October 29, 2014

The Port Chicago 50

by Steve Sheinkin
First sentence: "He was gathering dirty laundry when the bombs started falling."
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Content: There's some disturbing moments, not only violence, but also racism. I was made uncomfortable by it (which I think was the point). There is also about four censored f-bombs. Sheinkin is masterful at simplifying data  without being simplistic, so I think this is suitable for 5th grade on up. It's in the Middle Grade History section at the bookstore.

During the summer of 1944, on a little-known port in the San Francisco Bay where Navy ships were loaded with ammunition, an enormous explosion happened. So large that it killed more than 300 men were killed, the pier and the docked ship were obliterated, and men in the barracks were injured, some severely.

It sounds like a tragedy, but nothing too serious. Except for this fact: of the 320 men who were killed, 202 of them were African American men who had signed up for the Navy and had been relegated to the dangerous job of loading the ammunition. The way the Navy worked in 1944 was that the white men got to serve on the ships; the black ones were segregated out and assigned the menial tasks the white sailors didn't want.

But it gets better. The men who survived the blast were shuttled to a nearby port, and even though they were suffering trauma from the blast (who wouldn't be), the were ordered to go back to loading the ships. Fifty sailors flat out refused orders. So they were put on trial for mutiny. And convicted. Even though there was never any plot to defy their superiors or take over the base. They just were tired of being treated differently than the white sailors and wanted to know why.

Some good came out of this: because the Secretary of the Navy was a (mostly) reasonable man (and because Eleanor Roosevelt got involved) the Navy (and soon after the rest of the military) was one of the first places that was desegregated in the country.  But, was the price of being convicted mutineers and spending 16 months in jail too high?

Sheinkin doesn't whitewash anything that happened during those months and years surrounding the Port Chicago 50 trial. He lets the Naval officers stand for themselves (and any reasonable person would see that they were IDIOTS. Or maybe that was just me), and lets the trial transcripts stand for themselves. Thurgood Marshall even got involved, trying to get the government and the military (the officers of which come off as a bunch of racists; I was going to use a stronger word, but changed my mind) to exonerate these men for being human. Sheinkin pointed out that this was the first event on the long path of the Civil Rights movement, which was something I didn't know, and something we don't often remember in history books.

It's extremely well-written and as intriguing as Sheinkin's other works. He's a masterful history writer, and knows just how to make things interesting and informative without being dry.


October 27, 2014

Skink No Surrender

by Carl Hiaasen
First sentence: "I walked down to the beach and waited for Malley, but she didn't show up"
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Content: Even though the reading level isn't very difficult, the nature of this book solidly lands it on the YA (grades 6-8) shelves. Not for the young or the faint of heart.

Richard has grown up in a little beachside town in Florida his whole life. And it hasn't been a bad life; even though his father died in a freak accident a few years ago, Richard has his mother, older brothers, an okay stepfather, and his best friend -- his cousin Malley.

Richard and Malley had a long-standing nighttime ritual on the beach: walking and looking for turtle nests. Then one night, two things happen: Malley doesn't show up, and Richard meets former-governer-turned-ecoterrorist Clint Tyree, otherwise known as Skink.

It turns out that Malley has run away with a guy she met online in a chat room. And even though it started out okay -- there was video of her willingly getting in his car -- it took a turn south. And the people on tap to rescue her? Richard and Skink.

I wanted to like this. And sometimes, I did. I really did laugh at the oddness of Skink, at the adventures that Richard found himself in. But I couldn't get past the whole SHE RAN AWAY WITH A GUY SHE MET IN A CHAT ROOM problem. And it's corollary: SHE NEEDED A GUY TO RESCUE HER. Aren't we past all this? I do have to give Hiaasen one bonus point: when the guy tried something on Malley she punched him in the nose, breaking it. She also said that he needed to be caught and punished because the next girl might not be as strong as her. So, she's not completely helpless. And Richard rescued her not as part of some macho thing, but because he truly cared for her. So, there's that as well.

And I did like the environmental trivia that Hiaasen threw in, as well; he really does make Florida come alive. So, I didn't hate the book in the end. I just wish there was a better premise for it.

October 25, 2014

Raging Heat

by Richard Castle
First sentence: "Nikki Heat wondered if her mother hadn't been murdered what her life would have been."
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Others in the series: Heat Wave, Naked Heat, Heat Rises, Frozen Heat, Deadly Heat
Content: These aren't for the younger fans of the TV show. Grisly murders (though not terribly descriptive), off-screen sex, and lots of f-bombs puts it squarely in the adult mystery section at the bookstore.

I don't know if I have anything new to say. I still enjoy these books for their own sake; although this one had highlights from both season 5 AND 6, it's really it's own beast. The mystery had me guessing, as Heat and Rook wandered the streets of New York and Long Island looking for the murderer of a Haitian immigrant. It was a pretty messy mystery, with lots of characters involved (both on the murdered end -- there ended up being 4 or 5, I think -- and as the murderers) and while I probably could have figured it out, I didn't. I just sat back and thoroughly enjoyed the twists and turns.

I also enjoyed the tension between Rook and Heat as they tried to balance life, work, and romance. If you follow the show, you'll figure out where the book character's relationship is going, but it's a satisfyingly bumpy ride. (I especially enjoyed it when Heat lost her cool and dumped a bottle of Tequlia in Rook's lap. He really did deserve it.)

All I can say is I'm glad the show's back on, so I can get a preview of the next book.

October 24, 2014

A Beautiful Blue Death

by Charles Finch
First sentence: "The fateful note came just as Lenox was settling into his armchair after a long, tiresome day in the city."
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Content: It's actually quite tame, and not at all difficult to read. It's in the mystery section at the bookstore, but it'd be good to give to a teen who really likes Sherlock Holmes.

It's 1865, London, and Charles Lenox is one of those aristocratic men who like dabbling in things. He's mainly a collector of maps and a bit of an explorer, but his hobby (and possibly passion) is being a detective. And, because it's that sort of book, he's much better at it than the bumbling, arrogant, unobservant Exeter, a member of the Scotland Yard.

Sounding familiar? It should. because Charles Lenox is just a much nicer Sherlock Holmes.

The murder in question is that of Prudence Shaw, a former maid of Lenox's next-door neighbor and BFF, Lady Jane Grey. Scotland Yard (and her current employer) are calling it a suicide, but Lenox knows differently. She's been poisoned by a rare (and expensive) poison called bella indigo. The question is: who did it, and why. (Well, duh. Isn't that always the question?)

I thoroughly liked Lenox; as a character, he was charming and intelligent and just a pleasure to be around. I really liked his relationship with Jane, how it wasn't a romance, but a real honest-to-goodness friendship. What I lost patience with, however, was the mystery. While I didn't figure it out (I'm not good at those things), I wasn't surprised at the end (which is probably a good thing). But, by the end, I had lost interest in the whole murder thing. And then it went on for several chapters after the final reveal, chapters I ended up skipping.

It wasn't a bad mystery, just not one I was super enthused about. Liking Lenox as a Sherlock Holmes knock-off wasn't enough to make me enthused.

October 22, 2014


by John David Anderson
First sentence: "I want you to know, right from the start, that I'm not evil."
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Others in the series: Sidekicked
Content: There's really nothing objectionable, and I ended up putting these in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore. It still feels slightly older than that, however. I just can't place why.

Michael Morn is a villain. His adoptive father is one of those mad scientist types, who invents boxes that do... well, stuff. Like scrambling all the cameras, or maybe blowing up. And so the duo have committed crimes. Nothing extravagant, mostly just bank robberies when they needed the money.

But Michael also has a secret: he has unusual powers of persuasion. When he looks someone in the eye, he can compel them to do something. Sure, it has to be within the realm of possibility, but he can do it. So far, he and his dad have kept that power under wraps, only using it when they really have to. But with the arrival of The Dictator -- a true super-villain -- and his nemesis, the Comet, Michael's life is about to change. And not necessarily for the better.

I remember liking the companion book to this, Sidekicked, but even so, when I picked this up, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. On the one hand, it's a very clever take on superheroes and super powers. I like the world that Anderson has created, where being super isn't necessarily an unusual thing and superheroes aren't necessarily saviors of the world. And where villains are just people trying to scrape by.

That said, I felt that this one was missing something: A concrete ending, for starters. I won't give anything away, but it left more questions than answers by the end. And it didn't feel like a real middle grade (or even YA) novel, either. Michael did stuff, sure, but mostly he was reacting to the adults around him, and spent more time being their pawn (from this father, to the crime boss his father worked for, to The Dictator, in the end) and didn't actually do anything. It felt like an elaborate set-up without much of a pay-off.

That said, it wasn't bad either. Or, at least, not bad enough to put down. But it wasn't satisfying in the end.