"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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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.