Book Review: The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde


Author: Jasper Fforde
TitleThe Well of Lost Plots
Narrator: Emily Gray
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2012)

Other Books Read by Same AuthorThe Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good BookShades of GrayThe Last DragonslayerThe Song of the QuarkbeastOne of Our Thursdays is Missing, and The Eye of Zoltar.
Summary/Review:

I’m revisiting the Thursday Next series and struck by how Fforde can keep at least five plots going simultaneously, interweaving them, and somehow bringing them all together at the end.  First there’s Thursday’s apprenticeship with Miss Havisham at Jurisfiction and getting caught up in the Ultraword conspiracy.  Then there’s Aornis Hades’ memory worm, and Granny Next’s efforts to help Thursday remember Landen.  Then there’s the plot within the book Caversham Heights where Thursday gradually reshapes a derivative detective novel into the setting for Fforde’s Nursery Crime novels. And then there’s the the hysterical evolution of the generic characters Lola and Randolph. There are no plots lost here.  I was delighted to read this book again (in Emily Gray’s voice) and surprised to look back at my original review when I didn’t think too highly of this installment in the series.

Rating: ****

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Book Review: Dreams to Remember by Mark Ribowsky


Author: Mark Ribowsky
TitleDreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul by
Publication Info: Liveright (2015)
Summary/Review:

It’s hard to believe that Otis Redding was only 26 years old when he died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967.  His accomplishments as a singer, song-writer, and producer left behind a colossal legacy for someone so young. Ribowsky’s biography examines Redding’s life as an artist depicting him not only as a talented singer and musician, but the creator and defining star of soul music (I feel that Ribowsky gets a bit hagiographical in this sense as much as I admire Redding’s musical greatness).

The biography explores Redding’s upbringing in Macon, GA – a city that also gave us Little Richard and James Brown – his rise to fame as a stunning stage performer, recording with Stax records in Memphis, and becoming a soul superstar in the mid-60s.  A lot of key moments in Redding’s life are covered in depth including writing and recording “Respect” and how that song was transformed into a defining hit song by Aretha Franklin, covering the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” even though he wasn’t very familiar with the song and ended up improvising new lyrics, his standout performance at the Monterrey Pop Festival, writing and recording “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” and his tragic death.  Ribowsky is also interested in detailing Redding’s role in the rise of Stax Records, defining a Southern soul sound grounded in being the music of the black community in contrast to Detroit’s Motown Records attempts to produce crossover hits.  While Redding did not have hit songs on the pop charts in his lifetime, he managed to have great success and wealth by keeping recordings in the charts for long periods of time, and concurrently with The Beatles, using the long-playing album as a vessel for pop music artistry instead of the single.  The Beatles are also Redding’s fans and loaned him and his retinue limousines every time they performed in London.

While Redding is known as a big-hearted and friendly person, Ribowsky doesn’t shy away from his dark side.  The culture of Stax Records involves casually adding one’s own name as a writing credit, swindling other artists from royalties, and in-fighting among the stable of artists, something Redding was not above participating in.  He was also involved in a shoot-out in Macon that somehow miraculously was kept out of the news coverage of the time.  Worst yet, according to at least one women in the band, Redding and his crew were guilty of emotional abuse and sexual misconduct on their tours.

If you’re interested in Otis Redding and soul music, this is an excellent study of the man and his times, and outside the bits of hagiography, and excellent biographical work.

 

Rating: ****

Book Review: Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick


AuthorMatthew Quick
TitleEvery Exquisite Thing 
Narrator: Vanessa Johansson
Publication Info: New York : Hachette Audio, p2016.
Summary/Review:

Not sure what to make of this book. Nanette O’Hare is a good student and star soccer player at her high school, but an outsider who spends her lunch time with her English teacher.  When her teacher introduces her to an out-of-print book about a disaffected teen railing against conformity, Nanette’s life is changed and she finds and befriends the book’s author. While Nigel Booker refuses to discuss his novel, he does encourage Nanette to rethink her life, leading her to quit the soccer team and reconsider going to college.  He also introduces her to a boy her age who is also a fan of the book and a tortured poet, Alex.  Alex is kind of the manic pixie dream boy of the novel which is kind of a tragedy since neither Nanette nor the author seem to want to realize that he is a colossal douche.  I won’t go into any spoilers but a lot of things happen that push Nanette to the edge of her sanity and increase her resentment against everyone she knows.  I think the problem with this book is that so many characters are so one-dimensional and villainous, that it undermines the generally well-rounded and contradictory characterization of Nanette herself.  Maybe I’ve just finally outgrown teenage rebellion?

Recommended booksThe Pigman by Paul Zindel, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Rating: **

Book Review: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson


AuthorLaurie Halse Anderson
Title: Chains 
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, ©2008.
Summary/Review:

This historical novel set during the early days of the American Revolution focuses on 13-year-old Isabel, an enslaved girl promised freedom on the death of her master, but finds she has no recourse when she and her sister Ruth are sold to cruel new masters in New York.  Working a Loyalist household she finds herself drawn into spying for the revolutionaries, but soon learns that despite promises from Loyalists and Patriots alike, that neither side is concerned with freeing Africans from the bonds of slavery.  Anderson captures the anger of Isabel, but doesn’t neglect to also characterize her as having many concerns typical to a young teenager as well.  The author also really captures the uncertainty of the Revolution, the people of New York taking different sides in 1776, with some among them willing to shift loyalties to whomever has the upper hand.  She also doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war on the civilian community from a brutal fire to depictions of captured Americans cruelly held in cold, overcrowded, and disease-ridden prisons.  The book is the first of a trilogy of books called The Seeds of America and ends on a cliffhanger at a momentous occasion in the narrative so I will be sure to read the rest of the series.

Favorite Passages:

“Momma said that ghosts couldn’t move over water. That’s why kidnapped Africans got trapped in the Americas. When Poppa was stolen from Guinea, he said the ancestors howled and raged and sent a thunderstorm to turn the ship back around, but it was too late. The ghosts couldn’t cross the water to help him so he had to make his own way in a strange place, sometimes with an iron collar around his neck. All of Momma’s people had been stolen too, and taken to Jamaica where she was born. Then she got sold to Rhode Island, and the ghosts of her parents couldn’t follow and protect her neither. They kept moving us over the water, stealing us away from our ghosts and our ancestors, who cried salty rivers into the sand. That’s where Momma was now, wailing at the water’s edge, while her girls were pulled out of sight under white sails that cracked in the wind.” – p. 25

The woman in the yellow head cloth worked the pump for Grandfather. “The British promise freedom to slaves but won’t give it to the white rebels,” she said as she pushed the handle up and down. “The rebels want to take freedom, but they won’t share it with us.” She set down the first bucket and picked up the second. “Both sides say one thing and do the other.” – p. 166

Recommended booksThe Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson
Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick


Author: Anna Kendrick
TitleScrappy Little Nobody
Narrator: Anna Kendrick
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2016
Summary/Review:

Anna Kendrick is a talented actor, singer, dancer, and writer who also happens to be funny and very attractive, so it’s reassuring to read her memoir where she shares her insecurity and feelings that she is a misfit.  On the other hand one my wonder why someone who is a  talented actor, singer, dancer, and writer who also happens to be funny and very attractive has anything to complain about.  Luckily, Kendrick’s memoir is full of humor and perspective on her life story.  She tells of being a child actor on Broadway commuting from Maine to New York for auditions and living in a tar-stained Los Angeles apartment with several roommates even as her fame grew, but she’d still not seen the financial reward.  There’s a lot of insight on her relationship to boys and men and how she’s grown to assert herself.  And then there’s her hilarious takes on celebrity life such as the ridiculous things a woman has to go through for photoshoots and red carpet occasions.  It’s a different type of celebrity memoir, funny, honest, and beneath the surface, a little bit sad, but ultimately persistent.

Recommended books: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (almost) by Felicia Day and Bossypants by Tina Fey
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro


Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
TitleThe Buried Giant
Narrator: David Horovitch
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2015)

Previously read by the same authorA Pale View of HillsAn Artist of the Floating World, and  The Remains of the Day 
Summary/Review:

I went through a phase in the 1990s when I read every Kazuo Ishiguro book up to that point. Since then, I’ve completely failed to read any of his new books as they were released.  I decide to make up for that by reading his most recent novel.  While his earlier works are set in the 20th century and have first-person narrators reflecting on their interior lives, and the melancholy of everyday life, this novel is quite different.  The Buried Giant is set in England at a time after the Saxon invasion when the Britons and Saxons are living side-by-side in an uneasy peace.  The novel focuses on an elderly Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, who have low social status in their community and are suffering from a forgetfulness that’s plaguing the land.  They decide to visit a son that they vaguely recall living in another community, and as they set off on their journey, the seemingly historical fiction begins to take on elements of fantasy.  King Arthur lived and reigned in recent memory and the meet his aged nephew Sir Gawain as well as a Saxon warrior Wistan, and a boy named Edwin who is feared to have been bitten by an ogre.  Others encountered on their journey are a mysterious ferryman, duplicitous monks, and the she-dragon Querig who is responsible for the mist that is causing the forgetfulness. As memories returns, the characters begin to question if they want to remember as forgetting has helped them heal and put aside guilt.  It’s a deeply meditative and atmospheric book that works as a fantasy story and a highly symbolic parable.

Recommended booksThe Sword in the Stone by T. H. White, Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Gypsies of New Rochelle by Ivan Jenson


AuthorIvan Jenson
TitleGypsies of New Rochelle
Publication Info: Michelkin Publishing (2017)
Summary/Review:

I received an advance reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

I gave up on reading this novel about 40% through.  The novel set in 1980 is narrated by 17 y.o. Shawn Aldridge, the youngest member of an eccentric family that recently moved from the midwest to the New York City suburb.  All of the children are expected to accomplish something great, but most of the family’s hopes are pinned on Shawn’s sister Nora becoming a concert violinist, leaving the other children to work out their resentment and inadequacy in other (supposedly comic) ways.  Shawn, an irritating narcissist, sees himself as a sensitive poet and spends much of his time taking the train to New York where he dates an exotic dancer, while simultaneously dating a typical middle-class suburban girl in New Rochelle.  The characters frequently stereotype others, and the author’s voice seem to agree with them.  The dialogue is stilted and unbelievable. Really everyone in this book is loathsome, and while it’s possible to have a novel with no sympathetic characters, you have to be a better writer than this.  I’m not surprised to look at Amazon and see this book compared to Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors, because I hated the movie adaptation of that book for many of the same reasons I hate this book.

Favorite Passages:

“Now, there were two sides to this family. One was playful, fun, drunken and the other was desolate and desperate. At any given moment I could not tell which side was going to win out. The dark or the light.” – (Kindle Locations 134-135).

Rating: *

Book Review: The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau


AuthorJeanne DuPrau
TitleThe City of Ember 
Narrator: Wendy Dillon
Publication Info: Listening Library (2004)
Summary/Review:

This book is the first part of a series about a subterranean city built for reasons not yet explained over 240 years before the events of the novel.  By this time, the people of Ember have forgotten about their origins and are dealing with crumbling infrastructure and dwindling supplies (a very clear analogy to climate change).  The protagonists of the novel are Lina and Dina, two young people who have reached the age where they are given their “Assignments,” their jobs they have to do to contribute to the survival of the community (I don’t think the novel specifies their age, but they seem to be around 12 years old).  A curious pair, Lina and Doon piece together instructions left behind by the “Builders” of Ember, and find a way out of the underground city.  They are a clever and likable duo, albeit a bit one-note.  The plot is very simple but it should be readable for it’s target age group.  The book ends on a massive cliffhanger which makes of course makes me want to read the next book, but also a bit resentful because I didn’t find the book engaging enough on its own to want to read more.

Recommended booksGregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde, and The Inventor’s Secret by Andrea Cremer
Rating: **

Book Review: Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson


AuthorTiffany D. Jackson
Title: Allegedly
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2017)
Summary/Review:

Mary is a teenager living in a group home in Brooklyn after several year of serving time for murdering a baby when she was 9-years-old. Allegedly, as is Mary’s frequent refrain.  When she falls in love with a man at the nursing home where she volunteers and becomes pregnant, she begins to reevaluate her past so that she can have a future with her baby and boyfriend.  The incidents of the night of the murder and her mother’s role in it as well as other facet’s of Mary’s past are slowly revealed while in the present time Mary has to deal with case workers, psychiatrists, and her hostile companions in the group home.  The book is good at showing the horrors of the modern day carceral state and Jackson does a great job at developing Mary’s voice.  However, the twists in the story seem unnaturally injected into the narrative to build suspense, especially the biggest twist at the end of the book, make it hard to recommend this book.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: The Ballet Lover by Barbara L. Baer 


Author: Barbara L. Baer 
TitleThe Ballet Lover
Publication Info: Open Books, 2017
Summary/Review: I received an advance reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

This novel begins in 1970 and tells the story of Geneva, a writer for a niche ballet magazine, set against a feud between the great dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova.  The cruelties and sexism of the ballet world are reflected in Geneva’s life as her publisher squashes her honest accounts to maintain access, her long distance boyfriend plans a future with little concern for Geneva’s interests, and she has to care for her aunt who survived an escape from Nazi Germany.  Geneva’s keen observational skills that make her a talented journalist also seem to be a handicap as she seems to often be observing rather than acting on her own life.  In addition to an interesting fictional narrative there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes segments in ballet drawn from real life. The one thing about the conclusion of the book is that Geneva’s problems aren’t really resolved so much as she grows older and doesn’t find them so important anymore, which I guess is real life, but much of an ending for fiction.

Recommended booksUnder the Net by Iris Murdoch and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Rating: ***

Book Reviews: The Sisters Are Alright by Tamara Winfrey Harris


AuthorTamara Winfrey Harris
TitleThe Sisters Are Alright
Narrator: Tamberta Perry
Publication Info: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015

Summary/Review:

This short collection of essays focuses on how Black women in the United States are maligned and held to toxic stereotypes of being oversexed, irresponsible, and irrationally angry.  Winfrey Harris breaks down these stereotypes historically and in the present day, and holds up the beautiful and accomplished reality of Black women.  It’s very short but powerful so it’s worth finding a little time to read or listen to this book.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer


Author: Z.Z. Packer
TitleDrinking Coffee Elsewhere
Narrator: Shirley Jordan
Publication Info: Highbridge, 2013
Summary/Review:

This is an excellent collection of contemporary short fiction.  Packer is great at quickly establishing characters, and while the stories tend to be more slice-of-life than a traditional beginning-middle-end format, they’re all the better for capturing the nuance of character developments.  Stories range from a conflict among troops of Brownies – one black, one white – to a teenage girl who runs away to Atlanta and is taken in by a pimp, to a boy forced by his father to try to sell birds at the Million Man March.  All the stories are from an outsider’s perspective and thus feel very relatable.  I’ll be looking out for future work from Z.Z. Packer.

Recommended booksKrik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat, Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston by Zora Neale Hurston, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Rating: ****

Book Review: Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan


Author: J. Courtney Sullivan
TitleSaints for All Occasions
Narrator Susan Denaker
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2017
Previously read by same author: Maine 
Summary/Review:

The Irish-American family novel has a lot of familiar tropes – resentments, feuding, alcoholism, unexpected pregnancy, Catholicism, generation gaps, poverty to prosperity, et al.  Sullivan (no known relation to yours truly) employs them all, but her great gift in writing is characterization.  The novel is set over a few days in 2009 after the death of the eldest child in the Rafferty family, the 50-year-old bar owner Patrick, in a drunk driving crash.  The family comes together for the wake and funeral with the unexpected arrival of an elderly nun unknown to the children of the family.  In-between descriptions of the few days leading up to the funeral the novel flashes back to fill in the family history, starting with the sisters Nora and Theresa leaving their Irish village to emigrate to Boston, and how Nora takes the conventional course of marrying and raising four children, first in Dorchester, and later in Hull, Massachusetts, while Theresa becomes a cloistered nun. It also explains the falling out to the two sisters and why the children grew up unaware of Theresa’s existence.  Nora and Theresa alternate as point of view characters with wonderful insight into their complex characters.  The reader also gets to learn of the each of the surviving children, John the overachiever who found unexpected success as a political adviser to Republicans in deep blue Massachusetts (including a thinly-veiled Mitt Romney character), Bridget who is never quite sure that Nora has accepted her as lesbian but wishes to inform her mother of her and partner’s plan to have a baby, and Brian, the youngest who has moved back in with his mother and seems directionless after his baseball career flamed out in the minor leagues.  It’s a touching and heartbreaking novel, and not quite all that you’d expect.

Favorite Passages:

“She had long known that in this family, the truth got revealed belatedly, accidentally, drunkenly, or not at all. But still, she felt hurt.”

Recommended booksCharming Billy by Alice McDermott, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín, and The Gathering by Anne Enright
Rating:

Book Review: The Secret Lives of Bats by Merlin Tuttle


AuthorMerlin Tuttle
TitleThe Secret Lives of Bats 
Publication InfoHoughton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015
Summary/Review:

I remember one time as a child playing lawn darts at dusk in my neighbors’ yard.  I lost sight of the dart and then noticed that it seemed to be flying up, only to realize that it was actually a bat.  My friend and I ran screaming indoors, not realizing that game we were playing was probably more dangerous than our neighborhood bats.  Over time, I grew to admire bats partly for their contributions to a healthy ecosystem, but mostly for being marvelous creatures.  In this wonderful memoir, Merlin Tuttle, founder of Bat Conservation International, details his lifelong love of the flying mammals and constantly running up against the fear and hatred of bats in his fellow humans.  As a child, Tuttle crawled through local caves to tag migrating bats, his descriptions giving me vicarious claustrophobia.  All through the book Tuttle extols the virtues of bats, from consuming tons of pestilent insects to spreading the seeds of plants, and even affecting the mating rituals of frogs.  In addition to traveling the world to study bats, Tuttle taught himself how to photograph the animals, inventing tricks of the trade to create compelling photographs published in National Geographic, or elsewhere.  If you love bats, you’ll love this book, and if you fear bats, well this book may change your mind.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith


Author: Zadie Smith
TitleSwing Time
Narrator: Pippa Bennett-Warner
Publication Info: New York : Penguin Press, 2016
Previously read by the same author: White Teeth
Summary/Review:

An unnamed narrator, whose mother is of Jamaican descent and father is white English working class, tells her life story focusing on her relationships with three women.  First, there’s her mother who is a social activist and later an elected official with whom she feels alienated.  Second, there’s Tracey, the only other nonwhite girl in her dance class who becomes her childhood friend (well, frenemy really) and is a much more talented dance.  Finally, there’s Aimee, an Australian pop superstar (I guess like Kylie Minogue, although Aimee seems more like Madonna) who hires the narrator as a personal assistant.  The narrative moves back and forth in different periods of the narrator’s life filling in details of these relationships.  Smith takes a risk in making the narrator have no name but having characteristics that are autobiographical, and then makes the narrator so driftless and somewhat unlikable.  One her traits is that she rarely is in control of her own life and lets these other women control her narrative, yet when she does take action is usually something petty.

A major plot point in the book is that Aimee builds a girls school in a West African village that the narrator plays a big role in returning to visit the village in what amounts to a parody of the sins of celebrity philanthropy.  Similarly, the narrator’s mother is a parody of the arrogant left-wing activist who only barely emerges as a flesh and blood character.  Tracey is the most fully developed of the three characters as the narrator keeps trying to put her into boxes based on her low-income background, sexuality, and “wildness” but Tracey keeps defying all of that.  I find that I enjoy Smith’s writing style in this book but less interested in what Smith has to write about.  The meandering quality of the narrative fits the aimlessness of the narrator but doesn’t make it enjoyable to read.

Recommended booksBrothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger


AuthorBruce Holsinger
TitleA Burnable Book
Narrator: Simon Vance
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2014)
Summary/Review:

This historical novel is set in post-plague London during the reign of Richard II.  The key character in this novel is John Gower, a real life poet who Holsinger has also earning his keep by trading in information and intrigue.  The events of the novel kick off when Gower’s friend Geoffrey Chaucer (Gower and Chaucer were friends in real life too) asks Gower to find a book that has prophecies of the deaths of English kings that would be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands.  Gower’s investigations take him into brothels and the criminal underworld of London which Holsinger describes in all their gritty details.  Too often Holsinger tells instead of shows, so the narrative gets paused while a character explains exactly what has happened. The plot gets too complicated as loose threads are tied off too soon and new contrivances are added to keep the narrative moving.  Holsinger is good at getting the feel of medieval London and has a few good ideas, but the book never lives up to its ambition.

Recommended booksCompany of Liars by Karen Maitland, The Plague Tales by Ann Benson, and Dr. Johnson’s London by Liza Picard
Rating: **

Book Review: The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White


Author: T.H. White
TitleThe Sword in the Stone
Narrator: Neville Jason
Publication Info: Naxos AudioBooks (2008), originally published in 1938

Summary/Review: For a long holiday road trip with my son, I thought he’d enjoy this introduction to Arthurian mythology.  I did it with some hesitation, as The Once and Future King was one of my favorite books as a child and I feared it may not hold up to nostalgia.  I’m pleased though that this first installment of the tetralogy is still an enjoyable, modernist spin on the story of King Arthur, filling in the story of Arthur’s childhood. Of course, I always thought the The Sword in the Stone was the best of the four parts.  One thing I didn’t know is that White actually made major changes when he incorporated The Sword in the Stone into The Once and Future King, and while I can’t really remember enough to recognize most of the changes I was surprised that Disney didn’t actually make up the duel between Merlyn and Madame Mim.  Another thing I didn’t notice is a kid was just how blatant the anachronisms are, with Meryln living backwards in time making them a running gag.  Knowing how much White loved hunting, I also noticed that he puts a lot of detail into his descriptions of hunts throughout the book, something I must have glazed over as a child.  What remains the same is that the book contains a lot of humor, adventure, animal lore, a cameo by Robin Hood (er, Robin Wood), and surreptitious pacifist social satire.  And my son, well he covered his ears a lot during the scary party, but insisted we keep listening to the story and that we move on to The Witch in the Wood next.

Recommended BooksThe Dragon Stone: A Tale of King Arthur, Merlin & Cabal by John Conlee, The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, and The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck
Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks, Caanan White


Author: Max Brooks, Caanan White (Illustrator)
Title: The Harlem Hellfighters
Publication Info: Broadway Books, 2014
Summary/Review:

In graphic novel form, Max Brooks (curiously enough, the son of filmmaker Mel Brooks) tells the oft-overlooked story of 369th Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard.  The largely African-American infantry regiment was among the first American troops to be sent to the front lines in France in 1919 during World War I, where they became known for their toughness and valor and earned their nickname “The Harlem Hellfighters” from their German opponents.  It’s an interesting story although Brooks relies on a familiar story of racial discrimination at home and the horrors of war abroad.  While the story is told from the point of view of a soldier named Mark, there isn’t much to distinguish the characters and personalize the story.  White’s illustrations seem to revel in depictions of gore that would fit in with The Walking Dead, but it’s actually difficult to distinguish the characters – black, white, French, and German – from one another.  One nice touch is that Brooks includes fragments of contemporary songs and poems to accompany scenes of the war.  It’s very cinematic, in fact, which is not surprising since Brooks originally intended to write a screenplay.  The graphic novel has it’s flaws but overall it’s a good introduction to the story of the Harlem Hellfighters.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Roll with the Punches by Amy Gettinger


Author: Amy Gettinger
TitleRoll with the Punches
Publication Info: Raucous Eucalyptus Press (2015)
Summary/Review:

I read this book as an attempt to read something I wouldn’t usually read after seeing it in a Kindle deals email and thinking “I’ve never read a romance novel based around roller derby.”  Turns out that this novel is actually about an aspiring author, Rhonda, who has discovered that her novel was stolen and published by a popular novelist and she is now being accused of plagiarism.  Also, her mother is in the hospital and she has to take care of her father who is suffering from dementia.  And there are two men in her life with whom she has romantic feelings: James, a handsome young tech geek from her writers’ group, and Dal, a former student of her fathers.  Also, Dal is Native American so there are a lot of uncomfortable Indian joke.  And there is a roller derby plot squished in there although it doesn’t seem to fit in with everything going especially since the roller derby team also doubles as another writer’s support group.  Whew!  I was curious about the mystery of who stole the manuscript so I read to the end, but ultimately was disappointed by the increasingly ludicrous situations, the two-dimensional nature of most of the supporting characters, and the unlikely way all these different things overlapped in Rhonda’s life.

Recommended booksFurther Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
Rating: **

Book Review: Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean


AuthorNancy MacLean
TitleDemocracy in Chains
Narrator: Bernadette Dunne
Publication Info: Penguin Audio, 2017
Summary/Review:

This book documents the history of the political and economic ideology that has come to dominate the Republican party today. A lot of the familiar figures are here from Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman to Charles and David Koch.  But the central figure of this narrative is James Buchanan, founder of the “Virginia school” of political economy – teaching and training economists at University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and George Mason University – and a major figure in the Mont Pelerin Society and Cato Institute.  Buchanan put forward the public choice theory which introduced many familiar ideas of limited government, anti-regulation, anti-taxation, and rewarding the “job creators” into the public debate. He also came up with long-term strategies of eroding the public’s trust in the government and using the proximity to Washington, DC to keep close ties with right wing leaders while economists trained in his methods went through a revolving door between academia, lobbying, and government positions. MacLean’s writing is obviously biased and I doubt that many of her most conspiratorial implications are 100% accurate.  Nevertheless it is clear that this particular form of right-wing/libertarian ideology has taken hold of at least one major party and the wealthy individuals and corporations who support it, and that it is due to a many decade effort to influence hearts and minds by Buchanan and his cohort.

Recommended booksFree Lunch by David Cay Johnston, The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, and The Price of Inequality by Joseph E. Stiglitz
Rating: ***