Podcast Review: Crimetown

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Before I get into this review, I should probably explain how podcasts have taken over my life over the last few years.  My first year teaching, I used to listen to sports talk radio on the way to work.  I would occasionally listen to music, but found that I got more out of people talking.  This wore on me very quickly.  I then started listening to NPR (which I now joke is my obligation as a teacher).  One thing quickly led to another and I found myself subscribed to NPR podcasts of segments I liked and suddenly realized I could listen to “talk shows” of just things I was interested in, as opposed to whatever happened to be on the radio, and off I went.  I tend to alternate between subject matters. I usually alternate between episodes of a “serious” podcast and then to a goofier one.  This both reflects my interests and is also a direct result to my over-saturation of politics earlier this year when I was at one time listening to exclusively six or seven different politics podcasts, several of which were releasing daily episodes which super bummed me out. So, you will probably see a similar pattern as these reviews roll out.

Podcast: Crimetown
Producer: Gimlet Media
Hosts: Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier
Summary: (taken from Crimetownshow.com)

Welcome to Crimetown, a new series from Gimlet Media and the creators of HBO’s The Jinx. Every season, we’ll investigate the culture of crime in a different American city. First up: Providence, Rhode Island, where organized crime and corruption infected every aspect of public life. This is a story of alliances and betrayals, of heists and stings, of crooked cops and honest mobsters—a story where it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Hosted by Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier.

5 out of 5 stars

Crimetown is produced by Gimlet Media and hosted by Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier.  It has been mentioned before that I have an outrageous fascination with non-fiction books and that love extends to other form of non-fiction as well.  I often find myself watching documentaries as often as traditional TV and movies.  I have a vague interest in the genre of “true crime” although I was never really sucked into it all that much until I read The Lufthansa Heist by Henry Hill and Daniel Simone.  I must have missed the period of fascination most people (or at least males I grew up with) had with the mob, but I hit a period last year after reading that book and seeing other documentaries and of course the classic Goodfellas that got me supremely interested in all the different angles around Henry Hill.  It passed.  Or so I thought.

A friend and I will often drop into conversations if we’ve started listening to a podcast we think is worth checking out.  He led me along on a string a little for this one.  He said it was a podcast that was in the style of a documentary about organized crime.  They were going to spend each season focusing on a different city.  At this point I was already pretty interested and figured I would chuck it onto the backlog of podcasts to check out.  Then he reeled me in.  “It’s just started it’s first season and that season just happens to be about Providence.”  A podcast that sounded interesting, I would only have to listen to a couple episodes to catch up to, and was about my home state?  How could I not at least give it a chance?

True to the description, Crimetown is an incredible undertaking.  The podcast uses archived audio as well as interviews with several people intimately involved with the politics, law enforcement, and mafia starting in the 1970s.  It uses several people of interest to drive the story, however, it is fair to say that the infamous Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, the former mayor of Providence, is the focal point of the podcast.  Each episode or chapter runs about 30 to 45 minutes and are packed with stories and interviews.  They do a great job telling just a couple specific stories each chapter that drive the overall plot forward.  At the time I am writing this, six chapters have come out and each chapter has a companion page at their website crimetownshow.com where they put up pictures of the people involved and occasionally archived documents and videos.  It really is quite amazing how well they paint each of stories and it has become a must listen for me as soon as it is released.  If you are at all interested in true crime or even just someone who finds the style of documentaries to be interesting this podcast is completely worth checking out.  I look forward to the rest of the season and any/all of the future seasons to come.

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Book Review: Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes

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Title: Dark Sons
Author: Nikki Grimes
Publisher: Blink
Paperback: 208 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

A guy whose father ripped his heart out too.

You and me, Ishmael, we’re brothers, two dark sons.

Destroyed, lost, and isolated, the perspectives of two teenage boys—modern-day Sam, and biblical Ishmael—unite over millennia to illustrate the power of forgiveness.

 

 

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

I’ll be honest and say I did not know what I was getting myself into when I picked up Dark Sons.  I knew I had read things by Nikki Grimes before (and am embarrassed to say I could not remember what those things were) and that it looked like kind of an interesting.  I was pleasantly surprised both by the format and content of the book.

One thing to know (and again something I should have but didn’t know before I read the book) is that it is a collection of poems that tell the story of two sons dealing with a changing relationship with their father.  The first is Ishmael and his relationship with his father Abraham (from Old Testament fame) and the second is a more modern distancing about a teenager named Sam.  Through the course of the book the similarities and differences of these two interpretations are brought to the forefront through alternating sections of poetic cycles.

As someone who grew up in a fairly religious household (and as a result when I stopped being particularly interested in faith for religious reasons and more for academic ones), I really enjoyed the Ishmael side of the book.  He has always been a fascinating character to me and the role he plays is one that I feel like is ripe for a lot of different interpretations.  I felt like this interpretation of what his emotions and feelings must have been were incredibly well done and were interesting when compared to the Christian response in terms of how Sam was able to deal with his father’s new family in the modern part of the book.  It set up an interesting parallel of having God take care of these people while still not making a great life for them or seeming to always have their best interest at heart.

I thought the portrayal of Sam was also incredibly well done.  It felt incredibly real and is one of the few reasons I would potentially recommend this book to a student.  The way that the character processes emotions and was able to separate his feelings for his father and his new wife from those for his step-brother was quite interesting and something I feel like most people have had to do even if not with this particular situation.

I do not think I would ever assign this book primarily because I think that religion is a bit too explicitly central.  That said, I have several students that I am already thinking of who could relate and benefit immensely from this.  I also think that there are students like me who might see the comparison of Ishmael as almost a “patron saint” of someone abandoned by their father to be compelling even without the religious overtones it produces.  Overall, it was a good, quick read and the format was something different that I found quite refreshing (although, this should not be super surprising coming from me since my favorite format for books are short story cycles).

Book Review: Elite by Mercedes Lackey

Elite by Mercedes Lackey.jpg
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Title: Elite
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Series: Hunter, Book 2
Hardcover: 368 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Joy wants nothing more than to live and Hunt in Apex City without a target on her back. But a dangerous new mission assigned by her uncle, the city’s Prefect, may make that impossible.

In addition to her new duties as one of the Elite, Joy is covertly running patrols in the abandoned tunnels and storm sewers under Apex Central. With her large pack of magical hounds, she can fight the monsters breaking through the barriers with the strength of three hunters. Her new assignment takes a dark turn when she finds a body in the sewers: a Psimon with no apparent injury or cause of death.

Reporting the incident makes Joy the uncomfortable object of PsiCorp’s scrutiny—the organization appears more interested in keeping her quiet than investigating. With her old enemy Ace still active in Hunts and the appearance of a Folk Mage who seems to have a particular interest in her, Joy realizes that the Apex conspiracy she uncovered before her Elite trials is anything but gone.

As the body count rises, she has no choice but to seek answers. Joy dives into the mysterious bowels of the city, uncovering secrets with far-reaching consequences for PsiCorp… and all of Apex City.

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5

I don’t know if I’ve been meta-analyzing books for too long, but I found myself willfully resisting the urge to do so with this book.  What I mean is that when I started reading it (more or less directly after finishing the first book in the series, Hunter), I found myself spending a lot of time trying to decide if I liked the way Lackey was trying to give enough background information for people jumping in cold vs. hampering the plot developing.  From there ,I found myself trying to decide if the pacing of the overarching story was well done.  While I have answers to both of these things now (if you are curious, I think she kept it about as short as she could and I actually loved the pacing since it didn’t seemed rushed, respectively) I found I had a lot more fun reading this book when I just took it for the story it is without trying to over think it.  And I have to say the result was one of the more immersive experiences I’ve had with a book in a while.

I get scared with sequels, particularly of YA, when I like the first book in a series.  A lot of times, authors seem to use the first story to build a great world in the opener and then just hit the turbo button to too-fast-developing-not-super-thought-out plot in book two.  This book absolutely did not do that.  At one point I found myself thinking that this book can feel at times feel like it is just an extension of adventures from part one, which some may see as a negative but I really enjoyed.  This is not to say that the larger plot does not advance.  There are a lot of pretty important developments and the conflicts between the different government programs that are theoretically all supposed to be working together is particularly interesting, however, this information is spread out throughout the book with fun “hunts” and social activity thrown in so it feels like a much more natural progression of story than other books I have read.

The conceit that was hinted at in the previous book that all of the Othersiders are represented in some way in human folklore or mythology is expanded upon in this book in an incredibly interesting way which opens up for even more questions about the worlds relationship with the Otherside.  I also found the consistency of magic in this universe to be very satisfying.  There is something almost scientific about the way magic usage is explained in this world and it leads to new discoveries in magic to be satisfying as a reader rather than random and like a crutch of some type to advance the plot.

Overall I was pleasantly surprised that I liked this book even more than the first one.  All the things I said in my previous review remain true, especially that the characters seem to act the way people really would which is something I love particularly in YA.  Now I just hope that the series does not suffer from my other largest concern which is not knowing how to end which retroactively makes me not enjoy the previous books as much, but for now I can confidently say that I cannot recommend this series enough if you are at all interested in YA fantasy!

Book Review: Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby.jpgTitle: Fever Pitch
Author: Nick Hornby
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Paperback: 272 pages
Source: Chicago Public Library
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

In America, it is soccer. But in Great Britain, it is the real football. No pads, no prayers, no prisoners. And that’s before the players even take the field.

Nick Hornby has been a football fan since the moment he was conceived. Call it predestiny. Or call it preschool. Fever Pitch is his tribute to a lifelong obsession. Part autobiography, part comedy, part incisive analysis of insanity, Hornby’s award-winning memoir captures the fever pitch of fandom — its agony and ecstasy, its community, its defining role in thousands of young mens’ coming-of-age stories. Fever Pitch is one for the home team. But above all, it is one for everyone who knows what it really means to have a losing season.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

I have a lot of feelings about this book.  I am pretty fanatical about my alma mater’s American football team and as a direct result, parts of this book felt a bit too real.  The way that Hornby is able to describe the relationship one has with a team is truly beautiful.  In the intro alone (which I forwarded to several of my friends who are not huge readers) he really delves into the emotions involved with a crushing defeat.  He goes in with the opinion that to a degree, to be this big of a fan you have to be somewhat depraved and then goes on to show how this fandom is both the largest blessing and curse of his life.

First of all, his point about being somewhat literary and therefore often times making metaphorical connections between his team’s performance and his life rang incredibly true to me.  Much like Hornby, I can often times take what I see from a performance of my team as grand analogy to my own life at the time.  We are losing every game despite looking like a good team in the preseason?  That’s my senior year where I was poised to glide through the last semester and finish early, but for whatever various outside reasons was a non-starter.  We pull together an amazing season despite having no reason to do so?  It’s the year I am living with my wife for the first time, I’m beginning to feel comfortable at my job, and just generally feel like I can deal with the things life throws my way.  Hornby points all this out and does so through some comic, some serious, and some heart-wrenching examples from his own life.

The other thing I think this book does incredibly well is give a glimpse into football (soccer) culture in England particularly in the 70s and 80s when the majority of these events take place.  I do also quite enjoy soccer and the English Premier League is my league of choice so being able to learn a bit more about the atmosphere in grounds at this time was fascinating.  Besides that, it is wonderful to get the perspective of someone who had some of the traits that often lead to hooliganism, but for a variety of reasons was not a hooligan himself, and his reflection on these rougher fans as he grew older and distanced himself from them entirely.  There is a lot of interesting commentary on class and race, which was a pleasant surprise for me.  Finally, being able to hear about a football nuts opinions on Heysel and Hillsborough thinking back to when they happened was absolutely incredible and a perspective that has been missing from most of the other coverage I have seen on these tragedies.

My only issue with this book at all is that it was occasionally a slog to get through.  The format of each section being a game was really cool in terms of driving home just how obsessed he is, but it made it a bit daunting and disorienting at times when reading.

Fair warning: If you expect this book to be anything like the films by the same name prepare to be disappointed.

Book Review: Hunter by Mercedes Lackey

HunterTitle: Hunter
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Series: Hunter, Book 1
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Hardcover: 374 pages
Source: County of Los Angeles Public Library Overdrive
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

They came after the Diseray. Some were terrors ripped from our collective imaginations, remnants of every mythology across the world. And some were like nothing anyone had ever dreamed up, even in their worst nightmares.

Monsters.

Long ago, the barriers between our world and the Otherworld were ripped open, and it’s taken centuries to bring back civilization in the wake of the catastrophe. Now, the luckiest Cits live in enclosed communities, behind walls that keep them safe from the hideous creatures fighting to break through. Others are not so lucky.

To Joyeaux Charmand, who has been a Hunter in her tight-knit mountain community since she was a child, every Cit without magic deserves her protection from dangerous Othersiders. Then she is called to Apex City, where the best Hunters are kept to protect the most important people.

Joy soon realizes that the city’s powerful leaders care more about luring Cits into a false sense of security than protecting them. More and more monsters are getting through the barriers, and the close calls are becoming too frequent to ignore. Yet the Cits have no sense of how much danger they’re in—to them, Joy and her corps of fellow Hunters are just action stars they watch on TV.

When an act of sabotage against Joy takes an unbearable toll, she uncovers a terrifying conspiracy in the city. There is something much worse than the usual monsters infiltrating Apex. And it may be too late to stop them…

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

First of all, I cannot emphasize enough that I think this book is worth sticking through the first quarter or hundred pages.  I only feel the need to bring this up, because I was surprised by the amount of one-star ratings I saw for this book and realized the reason for them was overwhelmingly that people gave up on it about 20-25% in.  I’ll be honest, I don’t blame those people who did.  The first part of the book really seems like it is setting up to be another run-of-the-mill dystopian YA book like Hunger Games or Divergent.  However, while it does not go into a completely different direction I think that the latter part of the book is incredibly well done and more than makes up for the stale beginning.

There are several things that I really liked about the way this book handled itself after the initial set up.  The first was that I enjoyed the relationships between characters.  Most importantly, I liked the way the main character (Joy) was developed.  There was a lot of internal monologue by Joy, as often happens in these kinds of books, but also actually interacted with several other characters including her Otherworld hounds which greatly improved the monotony that occasionally occurs.  The friendships she developed were well written and nothing seemed overdramatic and were still quite compelling.  Most importantly to me, she was in no way spurred on purely through romantic interest of any kind.  This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine when it comes to strong female characters.  I think that she was a nice balance between still being the young girl she is and being incredibly strong and mature when the time called for it (as expected of a heroine).  The book is not devoid of romantic interest, which I think could also ring somewhat false or hollow, but it is very much a subplot that informs feelings and decisions but in no way could be considered a major part of the novel.

The other thing I thought was handled quite well that worried me at first were the Christians (referred to as Christers in the book).  I hate to admit I went from laughing about the fact that they were angry that this cataclysmic event was not the apocalypse to beginning to cringe about how they were being talked about for the most part (again in the first hundred pages or so).  Again though, I think that this was beautifully handled in the subsequent sections of the novel when Joy befriends a Christer hunter nicknamed “White Knight” and we get to see her much more nuanced and interesting relationship with them as a whole.

Also, the hounds are really cool and I want some.

Overall, I don’t think this book will blow your socks off and if you can’t deal with a slow start it is not for you, but if you can get past that and like this sort of novel I think you will be well rewarded with the rest of it.

Book Review: Ithaca by Patrick Dillon

Ithaca by Patrick Dillon.jpg
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Title: Ithaca: A Novel of Homer’s Odyssey
Author: Patrick Dillon
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Hardcover: 352 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Telemachus’s father, Odysseus, went off to war before he was born … and never came back. Aged sixteen, Telemachus finds himself abandoned, his father’s house overrun with men pursuing his beautiful mother, Penelope, and devouring the family’s wealth. He determines to leave Ithaca, his island home, and find the truth. What really happened to his father? Was Odysseus killed on his journey home from the war? Or might he, one day, return to take his revenge?

Telemachus’s journey takes him across the landscape of bronze-age Greece in the aftermath of the great Trojan war. Veterans hide out in the hills. Chieftains, scarred by war, hoard their treasure in luxurious palaces. Ithaca re-tells Homer’s famous poem, The Odyssey, from the point of view of Odysseus’ resourceful and troubled son, describing Odysseus’s extraordinary voyage from Troy to the gates of hell, and Telemachus’s own journey from boyhood to the desperate struggle that wins back his home … and his father.

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I have very mixed feelings about this book.  On the one hand, the idea of telling a classic Greek tale through the perspective of another character in the story really intrigued me.  I love The Odyssey and was super excited to sink my teeth into a story from Telemachus’s perspective.  And I have to say, on that count I think this book was super interesting and successful.  Part one of this novel sucked me in, and I could not wait to keep pushing my way through the story.  I thought Telemachus was a completely fleshed out character and a lot of thought had gone into the effect not knowing his father would have on him.  I also thought that his exploration with Polycaste was one of the strongest parts of the novel.  Partly because she was another super interesting character and partly because this is a part of the story that has not been told to death and was rather innovative.

The rest of the book began to fall flat for me, though.  Odysseus being discovered and recounting his tale is when I started to drift out of my engagement.  I do not know how else the author could handle this (if someone has not read The Odyssey then they need to know what happened), but having Homer’s epic condensed to a chapter in plain English felt more like I was reading sparknotes than anything else which kind of bummed me out.  It also has the problem that the reader knows how the story is going to end and the final few scenes playing out are kind of a let down for that reason.

So again, I am torn.  I think that this book is really amazing at its best parts.  The characters are well developed and the take on various characters’ psyches is super interesting.  The idea that many of the heroes in these epics are brutes that are romanticized was a super interesting thread throughout, however, in the end it just feels like a lesser telling of a story we already know.  I do not know how this could be worked around, since changing the source material would obviously also be a problem, however, if this book were completely from Telemachus’s perspective and followed the format of the first part throughout, I think I would have enjoyed it much more.

That said, I have several students who either really love The Odyssey or think it is interesting but can’t get past the language.  I think this is the perfect book for either of those kinds of students since it is more accessible but also adds new ideas and viewpoints to the story.  I would happily have a copy of this book in my classroom to recommend to those students and think it could lead to some interesting discussions about the values of various societies.

Book Review: My Father and Atticus Finch by Joseph Madison Beck

 

My Father and Atticus Finch.jpg
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Title: My Father and Atticus Finch
Author: Joseph Madison Beck
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Hardcover: 240 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

As a child, Joseph Beck heard the stories—when other lawyers came up with excuses, his father courageously defended a black man charged with raping a white woman.

Now a lawyer himself, Beck reconstructs his father’s role in State of Alabama vs. Charles White, Alias, a trial that was much publicized when Harper Lee was twelve years old.

On the day of Foster Beck’s client’s arrest, the leading local newspaper reported, under a page-one headline, that “a wandering negro fortune teller giving the name Charles White” had “volunteered a detailed confession of the attack” of a local white girl. However, Foster Beck concluded that the confession was coerced. The same article claimed that “the negro accomplished his dastardly purpose,” but as in To Kill a Mockingbird, there was evidence at the trial to the contrary. Throughout the proceedings, the defendant had to be escorted from the courthouse to a distant prison “for safekeeping,” and the courthouse itself was surrounded by a detachment of sixteen Alabama highway patrolmen.

The saga captivated the community with its dramatic testimonies and emotional outcome. It would take an immense toll on those involved, including Foster Beck, who worried that his reputation had cast a shadow over his lively, intelligent, and supportive fiancé, Bertha, who had her own social battles to fight.

This riveting memoir, steeped in time and place, seeks to understand how race relations, class, and the memory of southern defeat in the Civil War produced such a haunting distortion of justice, and how it may figure into our literary imagination.

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I was incredibly excited when I saw this book, since it combines a couple of my favorite things: To Kill a Mockingbird and non-fiction.  I teach To Kill a Mockingbird every year, and I am constantly looking for companion pieces to go along with it.  I was really hopeful last year when Go Set a Watchman came out that it would finally be the ideal book for this purpose.  While I have a lot of thoughts about Go Set a Watchman (most of which boil down to it would be an excellent book if it did not use the same characters as Mockingbird), suffice it to say it was not quite what I was looking for in terms of a pairing.

This brings me to my thoughts on My Father and Atticus Finch.  I think this book is outstanding in terms of giving an example of a historical case similar to the Tom Robinson trial in To Kill a Mockingbird.  I often have a very hard time trying to get students prepared for the novel, especially teaching in the 21st century in a northern state.  What I most often do is talk about the Scottsboro Boys trial.  This helps to give students some background information; however, there are a lot of things that are not similar (multiple defendants, the Northern lawyer, the fact that it took place earlier and set precedents for the Tom Robinson trial, etc.).  While I do not think that this book would wholesale replace it, I do think that portions of it could be used very effectively for pre-reading and that students who have an interest in the trial and in history would benefit enormously from reading this book.

I also think that the book does a nice job laying out the idea that Atticus Finch is not based on his father even though there are a lot of similarities (and only tries to push the idea he might have been at the end).  It reads as a very interesting and important story in its own right independent of its connection to Harper Lee’s works.  That being said, one of the most interesting things to me in the book outside of the trial was the discussion of the author’s father and his grandfather.  Perhaps because I enjoy overanalyzing things, I found the differences on white-black race relations fascinating and felt like it almost broke down as his father was like Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird and his grandfather had more of an opinion like Atticus in Go Set a Watchman in terms of his paternal approach.  As such, I think that along with being something that adds to the experience of To Kill a Mockingbird this book also made me retroactively enjoy Go Set a Watchman more.

The only criticism I have of the book is that it can at times get a little slow and bogged down in family history (this is entirely fair as the book is ostensibly about his father).  I found myself as I got further into the meat of the book getting a little annoyed with the chapters that dealt with the minutia of the family or the town as opposed to things directly related to culture or the trial itself.  This is a minute complaint however and the book overall was a page turner the whole way through (in large part due to the very narrative approach taken by Beck).

In conclusion, I think this book is a must read for people who love To Kill a Mockingbird or have an interest in history.  I plan on having at least one copy in my classroom library to recommend/lend out to students.