"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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Thursday, May 16, 2019

AN AMERICAN SUMMER: LOVE and DEATH in CHICAGO (audiobook) by Alex Kotlowitz



Published in March of 2019 by Random House Audio.
Read by by the author, Alex Kotlowitz.

Duration: 9 hours, 53 minutes.
Unabridged.


Journalist Alex Kotlowitz has written several books about race, crime and life in the Midwest rust belt. This book focuses on Chicago's most violent neighborhoods. How violent are they? In the past 20 years, 14,033 people have been killed and another 60,000 have been injured by other people shooting guns. Just to compare, it is as if the entire population of Scranton, PA or Ogden, UT or Napa, CA were all killed or wounded by gunfire.

But, it's not like all of Chicago experiences this violence. It is really just a few neighborhoods - so the impact is a lot like a civil war is going on in a medium-sized city. Everyone knows someone who has been shot and most people know someone that has been killed. That takes a toll on the survivors and that is what this book is about. 


Kotlowitz follows nine stories from these neighborhoods. Some were victims, some hurt others and some did both. Most of these stories are unrelentingly sad. Some were a little hopeful and one was downright inspiring.

The reader learns about the cycle of violence, how city officials have tried to help and fail and how the police can become just another violent part of a violent neighborhood. Chicago Police Department has paid out $662 million in damages for police misconduct since 2004.

This is a sobering, well-written book. Not an easy listen, but an important one.

This book was read by the author, Alex Kotlowitz. He did an excellent job.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here:  AN AMERICAN SUMMER: LOVE and DEATH in CHICAGO by Alex Kotlowitz.

Please check out this book as well: 
ALL the DREAMS WE'VE DREAMED: A STORY of HOOPS and HANDGUNS on CHICAGO'S WEST SIDE by Rus Bradburd.

Monday, May 13, 2019

THE LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.



Illustrations by the author.
Translated from French to English by Richard Howard.



The Little Prince is a classic novel, voted the best French book of the 20th Century. It is written in deceptively simple language - so simple that a French teacher colleague of mine has her advanced French students read it in the original French every year.

But, don't let the simple style fool you - this book packs a lot of big ideas about the foibles of modern living and adulthood into this small book about a space traveler who lands in the Sahara desert. The space traveler (the Little Prince) meets a crash-landed pilot and shares the story of his travels.

I read the book easily over a weekend while on a camping trip. I read it on my Kindle phone app. Because the author's illustrations are just as iconic as the book itself, the folks at Kindle decided to scan the pages in the way they are published. I have no problem with that, but my phone app did not let me enlarge the pages in any way with a zoom feature. At times, the text was pretty tough to read. Because of that, I am going to deduct a star from my overall score - I am reviewing the Kindle version and the Kindle version has a weakness.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: The Little Prince

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

THE SECRET LIFE of BEES by Sue Monk Kidd



Originally published in 2002.

The Secret Life of Bees is set in the summer of 1964. Lily Owens is a young teenager living in small town South Carolina on a peach farm. Her mother died when she was very young, her father is abusive. Her best moments at home come when she is with the housekeeper, Rosaleen. 
Sue Monk Kidd

The story starts immediately after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Rosaleen, who is African American, decides that she is going to go into town and register to vote. Rosaleen meets some resistance, reacts and gets arrested. Then, she gets a beating and ends up hospitalized. Lily breaks her out and they flee to another small town - Tiburon.

Why Tiburon?

Lily only has a few trinkets from her mother and one of them is a piece of paper with an African American Virgin Mary with Tiburon, SC written on the back. She is determined to find out more about her mother and save her stand-in mother.

When they get to Tiburon, they are directed to "the pink house" and discover a thriving honey business ran by three African American sisters. Lily and Rosalee learn about bees and family as Lily tries to figure out her mother's connection to this place...

There are obvious connections to other Southern "coming of age" stories like A Member of the Wedding or Huckleberry Finn, but this book is unique. The religious angle alone sets it apart (for both good and bad). It is certainly worth your time to read.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 4 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.

Friday, April 19, 2019

THE FUTURE of CAPITALISM: FACING the NEW ANXIETIES (audiobook) by Paul Collier



Published in December of 2018 by HarperAudio.
Read by Peter Noble.
Duration: 9 hours, 26 minutes.

The author, Sir Paul Collier
Unabridged.

Paul Collier is an award-winning economics professor at Oxford University. His name is symbolic of how he approaches this book, The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties. Collier has been knighted for his work as an economist. This means that he could have listed his name as Sir Paul Collier, but he does not. Collier may be a big shot professor who holds three positions at Oxford University (possibly the best university on the planet), but he is also the guy from Sheffield, England. Collier repeatedly compares it to Detroit because they are of a similar size and both lost a great deal of their industrial base over the last 50 years.

This book is intended to be read by the layman. Collier could certainly bury the reader with obscure terms, but he does not. Instead, he uses plenty of real world examples of well-known companies (Toyota vs. GM, for example) and well-known situations (how Johnson and Johnson reacted to the Tylenol poisoning scare in 1982, how Bear Stearns investment company put themselves into a completely ridiculous financial situation that helped kick off the worldwide Great Recession in 2008) to make his points. I am a licensed high school economics teacher, which means that I know enough economics to sound smart to people who don't know anything about economics and enough to sound dumb to actual economists. I followed about 97% of what Collier was saying. I will blame the parts that I didn't follow on the audiobook format - sometimes you get distracted when you listen and I did not rewind and re-listen. 


Collier points that the industrial Western world is splitting itself into two economic regions. In the United States we have mega-cities (NYC and Silicon Valley, for example) that are prosperous and the rest is "flyover country". Even local "big cities" like Detroit are struggling. In the UK, it is London and, well, everything else. These two regions are experiencing the modern economy quite differently. For example, President Trump points out (correctly) that the American economy is growing at a good rate. And Bernie Sanders points out (also correctly) that the benefits of this growth is largely going to certain groups and certain regions. The rise of these two men in the top ranks of the American political system are discussed in this book as a reaction to this type of economic growth. He points out that similar moves to more extremism in politics have happened across multiple modern economies.

Collier has considered various ways to re-structure tax policy to help even out this growth. He also advocates a move away from the business theory espoused by Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman which can be written in shorthand this way: the sole purpose of a business is to generate profit for its shareholders (within the rules). Collier does not discount profit, but argues that making it the sole goal is shortsighted because it can make management shortsighted (especially since a lot of CEOs move after just a few years) and will choose to make quick cash rather than long term growth. He provides several examples and cites data that says that corporations that are privately held tend to do better than publicly held corporations precisely because the leadership of the privately held corporations are in it for the long haul.

But, this is not just a book about corporations, it is also a book about immigration, public policy, how the government can change the way it educates its young people, the way it retrains displaced workers and the way it approaches the chronically unemployed. He is a very big fan of the German approach to post-high school education, and if he describes it accurately, I cannot disagree.

This book was well read by Peter Noble, a gifted audiobook reader. It was a joy to listen to him read, but I suggest that the traditional book (or even e-reader) would be a better way to go through the material in case you want to take notes or re-read passages.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: THE FUTURE of CAPITALISM: FACING the NEW ANXIETIES by Paul Collier.

Collier mentioned this book in his book. I read it last year: 
JANESVILLE: AN AMERICAN STORY by Amy Goldstein.

I thought this book went very well to another book that I was reading at the same time: 
THE CORROSION of CONSERVATISM: WHY I LEFT the RIGHT by Max Boot.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

THE CORROSION of CONSERVATISM: WHY I LEFT the RIGHT (kindle) by Max Boot



Published in October of 2018 by Liveright.

2016 was a moment of reckoning for political writer Max Boot. Boot wrote for all of the well-known Conservative publications - The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, etc. He appeared on TV shows and radio shows and describes himself as a "movement conservative". But, the rise of Donald Trump and his subsequent election made him change his registration from Republican to Independent in protest.

Why? In his own words: "In March 2016, I had written that Trump was a 'character test' for the GOP: 'Do you believe in the open and inclusive party of Ronald Reagan? Or do you want a bigoted and extremist party in the image of Donald Trump?' To my growing horror, most Republicans were failing the test."

I picked up this book because I felt the same way. There is no point in laying out all of arguments against Trump - everyone has heard them. Like Boot, I was dismayed that "...most Republican leaders showed that they were willing to discard their principles as mindlessly as a Styrofoam fast-food container if by doing so they could enhance their own positions and avoid the wrath of a powerful and vindictive leader."

So, like Boot, I find myself a Republican "in exile" - I have left the party. Like the Cuban exiles, I find myself on the outside looking in and wondering what the hell happened.

Over the last two and half years Mr. Boot and I have come to a lot of the same conclusions. One of them is that President Trump has brought to life a strong nativist and racist strand that was always a part of the Conservative movement, but a part that we had always assumed was a tiny and shrinking part. Instead, he has exposed it to have been just hidden away out of politeness. Boot points out: "No, not all Trump supporters are racist. But virtually all racists, it seems, are Trump supporters."

Also: "It is hard to know who is worse: Trump or his enablers. I am inclined to think it is the latter. Trump does not know any better; he has no idea how a president, or even an ordinary, decent human being, is supposed to behave. But many of his supporters do know better, and they are debasing themselves to curry favor with him because he controls the levers of power." Boot does not go into the Evangelical support of Trump. Boot is not a Christian, so it is not his fight. But, I am so you can take that same quote and apply it to the big name Christian leaders that attach themselves to this man and make excuses for him and see how my frustration is doubled.

In the end, this book will not change any minds. But, I found it helpful to find someone as well-written as Max Boot has come to so many of the same conclusions that I have have.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: THE CORROSION of CONSERVATISM: WHY I LEFT the RIGHT by Max Boot.

Monday, April 15, 2019

THE MIDNIGHT PLAN of the REPO MAN (Ruddy McCann #1) (audiobook) by W. Bruce Cameron



Published in 2014 my Macmillan Audio.
Read by George K. Wilson.

Duration: 11 hours, 15 minutes.
Unabridged.

Ruddy McCann is a former college football star (in the running for the Heisman Trophy) who ended up going to prison rather than the NFL. Now, he is in his early thirties, out of prison and back in his hometown in northern Michigan. He helps his sister run the family business (a dingy old bar) and he works as a repo man. A repo man repossesses cars for lenders when their owners are behind on their payments, usually with a tow truck.

Ruddy has a lot going on in his life right now. He met an interesting woman, he has a difficult repo job and the bar is in serious need of a cash infusion because the creditors are threatening to cut them off. But, most distressing is the voice in his head. This is not a pretend voice, like a conscience - this is a real voice from a guy that says he was shot by two men and buried in the woods not far from Ruddy's hometown. Ruddy believes him, too. He keeps having dreams about being chased down and shot by two men he's never seen before.

So, Ruddy and the voice in his head set off to solve the murder, repo a truck, save the bar and get the girl (oh yeah - that's especially complicated)...

The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man is a fun book. Putting together the pieces to figure out the plan behind the murder was interesting. Ruddy's repo cases were often funny and it was quite powerful when the reader learns the reason behind Ruddy's time in prison. None of this would work except for the fact that both Ruddy and the Alan (the voice in his head) are decent guys.

That being said, the book is just a little too busy, a little too crowded for one book. Cameron has another book and a novella in this series - I plan on listening to those as well.

This audiobook was exceptionally read by George K. Wilson. It was the perfect match between reading style and text.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: 
The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

ZOO NEBRASKA: THE DISMANTLING of an AMERICAN DREAM (kindle) by Carson Vaughan



Published in April of 2019

Royal, Nebraska is a town of 81 people and an abandoned zoo. In 1987, Dick Haskin brought a chimpanzee named Reuben to his hometown in Nebraska in hopes of starting the Midwest Primate Center to continue the research of his slain hero, Dian Fossey.

But, the funds for the primate center never materialized. He wasn't interested in starting a zoo but, over time, he ended up with an odd collection of animals - tigers, wolves, llamas and more. Eventually, he accepted the fact that he had a zoo and changed the name to Zoo Nebraska. In absolute terms, it wasn't much of a zoo, but it was a heck of a thing for rural Nebraska. Even famed TV talk show host (and Nebraska native) got in the act and donated a lot of money to upgrade the chimpanzee habitat (he felt that kids in rural Nebraska needed this kind of opportunity, even if it was a limited one).

But, it was not ever financially viable. Taking care of exotic animals in expensive and labor-intensive. The pool of volunteers was limited and there were never enough tickets sold to hire enough help. And, that's where this story takes a long, sad turn for the worse that ends up with 4 chimpanzees escaping and tearing through the zoo and the town in 2005. Three of them were shot and killed and the zoo closed two years later.

This book looks into the small town politics that dogged the zoo its entire life. For me, that was the worst part of the book. It seemed like an endless parade of people with hidden agendas and it made the last 2/3 of the book a real chore to read. 


Because of that, I rate this book 3 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: ZOO NEBRASKA: THE DISMANTLING of an AMERICAN DREAM by Carson Vaughan.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

GET on BOARD: THE STORY of the UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Jim Haskins



Published in 1993 by Scholastic.

Levi Coffin House, a major stopping point of the
Underground Railroad
Jim Haskins' introduction to the Underground Railroad is aimed at grades 4-7. It is a solid little history of the origins of the abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad and slavery. It mostly focuses on the heroes of the abolitionist movement, but it does its best to try to work in a lot of individual stories of the Underground Railroad.

For example, I enjoyed the letter that Jermain Wesley Loguen wrote to his former owner (he had run away) when she demanded that he pay for himself. It was the perfect blend of snark and indignant refusal.

The longest biography in the book goes to Harriet Tubman with Frederick Douglass coming in a close second. That is appropriate since their stories are extraordinary. Haskins does a real solid job of introducing the two real-life people that the most famous African American characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin are based on and then reminding the reader of them when he discusses the novel and its impact.

However, it is not a perfect book. The pictures are, on the whole, very poor - much like a poor photocopy of a photo.

There is a problem when Haskins discusses Levi Coffin, who is sometimes called the President of the Underground Railroad as a testament to his commitment to the cause and the number of runaway slaves that he helped. Haskins makes it sound like Coffin's home is near Cincinnati (on the East Fork of the Ohio River - which doesn't exist, according to Google) but he discusses and shows a picture of his home in Fountain City. I have been to the Levi Coffin house many times in the last few years (they have a tour and a visitor's center -it's worth your time to visit) and I know that the Coffin family lived near Cincinnati at one point in time but then moved to Fountain City, Indiana. Google tells me that it is 79 miles from Cincinnati, which means that Haskins has confused the two locations.

But, on the whole, this is a nifty introduction to the Underground Railroad.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: GET on BOARD: THE STORY of the UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Jim Haskins.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

ST. PAUL: THE APOSTLE WE LOVE to HATE (audiobook) by Karen Armstrong



Published in 2015 by Brilliance Audio.
Read by the author, Karen Armstrong.

Duration: 5 hours, 21 minutes.
Unabridged.

Karen Armstrong is a multiple award-winning author of more than 25 books, the great majority of them exploring religion. She is particularly interested in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. 
Born c. AD 5. Died c. AD 64-67

This book is aimed at the informed layman - not at other historians or religious experts. I read A LOT of history and have gone to church my entire life, but I can get lost in the weeds pretty quickly if too much professional jargon is used. Armstrong assumes a basic knowledge of the Christianity and of the New Testament. Nothing too complicated or deep and most of my Bible knowledge comes from Sunday school and small group Bible studies led by layman with a workbook. Armstrong takes care to explain things along the way because she is not out to impress the intellectuals - she has written a history for regular folks.

Paul has always been interesting to me. His writings have always seemed to me to be the first real attempt to move Jesus' teachings into a formal religion. There are times when I find his writings to be quite inspirational. At other times, he strikes me as obtuse and misogynistic. But, I wanted to get into the book to have a better understanding of what he was teaching and when he taught it.

The first thing that surprised me was the concept of Deutero-Pauline letters. Many scholars are now assuming that nearly half of the New Testament letters from Paul were not actually written by Paul, but by writers that came after him and used his name. This was a fairly common practice in Roman times - if you liked an author, you just borrowed his name. The evidence for this comes from analyzing the vocabulary used, the writing styles and changes in theology.

For me, this mostly cleared up one of my major frustrations with Paul - his inconsistencies. I say mostly because he still had some, but not nearly as many.

Her biography of Paul was interesting, but a bit skimpy since the audiobook was only a little over 5 hours long. But, it does hit the main points and I ended up feeling much more informed than I was before I started. I wish she had added more about his impact on the development of the Church over the nearly 2,000 years since his death.

This audiobook was read by the author. Sometimes, that can be a problem because being a great author is not the same thing as being a great audiobook reader. However, Armstrong has considerable experience with public speaking and her performance was quite good.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: ST. PAUL: THE APOSTLE WE LOVE to HATE (audiobook) by Karen Armstrong.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

THE BEATITUDES: FROM SLAVERY to CIVIL RIGHTS by Carole Boston Weatherford



Published in 2010 by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
Illustrated by Tim Ladwig.

Author Carole Boston Weatherford is a prolific writer for children. Usually, she writes books featuring African Americans on a wide variety of themes, including jazz, African American fathers, the Tuskegee Airmen, baseball, NASCAR and a lot of religious themes.

In this book, Weatherford tells the story of the African American struggle for equal rights through the prism of the Beatitudes, a sermon given by Jesus that is in the Book of Matthew. She begins with these words:

 

Matthew 5:3-12 King James Version

3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

5 Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

6 Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

7 Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

10 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

As the reader turns the pages they are treated to a two page spread of art and a few lines describing it. At the bottom of the page, almost like a continuous scroll, are Jesus' words.

Technically, this is a book intended for small children. But, I think it would be an amazing tool to use with older kids in a Bible study and applying it to everyday life. Also, it is a powerful reminder that faith played a big part in African American survival through the worst of times and moving the Civil Rights agenda forward. 


I rate this book 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: THE BEATITUDES: FROM SLAVERY to CIVIL RIGHTS by Carole Boston Weatherford.

Monday, March 25, 2019

YOU WOULDN'T WANT to BE AN AMERICAN PIONEER! A WILDERNESS YOU'D RATHER NOT TAME by Jacqueline Morley



Illustrations by David Antram.
Published in 2002.


As a history teacher, I think just about all of history is fascinating - the cultural tidbits, the technology, the religious beliefs, the wars, the governments. It's all fascinating! But...convincing my students is another matter entirely. 

This series does an excellent job of looking at history from an interesting point of view and showing why it was tough. The art is accessible and just cartoonish enough to not be one of those boring illustrations that fill history books and plenty realistic enough that to clearly see and understand what is going on.


This series has dozens and dozens of books. This book is about the Oregon and tells all about the trials and tribulations that a pioneer might have come across - everything from river crossings, weather, Pawnees, high priced supplies, the death of the oxen and more.

Fantastic for a classroom library. Great for budding history buffs.


I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: YOU WOULDN'T WANT to BE AN AMERICAN PIONEER! A WILDERNESS YOU'D RATHER NOT TAME.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

SUICIDE RUN: THREE HARRY BOSCH STORIES (kindle) by Michael Connelly



Published by Little, Brown and Company in 2011.

LAPD Detective Harry Bosch is back on the case in these three short stories. Fans of the series know that Harry has had a long career in print and he had already had a long career before he started showing up in Michael Connelly's books. These stories are at varied points in his career, he has various partners and co-workers from throughout the series show up and he has various degrees of success in them.

Two of the stories are quite short - short enough that I was just starting to settle in for a good Harry Bosch story and they just...ended. The third is a pretty good story and just long enough that I found myself wishing that Connelly had fleshed it out a bit more into full book length.

I rate this collection 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Suicide Run: Three Harry Bosch Stories.

Friday, March 22, 2019

YOU LEARN BY LIVING: ELEVEN KEYS for a MORE FULFILLING LIFE (audiobook) by Eleanor Roosevelt



Originally published in 1960.

Published in December of 2018 by HarperAudio.

Read by Vivienne Leheny.
Duration: 5 hours, 29 minutes.
Unabridged. 


Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
Eleanor Roosevelt, cousin of one president and wife of another became a celebrity and a political force to be reckoned with in her own right after the death of her husband in 1945.

She worked with the United Nations and wrote a regular newspaper column. Over her lifetime, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote more than 25 books, met thousands of people, visited dozens of countries and raised half a dozen children. All of that in addition to being First Lady for more than 12 years.

Eleanor's column was normally based on letters that were sent to her. A lot of those letters asked for her advice. This book is a distillation of the advice she had given over the years. It is written in a very approachable, simple manner and, as she notes at the end of her book, doesn't really teach anything new. Instead, there is a lot of practical advice and observations with a lot of personal anecdotes thrown in.

I enjoyed the book, but I have to rate it 4 stars out of 5 because there was nothing exceptional about it. Lots of good advice, lots of great stories, though. I recommend it, but I did not find it life-changing.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: YOU LEARN BY LIVING: ELEVEN KEYS for a MORE FULFILLING LIFE by Eleanor Roosevelt.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD (Highway 59 Mystery #1) by Attica Locke



Winner of the 2018 Edgar Award for Best Novel.
Published by Hachette Audio in 2017.
Read by JD Jackson.
Duration: 9 hours, 25 minutes.
Unabridged.

Darren Mathews is a rare thing - a black Texas Ranger. He is also suspended for getting involved in a situation with a man with Aryan Brotherhood ties that ended up murdered soon afterwards. 

A friend in the FBI tells him about another situation, way out in a small town on Highway 59 in East Texas at the edge of a bayou. Two bodies have been found in the bayou - one black and one white.

The first body was a black man - beaten nearly to death and then drowned in the bayou. The second was a white woman, found floating in the bayou a few days later.

So, Mathews heads off to this little town and starts nosing around with no authorization. He discovers a little cafe run by an elderly black woman on one end of town and a bar owned by her white neighbor on the other end of town - a bar that regularly plays host to the Aryan Brotherhood. In between them is a lot of history.

Mathews thinks he has the situation figured out before he even arrives but the more he digs, the more complicated everything gets...

This book won the 2018 Edgar Award for Best Novel. The Edgar Award goes to the best mystery and the mystery in the story was quite good. The story itself was slow to develop, however. The pacing of the novel was sacrificed a bit in order to create more tone and mood in a book that was filled with tone and mood. 


The audiobook was read by JD Jackson. He voiced the characters with a multitude of unique voices and did quite a good job.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD (Highway 59 Mystery #1) by Attica Locke.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

DRAGONWORLD by Byron Preiss and Michael Reaves



Originally published in 1979.
Illustrations by Joseph Zucker.

art from the book
Way back in 1985, I bought a paperback copy of this book at Viewpoint Books - a great store in Columbus, Indiana. I sold it to a used book store a few years later and I forgot all about it. A couple of years ago, I found a copy at a thrift store and I snatched it up, feeling like I had found a relic from my past. I remembered that I loved the beginning of the book and I loved the pictures (there are more than 80 pencil drawings throughout the book), but I couldn't remember anything else about it.

So, I finally got around to reading this book and I have determined that I did not finish the book 34 years ago. I remembered the first 30 pages or so but everything else was a surprise - and not a particularly good one (with the exception of the aforementioned drawings - they are quite excellent).

The book is set in a world with two continents separated by a narrow strait of very volatile water. The eastern continent, Simbala, is filled with people that are like Tolkien's rangers and people that are sort of like elves (but they are still people). They live in the woods and in the forests. They fly air ships, which are sort of like hot air balloons. They also dig deep mines (which is not like elves, I know, but this is barely touched on in the book). The western continent, Fandora, is full of people that are sort of like Tolkien's hobbits mixed with his dwarves. They are farmers, villagers and fishermen.

Fandora is horrified by the sudden violent death of two of its young people. It looks like both are attacked from above, so it is assumed that Simbalese air ships have crossed the strait and attacked them. The Fandoran villages unite and build a ragtag army to cross the sea.

*******Spoliers ahead**********

Meanwhile, a similar attack has hit the people of Simbala. This is where the story gets bogged down. Simbala has an elderly monarch and an extensive royal family but the king has done an unpopular thing (but, then again, maybe it's popular - it depends on the page). He has appointed a miner to be king. The miner is quick-thinking and acted to save the country from an attack by underground creatures (think hobgoblins from Lord of the Rings) and their wolf-things. There is a dramatic build-up to deal with some sort of problem with the mines, but it is dropped and never brought up again.

(still more spoilers)

The new king is named Hawkwind and he is an amazingly talented individual. Not only is he an excellent miner, he also had time to learn how to sword fight, how to hunt, how to track things in the wilderness, how to ride horses better than anyone, train that horse to fight alongside him, learn military tactics, learn military strategy, learn diplomacy, acquire a complete education of the lore of his kingdom, romance a gypsy princess and train a hawk to fly around and fight alongside him. No wonder he was made king! Imagine Aragon from Lord of the Rings but make him take a full job as a miner in his spare time.

(one last paragraph of spoilers)

Enter the dragons. Actually, they are coldrakes, which are like dragons, but dumb. Kind of like chimpanzees when compared to humans. There is a mixed breed dragon/coldrake (don't think too long about my previous comparison of humans and chimps) that is worried about the future of the coldrakes. He is moving them from the frigid north to the human-filled south (and he killed the children of Simbala and Fandora, causing the war). He is the most interesting character because he is doing bad things in a misguided effort to save his own kind. But, in the end, he is quickly dispatched.

*************End spoilers*********

By far, the best part of this book is the pictures.

The real problem of this book is that it should have been a trilogy. The situation in the mines could have been addressed. The war could have been more fleshed out. The dragon/coldrake issue could have been a book by itself. Plus, there's a hint of a sequel that never happened. 


I rate this book 2 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: DRAGONWORLD by Byron Preiss and Michael Reaves.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

THE BROTHERHOOD (PRECINCT 11 #1) by Jerry B. Jenkins



Published by christianaudio.com in 2011.
Read by Johnny Heller.
Duration: 9 hours, 8 minutes.
Unabridged.

Boone Drake is a young Chicago cop who seemingly has it all. He is married to his beautiful high school sweetheart. They have a healthy toddler son. His career is on the fast track. His family attends a big church and he helps run the athletic program.

But, a horrific home fire destroys this idyllic life. Jack loses his family and his faith as he slowly recovers. As Jack slowly rebuilds his personal life, will he still be able to move forward in his career?

************Caution: spoilers***********

This book is all about world building for the other two books in the series. We meet Drake and set up his tragic backstory. Sadly, the tragedy dominates the book. The descriptions of how his family died are quite graphic and go on for quite a while (there is an extensive hospital scene). It verges on the level of being grief porn. It just goes on and on and on.

The actual police part of the book has some very good moments, especially with the smaller day-to-day police work. But, the big culminating case was delivered a little too easily. This is really an up-and-down book.

Johnny Heller read the book. I generally enjoy Heller's narration and I enjoyed it this time as well. He is quite good at creating individual voices for the characters.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: THE BROTHERHOOD (PRECINCT 11 #1) by Jerry Jenkins.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

THE SUBTLE ART of NOT GIVING A F*CK: A COUNTERINTUITIVE APPROACH to LIVING a GOOD LIFE (audiobook) by Mark Manson



Published in 2016 by HarperAudio.
Read by Roger Wayne.
Duration: 5 hours, 17 minutes.
Unabridged.

Two things before we start:

1) I am not a reader of self-help books - I can't think of the last one I read. 

The author, Mark Manson
2) You simply cannot read this book if coarse language bothers you. I will follow the style of this book in this review.

Manson makes many points in the book, but two stuck out to me. He posits that many people are unhappy because they simply try to focus on too many things and can't do any of them well. In short, he says that you have to stop giving a f*ck about everything and figure out the very few things that you actually give a f*ck about and make them your priority.

One of his other points is similar, but worthy of mention. He points out that no matter where you go, there's a 500 pound bag of sh*t problems waiting for you. If you move to a new city, there will be a 500 pound bag of sh*t of problems. If you quit your job because you can't stand the 500 bag of sh*t in that place, you will find a different 500 pound bag of sh*t at your new job. If you break up with your girlfriend because you can't stand her sh*t, there will be another big bag of sh*t with your new girlfriend.

The secret to it all is that you find the 500 pound bag of sh*t you can deal with and stay there. Everyone has different sh*t that they can tolerate.

The book was well read by Roger Wayne. He sounded so confident and authentic in his reading that I actually assumed that the audiobook was read by the author.

So, I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. There is a little too much filler for a full 5 stars, especially for a 5 hour audiobook. But, this is a worthy read.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: THE SUBTLE ART of NOT GIVING A F*CK by Mark Manson.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

SAG HARBOR: A NOVEL (audiobook) by Colson Whitehead



Published in 2009 by Random House Audio.
Narrated by Mirron Willis
Duration: 11 hours, 17 minutes.
Unabridged.


The author, Colson Whitehead.
It is 1985. Benjie Cooper and his brother are spending the summer at the resort town of Sag Harbor, New York. This Long Island resort town is actually two resort towns - one white and one black. The Coopers are part of a very close-knit African American community of New York City professionals that started their part of Sag Harbor two generations earlier.

During the summers, families head out on the weekends and older kids are often left out in Sag Harbor for the summer. Benjie and his brother are in high school and a group of high school boys hang out together all summer. Benjie is desperate to be cool (being on Dungeons and Dragons-playing Star Wars fan doesn't help - take it from a kid who was both in high school at the same time).

They get summer jobs, they hit the beach, they look for girls, they try to get into concerts at local night clubs, they get BB guns and shoot each other, they explore, identify houses that were undoubtedly haunted, avoid doing laundry until way after it starts to smell and other typical teenage boy things. Also, they desperately want to figure out what makes girls tick.

...and that is pretty much the plot of the book. I listened to it as an audiobook, and Mirron Willis' narration was well done. But, there is no real plot to the book. There are hints of family strife that never are explained. There are hints that some of the boys go on to do great things and some end up in jail or worse. There's not even a "where are they now?" epilogue at the end of the book. It starts right after Memorial Day and ends at Labor Day - almost like the world's longest "What I did over the summer" essay.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Sag Harbor: A Novel by Colson Whitehead.

  

Thursday, February 21, 2019

AMERICAN INDIANS and the CIVIL WAR: OFFICIAL NATIONAL PARK SERVICE HANDBOOK by the National Park Service



Published in 2013 by Eastern National

Manuelito (c. 1818 - 1893)
One of the best things about visiting a National Park is visiting the book section of the gift shop. If you visit a Civil War-related site, the book sections are a rare treasure trove of high quality books all gathered in one place.

Nestled in among the books are a series of attractive books printed by Eastern National. Physically, they remind me of the old style of National Geographic. They are bound similarly and, most importantly, they are chock full of color photographs like National Geographics were.

The pictures are truly the strong point in this book, however. The text of the book is a series of essays written by different authors from the points of view of several different Native American groups. There is a lot of overlap and a lot of gaps because they are not edited together into a coherent narrative.


The perspective provided by the book is a welcome one, but the book would have been much strengthened by the inclusion of an essay focusing on the Indian policies of the Lincoln Administration and how it was or was not implemented while the primary focus was on the war that was sometimes being fought just a few miles from the White House.

I particularly enjoyed the essay on the Navajo by Peter Iverson. I found the stories of their leaders Barboncito and Manuelito fascinating.

I rate this compilation 3 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: AMERICAN INDIANS and the CIVIL WAR: OFFICIAL NATIONAL PARK SERVICE HANDBOOK.

Friday, February 15, 2019

BLACK KLANSMAN: RACE, HATE, and the UNDERCOVER INVESTIGATIONS of a LIFETIME (audiobook) by Ron Stallworth




Originally published in 2014.
Audiobook version published in 2018.
Read by the author, Ron Stallworth.
Duration: 5 hours, 50 minutes.
Unabridged.

Ron Stallworth, at the time the only African American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department (this was the 1970's), wrote a letter in response to a classified ad. It was looking for recruits to the Ku Klux Kan. Stallworth expressed his interest and thoughtlessly signed his own name, rather than an undercover name. Soon enough, the Klan leader called the number and Stallworth found himself being recruited.

Clearly, Stallworth couldn't show up in person so he created a little task force complete with a white undercover officer pretending to be Stallworth, when needed. Eventually, Stallworth had a membership card (!) and having frequent phone conversations with David Duke, the most famous KKK leader in the country.

The premise of the book was, sadly, more interesting than the follow through. The book was written in a very dry style, much like a "just the facts, ma'am" police report. It was easily understood, but it was easy to let my mind wander and not miss much. Some moments stand out, however. The phone conversation with David Duke telling Stallworth how he could ALWAYS identify African Americans on the phone was priceless, as was the time that Stallworth was assigned to be the bodyguard for Duke when he came to Colorado Springs to give a speech.

The author read the book, which was helpful in the sense that the listener could hear Stallworth's voice and understand how he fooled the KKK. But, Stallworth is not a particularly exciting reader. This is a great story, but it would have been better if Stallworth had read an introduction and had the rest of the book read by a professional.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here:  BLACK KLANSMAN: RACE, HATE, and the UNDERCOVER INVESTIGATIONS of a LIFETIME by Ron Stallworth.



Thursday, February 14, 2019

PAST TENSE: A JACK REACHER NOVEL by Lee Child (audiobook)



Published in 2018 by Random House Audio.
Read by Scott Brick.

Duration: 12 hours, 51 minutes.
Unabridged.

Jack Reacher is in New Hampshire and is working his way cross-country to San Diego. As normal, he is hitchhiking. He gets dropped off near the town where his father was born, Laconia. He has never been there and decides to check it out. His father has been dead for thirty years but he might find someone who remembers him.  The more  digs, the more he finds that this father's backstory doesn't quite jive with what he is discovering on the ground...

Meanwhile, a Canadian couple is travelling through New Hampshire on their way to New York City. They are carrying a mysterious cargo in the trunk of their rattletrap Honda. When the Honda dies in the parking lot of a lonely hotel, the owners of the hotel convince the couple to check in for the night and try to find a mechanic in the morning. But, something doesn't seem right...

This book had all of the pieces to make a perfectly good Jack Reacher novel - Reacher's mysterious family problems (a semi-constant theme throughout the series), Reacher rolling into town and finding a wrong that needs to be corrected and clever local people with brave hearts to help him.

But, this book became a tedious mess that just never gels into a consistent plot. It takes nearly 25% of the book for Reacher (or anyone) to get into any sort of action, and that was obviously a plotting device designed to make it difficult for Reacher to stay in town. Eventually, Reacher picks fights with three different groups of people in this small New Hampshire town and its nearby surroundings (there simply must be something in the water to cause all of these problems). Even though this sounds like a lot of action, it was surprisingly slow.

It was almost like there were pieces of three separate books laying around and Lee Child just mashed them together into this book. There are flashes of clever writing and good action, but there is simply too much of watching Jack Reacher perform a genealogical investigation throughout the book. This was a wasted opportunity.

This is the first audiobook in the post-Dick Hill era. Dick Hill read almost all of the previous 23 novels and the assorted short stories and I enjoyed them thoroughly. Scott Brick is a solid choice to replace Hill (Hill has retired from reading audiobooks). I am sure that my dislike of this book was not due to Scott Brick. It's too bad that his debut book was this dud.

So, this is my worst rating of a Jack Reacher novel - 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: PAST TENSE: A JACK REACHER NOVEL by Lee Child.

Friday, February 1, 2019

FLAWED DOGS: THE NOVEL: THE SHOCKING RAID on WESTMINSTER by Berkeley Breathed



Originally published in 2009.

I am a big fan of Berkeley Breathed and have been for 35+ years. I have multiple volumes of his Bloom County books, I enjoyed his movie Mars Needs Moms so much that I went out and bought it after I had rented it. I love his children's book Pete and Pickles.

This book, however, is a rare misfire.

To begin with, the book assumes that you read an earlier childrens book called Flawed Dogs: The Year End Leftovers at the Piddleton "Last Chance" Dog Pound. This book is like a catalog of dogs that no one will adopt because of their flaws. The dogs from the first book are thrown into the Flawed Dogs: The Novel with little or no introduction - just a pack of dogs with names and skills and oddities that the reader had better remember. No character development, no real chance to get to know any of them. There was a whole dog that I had no idea was even in the book until he was shown in an illustration.

The main character of the book is a dachshund named Sam. Sam loves his human, a girl named Heidy who doesn't like dogs because her parents were killed by dogs in some sort of horrible accident that the book was never quite clear about. Sam is slated to participate in the Westminster dog show, but another dog is so jealous that he mutilates himself and sets Sam up so that it looks like he attacked a human baby. Heidy's uncle shoots Sam. But, Sam doesn't die. Instead, he ends up at the "Last Chance" Pound. That is the first half of the book.

Spoiler alert************

The second half of the book is very rushed and features Sam getting his foot in a badger trap, Sam getting hit by a car, Sam spending three years in a laboratory being mutilated for science and Sam being put into a dog fight by his second human owner to pay off a debt. Sam hatches a big, complicated plot (that was vague except for a gag that I have seen done on cartoons ranging from Donald Duck to Scooby Doo) to get even with the poodle that took him away from Heidy.

This book commits too many "sins" - it is a hurried, gruesome mess.

I do not dispute that all of the atrocities that happen to Sam happen to real dogs every day (except for being framed by a poodle). This book should have been a whole series of books with each book featuring Sam and perhaps a couple of new dogs from the "Last Chance" Pound confronting a new horrible thing that people do to dogs. Not light reading, but made informative and tolerable because they would 
feature the indomitable dachshund Sam coming to the rescue.

End spoiler alert************

I rate this book 1 star out of 5. If you must read it, it can be found on Amazon.com here: FLAWED DOGS: THE NOVEL: THE SHOCKING RAID on WESTMINSTER by Berkeley Breathed.

Monday, January 28, 2019

BEING THERE by Jerzy Kosinski



Originally published in 1970.

I did not know this was a novel until just a few months ago when I found my copy of this book in a thrift shop. I was familiar with the 1979 movie starring Peter Sellers in an Academy Award-nominated performance, but had no idea it was originally a book.

A little research has told me that this book has a troubled history. The author, Jerzy Kosinski, plagiarized the book. The original book was a Polish author from the 1920's and 1930's named Tadeusz Dolega-Mostowicz.  He died at the beginning of World War II while fighting the Soviet Union during the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland in 1939. His book was called The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma


Being There follows the adventures of Chance, an uneducated gardener who works for an elderly rich man. Chance is probably on the autistic spectrum and has grown up in the rich man's household. He knows nothing about the outside world except for what he has seen on television. However, he has an intuitive understanding of gardening and nature.

When the old man dies, Chance is evicted from his home by the estate's lawyers and heads out into the wide open world for the first time in his life with a suitcase full of fine suits taken from the rich man's closet. When he is struck by a car, he tells the car's owners that he is Chance the gardener, but they think his name is Chauncey Gardner and assume he is a rich businessman on a trip based on his clothing and his suitcase.

When asked anything, Chauncey can only answer with what he knows - gardening. His observations on the comings and going of the seasons and how they relate to the relative health of his garden are interpreted as sophisticated commentary on politics and economics and soon he is catapulted to the heights of politics.

The movie is pretty faithful to the book. I always think of Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardiner when a new politician breaks onto the scene and people throw their support behind him or her based on a few words and the assumption that they share a similar world view. I think our last two presidents made a lot of political hay out of this phenomenon.

This is a short book with a powerful lesson about confirmation bias (hearing what you want to hear when confronted with new information so that it confirms what you already believe).

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: BEING THERE by Jerzy Kosinski.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

MOSBY: GRAY GHOST of the CONFEDERACY by Jonathan Daniels



Published in 1959 by J.B. Lippincott Company.

Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby (1833-1916)
Back in the 1950's and 1960's several publishing houses put out series of biographies aimed at upper elementary students. The most famous of these was Random House's Landmark Series. They were small hardback books with thick pages and lots of line drawings. They were long on action and short on analysis.

This book is similar in every way to that series except that it was printed by the J.B. Lippincott Company.

There is literally nothing about John Mosby's childhood in this biography, which is a little odd since there was a similar series at the same time, with the same physical format called Childhood of Famous Americans published by Bobbs-Merrill.

John Mosby was a Confederate cavalry officer in the Civil War who became a Partisan Ranger. Partisan Rangers were irregular forces, not really part of the armies they supported and able to take shares of any spoils of war that they captured. This book does not discuss any of the moral issues of recruiting an army that fought for spoils (much like the Confederacy's privateer navy), but it makes it clear that Mosby did not take any shares of goods captured.

As I stated above, this book is long on action and short on analysis. There is perhaps one sentence about slavery (Mosby was against it). There are also only five pages about Mosby's life after he put away his uniform. But, there are lots of stories of horses racing down back roads and fighting Union soldiers. They are not organized particularly well, which makes it sort of a confusing to tell if the stories were all part of certain campaigns or were all separate incidents.

This book was aimed at 10-12 year olds, an age group that particularly values fast-moving stories with lots of action over analysis and an over-arching cohesive story, so with that in mind, it hits the spot. If this book were an adult's only introduction to John Mosby, it would be deficient.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5, mostly for the confusing way he told about his campaigns. It can be found on Amazon.com here: MOSBY: GRAY GHOST of the CONFEDERACY by Jonathan Daniels.

Here is a link to another book I have reviewed on John Mosby (with way too many details, ironically): Gray Ghost: The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby by James A. Ramage

Friday, January 25, 2019

THE YEAR of FEAR: MACHINE GUN KELLY and the MANHUNT THAT CHANGED the NATION (audiobook) by Joe Urschel



Published in 2015 by Macmillan Audio.
Read by Jeremy Bobb.
Duration: 9 hours, 4 minutes.
Unabridged.

George "Machine Gun Kelly" Barnes (1895-1954)
 and his wife Kathryn (1904-1985)
In the early years of the Great Depression, kidnapping became a fairly common crime, especially in the Midwest. It was viewed by some as a safer alternative to bank robberies, especially since unsuspecting victims were often not armed.

The most famous kidnapping of the era was the Lindbergh baby case. It ended tragically, but did result in a Federal anti-kidnapping law. That law got its first test when George "Machine Gun Kelly" Barnes and his wife Kathryn planned the kidnapping of oil tycoon Charles F. Urschel (no relation to the author of this book, but he admits to initially researching the topic due to the victim having the same last name as his). Urschel was taken from his home in Oklahoma to a farm in Texas. The moment they crossed the border, the kidnapping became a federal crime.

Machine Gun Kelly started out his career as a bootlegger, but his new wife Kathryn wanted more for him. She bought him his machine gun at a pawn shop and made him practice with it. She gave him his nickname and bragged to everyone that he was so adept with his machine gun that he could spell his own name out as he fired it. With that, a relative small-timer acquired a catchy name and a reputation that would eventually secure him a place in the public's imagination.

The Urschel kidnapping became the first major case of the fledgling FBI (it wasn't even called the FBI yet) and it's new director, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover's men cracked the case fairly quickly (Urschel was a tremendous help - he worked very hard to remember everything that he could while he was kidnapped and even participated in a raid) and conducted a nation-wide manhunt for Machine Gun Kelly and his wife. When Kelly surrendered it was widely reported that he shouted, "Don't shoot, G-Men! Don't shoot, G-Men!" and forever gave FBI agents that nickname.

Kelly left another legacy as well. The federal government felt that some of their prisons were vulnerable to super-criminals like Kelly and Al Capone so they were moved to the newly built prison on Alcatraz Island near San Francisco that was designed to be escape-proof. Kelly was among the first prisoners moved there and spent 17 years there.

This audiobook was read by Jeremy Bobb. He did a very good job, including making special voices for some people, such as Machine Gun Kelly. However, the book was written in an uneven manner. The first half of the book includes a fascinating look at the crime wave that gripped the Midwest in those days. The tale of the Urschel kidnapping is told so well that it felt like I was listening to a crime novel more than a history. But, the story becomes tedious when re-telling the cross-country trips of Machine Gun Kelly and his wife Kathryn. Even worse, the story of the trial had too much cutting and pasting of trial transcripts. There was a lot of overblown grandstanding on the part of the prosecutor and it was often a challenge to listen to.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5. The first half is excellent. I trudged through the post-kidnapping part of the book just to see how it ended.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: THE YEAR of FEAR: MACHINE GUN KELLY and the MANHUNT THAT CHANGED the NATION.