shipping and handling, from Dillion & Parker Publishing, softcover), is addressed to people like me and the thirty million other Americans who say they want to quit. It is one scary book, listing more than a hundred ways tobacco harms smoker’s health, often leading to prolonged disability and early death. It offers methods to quit smoking, and discusses all the other aspects of smoking such as social and relationship problems. I would hazard that this is the most comprehensive review of this problem and, who knows, it might just get me to quit, too. Visit

I loved The Art of Overeating by Leslie Landis ($9.95, Sterling) and give it a big thumbs up! Written by a practicing clinical psychologist, the author has practical experience helping people who eat, spend, avoid, deny, and defy their way through life. As Americans continue to be hit over the head with endless discussion and even proposed legislation about what and how much we can eat, this book approaches the subject with lots of laughter. Peppered with fascinating food facts, plus the author’s natural wry style of making her case about food phobias, she exposing the uselessness of trying to shame over-eaters. Using humor, though, helps a lot. If you’re tired of the endless stream of diet books and advice, this is probably the book for you!

It seems like hardly a day or week goes by without the public being informed that some health threat is going to kill millions and now Dr. Brad Spellberg has written about the latest in Rising Plague: The Global Threat from Deadly Bacteria and our Dwindling Arsenal to Fight Them ($26.00, Prometheus Books). The focus of his book is on antibiotic-resistant microbes that are said to infect two million Americans and kill more than 100,000 every year. What makes this an even worse threat, according to the author, is that research and development of new antibiotics has “ground to a screeching halt.” This book is a major warning against the collapse of antibiotic R&D and for anyone with an interest in health issues, this is “must” reading.

A new memoir is The Sugarless Plum: A Ballerina’s Triumph Over Diabetes by Zippora Karz ($22.95, Harlequin) in which she tells how, by the age of 20 she had fulfilled her life’s dream. Having left home at the age of 15 to pursue her career, Karz became a rising star with the New York City Ballet. A year later, however, her body began to exhibit symptoms that were originally misdiagnosed as Type-2 diabetes when it was Type-1. This is an inspiring story for any woman facing this disease and it is enhanced as she writes about the behind-the-scenes life of a ballerina, a fantasy for little girls around the world.

Military Matters

I have long believed that history largely consists of the many wars of mankind and this is confirmed in an excellent new book, Little-Known Wars of Great and Lasting Impact: Turning Points in Our History We should Know More About by Alan Axelrod, PhD ($24.99, Fair Winds Press). That may qualify as one of the longest titles of any new book this year! The author has had a long, distinguished career in and out of publishing and a consultant to television documentaries. He takes the reader on a fascinating tour that include what he calls the “first Holocaust”, the battle when Simon bar Kokhba initiated a rebellion against Rome, triggering a response that cost the lives of many Jews living in Israel from 132-135 BC. Other wars cited include the first wars of terror, the Barbary pirates versus the United States, and the Meji Rebellion in Japan. There are many interesting chapters that recount wars that often are not taught in schools and colleges, but which shaped history, ancient and modern.

Zenith Press specializes in books about military affairs and among their latest releases are War Stories of D-Day: Operation Overlord—June 6, 1944 ($28.00) by Michael Green and James D. Brown. That titanic landing on the shores of France was a major turning point in World War Two. It put 150,000 troops in play against the Nazis and this book humanizes the event with first-person stories of those who took part in the invasion, including the paratroopers who dropped behind enemy lines. The book includes those from the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force who provided critical support. A little known story of WWII was the role of German Jews and it is told in The Enemy I Knew: German Jews in the Allied Military in World War II ($28.00) by Steven Karras. Though the Nazis rounded up and killed six million Jews, some German and Austrian Jews who had fled the Nazis were inducted into the Allied forces. The stories of 27 of them, including gripping recollections from Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State, are documented. They displayed incredible courage. Courage, too, was displayed by McCoy’s Marines ($17.99) subtitled the “Darkside to Baghdad.” John Koopman tells the story of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, led by Lt. Col Byran P. McCoy whose radio call sign was “Darkside.” These were the men who pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein. As a reporter embedded with the unit, Koopman saw and lived it all. A former Marine himself, the author provides an insight-filled story of what it was like to battle into the center of Iraq’s capital and the aftermath.

At the forefront of American concerns is whether to continue the war in Afghanistan, now in its eighth year. For a powerful and disturbing insight, I recommend you read Hunting al Qaeda ($17.99, Zenith Press, softcover). It is the story of a National Guard Special Forces unit, Beast 85, a tight-knit group of ten men, green berets, sent to Afghanistan shortly after 9/11 to capture or kill al Qaeda and the Taliban. It is a story of disillusionment because of the top-heavy, risk-averse command structure of today’s army and how it became the second front for men who actually captured a Taliban leader only to be told to release him! The war has drawn on without victory because “victory” is not attainable when it is a political issue, not a military objective.

Today we speak of Special Operations and think in terms of Green Berets and Navy SEALs, but preceding them were WWII Allied spies and they needed to be trained to operate behind enemy lines. The arts and skills of disrupting an enemy were described in Special Ops, 1939-1945: A Manuel of Covert Warfare and Training ($17.00, Zenith Press) put together by the British Special Operations Executive and American Office of Strategic Services. It is reproduced for today’s reader and the techniques described and illustrated mirror some that have been incorporated by today’s terrorist organizations.

Not all casualties of war occur on the battlefield. Healing Suicidal Veterans: Recognizing, Supporting and Answering Their Pleas for Help by Victor Montgomery II, CMAC, RAS, a former crisis intervention therapist for the National Veterans Suicide Crisis Hotline ($14.95, New Horizon Press, softcover) could save lives, particularly if read by the friends and relatives of returning veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. It is filled with advice on effective strategies for veterans to cope and heal, checklists to identify symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and substance abuse. It provides information about resources for veterans seeking help.

Books for kids and Teens

For the very young who can be read to or those age 7-9, there’s a story first published in 1997 by Jane Yolen, the author of some 300 books for younger readers. The Seeing Stick ($16.95, Running Press) is the story of a Chinese emperor whose only daughter was born blind and who seeks a cure. One day a wise old man with a mysterious Seeing Stick visits the princess. It reveals that one can “see” the world in more ways than just her eyes. This book is particularly special for the illustrations of Daniela Jaglenko Terrazzini that are just dazzling. It is an inspiring story in many ways and likely to remain a treasure in any child’s library.

From Kids Can Press comes How to Build Your Own Country ($18.95), part of a series to teach kids about the world, but I am less thrilled about its intent “to be better global citizens.” That kind of One World outlook puts allegiance to one’s own nation down the list of priorities. That said, however, Valerie Wyatt, the author, and Fred Rix, the illustrator, have come up with a clever way to each what being a nation involves, including setting up a government, holding elections, writing a constitution, and other attributes of nations that function under the rule of law. Hoaxed! Fakes & Mistakes in the World of Science ($16.95) by the editors of Yes Magazine is another good book for younger readers, up to age ten or so. It explores a number of famous hoaxes like the Piltdown Man and provides advice on how to spot a hoax based often on dubious or spurious science. It neglects to include the greatest hoax of the modern era, “global warming”, still be talked about as real despite the fact the Earth has been cooling for a decade.

For the older, pre-teen and teenage set, there are a number of books worth reading. I am Jack by Susanne Gervay ($14.99, Tricycle Press, an imprint of Crown Publishing) deals with the topic of school bullying and how it hurts the victim and the bully and is frightening for witnesses who don’t know what to do. Jack is an eleven-year-old who has to learn what to do. This book should probably be in every school in America. A young adult novel, Saved by the Music ($16.95, West Side Books) is generating a lot of buzz. Selene Castrovilla tells the story of 15-year-old Willow who moves in with her aunt for the summer after her unstable mother kicks her out. Aunt Agatha is trying to turn a dilapidated barge into a classic music performance space. Willow must fend off the advances of a construction worker, but is befriended by an older teen who lives on a sailboat nearby. Together they meet some harrowing challenges together. It’s the kind of story that is impossible to put down once passed the first page. Music is at the core of another West Side Book, a young adult novel, Shattered by Kathi Baron ($16.95). In this story a teen violin prodigy, Cassie, runs away after her moody father destroys her violin, seeking refuge in a homeless shelter. From her shattered family, Cassie finds out why her father acted as he did and how she heals herself by helping others.

The author of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”, Jeff Kinney, sold over 23 million copies with this series and is back with Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days ($13.95, Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams) in which Greg, Rowley, Rodrick, Manny, Mom and Dad, and an entire cast of characters return along with an unexpected addition to the family that not only takes Greg’s attention, but his bed too. Just about everything he does involves some kind of turmoil, particularly anything that occurs outside when Greg would prefer to be in his room, the blinds closed, and playing video games. This is just plain fun!

For the older teen and some adults, there’s The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey ($17.99, Simon and Schuster), a very entertaining story that begins with the journal of Will Henry, orphaned assistant to Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, a man whose specialty is the study of monsters. When a grave robber comes calling with a gruesome find, he brings with him their most deadly case yet. This is classic gothic literature and asks the question, when does a man become the very thing he hunts?

Two DVDs offer lots of entertainment for the toddler set. Gigi and the Royal Pink Circus by Sheila Walsh ($14.00, Thomas Nelson, kid’s division) is part of a popular series about Gigi and for those of the Christian faith, this comes with some valuable lessons, namely that it is not easy to be God’s little princess these days, but His message comes with much comfort. Also from the same publisher, part of the Max Lucado’s Hermie and Friends series, The Flo Show Creates a Buzz. It’s About Saying You’re Sorry($14.99) features the voices of Tim Conway and Vicki Lawrence of the Carol Burnett Show fame. It is a rollicking story with a useful theme of forgiveness. Also in the arena of juvenile fiction, there’s School of Fear, an audio book from Hachette Audio ($19.98) by Gitty Daneshvari. For the younger set, it will prove fun to listen to as they follow the adventures of Madeleine Masterson who is deathly afraid of bugs, especially spiders, Theodore Bartholomew who is petrified of dying, Lulu Punchalower who is scared of confined spaces, and Garrison Feldman who is terrified of deep water. They are sent off to the School of Fear to learn how to conquer their fears. Very scary and very funny.

Novels, Novels, Novels

I have become a fan of Don Bruns “stuff” series that chronicles the lives of James and Skip, two loveable, bumbling best friends who are still stuck in dead-end jobs, still living in their ratty apartment in Carol City, Florida, and still dreaming and scheming to hit the big time. In Stuff to Spy For ($25.95, Oceanview Publishing), Skip lands a job to install a state-of-the-art security system for Synco Systems, but it comes with strings. To collect the cash, he will have to pretend to be the boyfriend of Sarah Crumbly, an employee who’s having an affair with Synco’s married president. When he is offered a tidy sum by the boss’ wife for the details of what’s going on at Synco, the friends decide to go into the business of being spies. What they discover is at the heart of this funny, fast-paced thriller. A very different kind of thriller is Crossings by Leonard Chang ($24.95, Black Heron Press), an unflinching look at the lives of Korean immigrants in the San Francisco Bay area. It centers on Sam, a widower who finds himself deeply in debt to a local gangsters and Unha, an illegal immigrant working at a nightclub. Their stories intertwine with other family members, other immigrants, all forming to portray a community trying to make a better life for themselves. One can learn a lot from such fiction, delving into the worlds of other people we might now otherwise know or, to be candid, care about, but in a very real way, they are classic American stories in a nation of immigrants. Korea is the backdrop for a new addition to “A Sergeants Sueno & Bascom Mystery” by Martin Limon. G.I. Bones unites the Military Police sergeants when they travel to Itawwon, Seoul’s red-light district in order to find out who killed a G.I. who had the unusual habit of stalking fortune tellers. Meanwhile, an officer’s daughter has gone missing and the murder of a wine-mongering gang lord remains unsolved. The time is the 1970s and the twists and turns of this novel will keep you turning the pages as fast as you can read them.

Anyone who is old enough to have gone through the Draft in the 1950s until it was discontinued, will find The Furax Connection a trip back to the days of basic training at Fort Leonard Wood ($16.95, Fireside Publications, Lady Lake, FL, softcover). Stephen L. Kanne makes his debut with a terrific novel that is evocative of that era and, at the same time, an old fashioned thriller about a shadowy organization within the military, a network of bribery and extortion emanating from Furax Unlimited. At the heart of the novel is Billy Rosen, a Harvard graduate who has volunteered for the Draft to get a taste of life beyond his privileged surroundings. Identified as a recruit for a secret society within the military affiliated with Furax, the story concludes with the North Korean invasion of the South and we suspect Billy will see action there. Indeed, we expect Kanne’s next novel will continue the thread begun in this very satisfying story.

I am not surprised to see novels arrive that are based on the end-of-the-world theme of December 21, 2012. The Twelve by William Gladstone ($19.95, Vanguard Press) tells the story of Max Doff. Not speaking until age six, his world filled with numbers of colors (Editor’s note: signs associated with autism), at age fifteen he has a near death experience during which he sees twelve names that he cannot remember when he awakes. Eight years later while on location in Peru for a film production company, Max meets Maria Magdelena Ramirez and he suddenly realizes, Maria’s name was one of the twelve he saw in his vision. Anyone drawn to the mysteries of myths while find this novel every entertaining as we follow Max’s life to the date alleged to mark the world’s end.

Among the softcover novels, there’s The Rules of Play Jennie Walker ($20.00, Soho). Actually it is a novella, a short novel that follows the story of a woman in the throes of an extra-marital affair. Told over the course of five days, the narrator seeks to navigate the rules of her affair at the same time she tried to understand the rules of a cricket match between England and India taking place. We’re told that Mick Jagger loved it, but he’s one up on Americans unfamiliar with cricket. Coming in January from Soho Press, there’s Leighton Gage’s Dying Gasp ($24.00) the third in a series starring Chief Inspector Mario Silva. Set in Brazil, the granddaughter of a prominent politician is missing and Silva and his team find her in Manaus, a jungle hellhole on the Amazon where a female doctor is making snuff films. Silva must overcome his own department’s indifference and corrupt local cops to bring some justice to the victims.

A Drunkard’s Path by Clare O’Donahue, ($13.00, Plume) is part of “A Someday Quilts Mystery” series featuring Nell Fitzgerald. As Nell is finishing her first quilt and recovering from a broken engagement, her new boyfriend, Police Chief Jesse Dewalt stands her up, he has a good reason. The body of a young woman has been discovered nearby. Nell’s taste for sleuthing gets the best of her and she enlists the aid of her quilting circle to help patch together the clues. Civil War history, the Reconstruction period, is the backdrop for Jarrettsville by Cornelia Nixon ($15.95, Counterpoint). Based on a true story, it is the account of a love affair and murder in a small Maryland town that is rebuilding. It is the days following President Lincoln’s assassination and the Confederate surrender. The various allegiances are told through the eyes of a dozen different perspectives, but the story is in many ways a timeless one.

If you love a good love story, pick up Giving Up on Ordinary by Isla Dewar ($14.99, St, Martin’s Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books), a beloved and prolific British writer. Meg is a woman at the end of her rope. A single mother of three, she has more bounced checks than reasons to be hopeful. After retiring her dream of making it big in a band, she’s bounced from job to job, and now she’s cleaning houses to make ends meet. When she is asked to work for Gilbert Christy, an educated, wealthy, lonely art historian, her life gets a shot of passion. Complete opposites, they fascinate each other and their affair is as much about curiosity as about love. You will be rooting for Megs from the very first page.

Finally, for some good listening, there are three Hachette Audio novels, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (19.98) in the voice of a murdered girl watching from heaven as friends and family, along with her murderer, try to fathom what happened. David Balacci never disappoints with his police thrillers and True Blue ($44.98, unabridged/$31.98 abridged) is read by actor Ron McLarty. It is a story of a cop seeking redemption. Michael Connelly’s Dragon’s ($39.98 unabridged/$29.98 abridged) is read by actor Len Cariou tells the story of the murder of the owner of a South LA small shop, Fortune Liquors, and Detective Harry Bosch has promised his family he will find the killer. It is a gripping tale.

That’s it for November! Tell your friends about Bookviews and bookmark it to return each month for news of the best in new fiction and non-fiction. You will often find books here that are not getting sufficient attention elsewhere.