"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)