"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, January 27, 2012

Crimson Empire (Star Wars) by Mike Richardson and Randy Stradley





Published by HighBridge in March of 1999.
Performed by an ensemble cast.
Duration: 2 hours.
Abridged

I have not read the graphic novel so the audiobook is my only experience with this story about a member of the Emperor Palpatine's elite Imperial Guard. I think this is important to note since it has to be difficult to convert a graphic novel, with its emphasis on visuals to move the storyline, to a completely audio format. Audiobooks from regular novels don't have this issue.

This point is important - the audiobook depends rather heavily on sound effects to cover up for this visual to audio conversion. Sometimes it works quite well while at other times it becomes a jumbled mess of various punching sound effects that the listener has to wade through until the story picks up again.

In general though the sound effects, the use of multiple actors (like an old-fashioned radio play) and the inclusion of snippets of Star Wars music from the movie soundtracks is a great help. But, it fails to make up for the often adolescent level of dialogue and mind-bogglingly stupid battle tactics used by the remnants of the Imperial fleet at the end of the tape. These combine to make a potentially great work merely average.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here:  Star Wars: Crimson Empire (Dramatized)

Reviewed on December 21, 2007.

With These Hands (audiobook) by Louis L'Amour


Published in 2002 by Random House Audio
Read by Keith Carradine
Duration: Approximately 3 hours.

There are 11 stories in the original printed book version of this book but this audio version contains only three unabridged stories from the book: "With These Hands", "Dream Fighter" and "Voyage to Tobalai".

These re-reprinted short stories (originally they appeared in pulp fiction magazines) are read by veteran actor Keith Carradine who does a great job, especially with "Dream Fighter" - the best in this collection and also the introductory story for Kip Morgan who L'amour uses in other boxing and later detective stories. Carradine creates a unique old-style boxing trainer voice that perfectly fits the 1940s-style slang used in the text.

Louis L'Amour
"With These Hands" is the story of an oil company executive that survives a plane crash in Alaska in the winter and his efforts to survive. "Dream Fighter" is the best of the bunch - it is about an up and coming fighter who dreams how he will win his fights will take place and simply does what his dreams tell him to do. "Voyage to Tobalai" features another recurring L'Amour character, Ponga Jim Mayo, in a World War II adventure.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on December 23, 2007.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich


 First Edition published May of 2001 by Metropolitan Books

I've had this book read for nearly a month now and I just haven't had the faintest idea about what I should say about it. It is remarkably good and remarkably bad all at the same time.


The idea behind the book is simple - in 1998 a reporter goes "undercover" to explore the world of the $5 - $7 job market. She becomes a waitress, a house cleaner and an employee at Wal-Mart.

So, let's start with the positives:

-This is a well-written and entertaining book.

-The workload at her different jobs is accurately described, especially the work at Wal-Mart (I know since I worked at one of their national competitors stocking shelves, unloading trucks and working the 'back room' for 5 years as a second job when my wife lost her white-collar job and the bills started to pile up).

-I give Ms. Ehrenreich credit for going out there and trying the jobs rather than studying them like a sociology experiment.

Negatives:

-Ms. Ehrenreich keeps on mentioning that she is "middle class" but her unfamiliarity with the rigors of the $5-7/hour job market shows me that she's had a pretty pampered work life. She claims on page 201 that she writes off more than $20,000 a year in mortgage deductions alone on her taxes - this is not the middle class that I know and understand. She did little research about where to buy her clothes, find her cheapest rents or buy the cheapest food. $40 for a pair of work pants? No visits to Goodwill or yard sales? She rents by the week and picks two super-touristy spots (with their very high rents) to start her experiment? All of these things add up to invalidate big chunks of her experiment in my mind.

-She spends an inordinate amount of time discussing Wal-Mart's policy of having employees take a drug test (at least 25 pages). She even claims it might violate her 4th Amendment rights on p. 209 even though those Constitutional restrictions only apply to government, not private employers. She does not grasp the concept that those drug screens don't catch many drug users because they don't even bother to apply. She also fails to grasp that some employees need to be drug free when at work - I worked with a forklift every day at my $7.25/hour 2nd job at a competitor of Wal-Mart that also had a drug screen - it was dangerous enough without throwing drugs into the mix. Many employees are cross-trained and may cashier, use a forklift, collect carts and stock shelves in a single shift.

-I'm truly surprised that she was able to get 40 hours/week at Wal-Mart - their reputation is to work people 25-30 hours/week to avoid overtime at any cost. That rang very false to me.

So, to sum up: well-written but flawed because the author had not done a lot of her simple research ahead of time (and in my mind showed disrespect to the very people she was supposed to be learning about). So, these strong positives and strong negatives add up to a 3 star average.

Reviewed on December 29, 2007.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A King's Ransom by James Grippando


For what it is, it is a great thriller

Published 2002

Is this great literature?

No.

Is it a great piece of escapism?

Absolutely yes.

Grippando is on my short list of authors to keep an eye out for. Almost always he delivers some legal thrills, a bit of injustice that drags the reader in and some twists and turns to make the ride interesting.

James Grippando

In this book, a young up-and-coming lawyer's father is kidnapped in Colombia. As Nick Rey tries to free his father (Matthew Rey) his professional life, his personal life and his family's secrets all get shaken up.

In a nice play on words, "rey" is Spanish for "king" - the book is about getting the ransom for Matthew Rey's release.

I give this one 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on December 29, 2007.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Batman: Dead White (audiobook) by John Shirley


A harder edge to Batman tales than most are used to

Published 2009 by GraphicAudio
Performed by a cast of 30+ actors
Duration: Approximately 6 hours

Set early in Batman's career, Batman: Dead White features Batman versus a group of militia-based racists who are planning an Al-Qaeda inspired terror campaign designed to start a race war. The plan is reminiscent of Charles Manson's Helter Skelter race war except that the lunatic in charge of this group is much more organized and has hundreds and hundreds of followers.

The Bavarian Brotherhood are led by White Eyes, a gigantic white man who speaks the standard lines of racial purity, Aryan superiority and various plots by different Jewish groups to control everything. The difference is that he has  a workable plan to de-stabilize the United States government, lots of money and access to a whole series of new and dangerous weapons that even impress Batman.

Bruce Wayne has been "Batman" for about 18 months so he is still working out all of the details of his personae. Lingering doubts plague him throughout the book and he is still a novelty to the police and the military who see the BatPlane for the first time in this adventure.



GraphicAudio's tag line is "A Movie In Your Mind" and once again they deliver. The cast features more than 30 performers and includes sound effects and music. More than once I had to turn down the radio to make sure that the sirens in a chase scene were not real sirens as I listened to this audiboook during my daily commute.

Listeners may be surprised at the graphic language used throughout (somehow most comic book bad guys do not curse much, have you noticed? They'll steal national treasures, poison your water supplies, blow up buildings and kill lots of people but never utter a curse word.). There is a lot of cursing and racial slurs (drug dealers and race-baiters curse and use racial slurs? Shocking!). There are also open discussions of rape and slurs against homosexuals. None of these seem inappropriate in their context and there is a warning on the package and at the beginning of the first disc.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on January 21, 2012.

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War (audiobook) by Tony Horwitz


A compelling look into one of America's (misunderstood?) icons

Published in October 2011 by Macmillan Audio
Read by Daniel Oreskes
Duration: 11 hours, 9 minutes

John Brown is one of those well-known yet elusive figures in history. He is literally in all of the American history books, but most people know almost nothing about him except for a few headline snippets like "Bleeding Kansas" and "Harper's Ferry" and "Slave Revolt." More knowledgeable readers may remember he used a sword to kill pro-slavery settlers in Kansas and worked with several prominent anti-slavery figures before his raid into Harpers Ferry, including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and that his raid on the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry was an utter failure and undoubtedly proved that he was insane.

Or, was he? And, was the raid really a failure?

Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising is an excellent biography of John Brown as well a well-rounded look at the politics of slavery in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. I have studied the Civil War for years (and I must recommend Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic as well) and Brown always gets a cursory look (if any look at all) in most Civil War histories. If nothing else, Horwitz has shone a light on a most interesting life - the life of a man unwilling to bend on the issue of the inherent evil of slavery.


John Brown (1800-1859)

But, Horwitz has done more than that - he has also shone a light on the fragile nature of the political compromises that were brokered to paper over the cracks in America's political foundation - a foundation that John Brown completely shattered when his men stormed into Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859.

Clearly Brown's attempt to spark a slave revolt totally failed. Most of his raiders were shot or executed. Brown's hurried trial was a farce ( he had 6 different defense attorneys in 5 days of trial! ), but Horwitz demonstrates that that time in prison awaiting trial, sentencing and execution allowed John Brown the legendary opponent of slavery to become John Brown the monster throughout the south or John Brown the martyr in some parts of the north. He became the focal point of public opinion. For example, here is a prophetic poem written in 1859 by Herman Melville called The Portent:

Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
Shenandoah!
The cut is on the crown
(Lo John Brown)
And the stabs shall heal no more.

Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
Shenandoah!
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.


Whether John Brown really intended to become "The meteor of the war" by allowing himself to be caught and put to death or if it just turned out that way...we will never know. Horwitz is not sure, either - he flirts with both possibilities. But, we can be certain that this event does not deserve the short shrift it often gets.

I was fascinated by the number of well-known personalities that ended up being involved with John Brown in one way or another. Brown knew Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. He tried to get Douglass and Tubman to participate in his raid. A number of famous personalities participated in the trial or the capture of John Brown, including Robert E. Lee, Thomas (soon to be) "Stonewall" Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, John Wilkes Booth, and Edmund Ruffin (widely credited with having fired the first shot at Fort Sumter). Any man that is the nexus of so many interesting people is bound to have an interesting story and Horwitz tells Brown's story very well.

The audiobook is very well read by Daniel Oreskes whose deep, resonant voice adds a feeling of somberness and importance to this history. Oreskes actually developed different voices to read the various direct quotes in this history. Horwitz often lets the historical figures speak for themselves and this is enhanced by Oreskes.

On a lighter note, the audiobook begins and ends with a bit of music from the Battle Hymn of the Republic - here are some lyrics as a reminder: 
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on. 
This song was more famous during the Civil War for these lyrics:
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave; (3X)
His soul is marching on!

(Chorus)
Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah! his soul's marching on!

He's gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord! (3X)
His soul is marching on!
Somebody has a sense of humor at Macmillan Audio.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on January 21, 2012.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Midnight Rising.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Haunted Mesa by Louis L'Amour



This sci-fi book by Louis L'Amour could have been so much more.

Yes, that's right. Louis L'Amour, author of more than 100 westerns wrote a sci-fi book. It is set in familiar territory for him, the American Southwest and it concerns the disappearance of the Anasazi Indians more than 600 years ago. If you are unfamiliar with the Anasazi, they are the builders of the adobe brick cliff dwellings that are scattered across the Southwestern desert. Their most famous site is at Mesa Verde National Monument.


Louis L'Amour (1908-1988)
The premise of the book is that the Anasazi were able to travel back and forth to another dimension, the third world mentioned in Hopi and Mayan legends. They traveled through their ceremonial kivas and one of their kivas is re-opened by a reclusive billionaire who is building a home in the desert.

The book itself is typical Louis L'Amour style - sparse writing, tough guys, pretty women and little exploration into the motivation of the bad guys. The scope of this book could have been unlimited. It would be easy to imagine Piers Anthony writing 25 books about the exploration of the "third world". Instead, we get a cursory glossing over of their world. But, in defense of L'Amour, he was writing outside of his genre. How should he know that sci-fi written like a western is pretty unsatisfying?

Final grade: 3 stars out of 5. (He got bonus points for having a very interesting original premise)

Reviewed on June 16, 2007.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Haunted Mesa.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Genesis Code: A Thriller by John Case


A Thrill Ride

This thriller begins in a sleepy Italian village, with the village priest. He is musing over the fact that he constantly hears the same types of sins being confessed in the confessional when a local scientist/doctor comes in for confession. The reader does not know the confession, but we see the reaction: the priest flees the church and goes immediately to one of his connections in the Vatican. Whatever the sin confessed was, it has world-shaking consequences.

This book brings in an ultra-conservative Catholic lay order (their motto could have been "Hey! the Inquisition wasn't all bad!"), a conspiracy to murder whole families and a professional American investigator named Joe Lassiter.

The action is fast-paced and the story is well-written. The author, to his great credit, does not let you know what all the hubbub is about until the characters themselves discover it. In fact, about halfway through the book, you start to wonder if the good guys really are the good guys.

The ending wraps things up a little too well, but it is a very good book. I rate it 5 out of 5 stars.

Reviewed on June 16, 2007.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Loser's Town (David Spandau #1) by Daniel Depp



A look at Hollywood from an insider's point of view

Published in 2009 by Simon & Schuster.
290 pages.

Daniel Depp knows his way around Hollywood - he is a screenwriter and his brother is famed actor Johnny Depp (a fact I did not know until after I read the book). Loser's Town features David Spandau, a former stuntman turned private detective. Spandau is jaded and definitely not impressed with the Hollywood movie scene.

Spandau is called back from vacation to take a case involving Bobby Dye, an up and coming new star on the verge of making it to the pinnacle of the Hollywood scene. But, he's receiving death threats and, more importantly, is being blackmailed. Spandau has to deal with greedy agents, flighty actors and an on again / off again relationship with his client throughout as he tracks clues through the ugly underbelly of the Hollywood scene.

The book's title comes from a Robert Mitchum quote: "I came out to Los Angeles in the 30s, during the Depression, because there was work here. LA is a loser's town. It always has been. You can make it here when you can't make it anywhere else." This quote sets the tone for the entire book. It is dark, cynical and nihilistic. For me, it was too much. This was not a particularly enjoyable book, although the behind-the-scenes of the movie business aspect was interesting - in the beginning. But, the relentless nature of the book comes off more as petty complaining and trying to air out showbiz's dirty laundry and less about trying to move the plot along.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Loser's Town: A David Spandau Novel

Reviewed on January 17, 2012.

Monday, January 16, 2012

LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay by Warren Kozak



Very readable history

Paperback edition published in October 2011 by Regnery History
392 pages of text. 434 pages total.

Kozak was inspired to write this book by a quote from a college lecturer: "You might not agree with his politics, but if you have a son serving in combat, you want him serving under someone like LeMay." (p. 389) Personally, LeMay has always been a caricature of a general in the periphery of the story the World War II histories and pieces of historical fiction I have read. Kozak does a masterful job of dragging LeMay into the spotlight and showing us the man, not just a caricature or a non-entity on the sidelines.


General Curtis LeMay (1906-1990)
Kozak tells of LeMay's hardscrabble childhood, his determination and his ability to maneuver in an impersonal bureaucracy, be it Ohio State University or the United States Army - he could always find the way up. In a way, the story of LeMay in the Air Force is the story of the Air Force itself. He joined long before it split from the Army, he learned to fly in a bi-plane and ended up promoting the construction of supersonic jet bombers while advising the President. Along the way, he pioneered the bombing methods used by America against Germany and Japan. He also participated in the Berlin Air Lift, strengthened the Strategic Air Command and in a limited way he participated in the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missle Crisis and the Vietnam War.

As a devotee of the Bomber, LeMay advocated mass bombings under the theory that says: "If you kill enough of them, they stop fighting." Hard to argue with that blunt logic. And, blunt is exactly the word to describe LeMay - almost completely lacking in social graces, but willing to be the lead pilot in a bombing raid in order to convince his men that his plan would work (only after he had done the math, however).

Kozak is clearly a fan of LeMay (Now, I am a fan of his simple military philosophies) but that does not stop him from being critical, especially of his decision to run for president with George Wallace in 1968 as a Dixiecrat. He explores it all and leaves the reader impressed. LeMay, coming from nothing to command a vast armada of bombers. A man without nuance or subtlety who mastered America's most complex weapons systems and helped to create the Air Force and the Strategic Air Command.

I give this enjoyable, very readable biography 5 stars out of 5.

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

Reviewed on January 16, 2012.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Superman: True Brit by Kim "Howard" Johnson and John Cleese



I found this and hoped for something that it was not

Now, I'm not going to hold the fact that I did not read the cover very carefully against the book - that's my fault, not the book's.

I was hoping for something a bit more serious, like Millar's Red Son in which Superman is raised in the USSR rather than in the USA.


But, this book is a tongue-in-cheek take on Superman, based on the premise that he landed in Kent in England, rather than Kansas, USA. Co-written by Monty Python contributers (it doesn't seem quite right to call John Cleese a mere contributor), this is an irreverant look at English culture, government and media - Superman is merely the medium used to deliver these scathing attacks.

A lot of the book deals with how normal people react to someone with super powers. Unfortunately, much of this ground was covered by Pixar's The Incredibles (both The Incredibles and True Brit were released in 2004) and even, to a lesser (and darker) extent by Frank Miller's first Dark Knight series.

The real lesson in this book is that good parents are very important. Superman's English parents can't hold a candle to Superman's traditional American parents.

The art of this one is a real strength - it reminded me very much of the vivid, clean lines of the Superman comics that I read when I was a kid.

So, mixed scores: Strong art, the Superman story is sacrificed for the jokes, but they are good jokes, no new ground covered when it comes to regular people's reactions to Super Heroes...

This one gets 3 out of 5 stars from me.

This graphic novel can be found on Amazon.com here: Superman: True Brit.

Reviewed on June 15, 2007.

The Eagle and The Raven by James Michener


Published in 1991 by Tor.

This is an odd effort in many ways. Coming in at just 211 pages of text (plus about 20 pages of appendices), this is a tiny Michener book. It is even more tiny when you consider that 28 pages of this book is a forward by Michener and about 20 pages of the book are taken up with blank pages between chapters and illustrations.

This Michener paperback was published in 1991 by Tor, a publishing house more well-known for its sci-fi and fantasy offerings. I would imagine that they just wanted to cash in on the Michener name since he was in the midst of a real hit streak with such books as Alaska, Caribbean and Poland becoming best-sellers.

Tor calls this book a novel, although only a few pages really qualify as a novel, with inserted character dialogue that was most likely created by Michener. The rest of it is really best described as a comparative biography. While not the best of historical works, "The Eagle and the Raven" provides a comparison between Sam Houston of Tennessee and Texas and Santa Anna of Mexico. This is not a detailed biography by any means. I found myself wishing that he had went into a lot more detail, especially with the Mexican political situation.


James Michener (1907-1997)

Michener's forward to the book describes how and why he seemed to re-double his efforts as an author as he reached his eighties. In many ways, this is the most interesting portion of the book, especially if you are a Michener fan. In this forward the reader discovers that this book was actually a discarded chapter from his earlier book, Texas. He did something similar with a discarded chapter from Alaska.

It would be fair to say that Michener did not give this chapter the same editorial treatment that he gave Texas. Two factual errors jumped out at me as I read it - usually Michener and his editors catch them. Michener incorrectly attributes the eagle motiff on the Mexican flag to a Mayan legend (actually it was Aztec) and he claims Mexico was the first country in the New World to abolish slavery (it was Haiti). A little more editing would have eliminated the tiny amount of fiction that Michener inserted into the text (about 5 pages of conversation in a section at the end of the book) and Michener could have published this one as a dual biography rather than as a novel.

I give this book 3 stars out of 5.
 
Reviewed on June 11, 2007.

Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father (audiobook) by Richard Rodriguez



Rodriguez writes a rambling, insightful and interesting work

Published by Blackstone Audio in 2008
Duration: 8 hours, 14 minutes

I first learned of Richard Rodriguez on C-Span's Booknotes program. He was an invited guest of First Lady Laura Bush to speak at an author's fair that she started hosting in Texas while she was the First Lady of Texas. Rodriguez was promoting his book Brown at the the time and I thought his observations were wonderful.

Days of Obligations is in a similar vein, but not nearly as focused. He does (primarily) focus on the differences between Mexico and the United States Two interesting observations from Mexicans about America include: 1) "America is 'Organized'. Passive voice. Rodriguez notes that there seems to be no connection that actual Americans do the organizing. Rather it's almost like it is fate that America is organized. 2) Americans have too much freedom.

Rodriguez digresses from his Mexico/America discussion for an interesting (but off topic) discussion about the gay lifestyle in San Francisco. Perhaps it was meant to be a comparison between Mexicans moving into California and San Francisco's transformation into a beacon for homosexuals. If so, it was poorly correlated, although interesting nonetheless.


Richard Rodriguez

His observations on multiculturalism are very interesting. Rodriguez is a hard man to pin down politically. He is a walking dichotomy. Gay. Devoted Catholic. Mexican, but barely speaks Spanish. American but feels that he is different. Anyway, he looks at school to be the ultimate "de-individualizer" in American society, and that is not entirely bad. He believes that there needs to be a common understanding in society - we all have a common culture if we live in the United States, even if we prefer to ignore it. For example, he stresses the importance of the studying the Founding Fathers: "These were the men that shaped the country that shaped my life." He stresses that point off and on throughout the book - the United States shaped his life, Mexico shaped his parents' lives, and even though they brought Mexico with them in their hearts, he did not buy into it - he was shaped much more by America.

Rodriguez's observations on multiculturalism in the Catholic church and Protestant vs. Catholic (in attitude, worship style, individual vs. communal, even musical themes) take up nearly an hour of the audio edition - but it may be the most interesting hour of all.

Rodriguez is a skilled and experienced public speaker (regular duty on PBS plus book tours) so I have to wonder why he did not read his own book. The reader, Michael Anthony, did a great job with accents (primarily Irish and Mexican) and the spoken Spanish was solid so I have no complaints, but still...I enjoyed hearing Rodriguez speak for himself when I first heard of him at that book fair on C-Span that I could not help but be a bit disappointed.

I give this one 5 stars out of 5. Well worth a read, or in my case, a listen while driving to work. Lots of thoughts about immigration, Mexico, religion - and true to Rodriguez's form, no real answers. But, the discussion is worth the time and Rodriguez can turn a phrase quite nicely.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Days of Obligation.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Eragon (Inheritance, Book 1) by Christopher Paolini


A pleasant enough read but Paolini seriously needs to send an apology to George Lucas...

I enjoyed the book but I kept on thinking that I've read this book before. No, I'm not talking about the obvious debt Paolini owes the Tolkein and also to the "Dragonriders of Pern" series.

I'm talking Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope or plain old Star Wars to all of us old-timers.

Both feature an orphaned teenage farmboy, left with his uncle under mysterious circumstances that no one wants to discuss.

The uncle dies when dangerous outsiders come looking for the boy.

Luke Skywalker has the Force. Eragon has magic.

Both Luke and Eragon are watched over by strange older men who eventually provide them with their first weapon (the very weapon that wiped out a set of good knights in the name of an evil emperor), taught them magic (the Force) and how to fight.

The older man dies.

Eragon frees a girl from a castle with the help of that wanted-by-the-law Rogue Murtagh. Luke frees a girl from the Death Star with the help of that wanted-by-the-law rogue Ha n Solo.

The Emperor uses magic to turn a dragonrider to kill off all of the good dragonriders. The Emperor uses the Force to turn a Jedi Knight to kill off all of the good Jedi Knight.

Are there more comparisons? Surely there are but my point has been made.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on May 29, 2007.

In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church by Paul L. Maier



Published by Kregel Publications in 1998.
384 pages

Paul Maier is a truly gifted lecturer. I've had the pleasure of watching two of his videos and if I lived anywhere near Western Michigan University, I'd sneak into the back of his classroom (he is a member of the history faculty there) on a regular basis - he has a gift for making the First Century A.D. accessible.

In the Fullness of Time continues this tradition. Maier has basically consolidated 3 other books into one larger volume (with a few changes) and he discusses the first Christmas, the first Easter and the ministries of the early Apostles, especially Paul and Peter.


Dr. Paul Maier
Maier does a great job of bringing actual documentation that supports the stories of Christmas, Easter and the Book of Acts. He includes the works of Roman and Jewish historians, explains Roman and Jewish religious and political practices and deals with alternate theories that have been proposed. While this could be dry reading, Maier makes it lively and this volume reads more like a novel than a textbook.

So, who is this book for? If you are a well-read Christian who has looked into many of the facts that back the New Testament as it is written on your own, you won't find much new ground covered in this book. The internet has lots of this information scattered about. However, you are unlikely to find sources as concise and as well-written as this one. Plus, if you are interested in further research, it is well-documented with tons of footnotes.

If you are a new Christian or are newly interested in the history behind Christianity, this is a powerful introduction.

I give this one 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church by Paul L. Maier.

Reviewed on May 14, 2007.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin



Published in 2005 by Simon and Schuster
944 pages
 
"No harm's done to history by making it something someone would want to read." -David McCullough

When I read a history book I realize that there multiple types of history books out there. Setting aside the ones that are designed to distort history (such as holocaust denier literature) there are still several styles of history book. They range from the small topical books that offer a brief overview to the more popular histories such as those that David McCollough specializes to definitive works - the type of work that others will refer back to for decades to come.


Lincoln's Cabinet - 1861

Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals is just such a definitive work. It checks in at 754 pages of text with more than a hundred pages of 8 font footnotes. It took her 10 years to produce this book and it is a work of which she can be proud. It is exhaustively researched and documented.

However, that is also the problem with the book. It is so large, so thorough that only the heartiest of readers will ever finish it. There are so many details, so many quotes, so much substance to this book that it gets tiring to read, especially the middle 500 pages or so. I started this book in January and I finished it the last week of April. In the meantime I read 12 other books and many magazines. I never stopped reading this one, but so many other books pulled me away from this one along the way.

Unlike the McCollough books (or Stephen Ambrose or James McPherson or Bruce Catton), the level of detail overwhelms the reader. A valuable resource to refer back to but just not the stuff that popular histories are made from.

So, I'm giving this one multiple grades:

Research, thoroughness: A+
Readibility, high level of interest to the average history buff: C+
Final Grade: B+

A suggestion: It would have been instructive to have gone into more detail and tell more about how Lincoln's "Team" collapsed with under President Andrew Johnson. She briefly touches on it, but bit more would have been interesting. Perhaps another volume?

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Reviewed on April 30, 2007.

Great Tales from English History: Volume II. Chaucer to the Glorious Revolution (audiobook) by Robert Lacey


A Real Treat As An Audiobook

Published by Whole Story Audio Books
Read by the author, Robert Lacey
Duration: 5 hours, 50 minutes
Unabridged

Robert Lacey has done something that many writers have failed to do (unfortunately) - he has written history in a fun, accessible, easy to grasp manner. After all, as Lacey points out in his introduction to Volume 1, the "history" and "story" come from the same Latin root word. Essentially, history should be the simple story of how things happened, to the best of the teller's knowledge.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)

Lacey's power as a storyteller is highlighted here in spades. He narrates his audiobook as well so there is the added bonus of hearing the author add nuance to the reading - essentially reading it the way he meant it to be heard.

The stories are short and entertaining. Only a couple of times in nearly six hours of listening did I find my attention wandering. This is a terrifically fun experience for any history lover. Full of interesting tidbits but not lacking in the larger themes or commentaries.

I am going to look for volume 3 and hopefully he has written or is writing his promised volumes on Scotland and Ireland as well.

Bravo!

I give this one an enthusiastic 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Great Tales from English History: Volume II.


Reviewed on April 18, 2007.

Michener's the Name by Robert Vavra



A chance to get to know a bit of Michener's personality

Published in 2007 by University Press of Colorado
208 pages.

I am a huge fan of Michener's sweeping epics. Some look at those gigantic books as drudgery, but that is only because they have not opened one up and read it. I've read all but two - I own them but I'm saving them back like a wine connisseur would save back a couple of his favorites. I know these books will be great and I know that once I read them there will be no more new Micheners for me.


James Michener (1907-1997)
Vavra's book focuses on their mutual interest in Spain and Spanish culture, especially bullfighting, Spanish dance and the Spanish countryside. Vavra met several famous authors, actors and personalities while in Spain in the 1960s. He mentions them, but it rarely acquires the character of a name-dropping book. Mostly, he uses those others as a point of comparison to Michener, and Michener comes off very well in the comparison. Never flashy, sometimes socially awkward, oftentimes astute, Michener is a friend to great and small alike. He seems to have been able to keep his head despite the fame and fortune. Perhaps that is because, unlike Hemingway, Michener never sought the limelight. He did not shrink from it, but he did not seek it.

Two-thirds of the book consists of Vavra's black and white photographs of Spain and/or Michener. This is appropriate considering that Vavra is an internationally famous photographer. The text is just as strong as the pictures, just surprisingly short. But, then again, maybe not. After all, this book is not intended to be a complete biography of Michener. Rather, it is the collected remembrances of one of his friends and the good times they had together.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Michener's the Name.

Reviewed on April 18, 2007.

Captured! A Boy Trapped in the Civil War by Mary Blair Immel



Published in 2005 by the Indiana Historical Society.
153 pages


Based on a true story, and full of relevant historical photographs, this book fails to deliver on action in many ways which will make it less attractive to the 10-14 year old (estimated) target audience..

Camp Morton in Indianapolis
It concerns a 14 year old boy named Johnny Ables who was captured by Confederate soldiers and pressed into service as a wood hauler. Ironically, those Confederate soldiers are themselves taken prisoner and Johnny is mistaken as a young Confederate soldier and is sent to prison camp (Camp Morton) in Indianapolis.

Although it will find a place on my classroom's bookshelf, I can only give this short volume 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on April 17, 2007


Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Princess of Mars (Barsoom/John Carter of Mars #1) by Edgar Rice Burroughs



A Classic Sci-Fi Novel

Originally published 1912 in a magazine serial. (1917 in book form)

Since the movie John Carter is coming out in a couple of months I decided to go back and re-read the original of the 11 books that Burroughs wrote about Mars (or, as he calls it, Barsoom).
I originally read the entire series, or at least most of it, nearly 30 years ago, when I was in high school. I must admit, I was struck by the art of Michael Whelen's cover more than anything else when I first picked it up and my circle of friends read at least some of them.

I remembered them fondly but found myself very vague on the specifics. I remembered the Princess was very beautiful and there were multiple races on Mars and that some had four arms and that Carter, a former Confederate soldier, traveled from Earth to Mars in some kind of psychic manner and that there was a lot of fighting.

Turns out, what I took as a poor memory was actually pretty accurate. The Princess is beautiful, there are multiple races of Martians and the green Martians have four arms and Carter does travel to Mars in some sort of psychic way. I had totally forgotten that it happens while he is being hunted by a group of Apache in Arizona at the time, but that really is not germane to the rest of the story.

Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950)

The story is supposed to be the writings of John Carter himself (who is ageless and cannot remember his childhood). Carter told his nephew not to publish it until he had been dead for 21 years. The plot is mostly Carter's descriptions of his adventures told in first person with little conversation. There are lots and lots of battle scenes since Mars is a very violent place. Then again, Earth is not much better with Carter making a name for himself in the Civil War and in the first few pages being involved in a running battle with the Apache.

Short on character development and long on description and action, A Princess of Mars was not as good as I remembered it but I am very impressed with Burroughs and his imagination. In a time before science fiction was a normal part of the national psyche, he created an entirely new world, peopled it with aliens with new customs, languages and animals and made the world work in an interesting way. Some of his science is rather silly (the generator that creates the Martian atmosphere comes to mind), but it is a classic and a trendsetter.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I rate this novel 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on January 8, 2012.



Friday, January 6, 2012

Why Men Hate Going to Church (Completely Revised and Updated) by David Murrow



Powerful and dead on.

Published 2011 by Thomas Nelson
237 pages, including end notes.

David Murrow has put a lot of thought into why men do not go to church. I am in my mid-40s and have gone to church all of my life, with the exception of 2 or 3 years right after college where my wife and I went every once in a while at best.  We have been at the same church for 18 years.

We have a great church but we do have wives that come to church without their husbands week in and week out - not many, but after reading this book and being made more aware of the issue I am sure I will notice more. Murrow has studied and interviewed and talked and listened about this topic for years and he has come up with 12 reasons that men do not come to church. Among them are:

-I'll hate church, like when I was a kid;

-I'll lose control;

-If I become a Christian, I'll become soft;

-Church is full of hypocrites;

-All they want is my money;

-I'm jealous (women who idolize the pastor or men resenting the time their wives spend at church);

-I'm being held to an impossible standard.

I've heard all of these excuses (and more) for not going to church and I've had those thoughts myself so I got it when Murrow discusses these topics. Sometimes he even brought up things that I hadn't even realized I was bothered by, such as songs and church language that emphasize "relationship and romance" (p. 99) Men, if you have not noticed, are notoriously clutzy, as a group, with relationships. Don't talk about being intimate with Jesus. Not a comfortable image for most guys. Instead, give men a mission (like the old Blues Brothers movie where Jake and Elwood tell everyone they "are on a mission from God.").

The problem is that church, like school, has gradually become an environment run by women, maintained by women and very female-centric. It is highly verbal, lots of talk about relatioships, full of songs that Murrow refers to as "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs (he fulfills your every emotional need and holds you in his arms). The largest Christian music radio network is K-Love. My wife loves it. I don't. She ought to love it - it is aimed at a mythical listener named "Kathy" - a thirty-something soccer mom with two kids, a minivan and a mortgage. 2/3 of K-Love listeners are women and a whole lot of their songs are soft rock "Jesus is my boyfriend" stuff. (pages 66-7) 

Men feel like they are not welcome by the decor, the songs, the style of service and the lack of things they can do to participate. Who wants to stay where they are not welcome?

I am a public school teacher. I can testify to the fact that boys and girls tend to learn differently. Church (and the sermon) is the weekly chance to teach men and women about the Christian faith. Do not make this experience all "girl friendly" and leave out many (but not all) men because the church favors one gender's way of doing things (Murrow actually presents statistics that show that women stay and enjoy church even if it really tilted towards a man's way of thinking).

Murrow provides lots of examples of what to do and what not to do, including success stories (including one from a church led by a female pastor - statistically the worst indicator of male involvement). I was excited by the chapter entitled "How Men Minister to Others" - lots of great ideas. It made me think about how two of our most active leaders were motivated to become more involved by mens' retreats. One really did not want to go, but he came back all fired up because he found out there were regular guys at church who drink beer while they study the Bible (yes, we do, but only on the mens' retreat) and he has organized and participated in any number of activities (as well as being an Elder). The second guy I was thinking about went on a weekend servant event (I went, too) - we helped a family re-do their home after a devestating flood (this event was organized by the first guy I was talking about) and had a couple of small Bible studies, played some cards, and had a real good time when we were not working. I enjoyed it but the second guy was inspired to really get involved and he has not slowed down a bit.

My wife is reading this book next (I talked about it while I was reading it) and we're passing it on to others in our church. Who knows what will happen?

The book has an accompanying discussion guide available at Murrow's website: http://www.churchformen.com/ .

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Why Men Hate Going to Church.

Reviewed on January 6, 2011.

I received this book as part of Thomas Nelson's BookSneeze program in exchange for an honest review.

The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire (P.I.G. Series) by H. W. Crocker III



A breezy look at a worthy topic

Published in 2011 by Regnery Publishing, Inc.
394 pages including extensive notes and an index.

Generally intended as an antidote to the slanted education that many of us have received, the Politically Incorrect Guide (P.I.G.) series is an entertaining series loosely based on the "Idiots Guide..." and the "Dummies..." books.

The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire is an immensely readable look at the British Empire - it's origins, its ideals, its controversies and its rather abrupt ending after World War II. The format of the book is pretty simple. Crocker picks an area of the British Empire and than gives a brief (15-25 pages) history of the Empire in that part of the world, from beginning to end. Then, he focuses on several of the personalities mentioned in the brief history with biographies that go into greater detail.


Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596)

Those personalities are way more interesting than bland descriptions of policy edicts issued from the Lord such-and-such from the Ministry of This-and-that. The focus on the men that made the Empire makes this an interesting book from one end to the other. I especially enjoyed Sir Francis Drake, Sir Henry Morgan and General Charles George Gordon. Throw in sidebar articles with titles like "Nearly 1,000 Englishman against more than 55,000 soldiers of the nawab of Bengal = advantage England", "Kipling on the American War of Ingratitude - er, Independence" and "Films about British Africa That Anti-Colonialists Don't Want You to See" and you have the recipe for an entertaining, surprisingly breezy book that gives an interesting counter-argument to the crowd that argues that Western colonization ruined the world.

The question is, does the argument succeed? Was the British Empire a positive force for good? Is it like the front cover says: "Three cheers for colonialism!"

Well, yes and no. Did the British Empire spread the ideas of free speech, democracy, rights and responsible government around the world? Certainly. This book champions those notions and makes a series of strong arguments. But, rarely it is asked, "But, at what cost?" I can be certain that if I lived in Africa and if I were going to be colonized by a European power, I would want it to have been the British Empire. By far, they were the most humane, most generous and did their best to impart their ideals to their subjects. The proof is in the relative success of the former British colonies compared to the former colonies of other European powers. But, the caveat here is "If I were going to be colonized..." I would prefer not, thanks just the same.

But, this is a worthy counterpoint to the stuff that is dribbled out in most college classes (I took a few myself - "everything from the West is evil" , blah, blah, blah.) Read that stuff, read this book and you have a more realistic idea of what happened - everything was not evil, nor was it all wonderful. Like most things, Western colonization was a mixed bag, but one can be certain that the British colonies, as a group, got a much better deal than the other colonies.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on January 6, 2012