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Friday, November 27, 2015

The Incredible Adventures of Daniel Boone's Kid Brother, Squire by W. Fred Conway
reviewed by Gerti

By size and weight, this seems like a throw-away pamphlet, but W. Fred Conway’s work on Squire Boone has more substance than it would appear at first glance. He takes the story of the Boone family, especially famous brother Daniel and less-famous sibling Squire, from their early days in the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina, through Squire’s burial in Boone Caverns, which he discovered while hiding from Indians in southern Indiana.

The story is almost apochryphal, with Daniel Boone constantly getting into scrapes, captured by Indians, etc. and his baby brother coming to his rescue. The first story told by Conway shows how several other companions of the Boone boys were killed or lost in the Kentucky woods, but the Boone boys always managed to survive their trials and return to their wives back in Yadkin. So competent were they as woodsmen, that they were able to explore the country separately for a year and then keep an appointment to meet at noon on a specific July day in a hidden encampment.

The Boone’s traversed much of Kentucky, and would eventually help found several forts against Indian attacks, including Fort Painted Stone near Shelbyville, Fort Boonesborough near Winchester, and Fort Harrod, near Harrodsburg. Squire was an important figure in the history of Indiana as well, since he founded the first Baptist Church in the state, near Laconia. He was a self-ordained Baptist minister, who also performed the first marriage west of the Appalachians, with the bride one of three teenaged girls he saved after Indians abducted her. He is also considered one of this country’s first environmentalists, as he was very concerned, despite bringing many settlers here, about maintaining the wonderful wilderness in our region, too. He even spoke to that point while a delegate in Kentucky’s first legislative assembly.

Squire’s enduring legacy, however, seems to be Squire Boone Village near Corydon, Indiana. He built a gristmill there with his son after going broke when some land speculation deals fell through. They used the water flowing out of the caves to power the mill, and apparently, it still grinds grain the way it did two centuries ago. Nowadays the tourist attraction “village” also has a bakery, and soap and candle-making displays. You can see his burial casket, or at least the monument erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution in his honor, as both Daniel and Squire were made honorary Army Captains by a special act of Congress.

While not as laudable as it once seemed, Squire Boone clearly fought many battles with the Native Americans in order to settle the wilderness that became the states of Indiana and Kentucky. He saved many settlers lives, and even came up with primitive fire extinguishers made from rifles to deal with flaming arrows shot into forts. Squire was an educated man who believed in God, knew the woods, and had many skills valuable in the new territories, acting as a carpenter, a miller and a gunsmith during his lifetime.

While Conway’s language is sometimes awkward, he tells a good tale about a fascinating historical figure of great regional importance. This book would be appreciated by any child, teen or adult with an interest in the early battles that created our state and, ultimately, our nation. It’s a shame Squire Boone is not as well known as his brother.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Descent by Jay Bonansinga
reviewed by Gerti

I love the television series “The Walking Dead” on AMC, but I don’t like reading graphic novels, so Jay Bonansinga’s book “Descent” is a wonderful way to check in on my favorite characters and settings, as well as see some great “what happens next” action about a place the television show left behind.

In “The Walking Dead” series, the town of Woodbury has been destroyed after a character named “The Governor” messed with and captured several members of Rick Grimes group. Rick is the protagonist of the TV series, and has gathered around him a group of like-minded individuals since the zombie apocalypse. But he is very protective of “his people,” and has to rescue them when they are captured, no matter the consequences. Lucky for Rick, his group is very skilled at extraction and weapon use, so the citizens of this small Georgia town are no match for him. The town’s defenses are breached, which is bad news as it allows zombies, an ever-present enemy in the story, to enter the town at will.

This book begins after the Governor has left Woodbury, and the town and its citizens left to their fates. A woman named Lilly Caul has become the de facto new leader. She is trying to run things differently than the Governor, but fate is against her. Zombies are no longer wandering around one by one, which makes them easy to destroy, but in something called a superherd, and one of those is headed straight for her town. Fortunately, a new family has arrived in the haven that is Woodbury, and one of its members will do any to save her children, even if it means sacrificing herself to do it. First crisis averted!

An even greater threat, however, comes from a young boy whom the Woodbury survivors saved from starvation outside its walls. He convinces the group that his church group is surrounded in a nearby town, and that they must save them. Thanks to the discovery of an underground network of tunnels, remnants from the Underground Railroad days in the South, the group is able to free the other humans, led by a charismatic preacher named Jeremiah. Over time, Lilly willingly hands the reins of power over to him so she can concentrate on her romantic needs, totally unaware that the religious group in fact has made a suicide pact and they are just waiting for the right time to take the townsfolk with them.

The book is a terrific read. I loved meeting the new characters, and Lilly is a great, if flawed, protagonist. I often wondered with the TV series why Rick’s band didn’t come back to Woodbury once their prison shelter was destroyed, but I am glad that some author realized the town was still viable as a haven from “the biters.” Bonansinga writes in a clear, yet exciting way, and I felt swept along with the action. His characters are also clearly drawn and different enough that I felt they were real people. Bravo to Bonansinga for creating a believable group of human survivors and putting them in dramatic new situations! Can’t wait to read more by this author. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Empire by Orson Scott Card
reviewed by Gerti

For those who have read Orson Scott Card’s classic science fiction novel “Ender’s Game”, the book “Empire” will sound familiar. The hero here is not a small boy, but a seasoned war veteran, who understands that conflicts are not only fought with weapons, but also with words and deeds. When we first see Reuben Malich, the soldier is stationed in an Arab country. He sees and survives an ambush with rare and almost prescient intelligence. This special knowledge gets him recruited for other anti-terrorist missions. Which is why it is no surprise that when Reuben comes back home, his Princeton history professor selects him as a verbal sparring partner.

The debate between Reuben and his teacher, Averell Torrent, about whether the United States is like Rome before the days of empire becomes the central theme and core question of the book. Card’s point, which is brilliantly made, is that the US is like Rome before it became an empire, and our various political divisions now are just prelude to one strong leader seizing power and uniting the country. In this book, that leader is Torrent. What Reuben doesn’t know at the beginning stage, is that the professor’s siren call has been heard by many people, some of them with the money and connections to bring such a change about.

I don’t want to ruin the plot for you, but Reuben gets involved in this conspiracy to end democracy in the US based on some paper he wrote about the best way to kill the President. His new assistant, Captain Bart Coleman, is with him the day they see scuba diver’s heading toward DC intending to fire rocket launchers at the White House. Reuben and Cole (his nickname), are able to prevent one assassin from firing his weapon, but another’s weapon has already gone off, killing the President, the Secretary of Defense, and several other important people who had gathered in one place. Reuben is a suspect, especially after a trip to NYC with Cole occurs during the first battle in a war to take over that city.

Reuben’s jeesh, which is Arabic for posse, try to help him figure out who is setting him up, and who is behind all the high tech weaponry they see in New York. These soldiers Reuben formerly fought with have a cadre of special skills, and together with Cole, they help uncover a conspiracy to make his former college history professor America’s new dictator. After he is killed, Reuben’s wife Cecily and Cole continue to gnaw away at the extent of the conspiracy, but stop when they realize how dangerous it is to oppose this country’s new leader.

A tremendous book which will probably be especially appealing to those who love conspiracy theories. I’m not a big fan of war or politics, but this book was so well written by Card, and the characters were so well defined, that it was a joy to read up until the end. I hated that protagonist Reuben died three-quarters of the way through, though, and constantly expected him to show back up.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Daddy's Little Girl by Mary Higgins Clark
reviewed by Gerti

Mary Higgins Clark can be an excellent writer, and the book “Daddy’s Little Girl” is a shining example of that. It is written in the first person, which is apparently a departure for the popular suspense writer, as it is mentioned several times in reviews of the novel. It is the story of an investigative journalist named Ellie Cavanaugh who was only a child when her older sister was murdered. Now, decades later, the man convicted of her murder is preparing to be set free, with help from his uber rich and powerful family. Ellie is determined to use her investigative skills to make sure that doesn’t happen, and in a modern twist, starts a website to prove his guilt, if not in her sister’s murder, than in other shocking crimes, like trying to kill his grandmother for her money.

Ellie is a compelling heroine, made more so by the fact that for many years she felt guilty about her sister Andrea’s murder, as she knew about the hideout where her rebellious older sis would meet boyfriends and girlfriends to commit teenaged indiscretions. It is Ellie’s belief that her parents felt the same way, and that Andrea’s murder was the thing that broke up their marriage. Ellie’s mother has died, after being an alcoholic for a long time, and after dragging Ellie all around the country to maintain her job. Ellie’s father, who she practically refuses to speak to because she feels he abandoned them, has remarried, and Ellie has a half-brother who is a rising star in the basketball world.

The secondary characters in this story are also brilliantly drawn. They are Rob Westerfield, the 19-year-old convicted of Andrea’s murder, who thanks to his money and connections now has a crime writer working on a biography to prove he did not commit this crime. Will Nebels is the shiftless local handyman, who suddenly emerges with a new piece of evidence pointing the finger at another local teenager, the mentally challenged Paulie Stroebel, who was working at a garage the night of the murder and had access to Westerfield’s car (and the murder weapon – a tire jack). Stroebel’s mother wants to keep him out of another trial just to save his fragile mental health, not because he killed the girl.

As the plot goes on, it is Ellie’s investigative skill that gets her evidence of other crimes and misdemeanors committed by Westerfield, but how far will his family go to keep it all quiet? The book kept me reading far into the night, with its engaging heroine, dramatic plotline (involving a fire and a suicide attempt), and heartless villain, who has a history of crimes against women. The suspense only builds as Ellie finally puts the puzzle together, but will Westerfield and his cronies stop her before she can tell anyone else? “Daddy’s Little Girl” is a rich and complex novel, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who loves crime fiction AND happy endings.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
reviewed by Gerti

Once upon a time, there were five teenaged sisters who lived in a large house with very religious parents. As is common in a close community, they are the objects of the focused attention of a group of neighborhood boys. Then the youngest girl, 13-year-old Cecilia Lisbon, tries to kill herself, using the ancient roman method of cutting her wrists in the bath. She is found in time and rushed to the hospital. Everyone collectively breathes a sigh of relief, and soon the family tries to get back to normal, inviting a few of these neighborhood boys over for a party. Although her wrists are bandaged and covered with festive bracelets, Cecilia doesn’t seem to enjoy the party, and excuses herself to go upstairs. But soon the party hears the wet sound of her body being pierced by the metal-spiked fence outside. She was simply too depressed to live. Or is it all an allegory about a teenager becoming a woman?

While Cecilia was seen as the strange one, the other girls, 14-year-old Lux, 15-year-old Bonnie, 16-year-old Mary, and 17 year-old Therese, take the death of their sibling very hard. Everyone tries to resume a normal life in the wake of the suicide, and some boys even ask the sisters to a high school dance. Their strict parents agree only if the girls go in a group. Trouble is not far away: there is some drinking and some making out. But Lux, the promiscuous one, ruins it all by not returning home by curfew. She has obviously slept with her date. Although Mr. Lisbon teaches at the local high school, the girls are now kept home from the school they attended to keep them from the gossip and stares they engender. Soon, the ladies are all cloistered inside. Only the father leaves the house, to go to work, but it’s not too long before Mr. Lisbon is fired from the school, too.

The community and media initially rallied behind the family, using them as the local example of a national trend, and yet… As the months go by, the house gets more run down and people see the occupants less and less. Food is delivered. People stop visiting the family. The boys are still obsessed with the surviving Lisbon girls, and a rough kind of communication is worked out where the girls get them to call the house, and then stay on the line after the father has hung up. During one poignant phone call, nuanced records are played by both sides, who are using the lyrics to express their buried feelings for each other. The girls convey the message that they plan to escape one night, and the boys eagerly enter the house to help them flee. Unfortunately, June 9th is the day Cecilia made her first suicide attempt, and that date is a deadly anniversary for the rest of the girls, who all feel the need to die with her so they can be together again.

The book is written once everything has happened, and the best part of the narrative is the archive the boys have kept of the Lisbon girls. Eugenides writing style is breezy and frequently amusing for such weighty subject matter, making it an easy, but disturbing read. While I’m sure it’s fraught with levels of meaning, if it’s all an allegory about sexuality and becoming a woman, it’s a grim one.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Paper Towns by John Green
reviewed by Gerti

I’ve read several John Green books now, and while “Paper Towns” is not my favorite, it is not his worst either. PT has a typical Green formula - a charming pre-college narrator (Quentin Jacobsen in this case) who travels the country, amidst tortured tales of teen angst and romance. High school senior Q (short for Quentin) is in love with his neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman, who is far more attractive, more interesting, and more everything than Quentin. She is a popular girl with a reputation for fearlessness, and as such, hell breaks loose when she finds out her boyfriend has been cheating on her. Q helps with her multifaceted revenge plan, but when Margo’s breakup precedes her leaving town, “Paper Towns” turns into “Looking for Alaska,” another (better) Green novel in which the female love interest disappears, forcing the protagonist into a road trip of self discovery. In this case, it is also literally a trip from Florida to a “paper town” in New York.

Quentin faces the same issues faced by Alaska’s hero – has the girl he was crushing on killed herself? To find resolution, Q and his friends (fellow seniors Radar and Ben, as well as Ben’s girlfriend Lacey) follow clue after clue in order to track down a mercifully still-living Margo. But there are few happy endings in life, and there is none here in “Paper Towns”, for while the band of friends find Margo in Agloe, New York (a town which doesn’t really exist at all), Margo didn’t want to be found. The “paper town” destination is a metaphor for Q’s relationship with Margo herself. He is in love with his idea of her, and not with the person she really is. In the same way, a paper town exists only on paper, a place invented by map publishers to keep others from stealing their information.

This book, like all of Green’s novels, is populated by fascinating, quirky, sometimes brilliant characters. The situations presented are also relatively unique, but I like this book less than some of Green’s previous efforts, perhaps because Margo is so very unlikeable. Her revenge plan for her cheating boyfriend is over the top, her idea of fun (sneaking into Sea World when it’s closed) is over the top, and her final departure from her previous life, family and friends, is so abrupt and final that she seems seriously damaged, rather than charmingly adventurous. She has deep-seated psychological problems and needs professional help, not just a group of supportive friends. Her pattern of living alone in deserted buildings (one a mini-mall filled with asbestos) is dangerous and for a young, attractive woman, a recipe for disaster.

Green’s books are usually charming, fun and easy-to-read, but this novel leaves me with a sour taste. When Q leaves Margo behind, I root for him to get over her, because I don’t see her story ending in anything besides suicide. I understand Green’s message – that we can never really know other people - but that ground was covered more effectively over a hundred years ago by Nathaniel Hawthorne in “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Avoid making a trip to this “Paper Town.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding
Review by Gerti

I love Bridget Jones and I'm not afraid to say it.  I'll shout it if you need me to.  I love Bridget Jones, and I love the many books (3 now) that Helen Fielding has penned about her wacky adventures.  I love that Bridget keeps track of the same crazy things I do--calories, weight, etc., but I also love that she keeps track of things I never do--like alcohol consumed or boyfriends shagged.  Having her be similar to me in some ways and different in others means I can laugh with her, and AT her, at different times, but always with the utmost affection.

In her previous diaries, Bridget had two wonderful men after her, including mark Darcy (played by Colin Firth in the movie version) which totally makes me love him, too.  Her former boss Daniel was played by Hugh Grant, and there are not two British men in the world that I adore more than Firth and Grant.  So even as I read about their adventures, in my mind I can see their gloriously handsome faces, and imagine their endearing mannerisms.  Yes, I do have it bad, than you very much.

Bridget Jones to me now is also the actress, Renee Zellweger, so as she gets her white coat stained by her daughter's hot chocolate before a major school even, I see her face, and that makes it all so much more intimate.  It's like watching the adventures of a friend, a clumsy, humorous, accident-prone, self-doubting, weak-willed friend whom I love.So in this book, "Mad about the Boy", I am not totally put off it becausd mark Darcy has died tragically.  Like helping a widow through hter days of grief, I stuck by Bridget as she tied to take care of their two kids, and make a new life for herself among the ashes.  I loved how she tried to engage with the modern world, tweeting, getting on FB (or not), and dealing with all the uber-moms at the children's school.  I liked how she found a young man to date, but saw the plot twist coming when an older man (equally buff, though. Bridget doesn't date ugly men!) from her son's school became her friend.

In short I love Helen Fielding's writing style, and this story, and while there are a lot of things happening to the English language in England that don't really click with Americans like me (who don't spend time overseas), you catch on eventually, even to unusual terms like Spag Bog (Spaghetti Bolognese).  Yes, it's apparently one of England's most popular meals, and Bridget's kids love to eat it.  those touches give the book its unique flair, and while I missed Darcy, I was rooting for Bridget to succeed at putting her life back together, and she has.  By the end, she's got a better relationship with her Mom, her Neighbors, even the most put-together mom at school as she finds out everyone is just bumbling along, despite appearances to the contrary.

I'm told they are working on the movie version of this book, but Hugh Grant refused to be in it, which is a sham.  If the movie is even half as fun as reading the booi, consider my ticket already bought.