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Dead Lies Dreaming

Charles Stross. Tor.com, $29.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-250-26702-3

The madcap 10th entry in Stross’s Laundry Files series (following The Labyrinth Index), set in an alternate England where magic is a branch of applied mathematics that coexists alongside technology, finds the country under New Management, as the Elder God who now inhabits 10 Downing Street is referred to. Against this backdrop, the Lost Boys, a gang of superpowered transhuman heisters comprising Imp, the Deliverator, Doc Depression, and Game Boy, use their ill-gotten gains to finance a twisted, outer space–set movie version of Peter Pan. First opposing, then assisting, them is Wendy Deere, transhuman rent-a-cop for HiveCo Security, who has just been promoted to “thief-taker.” When Imp’s sister, Evelyn Starkey, hires the Lost Boys to steal the Necronomicon, a concordance of spells, for her billionaire boss, the job takes the gang back in time to the mean streets of Whitechapel in 1888. This is like a gonzo riff on Robert A. Heinlein’s Magic, Inc., enhanced by imaginative set pieces and plentiful references to classic SFF. Bullets and jokes fly in equal measure, and even if they don’t all find their mark, Stross still hits the bull’s-eye with this fresh take on the caper genre. Agent: Caitlin Blasdell, Liza Dawson Assoc. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Joe Biden: The Life, the Run and What Matters Now

Evan Osnos. Scribner, $23 (192p) ISBN 978-1-982174-02-6

The Democratic presidential nominee is a soothing moderate who may become a Rooseveltian progressive, argues this probing but sympathetic biographical sketch. Journalist Osnos (Age of Ambition) draws on vivid reportage from his New Yorker profiles of Biden to paint him as an unprepossessing but effective politician who is good at connecting with voters and wrangling with congressional leaders and foreign potentates; dedicated to a “sobering case for moral decency, for reasonableness”; and “the man who [stands] between Americans and four more years of Trump,” which is what matters most to “a country in peril.” Osnos’s less-than-hard-hitting character study downplays Biden’s shaky performance during the early days of the Democratic primary campaign, interprets his gaffes and garrulousness as signs of passion and empathy, and styles his exaggerations and plagiarisms as “the excesses of a man who wanted every story to sing.” Osnos offers a shrewd analysis of Biden’s predicament as “the nominee of a party gradually marching left, which was desperate to win over moderates and Republicans who were terrified of that march to the left,” and quotes liberal pundits on how Biden could maneuver a Bernie Sandersesque progressive agenda through Congress. The result is a portrait of the candidate that’s smart and evocative, but not immune to wishful thinking. Agent: Jennifer Joel, ICM Partners. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Moth and the Mountain: A True Story of Love, War, and Everest

Ed Caesar. Avid Reader, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5011-4337-3

Journalist Caesar (Two Hours) delivers an evocative portrait of the life and times of British adventurer Maurice Wilson (1898–1934), who captivated the public’s attention with his doomed attempt to climb Mount Everest in 1934. Despite the best efforts of the British government to stop him, Wilson flew his Gipsy Moth biplane (which he had only recently learned to pilot) from England to India, hired three sherpas, and walked more than 300 miles to the base of the world’s tallest mountain disguised as a Tibetan priest. Drawing on archival records and love letters Wilson wrote to a friend’s wife, Caesar highlights Wilson’s middle-class upbringing and military service in WWI, where his battalion was nearly wiped out in Germany’s spring offensive of 1918. After the war, Wilson burned through relationships, suffered a nervous breakdown, and traveled the world. Back in England, he turned to fasting, Indian mysticism, and the power of positive thinking to recover from depression and prepare for his Everest expedition. Caesar skillfully explores the political, intellectual, and spiritual movements of the era, as well as Wilson’s psychic scars from the war. Though his climb ended in tragedy, Wilson inspired Reinhold Messner to make the first solo ascent of Everest in 1980. This entertaining, well-researched chronicle is a valuable addition to mountaineering history. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Bag Man: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-up, and Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House

Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz. Crown, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-0-593-13668-3

MSNBC host Maddow (Blowout) and journalist Yarvitz expand on their podcast of the same name in this rollicking study of the 1973 resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew. In their colorful retelling, Agnew’s crimes were simple and sleazy: as Baltimore County executive and governor of Maryland, he took bribes from companies in exchange for awarding them public-works contracts—and kept taking payoffs in the White House. Maddow and Yarvitz convincingly argue that President Richard Nixon and future president George H.W. Bush (then serving as Republican National Committee chairman) obstructed justice by trying to quash a Department of Justice investigation into Agnew’s dealings, and spotlight heroism by the young U.S. attorneys in Maryland who nailed Agnew, and that of Attorney General Elliot Richardson (already overseeing the Watergate investigation), who resisted White House pressure before letting Agnew plead guilty to tax evasion in order to smooth his resignation. The authors style Agnew a proto-Trumpian practitioner of “bruising, know-nothing, confrontational conservatism” who argued, as President Trump later would, that indicting him would be unconstitutional. Maddow’s fans will enjoy this entertaining and well-researched recap of Agnew’s comeuppance and its barely-veiled yearning for prosecutors to haul Trump into court. Agent: Laurie Liss, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Gods at Play: An Eyewitness Account of Great Moments in American Sports

Tom Callahan. Norton, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-324-00427-1

Sportswriter Callahan recalls the most memorable moments from his career with grace and humanity in this resonant memoir. Callahan’s career began in 1966 in the Baltimore Evening Sun’s newsroom, followed by stints at papers in San Diego, Calif.; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Washington, D.C., before a tenure at Time magazine. Rather than focus on individual games, Callahan homes in on anecdotes that reveal the inner lives of the men and women who played them. For example, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar explains how, ashamed of his height in his youth, he looked to the Empire State Building as a positive role model; Muhammad Ali told Callahan, “My destiny is at stake,” in an intimate moonlit conversation about an upcoming fight with George Foreman; and baseball great Pete Rose shared that his white teammates disdained him, (“they called him a hotdog for trying to do things he couldn’t”) while his Black teammates “treated me like a human being.” Callahan’s seamless mixture of tales from his own career and wisdom gleaned from the athletes he covered makes for a strong offering all-around. The book works as both a paean to sportswriting’s glory days and a lyrical reminder that athletes have rich lives away from the stadium lights. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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On the Record: Music Journalists on Their Lives, Crafts, and Careers

Mike Hilleary. Univ. of Massachusetts, $22.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-62534-538-7

Music critic Hilleary interviews a wide range of fellow critics and journalists in this enlightening if occasionally repetitious collection. He approaches such topics as the way they each got their start in music writing, their approaches to interviewing artists, and their thoughts about pursuing their craft as a career. Reflecting on the role of music in their lives, Hanif Abdurraqib says music was always “a soundtrack to my daily movements,” and Jessica Hopper connects her love of punk rock to her social activism and “will for disruption.” NPR’s Ann Powers attributes her career to an interview with Lester Bangs she completed for a high school assignment, while Chuck Klosterman candidly admits that the biggest contributor to his career has been “luck.” A recurring theme is that critics love interviewing artists because the conversations reveal, as Bonnie Stiernberg phrases it, “the heart of the artist.” Ben Ratliff describes how, since artists can be tight-lipped about their work, often “what a critic says about a work is more interesting than what the artist might say. Because they place it in a context—that’s their job.” If there’s a complaint here, it’s that Hilleary asks each subject the same questions, so the narrative can feel redundant at times. Even so, these candid takes on the craft of criticism provide valuable insights for both music lovers and aspiring critics. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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NFL Heroes: The 100 Greatest Players of All Time

George Johnson and Allan Maki. Firefly, $35 (256p) ISBN 978-0-22810-280-9

Journalists Johnson and Maki celebrate the NFL’s 100th anniversary in this impressive ranking of what the authors consider to be the best athletes ever to play professional football. After a preliminary alphabetical ranking of the top 10, (among them Jerry Rice, Deacon Jones, and Tom Brady), Johnson and Maki dive into a century’s worth of star players, and pay ample attention to the less-glamorous positions of centers and safeties. Their focus remains predominantly on stars of the past half century, with Ezekiel Elliott (though allegations of domestic violence against him receive only a scant paragraph) and DeShaun Watson making appearances. Johnson and Maki provide anecdotes about players’ lives, giving opportunities to evaluate the character of each individual beyond his impressive statistics (“37-year-old [Larry] Fitzgerald is a self-proclaimed ‘ student of life ’”). Complete with quality photographs and a thoughtful introduction that marks how the NFL has adapted to cultural changes over the years, Johnson and Maki’s book would be a welcome debate-starter for any NFL fan. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Undaunted: Overcoming Doubts and Doubters

Kara Goldin, with John Butman and Theo Goldin. HarperCollins Leadership, $24.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-4002-2028-1

Goldin debuts with a disappointing look at how she founded Hint Water, a flavored water company. She traces her ambitious nature to her childhood; as the youngest of five, she writes, she was used to having to push for what she wanted. Post-college, she hustled and wound up working in e-commerce at AOL, but, feeling unfulfilled, resolved to become an entrepreneur. On a health and fitness kick, Goldin started making fruit-infused water for herself and got the idea for Hint. She received plenty of discouragement, including from “an executive at one of the world’s largest beverage companies [who] told me no one would want my unsweetened flavored water.” She proved the doubters wrong with the company’s success after its 2005 founding, marked by milestones that included deals with Whole Foods and Starbucks. Unfortunately, the advice component promised by the title feels peripheral and is limited largely to the titles of the book’s chapters—“Create Your Own Opportunities,” “Know When to Move On.” It’s a decent enough professional memoir, but it comes up short on the kind of substantive guidance aspiring entrepreneurs might hope for. Agent: Carol Franco, Kneerim & Williams. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Big Tow: An Unlikely Romance

Ann McMan. Bywater, $17.95 trade paper (344p) ISBN 978-1-61294-184-4

Repo romance might not be a genre, but two-time Lambda Literary Award–winner McMan (Galileo) makes a case that it should be with this delicious and hilarious fever-dream of a novel. When Vera “Nick” Nicholson, a struggling, 37-year-old junior legal associate, is dispatched to retrieve a luxury car stolen from one of her firm’s clients, her search launches her into the world of the National Recovery Bureau. Among the bureau’s outrageous assortment of grifters is Frankie Stohler, a Jennifer Aniston look-alike who can get away with just about anything in a blink of her innocent baby blues. Lured by helpless lust and the promise of a larger pay day, Nick partners with Frankie on a rapidly escalating series of improbable heists, including “recovering” a school bus from a Baptist church and a hearse from a shady funeral home. Though she’s afraid of being hurt, Nick can’t deny that being with Frankie feels like “an astronaut’s first bout of weightlessness.” McMan creates a lovable cast comprising crooks with hearts of gold and endearing oddballs, including Nick’s wonderfully campy roommate and Frankie’s goth mortician sister. It’s lighthearted fare that relishes in its own ridiculousness, but McMan grounds the more outlandish flights of fancy in honesty and warmth. Readers are sure to be taken in by the quirky charms of this lesbian love story. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Secrets of Winter: A Josephine Tey Mystery

Nicola Upson. Crooked Lane, $26.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-64385-634-6

Set in 1938, Upson’s outstanding ninth outing for real-life mystery author Josephine Tey (after 2019’s Sorry for the Dead) takes Tey to Cornwall, where benefactor Hilaria St. Aubyn is hosting a fund-raising event at her family’s island castle to aid Jewish refugees from Germany. The guests include celebrity Marlene Dietrich, who has been drawing unwelcome attention from the Nazis for her anti-Nazi views. Hilaria, who has asked Scotland Yard’s Det. Chief Insp. Archie Penrose to watch over Dietrich, says he is welcome to invite Tey, Penrose’s close friend. The island, which is cut off from the mainland when the connecting causeway is flooded, becomes the scene of a murder after someone slits the throat of a guest and places the corpse on a stone seat positioned precariously at the top of a castle tower. A horrific filicide case Penrose handled in 1920, revealed in a prologue, looms over the current murder. Upson makes all of her complex characters’ motivations, guilt, and lies understandable while subtly inserting clues into the ingeniously twisty plot. She has few peers, in any era, in imbuing fair-play whodunits with psychological depth. Agent: Gráinne Fox, Fletcher & Co. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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