"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
Eighteen years reviewing books, audiobooks, graphic novels, movies and music! More than 1500 reviews.

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Wednesday, July 31, 2019

MARVEL'S AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR: THE COSMIC QUEST: VOLUME 1: BEGINNING (audiobook) by Brandon T. Snider



Published by Disney in May of 2018.
Read by Tom Taylorson.
Duration: 4 hours, 4 minutes.
Unabridged.


Brandon T. Snider was stuck in a hard place when he was picked to write this book. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) had just released Infinity War and there was no way that Snider was going to be allowed to release any spoilers for Endgame. In fact, there was really no way that he was going to be allowed to move anything forward in any meaningful way. The ABC TV show AGENTS of SHIELD has been dealing with this problem for years - how do you tell an interesting story when you are so constricted in what you can write about?

Well, in this case, he pretty much failed.

The story centers around two brothers who are MCU characters. No, not Loki and Thor. They are the Collector (featured in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie and played by Benicio del Toro) and the Grandmaster (featured in Thor: Ragnarok and played by Jeff Goldblum).

The book is set after Thor: Ragnarok and before Infinity War. The Collector is re-building after the disaster that happened when he was visited by the Guardians of the Galaxy. The Grandmaster has lost everything and is trying to start over again without letting his brother know how far he has fallen.

They decide that their best bet is to look for the Infinity Stones themselves. As they search, they are told the plots of the movies The AvengersThe Age of Ultron and The Guardians of the Galaxy. Of course, the Grandmaster refers to the plot of Thor: Ragnarok


Sadly, these interludes are the best part of the book. Most of the rest of the book consists of the two brothers visiting one seedy location after another on the planetoid Nowhere and doing nothing much. They talk to each other in a passive-aggressive manner, they unite to argue with other people and they are forced to move on.

So, in summary, the best part of this book are the various re-tellings of MCU movies that you have undoubtedly seen. It is pretty clear that this book was a cash grab by Disney for fans desperate for anything Marvel related that might offer a clue to what happened after the events of Infinity War. Don't fall for it.

The audiobook was read by Tom Taylorson who had the unenviable task of trying to play a character played by Jeff Goldblum. Taylorson did a good job of catching the quirkiness of the Grandmaster but only Jeff Goldblum can capture the true spirit of Jeff Goldblum.

I rate this audiobook 1 star out of 5.  It can be found on Amazon.com here: MARVEL'S AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR: THE COSMIC QUEST: VOLUME 1: BEGINNING.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

NEVER CAUGHT: THE WASHINGTONS' RELENTLESS PURSUIT of THEIR RUNAWAY SLAVE, ONA JUDGE (audiobook) by Erica Armstrong Dunbar



Published in 2017 by Simon and Schuster Audio.
Read by Robin Miles.
Duration: 6 hours, 45 minutes.

Unabridged.

The notice put out just after the escape of Ona Judge. Note that
George Washington kept his name out of the notice for
political reasons. He was well aware of the irony of  the
man who led the fight for America's freedom hunting down
a slave who escaped for her personal freedom.
Ona (Oney) Judge was Martha Washington's personal body servant - the person that brushed her hair, sewed her clothing and generally made sure she was taken care of as she went through her day.

The Washingtons were living in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of government for the fledgling United States while Washington, D.C. was being designed and laid out. The problem with Philadelphia (for the Washingtons) is that it was in the middle of a change. Pennsylvania had been a slave state, but it was becoming a free state. In fact, Pennsylvania was taking the first steps towards becoming an abolitionist stronghold. Technically, the Washingtons could keep their slaves, but after six continuous months of residence in Philadelphia they were technically allowed to start the process to become free people.

George Washington and his lawyers worked out a rotation schedule so that none of his slaves would reside in Pennsylvania for no more than six months at a time. But, Ona Judge had learned a lot about freedom in Philadelphia because there were so many free African Americans that she would have interacted with. And, she became aware of the nascent beginnings of an Underground Railroad.

When Ona learned that she would be given away to Martha Washington's granddaughter as a wedding present, she decided it was time to escape. And, the President of the United States decided that he had to bring her back...

This is a true story, but for most people it is an unknown one.  I know that I just learned about Ona Judge a little more than a year ago. It is ironic to have the first President of the United States searching for a person that just wants to have her freedom.

The book's primary fault is one that would be hard to overcome, no matter the author. There is just not a lot of source material on Ona Judge. To fill in the blanks, the author paints a picture of what her life (and the lives of all so-called "house slaves" of the time) must have been like, including detailed descriptions of the type of work she must have done as a slave and as a free woman. But, too many sentences start with phrases like "probably", "must have", "could have" as the author discusses possible thoughts, feelings and reactions to the events of her life. It is a powerful book, but it is not always authoritative.

Still, I gladly recommend this book. I rate it 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: NEVER CAUGHT: THE WASHINGTONS' RELENTLESS PURSUIT of THEIR RUNAWAY SLAVE, ONA JUDGE.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

THE SHORT DROP (Gibson Vaughn #1) (audiobook) by Matthew FitzSimmons



Published by Brilliance Audio in 2015.
Read by James Patrick Cronin.

Duration: 11 hours, 54 minutes.
Unabridged.

Gibson Vaughn is an unemployed computer whiz. This former Marine was a world-class hacker before he went into the Marine Corps. It would be more accurate to say that he was forced into the Marine Corps because he hacked into a Senator's computer and found documents showing that he was stealing his own campaign funds. But, it turns out that he wasn't and Vaughn was giving the choice of prison or the Marines.

The problem is, now that Vaughn is back in the civilian world the former Senator (now Vice President and leading candidate for President) has blacklisted him.

Vaughn gets a job offer that he can't turn down - a chance to use his computer skills to act on a new clue to find a girl who was abducted 10 years ago. But, there is a complication - this girl is the daughter of the Senator that he hacked...

The Short Drop has a complicated plot, but it flows well and the reader (listener in my case) has no problem following it along in all of its intricacies. It has lots of action and lots of twists and turns and I just blew right through it. James Patrick Cronin did a great job of reading this audiobook.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: The Short Drop by Matthew FitzSimmons. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

WHITE FRAGILITY: WHY IT'S SO HARD for WHITE PEOPLE to TALK ABOUT RACISM (audiobook) by Robin DiAngelo



Published in 2018 by Beacon Press.
Read by Amy Landon.

Duration: 6 hours, 21 minutes.
Unabridged.


Robin DiAngelo is a diversity trainer. She also happens to be white. She has noticed that it is very common for white participants to react very negatively during these training sessions, often acting very defensively and offering a lot of excuses. In this book, she looks at those excuses and lays out the refutations of those excuses.

The good:

This book offers a very useful definition of racism. Hint: it is not just people acting horribly to other groups of people, it is a whole cultural system that we absorb.

It also offers some practical advice about how to deal with your own prejudices.

The bad:

White Fragility is a repetitive book. It could have easily been edited down by one-third without a loss of any new material.

Another weakness is that it doesn't really offer a list of common racist behaviors that people complain about. For example, I have heard African-Americans complain about white people just reaching out and touching their hair, even petting it. I am sure it is out of harmless curiosity, but it's simply creepy behavior.

*****

In the end, this is a solid place to start discussion.

I listened to this book as an audiobook. It was well-read by Amy Landon. I have no real complaints about her, but I actually recommend that you read it as a paper book so you can highlight areas important or more relevant to you and skip over some of the more repetitive areas.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: WHITE FRAGILITY: WHY IT'S SO HARD for WHITE PEOPLE to TALK ABOUT RACISM.

Monday, July 15, 2019

MURDER at GETTYSBURG (Miranda Lewis #2) by Leslie Wheeler



Published in 2007 by Worldwide Library (Worldwide Mystery).
Originally Published in 2005.


Historian Miranda Lewis has been invited to a Gettysburg re-enactment on the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3) by her old college roommate, Ginny. She accepts for two reasons - she wants to see her old friend and she has a serious crush on her friend's father, a retired judge and amateur historian who will also be there. She has been nursing this crush since she was 19 years old and he took her on a tour of the battlefield and taught her all about the battle.

Things get complicated, though, when Ginny's estranged husband Wiley shows up. He is a hardcore Civil War Confederate reenactor, the sort of man who starves himself to the point of being ill just to look more authentic. The sort of man who decorates his personal vehicle (called the "Battlemobile") with little plastic Civil War army men. Wiley has been gone on the reenactor circuit for a while, traveling from place to place and never checking back in with his family.

Even worse, Ginny's old college boyfriend comes to the reenactment looking for her. And, Wiley's friend Dred Davis is lingering around, with his menacing attitude.

But, when Wiley gets shot during the reenactment of Pickett's Charge and then dies of a heart attack things are just starting to get complicated...

Worldwide Mystery  is a big publishing house you have probably never heard of. They are in imprint of Harlequin (yes, the folks that sell the romance novels). When I used to work at a used book store we used to get a lot of these books in because they come in the mail - 2 per month. I have read more than my share of these books - some were really horrible, some were pretty good. But, they sure crank them out.

So, this mystery was not very good. It wasn't horrible, but it suffered from an amazing amount of characters. Every 20 pages or so, a new character was introduced with another subplot. So many subplots and so many characters that it was hard to keep track of them all. You have the historian with the daddy issue crush on a patronizing man at least 20 years older than her that she has maintained for all of these years without ever seeing the man in between, (*****Spoiler alerts for the rest of this paragraph*****) a gun-running operation, a guilt-ridden woman, 2 plots to recover lost love, a plot to foil lost love, multiple weird reenactors, nice guy that fixes cars (and his wife and his sun-bathing niece), a creepy guy that the protagonist sort of likes who likes to flash his EMT patch like he is a cop, a creepy cop and a cop that somehow doesn't arrest the confessed murderer because he wants to comfort the widow of the man he killed (yes, that is right) and somehow lets him take enough pills to kill himself instead. Explain that one back at the station.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: MURDER at GETTYSBURG (Miranda Lewis #2) by Leslie Wheeler.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

MILTON HERSHEY: MORE than CHOCOLATE: HEROES of HISTORY (audiobook) by Janet Benge and Geoff Benge



Published in 2015 by YWAM Publishing.
Read by Tim Gregory.
Duration: 4 hours, 55 minutes.
Unabridged.


YWAM Publishing offers a series of biographies of Christian "heroes of history" aimed at home school students. The fact that this was part of series about "Christian" heroes was a surprise to me since this book didn't mention Hershey's faith at all. Nevertheless, this is an interesting and enjoyable biography of one of America's most successful businessmen, Milton Hershey (1857-1945).

This is a book showcasing the value of persistence. Starting with a failed attempt by his father in the oilfields of Pennsylvania in the late 1850's, the first half of this book is a series of business failures from Milton Hershey and his father, Henry.

Henry Hershey was more of a dreamer sort of entrepreneur - prone to rash decisions, excited by new technology and not very good on doing the follow up work to make sure that the venture succeeds. They traveled from Pennsylvania to Colorado to Louisiana, chasing the next big thing. Turns out that the next big thing was something that Milton Hershey learned from a baker in Colorado about how to make caramel that tastes better and stays fresh longer - milk.

So, Milton Hershey headed home to Pennsylvania and sets up his kitchen and everything just falls into place - except that it doesn't, at least not right away...

The stories of Hershey's struggles are by far more interesting than the story of his success. That being said, Hershey's commitment to charity once he became a success is extraordinary and worthy of note.

I did have one quibble. When it comes to the Hershey strike in 1937, the book doesn't really tell why some of the employees wanted to organize. Now, compared to most other places in the United States during the Great Depression, the workers in Hershey, Pennsylvania had it pretty well. Still, they had lost 1/3 of their hours per week and the workers that served as early union leaders were laid off, despite an agreement that they would not be.

The story is well told and well-read by the narrator, Tim Gregory. We listened to this book as a family on a vacation and found it interesting and were eager to start listening again as soon as we hit the highway.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: MILTON HERSHEY: MORE than CHOCOLATE: HEROES of HISTORY.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

UNTHINKABLE: AN EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY THROUGH the WORLD'S STRANGEST BRAINS (audiobook) by Helen Thomson



Published in 2018 by HarperAudio.
Read by the author, Helen Thomson.
Duration: 7 hours, 19 minutes.

Unabridged.

The author and narrator, Helen Thomson
Helen Thomson is a science writer with a background in neurology. She was inspired by the story of the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine to set out to meet and interview ten people who literally experience the world differently than the rest of us.

Thomson does a solid job of explaining possible scientific explanations for each of these people's conditions and how those conditions may simply be extreme versions of a phenomenon that we all experience.

As in all collections (in this case, a collection of people), some are more interesting than others. For example, I found the story of the man who believed he was dead to be interesting but the story of the man who believed that he was a were-tiger was pretty lame all of the way around.

She also looks at a person who doesn't forget anything, a woman who gets lost everywhere, including in her own home and a man who had a radical personality shift after a head injury. The collection, on the whole, is worth exploring.

The audiobook was read by the author. She is a solid reader, but I would have chosen a professional reader instead.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: UNTHINKABLE: AN EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY THROUGH the WORLD'S STRANGEST BRAINS.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

THERE I GREW UP: REMEMBERING ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S INDIANA YOUTH by William E. Bartelt

Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial -
replica of his boyhood farm.
Photo by DWD.


Published in 2008 by Indiana Historical Society Press.

Most know that Abraham Lincoln came from Springfield, Illinois. But, a lot of people are not aware that at age 7, Lincoln and his family moved to Indiana from Kentucky. Lincoln and his family stayed in Indiana until just after his 21st birthday.

In a four paragraph autobiographical sketch written in 1859, Lincoln devoted a little more than a paragraph to these years in Indiana, including this nice little sentence: "There I grew up."

All of the stories of Lincoln's childhood (reading by firelight, the legend of the rail splitter, his aversion to shedding blood of any sort, his kindness to animals and more) took place in Indiana. Hoosiers are happy to claim him.

The author, William E. Bartelt, worked for fifteen summers at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial as a ranger and historian and was the vice chair of the Indiana Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. This book is the product of a lot of research and familiarity with the source material.

The first part of this biography goes through the autobiographical sketch mentioned in the second paragraph line-by-line and elaborates on them. It is by far the most interesting part of the book.

Most of the rest of the book is going through the notes of William Herndon (1818-1891), Lincoln's law partner when he was elected President. Very soon after Lincoln's assassination, Herndon decided to write a biography of his friend and set off to Indiana to find people that he grew up with.

Herndon's interview notes are published in this book. They are not particularly interesting reading. Here is a typical sample from page 128: "The Country is a heavy timbered one - farms are cleared and cut out of the forests. The woods - the timber is hickory - white oak, called buck-eye and and buck lands. The old farm now belongs to Jas Gentry - Son of Jas Gentry for whom, the old man the brother of Allen - Lincoln went to N. Orleans in 1828 or 29. John Heaven or Heavener now lives as tenant on the land: it an orchard on it, part of Which Abm Lincoln planted with his own hands..." 

I got to the point where I skimmed Herndon's notes and read Bartelt's summary that followed. So many of Herndon's interviews recycled the same information. I assume that he was asking the same questions of each person he interviewed and got a lot of the same answers over and over again.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5. Solid work, but dry. It can be found on Amazon.com here: THERE I GREW UP: REMEMBERING ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S INDIANA YOUTH by William E. Bartelt.

Monday, July 1, 2019

SUPERMAN / BATMAN: FINEST WORLDS (Superman / Batman #8) (graphic novel) by Michael Green and Mike Johnson



Art by Ed Benes, Rafael Albuquerque, Rags Morales, and John Dell.
Published in 2010 by DC Comics.


There are three stories in this collection.

Story #1. "The Fathers"

The weakest of the three. A piece of Kryptonian technology is found in a farm field near Smallville. It comes to life for a few seconds and triggers a reaction in the Batcave. It turns out that the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel have a previously unknown connection...

I rate this story 3 stars out of 5.

Story #2. "Lil' Leaguers"

Worlds collide in this one. Smaller, more childlike versions of all of your favorite DC superheroes and supervillains enter the Superman / Batman world. Their world is literally smaller and weapons don't really hurt each other in that world. In fact, their universe is just a much more pleasant place on every level.

The page where Superman and Batman meet their miniature selves is quite amusing. Lil' Batman and big Batman do not get along and mayhem ensues. Soon, they have to work together to round up Lil' Lex Luthor as he leads an all-star team of small supervillains. They are interested in acquiring technology that will actually be effective back in their world.

I rate this story 5 stars out of 5. I would gladly read another story with the Lil' Justice League.

Story #3. "Superbat"


While fighting the Silver Banshee, Batman and Superman get blasted. Due to a magic amulet, Batman slowly gets Superman's powers as Superman slowly becomes a regular person. But, what does Batman do once he literally cannot be stopped?

Nightwing features prominently in this one. The art is also excellent in this story.

I rate this story 4 stars out of 5.

****

I enjoy this series. I very much like the "thought bubbles" that this series features. They are the internal monologue of both Batman and Superman as they think about one another. They are allies, maybe even friends. But, they certainly don't think the same way about many things.

There are three stories in this collection. I rated them 3 stars, 5 stars and 4 stars. 3 + 5 + 4 = 12. 12 stars divided by 3 stories = 4 stars.

I rate this collection 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: SUPERMAN / BATMAN: FINEST WORLDS (Superman / Batman #8).

SUPERMAN: THE COMING of the SUPERMEN (graphic novel) by Neal Adams



Published by DC Comics in 2016.
Art by Neal Adams.

A group of men dressed like Superman crash land in an older couple's Iowa cornfield. They then fly to Lex Luthor's corporate headquarters and engage in a fight against an invasion. It is Darkseid's soldiers coming through a red "tunnel" called a "boom tube". The boom tube allows people to travel from one planet to another instantaneously - like a tunnel between worlds.

But, these three new Supermen are not very good at fighting the bad guys are are fairly confused about how to use their super powers. Turns out they are three Kryptonians that have come to defend Earth from an invasion of Darkseid's troops led by his oldest son, the immortal Kalibak, in the hopes that Superman will go to Krypton to deal with a Darkseid invasion. 

Meanwhile, Superman is in the Middle East saving civilians in a war zone. Among those civilians are an orphan and his dog. Superman is stopped by a time-controlling alien that looks like a winged demon and told that he needs to take this boy and his dog home and take care of them.

So, Lois and Clark take this boy in and immediately farm him out to a nanny.

If you noticed the contradiction in the second paragraph (Superman, please defend Krypton from Darkseid's invasion while ignoring Darkseid's invasion of Earth 
led by an immortal thug that can rip down buildings with his bare hands) then that puts you ahead of the author and illustrator. 

This collection of six comics features A LOT of yelling (giant text that fills up chunks of the page), cursing from Superman, almost everybody getting punched in the face so hard that it knocks them out and great lines like this gem from Superman as he fights Kalibak: "RETURN THE BOY! Return the boy, you worthless animal! Nothing requires you. You make our existence ugly with your presence. Give me the boy or your life is forfeit.

The lesson here is that when Superman gets mad, he will kill and he will do it sounding like he is participating in a bad session of Shakespearean improv. I can excuse goofy lines in improv - it's off the top of your head. This mess was actually written out, proofread and inked in over a period of time. 

The drawings are actually not bad at all, but the layout is haphazard. Sometimes it goes all of the way across the two pages, sometimes it goes down the side of the page. It was not uncommon to have to re-read the pages just to figure out what order that it was supposed to be read.

This may very well be the worst graphic novel I have ever read. I rate it 1 star out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: SUPERMAN: THE COMING of the SUPERMEN by Neal Adams.

SOFT TARGET: A THRILLER (Ray Cruz #2) (audiobook) by Stephen Hunter



Published in 2011 by Brilliance Audio.
Read by Phil Gigante.
Duration: 7 hours, 56 minutes.
Unabridged.


The premise of this book is pretty simple: The Bruce Willis movie Die Hard meets Minnesota's The Mall of America, except in this book it is called America: The Mall.

It's Black Friday, the biggest shopping day in the biggest shopping mall in America. Suddenly, Islamic terrorists throw off their disguises, shoot the mall Santa between the eyes and take a thousand people hostage.

Turns out that super tough retired Marine Ray Cruz is shopping in the mall and almost immediately sets out to start taking out the bad guys...

So, if the book had just followed that basic story line, it would have been better. Instead, it moves away from this compelling story (the "thriller" promised in the title). Instead, we get a lot of political wrangling with an up and coming politician-type leader of the Minnesota State Patrol, his subordinates and the FBI. This character, named Obobo, was clearly modeled on President Obama (bi-racial, father is from Kenya, extremely well-spoken, almost no experience for a man in his position) and it's obvious that the author is no fan. That's fine, I wasn't a fan, either. But, wow, this was not subtle. Also, this story line was mostly 2 hours of time-filler in this audibook. It did almost nothing and made no sense.

One last complaint - one of the bad guy's escape plans was so pathetic that I can't believe that anyone who had spent any time in America and witnessed a major media even would have ever considered it. It had no hope of success. He might as well have fired off flare guns while running out of the main entrance of the mall.

Phil Gigante read this audiobook. He is a seasoned audiobook pro and it showed - he did a great job with accents and female voices.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5. It gets 2 stars because I really liked a character named LaVelva.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Soft Target: A Thriller by Stephen Hunter