"We are of opinion that instead of letting books grow moldy behind an iron grating, far from the vulgar gaze, it is better to let them wear out by being read." - Jules Verne
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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

WHITE FRAGILITY: WHY IT'S SO HARD for WHITE PEOPLE to TALK ABOUT RACISM (audiobook) by Robin DiAngelo



Published in 2018 by Beacon Press.
Read by Amy Landon.

Duration: 6 hours, 21 minutes.
Unabridged.


Robin DiAngelo is a diversity trainer. She also happens to be white. She has noticed that it is very common for white participants to react very negatively during these training sessions, often acting very defensively and offering a lot of excuses. In this book, she looks at those excuses and lays out the refutations of those excuses.

The good:

This book offers a very useful definition of racism. Hint: it is not just people acting horribly to other groups of people, it is a whole cultural system that we absorb.

It also offers some practical advice about how to deal with your own prejudices.

The bad:

White Fragility is a repetitive book. It could have easily been edited down by one-third without a loss of any new material.

Another weakness is that it doesn't really offer a list of common racist behaviors that people complain about. For example, I have heard African-Americans complain about white people just reaching out and touching their hair, even petting it. I am sure it is out of harmless curiosity, but it's simply creepy behavior.

*****

In the end, this is a solid place to start discussion.

I listened to this book as an audiobook. It was well-read by Amy Landon. I have no real complaints about her, but I actually recommend that you read it as a paper book so you can highlight areas important or more relevant to you and skip over some of the more repetitive areas.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: WHITE FRAGILITY: WHY IT'S SO HARD for WHITE PEOPLE to TALK ABOUT RACISM.

Monday, July 15, 2019

MURDER at GETTYSBURG (Miranda Lewis #2) by Leslie Wheeler



Published in 2007 by Worldwide Library (Worldwide Mystery).
Originally Published in 2005.


Historian Miranda Lewis has been invited to a Gettysburg re-enactment on the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3) by her old college roommate, Ginny. She accepts for two reasons - she wants to see her old friend and she has a serious crush on her friend's father, a retired judge and amateur historian who will also be there. She has been nursing this crush since she was 19 years old and he took her on a tour of the battlefield and taught her all about the battle.

Things get complicated, though, when Ginny's estranged husband Wiley shows up. He is a hardcore Civil War Confederate reenactor, the sort of man who starves himself to the point of being ill just to look more authentic. The sort of man who decorates his personal vehicle (called the "Battlemobile") with little plastic Civil War army men. Wiley has been gone on the reenactor circuit for a while, traveling from place to place and never checking back in with his family.

Even worse, Ginny's old college boyfriend comes to the reenactment looking for her. And, Wiley's friend Dred Davis is lingering around, with his menacing attitude.

But, when Wiley gets shot during the reenactment of Pickett's Charge and then dies of a heart attack things are just starting to get complicated...

Worldwide Mystery  is a big publishing house you have probably never heard of. They are in imprint of Harlequin (yes, the folks that sell the romance novels). When I used to work at a used book store we used to get a lot of these books in because they come in the mail - 2 per month. I have read more than my share of these books - some were really horrible, some were pretty good. But, they sure crank them out.

So, this mystery was not very good. It wasn't horrible, but it suffered from an amazing amount of characters. Every 20 pages or so, a new character was introduced with another subplot. So many subplots and so many characters that it was hard to keep track of them all. You have the historian with the daddy issue crush on a patronizing man at least 20 years older than her that she has maintained for all of these years without ever seeing the man in between, (*****Spoiler alerts for the rest of this paragraph*****) a gun-running operation, a guilt-ridden woman, 2 plots to recover lost love, a plot to foil lost love, multiple weird reenactors, nice guy that fixes cars (and his wife and his sun-bathing niece), a creepy guy that the protagonist sort of likes who likes to flash his EMT patch like he is a cop, a creepy cop and a cop that somehow doesn't arrest the confessed murderer because he wants to comfort the widow of the man he killed (yes, that is right) and somehow lets him take enough pills to kill himself instead. Explain that one back at the station.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: MURDER at GETTYSBURG (Miranda Lewis #2) by Leslie Wheeler.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

MILTON HERSHEY: MORE than CHOCOLATE: HEROES of HISTORY (audiobook) by Janet Benge and Geoff Benge



Published in 2015 by YWAM Publishing.
Read by Tim Gregory.
Duration: 4 hours, 55 minutes.
Unabridged.


YWAM Publishing offers a series of biographies of Christian "heroes of history" aimed at home school students. The fact that this was part of series about "Christian" heroes was a surprise to me since this book didn't mention Hershey's faith at all. Nevertheless, this is an interesting and enjoyable biography of one of America's most successful businessmen, Milton Hershey (1857-1945).

This is a book showcasing the value of persistence. Starting with a failed attempt by his father in the oilfields of Pennsylvania in the late 1850's, the first half of this book is a series of business failures from Milton Hershey and his father, Henry.

Henry Hershey was more of a dreamer sort of entrepreneur - prone to rash decisions, excited by new technology and not very good on doing the follow up work to make sure that the venture succeeds. They traveled from Pennsylvania to Colorado to Louisiana, chasing the next big thing. Turns out that the next big thing was something that Milton Hershey learned from a baker in Colorado about how to make caramel that tastes better and stays fresh longer - milk.

So, Milton Hershey headed home to Pennsylvania and sets up his kitchen and everything just falls into place - except that it doesn't, at least not right away...

The stories of Hershey's struggles are by far more interesting than the story of his success. That being said, Hershey's commitment to charity once he became a success is extraordinary and worthy of note.

I did have one quibble. When it comes to the Hershey strike in 1937, the book doesn't really tell why some of the employees wanted to organize. Now, compared to most other places in the United States during the Great Depression, the workers in Hershey, Pennsylvania had it pretty well. Still, they had lost 1/3 of their hours per week and the workers that served as early union leaders were laid off, despite an agreement that they would not be.

The story is well told and well-read by the narrator, Tim Gregory. We listened to this book as a family on a vacation and found it interesting and were eager to start listening again as soon as we hit the highway.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: MILTON HERSHEY: MORE than CHOCOLATE: HEROES of HISTORY.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

UNTHINKABLE: AN EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY THROUGH the WORLD'S STRANGEST BRAINS (audiobook) by Helen Thomson



Published in 2018 by HarperAudio.
Read by the author, Helen Thomson.
Duration: 7 hours, 19 minutes.

Unabridged.

The author and narrator, Helen Thomson
Helen Thomson is a science writer with a background in neurology. She was inspired by the story of the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine to set out to meet and interview ten people who literally experience the world differently than the rest of us.

Thomson does a solid job of explaining possible scientific explanations for each of these people's conditions and how those conditions may simply be extreme versions of a phenomenon that we all experience.

As in all collections (in this case, a collection of people), some are more interesting than others. For example, I found the story of the man who believed he was dead to be interesting but the story of the man who believed that he was a were-tiger was pretty lame all of the way around.

She also looks at a person who doesn't forget anything, a woman who gets lost everywhere, including in her own home and a man who had a radical personality shift after a head injury. The collection, on the whole, is worth exploring.

The audiobook was read by the author. She is a solid reader, but I would have chosen a professional reader instead.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: UNTHINKABLE: AN EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY THROUGH the WORLD'S STRANGEST BRAINS.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

THERE I GREW UP: REMEMBERING ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S INDIANA YOUTH by William E. Bartelt

Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial -
replica of his boyhood farm.
Photo by DWD.


Published in 2008 by Indiana Historical Society Press.

Most know that Abraham Lincoln came from Springfield, Illinois. But, a lot of people are not aware that at age 7, Lincoln and his family moved to Indiana from Kentucky. Lincoln and his family stayed in Indiana until just after his 21st birthday.

In a four paragraph autobiographical sketch written in 1859, Lincoln devoted a little more than a paragraph to these years in Indiana, including this nice little sentence: "There I grew up."

All of the stories of Lincoln's childhood (reading by firelight, the legend of the rail splitter, his aversion to shedding blood of any sort, his kindness to animals and more) took place in Indiana. Hoosiers are happy to claim him.

The author, William E. Bartelt, worked for fifteen summers at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial as a ranger and historian and was the vice chair of the Indiana Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. This book is the product of a lot of research and familiarity with the source material.

The first part of this biography goes through the autobiographical sketch mentioned in the second paragraph line-by-line and elaborates on them. It is by far the most interesting part of the book.

Most of the rest of the book is going through the notes of William Herndon (1818-1891), Lincoln's law partner when he was elected President. Very soon after Lincoln's assassination, Herndon decided to write a biography of his friend and set off to Indiana to find people that he grew up with.

Herndon's interview notes are published in this book. They are not particularly interesting reading. Here is a typical sample from page 128: "The Country is a heavy timbered one - farms are cleared and cut out of the forests. The woods - the timber is hickory - white oak, called buck-eye and and buck lands. The old farm now belongs to Jas Gentry - Son of Jas Gentry for whom, the old man the brother of Allen - Lincoln went to N. Orleans in 1828 or 29. John Heaven or Heavener now lives as tenant on the land: it an orchard on it, part of Which Abm Lincoln planted with his own hands..." 

I got to the point where I skimmed Herndon's notes and read Bartelt's summary that followed. So many of Herndon's interviews recycled the same information. I assume that he was asking the same questions of each person he interviewed and got a lot of the same answers over and over again.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5. Solid work, but dry. It can be found on Amazon.com here: THERE I GREW UP: REMEMBERING ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S INDIANA YOUTH by William E. Bartelt.

Monday, July 1, 2019

SUPERMAN / BATMAN: FINEST WORLDS (Superman / Batman #8) (graphic novel) by Michael Green and Mike Johnson



Art by Ed Benes, Rafael Albuquerque, Rags Morales, and John Dell.
Published in 2010 by DC Comics.


There are three stories in this collection.

Story #1. "The Fathers"

The weakest of the three. A piece of Kryptonian technology is found in a farm field near Smallville. It comes to life for a few seconds and triggers a reaction in the Batcave. It turns out that the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel have a previously unknown connection...

I rate this story 3 stars out of 5.

Story #2. "Lil' Leaguers"

Worlds collide in this one. Smaller, more childlike versions of all of your favorite DC superheroes and supervillains enter the Superman / Batman world. Their world is literally smaller and weapons don't really hurt each other in that world. In fact, their universe is just a much more pleasant place on every level.

The page where Superman and Batman meet their miniature selves is quite amusing. Lil' Batman and big Batman do not get along and mayhem ensues. Soon, they have to work together to round up Lil' Lex Luthor as he leads an all-star team of small supervillains. They are interested in acquiring technology that will actually be effective back in their world.

I rate this story 5 stars out of 5. I would gladly read another story with the Lil' Justice League.

Story #3. "Superbat"


While fighting the Silver Banshee, Batman and Superman get blasted. Due to a magic amulet, Batman slowly gets Superman's powers as Superman slowly becomes a regular person. But, what does Batman do once he literally cannot be stopped?

Nightwing features prominently in this one. The art is also excellent in this story.

I rate this story 4 stars out of 5.

****

I enjoy this series. I very much like the "thought bubbles" that this series features. They are the internal monologue of both Batman and Superman as they think about one another. They are allies, maybe even friends. But, they certainly don't think the same way about many things.

There are three stories in this collection. I rated them 3 stars, 5 stars and 4 stars. 3 + 5 + 4 = 12. 12 stars divided by 3 stories = 4 stars.

I rate this collection 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: SUPERMAN / BATMAN: FINEST WORLDS (Superman / Batman #8).

SUPERMAN: THE COMING of the SUPERMEN (graphic novel) by Neal Adams



Published by DC Comics in 2016.
Art by Neal Adams.

A group of men dressed like Superman crash land in an older couple's Iowa cornfield. They then fly to Lex Luthor's corporate headquarters and engage in a fight against an invasion. It is Darkseid's soldiers coming through a red "tunnel" called a "boom tube". The boom tube allows people to travel from one planet to another instantaneously - like a tunnel between worlds.

But, these three new Supermen are not very good at fighting the bad guys are are fairly confused about how to use their super powers. Turns out they are three Kryptonians that have come to defend Earth from an invasion of Darkseid's troops led by his oldest son, the immortal Kalibak, in the hopes that Superman will go to Krypton to deal with a Darkseid invasion. 

Meanwhile, Superman is in the Middle East saving civilians in a war zone. Among those civilians are an orphan and his dog. Superman is stopped by a time-controlling alien that looks like a winged demon and told that he needs to take this boy and his dog home and take care of them.

So, Lois and Clark take this boy in and immediately farm him out to a nanny.

If you noticed the contradiction in the second paragraph (Superman, please defend Krypton from Darkseid's invasion while ignoring Darkseid's invasion of Earth 
led by an immortal thug that can rip down buildings with his bare hands) then that puts you ahead of the author and illustrator. 

This collection of six comics features A LOT of yelling (giant text that fills up chunks of the page), cursing from Superman, almost everybody getting punched in the face so hard that it knocks them out and great lines like this gem from Superman as he fights Kalibak: "RETURN THE BOY! Return the boy, you worthless animal! Nothing requires you. You make our existence ugly with your presence. Give me the boy or your life is forfeit.

The lesson here is that when Superman gets mad, he will kill and he will do it sounding like he is participating in a bad session of Shakespearean improv. I can excuse goofy lines in improv - it's off the top of your head. This mess was actually written out, proofread and inked in over a period of time. 

The drawings are actually not bad at all, but the layout is haphazard. Sometimes it goes all of the way across the two pages, sometimes it goes down the side of the page. It was not uncommon to have to re-read the pages just to figure out what order that it was supposed to be read.

This may very well be the worst graphic novel I have ever read. I rate it 1 star out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: SUPERMAN: THE COMING of the SUPERMEN by Neal Adams.

SOFT TARGET: A THRILLER (Ray Cruz #2) (audiobook) by Stephen Hunter



Published in 2011 by Brilliance Audio.
Read by Phil Gigante.
Duration: 7 hours, 56 minutes.
Unabridged.


The premise of this book is pretty simple: The Bruce Willis movie Die Hard meets Minnesota's The Mall of America, except in this book it is called America: The Mall.

It's Black Friday, the biggest shopping day in the biggest shopping mall in America. Suddenly, Islamic terrorists throw off their disguises, shoot the mall Santa between the eyes and take a thousand people hostage.

Turns out that super tough retired Marine Ray Cruz is shopping in the mall and almost immediately sets out to start taking out the bad guys...

So, if the book had just followed that basic story line, it would have been better. Instead, it moves away from this compelling story (the "thriller" promised in the title). Instead, we get a lot of political wrangling with an up and coming politician-type leader of the Minnesota State Patrol, his subordinates and the FBI. This character, named Obobo, was clearly modeled on President Obama (bi-racial, father is from Kenya, extremely well-spoken, almost no experience for a man in his position) and it's obvious that the author is no fan. That's fine, I wasn't a fan, either. But, wow, this was not subtle. Also, this story line was mostly 2 hours of time-filler in this audibook. It did almost nothing and made no sense.

One last complaint - one of the bad guy's escape plans was so pathetic that I can't believe that anyone who had spent any time in America and witnessed a major media even would have ever considered it. It had no hope of success. He might as well have fired off flare guns while running out of the main entrance of the mall.

Phil Gigante read this audiobook. He is a seasoned audiobook pro and it showed - he did a great job with accents and female voices.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5. It gets 2 stars because I really liked a character named LaVelva.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Soft Target: A Thriller by Stephen Hunter

Sunday, June 30, 2019

FAITH and the FUTURE FORCE (graphic novel) by Jody Houser



Published in 2017 by Valiant Entertainment, LLC,
Art by Stephen Segovia, Barry Kitson, Diego Bernard and Cary Nord.

Faith Herbert is a superhero (Zephyr) in hiding. She has been accused of a murder she did not commit in another series (she's a member of some sort of Justice League/Avengers type of group). She no longer acts as a superhero and her secret identity now has a secret identity. She is working in an office and trying not to get noticed.

Now, a note about this graphic novel. Before this book, I had never heard of Faith Herbert or this series. But, I was attracted to the front cover because of Faith. Faith is a woman of generous proportions - something I have never seen in any comic book. In fact, I can't think of a single superhero comic that features an overweight superhero without it being a joke (Mr. Incredible's gut doesn't slow him down, but it has been a sight gag from the very first trailer of the first movie). This got my attention because I am a man of generous proportions.

Secondly, when I opened up the book and thumbed through it I found multiple Doctor Who references. On the third page, a superhero in a typical full curve-hugging superhero outfit appears in Faith's office and says, "Come with me if you want to save history." 


Faith answers, "I've been preparing my whole life for this moment."

The hero responds, "Oh God, you're a Doctor Who fan aren't you? Of course."

Well, that was it - I was sold. Guess what? It turns out that Faith is not only a Doctor Who fan - she is also a Star Trek fan. What's not to love?

Back to the story...

Faith has been recruited to help stop a robot from the future that is traveling through time and destroying human history. If I tell any more, I will make spoilers.

The story is a bit confusing for at least the first half of the book, with all of the time traveling and Faith having things explained to her a little bit at a time on the fly . If you are a Doctor Who fan, you are used to this. And, like a great Doctor Who episode, it all comes together and has a clever ending.

The art is top notch in this book. It was quite fun.

I rate this graphic novel 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: FAITH and the FUTURE FORCE.

THE TWO HENRYS: THIS CAN'T BE HAPPENING COLLECTION (audiobook) by Kevin Allison



Published by Brilliance Audio in 2018.
Read by the author, Kevin Allison.

Duration: 1 hour, 22 minutes.
Unabridged.


The author, Kevin Allison
Kevin and Ben are best friends and have been since first grade. They are both a little different than the other guys. Both are more interested in singing and acting than in sports. Both have active imaginations, a wide-ranging knowledge of movie and Broadway soundtracks and both have quirky senses of humor.

As they go through school together, they have sleep-overs, they start a theater club and they even write a play together that they perform in front of their Catholic school in Cincinnati.

Ben even teaches Kevin all about the birds and the bees in a three day tutorial on the playground during recess (Surprisingly solid info considering that it was based on what the older neighbor boys told him).

But, on the weekend before the beginning of seventh grade, everything changes when Kevin tells Ben his biggest secret...

This audiobook was brilliantly read by the author. Kevin Allison has a real talent for narration. The big secret is that Kevin is gay and the last half hour of the audiobook deals with the aftermath of that revelation.

My only complaint about this audiobook is that we don't hear more about these two friends as they move on into high school and beyond. I wish there had been a short epilogue - even a paragraph. But, this was still an enjoyable listen.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: THE TWO HENRYS: THIS CAN'T BE HAPPENING COLLECTION (audiobook) by Kevin Allison.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

SING, UNBURIED, SING: A NOVEL (audiobook) by Jesmyn Ward



Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction.
Publishers Weekly Top 10 for 2017.

New York Times 10 Best Books of 2017.

Published in 2017 by Simon and Schuster Audio
Read by Kelvin Harrison, Jr. and Chris Chalk and Rutina Wesley
Duration: 8 hours, 22 minutes.
Unabridged.


Jojo lives in rural Mississippi on a small farm, but it is a complicated world. He is bi-racial. His white father (Michael) is in Parchman Farm, officially known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary. His African American mother is a frequent substance abuser and is in and out of his life so much that he and his toddler-aged sister just refer to her by her first name, Leonie. His little sister treats him much more as a parent than Leonie.

He lives with his African American grandparents (his grandmother is dying of cancer) and his white grandparents won't have anything to do with him because they are racists and cannot stand the idea that their son had mixed-race children. To make it all the more complicated, Michael's cousin murdered Leonie's brother and covered it up to be just a hunting accident.

Most of the book deals with the trip to Parchman Farm to pick up Michael on the day of his release. Jojo and his little sister Kayla are forced to go along with Leonie and her friend in addiction, Misty. Jojo's African American grandfather won't go because he served time there as a teenager for a crime he did not do. Plus, he is the only one that can take care of Jojo's grandmother.


The trip is a long one. It shouldn't have been but Leonie is in charge of things. Also, Jojo's little sister Kayla is sick and vomits often. Her "mother" mostly ignores her illness, conducts drug deals along the way and demonstrates her unworthiness as a parent. Once they pick up Michael, he shows that he is a marginally better parent (but that is not too hard).

While at Parchman, Jojo starts to see a ghost who seems to know a lot about grandfather...

This book should have been split into two books. The story of Jojo and his family was interesting, especially the relationship between Jojo and his grandfather. The mystic part of the story was not nearly as interesting as Jojo's life and his grandfather's history. That history could have been told without the introduction of ghosts. For me, it would have been much more effective without them.

What we really ended up here was a long story about Jojo's messy family situation, death and loss and a toddler that vomits all over everyone at one point or another. For me, this was a wasted opportunity.

There were three readers for this audiobook since the story is told from three different points of view: Jojo, Leonie and Richie (a ghost). The parts read for Jojo and Richie were excellently read. But, the parts read by Rutina Welsey for Leonie were excruciating. I will blame this entirely on the producer, not the voice actor. When she read, it sounded like she was pretending to be Eartha Kitt from the 1960's Batman series. Eartha Kitt played Catwoman with a sultry, purring voice. Now imagine a sultry, purring Eartha Kitt reading a text as a parody of Slam Poetry. It was tedious, making an already tedious character unbearable.

So, I rate this audiobook 2 stars out of 5. This book won a ton of awards (some of them are listed above) and I cannot figure out why. For me, this was an uncomfortable mash-up of two different books forced to become one unwieldy mess that doesn't explore either idea to a satisfactory end.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

APRIL MORNING: A NOVEL by Howard Fast



Originally published in 1961.

Howard Fast (1914-2003) was a prolific writer (more than 60 novels, plus scores of short stories, plays, articles and histories). He is most famous Spartacus, the novel that inspired the iconic movie by Stanley Kubrick.

This is my second Howard Fast novel and if you throw in Spartacus you see a trend in Howard Fast's books - he likes to tell the story of the underdog who fights back.

In this novel, the underdogs are the colonists of Massachusetts. The April morning in the title is the day that the British army moved on the stores of gunpowder in Concord, Massachusetts. This is when Paul Revere makes his famous ride. This action is now known as The Battles of Lexington and Concord. The book takes place in and around Lexington.

Adam Cooper is a fifteen year old boy in 1775 and the troubles of Boston with the British Redcoats seems a world away. His father is deeply involved with the committees that try to workout a common response to the British government. When the British army marches towards Concord with nearly 1,000 trained regulars, the local militia forms up to confront them. The militia musters only 77 men, many with small hunting weapons.

15 year old Adam Cooper is in that militia...

This was a truly great novel. As I previously noted, this is only my second Howard Fast novel, but it won't be my last. He had a real knack for making the characters seem real and believable. His characterization of 15 year old Adam is perfect.

The book does not glorify war in any way. It can be graphic. The fighting has real-life consequences. Some of the passages were quite touching. 


Others passages were cleverly observant. I liked this line on page 88: "Blame the devil, Reverend, but I tell you that three-quarters of the misery of mankind is the result of plain damned foolishness."

I rate this novel 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: April Morning: A Novel.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

THE UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL: 2 FUZZY, 2 FURIOUS (audiobook) (Unbeatable Squirrel Girl novelization #2) by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale



Published in 2018 by Listening Library.
Read by Abigail Revasch and Tara Sands.
Duration: 8 hours, 20 minutes.

Unabridged.

Middle school in a new town is tough enough - establishing new friendships, figuring out a new school and a new town and more.

Being a superhero in middle school has extra difficulties. How do you keep your secret identity a secret? How do you keep up with your homework when you are patrolling for bad guys at night? How do you balance your superhero and regular people friendships? And, if you are Squirrel Girl, you also have to balance your squirrel and human friendships. 


After successfully establishing herself as a genuine superhero in the first novel, Squirrel Girl is working on non-violent ways of dealing with bad guys, she has a tough new English teacher and she and her BHFF (Best Human Friend Forever), Ana Sofia are still sorting out what friendship is all about.

Squirrel Girl's new town (Shady Oaks, New Jersey) is getting a mall. But, everything seems a bit off to Ana Sofia. The promotions are weird, people are reacting strangely and the mall's logo looks an awful lot like the Hydra logo...

I really enjoyed the first Squirrel Girl novel. It was all about her origin story and it was a lot of fun. This novel was also fun, but not quite as good. There were laugh out loud moments (Squirrel Girl group texting the Avengers and their responses) and there were touching moments (Ana Sofia struggles with her hearing - she wears hearing aids but they don't fill in all of the gaps. My wife and my daughter also wear hearing aids and her struggles were accurate to their struggles).

But, there was a lot of repetition of things and the extended squirrel conversations were mostly annoying.

The last book was clearly meant to be set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This book had a bit of trouble because in the two years since the first novel was written, six movies have been released and some of the characters don't match up so well any longer. Don't sweat it. It's still a fun time. I'll keep an eye out for a third book.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars our of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: THE UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL: 2 FUZZY, 2 FURIOUS.

Link to my review of the first novel in this series: 
http://dwdsreviews.blogspot.com/2017/07/the-unbeatable-squirrel-girl-squirrel.html

Monday, June 24, 2019

CHURCH REFUGEES: SOCIOLOGISTS REVEAL WHY PEOPLE ARE DONE with CHURCH but NOT THEIR FAITH by Josh Packard, PhD and Ashleigh Hope



Published in 2015.

Packard and Hope set out to investigate why formerly active members of Christian churches (all denominations) leave and don't come back to any church at all. These are not members that leave and go to a new church - these are members that completely walk away from any church. He calls them "dechurched" or "dones", as in they are completely done with church.

Every year, churches across the country lose active members. In this case, Packard and Hope are not talking about merely regularly attending members - they are talking about members who lead committees, music directors and even former clergy. These are part of the leadership of the church - the people that are committed enough to get things done.

Packard and Hope assumed that these folks were simply "burnout" cases - people that just were tired and dropped out alltogether. "Instead, the dechurched are walking away from church work, but not the work of the church. They're walking away because they're convinced that the structures and bureaucracy of the church are inhibiting their ability to serve God. They see church as oriented only to its own survival. Instead on empowering, they find the church to be stifling. Over time, they've become convinced that their efforts and energies could be better spent serving God outside of the church." (p 55)


Once again, this is not a certain style or denomination of church. He talks about churches with big bureaucracies, churches essentially led by a CEO-type pastor who makes all of the decisions and everything in between. In the end, churches tend to turn inwards (focused on things like presenting a great worship service and maintaining a building) while these "dechurched" people wanted to keep a much more outward focus. They propose any number of outreach activities that emphasize a sense of personal community and the idea of making their church a more integrated part of its surrounding community (Think comments like: "That's a great idea, Bob. But, we need that money you would use to start a food pantry to re-pave the parking lot.")

Many of the dechurched (he also calls them "church refugees" - they are like real-life refugees who reluctantly flee their homelands because they feel forced out) feel like they have to leave the church to do the things they need to do. They see the opportunities to do the things that Christians are commanded to do and paving the parking lot is not one of them (there are several pages that use just this example that is lifted from an interview). The surprising point here is that so many of these people - the overwhelming majority, do not just walk away and just quit doing anything like church. This is not because of doctrine - it is because they feel like the formal church structure is getting in the way.

Many of them join informal groups that act like house churches or in-depth Bible studies that emphasize discussion. Others work on those projects that they were denied as part of a formal church. Some move to groups like Habitat for Humanity. Almost all of them retain Christian beliefs and act on them. But, they are done with anything that is "organized" about organized religion. The formal rituals turn them off. Formal dogma does as well. Rather, they prefer a sense of community and the idea that the community is exploring what is meant to be a Christian - they are exploring it together and they are learning together, and they don't necessarily have to draw the same conclusions.

These people are not burned out. They throw themselves into new roles, unhampered by a bureaucracy that tells them no (or says "Yes, but only if you do this and this and this and fill out this form and make a presentation and...)

This was an interesting book. I know that in my own church, I have seen my share of fairly pointless disputes over turf issues as I have served as the head of a major board, so I get it.

But, Packard and Hope do note that a real strength of a traditional church is that it has real staying power. The energy of a small group of believers that meets from time to time fades. Church committees keep going and going and going - their structure can carry a church during times of low energy. They make several suggestions, but do not offer a prescription along the lines of "Do these three things to lure back the dechurched" because everyone's situation is different. Instead, they point out a few general guidelines that might keep the "almost" dechurched from leaving and becoming the next set of church refugees and might take advantage of the energy and training that these people desperately want to share.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: CHURCH REFUGEES: SOCIOLOGISTS REVEAL WHY PEOPLE ARE DONE with CHURCH but NOT THEIR FAITH.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

STEVE McQUEEN: THE SALVATION of an AMERICAN ICON (audiobook) by Greg Laurie and Marshall Terrill



Published by Christianaudio.com in 2017.
Read by John Pruden.
Duration: 7 hours, 2 minutes.
Unabridged. 


In the 1960's to the 1970's, Steve McQueen (1930-1980) was the epitome of "cool" in Hollywood. Movies like The Magnificent Seven, Bullitt and The Great Escape made him one of the most sought-after actors in the world.

But, there was a long back story to Steve McQueen and his tragic death due to cancer had a surprising twist for a man who seemed to be out to take as much out of life as possible.

Greg Laurie, a super-successful California pastor (who I had never heard of, but his Wikipedia page is something else) decided to investigate a rumor that Steve McQueen became a Christian before his death. He decided to be methodical and investigate McQueen's life from its beginning in Beech Grove, Indiana to its end at Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

McQueen was born at St. Francis hospital in Beech Grove, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis. His family struggled from the very beginning and he never knew his father. His mother struggled with substance abuse and often brought home "boyfriends" who abused both Steve and his mom. 


The author grew up with similar struggles (single mom who moved a lot, abused a lot of different substances and brought unsavory men into the household) and he uses this similar background as a starting point of the book. In reality, this book is both a biography of McQueen and an autobiography of Laurie. I found both of their lives to be interesting and Laurie's observations about his own experiences growing up shed light on Steve McQueen's life as well.

Laurie follows McQueen from his childhood (including a stint in a group home for young men that was similar to a low-intensity jail) to his stint in the Marines to his beginnings as an actor in New York City and then on to Hollywood.

The question that Laurie was investigating was whether McQueen became a Christian before he died. Yes, he did - several months before he was diagnosed with the aggressive cancer that killed him.

I am not a particularly great fan of Steve McQueen, but this biography was pretty interesting as a look at popular culture 50 years ago. This book could've have used a little less about Greg Laurie and a half hour of repetitive storytelling could have easily been edited out of this audiobook. Despite those caveats, this was still an enjoyable listen.

John Pruden read the audiobook and he did an excellent job. It truly sounded like he was reading his own story.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: STEVE McQUEEN: THE SALVATION of an AMERICAN ICON (audiobook) by Greg Laurie and Marshall Terrill.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

ETHAN FROME by Edith Wharton



Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Originally published in 1911.

Way back in high school in the 1980's I had to read Ethan Frome. I didn't remember anything about it except that it is set in New England and it involved an accident in the snow (no spoilers - this is laid in the first four paragraphs).

I decided to revisit this book and was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. Ethan Frome is a New England farmer who limps around town due to a 24 year old injury. He is sad man who almost never has visitors to his struggling farm. He makes up the difference by doing odd jobs, such as ferrying visitors around. The narrator of this book tells us the story of Ethan Frome, as it was told to him (or her?) by Ethan Frome himself when the narrator was forced to stay the night in the Frome house during a terrible snowstorm.

This is a story of regret, love, temptation and obligations. I have no idea why we read this book in high school because there is simply no way that a high school reader would be able to identify with the situations in the book - an older person who has experienced the ups and downs of life can empathize with Ethan Frome even if he or she wouldn't have made the same choices. 

I found the book to be very interesting. Actually it turned out to be a real page-turner for me, much to my surprise. I have had this book in my to-be-read pile for a long time and I picked it just to get it out of the pile only to find out that it was a great book.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

CIVIL WAR: THE CONFLICT THAT CREATED MODERN AMERICA by Peter Chrisp

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman
near Atlanta in 1864.


Originally published in 2013.

This book is aimed at 4th-8th graders. It tells an abbreviated history of the Civil War, featuring a lot of pictures and text boxes. It makes for a disjointed read, but it is really designed to be a kid version of a coffee table book.

I was not fond of its description of slavery vs. abolitionism argument on page 6. It takes a neutral stand, meaning that it makes an equal space for the argument for abolitionism and point of view of the slave owners. Really?

The description of the Springfield Rifle on page 18 makes it sound like it could be fired accurately up to 500 yards. In reality, it was a lot less than that for the average soldier. Sure, it could kill someone at 500 yards, but in the hands of the average soldier that would be the shot of a lifetime - or an accident.

On page 39, it pronounces that Sherman intentionally burned Atlanta. He may have, but if he did he kept it to himself. He did order the cotton in storage burned - and that spread to the rest of the city. Intentional? Maybe. Maybe not. To be sure, Sherman didn't spend a lot of time crying over Atlanta.

What does it do well? It gives biographies of the major commanders, includes both Confederate flags (not just the more famous "battle flag"). It also includes a section on "Lost Cause" revisionism, the KKK and sharecropping, rather than just ending with Lincoln's assassination as so many books do.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: CIVIL WAR: THE CONFLICT THAT CREATED MODERN AMERICA by Peter Chrisp.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

SIMON BOLIVAR: THE GREAT LIBERATOR (World Landmark Series) by Arnold Whitridge



Published in 1954 by Random House.

In the 1950's and 1960's Random House created an extraordinary history series for children called Landmark Books. There were 122 books in the American history series and 63 in the World Landmark series. A very solid description of the series can be found here: link. When I was a kid my little hometown library had what seemed like an endless shelf of these books (I even remember where it was in the library nearly 40 years later). Undoubtedly, these books are part of the reason I am a history teacher.
Simon Bolivar (1783-1830)

This book is part of a subset of the Landmark Books series. If the book took place outside of the United States the book belonged to the World Landmark Books series.

Simon Bolivar was born in the Spanish colony that is now Venezuela. He was educated in Spain but was keenly aware that the government of Spain considered the colonies to be inferior to Spain and incapable of self-government. He doubtless shared that belief until he began to spend time with the children of the Spanish ruling class (including the future King of Spain) and discovered that they weren't all that impressive. Once Napoleon conquered Spain and put his brother on the throne, Bolivar pushed for a revolt. Some, like Bolivar, were pushing for independence no matter who was on the throne, but others who joined him simply wanted to revolt as a part of a general resistance to Napoleonic rule.

Regardless of the initial motivations, Bolivar soon led a multi-colony revolt that went on for 11 years. Eventually, Bolivar helped to liberate the colonies that make up the modern countries of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru.

Many have compared Bolivar to George Washington, including Arnold Whitridge, the author of this book. There are surface similarities, but Bolivar's fight was much longer and (I would say) much more of a geographical challenge. Bolivar crossed the Andes range multiple times with armies that suffered horrific losses simply from the geography. In fact, while doing a bit of research on Bolivar while writing this review, I found that the Wikipedia page for Bolivar does a much better job of stating the sheer monumental scope of his accomplishments than this book did. For example, he fought in 79 major battles, traveled 10 times the distance of Hannibal, 3 times the distance of Napoleon and twice the distance of Alexander the Great. If you can be can be compared favorably to that crowd, you are truly a military genius. In this respect, Washington certainly comes up short.

Sadly, Bolivar was not a political genius and he could never figure out a way to unite the former Spanish colonies into one large country that he wanted to call Gran Colombia. This is where Washington's strengths come into play. Not only was he able to win the military fight, he was able to help establish the concept that the colonies were going to become one country and the military would not lead that country.

This book is aimed at students from 3rd to 8th grade. It is a simple read with line drawings. It could use a few more maps. To be fair, it was merely an "okay" introduction to Simon Bolivar and his accomplishments (see above about the Wikipedia page).

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: 
SIMON BOLIVAR: THE GREAT LIBERATOR (World Landmark Series) by Arnold Whitridge.

Friday, June 14, 2019

THREE MILITARY SF NOVELLAS (audiobook) by Kevin J. Anderson



Published by WordFire Press LLC in April of 2019.
Read by Charles Kahlenberg.
Duration: 5 hours, 22 minutes.

Unabridged.

Kevin J. Anderson
The title of this audiobook says it all - this audiobook is actually a collection of three novellas. Nothing about any of these stories was particularly original, but I enjoyed two of the three immensely.

Story #1 is called Comrades in Arms. It is set in an asteroid belt that is actually the front line of a war between humans and a insect-like species. This story has a familiar vibe - think Robocop meets Enemy Mine. I rate this novella 5 stars. Very entertaining.

Story #2 is called Escape Hatch. It is set on a future earth in which a water-based alien species has invaded. They are sort of like eels and jellyfish. They combine together to create massive sea monsters and they are destroying Earth's combined navies. This story has a clever twist and has a very satisfying ending. I rate this novella 5 stars.

Story #3 is called Prisoner of War. This story is set in a world at war. No one really remembers why the war started and soldiers are literally being bred and raised just to fight the war. Several species of animals have also been adapted to fight. This story seemed like a missed opportunity. It hinted at being critical of our seemingly endless wars against "terror" and the toll they take on our soldiers - but it misses the mark and the story just fizzles. I rate this story 2 stars out of 5.

The stories were read by Charles Kahlenberg. He has an interesting voice - a change of pace from the typical voice stylings of most readers.

The average score is this collection is 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: THREE MILITARY SF NOVELLAS (audiobook) by Kevin J. Anderson.

Monday, June 10, 2019

STRANGE FRUIT, VOLUME II: MORE UNCELEBRATED NARRATIVES from BLACK HISTORY (graphic novel) by Joel Christian Gill



Published in 2018 by Fulcrum Publishing.

In a little more than 100 pages this graphic novel tells the story of eight little-known African Americans who lived trailblazing lives. I had heard of three of them, which made me feel a little more pretty good - a little more informed than the average reader might be.

As Gill tells these stories he confronts racial issues head on. However, he does have a clever way of dealing with the word n*****. Whenever that word is used, a stylized caricature of a man in "blackface" is inserted instead. It makes the point and it shows how out of bounds the word is when a picture is used instead of a word.

The art is simple and interesting and the stories move at a quick pace. This book would be a great addition to a classroom library.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: STRANGE FRUIT, VOLUME II: MORE UNCELEBRATED NARRATIVES from BLACK HISTORY.

THE LONG CON by Dylan Meconis, Ben Coleman, E.A. Denich, M. Victoria Robado, Aditya Bidikar



Published by Oni Press in February of 2019.

The phrase The Long Con has a double meaning this story. Traditionally, a "long con" is a long-term swindle that is being pulled on someone, like a long-term investment fraud.

Meaning #1: In this graphic novel, The Long Con is the biggest Pop Culture Convention in the world. It has been an annual event for 50 years and it lasts a long time. Five years ago, it was location of ground zero of a horrible (unspecified) "cataclysmic event" that destroyed everything in a 50 mile radius. Everyone assumed that the convention hall was destroyed.

Meaning #2: 
Reporter Victor Lai was sent to cover The Long Con before the disaster - a duty that he considered a punishment. Now, the outside world has noticed signs of life in the convention center and Victor Lai is sent back into the convention center to see what's going on. 

Surprise! The convention hall survived! The people inside it survived! And...the attendees are still having the convention - 5 years later! (thus making this a really long convention). They believe that the rest of the world was destroyed because if you head out for 50 miles in any direction it's all obliterated.

Well, to be fair, they are not really having a traditional convention any longer. They are living in a pop culture little world because they are, well, cosplayers, fanboys and supergeeks (I mean that as gently as possible).  Their world is broken up into fan bases - and they are literally fighting for control of what they think is the only bit of livable real estate on the planet - the convention center.

No real-life TV shows, movies or comics are actually mentioned but there are stand-ins that any comics or sci-fi fan would immediately recognize. There's a Star Trek-type show, gritty comics, cosplayers everywhere, commentary on pointless "boob window" outfits (like D.C. Comic's Power Girl), a guy with a t-shirt about how someone "shot first", creepy comic book guys and D-list celebrities.

I really enjoyed this graphic novel. The art was easy to follow, the characters were likable and the world of The Long Con was interesting to explore. This graphic novel would be an interesting basis for a video game or a board game. I am going to keep an eye out for more books in this series.

I rate this graphic novel 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: The Long Con

Sunday, June 9, 2019

DAREDEVIL: GUARDIAN DEVIL (audiobook) by Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada














Published by GraphicAudio in 2015.
Written by Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada.
Adaptation by Richard Rohan.
Duration: Approximately 3 hours.
Performed by multiple voice actors.

GraphicAudio specializes in multicast voice performances of audiobooks - they are like old-fashioned radio plays, but heavy on the action. In this story, there are 26 different voice actors and a lot of special effects.

Daredevil is a superhero by night and a lawyer named Matt Murdock by day. As a child, Murdock was blinded by an accident, but exposed to some sort of radiation in the same accident that radically enhanced his other four senses to the extreme. These enhancements allow him to fight crime, which he primarily does in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City.

Murdock is having a crisis of faith after a rough romantic breakup. Despite his devil personae, Murdock is a faithful Catholic of sorts. When he encounters a young woman with her baby on the run he immediately steps in to help her. Through a series of conversations and visits from mysterious strangers Murdock is told that the baby is either the return of the Messiah or the Anti-Christ.


Daredevil sets off to investigate and it only gets weirder...

***********

This is a very busy 3 hour audiobook adaptation. There are times when it moves a little too fast. In two separate scenes there is active dialogue going on in the foreground while a TV or radio news report is going on in the background - and both of the items are important to the story.

But, it was an interesting story - in many ways the action was secondary to the morality play and the psychological aspects. Also, fellow Marvel Comics characters Doctor Strange, Spider-Man and Black Widow make appearances.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5. 







Saturday, June 8, 2019

THE DEADER the BETTER (Leo Waterman #6) by G.M. Ford

G.M. Ford


Originally published in 2000.

Private Investigator Leo Waterman is a well-connected man in Seattle. His dad was a mover and shaker in the best and worst uses of the term. He knew all of the "beautiful people" at the top and he knew all of underworld people as well. Leo has not chosen to go into politics. But, he uses those family connections to help people who come to him, including a group of homeless drunks that Leo watches after because they all worked for his father in one capacity or another. Leo also hires them to do surveillance because no one really wants to notice the homeless guy shambling down the street.

This book starts out with a missing persons case - a thirteen year old girl has run away from a sexually abusive home and is now on the streets. Leo tracks her down to a certain pimp and swings into action.

After that case, Leo and his serious girlfriend head out of town to meet some friends - a couple and their children who are trying to start a fishing camp for high rollers. But, he is having trouble. He claims the local government officials are after him and are trying to force him out of business. Leo dismisses the whole idea. But, when they visit a few months later, they find the house has been shot up, is partially burned, the husband is dead and the wife and kids have disappeared.

So, Leo swings into action with a whole crew of from Seattle...

According to my blog, I haven't read a Leo Waterman book for 15 years. That really surprised me. But, it felt like I hadn't skipped a beat. These are not amazing mysteries, but they are certainly unique and entertaining.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: The Deader the Better (Leo Waterman #6) by G.M. Ford.

BESSIE STRINGFIELD: TALES of the TALENTED TENTH, no. 2 (graphic novel) by Joel Christian Gill



Published in 2016 by Fulcrum Publishing.

Artist and author Joel Christian Gill is writing and illustrating a series of graphic novels that look into the lives of lesser known, exceptional African Americans. His inspiration is this quote from W.E.B. DuBois: "The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth saving up to their vantage ground." In other words, some will rise up and inspire/lead the rest. This is Gill's way of providing inspiration.

Bessie Stringfield (1911 or 1912 to 1993) was a remarkable woman by anyone's standard. Throw in the tough Jim Crow laws of the day and she is more than worthy of the accolades she has received from various motorcycle-based organizations.

The motorcycle was her true passion. At the age of 19 she received a motorcycle as a gift and hit the road for the better part of twenty years. She traveled, she raced and she performed in carnivals. Sometimes, she spread out the map of the country, tossed a penny up in the air and then headed off to the location where the penny landed.

It was a tough time for African Americans so she hit the road with a copy of the "Green Book" - a guide to restaurants, hotels and gas stations that welcomed African Americans. The book addresses racial issues in a couple of clever ways. Whenever the word n***** is used, a stylized caricature of a man in "blackface" is inserted. Secondly, whenever Stringfield is confronted by racists, they are partially or completely illustrated as crows with angry red eyes. There are crows driving trucks, crows telling her to go other places, crows wearing KKK outfits.

Stringfield ends up using her motorcycle skills as a courier for the military during World War II.  After the war, she rides outside of the United States as well, but eventually settles down in Miami, Florida. She was called the Motorcycle Queen of Miami.

As a teacher, I love alternate ways to tell history. Breaking away from the little biographies with grainy black and white photos is a nice change of pace. This little "comic book" introduces a lot of heavy topics - gender stereotypes, adoption, racism and the responsibility of people in places of leadership to confront the big issues of the day (Stringfield sat on the sidelines during the civil rights struggles of the 1950's and 1960's). All of that in a comic book. You could trick students into talking about all sorts of big concepts without them even knowing what was going on...

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Bessie Stringfield: Tales of the Talented Tenth, no. 2