"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, March 25, 2011

The Babysitter's Code (kindle) by Laura Lippman



I think it was Stephen King who once commented that his short stories (or novellas) were books that just never took enough shape and form to become a book. He tried to tease out more out of the story but there was just nothing more to pull out of the story.
Laura Lippman

The Babysitter's Code is not that. There is plenty more to add to this story. It just builds up to the point where the reader is getting in to the story and then it just.............................ends.

Why?

Don't know.

Frustrating?

Very.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

You can find this short story on Amazon.com here: The Babysitter's Code.

Reviewed on March 21, 2009.

To Make Men Free: A Novel of the Battle of Antietam by Richard Croker



This Civil War buff thoroughly enjoyed it

This sweeping novel, like an epic feature from the 1950s, features a cast of thousands which is both its strength and weakness.


George B. McClellan (1826-1885)
A lot of reviewers complain about the lack of depth in the characters, which is fair to say about the book. Unlike Shaara's The Killer Angels, the gold standard of Civil War fiction, there is not much character development. But, to be fair, Shaara focuses on precious few personalities of the War while Croker includes Lincoln, many cabinet members, Lee, McClellan and at least a dozen of the generals, not to mention colonels, sergeants and even a couple of privates.

The inclusion of so many characters does contribute to a lack of character exploration but it also contributes to a wide view of the mayhem of the battlefield. Croker also delves into political intrigues that went hand in hand with this bloodiest day in American history.

Croker's writing style is quite enjoyable - he flows effortlessly from one character to another while moving the story along at a quick pace. There's enough detail to give the Civil War novice a good grounding in the basics and enough focus on small parts of the battle to keep a serious student of the war like me interested. Humor and tragedy often go hand in hand in this book - none illustrates this more than page 301 of my paperback version. I chuckled out loud at a neat turn of phrase and then felt as though I'd been kicked in the gut four paragraphs later. I was so moved that I had to close the book and do something else.

Croker noted that he researched this book for three years. He includes many antecdotes that are left out of most histories. As a born and bred Hoosier I was proud of determination demonstrated by the story of the Hoosier soldier who was shot in the belly early in the battle - a fatal injury in those days. He was ordered back to the medics but he refused, saying, "Well, I guess I'm hurt about as bad as I can be. I believe I'll go back and give 'em some more." (p. 267)


Robert E. Lee (1807-1870)
Croker has another novel about the Civil War entitled No Greater Courage: A Novel of the Battle of Fredericksburg. They are stand alone novels (I read them out of order) but they would probably be more enjoyable in the order that they actually happened. I hope that Croker is working on a Chancellorsville novel. Croker's command of the Union political situation is very strong and these three battles are, in reality, intricately related to each other. Chancellorsville's bold maneuvers are a response to the mindless forward attacks of Fredericksburg which were a response to the hesitancy of Antietam. I would love to see Croker get into the head of Hooker at Chancellorsville.

Highly recommended.

Pet Peeve note: On page 136 of my paperback edition Croker refers to "Indianians." There have never been and never will be Indianians. We are Hoosiers. Always have been, always will be.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: To Make Men Free: A Novel of the Battle of Antietam.

Reviewed on April 6, 2009.

The X-Files: Ground Zero (abridged audiobook) by Kevin J. Anderson



Duration: approximately 3 hours
Read by Gillian Anderson

 So, how can I say this succinctly and clearly?

The abridged audiobook of The X-Files: Ground Zero is not good. It is bad. It is not well read. It has few of the best qualities of the TV show.


Gillian Anderson
Read by Gillian Anderson, the abridged audiobook clocks in at about 3 hours and read unenthusiastically by Gillian Anderson. One of the reasons I picked this one up is that I figured she'd read it well. It says it was recorded in Vancouver in 1995 (where the show was filmed) and it sounds like she read it between takes. She sounds tired and completely uninterested in the text.

Then again, when you look at what she was reading, I cannot blame her for being uninterested. This book has none of the zip of the show. Mulder's lines are almost non-existent. No smart-alack lines or observation. No wry sense of humor that makes even the weakest of the TV shows watchable (I love the X-Files but let's face it - every episode is not being shipped to the TV Hall of Fame...). This book is a tired and pale imitation of what the show was. You can see the ending coming and you wish it would just hurry up and get here. Perhaps the abridgment gutted the book but I was glad it was abridged.

The science behind this audiobook is laughable. Not the supernatural stuff - that's what the X-Files is all about. I mean the atomic science. Does the author really think that anyone can explode an atomic bomb without radiation detectors picking up on it? Remember Chernobyl? The West knew it had gone wrong long before the Soviets admitted to it because it was detected by Western atomic sensors. Atomic blasts show up on seismographs. That's how we knew India and Pakistan had them. But, let's ignore facts like that and roll right along with a silly premise.

I rate this audiobook 1 star out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: The X-Files: Ground Zero.

Reviewed on April 8, 2009.

Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad by Ann Lane Petry




Well-written biography of a true American hero

Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad is a fantastic little biography of Harriet Tubman. Tubman has always been one of my personal heroes and this book does her story justice.


Harriet Tubman (1820-1913)
I would say this book can be easily enjoyed by 4th graders and up. It also could serve as a great starting point for adults that don't know much about slavery and the American Abolitionist movement. While telling the story of Tubman's life, Petry also includes at the end of nearly every chapter historical tidbits about the slavery and the Abolitionist movement at the national level.

The discussion of her service in the Civil War as a scout in the coastal areas of South Carolina spurred me to do some further research. Her commanding officer in the raids was Colonel James M. Montgomery, the nutty commander in the movie Glory with this memorable line: "You see sesesh has to be cleared away by the hand of God like the Jews of old. Now I will have to burn this town." Interestingly, Montgomery also served with John Brown in Kansas. Harriet Tubman also knew John Brown although she was not comfortable with his violent ways.

I rate this biography 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad

Reviewed April 8, 2009.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Christianity in Crisis: The 21st Century by Hank Hanegraaf



Important book but in serious need of an editor

Hank Hanegraaf
Christianity in Crisis: The 21st Century exposes the serious flaws in the theology of most of America's famous TV preachers, especially the cavalcade of larger than life ministers that appear around the country on Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN).

Basically, the doctrines are called "prosperity" and "faith". The faith doctrine is the most insidious because it sounds so harmless. Shouldn't all Christians have faith?

Well, this doctrine is something quite different and odd. Joel Osteen may be the most famous teacher of this doctrine right now. It's easily searchable on the web and this book does a great job of exposing its flaws as well. Suffice it to say that it is not a Christian idea, but much more like the New Age stuff taught in books like The Secret.

Prosperity theology is more famous because any viewer of a TBN program can watch its preachers telling viewer things like this, "When you tithe, God gives to you. When you don't tithe God takes it away from you." (p. 46) The promise is that you will get stuff from God if you tithe. God is like a divine bank account. Preacher Jesse Duplantis noted that God is a comforter "because when you get some stuff it brings you comfort." (p. 198) Wow, as great a perversion of the concept as I've ever heard. Joyce Meyer notes that giving to God is like getting a "receipt" or an IOU from God that you can draw on later on.(p. 222)

So, who cares. Can't these people worship as they please? Well, of course they can. But, when they take the Christian name and use it to teach non-Christian doctrine on a worldwide broadcast it hurts the Christian brand. Plus, most Christians don't even know what these people are really saying, they just assume it's the same stuff they hear in their own churches.

Positives:

The book is hyper-researched. The bibliography is 16 pages long with teeny-tiny print. There are more than 1,000 endnotes for a 347 page book. Hanegraaf knows his stuff.

Negatives:

The book is repetitive. I read some of the same quotes more than half a dozen times. The point was made - no reason to state it so many times. The repetition hurt the overall argument because it began to feel like there must be a shortage of quotes since some were used so many times. In retrospect, with more than 1,000 endnotes, the repeated quotes were a very small part of the whole. But, still, an editor would have helped the book by helping it to become leaner and meaner. The overall quality of the book was hurt. You could cut 50-100 pages from this book and only help it.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Christianity in Crisis: The 21st Century.

Reviewed on April 14, 2009.

Jesus Says So (kindle) by Mass. Sabbath School Society

A 19th Century Inspirational Story

Printed 1n 1851, "Jesus Says So, or A Memorial of Little Sarah G----" is a great example of a witnessing tool from the 19th century. The title derives from the saying of a little girl who quotes the promises of Jesus and proudly proclaims that she believes them because "Jesus says so."

Modern witness tracts typically include the story of a person who has sinned in a big way but has turned their life around thanks to a conversion. This tract features an 11 year-old girl who is practically without sin, lives a poverty-stricken life and dies from an unknown illness after a long period of being bedridden. This type of tragic story was very common in the 19th century.

This is a very short story, perhaps a 10 minute read. It was printed by the Mass. Sabbath School Society. Even if you are not interested in the religious content it does provide a window into American culture in the 19th century and invites comparison with 21st century evangelical techniques and sentiments.

I rate this kindle book 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on April 17, 2009.

Strong Enough to Die: A Caitlin Strong Novel by Jon Land

Loud and strong, this book goes at it hard

William Shatner once commented that the results of his directorial efforts in Star Trek V were "loud". One could easily say the same thing about Jon Land's Strong Enough to Die.

Jon Land
Strong Enough To Die comes at you with a gunfight on the first page, has lots of gunfights throughout and ends up with guns and explosions as well.

Does it work?

Well, yeah.

This is not fine literature, mind you. It is loud, lock and load, over-the-top Texas Ranger action. There's some attempts at trying to tie in Bush administration anti-terrorist policies and discussions about living with the aftermath of violence but those get overwhelmed by the gunfire. But, that's okay because too much thinking about the internal incongruities of the text on these matters just spoils the fun.

It's the famed Texas Rangers and a bad guy who might be a good guy against the Mexican Mafia and an evil American super-corporation. Don't think too much, just enjoy the show.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on April 18, 2009.

Also mentioned in this review:

Black Evening: Tales of Dark Suspense (audiobook) by David Morrell




David Morrell's Black Evening: Tales of Dark Suspense is a collection of horror short stories. This is a change of pace from Morrell's normal fare of action/suspense/thriller novels, but this is a strong collection that is a great read and will be especially rewarding for Morrell's fans.
David Morrell

There are 7 short stories in this collection. The weakest by far is the first one, "The Dripping". I'd rate it 3 stars. But the rest are 4 or 5 star short stories which is high praise from me since I am not normally a fan of the short story format. Of especially high quality are "But At My Back I Always Hear" and "Orange Is For Anguish, Blue For Insanity." Those stand up with the best short format horror stories that you can put against them, from Poe to King.

Each story is introduced by the author who includes plenty of details about how he started writing, what was going on in his life when he wrote the stories. These introductory pieces are, in some ways, the most enjoyable parts of the book. I very much enjoyed his tales of what inspired him and of the authors who pointed him along the way to being one of just a handful of authors in the country that completely make a living by writing.

Audiobook details:

approximately 6 hours. Each story is read by a different narrator. The introductory pieces are read by David Morrell himself and are quite good.

Highly recommended - 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: 
Black Evening: Tales of Dark Suspense


Reviewed on April 20, 2009.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

America: A Jake Grafton Novel by Stephen Coonts

Solid, but not an exceptional thriller

The strength of a Stephen Coonts novel is that he provides a thriller like Tom Clancy but not all of the techno-speak. Instead, he provides just enough to give the reader a taste but not enough to overwhelm.

The weakness of Stephen Coonts is that Jake Grafton, likable as he is, makes Star Trek's Captain Kirk look like an underachiever. Grafton is everywhere in this book (like all of them). Who needs specialists, like Navy SEALs or  an expert for a rocket launch? Instead, Jake Grafton is your man. Need someone to finagle a Russian spy? He's your man. How about someone to go on a raid, find a spy, fake an attack, go undercover to capture an international super-criminal? He's your man. And then, he gets to beat up the bad guy and pretty much save the world all by himself (and his faithful sidekick Toad Tarkington) - again.

Stephen Coonts
Beyond that, America is a perfectly readable and entertaining book. The premise is that America's newest submarine, the America has been stolen. America is remarkable in that it is the quietest submarine ever built and it has the most sensitive sonar of any sub as well. So, it cannot be found easily and it can easily see everyone who is searching for it. It also comes with a detachable mini-sub as well

Why was it stolen? Well, I figured it out right away, but no one else does until the end of the book. The book starts out with the attempted launch of an advanced "Star Wars" type satellite. The launch fails and the satellite disappears into the Atlantic. Can you figure out why someone would want a submarine with a mini-sub now?

Anyway, America is chock full of advanced computer hackers, corrupt currency investors, mercenaries and advanced weaponry and it makes for a very readable thriller.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on March 22, 2011.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Pete & Pickles by Berkeley Breathed



Fantastic - and yes, I did read it to my children

Pete and Pickles is the story of a lonely, widower pig and an exuberant, outgoing elephant that escaped from a circus. According to the back flap, it was inspired from a drawing that Breathed's five-year old made in a restaurant. She drew an elephant hugging a pig in its trunk.

Breathed asked why the elephant is holding the pig.

"The pig's sad."

"Why?"

"Because he's lonely, Dad...But he doesn't know it," she whispered.

Pete is indeed lonely. He misses his wife who has died. Pickles comes into his life unexpectedly and turns it all over and, in a way, saves it. Or, at least makes it worth living.

I cannot imagine the adult that does not tear up at the end of this book (I've got no qualms with it - this 40 year old Republican darn near cried!).


Berkeley Breathed
On top of a great story you've got great pictures. The art is top-notch. Careful observation will show you that Breathed previews most of the book with the art on the walls of Pete's house. It's something fun to go back and look at with the kids.

As for those reviewers that claim that this is inappropriate for kids, I say, "Phhphhtt!" (to quote Opus, Breathed's beloved Penguin character from Bloom County.) I talked to my children all the way through the book as we read it. I talked about how Pete misses his wife like their Grandpa misses their Grandma who has passed on. Is it sad? Sure it is, but life's full of sadness. This book deals with it and shows you can move on. I talked about how Pete gets angry when Pickles messes with his wife's things, I talked about how they were still friends and how he is much happier at the end than he was at the beginning. Guess what? I talk with my kids when we watch TV, too. That's part of the job of being a parent.

Highly recommended for all ages.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Pete and Pickles.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Undying Glory: The Story of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment by Clinton Cox

Comments from a history teacher

Okay - so hear I am once again reading a kid's book. However, it is for my classroom library - I try to read them all so I can make recommendations.

Sgt. William Carney,
Member of the 54th Massachusetts,
first African American to receive
the Congressional Medal of Honor

For those not in the know, Undying Glory: The Story of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment  is a brief history of the 54th Massachusetts - the first official regiment of blacks in the American Civil War. The unit was immortalized in the Academy Award winning film Glory, starring Denzel Washington.

Cox has the great majority of his facts straight (I have some quibbles, such as when he claims that a good soldier could load and shoot a civil war rifle in about 45 seconds, when the reality was that a competent soldier could do it up to 3 times per minute.)

The larger problem goes from being factual to the problem of being written in such a way that young people would be interested. Cox tells the story, but rarely in a narrative form. From time to time it becomes merely a series of facts written in a plain, simple style rather than a gripping tale of history.

I give it a rather high score as I am grading on a curve today. 4 out of 5 in this case means that it is readable, factually correct book, but written in a rather uninspired manner that is unlikely to spur on a reluctant reader.

Reviewed on November 7, 2005.

Also mentioned in this review:

Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi

A history teacher's perspective
Avi
You may wonder what a high school world history teacher is doing reading a book by Avi.

Well, here's the deal - I am searching for high quality historical fiction in a variety of reading levels for a future project for my class. Avi's Crispin: The Cross of Lead fits the bill perfectly for my students with lower level reading skills.

Set in Medieval England, Avi creates an interesting story and accurately depicts the toil of a peasant's life, pointing out some of the more interesting aspects of that time in history, including the plague, the power of the church, the massive amount of illiteracy, the filth, and more. What I like about it is that Avi writes a simple book without talking down to his readers.

This book fits my classroom's need wonderfully. For all of you teachers out there I strongly recommend it.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on November 2, 2005.


You may also be interested in:

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fall Down Laughing: How Squiggy Caught Multiple Sclerosis and Didn't Tell Nobody by David L. Lander

A great read, whether you have MS or if you're just a fan

As a kid, I always thought of Lenny and Squiggy as the two dolts that live upstairs from Laverne & Shirley. I've been watching the DVD collections of the show with my kids and I've noticed something. Usually, I grade papers when I watch TV (one of the perks, lots of papers!) and I find myself listening to Laverne & Shirley, but I stop and WATCH Lenny and Squiggy. Squiggy, in particular, is in constant motion and always doing something weird/quirky/downright odd and inappropriate!

Squiggy
So, I was inspired to go out and find Fall Down Laughing: How Squiggy Caught Multiple Sclerosis and Didn't Tell Nobody and read more about Lander's struggle with MS. Plus, it's always interesting to see how someone made it to the big time.

Both parts of the book are interesting and a pleasure to read. I enjoyed myself thoroughly and blasted through the book in no time. Landers stories about his early career, how he hid his MS and how he deals with it now are told with all of the grace of a natural born storyteller.

If you are a fan of David Lander I also recommend the following:

Laverne & Shirley - The Complete First Season and Oswald - On-the-Go Oswald / Oswald - Welcome to Big City!. Lander voices Henry, the persnickety penguin who can't do anything particularly athletic with the slogan "sl-o-o-w and steady." (sound familiar?)

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on April 21, 2009.

Also mentioned in this review:

The Watchmen by Alan Moore

 Over-hyped

I was interested in seeing the movie. The reviews sounded interesting so I thought I'd read the book first. And with reviews like, "The greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced" and "One of Time magazine's 100 best novels" on the cover, how could I go wrong?

I dabble in comics. I read the big collections. I have no figurines, no stickers on my car. I see the movies, but usually on DVD. I own precious few comic books, mostly borrowing what I read from friends or the library.

On the other hand, I am a voracious reader and I like to think that I know a little about books.

I appreciate the fact that this book was groundbreaking in its day. It offered a bleak, jaded and, frankly, more realistic look at the whole concept of superheroes. When it asks, "Who watches the watchmen?" that is an important question.

Showing the Comedian committing atrocities in Vietnam is a nice twist on those Superman cartoon movies that show Superman fighting the Germans. Showing an all-powerful Dr. Manhattan literally not caring about the little people is an interesting but barely explored theme - what happens when the superhero realizes he doesn't care about the little people anymore because he is not one of them?

But, the relentless dark nature of the book and the insistence on highlighting nearly every single watchman with his or her own volume just wore me down. I lost interest with the volume on Dr. Manhattan. He's just plain old boring. The parts that concern him feel like they were written by an unsure college freshman who is trying to sound philosophical. Tedious is more like it. Rorschach is interesting and along with the Owl their combination of cool tools and psychological disfunction comprise the modern-day incarnation of Frank Miller's vision of Batman in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Laurie is interesting, to a point.

Veidt is tedious because his plan to unite humanity has no basis in history, which is a real hoot - the smartest man in the world does not know the history he claims to have studied? Invasions from aliens have happened, figuratively, of course. The Persians caused the Spartans and Athenians to unite. But, in two generations the Spartans worked with Persians to defeat the Athenians. Cortes had the help of several Indian groups to defeat the Aztecs. American Indian groups worked with the United States government to subdue other groups. This plan is comic booking at its worst - adolescent political theory applied to a big picture idea.

Anyway, I won't be seeing the movie. I skimmed the end of the book. I'm glad the Owl gets the girl. Good for him, at least someone got something out of this overly-pretentious, overly-hyped read.

I rate this graphic novel 2 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on April 21, 2009.


Also mentioned in this review:

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe by William Rosen



 This Could Have Been So Much More.

The title of Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe promises so much - the last great Roman Emperor (or first Byzantine Emperor, if you prefer), the Bubonic Plague, how the plague helped create the series of nation-states that have made up Europe for centuries. Throw in the Silk Road and how Europe was able to get its own silk worms, Justinian's multi-faceted wife Theodora, Belisarius and a discussion of how the Bubonic plague may have paved the way for Islam by weakening a resurgent Roman Empire under Justinian and you should have an amazing book - one that fills a void in most history books - the void left where "ancient" history ends and medieval/Dark Ages history begins.

But, this book will not fill that void except for the most dauntless of readers. Justinian is not dealt with in any organized fashion after the first few chapters - he becomes an office rather than a person. Belisarius is described in one campaign after another but you never get a feel for him. The wordy writing style gets in the way of any chance to have the story told. All historians need to remember that they are telling a story - telling it in one's best dissertation-speak does not necessarily tell it well and certainly makes it less interesting for most readers.

Justinian (c. 482-565)
What Rosen does do well - too well - is tell the story of the Bubonic Plague. For page after page the reader is told about the animals that are the best hosts for the plague, how fleas spread it, what kind of fleas are best to spread it, how fleas bodies work and how they spread the plague when they bite, what kind of fleas like what kind of animals best, how far fleas can jump, how fleas carry the plague in their little flea bellies, and on and on about fleas. There is also an extensive description on the physiology of the plague "bug" itself, including its flagella that it uses to move around. I could tell more but I skimmed a lot of it out of frustration.

Ironically, when the discussion turns to the effects of the plague, such as how it affected the burgeoning Roman re-birth under Justinian and may have enabled Islam to get a secure foothold in Byzantine territory a few years later, Rosen verbose writing style dries up, as if there were a limit to the number of pages he could write.

So, like I said in the title, this could have really been so much more.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here:Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe

Reviewed on March 15, 2011.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Holes by Louis Sachar



Louis Sachar
A literary phenomenon

Published in 2006
Read by Kerry Beyer

Duration: 4.5 hours
Unabridged

I teach high school Spanish and history but even if you don't have much interaction with young people, you'd have to live in a cave not to have noted the literary phenomenon that is the novel Holes. Although my students don't read Holes in my class, they have mentioned it so I decided to listen to it as an audiobook during my drive to and from school.

The plot itself is fairly unique in that there are literally no loose ends. Nothing is introduced that does not have a consequence later on, be it the prison guard quitting smoking and chewing sunflower seeds instead or the references to peach preserves, it all ties together. All of that makes the story less believable, more like a dark fairy tale but all of the more enjoyable.

The story itself is pretty solid. There's a mystery, a sense of camaraderie and an awful tale of injustice in the flashbacks. It is dark, but not overwhelmingly so.

The audiobook lasts about 4.5 hours. It was read by Kerry Beyer. A little research shows that this may be Beyer's only foray into audiobook narration. That would be justified. It's not that he did a bad job (he was easily understood), it's just that, as a frequent listener of audiobooks, I know that there are much better readers out there. Beyer had a tendency to make every sentence sound as though he were exclaiming over the most marvelous of things. It was all supposed to sound very exciting but it grated after a while. I suppose it's not the fault of the reader but the fault of the producers who didn't re-direct his efforts.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Holes by Louis Sachar.

Listening Woman (Joe Leaphorn) by Tony Hillerman

#3 in the Leaphorn series and one of the best

Like most fans of Hillerman, I've read them all. I'm sporadically going back through them and re-reading ones that I read more than a decade ago.

I've grown used to the older Leaphorn, the one that uses his head and thinks through problems and mostly avoids the physical stuff. This one is a younger Leaphorn that uses his head but gets involved in a lot of physical action. This one would make a great movie, but since I've not been happy with the few adaptations that I have seen I guess that I would prefer that no one make the attempt.

Tony Hillerman (1925-2008)
Lots of Navajo culture is introduced in Listening Woman. This one lays the groundwork for a lot of the future books, including introducing multiple characters and does a lot of exploration into Leaphorn's quirky sense of interested agnosticism in regards to Navajo religious beliefs. The plot centers around a couple of murders and lots of discussion of Navajo witches and a dark family secret.

This one would be a good one for a book discussion group.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on May 2, 2009.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

All Clear (audiobook) by Connie Willis



A sci-fi book for lovers of history

20 CDs
23 hours, 56 minutes
Read by Katherine Kellgren

43 hours of audio listening later (read wonderfully by Katherine Kellgren who handled a wide variety of accents and aging characters with real skill), I am finally done with the Blackout/All Clear saga. These books are intended to be one giant book, not a series, although you would never. ever know that from the audiobook's cover. To her credit, the author, Hugo and Nebula Award winning author Connie Willis introduces the second half of this audiobook with a warning that you had better listen to the first half first. Indeed you should and you should listen to the second installment as soon as you can after hearing the first one because there is no review, no scenes where the characters re-hash everything for the benefit of the listener. This is literally the second half of a very large book and she starts out exactly where she left off.

See my review of Blackout here.

All Clear continues the premise of Blackout (of course) and follows the adventures of late 21st century historians who learn about the past by time travelling. They observe and learn by blending in and becoming part of the past. They operate under the belief that they are unable to actually alter history (and apparently they have never read Jack Finney's Time and Again!) but they should not really do anything to test that theory.

Blackout/All Clear is both science fiction and historical fiction. Its real strength lies in its historical research and the way that it makes the reader experience London during World War II. The bombings, the inconveniences, the rationing, the danger, the weariness, the randomness of death from a bomb dropped from the sky - those aspects of the war come through crystal clear. Some reviewers have complained about the length of the books (and they are a big chunk, believe me, I know).  Certainly, a Reader's Digest type of editing job could easily cut out hours and hours of listening time without much affecting the plot of the story. Scenes could be cut, conversations could be shortened. There are certainly aspects of mind-blowingly stupid behavior on the part of the characters that had me wondering of Willis had gone daft.


Connie Willis
But, Willis has created an experience here. This is not so much a story but an homage to the regular, everyday people that endured the cruel attacks of a dictator, the privations of war, made communities in subway tunnels, survived when they were literally alone in the world. It is a bit of their experience and as such it is priceless. I teach history so nothing about this book really surprised me. I knew the bare facts but Willis has created a chance for the listener to get a taste of what it was like to live the facts, not just know them. For that, I have to thank her.

Throw in a bit of drama, a touch of sci-fi, the lovable completely awful Hodbins and I have to recommend Blackout/All Clear to anyone interested in World War II. Sci-fi fans are bound to be disappointed but I like both and I certainly enjoyed this.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found here: All Clear.

Reviewed on March 12, 2011.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Curiosities of the Civil War: Strange Stories, Infamous Characters, and Bizarre Events by Webb Garrison



Too scattered for this student of the Civil War.

Webb Garrison's Curiosities of the Civil War: Strange Stories, Infamous Characters, and Bizarre Events is a well-researched , hefty book that does deliver what it promises - a collection of odd things about the Civil War.

I read a lot of history and it seems to me that there are two main ways to organize a book about history. You can go with the more traditional timeline approach - tell the story in the order that it happened (narrative history). Or, you can go with themes - study the themes of the history as the writer sees them. For example, a Civil War historian can look into the evolution of military technology and techniques or focus on civil rights in the North and the South. Most historians try for a combination of the two and pick several themes and follow them as they tell a narrative history.


John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865)
 Curiosities of the Civil War goes with the less popular "bathroom reader" style. It is literally a collection of facts, interesting as most of them are, with only the barest of themes to hold them all together (for example, the theme "Supporting Members of the Cast" consists of several chapters about non-famous Civil War personalities such as John Wilkes Booth's one-eyed horse (and nearly everyone else's horse), soldiers, wives and various weird animals that became regimental pets.

For me, the randomness was too much. I like a story to be told as I am learning my odd and interesting facts. This style just could not hold my interest for more than two or three pages at a time.

This is not a book for the Civil War novice - this book will teach you nothing but a series of facts with no analysis, no interconnecting themes, no narrative (It does, however, have a very nice index). If you are looking for a book to pick up, read a couple of pages and then put back down, this is it. Otherwise, well, find something else.

I reviewed this book in conjunction with Thomas Nelson's BookSneeze program. I was not compensated for this review. The opinions expressed are mine.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book was reviewed on March 9, 2011.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Corruptible: A Ray Quinn Mystery by Mark Mynheir

Interesting Characters. So-so mystery.

The Corruptible is the second in the Ray Quinn mystery series. It is written by now-retired police officer Mark Mynheir who adds a touch of authenticity to his work (although he misses the most obvious clue at the beginning of this mystery).

Ray Quinn is a former Orlando police officer turned Private Investigator who was forced to retire due to disability as a result of being shot through the hip. His replacement hip is painful and he needs to walk with a cane and he often deals with the pain (physical and emotional) with a few stout shots of Jim Beam. He has a partner named Crevis who is trying to pass the entrance exam to be a police officer and a parochial school teacher that also helps him keep his business records straight.

In this story, Quinn is hired by an investment company to recover stolen client information by downloading it onto a portable hard drive. The number one suspect is a an acquaintance of Quinn, an employee of the company who was former Orlando narcotics undercover officer who had been forced off the police force.

Quinn delves into some of his own difficulties with alcohol and unresolved issues of his own forced retirement and his new physical limitations as he follows the trail to the missing data.

Mark Mynheir
As I noted in the title of this review, the strength of this book, and of the series so far, is the characters. The mysteries are so-so, but the real-life struggles of the three principal characters and the fact that Ray Quinn is not a superman that can punch out all of the bad guys makes the story more interesting.

There is a second story involving those annoying e-mail scammers who claim they are trying to "smuggle" money out of Africa into America while in reality they are trying to scam the elderly out of their hard-earned cash. Also, there is an undercurrent of Christian themes written into the story.

Follow this link for my review of the first book in the Ray Quinn series.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on March 7, 2011.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron



The controversial winner of the 1967 Pulitzer Prize

Here we are, 34 years later and The Confessions of Nat Turner is still in the news. Most recently, Henry Louis Gates, Jr made comments (positive ones, now. Originally negative impressions, years ago) about the book. The primary controversy is quite simple - how can a white man, a southerner, and the descendent of slave owners write a novel about one of the few slaves who actually stood up and demanded his freedom by leading a rebellion? Some have even asserted that he did not even have the right to write the book in the first place - after all, it is not HIS history.

But, is Nat Turner to be forever held apart? Is African-American history to be held apart? Can an African-American write about the Japanese Shogunate? Can an Asian-American write about the Alamo? Of course and of course. Gates makes this point in his comments (correctly). History is human history.


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Nat Turner (1800-1831)
Styron's fictionalized Turner is based on research and a book written by Nat Turner's defense attorney, Thomas Ruffin Gray called The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia.

The controversy over Styron's portrayal of Nat Turner and his failed slave rebellion in 1831 Virginia would not be nearly as furious if not for the sheer power of Styron's writing. He drags you into Turner's tortured mind and you can feel Turner's rage, religious fervor and lust. In my case, it pulled me in so tightly during some scenes that the rest of the world was lost to me. All was a breathless rush until that little piece of this tragedy was over and I was able to breathe again.


William Styron (1925-2006)
 I am not entirely pleased with some of the liberties that were taken with Nat Turner. As a general rule, I am more a fan of historical fiction that makes characters out of people who are witnessing the history rather than making it. I am especially doubtful about books that take known historical figures and purport to get into their minds and figure out what drove them.

However,the writing displayed in this book is really quite exceptional and it merits 5 stars. It takes the information we have about Turner, throws in a healthy bit of supposition and mixes in a plausible way to come up with one of the more profound books about American history, religion and race to have been written in the last 50 years.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Originally reviewed on October 27, 2005. Updated on March 6, 2011.

Friday, March 4, 2011

School Days by Robert B. Parker



A throwback to the early days of 'Spenser'


Robert B. Parker
(1932-2010)

This edition of Spenser reminded me of the early days of the series - the days before Spenser would assemble a gigantic posse of bad guys and policemen (ie, Potshot) in order to get the job done. Thankfully, this one is also basically Susan Silverman-free (not that I mind Susan, it's all of the repeated conversations about their relationship - it just gets old!)

Unfortunately, School Days is also Hawk-free, so the experienced reader of Spenser books will definitely miss the witty banter the two often share. However, Spenser manages to get in a few good lines without the extra help and he does get a bit of outside help from some unusual sources from the past.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here: School Days (Spenser)

Reviewed October 9, 2005.

Icon by Frederick Forsyth



This is my first Forsyth novel and for the first 250 pages...

...I had determined that it would be my last.

Forsyth spends the first half of of the 500+ page Icon just setting the reader up for the real plot of the novel. Unfortunately, the setup consists of a series of disjointed flashbacks interspersed with seemingly unrelated tales of what is going on in the present of the novel (1999-2000 in the old USSR, now Russia).


Frederick Forsyth
Suddenly, once the flashbacks work their way up to the present time the real story starts and it is a great adventure story! The meandering story redeems itself. There is a lot of action, intrigue and a bunch of frustrated Nazis. Unfortunately, the ending is just too neat - it ends the book with everything too well resolved.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Icon by Frederick Forsyth.

Reviewed on October 9, 2005.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Alexander - Director's Cut DVD

YIKES!

(NOTE: this is a review of the 1st re-cutting of this movie. Stone has since re-cut it into "The Final Cut.")

Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.)
20 minutes into this movie I was thinking that it had real potential. We get to see the ugly details of Alexander's childhood. We get an understanding of his need to conquer, the need to achieve more than his father and his fascination for the non-Greek world (thanks to his mother).

An hour into the movie I was confused and disappointed. Confused because of the incessant flashbacks. I knew what was going only because I teach this stuff for a living.

How could the average movie-goer possibly understand why Alexander invaded the Persian Empire based on the feeble information supplied by Stone? Stone has an oblique reference to Phillip's murder, but the average movie-viewer does not know even know who Alexander the Great is, let alone that his father was murdered(he shows it in detail in a flashback - at the end of the movie - so the uninformed viewer will stay confused for nearly 2 more hours). A casual viewer might think that Alexander invaded Persia because he was following an eagle, since it was used so much in this battle scene (and mostly dropped for the rest of the movie).

On an historical note, I think it is disingenious to blame the entire invasion on Alexander's need for revenge when the Greeks and the Persians had been fighting off and on again for nearly 2 centuries before Alexander's invasion finally put an end to it. Stone ignores all of that history and puts it all on Alexander (In my opinion, Stone is looking for conspiracies again -shades of 'JFK')

My disappointment stemmed from the casual skipping of most of Alexander's campaigns - from the destruction of the Persian navy to the conquering of the unconquerable Tyre to the Egyptians and their declaring him a god - all was covered in one paragraph from Ptolemey. One of the greatest military campaigns in all of history - possibly the greatest of all - dismissed like it was just so much garbage in the way of the true story.

***Note to Oliver Stone - the difference between Alexander the Great and every other mentally disturbed egomaniac with a Messiah complex, an abusive father and an over-protective mother with a snake fetish is those battles. They made him 'The Great!' Dismissing them with a wave of Ptolemy's hand over an ancient map is disrespectful to the story and to the viewer!

Stone's battle sequences are busy, noisy and confusing. Those are appropriate adjectives for any movie's battle scenes. However, they are also cold, distant and fail to convey the true genius that Alexander had as a battlefield commander. This is where it would have been useful to include those early campaigns - to show the viewer that Alexander was flexible, ruthless, personally brave and in many ways the ideal of a soldier and a general. He comes close when he shows Alexander speaking to the men before the Battle at Granicus. He alludes to a common history, but the viewer knows nothing of it and really cares very little for the people invlolved. Mostly, it's 10 minutes of Alexander riding his horse very fast.

Oliver Stone's re-creation of Babylon is very nice. He does a good job of showing Alexander's fascination with Asian culture and of demonstrating the tension between his desire for a united Greek-Asian empire and his men's desire to just take Asia's riches and return home to Macedon.

However, there's almost no development of the supporting cast of Macedonian characters. Alexander's male love interest has one main scene while they are in Asia and otherwise lurks in the shadows with sultry looks for Alexander. His men just become a part of the scenery so there is little emotional punch when Alexander starts to kill them off for mutiny.

The constant flashbacks were irritating. Some might think that they are sophisticated. I think they were insulting. Stone shows Phillip accusing his men of disloyalty in a flashback and then show Alexander doing the same. He shows Phillip bringing in a second wife in a flashback and then shows Alexander ignoring his wife in favor of his boyfriend. Phillip's second wife is dealt with as is the boyfriend. Phillip is assassinated as is Alexander (historically shaky...) Are we too stupid to make these connections without having them paired up for us in back-to-back scenes?!?

For those that blame the failure of this movie on Alexander's bisexuality and America's prudishness I would say that as a history teacher in America, not 1 American in 100 knows who Alexander the Great was, let alone knowing his sexual preferences. Rather, what everyone heard was that it was a long, bad movie.

Too bad that Oliver Stone took this topic that was so rich in potential for a great movie and ruined it for this generation of movie-goers. I suppose we'll have to wait for 20 more years before someone will be able to get the financing to try again and do it right.

I rate this DVD 1 star out of 5.

Reviewed on  October 8, 2005.