"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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Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Hobbit (BBC Radio Presents) (audiobook) by J.R.R. Tolkien



A Disappointing Adaptation

Published in 1988 by Bantam Audio Publishing 
Performed by a full cast
Duration: 3 hours, 42 minutes
Abridged and edited for the radio drama format.

Way back in 1968, the BBC created a radio play version of The Hobbit to air in eight 30 minute segments with a full cast, original music and special effects. Due to a dispute between the Tolkien estate and the BBC the original tapes were to have been destroyed. But, the issues were resolved, copies resurfaced and since the late 1980s the BBC has re-issued this version of The Hobbit in various formats. I listened to a 1988 audio cassette version.

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)
Now, I truly love the story The Hobbit - it is a true classic and I listened to this version to give myself a little reminder of the story before the movie comes out at the end of this year.

However, this audio version has some serious troubles.

First, the positives. The narrator (a character created for this abridgment of the story) is quite good and I rather enjoyed the interaction between the narrator and Bilbo. It reminded me of someone telling a story around a campfire and another person coming in and clarifying a point from time to time as the story was being told.

But, there are problems. The dwarves tended to blend together and sounded like a rowdy, whiny frat party most of the time with a lot of hooting, grunting and complaining. But, with 13 dwarves it would have been very difficult to do much with them anyway, except to cut down on the extra noise of having all or most of them speak at the same time in scene after scene. On top of that, the names are pronounced differently in this version than I have ever heard them. Gandalf is pronounced with the emphasis on the last syllable and sometimes sounds like gand-ELF. Gollum is pronounced Gul-loom.

But, that would have all been understandable and forgivable if that were the worst of the problems. The special effects are horrid. Sometimes they are too loud so that they dominate the scene (as in when they are carried by the giant eagles) and other times they are pathetic. For instance, in the scene with the wargs there is no attempt made to make the wargs sound wolf-like. Instead, the actors are all baying, "Woooo-ooooo-ooo!" at the microphone. Throw in the horrid voices of the thrush and the eagles and scenes that are meant to be a treat becomes something that must be endured. This adaptation was made on the cheap and it shows, especially when compared to the high quality work done by companies like GraphicAudio nowadays.

I rate this audiobook 2 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: The Hobbit.

Reviewed on September 22, 2012.

Capitol Murder (Ben Kincaid #14) by William Bernhardt

Published in 2006 by Ballantine Books

Years ago I worked at a used book store and I was introduced to William Berhnardt's Ben Kincaid series by a co-worker. Pretty soon, all of us were reading the series and recommending it to others and they were moving off the shelf pretty briskly. Ben Kincaid does that to you - he is a likable guy with a rumpled suit and no ego that just wants to do what is best for his friends, family and, of course, his clients.

But, I haven't read a Ben Kincaid novel in a long time (8 years according to the other Ben Kincaid review on this blog: Murder One). The good and the bad thing is that William Bernhardt's Ben Kincaid is a lot like Janet Evanovich' s Stephanie Plum. Despite all of the different adventures and experiences, the characters just do not change. Read book 5, book 10, book 14 - it does not matter. Just jump right in. Of course, this is a mixed blessing. It is an invitation to being stale, but also a recognition that people like comfortable characters.

In Capitol Murder, an aide to Oklahoma's senior Senator is found dead in his secret hideaway in the capitol buidling itself just after a video of them involved in a sexual act is released. Ben Kincaid grew up with the senator and Ben is summoned to lead his defense. His investigator, Loving, digs up enough information to discover that there is a lot more to this case and the victim than meets the eye, including a hidden world of vampires and sex clubs.

Bernhardt decides to keep Kincaid's defense hidden from the reader. The reader learns about the strategies as the case proceeds, which is not the way most legal thrillers work. I found it frustrating and I found the back story on the victim to be quite ridiculous.

I have to give this book 3 stars out of 5

Reviewed on September 22, 2012.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bill Smith Goes to College by David Stag

 An Over-The-Top Satire About College

Published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform in 2012.

We all know that going to college is a major life event. Everything changes in a student's daily life - new place to live, new routines, new friends, new responsibilities and, of course, being exposed to new ideas. 

But, those of us who have gone to college know that the happy brochures that prospective parents pore over with their teenagers are not quite reality. Despite the promises to support young academics in their quest for truth and knowledge, incompetent administration, petty professors and arbitrary decisions often act to make college less of a quest for knowledge and more a test of a young person's ability to bend and twist to the whims of a bureaucratic system. Can you go along to get along? If so, step forward and get your diploma.

David Stag's Bill Smith Goes to College is a satire, somewhat in the vein of Jonathan Swift's famed essay, A Modest Proposal. Or, if you like a more modern example, it is in the vein of Rush Limbaugh's declaration that he illustrates "the absurd with absurdity." Take the crazy situation and make it even more crazy to make your point.

So, what is Stag's point exactly?

He has a bunch of them. Here are a few:

1) You are on your own when you go to college;

2) Your values will not be respected if they disagree with those sanctioned by the college;

3) Your time will not be respected;

4) There are prescribed classes to take on a list. You need to take them and not worry about what they have to do with your major;

5) Most professors have nothing new to say, even though they are required to publish. And, once they publish, no one really reads what they read anyway;

6) Some people never leave college;

7) Sometimes you are taught things that make no sense. Just go with it;

8) Some people like to protest against everything. They are annoying and mindless (even though they think they are enlightened);

9) On the other hand, think for yourself and act when you need to.

10) College is a racket, a scheme to bilk the government out of a lot of money in student loans and grants.

When Bill Smith arrives at Mountebank University (yes, it is intentional -a mountebank is a person who tricks people out of their money) and finds that he has no dorm room (he has to sleep at the end of the hallway), the showers are co-ed (but don't look too much or you'll be slapped with a harassment suit!) and his schedule doesn't really make any sense. 

As he goes through his first week at college he meets a colorful cast of over-the-top crazy people who make life at college a confusing mess. Every university employee is exaggerated to make Stag's point and most work quite well (with the glaring exception of Adolph Hilter, a character based on Hitler).  However, I really enjoyed the psych professor named Dr. Flake who had a complete breakdown in front of class.

So, if you like sedate satire, the kind that settles in smoothly and causes you to ponder, well...this ain't it. But, if you like in-your-face satire that never lets up and makes it points early and often this is your book.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. 

Note: this book was sent to me by the author to be reviewed, but the review is my honest opinion.




Friday, September 14, 2012

Black Mask Stories #7: The Shrieking Skeleton and Other Crime Fiction from the Legendary Magazine (audiobook) edited by Otto Penzler

 Hard-boiled detective mysteries at their best

Published by Highbridge Audio in 2012
Duration: 6 hours, 31 minutes.
Narrated by Peter Ganim, Richard Ferrone, Jeff Gurner, David Ledoux

Black Mask magazine was a classic of the era of the pulp magazines. It's specialty was detective stories. If you love the movies with the hard-boiled detective in a trench coat with a smart mouth, a quick gun and even quicker fists who gets hired by some "dame" then this is your series.

Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970)
In the seventh release of the series, Highbridge Audio brings us five stories of varying lengths read by four different narrators. Every story begins with a short introduction to each author that includes a mini-biography of their career and of the characters featured. Many of these characters that made their way to the Hollywood big screen and the title story (The Shrieking Skeleton) is written by Charles M. Green, a pseudonym of Erle Stanley Gardner, a prolific author best known for creating Perry Mason.

Ironically, Gardner's story is the weakest (meaning it was merely pretty good, but not great) in this very strong collection. If you like lines like, "It was a perfect setting for murder," this is a good bet for you. These are the classic stories that became the movies that shaped our views of what makes a detective story and they are a lot of fun in their original glory.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on September 14, 2012.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Christians on the Move: The Book of Acts: The Continuing Work of Jesus Christ Through the Apostles and the Early Church (What the Bible is All About Bible Study Series) by Henrietta C. Mears, Bayard Taylor and Dr. Gary S. Grieg



A Fine Introduction to New Testament History

Published in 2012 by Gospel Light

Henrietta C. Mears (1890-1963)
Part of a larger series of Bible studies based on Henrietta C. Mears' larger book that looks at every book in the Bible, What the Bible Is All About. This series takes her commentaries and uses them as the springboard for a Bible study. Personally, I did not do the Bible study. I saw the book and thought it would be an interesting look at the early history of the church. I used it as a history and read it the way the original text was intended to be read, although I did glance at some of the Bible study questions from time to time.

The text is easy to read and very approachable. The author is good about noting when some areas are a little unsure and gives the reader the most probable answer (for example, it is not entirely clear if Paul worked when he went to a new city to preach, but he probably did based on some of his comments).

If there are references to texts or ways of thinking that are largely forgotten, the book explains them and shows the connection in order to make the meaning of the original text of Acts more clear. The story is told in a chronological format that follows the text of the Book of Acts and supports the reader with thoughtful questions that reinforce knowledge of the text and encourage the reader to become more active.

This was an enjoyable short history. Note, it is not an exhaustive study, nor was that its intent. It is an introduction and it does a fine job of that.

I rate it 5 out of 5 stars.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Christians on the Move.

Reviewed on September 8, 2012.

The Fifth Witness (Mickey Haller #4) by Michael Connelly



Middle of the Road Addition to the Series

Published by Vision (Hatchette Book Group) in 2011

While I am a devoted and enthusiastic fan of Connelly's Harry Bosch series, I am merely a fan of the Mickey Haller Lincoln Lawyer series. On the whole, it just lacks the same brooding intensity of the Bosch series - that sense that the world is not right and Harry Bosch is on the case to sort out at least one little part of it.

Michael Connelly
Hot shot defense lawyer Mickey Haller has fallen on rough times in this recession and he is forced to take foreclosure defense cases to keep his practice healthy. Fortunately for Haller, the Los Angeles area has plenty of foreclosures and not all of them were done "by the book" so there is a way for a talented lawyer to earn a living.

When one of Haller's foreclosure clients is accused of killing the bank officer who has been in charge of foreclosing on her home. She loudly insists that she is innocent and as Haller starts to mount a defense the evidence shows that there may well be larger issues at work here...

I was torn with this book. The book just did not have the oomph factor that the first Haller book did. It sort of cruised along, sometimes with a little jolt to perk things up. There are a couple of nice twists at the end were a surprise, but not enough to make it more than a 3 star out of 5 stars book.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Fifth Witness.

Reviewed on September 8, 2012.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh by Jeff Shaara



A Great Start to a New Civil War Trilogy

Published by Ballantine Books in May of 2012

Jeff Shaara returns to the familiar topic of the Civil War after writing two books about the Revolutionary War, one book about the Mexican War, one book about World War I and four books about World War II. Fans of Jeff Shaara and his father Michael know that they have a special feel for the Civil War and this book shows that Jeff's talents as a writer have only grown.

I don't know if Jeff Shaara could have written about just one battle (like his father did about Gettysburg in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Killer Angels) when he wrote the first and third books that completed the Civil War trilogy about the war in the Eastern Theater. However, he pulls it off magnificently in this novel.

Shaara notes in his introduction that his previous books focused on the generals and he has since learned the value of seeing the battle from multiple perspectives. He does it very well here, moving from character to character to keep the pace of the story moving briskly and thoroughly covering this confusing battle.


Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston (1803-1862)
I was particularly interested in seeing how Shaara characterized the Confederate commander Albert Sidney Johnston and his second-in-command, P.G.T. Beauregard. Although I have read dozens of Civil War histories and novels, Johnston is always skimmed over, seeing as how he dies in his first major battle of the war. Typically, most authors try to make it as though Johnston's death was a fatal blow to the Confederates in the Western Theater, almost as if he were another Robert E. Lee. Shaara does not succumb to that temptation. Instead, his interpretation of Johnston shows him to be a complex man, certainly the strongest general in the field that day, but hardly a towering figure. That being said, Shaara suggests that the battle would have ended differently if Johnston had not been killed.

Let me take a moment here to discuss the portrayal of the death of Johnston in the book. Shaara's work in depicting his death is so well done that it is nearly poetic. He does not sugarcoat the foolishness of a general personally leading his men into battle (they tend to get shot) but he also recognizes that sometimes a general needs to be exactly that sort of fool in order to win the battle.

Shaara's treatment of Beauregard is about the same as most Civil War histories. Beauregard's knack for self-promotion overcomes his talents, and clearly the man had a knack for getting his men to the fight and doing well. He won at the first Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), the Shiloh campaign was mostly his design and he was bedridden during most of it, he saved his army from being surrounded at Corinth, he saved Petersburg (and Richmond) in 1864 while grossly outnumbered. But, there is something about him that doesn't quite work and Shaara passes that feeling on to the reader as well.

Great beginning to a new trilogy. I can't wait until next year to get my hands on the second book.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh (the Civil War in the West)

Reviewed on September 2, 2012.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

A World Out of Time (audiobook) by Larry Niven



To the center of the galaxy and back

Re-published by Blackstone Audio in 2012.
Read by Tom Weiner
Duration: 7 hours, 59 minutes
Unabridged

First published in 1976, A World Out of Time is a grand adventure that literally follows its hero, Corbell,  across the galaxy and across three million years of time as he reacts to one twist after another that eventually finds him carrying the fate of the entire world on his shoulders.

The story begins with Corbell being revived from being frozen in a cryogenic chamber almost 200 years after he had been frozen in the 1970s because he had in incurable form of cancer. He is not in his own body, however. The patterns of his mind have been recovered and scanned into the "mindwiped" empty brain of a criminal by a totalitarian government called "The State." The State controls the entire world and is interested in interplanetary travel. The great distances and times involved have compelled The State to revive some of the "corpsicles" in order to train them to fly seeder ships that will introduce oxygen-creating simple life to likely planets in order to begin the prep work that will make them habitable. They are sending revived people because it will have to be a solo trip and these people have no friends or loved ones that they would miss (and are given no time to make new friends).

Larry Niven (Photo by David Corby)
So, Corbell passes all of the tests and is launched into space. But, his independent nature is not anticipated by The State and he steals the spaceship and heads to the center of the galaxy with nothing but a sarcastic and difficult computer named Peerssa for company. Their travels last for three million years on Earth, but are less than that on the ship due to the effects of Relativity and a stasis bed.

When Corbell and Peerssa make it back to Earth, but almost nothing about the solar system is recognizable - the sun is too big, the Earth's climate is radically changed, Jupiter is acting like a small sun, planets and moons are missing and orbits are not the same. But, this is Earth and Corbell is determined to return home, even a home that is super-heated, dry and mostly de-populated.

The second part of the story is where the heart of the story lies. Corbell is now an old man exploring a world he barely recognizes. Plants, animals and people have evolved since he last was on earth three million years earlier. Corbell's eventually learns what happened to The State, the solar system and Earth. He also learns that man has found a way to be immortal (actually two ways) and that there was also a literal war between the sexes and the ramifications of that war threaten all of humanity in multiple ways. In fact, the title accurately describes the situation that Corbell finds - a world that is out of time to do anything but find a way to save itself from its own foolish actions.

This book was originally two separate short stories, which goes a long way towards explaining the two distinct parts of A World Out of Time. The overall flow of the book is herky-jerky at best. Sometimes it hums along, other times there are slow sections such as the long, detailed tale of how Corbell made a fire and hunting tools and then stalked, killed, plucked, gutted and cooked a turkey and then had more of it the next day.

The feel of the book reminded me of a lite version of Robert A. Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold. Part of that comes from the fact that both were read by Tom Weiner and he used the same gruff voice characterization for the lead characters in both books. But, they also both feature time travel, loosened sexual mores that would make Larry Flynt blush, a world order turned upside down, and hard men who strive for what they want above all else.

Tom Weiner's voice characterization was solid throughout. He created distinctive voices that matched the personalities of the characters. The story itself is up and down, but Weiner's reading helps it through the worst patches and makes the better parts work a little better.

This is the first of three books about The State.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found here: A World Out of Time.

Reviewed on September 1, 2012.