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

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Undue Influence: A Novel by Shelby Yastrow



 Tedium followed by tedium. Did I mention the tedium?

Synopsis:

83-year old Benjamin Stillman dies and leaves $8 million to a local synagogue in his will. No big deal, except that no one can figure out where this bookkeeper for a brokerage house got $8 million.

Oh, and there's one other little fact: Stillman was not Jewish and had never even set foot in the synagogue.

A legal wrangle develops and everyone "lawyers up": the synagugue, the brokerage house, Stillman's doctors come up with another will leaving all of the money to their cancer treatment center and there's even a class-action lawsuit is filed by a sleazy lawyer looking to make a name for himself.

The Review:

Undue Influence was tedious. It started out well but I soon got very tired of all of the legal wrangling. It just got irritating to me and it made me very glad that I did not become an attorney. This book's genre was legal "thriller" but I was tempted just to skip to the end in order to see who got the money and leave all of the tedium behind. I give this book 2 stars out of 5.

Yastrow has another book and I doubt I'll be reading it. He was a former big shot corporate attorney for McDonald's and his name shows up quite often when you search him on Google. Like I said before, he really made me glad I did not become an attorney, assuming his book accurately portrays the legal wrangling.

This book can be found on Amazon here:Undue Influence: A Novel.

Reviewed in February of 2005.

Speedweeks: 10 Days At Daytona by Sandra McKee




Disappointing

So, Speedweeks: 10 Days At Daytona is yet another coffee table book. See, what it is is that I have a friend who knows I am a NASCAR fan so he didn't know what else to get me for Christmas so he got me 3 NASCAR books. One of them was this one and I was fairly disappointed, mostly due to the fact that the title does not accurately describe the book. Nor does it accurately describe Speedweeks, which lasts longer than 10 days. For example, the 2011 Speedweeks events have one event in early January and then really go hot and heavy for about 3 weeks beginning on January 27 and culminating in the Daytona 500 on February 20.

See, Daytona Speedweeks is a racing happening. There are a dozen motorsports events, culminating in the Daytona 500. There's a 24 hour race, an ARCA race and literally a half-dozen NASCAR races. Check their website!

This book, however, focuses primarily on the Daytona 500 (90%) and barely mentions the other non-NASCAR events. In fact, some events it doesn't mention at all. I have no problem with the NASCAR Cup level  focus, just give the book a different title. This, truly, is a book that you cannot judge by its title.

I give this book 2 stars out of 5. The title thing annoyed me but there was also nothing here about the history of the speedway or of the race. Beautiful book but not much here of substance.

This book can be purchased on Amazon here:Speedweeks: 10 Days At Daytona.
 
Reviewed in February of 2005 (edited in 2011 to update the events offered during Speedweeks)..

America's Strangest Museums: A Traveler's Guide to the Most Unusual and Eccentric Collections by Sandra Gurvis



 As the title suggests, America's Strangest Museums: A Traveler's Guide to the Most Unusual and Eccentric Collections is a tour of more than 100 bizarre little museums people (and a few corporations) have set up across the USA ( and a couple in Canada). Some include:

-The Museum of Menstruation (started by a single man in his 50s)

-The Tooth Fairy Museum (now closed)

-The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices (closed now, unfortunately)

-Spam has a museum

-So does Combat, the bug spray company. They also have a contest in which you can send them dead roaches dressed up in dioramas.

-The Bull Hall of Fame.

Since I am a proud Hoosier, I'm pleased to note that Indiana offerings include:

-The Old Jail Museum in Crawfordsville

-The Dan Quayle Center and Museum in Huntington

-Drake's Midwest Phonograph Museum in Martinsville

-The Bird's Eye View Museum in Wakarusa.

My favorite is The Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) in Massachusetts.

Anyway - fun book. Makes you wonder a bit about your fellow man and his collecting habits.
 
I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here:
America's Strangest Museums: A Traveler's Guide to the Most Unusual and Eccentric Collections  

Reviewed in February of 2005.

Nest of Vipers by Linda Davies

                     Not so hot.

Nest of Vipers features Sarah Jensen, a young, gorgeous, exceedingly bright (When are we going to have a book about an ugly, old not-so-bright heroine?) currency trader who is asked by the British version of the Federal Reserve President to go undercover at a trading house and see if they are using inside information to make millions of pounds. Much trouble ensues.

Linda Davies
The female lead is a little too well-connected (she always knows just the right person to help her when she needs something) and I was kind of bugged that the characters used dollars and pounds interchangeably in their financial wheelings and dealings. Maybe that's the reality of international currency exchange and the power of the United States. If so, "Go USA!"

Back to the book - It's better than reading nothing, but you might want to read an old National Geographic instead.
 
I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here:  Nest of Vipers 

Reviewed in February of 2005.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Lizard Skin by Carsten Stroud

           Great book, except for the end.

Lizard Skin features veteran Montana state trooper Beau MacAllister, a wise-cracking good ol' boy who has great instincts and is not too concerned with protocol. Beau is called to a truck stop to stop a robbery in progress - but the whole thing seems fishy to him and he ends up shooting the supposed victim in the butt during a 3 way fight between Beau, the "victim" and several Indians using compound bows. Beau suspects something is amiss and tugs on this loose thread until he finds the conspiracy.


The characters in this story are well-written - Beau is particularly well developed, especially for a cop novel. The DA character (Vanessa Ballard) is quite memorable and "feels" like a real person, rather than a caricature. Even McAllister's nemesis, Dwight Hogelan, shows signs of growth during the book.


Carsten Stroud
All of this makes the end of Lizard Skin very disappointing. The first 90% of the book is a great cop thriller - but the end is very hoaky and formulaic. It is like he finished the book under pressure and ran out of time. For example, he was maneuvering an Indian character into becoming a second Crazy Horse destined to lead a spiritual revival of the Plains Indians. However, 50 pages of character development was quickly dismissed in one page at the end. Why bother?

Due to the disappointing end of this novel I have to lower the rating for this book from 5 stars to 3 stars.
 
Reviewed in February of 2005. 

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Lizardskin

The Fourth Deadly Sin by Lawrence Sanders

A formula book with some redeeming features.

First things first. Lawrence Sanders wrote formulaic murder mysteries. The Fourth Deadly Sin one was also formulaic, but better than most of his stuff.

A New York psychologist gets murdered with a ball peen hammer in his own office and a dark and stormy night. A retired detective is pressed back into duty to lead an interesting team of detectives that is sorting through some of his patients, friends, employees and wife to try to figure out who did this dastardly crime.

Lawrence
Sanders
(1920-1998)
The old cop, Delaney, has one interesting vice. Rather than drinking when depressed over the progress their making, he eats cold sandwiches made of leftovers over the kitchen sink, which irritates his wife to no end.

An interesting theme is developed - Delaney asserts that truly beautiful women (in this case the wife - literally everyone comments about her striking looks ) often are (self-)limited in other capacities because they can get by with just their looks. For example, they don't have to develop specialized skills or learn to how to get along with difficult people or situations because everyone caters to them.

Anyway, I'll give this book 3 stars out of 5.  The detectives and their different styles were interesting, but I had pretty much figured out who did it about half way through.

This book can be found on Amazon here:The Fourth Deadly Sin (The Edward X. Delaney Series Book 4)   

Reviewed on February 12, 2005.

Mind Prey by John Sandford

                 Quite the Thriller!

Mind Prey is the seventh in a series of novels featuring Lucas Davenport, a tough police detective in Minnesota. It is the third and definitely the best that I have read in the series.
John Sandford

Davenport is more than a detective, he also designs role-playing and computer simulation games, a hobby that blossomed into a multi-million dollar business. The twist in this plot is that the bad guy is a psycho who happens to love role-playing games. He kidnaps one of his former therapists to fulfill some of his twisted fantasies and then gets a bigger thrill when he discovers that the designer of some his favorite games is on the case. (Imagine a 'Dungeons and Dragons' player matching wits against Gary Gygax and you've got the scenario)

Mind Prey is really quite a good thriller - it was very difficult to put the book down while reading the last 75 pages.

This book can be found on Amazon here:  Mind Prey   

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.
 
Reviewed on February 12, 2005.

Sounding Drum by Larry Jay Martin

        An Uneven Read at Best


Rockefeller Center
 Sounding Drum is a book that does not know what it wants to be. It is partially a legal/business thriller and partially a "buddy book" farce. It features a group of New York City American Indian friends, led by attorney Stephen Drum, that go against the mafia, a blackmailer/assassin, the federal government, the New York State government, the New York City government and all of the odds to put an Indian reservation in New York City with an accompanying "Indian" casino in Rockefeller Center.


Sounding Drum is frustrating, however, because the thriller aspects are not consistent and the fun "buddy book" parts only kick in during the last 50 pages or so. It makes for a herky-jerky read and is ultimately unsatisfying. That is why I am giving it a 2 stars out of a possible 5 stars.

This book can be found on Amazon here: Sounding Drum.

Reviewed on February 12, 2005.

Character Above All: Ten Presidents from FDR to George Bush edited by Robert A. Wilson

    Fascinating! Informative!

As the title implies, Character Above All: Ten Presidents from FDR to George Bush is a collection of biographcial essays on each of the 10 presidents from FDR to George H.W. Bush (Bush 41) by 10 different authors who are either expert historians or knew the President while in office. The thing that ties them all together is that each essay is supposed to look at each man as president and find that one part of his character that made him the type of president he was. Each essay is about 30 pages and it makes for interesting reading.

Doris Kearns Goodwin
A good sample would come from Doris Kearns Goodwin's look at Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She asserts that the most valuable component of his personality was his self-confidence. I thought this quote from FDR makes the point wonderfully: "I'll tell you...at night when I lay my head on my pilow, and it is often pretty late, and I think of the things that have come before me during the day and the decisions that I have made, I say to myself - well, I have done the best that I could, and turn over and go to sleep."

The essays are wonderful - some inspiring, such as Gerald Ford's, some disturbing such as JFK's. However, all are well-written and this is a fantastic collection.

This book can be found on Amazon here: Character Above All: Ten Presidents from FDR to George Bush   

I rate this book 5 stars out of a possible 5 stars.
 
Reviewed on February 11, 2005.

Exceptional Clearance by William J Caunitz

            An OK Thriller

Synopsis: There have been a series of violent murders involving women with no known connection having their throats slashed with a some kind of weapon that the NY City coroners have never seen before. A special task force is set up to catch the mysterious killer and Lt. John Vinda, a tainted cop is placed in charge of the investigation (partially because he's that good and partially because he will be easy to pin the blame on since he is already damaged goods).

Exceptional Clearance was an enjoyable read, but it was kind of like eating a handful of candy - it was fun while it was going down but there wasn't much to it. There was an interesting twist to the manhunt in that the cop and the serial killer have both suffered similar losses. It is interesting to see how the serial killer has warped himself into a monster while Vinda has buried himself in his job to avoid his pain. In reality, he's not dealing with his loss that much better than the killer.

William J. Caunitz
Caunitz (1933-1996) was a retired NYPD detective so the language and scenes ring true and it is fun to watch the chase unfold. I dropped the rating for this book a bit for a couple of the more contrived scenes
 
I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Exceptional Clearance  

Reviewed on February 11, 2005.

The Life and Times of the Apostle Paul by Charles Ferguson Ball

    Enjoyable

Synopsis: Like the cover says, The Life and Times of the Apostle Paul is "a colorful retelling of the world's most famous mission story."

St. Paul by Masaccio
Ball is an amateur expert on the 1st century Roman empire and has personally led tour groups throughout the cities that Paul visited during his mission trips to Asia Minor and Greece. He covers Paul's life from early childhood in his work so it must be considered historical fiction since so many details of Paul's life and his trips are not covered in the book of Acts or in his epistles.

It is an enjoyable book - not a great work by any means but I enjoyed reading it and felt that I learned a little something along the way as well. The details on the life around the Jerusalem temple and about the cities Paul visited make it worth reading, even if you are not a great fan of Paul.

I give this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Life and Times of the Apostle Paul  

Reviewed on February 11, 2005.

Wild & Scenic Indiana by Rich Clark and Scott Russell Sanders

     240 beautiful, beautiful pictures
Scott Russell Sanders

With an introduction by Scott Russell Sanders ("This Piece of the Earth We Call Indiana") Wild and Scenic Indiana is a beautiful collection of more than 240 pictures of all parts of (mostly) rural Indiana taken by professional photographer Rich Clark.

Clark moved to Indiana from Colorado and, as he puts it, has "ceased to be amazed at how alluringly beautiful my chosen state is." (pg. 7) Clark has mastered capturing what he calls "Indiana's demure beauty" (pg. 7) and he proudly shows them off on the oversized 12 in X 12 in full color pages.

The book is broken up into chapters based on the physiographic map of Indiana. This means it is based on the major geographical zones of the state. It is an odd way to organize the book, but it does have a certain sense of logic to it.

This is a beautiful coffee table book, one that any Hoosier would be pleased to flip through.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Wild and Scenic Indiana
Reviewed on July 7, 2009.

You Wouldn't Want to Be Tutankhamen!: A Mummy Who Really Got Meddled With (You Wouldn't Want To...series) by David Stewart


 I discovered this series earlier this summer and I've been looking at a few of them. My 4th grade daughter has loved the series and I have as well.

That being said, You Wouldn't Want to Be Tutankhamen!: A Mummy Who Really Got Meddled With is not quite as good as the rest of the series, which means it is merely the cleverest, funniest, most interestingly illustrated book that a child aged 9-12 or so can pick up concerning King Tut. I like the series because kids learn without having to read some of the more tedious books out there (such as the great majority of the history textbooks out there!)

There are other books in this series that cover Ancient Egypt, including: You Wouldn't Want to Be a Pyramid Builder: A Hazardous Job You'd Rather Not Have and You Wouldn't Want to Be an Egyptian Mummy!

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 7, 2009.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: You Wouldn't Want to Be Tutankhamen!: A Mummy Who Really Got Meddled with

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

History of the United States (Kindle book) by Charles A. Beard and Mary Ritter Beard



 As a classroom history teacher, I realize that I am out of my league in reviewing this book. Charles and Mary Beard are "name brand" historians. There are precious few historians that make it to that level, and for me, a classroom teacher, to deign to review the work of a historian that has an entire school corporation named for him (in his hometown of Knightstown, IN) takes some professional chutzpah on my part. It's the equivalent of a local bar band writing a criticism of the Beatles or a piano student evaluating Chopin.

Well, here's to chutzpah!

On a general level, this is an excellent textbook. Two general themes of the Beards are:

1) economics is a dominant driver of history.

2) America is a story of expanding rights - more groups of people are securing their rights as time goes on.

The book focuses on social issues such as how things were manufactured and societal heirarchy rather than battles, wars and strategies. For example, the Battles of Lexington and Concord (the "Shot heard 'round the world") get four sentences, none describing the battle itself. This makes it rather unique in history textbooks, although most don't dwell on the battles for long, they do mention tactics, changes the war brought to technology, etc.

The book is well-written. It has two authors and does not suffer from the stifling over-editing of most modern history texts that render them sterile, dry and boring.

Some commentary based on notes I took while reading:

-A strong section on the colonies

-An especially well-written, if brief, commentary on the Declaration of Independence.


Charles A. Beard


-From their commentary on a series of inventors in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: "...these men and a thousand more were destroying in a mighty revolution of industry the world of the stagecoach and the tallow candle which Washington and Franklin had inherited little changed from the age of Caesar." (location 4784)

-Charles A. Beard is a big proponent of the theory that underlying economic issues (industrial/small farms vs. large-scale cash crop agricultural) caused the Civil War, not slavery. I think that is an unreconcilable position in that slavery was the basis for the South's wealth - so slavery is the root. Beard lets his dichotomy stand unchallenged in his comment: "While slavery lasted, the economy of the South was inevitably agricultural." (location 5008)

-There are two large comments on immigration that show that the worries we have nowadays are no different than those in the past (locations 6492 & 9046).

-Native Americans (or Indians, if you prefer) are almost totally left out of the book.

-They skim over the backroom deal to end Reconstruction in the Tilden-Hayes Presidential election. They are more sympathetic to the plight of the defeated Southerners than newer textbooks are.

Mary Ritter Beard
-Very good section on Women's rights. First-rate and better than anything I've seen in a current textbook.
The Beards are proponents of history being driven by economics, but they allow that their theory is not exact nor perfect. They note that the 13 Colonies were quite prosperous and secure just before the Revolutionary War. Despite the fact that their fortunes would be at risk, the Founding Fathers took the road to Independence. They note: "...mere economic advantage is not necessarily the determining factor in the fate of peoples." (location 1463)

It suffers from age a bit, which is to be expected from anything produced in 1921. First of all, it is missing nearly 90 years of history which, of course, cannot be helped. There are a few spelling differences and some different uses of language, such as referring to nationalities as races (the Irish race, etc.). There are understandable non-PC words, such as the use of the word "Negro", which are used without any intended bias, but an inexplicable repeated use of the adjective "savage" to describe the Indians (or Native Americans, if you prefer).
 
I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.
 
Reviewed July 14, 2009. This book can be found on Amazon here: History of the United States

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander Newfoundland by Jim DeFede



On September 11, 2001 the United States closed its air space in reaction to the 9/11 attacks because it was unknown if there were more attacks planned. While this certainly made sense it created certain problems for the planes that were inbound. Where would they go if they did not have enough fuel to return to their aiports of departure?

It turns out that Gander, Newfoundland had a ready-built solution for 38 planes carrying 6,595 passengers - a gigantic Cold War era runway that was big enough to be an emergency landing runway for a space shuttle.

Jim DeFede

Upon landing, the problem ceased to be a technical problem and quickly became a human problem - what do you do with 6,595 people in a relatively poor town of barely 10,000 people?

Jim DeFede relates the story of church groups, community groups, schools and local businesses rising to the occasion and welcoming strangers from all over the world for 6 days. They slept in their schools, churches, community centers and even in people's homes. Cars were loaned out, homes were left open for anyone to take a shower and people from all over Newfoundland brought food, blankets and towels to share.

This book re-opened the trauma of 9/11 for me but these simple acts of caring demonstrated by the people of Gander, Newfoundland also brought tears to my eyes multiple times. To quote page 7, "If the terrorists had hoped their attacks would reveal the weaknesses in western society, the events in Gander proved its strength."

Highly recommended.

I rate this book an enthusiastic 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here: The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland

Reviewed on December 22, 2010.

Stupid Christmas by Leland Gregory



Leland Gregory is a co-author of America's Dumbest Criminals: Wild and Weird Stories of Fumbling Felons, Clumsy Crooks, and Ridiculous Robbers, a book filled with a series of short, mostly humorous "filler on a newspaper page" type stories.
Leland Gregory


He follows this format with Stupid Christmas, a book full of short (1-2 pages) stories about Christmas. Some are amusing stories about Christmas history, some are about Christmas criminals, some are sweet and touching and some are just about Christmas oddities such as the middle school teacher that drove his student around town to vandalize Christmas displays, including putting some in compromising positions, so to speak.

Unfortunately, unlike the criminal themed book, which has the entire realm of criminal activity to draw from, this book feels a bit limited by the Christmas theme. Too many repetitive stories about drunken Santas. This is a great "bathroom book" - just something to pick up and read a little bit and put back down again without having to worry about plots, characters or having to remember what was going on the last time you were reading.
 
I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here:  Stupid Christmas

Reviewed on December 22, 2010.
 
Also mentioned in this review:  America's Dumbest Criminals: Wild and Weird Stories of Fumbling Felons, Clumsy Crooks, and Ridiculous Robbers

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Woods Out Back (Spearwielder’s Tale #1) (audiobook) by R.A. Salvatore



Read by Paul Boehmer
10 CDs
12 hours

Gary Leger lives Massachusetts and is forced to make do with a miserable job in a plastics factory with no real prospects of doing anything but making ends meet at a job that offers little for his very active imagination. A natural athlete with no interest in sports, Gary finds solace in long walks in the woods behind his house and in his dog-eared copy of The Hobbit.

While on one of these hikes, Gary sits for a bit of reading and finds himself staring at a real life pixie who shoots him with a tiny drugged arrow that causes him to faint. When he awakens he is no longer in Massachusetts – he is in the magic-filled world of Faerie. Gary finds that he has been kidnapped from his own world by a leprechaun named Mickey McMickey in order to wear the armor and carry the broken spear of a long dead human king named Cedric Donigarten in an epic quest led by a grumpy elf named Kelsenellenelvial Gil-Ravardy (but everyone refers to him by Kelsey, a fact that makes him even grumpier).

Kelsey is convinced that if he can kidnap the best Dwarven smithy, subdue a dragon in single combat and use them both to re-forge the broken spear (using the fire of a dragon’s breath), the mere fact that it has come back in existance will inspire the people of Faerie to live up to the forgotten standards of their ancestors and restore some of the lost lustre of Faerie. Gary has been chosen to wear the armor because he is the first human that they found in our world that could fit in it, a fact that makes Gary doubt the soundness of the plan quite often. It is not clear why a human from Faerie was not chosen except that all of the humans we meet in the book are physically wrecked by disease and famine or are not of high enough character to fulfill the quest.

Written as a light-hearted adventure, The Woods Out Back (Spearwielder’s Tale #1) works because the reader sees the world of Faerie through his eyes and Faerie is just as new to him as it is to the reader. The customs of the humans, dwarfs, leprochauns, evil witches, goblins, trolls, dragons, giants and elves that Gary encounters confound Gary throughout but, with the help of his companions, Gary and the reader mostly muddle through. One of the most amusing aspects of the book is Gary’s well worn copy of The Hobbit. Mickey McMickey, the leprechaun reads it as they travel and he makes comments throughout.


R.A. Salvatore
When I first began to listen to the book I was trying to imagine parrallels with the Wizard of Oz (Dorothy was taken unwillingly to a strange, magical land, she goes on a quest with strange companions, she wants to return home, etc.) but I soon enough realized that Salvatore’s true inspiration was actually The Hobbit. Like Gary Leger, Bilbo Baggins is forced out of his comfortable but very stale day-to-day life in order to go on a quest. Like Bilbo, Gary finds this quest to be eye-opening, fascinating, morally challenging and in the end he is a much better person than when he started.

This is not a perfect book – Gary is often guilty of just accepting the strange things that happen around him as they are rather than asking questions that would help the reader. The language is sometimes stilted with worn, overused phrases (“glowering eyes” was especially grating for this reviewer). The characters are straight from central casting of any Tolkien-inspired book. The audiobook format provides additional issues. Paul Boehmer is the reader and he does a truly great job of creating different voices for the characters. But, his reading of the actual narration of the book (all of the non-speaking parts) is quirky. Oftentimes, he emphasizes his sentences in an odd manner that was distracting for the first couple of hours.

Despite those issues, the book’s fast-paced, good-humored nature draws the reader in and makes the world of Faerie a fine place to visit – good thing there are two more installments!

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Woods Out Back (Spearwielder's Tale)

Reviewed on December 10, 2010.

The First Rule: A Joe Pike Novel (audiobook) by Robert Crais

>
A good, tight story

7 CDs
8 hours, 20 minutes
Read by Robert Crais, the author

I am a gigantic fan of Crais' Elvis Cole novels, a series that introduced Joe Pike to the world as Cole's enigmatic, tough and very quiet partner with a soft spot for mean old cats. But, I have been reluctant to get into the Joe Pike novels due to a fear that Joe's facade would be burst wide open and mysterious Joe Pike would be laid wide open and no longer be a mystery.

Not to worry. We learn more about Joe, but what makes Joe Pike tick is still a mystery. Plus, as a bonus we get a healthy serving of wise-cracking Elvis Cole throun in as a bonus to make the story even more fun.


Robert Crais

The First Rule's title comes from an Eastern European thieves code that demands that no gangster have a family so that their loyalties will never be divided (much like the story of Keyser Soze from the movie The Usual Suspects). A friend of Pike's from his days as a mercenary for hire is killed by professional home invaders. His entire family is murdered, including his chidlren and the nanny is left for dead with mutliple gun shot wounds. Pike is concerned because his friend had dropped out of that life completely and had become a legitimate businessman, a respected family man, and now the police suspect that he was using his old connections in a crooked gun deal gone bad and his reputation is being destroyed. Besides, no one messes with a friend of Joe Pike.

Crais does a solid job of narrating the book. The bonus of having the author read his own book is that you know the inflections and emphasis he intended.

Very enjoyable action thriller.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on December 18, 2010.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon here: The First Rule (Elvis Cole/Joe Pike Series)

The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization by Brian Fagan



Disappointing.

I really enjoyed The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850 (I gave it 4 stars). I was not thrilled with The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations (I gave it 2 stars) and I have to say that I do not care much for The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization either.

In fact, to be short and sweet let me suffice it to say that if you follow this link: http://dwdsreviews.blogspot.com/2010/08/great-warming-climate-change-and-rise.html
and see my review about The Great Warming and add in an extended discussion about mankind in the Ice Age you will pretty much have the substance of The Long Summer. The two books could have easily have been made into one slightly larger book.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: 

Reviewed on December 18, 2010.

Also mentioned in this review:

Bye Bye Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and Their Underdog Crusades to Redraw America's Political Map by Bill Kauffman



While I am sympathetic to a point, Kauffman drives his point home with so much rancor and vigor that I ended up being both bored and repulsed.

Bye Bye Miss American Empire takes what should have been a fun look at the various groups that want to split apart current U.S. states and/or make independent countries out of U.S. states and turns it into a long, repetitive, angry rant about American foreign policy, both Presidents Bush and the United States (indivisible, as the pledge goes) in general.

Kauffman starts off on the right foot with an introduction to these various splinter groups (or groups that wish to splinter America, to be more accurate) by taking the reader to a meeting of secessionist movements from all around the country in Vermont. For me, this was the first and last enjoyable chapter.

Kauffman then launches into an extended discussion of secessionist movements in America in which he "scores points" by making multiple snide comments about the Constitution's use of the phrase "more perfect" (just to clarify, it means that it is intended to push the Union closer towards perfection, not that it was already perfect and now it becomes even more so), advocates the murder of Founding Fathers (Alexander Hamilton on page 13) and gets into a political argument with a master politician (Abraham Lincoln, on page 34) that only serves to demonstrate that Kauffman has not truly listened to what Lincoln was saying. Lincoln declared that "secession is the essence of anarchy." Kauffman scoffs and fails to truly follow Lincoln's logic. If New York City were to secede from the United States (a popular notion, Kauffman notes,  several times in American history), what would make it stop there? Could the Bronx secede from New York City? Could an individual neighborhood secede from the Bronx? Could an apartment building secede from that neighborhood? Could a single apartment secede from that building? Could an individual person in a room secede from that apartment? That would indeed be anarchy.

Kauffman moves on to explore the idea of New York State and New York City separating. I truly have sympathy for the upstate New Yorker. The provincial, self-important thinking of NYC is difficult for anyone in "flyover country" to stomach, being politically attached to it must be frustrating in the extreme.


The Great Seal of the
proposed State of
Jefferson.
Other secessionist movements covered in this book include Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Alaska, the South and various movements to create 2 or more states out of several states, including a very commonsense one to break California up into 2, 3 or even 4 states. Kauffman's description of the various attempts to turn northern California and parts of southern Oregon into the State of Jefferson is quite interesting.

Kauffman makes his points throughout the book and can write with an amusing twist. Unfortunately, he throws in so many other snide comments and forced witty observations that don't really tell the reader anything except Kauffman's political leanings that I found myself wondering if this book could have been shrunk by 40 or 50 pages if a strong-handed editor had taken control of this project. Kauffman tells you early on his opinion on Bush, the War on Terror and why the principle of "one man, one vote" is unfair (I am not sure why he thinks rural voters should get more representation than urban voters, but he does). He also tells you about these items in the middle and at the end of the book many, many times. Enough already! Is this a book about secessionist movements in America or a personal political rant?

Long story short - great topic, maybe even the right guy to write this book, with the proper editor. But, in the end, I found that the topic was overwhelmed by all of the other baggage.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Bye Bye, Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and their Underdog Crusades to Redraw America's Political Map

Reviewed on December 18, 2010.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Revolutionary Paul Revere by Joel J. Miller

  Very approachable history

The Revolutionary Paul Revere is a great history for newbies to the Revolutionary War's history as well as a solid history for those that are more well read.

Joel J. Miller begins his history with Paul Revere's father, Apollos Rivoire, a French Huegonot who fled to Boston for religious freedom as an indentured servant. Miller follows the family and weaves into the narrative the complex and often tense relationship between England and its American colonies.

Despite the very informal tone of the book, this is a fairly detailed biography of America's most famous messenger, who was also a founding member of the Sons of Liberty and who personally knew John Adams, Sam Adams and John Hancock. Most people know that Revere was a silversmith, participated in the Boston Tea Party and of course the famed "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." But, what happened after that? For most of us, Paul fades away from the history and disappears.


Paul Revere
Miller's biography follows Revere in an orderly mostly year-by-year format in which we learn about his successes and setbacks in business (mostly successes), his family life, his very activie social and political life and even his less than stellar attempts to be a soldier. It turns out Revere was very successful as a military contractor, but not much of a soldier, despite his bravery under fire.

Truly the best feature of the book is the way that Miller weaves in the larger social and political events of the day and includes Revere's reactions to them, including demonstrating how British taxes and policies affected the bottom line of his business. The very informal tone may be a turn off for some, but for others it will be a breath of fresh air.

I rate this biography 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Revolutionary Paul Revere

Reviewed on December 17, 2010.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Guardian of Lies: a Paul Madriani Novel by Steve Martini



Steve Martini gets better and better (from an occasional reader of Martini)

I'm not the biggest reader of Steve Martini. I'm inclined to discount his work precisely because he is a "name brand" author. Plenty of authors that have made it to the top  start to crank out books like a factory and the quality drops and I always think that Martini will do the same.

Guardian of Lies is my fourth Steve Martini/Paul Madriani novel. I went back and checked my reviews of them. I've enjoyed them all and have been surprised by the fact that I have enjoyed them as well. I was expecting churned out novels and have always been pleasantly surprised.


Steve Martini
Guardian of Lies is the most ambitious Martini/Madriani novel I've read. We move from a simple courtroom case to international terrorism. Madriani gets swept along in a multi-country chase to find out the truth and to clear his own name. Along the way, he gets stalked, betrayed, nearly blown up and framed in a plot that zips along.

Well, who could ask for more?
 
I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: 
Guardian of Lies: A Paul Madriani Novel (Paul Madriani Novels)  

Reviewed on July 17, 2009.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkein



This one is tricky to review

When reviewing a piece of children's literature, especially a piece by a world-famous author and one that was originally created, not for the general public but to console his young son on the loss of a beloved toy, how can you be fair? Do you let the reputation of the author boost the score? Do you judge this book by the standard of his other books?


J.R.R. Tolkien
Since I have two small children, I decided to judge Roverandom by comparing it to the other children books that I have been reading lately. By that standard, Roverandom comes off as a solid 3 star book. There is little character development - the emphasis is on a fast-moving plot and plenty of inside family references that are covered in the introduction.

This is not a prequel to The Hobbit, but it is a quick, fun read with lots of emphasis on fantasy.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Pocket Roverandom

I rate this one 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on November 27, 2010.

New Threats to Freedom edited by Adam Bellow



Mostly interesting set of essays

The theme of this book is, clearly, threats to our freedom. This can be interpreted as America's freedom, Western freedom in general of the freedom of all people throughout the world. Depending on the reader's sensitivities, some of these freedoms may seem trivial (the freedom of ice cream vendors in New York City to sell their wares near city parks, for example) or may seem monumental (back to those same vendors - can you really ban a licensed business from selling his wares just because you don't want to hear your kids whine all day about ice cream?)

The writing is generally high quality but there are a wide variety of styles, themes and issues that make this an uneven read. For example, Stephen Schwartz's essay "Shariah in the West" is mostly an essay about how Shariah is not a threat, but just a media-hyped bogeyman,  followed by a few paragraphs about how it might still be a threat. The "Illusion of Innocence" by Shelby Steele had a similar feel and the last essay by Dennis Whittle, "Orthodoxy and Freedom in International Aid" was more about bureaucratic intertia than any outright threat.


Adam Bellow,
 editor
On the other hand essays such as Greg Lukianoff's "Students Against Liberty?" was very thought-provoking (IUPUI, the University where I earned my Master's gets a mention on page 139, much to my embarrassment). The placement of a very strong essay by Mark Helprin entitled "The Rise of Antireligious Orthodoxy" right before a strong essay on multi-culturalism by Christopher Hitchens (well known for his anti-religious books) makes me smile every time. Hitchins makes a strong point that we should never fail to confuse individual civil rights with "group" rights in our efforts to be a free society.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: New Threats to Freedom

Reviewed on November 27, 2010.