"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
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Friday, June 29, 2012

Isard's Revenge (Star Wars: X-Wing #8) (audiobook) by Michael A. Stackpole



Published by Random House Audio in 1999
Read by Anthony Heald
Duration: 2 hours, 59 minutes.
Abridged

Admiral Ackbar
Probably no one, even George Lucas himself, knows more about the Star Wars universe than prolific author Michael A. Stackpole. He has authored comics and novels and helped to build the entire post-Return of the Jedi storyline. Isard's Revenge is set several years after the last movie. The New Republic (the government that took over from the  Rebel Alliance in Episodes IV, V and VI) is mopping up the various bits and pieces of what is left of the Empire. Several warlords have set themselves up here and there and the New Republic is negotiating or fighting with them. In this storyline, a warlord named Ysanne Isard, the former Director of Imperial Intelligence, presumed defeated and dead, has returned. She has put together a rather complicated plot to draw Wedge Antilles (newly promoted to General by Admiral Ackbar) and his Rogue Squadron into a trap so she can wipe them out to get her revenge for her defeat at their hands that was detailed in Book #4 of this series.

Read by Anthony Heald who covers a wide variety of voices, accents and species with apparent ease, this book is long on speeches and action and very short on character development. I could blame the abridgement for that. It almost certainly cut out  too much of the interesting secondary story involving an attempt by an inter-species couple to deal with cultural prejudice as they try to adopt a baby to raise as their own. But, let's face it, the appeal of these books lies in the dogfights and the almost corny speeches the officers give to their pilots before the big fight.

While the audiobook version is abridged, it does two things the book will never have: 1) real Star Wars sound effects; 2) snippets from the original Star Wars soundtracks by John Williams. For old fans of the movies, it is awfully fun to hear the music and the blaster fire and the R2 units as the X-Wings roar into battle.

I rate this audiobook 3 out of 5 stars.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here:Star Wars: The X-Wing Series, Volume 8: Isard's Revenge

Reviewed on June 29, 2012.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Lords of Creation by Tim Sullivan



Published in 1992 by AvoNova (Avon Books)

Tim Sullivan's Lords of Creation is a little novel that tries (and really tries hard) to pull together a whole lot of ideas and one really big one and put them all into a 242 page paperback novel.

It is set in the year 1999. Instead of a successful first Gulf War,  America gets bogged in a protracted fight that saps its political vitals at home. The Republicans work with a growing Christian Milleniallist movement who believe that the end of the world as we know it is coming and America should be prepared. A Department of Morality is developed and led by a preacher who attacks all of paleontology as "the work of Satan." Entire university departments are shut down due to a lack of funding and only amateur paleontologists can continue to dig.


A fossil dig in Montana. Photo by SD Public Broadcasting
One group of such amateurs are digging at a remote site in Montana when they find a odd metal box buried deep in a fossil bed, with the fossils. They remove it and sneak into the lab of the local university , quickly have it confiscated by the Department of Morality and when it is opened five dinosaur eggs are discovered inside - they have been held in stasis by the box for millions of years. Soon enough, they are hatched and these dinosaurs are not anything that the paleontologists recognize. They have larger brains, grow incredibly fast and work together very well. Also, there are lots of grandstanding arguments between the leader of the paleontologists, David Albee and Flanagan, the head of the Department of Morality. Flanagan admits that he acts the way he does to impose morality upon America just to save America from itself - drinking, drugs, abuse, etc.

 ****Spoilers*****

Up to this point, the book seems to be a kind of screed against religion in general (they're all fanatics, they're stupid and they hate dinosaurs!). But, suddenly, the story switches. An alien spaceship comes, summoned from "sleep" in the asteroid belt by the opening of the egg box. The alien reveals that its species created the super smart dinosaurs that were just hatched and it froze them again because their reptilian brains lacked any sense of morality and all of that brainpower with no morality was a disaster. They destroyed rather than build.

So, the alien waited until primates evolved and made them super smart because they had morality. The innate sense of morality would "drive [the] species forward. It is absolutely correct in its moral imperatives, that these imperatives are larger than the individual and must be asserted. Those who stand against it are always incorrect, though their opponents believe that their version of morality is just as correct. This conflict is the process that culminates in a planetary civilization, and leads ultimately to the stars." (p. 236)

Now we have an interesting premise, the most important thought of the book and it is laid out and never touched again, despite all of the questions it begs such as:

-Is Flanagan bad  or good in light of this philosophy?

-Is the constant struggle really a good thing or not?

-Is the Department of Morality necessarily a bad thing - is it the realization of a planetary civilization thus stepping stone to the stars?

-If that is the cost, is it worth it?

Man, if there was ever topics to discuss, why aren't these being discussed? Instead, it wraps up in six pages and we are done.

One other issue. I know that authors have very little to do with the covers of their books, so these three comments are aimed at the person or persons that choose the art for the cover: 1) The book is set in Montana. There are no Saguaro cactus in Montana. 2) There is only one alien, not two. 3)  The alien looks nothing like the ones on the cover.

*****End Spoilers*****

So, a really huge idea is brought up to discuss and it lays there and dies. The rest of the book is an okay space alien story.

I have to give it 3 out of 5 stars for the rest of the book. 1 star for the really big idea. Total: 4 out of 5 stars.

Reviewed on June 28, 2012

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Lords of Creation by Tim Sullivan.

The Blessing Way (Joe Leaphorn #1) (audiobook) by Tony Hillerman



Published by Borders/Recorded books in 1990.
Narrated by George Guidall.
Duration: Approximately 6 hours, 30 minutes.
Unabridged

The Blessing Way is the first of the Leaphorn books but, ironically, Leaphorn is a mere supporting character throughout most of the second half of the book. College professor/archaeologist Bergen McKee is the main character - the one who has the most growth and teaches the reader the most about Navajo society and culture.

Tony Hillerman (1925-2008)
Nevertheless, The Blessing Way is an enjoyable book. I have read all of Hillerman's books at one time or another so I am going back and listening to some of the older ones as a high-quality diversion from my boring work commute.

I intentionally picked this one, the oldest of the series, since I recently read and reviewed the newest of the series (The Shapeshifter), which, ironically enough, also prominently featured the Navajo Wolf/Witch/Shapeshifter. His descriptions of Navajo society in the two books would make an interesting comparison - a study in the ongoing process of diffusion of Belagana (white) culture throughout the reservation.

I figured out who did it with about an hour to an hour and a half of listening to go. However, that did not dim my enthusiasm for listening to an exciting escape, a chase through the desert and a great climax.

George Guidall did a strong job of reading the story - his pacing and ability to convey the appropriate emotion of the story were quite good.  I enjoy his readings of the Leaphorn/Chee series.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman.


Reviewed on December 20, 2006.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

An American Odyssey

-Slow start, but once you get past the first 50 pages or so you won't want to put it down.

-This book is really a set of very, very short stories all tied together into two main narrative lines. It can be very frustrating to some who just want to get the story moving, but that the main plotlines are not really the point. The wonder and randomness and beauty and brutishness of this thing we call life is the point. This is no "Pilgrims Progress" in which the main characters struggle and eventually reach a higher consciousness and understanding. However, it is a Post-modernist American Odyssey. In the original Odyssey, Odysseus goes from one adventure to the next on his way home from war. In it the reader (originally the listener) learns life lessons and Odysseus comes home a better man for all of his troubles.

Charles Frazier
Inman and Ada's adventures remind me of that but without the over-arching themes (thus, it is post-modernist), unless you consider the utter randomness and chaos (both good and bad) of life a theme. Are Ada and Inman better people as a result of their struggles? No, just different. Some characters become better people as a result of the war, some worse.

-Great book. Enjoyable read. I have not yet seen the movie, but I wonder how it can possibly do this book any justice.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on December 24, 2006.

Looking for Rachel Wallace (Spenser #6) (audiobook) by Robert B. Parker



Published in 1989 by Books on Tape, Inc.
Read by Michael Prichard
Duration: 4 hours, 45 minutes

I read Looking for Rachel Wallace years ago, but I don't have a great memory for all of the plot details so I am re-enjoying the Spenser books as audiobooks. In this case, Spenser and Rachel Wallace kept me company while I wrapped presents and fed my one-year old. And they were quite good company.

Rachel Wallace is a lesbian feminist activist who lives to shock and provoke the sensibilities of middle America in the late 1970s. Her activism has made her the recipient of several threats so Spenser is hired to protect her. If Rachel Wallace is anything, she is an ultra-feminist and no ultra-feminist (at least not in this book) is going to run to a big strong man for protection. Rachel Wallace realizes this and fires Spenser.

But, soon enough, Rachel Wallace is actually kidnapped and Spenser goes on the hunt for her out of a sense of personal obligation. The climax of the book is one of the more memorable scenes in this long and venerable series.


Robert B. Parker (1932-2010)
My audiobook was read by Michael Prichard who does a decent Spenser but does a great near-humorless Rachel Wallace.

What can I say about the Spenser books that has not already been said. They're a bit formulaic (wisecracks, meet Susan for some snuggling, fistfights, cooking, etc.) but I love the formula so I enjoyed this one thoroughly. I consider it to be one of the stronger books, despite the fact that the protestations against feminism and lesbianism seem outdated in the year 2006. It almost makes it seem like a period piece. Interesting how the world changes, isn't it?

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Looking for Rachel Wallace: A Spenser Novel

Reviewed on December 25, 2006.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Mysteries and Intrigues of the Bible Extraordinary Events and Fascinating People by Jonathan A. Michaels

 What this book is and what it is not

Published by Tyndale House Publishers in 1997. 

I picked this book up somewhere along the way and I am sure when I bought it I thought that it was something that it is not.

What I thought the book was:

-I thought it was a Graham Hancock-type (ironically, Graham Hancock is referred to in the text of this book) look into some of the oddities of the Bible. What really happened at Jericho? What does the archaeological record say? Where did Moses and the Israelites cross the Red Sea? Are there possible explanations for a parting of the Red Sea besides a divine one? What about those that claim that Jesus did not really die on the cross? Is the popularly referred to "Swooning" of Jesus an explanation for his resurrection. If not, why not. The kind of stuff you get on the History Channel from time to time

That is not what this book is (although if anyone knows of such a cool book, let me know!)

What this book is is a compilation of a number of odd stories from the Bible. They are re-told here in loose categories in no particular order under such topics as "Unlucky Seventies" (times when 70 people died); "Family Customs" (polygamy, circumcision and the like - why they were done) or such ongoing categories such as "Strange but True" and "FAQs". A good feature is the listing of the verses where the strange story can be found in the Bible after every entry.

While well-written, I kept on wondering why it was written. I suppose I was not the target audience. I was quite familiar with 95% of the stories that were told and very little new information on the mysteries themselves were revealed.

So, my recommendation is that if you know your Bible backwards and forwards, this book will have little to offer. If you are relatively new to the study of the Bible, this one may help spur your interest.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on December 25, 2006.

Enemy Mine DVD



This movie swings for the fence with every pitch...

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen 
Released in 1985

This movie swings for the fence with every pitch. If you are not a baseball fan, that is saying that a batter swings for the fence means that he only goes for home runs and does not try to just get on base. And, for you baseball fans out there, you know that the long ball hitter that swings for the fence with every pitch strikes out an awful lot. But, the fans love him anyway because when he gets hold of a good one it's a home run!

This movie is a lot like a long ball hitter - the director tries to go for a home run on so many levels that you end up alternating between shaking your head at the cheesiness of it all and wiping at a tear at the way some of the scenes work so perfectly.

The premise is that two enemy fighter pilots in a bitter intergalactic war shoot each other down over some horrible planet that will barely support life. One is human. One is a drac, a humanoid reptile species. They learn to trust one another and depend on one another and, eventually, the alien (Louis Gossett, Jr.) gives birth to a child (their species reproduces asexually). However, when the alien dies in childbirth the human (Dennis Quaid) raises it as his own and is forced to act when the child is captured by human slavers. Louis Gossett, Jr. was very good throughout. Quaid alternates between over the top ridiculousness and touching. The soundtrack is too much - too sentimental, too adventurous, etc. It gets in the way more than anything else in the movie.

The special effects are sometimes great (especially Gossett's make-up) and usually bad - think Star Trek original TV series quality, but the story mostly makes up for it.

All in all, I give this movie 3 stars for its up and down nature. The values and message are good, but sometimes the medium that transmits those values and that message is too saccharine for my tastes.

This movie can be found on Amazon.com here: Enemy Mine

Reviewed on December 29, 2006.

The Places In Between by Rory Stewart



A Scotsman, a mastiff and a feudal nation

Published by Mariner Books in 2006.

When the United States first invaded Afghanistan one of my friends wondered aloud if we intended on keeping it as a colony. I quipped that we already owned a mountainous desert area full of people that have a religion that we don't understand - we call it Utah (with apologies to my Mormon friends out there).


Rory Stewart
After reading The Places In Between I truly realize the depth of our misunderstanding of the situation in Afghanistan. I keep up on the news better than most. I've spoken with veterans who have returned from Afghanistan. Yet, as I read Stewart's account of his walk across Afghanistan just weeks after the fall of the Taliban, I realized that this truly is a foreign culture - as alien to me as any on the planet. I am amazed that the mission in Afghanistan has been as successful as it has been.

Stewart introduces us to the variety of cultures that Afghanistan possesses. He also makes us see that the very concept of an "Afghanistan" is nebulous at best. His commentaries on the United Nations are biting and ring of truth. While the news has commented that Afghanistan is a feudal society, I always took their word "feudal" to be code for technologically backward. Stewart experienced that it truly and literally is feudal and for some parts of Afghanistan, life is like stepping into a time machine and going back in time to the Middle Ages - both politically and technologically.

Stewart's book is a joy to read. While I wonder at the sense in walking by yourself across a war-torn nation during the dead of winter (with the exception of some companions who were forced upon him by concerned governments from time to time and an adopted mastiff dog he picked up along the way), I am pleased that he did. His impressions of what he witnessed and experienced were wonderfully conveyed. Stewart is truly a gifted writer.

This book is truly a wonderful experience. I cannot recommend it highly enough. What a great read to finish up the year with!

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Places In Between

Reviewed on December 31, 2006.

The Godwulf Manuscript (Spenser #1) (audiobook) by Robert B. Parker

Going back for a second read - this time as an audiobook

Published in 1988 by Books on Tape
Read by Michael Prichard
Duration: 5 hours, 12 minutes (unabridged)

I've long since read all of the Spenser novels but I am enjoying a second time around with the older ones as audiobooks - I listen while commuting.

Robert B. Parker (1932-2010)
The Godwulf Manuscript is the first in a very long line of Spenser novels. The most essential parts of Spenser are here - wisecracks, details about cooking, his mostly unused office and a healthy interest in the opposite sex, Lt. Quirk (I'd forgotten he was Spenser's first "buddy" in a long line of buddies) and Spenser's self-deprecating inner voice.

The Godwulf Manuscript is a much more "noire" style book than most of the rest of them - but then again it's not much of a surprise really - authors change over time.

Spenser, however, does not change. The book is set in 1973 and Spenser is 37 years old. He makes more references to feeling the effects of age in this book than I ever remember throughout the rest of the series.Yet, Spenser remains ageless, like James Bond, which is good - otherwise the last Spenser book would have featured a 70 year old Spenser. While it might have been interesting, I like the ageless (or very slowly aging) Spenser better.

The audiobook was well-read. Michael Prichard's interpretation of Spenser is always interesting. He read several of the early Spenser audiobooks. He delivers everything very "matter of fact" - no matter how funny Spenser's comment is, no matter how many punches are thrown. Sort of like a faster version of Jack Webb in Dragnet. He makes the story go very quickly.

I give The Godwulf Manuscript 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on January 5, 2007 (edited June 27, 2012).

Friday (audiobook) by Robert A. Heinlein

 

Published by Dh Audio in 1982.
Read by Samantha Eggar
Duration: approximately 3 hours.
Abridged

Many years ago, in the early 80s, I was a devoted reader of all things Heinlein. Somewhere along the way I guess I lost interest (I don't remember), but I found this audiobook version of Friday and thought I'd re-live the old days a bit.

From the product description on the back of the box I did not remember having read the book, but soon enough, I vaguely remembered the plot a bit. So, how was it re-visiting Heinlein? It was okay. The storyline was not nearly as interesting as the backdrop (a fragmented United States - how I'd love to see a short history of this vision of earth plus a short description of the technology - Heinlein accurately describes the internet - not bad for 1982).

Friday is a genetically modified human being created from bits and pieces from all around the world. She lives in a remarkably open society that openly discriminates agains such Artificial People (APs). Heinlein builds the book on the themes of wanting to belong and being rejected for things that you cannot control.
Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988)

Heinlein's free love world (nearly sex-crazed) is, in my mind, a bit of wishful thinking on the part of Heinlein. However, I'll give him his due - the multiple-partner marriages are a controversial idea to toss out there - and part of the job of a good sci-fi writer is to toss out new ideas and cause some discussion.

Overall, I was not over-impressed with my audiobook version of Friday. Part of it has to do with the fact that it is heavily abridged (the unabridged version of the book lasts 13 hours, this one is a mere 3 hours). The story suffered from the abridgement. Secondly, the choice of reader was disconcerting. She was very British and she never shook that accent, no matter where the action was taking place. Sometimes that worked out well, but usually it was jarring to hear residents of New Zealand, Winnepeg, Southern California and Vicksburg, Mississippi speaking with any number of British accents (sometimes Cockney, even!).

I give this audiobook version of Friday 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on January 9, 2007.

Leaving the Left: Moments in the News That Made Me Ashamed to Be a Liberal by Keith Thompson



Thompson's original essay was much better

Published by Sentinel HC in 2006


For those of you who do not know, Keith Thompson's first draft of Leaving the Left was a column in the San Francisco chronicle (found here).

I thoroughly enjoyed the original essay. I printed it out, read it to my wife, forwarded it to friends. A copy of it has set on my desk for the better part of two years - mostly in the way, but also as a reminder of my own personal journey away from the Democrats (my first 4 votes in any sort of Presidential race were proud votes for Jesse Jackson, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas and Bill Clinton). Really, though, it's not so much that I've moved from them as they have moved from some of their core values to new core values.

Political parties, like people, evolve in their thoughts. Keith Thompson, like many others, discovered that the political party of his youth (he was the youngest delegate to a Democratic national convention in American history in 1972)  had become something different. (Can you imagine Harry Truman working better with John Kerry or George W. Bush?) Thompson describes the values of his youth, how they matched up with Democratic Party policies and positions and then tells how he believes the Democrats have moved away from those policies. His assertion is that he is still a liberal, but not liberal with a capital "L". Rather, he is a traditional political liberal, the type of liberal that Adams, Jefferson, Washington and the rest of the Founding Fathers were. (If you do not know the difference, write your college poli-sci professors a nasty note for neglecting your education - you paid a fortune for it, they should have done a better job! - and then start brushing up on the political philosophies of the Enlightenment.)

Thompson's book is an elaboration on his original essay. I think it would have been better if Thompson had included his original essay as a starting point, but he does quote from it in an unnecessary picture section in the middle of the book.

His 10 chapters cover a variety of topics:
1. Affirmative Action;
2. Eminent Domain;
3. Neo-Feminism;
4. Clarence Thomas;
5. Abortion;
6. Bill Clinton's Perjury;
7. Columbine;
8. the Extreme Left's reaction to 9/11;
9. Displaced Dads (fathers in divorce);
10. Euthanasia.

Some chapters are very strong (Clarence Thomas, 9/11, Eminent Domain and Affirmative Action) but others feel hurried and underdeveloped - almost like the publisher thought the book was too short and asked him to add a couple of more chapters in a hurry (Euthanasia, Displaced Dads). For example, the Euthanasia chapter focuses on Terry Schiavo but does not include a back story explaining the situation.

I give the book 4 stars out of 5.  Mostly good, but there are weak spots, especially towards the end. It leaves a poor impression - especially when the start was so strong.

But, I do heartily recommend reading his original column. If you love it, you'll like this book.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Leaving the Left: Moments in the News That Made Me Ashamed to Be a Liberal by Keith Thompson.

Reviewed on January 17, 2007.

Eleven on Top (Stephanie Plum #11) (audiobook) by Janet Evanovich

 

Long stretches of tedium punctuated by episodes of laugh-out-loud fun

Published by Macmillan Audio in 2005.
Read by Lorelei King.
Duration: 7 hours, 48 minutes


Eleven on Top is my fifth in the Stephanie Plum series, having previously read 1-3 and 8. Technically, 1-3 were enjoyed thoroughly as books on tape. The fact that I heard them all as audiobooks is a source of my frustration with Eleven on Top.

You see, the first three that I enjoyed were read by the actress Lori Petty. In my mind, Petty accurately nailed the Jersey Girl attitude and accent of Stephanie. Lorelei King, a veteran reader does a good job with all of the characters but Stephanie - she plays Stephanie fairly accent-neutral. While the dialogue works without the New Jersey accent, it crackles and zings with it. I know that King is the choice for Evanovich to read, but I think that she is a letdown after listening to Petty's work.

Secondly, the fact that I 'read' this book as an audiobook really accentuated some of Evanovich's more irritating, space-filling writing habits. For example, she is a list maker. Several times she lists off all of the clutter that surrounds Morelli as he nurses a broken leg (used Kleenex, dirty plates, empty glasses, and so on). Or, she lists the clutter on her desk at work. Or, she lists the clutter in her apartment. As a book reader, I would have skimmed over the list and not thought twice about it. As a listener...well, I've got to sit and listen to the lists.

Thirdly, this book has a tendency to drag. Stephanie's indecisiveness about the men in her life is not a fresh topic anymore. Her family scenes were interesting until they were repeated several times throughout the book. Like I said in the title to this review, the story was long stretches of tedium punctuated by episodes of laugh-out-loud fun.

So, what kind of grade do I give this one? I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Eleven on Top by Janet Evanovich.

Reviewed on January 18, 2007.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Truman (audiobook) by David McCullough



Published by  Simon and Schuster Audio in 1992.
Read by David McCullough, the author
Includes parts of recordings of speeches by Harry S. Truman and Douglas MacArthur
Duration: approximately 6 hours
Abridged

Harry S. Truman (1884-1972)
While I am a world history teacher, my favorite times in American history are the Revolutionary War Era, the Civil War Era and an interest in the Frontier as it moved across the United States. While I knew a great deal about Truman before listening to this audiobook, I really felt that I needed to know more.

David McCullough's treatment of Truman is friendly, but not overly rosy. The audiobook version I listened to was abridged. I assume that the areas that were not focused upon in the abridged edition are more fleshed out in the unabridged edition. (Note: this abridgement was not sloppily done - I didn't even notice it was abridged until about 3/4 of the way through the book - it just seemed like he was glossing over the activities of the New Deal Congress rather quicker than normal)

David McCullough
Areas of particular focus in the abridged edition include Truman's family background and childhood. His World War I experiences, early political jobs, his association with Kansas City machine politics, Bess (of course!), his mother, how he was chosen to be Vice President, the decision to drop the atomic bombs, the Korean War, the decision to fire MacArthur and eulogies for Truman.

The printed version of this book includes pictures, I am sure, which is a disadvantage of the audio version. However, that deficiency is more than made up for by the inclusion of real audiotaped quotes from Truman himself when possible. It is one thing to see a picture of Harry Truman, it is quite another to hear sections of his speeches in Truman's own voice - the way most Americans did at the time when they were delivered. It gives you a different sense of the man. A section of MacArthur's "Old Soldiers Fade Away" speech is also included, to the detriment of MacArthur, in my opinion. He sounds very snobbish and patrician. When compared to Truman, it makes you root for the Man from Independence all the more.

A second strength of the audiobook is that it is read by the author himself. McCullough has a voice that I envy and enjoy to hear and he makes even the most slowest portions of the book flow by quickly and easily.

Bravo!

Find this edition at Amazon.com here: Truman.

I give this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on February 3, 2007.

The Message of the Sphinx: A Quest for the Hidden Legacy of Mankind (audiobook) by Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval




Published by Audio Literature in March of 1998.
Read by Nick Ullett
Duration: 3 hours
Abridged


I picked this one up on a whim. Having already read and reviewed Hancock's Heaven's Mirror several years ago, I knew what I was getting myself into - lots of alternative, well-researched ideas that cause you to think, "Well...maybe..."

The first half of the audiobook was just that. Questions about the weathering on the Sphinx. Unexplained unwillingness to research into what lies below the Sphinx (is it a cavern? a room? a geologic anomaly?), challenges to the orthodox Egyptology's interpretations.

Lots of good fun and as a history teacher I encourage challenges to Orthodoxy - for example, until fairly recently the Maya were considered to be wise sages of the rain forest who abhorred violence (turns out they readily engaged in human sacrifices all of the time), the Assyrians of Nineveh were considered to be a fantasy of the Bible and the city of Troy? - a figment of Homer's imagination. So, putting pinholes in orthodoxy has its place.

However, Hancock and Bauval lost me when they began to use Edgar Cayce's psychic readings from the 1930s and 1940s as a legitimate source. Star charts and weathering are legitimate sources. Not mediums. Come on!

To make it worse, Hancock and Bauval launch into an extended discourse on the movement of stars across the sky over the centuries (called procession). While this had a legitimate point, one that Hancock fleshes out even more in his book Heaven's Mirror, he goes on and on with it to the point where I couldn't hardly stand to listen to it any longer. The reader, Nick Ullett, did a superb job with the material he was asked to read, but there is no way that listening to nearly an hour of facts and figures about star charts and mathematical equations will be anything but mind-numbingly, eye-crossingly, stupifyingly boring. I listen to audiobooks to perk up my long daily commute. I actually had to turn off the relentless march of the equations just to stay awake! Hancock's points were made in the first 15 minutes - yet he continued on and on and on and on and on...

So, this is really two books - the first half is interesting and full of legitimate points. The second half is buttressed by facts from the mouth of a psychic and then becomes an endless lecture on procession that should have been edited.

I rate this audiobook 2 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: The Message of the Sphinx.

Reviewed on February 8, 2007.

Blowback: A Thriller (Scot Horvath #4) by Brad Thor

Based on some dubious assumptions

Published by Pocket Books in 2006.

Brad Thor's thriller Blowback delivers as far as the international thrills and chills go. Main character Scot Harvath is a counter-terrorism expert on the tail of an Al-Qaeda operative who catches wind of something new - a plague that is being resurrected from the ancient past to be used against all non-Muslims.

Harvath pursues his leads across Europe and the Middle East - that part is lots of fun. I have issues with Thor's treatment of Muslims and his main thesis.

**SPOILER ALERT**

Every Muslim in the book, with the exception of two, is either a brazen hypocrite or a crazed religious fanatic. One of the good Muslim is killed by the virus being spread the fanatics and the other is shot by the hypocrites. There are literally dozens of Muslims in the book - and only two are decent people?

Thor's book rests on the premise that the Ottoman Empire is trying to resurrect itself by using fanatics like Al-Qaeda and the Wahhabis to weaken modern Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia. The problem with that is this: most Muslims openly hated the Ottoman government. Why? The Sultan (head of the secular government) also gave himself the title of Caliph (head of the religious structure). That is a giant no-no in Islam - Islam must not be subservient to a government. Also, there was a bit of ethnic dislike thrown in since the Ottomans were Turks and there has often been a pro-Arab stance in Al-Qaeda and the Wahhabis.

****END OF SPOILERS****

So, great thrills marred by laughable conspiracy and hopeless stereotyping of Muslims.

I give this one 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on February 21, 2007.

The Lake House (audiobook) by James Patterson

  Yikes!

Published in 2003 by Hatchette Audio
Read by Hope Davis and Stephen Lang.
Duration: 7 hours, 35 minutes.

The Lake House is the story of six bird/human hybrids who are created as the result of genetic experiments. They all can fly and all have superhuman strength.

 This book is very poorly paced. Great chunks of action happen with shorthand writing and then Patterson spends nearly an hour of the 7 1/2 hour book describing two of the characters' first sexual experiences. The Lake House skips over scenes and parts of the story moves in fits and starts. For example, the children all "run" away to live in the woods and eat grubs just to get away from regular human society. Next thing you know, they're back at home without any sort of explanation. I listen to a lot of audiobooks and many of them are abridged so I am used to odd fits and starts by poor editing. I checked the packaging several times while listening to this book to see if it was abridged. Sadly, the herky-jerky nature of the book cannot be blamed on poor editing during the process of abridgement because this is an unabridged reading.

Technical things made the book just seem silly like:

-the smoke detector that goes off only after the house is up in flames struck me as stupid. Just this morning 2 smoke detectors went off in my house because a toaster waffle got a bit burned.

-How about the Subaru that holds 8 people, including 6 of them with wings?


-Why does the bad guy want the kids so badly. He keeps mentioning them as a source of money, but how much money does this guy need? He just performed 30 surgeries at the rate of $100 million each. That's $3 billion!


-If you were going to fight a winged person with a 10 foot wingspan and superhuman strength would you bring a gun? a big knife? Well, the genius supervillain brings a scalpel!


-How about the bemoaning of the fact that no one was talking about the Resurrection project in the media but than it is brought out in testimony during the custody trial of the century and no one questions it because they knew all about it?


-Can you measure IQ when someone is asleep? No, but the evil genius does anyway.


-Hey - if you are going to write sci-fi get your terms right! Clones are not robots. Robots are not made of flesh. Cyborg is the term you were looking for. Get the terminology right or don't use it, please!


Oh, how the mighty have fallen. This book is bad, especially when compared to other works by Patterson, such as any of the early Alex Cross books. Patterson needs to have an editor really jump all over him and demand the better quality that he is capable of.

The audiobook was read by Hope Davis and Stephen Lang. Both are veteran readers who did a good job with the reading. But, even the best readers in the world could not have done anything to save this stinker of a book.

Note: This book and When the Wind Blows were re-worked to make the basis for Patterson's Maximum Ride series aimed at young adults.

I rate this book 1 star out of 5.

Reviewed on March 2, 2007 (edited on June 26, 2012).

Monday, June 25, 2012

Four Blind Mice (Alex Cross #8) (audiobook) by James Patterson

Good but not great


Published by Hatchette Audio in 2002.
Read by Peter J. Fernandez and Michael Emerson.
Duration:  8 hours and 7 minutes.

I am glad to get back to the world of Alex Cross. I have read or heard 3 other Patterson books this year and have been sorely disappointed with two. I only liked one (Jester) and I was looking forward to getting back to comfortable ground with Alex Cross.


After reading a few reviews, it sounds like the audio version actually helps Four Blind Mice a bit. The two narrators are both quite good, with the exception that some of the bad guys sound too much like one another.

The strength of Patterson's Cross books is the realistic conversations - the rhythms, cadences, colloquialisms and vocabulary sound right and this was certainly accentuated by great audio performances by Peter J. Fernandez and Michael Emerson. They sound so right that I am reminded of a personal story. Way back before Patterson's picture was plastered all over the back of every one of his books, I used to work in a used book store. The Alex Cross books started filtering in and Mrs. Rivers, the assistant manager and an elderly African-American woman (also an avid mystery/thriller reader) placed Patterson's books in the African-American authors section because the characters felt so right to her. She was shocked when a book came in with his face on the back. She commented that she never would have believed that a white man could have pulled that off so well. He still pulls it off.

However, the story flows in a herky-jerky manner. Sampson and Cross gleen clues from things that should not provide clues. For example, while in Raleigh, NC investigating an old ritualistic multiple murder, they hear that a single prostitute was killed. No details are provided of the prostitute's murder, but still they know it is connected. How?

Patterson is intent on moving the personal lives of Cross and Sampson forward. That is appropriate. At times, though, it felt as if that was the only part of the story he really put a lot of thought into. The rest seemed to be rather sloppily tossed in there - the connections were loose, characters are introduced than dropped.

So, my grade: 4 stars out of 5.

Good conversation. Like the characters. My suggestion: Slow down "James Patterson, Inc." and take the time to work out some of the kinks and make these books better.

Reviewed on May 3, 2007.

JSA: The Liberty Files (Justice Society, Elseworlds) (graphic novel) by Dan Jolley and Tony Harris

It was good, but not great.

Published by D.C. Comics in 2004.

I am not the biggest comic book fan. I have never even set foot in a real comic book shop so I don't even know if the 'Comic Book Guy' on 'The Simpsons' is realistic or not. Continuity means nothing to me. Being a history teacher, I was more intrigued by the history part of the story. (Speaking of continuity, I know for a fact that Superman was fighting Nazis during WWII, just like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck - I've seen the movies!)

However, I've read some of the big stuff (Dark Knight I and II, Red Son and a few more). I was dimly aware of some of the heroes featured in this one, which makes sense since JSA was originally intended to promote the lesser known heroes). This one was interesting, but in the end, not as good as I had hoped.

Learning the new characters was fairly easy, but telling them apart in their street clothes was darn near impossible with the exception of "Clark Kent", thanks to the trademark cowlick. Also, even though it was a JSA book, the focus seemed to be Batman. Batman vs. "Jack the Grin" (Joker). Batman vs. Scarecrow. Batman making his teammates mad. Batman's introspection. And, finally, Batman vs. 'Superman'. The last one has been done umpteen times, I know, even though I am, as already stated, a casual fan. Heck, I've seen it done in Frank Miller's "Dark Knight I" and Mark Millar's "Red Son", and to be honest, they both did it better (especially Millar's).

An interesting observation - I appreciated the fact that at the WWII Battle of El Alamein, the artists included two well-known fictional characters of this time period in the two page spread (pp. 116-117): Sgt. Rock and PFC Ryan (from "Saving Private Ryan").

So, while not a waste of my time, it certainly did not do the job as well as others.

I give this one 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on June 17, 2007.

The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (Politically Incorrect Guide...series) by Thomas E. Woods



Published by Regnery Publishing in 2004.

As a real history teacher (as opposed to the coach history "teacher" that too many people have had) I was looking forward to this book since I read and enjoyed other Politically Incorrect Guide... (P.I.G.) books.

I have few quibbles or quarrels with the facts presented. Woods has done his research and I would even recommend parts of this book as a supplement to read alongside a regular American History book. He is especially strong on his facts about the Founding Fathers and the Constitution.

However, I do have an issue with the way it is presented. Woods states in his preface that this book is not intended to be an alternative, non-PC history book. But, what is is exactly? I have pegged it as a supplement, but Woods really fails to do so. Sometimes, the book tries to come off as a "Gotcha! Betcha didn't know this!" trivia book, other times it goes into pretty strong detail and nearly is as well-rounded as some high school or middle school textbooks (particularly in the Revolutionary War/Constitution section). The end of the book (Clinton) comes off almost like one of the dime-a-dozen political books that are written by pundits like Michael Moore and Ann Coulter.

This guide to American History does enter a crowded field. There are plenty of other books out there that serve a similar purpose such as Don't Know Much About History. The difference may be in political slant.

Although Woods does a tremendous job with the Founders, I believe he did an very poor write up on the Civil War. Lincoln's racial views were stated too simplistically. Also, they are not exactly secret anymore - textbooks cover Lincoln quite well nowadays. He also overstates the strength of democracy of the South at the time in a rather lengthy argument about the Gettysburg Address. Woods note that he thinks the Address is ironic as a statement of democratic ideals since Lincoln was, at that very moment, destroying the expressed will of the Southern people who were trying to secede. Woods leaves out details such as the aristocratic nature of Southern politics at the time, the fact that uplanders (non-plantation, small farmers in the hills and mountains) were quick to join the Union armies since they felt the aristocratic plantation owners were not representing them in state government and had shut them out of the halls of power. That is how West Virginia was formed and how parts of Eastern Tennessee earned a reputation for being very pro-Union.
Union General Benjamin Butler 
(1818-1893)

Also, in the same section, Woods mis-characterizes Ben Butler's Order #28, the strength of the anti-slavery sentiment in some factions of the Union Army (although, certainly not the majority of it).

However, I don't want to go through a point by point refutation of each part. Suffice to say, Thomas has a decent supplement of mostly good quality here.

I give this one 3 stars out of 5. Minus one star for the not having a thorough approach to every period of American history and oftentimes relying on a "Betcha didn't know this odd fact" style that I mentioned above. Minus one star for his treatment of the Civil War section.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History by Thomas E. Woods. 

Reviewed on June 20, 2007.

Indiana II by Darryl L. Jones and James Alexander Thom

   Beautiful pictures, wonderful essay
  
Published in 1996 by Graphic Arts Press.
142 pages.

James Alexander Thom
Darryl Jones captures Indiana's beauty like no one else. Jones has made several books filled with wonderful shots from all over Indiana, although he tends to focus on Southwestern Indiana hill country most of all. These are not all nature shots, like some of his other books. There are shots of small towns, grain silos, barns, the Colts, the Indy 500 and Conner Prairie.

Jones' work is paired with James Alexander Thom's essay on Indiana history, character and its possible future. Thom's writing is not just mindless boosterism, but rather a thoughtful commentary by a Hoosier who is in love with his state, warts and all. The essay is just as wonderful as the pictures, if not better!

I am considering this as a gift for a relative who moved out of state just to remind her of home and its unique character.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 2, 2007.

Power Plays: Win or Lose--How History's Great Political Leaders Play the Game by Dick Morris



Interesting, even if it is a bit simplified

Published by Harper Perennial in 2003

Dick Morris, Washington insider turned political analyst, knows all about political strategy. He was once an advisor to Bill Clinton and is credited with coming up with Clinton's famed "triangulation" strategy. In this book, Morris identfies six political strategies that can lead to political success. Interestingly, he provides 20 splendid examples of how these strategies have been misplayed and have led to failure.

The six strategies are:

1. "Stand on Principle"
2. "Triangulate"
3. "Divide and Conquer"
4. "Reform your own Party"
5. "Use a new technology"
6. "Mobilizing the Nation in Times of Crisis"

Sometimes, Morris oversells his explanations. For example, he places Lincoln in the "Divide and Conquer" category, since the Democrats split themselves into three parties in the election of 1860 and allowed Lincoln to win the Presidential election. That makes sense, since the Democrats divided and the Republicans conquered. However, Morris makes it sound like Lincoln maneuvered the Democrats into their crisis as part of his master plan that began with comments and questions raised during the Lincoln/Douglas debates in 1858, rather then simply taking advantage of the split. Lincoln was a political genius, but Morris oversimplifies here.

I am a history teacher. I am also a Spanish teacher and Morris quotes George W. Bush speaking Spanish in a campaign speech: "Muchos espanos viver en ese estado". That's not Spanish. That's not even Spanglish. I've heard Bush speak Spanish. It is nothing to brag about, but it is definitely serviceable. It threw the rest of Morris' research into doubt since he had obviously not even bothered to talk to any Spanish speaker to see if his attempt to write down Bush's Spanish words were even correct. Double checking research is always important. By the way, it should have been "Muchos hispanos viven en ese estado."

So, I give this one a 4 stars out of 5. The grade was not really reduced because of the Spanish thing, although it left some nagging doubts and was a major pet peeve.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Power Plays.

Reviewed on July 2, 2007.

2024 (graphic novel) by Ted Rall

   Not terribly original - a bit of a disappointment

Published by Nantier Beall Minoustchine Publishing in January 2003.

Tad Rall's 2024 promises a look at "A terrifying future where the past doesn't matter and no one cares!"

It was not particularly terrifying nor particularly original. Rall says he is inspired by George Orwell's 1984, but he has really ran smack dab into Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Lucas's THX 1138 - a future society in which people are controlled by drugs, interactive video porn and other distractions. Not only is Rall's book derivative of the two I mentioned, he didn't even do work up to their standards of quality.

If you want brief entertainment (less than an hour for this reviewer to read the entire thing) and a "lite" version of some deeper works that covers no new ground and features artwork that reminded this reader of Matt Groening's Life in Hell series, than this may be your book. Heck, even one of his best lines is a direct rip-off of an old John Cougar album title: Nothing Matters and What If It Did.

I give this one 3 stars - it is not totally without merit and maybe it will encourage a reader to pick up any of the other works that I have mentioned (including the John Cougar album) for better insight.

Reviewed on July 3, 2007.

String Quartet Tribute to John Mellencamp by the Vitamin String Quartet

   Does it work? Yes, oddly enough it does!

Released in 2003 by Vitamin Records

I am a dyed-in-the-wool Mellencamp fan and I have been since American Fool came out in 1982. Fans like me could either love projects like this, or absolutely hate them and view them like a desecration. The attitude taken towards the project has a lot to do with it and this album has taken a respectful attitude towards Mellencamp's work.

John Mellencamp
The songs have been adapted for String Quartet but have not been radically altered - you can sing right along with them if you'd like. Most have been thoughtfully chosen - for example, if it featured a strong fiddle component, such as "Paper in Fire" than it was worked in to the album.

"Peaceful World" is achingly beautiful in this adaptation. "Small Town" has a more melancholy tone than the original song, but it is not at all inappropriate. It is also quite beautiful and it is respectful reinterpretation of this anthem to small town life.

The only duds in the group are "Hurts So Good" and "Jack and Diane." Unlike the other songs which seem to have been carefully chosen for their string quarted friendliness, these had to have been chosen because they are two Mellencamp standards - you cannot have a collection of his work without them. Heck, the first song I cued up was "Jack and Diane". It just did not translate well.

 Most are strong, two are tremendous, two are weak.

If you are a true Mellencamp fan (a Mellenhead, if you will) this one is one to pick up. I rate the entire collection 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 20, 2007.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank

   Well-written, entertaining but fails to live up to the title

Published by Metropolitan Books in 2004.

Thomas Frank stated purpose in What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America is to tell how Conservatives won the hearts of the working class, the middle class and the rich all at the same time. His answer is that rich, Republican elites throw up red herring issues (abortion and gay marriage are two that he mentions frequently) that bamboozle the working poor and the middle class into supporting them and their greater cause of Free Market Capitalism and International Free Trade even though Capitalism and treaties such as NAFTA inevitably beat the little guy into a pulp (his thought, not mine).

Thomas Frank
Yep. That's about it, although Mr. Frank says it much better than I just did. He also never goes into detail about why Capitalism and Free Trade are both evil (he just assumes you agree, I suppose), although he is very critical of Bill Clinton for supporting NAFTA throughout the book. Big business, especially Wal-Mart, are also to blame for de-populating the Kansas countryside. Apparently, Wal-Mart has some larger agenda in which they plan to drive their customers away from the stores they build in the country...

Seriously, the book would have been helped by further explanation as to why Mr. Frank is such an opponent of Capitalism. He has another book on just that subject, according to a tiny bit of research on my part. It might be a help if readers read that book first, especially in light of Mr. Frank's view that all politics is based in economics: "Most of us think of politics as a Machiavellian drama in which actors make alliances and take practical steps to advance their material interests." (p. 121)

Mr. Frank's fails to properly tell us "How conservatives won the heart of America" because he does not really believe, deep down, that people will vote in ways that he sees that are economically disadvantageous (Free Trade, etc.) unless they are tricked into doing so. People really believing in other issues, such as abortion,  and voting for them are foreign to his way of thinking. Frank may be from Kansas but he certainly does not understand his state and he demonstrates precious little respect for its inhabitants, treating them more like cultural oddities to be put on display.

Thomas Frank really fails to adequately address the thesis of the book, as expressed by the title. Interesting reading, nonetheless.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 7, 2007.

Windtalkers DVD

  Not what I'd hoped... 

Directed by John Woo.
Released in 2002.


With the title Windtalkers you'd think it would be centered on the Windtalkers, those Navajo codetalkers in the Pacific Theater of World War II. I'd purposely ignored this movie until I had the time to watch it since I was interested in the topic and have a passing interest in the Navajo culture, having visited the Four Corners area several times and having read a bit about them.

Anyway, I was hoping for a movie that focused on the Windtalkers themselves - why they fought for a society that had conquered thme and now scorned them, what their motivations were, how their culture dealt with the separation from the Navajo lands, the death and destruction of the war (briefly touched on) and so on. That would have been much more interesting and important.

Instead, we get a movie that should be called Messed Up In the Head Windtalker Babysitter - a movie full of cliche characters and soliloquies that just does not work. For that matter, neither do most of the action scenes. The first rule of a war movie is to make you love the character and then put him in all sorts of dangerous situations so you can worry if he's going to die. It's simple - the viewer is emotionally invested in the story. It never happened for me in this one, despite the massive amounts of explosions. War stories are not about the amount of explosions - the great ones are about exploring characters (and by extension, you and me) during a time of extreme duress.

I was glad to see Christian Slater get some work, though.

This one will not be staying in my collection - it is just not good enough.

I rate this movie 2 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 25, 2007.

Saint Patrick's Battalion: A Novel by James Alexander Thom



A disappointment

Published by Ballantine Books in 2006.


To start, let me establish my bonafides as a fan of Mr. Thom's work. Three of his novels sit on a shelf less than two feet from this computer. I have the featured review on Amazon.com one of his novels ("The Red Heart"). One of his books is on my Favorite Books List on my profile page. I actually designed a long-term project for my world history classes using historical fiction with his books in mind, and I told him so when I met him at a state-wide conference for social studies teachers.

So, I approached St. Patrick's Battalion with much hope. Instead of his usual quality, I found this book to be simplistic, with less detail and bent on beating two points home time after time: the Irish were treated brutally and shamefully by the U.S. army during the Mexican War and the Mexican War was an unjust war.


James Alexander Thom
Thom makes it clear in the opening dedication and acknowledgments that he is against the Iraq War and quite clearly he is drawing analogies between the two. However, Thom never really gets off of his twin focuses on the unjust war and the unjust treatment of the Irish. He never gets to his real strengths in his other books - bringing the reader into another world and teaching us about larger movements in history, but also about the day-to-day lives and goings on of our ancestors. Thom rarely gets beyond the superficial and develops the characters and that is a shame - and a loss to Thom's loyal readers because when his books are good they are fantastic.

Thom's format is the main cause of the failure of this book to be as excellent as his others. His chosen format is a diary of a 10-12 year old Irish-American boy (Quinn) with the U.S. Army and the remembrances of a Mexican man (Juvero)about his experiences during the war as a young boy 16 years later. The diary entries are the better of the two, but are often sketchy. The remembrances are very repetitive and full of Spanish phrases that must be annoying to readers who don't know any Spanish. He often comments about Manifest Destiny, the Irish and America's arrogance. It gets old - not that he wasn't right, but he made his point early and often - it's time to move on. I must admit that I started skimming his sections. I think that Juvero says it best on page 256: "Que Rollo! My preachings are a bore!"

So, to sum up: not his best work. I recommend you read any other Thom book before this one.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Saint Patrick's Battalion: A Novel by James Alexander Thom.

Reviewed on July 30, 2007 (edited June 24, 2012).