mardi 22 juillet 2014

The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman



Opening in the early days of the United States of America, when public fears of government overreach needed to be calmed thanks to the protection of the Constitution, moving through the spread to the Wild West and the days of Prohibition and gangsterism, before ending at the Supreme Court where political expediency led to a radicalized ruling protecting an individual right to gun ownership, The Second Amendment: A Biography is a sweeping exploration of the most controversial and misunderstood provision of the Bill of Rights. As renewed debate caused by recent mass shootings brings the Second Amendment back into the limelight, Michael Waldman gives a historical, contextual view that shows how society’s view of the amendment is coloured not by a historical understanding of the constitution’s context, but by political advocacy and the agitation of radical organisations.

I love reading about the United States. I’m not American and my hands-on experience of the country has been limited to a handful of visits over the years. And yet this vast country of such sweeping contradictions has always fired my imagination. I have an ongoing project to read a biography of every single US President and any time a non-fiction book about the US crosses my path I snap it up. One of the most intriguing (and terrifying) elements of US society, especially for a foreigner looking in at it from outside, is the Second Amendment and the unfortunate consequences that surround it. So when this book, portrayed as a biography of this most controversial of amendments, popped up on Netgalley, I jumped at the chance to read it.

The Second Amendment: A Biography turned out to be an absolutely fantastic exploration, not only of the Second Amendment itself, but of the development of the Constitution, the changes that swept through American society in the 19th and 20th centuries and the growing influence of the Supreme Court in modern American life. Although I am certain that some people will disagree, I found it to be not only well-written, with an engaging voice that carries the story from beginning to end, but also a well-balanced look at what is obviously a highly charged subject. While Waldman’s own opinion is obvious, he still gives a fair view of both sides of the debate, always presenting the arguments of those on every side of the divide, while keeping his own commentary to specific passages.

Waldman’s position comes from being president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law – he comes at this both from a legal and a historical point of view, making sure to set out the historical context that should inform any interpretation of the constitution. To understand why the amendment exists and why the Founding Fathers saw the need to include it, Waldman explains, it is vital to understand the world around them, the historical pressures that influenced them, and the society that spawned them. As such, the first part of the biography explores the origins of the amendment. Waldman shows by referring to documents of the period and by pointing just as much to what is absent from these documents than to what is included that the Second Amendment was designed to protect the ownership of a weapon in conjunction with the protection of a militia. This militia was there to do away with the need for a standing army, the first step to the creation of a tyrannical dictatorship as far as those Founding Fathers were concerned. As Waldman points out, the rise of the professional army in the 20th century put paid to those fears – for most people – and thus should be taken into consideration in any discussion of the Second Amendment.

From there, Waldman explores the influence of the Supreme Court and the rise of the National Rifle Association, providing some interesting insight into the history of the NRA. For instance, it is apparent from historical documents that the NRA initially favoured gun control – it is only later that the organisation became radicalised and thus began to take the hard right position that it has taken in recent year.

Throughout, Waldman makes it clear that the debate about the Second Amendment has always been a debate between historians vs. lawyers – a debate that the historians have lost. Instead, the current understanding of the Second Amendment has been decided and imposed not by historical research, nor even by political bodies. Instead it is the Supreme Court, led mainly by Antonin Scalia in the Heller decision of 2008, who have made that distinction. One of the best parts of the book is the way that Waldman takes the Scalia decision apart, showing how the ‘contextual’ understanding the Justice defends is actually anything but. Still, Waldman remains optimistic that the Supreme Court has always followed the moods of the people and as that mood shifts more towards gun control, it is possible that the decisions of the Supreme Court Justices will shift along with it.

The Second Amendment: A Biography is an excellent exploration of a complex subject. Rather than demonising either side in the debate, Waldman presents each side with the historical context, showing how the amendment was forged and how it was interpreted throughout history. While his own political leanings (Waldman was one of Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriters) are clear throughout, he gives the entire debate a fair shake. Still, it is difficult to argue with his conclusions: the current gun control climate is the result of the radicalisation of conservative organisations like the NRA and the influence of law courts instead of the people’s representatives. Still, the book ends on an optimistic note, one that those who have suffered from the lack of common sense gun control laws will hope to see one day. I gave The Second Amendment: A Biography 5 Wild West gun control signs out of 5.

dimanche 20 juillet 2014

New on the Library Shelves 20 07 14

AKA Showcase Sunday

A new segment here, participating in the Showcase Sunday meme over at Books, Biscuits & Tea.


I signed up to Edelweiss this week, which allowed me to get a couple of ARCs that I had been looking forward to for a while -  Tigerman by Nick Harkaway and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I also purchased one of my most highly awaited releases of the year: Daniel Silva's newest Gabriel Allon novel, The Heist. That goes right to the top of my To-Read list for next month!

For review:
The Yankee Club by Michael Murphy (historical)
The Lost Tribe of Coney Island by Claire Prentice (history)
Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets by Various (sff)
The Gift of Darkness by V.M. Giambanco (thriller)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer (thriller)
Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little (thriller)
Here is Where by Andrew Carroll (non-fiction)
Violins of Hope by James A. Grymes (history)
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway (sf)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (thriller)

The Godless by Ben Peek (fantasy)

The Heist by Daniel Silva (thriller)
Illusive by Emily Lloyd-Jones (superhero)
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine (historical)
The Magicians by Lev Grossman (fantasy)
The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi (sf)
Nice Dragons Finish Last by Rachel Aaron (urban fantasy)
Deadly Curiosities by Gail Z. Martin (urban fantasy)
The Kills by Richard House (literary)

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Books, Biscuits & Tea.

samedi 19 juillet 2014

The New Men by Jon Enfield

“In Sociological, we make men.”

So says Tony Grams, an Italian immigrant to America at the start of the twentieth century who joins the Ford Motor Company as an investigator, charged with looking into the life, standards, morals and family of the men who work for Henry Ford. In return for living a sober, dedicated life, the men who work on the Model T are offered the chance to double their wages... but only if the investigators of Sociological sign off on it. But as a worldwide war, racial tension and the rise of labor trouble begin to put pressure on everyone associated with Ford’s company, Tony begins a love affair that may bring his own life crashing down around him...

The New Men is one of those books that if it had not been for browsing through Netgalley would never even have appeared on my radar. When I saw it in the History section, though, I was initially drawn to the cover, a stylish blue and black concoction that seems to have come out of a Prohibition-era gangster flick. The blurb disabused me of that notion, but the idea of a historical novel centred around turn of the century America and the rise of the Ford Motor Company still caught my fancy. I didn’t really know what to expect going in, so I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

The New Men is a well realised historical novel set in Detroit, which affords not only a glimpse of the strange new world that has arisen thanks to Ford’s revolutionary practices, but also gives an interesting look into the rise of our world. Through the eyes of Tony Grams, we learn about the Sociological program, Ford’s idea of sharing his profits with his workers, but only if they can pass a strenuous series of probing interviews and investigations into their lives. Whether it be how they spend their money, who their family is or what their moral standing is in the community, all of these elements are raked over and studied by the men of Sociological, men of which Tony Grams becomes a part.

Throughout the book, an underlying current of racism is prevalent, though not necessarily against men of a different skin colour. Each investigator is charged with looking into the lives of his fellow countrymen – so for example Tony is assigned to work with other ‘wops’, since his employers believe that he will be best able to deal with them and find ways of slipping them up. That racial tension becomes obvious in Tony’s encounters with two of his colleagues - Merry, on one side, who takes Tony under his wing, and Smythe on the other who seems to have developed a hatred for Tony based solely on the fact that he is from Italy.

This creates a very uncomfortable atmosphere throughout the novel – Tony is constantly under scrutiny himself and the pressure he feels drips from the pages. I would not suggest reading this if you’re in a bad mood or feeling a little down: the feeling of opression that reigns will only serve to push you even further! If read with the right frame of mind, though, the book turns into a tense thriller of a novel, as Tony becomes involved with corporate espionage and the fight for and against socialist influence in the Ford company.

Through Tony’s encounters with Thia, a divorcee he quickly falls in love with, we also get a glimpse into the way society’s mores are changing in this new world. The relationship forms the core of Tony’s story, as he falls in and out of bed with her and becomes more and more embroiled in her life. When Tony begins to put himself on the line for her and her family, things become even more tense as the novel builds towards a relatively dark ending.

The New Men is extremely well written, providing an impressive picture of the world at the time. However, it is also quite dry, with a main character it is often difficult to become attached to. Although we follow Tony through all of his ups and downs, I never found myself rooting for him as a hero, and he often seemed to endure and suffer through situations rather than affecting the world around him. Many of his choices are difficult to understand and relate to, so it may be difficult for some people to become invested in the story.

However, The New Men is a book that will stay with me. The themes explored are universal and the work put into creating this turn of the century world is impressive. The writing flows nicely and kept me engaged where the main character did not. It is not without its flaws, and yet it is a book I have found myself thinking about more and more ever since I closed the last page. Overall, I gave The New Men 3 Model-T’s out of 5.

jeudi 17 juillet 2014

She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick

When her father, a writer who has become obsessed with the idea of writing a novel about coincidence, vanishes from Austria, where he is supposed to be doing research, Laureth Peak is convinced that something has happened to him. Unable to convince her mother of the danger, she decides to follow up the only lead she has – her father’s notebook which has mysteriously appeared in New York – on her own. Stealing her mother’s credit card and ‘enlisting’ the help of her little brother Benjamin, Laureth sets out to solve the clues left in her father’s notebook. The obstacles facing any 16-year old girl alone in New York, though, are made all the more challenging by one single fact – Laureth Peak is blind.

I’ve heard a lot about Marcus Sedgwick over the years on various blogs and websites – an eclectic author who has written both literary and more genre works, I have always heard good things about his writing and the plots he develops. So when She Is Not Invisible appeared on a “Books-to-Watch-Out-For” post on a blog I frequent, I decided to pick it up and give it a go. And after reaching the end, I am glad I did. She Is Not Invisible is a wonderful, quirky, intriguing novel, which only just fails to reach perfection due to a sloppy execution of the conclusion.

The first and key thing that works in She Is Not Invisible is Laureth, our narrator. Laureth is our guide through the novel, especially since the whole thing is told through her eyes. As such she is an intriguing and completely original narrator, one who manages to portray an entire world despite the fact that she is blind. Although her blindness is an obvious and ever-present factor, it is not allowed to become her only defining characteristic: Laureth is a quirky, strong, uncertain and slightly unhinged character who carries us along with us through the strength of her personality and the power of her convictions.

The strength of her character makes up for what could have been some major problems with the beginning of the novel, which probably means that your own reaction to the book will be dependent on how you react to Laureth. Considering that she is able – as a blind sixteen-year old girl on her own with a seven-year old brother she has basically kidnapped – to con her way onto an airplane and travel all the way to New York, where she is then able to carry on an investigation that constantly forces her to interact with people who may or may not realise she has a disability... Well, if you allow yourself to be dragged in by Laureth’s voice, the chances are that the various parts of the plot that require a certain suspension of belief will work as well for you as they did for me. Otherwise, your mileage may definitely vary!

Those elements aside, She Is Not Invisible provides us with an intriguing and tense mystery, one that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout while I was reading it. As Laureth puts together the elements of the puzzle left behind in her father’s notebook, we start to get a hint of dark forces at work, all centred around her father’s new obesssion – coincidence. Through these sections, Segdwick takes us on a journey through philosophy and physics, using such historical figures as Einstein and Edgar Allan Poe to explore the mysteries surrounding coincidence. Thanks to some well placed diversions into Laureth’s father’s notes, we gain an insight into a field of which I knew little, but which definitely left me intrigued to learn more.

This mystery, unfortunately, is let down by a clumsy conclusion that seems to be unsure as to what it is trying to do. While it wraps up the mystery of her father’s disappearance and brings Laureth full circle with her family, it also seems to wipe away everything that has happened up until now and relegates everything that Laureth and her brother have achieved to an almost farcical trip down a rabbit hole. Her father’s sudden change of heart as to coincidence and the banal explanation of what happened to him are disappointing, and it is difficult to see where Sedgwick is trying to go with his novel by the last few pages.

This does nothing to take away from the journey up until then. Sedgwick creates some great characters besides Laureth – her brother Benjamin and the extremely quirky Mr. Walker especially stand out. As in many YA novels, the adults are either a hindrence or non-existence – Laureth’s parents do not come off particularly well at any point in the story, though they do get their happy ending in the conclusion. A handful of other elements stood out – I really enjoyed the recurring joke about the father’s earlier ‘funny’ books, and the constant reference to the number 354 and the lengths Laureth takes that too through the book were excellent.

All in all, She Is Not Invisible is an accomplished YA mystery with an engaging and original narrator. While building up an extremely interesting philosophical puzzle, the novel is let down by a confusing and clumsy conclusion that does not live up to the expectations of the earlier plot. Requiring a certain amount of suspension of belief at times, it is nevertheless a taut, well-told story that kept me on the edge of my feat. I will definitely be picking up the next book Mr Sedgwick releases.

I gave She Is Not Invisible 4 electricity-cancelling brothers out of 5.

mercredi 16 juillet 2014

Graphic Novel Review - Star Trek: Khan

Beyond what some consider to be an unfortunate (and hopefully unintended) parody of Wrath of Khan, many fans main problem with the last Star Trek movie, Into Darkness, was the way that Khan himself was handled. Having a very British actor play an Indian character who had been played by a Mexican in the Original Series brought outcries of whitewashing, regardless of how talented an actor Benedict Cumberbatch may be. Using such a legendary character was always going to be dangerous and how much of a pay-off the decision was is still up for debate amongst Star Trek fans (though for the majority of non-Star Trek fans I have spoken to the problem is nonexistent and most love the film). For those who were bothered by the plotholes and inconsistencies, though, the graphic novel Star Trek: Khan may provide some closure.

Set in the period of time covered by the last five minutes or so of Star Trek Into Darkness, the Khan graphic novel uses the trial of Khan Noonien Singh as a framing device to allow Khan himself to tell his story. In doing so, we are afforded a view of the legendary Eugenics Wars, the flight of the Botany Bay and the awakening of Khan in this new timeline. As such, we are provided with some answers and closure to what happened in the movie.

First of all, the graphic novel provides what I felt was a great justification for the recasting of Khan, one that I wish had made it into the movie. We discover in the future sections that when Khan was found, Section 31 and Admiral Marcus decided to change his physical form and wipe his memory, thus creating John Harrison. With this explanation, we see how the producers and director were able to say that Cumberbatch was playing John Harrison - at this point in time, he actually believes that is who he is. I cannot help but think that if this had been alluded to or even used in the movie, it would have softened some of the outcry from the fans. Having Harrison discover who he is at the same time we do would have made for a much more interesting character, IMHO. As such, the graphic novel makes up for one of the most glaring plotholes in the movie, for this fan, anyway.

The Eugenics War section was great, though nowhere near as satisfying as the treatment afforded to the era by Greg Cox' fantastic Eugenics Wars duology. It was still good to see the way that the world changed, watch the rise of the different genetically engineered superhumans and receive an explanation for how "simple" humans were able to force Khan and his people to run away aboard the Botany Bay.

In terms of the artwork, I found it to be hit and miss. Most of the portrayals of Khan (in both the Ricardo Montalban and the Cumberbatch form), and Kirk and Spock were fine, but at time the characters came across as flat and emotionless. The starships were well rendered, especially the Botany Bay, and it was nice to see the use of the classic Khan clothing from "Space Seed". Still, overall the artwork left me unimpressed.

Overall, Star Trek: Khan is a well written graphic novel that manages to lay to rest some of the more glaring plotholes in Into Darkness. The story and dialogue were well done, but the artwork left me cold. I gave Star Trek: Khan 3 magical personal transporters out of 5.

mardi 15 juillet 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Favorite TV Shows

Top Ten Favorite TV Shows
When I'm not reading and reviewing, I spend a lot of time watching TV shows, especially with my wife. Choosing just ten is difficult, but I managed to narrow it down to these, in no particular order...:

From the moment Jack woke up on that beach, I was hooked. Would I have preferred more answers in the controversial sixth season? Yes. Did I think that it did what I think a finale should do and wrap up the characters’ storyline? Most definitely.
Person of Interest

Probably the finest show on television at the moment, it is a hell of a lot more than an action adventure. Huge emotional punches in every season, fantastic characters, an absolutely enthralling sci-fi plot... Person of Interest has it all as far as I am concerned.

I love all Star Trek, but Deep Space Nine was the finest example of what this universe can do. Sometimes dark, sometimes funny, always full of the spirit of Roddenbery’s hopeful vision of the future, Deep Space Nine showed just how good sci-fi can be.
West Wing

If this list was in any kind of order, West Wing would probably be right up there at the top. I love these characters so much, I wish the show had continued on for a dozen more seasons. One of the few shows I watch religiously over and over again.

My wife and I’s go-to show when we’re feeling down (which happens a lot what with my son’s health issues) this always gives us a boost. We’re currently on our who-knows-how-many-eth rewatch of the show and we still laugh just as hard now as we did the first time we watched it.
Big Bang Theory
The second go-to show when we’re down, Big Bang Theory is so different from Friends and yet so similar in terms of how hard we laugh at every episode. Such a great cast, fantastic characters and too many geek references to mention. Love it!
Orphan Black

If you’re not watching this... Why not? Put down the blog and go and watch it now! One of the best SF series out there at the moment, Orphan Black is extremely addictive!
House of Cards (Netflix)

I watched Season 2 in a day. ‘Nuff said. Oh, and Kevin Spacey is awesome.
Doctor Who

I have vague memories of “Old Who” when I was a kid in the UK, but never really got into it, beyond reading a couple of the novelisations. Nevertheless, as soon as NuWho began, I became obsessed. David Tennant will always be ‘my’ Doctor, though I love Matt Smith as well. The recent anniversary episode and the reveal of the War Doctor was amazing, and I can’t wait to see what Moffat and co do with Peter Capaldi.

Come back, Dr Bishop! Fringe is one of those rare shows – a sci-fi program that somehow survived on the Fox network. The cast were breathtaking and the storylines inspired (although the final season was a bit uneven at times) and my entire family were obsessed.
What are some of your favorite TV shows and why?

dimanche 13 juillet 2014

New on the Library Shelves 13 07 14

AKA Showcase Sunday

A new segment here, participating in the Showcase Sunday meme over at Books, Biscuits & Tea.


I got and bought a fair few books this week, all of which I am looking forward to reading. Of particular note are two of my most anticipated fantasy sequels this year: Seal of the Worm by Adrian Tchaikovsky, the final book in the Shadows of the Apt series, and The Shadow Throne by Django Wexler, continuing the Shadow Campaign series. Really looking forward to getting stuck into both of those on my week away next month!

For review:Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson (history)
Alias Hook by Lisa Jensen (fantasy)
America 1844 by John Bicknell (history)
The Removers by Andrew Meredith (non-fiction, memoir)
The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor by Joel M Hoffman (non-fiction)
Italian Venice by R J B Bosworth (non-fiction)

Seal of the Worm by Adrian Tchaikovsky (fantasy)
The Shadow Throne by Django Wexler (fantasy)
The Illusionists by Rosie Thomas (historical)
One Plus One by JoJo Moyes (fiction)
The Shadow Master by Craig Cormick (fantasy)
Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown (historical)
War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz (non-fiction)
Half a King by Joe Abercrombie (fantasy)
Unruly Places by Alastair Bonnett (non-fiction)
Dollbaby by Laura L McNeal (historical)
California by Edan Lepucki (fiction)

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Books, Biscuits & Tea.