"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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Monday, July 28, 2014

NOOSE (short story) by Ernie Lindsey



Published in 2013 as an e-book.
Estimated length - about 14 pages.

Finalist for the 2005 Sherwood Anderson Short Story contest.

Ernie Lindsey's short story Noose is a coming-of-age story set in the American south in September of 1916. It features a 17 year-old named Roy who works as a farm hand for a northerner who moved down south for a simpler life. Roy has a strong love for animals which makes him an excellent farm hand. Besides working on the farm Roy also dates Emily, the boss of his daughter. Roy and Emily are much more intimate than anyone suspects and Roy is quite sure that he and Emily are completely in love. 

The farm community receives word that a circus elephant named Mary is going to be killed for killing one of her handlers during a parade in a nearby town. The elephant will be executed by hanging from a railroad crane. This part of the short story is based on a true story (click here for more information). This hanging does more than kill an elephant - it changes everything for Roy. 

At the time of this review this short story is free on Amazon.com as a kindle e-book.

I rate this short story 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 28, 2014. 


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

HAVOC (Philip Mercer #7) by Jack Du Brul



Published in 2006 by Brilliance Audio, Inc.
Read by J. Charles.
Duration: 12 hours, 43 minutes.
Unabridged audio edition.

Jack Du Brul's Havoc is a techno-thriller that races from the Hindenburg disaster to Africa to Washington, D.C to Atlantic City to Niagara Falls to Russia and back to Africa with hardly any time to take a breath. 

The book features Philip Mercer, a geologist by training that often troubleshoots for the White House. This is the seventh book featuring Mercer, a fact that was not on the audiobook label. However, Du Brul does a great job of catching the reader up on what has been going on - I assumed it was the first book in the series as I was listening to it. 


The Hindenburg disaster on May 6, 1937.
The action starts with a traveler on the infamous Hindenburg as it flies to its fate with destiny in Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937. A crazed man is hiding a secret in a safe in his room and he is afraid that the Nazis know he has it and are plotting to steal it from him. As this man sits and watches his safe he devises a plan to get it safely off of the airship before it lands in New Jersey - he throws it overboard into a farm field with an attached note for Albert Einstein. The note falls off and the safe gets forgotten in the chaos of the Hindenburg disaster.

Fast forward to modern day in the Central African Republic. Mercer accidentally meets Cali Stowe, a fellow American. Mercer tells her he is here to investigate a geological hunch for someone as a favor. She says that she is there to investigate a village that has an extraordinarily elevated cancer rate. They are both telling half-truths. But, most importantly, this village is in the middle of a civil war and a dangerous warlord is on his way, burning and looting as he comes...

As the story progresses, Stowe and Mercer find that they have a mutual interest in this village and in each other. The more they find out about, the more tense the situation becomes. There are a lot of complicated threads in this book but Du Brul does tie them all together at the end

The story is full of action and adventure - some of it fun, some of it believable, some so outrageous that the story borders on silly. Mercer gets to be too much after a while - he is an expert on the Hindenburg, he knows how to fight, he's an expert with pistols, grenades, rifles, knives, swords and even with bows and arrows. He knows about mines, cave-ins, scuba diving, trains, dinosaur bones, forklifts, helicopters, speed boats and bar tending. But, his heart is in the right place and if you just go with the flow and don't think about it it just might not bother you too much. 

The audiobook was read by J. Charles. Charles did a merely okay job with the variety of accents required by this book. He has a hard time with women's voices and Cali Stowe has a lot of lines in this book. His foreign accents all fell into the category of "not an English language accent". Everyone kind of sounded the same. 

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5. 
Reviewed on July 22, 2014.

Friday, July 18, 2014

THE EXECUTION (Jeremy Fisk #2) by Dick Wolf

 No Sophomore Slump Here!

This series revolves around Jeremy Fisk, a detective with NYPD's counter-terrorism squad. New York City has an extensive counter-terrorism unit because New York City has been such a frequent target of terrorism. Fisk is fluent in 5 languages, including Arabic and Spanish. He is frequently a contact person between NYPD and the FBI or CIA.

The Execution takes up where the first book in the series, The Intercept, leaves off. (See my review of The Intercept here) Wolf makes a great attempt to catch up the reader but I think that if you have not read The Intercept you will be a little lost.

The main plot of the story involves Mexican drug lords and an incorruptible member of the Mexican federal police, Detective Cecilia Garza. Garza leads a handpicked task force that is trying to stop the drug smugglers while the bodies of innocent bystanders literally pile up in Mexico. The worst of the worst is a drug lord known as The Hummingbird.


The United Nations in New York City. Photo by Neptuul.
While Fisk helps prepare New York City for United Nations Week (dozens of heads of state show up to give speeches, including the President of the United States) he meets Detective Garza as they both investigate a Mexican drug cartel style mass-killing in New York City. Soon enough, they begin to suspect that this may have something to do with a planned meeting between the President of the United States and the President of Mexico and that all of those dead bodies were intended to be a threat of something worse...

Dick Wolf is best known as the producer and creator of the many different TV series in the Law and Order franchise. I have to say he's learned something about pacing while working in television for all those years because this book moves along quickly, but not at a frenzied pace.  

This is an enjoyable thriller and this series is off to a great start. No sophomore slump here!

Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review through the Amazon Vine program.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Monday, July 7, 2014

BOY MERCURY - AN ANTEBELLUM ADVENTURE: EPISODE ONE: THE WELDING (kindle) by David Macinnis Gill



This kindle short story is part of a multi-volume series about Amboy "Boy" Babbage, a young man with an unusual skill with machines. He is an engineering genius. Also, he is able to "weld" human tissue and machine together using mercury tears.

This skill is the crux of the story.

It begins on May 6, 1863 near the Chancellorsville battlefield. In the real world, Stonewall Jackson, the famed Confederate General lost his left arm due to a "friendly fire" episode and was starting to slip away to his eventual death on May 10 due to pneumonia. When he passed, his superior, Robert E. Lee, said, "Jackson has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right". Jackson was sorely missed a mere two months later at the Battle of Gettysburg, one of the major turning points (if not the major turning point) of the war.
Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson

In Boy Mercury Amboy Babbage and his father are brought to Stonewall Jackson's bedside and Amboy attaches a prosthetic robotic arm that operates with a complicated set of gears and pulleys and attaches itself directly to Jackson's nerves in the stump of his arm with the aid of Amboy's tears of mercury. Amboy also removes a pulmonary embolism from Jackson.

Amboy is then taken into custody by one of Jackson's aides and his father is sent to Andersonville Prison to be held as hostage to make sure that Amboy uses his skills to create more weapons for the Confederacy. But, Amboy longs for any chance to escape and eventually he comes upon a surprisingly beautiful opportunity...

I liked the mixing of real history with the steampunk elements and the "what if?" element with Jackson not dying at Chancellorsville. The characters were vivid and the sci-fi elements were strong. I assume as the story progresses over several episodes the reader will discover the secret of Amboy's tears.


My problems with the story come from the melding of the "what if?" elements with the actual Civil War facts. The premise is

1) The story declares itself to be "An Antebellum Adventure". Antebellum means before the Civil War and this story takes place during the war. By definition, it is not an antebellum story.

2) The story makes it clear that Jackson needs his mechanical left arm to be a successful general. At location 255 Jackson says, referring to the mechanical arm: "...the abomination has won too many victories on the battlefield. If not for it, we would've known defeat several times..."

Many Civil War officers suffered amputations and came back to lead their troops just as effectively as they did before because they did not need to physically lead their men into battle firing a weapon or swinging a sword like some sort of barbarian king. Many Civil War generals never actually fired a rifle or a pistol at the enemy during the entire war.

A colleague of Jackson's was General John Bell Hood, always known as a very aggressive general. Hood lost the use of an arm and had almost all of one of his legs amputated and this did nothing to change his fighting style - he was aggressive to the end. Robert E. Lee was in frail health most of the war and this did not make him a weak general and did nothing to damper his men's willingness to fight for him. A one-armed Stonewall Jackson would have been just as difficult for Union forces to deal with as one with two arms.

3) If Stonewall Jackson were so much more effective as a general why is the war still going on in 1867 when the real war ended in 1865? A prolonged Civil War would only help the Union and hurt the Confederacy because the Confederacy was short on all of their resources (less soldiers, smaller population, less horses, little manufacturing capacity, the Union blockade made it difficult to import weapons, powder, shoes, or anything else) and the better supplied Union forces would eventually win by simply starving out the Confederacy. This was their original plan, called the Anaconda Plan. Lee was looking for the big, splashy victories to give the Confederacy a political solution that would allow them to win. That was the reason for the Gettysburg campaign in 1863 in the real world - hit the Union in their own backyard, defeat them and start the peace negotiations while the Confederacy could still field an army. 

4) Andersonville Prison was not open in May of 1863 (it opened in February of 1864).  

So, great sci-fi grafted onto some lousy history makes the whole batch pretty weak. 

I rate this e-short story 2 stars out of 5. 
Reviewed on July 7, 2014.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

GAME PLAN: HOW to PROTECT YOURSELF from the COMING CYBER-ECONOMIC ATTACK by Kevin D. Freeman



Published in January of 2014 by Regnery Publishing

In 2012 Kevin D. Freeman published Secret Weapon: How Economic Terrorism Brought Down the U.S. Stock Market and Why It Can Happen Again. In that book, Freeman detailed how America's financial markets are vulnerable to manipulation by foreign powers by creating bubbles (like in the oil markets). Individual companies could also be targeted, individual sectors or the markets as a whole.

The first part of Game Plan is a brief review of the vulnerabilities he described in Secret Weapon. To be honest, if you have not read Secret Weapon, you can read Game Plan and get the general idea. He also includes updates, including letting his readers know that he has briefed the Pentagon on these vulnerabilities. 
The New York Stock Exchange. Photo by Urban.

The rest of the book is devoted to telling the reader about the strengths and weaknesses of various kinds of investments, such as stocks, bonds, gold, etc. in a period of financial crisis. He also discusses how they tend to do in times of natural or man-made disaster. 

The descriptions of each of these types of investments are amazingly clear. I am a licensed high school economics teacher and I have never ran across such clear yet detailed descriptions of these various investment vehicles that are aimed at the layman. Freeman is always sure to tell the reader that they should talk to their investment adviser before making any moves.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5
Reviewed on July 5, 2014

Friday, July 4, 2014

RIPPLES of BATTLE: HOW WARS of the PAST STILL DETERMINE HOW WE FIGHT, HOW WE LIVE, and HOW WE THINK by Victor Davis Hanson

 Excellent and Quite Enjoyable.

Originally published in 2003 by Doubleday

We all understand that wars can profoundly change the world. History is full of wars that brought giant transformations, such as Alexander's conquest of Persia (and just about everything else he saw) and the spread of Hellenistic culture, the Spanish conquistadors in Mexico and Peru and the Cold War stand off that shaped the world after World War II. If you have ever heard the phrase "In a post-9/11 world..." that tells you that the world has been changed by the War on Terror. 

The simple idea behind Ripples of Battle is that it's not just wars but oftentimes single battles that change things. And, sometimes, it's not the battle that everyone knows, but a lesser-known battle that causes the most change. He uses the familiar image of a rock tossed into a lake with the outgoing ripples from the point of impact being the change. And, he does a pretty thorough job of showing that these ripples can go on and on for a very long time.

Hanson uses three battles in his formal discussion: Okinawa in World War II (April 1-July 2, 1945, Shiloh in the American Civil War (April 6-7, 1862) and Delium in the Peloponnesian War (November, 424 B.C.). He also draws similar conclusions about the 9/11 attacks in his introduction and epilogue.

Okinawa
Damage to the flight deck of the USS Bunker Hill by a kamikaze near
Okinawa on May 11, 1945. 

He begins with Okinawa in World War II. In many ways this is personal because his father's cousin and undoubtedly the author's namesake, Victor Hanson, was killed in battle at Okinawa. This was the first battle on an island that was truly considered to be Japanese and the Americans needed it to continue their aerial assault on the Japanese main islands. The 110,000 Japanese soldiers on the island were dug in and determined to make the conquest of the island so difficult that the Americans would be convinced that an invasion of the rest of Japan would be impossible.
The Americans came with an initial invasion force bigger than that used in Normandy the year before with 1,600 ships and 500,000 American fighting men and the potential use of up to 12,000 combat aircraft. These Americans fought against kamikaze aircraft attacks (a harbinger of the suicide bomber and the 9/11 attacks) and against foot soldiers that were ordered to fight to the death, no matter how terrible the odds. The Americans responded with the flamethrower (literally burning out Japanese defensive positions) and by bombing kamikaze airbases before they could even get the planes in the air. Cold and calculating military measures that were effective and preserved American lives.

And, in the end, they came to the conclusion that the Japanese wanted them to reach - the Japanese main islands could not be conquered by traditional means. So, they decided to use nuclear weapons instead. A cold and calculated measure to preserve American lives. A ripple generated by this battle is the belief that America ought to come at its enemies with unimaginable military force to overwhelm them and prevent long, ugly battles like Okinawa. We tried to bomb North Vietnam into submission (with quantity strikes rather than quality strikes), we called the start of the Iraq War "Shock and Awe" in order to demonstrate we could hit our enemies where we wanted when we wanted.

Shiloh

The second battle is Shiloh. This is my favorite section of the book because I am a giant student of the Civil War. Hanson has not written much on the Civil War, which is too bad because he has an amazing grasp on the issues and personalities of the war. 

Shiloh begins with a sneak attack on Ulysses S. Grant's army camped at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River, a few miles north of the Tennessee-Mississippi state line on April 6. For months, Grant and Don Carlos Buell had been defeating and out-maneuvering Confederate armies and had pushed through Kentucky and almost through Tennessee. Buell and Grant were poised to combine their separate armies and there was no way that the combined Confederate defenders could stop it. So, they combined without anyone's knowledge and, using a P.G.T. Beauregard plan and led by Albert Sidney Johnston, they completely surprised Grant's army before Buell could arrive.

On paper, it was a master stroke and for the first few hours it looked to be a complete victory. It would have been but for the rise of William Tecumseh Sherman. Before Shiloh Sherman was largely discredited (he'd had a mental breakdown) and he bears more blame than most for the success of the sneak attack itself. But, he rallied the men, calmly rallying them and turning a rout into an orderly retreat. In the melee he was shot through the hand, he had multiple horses shot out from under him and his coat was riddled with bullet holes. When Grant met up with him during the battle he realized that Sherman had things well in hand (as well as they could be, in any case) and focused on other areas of the field.

This is the moment that Sherman became Sherman - the general that became Grant's trusted second for the rest of the war. It is also the last large-scale pitched battle that Sherman fought in, a fact that I had not realized until Hanson pointed it out. When Sherman fought on his own in the Atlanta campaign and the March to the Sea he avoided the large pitched battle in favor of maneuvering his opponent out of position and forcing a retreat. Not that there was no fighting, but there were no more Shilohs. For Sherman, the war would not be won when the South's armies were vanquished but when it's ability to maintain those armies was destroyed. He invented total war on a large scale and he gutted the Confederacy while hardly losing a soldier, especially when compared to the battles that Grant was waging against Lee in Virginia.


It is also the moment when Albert Sidney Johnston died and the Myth of the Lost Cause came to life (within days of the battle). Whether Johnston would have been able to lead the Confederates to victory in the West is a subject to debate. Johnston's skills as a leader are unclear based on what he achieved before he died. He lost giant chunks of the West and any chance to have Kentucky join the Confederacy due to poor initial troop placements. His skill at making his orders clear in battle was excellent but could the Confederates have overwhelmed Grant's men if Johnston had lived?
Confederate General Nathan
Bedford Forrest (1821-1877)

One Confederate general who comes into his own in this battle is Nathan Bedford Forrest - arguably the South's foremost cavalry man. He was truly a self-taught talent. This battle made his reputation, especially his famed escape after being the last man to be wounded after the battle. His reputation as a scrapper and master of guerrilla war tactics served him well as the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan after the war. He was probably the only man with the enough stature, enough venom and enough anger to have led that Klan to any level of success.

Perhaps most interesting is the case of Lew Wallace, the general who arrived late with the Union reinforcements and paid for it (unfairly, in his mind) with career. But, he used that sense of being wronged as an inspiration to write Ben-Hur, the story of a man who is wrongly accused and loses everything. Ben-Hur was a publishing phenomenon, much like Harry Potter and Twilight have been nowadays. But, this one was one of the first.

Delium

You have probably never heard of Delium. I know I did not know it by name. I knew of two things that happened at the battle before I read this book, but I did not know the name of the battle itself. I knew that Socrates had almost been killed in a battle but was saved by Alcibiades. And, I knew that Athens lost that same battle. 

This battle was part of the Peloponnessian War - the war between Athens and its allies and Sparta and its allies that lasted almost thirty years. Fifty thousand men fought in it, but no great generals were involved. No Spartans were involved. Instead, this was a sloppy attempt by Athens to defeat a confederation of city states under the leadership of Thebes so that Athens could focus on its more powerful enemies in Sparta.

But, in this battle Socrates lived, rather than died. Alcibiades made his reputation and the birth of Western battle tactics may have been born.

Hanson ends with the discussion of tactics, but it is almost an afterthought to the chapter. In this battle, the army that faced the Athenians was considered to be the equivalent of Ancient Greek rustics - unrefined and definitely not the equal of the Athenians in culture. But, in this battle they did more than the traditional giant scrum match of interlocking shields that made up most hoplite battles. Instead, the held troops in reserve and moved them around during the battle. Basics to us, nowadays, but revolutionary at the time.

Socrates (470/469-399 B.C.)

This change in tactics caused the Athenian line to crumble. Socrates was in that line and he nearly died. Pre-Delium Socratic thought was not the philosophy that he is famous for. His best work came after this brush with death and it is that thought that inspired Plato and through Plato inspired Aristotle. What would Western thought have been without Socrates, Plato and Aristotle?

Alcibiades made his reputation as a cavalry officer in this battle. He was already marked to be a future leader of Athens. His beauty, his attitude, his intelligence and his ability to sway the crowd guaranteed that. But, this battle thrust him to the forefront.  If only he had died...

Alcibiades' career defies explanation. He conceived of and led the Athenian attack on Sicily, widely considered to have been a military disaster of the first order for Athens. However, he defected to Sparta rather than face a tribunal in Athens for defacing religious statues. He led Spartan troops against Athens and was successful until he fled Sparta (he had an affair with the king's wife) and joined with the traditional enemy of the Greeks, the Persians.  After advising the Persians, he went back to Athens and served as a highly successful military leader, then went back to the Persians and was then assassinated.  

Of the three battles, this chapter is the one in most need of a bit of editing, in my opinion. It goes on a little too long, but that is to be expected - Ancient Greece is Hanson's bread and butter.

So, does Hanson prove his point with these three battles? Of course he does. But, he does more than that. He tells three interesting stories of history and demonstrates that no action has occurs in an historical vacuum, especially not battles because so much rides on the outcomes and the sheer chance and chaos of it all. 

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on July 4, 2014.