Tuesday, March 22, 2022

The Misadventured Summer of Tumbleweed Thompson

by Glenn McCarty
327 pages/ 2019

I’m sure I’m not the first reviewer to describe Misadventured as Mark Twain-esque. This is a tale of two very different boys, living out frontier life in 1876, and equally matched as both friends and rivals. Tumbleweed Thompson is a shyster and the son of a shyster, blowing into Rattlesnake Junction as father and son peddle miracle medicine from the back of their wagon. 

Eugene Appleton, a good son of the town’s pastor, is in the audience, watching as the peddlers are shown up and run out. But when Tumbleweed reappears on his ownsome, he pulls Eugene into a whole summer’s worth of getting chased by smugglers, trailing train robbers, and trying to outdo each other for the attentions of the mayor’s daughter, Charlotte Scoggins, a misadventurous lass herself. 

It’s evident the author is Christian, though that might not be apparent to the 10–14-year-old audience this is intended for because, even as Eugene means well, he doesn’t always act well (and Tumbleweed often enough doesn’t even mean well). That would be the big caution then, not to give this to boys who are struggling with telling right from wrong themselves. That does mostly get sorted out at story's end, when both boys do the very best thing, acting in defense of a widow and a man falsely accused. 

Loads of fun!

Friday, March 18, 2022

Once again, 5 good, but not "really good," comics

The name of this blog is "Really Good Reads" so why review graphic novels that are good but not great

It's because, while these comics themselves might not be outstanding, they are an outstanding way to get reluctant readers into the habit of regularly reading. Some of these will use pictures to draw them in, and then the story will keep them hooked. And then, as they grow, they can progress to more complex graphic novels which often have as much text as full-size books. And then it is only a hop, skip, and a jump to reading those non-graphic sorts of novels. Many of the more complex graphic novels have as much text as many a full-size book.

In other cases, graphic novels can serve as a great introductory level textbook to a topic. Think of it as a Dummies sort of broad overview, wonderfully accessible and still highly informative.

Unfortunately, many comic books are silly, racy, gory, or disgusting in other ways, so if you have a son or daughter who you've managed to turn on to reading, then they might start chewing through graphic novels, and be looking for more. So, to keep those fires burning, here are some solid suggestions.

Incubators: A Graphic History
by Paige V. Polinsky and Josep Rural
2022 / 30 pages

This a short, absolutely fascinating history of how incubators were invented, and then popularized. Did you know they were first modelled on incubators used to hatch chicks? The ones for babies were incredibly expensive, and no one could afford them, so to finance their opporation one of the inventions popularirzers started charging people to see the premature babies, with the money collected then going to their care. What a weird approach, but it saved countless lives!

Usborne Publishing has a series of graphic novel adaptions of classic novels that are quite good. I've read dozens of adaptations and what I appreciated in particular about these were:
  • their size - at 104 pages each, they have enough space to at least give a decent summary of the story
  • their delicacy - some of these classic stories involve infidelity (think Guinevier and Lancelot) and all sorts battles that are often depicted quite brutally in other works. But everything here is 
  • their originality - there are countless versions of stories like Robin Hood and King Arthur, and I was surprised to read, in both instances, a tale that was still very loyal to the bones of the story, even as there was a little bit of a fresh wrinkle. It was fun to discover, reading through an introduction to the source material that concludes each book, that these fresh wrinkles likely came from the adapters making use of something from the very oldest legends 
  • Language - most every other graphic novel classical adaption series I've come across will frequently take God's name in vain. These don't ever seem to.
Machines that think!
by Don Brown
2020 / 120 pages

Where did computers and robots come from? Author Don Brown has given a comprehensive overview, starting with the discovery of binary, to the invention of mechanical computers, then transistors, and bringing us all the way to today's self-driving cars. 

Our narrator is Muhammad ibn Mūsa all-Khwârizmi, the popularizer of Arabic numbers (ie. 1,2,3, instead of the Roman numerals I, II, III), which might be a politically-correct effort to counterbalance all the other, Western-based, advancements in math and engineering the rest of the book details. If so, then thankfully, that's as far as PC culture intrudes. This is largely "just the facts ma'am." Old and new are introduced, from Blaise Pascal and Ada Lovelace to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Some of these folks had checkered pasts, so I appreciated that the author sticks with their computer contributions and doesn't get into anything else. 

Artwork is very cartoonish, with the exception of some schematics which are drawn more realistically. There are a lot of complex ideas and technological leaps details here, and this friendly artistic style helps make this a far less intimidating work than it might otherwise have been.

This is just the sort of broad overview that could get a certain sort of kid interested in engineering. I'd recommend it for ages 12 and up.

I survived the Nazi invasion, 1944: a graphic novel
by Lauren Tarshis
2021 / 160 pages

After the Nazis invaded and conquer Poland, they quickly start rounding up Jews, and placing them together, in ghettos. These are rundown neighborhoods, which the Germans then surround with barbwire to keep the Jews in. This is the story of Max and Zena, two Jewish children who get in a tussle with a German soldier and have to flee the ghetto to get away. They end up finding a sympathetic farmer, and a group of Resistance fighters who help them hide in the vast forests of Poland. 

This is an exciting story, with the Nazis almost finding them a number of times, and Max even gets shot. By story's end, Max is telling us that he has trouble sleeping, and we've seen enough of what he experienced to understand why. 

This is intended for teens, and largely age-appropriate, noting the many who died, without actually having any of the Jews we're introduced to get killed. That's not realistic - we're told in the appendix that more than 90% of the Polish Jews didn't make it to the end of the war - but that is understandable for this age group. There is a happy ending for all, a marriage in one case, a move to Israel for some, and a move to America for Max, Zena, and the father they've been reuinted with.

The big caution for this book concerns the violence. In addition to Max getting shot, we also see three German soldiers get shot, and a fourth hit in the face by a large rock, all of them presumably killed. While it is not especially gory, there is some blood shown. For 12 and up, this is likely no big deal, but because this is a comic book, kids a lot younger might be tempted to open it up to take a look. And they should be steered clear.

Fred & Marjorie: A doctor, a dog, and the discovery of Insulin
by Deborah Kerbel
illustrated by Angela Poon
2021 / 56 pages

This is the story of how, in 1920, Dr. Fred Banting's experiments on dogs led him to the discovery of Insulin. Both man and animals produce insulin, and it is used to regulate the amount of sugar in our bloodstream. Without it, a person can develop heart and kidney disease, vision loss, and more. The only treatment before Banting's discovery was to limit a person's food intake, to thus reduce their blood sugar. But this was starving someone to keep them from getting heart disease, so it wasn't much of a treatment.

The comic is simple and solid, a bit jumpy in parts likely because Dr. Banting's recall of events was also spotting in parts. It's a bit of a detective story, with Banting and his colleague first needing to figure out what it was that these patients weren't getting enough of. A middle-of-the-night moment of inspiration led him to propose a series of dog experiments, half of them having their pancreas removed to induce diabetes, and others studied to see what it was their pancreas was secreting. These secretions would then be injected in the diabetes dogs to see if they helped. This process is what eventually led to the discovery of insulin. But it did involve a lot of dogs dying. This wore on Banting, and the comic shows some of the emotional toil it caused him. But he knew that if they figured this out, he could save millions of children. So he kept on. 

The cautions concern age appropriateness. Early in the book there is mention made of children dying of diabetes, and some are shown in a near skeletal state (though in line drawings that aren't overly detailed). Sensitive children may also find it hard to read about, and seeing some of the dogs dying, though again, there is nothing overly graphic shown. A more notable caution is about the discussion in the appendix, about whether animals experimentation is bad or good. The book, in showing it, and touting the benefits of it, is clearly making the case for, but the discussion the back takes a neutral stance, noting some believe all life to be "equally sacred" and that sacrificing a dog to help humans is immoral. I suspect some Christian children in the young grades that this is intended for (Grades 4-7) might need a little help in seeing through the lie in that position.

Who was the First Man on the Moon? Neil Armstrong
by Nathan Page
2022 / 64 pages

Despite the title, this is more about the Apollo 11 moon landing, and the whole crew, than it is about just Neil Armstrong. And that’s what makes this an interesting, if all-too-brief, read. Like all the books in the "Who is" series, the pages are small, which makes for only an average of 4 panels a page - this could be read in ten minutes. Of course, that's also a feature for some young readers.

The story also ends with their landing on the moon, which is a bit of an abrupt ending but does also leave readers wanting more. So they can turn to another moon landing graphic novel, The Far Side of the Moon, for more.

One caution would be an incidental mention of the moon being 4 billion years old. Another: that this recommendation shouldn't be taken as an endorsement of the "Who is" books, since this secular series frequently celebrates people who shouldn't be celebrated, like evolutionist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, crossdresser RuPaul, homosexual activist Harvey Milk, abortion defender Ruth Badar Ginsburg, and communist revolutionary Che Guevara. 

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Rule of Law

by Randy Singer
2017 / 473 pages

Rule of Law is a legal thriller, but the story begins outside the courtroom, with a SEAL team storming an Arabic jail to free an imprisoned American journalist. When that mission takes a tragic turn, the fallout ends up in front of the Supreme Court. 

Author Randy Singer uses his fictional story to examine the real-world way in which the US government, and particularly the executive branch, has been acting as judge, jury, and executioner in placing foreign nationals on a “kill list,” and then taking them out, and those near them, via drone strikes. Singer doesn’t seem to be arguing against all drone strikes. But the title he has chosen certainly references the idea that we all need and benefit from accountability, so we all – including even the president – need to be under the law. Our leaders must not act like they are above it, as dictators do. 

This is well written, with a great balance of action, some romance, unexpected courtroom twists, and some realistic, subtly woven in, wrestlings with God. Singer is rapidly becoming a favorite author.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

A Different Shade of Green

A Biblical Approach to Environmentalism and the Dominion Mandate
by Gordon Wilson
2019, 189 pages 

Christians are right to be skeptical of an environmental movement that sees Man as a problem for the planet, rather than the steward of it. But, as Gordon Wilson explains in his A Different Shade of Green, Christians can’t simply be contrarians – we won’t arrive at the biblical position simply by being reactionary and anti-Green. Instead, our foundation has to be God’s Word, starting with the dominion mandate in Genesis 1:28, and then God’s own evaluation of His creation as is expressed a few verses later: “and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). We are to value His Creation and the creatures in it because He values it, and we are to take charge of its care because He has made us responsible for it.

What Dr. Wilson has gifted us with here is a challenging and engaging Biblical Environmentalism 101 – he hasn’t worked it all out for us, but he is pointing us in the right direction. For more of Wilson’s creation care thoughts, be sure to check out his nature documentary series, The Riot and The Dance.