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In My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary

Jan Morris. Liveright, $24.95 (208p) ISBN 978-163149-536-6

Morris, author of more than 40 books (most recently Battleship Yamato), offers a slim collection of 186 pithy diary entries that invite readers into her sunny, though sometimes dark, ruminations. With wit and just a bit of self-reproach, she addresses concerns about British politics (“The news from Westminster, concerning the future existence of one of history’s most fascinating constructions, just makes me yawn”), as well as her wife Elizabeth’s struggle with Alzheimer’s (“Kindness reconciles us still, even when she is at her most irritating”). Morris, now 92, writes of seeing another aging acquaintance at the grocery store: “I was foreseeing a tragedy that befalls millions of us, when we are obliged to realize, like Shakespeare’s Othello, that our life’s purpose is gone.” Though the pieces can meander, Morris is always self-aware, playfully interjecting comments (“You think I’m rambling rather?”) and forge a frank intimacy with the reader, evoking the patter of a coffee shop get-together (“What should I write about today, dear friends? Good or bad, virile or senile, there’s no life like the writer’s life”). Morris’s diary is a candid, enlightening take on contemporary life. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/30/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ’n’ Roll

Ian S. Port. Scribner, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-1-5011-4165-2

A titanic rivalry is rendered in highly personal terms by this loud, racketing history of how two men’s obsession for perfecting the electric guitar shaped the post-WWII music scene. Music critic Port portrays two diametrically opposed innovators: Les Paul, the suave virtuoso who recorded with Bing Crosby and whose hit singles pioneered multitrack recording and put guitars center stage for the first time, and Leo Fender, the reserved tinkerer who found his niche supplying 1940s western swing bands with innovative solid-body electric guitars. Paul’s name was slapped on high-end Gibsons (“a guitar for tuxedos”) while Fender’s company crafted more affordable noisemakers beloved by surf rockers such as Dick Dale. Port plays up the men’s rivalry, but his lushly descriptive and detailed narrative is more interesting as an evolutionary history of how rock and roll was shaped by its primary instrument, as when, in one of the book’s best moments, Jimi Hendrix bested a Les Paul Gibson–playing Eric Clapton onstage in 1966 with an off-the-shelf Fender Stratocaster. Port’s book is less illuminating on Paul and Fender’s competitiveness, but it’s richly illustrative in bringing these rock giants and the tools of their trade to life in a squall of beautiful feedback. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/30/2018 | Details & Permalink

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William Walker’s Wars: How One Man’s Private Army Tried to Conquer Mexico, Nicaragua, and Honduras

Scott Martelle. Chicago Review, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-61373-729-3

As Martelle (The Madman and the Assassin) recounts in this fascinating history, thousands of men down on their luck toward the end of the Gold Rush opted to chase another possible path to riches: follow 19th-century American adventurer William Walker through an unlikely series of exploits and intrigue that culminated in a despotic state. Restless and ambitious, Walker studied medicine in Europe, law in New Orleans, and journalism in San Francisco, but the pinnacle of his success came as he declared himself president first of his own republic and then of Nicaragua, with no military or governing experience to guide him. Martelle depicts the desperation of Walker and his men to create their own nation, attacking Baja California, Costa Rica, and Central American communities and confounding the United States as to how to deal with such blatant disregard for the Monroe Doctrine and the Neutrality Act. Followers, meanwhile, starved and deserted in great numbers amid brutality and several poorly strategized battles. Martelle’s account of the curiously uncharismatic leader’s early nomadic years is lively, and though the book gets bogged down in minutiae regarding Walker’s attempts to hold onto power, it springs back to life as Walker’s acts become increasingly desperate, as when he rescinded slavery in Nicaragua (despite originally creating a haven for slaveowners) or ordered the wholesale destruction of Grenada upon his departure. This mesmerizing cautionary tale is sure to fascinate armchair historians. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/30/2018 | Details & Permalink

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101

Tom Pitts. Down & Out, $17.95 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-948235-38-9

Jerry, the arrogant 25-year-old protagonist of this often brutal crime novel from Pitts (American Static), gets into a bar fight with one of the Dead BBs, a California biker gang that runs a huge marijuana business. He escapes alive but realizes that he needs to get out of San Francisco before the BBs come after him. His mother, Barbara, a former nurse and drug dealer, puts him in touch with her old friend Vic, who runs a pot-growing operation in Humboldt County. Jerry heads north on U.S. Route 101 to Vic’s cabin, where he plans to lie low. But a killer named Cardiff gets on his trail, along with a Russian weed kingpin known as Vlad the Inhaler. Jerry’s girlfriend, Piper, the stepdaughter of one of the BBs, complicates matters. The violent action, involving various bikers and drug farmers with names such as Ripper, Doughboy, and Meth Master Mike, harms dogs as well as humans. The plot follows a predictable course from rural Humboldt back to the Bay Area for the final, unsurprising showdown. Pitts falls short of finding the level of gonzo insanity that the book’s pacing seems to demand. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/30/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories, Part XII

Edited by David Marcum. MX, $44.95 (454p) ISBN 978-1-78705-376-2

The 18 short stories in Marcum’s impressive 12th pastiche anthology draw, as did Part XI, on Dr. Watson’s untold tales for their plots, this time from the latter half of Sherlock Holmes’s career. The timing enables some contributors to explore the emotional scars left on Watson by Holmes’s return from the dead, adding welcome psychological depth. As in the previous volume, the culprit’s identity will be clear to most Sherlockians as soon as he or she makes an appearance, but the thoughtfulness that each contributor puts into creating a story around a few cryptic lines more than compensates for the spoiling of whodunit. Several contributors clear the higher bar they set for themselves by devising plots not reliant on violent crime, as in Daniel D. Victor’s “The Adventure of the Smith-Mortimer Succession” and Marcum’s own “The Trusted Advisor,” which features a man who advertises himself as “The Sherlock Holmes of the Business World.” Marcum continues to amaze with the number of high-quality pastiches that he has selected. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/30/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Verses for the Dead: A Pendergast Novel

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Grand Central, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-1-5387-4720-9

The crimes under investigation in Preston and Child’s underwhelming 18th thriller featuring FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast (after 2018’s City of Endless Night) are tame by the bestselling authors’ usual standard. Walter Pickett, an FBI assistant director recently assigned to the New York City field office, is determined to keep maverick Pendergast under his control, unlike his predecessors, and assigns him a partner, Special Agent Coldmoon . Coldmoon is to keep a close eye on him as the two investigators head to Miami Beach, where a human heart has been left on the grave of Elise Baxter, who strangled herself with a bedsheet in Maine 11 years earlier. A note signed Mister Brokenhearts and quoting T.S. Eliot was left along with the freshly harvested organ. Pendergast insists that the choice of grave was an intentional one, and that circumstances of the old suicide be reexamined, even as Mister Brokenhearts strikes again. The X-Files pilot–like plot of a younger agent assigned to spy on a brilliant but eccentric colleague is old hat, and Pendergast himself doesn’t appear to best advantage in an outing that shows the series’ age. Agent: Eric Simonoff, WME. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/30/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Green Monk: Blood of the Martyrs

Brandon Dayton. Image, $16.99 paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-5343-0831-2

As an infant and toddler, Alexey brought joy and amusement to the Brotherhood of the Cross, members of which rescued him and his dying mother from a brutal Russian winter. As he enters his teen years, though, he grows more prone to violent behavior, which the declining monastic order forbids. Yet his willingness to fight saves the brotherhood when raiders attack, creating a moral quandary that only Alexey can resolve. In an art style that feels reminiscent of Jeff Lemire, Dayton delivers a steady and energetic origin story for this series opener that shows much without having to say much—minimalist dialogue and absent exposition allows him to focus on story and evocative details. Interspersed with the plot, Dayton shows Alexey’s symbol-laden and psychedelic dreams, which reveal his destiny and fears and serve artistically as a colorful counterbalance to the drab greens, browns, and grays of the Russian countryside. These scenes also balance the more deliberate development of Alexey’s character as he grows up and learns the lessons of the order. While setting readers up for the next volume, Dayton’s work reminds readers how powerful visual storytelling can be. Ages 13–up. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 11/30/2018 | Details & Permalink

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My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder

Nie Jun, trans. from the French by Edward Gauvin. Graphic Universe, $9.99 paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-5415-2642-6

This big-hearted debut is set in a traditional Beijing neighborhood of one-story dwellings whose tiled roofs and arched bridges offer an atmospheric backdrop for four tales. The author doesn’t explain why Yu’er walks with a crutch, or where her parents have gone. But the unshakable love that she and Grandpa share form the solid ground of these stories, which, in the manner of a Miyazaki film, slip from reality into a dreamy otherworld and back. In the first, Grandpa comes up with a novel way for Yu’er to “swim” in their courtyard. In the second, a boy defends Yu’er from bullies and introduces her to the glories of insect song. The third memorializes Yu’er’s late Gramma with a lovely twist that ventures into science fiction, and the fourth follows Grandpa and Yu’er as they melt the heart of a grumpy artist nicknamed Pumpkin. “Is this a dream?” Pumpkin asks. “Yep!” Grandpa replies. “And we all need dreams, don’t we?” Delicate pen-and-ink drawings glow with sunny colors in this graphic novel, and the sequential storytelling shines. Gauvin’s translation, from the French edition, is a translation in turn from the Chinese. Ages 7–11. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 11/30/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Worth a Thousand Words

Brigit Young. Roaring Brook, $16.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-6267-2920-9

Four years ago, Tillie was in a car accident that damaged her hip and spine, leaving her in nearly constant pain and with a leg that doesn’t “work properly.” Ever since, Tillie has retreated behind her camera, viewing the world at a distance, until her pictures help a classmate find a missing earring and earn her the affectionate nickname “Lost and Found.” Now Tillie is in demand as a detective, tracking down lost items—though not lost people, as she clarifies to Jake, a classmate whose dad has gone missing. But Jake is persistent, and soon the pair visits his father’s office and last whereabouts. All the while, Jake insists that his dad is in danger, often in scenarios taken from his favorite old movies. Meanwhile, Tillie’s relationship with her own father is fraught: he was driving the car when she was injured and has been distant ever since. Working with Jake challenges Tillie to step out from behind her camera and into the world, and Young handles both her injury and its aftermath with realism and sensitivity. The mystery of Jake’s dad will keep readers turning pages in this touching debut coming-of-age novel. Ages 8–12. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 11/30/2018 | Details & Permalink

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These Rebel Waves

Sara Raasch. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $17.99 (480p) ISBN 978-0-06-247150-5

In an island nation where multiple factions battle for control of its magical plants, three teens from different backgrounds become unlikely allies in the ongoing struggle against an occupying country and its religious zealotry. When an important diplomat is kidnapped, Adeluna, a former rebel soldier, hatches a plan to find him before war can break out, and she frees the notorious raider Deveraux Bell from prison so he can use his unique talents to aid her in her efforts. Meanwhile, Benat, crown prince of occupying Argrid, attempts to use the island’s natural magic to cure diseases, even though his own father will brand him as a heretic for it. This first volume in a duology pairs political intrigue, magic, and high adventure with a religious and social conflict reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition. Between the extensive worldbuilding and sprawling cast, there’s a lot going on, and both the characters and story threads lack development. Still, Raasch (Frost like Night) creates an entertaining, complex story that will keep readers engaged up to the cliff-hanger ending. Ages 13–up. Agent: Mackenzie Brady Watson, Stuart Krichevsky Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 11/30/2018 | Details & Permalink

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