Saturday, February 29, 2020

Review of "Bonanza: The Spanish Grant"

Review of

Bonanza: The Spanish Grant, DVD version

Five out of five stars

 The theme of this episode is what happens when two rights collide. Many families have homesteaded on their land next to the Ponderosa, doing precisely what the law required and building functional farms with their sweat and blood. However, that area was taken over by the Spanish centuries earlier and the Spanish king had given subjects land grants in perpetuity. An heir of the person given the land by the earlier Spanish king has appeared and is claiming the land. A man claiming to be her uncle is with her and he has hired a group of gunmen to enforce her claim and evict the settlers. She is a beautiful woman with a royal bearing. When a settler tries to fight back, he is gunned down in front of his pregnant wife.

 While the claim only involves a few hundred acres of the Ponderosa, the Cartwrights become involved, for the people to be evicted are their neighbors. They pursue their counterclaims through legal means until the other side resorts to force. As would be expected, there is a sudden twist in the plot whereby there are questions as to the claimant’s legitimacy. The ending is quite unexpected.

 What is most interesting about this episode is that it involves the historical fact that the American Southwest was once Spanish territory ruled by the King of Spain before it was part of Mexico. The timeframe of the Bonanza series is right after the American Civil war, only twenty years after Mexico ceded the territory to the United States and after centuries of Spanish claims to the land.

Review of "Bonanza: The Gunmen"

Review of

Bonanza: The Gunmen, DVD version

Two out of five stars

 This episode is intended to be humorous, but it largely fails at the task. It opens with two brutal killers that look a great deal like Hoss and Little Joe Cartwright shooting up a bar, killing several of the patrons before taking the money they were playing poker with. Shortly after this, Hoss and Little Joe arrive in that area of Texas, they are there to purchase some Texas Longhorn breeding stock.

 Since no one knows them, they are mistaken for the killers and nearly everyone is terrified of them. The only exceptions are the local women that are determined to keep the town as clean as possible. Their actions are very much exaggerated. The two of them are thrust into the midst of a shooting feud between two local clans, one side sent for the killers in order to finally win the battle.

 The dialog of the humor is weak, and the acting does not play it well. Bonanza was an excellent action series with strong themes of law and order, here is descends to the level of absurdity. This is one of the worst episodes of the series.

Review of "Operations of the Geometric and Military Compass," by Galileo Galilei

Review of

Operations of the Geometric and Military Compass, by Galileo Galilei

Five out of five stars

 Galileo is of course a hero to people that respect the process of scientific inquiry and evaluation. It was a great triumph of the human race when superstition and the blind following of imposed dogma was replaced by the organized gathering of facts and the reaching of logical conclusions. This change made possible the great scientific and technical achievements that created the modern world. Despite his great achievements, Galileo was forced to recant his findings and placed under a mild form of house arrest by the Catholic Church.

 When Galileo’s achievements are taught, his inventions are rarely mentioned due to the giant shadow of the Catholic Church forcing him to recant. This book is a description of his invention of a geometric and military compass that allowed for rapid and accurate computations of proportions, trigonometry and mathematical computations such as cube roots. While used for many things, the two primary ones were in surveying and military gunnery.

 The first section is a description of how the compass works in general and the second section is a series of short papers describing specific uses that were written by Galileo. The book is interesting, for it describes the device very well and gives the reader several insights into the thought processes of Galileo. He was an incredibly talented man that did so much to turn society from superstition to mathematical rigor.

Review of "Macbeth: A Shakespeare Story," by Andrew Matthews and Tony Ross

Review of

Macbeth: A Shakespeare Story, by Andrew Matthews and Tony Ross, ISBN 9781626866904

Four out of five stars

 The tragedy of Macbeth is one where once ruthless ambition starts it feeds on itself until the perpetrators are themselves destroyed. After a very successful battle, the leader of the forces of King Duncan (Macbeth) and his best friend Banquo are returning to camp when they encounter three witches that make predictions that astound them. As a consequence of his victory, Macbeth begins thinking about his becoming king, which would of course require the death of Duncan.

 Spurred on by Lady Macbeth and with help from some nebulous spirit forces, Macbeth kills Duncan and is proclaimed king. However, the thoughts of what he did haunt him and make him uncertain and fearful. His course of action is then to have Banquo and his son murdered. In the manner of tyrants throughout history, Macbeth’s only recourse is to become even more tyrannical, leading to opposition in his kingdom and the death of both Lady Macbeth and him.

 Starting with the three witches, this Shakespearean tale features a great deal of supernatural events. This book is an excellent, modern, abbreviated version of this story, serving as a primer for young readers. Since this Shakespearean story is about a ruthless rise to the top and that has been a consistent feature of human existence, this is very much a universal and timeless tale.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Review of "Off The Rim," by Fred Bowen

Review of

Off The Rim, by Fred Bowen ISBN 9781561455096

Five out of five stars

 As a lifelong resident of Iowa, I was pleased to read the references to the old-style 6-on-6 girls high school basketball format. For years, the girls state tournament in Iowa was more popular than the boys, the girls tournament games were broadcast on radio and television across the state. One very unusual item of sports trivia is mentioned in the appendix. Denise Long was a star player for Union-Whitten high school in Iowa in the late sixties and was even drafted by the San Francisco Warriors of the NBA, although she never played for them.

 The star of this book is a boy named Chris and when the basketball season opens, he is riding the bench and his place is on the very end, one of the last to be put in the game. Greta is the star of the girls team and while she tries to help Chris perfect his shot, it seems clear that he will never be a top shooter. Greta’s mom played in the 6-on-6 leagues, where there were three that played offense only and three that stayed on defense. Her mom was a defensive player and a good one, so she starts giving Chris lessons on how to play quality defense.

 Chris proves to be a good student and it is not long before the coach realizes that Chris is the best defender on the team and relies on him to stop the other teams best offensive player. The team improves dramatically and is challenging a team with a top offensive player.

 What makes this a very good book is the lesson that not all players are going to be big scorers, there will always be a need for good defensive players and rebounders. Bowen also takes a different approach in his stories; he doesn’t find it necessary for his principal characters to make the last-second play(s) that win the game.

Review of "Charlie’s Angels," DVD version

Review of

Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, DVD version

Two out of five stars

 This movie features some of the most outrageous “stunts” that completely violate the laws of physics. This becomes clear in an early scene when the three angels dive off a dam, beside a helicopter. Before the machine hits the ground, they manage to board it, start it up, get the rotors to speed and then fly away. The tallest dam in the world is 1,000 feet high and the time it takes to fall that distance is ten seconds.

 There are also many attempts at humor, these are also poorly done. The fight scenes involve jumping and twisting actions that not even Simone Biles could perform. There is also a scene where a man seems to be impervious to fire. The dialog was weak and often predictable. While I enjoyed once again hearing the voice of John Forsyth as “Charlie,” this movie was boring throughout.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Review of "Tapenum’s Day: A Wampanoag Indian Boy in Pilgrim Times," by Kate Waters

Review of

Tapenum’s Day: A Wampanoag Indian Boy in Pilgrim Times, by Kate Waters ISBN 0590202383

Five out of five stars

 The Wampanoag tribes were the Native Americans that lived in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island when the pilgrims landed. When spring arrived, they moved to their summer residence where they hunted, fished and raised crops such as corn. After the harvest when the frosts came, they took their harvest and moved inland among the forest where they would be shielded from some of the harshest weather.

 At the time when this story was to have taken place, there was tension between the settlers and the Wampanoag, although there was no overt hostilities. Generally, the two groups went their separate ways and had minimal interaction. There are hints that the settlers were growing corn by this time, although there is no explicit statement regarding to how long they have been there.

 The story is told via a combination of photographs of modern Wampanoag and text, the main character is a Wampanoag boy named Tapenum and he is depicted in the native dress of an animal skin loincloth. The other boy and the adults are also dressed in animal cloth. Tapenum is disappointed because he was not selected for the initiation to become a warrior. He plans on working harder to develop his body and to be a better hunter.

 Many words from the Wampanoag language are used in the text, making it a bit of a language lesson to go along with the history. This is an excellent book for elementary school study of the other side of the story of the pilgrims.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Review of "Hopes and Screams," written by Heather Nuhfer

Review of

Hopes and Screams, written by Heather Nuhfer ISBN 9780316254335

Four out of five stars

 The premise of this graphic novel is a high school that is aptly named, Monster High. The students are all creatures from the horror movie genre. There is a male Medusa with snakes for hair, vampires and other human/animals with fangs and zombies. All act as you would expect high school teens to act, even though they do not have human bodies, they possess the emotions.

 The stories are an exercise in puns and wordplay. There is the casketball team, Home Ick class, Draculaura, “it looks fangtastic,” and the school paper “Gory Gazette.” I found myself spending as much time in identifying the puns as I did in following the story, which is fairly shallow anyway.

 This is a story targeted at the early teen reader and it lands precisely in that zone. Nothing heavy, all light and (h)airy.

Review of "Ben and Me," by Robert Lawson

Review of

Ben and Me, by Robert Lawson ISBN 0316517305

Five out of five stars

Benjamin Franklin was a first rate scientist, inventor, statesman, diplomat, author and an editor among other things. The premise of this novel is a unique one, namely that many of his ideas were actually those of Amos, an intelligent and literate mouse that resided in Franklin’s fur hat. The story is presented as being narrated by Amos and while he is clearly very fond of Franklin and Franklin of him, their relationship is not without stress and occasional conflict.

 It is an amusing story and steps through many of the actual events in Franklin’s life. There is also the undercurrent of the social stratification of vermin, from those associated with French royalty to those that reside on John Paul Jones’ warship. This book is a good way to be introduced to the achievements of the great American Benjamin Franklin.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Review of "The Genius and the Goddess," by Aldous Huxley

Review of

The Genius and the Goddess, by Aldous Huxley

Four out of five stars

 The genius in this novel is Henry Maartens, a physics professor whose very words can modify thought around the world. Yet, he has one weakness, he grows deathly ill when his wife Katy (the goddess) is away for long periods. The main character is John Rivers, a man that was very sheltered by his widowed mother and inexperienced about the world. Shortly after he receives his doctorate, Rivers takes a job as a lab assistant under Henry and since he is to start immediately and has no place to live, he is invited to live with the Maartens’.

 Both the adults and their teenage daughter grow fond of Rivers and his position becomes that of a de facto member of the family. Both of the women develop feelings for him, which leads to some awkward situations. Rivers is torn between his own sexual desires and the reality of the ways in which he could gratify them. He eventually does get some release, but he faces the repercussions of major guilt. There is an extremely sad event near the end, yet Henry and Rivers come out of it fairly well and Henry lives to an old age.

 The temporal context of this book is the early 1950’s, a time of significant sexual repression. Huxley is very good at including a great deal of analogies expressing his personal views on religion, intelligence, morality and social forces. While he never gets sexually explicit, the allusions to sex are very common. This is one of the most unusual tales of a love triangle ever published.

Review of "Throwing Heat," by Fred Bowen

Review of

Throwing Heat, by Fred Bowen, ISBN 9781561455409

Five out of five stars

 Jack has a very lively arm; he throws the fastest pitches in his middle school league. However, he lacks control, while he strikes out a lot of hitters, he also walks almost as many. Since his coach enforces a fairly strict pitch count, he is generally removed from the game long before it has ended. Furthermore, since he tends to lose his control for extended periods, he often walks several batters in an inning, leading to significant rallies by the other teams.

 When his sister brings her boyfriend Finn home, after the initial conversation among the family, the subject turns to baseball. Finn is a former college player, not a star by any means, and is now a coach. Finn immediately understands the issue with Jack and tries to teach him how to throw a changeup as well as letting up a bit on the velocity of his fastball, trading speed for better control. Jack resists at first, but after some lackluster performances and learning a valuable lesson in another sport, he agrees to be coached.

 As most star players in middle school and little league discover, success at those levels generally does not follow them into the upper levels. To continue to be successful, players must adapt and learn, constantly improving their game and never relying on only one aspect. That is the major lesson of this book and it is well presented and written.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Review of "You Must Remember 1968," by Mary Pradt

Review of

You Must Remember 1968, by Mary Pradt ISBN 0446910457

Five out of five stars

 The year 1968 was likely the most tumultuous one in the last half of the twentieth century. The American involvement in the Vietnam War was going at full speed and the anti-war movement in the United States quickly reached a high velocity. Two major political and social figures were assassinated and there were race riots across the United States. Some people even began to question whether the country would hold together or fragment. In the rest of the world, Soviet and other Warsaw pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia.

 This book provides a set of short snippets about some of the major events of the year, of which there were many. The basics are covered, although in such a year with so much news, only a tiny fraction can be highlighted. Nevertheless, this is a good book to whet an appetite about the history of the late sixties.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Review of "Quarterback Season," by Fred Bowen

Review of

Quarterback Season, by Fred Bowen ISBN 9781561455942

Four out of five stars

 Matt is going into the upcoming middle school football season fully expecting to be the starting quarterback. He is in the eighth and last grade in the school, so this is his last chance. He is a very talented quarterback, but lacks the skills needed to excel at other positions.

 Devro is a seventh grader and an extremely fast and shifty runner, it only takes a few practices before it is clear to all that he is the superior athlete. This raises concerns in Matt about Devro taking over his position, even though when Devro plays quarterback he clearly lacks the precision in his passing to play the position full time.

 The main theme of this book is managing the fears of a member of the starting unit that they will be replaced in the lineup. It is a common problem and creates the conflict of personal desires versus the success of the team. Since this is an issue that is universal in competitive sports, there is an important lesson here.

 The common formula for adolescent sports fiction is to experience adversity, make it to the big game at the end and then dramatically win it. That is not the case in the Fred Bowen series, and he is to be commended for that trait. After all, in a 26 team league with a championship game at the end, only one team can win their last game. As the legendary football coach Paul Brown said, "You can learn a line from a win and a book from a defeat."

Review of "You Must Remember This: 1966," by Mary A. Pradt

Review of

You Must Remember This: 1966, by Mary A. Pradt ISBN 0446910430

Four out of five stars

 This is a short book designed to be gifted to another after the to, from and message entries on the first page are filled in. It contains a series of short blurbs about major events in 1966, one image appears on each page. At times, there is no explicit clue as to which event on the page is linked to the image. While people that know the history of that year will generally be able to infer the reference, it should always be explicit.

 Other than that, this is a book that is well suited as a birthday gift so that the recipient will know some of the things that happened in the year of their birth.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Review of "Taiwan: Yesterday and Today"

Review of

Taiwan: Yesterday and Today

Five out of five stars

 The articles in this collection were written shortly after American President Carter decided to recognize the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the official government of the country. For approximately 30 years, the United States officially considered the government of the island of Taiwan as the government of China. While it was the logical conclusion of the surprise Nixon trip to China in 1972, the recognition had significant repercussions throughout Asia and the world. These articles describe various consequences of the event.

 The governments of the PRC and Taiwan were hostile towards each other, the official position of each was that they would eventually (re)conquer the other. Yet, as is explained very well in this collection, the consequences of the recognition were rather minor. Both sides adopted a set of positions where each looked the other way so that economic ties between the two “nations” could expand and that other countries could continue to do business with them both.

 Some of the actions border on the ludicrous, yet they did work, and the peace has remained for decades. This collection is an excellent look back to the time of change and where the seeds of the dramatic rise of the P. R. C. to the level of economic superpower were planted.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Review of "Hamlet: A Shakespeare Story," by Andrew Matthews and Tony Ross

Review of

Hamlet: A Shakespeare Story, by Andrew Matthews and Tony Ross, ISBN 9781626866850

Four out of five stars

 If there were a poll to learn the most famous line from the Shakespearean plays, it would most likely be, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” a line from Hamlet. It is the first line in what is arguably the best description of the human condition ever put on paper and read aloud. Hamlet is one of the most performed Shakespearean plays as well as the one most often made into a movie. The base plot has been reused many times and in many forms.

 This book is designed to be a primer of the plot, it uses no actual dialogue from the play to explain it. While purists can argue that much of the tone of the story is lost, it does explain the fundamentals of the play very well. It is a good book for school children that will introduce them to what is a really good story imbedded in a classic Elizabethan play.

Review of "Hundred-Dollar Baby," by Robert B. Parker

Review of

Hundred-Dollar Baby, by Robert B. Parker ISBN 9780399153761

Five out of five stars

 In the previous Spenser novel called “Ceremony,” with Spenser’s help teenager April Kyle was able to escape the life of a street sex worker. This was where she ended up after fleeing a terrible home life. Spenser did the best that he could do in the circumstances, he managed to place April in a high-class bordello where she was shielded from the most brutal of circumstances. April also fell into a situation where she needed Spenser’s assistance in “Taming a Sea Horse.”

 This story opens when a woman Spenser describes as a knockout walks into his office with no appointment. Until she identifies herself, Spenser does not recognize April. She is now running her own house, apparently doing quite well both financially and personally. However, she is now being shaken down by some low-level thugs and needs Spenser’s help once again.

 At first it makes no sense, Spenser checks with Tony Marcus, the man in thorough control of the local sex trade and it is not his doing. With Hawk’s aid, they easily deal with the part-time thugs that arrive to harass April and her girls. There being no usual suspects to follow, Spenser must rely on the good will of people in April’s past to search out anyone that may be behind the harassment.

 The story is a good one with the usual Parker dialog between Spenser and the other supporting characters Hawk, Susan, some of the regular villains and police officers Quirk and Belson. There is not much action in the area of fisticuffs or gunplay and there is an unexpected ending. Throughout, Spenser laments what he did for April and asks if he could have done more. Although Susan assures him that he made her situation the best that it could be, it shows the human side of Spenser, the professional tough guy and occasional killer.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Review of "Bitcoin Heist," DVD version

Review of

Bitcoin Heist, DVD version

Four out of five stars

 This movie was made in Vietnam, a place that one would not consider to be where quality films are made. The story is along the lines of “Ocean 11,” where a group of unlikely partners get together in order to execute a very complex robbery. In this case, rather than stealing valuables that are physical, the target is assets expressed in cyber form, namely bitcoins. Not only do the perpetrators have to break into a secure vault, they must access a computer and transfer the bitcoins using a security device embedded in the target’s ring, which he wears at all times. As in keeping with such movies, there are many special effects with the camera shot bouncing from location to location and person to person.

 The movement from action shot to action shot is not as crisp as viewers of Hollywood movies have come to expect. Yet, they are not bad. What makes the movie distinct from the others in the genre is that the ending is not formulaic. In other movies, the group of thieves successfully carries out the heist and then laughs their way to and sometimes into the credits. That is not the case here, the last part of the movie contains some very unexpected twists.

 One of the strongest features of the movie is the fact that the target assets are digital in form. Given that most monetary transfers in the world today are electronic, this is a new area of the big crime genre that must be explored in cinema.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Review of "Arms in the Indian Ocean: Interests and Challenges," by Dale R. Tahtinen

Review of

Arms in the Indian Ocean: Interests and Challenges, by Dale R. Tahtinen ISBN 0844732427

Five out of five stars

 In 2020, the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean is a major U. S. military base, containing major airstrips as well as facilities to support all types of naval ships. Yet, there was a time when there was an intense debate in the United States congress as to whether the U. S. should have a major base in the area. This book was written in 1977, when the debate over whether the U. S. should militarize the Indian Ocean was heating up.

 The author covers what is considered to be the most likely conflicts to arise in the area of southern Asia. One of the primary issues is the conflict between Somalia and the other nations that contain ethnic Somalis. When the colonial powers carved up East Africa, ethnic boundaries were irrelevant. Other potential areas of conflict are between Iran and other Islamic nations, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and between the nations on the Arabian peninsula. It closes with an appendix that lists the major military hardware assets of the countries.

 This book is a great look back at how an expert thought of the state of the region of the world that bordered the Indian Ocean. Much has happened since then, most of it bad. Many of the conflicts that the author considers in this book have come about and some are still active.

Review of "Playoff Dreams," by Fred Bowen

Review of

Playoff Dreams, by Fred Bowen ISBN 9781561455072

Five out of five stars

 The standard mold of the classic book of adolescent sports fiction is that the main character is a player on a team that struggles early, rights itself and then plays and wins the big game at the end. Furthermore, girls other than mothers are at best an afterthought in the plot, contributing little to nothing to the power of the story.

 That is not the case in the books by Fred Bowen, in this one about baseball, there are female players on the team, and they are good hitters and fielders. Furthermore, there is no winning of the big game at the end, pointing out that in any sports league with a championship, only one team can win its last game. Everyone else must walk away as a member of a losing team.

 Brendan is a very good player, one of the best in the league. He is a great hitter and a superb fielder in center field. Yet, his team is not doing well, and he feels that he must “take over,” even though that is impossible in baseball. With the help of his uncle and Cubs fan Jack, Brendan learns that it is often the case that great players never get to be a member of a championship team.

 I really enjoyed the references to Cub great Ernie Banks, an all-time figurative champion to all people that know baseball. His joy at being able to play baseball is an inspiration to all who play games for fun or money.

Review of "Teng Hsiao-P’ing Comes to Washington: The Man and His Mission," by Richard C. Bush

Review of

Teng Hsiao-P’ing Comes to Washington: The Man and His Mission, by Richard C. Bush

Five out of five stars

 There have been two transformative political figures in China during the last two-thirds of the twentieth century. The first was Mao Zedong, the man who led the Communists to victory in the Chinese civil war and then launched purges and powerful social movements in the country that by the best estimates led to the deaths of 20-46 million people. The second was Deng Xiaoping, he was twice purged by Mao and barely avoided death, yet he implemented the policies that led to China rising in less than thirty years to the level of a global economic superpower.

 Deng emerged as the de facto leader of China in 1977 and so was relatively new to the position when he made his famous trip to Washington D. C. in January 1979 that is described here. While the trip was known to be historic at the time, no one truly understood the significance of Deng in the path of history.

 This book is a good, albeit brief summary of Deng’s policies and how the improvement of relations between the United States and China was one of the first initial steps in the rise of China to great power status. It is a great look back to the beginning of what we see now.

Review of "Othello: A Shakespeare Story," by Andrew Matthews and Tony Ross

Review of

Othello: A Shakespeare Story, by Andrew Matthews and Tony Ross ISBN 9781626866959

Five out of five stars

 An English professor once told me that Othello was her favorite Shakespeare story, with the villain Iago one of the most memorable characters in all of his plays. The main premise is one unusual for plays and stories of the seventeenth century, it is an unforced interracial marriage. Less commonly emphasized is the rags to riches aspect of the play. Othello, a black man that escaped slavery and then through bravery in battle rose to the rank of general, is the main character.

 He then meets and falls in love with Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian nobleman and she reciprocates the feelings. They are secretly married and are initially very happy when Othello is sent to command a garrison on the island of Cyprus. When they arrive, the despicable Iago engages in an underhanded campaign to create dissension in the garrison and between Othello and Desdemona until there is a great tragedy. It is a story about jealousy, hatred and the all-too-common actions of people that only know how to destroy.

 This book captures the essence of the story, which is in many ways more of a tragedy than Romeo and Juliet, for in this case one of the lovers is killed by the other. In many ways the English professor was right, the relationships are more socially complex, and the story is one that is easier for modern readers to relate to. I strongly recommend this book as an introduction to a great play.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Review of "Vietnam: Free-Fire Zone," Chris Lynch

Review of

Vietnam: Free-Fire Zone, Chris Lynch ISBN 9780545494274

Five out of five stars

 When Rudi joins the military during the height of the Vietnam War, he appears to be in deep trouble. He is one of those kids that were heavily picked on in school until he acquired his buddies Beck, Morris and especially Ivan. They faced down his tormentors and kept him safe, but starting at Marine boot camp, he is alone. Life as a soldier is hard at first, Rudi is laughed at, with a common statement referring to his actions is, “Is he for real?”

 Once Rudi is in Vietnam and assigned to a combat unit, he begins to adjust and even thrive in the very rigid environment of doing what you are told. Over time and with a little help, he becomes a killing machine, a man that shoots when and where he is told to. Rudi begins volunteering for dangerous actions and when he has a phone conversation with Morris, Rudi tells him that he is in Vietnam for the duration. Morris recognizes the difference in Rudi and tells him to lighten up and remember what he was before he took on the life of a soldier.

 This book is about how combat action changes young men to the point where their best friends before they became a soldier find their attitude unnerving. Such transformations are common, an elderly woman I work for told me that her grandson went to fight in Iraq and now she is unnerved by his attitude and approach to life. It is an old, sad story but one that humans seem destined to repeat ad infinitum.

Review of "The Kid Coach," by Fred Bowen

Review of

The Kid Coach, by Fred Bowen, ISBN 9781561455065

Five out of five stars

 When this story opens, the Tigers baseball team that Scott plays on has a problem. Coach Skelly has taken on new job responsibilities and can no longer coach the team, he quits before their first game. When a call goes out for any other adult to take the position, there are no takers. Scott is a natural leader of the group of players (there are girls on the team) and so in a last-ditch effort to have a season, Scott offers to become the coach, citing the history of player-managers in major league baseball. With no other alternatives, he takes the position.  

 At first, the team loses, but then Scott has a conversation with Benny the Brain, one of the players on the team. As his nickname suggests, Benny is very good at math (not so much at baseball) and he informs Scott of the data he has collected about the team, in essence he is a sabermetrician. Using this data, Scott makes major changes in positioning and tactics and the team starts winning. When it is over, they managed to have a winning season.

 This is a great story because it is plausible in the sense that sabermetrics is a very real area of data collection, analysis and application and it can be applied even at the youth level. Most major league teams now collect such data and before handhelds, it was a common sight to see a manager flipping through the pages of a three-ring binder when a decision needed to be made.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Review of "The Antique Radio Boys and the Garrulous Grebe," by Stan Dryer

Review of

The Antique Radio Boys and the Garrulous Grebe, by Stan Dryer ISBN 1882452003

Five out of five stars

 I have read a large number of Hardy Boys books, from the originals published in the 1920’s to some of the more recent. There has been a distinct evolution in the style over the decades. I have also read a few of the other adolescent mystery books featuring other main characters.

 While this book was published in 1992, the temporal context is decades earlier. This is clear from the clothing, technology and the bicycles. Yet, the writing style is that of adolescent adventure stories of the thirties and forties. The author does an excellent job in that area and also interjects many technical references to the earliest of radios. You don’t have to be knowledgeable in the area of antique radios to appreciate and understand the descriptions.

 It can be very hard for a modern person to mimic the writing style of decades ago. In this case, the adventure is base to the genre and the author nails the tone.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Review of "Taiwan’s Mainland Policy and the Reunification of China," by Maria Hsia Chang

Review of

Taiwan’s Mainland Policy and the Reunification of China, by Maria Hsia Chang

Five out of five stars

 Written in 1990 before the People’s Republic of China (PRC) became an economic superpower and arguably the largest economy in the world, this book is a look back to when the transformation was in the early stages. Although the government of Taiwan and that of the PRC were still at stiff odds, there was a thaw in the movements of people, goods and money between the two entities. In order to tone down the differences, both sides were content to label the interactions “unofficial.”

 With the hindsight of thirty years of elapsed time, one can look at what was stated in this book and see the embryonic development of what has become a major implementation of realpolitik, where both sides want the same goal of unification, just on different terms. In the meantime, both have decided to exchange currency rather than weaponry. In 2018, trade between the two was $150 billion and travelers from the PRC made 1.66 million visits to Taiwan.

Review of "Post Cards of LaPorte City," collected by Junior L. McBride

Review of

Post Cards of LaPorte City, collected by Junior L. McBride

Five out of five stars

 La Porte City is a town in Eastern Iowa with a population slightly over 2,000, first reaching the level of 1,000 at the 1880 census. It is typical of most small towns in the midwestern United States, until recently the economy was based primarily on agriculture.

 The post card images in this collection are from the last years of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. Most of them feature the prominent landmarks of the city, of specific interest is the railroad depot. It was rather large, very attractive and served local and interstate train traffic. One image shows the campaign train of William Howard Taft when he was running for president in 1908. It is a reminder that back then, candidates for high office campaigned in the towns served by the railroads.

 The explanatory text in minimal, just enough to identify the main object(s) or event that was captured on film. There is no major underlying theme other than how the city appeared as the first two digits of the calendar transferred from 19 to 20.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Review of "African Probings: Reflections on Political Theory in the Context of French African Development," by W Hardy Wickwar

Review of

African Probings: Reflections on Political Theory in the Context of French African Development, by W Hardy Wickwar

Four out of five stars

 The French holdings in Africa were extensive at the height of the Empire. While there were differences in how the French took and maintained control in what became different countries, certain basic tactics were used. Those tactics are covered in this book.

 While there were some strong central governments in African history, before the French arrived the basic social and political structure in the areas were the local village and tribe. Those features were suppressed and replaced by a central government with the French in firm control with a hierarchical structure with the percentage of native members getting higher as the village level was approached.

 It was a class of cultures with significantly different beliefs in how societies are managed. The author does a good job in explaining the fundamentals of the differences and how the imposition of French control changed the African societies and the reality of adaptation to living with a superior military power.

 Even though the French west African nations have been independent for sixty years, there is still a residual legacy of the colonial period. This short book will help the reader understand why that situation still exists.

Review of "National Security Challenges to Saudi Arabia," by Dale R. Tahtinen

Review of

National Security Challenges to Saudi Arabia, by Dale R. Tahtinen ISBN 08447320966

Five out of five stars

 This short pamphlet is an excellent retrospective look back at how the position of Saudi Arabia relative to the other nations in the area was perceived in the late 1970’s. At the time, the nation was militarily very weak, there were two Yemens, Iran under the Shah had a very powerful military and Iraq had a relatively strong military. Iraq also openly stated that Kuwait was historically part of the Iraqi nation. Finally, there were strong verbal hostilities between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

 Some of what is discussed as potential difficulties in this pamphlet has come to pass. Iraq did in fact make a military attempt to take control of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia became involved in a war in Yemen and there is a major military and political rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

 What is not mentioned is the repressive social conditions that existed in Saudi Arabia in 1978 and continues to this day. It can be strongly argued that those conditions pose the greatest threat to the political and social stability of the nation. Despite that omission, this is a book that will prime your historical pump about the current issues in the region.

Review of "Dancing Drum: A Cherokee Lesson," by Terri Cohlene

Review of

Dancing Drum: A Cherokee Lesson, by Terri Cohlene ISBN 0816723621

Five out of five stars

 This retelling and modification of a legend of the Cherokee tribe is interesting on several levels. First and foremost, it gives an insight into the Cherokee beliefs regarding death and the structure of the spirit world. Secondly, when it opens, it was possible for spirits of the dead to travel back to the land of the living and it explains how that was changed. Finally, one of the fundamental premises is that the energy output of the sun is not constant over time. The last premise is known to be true; the sun’s output does vary slightly over time with occasional massive bursts of radiation capable of frying modern electronics and damaging satellites.

 When Grandmother Sun begins burning up the land, a young man named Dancing Drum is tasked with traveling to the residence of the sun’s daughter so that he can perhaps alter the situation. Wrapped in the skin of a snake, Dancing Drum accidently kills the sun’s daughter.

 This mistake must be fixed, so Dancing Drum and a band of the six fastest stickball players set off on an expedition to recover the sun’s daughter from the spirit world and return her to the living. It is a difficult task and they almost are able to be completely successful.

 The Cherokee were one of the “Seven Civilized Tribes” in what were the original American colonies. They were farmers and quickly adapted to the ways of the European settlers and many were educated. These features did them no good when they were forcibly removed from their native lands and force marched to the alien environment of Oklahoma in what is now known as “The Trail of Tears.” This book is an excellent retelling of one of their important legends and gives insight into their culture.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Review of "NATO: Task of Adaptation," by Robert Strausz-Hupe

Review of

NATO: Task of Adaptation, by Robert Strausz-Hupe

Four out of five stars

 Published in 1978, this short book opens with the sentence. “NATO is a surprisingly long-lived institution, having survived longer than most institutions of its kind known to history.” This was fifty years ago and there have been enormous changes in the geopolitical landscape. China has risen to the level of a global economic superpower and the Soviet Union has been in the dustbin of history for thirty years.

 Yet, there is much that the modern scholar can glean from the writings of Professor Strausz-Hupe. Especially when one transfers his writings about Soviet aims to the Russia of Vladimir Putin. There is no passage more relevant to what Russian President Putin is trying to do than what appears on page 10. “On the record, it seems that the Soviet Union has succeeded in converting military power into political influence in various places on the globe and has done so without firing one authentic Soviet shot.” Replace Soviet by Russian in that sentence and we have the current geopolitical situation.

Review of "The Atlantic Alliance and the Warsaw Pact: A Comparative Study"

Review of

The Atlantic Alliance and the Warsaw Pact: A Comparative Study

Four out of five stars

 A figurative ocean of water has gone under the geopolitical bridge since this book was relevant. It was published in 1976. After a few pages of comparison of the command and control structures of NATO and the Warsaw Pact treaties, the public text of both treaties is given. The Soviet Union has dissolved along with the Warsaw Pact, so this book is a glimpse back into what was.

 This makes it an interesting historical document, made especially true given the current environment where major political figures are questioning the relevance of NATO in the modern world. To answer those questions, it is necessary to understand the role NATO had years ago and this book is a good primer on the quest for that knowledge.

Review of "The Taming of the Shrew: A Shakespeare Story," by Andrew Matthews and Tony Ross

Review of

The Taming of the Shrew: A Shakespeare Story, by Andrew Matthews and Tony Ross ISBN 9781626866997

Four out of five stars

 This is one of the Shakespearean plays that will likely run afoul of the modern self-declared PC police. It depicts a woman (Katherina) that is foul tempered and cannot get along with anyone. Her reputation for nastiness is so great that no man in the area has any interest in being her husband. Her younger sister Bianca has a temperament that is completely opposite, so she is considered prime bride material by many of the local men.

 Knowing how difficult it will be to marry Katherina off, their father Baptista proclaims that desirable Bianca will not be wed before Katherina is. This leads to a group of men entering into a pact of deception, if it is successful the man that loves Bianca will be able to marry her. A man named Petruchio comes into town and serves as the man that courts Katherina in a very odd way. Like Katherina’s traits, his are also exaggerated.

 This book captures the essence of the story, although it does not have a single line of dialog from the Shakespearean play. It is meant to be a comedy of the times of Shakespeare and it loses a great deal of the humorous features when placed in the modern context. Despite her faults, when the play opens Katherina is a strong, independent woman and by the end she is totally submissive to her husband.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Review of "Full Court Fever," by Fred Bowen

Review of

Full Court Fever, by Fred Bowen, ISBN 9781561455089

Four out of five stars

 This book is a combination of a story about a seventh grade basketball team and a lesson in the history of basketball. Michael Mancino is in seventh grade and the basketball season is about to start. The team will play a full season and then after that the seventh grade team will play the eighth grade team.

Michael’s team is small and quick and when the season starts, they find themselves incapable of handling teams with taller players and lose. When he gets a gift certificate, Michael finds some old copies of “Sports Illustrated” magazine that describe the UCLA Bruins basketball team in the early sixties. The team had no tall players so Coach John Wooden installed a constant and relentless full-court press and they won their first NCAA championship under Wooden. From the magazines, Michael learns how to execute the press and his teammates install it as a full-game strategy and their team fortunes change.

 The story flows very well with little in the way of material other than that related to basketball. There are girls, but their role is primarily to staff the girls’ team of the school. The big game at the end is when they play the annual game where the seventh graders go up against the eighth graders. A very nice touch is the inclusion of a tall transfer student from Nigeria. Although his game is soccer and he knows almost nothing about basketball, the new boy becomes part of the team.

 This is an easy read, one to get into late at night when you are slowly putting your mind to bed.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Review of "The Superlative Horse," by Jean Merrill

Review of

The Superlative Horse, by Jean Merrill 

Four out of five stars

 The basic premise of this story was a tale in the “Book of Lieh Tzu,” which was published in China around 350 B. C. While it is an old tale, it is also timeless. For it deals with the selection of the highest quality horses and how people under the ruler can be disingenuous in pursuit of their aims.

 Duke Mu is the most powerful ruler in the Five Provinces and the horses in his stables were known as the best in the land. His Chief Groom is Po Lo and he is the person responsible for the greatness. Po Lo has been the one to go out into the land in search of the best horses, but he is getting old, so a replacement is being sought.

 Quite logically, Duke Mu consults Po Lo regarding his replacement and is astonished when he is told that the best person for the role is Han Kan, the son of a fuel hawker. Not quite convinced, Duke Mu sends Han Kan and his Chief Minister Wang Ho out into the land in a search for the best of all horses. This story describes their journey and Wang Ho’s efforts to discredit Han Kan. It is a fairly standard tale of the efforts of an unheralded and unlikely person to rise to a position of fame and fortune.

 The story is interesting, as are all ancient tales from other lands. In many ways it demonstrates a commonality among ancient cultures where the horse was the prime means of transportation and powerful labor. The common theme of competition between employees is also a human universal.

Review of "The Merchant of Venice: A Shakespeare Story," by Andrew Matthews and Tony Ross

Review of

The Merchant of Venice: A Shakespeare Story, by Andrew Matthews and Tony Ross ISBN 9781626866980

Four out of five stars

 This play by Shakespeare is a combination of love story, comedy and fable, with a Jewish moneylender included. The love story involves Bassanio, a man of noble rank in Venetia and Portia of Belmont. They met once and it was love at first sight. However, the terms of her father’s will force her to submit each suitor to a test and so far, all the men have failed. Bassanio’s friend Antonio loans him the money he needs to impress Portia, but he is forced to borrow the money from the Jewish moneylender Shylock.

 Antonio has been cruel to Shylock, so in an act of revenge, Shylock writes the clause in the contract that if Antonio defaults, Shylock will be able to literally extract a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body. When Antonio does default, there is a climactic court scene where the paired Bassanio and the disguised Portia come to Antonio’s defense and solve the problem with a significant act of mercy towards Shylock.

 While this book does not use quotes from the play itself, it does a good job of presenting the love story, the parable topics of being careful regarding the choices you make and that if it is possible, one should take pity on people that you may not think deserve it. However, there is no mention of Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity. Shylock is drawn as a shift-eyed evil man.

Review of "Meet the Dullards," by Sara Pennypacker and Daniel Salmieri

Review of

Meet the Dullards, by Sara Pennypacker and Daniel Salmieri ISBN 9780062991607

Five out of five stars

 This book is amusing and something that all children can relate to. For at some point in their lives, children consider their parents dull, yet object to most actions that make them seem cool and unique. The Dullards are a family of five where the parents enforce the very dull. Their clothes are blackish-grey, and the parents are so focused on the dull that they consider medium grey and beige to be too stimulating colors for paint. Of course, the children try to find exciting things in their lives and eventually they manage to succeed, doing wild and crazy things that many children dream about doing.

 Unlike the premise, this is a fun book to read, for it captures the thoughts of nearly all children. The children think that their parents hold them back from having fun, when in fact it is generally a reasonable attempt to protect them. The fantasy of running off and having fun like the Dullard children do is one that all children can relate to.

Review of "The Boy Who Grew Flowers," by Jen Wojtowicz

Review of

The Boy Who Grew Flowers, by Jen Wojtowicz ISBN 9781841486864

Five out of five stars

A good lesson for people of all ages

 This book is about the kids that are significantly different and attending elementary school. Rink Bowagon is a boy that lives so far out in the country that there is no road, only a footpath to his house. Furthermore, the nearest road is dirt, and his family is the only one that lives on Lonesome Mountain. All members of the family have unusual talents, Rink’s is that he sprouts flowers all over his body during a full moon.

 The other children in school avoid Rink until a new girl arrives. Her name is Angelina and she has one leg an inch shorter that the other. Angelina befriends Rink and after some interaction, they discover that they share an unusual trait. From that point on they are friends for life.

 It is a great story, for it demonstrates that even the people that come across as unusual are worth befriending, for you never know how you may benefit from that friendship. This is a good lesson for people of all ages.

Review of "100 Most Feared Creatures," by Scholastic Inc.

Review of

100 Most Feared Creatures, by Scholastic Inc. ISBN 9780545563420

Five out of five stars

 This book containing short descriptions of animals that pose a danger to humans is at times very scary. Although it is admitted that dangerous contacts with such animals are rare, phrases like, “Geographer cone venom is so powerful that just one snail is capable of killing 700 people,” are truly scary.

 The creatures in this book are dangerous in many ways, from injecting poison to slicing and dicing to simply trampling you. Children are especially vulnerable, for they grow up seeing human-like animals in cartoons and movies. While most creatures will go out of their way to avoid humans, there are some that will attack with no provocation and all will attack if their young are threatened.

 The tiger is unique among cats, for there are known instances where a tiger has deliberately hunted humans for food. Most frightening are the parasites, only a few of which are mentioned in this book. I took a college course in parasitology and it is unnerving to read the accounts and see the pictures of some of the infected people.

 This is a book that children can read in order to get a fright, and unlike what appears in movies, the “bad guys” in this book are real and can be encountered.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Review of "Debt of Honor," by Tom Clancy

Review of

Debt of Honor, by Tom Clancy ISBN 0399139540

Five out of five stars

 This book has been claimed to be prescient in that two major plot elements are a severe financial and securities meltdown and a commercial airliner being used as a political weapon of terror. The initial premise is that the leaders of Japan, China and India enter into a conspiracy to dramatically alter the territorial alignment of Asia. The leader of Japan is not the prime minister, but one of the leading figures of the Keiretsu, the business consortium that essentially ran Japan.

 When there are horrific accidents due to poorly constructed fuel tanks on Japanese-made automobiles, the reaction in the United States is to enact punitive legislation against Japan and Japanese products. They are so severe that there is the danger that the Japanese economy will collapse. Somewhat reminiscent of the situation between the U. S. and Japan in the years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. There have been years of military reductions in the United States, so Japan thinks that they can invade Saipan and annex it with impunity. The Japanese leader also pays off an American programmer to execute a logic bomb that will collapse the American and European financial systems.

 Jack Ryan is the National Security advisor to the American President, so he is entrusted with planning the American response. It is also a time when the U. S. and Russia have destroyed their last nuclear weapons and in contravention to treaty, Japan has acquired nuclear weapons.

 Like all Clancy novels, it takes a great deal of time and ink to set up all of the premises needed to trigger the story. Many of the other regular characters of the Clancy stories are supporting characters, although some of them have risen in rank and stature. It is a great story with one of the most surprising endings of all action novels. It puts the reader in the position of begging for a sequel.

 The only downside is that all American technology and plans work to near perfection, which is contrary to the real world. That is a fairly easy leap of faith, so the result is an adventure story you get attached to.

Review of "Henry V: A Shakespeare Story," by Andrew Matthews and Tony Ross

Review of

Henry V: A Shakespeare Story, by Andrew Matthews and Tony Ross ISBN 9781626866928

Five out of five stars

 This book is both an introduction to one of Shakespeare’s best plays as well as a history lesson of the political relationship between England and France during the time he held the English throne. Since Henry V is considered one of the best military leaders of medieval Europe, he took control of a large part of continental France, Henry V was also a popular, patriotic play.

 The level of the text is that of the late elementary school student and is profusely and simply illustrated. There are no quotes from the play. It could serve as the lead-in to a section on the history of Europe and how there was a chance that Britain and France would become a single country. Had Henry not died at an early age, that is very possible. Given the destruction of the wars between Britain and France, this would have had enormous consequences for European history.

 I enjoyed this book and consider it a superb introduction to a significant Shakespearean play.