"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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Saturday, June 23, 2018

CAMINO ISLAND: A NOVEL (audiobook) by John Grisham



Published by Random House Audio in 2017.
Read by January LaVoy.

Duration: 8 hours, 45 minutes.
Unabridged.

Princeton University in New Jersey owns the original manuscripts of all five of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels. This book starts out strong with an elaborate heist of these manuscripts and eventually ends up with an elaborate scheme to find the presumed purchaser of these priceless, purloined compositions in Camino Island, Florida.

This audiobook was a great example of great characters but a really loose story that really doesn't hang together too well. It's almost as if John Grisham had no real concept where the book was going so he started moving one way and then changed his mind and just left his plot hanging while he went a new way - again and again and again.

The result is a lot of interesting characters with a plot that goes all over the place and finally ends up with a pretty boring ending followed up by a nice little turn of the plot at the end. To be honest, I think Grisham wanted to write about a little island he vacationed on and have an excuse to write about sea turtles, authors, book tours, booksellers and the publishing industry.

It's a pleasant enough book, but hardly anything exceptional - especially not for someone who has written books that have struck me hard to the core in the past (A Time to Kill, A Painted House, Gray Mountain).

The audiobook was read by January LaVoy who does a great job with some accents but has a disappearing/re-appearing Southern accent with the main character, an author who grew up in Memphis and Florida and lives in North Carolina when the story starts.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Camino Island: A Novel by John Grisham.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

PRIVILEGED to KILL (Bill Gastner Mystery #5) (audiobook) by Steven F. Havill



Published by Books in Motion in 2008.
Read by Rusty Nelson.
Duration: 8 hours, 57 minutes.
The author, Steven F. Havill
Unabridged.

Undersheriff Bill Gastner returns in another mystery in a sleepy New Mexico county on the Mexican border set in the mid-1990's. However, in this story, Posadas County is anything but sleepy.

To be fair, the story starts out sleepy enough with Bill Gastner feeling his age and talking with a a 51 year-old stranded bicyclist with a busted tire that he picks up on the side of the road just for the heck of it and totes him, his bike and all of his equipment into town. Bill and the bicyclist become friendly and the bicyclist heads off to make camp somewhere and then move on the next morning after he gets his tire fixed.

But, things pick up quickly when Gastner gets a phone call in the middle of the night. A freshman girl has been found dead under the bleachers at the high school football field and the bicycle rider was camped nearby and he has been arrested. But, that's not the end of it...

The charm of this series is Bill Gastner's slow pace (he is the oldest character in the book) and the fact that he uses experience and his extensive knowledge of Posadas County to figure things out. But, he also uses his mouth. For a self-professed hermit, he is talks to everyone and listens. This can make the book slow-paced, but that makes sense for a cop looking at retirement. For me, this book series is the literary version of comfort food. I know the characters, the stories move to a slow-but-steady pace and the mysteries are pretty good.


Rusty Nelson read the book and he really does a very solid job with the accents. I think he gets Bill Gastner very well. As normal, there is a bit of Spanish in the book and that is Nelson's weakness. I am not sure why no one call help him with his Spanish, but if you don't know any Spanish it won't bug you either way.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: PRIVILEGED to KILL (Bill Gastner Mystery #5) by Steven F. Havill.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

DETROIT: AN AMERICAN AUTOPSY (audiobook) by Charlie LeDuff



Published by HighBridge in 2013.
Read by Eric Martin.
Duration: 7 hours, 21 minutes.
Unabridged.

Charlie LeDuff
This is one of the best audiobooks I have listened to in a very long time.

It made me laugh, made me think, made me glad I don't live in Detroit, made me worried that I live in another Rust Belt city that has lost a lot of its industrial base, and, over and over again, it shocked me.

Charlie LeDuff grew up in the Detroit area and moved away to do a lot of different things, including being a reporter for the New York Times (where he won a Pulitzer Prize). He came back home to Detroit to work for a newspaper and to be close to family. When you go away from someplace and come home you see things a little more clearly and he was more than a little surprised Detroit was not only every bit as bad off as most of the country believes - it was actually a lot worse.

I recently read the book Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein.  In a lot of ways, it is similar to Detroit: An American Autopsy in that they both detail the stories of a community wrecked by the collapse of the American automobile industry during the Great Recession. Janesville, Wisconsin is a small city that lost its lifeblood - a General Motors truck factory. Janesville lost one factory - Detroit has been losing factory after factory after factory for 50+ years. When Charlie LeDuff was growing up in Detroit, it was dying - but nobody knew it. When he returned it was painfully obvious that Detroit was gone.

But that's too simple. Detroit is not dead. It has firefighters fighting to save the town from chuckleheads that set fire to abandoned homes just to watch the show when the fire department shows up. It has police that keep plugging away, even though Detroit is regularly known as the "murder capitol" and its leadership seems focused on looking good rather than being good. It has people just trying to make a living even though almost all of the good factory jobs are long gone.

It has its lost people, its thieves and hustlers. It has people that use religion as a tool to fleece the people. Its schools are literally falling down around its children. It has people that just don't care. But it also has Keiara Bell, a middle schooler who scolded a member of Detroit's City Council for being rude during a council meeting (if only Keiara Bell had known the half of it). Bell, it turns out, graduated from a Detroit public school, went on to Wayne State University (in Detroit) and graduated and wants to go into city management. She is featured in this TV story by Charlie LeDuff.

This is a tough book. There is no happy ending. It's a messy discussion of race, class, crime, politics, money and LeDuff's personal life and it is compelling. I blasted through this audiobook, looking for chances to listen a little more. Eric Martin read the audiobook and he was perfect for it. He never hit a wrong note as he read the book. I hope he won some sort of award, but in keeping with the theme - why would he? After all, it is about Detroit.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: DETROIT: AN AMERICAN AUTOPSY (audiobook) by Charlie LeDuff.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

NIGHT SCHOOL (Jack Reacher #21) (audiobook) by Lee Child



Published by Random House Audio in 2016.
Read by Dick Hill.
Duration: 13 hours, 7 minutes
Unabridged.

Lee Child
Fans of Jack Reacher know that the Lee Child does not write his books in a linear pattern - he bounces around on the Jack Reacher timeline quite a bit. This book is set in the 1990's when Reacher was still in the military. Reacher has just come off of a secret mission in the Balkans.  He helped find and eliminate war criminals from the fighting that erupted in the wake of the collapse of Yugoslavia. It was the kind of mission that the government was glad to have done, but not glad to acknowledge.

Reacher receives a medal in a private ceremony and then is sent off to an inter-agency training seminar in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. But, it turns out that there are only two other people at this "training" - an FBI agent and a CIA agent that are also fresh off of missions that 
the government was glad to have done, but not glad to acknowledge.

The State Department has gathered them together as a team of go-getters to figure out what is behind a piece of intelligence that they have picked up thanks to an embedded operative - a terror network is offering $100 million for something to a seller in Germany. Reacher and company are being asked to figure out what is for sale and how they can get it before the bad guys do without losing the operative...

This is my fifteenth Jack Reacher book and it was one of the best. It's got some action, but mostly it is a detective story with really big consequences if it is not solved soon.

Dick Hill read this audiobook. He reads most of this series and that is a very, very good thing because Dick Hill has nailed the narration and character voices perfectly.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Night School by Lee Child.

Friday, June 15, 2018

STRUGGLE for a CONTINENT: THE WARS of EARLY AMERICA (The American History Series) by John Ferling



Published in 1993 by Harlan Davidson, Inc.

This unique volume looks at the near-constant state of war that existed in one part or another of the English colonies, from the first attempt at colonization in 1585 until the end of the French and Indian War in 1763.

The first quarter of the book deals with the frequent wars that erupted between the English and the Native Americans that they encountered. Similar patterns emerge as disagreements and misunderstandings become full-fledged brutal and desperate wars of survival in colony after colony, with the exception (at first, at least) of Pennsylvania. 



The rest of the book is devoted to the English struggle against other colonial powers, namely the Spanish and the French. Spain was already a declining power at this point so they posed a minor threat when compared to the ever-growing French Empire. A great part of the book is spent discussing the French threat emanating from Canada towards New England and what is now the states of Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania.

Time and again the colonies are brought into wars that started in Europe. The colonies became a sideshow to the war and many times their hard won gains were given away on the bargaining table in order to make a peace treaty work for Europeans.

Ironically enough, the last of these wars, the French and Indian War, was clearly started by a young colonial soldier named George Washington who stumbled into a group of French soldiers while leading troops in Western Pennsylvania and was forced to surrender them at Fort Necessity. This fight led to the removal of France from Canada and sowed some of the seeds that became the American Revolution.

This is a very informative, concise volume. Well done.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: STRUGGLE for a CONTINENT: THE WARS of EARLY AMERICA.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

THE LAST CHECKOUT (audiobook) by Peter Besson



Published by Peter Besson, Inc. in 2018.
Read by Conner Goff
Duration: 7 hours, 7 minutes.
Unabridged.

In the near future the population of the world has reached the breaking point and climate change has made it all the harder to feed everyone. Throw in a near-continuous state of war and a collapsing economy and you might understand why some people would want to go and kill themselves before someone else gets around to doing it.

So many people were killing themselves that a niche industry formed - suicide hotels designed to deal specifically with the needs of those that want to kill themselves. They are called "Last Resorts" and have any number of conveniences for those that are determined to "check out" of this life, such as handguns, poisons, drugs for overdosing and convenient places to throw oneself off of the roof without harming passersby. The only real rule is that once you check in, you cannot check out alive. You can stay as long as you'd like, so long as you have the funds. Also, if you change your mind, you will be killed by a professional assassin. No one gets out alive.

Ansel Grayson has lived in a Last Resort for 12 years. He and a few other long term residents have watched hundreds of people check in and leave via the morgue in the basement of the hotel. For 12 years, Grayson has tried to work up the courage to finally kill himself and on the day he truly works up the nerve, he gets interrupted by a new female resident who is determined to kill herself as soon as possible. It's love at first sight for Grayson and suddenly he has found a reason to live...


This was an interesting audiobook. I can't say that it was fun to listen to, although it times it was very funny. It was a book full of misery, pain, addiction, greed and despair, but it was also hopeful. I am glad I listened to it, but I never want to listen to it again.

The book could easily be adapted to an Amazon Prime Video or Netflix 10 show mini-series format since it explores not only this brutal vision of the future, but it also explores the reasons why many of the long term residents of the hotel have checked themselves into a "Last Resort."

Conner Goff did an outstanding job as reader. He struck the right tone throughout, which had to be tough considering how many of the characters are trying to kill themselves.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: The Last Checkout by Peter Besson.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

MATTHEW BRADY: PHOTOGRAPHER of the CIVIL WAR (Historical American Biographies series) by Lynda Pflueger



Published in 2001 by Enslow Publishers, Inc.

Matthew Brady (1822-1896)
Matthew Brady is most famous for being THE photographer of the Civil War, but he had quite the career before the war. He was arguably the most famous photographer in the world before the war and the war cemented him in the historical record.

Every American has seen his team's handiwork - one of his photographs of Lincoln was the model for Lincoln's image on the penny. But, if you are a student of the Civil War, you have seen Brady's handiwork over and over again - such as his picture of Lincoln conferring with McClellan in a tent at the Antietam battlefield, his portrait of Lincoln with his son Tad, and his picture of Robert E. Lee taken right after the war.

This biography is intended to be a supplemental reading in a fifth grade or higher classroom. I am a voracious reader of just about anything about the American Civil War (this is my 100th book I am reviewing with a Civil War theme) and I found this slim volume to be quite informative. The pictures that were chosen for the book were excellent. The book features 110 pages of pictures and text followed by a chronology of Brady's life, a set of end notes, a glossary, suggestion for further reading and an index for a grand total of 128 pages.

The maps in the book are accurate, but I don't think I have ever found a more worthless set of maps in a Civil War history. They are focused so close in to the action that the reader cannot see the larger picture. For example, the map showing McClellan's Peninsular Campaign is so tight that you cannot see how the sweep of the Army of the Potomac's movements and how this would have been a stunning attack on Richmond that would have avoided the bulk of the Confederate Army if it had been implemented more quickly. 

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Matthew Brady: Photographer of the Civil War

Thursday, June 7, 2018

CHILDREN of WRATH (audiobook) by T.A. Ward



Published by T.A. Ward Books in May of 2018.
Read by Tom Askin.

Duration: 8 hours, 41 minutes.
Unabridged.


In this science fiction novel, the United States suffered a horrible day of terrorist attacks known as the Day of Destruction in the 2040's. There were nuclear attacks in some places but Philadelphia was attacked by a nerve gas called Obcasus. The gas itself was bad enough, but the side effects are worse. Women who were exposed give birth to children with brain damage that makes them uncontrollably violent - even as infants. They are called inexorables.

Our main character is Dr. Ethan King, a Philadelphia infectious disease doctor that has treated patients for Obcasus exposure since the Day of Destruction. He is happily married but he and his wife cannot have children.

One day, Dr. King spots a starving, nearly dead Inexorable child as he is leaving the hospital late at night and he decides to take it home...


The premise behind this book was very strong. However, I did not enjoy the presentation very much. There is way too much description in scene after scene. There are also long soliloquies and strange turns of phrase by Dr. King that I can't imagine people actually saying in real life. On top of that, I cannot imagine that no one has figured out the big mystery in this story before now.

I listened to this book as an audiobook. The reader, Tom Askin, has a pleasant voice but reads with a soft tone, like a parent might read a bedtime story to a child. He also makes strange pauses, like William Shatner. It made for an odd listen.

There is a sequel to this book and I will not be listening to it.

I rate this audiobook 2 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Children of Wrath by T.A. Ward.

Note: the author provided me with a copy of the audiobook so that I could write an honest review.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

EATS with SINNERS: LOVING LIKE JESUS by Arron Chambers



Published in 2017 by NavPress

The title of the book comes from a passage in the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Luke. In the previous chapter, Jesus ate with Pharisees (a Jewish sect that prided themselves on their strict adherence to all of the religious rules of the day) and told them not to be too prideful as they picked their seats for this "dinner party". In Chapter 15, we come across this passage:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (NIV translation)

Jesus makes two points. The most obvious to the modern reader is the story. It is clear that he is saying that you have to reach out to the lost in order to find the lost. The shepherd does not find the lost sheep by sitting around wondering where it is - he seeks it out. He follows it up with two more stories with the same point, including the famed story of the Prodigal Son.

But, lost to most modern readers is the complaint: "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." Should "good" church people hang out with people that aren't "good" church people? What was Jesus doing hanging out with the unrighteous? Why was this rabbi eating with them like they were his equals?
Jesus' answer? He told three stories that make it clear that you have to seek the lost and welcome them when they come back to the fold. That means go out and engage the world where it is. And, those that would be righteous have to remember that they aren't so perfect, either.

One of the common refrains of the book is that if you want to bring Christ to the people you actually have to go out to the people. Pretty simple, huh? Well, the book goes into more detail than that, but it is still pretty simple.
Now, how do you do that? Chambers eschews the idea of going out and screaming at people, as some street preachers like to do (p. 35). Instead, he looks at the example of Jesus. "Jesus didn't yell at lost people. He ate with lost people." (p. 36) Who listens to people who yell at them without even knowing them? No one. But, you just might listen to someone who shares sits down with you and gets to know you.
This book is designed to be used as a Bible study as well. I think it would be an excellent small group study. It would also be good as a tool to get a whole congregation to re-think how they approach outreach.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Eats with Sinners: Loving Like Jesus.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

ASIANS and PACIFIC ISLANDERS and the CIVIL WAR by the National Park Service



Published in 2015 by Eastern National

A year and a half ago I visited the Lincoln home at Springfield, Illinois (a great place, by the way) and in the visitors center I found this book. I was intrigued for three reasons: 1) the Park Service books are always beautifully put together, like a National Geographic with lots of color pictures; 2) I knew nothing about any Asian participation in the Civil War - I figured there had to be some because the war was so vast and involved so many people - but I knew nothing about them; 3) This was the physically largest book in the series - even bigger than the books on the Underground Railroad and American Indians in the Civil War - two areas that are well documented.

This book continues in the tradition of being beautiful visually. It is written as a series of articles, each telling a part of the overall story and each article is illustrated with high quality photos. However, the articles are often overlapping, with mentions of some of the same men in multiple articles, sometimes repeating the same information.

I did learn a few things, though. I had never heard of the "Pacific Pig Trade" before this book. It was an attempt to circumvent the official international prohibition on trade in African slaves by bringing in contract labor from China. Many of them went to Cuba. However, many of these laborers did not voluntarily sign these labor contracts and they were bought and sold like the African slaves were. Many were tied up for their trip in the same nets that were used to haul pigs, thus the name Pacific Pig Trade.

There was also a lot of confusion as to how to classify the Asian volunteers that stepped forward. This was a world that categorized everyone by race and nationality, sometimes even measuring people down to 1/64 of African blood in order to properly classify people. Were Asians to be considered people of color, forced to serve in segregated units? Where they white? Did it matter? Turns out, there was no official policy, most likely because there weren't enough Asian volunteers to force the government to make one. So, it depended on the local recruiting officer and the men that the Asian volunteer would serve with.

For me, the most interesting story was that of Chang and Eng Bunker (1811-1874). These brothers were the origin of the term Siamese Twins. After touring the country in an exhibition, they settled in Mount Airy, North Carolina (later it served as the inspiration for Andy Griffith's fictional Mayberry) They married, bought  plantations and had lots of children - two of whom served in the Civil War as Confederate soldiers. Between them, the brothers had 33 slaves and were outspoken supporters of the Confederacy.

The main issue that I have with the book is that it is very repetitive. There were simply is not enough original material to fill a book of this size so the articles tend to overlap, as I already noted above. This book would have been well-served to have an editor put together articles and make the book tighter.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Asians and Pacific Islanders and the Civil War.

Friday, June 1, 2018

THE TRUTH ABOUT ANIMALS: STONED SLOTHS, LOVELORN HIPPOS, and OTHER TALES from the WILD SIDE of WILDLIFE by Lucy Cooke



Published by Basic Books in 2018.

Zoologist Lucy Cooke explores some of the offbeat bits of the animal world in The Truth About Animals - a book that shows us that most of us think we know a lot about the animal world, but we really don't. None of the animals featured are obscure - they are all well-known, with the possible exception of the eel (at least in the United States). 

A surprising example of an invasive species - wild hippos
thriving in Colombia thanks to Pablo Escobar.
The animals featured in the book are: eels, beavers, sloths, hyenas, vultures, bats, frogs, storks, hippos, moose, pandas, penguins and chimpanzees.

Cooke usually begins with a look at the animal in question in historical texts so that we can see that these misunderstandings have been going on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. For example, bats have been misunderstood and mis-classified since...well, forever. The struggle to figure out how exactly bats travel at night was especially gruesome, featuring scientists blinding live bats, plugging up their noses and coating their bodies with lacquer in an effort to determine exactly how they can fly so well in the dark.

All too often, these animals are associated with an human-introduced invasive species of some sort. Sometimes, they are the victims of that species (frogs) and sometimes they are that species, as in the case of hippos. Did you know that there is a colony of hippos in Colombia? Four of them were introduced by the drug lord Pablo Escobar as a part of a personal zoo but they escaped when his drug empire fell. Now, there are more than 40.


Every animal description has a long description of the sex life of the animal. Ironically, this usually comes after a withering commentary about how Victorian or medieval writers were overly concerned about the sex lives of animals. Sometimes it is interesting and has a larger point (as in the story of the eels), other times it is simply presented in a vulgar manner that detracts from the book. 

For example, when Cooke is discussing Hyenas she spends a lot of time talking about the fact that the genitalia of a female hyena look a great deal like those of a male - so much so that they are often confused for males without benefit of a very close inspection (which would be dangerous for most people). This setup makes it difficult for them to mate and makes giving birth a highly dangerous activity. All of that is interesting information. But, calling them "the original chicks with dicks" (p. 73) is unnecessarily crude and that type of thing occurs throughout the book.

I learned a lot with this book. I learned how storks are making a comeback and how they they were the species that taught us about bird migration. In the section on eels, I learned that we are still uncovering mysteries about common animals - even animals that are eaten by the millions. I learned that the female hyena is a mighty animals and she may be the leader of a very large pack with an exceedingly complex social order and a large territory. I learned all about how the sloth is perfectly adapted to his environment and his slow-moving ways are actually an immense advantage. But I was bothered by its too-crude tone when discussing the breeding habits of the animals. For that, I deducted a star. 


I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here:  THE TRUTH ABOUT ANIMALS: STONED SLOTHS, LOVELORN HIPPOS, and OTHER TALES from the WILD SIDE of WILDLIFE.


Note: I received a pre-publication copy of this book as a part of the Amazon Vine program in exchange for an honest review.