Sunday, June 30, 2019

Review of "Marvel Star Comics All-Star Collection"

Review of

Marvel Star Comics All-Star Collection, ISBN 9780785142928

Three out of five stars

 The four characters featured in this collection are those that appeal to the younger readers of comic books. They are “Planet Terry,” “Royal Roy,” “Top Dog,” and “Wally the Wizard.” Royal Roy is a clear and blatant copy of the “Richie Rich” character in the Harvey Comics universe. None of them possess superpowers and the main theme of the stories involving Planet Terry and Wally the Wizard is their search for their lost parents.

 Top Dog is an intelligent dog that is the only one that can program the Brainstrain supercomputer. The world is in danger from Mr. Invisible, a man that has the power indicated by his name. There is little violence in any of these stories, the plots are tame and within the bounds of what all parents will allow their ten-year-old to read.

 This is a collection of stories for the child, adults will find the stories fairly dull and uninteresting.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Review of "Azazel Fantasy Stories," by Isaac Asimov

Review of

Azazel Fantasy Stories, by Isaac Asimov ISBN 0553283391

Three out of five stars

 While I am a big fan of Isaac Asimov and can accurately claim to have read a majority of his hundreds of books, the Azazel stories do not thrill me in any way. The plot device is that Azazel is a small red “demon” with magical powers and can be called up via an incantation uttered by George Bitternut. Bitternut is a notorious deadbeat that is always sponging off of others, yet his victims never seem to mind, even though they know what he is.

 The openings of the stories varies a bit, yet not by much. Therefore, after a few stories, the reader will tend to skim the first few paragraphs. After the context is established regarding the difficulties a specific person is having, George will call up Azazel and have him cast a spell to “correct” the problem. The end result is one of unintended consequences that are meant to amuse.

 In many cases, the results of George and Azazel’s meddling is predictable, for Asimov restricts himself to human situations and consequences that involve no violence or other hostile acts. The commentary is very sexist, in the sense that there are many references to the curvy female form and other mild sexual acts. This is a book that I could not read late at night, for it tended to put me to sleep.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Review of "Voices from the Civil War," by Milton Meltzer

Review of

Voices from the Civil War, by Milton Meltzer ISBN 0690048025

Five out of five stars

 These short snippets written by soldiers and civilians on both sides of the American Civil War show that the people that fought in it kept their hopes and dreams alive while they witnessed horrible carnage with many of their comrades and opponents turned into amorphous masses of discontinuous protoplasm. As is generally the case in civil wars, there really is not that much difference between the common soldiers doing the fighting and dying on both sides.

 There is a great deal of valuable context to the snippets written in italicized script that explains some of the background needed to understand what is being referenced by the authors of the associated short statements. Without this text, many of the snippets would not be understood by people not well grounded in history.

 People that understand what came later in the First World War will know that there were clear lessons regarding the future of warfare to be learned from the American Civil War. Those lessons are present in this text. The main weapons on both sides were muzzle loading muskets and yet one side charging the other’s prepared positions rarely succeeded. Even when it did success was due to overwhelming numbers and led to horrific casualties among the attacking forces.

 This is personal history as well as a macro history of a war like so many others. The side that declared the war for some stated reasons ended up losing those reasons when it was over.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Review of "Marvel Magazine Group Bizarre Adventures Number 27"

Review of

Marvel Magazine Group Bizarre Adventures Number 27

Three out of five stars

 The three stories in this collection all feature one of the members of the X-Men superhero group. The first is about Jean Grey, originally Marvel Girl and then Phoenix being mourned by her sister, the second features Iceman at a winter carnival on the campus of Dartmouth College and the third stars Nightcrawler in a teleportation fiasco.

 None of them are really all that engaging on the superhero action front, although the first contains some touching emotional moments of a woman mourning at the grave of her sister. All are in black and white, limiting the quality of the imagery. The one featuring Nightcrawler even has an elderly grandma-type lady on a television screen giving advice to Nightcrawler on how to teleport back to his own time and space from the bizarre place he has ended up. Didn’t work for me.

 I am generally a big fan of the X-Men superhero group, in this instance the word to describe was I experiences was “disappointment.”

Review of "Snapshots of History: Cedar Rapids 1849-1999,": published by “The Gazette”

Review of

Snapshots of History: Cedar Rapids 1849-1999, published by “The Gazette” 

Five out of five stars

 As an older lifelong resident of Iowa that has never lived more than ten miles from Cedar Rapids, there are many of the images in this collection that I recognize. Furthermore, I understand many more of the captions associated with images in the book. The movie theaters used to have free movies for children on the day after Thanksgiving, so a group of us always went. My favorite at the time was the World Theater, it always seemed so massive to this young boy. Therefore, the image in this book of the front of what is now a relic brought back some fond memories of watching Three Stooges movies with a bag of popcorn and a soft drink. Back then, you were allowed to bring in your own popcorn, so all each of us needed was two quarters and we were good for snacks and drinks.

 These kinds of memories are what will be triggered when long-term residents look through this book. Nearly all of the businesses and most of the buildings are nothing but memories, things get wore out and must be replaced. This is a book to keep so that you can look through it every few years and smile about the events of your youth.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Review of "Leonardo Da Vinci for Kids: His Life and Ideas," by Janis Herbert

Review of

Leonardo Da Vinci for Kids: His Life and Ideas, by Janis Herbert ISBN 1556522983

Five out of five stars

 For decades, my all-time most admired person down through history has been Leonardo Da Vinci. In my opinion, he is the most talented person of all time. Most people know him through two of the most famous paintings of all time, “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper.” However, his artwork was only a small fraction of his accomplishments.

 Da Vinci was a superb engineer in both the civil and military sense. He designed operational weapons of war, elaborate canal and waterflow systems and can be credited with the ideas behind many modern inventions. Given the resources of the defense budget of a nation state, many of his ideas could have been rendered operational, even given the technology of the day. His drawings of human anatomy were unsurpassed for centuries. It can be argued that he was the most knowledgeable person regarding human anatomy of his time.

 The list goes on and on, with most of the high points of Da Vinci’s achievements covered here, albeit briefly. He was a person that should be studied by the modern generation, he was truly a Renaissance Man in the broadest sense of the term. When you include his study and understanding of sound, some of his work can be covered in music classes. This book is a worthy addition to every library for young people, he was truly a maestro across nearly the entire liberal arts spectrum.

Review of "The Tree Of Life," by Peter Sis

Review of

The Tree Of Life, by Peter Sis ISBN 9780374456283

Five out of five stars

 Charles Darwin literally used evolution to produce a revolution in scientific thought. Despite the overwhelming evidence in favor of the evolution of species, it is a battle that continues to be fought. Debates still take place in the United States over whether it should even be taught in the public schools. This book is a brief biography of Charles Darwin and there are some very disturbing notes.

 Using excerpts from Darwin’s diary as well as facts about the “Beagle” and entries from the ship’s log, maps and images, this is a short but excellent rendition of the life of Darwin. It is also a look into his thought processes as he converted his observations and experiences into a sound and justified scientific theory.

There are also passages about how Darwin explored the lands that he visited. An expedition up into the Andes to 12,000 feet, crossing the Andes through the Portillo Pass, climbing Mount Wellington in Tasmania and camping on the open plains.

 Along with his work that led to his theory, Darwin puts down some notes that are unfortunately historically accurate. There are the sentences, “Meet General Rosas – hired by Argentinian government to exterminate the Indians. I am a witness but can do nothing.” While describing his experiences in Australia, there are the two journal entries, “Again troubled by the treatment of aborigines” and “Wherever the European would tread, death seems to pursue the aboriginal.”

 This is the best book about the life and scientific work of Charles Darwin written for young people that I have ever encountered. It is a work that can and should be read by people of all ages and is a worthy addition to all libraries.

Review of "Tibet: Through the Red Box," by Peter Sis

Review of

Tibet: Through the Red Box, by Peter Sis, ISBN 9780374375522

Five out of five stars

 Presented as a work of nonfiction, this is a story that sounds like fiction, yet has enough unusual aspects to fit into the category of “you can’t make this stuff up.” When the author was very young and growing up in Czechoslovakia shortly after the end of World War II, his filmmaker father left on what he called an expedition. His mission was to film the Chinese construction crews as they were building a road through the mountains from China to Lhasa in Tibet. Since his father was also educating his Chinese counterparts on the making of documentaries, the expectation was that the project would only last a few months.

 While working, there was a catastrophic accident of the side of a mountain caving down and the father and a few others were trapped on the other side. With no possibility of linking back up with the rest of the construction crew, their only hope was to continue forward in hopes of reaching the forbidden city of Lhasa.

 This book is based on the father’s diary that was kept in a red box. Through it we are given a glimpse of what life was like in Tibet before the Chinese takeover. The people lived like they had for centuries, doing the same work in the same ways. Despite their clear foreign origin and strangeness, the Tibetans were very friendly and always willing to help them.

There are many interesting and unusual situations in this adventure, the most unusual involves a letter carrier. After the collapse of the mountain as the stranded team was making their way towards Lhasa, a small boy wearing bells suddenly appeared. He hands the father a letter from his family, giving new meaning to the postal carrier’s mantra, “Neither snow nor rain . . . “

 This is a great story; it is easy to see why it was a winner of a Caldecott Honor.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Review of "Bats & Gloves of Glory," by Marion Renick

Review of

Bats & Gloves of Glory, by Marion Renick

Four out of five stars

 This book of juvenile fiction is about the love of baseball and not about actually playing the game. Bruce is a boy with one real passion, baseball. He follows and understands the game at a level far beyond his years. When his class is issued a challenge to develop and present their hobbies with a major prize at stake, all he can think of is how to turn his passion for baseball into a hobby.

 The temporal setting is a time when there was town team baseball with several levels of minor league baseball down to the D category. There is a local team with a star outfielder named Ted Taves that Bruce is a fan off. Fortunately, when Bruce goes to the ballpark alone, he meets a former player that is now a scout for a major league team. This gives Bruce an opportunity to enter the inner world of the players and the umpires, giving him and the reader a glimpse inside the world of the players and officials.

 This book is not an adventure and there is almost no action on the field. It is about blending your passion for a sport into schoolwork that will end in a reward for the entire class. Therefore, every member of the class must come up with a quality presentation of their hobby. If the reader is into action stories, then this will disappoint. Yet, it will appeal to the young reader that is not into sports and wild adventure stories, but is interested in following your passion, independent of the circumstances.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Review of "Nannygoats," by Ralph Mills

Review of

Nannygoats, by Ralph Mills

Five out of five stars

 Ordinarily, a nanny goat is the term for a female goat, but in this context, it is the term the author’s family uses to refer to a short anecdotal story. The author was born in 1902 and graduated from Cornell College in Iowa in 1925, with the exception of a stint in the American navy he worked as a civil engineer his entire career. A lifelong Iowan, most of these stories are about events in his youth. There are 37 in all.

 The author’s father was the local doctor before there were x-rays, antibiotics and many of the other life-saving treatments. Several of the stories deal with his hitching up the team of horses and going with his father to one medical emergency or another. One of the most interesting was when his father went to the parked gypsy caravan to deliver a baby. In those days, payment for medical services was often in farm goods or firewood, but the gypsy paid cash.

 The author was a witness to the appearance of the automobile and the airplane. One of the most amazing stories is number 30. Around 1910, the man who ran a bicycle shop in Grinnell, Iowa built and flew his own plane. Everyone was amazed when it passed overhead. Those who know the history of the invention of the plane will know that Orville and Wilbur Wright honed their mechanical skills working on bicycles.

 While these stories are entertaining, they are not spectacular. Just the reminisces of an elderly man that had a lot of fun growing up in Iowa in the early years of the twentieth century.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Review of "Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus," by Peter Sis

Review of

Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus, by Peter Sis, ISBN 0679806288

Three out of five stars

 The legend of Christopher Columbus is a topic well covered in elementary school, all learn the phrase, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” However, there is a great deal of nonsense associated with the facts of the legends. At the time Columbus was lobbying for his voyage west to go east, few learned people believed the world was flat. The Greeks conclusively proved that it was round using sound scientific principles and that knowledge was never lost. The misconception that people believed Columbus would sail off the edge of the Earth does not appear in this book.

 What is omitted is the real factual debate that was taking place and was critical to the concept that Columbus was stating, that it was possible to reach the east by sailing west. Columbus believed that the Earth was far smaller than it is. Therefore, if it were not for the continents of the western hemisphere, Columbus and his crew would have perished long before they reached land.

  There is a colossal error midway through the book. It is in the sentence, “Six years later, Christopher Columbus was still the only one to believe that land lay to the west, across the ocean, and that riches would be found there.” Since all learned people believed the Earth was round and there is reason to believe that the stories of Viking expeditions to New England were known to the educated classes of Europe, this sentence is nonsense. Given that the existence of Asia was known, and it was also known that the Earth was round, then many people were aware of the potential to sail west to go east. It is unfortunate that such falsehoods always seem to find their way into books about Columbus.  

Review of "Herblock On All Fronts," by Herbert Block

Review of

Herblock On All Fronts, by Herbert Block

Five out of five stars

 Herbert Block was one of the greatest cartoonists and writers of social and political opinion of all time. While he occasionally used text, his post potent weapon was his drawing pencil. His cartoons projected sarcasm, joy, despair and other emotions, all with power behind them.

 The cartoons in this collection date were published in the 1970s, yet most of the topics are still in the news. Government and corporate corruption, greedy corporations interested only in holding and increasing their level of profits, polluters that demand the right to pollute and feckless members of Congress interested only in their re-election to their posts.

This is not an instance of history repeating itself, the problems of the country simply have not fundamentally changed in forty years. “Jobs with pollution and environmental damage” was the mantra that Block complained about, while there has been some improvement in environmental regulations, the recent rollbacks are an indication that we need more Herbert Blocks to visualize the frustrations regarding the direction the country is headed.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Review of "Star Trek the Next Generation: Crossover," by Michael Jan Friedman

Review of

Star Trek the Next Generation: Crossover, by Michael Jan Friedman ISBN 0671896776

Five out of five stars

 The fundamental premise of this novel is the presence of Ambassador Spock in the Romulan Empire working tirelessly for the idealistic goal of “Unification,” a combining of the planet Vulcan with the Romulan Empire. To the leadership of the Romulan Empire, this makes the followers of Spock traitors and subject to execution. When Spock and his group of Romulan followers is captured by the Romulan authorities, it is clear to the Federation leadership that a crisis of the highest order is upon them. Fortunately, the Romulan leadership is unaware that they have Spock.

 Hearing of the capture, Scotty decides to take matters into his own hands, taking over a museum piece starship with the original Romulan cloaking device introduced in the episode “The Enterprise Incident” of the original series. As only Scotty can do it, he single-handedly takes the ship into Romulan space in an attempt to rescue Spock.

 Meanwhile, Admiral McCoy is brought on board the Enterprise commanded by Captain Picard in order to use his knowledge of Spock to facilitate a recovery of Spock. Picard’s tactic is to try to get the captured group voluntarily turned over to him, something that McCoy objects to.

 This story is very similar to “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” in that the basic premise is the commandeering of a starship in pursuit of a personal goal. Once again, Scotty is the miracle worker, although even he cannot do it all himself. It takes some clever actions by Spock on the ground, decisive action by Captain Picard and some outrageous verbal sparring with the Romulan commander by McCoy to get Spock to safety aboard a starship and back in Federation space.

 The story moves at a brisk space with the emphasis on what the members of the crew of the original series will do for each other. There is a fundamental total loyalty to each other that leads them to a “whatever is necessary” mindset. Something that is not played as strongly in STTNG. That is the best part of the plot and a reminder of the original series episode, “The Empath.” While that was not a strong episode, it did feature the storyline where Kirk, Spock and McCoy were each willing to die to protect the other two.

Review of "Buchanan’s Gamble," by Jonas Ward

Review of

Buchanan’s Gamble, by Jonas Ward

Four out of five stars

 The story opens with Buchanan in San Francisco checking into a fancy hotel with his friend the prizefighter Coco Bean. They are looking for action in the ring, specifically a bout with Konecke, the toughest man in town. After the fight, Buchanan leaves Coco and travels to Culebra, a town in serious trouble. Buchanan met a woman named Flo Dockerty at the fight and she also ends up in Culebra.

 People are being killed, there is uncertainty over the town bank with the strong hint of corruption. When friends of Buchanan are killed, he takes over the management of a saloon and interjects himself into the affairs of the town. This of course leads to violence, contrary to Buchanan’s peaceable nature.

 While it is entertaining, the story is somewhat predictable. Flo has matrimonial designs on Buchanan and he of course has no interest in her while admitting she is a very attractive woman. There is a tense scene where Buchanan is apparently trapped, but with the aid of Flo and some other allies, he is able to emerge Victorious and maintain his freedom to go where he wants unencumbered. The last two lines are, “But marriage? Never!”

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Review of "Traditional Chinese Cut-paper Designs: Collected & Edited by Bernd Melchers"

Review of

Traditional Chinese Cut-paper Designs: Collected & Edited by Bernd Melchers ISBN 0486235815

Five out of five stars

 When one thinks of paper art forms in nature, the first thought in nearly everyone’s mind is “origami.” Yet, there are other such art forms and this book features one that is incredible, the art of creating detailed designs by cutting paper. The art form is not just the cutting of outlines, but the removal of tiny sections inside the outline to create elaborate detail.

 The designs in this book were collected from native artists in Shantung, China in 1913. They represent a meticulous attention to detail characteristic of the oriental artist. Many of the images are of people in various activities, from a man with a sword about to swing it through to a man quietly fishing. The images in this collection are all black and white, with the empty spaces in the paper serving as the white.

 This is an artbook that the novice can enjoy and could be used by art teachers that are looking for new and unusual forms of art to introduce in their classes. Those lacking in fine manual dexterity will struggle though.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Review of "The Case of the Fenced-In Woman," by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review of

The Case of the Fenced-In Woman, by Erle Stanley Gardner

Four out of five stars

 This Perry Mason tale is different from most of the others as there is no real dramatic courtroom scene where all is revealed. In this case, the identity of the murderer is not revealed during the trial and not completely resolved by Mason at the end. Of course, when Perry Mason makes a statement about what he believes to be the truth at the end, the reader is inclined to agree.

 The plot device of a house being fenced down the middle as a consequence of a divorce action has been used before. Loring Carson is a builder and a horrible husband and there are divorce proceedings between him and his wife Vivian. Given the difference in ownership rights, Vivian is entitled to exactly one physical half of the house.

 Loring Carson has been disingenuous with Morley Eden, convincing him that there is no problem with Vivian’s ownership until he comes home and finds a barbed wire fence through the house, including the swimming pool. Eden is forced to live in the other half of the house. Furthermore, Vivian Carson is a former model and she tries to get Eden to violate her space so that she can get a contempt of court citation. Skimpy bikinis by the pool and a lingerie demonstration party are two of her tactics.

 All this changes when Loring Carson is found stabbed to death in the house and Morley Eden and Vivian Carson are put on trial for his murder. It is a case that sends Mason to Las Vegas where he gambles and plays the game with the women that work in the casinos so that he can obtain the information he desires.

 One very good aspect of this Mason story is that the adversarial relationship between Mason and Lieutenant Tragg is severely downplayed. Tragg even gives Mason praise for his honesty and seeks out his advice when the case seems unsolvable. Since both men want the truth to be discovered, they really should work together more than they do. There was also no appearance by fall-guy district attorney Hamilton Burger. That is always a plus as well.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Review of "Starry Messenger," by Peter Sis

Review of

Starry Messenger, by Peter Sis ISBN 9780374470272

Five out of five stars

 For people that know and love science, Galileo Galilei is a hero of several forms. His case also demonstrates that truth eventually wins out over “truth.” He was one of the founders of modern science, yet was prosecuted and sentenced to house arrest for his beliefs regarding the structure of the local section of the universe. While it did take over 300 years to exonerate him, long after his theories were proven correct, it did make him a martyr of the cause of science and truth.

 This book is a brief and effective recapitulation of the life of this man that advanced the cause of science and paid for it with his freedom. It also is another demonstration of the pitfalls of accepting belief over rationally derived science. This is a lesson that is just as important in the modern age of science denial as it was in the sixteenth century.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Review of "The Empress and the Silkworm," by Lily Toy Hong

Review of

The Empress and the Silkworm, by Lily Toy Hong, ISBN 0807520098

Five out of five stars

 Most legends are good stories and nothing more, it is hard to create a plausible set of facts to match the tale. That is not the case with the story of the discovery of silk. The legend is that a Chinese noblewoman somehow has a silkworm cocoon fall into her tea and the liquid caused the fibers to unwind. Noting how pretty and strong the fiber was, the noblewoman realized the value. Later she had a dream that her husband was clothed in fabric made from silk.

 All of this is plausible and perhaps even likely. It is another of the stories about serendipity and accidents favoring the prepared mind in the advancement of human achievement. I first read about this legend while in elementary school and find it as fascinating now as I did when I first read it. This book would be a quality addition to elementary school libraries, both public and private.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Review of "Greenberg The Vampire," by J. M. DeMatteis et. al.

Review of

Greenberg The Vampire, by J. M. DeMatteis et. al. ISBN 0871350904

Five out of five stars

 This book is a different and enjoyable instance of the vampire plotline. The main character Greenberg is a unique combination of traits; he is a vampire and a successful writer. However, his writing skills seem to have deserted him, all that he puts down on paper now is trash. His writer’s block is so intense that he sometimes reacts violently to any mention of what he is working on.

 There are several threads to the plot, including Greenberg’s old Jewish parents and the vampire code, which is to not feed off of humans. Greenberg was converted by accident when the vampire woman he was with was in the throes of sexual passion. There are other evil spirits that make an occasional appearance and must be dealt with.

 With a contract in hand for a movie script, Greenberg exhibits more of an artistic temperament than that of an aged member of the vampire clan. The last two pages contain a letter by Greenberg to his mother where he thanks her for all she did. A love letter from a vampire son to his non-vampire mother, what an ending. His is a lifestyle that only a mother could love.

Review of "The Punisher: Assassin’s Guild," by Jo Duffy et. al.

Review of

The Punisher: Assassin’s Guild, by Jo Duffy et. al. ISBN 0871354608

Four out of five stars

 This story is based on the premise that there is an assassin’s guild being run out of an oriental restaurant. All of the assassins are oriental, and they openly talk about it being a career profession followed by their ancestors before them. When a potential client appears and lays down their money, there is a conference and the members conduct a negative auction to determine who will do the task.

 The Punisher becomes aware of the group and he openly courts one of the female assassins in a deadly game. He is immediately recognized when he goes into the restaurant, so there is no subterfuge on his part. After a suitable interval that includes sexual adventures, the Punisher and the guild agree to join forces to take down the leader of a criminal enterprise that is very heavily guarded.

 Two of the assassins’ team with the Punisher to form an assault unit to move through the heavily guarded building and kill the kingpin. As is always the case with the punisher, the action is brutal and unforgiving, there are no wounded left behind when the Punisher and the assassins do their work.

 One of the most interesting aspects of this story is that the two groups know of each other and have a natural enmity, yet they work together. The reader wonders throughout the story whether the ending will include a climactic battle between the Punisher and the members of the assassin’s guild. All are professional killers of the highest caliber.