"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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Monday, December 31, 2012

Lightning Rider [Kindle] by Rick Mofina



Published in 2011 by Carrick Publishing

This short story does a great job of creating a vivid cast of characters. The setting is in an armored car that collects from Las Vegas casinos. The crew is headed up by Elmer Gask, a mouthy sexist racist who is one week from retirement. He is very proud to have never been successfully robbed and is looking forward to getting a reward of $22,000 for 22 loss-free years of carrying millions of dollars every day.

His crew today consists of Latino Gil Perez and Native American Jessica Scout. They are frequent targets of Gask's abusive tongue-lashings, although Scout seems to be a special target because not only is she a minority, she is also an extremely beautiful young woman.

But, as Gask finds out, today will not be a normal day in the armored car...

I rate this kindle book 4 stars out of 5 due to the clunky ending. But the rest of the story is quite good.

This story can be found on Amazon.com here: Lightning Rider

Reviewed on December 31, 2012.

Backlash: A Novelette [Kindle Edition] by Nancy Fulda



This kindle short story clocks in at about 31 estimated pages. It is a truly interesting bit of sci-fi. My only complaint is that it felt like the story was just getting started and then it ended. I hope that someday this book is expanded into a full-fledged book.


Eugene Gutierez is a former anti-terrorist agent having dinner with his college-aged daughter and her latest boyfriend. He cannot imagine what she sees in him. Soon the evening collapses when his fortune cookie comes with this message: "Eugene Gutierez. Activation code: pupae." He assumes this new boyfriend has made a cruel attempt at a practical joke and he does not appreciate it. Gutierez suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder - he gets powerful panic attacks and flashbacks, described as "that gasping feeling as the world sp[ins] out of control."

Gutierez's world will truly spin out of control in the next few hours as time traveling secret agents desperately try to utilize the skills of his former life and he discovers that his daughter is involved in things that could not have imagined...


I rate this short story 5 stars out of 5.

This novelette can be found on Amazon.com here: Backlash: A Novelette

Reviewed on December 31, 2012.

The 1940s: A Brief History [Kindle Edition] by Vook



Published in 2011 by Vook.

Vook is a publisher of e-books enhanced with video clips (Video + Book = Vook). This history is short (Amazon estimates it would be about 32 pages on paper) so it is unlikely to satisfy a history purist. It is very lightweight due to its short length but very readable.

The result is about the same as if you read the chapter on World War II and the 1940s in a standard high school world history book. The broadest of outlines are there but if this is all you knew about World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War you would be one un-educated person indeed. At best, this is an introduction to the topic. Considering how long of a shadow World War II and the Cold War have cast, this is too short and too shallow to be of much value.



Adolf Hitler in strategy session
The Chapter titles are:

-"The Greatest Generation"

-The Cold War
-Boom Times
-Making Military Technology Civil
-Hurray for Hollywood
-Breaking the Race Barrier
-40s Pop Culture
-Everyday People

I rate this kindle book 2 stars out of 5.


This e-book can be found online at Amazon.com here: The 1940s: A Brief History (Enhanced Version)


Reviewed on December 31, 2012.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Eyes Wide Open by Andrew Gross



Published in 2011 by Harper Fiction

Andrew Gross just keeps on cranking out solid escapist thrillers. This is not life-changing literature but it sure is a book that can make you late for work in the morning because you just can't put it down!


Morro Bay City with Morro Rock in the background.
Photo by K.J. Kolb
In Eyes Wide Open we follow Jay Erlich, a New York surgeon. His brother, who lives in Morro Bay, California calls and tells him that his nephew has climbed the giant rock in the bay and fallen to his death from it and the police are ruling it a suicide. Erlich's brother and his nephew both suffer from mental illness but his brother is sure that it is not a suicide. Erlich rushes out to comfort his brother and his sister-in-law and help them figure out what happened.

When he arrives, he discovers that there are a lot of unanswered questions and things look suspicious. The more Erlich digs, the more he discovers that there may be a connection between his nephew's death and a long-forgotten connection between his brother and a Charles Manson-type cult that his brother refuses to discuss...

I rate this book 4 out of 5 stars.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Eyes Wide Open

Reviewed on December 30, 2012.

Old Librarians Never Die They Jump Out of Airplanes: Adventuring Through the Senior Years by



Good advice for all people, not just older folks

Published in 2012 by Hawthorne Publishing.

Indiana State Library
Marie Albertson found herself an empty nester widow in Plymouth, Indiana after helping raise four children and then taking care of a husband with Parkinson's. What does she do? Go to the local Senior Center every Tuesday and sit home and watch TV?

No. Albertson continues what she always has done - what no one expected. She had already earned a college degree one class at a time having to pay for it herself because her husband thought it was a waste of time for her to get one. (note: she worked at the Plymouth Library which I am familiar with, having lived in Plymouth from 1990-1993). Albertson took her degree and her library experience to Indianapolis and worked for the Indiana State Library and make a new life for herself - at age 63!

Not only that, she has determined to go and do all sorts of new things - and that's what this book is all about. Her travels, her willingness to learn new things and do new things and just refuse to sit still. She even suggests running for political office, something she has done twice.

Clearly, Albertson is blessed with good health and has enough financial independence to travel the world, including trips to China and Egypt, a horseback camping adventure in California and riding in gliders in Indiana and Arizona. But, to her credit, she offers other ideas and local options that are not very expensive but would provide a similar experience. She also provides other travel tips as well.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Old Librarians Never Die They Jump Out of Airplanes

Reviewed on December 30, 2012.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Steel Deal by James Blakley



Published in 2010 by Inkwater Press

Sonny Busco is a down-on-his-luck 55 year old private detective who is broke. He is so broke that he works more for a security guard company than he does as a private detective. He is so broke that he owes money to loan sharks and he is behind on his payments. He is so broke that he's not sure if his car will start and if it does if it will even get him there. He is so broke that he pawned his gun! 

But, Busco gets the offer of his life - just carry a briefcase to Santa Fe, New Mexico for enough cash to get him out of debt to the loan shark. When Busco borrows a car to meet his new client things fall apart very quickly. Soon he's racing across town in a borrowed car trying to figure out what is really going on and most importantly, keep himself alive in the process.


The Steel Deal starts out very strong. Blakley creates a very detailed world for Sonny Busco. Busco is a likable guy with a great set of friends and connections who support him, even if they are getting a little tired of Busco's hard luck ways. I was reminded of The Rockford Files and Magnum, P.I. and how those characters are always asking their friends for favors and that it was often a team effort, albeit a reluctant one. Busco is that sort of character.

But, to go back to the television detectives again, Busco leaves the more realistic world of Rockford and Magnum once his case starts and enters a surreal world much like that of the old Batman and Get Smart television shows. The characters have matching names like Pixy and Bambi, Sage and Savante, Hans and Franz and Bramble and Thorne, just like the Joker and Catwoman used to do with their henchmen. The story keeps getting odder and odder. Imagine Jim Rockford wandering around in a Batman episode and that's how lost I felt at times.

To me, this was like two different books - one is a gritty noir novel about a down-on-his-luck detective looking for a big score and the other is surrealistic and campy. Both kinds of books are fine and this book did them both well - I just did not enjoy the mixing of the two.

Would I come back for another read if Blakley writes another detective book? Yes, there's lots to like here. Blakley shows some skill, especially in character creation in the grittier parts of the book. I especially liked the character Zen, a middle-aged overweight woman in spandex from the gym who carts Busco around throughout the middle of the book in her SUV trying to figure out what's going on while he tries to lose her without hurting his feelings or getting her killed. She shows Busco's desperation but also his decency.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Steel Deal.

Reviewed on December 29, 2012.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. The author writes a very nice e-mail and has some of the neatest handwriting I have ever seen (really, it's like a font).

Shatner Rules: Your Key to Understanding the Shatnerverse and the World at Large (audiobook) by William Shatner with Chris Regan



Published by Penguin Audio in 2011
Read by the author, William Shatner
Duration: 4 hours, 27 minutes
Non-fiction, biography

If you are a fan of William Shatner, this is a must-read, or a must-listen if you prefer to listen to the audiobook version like I did.

Shatner is unique and if you do not appreciate his odd blend of storytelling, self-promotion and urge to stroke his own ego then please skip this book. But, if you think a little self-promotion (actually, a lot of it) is okay and are willing to tolerate Shatner's ego trips for the sake of a good story than this short audiobook should please.

Most of the book covers the last 5 years or so of his career under the guise of explaining several rules that he  has followed throughout his career. The most important rule and the most consistently followed is his admonition to say yes to opportunity. Throughout the book he talks about the positives that he has had in his career due to his willingness to say yes, including a rather long convoluted story about how his willingness to make the almost universally panned The Transformed Man album in the late 1960s led to his getting the part of Denny Crane and receiving two Emmy Awards in the 2000s.

By and large, though, this book could easily be considered a tongue-in-cheek promo for William Shatner, Inc. He talks about his roles on The Twilight Zone , Star Trek , T.J. Hooker , The Practice , the Star Trek movies, his TekWar books, his current cable shows, his disputes with other members of the Star Trek cast and his part in the Vancouver Winter Olympics closing ceremonies.

I enjoyed it although I could have done without the 5 minutes and 20 seconds of narration in the made up language of Esperanto (he made a movie filmed entirely in Esperanto in 1965). I suggest the audio version so you can get the full Shatner experience.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Shatner Rules.

Reviewed on December 29, 2012.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Bad Luck and Trouble (Jack Reacher #11) by Lee Child



Published by Dell in 2012.
Originally published in in 2007 by Delacorte Press

I must live under a rock. I had not read any Jack Reacher novel until I read this one and I had not even heard of the series until last summer when a fellow blogger was excitedly talking about the latest release.

So, what did I think?

First of all, you do not have to have read any of the rest of the series to follow what is happening in this story. Jack Reacher is a drifter and he has been since he retired from the U.S. Army in 1997. In the military he led an investigation squad of the military police. Like Clint Eastwood's famed "Man WIth No Name" character from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Reacher says little, keeps his own counsel and does what he thinks is best, follow his own sense of justice and drifts from place to place.

Lee Child
In Bad Luck and Trouble, Reacher receives a message from a former member of his unit. He tracks her down and discovers that another former member was murdered - dropped from a helicopter in the desert outside of Los Angeles. The re-assemble as many members as they can and soon discover that four former members are missing, presumed dead. They vow to discover who did this and get revenge.

This is an action-packed book and I blew right through it. This is not deep literature, but it is solid escapist story-telling. The characters are under-developed and I got a little tired of the Jack Reacher personae (ultra-stoic tough guy). I appreciate tough guy stories but I really like them to have an abundance of personality like Robert B. Parker's Spenser or Robert Crais's Elvis Cole. Reacher's lack of personality (or, perhaps, an over-abundance of focus on the problem at hand) scream for someone to lighten the mood from time to time.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Bad Luck and Trouble (Jack Reacher, No. 11)

Reviewed December 28, 2012.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash [Abridged] (audiobook) by Sylvia Nasar



Published by Simon and Schuster Audio in 2001
Read by Edward Herrmann
Duration: 5 hours, 55 minutes
Abridged

I freely admit that I am one of the few people that did not see the movie A Beautiful Mind. So, I decided to give the audiobook a try. Turns out, I have discovered after a little research,  the book and the movie have little in common. Fair enough.

The plot in short is that John Nash was identified as a mathematical genius in college and brought into several special programs to develop that genius. He specialized in what laymen might call "pure" mathematics but he also was intrigued by economics. In 1959 he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and he spent time in and out of several mental hospitals. Eventually, he was released from those hospitals and he lived in and around the Princeton campus as a shadowy figure who left mathematical equations on the chalkboards when no one was around. After more than 25 years, Nash finally began to emerge from his illness. He groundbreaking work in the 1950s in economics was recognized in 1994 when he received the Nobel Prize for Economics.

I listened to the almost 6 hour long abridged version read by veteran actor and spokesman Edward Herrmann, not the 18 hour unabridged version read by Anna Fields. Keeping in mind that readers read at different paces, it is still quite obvious that a lot of the original book was cut out of my edition.

Sadly, I cannot say that I am sorry that I missed a lot of this book. The best parts of the book describe the community he worked in and his relationships with other people. Unfortunately, there are long descriptions of the very very high level mathematics he worked on. If I were reading these passages in a text, I would skim them, but it is quite difficult to skim with an audiobook in the car CD player. Instead, I endured mind-numbingly confusing descriptions of geometric concepts and game theory.

Even worse, the portrayal of John Nash in the book makes it hard to have any human sympathy for the man when "he slipped into madness" as the blurb on the back of the audiobook describes it. He was cruel to the women in his life, he was cruel to his students, he was indifferent to almost everyone else except for those few that he would obsess over to a level that we would describe as stalking nowadays. What I was struck by was a sense of his being an utter sociopath.

When his illness overtook him I felt less for the loss of a human being and more for the loss of his mathematical genius. I felt the loss of his utility to humanity as a whole and not the loss of his own humanity. He expressed so little human decency before he became so ill that he could not help but feel that his illness was a sort of cosmic Karma punishing him. I am sure that was not the intention of the author (and that these were all symptoms of his mental illness in its early forms), but I was struck by it as I listened and I did not enjoy it. I am sure that is why the movie is so different.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on December 27, 2012

Monday, December 24, 2012

It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership by Colin Powell with Tony Koltz



Published in 2012 by Harper

Colin Powell updates his 2003 memoir My American Journey with It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership. The book is really two books. The first part is an expansion on an article that was written about him for Parade magazine in 1989. In that article he listed 13 rules he had for life:

  1. It ain't as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.
  2. Get mad, then get over it.
  3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
  4. It can be done!
  5. Be careful what you choose. You may get it.
  6. Don't let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
  7. You can't make someone else's choices. You shouldn't let someone else make yours.
  8. Check small things.
  9. Share credit.
  10. Remain calm. Be kind.
  11. Have a vision. Be demanding.
  12. Don't take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
  13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.
Colin Powell speaking at the United Nations
Powell then expands on each of these rules, often throwing in interesting real life anecdotes that illustrate the points, including details about his life as a child of immigrants in New York City, his educational career and plenty of stories about his military career at all levels.

The second half of the book is an expansion of his memoir, as noted above. He talks about his life as a professional speaker and other things he has learned over the years (the importance of delegating so you can stay focused on your job, for example, he learned from Ronald Reagan). 

The most interesting part was his descriptions of his time as Secretary of State and his (in)famous speech at the United Nations in which he laid out the details of Iraq's presumed program of building weapons of mass destruction. He uses it to illustrate a larger point that goes with the delegating responsibility lesson I mentioned in the previous paragraph. Clearly he is not happy with the information he was given but he comes short of blaming the Bush Administration of setting him up or of pulling a "bait and switch" operation, which will disappoint some.

I rate this book 5 stars out 5.
Reviewed on December 24, 2012.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Last Man (Mitch Rapp #13) (audiobook) by Vince Flynn



Published by Simon and Schuster in 2012
Read by Armand Schultz
Duration: Approximately 6 hours
Abridged

In The Last Man, Vince Flynn takes a break from the Mitch Rapp prequels and puts Mitch right in the thick of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. He is brought in to investigate the disappearance (a presumed home invasion kidnapping) of Joe Rickman, the head of the CIA's clandestine operations in Afghanistan. In fact, he's been involved in so many clandestine operations that he could singlehandedly gut the intelligence agency's efforts in multiple countries around the world.
Vince Flynn (photo by Phil Konstantin)

But, as Rapp and his team start to investigate they find that all of the pieces don't quite fit together. Add to that an FBI agent that believes that Rapp and Rickman have pocketed millions of dollars intended for intelligence efforts in Afghanistan and the reappearance of a deadly man from Rapp's past and you have the basis for a good story.

While the action is solid, there is too much posturing by Rapp and probably too much taken out of this abridged edition of the book. It is 6 hours compared to 12 hours in the unabridged version and the story most likely suffers a lot. The abridged version gets the highlights ( Rapp shoots, fights, glowers, curses and throws righteous anger tantrums all over Afghanistan and Washington, D.C) but none of the stuff that makes those highlights a change from the norm (thus, a highlight). The accusation from the FBI agent comes off as cartoonish and the bad guy is so blatantly cruel that you have to wonder who would ever want to work with him (at one point he determines that he will have to kill a woman simply because she is ugly - not because she knows too much, but because she knows too much and she is too ugly). Rapp is badly injured in the story but  recovers so quickly that I wondered why the injury was even worked into the story line.

So, my recommendation: spend a few more bucks and get the unabridged version of the audiobook. It will most likely be a better experience.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on December 22, 2012

Note: I was sent a copy of this audiobook by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot (audiobook) by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard



Published in 2012 by MacMillan Audio
Duration: 8 hours, 25 minutes
Unabridged
Read by the author, Bill O'Reilly

I was a little reluctant to listen to this audiobook because of the author. Not Martin Dugard. This is the third book I have read or listened to that he has written or co-written and I know he can really tell a story. No, it's Mr. "No Spin Zone" that I cannot stand. Our politics are similar but I just find O'Reilly difficult to stomach.

That being said, I enjoyed this audiobook quite a lot.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963)
O'Reilly narrates the book which means it's a mixed bag. He speaks for a living so he reads it well and knows what phrases and words he wanted to emphasize but, like I said above, a little O'Reilly goes a long way for me. Also, his frequent use of dramatically read foreshadowing that alludes to the date of JFK's assassination got very old very fast.

But, the positives are the way the book is presented. O'Reilly tells the story of JFK from PT 109 forward and gives the reader of the man Kennedy was becoming. JFK's family life, his relationship with his brothers, LBJ and Jackie are explored in great detail and presented in an interesting fashion and really expose Kennedy's good points as well as his considerable failings.

As they tell the story of the Kennedy Administration, O'Reilly and Dugard lay out all of the parties that have been blamed for the assassination: the Cubans, the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, anti-civil rights crazies and Lee Harvey Oswald. O'Reilly and Dugard acknowledge that these other groups had a grudge against Kennedy but they go with the traditional explanation of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Perhaps the best piece of the book is how well they tell the story of Jackie Kennedy on the day of the assassination. It is a fine piece of writing that brought tears to my eyes at one point (please note, I have not been a particular fan of JFK or of O'Reilly so the fact that a bit of writing read by O'Reilly about JFK brought tears to my eyes speaks volumes about its power).

Well done.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on December 22, 2012

Note: I was provided a copy of this audiobook by the publisher in the hopes of receiving an honest review.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Killing Kennedy.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Sheriff of Sorrow (#1 in the series) (audiobook) by Jack Bates




Published in 2012 by Mind Wings Audio
Read by Joe Barrett
Duration: 1 hour, 6 minutes

Technically, The Sheriff of Sorrow is not a western because it takes place in northern Michigan. However, the story has all of the traditional pieces of a Western: a wild town, miners, rich guys manipulating the town, card games, people accused of cheating at card games, saloons, prostitutes, gun play and a new sheriff in town. Let's face it, in the days of the Old West, most of the rest of the country was not particularly settled, either.

This short story serves as the introduction to a new series about Sorrow, Michigan. Cal Haskell has been brought to town to be the new sheriff. The short story introduces most of the characters, give the listener a feel for the situation and establishes the new sheriff as a no-nonsense tough and smart guy that takes his job seriously - no matter who is involved.

The reader is Joe Barrett. I like Barrett's folksy midwestern voice. He does a good job with the voices of these stock Western characters (old prospector types, tough guys, slick gamblers, naive farm boys, etc.) without drifting into characterture.

This should be a strong series. I look forward to listening to more.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

The kindle version of this book can be found on Amazon.com here: Sheriff of Sorrow.

Reviewed on December 20, 2012.

Note: I received a free download of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Here is the link to my review of audiobook #2 in the series: Trouble Comes to Sorrow.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America (audiobook) by Steven M. Gillon



Published in June of 2006 by Random House Audio
Read by Stephen Hoye.
Unabridged
Duration: 8 hours, 51 minutes.

The book and audiobook for 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America are companion works for a History Channel series of the same name. They cover the same ten days but are independently researched and written. These dates are not the super-obvious ones like July 4, 1776 and December 7, 1941. One could quibble with the choices (it is part of the fun of a project like this one) but his choices are good ones.

Here are the ten days and a few comments:

1) May 26, 1637

The date of a Puritan massacre of Indians at Mystic. He argues that King Philip's War is the model of American/Indian relations for the next 250+ years.

2) January 25, 1787

Shay's Rebellion and its influence on the Constitution. Emphasized the need for a more centralized government.

3) January 24, 1848

California Gold Rush. Focused on environmental degradation and not so much on the effect of all that gold on the American economy. It was a rather depressing entry.

4) September 17, 1862

The Battle of Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation

5) July 6, 1892

The Homestead Strike against Carnegie Steel. The date of the battle against the Pinkerton agents. I was struck that the author noted in a single sentence that Carnegie (who comes off very poorly in this whole affair, no matter who is writing it) gave some money to charities. Carnegie gave away 90% of his immense fortune, well over $4 billion dollars in 2010 dollars, to charities across the globe, including having a hand in building nearly half of the public libraries in America (1,689 in total).

Carnegie was a complex man, he gets a one dimensional treatment in this entry.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)
6) September 6, 1901

The assassination of William McKinley and the subsequent Roosevelt Administration. The rise of activist government.

7) July of 1925

The Scopes Monkey Trial as a harbinger of future culture wars. Interestingly, it was started as a publicity stunt to attract tourists and is almost nothing like the play "Inherit the Wind."

8) August 2, 1939

Albert Einstein's letter to FDR about the possibility of the creation of an atomic bomb. This entry has some poor linkage to the Civil Rights movement and the creation of the Internet (I know it was created to communicate in the event of a nuclear war but this is still a stretch).

9) September 9, 1956

Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show. Focuses on the rise of teen culture, ending racial divisions and loosening sexual mores. This was an exceptionally long and interesting entry.

10) June 21, 1964

"Freedom Summer"

In a lot of ways, this entry was really and addendum to the points made in date number 9. It is a powerful entry and exceptionally well-read by the narrator, Stephen Hoye, who includes very good Southern accents when reading quotes by Southerners.

This will be an interesting listen for any history buff. Be prepared that the author's comments tend to drift to the political left. Nonetheless, it is well worth your time.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America (History Channel Presents)

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on December 18, 2012.

Deadly Appearances (Joanne Kilbourn #1) (audiobook) by Gail Bowen



Published by Post Hypnotic Press in 2012
Originally Published in 1990
Read by Lisa Bunting
Unabridged
Duration: 8 hours, 43 minutes

There are a dozen or so Joanne Kilbourn mysteries. They are set in Regina, Saskatchewan in Canada. Kilbourn is a middle-aged political party worker. She works behind the scenes helping to craft policy positions, write speeches, plan campaigns and the like.
Deadly Appearances literally starts with the murder of Andy Boychuck, a successful politician. Kilbourn has worked with him for years and he is suddenly dead from a poisoned glass of water he drank from as he began a celebratory speech.

As the book proceeds there is another murder and only Joanne has the key to solving the mystery as she struggles to put together her shattered professional life and deal with her own issues as a recent widow (her own husband died a couple of years earlier).

Lisa Bunting does a great job with the narration. She delivers on all of the emotions of Kilbourn – the frailty, the anger, the tenderness towards her own family. As a plus, Bunting’s accents are excellent.

But, quality narration does not overcome plot holes, the highly telegraphed ending and the poor pacing.

This mystery does not really get started until the book gets halfway done. The first half of the book is spent dealing with the emotions generated by the death of Boychuck and an incredibly long description of his funeral. The book is endlessly descriptive (clothes, hair colors, the weather, furniture, yards, food, drinks) but just fails to generate any sort of steam that propels it forward.

*******Spoiler Alert********

Most unforgivable is the treatment of the minister who is involved in a homosexual love triangle with a married man (the other man is married and involved with two different men at the same time). While it is true that some denominations accept openly gay ministers (and his seems unlikely to be one of those since they are referred to as Fundamentalist and consitently treated as simpletons who have fled the real world by the author), they are not forgiving of ministers who are involved with married men. That is clearly the sin of adultery. In a book that is all about exploring the dimensions of a tragic relationship, this book completely ignores this minister’s flock’s reaction to his choices.

*******End Spoiler Alert*******

Having read a little about this author, the consensus is that this first book is the roughest. I can believe it. If the other books maintain her high quality of development of realistic characters but eliminate the problems mentioned above this series could really be something special.

I rate it 3 out of 5 stars.

Reviewed on December 18, 2012.

Note: I received this audiobook from the publisher at no charge in exchange for an honest review. This book can be found on Amazon.com here:Deadly Appearances (Kilbourn series) 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book: The Definitive Guide to Getting Your Ugly On by Brian Miller, Adam Paulson and Kevin Wool



Published in 2011 by Abrams Image

Miller, Paulson and Wool (better known as Team Ugly) maintain the website uglychristmassweaterparty.com which is a re-seller of Christmas sweaters - the gaudier and more covered with Christmas bling, the better. This book tells the reader how to organize an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party, including ideas on how to turn it into a charity event, special adult beverages, games, ideas for gift exchanges and decorations.

But, the bulk of the book is "The Ugly Christmas Hall of Fame." There are nearly 100 pages of pictures of Ugly Christmas Sweaters that are named and delightfully described with a snarky paragraph or two. This is really more of a holiday coffee table book than a serious read. This is something to pick up and read for a couple of minutes and then move on. But, those few minutes will be amusing, the pictures of those atrocious sweaters are high quality and you'll find yourself wondering if you should pick one of these things sweaters up for yourself.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on December 15, 2012.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Conqueror: A Novel of Kublai Khan by Conn Iggulden



Published in 2011 by Delacorte Press

Conn Iggulden continues his historical fiction series about the Mongols with Conqueror: A Novel of Kublai Khan. This is the fifth book in the series, but you can easily jump in here, like I did, and not be lost so long as you have a rudimentary idea about the Mongols and their lifestyle.

Iggulden comments that he was interested in writing another trilogy focusing on Kublai Khan but decided against it when he realized that while Kublai's life and reign were interesting (Marco Polo, attempted invasions of Japan, etc. ), they were not nearly as dramatic as his early life and would be rather anti-climactic in comparison.

Kublai Khan (1215-1294) 
as a young man
Kublai is a grandson if Genghis Khan and he comes of age in a time of great political turmoil. The Mongols are undoubtedly the most dominant military force in Europe, Asia and the Middle East but they have no clear leader. Various relatives of Genghis Khan have a claim to the throne and the political give-and-take can be quite deadly.

Eventually, Kublai's oldest brother becomes the Great Khan. One of his little brothers is sent to the Middle East and Kublai is sent to northern China to subdue it. The bulk of the book is about this campaign and the ongoing political struggles in the Mongol Empire. For me, it was striking to realize how the Mongols were truly a bridge between Europe, the Middle East and China. It was interesting to note that Kublai was familiar with Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity as well as his own native Mongol beliefs.

The action is first rate and the political intrigues are simplified and explained well enough that readers will not have a problem. Iggulden has sacrificed strict historical accuracy for the sake of a better story. At times you can tell that Iggulden intended to write a much larger story - characters are fleshed out in detail and then abruptly dropped with little explanation. But, the story is still a good one and worthy of your time.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on December 12, 2012.