Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

A well-documented book with great information, but the author's tendency to break up stories with subplots was clunky at times and slowed the pacing. The book follows the stories of four African-American women influential in mathematics and engineering while working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and later as the women's jobs were transferred to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) after the NACA became defunct. Their battles with segregation and upward mobility were uniquely stymied and enhanced by the organization and individuals they worked for and with at NACA and NASA. A fascinating look in time, the book's pacing is slowed by the shifts from one character to another during action scenes.

The author interviewed some of the women in this book and those quotes add color and strength to the story. I tend to like nonfiction that is more descriptive creating characters I can easily visualize. This author tends to use too many platitudes that make sections wordy and dry with the character descriptions become lost while the pacing slows. The personal story of Katherine (Coleman Goble) Johnson helping her son with his soapbox derby car and being the first black kid to win the national contest is inspirational; however, the author starts with the story then adds a subplot on another character and her sorority before going back to the race. She does this multiple times throughout the book and I found it irritating because it was like hitting the brakes midway while racing down a steep hill. She does it again and again.

The resilience of these women and the facts surrounding their careers are fascinating. The author does a great job showing the historical context of what they had to deal with during the Jim Crow laws and how they fought small battles whether it was in a segregated cafeteria or using a segregated bathroom. The 2017 movie, "Hidden Figures", is excellent and I actually liked the tighter focus and character development better than the book, but the book fills in gaps the movie doesn't explain well. It also condenses sections and I'm glad I read and watched both.

4 Smileys

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Uprooted: The Japanese American Experience During World War II by Albert Marrin

When I finished this I wanted to turn around and reread it again. I really liked author Albert Marrin's turn of phrases and found myself wanting to write them down. I read it on the elliptical machine and writing notes wasn't in my wheels - I'm not that skilled at multi-tasking. The overall message is that racism exists all over the world and that people need to learn from the past or they will repeat it. The framework of the book begins with racist views promoted by the Japanese during World War II in Japan, a bit of China, Germany, and last America. The views in America and the questionable decisions by leaders to incarcerate Japanese Americans without due process during WWII is brought to light. Marrin puts the issues in historical context and shows how the actions by leaders and the justice system as well as the use of media influenced and later changed the public's mind to overturn the unjust laws infringing on civil rights. He points out leaders that had racist views and shows how it mirrored the national or global dialogue at the time. He argues that racism harms countries and the civilians leading to poor decisions and harmful consequences. A well-written and thoughtful book that I highly recommend.

5 Smileys

Monday, March 27, 2017

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

This helped me understand some things I didn't really get in the books, "The Sellout," "Between the World and Me," and "The Underground Railroad." Living overseas for 12 years has put me out of touch with issues in the U.S. I've watched at a distance the debates on police brutality and racial profiling in the news, but haven't looked at it closely. Michelle Alexander's book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," explains how the War on Drugs initiated a crackdown that devastated the urban poor black community through laws and policies too punitive resulting in mass incarcerations creating the largest prison populations worldwide in the U.S. Case studies reveal how racial profiling is happening through the police and justice system and targeting low-income African Americans. While scholars have studied race and the justice system for many years, there is a new group that is comparing it to the Jim Crow laws of old and slavery. Michelle Alexander offers an exhaustive and well-documented look at how the current justice system does not work for poor people and needs to be restructured. 

The author effectively argues how court cases and policies have stigmatized convicted African American offenders limiting their rights as citizens. She sheds light on unjust laws and policing that tears apart families in unfair and unjust ways. While the Jim Crow analogy gets the public's attention it is problematic as argued by Yale Professor James Forman Jr. While Forman agrees with Alexander's assertion that the harsh systematic approach to mass incarceration needs to be restructured, he would like to see all minorities included and violent crimes examined, in addition to drug offenders, and inclusion of local prisons, not just federal prison populations that Alexander examines. He also thinks that the black middle and upper class that didn't exist during Jim Crow and slavery days makes for a flawed analogy. He presents an excellent counterpoint to the debate. 

5 Smileys

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Arena (Arena, #1) by Holly Jennings

In the year 2054, virtual games have become like reality TV. Society escapes the horror of the days by watching RAGE tournaments where elite gamers compete to the death in a game. Kali is the only female captain of the game and her manager exploits her and the other four on her team to make money. A side effect of gaming is addiction that is kept from the public and not treated by the industry. When Kali's teammate overdoses she starts to question the industry and its goals. If you like action, want a quick read with a Chinese-American protagonist, then give this a go. The writing and craft are bad on many levels.

The world building doesn't show much as to why the population embraces this form of entertainment. Kali mentions briefly that the other virtual games are too realistically violent and that is why their form of gaming gets the most viewers. The author doesn't create authentic characters. Kali spews platitudes from Taoism and Rooke calls her wise but she doesn't show much wisdom. There are some cringeworthy dialogue and descriptions. The first person point of view is choppy with a drumbeat of too many "I's". The gaming world is only from the view of escapism and addiction is something well-known. Why the media wouldn't talk about it because they were afraid they'd lose viewers is a weak premise. Kali's problems and overcoming them lacks depth. The romance between her and Rooke is stereotypical with the beautiful man and woman, resembling gods and goddesses, falling for each other. This author tells and doesn't show which makes it too superficial for my liking.

2 Smileys

Thursday, March 16, 2017

We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement That Defied Adolf Hitler by Russell Freedman

My interest in World War II youth resistance groups started when I read, "The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club" by Phillip Hoose. I can add this to another terrific children's book on a little-known topic. Or at least, little-known to me. Hans and Sophie Scholl were members of the Hitler Youth organization before they became disillusioned with the anti-Semitism and rigid group's ways. They organized a resistance group at the University of Munich and decided to protest totalitarianism through nonviolent means. They handed out leaflets encouraging the masses to rise up and condemn Nazism. When they were caught the two received admiration from the Nazi guards with how they handled themselves. The guards broke protocol to let them speak with family and each other before their executions. This inspirational story will have you doing more historical research on your own.

The nonfiction elements are well-documented and the story is a quick read of over one hundred pages. It is inspirational and combats the stereotype of a Hitler Youth movement where all German youths willingly joined and brainlessly spouted Nazi slogans. The brave students could not remain silent as the war progressed and they consciously resisted National Socialism for cultural and differing ideological reasons. A good historical book makes the reader want to find out more information on the topic and Russell Freedman did just that for me. The language is simple and nothing graphic; however, the gruesome execution of the youths is disturbing and might require discussion with younger readers.

Daniel Horn wrote an interesting article that overviews German youth resistance during WWII (I reference it below if you are interested in the article on JSTOR). Horn lumps German youth resistance into three groups from various economic and social backgrounds but fighting for basically the same thing: freedom of choice, dissatisfaction with a regimented Nazi youth system, and self-fulfillment. The working class and bourgeoisie youth resistance members formed different groups from the asocial gangs such as the Edelweiss and Kittelsbach Pirates with violent aims to overthrow the Nazi government, to the politically opposed groups such as the Munich and Hamburg White Rose students that used print to express their displeasure with National Socialism, and the liberal-oriented individuals of Swing youths who wanted self-expression and individualism rather than the regimentation and repression of culture such as dancing and Jazz music.

Youth Resistance in the Third Reich: A Social Portrait Author(s): Daniel Horn Source: Journal of Social History, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Autumn, 1973), pp. 26-50 Published by: Oxford University Press Stable URL:

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Queen of Blood (The Queens of Renthia #1) by Sarah Beth Durst

The Queen of Aratay controls spirits that want to kill humans who invade their forests, air, land, and water. When Daleina's village is destroyed by wild spirits as a child she discovers she has the ability to control them. As the only survivor, along with her sister and parents, she goes to an academy to get trained in her new powers. The academy trains girls to protect the citizens in different military capacities; however, only one girl will replace the Queen when her powers wane. Daleina makes good friends with her classmates and learns her powers are meagre at best. Her determination, hard work, empathy, and perfectionism are what allow her to pass but she has quite the inferiority complex as she is unable to work the more powerful spirits.

The point of view switches from Daleina to a warrior who serves the Queen keeping rogue spirits in check. When he notices a pattern of villages being attacked by spirits, he questions if the Queen is losing her powers. Usually this is a sign and the Queen dies. The Queen denies her loss of power and banishes him for suggesting it. When the warrior's heir that he trained is murdered he decides to go to the academy and choose a girl to mentor. Daleina stands out not because of her skill, but for her mindset. She knows that the goal should be to protect the people and put them above herself, not to rise to a throne for the power only.

The strength of this novel is the main character's development. The plot can be shaky at times and predictable. Daleina is plagued by doubts and confidence. She is not as skilled as the other students vying to be heir to the throne. Her strength lies in her compassion and cooperating with spirits rather than controlling them. She's flawed and more interesting than your usual archetype heroine who excels at everything. She understands what it means to be a team player and uses that strength. She's a reluctant hero and layered in complexities.

The fantasy setting is well-done and the world is easy to visualize using elemental spirits that act like Norwegian beserkers when not controlled by humans. The plot reminded me of Harry Potter, the Ranger's Apprentice, and Norse myths. The academy part is not overly long but shows her creating friendships and adds a humorous break in the dark plot line. The mentor part shows an adult pushing her to reach her potential and showing her how to use what she sees as failings, as strengths. She can sense and redirect spirits with more power than the other students. He helps her not focus on her weakness. People live in the trees and while there is no one great tree like Yggdrasil, there is a tree kraken that is more like the destructive serpent in Norse myths. The name, Midforest, in Aratay is similar to the Norse Midgard, the name for Earth. The spirits fight like the Viking beserkers.

When the warrior refuses to see what's happening with the Queen, it gets dragged out too long. The author tries to show him blinded by love, but it's a weak plot device for moving the story forward. The romantic parts are abrupt and felt tacked on rather than worked into the plot seamlessly, especially Andare. Some of the plot twists were interesting and the blind incident worked well into the theme of power and its effects on people.

The sinister owl spirit does not represent today's wise owl, but is more the shady Middle Ages owl associated with witches. The owl that was active at night but blind during the day. This owl is blinded by hate and wants genocide. While the Queen is shown in her complexity, the owl spirit is a one dimensional villain that cannot be reasoned with even though Daleina tries on several occasions.

This book is violent with more deaths than usual. The minor characters are not developed enough for me for their deaths to have much impact. I never get to know most of them in depth; therefore, the deaths stand out as a plot technique to try and draw emotion from the reader and doesn't work. The author does go into depth with the protagonish and shows how the deaths affect her and her relationships with others. This is well-done. She suffers and feels responsible at the end emphasizing that she has the potential to be a compassionate and wise leader. I'm not sure I'll remember this book. I think the character will stick with me because she is not your usual invincible superhero, but the plot could have been better.

3 Smileys

Daughter of the Pirate King (Daughter of the Pirate King #1) by Tricia Levenseller

This pirate adventure tries to use an unreliable narrator, but it doesn't work on several levels. I like unreliable narrators because it means a fun plot twist; however, if the reader guesses the twist the fun feels like a dampened conversation. Readers will recognize familiar pirate characters in this tale: cruel, brutish pirates, humorous pirates, or rogue ones that follow a code of honor. "Bloody Jack" by L.A. Meyer has a woman pirate who uses her wits against men because she knows she can't compete in the area of strength. This story has a woman pirate, Alosa, who seduces and uses her inhumane strength against men. Yep, this petite kickass woman can subdue three men twice her size. Alosa's super speed, flexibility, and physical power in several plot situations let me guess her true nature pretty quickly.

Seventeen-year-old Alosa is on a secret mission to find a blimey treasure map for her father, the universally feared King Pirate, who other pirates pay tributes to for safe sea passage. Alosa lets herself get captured aboard a ship whose cruel Captain, Draxen, represents the brute pirate archetype while his brother and second-in-command, Riden, has a sense of honor that keeps bro in check. Riden is the brains of the twosome and becomes attracted to Alosa when she is held captive aboard their ship. Alosa's regular cell guards represent stupid pirates that add comic relief. Alosa seems overly-confident that she can control the men in authority and have a successful mission. Failure is never an option when it comes to her father. When things fall apart, she must align herself with her enemy.

The character development can be contradictory. Alosa, is an assassin who can kill without hesitation. She also has a code of honor where she lets people live if she respects them or they've shown her kindness. Sometimes she's noble, other times base. The background story reveals that her father has tortured and trained her to be a ruthless pirate. She has more strength than several men combined and she fears her father. The complexity of this trait is not really captured in an authentic way making her lacking depth and superficial. She'd be tough, manipulative, seductive, and hard-core sometimes and soft, sentimental, naive, and educated other times. I would have liked more internal struggles and less romance.  The unreliable narrator works against the plot because her actions are implausible and her edginess came and went like the tide. Plus, if she was so superior to others, why wait to break out from under her tyrannical father? The motivation given is money related, but she has her own ship and crew. Seems like she's already come into her own; hence, the premise seems weak.

The romantic subplot dominates the pirate plot and works against it with quite a bit of sexual banter between Alosa and Riden with characters mainly being motivated by love. Romantic novels are often interpreted as either showing women challenging societal norms or upholding them in a patriarchal society (Linda J. Lee, "Guilty Pleasures: Reading Romance Novels as Reworked Fairy Tales"). Common tropes are sexual desires, danger, violence, gender dominance, to name a few. Romance stories in the 70s and 80s by authors such as Kathleen Woodiwiss used captivity and rape motifs in a historical setting. I thought perhaps the author was trying to mock these motifs because the protagonist, is never afraid in captivity of being raped even though the threat is there. She lets herself become a captive and she knows that a man can't rape her. She is so sure of her power over men and claims to always be in control of them (which gives away the unreliable narrator) that the danger is not imminent. Later, when she is dominated by men, it is her love interest that frees her. While the protagonist seems strong and independent she is ultimately saved by men supporting the romance that Lee describes; the plot that upholds societal norms rather than challenges them.

Lee points out that the 90s romance novel shifted where women enjoyed their sexuality and were more equal with men versus the traditionally timid women conquered by a domineering man. Alosa represents the modern heroine who knows how to manipulate mens' desires but can't manipulate her father and is afraid of him. Alosa has her own ship, she's more powerful than the men around her, but she is always seeking her father's approval. She plans to be the pirate queen and the current mission of finding the treasure will help her do this; however, she seems to lose that focus near the end. I thought she needed more internal dialogue on her goal of being free from her father which gets lost in the romantic subplot. The end made it seem like she'd forgotten that goal and instead, she is dominated by fear of what her father will do to her if she doesn't accomplish the task at hand and saving her love interest.

The romance subverts the message of Alosa looking for power over a social system that denies women to be female pirates. She has her own female ship and crew; yet, is under her father's rule. The romance seems to confine the ability to hash out this theme and the overarching message blurs. I would have liked more backstory. Sometimes first person point of view makes the readers view too narrow and mucks up the protagonist's motives.  The story shows a woman who appears to be fighting the status quo to be her own person, but succumbing to her father. She wants to challenge the existing social structure but doesn't succeed. Her plan of what to do with the treasure of money is not worked enough into the plot to show where the story her ambition. Instead, she has fallen in love and seems more interested in Riden than freedom.

Many romance novels hearken not only to Victorian authors, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, but to the more ancient fairy tale genre. I wondered if the author was going to go that route with her plot and she does not work in those motifs in any depth. The abrupt ending left me wanting more and there is definitely a sequel for readers. Maybe the next book will show more character and plot development. This story just came up short for me.

2 Smileys