Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove

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With the summer season about to begin, many families will make the trip to visit the various theme parks across the country. For over 50 years, SeaWorld has promoted its message of conservation through education and entertainment, and has become one of the largest and most recognizable attractions in the US. But the park that has become synonymous with family fun faced a day, in 2010, of pure terror and tragedy. I'm talking, or course, about the death of seasoned orca trainer Dawn Brancheau who was forced into the tank and eventually killed by Tilikum, the largest captive killer whale in the world. The shocking death of Brancheau left a scar on SeaWorld's reputation and forced the public to reconsider the way trainers and animals interact.

Former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove spent over 20 years working with killer whales and was employed by both the San Diego and San Antonio parks. He was featured prominently in the 2013 documentary Blackfish and has become an outspoken critic of SeaWorld and its treatment of orcas. In his book Beneath the Surface, Hargrove details his career as an orca trainer and how he came to the conclusion that SeaWorld's treatment of captive killer whales is fundamentally wrong.

I have to admit to some trepidation upon initially reading this novel. I was afraid that, like most whistle blowers, Hargrove would simply present a one sided argument that portrayed his general disdain for SeaWorld. As a native of San Antonio, I have many fond memories of visiting SeaWorld and witnessing the relationships between trainer and animal. I was afraid that this book would do everything to shatter those pleasant childhood recollections. Surprisingly, Hargrove presents a fairly balanced argument. He writes about his relationship with whales Kasatka and Takara and the genuine love he felt from each of the animals. He also details the grueling physical demands of swimming and interacting with the whales.  Hargrove tells of the amount of trust that both the humans and animals place in each other as they interact. After reading his book, there is no doubt in my mind that the trainers genuinely care for the animals that they interact with.

That being said, Hargrove presents facts from his experience that don't paint SeaWorld in the best light. It becomes clear that the highly intelligent animals grow bored in the confines of their concrete enclosures. This boredom causes behavior that ends up being extremely detrimental to the whales' health. For example, the whales often spend their days chipping the paint from the concrete of their tanks. This damages their teeth and forces the trainers to perform painful dental procedures. Hargrove points out that the trainers often requested that the enclosures be repainted, but were denied. He notes that the San Antonio habitat still had the original paint from the late 1980's when he departed the company in 2012. At the same time, SeaWorld spent millions of dollars to update the Shamu Stadium with LED lighting that would enhance the show experience. Through this and countless other examples, it becomes clear that SeaWorld as a profit driven company does not always make decisions based on the best interest of the animals.

I came out of this book with a much clearer understanding of the captivity debate that has been going on for the last several years. Hargrove's descriptions of the death of Brancheau were difficult to read, but really allowed me to understand the fear, confusion, and sadness that all members of the SeaWorld corporation must have felt on that fateful day. There were many contingencies in place that should have prevented a death, but everything failed. It is clear now that our understanding of these animals has evolved, but SeaWorld has not. Captive orcas live a life that is vastly diminished in comparison to their wild conterparts. Hargrove proposes that SeaWorld not release whales to the wild as many other critics have suggested. He explains that the animals do depend on man to live and should be able to count on them as they live out the remainder of their lives. Still, he argues that SeaWorld should cease all killer whale shows and instead display the animals in more natural environments. Eventually, captive whales would be a footnote in the history of mankind and our curiosity to understand the animals that we share the earth with.

For more information, visit Amazon and GoodReads.

(2015, 9)

Mad River by John Sandford

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Jimmy Sharp and his girlfriend, Becky Walsh are in way over their heads. With the assistance of Tom McCall, who only agrees to help because of his childhood crush on Becky, the threesome sets out to steal diamonds from a wealthy family. All three come from poor backgrounds and are determined to escape the pattern of ignorance and poverty that plagues their families. But their get rich quick scheme goes terribly wrong. In an instant, a simple robbery turns into murder and the threesome flees. When their junk car dies on them, they carjack an innocent bystander, killing him in the process. Soon, the three are on a killing spree as they desperately try to escape all of their wrongdoings.

Enter Virgil Flowers of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). The quirky Flowers, imagine a cross between a cowboy and a rock star, is known for always solving "the hard ones". And so he is called in to help round up the murderous trio. Unlike some of his other cases, Virgil is almost certain that the three are guilty of the crimes, so this is basically a large scale manhunt. Still, Virgil speaks to many of the locals to try to discover a solid motive for the crimes.

Virgil's unorthodox tactics and sharp wit usually cause him to ruffle the feathers of the local authorities. This case is no different. The murders have rocked the small town and the local sheriff wants to end the spree at all costs, even if that means killing the three kids on the spot. While Virgil is equally determined to bring the trio to justice, he fully believes in the judicial system and his role in it. He knows that with his skills and the assistance of a passionate community, the three will be apprehended and put on trial. That is...if the local sheriff will let him do his job!

This sixth installment in the Virgil Flowers series continues the quick pace, thoughtful narrative, and pure entertainment of its predecessors. John Sandford writes with an efficient prose that never gets in the way of the story or characters and allows for a breakneck pace. Unlike many other mystery novels, the reader and detective know who the killers are from the get go. The fun is instead in learning how Virgil Flowers, one of the most charismatic and enticing characters I've ever read, pursues the criminals. It is the character, not the plot, who is the driving force of this novel. The ending, while maybe not the conclusion readers will hope for, serves as a testament to Sandford's dedication to realism and emotion. Overall, this novel continues the excellent quality of the Virgil Flowers series and I can't wait to read of his next adventure.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2015, 8)





Friday Flicks: American Sniper

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A review of a book to film adaptation.

Based upon the bestselling autobiography, American Sniper chronicles the life and incredible career of the deadliest sniper in American history, Chris Kyle. The film begins with young Chris's father teaching him how to hunt. From that early age, Chris is taught to respect the weapon and to always look out for others in need. An early flashback shows young Chris putting these lessons into practice. He intervenes in a fight between his brother and a bully, earning punishment from the school, respect from his father, and sealing the hero complex that would shape the rest of his life. 

After witnessing the 9/l1 terrorist attacks via his television, Chris, now an adult, immediately enlists in the Navy and begins training to become one of the branch's elite warriors. As a member of the Navy Seals, he is summoned to the field as a sniper. Kyle's mission is to cover areas as other branches of the military complete ground operations. As the film progresses, we witness Chris excelling at his job, racking up a kill rate that earns him the nickname "Legend". 

Director Clint Eastwood does a nice job of mixing the tense action sequences with personal glimpses into Kyle's psyche, especially when he returns home. Bradley Cooper as Chris, and Sienna Miller as his wife show us the raw emotional toll that war takes on both their individual emotions as well as their marriage. In hindsight, a few of the stateside scenes may be overtly cliche, but in the context of the film and the many intense war scenes, these moments are necessary in creating a balanced view of the war. 

Since it's release, there has been much debate about this film. Having read the book upon which this movie is based, I can attest that real life Chris Kyle was much more matter of fact about his actions than Cooper's film version. In the book, Kyle does not seem to be conflicted by the amount of people he kills. It is impossible, of course, to know what was really going on inside the man's head, and I feel that I have no right to comment on his actions. It is worth noting, however, that the film humanizes Kyle in a way that never really happens in the book. As such, the emotional payoff of the movie is extremely high as the credits roll. In the end, the biggest take away from both the book and movie seems to be that war is a big, ugly, complicated mess. Regardless of our individual political or even moral views, our country has asked men and women to leave the comforts of their lives to protect the comforts of our own. American Sniper, is a flawed but important reminder of the sacrifice and heroism of our military.

Cross My Heart by James Patterson

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For over twenty years, the Alex Cross series has been the flagship of author James Patterson's prolific output. While the bestselling author notoriously employs co-authors to aid in his writing, Alex Cross remains one of the only series to be credited entirely to Patterson himself. As such, the Alex Cross series has always seemed to maintain the thoughtful mysteries, thrilling pace, and honest characters that gained Patterson the acclaim and notoriety that he enjoys today. True to form, Cross My Heart delivers all of these elements, proving that Patterson is still at the top of his game.

Thierry Mulch is a scorned man looking for revenge. As a college psychology professor he studied and wrote a book about a spree of unsolved murders committed by, as he claims, the perfect criminal. His writing on this super criminal captured the imaginations of countless readers, leading to many speaking engagements and book signings. Despite the almost universal praise, Mulch finds himself obsessed with  his biggest critic. . . DC Metro Police Detective Alex Cross.

Things seem to be going well for the Cross family. Alex and his wife Bree are busy working on two separate murder cases, all three of the cross children are enjoying success at school, and Nana Mama the family matriarch is overseeing a massive kitchen renovation. Little do they know that life as they know it is about to come crashing down. One man is planning the perfect crime. One man has made it his mission to destroy the Cross family. One man want to bring Alex Cross to his knees.

This is one of the best Alex Cross novels in recent years. This series has always stood out due to the strong writing of the family dynamic. In each novel, the reader checks in with the Cross family, and, over the course of 21 books, the Cross family has become close to the hearts of those who read about them. As always, Patterson writes with a quick pace that keeps the pages turning and the tension high. By changing Alex from the hunter to the hunted, Patterson puts a unique twist on his usual formula. This is the kind of novel that keeps readers up at night, unable to sleep until every twist of the plot has been resolved. There has been much written about the cliffhanger at the end of this novel. I have been vocal about my disdain of incomplete endings in series mysteries, especially when they seem unnecessary. That being said, I felt that this novel had a defined stopping point, while still leaving the larger story open for completion in the next installment. For fans of James Patterson and thrilling mysteries, this is an exceptional installment in a stellar series.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2015, 7)


Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson

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Every once in a while, an author attempts to make big statements about big ideas. To portray social subjects (racism, class, history, tradition, culture, etc.) in the confines of written words is no easy task. Often, any commentary becomes burdened by the mechanics of language. In his new novel, Welcome to Braggsville, author T. Geronimo Johnson attempts to tackle some of these topics.

As he begins his freshman year at UC Berkley, D'aron Davenport is clearly a fish out of water. Thousands of miles away from his hometown in Georgia, D'aron struggles to find his way in this new place. He has never had to put much effort into his school work, and quickly ascended to the top of his small high school class with minimal effort. But the rigors of collegiate academics have taken their toll on D'aron. After the first semester, he finds himself with unsatisfactory grades and the threat of academic probation. A meeting with his advisor reveals deeper internal issues. D'aron's advisor, who also made the move from small conservative town to large liberal city, diagnosis the young man's social conundrum. She tells him that his difficulty in reconciling his upbringing with the culture of his new setting is normal, but he must come to terms with these issues to achieve success in his studies.

It is not until an awkward turn at a party that things for D'aron begin to change. A misunderstanding finds D'aron, his roommate Louis Chang, Candice (from Iowa) and black prep school student Charlie being accused of being racially insensitive. From there, the group, 4 Little Indians as they call themselves, become close friends, and it seems that D'aron has overcome his social insecurity. It is an American History class on alternative perspectives that inspires the friends to create a performance piece that makes a political statement. D'aron's hometown, Braggsville, the kind of conservative place where "gay" is used as an insult or joke, holds an annual Civil War re-enactment. The group decides to make their statement at this event. When things don't proceed as expected, the foursome and the entire town of Braggsville are forced to face racial, social, and cultural issues that none of them could have anticipated.

Johnson tackles tough issues and interesting characters to middling results. The central plot and characters are very well conceived and offer natural ways to explore complex social issues. Unfortunately, Johnson's unique authorial voice takes a bit of time to get used to, sometimes making reading this novel a chore. As is so often the case with this subject matter, the mechanics of written language fail to portray the lofty ideas that are discussed. That being said, there is no denying Johnson's craft. Even when the plot becomes muddied by excess points and overtly obvious observations, Johnson manages to steer the story back to a central focus that is both timely and engaging. In the end, Welcome to Braggsville is not a book that everyone will enjoy, but definitely offers the kind of sharp satire and commentary that is difficult to achieve.

For more information, visit Amazon and GoodReads.

(2015, 6)


The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

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As someone whose life has been intimately touched by cancer, I was extremely hesitant to read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Regardless of the positive reviews, bestselling status, and movie adaptation, I simply was not ready to subject my emotions to a book about the awful disease. As time passed, however, I was overcome with curiosity. A year after cancer invaded my life, I finally broke down and read the book that everyone was talking about.

Sixteen year old Hazel has a terminal case of cancer. An experimental drug has held the tumors at bay, but the threat of the disease remains. Her lungs regularly fill with fluid and she requires the assistance of an oxygen tank to help her breathe. There is no denying the truth. Cancer will kill Hazel. But there is much more to this character than her illness. A voracious reader, college student (she completed her GED while undergoing treatments), and fan of America's Next Top Model, Hazel shares many attributes of a typical teenage girl. At the insistence of her overbearing mother, who fears her daughter is becoming a recluse, Hazel finds herself at a weekly support group for  critically ill teens. She grudgingly attends the meetings, but the shallow sentiments of the group leader and rotating group of teens (it's hard to keep a consistent membership when all of the members are terminally ill) do little to interest Hazel.

It is at these meetings where Hazel first meets Augustus Waters. A lanky, attractive, former high school basketball star, Gus lost one of his legs to cancer. The young man seems to live life by his own rules. For example, Gus frequently places an unlit cigarette in his mouth, a metaphor for controlling  something that has the power to kill him. The two immediately hit it off, bonding over literature and philosophizing about life and death. As their romance blossoms, they face the ugly truths about cancer and the ways the disease will inevitably affect their relationship.

John Green does an incredible job of accurately portraying the horrors of cancer and the way it shapes the lives of those who come in contact with it. As a young adult novel, this book could easily have fallen into the trap of romanticizing a love story about teens facing the hardships of a disease. Fortunately, Green's characters are written with the kind of depth that allows readers to naturally become enraptured in their story. It is great to see an author write intelligent characters who are smart because of their thoughts and actions. . . not because he told us they were! There are no "against all odds" or "wisdom beyond age" sentiments in this story. Rather, the character grapple with the fear and unknown that comes with a terminal diagnosis. We see the horrific toll that cancer can take on the human body, mind, and soul. Yes, cancer largely influences the story, but it is the incredible, once in a lifetime kind of love between Hazel and Gus, that makes The Fault in Our Stars the rare, must read book that it is.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2015, 5)

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