Friday, November 29, 2013

The Ship of Death, by Billy G. Smith

Montana State University professor Billy G. Smith travelled the world and dug into far-flung archives chasing down the forgotten story of a failed colony on the western coast of Africa, a ship called Hankey, and the viral outbreak the Hankey carried from Africa to ports of call around the Atlantic.  The story of Hankey's yellow fever outbreak had been forgotten, but at the time, at the end of the 18th century, Hankey's reputation struck fear into sailors and residents of port communities on both sides of the Atlantic.  In Ship of Death: A Voyage That Changed the Atlantic World, Smith tells the story of the colony, the Hankey, and their time.

The British colonists who set out to establish a settlement on the island of Bolama had high ideals.  They wanted to demonstrate that they could thrive in Africa by hiring and cooperating with the native people of Africa rather than enslave them.  The problem is that they were ill-informed and ill-prepared.  Early on, while en route, problems arose with "the expedition leaders' belated realization that they knew neither the exact location of Bolama nor how to get there."

When they finally found Bolama, cultural misunderstandings, weather, predators (of the four-legged and two-legged variety), lack of materials and skills requisite for starting a new colony, and lots of bad luck combined to make life difficult, to say the least.  But more than all of that was the prevalence of yellow fever, which killed off colonists indiscriminately.

The colony finally folded, having been reduced from 275 people to a small handful, due to desertion and death.  The Hankey left Bolama with some of the survivors and some unexpected passengers: mosquitoes, living and laying eggs in the water kegs and animal troughs aboard ship.  As they stopped in ports on the west side of the Atlantic, "through terrible timing coupled with the worst of toxic luck, the Hankey created the first major pandemic of yellow fever in the Western Hemisphere."

In the West Indies, "fully one-half of the white population of Grenada died within six months of the arrival of the Hankey. . . . The onslaught of disease would not halt for the next dozen years." The disease killed off thousands of British troops in the West Indies, and aided the Haitian slave rebellion by killing off European troops.  As the Hankey fled to Philadelphia, starting an infection that would claim thousands, the epidemic there helped to "finalize the decision that made Washington rather than Philadelphia the political center of the country."  And in France, Napoleon decided that, due to his disease-weakened troop presence in the Caribbean, he would sell off the Louisiana Territory at a bargain-basement price to the United States.

Smith writes as an academic historian, yet he writes Ship of Death in a readable, engaging style.  As the narrative unfolds, Smith sheds light on the harsh realities of colonial life and life at sea, and deftly places the trials and tribulations of the Hankey and the Bolama colonists into the context of their time.  In the latter chapters, the tight strand of the story that he had been spinning for the first portion of the book begins to unwind, but I think that may be most reflective of the widening spread of the yellow fever, brought over from Africa by the Hankey and liberally spread through the new world in ever-expanding networks.

Ship of Death is interesting and readable, and highly relevant.  The challenges and dangers of globalization are even more of a reality today, in our time of constant international travel, than in the days of weeks-long crossings of the Atlantic.  The experiences of the Hankey and the destruction it left in its path serve as a reminder of the difference one small event, oversight, or action can make in changing the course of history.

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

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Fatherless, by James Dobson and Kurt Bruner

Since James Dobson retired as president of of Focus on the Family, he has taken on a new role: novelist.  With some help from coauthor Kurt Bruner, he tells a pretty good story in his new novel, Fatherless.  Set a generation in the future, Dobson envisions a society in which marriage is rare, children are genetically screened and selected, and the elderly and disabled are "transitioned" (killed by assisted suicide).

These are the demographic changes and challenges that I rarely see addressed in fiction or science fiction.  The strongest and most important social and political point Dobson makes in the story is simple: a nation's greatest resource is its people.  Thus, children are an investment not only in the future of a family, but in the future of a nation.  Only a few conservatives in Fatherless realize and appreciate this fact, but the point is, of course, to draw attention to people today who don't acknowledge it.  American liberals, environmentalists, and Chinese bureaucrats believe that limiting the number of children will have social and economic benefits, yet the opposite turns out to be true.

As you might expect, Dobson shows a great deal of insider's perspective as he talks about political life, church life, and family life.  He puts it together into a readable, compelling story.  The end petered out a little bit, almost as if Dobson didn't know how quite to wind it up.  But I enjoyed it enough to look forward to reading the sequel, Childless.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Art Briles: Looking Up: My Journey from Tragedy to Triumph, by Nick Eatman

I have never met Art Briles, but I can't help but love the guy.  As any Baylor fan will tell you, Briles has returned Baylor to a place of respectability in college football, even beyond where the great Grant Teaff had taken Baylor in the 70s and 80s.  And Briles isn't finished yet; he just signed a 10 year contract extension that will keep him around for a few more seasons.

In Art Briles: Looking Up: My Journey from Tragedy to Triumph, Briles tells his story through sports writer Nick Eatman.  (I'm not comfortable with the double subtitle.  Too man colons.)  This is not a book by Art Briles with Nick Eatman; Eatman wrote it based on interviews with Briles and others, as well as Briles's narratives, dictated on tape.  Eatman does a great job of capturing Briles's voice while staying in the third person.

If you don't know Briles's story, or if you only know him as RG3's coach, take some time to learn about Briles.  Even if you're not a Baylor fan, you will be inspired and encouraged by his story.  The tragedy referred to in the (sub-)subtitle was during his college days.  Briles played football for the University of Houston.  When Houston had an away game in Dallas, his parents and aunt drove from their west Texas home in Rule to see him play.  Unfortunately, they never made it.  As Briles was coming off the field at the end of the game, his coach pulled him aside and gave him the bad news.

Briles's dad was also his football coach.  His parents' example as coach, educator, Christians, and loving parents provided a guiding light for him, and continues to do so.  He says a day doesn't go by in which he doesn't think about them, their legacy, and his desire to honor them in all aspects of his life.  He took that tragedy and made it into triumph.

Knowing that he's seen life at its worst, going through that suffering, he has taken on challenges that others might shy away from.  He went to Stephenville, a high school football program that hadn't been to the playoffs in years, and was constantly beaten down by the rivals in a nearby town.  Not only did he beat the rivals and make the playoffs, he led them to 4 state championships.  He went back to Houston as head coach, taking over a football program that was about to be eliminated from the school. There he took them to bowl games and coached future NFL players.  When he came to Baylor, the Bears had been cellar dwellers in the Big 12.  He took them to their first bowl game in ages, now 4 bowl games in a row, coached a Heisman trophy winner, has the Bears in the top ten in the country, and, until last weekend, in the conversation for the national championship game.

Anyone can appreciate the greatness of Briles's story.  Coaches especially should pick up Looking Up.  I enjoyed hearing about how Briles connects with and develops players.  He's not an in-your-face screaming coach, he's a positive, encouraging coach, dedicated to helping his players be the best they can be.  The connection with his family is impressive, as well.  His son and son-in-law are coaches on his staff, and his daughter works for the Dallas Cowboys.  By his accounting, they are very tight-knit.  Fathers could probably learn much from his example, which is truly impressive if you realize how many time demands are put on coaches, even at the high school level.

Unless you're a real football fan, or at least a fan of Texas high school football, you might get a little bogged down in the game-by-game, play-by-play descriptions of his time coaching high school.  There's plenty to like for the non-football fan and the non-Baylor fan, but those readers will enjoy Looking Up much more that other readers.  For Baylor fans, because of Briles, we can keep on looking up.  I have a feeling, as great as this season has been, the best is yet to come.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Black List, by Brad Thor

Brad Thor opens his recent novel Black List with a rather prophetic quote from Senator Frank Church, D-Idaho, from an interview on Meet the Press in August of 1975:
[America's intelligence gathering] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left.  Such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter.  There would be no place to hide. 
If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge of this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back. . . . I know the capacity is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that [the NSA] and all agencies that possess this technology operate with in the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss.  That is the abyss from which there is no return."
Speaking of prophetic, not only was Church decades ahead of his time in predicting the expanse of the NSA's monitoring powers, Thor published The Black List well before the NSA worked its way into the headlines, drawing criticism for their over-zealous monitoring of American's lives.

In Black List, Thor's ex-government agent and all-around tough guy, Scot Harvath, and all of his compatriots at the Carlton group get placed on the Black List, a secret government hit list reserved for those who pose a danger to the US but who the US deals with outside the justice system.  Harvath manages to elude repeated attempts on his life, and is determined to figure out who wants to kill him and why.

As it turns out, a shadowy government contractor who handles surveillance for a wide range of government agencies is manipulating the list to their own ends.  They see the Carlton Group as the only realistic barrier to stop their onerous plans for taking over the Tri-State Area--er, I mean, the U.S.  Of course, Harvath is too sharp for even their best sharpshooters, and he and his pals quickly get to the people behind the people behind the hit teams.

Thor fans get what they love and look for in a Harvath book.  Lots of action, a driving plot, impossible odds and dead bad guys.  I've read a few other Harvath books, and Black List ranks as a good one.  But as fun as they are to read, and as much as you want to cheer for Harvath, there is a still a point at which you realize that things are maybe a little too easy for him.  But the story is so enjoyable, it's better just to shrug off the implausibility and enjoy the ride.

Thor does a nice job of presenting the dangers of the surveillance state and the consequences of its abuses.  However, I think he too easily dismisses the role of government officials versus private contractors.  He seems to put lay the abuses at the feet of private contractors gone out of control and a few bad actors in the government.  Maybe I'm too cynical, but I think the abuses we've seen revealed by Snowden show that the government itself is by its very nature a glutton for information about citizens and the power they can derive from that information.  As it becomes cheaper and cheaper to monitor and analyze every e-mail, text message, and phone call, government will continue to expand its power over our lives.  As Church warned, we may be approaching an abyss from which we cannot return.  Just try to stay off the Black List.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

We Will Destroy Your Planet: An Alien's Guide to Conquering the Earth, by David McIntee and Miguel Coimbra

No one ever said that conquering or destroying another planet was easy, but it seems it's much harder than I thought.  Before any aliens jump into trying to take over the Earth, they would be wise to pick up a copy of David McIntee and Miguel Coimbra's handy book, We Will Destroy Your Planet: An Alien's Guide to Conquering the Earth.  I admit, I haven't given a lot of thought to what it would take to conquer Earth, but these guys bring up a ton of useful tips that I would never have considered.

Covering such topics as the initial invasion, combat on the planet itself, and controlling the population of humans (that is, if you choose not to annihilate them right away), the authors bring up helpful information for alien invaders to think about.  For instance, and you might have thought of this yourself, "the concealed position and potential availability of water on the far side of the Moon make it a sensible choice for a staging area or observation base, which can remain hidden from the Earth."  From that place of hiding you can plan your spaceborne assault, against which the Earth has no defense, lucky for you.  "The planet has no energy shielding, no starships, no minefield, and no detection or early warning grid for vessels entering the system," not to mention defense against "incursion from other spatial locations, alternative dimensions, or different eras."

But the initial invasion is only the beginning.  Humans are "aggressive and stubborn," and many will not tolerate the aliens.  They will attempt to "capture and reverse engineer your vehicles," which cannot be permitted.  On the other hand, aliens will need to adapt human vehicles for their own use, as alien vehicles will not naturally be ideal for Earth's varied terrain and atmosphere.  The aliens must consider fuel and materials needed, using what is available on Earth rather than bear the expense of transporting it across space.

McIntee and Coimbra have clearly read and watched a wide range of science fiction, some of which is explicitly referred to in the text.  Others are cleverly alluded to, allusions of which I am sure I missed many.  While I don't realistically see this guide falling into alien hands, as useful as it would be to them, I think it would be even more useful to writers of sci-fi.  They cover so many scenarios, in a matter-of-fact, factually based way, that a sci-fi writer would be well-advised to think through the scenarios and case studies laid out here.

There was a sense in which We Will Destroy Your Planet became too much of a good thing, a drawn out joke that took a terrifically clever idea and tried to keep it going for too long.  But more than that, I have a lot of respect for the depth to which these guys took the book.  It seriously can be a reference book for writers and fans of sci-fi, forcing us to think a little bit more deeply about what we read and see on the screen.  Of course, when we start telling our wives and girlfriends, "Now, see, that's not how it would really happen.  Didn't they think about this . . . .," they will look at us and say, "It's sci-fi, stupid.  This isn't real."  And we will nod, confident in the knowledge we have filed away.

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

Monday, November 18, 2013

Ack Ack Macaque, by Gareth Powell

Do you like an alternative future with giant dirigibles, a cigar-chomping monkey, and lots of shoot-em-up action?  Then Ack-Ack Macaque is right up your alley!  Gareth Powell introduces a United Kingdom that is slightly larger than the one we know.  Shortly after WW2, England and France decided they were better together and created an expanded kingdom.

Much of this history parallels ours, but several technological differences are evident.  Giant dirigibles travel the world, serving as a primary means of shipping, and existing as sovereign states.  Most significantly, the process of augmenting brain power is expanding, leading to the ability to give a monkey human-like intelligence, and to load a complete human personality into "gelware."

When the monkey, the crown prince, a dirigible captain, a journalist, and others team up to uncover and thwart a plot to usurp the throne (in a way), start a major world war, and reshape the human race, there is no shortage of adventure and action.  Powell writes with wit, an ear for action, and a snarky attitude.  The result is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure.

Friday, November 15, 2013

It's Never Too Late, by Dallas Clayton

"If today was the day that it all came crashing. . . ." what would you do?  That's what Dallas Clayton asks in his new picture book for grown-ups, It's Never Too Late.  Of course if the world were ending tomorrow, we wouldn't worry about the laundry and bills!  We would want to lie in the grass and hug the cat and call our friends.

With colorful, simple illustrations, Clayton's message is simple: life is about making the most of every moment, and taking time to give of ourselves to others.  Part of me embraces his perspective, but another part is troubled by this sort of message.  It too easily can morph into "The world might end tomorrow, so I don't have to take care of my responsibilities.  I don't have to do the laundry or pay the bills."

There is a balance to be struck here, but Clayton reminds us that "it's never too late, too late to begin, and today is the day the world might end."

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

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The First Phone Call from Heaven, by Mitch Albom

What if you picked up the phone and you heard the voice of a loved one who had passed away?  When a few people in Coldwater, Michigan started getting phone calls from their dead family members, there were plenty of skeptics, but the ones who got the calls had no doubt that they were hearing their loved ones' voices, and when word got out, the whole world wanted to hear more.

Mitch Albom is best know for his powerful non-fiction, especially Tuesdays with Morrie.  In The First Phone Call from Heaven, he has some fun imagining the impact a phone call from heaven might have. As word spread, pilgrims overran Coldwater, hoping for their own line to heaven.  While few got their call, and some complained about the traffic and inconvenience, "there was also talk about heaven.  And faith.  And God.  There were more prayers said than in years past.  More requests for forgiveness.  The volunteers for soup kitchens far exceeded the need."

Albom plays the calls along, hinting through the doubts of the main character that they may not be genuine, but leaving the reader little reason to think that they aren't for real.  He balances the mystery with the reality of lives changed.  The hardened reporter for the local paper reflects on whether the calls are good for Coldwater: "Let's see.  People are behaving better, eh?  We haven't even had a shoplifting incident since all this started. . . . [E]very seat in church is full.  People praying like never before.  So what do you think. . . ? Is it good?" Yet his cynicism causes him to doubt.

With his rich characterizations of both the individual players and of small-town life, Albom tells the kind of story he's known for, full of wisdom, a strong dose of sentimentality, and a warm feeling of satisfaction with the end.  The theology of the book leans a bit toward universalism, although he's not explicit about that.  Ironically, theology isn't really the point of the book.  It's more like how our lives and choices affect others, what we hope for, and how faith can inform the choices we make.

The message isn't particularly powerful, the lessons aren't particularly deep, and the writing isn't particularly compelling or artful.  But Albom tells a nice story, sure to be enjoyed by many.

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

Monday, November 11, 2013

Lego Space, by Peter Reid and Tim Goddard

Fans of Legos will love this book, especially those who like to break away from the pre-packaged Lego selections.  Peter Reid and Tim Goddard have put together a sort of future history, chronicling man's forays into space exploration and colonization, starting from Sputnik ranging centuries into the future.  The future history lesson is illustrated with scenes built from Legos, and accompanied by instructions on how to build many (though certainly not all) of the ships and robots featured in the story.

The story isn't ground-breaking sci-fi, but it's fun to have a story to go along with the fabulous Lego creations.  Your Lego builders will be inspired to try out some of the projects in the book, and maybe add some ideas of their own.

(A word on the version viewed: On my black-and-white Kindle, I could not see the building instruction pages.  I was able to view using Adobe Digital Editions on my iMac.  I don't know how well the book could be viewed on a color Kindle or iPad.)

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

Monday, November 4, 2013

Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City, by Bradley Garrett

Does everyone have a longing to go past those "restricted entry" signs, "authorized access only" barriers, the "no trespassing"signs?  Maybe not everyone, but it seems like there is a basic human desire to cross boundaries, to explore unknown and forbidden places, and to find untouched locations.  However, most of us, either out of respect for private property and the rule of law, or out of timidity and caution, stay safely within prescribed boundaries.

Bradley Garrett, a researcher at the Oxford University School of Geography and the Environment, spent several years hanging out with urban explorers, guys (mostly guys; there are a few female urban explorers), sneaking into closed down buildings, sewers, abandoned Tube stations, construction sites, skyscrapers, and other closed off and forbidden locations.  He tells the stories of their adventures, discoveries, and misadventures in Explore Everything: Place-Hakcing the City.

For Garrett and his UE buddies, urban exploration, or place-hacking, is not a juvenile thrill-seeking, but "taking back rights to the city from which we have been wrongfully restricted," protesting the "increased securitisation"of public places, about "going places you're not supposed to go, seeing places you're not supposed to see."  They see urban exploration as a "more tantalising option"than "the mall and the television screen," and a way to find alternatives to "state-mediated historical interpretation."

One the one hand, Garrett's tales of UE make me curious, not just about the places he visits, but about my own city as well.  What might I discover underground, or in some abandoned buildings, or in a construction site?  How difficult would it be to on top of Fort Worth's tallest buildings?  On the other hand, I believe that private property should be respected, that liability in the case of injury of death should be acknowledged, and that sometimes doors are locked and "No trespassing" signs are there for a very good reason.

Garrett does take pains to point out that urban explorers do not damage property, do not steal from or vandalize places they hack, and as a rule follow a "leave no trace" ethic similar to hikers.  The one thing they do take is a lot of pictures.  The pictures are awesome, mostly from the tops of buildings or underground.  They looked OK on my basic kindle, but I would encourage to get the physical book, view them on a color reader, or visit his web site ( where he posts pictures of his explorations.

Even with Garrett's academic, philosophical descriptions of the activities and motives of urban explorers, I still saw a bunch of thrill-seeking young guys thumbing their noses at "the man." For all of their "working to create more democratic relationships to space in the context of an often dehumanizing global capitalist system," they come across as kids getting a kick out of going where they know they're not supposed to go.  But they do take great pictures, don't damage or destroy the places the visit, and, I have to admit, tempt me to do some sneaking around myself.

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

Friday, November 1, 2013

Die Trying, by Lee Child

Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Jack Reacher just happens to be in Chicago and runs into an FBI agent just as she is snatched off the street by some mysterious bad guys.  She's the target of the kidnapping.  Besides being an FBI agent, she also happens to be the daughter of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces.
Talk about being in the right place at the right time.  Jack Reacher is kidnapped along with an FBI agent, and as a result, infiltrates a radical militia group and saves the day, thwarting the plans of the insane militia leader.  If you know Jack Reacher, you know that he overcomes impossible odds, outwits the cleverest foes, shoots like the best marksmen, and manages to hook up with the most beautiful women.  So it won't surprise you that he does all that in more in Die Trying.

Even after reading only two Jack Reacher books and seeing the movie Jack Reacher, I am coming to see Lee Child's formula.  But just because something is formulaic doesn't mean it doesn't work.  Child puts together a somewhat implausible plot with Reacher's quite expertise and determination to create a page-turner.  The action is well-written, with lots of technical and strategic detail.  The Montana Militia theme seems sort of dated, even though this was just published in 1998.  Are those guys still around?  And does Child unfairly depict them as sociopathic megalomaniacs?  Well, it is fiction after all.

Pick up Die Trying, or any Reacher novel for that matter, for a fun-to-read, action packed tough guy novel.  A guaranteed testosterone boost.