Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Review of "Tower Heist" DVD version

Review of

Tower Heist DVD version

Four out of five stars

 There are many films having the plot based on the execution of the major crime, this one is good, but does not rise to the highest level. Ben Stiller stars as Josh Kovacs, the manager of a very exclusive apartment building in New York City. Alan Alda is Arthur Shaw, a financier that lives in a luxury apartment in the building. Shaw is a financial crook in the mold of Bernie Madoff and with no warning the employees in the building learn that their pensions are now vapor. Shaw was given control of the pension fund at the request of Kovacs, for there was a promise of fantastic levels of growth.

 Determined to get something out of Shaw, Kovacs recruits two employees of the building and one tenant to form a team to break into Shaw’s apartment and hopefully find something valuable to steal. When the FBI arrests Shaw, they think they have a chance, but only a short time later, Shaw is released for lack of evidence. Since the four members of the team have no criminal experience, Kovacs decides to include a criminal known as Slide that is played by Eddie Murphy.

 There are several twists to the plot, due to their knowledge of the building and the quirks of the schedules, the break-in is well planned. However, several things go wrong and they are forced to improvise, the main adjustment involves a vintage car in Shaw’s apartment. The story ends well, even though the thieves are eventually caught.

 Eddie Murphy plays a role that uses his talents as an over-the-top characterization, which sometimes does too much to steal the scene. The foibles of the other characters are often overplayed as well. The best supporting performance is that of Gabourey Sidibe as the maid Odessa. It turns out that she has skills that are essential for the caper. Téa Leoni plays Claire Denham, a very hard-nosed but adaptable FBI agent and that is the second-best supporting performance. She is a great foil for Kovacs and occasionally gives him some sound advice on what to do.

 While the movie is too formulaic and sometimes moves a little too slow, there are enough plot twists to make it suitably unpredictable and enjoyable.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Review of "Travel Team: The Catch," by Rick Jasper

Review of

Travel Team: The Catch, by Rick Jasper ISBN 9780761383208

Four out of five stars

This is another installment of the series of books featuring the Las Vegas Roadrunners traveling team of highly talented teen baseball players. Like the others it has a moral but getting to it requires exposing a very unseemly side of big-time athletics, even at the amateur level.

 Danny Manuel is the centerfielder and the story opens with him making a sensational diving catch. It was so great that it goes viral and is replayed several times on ESPN. Danny is immediately raised to the level of star and with his father’s insistence, he quickly becomes a hot endorsement commodity for a sporting goods company. For years, a man called Pop Mancini had supplied the equipment for the Roadrunners in an agreement that was based on little more than a handshake.

 This leads to legal conflicts and a swelled head on the part of Danny. He begins doing things on the field with a flair in order to attract the attention of the cameras, but it also leads to the alienation of his teammates. It takes some serious difficulties before he learns how to rise above the pursuit of fame and fortune in order to carry out the task that leads to a Roadrunner victory.

 While it is true that money is soiling sports even down to the level of the amateur, it comes across as unseemly that this feature is put in a YA book about sports. There are some exciting moments and a big game at the end but getting there exposes some real self-serving sleaze.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Review of "Travel Team: High Heat," by Andrew Karre

Review of

Travel Team: High Heat, by Andrew Karre ISBN 9780761383222

Four out of five stars

 This is another story in the series featuring the Las Vegas Roadrunners traveling baseball team and while there is some tension in the big game, the real focus is on some of the darker aspects of high level, extremely competitive youth sports. The Roadrunners are very well funded, coached and possess a great deal of talent. Some of which is likely to end up in the major leagues.

 Seth Carter is a very good pitcher for the Roadrunners and his father pushes him hard to succeed. The pressure is so intense that Seth has what is called the “Tommy John” surgery. It is the operation where a tendon is removed from the non-dominant arm and used to replace the tendon in the pitching arm. It serves to revitalize the arm, making it more powerful than it was. Seth is a power pitcher, so once he recovers, his pitches are even faster than before. Seth is deeply disturbed when he hits a batter in the head and he then suffers from other self-doubts and uncertainties.

 The structure of the text is that of that of a directed interrogation of Seth by an unnamed questioner. There is a fundamental reason for this, for even though there is a victory on the field near the end, there is something far more serious that takes place afterward. In many ways this is a book that is realistic about the intensity of teenage team sports and the toll it takes on some of the more talented players. Due to that reality, this is a somewhat depressing book.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Review of "Coloring & Activity Book Dr. Dee Dee Dynamo’s Beemore Breakthru"

Review of

Coloring & Activity Book Dr. Dee Dee Dynamo’s Beemore Breakthru, by Oneeka Williams ISBN 9781631779121

Five out of five stars

 This is an excellent combination coloring and science book. The topic is honeybees and their roles in pollination and the production of honey. It also covers the basic anatomy of bees and flowers and how they interact to provide food for the bees and the pollination of the flower.

 The current problem of the bees dying with the resultant lack of pollinators is presented and Dr. Dee Dee Dynamo comes up with a solution to the problem. She is a Girl Super Surgeon and she uses those skills to attach robotic wings to the bees so that they can fly faster and pollinate more flowers. Most of the pages are designed to be colored and there are two pages of word search and maze traversal problems.

 The level of the text is that of the second or third grade child, which is ideal for the level of the other material. I strongly recommend this as an educational and entertaining book.

Review of "Sudden Mischief: A Spenser Novel," by Robert B. Parker

Review of

Sudden Mischief: A Spenser Novel, by Robert B. Parker ISBN 039914370x

Five out of five stars

 There is a lot of deep psychological angst and turmoil in this Spenser novel. It opens with Susan Silverman asking Spenser to come to the aid of her ex-husband Brad Sterling. Sterling had contacted Susan with a plea for help and she turns to the person that she knows is able to fix it. Even though it is her initiative, Susan often refuses to even talk about the case or any background on Sterling that could aid Spenser in his investigation.

 It is sufficient to say that Sterling is in very deep and the façade he puts forward of being a wealthy man is easily pierced by Spenser. The danger level rises very rapidly to the point where it is necessary to call for Hawk’s aid. Even though she remains a professional therapist, Susan often stumbles in her dealings with Spenser and Sterling, leading to a strain in her relationship with Spenser. Putting her new love in danger over the transgressions of an old, burned out one is a bizarre situation. Susan knows and even mentions this, yet she expects Spenser to soldier on.

 The story is a good one with convoluted action, but there are many points where the reader finds themselves disliking Susan Silverman. She openly takes advantage of the unconditional love Spenser has for her.

Review of "The Lincoln Lawyer," DVD

Review of

The Lincoln Lawyer, DVD

Five out of five stars

 This is a movie where the violent undertones are overwhelmed by the drama of the interaction of the characters. Matthew McConaughey plays attorney Mickey Haller, a man that represents people that are often guilty of horrendous crimes. He plays the legal game hard and has been very successful, results that have earned him the enmity of members of the law enforcement community. Much of his work is conducted in the back seat of his chauffeur-driven Lincoln car, hence the title of the movie.

 Haller is hired to defend the son of a wealthy female L. A. area realtor from charges of beating up and threatening to kill a prostitute. Shortly into the case he flags inconsistencies in the story of the defendant, and he notices many similarities between this case and one he had many years ago. In the earlier case, even though his client vehemently claimed his innocence, the best he thought he could do was get the murder charge reduced from the death penalty to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

 As the story threads wind and twist, the reader is left guessing, but it soon becomes clear that something is amiss. Even though Haller begins to doubt his role in the case, he soldiers on, providing a strong defense of his client. Despite this, he begins to construct a complementary thread of a case that will hopefully insulate him from what is clearly a potential for retribution by the evil players in the case.

 William H. Macy plays a strong supporting role as Haller’s investigator, his facial and long head of hair make him look like anything but a smart and effective investigator that knows how to play the system on the edge of legality. Bryan Cranston plays Detective Lankford, a man nearing retirement that openly expresses his disgust with Haller. Marisa Tomei plays prosecutor Maggie McPherson, Haller’s ex-wife that he fathered a daughter with. It is clear that there is still much between them and both are devoted to their daughter.

 Haller faces many obstacles in his quest to be a lawyer for a man he despises and revisit the past case to do what he can to make it right. There is a climactic scene where nearly everything is revealed, and Haller learns that there is more evil afoot than he thought. It is a great movie where the twists keep moving with uncertainty regarding the innocent and guilty.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Review of "The Big Time," by Tim Green

Review of

The Big Time, by Tim Green ISBN 9780061686214

Three out of five stars

 This is the fourth book in Tim Green’s “Football Genius” series and is weaker than the first three. The premise is still the same, Troy White is a football savant that can somehow predict what play an offense is going to run. While he must observe a few offensive series before the skill kicks in, he has demonstrated it many times and he is working for the Atlanta Falcons. At the end of the previous book, Troy has helped the Falcons reach the playoffs and Troy’s youth football team has won the championship. There is a victory party and Troy’s long absent father (Drew) unexpectedly shows up.

 The problem with this book is that financial games are being played rather than football. Drew is an attorney and pushes hard to be Troy’s agent and in fact negotiates an eight-figure deal for Troy. However, all does not conform to Troy’s ideal and there are reasons to believe that Drew has nefarious reasons for his reappearance and sudden deep interest in Troy. Drew has associated with some very shady characters and Troy must make a major decision concerning what to do regarding his father.

 This is fundamentally not a book about football, the main theme is the uncertainty about the motives of the sudden appearance of an absent relative when another relative is suddenly wealthy in a very public way. Especially when the newly rich person is a child and the absent relative is a parent. While this does happen more often than it should, it makes for a sad tale for young adults. No football games are played in this story.

Review of "Eagle Feather," by Clyde Robert Bulla

Review of

Eagle Feather, by Clyde Robert Bulla 

Five out of five stars

 I owned this book when I was in elementary school and must have read it ten times. The context is a Navajo boy named Eagle Feather that lives on the reservation with his family. They have a herd of sheep and goats and Eagle Feather tends to them, taking them out of the pen in the morning, herding them to the pasture for the day and then back to the pen for the evening. His family lives in a primitive Hogan and they are fairly isolated from all the other families.

 During a trip to the distant trading post with his father, Eagle Feather is exposed to the school for members of the tribe. It is so far from his home that it would be necessary for him to live at the school while classes are in session. At first, Eagle Feather expresses reluctance to go to school but then finds it interesting.

 When Eagle Feather damages the truck of his cousin Crook Nose, he must go live with him and watch over his sheep and goats in order to pay for the damage. It is not a happy experience, for Eagle Feather is not treated well and is also underfed. Things reach a climax when he is told that he cannot go to school when classes start.

 Originally published in 1962, this book is a reasonable representation of life on the Navajo reservation for an early adolescent boy in that time period. In my case, it was a story that was interesting and one of my first exposures to the area of multicultural studies.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Review of "The Piano," DVD version

Review of

The Piano, DVD version

Five out of five stars

 This is one of the most original and unusual love stories ever put on film. Holly Hunter is Ada McGrath, a woman of English origin that travels with her daughter to New Zealand in an arranged marriage to a man also of English extraction. Ada is a mute and has a love for playing the piano, one is a component of the personal belongings she brings.

 Sam Neill plays Alisdair Stewart, the husband of the marriage and a man with no time for music, all he wants is a wife obedient to his wishes. Alisdair simply leaves the piano on the beach, an act that devastates Ada. Harvey Keitel plays George Baines, a native Maori that warms to Ada and her love for music. He has the piano transported to his residence, giving him the opportunity to be alone with Ada.

 At first, Ada resists George’s advances, but her love of the piano overwhelms all of her qualms and she becomes sexually intimate with George. This sets up a love triangle where Alisdair acts out the most brutal of what a husband could legally do to his wife. All of the players give superb performances, especially Hunter and Anna Paquin that plays daughter Flora McGrath. Ada’s intense love for playing the piano comes through very clear through facial expressions and body language.

 The viewer quickly finds themselves empathizing with Ada and antagonistic to Alisdair. There is the hope that somehow Ada and George will become a couple and the movie will end with Ada blissfully playing the piano. Not quite the ending. George’s fellow Maori provide a solid supporting role by providing people of Maori culture rather than more transported people of English extraction. This is a great movie, worthy of every award it received.

Review of "The First Book of Mythical Beasts," by Helen Jacobson

Review of

The First Book of Mythical Beasts, by Helen Jacobson

 Three out of five stars

 While there are some good points for the YA reader concerning the topic of monsters in the world, they are not that well done. It opens with a discussion of dragons in ancient Babylonian culture, shifts to the role of dragons in Chinese mythology, moves on to the monsters and heroes of Greek mythology, bounces to the beasts of Middle Eastern and Indian folklore and closes with the mention of modern myths. The modern myths are of the Loch Ness Monster, the Nandi bear of East Africa and the abominable snowman of the Himalayas.

 With so many monsters to cover in less than seventy pages with illustrations, none is given more than a causal pass. The reader is given little in the way of cultural context or in-depth explanations of the monster. Yes, they do monster things and are generally dangerous to humans, but not much more than that.

 It would have been a stronger book is there had been more textual explanations of the monsters, specifically those of the older myths. One can learn a great deal about a culture from the structure of their myths, but that is not possible here.

Review of "The Secret Soldier," by Ann McGovern

Review of

 The Secret Soldier, by Ann McGovern ISBN 0590430521

Five out of five stars

 While there are a few mentions of women that fought in America’s wars before they were given the legal right to do so, it is a topic that rarely gets any real ink in the history books. This book is a short biography of Deborah Sampson, a woman that passed as a man, enlisted in the American Army to fight in the Revolutionary War and suffered some serious battle wounds.

 It is well known that there were few options for young women in the last years of the eighteenth century. Marriage with the associated surrender of all their rights to property and a voice in the world was the only major life path open to most women. Her early life and an explanation of this aspect of society are the topics of the first half of the book.

 Sampson found the thought of getting married distasteful, so she adopted the persona of a male and enlisted. Her fellow soldiers thought she was a mid-teen boy, which would explain her slight build and lack of facial hair. To keep her secret, she was forced to remove a bullet from her leg by herself and it was only when she was seriously wounded in a hospital bed that her secret was discovered.

 Permanently injured from her war wound, Sampson then became a typical wife and mother, living to the age of 67. What was different about her was that she received a soldier’s pension. This book is an excellent existence proof that there were some women that shook off the heavy social norms and filled what were considered male roles. It is an inspiration to modern girls to reach for their aspirations no matter what the odds against.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Review of "Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect," by Mark Greaney

Review of

Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect by Mark Greaney, ISBN 9780399173356

Five out of five stars

 Greaney had successfully carried out a very difficult writing task, carrying on a nearly seamless transfer of authorship of a storyline started by a very successful writer. One of the characteristics of the Tom Clancy books is the creation of multiple threads of action that allow the characters to be highly developed in relative isolation. While every thread is related to every other one, they are separate enough so that the reader learns all they need to know about the major character and their associates.

 Greaney also maintains the Clancy limitations on the portrayal of the heroes. While there are talented good guys, there are no “super soldiers” that routinely carry out impossible tasks in order to complete their mission.

 The main premise is a very interesting one. Massive deposits of rare-earth elements are discovered in North Korea, with an estimated value over 10 trillion dollars if properly exploited. With resources of that magnitude, it is clear to the American side that North Korea would simply be able to buy whatever it wanted, from ICBMs capable of hitting any location in the world to massive amount of food and even the support of governments.

 Jack Ryan Sr. is the president of the United States and his son Jack Jr. is among other things a covert operator for U. S. intelligence. Ryan Sr. is determined to block the North Korean attempts to acquire the technologies they need to exploit the rare-earth find and acquire ICBM technology. The North Koreans are just as determined and are ruthless in their ambitions, even to the point of carrying out high-level assassinations.

 The battle is joined and while the reader knows the general conclusion, the path there is unpredictable, making this an excellent thriller in the Clancy tradition.

Review of "Travel Team: Out of Control," by Rick Jasper

Review of

Travel Team: Out of Control, by Rick Jasper ISBN 9780761383239

Three out of five stars

 As an adult that coached youth sports over 10 seasons and three different sports and both genders, I have experienced the rabid parent phenomenon many times. Once, when I was forced to referee a soccer game a parent came screaming onto the field over a call that I did not make. The girl had tripped over her own feet, something that was clear to me from six feet away, but impossible to discern from the sidelines. I gave up the coaching/refereeing when I received an email invitation from the parent soccer organization to attend a workshop on how to deal with being physically assaulted by a parent.

 Carlos “Trip” Costas is a talented shortstop on the Las Vegas Roadrunners baseball team and his father Julio is a former professional baseball aspirant and a celebrity musician with significant wealth. Trip’s mother is several wives ago in Julio’s life, so Trip’s only parent present is his father. The problem is that Julio is overbearing in his pressure on Trip, even to the point that he goes out on the field during a game.

 The situation reaches a head when Trip decides that baseball is not fun anymore and asks the coach to bench him. Julio is a major financial backer of the team and there are significant expenses when they travel to tournaments. Julio threatens to pull his financial support if the coach does not pressure Trip to play.

 There is a climactic point where Trip stays at the house of a female friend rather than go home. Ultimately, there is a confrontation between Julio, Trip and the management of the Roadrunners. It is resolved and there is a big game at the end.

 Older books of adolescent sports fiction largely left all non-relative females out of the lives of the teenage male stars. Jasper is quite the opposite in that he has females being the best friends and confidants of his male stars. That is a positive aspect, but the story has so many negative aspects of the parent-child relationship that it has a sour feel to it. None of the other adults in the story ever stand up to Julio, telling him to tone it down or asking him to leave the field.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Review of "The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told By the Men Who Played It," by Lawrence S. Ritter

Review of

The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told By the Men Who Played It, by Lawrence S. Ritter ISBN 0688039014

Five out of five stars

 This book is a collection of extended reminiscences by men who played major league baseball right before and generally for three decades after the turn of the twentieth century. While there are a few stars describing their lives in and around baseball, most of the names will be known only to people who have studied the history of the sport. The latest that any of the 26 featured players was in major league baseball was Hank Greenberg, whose last season was 1947. Babe Herman and Paul Waner played their last seasons in 1945 and both admit that was only because the stars were busy fighting World War II. The earliest season that any player was in the major leagues was Tommy Leach in 1898.

 The years covered in this book were those of the growth of baseball into a major sport. Of course, it was the rise of Babe Ruth as a hitting star that made the game one where some players could earn significant money. Stars such as Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Walter Johnson are not interviewed, but are spoken of a great deal.

 One common theme that is a bit shocking to the modern reader is how easily and simply the players talk about their being sold by one team to another. When it happened, their choices were largely limited to acquiescence or retirement. At the time, players were property and there was a bill of sale that was filled out with copies to the player, the buyer, seller, league office and commissioner. An example appears on page 296.

 Yet, despite the poor pay and sometimes poor working conditions, these men truly loved the game and while they were capable, would have done nothing else. This is a great book of oral history by men who generally were not stars yet made the game great.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Review of "Riding the Northern Range: Poems from the Last Best-West," edited by Ted Stone

Review of

Riding the Northern Range: Poems from the Last Best-West, edited by Ted Stone ISBN 1551050552

Five out of five stars

 Cowboy poetry and the companion cowboy songs were an integral part of the American western frontier. Their appeal continued long after the wild west no longer existed. Witness the large number of movies featuring singing cowboys such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Roy Rogers was singing in western movies up until roughly 1952 and Autry’s career ended at roughly the same time.

 Given the timeless appeal of this type of literature and the songs that emerged from it, there is no surprise that this collection will move the fan. There is something about verse that describes the harshness and isolation of prairie life, how the winter can be so strong that it wipes out most of the cattle. The cowboys that tend to the cattle are a tough lot, living outside for extended periods, facing the danger of being caught in a stampede and closing it all off with a low end-of-season payoff.

 These poems are not about the gunfights or battles with Native Americans that were popular entertainment fare, they are about living, farming and ranching from Montana to the Dakotas and then on up into Canada. It was a harsh existence where hard work was often not enough, nature also had to provide the essentials of timely rain, calm weather and a lack of insect vermin. Fans of the old west will enjoy these tributes to the life in verse.

Review of "The Aviator," Widescreen edition

Review of

The Aviator, Widescreen edition

Five out of five stars

 As a technocrat, I have followed the professional lives of the people that have made the modern computer industry. Individuals such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison and Elon Musk. They are hard-driving people that had great vision, but personalities and egos that were abrasive, to say the least. Much earlier, there was another person in this mold, and his name was Howard Hughes. This movie is an expression of his life, successes and failures.

 DiCaprio puts forward a superb performance as the mercurial, yet brilliant Hughes. In watching the movie, it was easy to project some of what has been written about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and simply replace Hughes with either of those two men.

 Of course, there are two significant differences. The first is that Hughes was at his base a test pilot and a very good one. No one ever questioned his courage and willingness to take great personal risk. The second was that Hughes was also an integral part of the Hollywood movie making scene, which made him top notch fodder for the tabloids.

 This is a great movie about one of the most underappreciated visionaries of the twentieth century. It is unfortunate that his great flaws were self-destructive, in the sense that they made it impossible for him to function in society in his last years. Had he remained socially and professionally functional, he may have been the greatest of all time.

Review of "Travel Team: Power Hitter," by M. G. Higgins

Review of

Travel Team: Power Hitter, by M. G. Higgins ISBN 9780761383246

Five out of five stars

 Sammy Perez is a talented baseball player determined to sign a pro contract and elevate his family to a higher standard of living. His family has sacrificed a great deal to outfit him in his quest and he is playing on the Roadrunners, a team based in Las Vegas that travels to tournaments. Sammy has traditionally been a power hitter, but things have recently changed.

 In order to get the players more accustomed to what they will be facing when they become professionals, it has been decided that the Roadrunners will play in a tournament where they will be using wooden bats rather than their usual aluminum. With a smaller hitting surface and a different weight balance, this creates adjustment problems for the hitters, none more so than Sammy.

 When the story opens, Sammy is engaged is some serious self-pity, asking why the team cannot stay with aluminum as his hitting is really suffering. This creates problems between him and his teammates and coaches, for Sammy is concerned only with his performance rather than the overall benefit of the team. It is well known that there will be many pro scouts in the crowd during the tournament.

 There are threads of the internal dynamics of a team, both in terms of skill level as well as socio-economic status. Unfortunately, the possibility of Sammy using performance enhancing drugs is raised, which is unfortunate, because the option is raised from a source that simply should not have done it.

 Yet, the story ends well, for Sammy demonstrates other characteristics that impress the scouts and he does not have to rely on any form of cheating to do so. This makes it an excellent book for young people, pointing out that scouts are looking for character as well as skills. Character cannot be taught, while many of the skills can be developed by proper instruction.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Review of "Blood Diamond," DVD widescreen edition

Review of

Blood Diamond, DVD widescreen edition

Five out of five stars

 Brutal conflicts over natural resources have been a fundamental component of African life for several generations. Fueled by the western need for resources, most of the combatants have been Africans that have claimed the same national allegiance. The companies and governments of the western nations understand how the battles are being carried out and the level of human carnage, but generally are only interested in maintaining the production.

 The setting is the African nation of Sierra Leone in 1999, when there was an outbreak of a brutal civil war. Men and boys are forcibly recruited by rebel groups to work in the diamond mines and any attempt to steal a diamond leads to execution. The armed groups regularly enter villages suspected of allegiance to the other side and shoot down innocents, rape the women and will cut off the limbs of children in order to make a point.

 Leonardo di Caprio plays Danny Archer, a Rhodesian veteran of the wars in Southern Africa and now a diamond smuggler. Djimon Hounsou plays Solomon Vandy, a fisherman in a village of Sierra Leone when the civil war breaks out in earnest. A rebel group attacks his village and while his wife and youngest children manage to escape, Vandy is captured and forced to work in the diamond mines. He discovers a monstrous stone and when he is about to be forced to turn it over to his overlord, government troops attack and Solomon manages to bury the stone before being captured.

 Archer has been arrested while attempting to smuggle diamonds across the border between Sierra Leone and Liberia and ends up in the same prison as Vandy. This is the spark of an unlikely alliance between the two men. Archer is a man that is at times as ruthless as the people he is fighting, yet he does retain a spark of humanity. The remainder of the story has the two men on a hunt to recover the diamond by any means necessary.

 The violence in the movie is significant, but it does genuinely reflect what was going on in Africa at the time. Entire villages were being wiped out, children were being impressed into armed groups to serve as ruthless soldiers and the diamond companies mostly stood back unless they considered it necessary to send in their mercenary units. The best aspect of the movie is that it genuinely reflects what took place in Africa.

 One of the best lines in the movie references the historical fact that the Belgian controllers of the Congo implemented a policy of cutting off the hands of workers in order to keep them terrified and working. Given that a bounty for scalps has been a part of law of the European based governments in the United States for centuries, the point is that the acts of barbarism towards enemies has a lot of European origins.

 This is a movie that entertains and educates and should be viewed in classes that cover the colonization and how corporations operate in countries unable to resist them.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Review of "The Underdogs," by Mike Lupica

Review of

The Underdogs, by Mike Lupica ISBN 9780545487863

Five out of five stars

 Lupica is currently the best writer of adolescent sports fiction and he proves it once again in this story. Will Tyler is an extremely fast and shifty running back, despite his small size, he is a major talent. Unfortunately, he lives in the town of Forbes, a city that is struggling financially after the primary employer closed their sneaker factory. The town council voted that they did not have the money to support the youth football team for middle school students this year, so Will and his friends have no hope of playing this year.

 Will’s father was also a very good football player in his youth, but a severe knee injury ended his career and he was one of the people who lost their job when the sneaker plant closed and while Will’s father provides for Will, there is significant resentment for the cards that they have been dealt.

 In a Hail Mary pass of another form, Will sends a letter to a sporting goods company, asking them if they would sponsor the team in the amount of $10,000. To everyone’s surprise, the CEO of the company agrees, and Will and his friends will be able to field a team. However, many families have left town seeking employment opportunities and at first, they can only find 10 guys willing to play.

 Following what is a common Lupica feature, there is a girl named Hannah that wants to play football and after some disagreement, everyone on the team accepts her presence. Hannah proves to be tough and resilient and her teammates stick up for her. When a defensive player hits her with a cheap shot, Will’s team calls a running play to that area and three players from Will’s team level the defensive player in an obvious payback message.

 Hannah is a strong and aggressive personality and an excellent kicker. With only eleven players, all members of the team must play the full game. Hannah is at first uncertain in making open field tackles, but she learns very quickly how to take down ball carriers.

 This is a very enjoyable sports book, for it is about more than just sports. It is about a community in general and some people in particular that manage to bury the difficulties that they face and rise up to have a successful season and show the world that Forbes is still a vibrant town with much to offer the residents. It is about community spirit and has a girl acting as an equal to the boys.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Review of "Annie Oakley," by Ginger Wadsworth

Review of

Annie Oakley, by Ginger Wadsworth ISBN 0760766363

Four out five stars

 While this book is an effective recounting of Annie Oakley’s achievements as a shooter and trick-shot artist, some very significant aspects of her life are not covered in enough detail. Oakley was an early advocate of women in combat roles, sending a letter to President William McKinley in 1898 offering the services of 50 lady sharpshooters for any war effort that would be undertaken against Spain. This is in the book.

 She also stated, "I would like to see every woman know how to handle guns as naturally as they know how to handle babies." It has also been stated that she shot the ashes off a cigarette being held in the mouth of the newly crowned Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.

 Oakley grew up poor and her natural ability to shoot straight did a great deal to feed her family when she was in her teens. She was so proficient at hunting that many of the family’s bills were paid by the excess game she was able to kill. She never lost track of those roots and she was a strong supporter of women’s rights her entire life. Oakley was also a strong advocate for education for females as well as their opportunities for independence. It is unfortunate that these aspects of her personality were not emphasized more.

Review of "Marie Curie," by Laura Hamilton Waxman

Review of

Marie Curie, by Laura Hamilton Waxman ISBN 9780760739105

Five out of five stars

 When I was in elementary school and we were on the science segment, Marie Curie was always referred to as “Madame Curie,” never by her first name. We learned of her scientific accomplishments and how she died an early death, a casualty of her work on the radioactive elements radium and polonium.

 Therefore, it was pleasing to see the title of this book using her given name and that name being used throughout. That is how it should be, for male scientists like Albert Einstein are never called Mr. Einstein. Despite the short length, this book is a fairly complete rendition of Marie Curie’s achievements. She was the winner of two Nobel prizes in the sciences, the first to ever accomplish this feat.

 Marie Curie faced many obstacles in her life, yet she persisted in doing her passion, which was science. She is a superb role model for the modern girl that loves science and this book should be in every elementary school library as well as being regularly assigned reading.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Review of "Juan Ponce de Leon," by Jane Sutcliffe

Review of

Juan Ponce de Leon, by Jane Sutcliffe ISBN 0760766401

Five out of five stars

 The coverage of Ponce de Leon in the history classes is often limited to little more than his search of the Florida peninsula for the fabled fountain of youth. He of course never found it, because it does not exist. One wonders how a rumor of such a natural phenomenon could ever arise. Ponce de Leon was far more than just a simple adventurer/explorer, he was an officer of the Spanish Army in the Western Hemisphere and the governor of Spanish territories in the New World.

 The first of the most interesting and historically significant points made in this book are how the Europeans considered themselves the owners of any land where they were the first Europeans to walk on it. One of the disputes described in the book is when Diego Columbus, the son of Christopher, claimed control of Puerto Rico based on his deceased father being the first to walk on it. It demonstrates the arrogance of the Europeans and their disdain for the people already living on the lands they were claiming.

 The second point is how diseases carried by the Europeans nearly wiped out the native people of the Caribbean region. Even the powerful and warlike tribes were easily conquered and subjugated once the diseases had decimated the population.

 A figure that was a reasonable and just governor rather than a conquistador, the life of Ponce de Leon should be covered more thoroughly in history classes. This book is a good introduction to his role in the dark history of the European conquest of the New World.

Review of "The Egyptian Cat Mystery," by John Blaine

Review of

The Egyptian Cat Mystery, by John Blaine

Four out of five stars

 This Rick Brant adventure takes him and his friend Scotty to Egypt to work with some radio astronomy scientists that are attempting to decipher and interpret some very odd signals that the telescopes are receiving. The anomalies are so odd that they must eliminate all possible sources of terrestrial origin as well as equipment malfunction or natural phenomenon. The point of origin appears to be light years from Earth, the signal has a regular variation but not like a variable star and it is apparently moving at an incredible rate of speed. If everything else can be eliminated, then the only plausible explanation is that it is of intelligent origin.

 By itself, this would make for an interesting science fiction story. However, the radio astronomy is secondary to the Egyptian cat. Before Rick and Scotty leave the United States for Egypt, an Egyptian man asks them to take a plastic figurine of a cat with them and deliver it to a man in Egypt. Thinking that it is nothing more than the simple delivery of a token, Rick and Scotty agree to deliver the item.

 However, it is quickly clear that there is far more to the situation than they first thought, they are chased, frisked and kidnapped by the villains that are determined to acquire the plastic figure. This plot thread makes it just another mystery/adventure book.

 The science that appears is generally solid for 1961, the story would have been stronger if there had been more of it. A complete foundation is put down for there to have been a signal received from space aliens, it is unfortunate that the logical conclusion is not reached or amplified.

Review of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," by Edgar Allan Poe

Review of

The Murders in the Rue Morgue, by Edgar Allan Poe ISBN 9781434242594

Five out of five stars

 Despite his short career and limited financial returns for his writing, Edgar Allan Poe left a lasting legacy in American literature.  Considered to be the inventor of the genre of detective fiction and an early pioneer of science fiction, it is fitting that one of the major awards for writing fiction is called an Edgar. This book is a graphic novel adaptation of one of Poe’s unusual short mystery stories.

 Two women are brutally murdered in a second-floor room, one has their head severed and the other is strangled. Several men heard their screams, raced up the stairs and broke down the door in an attempt to help them. The murderer is nowhere to be found and did not exit through the door, the only other possible escape route is to go through what appears to be a locked window and somehow reach a thick lightning rod that goes up the side of the building.

 The ace detective in this case is Auguste Dupin, a man of very modest means but possessing great acumen. Faced with a situation that appears impossible, he uses his mind to chip away at the features that make it appear impossible and zeroes in on the killer. It is a brilliant line of reasoning, and the killer is most unusual, someone that would not ordinarily be on the list of “usual suspects.”

 The rendition into graphic form is very well done, the colors are dark and dreary, fitting for a Poe story. You don’t have to be a fan of Edgar Allan Poe to enjoy this novel.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Review of "Cashback," DVD movie

Review of

Cashback, DVD movie

Five out of five stars

 The major premise of this movie is fundamentally something that in other hands would be creepy, but in this case, it is so well done that it leads to a love story. Ben Willis is a student at an art college, and he is involved in a nasty breakup with his girlfriend. This leads to a major bout of insomnia where he does not sleep at all for days. In order to make something positive out of this condition, he takes a night shift job at a local supermarket. His co-workers are a strange lot that engage in many activities in an attempt to alleviate the boredom of working nights.

 Ben discovers that he has a strange power, he is able to freeze time, where every person and object but Ben is locked into position until he restarts the universe by cracking his hands. During the period where time is frozen, Ben can manipulate the objects, moving and adjusting them.

 In one segment, he locks the supermarket in place and then goes down an aisle, disrobing the women and then making detailed sketches of them. He does so in order to capture their beauty and he carefully puts their clothing back in place before he restarts time. In other circumstances, this would be incredibly creepy, but it is so well done that you feel for Ben as he struggles to make something of himself. Ben comes across as being truly interested in the women as an artist and not as a voyeur.

 There is also a bit character named Natalie that fulfills the fantasy of nearly every boy slightly north of 10. For a small amount of money, she will drop her underwear and then lift her skirt in order to give a boy an extended flash.

 There is a happy ending, but it takes some effort and convolutions to get there. The performances of all the characters are superb and complement each other very well. Ben’s best friend is one of the most memorable bad-boy supporting characters of all time. While he may not have any redeeming qualities, he is essential to making the story work.

Review of "MythAdventures! Volume 1 Number 3"

Review of

MythAdventures! Volume 1 Number 3

Four out of five stars

 When reading this comic, it is hard to settle into what the major words are that describe it’s structure. It is disjointed and packed with wordplay and puns. The characters dress in medieval garb and use weapons of the time period. There are many times when one of the main characters is called a “pervert,” only to be corrected that the proper term is “pervect.” There is magic across dimensions, a unicorn and a deveel.

Amidst the crossbows, horse carts and castles, there is a desktop computer. Incongruity abounds in this bouncy, unusual story where there rarely seems to be a direction. However, the somewhat random walk of a trip is a fun one through these pages.

Review of "Albert Gallatin: Diplomat," by G. J. Bryen III

Review of

Albert Gallatin: Diplomat, by G. J. Bryen III

Five out of five stars

 Even though this pamphlet is only 21 pages, it contains a solid synopsis of the life of Albert Gallatin, one of the major statesmen of the early United States. A confidant of most of the founding fathers, Gallatin served three presidents as Secretary of the Treasury and as American Minister to France and Great Britain (1801-1827) during a career of public service that was four decades long. Yet, Gallatin receives very little ink in the accounts of the early years.

 This booklet sets down at least a partial recounting of what was an extraordinary career. His tenure as Secretary of the Treasury spanned the years 1801-1814, in the years when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were president. Thomas Jefferson himself said that Gallatin "is the only man in the United States who understands, through all the labyrinths Hamilton involved it, the precise state of the Treasury." It is one of those books that causes you to conduct an immediate search to learn more about this man that should be considered a second-generation founder/builder of the early United States.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Review of "Mystery at Redtop Hill," by Marjory Schwalje

Review of

Mystery at Redtop Hill, by Marjory Schwalje

Three out of five

 This story contains very little in the area of mystery, yet it does have a strong female character interacting with two boys that do what they can to leave her behind. There are three main characters, Steve, Tod and Nancy, all of which are in their early teens. Steve and Tod try many times to keep Nancy out of their adventures, but she always manages to get involved and in fact helps them in their quests.

 The other main characters are Major Clyde and Mr. Marshall. Major Clyde owns a run-down farm and is friends with the three teens. Mr. Marshall is a man that is interested in buying the farm and wants to turn it into a business that will operate to the detriment of the neighbors. The only real mystery is determining what Mr. Marshall’s true motives are.

 The action moves pretty fast and there are many high quality, colored images. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the way of suspense.

Review of "Abigail Adams," by Jane Sutcliffe

Review of

Abigail Adams, by Jane Sutcliffe ISBN 9780760775042

Five out of five stars

 The early first ladies of the United States lived at a time when women had few rights by law and much of what they had was granted to them by their husbands and fathers. Yet, they were generally powerful personalities and Abigail Adams was one of the strongest. She was vocal in pushing her husband John Adams (Second American President) to grant rights to females when the nation was being formed and made her opinions clear to others.

 This book is a brief, yet thorough description of the life of this extraordinary woman. She wrote numerous letters, many of which have been preserved. The wife of an American president and the mother of another, Abigail was a force that did as much as she could to push the nation towards equal rights, not only for white women, but also for the slaves. For she was adamantly opposed to slavery being codified in law.

 Modern women should be taught more about the actions of the early first ladies, for they were strong and active personalities in their own right. They were feminists when it was not in fashion and socially acceptable.

Review of "Imagination: Stories of Science and Imagination," September 1954

Review of

Imagination: Stories of Science and Imagination, September 1954

Four out of five stars

 This issue is a look back deep into the past of the science fiction genre. In 1954 there was talk of space flight, yet it was still a dream and it was thought that it would remain so for some time. Sputnik 1 was three years in the future, so the stories having space travel as a premise were based completely on intelligent speculation.

 The title story (“Vengeance From the Past”) has some prescient aspects, it is based on the premise that there are in fact members of the Neanderthal species still intermingled and interbreeding with Homo Sapiens. They have banded together and are attempting to take over the launching of a massive satellite so that they can gain power over the Earth.  Recent advances in DNA research have suggested that 20 percent of Neanderthal DNA has survived into the modern human genome. Given the reality of genetic recombination, it is certain that there are people having a higher percentage of Neanderthal DNA than this. With this backdrop, I found the story plausible in ways other than what the author intended.

 The second story, “The Battle of the Bells” is amusing and is based on a hilarious practical joke based on the old-style outhouse. It is located in a rural area and the locals have placed a handle on a chain that dangles into the building. When curiosity overwhelms the patron and they pull the handle, a bell is rung. The goal is of course to embarrass the weary traveler. However, the consequences lead to an amusing battle between good and evil.

 However, the most interesting segment of the magazine appears in the book reviews section that was written by Henry Bolt. One of the books examined is “The Caves of Steel” by Isaac Asimov. Bolt is ruthless in his criticism as can be seen in the following quote. “This venomous condemnation of the story will not be shared by everyone, but then perhaps everyone has not read through the jungle of this sort of writing.” Harsh words indeed of one of the masters of the craft.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Review of "Daredevil: Born Again," by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli

Review of

Daredevil: Born Again, by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli ISBN 0871352974

Five out of five stars

 This is a great story expressed in graphic novel form. While the overall story is a battle between Daredevil and the crime boss Kingpin, there are many intertwined plot threads. It opens with Karen Page, onetime love interest of attorney Matt Murdock very down and out, looking for a heroin fix. Karen was an aspiring actress, but the best she did was star in stag movies. With no money, she sells the one physical possession she has, the secret identity of Daredevil.

 This knowledge is passed along to Kingpin and he resolves to destroy Daredevil by destroying Matt Murdock. By spreading his corrupt tentacles throughout the city, Kingpin is able to eliminate all of Murdock’s legal work, keep his bills from being paid to the point where he is foreclosed on, leaving Murdock destitute and essentially friendless.

 Kingpin is ruthless and Murdock must rise from homelessness and being severely injured to the point of death to become the “Man Without Fear” once again. It is not an easy path and he finds some assistance along the way, eventually doing battle with a super soldier that is on a killing spree backed by the Kingpin.

 This is a story about good pitted in struggle against evil that is monstrous in both the literal and figurative sense. At some points it is about little more than having the energy to get out of bed and face the world. It is the best Daredevil story that I have ever read.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Review of "The Judas Goat," by Robert B. Parker

Review of

The Judas Goat, by Robert B. Parker ISBN 0440141966

Five out of five stars

 This Spenser story has him acting as a bounty hunter. A year ago, a wealthy man named Hugh Dixon was in a London restaurant with his family when a terrorist group bombed it, killing his family and severely maiming him, he is now confined to a wheelchair. Yet, a fire still burns in him and he is determined to get his revenge. He hires Spenser to find them, paying him $2,500 per person, dead or alive. When Spenser says that he is no assassin and will not kill them unless he has to, Dixon agrees.

 The case takes Spenser to London and away from Susan, a fact that gnaws at him. He learns from the British police that the likely suspect was a group called Liberty and no real evidence has ever been gathered. With nothing to go on, Spenser puts an ad in the paper that he hopes will get their attention and force their action.

 The ad has the desired effect and Spenser quickly learns that he needs assistance, so he calls for Hawk. Even though they are outnumbered, Spenser and Hawk are able to take down most of the group, yet their greatest battles are with the leader and his large and extremely powerful assistant named Zachary. The fight is a brutal one, in a rare feature of the Spenser stories they face an adversary that is physically superior to them.

 While there is a lot of fighting, there is also a significant amount of emotional action between Hawk and Spenser and Spenser and Susan. Hawk is inclined to just kill people as a matter of convenience while Spenser fundamentally does not like killing, doing so only when necessary. The story is interesting in both the physical action and interpersonal interaction areas.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Review of "Million-Dollar Throw," by Mike Lupica

Review of

Million-Dollar Throw, by Mike Lupica ISBN 9780399246265

Five out of five stars

 Most books of juvenile sports fiction end with a climactic “big-game-at-the-end.” While this one has such a feature, it also has two major events at the end that provide an emotional lift. Nate Brodie is a middle school football quarterback that has the sniper rifle equivalent of a throwing arm. He also has the perfect football mind, with the merest glance at the field in front of him, he knows where every player is and where they will be when the ball arrives where he is throwing it.

 Unlike many sports stories featuring boys at this age, there is a strong female character that is not a relative. Abby is his best friend and has been since it made sense to talk about them being old enough to have friends. Despite his incredible football talents, Nate is not full of himself and Abby does a great deal to keep him that way.

 There are two main simultaneous plot threads to the story of Nate on the field, Nate’s father lost his job selling real estate and is now working at a job that he hates, and his mother has taken a part-time job to try to make ends meet. Even then, there is the imminent danger that they will lose their house. The second thread is that Abby is rapidly losing her vision and may have to move away to attend a school for the vision impaired.

 In a potential stroke of luck, Nate’s name is picked in a lottery and he will be given the chance to throw a football through a small target with the prize being one million dollars. Given all the pressures he is under, Nate’s performance on the football field declines to the point where he is replaced as quarterback. Taking it like the sound mind he is, Nate agrees with the coach and accepts a role on the team playing other positions.

 The major events of Nate’s team going through the playoffs toward the championship, the build-up to the big throw at the end and Abby’s visual decline are all weaved together into a great ending that will lift your heart and make a bad day much better. The big winning catch at the end was not on a football field.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Review of "Murder She Wrote: Death Stalks the Big Top Part 1," DVD version

Review of

Murder She Wrote: Death Stalks the Big Top Part 1, DVD version

Four out of five stars

 Jessica has arrived for her niece’s wedding and they express regret that the niece’s grandfather cannot be there, for he supposedly died many years ago when his boat exploded and burned. The niece’s grandmother is really a nasty woman, she is very domineering and controlling, even to people like Jessica.

 When the niece receives a silver leprechaun in the mail, both her and Jessica take it as a sign that the grandfather may be alive, for no body was ever recovered.  Using the source address on the package as a clue, Jessica immediately departs for a small town in Arkansas. When she arrives, the trail leads her to a traveling circus that is struggling to survive financially. There have been a series of accidents that have created problems.

 Jessica pokes around and is not welcomed by the members of the circus. She finds the man she is looking for working as a clown in the circus and when one of the least liked members of the circus is beaten to death, the man she was searching for is arrested for the murder.

 There are many supporting characters to this episode, including a mayor that is full of himself, thinking that he is a better crime investigator than the professionals. Other supporting characters, such as the niece’s grandmother, are also exaggerated in execution. Many extended head shots of a character expressing emotions for a fade-out are an integral part of the episode. Yet, it does set the proper ground for the second part, where Jessica solves the case and all is well in the end.