Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Review of "QB 1," by Mike Lupica

 Review of

QB 1, by Mike Lupica ISBN 9780147511522

Five out of five stars

Football as a near religion

 If you pay any attention to how high school football is treated in the state of Texas, you know that it is a near religion. Some schools have extremely large stadiums and almost everyone in the areas where the two schools are from attend the games. That fervor is the basis of this novel about three quarterbacks.

 The father is Troy Cullen, former great quarterback at Granger High, then a college star that went on to play briefly in the NFL. His career there was cut short by a series of concussions and not due to lack of skill. The oldest son is Wyatt, former star at Granger High that won a state title last year and is now the starting quarterback as a freshman at the University of Texas. Jake is now a freshman at Granger and when the season starts, he is the third string quarterback.

 However, things change quickly very early in the season. The veteran first string quarterback suffers a season-ending injury early in the first game and the second string quarterback struggles. Even though he is very raw, Jake is given the opportunity to compete for the starting position. It is a quick learning experience as he battles his inexperience, his father that appears to be totally focused on Wyatt and the general difficulties of being a freshman in the stressful environment that is high school football in Texas.

 There are several different threads to this story, all weaved together to come down to what is the standard “big game at the end.” Even though the reader knows fairly early that that will happen, it is handled so well that it is still engaging. I read the pages of the account of that game twice because I found it so exciting.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Review of "Buddy and His Flying Balloon," by Howard R. Garis

 Review of

Buddy and His Flying Balloon, by Howard R. Garis

Three out of five stars

Unusual and dated YA adventure

 Some of the YA adventure books targeted at boys that were published in the first half of the twentieth century are unusual and don’t travel well across the years. This is one of them. Buddy is an early teen boy with visions of being an inventor. In this case, he takes a piece of canvas and uses sticks to form it into the shape of a balloon. A local man loans him an actual basket from a balloon and Buddy and his friends are all set to go on imaginary balloon rides.

 When Buddy and his friends spend the night in the balloon basket, they end up having an actual adventure. Professor Higman is a balloonist that flies over during the night and his dangling tow rope catches Buddy’s balloon and carries it along. They end up at the fairgrounds of the next town, where they are of course a sensation.

 The premise that turns the imagination into reality is a bizarre one that stretches your credulity, even for a YA adventure book. That feature and the dialog makes this a book that does not age well and is valuable only for a look back at how adventure stories were crafted before the Second World War.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Review of "Finding Buck McHenry," by Alfred Slote

 Review of

Finding Buck McHenry, by Alfred Slote ISBN 0064404692

Five out of five stars

Great retrospective on the Negro Leagues

 While this book of adolescent sports fictions can stand as a sports book only, what makes it a winner is that the reader is exposed to some of the characters and characteristics of the Negro Leagues when baseball was strictly segregated. The experiences of the black players before integration is something that needs to be exposed more.

 Jason is a thirteen-year-old boy that is devoted to collecting baseball cards. He also wants to play baseball and is trying out for a Little League team. When he is cut and sent to what is the equivalent of an expansion team, he hits the skids. Right after being cut, he is asked to pick up the bases and take them to the elementary school. While there, he talks with Mack Henry, the longtime custodian. Mack shows him what he did wrong, and it is clear to Jason that Mack knows a great deal about baseball.

 When Jason goes to the local sports card store, he sees a Negro League card of Buck McHenry and he becomes convinced that Buck and Mack are the same person. This starts a chain of events where Mack becomes the coach of the expansion team where his grandson Aaron is finally coaxed out of his shell of grief. Aaron’s parents and sibling were killed in an auto accident, so Aaron has moved in with his grandparents.

 The combination of the proprietor of the card shop, a famous sports reporter and his baseball star daughter, Aaron’s powerful pitching arm and the backdrop of the history of baseball make a great story. Particularly important are the inclusion of what some of the baseball stars said about their Negro colleagues in the days of segregation. When the great Honus Wager was told that John Lloyd was called the “Black Honus Wagner,” Wagner replied, “I am honored to have John Lloyd called the Black Wagner.”

 While there are a few unexpected twists in this story, it keeps your attention and is one that is hard to put down. It is a lesson in both history and a great piece of fiction. It was deservedly made into a movie.

Review of "Stumptown Kid," by Carol Gorman and Ron J. Findley

 Review of

Stumptown Kid, by Carol Gorman and Ron J. Findley ISBN 9781561453375

Five out of five stars

Great baseball book with healing over time

 The context for this novel is the timeframe of the early 1950’s in a small town in Iowa. Specifically in the area around Cedar Rapids. As a lifelong resident of that area, many of the location references are well known to me. When I was young, there was an area of Cedar Rapids known as Stumptown and my great uncle lived there.

 There are several themes to this book. There is love of baseball, the sense of loss when a husband and father is killed in the Korean War, and how sports can bridge the gap between the races. Charlie Nebraska is twelve and he wants two things in the worst way. The first is to get his life back to the way it was when his father was alive and the second is to make the Wildcats baseball team so that he can play baseball.

 The first is impossible and the second extremely unlikely until a young black drifter arrives. His name is Luther Peale and he is a former baseball player in the Negro Leagues. Peale arrives with almost nothing, yet Charlie is immediately drawn to him for his knowledge of baseball and his willingness to share. Charlie’s mother proves to be very enlightened in her thinking, even allowing the hungry Luther to eat supper with them.

 Since this is the early fifties and there were no black people in the immediate area and Luther is a drifter, there is some racism. Yet, it is surprisingly muted. Luther is very experienced in candling eggs, so he gets a job checking eggs at the grocery store and a room at a boarding house. At that time, locals brought their eggs to the store to sell them for cash. There is a touching scene when it is time to eat. One boarder refuses to eat with Luther, when Luther offers to leave, she tells him to please sit down and eat, immediately ending the ruckus.

 Luther beguiles Charlie with his stories of playing with the Negro League stars and he agrees to coach Charlie’s baseball team. Many of the parents express initial doubts, but once they see Luther in action and how well he teaches the kids, most of them express their approval.

 Luther also has a past that catches up with him, but with the help of Charlie, he manages to overcome it and Charlie’s team proves that baseball is a game where good coaching can overcome weaker natural skills.

 This is a great story about baseball, racial intolerance and how the less talented and differently colored can overcome their difficulties.

Review of "Classics Illustrated: Crime and Punishment," by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Review of

Classics Illustrated: Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky ISBN 1578400090

Four out of five stars

Complex novel illustrated and simplified

 This classic novel by Dostoyevsky is a very complex one, to truly understand it you must know a bit about the Russian Empire in the middle of the nineteenth century. The novel was published in 1866, shortly after the emancipation of the serfs and after Dostoyevsky experienced a period of imprisonment and exile to Siberia.

 The main character is Raskolnikov, a poor student that commits the murder of an old woman and then descends into a deep psychological mood. He then is convinced that everyone knows of his guilt but is only toying with his mental state. The punishment in this case is largely self-inflicted. While there are many reasons for Raskolnikov to feel oppressed and desperate, he immediately falls into a psychological well after killing the woman.

 There is some simplification of the story in order to pack it into a short graphic novel. Yet, it does capture the essence of a novel that is a powerful piece of literature about Russia and some of the contradictions inherent in the days of the Czars. It can also serve as a quick primer on the novel for high school classes in world literature.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Review of "The Rumpelstiltskin Problem," by Vivian Vande Velde

 Review of

The Rumpelstiltskin Problem, by Vivian Vande Velde ISBN 0439305292

Four out of five stars

Based on the absurd premise of the fairy tale

 Like nearly all fairy tales, Rumpelstiltskin is based on one or more absurd premises and appears in some form in more than one culture. It is based on the classic “supernatural helper” plot device, where there are dire consequences if the human fails at a specific task. It is also based on the alchemical goal of a common substance (straw), being turned into gold.

 In this case, the absurdities in the story are identified and six different short versions of the story are presented. While they do have a more modern flavor, they vary widely in their structure. In some, there is still the basic turning straw into gold, but in others it doesn’t really happen. In my favorite, the miller’s daughter is Carleen and very much a gold digger, looking for the richest and most powerful man to make her groom. In many ways it is the most realistic of the six versions.

 A new approach to the retelling of a classic fairy tale, this book is fun to read and contains a few genuine grins as well as some serious groans.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Review of "Five O’clock Lightning," by William L. DeAndrea

 Review of

Five O’clock Lightning, by William L. DeAndrea

Five out of five stars

A murder story with much more

 This novel is set in the early nineteen fifties at the height of the red scare in the United States. It features steamy sex for profit, murder, New York Yankees baseball, self-serving politicians that wave the red menace at anything that will sit still long enough, racism, and careers destroyed from accusations of being pro-communist.

 Russ Garrett was once a top prospect in the New York Yankees farm system until he was drafted, sent to Korea and suffered severe leg wounds. While he can walk and even run, it is becoming clear that he will never return to a form that will get him back playing baseball. He is now working in the office of the Commissioner of baseball concentrating on veteran’s affairs. His deceased former girlfriend is the sister to the wife of a man whose career as a professor was destroyed by allegations that he was a communist.

 When a member of Congress that is prominent in the communist hysteria is killed in Yankee Stadium during a game, the hunt is on for the killer, and Garrett is part of the hunt. The murder is committed in full view of the reader, so there is never any doubt as to who did it. The main issues become how the killer managed to get away from the police and the relationships between the main characters. Yankee great Mickey Mantle is featured, and he is portrayed as he was in the early fifties, a young man from small town Oklahoma that is overwhelmed by life in New York City.

 There are many different threads weaved within this story, yet the underlying plot device is based on how the manufactured hysteria over the communist menace in the early fifties was a cancer on the body politic of the United States. The ability of self-serving politicians to create such events is a clear weakness of the American political system that is still in evidence today.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Review of "The Clue of the Forgotten Murder," by Erle Stanley Gardner

 Review of

The Clue of the Forgotten Murder, by Erle Stanley Gardner

Four out of five stars

One of the earliest Gardner mysteries

First published in 1934, this novel does not feature the Perry Mason character and there were at most five Perry Mason stories published before this story. Yet, the reader familiar with the writings of Erle Stanley Gardner will recognize his style. Although at this point, it is not yet as honed as it would become.

 The story is very convoluted, and the two main characters are criminologist Sidney Griff, the brains that cracks the case and Dan Bleeker, the hard-bitten and demanding publisher of a local newspaper. When one of his reporters that is pursuing a story is murdered, Bleeker becomes personally involved in the investigation and when necessary threatens to throw the weight of his paper into the machinations.

 There are many characters, with many of them using false names. It opens with a small town man (Frank Cathay) of great influence and wealth being impersonated for what seems to be no valid reason. When the impersonator is stopped by police and considered under the influence, a woman is with him that claims to be a hitchhiker. Both give a false name and that is the start of a story with many twists and involves an ex-wife, daughter and a several others directly and indirectly involved.  The revelation of the true criminals was a surprise, Gardner sets the stage with so many plausible perpetrators and gives so few clues that it is hard to surmise what is behind so many facades.

 I enjoyed the story as a look back at the early Gardner, his 82 different Perry Mason novels and other stories did a great deal to define the whodunit genre.

Review of "Classics Illustrated: From the Earth to the Moon," by Jules Verne

 Review of

Classics Illustrated: From the Earth to the Moon, by Jules Verne, ISBN 157840035x

Four out of five stars

A classic story visually retold

 Jules Verne is considered by many to be the father of science fiction; sound arguments can be made for this position. While there were other stories about traveling to the moon that predated this one, Verne was the first to put forward a less than nonsensical manner of the travel. Yet, the method of propulsion of what is in fact a large cannon shell would have literally plastered the men inside to the wall.

 Like many of the adventure stories of the middle of the nineteenth century, the personalities are strong and significantly antagonistic. There is a duel where two men hunt each other with long rifles and old soldiers lamenting the lack of wars in the world. There is also not a single mention of a human female.

 Yet, this story was one of the many pacesetters in an area of literature that would only expand dramatically as the wonders of new technologies emerged. In the early days, the science had to come before the fiction, but it wasn’t long before the fiction began to come before the science. A classic story, the comic version is a great primer of what is a story that should be read and appreciated by modern readers.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Review of "Science and Human Values," by J. Bronowski

 Review of

Science and Human Values, by J. Bronowski

Five out of five stars

An explanation of how facts serve society

 This is a book that should be read by all in high school and where the reader should be reminded of the contents on occasion. There is no one better than Bronowski at explaining that while science is fallible, it is self-correcting and inherently self-improving. In the modern world when powerful figures engage in the denial of science and sometimes even basic facts, this book is a reminder of how the basic scientific rules that govern nature must be respected. No matter how powerful or forceful a personality, the inherent laws of nature remain unchanged. Even though they may not be known to a high level of precision.

 When I read this book for review, it was the third time for me. It was first recommended to me by my chemistry Professor, and he loaned me one of his copies. It can be considered a handbook on how science and its practitioners can coexist on good terms with other fields of human endeavor.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Review of "Growing Up Alone," by Bernard Stonehouse

 Review of

Growing Up Alone, by Bernard Stonehouse ISBN 0439305322

Five out of five stars

Excellent nature book for children

Written at the level of the late elementary school student, this book contains brief, yet sound explanations of some of the animals that provide little to no care of the infants. This is not to say that they do not prepare elaborate hatching nests, just do not provide care once the eggs hatch.

 For example, the Mason wasp prepares a tunnel nest on a sandy cliff and stocks it with the bodies of a few paralyzed grasshoppers. The entrance to the tunnel is sealed and when the egg hatches, the larva feeds on the caterpillars until it is large enough to emerge and pursue the life of an adult.

 The stories in this book are an amazing description of how some of the simplest of creatures can engage in a fairly elaborate and complex behavior. Planning and preparation are generally needed in order to reproduce, even when no after hatching care is required. That makes it an excellent book regarding the enormous complexity of how nature operates.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Review of "The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White," edited by Sean Callahan

 Review of

The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White, edited by Sean Callahan

Five out of five stars

A sampling of the work of this great photographer

 Margaret Bourke-White was one of the superstars of photography, this includes quality, quantity and the locations of the shoots. For example, not only did she photograph Joseph Stalin, she also caught him with a semi-smile. Among other things, she shot pictures of American poverty, life in the Soviet Union, American and Soviet industry, Eastern Europe before the Second World War and the German death camps after Allied Forces moved in.

 Each image has a caption and the one associated with the picture of a poor woman in Georgia is one of the best statements of poverty ever uttered. “I’ve done the best I knew how all my life, but it didn’t amount to much in the end.”

 While this is only a mere taste of the work of Margaret Bourke-White, it is enough to give the reader a clear understanding of how good she was. Unafraid to put herself in harm’s way for a good picture, she will always remain a giant and a pioneer in the field of photography.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Review of "Star Wars Boba Fett: Pursuit," by Elizabeth Hand

Review of

Star Wars Boba Fett: Pursuit, by Elizabeth Hand, ISBN 0439339332

Four out of five stars

Fills a hole in the Star Wars sequence

 Chronologically, this story takes place several years after Jango Fett was killed by the Jedi Mace Windu. His son, Boba has reached adulthood and is becoming one of the best bounty hunters in the galaxy. He is also one of Jabba the Hutt’s most effective operatives, and his current goal is to hunt down and kill Mace Windu in an act of revenge.

 In his quest, he encounters and is in fact saved by Anakin Skywalker, yet there is no alliance between them. Boba manages to take up a temporary residence in the Jedi Temple and encounters Windu. The action is fairly low key as the clone armies are fighting for the Republic against the separatists. Anakin is operating separately from Obi Wan Kenobi in this story.

 It is a very good novel at the YA level. The plot moves along at a good pace and the number of significant characters is limited to those that are essential. Palpatine is still only Chancellor, yet he is on the road to evil and does an effective job of recruiting Boba to his cause. This book is a quick and satisfying read.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Review of "Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Star Wars Little Golden Book," by Geof Smith

 Review of

Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Star Wars Little Golden Book, by Geof Smith ISBN 9780736436564

Five out of five stars

Classic movies used to make a classic book

 The taking of some of the most well-known scenes from the Star Wars movies and creating a book of advice snippets for children is a work of genius. Each page has an image derived from one of the movies with a brief caption of text. There is also a footnote referencing the source of the image.

 The only possible downside is that for the reader to truly appreciate the advice they will have to be very familiar with all Star Wars productions. While not a major weakness, it is significant for a book aimed at very young children.