"We are of opinion that instead of letting books grow moldy behind an iron grating, far from the vulgar gaze, it is better to let them wear out by being read." - Jules Verne
Fourteen years reviewing books, audiobooks, graphic novels, movies and music!

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Friday, June 26, 2015

RESOLUTION (Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch #2) (audiobook) by Robert B. Parker



Published by Random House Audio in 2008
Read by Titus Welliver
Duration: 4 hours, 40 minutes
Unabridged

At the end of Appaloosa, the first book in this series, Hitch and Cole have parted ways. Hitch ends up in the town of Resolution, a mining/lumbering town with some small unsuccessful ranches/farms scattered around.

Hitch is hired by the owner of a local hotel/saloon to keep the peace inside the saloon. Soon enough, Cole shows up. He is on the outs with his girlfriend again. She has issues - she just has to throw herself at the most powerful man in the room and Cole had finally had enough of it and killed a man she was with. For Cole, this is devastating. He has always followed the law, even if it is arbitrary law that he has written himself. Killing this man broke the law and Cole is now a man who cannot follow his own code. So, Cole just hangs out with Hitch and ponders the meaning of laws and rules and the Social Contract for half of the book.

In the meantime, Hitch is offered the chance to switch sides in a range war that is just beginning to start. It will be the miners vs. the lumberjacks vs. the ranchers/farmers vs. the hotel/saloon owners and Hitch has to decide where he is going and Cole has to work his way through his issues before the lead starts to fly...

There are a few common themes that run through most westerns - the stranger(s) that come into town to rescue the heart-of-gold widow with a ranch (like Tom Selleck's Crossfire Trail) and the stranger(s) that come into town to stop the local bad guys (like in The Magnificent Seven ). Parker, if nothing else, was a master of taking the established format of a genre and then tweaking it - the familiar then becomes something different, but still feels like the same old comfortable story.

In this story, the strangers are Hitch and Cole. As the story progresses, Parker mixes the story of the the woman who needs to be rescued with the story of the town being rescued from the local bad guys, with a twist, of course.

The title, Resolution, is interesting because as the book goes along Cole resolves his issues. He reads and discusses John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and hits on the idea that laws come out of the social contract between the person in power and the people who are under those laws. Basically, Cole cheats the idea a bit to ease his existential crisis and allow him to be Cole again. Parker sure loved all of this deep psychological stuff. I find it amusing to have professional gunslingers sitting on the front steps of a saloon discussing the theory of the Social Contract.

The audiobook is read by the actor Titus Welliver. I like Welliver's work and his voice is smooth and mellow - just about perfect for Hitch, who tells the story.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon here: Resolution

THE BATTLE of the CRATER by Newt Gingrich and William R. Fortschen

       Watching a Tragedy Unfold

Published by Thomas Dunne Books in 2011

During the long, hot, bloody summer of 1864 the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia found themselves in a long series of battles. General Ulysses S. Grant changed the situation on the front by changing the strategy of the Army of the Potomac and the way it dealt with the Army of Northern Virginia. Rather than fighting a battle, withdrawing from one another, regrouping and then seeking out the enemy again Grant just kept his army in constant contact with Lee. His plan was simple - he knew that the Union forces had a lot more soldiers and a near limitless supply of ammunition and food, at least when compared to Lee's army. The math was simple - Grant could afford to lose more of everything so long as he was depleting Lee at the same time. 

Eventually, this settled down into a siege around Richmond and its suburb, Petersburg. Petersburg was a train hub and a vital link in the supply chain that fed the Confederate capital and its army. Both armies dug a maze of trenches, much like the ones used in World War I. 

Ambrose Burnside
The problem was, although Grant was slowly squeezing Lee's army to death, it was not quick enough. The Presidential election of 1864 was quickly coming and war weariness had settled in - this change in strategy was causing so many more Union deaths and casualties. It was feared that Lincoln would not win and his opponent, McClellan would win. McClellan's platform promised a quick end to the war and would most likely end in recognition of the Confederacy as a separate country - the war would be lost.

At this point some Union soldiers who were coal miners before the war had an idea. Why not dig a tunnel under the Confederate lines, fill it full of gunpowder and then blow it up like a giant bomb? It would literally blow a whole in their lines and a group of Union soldiers could rush in and take Petersburg and cause Richmond and Lee's army to fall. They take it to their general, the tarnished Ambrose Burnside and he loves it and he convinces his superiors to let it proceed. 

It seems simple enough, but with the Army of the Potomac, nothing is ever so simple...

Grant at Cold Harbor
This book is presented as a tragedy from its beginning where the reader gets an up close view of the Battle of Cold Harbor on June 3 - the worst day of a two week long battle. There were 7,000 Union casualties in a single hour due to foolish orders to charge Confederate breastworks (compare that to D-Day in World War II - there were 9,000 Allied casualties all day). After that hour, the Union troops simply refused to charge. They would do enough to make it look they tried and then they would return to their positions.

The reader is introduced to a newspaper artist and a group of African American soldiers (U.S. Colored Troops or USCT) from Indiana who are volunteers and want to fight and prove their equality to the white soldiers but are stuck digging graves at Arlington Cemetery. When they get their chance to go to Petersburg, they are so proud and so full of enthusiasm - the reader knows what is waiting for them and knows that it will not end well.

The USCT soldiers are trained to lead the attack after the tunnel will be exploded. They drill for weeks and their white officers are confident that they will do well for three reasons: they are trained well, they are green and don't know the horrors of a frontal assault and they have something to prove as Black men and as some of the first Black soldiers to be involved in a major battle.

But, orders come and the day before the attack, the USCT soldiers are ordered to be held in reserve and experienced soldiers are rotated up to lead the charge. And, once the plan starts to change it all falls apart. Petty rivalries take precedence, weak leaders turn to drink, weak generals can't decide what to do and the men charge into one of the most hellish scenes of the war.

Gingrich and Forstchen make the fighting in and around the crater come alive - the horror, the carnage and the chaos are interspersed with heart stopping acts of courage honor and pathetic moments of treachery and stupidity. As I read this book I knew it was not going to end well. The book is like a Greek tragedy - you can see that no one is going to be left untouched but it just continues to unroll itself right in front of you.  

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here: The Battle of the Crater: A Novel

Thursday, June 25, 2015

ARMAGEDDON in RETROSPECT and OTHER NEW and UNPUBLISHED WRITINGS on WAR and PEACE by Kurt Vonnegut



Published in 2008.

This collection of short stories (and one letter and one rambling, but enjoyable,  speech) focuses on war and the folly of war. Many of the stories deal with World War II and prisoners of war, a theme echoed in Slaughterhouse-Five. 


The almost 40 foot tall mural of Vonnegut in
Indianapolis. 
The book begins with an entertaining introduction by Mark Vonnegut, Kurt's son followed by an astonishingly flippant letter from Kurt to his family telling them that he had been a prisoner of war since the Battle of the Bulge but now he was liberated and headed back to Indiana. The letter is actually reproduced as a picture so you can see it how he typed it on the stationary that he typed it. The letter is followed by the last speech he ever wrote, appropriately delivered in his hometown of Indianapolis by his son after Kurt Vonnegut's death.

The short stories are up and down, as all short stories collections are. But, Vonnegut's gift for creating interesting characters shines through most of them and I found myself invested in most of them in a very short time. Most have funny moments tossed in the middle of a great tragedy. Many feature prisoners of war, which is understandable considering Vonnegut's own experiences in World War II.

The book itself is a beautiful hardback made with the highest quality slick paper. Between the short stories there are drawings and quips from Vonnegut.

I rate this collection 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be purchased on Amazon here: Armageddon in Retrospect





Wednesday, June 24, 2015

APPALOOSA (Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch #1) (audiobook) by Robert B. Parker

  A western for grown-ups. It's not about the guns, horses or bullets. It's about friendship, sex and, ultimately, love.

Published by Random House in 2005
Read by Titus Welliver
Duration: 4 hours, 57 minutes
Unabridged

There are four main characters in this story: Marshal Virgil Cole, Deputy Everett Hitch, Bragg (a rancher/hotel owner) and Mrs. French, a pathetic woman that leeches onto powerful men out of some deep seeded need that we never quite have explained. Suffice it to say, Mrs. French is a survivor because she uses sex to endear herself to the most powerful man in her immediate area. 

Robert B. Parker loves to explore the sometimes complicated psychology of men and women and the way they express friendship and love, both platonic and amorous. His books are full of people (mostly women, but not always) that claim to be in love but really they are psychologically needy and act out sexually in strange, disruptive ways. 

There are four main characters in this story: Marshal Virgil Cole, Deputy Everett Hitch, Bragg (a rancher and later a hotel owner) and Mrs. French, a pathetic woman that leeches onto powerful men out of some deep seeded need that we never quite have explained. Suffice it to say, Mrs. French is a survivor because she uses sex to endear herself to the most powerful man in her immediate area. 

But, the problem is, who is the most powerful man? Is it the Marshal, Bragg or even the Deputy? And, will they even realize they are being manipulated? Does she even know she is doing it? Can the Cole and Hitch's friendship endure this tension?

The audiobook is read by the actor Titus Welliver. I like Welliver's work and his voice is smooth and mellow - just about perfect for Hitch, who tells the story. 

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon here: Appaloosa

Sunday, June 21, 2015

THE BRASS VERDICT (Lincoln Lawyer/Mickey Haller #2) (audiobook) by Michael Connelly

    When Harry Met Mickey

Published by Hachette Audio in 2008.
Read by Peter Giles
Duration: 11 hours, 54 minutes
Unabridged

At the end of The Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller was gutshot, a horrific injury and one that is difficult to survive, let alone recover from.  At the beginning of the second book in the series, Mickey Haller is not practicing law. Due to his injury, Haller has developed an addiction to pain killers and has been in rehab getting clean. As he descended into addiction he has driven his ex-wife farther away and made that relationship even more difficult.

Despite the drugs, Haller was able to recognize that he was in no position to practice law. Then, one day out of the blue he gets a phone call from the chief judge on Los Angeles. A fellow defense attorney named Jerry Vincent has been murdered and Mickey Haller is supposed to take on all of his cases. Haller and the Vincent used to cover for one another on occasion and they listed one another as the attorney who would cover for them in case of emergency in all of their contracts with their clients.


So, Mickey Haller goes from an attorney with no cases to an attorney with multiple cases, including the biggest case in Los Angeles. Haller has inherited the case of Walter Elliott, a Hollywood producer accused of shooting his wife and her lover multiple times after he found them naked together in their oceanview home.

As Mickey starts to get up to speed with his cases he meets the detective assigned to solve the murder of  Vincent - it is none other than Harry Bosch, the main character in Michael Connelly's other series.

Bosch and Haller clash several times, each ones gets the best of the other only to be bested the next time they butt heads.

Haller soon discovers that some vital information was stolen from Vincent when he was murdered and he puts his whole defense team to work trying to figure out what could be missing and if it was the reason Vincent was killed.

As the date for Walter Elliott's trial looms Haller learns that his client may be hiding much more than he thought and he may even have some answers for the questions swirling around the murder of Jerry Vincent. Haller finds that he must walk a tightrope between helping the police and protecting his clients and not getting killed himself...

Some might claim that this book dragged. Instead, the reader gets to see Haller deal with multiple new cases and figure out how some of them might just tie together and give him some sort of clue as to what is really going on. 

I like Peter Giles as the voice of Mickey Haller. As I noted in another audiobook review, Giles captures that smooth courtroom delivery perfectly. His readings as Harry Bosch were so-so, but that is to be expected - they are very different characters.   

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

You can find this book on Amazon here: The Brass Verdict: A Novel

Saturday, June 20, 2015

I'D LIKE to APOLOGIZE to EVERY TEACHER I EVER HAD: MY YEAR as a ROOKIE TEACHER at NORTHEAST HIGH by Tony Danza



Published in 2012 by Random House LLC

Before we go any further, I must tell you that I am a public school teacher that is pretty similar to the one featured in I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Have Ever Had. I have been teaching for 25 years.

What looks like a publicity stunt by an out-of-work actor trying to jump start a career is really a sincere attempt to get a taste of what being a real teacher is all about. Danza starts the book explaining that he was at a low point in his career, having just had his TV talk show cancelled, but he had seriously considered being a teacher when he was younger and had used his platform on his TV talk show to promote teachers and provide "School Room Makeovers" and that had re-kindled his interest.

So, he was talking about this idea he had of becoming a teacher and someone told him that it would be a good idea for a reality show. Personally, I never heard of the show until I had heard of the book. I still have not watched the show, although I plan on it. I wanted to get Danza's unfiltered perspective first.

After a little haggling, they finally find a school willing to let Danza teach one class every day under the supervision of a seasoned teacher. I assume that the kids were similarly vetted but the way it plays out it seems like he's got a pretty average group of kids in his class.

Danza is only permitted to teach one class a day. To his credit, he arrives on time and stays throughout the day just like every other teacher. He helps coach, he helps with a talent show, he helps with crowd control in the morning and to catch the stragglers who wander into school at all sorts of times.

Danza is very sincere at his efforts to be a good teacher. As a teacher, I can tell you that having just one class would be great (less papers to grade, more time to lesson plan, you won't be as tired at the end of the day), but it is a disadvantage as well. I once heard another teacher describe teaching as "performance art" and I think that he is right. When you only teach one class it is liking having to film a scene with just one take and no practice and no warm-up. Last year, I taught 4 sections of Spanish 3. The first one was always the worst, by far. He had no chance to revise what he did, even if it is revision "on the fly".

Sometimes, Danza's celebrity status opens doors for him, like when he takes the class on a field trip to New York City, but, in the end, if Danza only used his celebrity to get him somewhere in class he would not get far - the kids are too young to have seen his movies and TV shows and after a while he just stops being a celebrity and has to be a teacher. His celebrity-sized wallet is a help from time-to-time (I hate to be crass, but sometimes lack of money for the classroom is an issue).


When the show suddenly quits filming halfway through the school year Danza has a decision to make - does he finish the year or does he just go on to the next gig? He finishes the year and it sounds like that second semester is the one that turns him from a true rookie to a teacher.

If you have never been inside a large public school as an adult this book gives you some flavor of what it is like. Danza also intelligently discusses issues like charter schools, teachers unions and the like in the book - not from the perspective of a politician or a commentator but from the perspective of someone who has been in the classroom and knows that there is no silver bullet. Being a teacher is different than you think, even if you think you know what it is since you sat in the classroom and watched a lot of teachers teach. 

Danza does hit on the parent angle a lot and, as a parent and a teacher, I cannot disagree. On page 175 he notes: "One reason it's hard for both teachers and students is that there's so little parental backup. Which is not to say that the parents are always missing in action. Sometimes they're present to a fault." Absentee parents and helicopter parents are equally the bane to a successful student. 

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here: 
I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High