Saturday, November 30, 2019

Review of "Sideways," DVD version

Review of

Sideways, DVD version

Four out of five stars

  The label on the case states “Best comedy of the year,” but from my perspective it was hard to see the justification for that comment. Paul Giamatti plays Miles and Thomas Haden Church plays Jack, and both are in some form of mid-life crisis. Miles is still struggling to come to terms with his divorce and Jack is due to be married on the upcoming weekend. As a form of coping with the changes, they embark on a wine-tasting trip through the California wine country.

 Miles is a teacher of English and a true wine aficionado, while Jack is clueless about the subject. Miles is also a struggling novelist; he has submitted a manuscript to a publisher and is awaiting a publication decision. Jack is basically on the hunt for women for both of them.

 These are two guys that have serious problems in many aspects of their lives, yet there is one constant, their loyalty to each other. This is one of the most intense bromances I have ever seen, no matter what Jack does, Miles will aid him, even to the point of letting Jack wreck his car in order to construct an alibi.

 This is a movie about the complexity of adult relationships, when they have ended, when they are beginning and when they are constant. On that level, it is successful, these are two guys with serious issues in their lives, sometimes you empathize and other times you are uttering the phrase, “You pathetic buffoon!” There is nothing amusing about coming to the realization that you are not going to achieve your lifelong dream.

 I loved the ambiguous ending that is reminiscent of the classic Frank R. Stockton story, “The Lady or the Tiger?” It is presented as an ending rather than as a cliffhanger to leave viewers begging for a sequel.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Review of "Football Champ," by Tim Green

Review of

Football Champ, by Tim Green ISBN 9780061626890

Five out of five stars

 This is the third book in the Football Genius series, where Troy White is a football savant. All he has to do is watch a football team in action for a few series and he is capable of predicting what play they will run next. It took some time, but once he convinced Atlanta Falcons linebacker Seth Halloway and the Falcons coaching staff of his ability, they were sold. Troy now stands on the sidelines next to the defensive coordinator and when he sees the personnel and the formation, he tells the coach what the play will be. The coordinator then sends in the signal to Seth who informs his teammates regarding what defense to play.

 Troy’s mother now works in the PR department for the Falcons and she is involved with Seth. Troy’s two best friends Nathan and Tate(female) are his schoolmates and football teammates. Nathan is a lineman and Tate is their placekicker. Seth is now the coach of Troy’s football team and they are poised to make a run for the state championship.

 Things start to unravel when a nasty reporter named Peele spots Troy on the sidelines and starts digging into his role. The public explanation is that Troy is a ball boy, but he never leaves the coaches side. Peele has a deep grudge against Seth, for it was a hit by Seth that injured Peele and effectively ended his football career.

 There are two main tracks to this story, Troy’s role with the Falcons and his place on his youth football team. There are complications regarding how Troy’s mother got her job with the Falcons, accusations of steroid use by Seth and a nasty man and his equally nasty son, where the father used to coach Troy’s team. Troy gets a quick education on the dark facts of life regarding fame and where it puts you in the public eye.

 This is a great story, made even better because Tate is depicted as an equal to Nathan and Troy. She is decisive and when a powerful running back is about to return a kick for a touchdown and decides to just run her over, she knocks him on his A. When difficult things need to be done, Tate never takes a pass. The story also ends with a cliffhanger regarding Troy’s absent father that is a tickler, making you want to read books four and five.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Review of "Pacific Island Bastions of the United States," by Herold J. Wiens

Review of

Pacific Island Bastions of the United States, by Herold J. Wiens 

Four out of five stars

 This is a broad overview of the islands in the Pacific that are now part of the fundamental defensive perimeter of the United States. It opens with a history of the islands, from their first inhabitants, and followed by the arrival of the European colonizers and controllers. The actions of Japanese expansion in World War I and II follow, and that section concludes with the ascendency of the United States as the dominant naval power.

 The next section deals with the geography of the Pacific Islands, from how rainfall is generated by the mountains to how climates throughout the Pacific are determined by the prevailing ocean currents. The dynamic forces that create the currents and the trade winds are also briefly covered. The last chapter deals with the role of island fortresses in the age of nuclear arms and missiles capable of delivering them thousands of miles with an error of at most a few miles.

 A great deal of blood and treasure was expended over control of the islands in the Pacific, arguably the most per acre of land acquisition in history. This book is a solid, if brief history of those conflicts and why they took place.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Review of "Robert B. Parker’s The Bridge," by Robert Knott

Review of

Robert B. Parker’s The Bridge, by Robert Knott ISBN 9780399171130

Five out of five stars

 Territorial Marshals Virgil Cole and Everett Hicks are living in Appaloosa and they are fairly settled. There is the routine crime that they and their deputies have been dealing with, but nothing major. That changes in a dramatic way, starting with a man with a gun chasing some men down the street until Everett intervenes.

 Things literally and figuratively explode when a major bridge under construction is blown up in a clearly professional job. There are several obvious winners and losers as a consequence, but it is clear to Cole and Hutch that it is the non-obvious winners and losers that likely matter more. Their investigation takes them on long journeys in horrible winter weather and of course they face potential mortal danger.

 Knott holds very true to the Parker tactic of keeping minimal word usage by Cole and Hicks. There are a lot of one- or two-word utterances. There is a great deal of personal interaction between Colt’s female companion Allie and the two marshals, making this a personable novel. The requisite gunplay is also present, for their adversaries are brutal and sadistic, even to their allies.

 Knott does an excellent job in keeping to the Parker mode in this book. I am not sure that if I was given a random segment of the book that I could identify it as written by Knott.

Review of "Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation," DVD version

Review of

Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation, DVD version

Four out of five stars

 Insects have been on the Earth for millions of years before humans and they have evolved complex and very successful survival strategies. The collective intelligence of an insect colony can be considerable. If life has evolved on other planets in a manner similar to Earth, it is reasonable to believe that insects would emerge as the highest form of life, capable of developing their own version of a technological society. If there was contact with humans, it is nearly inevitable that there would be conflict. That was the premise of the classic work by Robert Heinlein, “Starship Troopers.”

 This movie continues the story in the first “Starship Troopers” movie that ended with the humans capturing a “brain bug.” The obvious conclusion was that the humans now had the upper hand in the war against the bugs. As one would expect, the bugs adapted and are now an even greater threat.

 It opens with a small band of troopers on a rise of land on a largely desolate planet fending off a massive attack of bug soldiers. They learn that there is an abandoned Federation outpost nearby and while a small band remains behind to fight a rearguard action, the remaining troopers take off for the outpost.

 They arrive there and are able to make it reasonably secure against attack. However, there are other, more dangerous menaces from within. When they are inside, they discover a human prisoner named Dax that has an extremely checkered service record. Once an officer, he is now a pariah and up on charges.

 The action is intense and sometimes very gory, for this is a battle to the death of one of the species. In keeping with the first movie, male and female soldiers are treated equally, fighting and dying side-by-side. There are some touching human-to-human moments, but they are light. The focus is on fighting the enemy.

No one knows if there will ever be an interstellar war where humans fight another species. If it were to happen, the side that adapts the fastest will likely win. Throughout this movie, you never know if the humans will be victorious, even at the end.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Review of "The Uncanny X-Men," graphic novel

Review of

The Uncanny X-Men, graphic novel ISBN 0812510216

Five out of five stars

 The X-Men are a collection of human mutants where the differences are expressed in the form of a superpower. As befits their abilities, they regularly do battle with villains that also are extremely powerful. In this graphic novel, they do battle with formidable adversaries Those opponents are so capable that they can even penetrate the grounds of Professor Xavier’s School for the Gifted and do battle on the X-Men’s home turf. They are also capable of kidnapping individual members of the group.

 The last story features the villain Arcade, a madman that is modeled somewhat after the DC character Joker. To him, the battles with the X-Men are as much for giggles and the challenge as it is for supremacy. In the end, Arcade proves to be a man with an odd sense of honor. In my opinion, the best super villains are in it for much more than the money.

 I understand the reason why the panels are in B & W rather than color, which would dramatically increase the cost. Yet, the comic aficionado cannot help but wonder how the panels were colored in the original versions.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Review of "Beerfest," DVD full screen edition

Review of

Beerfest, DVD full screen edition

Three out of five stars

 Many drinking games are featured in this movie, it could in fact be the genesis for many other such games. It is a movie packed with frat-boy level humor, for the plot is based on extreme consumption of beer. The premise is that the two American descendants of a German brewer encounter a mysterious man while they are in Germany and become involved in an underground contest known as “Beerfest.” The skills needed to win are simple, be able to drink a lot of beer in a very short time.

 They lose the contest but vow to spend a year in training with their buddies and come back to win the contest. Of course, their training is based almost exclusively on downing massive amounts of beer. Most of the alcohol-based humor is mindless and dull, yet there are some very witty lines. My favorite is uttered by Cloris Leachman, who plays an elderly woman with significant mileage on intimate areas of her body.

 There are of course some gratuitous scenes of topless females that add a bit of interest but are interludes only. I generally find humor based on alcohol or slapstick dull and did so here. However, there were some lines of dialog that were absolutely brilliant, if the writers could have kept that up this would have been a hysterical movie.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Review of "Albert Gallatin and the Oregon Problem," by Frederick Merk

Review of

Albert Gallatin and the Oregon Problem, by Frederick Merk

Five out of five stars

 This book covers an issue in the territorial expansion of the United States that does not receive enough attention. It is the dispute that the United States had with Great Britain over the sovereignty of what was then known as the Oregon Territory. Like nearly all land encountered by European travelers, once they set foot on it, it was claimed for their country. The fact that people were already living there was of little to no relevance.

 The first documented visit by Europeans of the area in dispute was by the Spanish in 1777, closely followed by the British and Americans. In the minds of those of European descent, this meant that all three countries would make a claim to ownership. The Spanish quickly dropped out as they were in the process of losing most of their American possessions. Therefore, by the second decade of the nineteenth century, the dispute was between the United States and Great Britain. This book covers the issues during the administration of James Monroe and into that of John Quincy Adams.

 What is most interesting about this book is the discussions of the roles of the two mighty companies of the time, The Hudson Bay Company and the mightiest of them all the East India Company. One of the most astounding facts of all time is that at one time the East India Company controlled half of the world’s trade. Their goal of a monopoly on Asian trade limited what the British government could do in their negotiations. The tendrils of the Hudson Bay Company also extended down to Oregon.

 Another interesting fact is that many of the political figures of the time considered the Oregon Territory to be so remote from the eastern United States that in their view it would eventually become an independent republic.

  The years after the War of 1812 were a time of reconciliation between the United States and Great Britain and while there were hotheads in the dispute over the Oregon Territory, one can discern the strong desire of both sides to settle their differences through negotiation. This is a good book about one aspect of Manifest Destiny.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Review of "Fantastic Four Ultimate Collection Three," by Waid & Wieringo

Review of

Fantastic Four Ultimate Collection Three, by Waid & Wieringo ISBN 9780785156574

Four out of five stars

 The lead story is one that reflects the confused politics of the modern era. Dr. Doom, a man responsible for a great deal of woe in the world and the absolute ruler of the small Eastern European kingdom of Latveria, has been deposed by the Fantastic Four. After many years of being subjugated and with no voice in how they are governed, the people of Latveria now have no functioning government. The Fantastic Four led by Reed Richards steps into the power vacuum, simultaneously cleaning up and processing the technology left by Doom and ruling Latveria.

 This is not a situation that all approve of, especially the governments of the neighboring countries and the United Nations. The story opens with the Hungarian army about to invade Latveria and reclaim the territory that was once taken from them. Nick Fury, the head of S. H. I. E. L. D., gives Reed an ultimatum for relinquishing power and being subject to arrest. There is a great deal of dissension in the group as Reed keeps the other three members in the dark.  Even though the Fantastic Four stabilized what could have been a disaster, they are reviled in the American press and face significant retribution from the American government. While superheroes have their powers, sometimes they have it rough.

 Ben Grimm as the Thing is killed, but Reed is determined to save his life, keeping the body in a stasis field. It is at this point that things get weird and take on a religious bent. Sue, Johnny and Reed use one of devices to literally transport themselves to heaven in order to “rescue” Ben, who appears normal. There are many odd twists to this story, some of which deeply religious people might disapprove of.

 In one of the oddest and most ironical plot twists I have ever seen in a comic, the Fantastic Four meet a man that appears to be the almighty and he is drawing comic panels. When he ends one of his statements with “’nuff said,” all Marvelites will understand the reference. It was an unexpected but very nice moment.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Review of "Splice," DVD version

Review of

Splice, DVD version

Five out of five stars

 The title of the movie is based on the actions of the two main characters, they are scientists and their specialty is splicing genetic material of different species to make hybrid and unusual creatures. They are a male-female couple and work for a major pharmaceutical organization. They are under great pressure to synthesis new compounds and when the movie opens, they have created slug-like creatures that move by amoebic-like shape alterations. It is hoped that their creations will synthesize the compounds they need.

 Pleased with their success, the two scientists decide to go for the ultimate creation, an organism that contains human DNA in combination with that from other animals. They are successful and when their major creation is “born,” it is just another large amorphous blob creature like the others. It grows rapidly, developing into something that is human-like above the legs, albeit with a tail with a stinger at the end. The legs are lizard-like and very powerful. The two “parents” are at first disturbed by their creation and ponder killing it, but they quickly develop affections and treat it like their child.

 There are many twists, unexpected and sometimes frightening events. Although the two creators treat the “child” as a human, it is not, even though it is intelligent and has human-like emotions. It has some of the predictability of humans but retains the unpredictability of creatures with intelligence that are not human. There is a climactic struggle near the end and the movie ends with a powerful visual cliffhanger.

 This is a great movie; genetic splicing is already a powerful technique and will grow more so in the future. It is accurate in the sense that no one really knows what will happen if gene splicing is successfully done with multiple species, one of which is human. There will be the natural desire to treat the results as human when they will not be.

Review of "Breathing: Poetic Chronology," by Gary L. Mathews

Review of

Breathing: Poetic Chronology, by Gary L. Mathews

Three out of five stars

 Some of the most difficult books to analyze and review are self-published collections of the publisher’s poetry. Like all books that contain poems written by a single author, there is a significant variation in the quality. Some of which is genuine and some of which is the personal taste of the reader. All of the previous points are true in this case.

 The poems in this collection are generally only a few lines, although a few take up several pages. Some are avant-garde in style and there is not a great deal of traditional rhyming. The topics are all over the human experience spectrum, from an affectionate puppy to the failure of best intentions.

 There are no great poetic moments in this book, just the thoughts of a person moving through life, sometimes with success and other times not.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Review of "The Vietnam War: A Graphic History," by Dwight Jon Zimmerman and Wayne Vansant

Review of

The Vietnam War: A Graphic History, by Dwight Jon Zimmerman and Wayne Vansant ISBN 9780809094950

Five out of five stars

 This graphic novel is an excellent way to be introduced to the history of the American version of the Vietnam War. The battle for control of the country began in earnest when the Japanese surrendered to end World War II. There was a great deal of cooperation between the French in Indochina during World War II and there was Japanese assistance in the French regaining control after the Japanese surrender. For the Vietnamese, war never ended in 1945, their struggles just shifted to a new set of opponents.

 The American involvement in Indochina in general and Vietnam in particular was based on an anti-communist ideology and what was called the “Domino Theory,” where the fall of one country to communism would lead to a succession of other nations going the same way. It was largely nonsense, three countries, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos all became communist and the world changed very little. In fact, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to oust the Pol Pot regime over their internal genocidal policies. Former allies Vietnam and China also fought a significant border skirmish.

 The brutality of the war is generally captured, although there is little coverage of the massive civilian casualties. Most of the ink spent in covering that aspect deals with the communist killings in Hue and the American killings in My Lai. One point that is made and should have been emphasized more is that the North Vietnamese would never have quit. They understood that their tolerance for casualties was much higher than that of the American public.

 One very positive point is the coverage of the Tet Offensive in early 1968. While it was an unquestioned military defeat of the communist forces, it was an incredible public relations victory in American public opinion. After being told that an American and ARVN victory was within reach, the images of fighting on the streets of Saigon and Hue convinced many in America that victory was impossible.

 This is a great synopsis of a very complicated issue; the Vietnam War and the consequences still hold a great deal of power in American and international politics.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review of "The Ruble War: A Study of Russia’s Economic Penetration versus U. S. Foreign Aid," by Howard K. Smith and five other correspondents of CBS News.

Review of

The Ruble War: A Study of Russia’s Economic Penetration versus U. S. Foreign Aid, by Howard K. Smith and five other correspondents of CBS News. 

Five out of five stars

 The context of the publication of this book in 1958 is set by the famous line uttered by Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev to Western diplomats in 1956. The phrase was likely mistranslated as “We will bury you,” when in fact it should have been something like, “We will outlast you.” The point was that the command economy structure of the communist states led by the Soviet Union would outperform the capitalist economies of the west.

 Thirty years after the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of its’ Eastern European empire, the notion of the west ever losing the economic struggle with communism seems absurd. However, those with greater depth of understanding will realize that the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism is not yet over. In only a few decades the People’s Republic of China has risen from an economically backward nation to one having what is arguably the largest economy in the world. No political figure in the world wields as much internal power as Chinese President Xi Jinping.

 The authors of this book briefly describe the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in seeking influence among other nations by providing economic aid and assistance through investment in infrastructure. At the time, there were many reasons to believe that the Soviet Union would prove to be a stiff competition to capitalism. With the messiness of having to extensively debate issues in democracies before any action can be taken, the authors state that this would fall behind a system where the leader can “make it so” by stating their position and giving the order.

 This book is a fascinating look back to a time when communism was considered a real threat as an alternative economic and political system and there was reason to believe that it would eventually prove to be superior to capitalism.

Review of "Games and Puzzles," by Saalfield Publishing Company

Review of

Games and Puzzles, by Saalfield Publishing Company

Five out of five stars

 This short collection of simple puzzles will entertain and challenge you. Like all such books, the level of difficulty varies widely, often based on the mindset of the person attempting to solve them. Solutions to the puzzles are not included, so you are on your own and cannot cheat even if you want to.

 There are wordplay puzzles, interpreting pictures as objects, moving objects in a grid to obtain a pattern and one that is operating with numbers. While the games and puzzles are old, they never grow old and uninteresting.

Review of "Harriet Powers Journey from Slave to Artist: Sewing Stories," by Barbara Herkert

Review of

Harriet Powers Journey from Slave to Artist: Sewing Stories, by Barbara Herkert ISBN 9780385754620

Five out of five stars

Harriet Powers was born into slavery, but her artistic skills were a natural talent. Her mother was one of several slave women that did seamstress work for their master. Yet, they were occasionally allowed to work on their own projects and held quilting bees. Their products were quilts that told detailed stories.

 Harriet’s lifespan covered the American Civil War, which freed her and her husband from bondage. Better off than many when the war ended, they were able to buy a few acres of land and work for themselves rather than sharecrop. Through this time, Harriet continued her quilting and so impressed a woman named Jennie Smith that she eventually purchased one of her quilts and once it was seen by others, people at Atlanta University commissioned another quilt. In 1902, Atlanta University held a conference called “The Negro Artisan” and Harriet’s work may have helped inspired it.

 Written at the level of the late middle school child, this is a book that tells a story of how artistic skill triumphed over adversity, even the power of slavery over people.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Review of "Jenny Dean: The Secret of the Invisible City," by Dale Carlson

Review of

Jenny Dean: The Secret of the Invisible City, by Dale Carlson ISBN 0448190044

Three out of five stars

 This is fundamentally a juvenile adventure book with the main character a girl and having a plot based on a science fiction premise. While it is interesting to read an adventure book where the main character is a teenage female, the premise is weak.

Jenny is in Kansas and Thanksgiving is fast approaching. There is a sudden, massive cyclone that passes through, totally out of character with the fall season. After it is over, Jenny is out riding a horse when she encounters an invisible barrier. It is the border of a city called Krishna-La and it is populated by space aliens. The cyclone was just the manifestation of their landing on Earth.

 The aliens prove to be very adept at manipulating the thoughts and emotions of humans, starting with Jenny. When her friends and family encounter unusual manifestations such as a Masai warrior, Jenny begins to suspect that the aliens are laying the foundation for a takeover of Earth. While the issue is resolved, it is not done with great style or flair.  Another character is Mike, Jenny’s juvenile love interest, his presence does not advance the plot a great deal.

 With such a weak premise and lackluster writing, this is a book that you will read and enjoy a bit. After that you will likely forget about it.

Review of "Look And Find Superman," by Joe Edkin

Review of

Look And Find Superman, by Joe Edkin ISBN 0785313540

Five out of five stars

 This is an instance of an image search book where the reader is given a set of images that they are to search for and find in an oversize two-page picture. The theme is of course Superman, and it features him in action with friends and foes. What is different about this book is that the list of images to find is small, 6-8.

 As is the case with all such books and viewers, a few of the images are found almost immediately, while the remainder often require a systematic sector by sector scan. With such a large picture and so few images to find, there is a great deal of opportunities for similar distractors and the creators have done that.

 This is a fun book to look through, providing entertainment for people of all ages. It is not necessary to understand the Superman history to enjoy it.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Review of "Studies in Iowa History: The Negro In Iowa," by Leola Nelson Bergmann

Review of

Studies in Iowa History: The Negro In Iowa, by Leola Nelson Bergmann

Four out of five stars

 Published by the State Historical Society of Iowa in 1969, this pamphlet is generally a factual recollection of the numbers of African American people in the state of Iowa from the time the territory was opened to white settlement. Since many of the early settlers migrated up from southern states where slavery was legal, some slaves accompanied those migrants. However, they were few, yet the intense dialog regarding the future of slavery was part of the social and political fabric of what was to become the state of Iowa.

 There are several pages devoted to the social and economic actions of the African Americans, from the early days there were African American professionals, although most worked as laborers or domestics. It is interesting to note that there were many firsts, from the awarding of advanced degrees to the holding of state and local political offices.

 One of the most interesting topics covered is the town of Buxton, Iowa. Created as a consequence of the local coal mines, the peak population was between eight and ten thousand people and it was fully integrated. It was a company owned town, yet all workers were treated equally. Many black people that grew up there said they never experienced discrimination until they moved to other areas of the country. Unfortunately, the collapse of the coal industry led to it being a ghost town by 1927.

 There is much in this book that will make Iowans proud of their heritage of how black people were historically treated in the state.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Review of "Catwoman" starring Halle Berry DVD version

Review of

Catwoman starring Halle Berry DVD version

Five out of five stars

 A fellow fan of superhero comics once asked me my opinion on the hottest female superhero and my answer was the She Hulk. After watching this movie, my answer will now be Catwoman with Halle Berry in the role. Dressed in a sultry and revealing leather costume with a body as lithe as a cat and a sultry demeanor, she embodies sensuality. Unlike the earlier version that was a super villain, this iteration is fighting evil, specifically a cosmetic company that is about to release a new product. Their research has demonstrated that the product is dangerous to use, but the lure of massive profits is too great.

 The movements of Catwoman are a triumph of special effects, she leaps and walks on narrow surfaces like a cat and sometimes eats like a starved animal. Action scenes are intense and amazing to watch without there being too much smashing and bashing. Catwoman relies more on her avoidance skills than she does on simply whacking on her opponents.

 There is a dynamic love interest along with a best female friend that adds significant humor to the movie. The friend is not a sidekick in the usual sense, just a friend with a humorous bent that helps keep the alter ego of Catwoman thinking and acting like a human female.

 This is a fun movie to watch, one of the few superhero movies where women will enjoy the chic-flick aspects.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Review of "Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby: A Spenser Novel," by Ace Atkins

Review of

Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby: A Spenser Novel, by Ace Atkins ISBN 9780399158032

Five out of five stars

 This Spenser story by Atkins captures the essence of the main characters, including Hawk. For my taste, I was pleased that the sidekick roles was once again filled by Hawk rather than the lesser Z. Joe and Gerry Broz appear, although they are much older and well past their prime. Old adversaries and allies such as Vinnie Morris, Tony Marcus, Quirk, Epstein, Rita Fiore and Belson appear and fill their standard supporting roles. Susan is also prominent in supporting in her own sometimes detrimental way.

 A fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie Sullivan walks into Spenser’s office and wants him to investigate the murder of her mother four years earlier. She does not believe that the man convicted of the crime is guilty, but she cannot pay. Her mother was a drug-taking prostitute and the investigating officers did very little investigating. Wearing his heart of gold on his sleeve, Spenser takes the case, even though he has no expectation of making a case. Mattie lives with her drunken grandmother and is essentially raising her younger twin sisters.

 After a bit of prodding and poking as only Spenser can do, he quickly realizes that he is rapidly getting into conflict with some major criminal players. With Hawk’s help, they protect Mattie and track their way through a very dangerous trail. Spenser is also forced to battle a man named Connor, a federal agent that seems more intent in protecting his turf and being a liability than actually solving a cold case.

  The dialog is so good that it could have been written by Parker himself. This is the first Spenser book by Atkins that I could not put down.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Review of "The Supermanager: A Short Story About the Secrets of an Extremely Successful Manager," by Greg Blencoe

Review of

The Supermanager: A Short Story About the Secrets of an Extremely Successful Manager, by Greg Blencoe ISBN 978-1460980323

Five out of five stars

 This pamphlet contains a great deal of wisdom that can lead to managerial success, the problem is of course that the people that will most benefit from it will either not read it or ignore it if they do. For it contains principles that the weaker personalities in positions of authority are unable to implement.

 The two main characters are Andrew Hernandez (student) and Leon Cook (teacher.) They met shortly after Andrew graduated from business school when Andrew traveled to Nashville to attend an elite management training program. Full of confidence before he arrived, it was not long before Andrew is terrified of the situation he finds himself in. Fortunately, he goes to a fast food restaurant and is impressed by the attitude of the employees. He asks to speak to the manager and there he meets Leon Cook. Leon agrees to tutor Andrew in the basic principles of being a successful manager.

 Through examples and exercises, Leon introduces Andrew to his seven fundamental principles that will make you a supermanager. They are:

*) Surround yourself with high-quality employees.

*) Train employees well.

*) Communicate the end result you want, then empower employees to achieve it.

*) Lead by example.

*) Listen to employees.

*) Praise good work.

*) Manage each employee differently.

 These are hardly new or original principles, and they will lead to managerial success. However, they require the manager to immerse themselves in situations where they are at risk. Hiring smart people and then empowering them means relaxing controls, something that many people are reluctant to do. It is a situation where to gain power you must be willing to give it up. This is a powerful book that managers should read and take very seriously.

Review of "Journey to the Center of the Earth," by Jules Verne Illustrated Now Age Version

Review of

Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne Illustrated Now Age Version ISBN 0883011352

Four out of five stars

 Given the significant weakness in the science behind the plot of this book, I have always considered this one to be fantasy rather than science fiction. The idea that people could go deep under the Earth and encounter oceans, storms and dinosaurs is so contrary to the reality that one must pass into the fantasy realm rather than remain within the realistic scientific one.

 Originally published in 1864, the main character is German Professor Otto Lidenbrock, a man that believes that the Earth is partially hollow and that 15th century explorer Arne Saknussemm entered an extinct volcano and traveled deep into the Earth. Along with his nephew Axel and guide Hans, Lidenbrook enters the Snæfellsjökull volcano. Rather than encounter significant heat and increasingly narrow passages, the three of them find themselves in an environment where plants and animals thrive, most of which have been extinct on the surface for millions of years. There is ample light and a massive sea that they must sail across. There is a massive storm that includes lightning and giant creatures that resemble humans. After surviving many near-death experiences, the three of them are ejected from the Earth in Italy, hundreds of miles from where they entered. 

 This story is loosely based on the legends of underground creatures found in many cultures. It has been presented as a work of science fiction, when it is in fact not. The only scientific principles that are cited appear only to be dismissed. For example, the comments about how the air temperatures they encounter are in fact not increasing.

 Yet, this book is a classic in the literature of western civilization, so much so that two feature length movies have been made using it as the basic plot. I am a strong proponent of the “by any means necessary” method of introducing modern readers to the classics of literature. This graphic novel is an excellent way to introduce middle school students to the writings of one of the pioneers of imaginative fiction.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Review of "The War of the Worlds," by H. G. Wells Graphic novel

Review of

The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells Graphic novel ISBN 0883011379

Five out of five stars

 While there are many classics of science fiction, H. G. Wells’ masterpiece “War of the Worlds” ranks as one of the best. It was the source material for what was a social panic when Orson Welles made his famous radio broadcast and it was the basis of two major motion pictures. It was also one of the first writings to feature poison gas, something that was a primary weapon in World War I, which began 17 years later.

 This rendition of the classic story of interplanetary warfare is presented in graphic novel form. While it does not precisely follow the original story, it is close enough to be considered a reasonable facsimile. The terror of the invasion and humanity’s seeming inability to effectively fight the menace are conveyed using the terminology and infrastructure of late nineteenth century Britain. In the end, human’s often mortal enemies are the weapon that defeats the Martian invaders.

 I am a fan of “any means necessary” in achieving the goal of getting people interested in the classics of literature. In this case, the graphic novel form works quite well.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Review of "Early Autumn," by Robert B. Parker

Review of

Early Autumn, by Robert B. Parker ISBN 0440022487

Five out of five stars

 This Spenser novel is the one that introduces Paul Giacomin, a character that reappears in subsequent Spenser stories. He is fifteen and his parents are fighting over his custody, but in reality, they are fighting each other, and Paul is simply a convenient tool. His mother Patty hires Spenser to “spring” Paul from his father’s custody, a task that he finds easy.

 Spenser quickly learns that Paul is a listless waif and the product of bad parenting and he decides to change that. He enlists Susan’s help, which she is very reluctant to provide. She is depicted as jealous and cold toward Paul, speaking in derisive tones to Spenser and Paul.

 This being a Spenser novel, there is of course far more than just a bitter battle between divorced people. Both parents have sordid pasts and presents, including some involvement with organized crime. When the mob muscle arrives, Spenser contacts Hawk to gain his assistance. Hawk is presented as a bit of a mercenary, even potentially acting as a hired killer.

 Spenser is once again depicted as a man of high principles, aiding a directionless young man over the objections of Susan. When faced with danger, he refuses to shoot people at times when it is in his best interests. There is no Spenser story that depicts him as a thug with a heart more than this one.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Review of "I Already Know I Love You," by Billy Crystal

Review of

I Already Know I Love You, by Billy Crystal ISBN 0060593911

Five out of five stars

 This book for children is a message from a prospective grandpa to his expected grandchild. Crystal uses references to baseball, circuses, fishing, playing games, instructing and just basically hanging out. The general form is four lines of verse per two-page image where the second- and fourth-line rhyme. It is a list of many of the things that the anticipatory grandparent hopes to do with their upcoming grandchild.

 This book is delightful, worthy of being read and re-read to all grandchildren. I also recommend it to all expectant grandparents; it will warm their hearts for what is to come.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Review of "Lucky Seven," by Matt Christopher

Review of

Lucky Seven, by Matt Christopher

 Four out of five stars

 Christopher is best known for his series of books of adolescent sports fiction where the main characters are young people. This is in contrast to many of the other main writers of sports fiction for young people where their stories feature adults, often professional players.

 This book contains a set of short stories within his usual genre of young people at play. Most of the stories feature the standard sports like baseball or football, but there is a notable exception. The last story, called “Full Throttle,” is about racing model cars on tracks.

 The stories are in the usual Christopher style of working hard, playing fair and having some sort of moral. They are all easy to understand, both in terms of the basic plot and the lesson that Christopher is trying to impart. This book is one that you read for pleasure and leisure.

Review of "Cast Away," DVD version starring Tom Hanks

Review of

Cast Away, DVD version starring Tom Hanks

Five out of five stars

 Literally from the moment when humans began traveling the seas and oceans out of the sight of land, there have been tales of people being shipwrecked and marooned. Sometimes it is small groups of people on an uninhabited island, other times there are natives on the island and in a few cases, it is one person all alone. Different and more expanded versions of this story arose in science fiction after interplanetary travel became plausible. The recent hit movie “The Martian” is the best-known example of the lone person marooned.

 This movie is one where a single person somehow manages to survive a destructive plane crash and wash up on the beach of an uninhabited tropical island. Tom Hanks stars as Chuck Nolan, an engineer with FedEx that is a hard driving, yet somewhat personable individual. He is flying as a passenger in a company cargo jet when they encounter a violent storm and there is an onboard explosion of some kind.

 Once on the island, Nolan needs to immediately satisfy his basic needs of food, water and shelter. He struggles to get a fire going, open a coconut and other basic tasks with no modern tools. Fortunately, a few packages from the plane wash up on the beach and he finds some useful items in them. After four years, he realizes that if he does not leave the island, he will die there alone and largely forgotten.

 This movie is nearly all Tom Hanks and he does a superb job of playing the increasingly eccentric exile in an odd form of solitary confinement. In order to keep himself sane, he must go a little insane, inventing a semi-imaginary companion to talk to. It is a worthy addition to the story of how humans can adapt in the most strenuous of circumstances and with no hope of any assistance.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Review of "Clearing the Bases," by Mike Schmidt

Review of

Clearing the Bases, by Mike Schmidt ISBN 9780060854997

Four out of five stars

 This book by a Hall-of-fame baseball player is part autobiography and part his philosophy about the history and mystique of baseball. The sections about his life and career are interesting, but not as riveting as his comments about Pete Rose and the use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in baseball.

 Schmidt provides some real insight into the issue of whether or not Pete Rose should be admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame. There is no question that his performance on the field more than warrants the honor. However, his betting on his own team and his failure to admit it has so far doomed his chances. Schmidt was one of the intermediaries between Pete Rose and the Commissioner’s office, so his knowledge is firsthand. He explains that there are members enshrined in the Hall of Fame that are adamant that Rose be denied enshrinement for violating the rules about betting on baseball.

 Schmidt also says a great deal about the problem of PED use in baseball, specifically the use of steroids. While he does mention possibilities and accusations and describes how “some players” dropped a great deal of weight that was muscle mass after the crackdown on steroids took place, Schmidt never specifically accuses a player of taking them that has not admitted to doing so. He is also adamant that records are what they are and should never be subject to an asterisk based on other factors such as PED use.

 Schmidt puts forward a proposal to deal with the most complex of issues facing baseball at the time of writing and in the future. He proposes the formation of an Otsego Committee, which would be a small group selected from the current living members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. This group would serve as an arbiter of issues such as Pete Rose’s entry in the Hall of Fame and serve as an arbiter of major labor conflicts such as drug testing and pension issues.  It is a proposal that has merit, for there are some obvious flaws in the current system where decisions are made.

  This is a book where Schmidt is honest about his opinions, even about himself. He is open in relating to how his ego was often a bit fragile and he suffered from insecurities, even when he was leading the league in homers and runs batted in. Throughout though, he expresses his reverence for baseball.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Review of "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome," DVD version starring Mel Gibson and Tina Turner

Review of

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, DVD version starring Mel Gibson and Tina Turner

Five out of five stars

 In general, the third film in a sequence tends to be underwhelming compared to the first two. That is not the case here, Tina Turner stars as Aunty Entity and turns in a superb performance as the protagonist to Max. Unlike in the first two movies, Aunty Entity is not a brutal, evil person, in her own way she is a savior of humanity and civilization. She has created a civilization out of the ruins of an apocalyptic war, giving the people hope for a future. Aunty Entity has given the world the rule of law once again, brutal though it may be.

 Max is once again a vagabond loner where circumstances give him no choice but to act as an agent of Aunty’s bidding. The ultimate in surviving, Max joins forces with a group of children that survived the crash of a 747 and are living in an oasis in the middle of a vast and nearly impenetrable desert.

 The chase scene is once again an incredible thing, this time there is some humor amidst the fighting to the death. In this case it involves a train to nowhere, where the day is saved by a man and his son with a plane. Max proves that he is very much a hero, risking his life to save a group of children.

 As was the case in “Road Warrior,” the supporting characters in this movie do much more than that. They provide tension, light moments and do more than is usual in making this movie the entertaining powerhouse that it is. There is Robert Grubb as “Pigkiller,” a man given a life sentence for killing a pig for food, Frank Thring as the “Collector” the front man for Bartertown, he is the one that decides what goods are worth and who gets to enter the town to conduct their business. Bruce Spence as “Jedediah the Pilot,” a role similar to the one he had in “Road Warrior.” Angry Anderson as “Ironbar,” one of the commanders of the troops controlled by Aunty and perhaps the best was Angelo Rossitto as “Master,” the genius that designed and managed the infrastructure of Bartertown.

 This is an entertaining and thoughtful movie, pointing out one unfortunate fact about the behavior of humans. Even after being nearly wiped out, there will still be struggles for power and control over what meager structures are rebuilt after the destruction. The action and character interactions are exceptional.