Featured Release Of The Week: Rise Of The Warrior Cop by Radley Balko

Due to the COVID crisis, the book originally planned for this week’s post got pushed back several months. And in light of recent events and how much I’ve been talking on Facebook about this particular book, I decided to dedicate this weekly post to it since it is so very crucial to understanding the events of the last week (and far longer). This week, we’re (now) looking at Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko.

Quite simply, this is the singular most crucial book in understanding exactly how we got to the point we are currently in with policing in America, and the singular most comprehensive such book I’ve yet found. It is a very even look at the issue, published over a year before Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent explosion onto the national zeitgeist of the Black Lives Matter organization. Indeed, even my own Amazon review was published a week after the book’s publication, when Brown still had roughly 56 weeks left in his life. (An important distinction: In this era of my reading, writing a review *at all*, much less one the length of this series of posts, was extremely rare indeed. That alone should tell you how important I felt this book was, a feeling that has never really left even as I actively left behind the world of police accountability activism in favor of this very project.)

As I’ve been saying on Facebook, if the recommendations Balko discusses in Chapter 9 had been implemented immediately, there is a better than even chance that Brown, among literally thousands of others since his death, would at minimum have not been killed by police. Those recommendations fall into the following categories:

  • End the Drug War.
  • Halt Mission Creep.
  • Transparency.
  • Community Policing.
  • Changing Police Culture.
  • Accountability.

Most interestingly, Balko – again, writing this well more than a year before the creation of the “Black Lives Matter” organization that has since become so famous – wrote this to close the chapter:

The most difficult change is the one that’s probably necessary to make any of these others happen. The public needs to start caring about these issues. The proliferation of “cop watch” sites, citizen-shot video of police misconduct, and coverage of police abuse incidents by a bevy of online media is encouraging. Another good sign is the fact that this growing skepticism of police has been accompanied by a decline in violence against police officers themeselves. Activists are fighting police abuse with technology and information, not with threats and violence. But while exposing individual incidents of misconduct is important, particularly to the victim of misconduct, it’s more important to expose the policies that allow misconduct to flourish. Bad systems will continue to turn out bad results. And bad systems will never be reformed until and unless policymakers and politicians (a) are convinced there is a problem and (b) pay a political price for not addressing it. Yes, trends that develop over years or decades can gradually normalize things that we might not have tolerated had they been imposed on us all at once. But it’s still rather remarkable that domestic police officers are driving tanks and armored personnel carriers on American streets, breaking into homes and killing dogs over pot. They’re subjecting homes and businesses to commando raids for white-collar and even regulatory offenses, and there’s been barely any opposition or concern from anyone in Congress, any governor, or any mayor of a sizable city. That, more than anything, is what needs to change.

While comprehensive, the book even now will likely be quite controversial since in its tracing of the history of how we got to where we are now, several “sacred cow” assumptions and narratives that current politics are based on are pretty effectively shredded into little more than very fine confetti. On most all sides. Indeed, current Democratic Presidential candidate – and then Vice President at the time of publication – Joe Biden is referenced 7 times in this book, per its Index. Then President Barack Obama is only referenced 6 times, and immediately former President George W Bush is referenced 7 times. (1990s era President Bill Clinton is referenced 13 times, per the Index.)

So please, if you’re truly interested in knowing the basis of the current problem of policing in America and some very real, very practical ideas to end it, please read this book.

As always with these posts, the Amazon/Goodreads review:
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Featured New Release Of The Week: Sister Dear by Hannah Mary McKinnon

This week we’re looking at a book that does one of the most remarkable jobs I’ve ever seen of seemingly giving you one story – only to completely flip it and rewrite everything in a single scene. This week, we’re looking at Sister Dear by Hannah Mary McKinnon.

As you’re reading this book, you may indeed wind up asking yourself “why is this marketed as a thriller? This seems to be a women’s fiction book, if slightly creepy?”.

And that is a very fair question to ask, as through most of this book this is exactly what the book feels like it is. It feels like the description has completely lied to you and made you think you were getting this massive thrill ride, and instead you’re left with… some chick depressed that her dad died and her mom hates her? Really?

But then, in a single scene, McKinnon strikes and reveals her true brilliance. In a single scene, everything prior is recast in a new light, and you discover that this women’s fiction story really was a thriller all along – it was just even more devious than you thought it at some points could turn into, but never had.

Others have said that this book almost demands a sequel. I’m more ambivalent on that. I actually enjoyed the ending and I’m completely satisfied leaving this tale there – in part because the flip was so brilliantly executed, and that defining feature of this tale would very likely be impossible to repeat in a sequel. That said, since I’m fairly certain McKinnon will actually read this: I dare you to try. 😀 You showed how masterful you are here, can you outdo even yourself? 😉

Very much recommended – go buy the dang thing already!

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Featured New Release Of The Week: The Good Stranger by Dete Meserve

This week we’re diving back into Dete Meserve’s world of strangers doing good deeds. This week, we’ve looking at The Good Stranger by Dete Meserve.

Meserve had the initial draft of this book written roughly a year ago, and she finished the last edits sometime in October 2019 (yes, I asked, due to what I’m about to point out). And in this book, she has a character point blank say that “the next pandemic is not a matter of if, but when”. Notice when I said she finished writing this book. 😉

With Meserve’s own efforts over the last couple of years, and with the focus of this book in particular, I want to use this space to talk about some real world “good strangers”.

The first one I want to highlight is the most personal to me. My parents, and in particular my mom, have been working in their community through their church’s bus ministry for 25 years now. They started when I was barely a teen, and in those early years I was also part of their work, both in reaching out to the community and, in my specific role on Sunday mornings, actually knocking on doors to let the people who had said they would be interested in coming to church with us know that we were there and helping them safely onto the bus. But my mom really is the workhorse here. For 25 years, she has worked among the poorest of our community there within the few mile area of her home. Some of the bigger trailer parks in our County were right there, and they weren’t exactly the most prosperous neighborhoods in town. With the Sole Commissioner’s declarations there over the last decade or so, things have really only gotten worse for many of these people. But my mom does what she can for them. She gives them some form of breakfast every Sunday morning, knowing that for at least some of them, it is the only meal they will have that day. When she sees a need of one of her families for food or clothing or even help paying the utility bills, she has corralled and cajoled the church to getting what those families need. She has damn near gone to war with many a pastor of that church over the years, including one man – whose vision created the bus ministry at that church – who would go on to become President of the Georgia Baptist Convention. The incident a few years ago where 17yo Christopher Roupe was gunned down by a police officer in his trailer as he answered the door when she knocked? I had met Christopher when he was a toddler. He had been one of our bus kids in those early years. But while my mom isn’t a “good stranger” of the sort this book centers on – the people she is helping know exactly who she is and what she represents- she is one of the very “behind the scenes” type heroes that Meserve makes it a point to highlight in this story. If you would like to help fund these efforts, you can go to this site, Click “Give”, then select “Designated” in the “To” drop down. Then, in the note / memo area (just below where you enter your credit card number), enter “bus ministry”.

The second is a friend of the last few years who lives down in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. He runs a BBQ joint down there that is currently shut down due to COVID19 concerns, but in the midst of the shutdown and knowing how desperate people in his community are for food, he has helped organize a food bank, set up feeding stations for the area dogs, and delivered thousands of pounds of food directly to peoples’ homes – all in just the last few weeks. A while back he – a former US soldier – was involved in the rescue of a local young girl who had been kidnapped for sex trafficking. He is very much one of those people who is active in his community and doesn’t hesitate to solve any need he can, any where he can. Again, the very type of unsung hero Meserve highlights in this book. If you’d like to find out how to help him with the food bank in particular, you can click here for that information.

The third “good stranger” I want to highlight is an organization, rather than a person – though its creator’s story is awesome as well. There are a lot of people all over the world that talk about how bad the problem of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is. A few years ago now, Boyan Slat decided to actually do something about it. He created The Ocean Cleanup, and they’ve now deployed a test system to actually begin to clean up the trash from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But not only that, they recognized that one way to reduce the size of the Patch was to prevent garbage from getting there in the first place – they needed a way to capture the garbage before it left the rivers (the primary source of garbage making it to the Patch). So they solved that problem too, and have already been deploying Interceptor craft to rivers across Asia for several months now. These guys are more well known that my mom or my friend, but considering the work they are doing they are, to my mind, still not as famous as they should be.

These are just a few of the people doing good in the community, often in ways that go unreported or underreported. Feel free to reply here or in any thread this review appears with people and organizations you know about who are doing similar direct, unreported work. Let’s give these heroes some of the recognition they deserve.

And as always, the GoodReads/ Amazon review:
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Featured New Release Of The Week: This Is How I Lied by Heather Gudenkauf

This week we’re looking at a dark and twisted tale of cold case decades old – and the best friend that both discovered the body and is now tasked with solving the case. This week, we’re looking at This Is How I Lied by Heather Gudenkauf.

This is yet another of those vague Midwestern mysteries that seem to be so popular over the last several years, but it actually has one particular feature that is among the best I’ve seen using it:

It opens with the murder scene that will ultimately drive the book, but then it comes back to that scene in the closing pages. In the opening, the reader gets scant details, mostly that the victim is running, falls, and is murdered. But then we get back to that scene – via repeated flashbacks building to it throughout the book – and when we get the details of who and why… well, there are reasons this is in the closing pages of the book. 🙂

That noted, its similarities to *so many other* books cannot go unmentioned. The vague Midwestern town with some minor distinguishing feature. (In this case, caves.) The small town mystery. (Ok, that one is kind of a given.) The misdirections that are standard fare for the genre. Even down to the overall tone of the book. But really, the most striking and one I personally wish would just end already, is the dang cover. Blue background (particularly some form of stairs) with yellow (sometimes white, though in this case orange) text, and even seemingly in the same or very similar font and size. How many books are going to have nearly identical covers before this “trend” goes away! Whoever is designing these covers, PLEASE STOP!

But don’t get me wrong about how similar this is to others of its type – this really is an excellent book with several narrative choices that are atypical in my experience, and thus to be applauded. It gives yet another look from yet another angle at #MeToo, including choices faced by women throughout history (and indeed, these scenes are mostly grounded in the action decades earlier that led to the murder). It uses multiple perspectives, rather than just two as is more normal, and shows how the events of both past and present transpire through these multiple perspectives. And it seemingly resolves everything… with over a third of the book yet left to play out!

So rant about the cover in particular aside, this really is an excellent book. Fans of the genre will definitely enjoy it, but even if you’ve somehow never encountered this type of story, it really is solidly written and told and deserves your attention. Very much recommended.

As always, the Goodreads/ Amazon review:
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Featured New Release of the Week: The First Emma by Camille Di Maio

This week we’re looking at a remarkable effort to tell the story of a very real woman with very little documentation about her life. This week, we’re looking at The First Emma by Camille Di Maio.

Emma Koehler lived a remarkable life, just in the things that *are* publicly known. So it is no wonder that author Camille Di Maio, who tends to specialize in historical fiction anyway and who happens to live in San Antonio – where Koehler did some of her most remarkable work in the era of Prohibition and the Great Depression – would find Koehler’s story impossible to resist finding some way to tell. The problem is that while there is a great deal known about a “Trial of the Century” tale of her husband’s murder by at least one of his mistresses (there were two, both also named Emma) and the brewery – out of business since the turn of the Millenium – still retains some records of her work there, not much else is really documented about her life.

So Di Maio had her work cut out for her spinning a tale that told Koehler’s tale and even used it as a driving force in the narrative… without actually being the primary focus of the book. And she managed to do this in a truly remarkable fashion, spinning Koehler much as one imagines she likely was – a very cunning, very savvy old (by the time of the main storyline in the book, near her actual death in 1943) lady who knows her days are near an end. The other elements of the book are well done and well within bounds of at least what this Millenial has known of the time period from much reading and many discussions with older friends and relatives over the years, and indeed Di Maio actually masks some current commentary within the bounds of what was appropriate back then. It is actually quite amusing when Di Maio manages to shoot raging infernos of arrows straight at at least some types of reviewers, but I’ll leave it to the reader to pick up on exactly where that happens. As Pepper Potts says near the beginning of the first Avengers movie: “Not gonna be that subtle”. 😉

Overall truly an excellent work, one you need to read for yourself to see just how remarkable Koehler was as a person and Di Maio is as a storyteller. Very much recommended.

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Featured New Release of the Week: Under An Alaskan Sky by Jennifer Snow

This week we’re looking at a solid romance set in the wilds of Alaska. This week we’re looking at Under An Alaskan Sky by Jennifer Snow.

As I say in the Goodreads review below, this was a solid romance novel that has most everything fans of the genre will want, and is a good enough story within that lane that even those who haven’t enjoyed romance novels before might like this one. Also, a solid Hallmark movie style romance, for those into that kind of thing.

What *really* drew me to this book though was Snow’s new alternate identity. You see, last year a book came out that I described as “one of the darkest, most disturbing books I’ve read in quite some time”. That book was All The Lovely Pieces by J.M. Winchester. Which happens to be this alternate identity of the author of this Hallmark-type romance, Jennifer Snow.

So, the dichotomy intrigues me – and points to Snow/Winchester’s strength as a story teller. To get such divergent books from the same mind is quite remarkable given the fact that so many authors tend to stick to one particular genre and, usually, even one particular type of story within that genre. And thus this week I urge you to not only pick up this particular book, but also the other one – which was a Featured New Release when it released last summer to boot.

As always, the Goodreads/ Amazon review:
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Featured New Release Of The Week: The Idea Of The Brain by Matthew Cobb

This week we’re looking at a comprehensive overview of the science of the most important part of the human body. This week, we’re looking at The Idea Of The Brain by Matthew Cobb.

This was an interesting look somewhat reminiscent of Radley Balko’s The Rise of the Warrior Cop or Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes in that it takes a particular field – in this case, neurotypical neuroscience – and gives a rundown of the history and current issues in the field. As an academic work, it is more lively than some, though lacks a narrative focus that some less accustomed to academic treatises would likely prefer. Overall though, it does a solid job and seems to be truly comprehensive – reading this will give you an idea of what mankind has thought about the brain from the earliest recorded histories through at least some cutting edge research.

Structurally, the book spends quite a bit of time from the earliest histories through 1950 before pivoting to spend most of the rest of the text in the last 70 years of research. Whereas the pre-1950 material is largely divided by time period, the post-1950 material is divided by approach – an interesting dichotomy, but it works. Finally, Cobb wraps up with vague generalities of where the field might be heading.

Of particular note to this reader is the discussion or lack thereof of other researchers in similar avenues that I have read over the last few months, including Richard Masland’s We Know It When We See It, about vision and perception – which Cobb never cites, but discusses some common research as it relates to perception – and Henry Markram, former head of the Human Brain Project and discoverer of the Intense World Theory of Autism. Cobb is particularly critical of Markram and the Human Brain Project, without ever mentioning his contributions to the field of neurodivergent research. (It seems that Cobb has been working from a competing approach, studying simple brains in an effort to understand more complex ones, vs Markram/ HBP’s efforts to digitally model the entire human brain.)

Overall, truly an outstanding overview of the general case of the field that doesn’t bother concerning itself with “special cases”, within its mission this is truly a solid book and is thus very much recommended.

As always, the Goodreads/ Amazon review:

Comprehensive Review of The Field. Cobb seems to do a spectacular job here of giving a general overview of neurotypical neuroscience, from the earliest ways man thought about his brain and cognition to the most current of state of the field in some situations – one citation in particular was from 2019! He doesn’t really address neurological divergences at all, instead focusing on the brain as it is understood for most. But within what he decides to address, this book seemingly gives a very solid, very comprehensive overview of the actual science of the brain. Decently easy to follow as long as you’re ready for an academic review, this book really does what it sets out to do, no more, no less. Very much recommended.

Featured New Release Of The Week: The Address Book by Deidre Mask

This week we’re looking at an interesting history of a seemingly mundane topic. This week, we’re looking at The Address Book by Deidre Mask.

Fairly quickly in this text, Mask establishes herself as one of the “new breed” of historians more concerned with editorial story than with actual historical fact. That noted, the stories she chooses to highlight do seem to show the origin of the subtopic in question fairly well in most cases, though there are a few times where the “editorial narrative” focus takes over and Mask pointedly notes that while several things happened seemingly at once, she is highlighting the story she prefers. And it was this part of the tale that ultimately lost a star from me – she could have explored these same stories but also provided the actual historical context – did the Austrian ruler do that first or did the Spaniard or the Greek or whoever was also doing it? – and it would have solidified the history without sacrificing story.

Overall an utterly fascinating look at several issues related to an address, having one, and what having one and living in a particular location means, this spans the history from the earliest known addresses to how various parts of them came to be to current issues related to addressing both New York City and the slums of Calcutta. Along the way, we find things that these days we tend to take for granted – house numbering, why odd numbers are on one side of the street and even on the other, how roads are named, the origins of the ZIP code, and many more – are in many cases fairly recent developments and just what they meant to the people who first created them.

A truly fascinating read even with the editorial slant, this is one of those esoteric books that will give you plenty of nerdy trivia bits for parties. Very much recommended.

As always, the Goodreads/ Amazon review:
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Featured New Release of the Week: Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

This week we’re looking at a dark yet realistic book from a debut author. This week, we’re looking at Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore.

This book starts in the aftermath of a brutal rape of a 14yo Mexican girl outside Odessa, Texas… and never really gets any lighter than that. So if you’re looking for a light, breezy read… this isn’t going to be something you want right now.

Instead, this book offers the perspectives of several different women in Odessa over the next several months – the victim, the first woman she stumbles across when looking for help, a young girl, and an elderly former teacher form the backbone of the story, with a few dalliances with a yuppie soccer mom (before that was actually a term), the young girl’s mother, and another high school dropout young mother. Combined, the perspectives do a great job of giving the overall picture of West Texas in the era – through female eyes, at least. Yet as some forshadowing in the middle of the book indicates, there are no real winners here – part of the reason I say this book never really gets any lighter.

Overall a great effort from any writer, debut or not, and while I hope this author provides some hint of light in her next book… I am indeed interested to see what she does next. Very much recommended.

As always, the Goodreads/ Amazon review:
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Featured New Release of the Week: The Sum of the People by Andrew Whitby

This week we’re looking at a history of the origins and current uses of the census – at the very time the United States Census officially begins. This week, we’re looking at The Sum of Us The People by Andrew Whitby.

I don’t exactly hide the fact that despite reading quite a few books, at heart I’m a numbers and computing guy. And few things get more numeric than efforts to count literally billions of people around the world in the span of just a year or two – the very subject of this book, and efforts that officially began a couple of months ago when this post (and the book it is about) are published. (I sit here writing this post on New Year’s Day 2020, having made this book the first book I read in the year the Census begins in the US.)

And y’all, Whitby does a seemingly excellent job of taking a complex and complicated subject like the modern realities of counting people – particularly when such counts can lead to shifts in power – and boiling it down so that anyone, even those without the mathematical foundations Whitby and I share a portion of, can understand what is happening, why, and why both are important. He states early on that a primary goal is writing a book that can be understood by most anyone, and to me it seems he has done an exemplary job of this.

I might nitpick about his discussions of the beginnings of computing and even the mathematics of statistics as its own field of study (among others), but neither does my own cursory knowledge of those areas allow me to outright refute them. So while I tend to think that he *may* have overstated his case in believing that these things came about due to a need to count people, I cannot be positive of this and his arguments are well documented and worthy of critical examination. (And here, he has provided nearly 25% of this text in notes and bibliography – generally a sign of a very thoroughly researched and presented discussion, in my experience.)

Truly a fascinating book, and one anyone remotely interested in the how or why of a census should read. Very much recommended.

As always, the Amazon/ Goodreads review:
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