"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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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

THE BEST OF 2014

THE BEST OF 2014

This is a list of the best of the best of the 72 books and short stories that I read
or listened to in 2014. They did not have to be released in 2014.

I broke the books into several categories. The reviews are linked. 

* indicates the best book in that category.


Fiction books:


*Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez

The Black Box (Harry Bosch #18) by Michael Connelly

Steelheart (The Reckoners Book #1) by Brandon Sanderson

Republic: A Novel of America's Future by Charles Sheehan-Miles


Short Story:

*Truth and Dare by Nathanael Green

The Big Trip Up Yonder by Kurt Vonnegut

Noose by Ernie Lindsey

Mildred by Sean Ryan O'Reilly

Hard Place by Ernie Lindsey


Non-Fiction books:

*Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think by Victor Davis Hanson


Game Plan: How to Protect Yourself from the Coming Cyber-economic Attack by Kevin D. Freeman


An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker

Crazy is Normal: A Classroom Expose by Lloyd Lofthouse

The History of the Ancient World:  From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome by Susan Wise Bauer



Fiction audiobook:

*Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (Read by Kirby Heyborne)

Orbit by John J. Nance (Read by John J. Nance)

The Sea of Trolls (Sea of Trolls Trilogy #1) by Nancy Farmer (Read by Gerald Doyle)

Trident's First Gleaming: A Special Operations Group Thriller by Stephen Templin (Read by Brian Troxell)


Non-fiction audiobook:

*The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible (audiobook) by Simon Winchester (Read by Simon Winchester)

Mandela: An Audio History by Radio Diaries (multiple performers)

A Call to Arms: Women, Religion, Violence and Power by Jimmy Carter (Read by Jimmy Carter)

NPR Chronicles: World War I  by NPR (multiple performers)

NPR Driveway Moments: All About Animals by NPR (multiple performers)

THE CASE for CHRISTMAS: A JOURNALIST INVESTIGATES the IDENTITY of the CHILD in the MANGER (Kindle e-book) by Lee Strobel





A Lightweight Version of The Case for Christ

I picked The Case for Christmas up for free on Amazon.com as a Kindle e-book. For a freebie, this is a solid introduction to Lee Strobel and his style. But, if you purchase this book as a stand-alone book at the regular price of $1.99 it has issues.

A mosaic from the Hagia Sophia in
Constantinople
Issue #1. This book is a essentially an edited, truncated version of Lee Strobel's signature book, The Case for Christ. Now, I like The Case for Christ because it is very thorough and includes a lot of detailed arguments as to why Jesus is not who the Church claims he is and then proceeds to counter them. The Case for Christmas is almost exactly 1/3 of the length of The Case for Christ and the editing hurts.


Issue #2. Regularly priced at $1.99, this kindle e-book is 2/3 the price of the original source text it comes from. Right now, you can buy The Case for Christ for $2.99. Spend the extra dollar and get the much more complete, much better book.


Issue #3. The title. If I had known that this book was a mere re-tooling of The Case for Christ I would not have gotten it, even if I did get it for free. I own The Case for Christ in paper format. I assumed, because of the title, that The Case for Christmas would be a look at the Christmas story itself featuring interviews with experts on the birth of Christ. Instead, this is a re-working of an existing work that people may buy even though they already own the larger book that it is derived from. If the publisher is playing this game, it is a cheap, greedy move.


I rate this book 3 stars out of 5 because what is here is good stuff. Please, get the original book instead.

Find The Case for Christ here on Amazon.com: The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus


The Case for Christmas can be found here: The Case for Christmas: A Journalist Investigates the Identity of the Child in the Manger 

  Reviewed on December 31, 2014.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

SCAVENGERS (Posadas County Mysteries #11) by Steven F. Havill

   Posadas County Mysteries Not the Same Without Bill Gastner

First published in 2002.

Synopsis: The Posadas County Sheriff's office is short-handed when it gets word that a pilot spotted a body that has been shot in the middle-of-nowhere. Literally, in the middle-of-nowhere - not near a road, a train track, a business or anything. The bullets were fired just in hearing range of a gravel pit but no one thinks twice about bullets being fired in the New Mexico countryside because people hunt or shoot at varmints on a regular basis.

So, new Undersheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman and her team start to dig into what they have - a body in the desert and no other clues. Soon enough, they discover more, including a local connection to what may be an international crime spree (although, it's not hard to be international so close to such a porous border). With the addition of the sudden death of a suspected animal trafficker in a fiery explosion, the new Undersheriff has her hands full.

This book marks a critical point in the Posadas County Mysteries series. Up to this point the mysteries feature Bill Gastner, an old county undersheriff (in New Mexico, the undersheriff is the main advisor to the elected sheriff - usually the professional who makes sure the policies of the elected sheriff, who may not necessarily be a professional are enacted in a proper way). Gastner was getting too old to be a credible character - extensive experience, lots of knowledge and talent are great things to have but it just becomes hard for a set of almost 80-year-old knees to climb up and down buttes and ladders and impossible to imagine Gastner chasing down anyone unless it is in a nursing home. In fact, you can just about guarantee that Bill Gastner would have died in a pivotal moment in this story involving a late night run in the desert and a hike in and out of a wash.


A southern New Mexico landscape. Photo by NMTrey.
The thing is, that is just too bad because I loved reading about cranky old Bill and his love for super-spicy burritos for breakfast and his insomnia that preceded all kinds of late night inspiration when solving mysteries. I sympathized with his creaky knees and admired his determination. Gastner does make a couple of short appearances in this book.

Gastner is replaced by Estelle Reyes-Guzman. She has been in and out of the series (mostly in) from the beginning and would be a remarkably good choice for the sheriff to pick to be the new undersheriff. She is capable, has the respect of the department, she is a woman (to counterbalance the male sheriff), she speaks Spanish, she has strong connections with the Mexican community directly across the border. 


But, she is also very boring. 


I had a hard time getting into this book. I liked the set up but then the middle half of the book just dragged. The secondary mystery with the burros was ultimately a let-down. The primary mystery ended with a lot of excitement but it just took too long to get there. 


I love the Gastner mysteries but I may not look into any more of the Reyes-Guzman stories.

On a positive note, the Spanish in the book is excellent (I am a Spanish teacher). Most authors with books set in Mexico try to include some Spanish to give it some authenticity and most of them fail miserably with actually producing authentic Spanish. On the negative side, though, there are times when you probably could not follow the conversation unless you could understand the Spanish.


This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Scavengers: A Posadas County Mystery (Posadas County Mysteries)

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on December 30, 2014.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

NARCISSA WHITMAN: PIONEER GIRL by Ann Spence Werner



Published in 1953 and 1959 by The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc
Intended for mid to upper elementary students.

Thirty-five years ago books like Narcissa Whitman: Pioneer Girl filled my library's book shelves in Hope, Indiana and I went through them like a hot knife through butter. I am sure they are a big reason why I enjoy history so much today. I remember enthusiastically reading about the adventures of young Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln and even about Martha Washington and other "yucky" girls as I worked my way down the shelf.
Narcissa Whitman.jpg
Narcissa Whitman (1808-1847)


I have next to my computer a 1959 hardback copy of Narcissa Whitman: Pioneer Girl, part of the Childhood of Famous Americans seriesI am happy to note that Patria Press out of Indianapolis is re-publishing some the series, which is a good thing in my mind.

This book focuses on Narcissa Prentiss (who later in the book marries and becomes Narcissa Whitman), a young pioneer girl on the frontier in western New York in the early 1800s. As of the title of the series implies, most of the book deals with her childhood, including helping neighbors with emergency health issues, siblings who wander off, the difficulties of cooking over an open fire, bears wandering through your homestead and the excitement that comes with the visit of a travelling peddler.

Later on in life Narcissa Prentiss married a Methodist missionary candidate named Marcus Whitman. They trained and then headed on the Oregon trail, settling in the area around modern-day Walla Walla, Washington. She was one of the first women to travel the Oregon trail, arriving before the United States and England had settled their dispute over the territory. 

Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were killed by members of the Cayuse nation during the Cayuse War (1847-1855). This biography does a very poor job of explaining why the war started and why the Whitmans died, it only mentions that they were killed by Native Americans. 

On the whole, when the book discusses Native Americans it is factual, but biased. It says that there were misunderstandings between the settlers and the Indians but does not tell what they were or how they developed. It also gives the distinct impression that the Indians were dished out retribution and only the settlers were victims. If the book were used in a classroom, I would supplement it with additional discussion and readings. My 3rd grade daughter is getting this book once I am done writing this review and I plan to preface her reading with a simple two minute discussion about why the settlers and the Indians would have problems with one another.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It is out of print but you can get it at Amazon.com here: Narcissa Whitman, pioneer girl (Childhood of famous Americans). It costs $11.99 plus shipping at the time this review was written.

Reviewed on December 28, 2014.

Monday, December 22, 2014

THE LAND of the SILVER APPLES (Sea of Trolls Trilogy #2) (audiobook) by Nancy Farmer

  Did Not Have the Same Spirit as the First Book in This Trilogy.

Published by Simon and Schuster Audio in 2007.
Performed by Gerald Doyle
Duration: 13 hours, 31 minutes.
Unabridged

It is the year 794 and Jack, the 13-year-old Bard-in-training from what is now the United Kingdom is on a new mission. Having recently returned from his adventures with the Vikings and the Frost Giants (detailed in Book #1 of this trilogy, The Sea of Trolls) Jack's new adventure begins with a mid-winter ceremony led by his teacher, known simply as The Bard. 

The ceremony is supposed to symbolize renewal by ridding the village of all fire. Then, the village gathers in one place and creates a new fire and re-ignites everyone's hearth fires from this new fire. The ceremony has few hard and fast rules, but Jack's self-absorbed sister, Lucy, breaks one of them by bringing metal to the ceremony in the form of a beautiful silver necklace that she was given during their trip to the Viking homeland.

Because of this necklace, a change comes over each of the members of Jack's family. Jack develops a cruel streak, his father becomes even more blind to Lucy's self-absorbed nature and starts to exhibit uncharacteristically greedy tendancies. Jack and Lucy's mother, a "wise woman" with a touch of magic power even is affected. So, The Bard leads a group to St. Fillian's well, a monastery that is supposed to use the water from the well to cure possession. The monastery is in a kingdom controlled by a cruel king.

Once they arrive, things go badly right from the beginning. Jack is attacked with magic by an unseen (to everyone but Jack) woman who comes from the waters of the well. Later, she kidnaps Lucy and takes her into the well and the waters of the well dry up despite Jack's best efforts to save her.

As a punishment, Jack is sent down into the well (now a dried up cave entrance) to figure out what the problem is and fix it. The Bard cannot travel with him because it will be too difficult for the old man to traverse the caverns. Jack is accompanied by Pega, a young recently-freed former slave girl that is considered to be hideously ugly but has a hauntingly beautiful singing voice. The last member of their group is Brutus, a man who acts like a fawning slave when in the presence of the king but once he is away from the king he quickly asserts that he is a knight and also the rightful ruler of the kingdom - and also a true descendant of Lancelot!

As they travel through the caverns this party finds one adventure after another, including monsters that make themselves look like the scariest thing you can imagine, a forest that consumes people it does not like, hobgoblins, kelpies and, of course, the self-absorbed elves who live in "The Land of the Silver Apples". 

Along the way, Jack and Pega lose Brutus but they find the girl Thorgill, Jack's companion for a lot of the action in Book #1.

Farmer mixes Celtic, Norse, Saxon and Christian beliefs throughout this book, much more than in the first one. This was a time when all of those beliefs were in active play and the story of the Elves mixes the religious traditions the most. 

Gerald Doyle reads the entire Sea of Trolls trilogy and he does an inspired job with this book. He gives real character to the all of the characters and all of the mythical races that appear throughout the books. 

But, his remarkable performance does little to help with the pacing of the book. The story of their time in the hobgoblin village takes entirely too long and just drags on and on. Farmer keeps on re-iterating Thorgill's irascibility, Pega's good nature and Jack's doubts about Brutus. Yeah, yeah. We got it the first fifty times you said it.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5. Two or three hours could have been cut out of this book and it would have only improved it. The quest had none of the drive or quick pace of the first book.

Reviewed on December 22, 2014

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

THREE WEEKS to SAY GOODBYE by C.J. Box

      A thriller that totally sucked me right in even though I knew I was being manipulated.

Published in 2008 by Minotaur Books

C.J. Box goes right for the blatantly obvious emotional heartstrings in Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, a thriller that totally sucked me right in even though I knew I was being manipulated.

Jack and Melissa McGuane are the proud and loving parents of a nine month old baby girl that they adopted at birth. Everything is going well even though their budget is stretched and Jack's time is stretched with a high-pressure job. Everything is going well, that is, until Jack gets a phone call from the adoption agency they used saying that the birth father never gave up his rights (although the agency assured them that it did) and the birth father wants the baby.


When the McGuanes protest they quickly discover that the baby's grandfather is a powerful federal judge who is so connected that he is on the fast track to the Supreme Court. The judge seems to be very conciliatory - he insists that he and his high school-aged son will take the baby but they will reimburse the McGuanes for all of their expenses and he will pull all of the strings that he can to get them a new baby as soon as possible and even pay for those expenses. And, he even offers them three weeks to sort everything out and say goodbye to the baby.

But, the McGuanes are not willing to give up their baby no matter the offer. Plus, through some of their friends (a well-connected realtor and a police officer - actually, it's Cody Hoyt who has his own series of novels going now) they discover that the judge's son may very well be emotionally disturbed. A little more digging and they start to hear that the judge himself may have disturbing skeletons buried deep in his closet as well...

Despite the blatant appeals to the fears of any parent, the book worked for me. It is rare for for me to stay up into the wee hours of the morning and just have to keep reading and not to be able to put a book down but this book did that to me - even when it gets a bit ridiculous at the end.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on December 16, 2014.

Monday, December 1, 2014

WHERE MEN WIN GLORY: THE ODYSSEY of PAT TILLMAN by Jon Krakauer



This 2009 edition has been updated to reflect new developments and includes new material obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

I am torn about this book. 

If you are not familiar with Pat Tillman, in the broadest terms, he was an NFL player who quit the NFL to join the army after the 9/11 attacks.

The book talks about the war in Afghanistan, the ongoing war that has been mostly forgotten and ignored. Krakauer's review of the recent history of Afghanistan makes this book worth reading in and of itself. For most people, the reasons that Al Qaeda used Afghanistan as a base of operations is murky at best. The descriptions of how Tillman's unit operated and where they traveled are very vivid.

Krakauer's 2000 Presidential election spin (the Florida recount - he only tells part of the story and does not mention numerous "recounts" by the media had Bush winning - about as many as had Gore winning) was slanted and one-sided against George W. Bush. In fact, every time he mentions Bush throughout the book it is with disdain. There was no particular reason to mention Bush and the election except that Krakauer was building tension to show the inevitability of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so long as Bush was president and as long as those wars were inevitable, Pat Tillman would die. To me, that seemed to be a long way to go to make a point, if that was his intention. Personally, I think Krakauer just wanted to take the opportunity to give Bush a hard time.

Te descriptions of Tillman and his life and career left me cold at best. Krakauer's seemingly endless descriptions of the game-by-game performances of Tillman in his college and professional career and the parade of "Pat was just such a great guy" stories made me tired, not of Tillman himself but of the lazy writing style. This is a biography, but there was no need to include all of the exhaustive details of his entire professional life.
Corporal Patrick Tillman.jpg
Pat Tillman (1976-2004)

Pat Tillman's death due to friendly fire was tragic and Krakauer tells the story of the military patrol that ended with the death of Tillman extraordinarily well. The way that his body was treated afterwards was certainly odd and seemed to be covering up something. Krakauer is critical of the way the military handled the whole affair but has no explanation as to what they may have been covering up. If they were covering up the fact that he died due to friendly fire, that was foolish. There has been a steady rate of friendly fire deaths in American wars of about 2% (heck, the famed Confederate General Stonewall Jackson died due to complications from a friendly fire incident). Although I am hardly a firearms expert, my few experiences with archery equipment, target shooting and hunting leave me wondering why the friendly fire rate is not much, much higher.

So, what were they covering up? 

Krakauer does not tell us and I was left wondering how many investigations that Tillman's family was going to be granted and to what purpose? Krakauer's description of the firefight that killed Tillman makes it obvious that spooked soldiers mistook Tillman and his two companions for the men who had been shooting at them earlier and they thoughtlessly fired on them without verifying their targets. Sad, to be sure, but it sounded like there was no malice behind it, just an awful mistake.

Krakauer's postscript chapter is an odd hodge-podge of stuff. Stories of the continuing chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan, long quotes from Nietzsche deriding how soft and thoughtful modern man has gotten and then idealizing Tillman as the Ubermensch ideal. Once again, for me, Krakauer's style got in the way of his story-telling. In that way, it was a fitting end for this mixed bag of a book.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on December 1, 2014.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

HEARTSHOT (Bill Gastner #1) (Posadas County Mysteries #1) by Steven F. Havill



Originally published in 1991.

Bill Gastner is the cantankerous, ornery old Undersheriff of Posadas County. An undersheriff is the person right below the elected position of Sheriff and is appointed by the Sheriff. In the case of fictional Posadas County, the Sheriff is a former used car salesman who is a heck of a businessman but does not know much about law enforcement. So, Bill is literally the old hand that knows his way around the law and the county. Also, he is afraid that the Sheriff might drop him because he's in his sixties and generally considered to be an old grump.

Gastner is a widower and an insomniac who will work 20 hours a day if he can. Why not? His kids are grown up and out of the house, he has no love life and he prefers his own company to just about anyone else's.
File:Cabinetetc 011.jpg
A Southern New Mexico Landscape. Photo by NMTrey.

One night while out on one of his volunteer patrols he listens to radio talk about a car filled with teenagers. A police officer was going to pull them over for speeding but the driver just gives it the gas and tries to flee. But, the car flies off of the road and kills everyone inside. While sorting through the wreckage, a large package of drugs is found inside.

The Sheriff's Department cannot figure out if this is some sort of a fluke, if one of the kids was trafficking in drugs or if there's something else going on. A deputy from another county with a very young face is brought in to pose as Gastner's juvenile delinquent grandson and soon things go downhill very fast and Gastner is struggling with both a deadly health problem and a murderer...

This is the fourth book that I have read in this series and I have to admit that I really just love the series. The mysteries are just so-so (I figured this one out about halfway through) but the character development is unbelievably strong. It feels like Gastner is a real person and for a few hours the reader gets to ride along with him and experience a different life.

I highly recommend this series.

5 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on November 26, 2014



Tuesday, November 25, 2014

TRIDENT'S FIRST GLEAMING: A SPECIAL OPERATIONS GROUP THRILLER (audiobook) by Stephen Templin



Published by ListenUp Audiobooks in September of 2014.
Read by Brian Troxell.
Duration: 9 hours, 14 minutes.
Unabridged

In many ways Trident's First Gleaming is a pretty typical special forces book. You've got a terrorist threat from somewhere in the Middle East, you have an elite group of American operatives who are scrambled to eliminate it, they discover it is worse than anyone has imagined and only they can somehow overcome these newer incredibly long odds and save America and the world.

But, in other ways it is different. The main character, Chris Paladin, is more than just a really talented (but retired) operative - he is also an associate pastor of a church in Dallas, Texas. But, when a former colleague reaches out to him and requests his help. She has been assigned to recover a downed Switchblade Whisper, a new type of military drone that can be launched from a submarine. Its wings swing out and lock open when fired out of the submarine, like a switchblade's blade locks open.

Unfortunately, it has crashed in Syria and by all indications it was taken down by a genius with an astounding grasp of technology. Also, he is a madman with real issues about his sister and a taste for eating people.


Photo by Niels Nordhoek
Stephen Templin has a talent for writing military thrillers. This book could have been over-the-top in so many ways. The pastor angle could have been overdone with preachy sermons and the like, but it was not. The weapons angle could have been overdone with discussions of guns to the level of a fetish. The bad guy was certainly creepy but he was not the focus because this is not a Hannibal Lechter novel. 

Instead, once this book gets going it becomes part thriller, part "buddy" book, part romance and injected with a real sense of humanity and, from time-to-time, a great gag to relieve the tension.

Don't get me wrong, this is not a "change-your-life" novel and it's not perfect, but for a military thriller this is about as good as it gets.

Narrator Brian Troxell has a great voice for reading these types of books. He makes everything he reads seem very dramatic, very edgy and very macho. I look forward to hearing more of his work.

Note: I received a copy of this audiobook in exchange for an honest review.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on November 25, 2014.


LITTLE BROTHER (audiobook) by Cory Doctorow

   A Must Read for Early 21st Century America?

Published by Listening Library in 2010
Performed by Kirby Heyborne
Duration: Approximately 12 hours

I've had Little Brother on my to-be-read list for while. But, it shot to the top of my list when it was pulled as the book in a "one book/one school" project at a Florida high school. I picked up the audiobook and my daughter and I listened as we commuted to school every day (she is a freshman at the school where I teach.

The story is about Marcus, a teenager in San Francisco who is a hacker, skips school and is, generally speaking, a pretty with-it kid. I imagined him as a Ferris Bueller-type kid with a lot more tech at his disposal and in a much more serious situation. Marcus and three of his friends are skipping the end of school when the Bay Bridge and the tunnel underneath it are blown up by terrorists in an event that is even larger than 9/11.
File:Oakland Bay Bridge from Yerba Buena Island.jpg
The Bay Bridge. Photo by Centpacrr.

Marcus and his three friends try to hide in the BART (subway) tunnels but they are in danger of being crushed by the panicking people so they head back up to the surface after one of their group is injured. A passing police van picks them up and they are turned over to the Department of Homeland Security. It is never clear what they did wrong except being out of school on a day when thousands died due to a terrorist attack. The mere fact makes them suspect and they are interrogated thoroughly, including being denied the right to contact a lawyer, sleep deprivation and solitary confinement. 

Marcus knows his rights and insists on a phone call, an attorney, knowing what he is being charged with and more. The DHS insists that it just wants his phone passwords, his passwords to his computer and his online accounts. They inform him that his friends are being similarly punished because he will not cooperate.

After a few days, he breaks and gives DHS his passwords to his computer and his phone. 

He is crushed.

But, when he is released (with just two of his friends - the injured one is not released and is presumed dead) he cannot believe how quickly DHS has swarmed throughout San Francisco,  setting up security checkpoints, monitoring the traffic patterns of cars using toll roads and the traffic patterns of BART riders. His own hand-built laptop has even been physically hacked and tracking machinery has been installed without his parents' knowledge while he was locked up.
Cory Doctorow. Photo by Jonathan Worth. http://JonathanWorth.com

At this point, Marcus regains some of his former swagger and decides to act, even if it is in a small way. As he puts it, Never underestimate the determination of a kid who is time-rich and cash-poor.” Marcus puts his hacker skills to use and decides to fight his own little guerrilla war against the heavy-handed and illegal techniques that DHS is employing. The title Little Brother comes from this - he is not "Big Brother" like the government in the novel 1984. Instead, he is one little person watching the government and documenting what he sees and letting other know what's going on. And, in the process, he becomes one of many people who decide that rights are more important than the illusion of safety and start to take back San Francisco...

One of the beautiful thing about fiction books is that you can discuss important topics in a non-threatening way. In this case, the events in this book are clearly a stand-in for 9/11 and the DHS's reaction is a stand-in for the Patriot Act and some of the heavy-handed tactics used against Muslim communities immediately after 9/11.

I listened to the book with my daughter and we often stopped the audio playback to talk about what was going on in the book (although the 4 or 5 scenes involving sexual activity, even if it wasn't graphicly described, made for uncomfortable father-daughter listening so we usually skipped ahead until it was over). We talked about what your rights were if you were arrested, why your rights are so important and have to be defended in an absolutist manner, why "I don't have anything to hide so I don't care if my rights are violated" is just a cop out and more. We drug this audiobook out so long that took about a month to listen to it. 

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5 despite the fact that at some points the techno-speak overwhelms the book and it becomes about as interesting as reading a router installation manual. But, the positives of the the book overcome these dry areas and make this book just about must-read material for early 21st century America.

Here's a quote I really liked from the book: “I can't go underground for a year, ten years, my whole life, waiting for freedom to be handed to me. Freedom is something you have to take for yourself.” 

Reviewed on November 25, 2014.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

BELOW ZERO (Joe Pickett #9) by C.J. Box



Published in 2009 by G.P. Putnam's Sons

Years ago, person who left a comment on one of my Amazon reviews told me about C.J. Box and gave me the title to his first book featuring Joe Pickett. I found it at the library and I was hooked. If you like Michael Connelly or Robert Crais, you will love C.J. Box. If you like Tony Hillerman's Navajo Tribal Police books than I am sure that you will enjoy Box's descriptions of the local landscape and the people of Wyoming.


In Below Zero Wyoming Game Warden Joe Pickett is working on two cases. The first case (and the minor one in the story) concern's Joe's pursuit of the Mad Archer, a poacher that likes to shoot his arrows at just about anything. Besides out of season game, the Mad Archer has shot a bald eagle and Tube, the ultra-friendly Corgi-Labrador mix that Pickett has adopted. Joe arrests him and he promptly skips town while out on bail and Joe goes back on the hunt for him.

The main story concerns a dying Chicago mobster enforcer named Stenko and his ultra-environmentalist son who wants Stenko to make amends for the gigantic carbon footprint that he has accrued over a lifetime of high roller living. Stenko and his son are roaming through South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado looking for opportunities to stop people from contributing to America's overall carbon footprint. Typically, this involves Stenko using skills with a pistol to kill heavy polluters or try to shake them down to pay for carbon offsets.

At first I was thrown off by the heavy-handed tactics of Stenko and son, thinking that it was over-the-top nonsense. But, I started doing some more thinking and I remembered some quotes from ultra-environmentalists like these:

"I suspect that eradicating small pox was wrong. It played an important part in balancing ecosystems." -- John Davis, editor of Earth First! Journal

"Phasing out the human race will solve every problem on earth, social and environmental." -- Dave Forman, Founder of Earth First!

and

"To feed a starving child is to exacerbate the world population problem" -- Lamont Cole

So, take these comments and add action to them and Stenko and son don't seem quite so unrealistic. 

Normally, Joe Pickett wouldn't be too worried about this mobster since it is not really a game warden issue. But, when Joe's daughter gets a phone call from April Keeley (their foster daughter that was presumed to be dead from a federal raid in an earlier book) he cannot help but be curious - even more so when it looks like April is being forced to ride along with Stenko and son...

Nate Romanowski plays a large role in this story. Normally, I am not a fan of Nate, but I liked him quite a bit in this one. In fact, I liked this book quite a bit. I tore right through it.

Great quote from the book: "...there is no sound in nature that makes men move along faster than the pumping of a shotgun." (p. 39)

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on November 22, 2014

Monday, November 17, 2014

HOW SHOULD WE THEN LIVE: THE RISE and DECLINE of WESTERN THOUGHT and CULTURE (audiobook) by Francis A. Schaeffer

Originally published in 1976
Published by Christianaudio.com
Read by Kate Reading
Duration: 7 hours, 51 minutes

Presbyterian minister and philosopher Francis A. Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live is a history of the West and a fairly sophisticated bit of Christian apologetics wrapped up in a fairly small package. At times this book rolls along at an enjoyable pace and is quite the listen, other times it is much more difficult. 

Here is a listing of the chapters:

File:Francis Schaeffer.jpg
Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984)
  • Chapter 1: Ancient Rome - Schaeffer compares Roman pagan beliefs with Christian beliefs and blames the pagan beliefs for the collapse of the Empire - they were not inclusive enough and the Greco-Roman gods were little more than bigger people with the same issues that all people have.
  • Chapter 2: The Middle Ages - Despite its reputation, the Middle Ages had positive points. Threads of Classical thought were re-discovered and fused to Christian beliefs.
  • Chapter 3: The Renaissance - Schaeffer offers up the Renaissance and the Reformation as competing thought processes about man and his relationship to God. The Renaissance is essentially the re-birth of Greco-Roman humanist thought with a Christian veneer.
  • Chapter 4: The Reformation - Explores the art and culture of The Reformation and compares them favorably to that of the Renaissance.
  • Chapter 5: The Reformation – Continued - Looks at the philosophy of the Reformation and how even non-Christian thinkers of the time were influenced by Christian thought.
  • Chapter 6: The Enlightenment - Human-centered thought leads directly to the excesses of the French Revolution.
  • Chapter 7: The Rise of Modern Science - Science's foundation came from confidence that God had created an orderly world that we could understand.
  • Chapter 8: The Breakdown in Philosophy and Science - Philosophy and art are symptoms of the thought processes that are now permeating science.
  • Chapter 9: Modern Philosophy and Modern Theology - Humanism creeps into theology.
  • Chapter 10: Modern Art, Music, Literature, and Films - Schaeffer offers commentary on several "modern" works.
  • Chapter 11: Our Society - How the values of personal peace and affluence have worked their way into our society.
  • Chapter 12: Manipulation and the New Elite - Is an authoritarian state ruled by elites coming as a natural result of Humanist values.
  • Chapter 13: The Alternatives - Schaeffer makes the argument for a return to Christian values.

The audiobook is quite enjoyable until Chapter 8. I was not a fan of the discussion of all of the different philosophers. The commentary on current movies, art, music and literature are stilted seeing as how the book was originally published in 1976. There is no discussion of Heavy Metal, rap, hip-hop, Star Wars, the current trend towards super hero movies or celebrity pop culture authors like Stephen King. His discussion of modern science is similarly stilted. It's not his fault, it's just the reality of listening to a re-released book.

So, do I buy into what Schaeffer is arguing?

Yeah, mostly. Once you get past the fact that he is still talking about hippies it's still pretty solid.

Kate Reading's narration was neither good nor bad. She did not hurt the interesting parts and did not make the slower parts better. 

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on November 17, 2014.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

GOING SHOGUN (audiobook) by Ernie Lindsey



Audiobook version published in 2014
Performed by DJ Holte
Duration: 6 hours, 19 minutes.

Set in a future America with strict caste system, Going Shogun is a buddy story and a heist story with a bit of romance thrown in. 

Chris and Forklift are waiters at Wishful Thinking, a trendy restaurant that mixes odd combinations of flavors like gravy-flavored ice cubes, banana mustard and wintergreen tomato popsicles. The customers can't seem to stop coming in and business booms every night. But, Chris and Forklift (especially Chris) want to move up in in this strict caste system and they think they have developed the perfect plan - steal the recipes from their boss, sell them online and use their new found wealth to "ascend" and maybe take the hot waitress with them on the way up the social ladder.

But, this is more complicated than you might think. Everything, including the internet is tightly regulated so Chris and Forklift have to find a hacker to get them online before they steal the recipes and that is where the trouble starts. Unexpected trips, the surprise return of an old flame and a dead body make this a night that changes everything...

The world imagined by Ernie Lindsey is certainly an interesting twist on a science fiction staple - the ultra-stratified future society (imagine Brave New World but much sloppier, much less regimented). 

At first this story is confusing. Forklift has an odd style of speaking with a series of unique slang words and phrases and it took me the first two hours of a six hour audiobook experience just to get the hang of his personal way of communicating. It took me almost as long to get a strong feel for the structure of this future society. Because it took so long for me to get "up and running" I nearly didn't finish this story.
Audiobook narrator DJ Holte

But, I continued on because of the voice work of the reader, DJ Holte. I listen to a lot of audiobooks (this is my 274th audiobook review) and I don't remember every hearing Holte before. If he is new, I can only assume I will be hearing a lot more from him. If he has done a lot of voice work, it is a pity that I have missed him until now because he is gifted. The voices he created made vivid images of the characters in my mind - much more than any of the descriptions from the text.

The story got better once I started figuring everything out. It was worth the initial slog. I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

Note: I received a free download of this audiobook in exchange for an honest review.

Reviewed on November 1, 2014

Friday, October 31, 2014

CRAZY IS NORMAL: A CLASSROOM EXPOSE (A MEMOIR) by Lloyd Lofthouse

  An Honest Look at Urban Schools

Published in 2014

Throughout the 1994-95 school year Lloyd Lofthouse, a veteran high school English and Journalism teacher teaching in a rough "inner city" type of environment in California, kept a daily journal of his experiences. Finally, he worked them up into this book.

First, I think that I need to tell you that I am a 25 year teacher and I have spent 15 of those 25 years teaching in what some would euphemistically call "urban" schools. I also agree with Lofthouse's comments about so-called education reform and fads in education like the self-esteem movement.  For those reasons I found this book to be compelling - I simply flew right through it.


The book is mostly a set of journal entries with the occasional expanded commentary and, rarely, a reference to an article or a study about education. The way the book is set up is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The book rolls along day after day just like a real school year does - unrelenting,  seemingly unending yet with never enough time. Each class has its own distinct personality, some kids improve but most bad students just remain, sadly, bad students. Quite simply, he nails the day-to-day grind of teaching. 

But, the lack of elaboration on the school, its students, its staff hurts the book. Lofthouse leaves out almost all details about his family. When he mentions he has a wife I was shocked. When he mentions his son at the end of the book I was even more shocked. The home vs. work balancing act is a tough one for most teachers and deserves a lot of exploration. 

Lofthouse's commentary on district-level administration and the way they forget what it is like in the classroom is dead-on correct. I would have loved to have read what Lofthouse thought about some of the new trends in education like Common Core.

Lofthouse's confession that he found himself attracted to one of his students makes for uncomfortable reading. Thankfully, he never acted on those feelings but it leaves an taint on the book. 

Despite that, this book is one of the very few serious descriptions that I have read about education in the real world by a real teacher with real students over the long haul. That makes it worth reading.

Note: I was sent a copy of this book at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Crazy is Normal: a classroom exposé

Reviewed on October 28, 2014


Monday, October 27, 2014

NPR DRIVEWAY MOMENTS: ALL ABOUT ANIMALS (audiobook)

  My daughters and I give it 5 stars

Published in 2007 by HighBridge Company
Multicast performance
Duration: approximately 1.5 hours

NPR has a series of audiobooks published through HighBridge Company called Driveway Moments with the added thought that these are "radio stories that won't let you go." These are designed to be the types of stories that you sit in the car in your driveway and continue to listen to after you've arrived home.


In this collection the stories are about animals. We've got cats, dogs, raising baby hummingbirds and letting them go (it brings a tear to the eye), a giant turtle in Vietnam, a drive through pig semen store, a parrot that talks with the voice of the storyteller's deceased mother's voice and a farm for retired racehorses. There is also a long story about how pets made it through the chaos of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. This is a tough story with lots of sad stories and great stories of re-uniting people and their animals. 

The collection ends with a touching tribute by frequent NPR contributor Daniel Pinkwater to his recently deceased dog. It is so touching that I have gotten a catch in my throat both times I have tried to describe it to my wife.

I listened to this collection with my two daughters (3rd and 9th grade) and it generated a pretty good discussion over the Hurricane Katrina story. The pig semen story went over the little one's head and the last story by Daniel Pinkerton touched us all.

The audio quality is very good since these stories were all broadcast over NPR. My kids did not appreciate NPR's offbeat musical interludes between stories but all three of us rated this collection 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on October 27, 2014.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

CODE BLOOD by Kurt Kamm

  The twisted tale of a paramedic, an albino with a vampire fetish and a blood researcher...

Published in 2012 by MCM Publishing

Code Blood is the story of three people whose lives are tied together in this thriller but barely interact throughout the book.


Photo by Werner Vermaak
Colt Lewis is a brand new paramedic in the Los Angeles area who is struggling with the emotional toll this sort of job can cause. He is an open young man who became a paramedic because he truly cares about people and wants to help them. But, he is struggling with the reality that some of the victims he helps just cannot be saved. He keeps on going back to his first run and the beautiful young woman who was found on the side of the road after having been hit by a hit and run driver. She died while Colt was reassuring her because her foot had been amputated in the accident. Strangely, the foot was never found and Colt starts to obsess about this woman, the tragic loss of such a young life and the total creepiness of the kind of person that would steal someone's foot.

Markus is that creep. He is an albino who lives a goth vampire lifestyle in which he not only dresses like a vampire, he also drinks blood and has developed a sexual fetish about blood. He is also in serious need of cash and he is running out of options. That is, until he meets a Chinese blood researcher named A Li. A Li has a rare blood type that Markus craves. He also knows that he can sell it for a lot of money to his vampire friends.

A Li is struggling in America. She is a minority in China (from near Tibet) and political repression has forced her to give up everything and dedicate herself to science so that her family can prosper back home.

One thing I enjoy about reading is that, if you are lucky, a book will take you someplace you have never been and teach you something new.These three characters are all part of a larger story that delves into all kinds of interesting new places. I learned about paramedic training and how many cars actually fall off of those twisting mountain roads around Los Angeles. I also learned about rare blood types, the city morgue, the underground market for body parts, real-life vampires and more. 

The story gets off to a pretty slow start but once it gets going and all of the pieces are in place it is quite good. Plus, it did not have the ending that I figured it would so it's always good to be surprised!

This book was sent to me at no charge in exchange for an honest review.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5
Reviewed on October 23, 2014.