Wednesday, July 30, 2014

I Work at a Public Library, by Gina Sheridan

Gina Sheridan, a librarian in St. Louis, began gathering funny stories about her experiences as a librarian, and touched a nerve with other librarians (and library lovers!) at her blog,  Now she has compiled her stories in book form, in I Work at a Public Library.

In this short collection of brief anecdotes, Sheridan tells of her encounters with cute kids, ignorant adults (always treated respectfully), appreciative patrons, and the occasional animal.  The questions she gets are brilliant in their cluelessness.  The lack of ability to function and think independently displayed by some patrons is remarkable.  But she also has plenty of stories that confirm appreciation for and the indispensability of public libraries.

I love my library and the librarians I have gotten to know there.  If you feel the same way about your library, you'll enjoy this light-hearted inside look at a public library. 

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Back Channel, by Stephen Carter

Yale law professor Stephen Carter is back with his sixth novel, Back Channel.  Set during the Cuban missile crisis, Carter's heroine, a 19-year-old Cornell student, finds herself in the middle of a game of espionage and a role in preventing a nuclear war.  She is recruited to be a "back channel," a conduit between Kennedy and Khrushchev for communication and negotiation.  The whole premise is at once a little absurd, but at the same time almost believable.  After all, plenty of strange things go on in international relations that meet the public eye; very few know what goes on behind the scenes, in the back channel.

Two elements familiar to Carter's readers dominate Back Channel.  First, a strong African-American heroine.  Margo is not Jason Bourne, but she shows enough bravery, resourcefulness, and crafty intelligence to earn a place among spy novel heroes and heroines.  Second, as in virtually all of Carter's previous novels, the reader gets a glimpse of the role of powerful and wealthy African-Americans at crucial points in our nation's history.  Carter's black characters defy negative stereotypes, pulling strings and wielding quiet but powerful influence at the highest levels.  I wish I knew how much of this characterization were true in American history.  I am confident that it is much more true than most Americans realize.

Just as familiar as these two elements is Carter's characteristically intricate story-telling and intelligent writing.  There is something about his use of the English language that makes his fiction a pleasure to read.  It is elevating without being obscure or flowery.  And the plot of Back Channel swirls and twists as Margo strives to figure out who she can trust and what she is to do.

Back Channel was altogether a pleasure to read.  Sure, this may not be how the history of the Cuban missile crisis played out, but, well, maybe it could be. . . . Why not?

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Storm Called Katrina, by Myron Uhlberg and Colin Bootman

It's hard to believe nearly ten years have passed since Katrina ravages the Gulf Coast.  The images of the rooftop rescues, the crowding in the Superdome, the flooded streets, and the collective human misery still seem fresh.  In A Storm Called Katrina, writer Myron Uhlberg and illustrator Colin Bootman capture the amazing devastation of Katrina on New Orleans through the eyes of a little boy.

When the storm hits, Louis's family thinks it's like any other hurricane, not an unfamiliar experience for New Orleans residents.  When the rain stops and the water starts rising, they realize the levees have failed and they have to flee.  They end up heading to the Superdome, where they join thousands of others.  On the way, they see lost pets, a dead body floating by, and rescue boats.

Uhlberg and Bootman strike a delicate balance between portraying the harsh reality of the storm and protecting innocent eyes.  It's not a political story or an environmental story but a story about one family's difficult experience of sticking together through adversity.  Well-told and nicely illustrated, A Storm Called Katrina is a harsh but sensitive reminder of a terrible chapter in our history.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Godless, by James Dobson and Kurt Bruner

Fatherless, Childless, and now Godless. James Dobson and Kurt Bruner have looked at demographic trends and the state of morals and religion in the United States and don't much like what they see.  Godless continues the story in this third book in the series.  The story picks up nicely, catching us up with the lives of the characters we got to know in the first two books.  Their lives intertwine, and political and social forces continue to combine efforts in the drive to devalue human life.

That theme, the value of human life, looms over this whole series.  With low birth rates and a failing economy, public sentiment leans more and more toward transitions--individuals volunteering for what amounts to assisted suicide--as a means to save the economy.  Troy and Kevin continue to promote the "Bright Spots" initiative, in support of the fact that the most successful economic regions are those with the highest birth rates and lowest rates of volunteering for transitions.

They recruit a pastor to gather clergy support for their movement, but very few pastors will speak publicly denouncing transitions.  In this future, three or four decades out, gay marriage is a done deal; the voices supporting traditional marriage had been silenced into irrelevance.  The question of legal abortion had long been settled.  Dobson and Bruner give a stark warning: religious leaders must take the lead in stemming the cultural tides that threaten to sweep away traditional Christian values.

Godless is both thought-provoking and well-plotted.  Dobson and Bruner make a great team.  Godless would be a worthy finish for a trilogy, but they do leave the door open for future stories.  Back in the present day, I hope the lessons of Godless can be learned by warning and example rather than by this fiction coming true.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dance of the Reptiles, by Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen is absolutely one of my favorite novelists.  His hilarious fiction captures life in the crazy world of Florida, with its corrupt politicians, clueless tourists, and environmental nitwits.  As the columns collected in Dance of the Reptiles demonstrate, he has no shortage of material for his novels.

Hiaasen's readers who are unfamiliar with his newspaper columns may be surprised that he comes across less as a humorist and more as a grumpy old man.  Further, although there are hints of his liberal views in his novels, in these columns he shows himself to be a hard-core leftist Democrat.  I'm all for bashing politicians.  Bring it on!  But Hiaasen's bashing is reserved almost exclusively for Republicans.  I won't argue that it's undeserved.  Hypocrisy, corruption, and sheer idiocy run rampant in Washington and among Florida politicians of both parties.  I would appreciate Hiaasen more if he used his wit and insight to focus some attention on Democrats as well.  He should have had plenty of material to bash the inept Obama administration, but the only piece on Obama was a laudatory election night ode to the great bringer of hope and change.

Hiaasen rightly denounces the overbuilding of Florida, the lack of respect for endangered species and their environments, the problems caused by the influx of population, the agriculture industry's flagrant disregard for the environment.  I would guess most Floridians would join him in his complaints, but the problem is he's complaining about the leading economic drivers of the state: tourism, agriculture, and growth and development.  Where would Florida be without these industries?  Hiaasen longs for the Florida he grew up in, wild and free.  Unfortunately, he's never getting it back.

One last word about his liberal views.  I know I am more conservative than many, especially than cynical journalists from South Florida.  I can see his points, and certainly can agree with him on many of his views.  Corruption, waste, incompetence, and stupidity are worth calling out whatever your political persuasion.  But I have to challenge him on one significant point: he argues passionately for the need to preserve habitats and species that are in danger.  I agree it would be a shame to lose a species of plant or animal simply because of flagrant human disregard.  But please, can't he acknowledge that an unborn human is more valuable than any manatee, burrowing owl, or mangrove tree?  In Hiaasen's world, it's safer to be a rare species of plant than a developing baby.  The former must be protected, while the right to kill the latter must be even more passionately protected.  This position is inhumane and, in my opinion, indefensible.

Hiaasen is a very entertaining writer, but his columns are much less entertaining than his novels.  I suspect I would like these better reading one or two a week, rather than reading straight through.  Still, reading about Hiaasen's South Florida made me think every city needs a Hiaasen poke fun at politicians, raise a little ruckus, and call things as they see them.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Catch, by Taylor Stevens

I have enjoyed Taylor Stevens's Michael Munroe novels.  Munroe is tough, deadly, smart, brilliant at learning languages, and compassionate.  Her troubled past and inner demons elicit compassion for her.  She doesn't go looking for trouble, but sometimes her friends, circumstances, and desire for revenge get her into perilous, no-win situations.  Of course, she survives the peril and ultimately wins.

The Catch opens with Michael working with a private security firm in Djibouti.  While providing security on a ship, Michael discovers that there are smuggled weapons on board, and she is the only member of the team left in the dark.  Then when pirates board, she decides to escape with the captain of the ship.  She hides the captain, tries to find out the real reason for the ship's hijacking, and plots to take the ship back.

Michael spends the bulk of the book trying to survive and stay hidden in Africa, keeping the captain alive but restrained while she tries to discover why he is being hunted.  To be honest, I got sort of tired of her cat and mouse games, and found that I couldn't care less about the captain or his pursuers.  Or anyone else, for that matter.  One of the characters, anticipating the recapture of the ship, puts it well: "The anticipation is the worst, you know? Misery in the waiting."

The Catch has plenty going for it--interesting details about cargo ships, life in Africa, some cool fighting scenes--but not enough for it to measure up to Stevens's earlier books.  Here's hoping for a rebound in the next one.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Caves of Steel, by Isaac Asimov

Classic sci-fi doesn't get more classic that Isaac Asimov, and Asimov classics don't get more classic that his Robot trilogy. I recently listened to the audio version of The Caves of Steel, book 1 of Asimov's Robot Series.  I had read it years ago, and was not disappointed in the audio update.

On one level, this is a simple detective story.  New York detective Elijah Baley is teamed up with a new partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve the murder of a robotocist.  The twist: Daneel is a robot himself!  As Elijah and Daneel track down leads and learn to work together, Asimov builds a future world that is both imaginative and prophetic. 

This audio version is great.  It's a straight, single-actor reading, not a dramatization, but William Dufris pulls off the narration perfectly.  His voicing of Daneel brought to mind Star Trek's Data, which is appropriate, as Data is clearly modeled after Asimov's vision of a robotic future.

If you've never read Asimov, this is a great place to start.  If you have, he's always worth returning to!