"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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Saturday, November 30, 2019

TURTLES ALL the WAY DOWN (audiobook) by John Green



Published in 2017 by Listening Library.
Read by Kate Rudd.
Duration: 7 hours, 12 minutes.
Unabridged.


The author, John Green
High School students Aza and Daisy are best friends living in Indianapolis, Indiana. They are also investigating the mysterious disappearance of a billionaire who lives on the other side of the White River - the rich side of the river that doesn't flood.

Well, they investigate when they aren't going to school, eating at Applebee's, studying, working (Daisy) or keeping appointments with the therapist (Aza).

Aza has obsessive thoughts - they crowd out everything else when they come, and lately they've been coming at her hard and fast.

It turns out that Aza knows the son of the missing billionaire and when she and Daisy run into him while they are investigating, it seems like there might be a spark between this boy and Aza...

John Green is one of my favorite authors, which is weird because I have only read two of his books (this one and The Fault in Our Stars). But, I've seen multiple interviews with him since his adopted hometown is my adopted hometown - Indianapolis. I love the fact that he lives here to be an anonymous dad in the crowd. I also love the fact that he puts out entertaining educational videos with his brother and I love the way he conducts himself professionally. 


And, I love the fact that he wrote this book about a character with a mental illness. He wrote it because he shares a lot of the struggles that his character Aza has.

But, reading about Aza is exhausting. It is informative, but sometimes a struggle to get through this book.

Also, this book seemed like a weird mish-mash. It is partly a mystery, partly a romance, partly a coming-of-age friendship book and largely seeing the world through the eyes of a person with obsessive thoughts. But, the mystery in the story seems forced - very contrived.

A real positive, though, are his accurate descriptions of Indianapolis and its geography. There really is an Applebee's where he puts it in this story. The White River really is in trouble because of sewage and Indianapolis is currently building a giant sewer overflow tunnel to deal with it. Also, his Star Wars references are spot-on. And, Aza's mom is a teacher and she always seems to be grading papers. This teacher appreciates that bit of reality in a novel.

Still, despite all of this positives, this one gets just 3 stars out of 5 from me. 


This book can be found on Amazon.com here: TURTLES ALL the WAY DOWN by John Green.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

THE LIFE and TIMES of the THUNDERBOLT KID: A MEMOIR (audiobook) by Bill Bryson



Published in 2006 by Random House Audio.
Downtown Des Moines in the 1950s. 
Read by the author, Bill Bryson.
Duration: 7 hours, 39 minutes.
Unabridged.


Bill Bryson's memoir of life in 1950's Des Moines, Iowa is a wonderful trip into another time and another place with a gifted storyteller.

There is nothing particularly amazing about this story. It's not a coming-of-age story with a profound climax - it is just a heartwarming reminiscence of the way things used to be - the good and the bad. It is often laugh-out-loud funny and reminds me a lot of the works of Jean Shepherd, even though they are set 20 years later.  You know Jean Shepherd if you are a fan of the movie A Christmas Story.


The author, Bill Bryson read the story. His incongruous English accent is a bit weird for a boy from Des Moines. My understanding is that Bryson spent so many years in the United Kingdom that he lost his American accent. Nevertheless, he did a great job.

Highly recommended.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: THE LIFE and TIMES of the THUNDERBOLT KID: A MEMOIR by Bill Bryson.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

TALKING to STRANGERS: WHAT WE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT the PEOPLE WE DON'T KNOW (audiobook) by Malcolm Gladwell



Published in September of 2019 by Hachette Audio
Read by the author, Malcolm Gladwell

Duration: 8 hours, 42 minutes.
Unabridged


Malcolm Gladwell always writes an interesting book. When you listen to him as an audiobook, it can be frustrating as well because he throws so many ideas at you that you can't possibly write them all down (I couldn't if I wanted to anyway, I do a lot of my listening as I drive).

The general premise behind this book is that it is very hard for people to "read" other people - even people that we see every day. It is even harder for us to read strangers and even harder to read people from different cultures. The more different the culture, the harder to read.

Gladwell starts with the story of the death of Sandra Bland, an African American woman from Chicago who killed herself after a questionable arrest after a questionable traffic stop in Texas.

From there we wander far and wide - cold war espionage cases, policing strategies in Kansas City, Neville Chamberlin's meetings with Adolf Hitler, sociology experiments with participants trying to read facial expressions, judges who grant bail, Bernie Madoff, the affects of alcohol on judgment, famous authors who committed suicide...and more.

Eventually, Gladwell makes his point (some reviewers don't think he made it, but I think he did) - it just takes such a long, circuitous route to get there that, in the end, his final point is a bit underwhelming.

The audiobook was read by the author. He usually reads his audiobooks and does a good job. Lately, he has been doing a regular podcast and he brings the some of the techniques of podcasting to this audiobook. One of the best features is that he uses the actual recordings of people's voices as much as possible when quoting them. It is a great touch that I wish more authors used with their audiobooks.

Rating this audiobook is hard. I enjoyed almost all of it. It was very interesting, even compelling. But, the ending just was underwhelming as I already noted.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: TALKING to STRANGERS: WHAT WE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT the PEOPLE WE DON'T KNOW.


Saturday, November 23, 2019

THE MIST (audiobook) by Stephen King



Originally published in 1985 as part of the short story collection Skeleton Crew
Published in 2017 by Simon and Schuster Audio.
Read by Will Patton.
Duration: 5 hours, 19 minutes.
Unabridged.


This is technically a re-read for me - I read this story when it was originally published 30+ years ago. It is such a vivid, tightly written story that it has always stuck with me. In my mind, this is one of Stephen King's better works, even if it is one of his shorter ones.

The audiobook narrator, Will Patton
The story focuses on David Drayton, his wife and his son. Drayton has made a pretty good living as a commercial artist and is able to afford a home on a lake in Maine.

A particularly nasty summer storm has come through Maine in the middle of the night. Trees are down everywhere and, as a consequence, power lines and phone lines are down everywhere. It is important to note that this was written a long time before cell phones.

The radio stations are also down - especially those that broadcast from the direction of a strange, secretive military base. Everyone has heard rumors of the strange goings on there.
A strange fog bank - a mist - can be seen slowly rolling across the lake. It is weird, but Drayton can't worry about it - he has trees to clear and then supplies to pick up in town. He takes his son and they head out.

But, while they are in the town grocery store, the mist catches up with them and everything changes...

This short story (novella?) has clearly had some influence on current popular culture. There was a one season attempt to adapt this story on Spike TV, but I think Netflix's Stranger Things owes a giant debt to this story.

Veteran actor Will Patton read this audiobook. I think he has become the default choice for Stephen King audiobooks as of late and that is fine by me. He performs the books rather than just reading them. He adds to them quite a bit. I think he makes them better.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: The Mist by Stephen King

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

BLUE MOON (Jack Reacher #24) (audiobook) by Lee Child

The author, Lee Child


Published by Random House Audio in October of 2019.
Read by Scott Brick.
Duration: 11 hours, 21 minutes.
Unabridged.


Jack Reacher is traveling by bus when he notices a sleeping old man with a bank envelope full of cash falling out of his pocket. He also notices that another man has noticed the money and clearly wants to steal it. When the old man and the potential thief get off of the bus in an unfamiliar city, Reacher follows and intervenes.

But, as always seems to happen, Reacher gets involved in something deeper. This time around it is really bad...

This was an entertaining audiobook. Scott Brick has replaced Dick Hill as the voice of Jack Reacher and I am still getting used to that because I am a major fan of Dick Hill. But, Scott Brick is growing on me.

This was a much bloodier Reacher novel than most. Reacher has never had a problem with violence, but in this novel he takes it to a new level. It seemed out of character to me.

Still, I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: BLUE MOON (Jack Reacher #24) (audiobook) by Lee Child.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

THE MIDNIGHT DOG of the REPO MAN (audiobook) by W. Bruce Cameron



Published by Macmillan Audio in 2014.
Read by George K. Wilson.
Duration: 1 hour, 4 minutes.
Unabridged.

This short audiobook is a prequel to the book The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man, a book by W. Bruce Cameron. Cameron is most famous for his book A Dog's Life.

This book is also about a dog, at least it sort of is. Really, it is the story of how Ruddy McCann got his basset hound. Ruddy is a decent man with a checkered past and a grinding sense of shame for what he did in the past. He is also a bar bouncer at his sister's bar at night and a repo man by day. A repo man repossesses cars when people stop making their payments.

Good story, but definitely not a stand-alone story.

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

Sunday, November 3, 2019

BROTHERS in ARMS: THE EPIC STORY of the 761st TANK BATALLION, WWII's FORGOTTEN HEROES (audiobook) by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anthony Walton



Published in 2004 by Books on Tape.
Read by Richard Allen.
Duration: 9 hours, 39 minutes.
Unabridged.


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is most famous as a basketball player - in high school his team won 71 games in a row. He won three national championships in the three seasons he was allowed to play in college (freshmen had to play on a freshman team back then so his first season doesn't count). No one scored more career points in the NBA than Abdul-Jabbar. He is arguably the best basketball player ever.

Turns out that he is also a thoughtful, active man with an interest in social justice and history. That's where this book comes in. The 761st Tank Battalion was brought to his attention because, it turns out, he knew one of its members growing up - he just didn't know his story.

The problem is, no one really knew the story of these young men - and they should.

The 761st Tank Battalion was one of the lead elements of General Patton's push into Germany during the last months of World War II. They were sort of a hybrid unit that was spread out among infantry units, designed to work with infantry. This simple fact would have hurt their unit's fame if they had been an all-white unit - their actions were just tossed in with other unit's statistics they fought with for just a few days. But, when you toss in the obvious racism of the day (multiple citations were sent up the chain of command, only to be tossed in the trash or ignored. This was corrected in the 1990's by an independent commission), you can see why no one heard of these soldiers.

Abdul-Jabbar focuses on just a few soldiers in this unit in this history. Many of these men wanted to be fighter pilots when they joined up, but were told that African-Americans were not allowed to fly. But, they could be in tank units. So, an all African-American tank unit was created. Eventually, the unit ended up in Camp Hood (now Fort Hood) in Texas. They were trained and then never sent to either front. Instead, they became the decoy team that other units trained against. They pretended to be the Germans in practice maneuvers - over and over and over again for nearly TWO YEARS - much longer than white units.

After D-Day, Generals Patton, Bradley and Montgomery pushed the Germans across France and approached Alsace-Lorraine in France near the German border. It was tough on the tank units, though. Experienced, intact tank battalions were at a premium. They sent for the 761st and they fit the bill perfectly, even though Patton had no confidence in African-Americans as soldiers. He kept those thoughts to himself, though, and actually visited the 761st and spoke with them, saying:


"Men, you're the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the American Army. I would never have asked for you if you weren't good. I have nothing but the best in my Army. I don't care what color you are as long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sonsofbitches. Everyone has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you. Most of all your race is looking forward to your success. Don't let them down and damn you, don't let me down! They say it is patriotic to die for your country. Well, let’s see how many patriots we can make out of those German sonsofbitches."

The rest, as they say, is history.

This is an entertaining history, designed for the regular reader. The only real complaint I have with it is the audiobook reader, Richard Allen.  He mispronounces many military terms. There are many German and French cities and towns are named throughout the book and, to be honest, I have no idea how to say most of them. But, I do know some, and when the reader mispronounces the commonly known German and French name places, such as the Danube River, I know that there have to be lots of other problems.

To be fair to Richard Allen, it isn't his fault. 
Allen has since passed away, but he was a multiple award winning audiobook reader. He was brought in to read, not for his knowledge of foreign languages. The production team in the booth in the recording studio should have brought in someone to coach him how to say these place names. It's not that hard to find a French speaker and a German speaker - almost every local high school has teachers of both that could have coached him.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: BROTHERS in ARMS: THE EPIC STORY of the 761st TANK BATALLION, WWII's FORGOTTEN HEROES (audiobook) by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anthony Walton.


OF MICE and MEN (audiobook) by John Steinbeck



Originally published in 1937.
Penguin Audio edition published in 2011.
Read by Gary Sinise.

Duration: 3 hours, 11 minutes.
Unabridged. 

The narrator, Gary Sinise, as the character George in the 1992 film
version of this novel. 
This is probably the 5th or 6th time that I have read this book. I reviewed it as a print book 10 years ago (click here to see that review).

Gary Sinise read this book and did a fabulous job, especially with the voices of Lennie and Crooks. He played George in one of the many movie adaptations of this novel in 1992.

This was my first time hearing this book as an audiobook and I was very impressed that it was an even more effective book when read aloud than in print.

This review of one of the most-read, most-celebrated novels in the English-speaking world will not include a plot synopsis - what's the point? Instead, let me say that this short novel has an amazingly tight plot. In this 3 hour and 11 minute story, nearly every scene, and most lines of dialogue are relevant to the climax of the story.

Foreshadowing abounds in the first half hour of the audiobook, almost all of the conversations in the bunkhouse point towards the dramatic scene at the end and the point to the theme of the little guy never getting a real shot to improve his lot in life. Even the title, Of Mice and Men, is a reference to the poem To a Mouse by Scottish poet Robert Burns that was written when he accidentally destroyed a mouse's nest while plowing at the beginning of winter. The mouse had done everything right, only to lose it all to events beyond its control. The poem contains this line:

The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain


I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. Highly recommended. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Of Mice and Men (audiobook) by John Steinbeck. 

Saturday, November 2, 2019

OBVIOUSLY: STORIES from MY TIMELINE (audiobook) by Akilah Hughes



Published by Listening Library in September of 2019.
Read by the author, Akilah Hughes.
Duration: 4 hours, 58 minutes.
Unabridged. 


To be fair to Akilah Hughes, I had never heard of her before I heard her interview on NPR promoting this book. The interview was good enough that I got the book. If you are not familiar with her, she is a comedy writer and YouTuber with a pretty good following.

I really enjoyed the first half of the book - the part that talks about her early life. It was fun in tone and sometimes seriously funny, except for the story of her horrible 5th grade teacher. She tells her story in an episodic manner - by theme. Sometimes, the stories overlap and sometimes she (always confusingly, at first) tells them backwards, such as when she detailed her struggles with weight towards the end of the book.

But, when she makes her move to New York, the story changes its tone. It becomes a lot more about name dropping and telling stories about people she is angry with (personally and professionally, but mostly personally because she makes her professional life very personal). One of the most bizarre stories was the one in which she and a friend get into a friendship-killing fight over the relative talent of Rihanna. I like pop culture, but I have never been that into any single pop culture figure. I can't relate.

The audiobook was read by Akilah Hughes, which makes sense - she has a ton of practical acting and speaking experience. She did a good job as a reader.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5. 4 stars for the first part, 2 stars for the last part for an average of 3 stars. It can be found on Amazon.com here: OBVIOUSLY: STORIES from MY TIMELINE by Akilah Hughes.