"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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Saturday, December 26, 2015

THE HIGHWAY (Cody Hoyt #2, Cassie Dewell #2) (audiobook) by C.J. Box



Published by Macmillan Audio in 2013
Read by Holter Graham
Duration: 9 hours, 53 minutes
Unabridged

If you are a big fan of the TV show Criminal Minds or the movie The Silence of the Lambs you will probably enjoy this book quite a bit. For me, the fascination of getting into the head of a serial killer has long since passed and I end up feeling soiled and abused after every excursion into this area. But, I read the book because I do enjoy C.J. Box's work quite a bit and I grudgingly like his Cody Hoyt character - he is exasperating and full of gigantic character flaws but just when you have had enough of him he pulls himself together and he gets the job done.

In a bit of a reach (actually, in a real big reach) the young female characters from his book Back of Beyond  are caught up in another dangerous situation and Cody Hoyt is called out to rescue them once again. This time they have a run-in with a long haul trucker that kills himself the Lizard King. This name is a reference to the disparaging nickname for truck stop prostitutes, Lot Lizards. He traps, abuses and then kills these women. No one suspects him because most of the women live life off of the grid and he is often in a completely different state before they are even missed.

Cody Hoyt has been suspended and soon-to-be-fired because his new partner, Cassie Dewel, has caught him planting evidence in a crime scene to frame a guilty man. The evidence he planted is not even used to prove the guilt of the suspect - it just caused further investigation that led to the actual evidence. Nonetheless, he is on his way out and he falls off of the wagon and starts and epic drinking binge. That is, until his son interrupts him and tells him about the two missing girls. Hoyt sobers up and heads out to find them with the off-the-books logistical support of his ex-partner.

But, things take a surprising turn...

So, this book was way too creepy for my tastes and makes me want to question my penchant for stopping at truck stops on vacations. But, I was truly surprised at the mid-point of the book by a bold direction taken by C.J. Box and I do like the focus on Cassie Dewell a lot.

The audiobook was read by Holter Graham who did an excellent job of portraying the voices of a wide variety of characters, male and female, of different ages and emotional states (from horror to nearly drunken stupor). 

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

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

Link to my review of Back of Beyond

Thursday, December 24, 2015

THE WITCH of BLACKBIRD POND by Elizabeth George Speare



First published in 1958
Winner of the 1959 Newberry Medal

When I was a kid I read this book twice, which for me was rare. I have always been one to prefer reading a new book than re-reading an old one. I had an emotional connection to the book dating back to fifth grade. But, I hadn't read it since fifth grade. For me, it was a book that I fondly pulled off of bookshelves as an adult but I never had the courage to re-read it out of fear of spoiling the memory of the book. What if it wasn't nearly as good as I remembered?

Finally, I decided to take the plunge and see if my memory was justified.


The Witch of Blackbird Pond is set in colonial Wethersfield, Connecticut in 1687. 16 year old Kit Tyler is coming from Barbados to live with her aunt who lives in Wethersfield because she is her last surviving relative. Her arrival adds strain to a family that was barely eking out a living.

More importantly, her upbringing in Barbados has not prepared her for life among the Puritans. Her clothes are seen as too frilly (and in reality, they are not suited for the work that everyone has to do just to make it through the day) and her willingness to talk to the elderly Quaker woman who lives on the edge of town makes everyone suspicious of her.

As a deadly illness spreads through town, Kit hears complaints about the Quaker woman and Kit must decide if she will risk herself to save her friend...

So, did it hold up after all of these years?

Yes, I found myself drawn into the book again. Speare does a masterful job of making the reader identify with Kit, the outsider who is learning about Puritan society along with the reader. Puritan society is portrayed is being much richer, much more nuanced than it usually is. The religion is practiced and debated by men of all social classes. Local politics comes into play as well.

I am pleased that I can still rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Monday, December 21, 2015

MORTAL STAKES (Spenser #3) by Robert B. Parker



Originally Published in 1975

If you have not read a Spenser detective novel and you love the detective genre, pick one up and start reading. I would start with #1 but there are 40 original novels and they all follow a basic premise. Spenser gets a case. Spenser noses around, makes a lot of wisecracks, irritates people who certainly deserve to be irritated and then he sees if there is a reaction to his nosing around. Usually, that is someone trying to warn him off or, perhaps, trying to kill him outright. From there, Spenser knows who is after him and can figure out why and he knows where to proceed and solve the case.

Sounds simple, doesn't it?

Of course, it is. And, the finest of wines are really just grape squeezings. Simple - but yet there is something else there.

The Spenser series is one of the few series that I am willing to re-read. In this case, I undoubtedly read this book nearly 20 years ago and I barely remembered the plot. It turns out that I mis-remembered it more than I remembered it, which is fine by me. 

In Spenser's third outing he is hired by the Boston Red Sox manager to check out their star pitcher. He is the best in the league but there is some reason to believe that he may have thrown a couple of games, or at least shaved some points (made the score closer than it would have to help out gamblers who bet it would be a close game).

So, Spenser pretends he is an author of an upcoming book about baseball so he can freely nose about the ball park and talk to everyone who will talk to him. Soon enough, he roots out the truth but now he has another problem - does he really want the truth to come out?


I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Mortal Stakes

Sunday, December 20, 2015

MARTHA WASHINGTON: GIRL of OLD VIRGINIA (Childhood of Famous Americans Series) by Jean Brown Wagoner



Originally published in 1947.

In the 1930's, the "Childhood of Famous Americans" series was started with a simple biography of Abraham Lincoln's childhood. Eventually, there were dozens of books in this series. In my childhood I remember my small town library had a shelf full of these books and I read them all. Nowadays, this series has been picked up by Simon and Schuster.

This book focuses on the childhood of Martha Washington (1731-1802), or Martha Dandridge, nicknamed Patsy. There is not really an over-arching story here. Rather, this is mostly a series of scenes from her childhood including having a bear cub as a pet, posing for a portrait and learning to ride a pony. There are also visits from local Native tribes. This book could be read not just as a biography of Martha Washington but also as a sample of what life on a plantation would be like for the family that owns the plantation.

That being said, it doesn't really address the issue of slavery, preferring to call the family slaves "servants" instead and never discussing how the "servants" rate in the big scheme of things.

I liked the book all right. I would rate it 3 out of 5 stars, noting that it is very easy to read and fairly interesting. However, my ten-year-old daughter read it twice in the last couple of months and she enjoyed it both times. She would give it 5 stars out of 5.

So, in the spirit of compromise, that would make an average of 4 stars out of 5.


This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Martha Washington: Girl Of Old Virginia

SHOTS FIRED: STORIES from JOE PICKETT COUNTRY by C.J. Box



Published in 2014

Normally, I am not much of a fan of short stories. For me, by the time I figure out what's going on in the story it's over and then I have to go through the whole process again in the next story. The exception to this has always been Stephen King - he creates characters that the reader can buy into very quickly in a story.

I will add C.J. Box to that list with Stephen King. Throughout Shots Fired Box quickly establishes the parameters of the story and then delivers 10 good short stories. Four of them feature his previously established characters joe Pickett or Nate Romanowski. Nine of them take place in modern times. Nine take place in Wyoming.

The one that does not take place in Wyoming features members of the Sioux nation who are working at Euro-Disney in France. It is one of my favorites in the collection.

A quote from the book: "Giving alcohol to an alcoholic makes him happy, but it doesn't help him. Buying stuff for people who won't work makes you popular, but it doesn't get them a job or any self-respect." (p. 174)

I rate this collection 4 stars out of 5. 

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Shots Fired: Stories from Joe Pickett Country

UNDER the SWEETWATER RIM by Louis L'Amour



First published in 1971

Louis L'Amour wrote well over one hundred novels with varying topics, including one science fiction novel. But, of course, he is most famous for his Westerns. Under the Sweetwater Rim is a Western, but it is a different kind of Western.

This novel is set in a lonely part of Wyoming during the Civil War. The war rarely intrudes out this far - usually if there is an issue it is with Indians that realized that the American national government is distracted and they can attack settlers moving out west. A wagon train setting out from Fort Laramie to the West Coast is attacked - but not by Indians. Instead, it is destroyed by a rogue group of Bushwhackers from the Kansas/Missouri/Arkansas led by a ruthless man who is known to be a superior frontiersman.


Louis L'Amour (1908-1988)
But, part of the wagon train survived. Right before the attack an officer from the fort who is supposed to be on leave pulled a single wagon out of the train and took. That wagon contained $60,000 in gold that was heading to an army base out west and the daughter of Fort Laramie's commander.

Now, the U.S. Cavalry is on the hunt for the missing wagon - but so are the Bushwhackers, causing the wagon train survivors try to cross the dreaded Sweetwater Pass to escape...


So, this plot sounds like a great one. It might even make a good movie so long as one thing happens. Take the star of the book, Tem Brian, down about 10 pegs. He is presented as a super-soldier throughout the book. Up until the end, when it is revealed that he is just as vulnerable as everyone else, I found him to be a tedious presence that removed most of the tension from the book (why worry about the good guys - Tem Brian is there!)

The only character that was really developed was the commander of Fort Laramie, Major Devereaux. Tem Brian just has an amazing resume that is referred to a lot but no real development. His American Indian sidekick is just there - we have no real idea why they are together except for a shared history that is not expanded upon.

So, I give it 3 out of 5 stars. The basic premise was interesting but I had a hard time actually caring if the characters lived or died.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: UNDER the SWEETWATER RIM by Louis L'Amour.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

THE AVIATORS: EDDIE RICKENBACKER, JIMMY DOOLITTLE, CHARLES LINDBERGH and the EPIC AGE of FLIGHT (audiobook) by Winston Groom



Published by Blackstone Audio in 2013
Read by Robertson Dean
Duration: 17 hours, 23 minutes
Unabridged

Winston Groom, the author of Forrest Gump, has delivered an impressive triple biography of three of America's aviation pioneers with The Aviators. The book focuses on Eddie Rickenbacker (1890-1973), auto racer turned World War I flying ace, Jimmy Doolittle (1896-1993), test pilot and the first person to perform a landing using only instruments (this sounds sort of mundane but it meant that planes could take fly in all sorts of weather - not just on clear days), and the world famous Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974) - the first man to fly solo over the Atlantic in an airplane and a truly international celebrity.



Charles Lindbergh (right) with a P-38 on an island
 in the South Pacific in World War II in 1944
Each of these men had very different personalities but each shared a passion for being in the air. Charles Lindbergh is by far the most famous of the three, even now when crossing the Atlantic is an everyday occurrence. I found him to be the most enigmatic of the three and him to be the most difficult to identify with. But, Groom tells his story well and I did especially enjoy his tales of serving as a civilian adviser in Pacific in World War II. That was entirely new to me.

Eddie Rickenbacker was the reason that I picked this audiobook in the first place. I am a huge fan of the Indy 500 and I knew three facts about Rickenbacker - he was a World War I ace, he used to own the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and his plane went down in World War II and he floated on a life raft for a very long time until he was rescued. Rickenbacker's story is impressive simply because he ends up at the top of every endeavor he pursued - auto racing, fighter pilot, auto manufacturing, airlines. 


Of the three, Jimmy Doolittle is the one that I identified with the most. His fame was not nearly as great as the the other three, and when true fame finally came it was much later. He seemed to have been a bit more of a "regular guy". But, the story of the Doolittle Raid demonstrates that he was far from a "regular guy" - he thought big and he followed through when he was given the chance to do so. Groom's re-telling of the Doolittle Raid is one of the highlights of the book.

Robertson Dean's reading of this audiobook was excellent. While he did not create voices for people in the reading, he read the book in a lively and interesting manner. 

This is one of the best audiobooks I have listened to this year and may end up being the best book I have read all year. 

I heartily recommend this book - 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight

Monday, December 14, 2015

THE LITIGATORS: A NOVEL (audiobook) by John Grisham



Published in 2011 by Random House Audio
Read by Dennis Boutsikaris
Duration: 11 hours, 33 minutes

John Grisham returns to familiar ground in this novel - the world of mass tort litigation, a topic covered thoroughly in The King of Torts in 2003. Despite the similar legal theme, The Litigators is a much different novel and, I think, the better of the two.

The book focuses on a tiny law firm with just two partners and a self-trained legal secretary with attitude. The firm calls itself a "boutique" firm, implying that they do specialty work and stay small out of choice. In reality, if they have a specialty it is car crashes, slip-and-fall cases and divorces. They are barely making it and sometimes they are literally ambulance chasers. They cruise funeral homes looking for wrongful death cases.

Into this sad firm comes another lawyer. He's drunk, he's obnoxious and he's read the name of the firm on an ad looking for work. He's a Harvard-educated attorney who has just left a top-flight law firm because he cannot stand another 80 hour week of working international corporate tax loopholes for unseen corporate clients. So, he joins the boutique law firm and they all stumble along together.

Until, one of them happens upon an article about a heart medication that may be defective and he decides to venture blindly into the world of mass tort litigation. Can a hack street lawyer take on corporate America?

So, the book looks like it is going to be a lovable loser David vs. Goliath story but it is much more complicated than that. This little law firm is not lovable but it is certainly a loser. The bad guys aren't completely bad and there are multiple cases to follow. But, it is a great story. I enjoyed it, I feel like I learned a lot.


This audiobook was read by Dennis Boutsikaris who, I think, caught the mood of the book perfectly - part farce, part tragedy and part hero-story.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

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

Friday, December 11, 2015

THE PROTECTOR (audiobook) by David Morrell



Audiobook published in 2003 by Skyboat Productions
Read by Stefan Rudnicki
Duration: 11 hours, 7 minutes

David Morrell in 2009
Photo by Phil Konstantin
David Morrell excels at the thriller but he really excels at a subset of the thriller - what I call a "chase novel." His first novel, First Blood, was this type of book. The protagonist is being chased by someone or a group of people and the reader gets taking along for the ride.

This book is like that as well. A research scientist named Prescott hires a private security team to guard his life from drug dealers and perhaps a compromised government agency. Either way, Cavenaugh is sent to meet the client and assess his needs. In the middle of that meeting highly trained men storm the building and Cavenaugh and Prescott barely escape.


But, once Cavenaugh and Prescott can take a breather, Cavenaugh realizes that Prescott may be a lot more than he imagined and Cavenaugh may have to protect himself from his own client...

This was an enjoyable, if not truly great audiobook. Stefan Rudnicki is true legend in the world of audiobooks and deservedly so. His rich voice adds a lot to the story, matching well with the main character and his way of life. On top of that, the Cavenaugh character is not some mindless thug - he thinks about the big issues of life as well and Rudnicki covers that aspect just as well.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

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

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A CHAIN of THUNDER: A NOVEL of the SIEGE of VICKSBURG (audiobook) by Jeff Shaara



Published by Random House Audio in 2013
Narrated by Paul Michael
Duration: 22 hours, 5 minutes

Just to establish where I am coming from - I am a huge Civil War buff. I have over 100 books on my shelf. Although I live in Indiana, I have managed to make it to three Civil War battlefields in the last two years (Murfreesboro, Fort Donelson and Chickamauga) and I just bought my father the original Shaara Civil War trilogy (the one based around The Killer Angels ) for Christmas. I own Shaara's World War I and World War II series as well as his original Civil War series and his Mexican War book.

I am a fan.



Confederate Lt. General John C. Pemberton
(1814-1881)
But, I am not a fan of this book.

I have no problem with the authenticity of the book and there are parts that are amazing, intense and just about perfect.

But, the first half of this book feels like it is trying to be "The Great American Novel" and failing at the attempt. There is so much repetitious introspection on the part of General Pemberton (the Confederate commander at Vicksburg) and Bauer, a Union front line soldier who is brought into a new unit against army protocol in an effort to promote some continuity in the series, that I just wanted to yell at the narrator to get on with the story. There is a shockingly ham-fisted attempt to address the evils of slavery, a lot of description of marching (in rain, in mist, in heat and than we get descriptions of sitting in rain, heat and mist and then sleeping in rain, heat and mist) and a seemingly never-ending discussion about the proper duties of a Civil War general. 


Mostly, though, I was disappointed that this book just did not have the pop and sizzle of A Blaze of Glory , the first book in this series.

But, at about the halfway point (8 or 9 hours into this book - I continued listening only because I am a fan and I refused to believe that it would stay this bad throughout the whole book), the story finally gets into stride and tells the awful story of the siege of Vicksburg and tells it well. The awful details of a field hospital, the strange one-on-one fight of sniper vs. sniper in the middle of a battle of tens of thousands, the secret world of spies, the power of secure supply lines, and the danger of rivalry and politics among the generals. The conversations between Sherman and Grant feel so right that I cannot imagine that they would go any other way than how they are described in the book.


Audiobook narrator Paul Michael was good. Of course, he can only do so much with bad text and he made the better parts a joy to listen to. 

So, I give it 3 stars as an average score - 1 star for the first part, 5 stars for the last part.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: 
A Chain of Thunder: A Novel of the Siege of Vicksburg (the Civil War in the West)

Sunday, November 29, 2015

THE JEFFERSON RULE: WHY WE THINK the FOUNDING FATHERS HAVE ALL the ANSWERS (audiobook) by David Sehat



Published by Tantor Audio in May of 2015
Read by Tom Perkins
Duration: 8 hours, 16 minutes

If you are a person that likes to debate on the internet than you have undoubtedly experienced Godwin's Law. Godwin's Law states that if you debate long enough on the internet, someone will inevitably make a comparison to Nazism, Hitler, the Holocaust ("You don't like Donald Trump's hair? What are you the hairdo Nazi?!?"). 

A similar rule exists when discussing American politics - eventually someone will refer back to the Founding Fathers. It is especially easy to quote Thomas Jefferson - he was so prolific and well-written that it is easy to break out a quote to support your point of view. In the case of Jefferson, it is often too easy because he was extremely inconsistent in his political views. To start easy, he did write "
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." And, he also owned a whole lot of people and certainly did not allow them liberty or the pursuit of happiness. He was also advocated strictly following the letter of the Constitution...until it suited him not to when he became President, like with the Louisiana Purchase.

So, Jefferson is quoted all of the time because, likely as not, he has written or uttered a very lofty-sounding quote that supports your point of view, no matter what it is. In short, the man was so inconsistent that he was, at one point or another, on your side and and at a different point he was also against it.

Sehat uses this as a jumping off point to look at two general phenomena. The first is the traditional big activist government vs. small strict constructionist government argument. In the Washington Administration this was personified with Alexander/Washington on one side and Jefferson on the other.


But, the argument continues throughout American history and Sehat looks at some of the high points in his study, including the debate on slavery, the two crises with secession, The New Deal, the Civil Rights movement, The Reagan Revolution, The War on Terror, Obamacare and the Tea Party movement. 

In his second point, he notes that politicians have always referred back to the Founders and referred to them as if they were a united front, despite the ugly split in the Washington Administration itself. Also, the image of the Founders is changed as needed by current politicians.

I found the whole book to be fascinating and a well-told tour of American history. There were times when I thought Sehat was surprisingly harsh on the liberal side of things than I found him to be equally harsh on the conservative side. To be fair, I think Sehat is harsh on politicians in general and finds them all, no matter their political stripe, guilty of the same sin when it comes to referring to the Founding Fathers.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here: 
The Jefferson Rule: Why We Think the Founding Fathers Have All the Answers

Monday, November 23, 2015

GREAT GAMBLES of the CIVIL WAR by Philip Katcher

  Disappointing Collection

Originally Published in 1996.
Re-Issue Published by Castle Books in 2003.

Great Gambles of the Civil War focuses on those moments when a general took a risk to give himself an advantage.  One could argue that all of war is a risk, including every battle and every maneuver but Author Philip Katcher has limited his book to just thirteen events. Some are battles, some are campaigns but all demonstrate risk. Philip Katcher has written numerous books on the Civil War so this has all the hallmarks of being a great book.

While there is no doubt that Katcher knows his stuff, most of these thirteen stories are just not interesting, or at least not told in an interesting manner. It's not that the stories aren't fact-filled, it's just that some are paced so poorly ("Mulligan Defends Lexington" comes to mind - it just drug on and on and almost made me quit the book entirely) that the story itself is lost in the telling. I think Shelby Foote demonstrated in his own histories of the Civil War that the stories crackle and shine if told well.
The CSS Arkansas. Drawing by R.G. Skerrett

It's not that there are no good stories in the collection. I especially enjoyed "Brown Takes the CSS Arkansas to Vicksburg" - it was paced well and had the feel of a grand adventure.  Sadly, too many of these stories felt like a tedious lecture rather than tales of "great gambles."

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here: Great Gambles of the Civil War

THE HEIST (Fox and O'Hare #1)

  Takes too Long to Get Started

Published in 2013 by Bantam

Janet Evanovich, the famed author of the fun and sexy Stephanie Plum series, and Lee Goldberg, succesful author and screenwriter of the fun and quirky television series Monk (and too many other shows to list here) team up in a new series. 

The premise is fairly simple. A super-slick con-man, Nicolas Fox, creates elaborate ruses involving teams of like-minded criminals are successful over and over again in stealing prestigious pieces of art and the like. They are being pursued by a beautiful FBI agent, Kate O'Hare, has literally dedicated her life to the capture of Fox.

Once Fox is captured he quickly escapes and Fox uses her personal time (saved up over the years of dedicated pursuit) to track him down. She discovers that Fox has cut a deal with the government and is going to use his talents to help the government take down bigger and badder bad guys than himself in order to stay out of prison. All of this work will be done without government approval. If he is caught, he will do time for his previous crimes. And, his number one pursuer, Kate O'Hare is to be his minder and partner-in-crime, so to speak. If she is caught with him she will also be on the hook for criminal conspiracy.

Kate is reluctant but she soon sees that this is a chance to effect some real justice on those who are simply too rich and too connected for the normal rules. Plus, she is strangely attracted to Nicolas Fox...

Photo by Niels Noordhoek
This is a simple twist on a familiar story and it shows potential. But, this book just takes forever to take off. Too much of the book is spent introducing the reader to all of the characters that you will meet throughout the book series and the situation that Fox and O'Hare find themselves in. I blame this on Goldberg's experience in TV - it just felt like a slow-moving pilot episode. You meet all of the characters, you get a quick taste of what a regular show will be like and then you see if you can get them back to the the second episode. But, the pilot is never really like the rest of the series. It wanders around establishing characters and trying to set the tone for the series. 

So, what happens once the story gets going in The Heist? Fox and O'Hare build a team to help in their cons, but they cannot be criminals. So, Fox digs up a team of amateurs with specialized skills and they go after a corrupt investment banker so vile that he even ripped off his own parents before he headed off to a tropical island where he cannot be extradited. 

Because of the poor pacing of this book I have to give it a score of 3 stars out of 5. The Stephanie Plum series rocketed off in the first few pages. This book just kept trying to establish one new character after another and when it finally got going it was just not worth the long wait.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Heist: A Novel (Fox and O'Hare)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

ALONE: THE JOURNEY of the BOY SIMS by Alan K. Garinger



Published in 2008 by The Indiana Historical Society Press

In the great state of Indiana 4th grade is the year that the social studies classes focus on Indiana history. My youngest daughter is in 4th grade and her entire class read this book.

The book is set in 1833 and even though it has been a state since 1816, in many ways Indiana is still a wild frontier, especially in northern Indiana (the Ohio River was often the route that settlers took to Indiana in the early days and it forms the southern border of the state). Road crews are working on building Michigan Road - a "road" that will connect the Ohio River to Lake Michigan, a distance of more than 250 miles.


Photo by DWD
While somewhere in the vicinity of what will eventually be Logansport, Indiana a thirteen year old member of the crew is sent to Detroit all by himself for more ink to draw out the maps and keep track of the surveys that the crews were taking. This trip is well more than 200 miles one way and it is already late October...

I found the book to be interesting but loosely constructed. Sometimes the plot generated lots more questions than it answered and the book was desperately in need of lots and lots of maps. The author wanted to make the book a learning experience for Hoosier children but the number of people that Sims meets on his trip and their symbolic (or actual) significance to history got a bit tedious to me. The parade of runaway slaves, slave catchers, soldiers, Indians avoiding the soldiers and even a cameo by Johnny Appleseed (he was a real person) made the story move into the range of impossibility.  If I were rating the book as an adult I would give it 3 stars out of 5.

But, this is not a book aimed at adults and my daughter thought it was very interesting. She would recite any number of things that Joshua Sims encountered on his trip as she rode home from school. She would give it 5 stars out of 5. This is a book that is designed to introduce frontier Indiana to school children and it does that quite well.


So, let's split the difference and call it 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here:  Alone: The Journey of the Boy Sims

NPR ROAD TRIPS: NATIONAL PARK ADVENTURES: STORIES THAT TAKE YOU AWAY (audiobook)



Published in 2012 by HighBridge
Multicast performance
Duration: 1 hour, 7 minutes

NPR has searched its archives for stories about America's National Park System for this enjoyable collection. These stories don't just tell us about the park but tell us an interesting story in the park.
Thaddeus Kosciuszco  (1746-1817)

The stories vary from the humorous (the story about the smallest National Park - Thaddeus Kosciuszco National Memorial in Philadelphia which consists of a single room and covers .02 acre to honor this figure from the Revolutionary War) to the wondrous (Death Valley in full bloom after a once-in-a-lifetime rainstorm). The listener learns about the small city of employees that run Grand Canyon National Park, spooky tales of love at White Sands, an effort to preserve the music of New Orleans and a park employee who charts and maps the roadkill that he finds as he goes about his work. 

The audio quality is, of course, excellent since these stories were originally produced for broadcast on NPR. Besides that, this is an interesting collection - the stories are not repetitive, they alternate in mood and length and come together to make an excellent listening experience.

I rate this collection 5 stars out of 5.

This CD can be purchased on Amazon here: NPR Road Trips: National Park Adventures: Stories That Take You Away . . .

Saturday, November 7, 2015

SPIDER-MAN: DROWNED in THUNDER (audiobook) by Christopher L. Bennett



Published by GraphicAudio in August of 2013
Multi-cast performance
Duration: Approximately 5 hours

Marvel Comic's Spider-Man swings into action against a robot attack against New York's Diamond District in a scene that was very reminiscent of the classic Superman cartoon "The Mechanical Monsters." But, Spider-Man always has a different take on things than the Man of Steel. Spidey's comments and tendency to not quite have everything under control give this caper a unique twist.

Of course, J. Jonah Jameson continues his media barrage against the webslinger, Peter Parker and M.J. are working through relationship issues and Spider-Man continues to struggle with his work/superhero/home life balance. But, in this story he faces other issues, including robot attacks from an undetermined source, a messed up Spidey Sense and a non-stop rainy weather pattern that make his webs a lot less effective and make it hard to swing through the city.

This is an interesting story. The partnership Spider-Man forms with an old adversary is entertaining as they try to work together and the GraphicAudio treatment of the story is professionally done and top-notch (as always). They add special effects and have a whole troupe of actors tell the story much like an old-fashioned radio play.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.
This audiobook can be found on Amazon here: Graphic Audio Spider-Man Drowned in Thunder Audiobook Story

Sunday, October 25, 2015

CAR TALK CLASSICS: NO FACTORY RECALLS. SO FAR. by NPR



Published by HighBridge in April of 2015.
Multicast Performance.
Duration: Approximately 3.5 hours

After 35 years on the air, there are no more Car Talk episodes being made.Tom has passed on and Ray Magliozzi is retired. But, they still are broadcast on NPR stations across the country. NPR is also going back and searching for great episodes to sell. This is a four episode collection that probably dates from the late 1990s, based on the cars that they were discussing. 

In these episodes Tom and Ray weigh in on the following:

-The lady in Alaska whose truck only goes up hills in reverse (and how she ended up in Alaska in the first place).

-The woman whose husband bought a car to rebuild and restore that only worked in reverse.


-The woman who had 33 different cars in the last 15 years.

-The astronaut who called from the space shuttle and knew Tom and Ray when he used to go to their shop back when he was in college.

-The freshman student who was suffering from intense philosophical malaise. Features Tom and Ray's discussion on adulthood and the meaning of life in the real world.

-The dog that rode on the roof of the cab of its owner's truck as she crossed the country.

-Goats and cars.

If you like the radio show, you will love this collection. It can be found on Amazon.com here: 
[(Car Talk Classics: No Factory Recalls. So Far.)] [Author: Tom Magliozzi]
I rate this collection 4 stars out of 5.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

RESERVOIR ROAD by John M. Spafford



Published in 2009.

A store front in historic Irvngton

I picked this novel because I am a sucker for books set in my adopted hometown - Indianapolis. The author is a resident (or, he was when he wrote the book) and you can really tell that he knows his way around the East Side of Indianapolis (I am a West Sider but I have been all over town).

The book starts with a lovely couple who buy a fixer-upper on Indianapolis' East Side (Irvington) and he starts a career as a teacher. They have a baby and then he loses his wife and son in an unexplained double murder in Covington, Kentucky. The surviving husband doesn't even know why they were in Covington and the murder is never solved.


He cannot deal with this and tries to solve the murder himself. He just cannot. But, he is moved to do something. While on the Crime Stoppers website (If you are not familiar with Crime Stoppers, they offer reward money for tips that lead to arrests and convictions) he realizes that there are so many victims like him - and decides that if he cannot solve his own case he will solve another.

So, he prepares himself and heads off to Little Rock, Arkansas to solve a mystery...


(Note: I keep saying "he" because, for the life of me, I cannot find the protagonist's name in the book. I believe that he is unnamed.)

With the exception of the very clunky treatment of the murder of his wife, this book is well done. I realize that the murder of his wife is supposed to be jarring, but this was just confusing. But, I very much enjoyed the rest of the book, including the little details about how he prepared himself, rented his apartment in Little Rock and generally began his re-entry back into society as he hunted for a murderer in Little Rock.

Quote from the book:


"His summer project had suddenly turned very dangerous. This was not the world that he was used to. He was a stranger in this culture of robbery, torture, threats, and murder. Now he was dealing directly with men who were prepared and experienced with using guns in their everyday pursuits. Men who did not hesitate to use deadly force to get what they wanted.

"Men like the ones who had already destroyed his life."

I rate this novel 4 stars out of 5.

This novel can be found on Amazon here: Reservoir Road

Monday, October 12, 2015

AFTER LINCOLN: HOW the NORTH WON the WAR and LOST the PEACE (audiobook) by A.J. Langguth



Audio edition published by Tantor Audio in September of 2014
Read by Tom Perkins
Duration: 13 hours, 29 minutes
Unabridged

Years ago, when I reviewed Doris Kearns Goodwin's monumental history of the Lincoln Administration, Team of Rivals, I noted that it was way too long and that I wished she had made it even longer by continuing to write about this team as they transitioned into the Andrew Johnson Administration. This book is similar to Team of Rivals in that it looks at individuals in the Lincoln Administration (and thus covers a lot of territory covered more thoroughly by Doris Kearns Goodwin) but it does continue on.
Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877)

The book is mostly detailed through a series of biographies, ranging from Lincoln to Charles Sumner to the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination to O.O. Howard and even to Nathan Bedford Forrest. After Lincoln covers a lot of ground without really coming up with anything new, at least not for this serious student of the Civil War.

Most histories of Reconstruction talk about the Freedman's Bureau and the African-Americans that were sent to Congress and then just kind of drift off to some discussion of carpetbaggers and the Ku Klux Klan and the deal that ended Reconstruction without much discussion or insight into what happened to change the national mood and let Black Americans lose so much of what they had gained.

This book offers no new analysis, either. It does pick a few people, some famous, some infamous and some relatively unknown and follow them throughout the lead-up to the Civil War, through the War and into Reconstruction. Sometimes, their stories are interesting, sometimes not so much.

I listened to this as an audiobook so it is difficult for me to measure exactly how much space was devoted to the three segments of the book that I mentioned before: Before the war, the war itself and after the war. By far the most interesting, and I think the most detailed section was the first one. The end of the book felt rushed and the rich story-telling just was not there like it was in the first part.


Tom Perkins read the audiobook. He did a good job, including actually creating voices for some of the historical personalities.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here:  
After Lincoln: How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace


Thursday, October 8, 2015

BLUE HEAVEN (audiobook) by C. J. Box



Published in January of 2008 by Macmillan Audio
Read by John Bedford LLoyd
Duration: 11 hours, 58 minutes
Unabridged

The first C.J. Box book to make it to publication that did not feature Joe Pickett, Blue Heaven is set in north Idaho. The story can easily be classified as a modern version of a classic western story. 

The story starts with a highly respected local rancher, a lifelong resident of the area, who is in danger of losing his beloved ranch to the bank. Newcomers, including an especially large number of retired police officers from Los Angeles, are moving in and local realtors want to take advantage of his financial troubles and turn his ranch into a series of McMansions with mini ranches so that the new residents can play at being cowboy.       

Meanwhile, two kids get mad at their mom and decide to take her boyfriend's expensive fishing equipment out for a fishing trip that he promised to take him on but "forgot" about. Before they even get to their fishing hole they stumble across a group of older men in a campground who surround a member of their group and shoot him with pistols. The kids run and are pursued but are not caught.

From this point the book becomes a race against time - will the children get caught before enough police and volunteers flood the area and find them? But, if they are found, can their rescuers actually be trusted? 

Of course, the stories of the children and the rancher do intersect and when they do a lot of deeper themes come to play such as old ways versus new ways, city vs. rural and commitment to family and justice. 

This is a good story, but needlessly over-complicated and overly-populated. There are a couple of dozen characters, many of them taking a stint as the lead for at least a chapter or two. It is fairly difficult to juggle that many characters when you are reading the book and it is even more challenging to do so when you are listening to it as an audiobook.

Luckily, the book was read by John Bedford Lloyd, a talented reader who was able to create a number of accents and cadences that were distinct enough that I was able to keep up. 

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found here on Amazon.com: Blue Heaven

Saturday, September 12, 2015

ENEMIES AND ALLIES (audiobook) by Kevin J. Anderson

     Just About as Perfect as It Could Be

Published by GraphicAudio in 2013
Multicast Performance
Duration: about 6 hours
Adapted from the original book.

As D.C. Comics gears up for their big Batman vs. Superman release next year it is interesting to look at how these two iconic characters ever ended up meeting, working together and then become trusted allies.

I grew up in the era when Superfriends and the Justice League were Saturday morning mainstays. Unfortunately, these were horrible days for the Batman franchise. Batman was reduced to being a sidekick of Superman with his only saving grace being that he was the only sidekick with a sidekick (Robin). The first Micheal Keaton Batman movie brought a dark side to the character that had probably never been seen on screen. 


Batman has trust issues. He is secretive and he is often the only force for justice in a city that perverts the law to do the work of evil men. He must work in secrecy and hide in the shadows. This audiobook captures that side of Batman perfectly.

The spirit of Superman was captured well in the old TV show and in the Christopher Reeve movies. Those movies had plenty of issues but I have not heard of anyone that does not think the Reeve nailed the character of Superman perfectly. But, for some reason, modern movie makers have had a hard time understanding this iconic character. It's not hard. He is the ultimate Boy Scout and he is internally motivated to be that way. He is the guy that does the right thing all of the time. He is powerful because of his genetics. He is good because of his upbringing by his adopted parents. This audiobook understands Superman and captures his personality perfectly. 

But, what happens when the Gee Whiz! Aw, Shucks farm boy meets the man who wears a scary costume and  works out of the shadows? 


If you like your Superhero tales told in the classic form (I do - I am something of a comics Fundamentalist), you will thoroughly enjoy a story in which nothing new is told but it the story is still very entertaining. There are no out-of-left-field plot twists (like Alfred is really Bruce's dad! or Lex Luthor used to date Lois Lane!) - this is the same old story but told really well. Perry White yells all of the time, Lois Lane is too curious for her own good, Alfred the butler is efficient and mysterious, Gordon is the only honest cop in Gotham City and Lex Luthor has a diabolical plan that could shake up the entire world.

And it's just about as perfect as it could be.

My daughter and I listened to this audiobook as we commuted back and forth to school for a couple of weeks. When it was all done and she pulled the last CD from the CD player she said, "That was awesome! That was amazing! That was amazingly awesome!" 

The story is set in the 1950s and Lex Luthor is stealing Wayne Enterprises military technology so that he can dominate the Cold War military buildup and playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne doesn't seem to notice. Clark Kent has been sent to Nevada to look into a secret military base called Area 51. Rumors of alien visitors have made him quite curious. And, both Batman and Superman are getting curious about each other as their stories are starting to spread - Superman, the hero with a smile and a kind word. Batman, the vigilante in the dark.

If you are not familiar with GraphicAudio you should be. Their tag line is "A Movie In Your Mind" for good reason. They make each production like an old-fashioned radio show with sound effects. This production had 26 different voice actors - some with big parts, some with tiny parts. It keeps the story lively and it is much easier to picture Superman ripping open the roof of an airplane hanger when you hear the metal tearing at the same time.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

 This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Enemies and Allies

Sunday, September 6, 2015

THE CONSERVATARIAN MANIFESTO: LIBERTARIANS, CONSERVATIVES, and the FIGHT for the RIGHT'S FUTURE by Charles C. W. Cooke

  Libertarians and Conservatives - Natural Allies, Natural Rivals

Published in 2015 by Crown Forum

Charles C. W. Cooke is a writer for National Review and as such he has been in the center of a storm as the political Right works through a new generation of thought on a variety of issues. In some issues, the political Right is united, such as on the concept of Limited Government and keeping taxes as low as possible.
Ron Paul

Generally speaking, Libertarians bond more readily with the Right than the Left, which is why Ron Paul identified as a Libertarian for years yet caucused with the Republicans in the Congress and ran for president as a Republican. The dislike of the Nanny State on many issues pushes them together as temporary allies on many issues.

But, on other issues such as the War on Drugs and Gay Marriage the Right is split and split deeply. Cooke is attempting to nudge the Republicans a little more to the Libertarian point of view on things so that these temporary alliances between the Libertarians and Conservatives can become more permanent.

This can be difficult, though. The Libertarians tend to view traditional Conservative views as hypocritical - too willing to promote some intrusive acts by the government while decrying an intrusive government. Conservatives tend to view the Libertarian position as naive and too willing to walk away from any sort of compromise because compromise is in and of itself unacceptable. Or, as Cooke puts it on page 32, "...convinced that logic-on-paper can answer all the important questions about the human experience, dismissive of history and cultural norms, possessed of a purifying instinct, and all to ready to pull down institutions that they fail to recognize are vital to the integrity of the society in which they operate."

So, the two sides clash "...when the question is 'What should we do' rather than 'what should we oppose?' " (p.33)

So, that is the crux of the book. The two sides have deep divisions but large areas of agreement about where government should not act. It is a well-written, quick read. I come at things from the Conservative with Libertarian leanings camp (like Cooke) so I readily see what he is advocating. My Libertarian relatives are not likely to compromise on any issues, even in the name of making real advances on issues that they hold dear. For them, it is an all-or-nothing proposition (which I get - they hold all of their ideals dearly) but that just is not the way that politics works. Play the game and move towards what you really want. Don't play the game and get none of what you really want but stay ideologically pure.

At least this can be a place to start the discussion.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here: 
The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right's Future