"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
Thirteen years reviewing books, audiobooks, graphic novels, movies and music!

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

THREE WEEKS to SAY GOODBYE by C.J. Box

      A thriller that totally sucked me right in even though I knew I was being manipulated.

Published in 2008 by Minotaur Books

C.J. Box goes right for the blatantly obvious emotional heartstrings in Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, a thriller that totally sucked me right in even though I knew I was being manipulated.

Jack and Melissa McGuane are the proud and loving parents of a nine month old baby girl that they adopted at birth. Everything is going well even though their budget is stretched and Jack's time is stretched with a high-pressure job. Everything is going well, that is, until Jack gets a phone call from the adoption agency they used saying that the birth father never gave up his rights (although the agency assured them that it did) and the birth father wants the baby.


When the McGuanes protest they quickly discover that the baby's grandfather is a powerful federal judge who is so connected that he is on the fast track to the Supreme Court. The judge seems to be very conciliatory - he insists that he and his high school-aged son will take the baby but they will reimburse the McGuanes for all of their expenses and he will pull all of the strings that he can to get them a new baby as soon as possible and even pay for those expenses. And, he even offers them three weeks to sort everything out and say goodbye to the baby.

But, the McGuanes are not willing to give up their baby no matter the offer. Plus, through some of their friends (a well-connected realtor and a police officer - actually, it's Cody Hoyt who has his own series of novels going now) they discover that the judge's son may very well be emotionally disturbed. A little more digging and they start to hear that the judge himself may have disturbing skeletons buried deep in his closet as well...

Despite the blatant appeals to the fears of any parent, the book worked for me. It is rare for for me to stay up into the wee hours of the morning and just have to keep reading and not to be able to put a book down but this book did that to me - even when it gets a bit ridiculous at the end.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on December 16, 2014.

Monday, December 1, 2014

WHERE MEN WIN GLORY: THE ODYSSEY of PAT TILLMAN by Jon Krakauer



This 2009 edition has been updated to reflect new developments and includes new material obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

I am torn about this book. 

If you are not familiar with Pat Tillman, in the broadest terms, he was an NFL player who quit the NFL to join the army after the 9/11 attacks.

The book talks about the war in Afghanistan, the ongoing war that has been mostly forgotten and ignored. Krakauer's review of the recent history of Afghanistan makes this book worth reading in and of itself. For most people, the reasons that Al Qaeda used Afghanistan as a base of operations is murky at best. The descriptions of how Tillman's unit operated and where they traveled are very vivid.

Krakauer's 2000 Presidential election spin (the Florida recount - he only tells part of the story and does not mention numerous "recounts" by the media had Bush winning - about as many as had Gore winning) was slanted and one-sided against George W. Bush. In fact, every time he mentions Bush throughout the book it is with disdain. There was no particular reason to mention Bush and the election except that Krakauer was building tension to show the inevitability of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so long as Bush was president and as long as those wars were inevitable, Pat Tillman would die. To me, that seemed to be a long way to go to make a point, if that was his intention. Personally, I think Krakauer just wanted to take the opportunity to give Bush a hard time.

Te descriptions of Tillman and his life and career left me cold at best. Krakauer's seemingly endless descriptions of the game-by-game performances of Tillman in his college and professional career and the parade of "Pat was just such a great guy" stories made me tired, not of Tillman himself but of the lazy writing style. This is a biography, but there was no need to include all of the exhaustive details of his entire professional life.
Corporal Patrick Tillman.jpg
Pat Tillman (1976-2004)

Pat Tillman's death due to friendly fire was tragic and Krakauer tells the story of the military patrol that ended with the death of Tillman extraordinarily well. The way that his body was treated afterwards was certainly odd and seemed to be covering up something. Krakauer is critical of the way the military handled the whole affair but has no explanation as to what they may have been covering up. If they were covering up the fact that he died due to friendly fire, that was foolish. There has been a steady rate of friendly fire deaths in American wars of about 2% (heck, the famed Confederate General Stonewall Jackson died due to complications from a friendly fire incident). Although I am hardly a firearms expert, my few experiences with archery equipment, target shooting and hunting leave me wondering why the friendly fire rate is not much, much higher.

So, what were they covering up? 

Krakauer does not tell us and I was left wondering how many investigations that Tillman's family was going to be granted and to what purpose? Krakauer's description of the firefight that killed Tillman makes it obvious that spooked soldiers mistook Tillman and his two companions for the men who had been shooting at them earlier and they thoughtlessly fired on them without verifying their targets. Sad, to be sure, but it sounded like there was no malice behind it, just an awful mistake.

Krakauer's postscript chapter is an odd hodge-podge of stuff. Stories of the continuing chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan, long quotes from Nietzsche deriding how soft and thoughtful modern man has gotten and then idealizing Tillman as the Ubermensch ideal. Once again, for me, Krakauer's style got in the way of his story-telling. In that way, it was a fitting end for this mixed bag of a book.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on December 1, 2014.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

HEARTSHOT (Bill Gastner #1) (Posadas County Mysteries #1) by Steven F. Havill



Originally published in 1991.

Bill Gastner is the cantankerous, ornery old Undersheriff of Posadas County. An undersheriff is the person right below the elected position of Sheriff and is appointed by the Sheriff. In the case of fictional Posadas County, the Sheriff is a former used car salesman who is a heck of a businessman but does not know much about law enforcement. So, Bill is literally the old hand that knows his way around the law and the county. Also, he is afraid that the Sheriff might drop him because he's in his sixties and generally considered to be an old grump.

Gastner is a widower and an insomniac who will work 20 hours a day if he can. Why not? His kids are grown up and out of the house, he has no love life and he prefers his own company to just about anyone else's.
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A Southern New Mexico Landscape. Photo by NMTrey.

One night while out on one of his volunteer patrols he listens to radio talk about a car filled with teenagers. A police officer was going to pull them over for speeding but the driver just gives it the gas and tries to flee. But, the car flies off of the road and kills everyone inside. While sorting through the wreckage, a large package of drugs is found inside.

The Sheriff's Department cannot figure out if this is some sort of a fluke, if one of the kids was trafficking in drugs or if there's something else going on. A deputy from another county with a very young face is brought in to pose as Gastner's juvenile delinquent grandson and soon things go downhill very fast and Gastner is struggling with both a deadly health problem and a murderer...

This is the fourth book that I have read in this series and I have to admit that I really just love the series. The mysteries are just so-so (I figured this one out about halfway through) but the character development is unbelievably strong. It feels like Gastner is a real person and for a few hours the reader gets to ride along with him and experience a different life.

I highly recommend this series.

5 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on November 26, 2014



Tuesday, November 25, 2014

TRIDENT'S FIRST GLEAMING: A SPECIAL OPERATIONS GROUP THRILLER (audiobook) by Stephen Templin



Published by ListenUp Audiobooks in September of 2014.
Read by Brian Troxell.
Duration: 9 hours, 14 minutes.
Unabridged

In many ways Trident's First Gleaming is a pretty typical special forces book. You've got a terrorist threat from somewhere in the Middle East, you have an elite group of American operatives who are scrambled to eliminate it, they discover it is worse than anyone has imagined and only they can somehow overcome these newer incredibly long odds and save America and the world.

But, in other ways it is different. The main character, Chris Paladin, is more than just a really talented (but retired) operative - he is also an associate pastor of a church in Dallas, Texas. But, when a former colleague reaches out to him and requests his help. She has been assigned to recover a downed Switchblade Whisper, a new type of military drone that can be launched from a submarine. Its wings swing out and lock open when fired out of the submarine, like a switchblade's blade locks open.

Unfortunately, it has crashed in Syria and by all indications it was taken down by a genius with an astounding grasp of technology. Also, he is a madman with real issues about his sister and a taste for eating people.


Photo by Niels Nordhoek
Stephen Templin has a talent for writing military thrillers. This book could have been over-the-top in so many ways. The pastor angle could have been overdone with preachy sermons and the like, but it was not. The weapons angle could have been overdone with discussions of guns to the level of a fetish. The bad guy was certainly creepy but he was not the focus because this is not a Hannibal Lechter novel. 

Instead, once this book gets going it becomes part thriller, part "buddy" book, part romance and injected with a real sense of humanity and, from time-to-time, a great gag to relieve the tension.

Don't get me wrong, this is not a "change-your-life" novel and it's not perfect, but for a military thriller this is about as good as it gets.

Narrator Brian Troxell has a great voice for reading these types of books. He makes everything he reads seem very dramatic, very edgy and very macho. I look forward to hearing more of his work.

Note: I received a copy of this audiobook in exchange for an honest review.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on November 25, 2014.


LITTLE BROTHER (audiobook) by Cory Doctorow

   A Must Read for Early 21st Century America?

Published by Listening Library in 2010
Performed by Kirby Heyborne
Duration: Approximately 12 hours

I've had Little Brother on my to-be-read list for while. But, it shot to the top of my list when it was pulled as the book in a "one book/one school" project at a Florida high school. I picked up the audiobook and my daughter and I listened as we commuted to school every day (she is a freshman at the school where I teach.

The story is about Marcus, a teenager in San Francisco who is a hacker, skips school and is, generally speaking, a pretty with-it kid. I imagined him as a Ferris Bueller-type kid with a lot more tech at his disposal and in a much more serious situation. Marcus and three of his friends are skipping the end of school when the Bay Bridge and the tunnel underneath it are blown up by terrorists in an event that is even larger than 9/11.
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The Bay Bridge. Photo by Centpacrr.

Marcus and his three friends try to hide in the BART (subway) tunnels but they are in danger of being crushed by the panicking people so they head back up to the surface after one of their group is injured. A passing police van picks them up and they are turned over to the Department of Homeland Security. It is never clear what they did wrong except being out of school on a day when thousands died due to a terrorist attack. The mere fact makes them suspect and they are interrogated thoroughly, including being denied the right to contact a lawyer, sleep deprivation and solitary confinement. 

Marcus knows his rights and insists on a phone call, an attorney, knowing what he is being charged with and more. The DHS insists that it just wants his phone passwords, his passwords to his computer and his online accounts. They inform him that his friends are being similarly punished because he will not cooperate.

After a few days, he breaks and gives DHS his passwords to his computer and his phone. 

He is crushed.

But, when he is released (with just two of his friends - the injured one is not released and is presumed dead) he cannot believe how quickly DHS has swarmed throughout San Francisco,  setting up security checkpoints, monitoring the traffic patterns of cars using toll roads and the traffic patterns of BART riders. His own hand-built laptop has even been physically hacked and tracking machinery has been installed without his parents' knowledge while he was locked up.
Cory Doctorow. Photo by Jonathan Worth. http://JonathanWorth.com

At this point, Marcus regains some of his former swagger and decides to act, even if it is in a small way. As he puts it, Never underestimate the determination of a kid who is time-rich and cash-poor.” Marcus puts his hacker skills to use and decides to fight his own little guerrilla war against the heavy-handed and illegal techniques that DHS is employing. The title Little Brother comes from this - he is not "Big Brother" like the government in the novel 1984. Instead, he is one little person watching the government and documenting what he sees and letting other know what's going on. And, in the process, he becomes one of many people who decide that rights are more important than the illusion of safety and start to take back San Francisco...

One of the beautiful thing about fiction books is that you can discuss important topics in a non-threatening way. In this case, the events in this book are clearly a stand-in for 9/11 and the DHS's reaction is a stand-in for the Patriot Act and some of the heavy-handed tactics used against Muslim communities immediately after 9/11.

I listened to the book with my daughter and we often stopped the audio playback to talk about what was going on in the book (although the 4 or 5 scenes involving sexual activity, even if it wasn't graphicly described, made for uncomfortable father-daughter listening so we usually skipped ahead until it was over). We talked about what your rights were if you were arrested, why your rights are so important and have to be defended in an absolutist manner, why "I don't have anything to hide so I don't care if my rights are violated" is just a cop out and more. We drug this audiobook out so long that took about a month to listen to it. 

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5 despite the fact that at some points the techno-speak overwhelms the book and it becomes about as interesting as reading a router installation manual. But, the positives of the the book overcome these dry areas and make this book just about must-read material for early 21st century America.

Here's a quote I really liked from the book: “I can't go underground for a year, ten years, my whole life, waiting for freedom to be handed to me. Freedom is something you have to take for yourself.” 

Reviewed on November 25, 2014.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

BELOW ZERO (Joe Pickett #9) by C.J. Box



Published in 2009 by G.P. Putnam's Sons

Years ago, person who left a comment on one of my Amazon reviews told me about C.J. Box and gave me the title to his first book featuring Joe Pickett. I found it at the library and I was hooked. If you like Michael Connelly or Robert Crais, you will love C.J. Box. If you like Tony Hillerman's Navajo Tribal Police books than I am sure that you will enjoy Box's descriptions of the local landscape and the people of Wyoming.


In Below Zero Wyoming Game Warden Joe Pickett is working on two cases. The first case (and the minor one in the story) concern's Joe's pursuit of the Mad Archer, a poacher that likes to shoot his arrows at just about anything. Besides out of season game, the Mad Archer has shot a bald eagle and Tube, the ultra-friendly Corgi-Labrador mix that Pickett has adopted. Joe arrests him and he promptly skips town while out on bail and Joe goes back on the hunt for him.

The main story concerns a dying Chicago mobster enforcer named Stenko and his ultra-environmentalist son who wants Stenko to make amends for the gigantic carbon footprint that he has accrued over a lifetime of high roller living. Stenko and his son are roaming through South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado looking for opportunities to stop people from contributing to America's overall carbon footprint. Typically, this involves Stenko using skills with a pistol to kill heavy polluters or try to shake them down to pay for carbon offsets.

At first I was thrown off by the heavy-handed tactics of Stenko and son, thinking that it was over-the-top nonsense. But, I started doing some more thinking and I remembered some quotes from ultra-environmentalists like these:

"I suspect that eradicating small pox was wrong. It played an important part in balancing ecosystems." -- John Davis, editor of Earth First! Journal

"Phasing out the human race will solve every problem on earth, social and environmental." -- Dave Forman, Founder of Earth First!

and

"To feed a starving child is to exacerbate the world population problem" -- Lamont Cole

So, take these comments and add action to them and Stenko and son don't seem quite so unrealistic. 

Normally, Joe Pickett wouldn't be too worried about this mobster since it is not really a game warden issue. But, when Joe's daughter gets a phone call from April Keeley (their foster daughter that was presumed to be dead from a federal raid in an earlier book) he cannot help but be curious - even more so when it looks like April is being forced to ride along with Stenko and son...

Nate Romanowski plays a large role in this store. Normally, I am not a fan of Nate, but I liked him quite a bit in this one. In fact, I liked this book quite a bit. I tore right through it.

Great quote from the book: "...there is no sound in nature that makes men move along faster than the pumping of a shotgun." (p. 39)

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on November 22, 2014