"We are of opinion that instead of letting books grow moldy behind an iron grating, far from the vulgar gaze, it is better to let them wear out by being read." - Jules Verne
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Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Darkest Evening of the Year by Dean Koontz

Not very complicated plot, lots of info about rescue dogs

I have not read a Koontz book for over five years but a relative passed this one off to me in an informal family book exchange.

What did I think?

Having just added a rescue dog to our family the week I started reading this book I had some interest in one of the over-arching theme of the book: the tragedy of wasting the lives that fills our world, especially those of our pets.

Koontz hits his other basic themes such as good vs. evil and the good cannot flee evil - they must confront it.

But, was it a good book?

Yes and no.

I read it quickly - Koontz's writing style remains breezy and easy to digest. But, the evil sociopaths were so over the top that I felt that they weren't even interesting. Their prisoner is so saintly that she is equally over the top.

Dean Koontz
The extended lecture on the need for adopting dogs gets old after a bit. Maybe it's a preaching to the choir thing, but I was already converted to this concept before I picked up the book.

The most interesting character by far is a post-modern hitman who names himself after a series of postmodern characters and writers (Billy Pilgrim, Tyrone Slothrop and others).

So, in sum, same old themes, one really interesting character and a lot of info on dog adoptions.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: The Darkest Evening of the Year

Reviewed June 29, 2009.

Joker One: A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership and Brotherhood by Donovan Campbell

An enthusiastic 5 stars! A fantastic book.

I was offered Joker One as part of the Amazon Vine program and I decided to take it because I am a history teacher and I decided I needed to read a book about the Iraq War just to have a greater sense of what was/is going on and to be able to speak more intelligently about it to my classes.

So, I picked Joker One and I let it sit on my pile of books. I let it sit and sit because I was afraid it would be preachy, depressing and difficult.

Finally, with classes over I picked up Joker One and I was hooked by page 2 with Lt. Campbell's description of an explosion that he had just avoided. It was filled with honest emotions, including a bit of honest, self-deprecating humor.

I shot through Joker One. I carried it everywhere I went. I read passages to my long-suffering wife. I told her shortened versions of the stories. Literally, I laughed (his account of their first night mission and the pack of dogs is hilarious!) and I teared up multiple times, especially at poignant moments like after their first serious day of all out fighting when Campbell is asked, "...do you think we fought well today, sir? I mean, that was our first big fight. Would the Marines who fought at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, you know, be proud of us?" (p. 178)

Donavan Campbell
I guess I identified with Campbell - a married college graduate who is likely to think too much, feel too much and questions himself. Campbell is a Christian and his faith is lightly woven into the text throughout.

Campbell offers no answers to what is going on in Iraq. He barely mentions Bush administration policy, except for his stated dislike of the Coalition Authority government. His concerns are the survival of his men, not winning the war by re-writing policies and strategies.

His descriptions of battles are gritty and can be bewildering - not due to poor writing but rather due to an accurate portrayal of the fighting as he lived it.

The book was mostly created as part of a veteran's writing project class at the Harvard Business School. To me the book has the feel of being crafted - being re-written many times and being thoroughly discussed. I think the writing pulls out the best out of Campbell's story. For example, his story of his battle-hardened Sargeants watching the DVD of The Notebook in the NCO room with tears streaming down their faces is priceless.

The day of reckoning is April 6. "Golf Company knew that something was wrong, because for the first time since our arrival we knew exactly what each mosque was saying during its call to prayer. From every minaret in the city, the same word rang out, over and over, in short, chanted blocks:  JIHAD, JIHAD, JIHAD...JIHAD, JIHAD, JIHAD...JIHAD, JIHAD, JIHAD...Every single muezzin in Ramadi was calling for a holy war against the Marines." (p. 156) Campbell effectively expresses how completely alone this little cluster of Marines were. I got chills up my spine as I read and re-read these pages.

Pages 299-302 are as beautiful a description about the nature of love - sacrificing love - as I have ever read. Those pages are an extended play on the faith, hope and love verse in the Bible (1 Corinthians 13:13) and are brilliantly written - masculine, yet tear-evoking. Good stuff. Makes you proud of those men and grateful that Campbell can bring their story to us.

The best book I read in 2009.

Highly recommended.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Joker One.

Reviewed June 30, 2009.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Patron Saint of Used Cars And Second Chances: A Memoir by Mark Milhone

Fun story, but not completely resolved

Mark Milhone's memoir about his self-described "Year from Hell", marriage troubles, a reconciliation with his dad and a road trip to pick up a used BMW he purchased on E-Bay (who does that?) is a fun, sad read.

Millhone tells his story about the death of his mother, the death of his first dog, the near-death of his newborn son, the dogbite his oldest son suffers and the deterioration of his marriage.

So, does he resolve these issues?

Not really.

Mark Milhone with the BMW
He tells his story in an entertaining manner. His relationship with his father is strengthened (as a kid, his father sent his number one man from the office to take him to see The Empire Strikes Back because he has no time for his family) but the other issues are not fixed, there is just a renewed resolve to work on them.

Nonetheless, it's still a fun read - good for a summer trip. Lots of parts to read and discuss with others in the car.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Patron Saint of Used Cars...

Reviewed on July 1, 2009

The Complete Idiots Guide to World Religions (3rd edition) by Brandon Toropov & Luke Buckles

Fits the Bill Perfectly

Some people have criticized this book for not having enough detail. Well, this book is just intended to be an introduction to a number of the world's great religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Shinto.

The descriptions are short (20-40 pages) and full of enough detail to give the reader a useful outline of the religion's teachings. For more detail on a particular religion, I would recommend the 'Complete Idiot's Guide to Islam (or Buddhism, or Judaism, etc.)

I was searching for a textbook to use for my school's new 9 weeks-long program on world religions. This book fits the bill perfectly - there is enough here to get us off to a very good start towards discussing any of these religions.

Less useful are the sections on similar ideas that span all world religions and the section on ancient and (basically) dead religions such as worship of the Ancient Egyptian and Greek gods.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: World Religions.

Reviewed on March 23, 2005

Melancholy Baby by Robert B. Parker

Sunny and Spenser's worlds come ever so closer together...

Melancholy Baby is probably my 40th plus Parker book. While the Jesse Stone series was much improved by its last offering, I think this was the weakest of the Sunny Randall series.

The mystery part of Melancholy Baby was excellent, but Sunny spends forever in a day seeing Susan Silverman, expert psycholgist and also Spenser's girlfriend. The book gets bogged down with too much detail about feelings, Oedipal complexes and the like.

Robert B. Parker
Don't get me wrong, I like Sunny and I'll read the next Sunny Randall book. I'm just hoping that this book was a bridge to Sunny going on to bigger and better things and moving away from this self-pitying/loathing over her strange relationship with her ex-husband.

One has to wonder, will Spenser and Randall bump into one another? Randall knows cops that Spenser knows, she's been to his girlfriend's house... Do I want to see that? yes and no. Sometimes its best to leave the characters in their two different worlds, but its also fun to mix and match, as 'Law and Order' likes to do on occasion.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Melancholy Baby.

Reviewed on March 23, 2005.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Voodoo River (audiobook) by Robert Crais

My first Elvis Cole novel - not my last

I heard Voodoo River  as an audiobook way back in 2005 - it was not my first choice but I gave it a shot and I was very pleased. The story was convoluted but had a real feel to it. Elvis is tough, but not Superman. The situation was complicated but not impossible.

Robert Crais
I seem destined to be perpetually out of sync with Elvis and the real order of his series. Voodoo River is #5 in the Elvis Cole series. In Voodoo River, Elvis leaves Los Angeles for the Louisiana bayou country in search of the birth parents of a Hollywood starlet who is in need of some medical information. Soon enough, Cole finds himself in trouble with the local crime boss who has a special use for alligators.  If you are familiar with the series (as I now am) this book is pivotal as it is where Cole meets Lucy . For Crais (the author) this is a homecoming of sorts since he was raised in Louisiana.The audiobook was well-read and the reader added a lot to it with his great command of the mix of accents of Louisiana.

So, how much did I like this book? I went out and bought another Elvis Cole novel less than a week after I finished my first!

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Voodoo River.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

Eyeshot by Lynn S. Hightower

Great plot line, herky-jerky follow-through

Lynn S. Hightower
Have you ever been in a car with someone who is learning how to drive a stick shift? If not, let me assure you, you will be bounced around without warning and it will be quite unpleasant until you get used to it or until the driver gets better.

In the case of Eyeshot, you'd better get used to it.

Hightower has created a wonderful concept for a police novel:

 - how do you get the criminal when the suspect is a high profile prosecutor? 

 Her characters work the outside edges of the system until they can finally make their move and it is an interesting concept and quite the challenge.

Unfortunately, it is made even more challenging by Hightower's choppy plot lines. Oftentimes, I felt like I was coming in to the middle of a scene or a conversation - the characters were meeting people I did not know - nor did I get clued in until much later on. Conversations were started and spoken almost completely in the shorthand that characterizes friendships - but I'm not friends with these people so I have no idea what they're talking about! It is not a good thing to make the reader feel like the third wheel!

So, I gave the book 3 stars, which means I do recommend it. Let me explain my reasoning. The underlying plot is so strong that the annoying habits of the writer do not overcome it. Or, to put it another way (and to return to my first analogy...) - I just got used to her poor use of the stick shift!

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Eyeshot.

Reviewed March 16, 2005

Assumed Identity by David Morrell

A good read, not Morrell's best work.

No one writes better than Morrell when it comes to the "fugitive" novel - one man hunted by many in a cross-country chase.

David Morrell
In Assumed Identity, a military intelligence deep cover operative has been accidentally exposed and an operation goes sour. Soon, the operative is being blackmailed and chased by an attractive reporter and the unwanted attention causes the operative's handlers to "terminate" a number of people and the operative comes to believe that his own life is in danger as well. Throw in a damsel in distress (actually two) and a James Bond-esque villain and the chase is on!

Unfortunately, a great story is slightly marred by the protagonist's constant internal psychobabble about who he really is (he confuses himself with the various personas he's become over the years). An even bigger problem is the ultra-rich villain. He's a parody of the James Bond super villain. The climax of the book is hokey and almost laughable. Too bad that a 400+ page book is marred by 10 pages at the end. A worthwhile read but be prepared.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Assumed Identity.

Reviewed March 10, 2005.

The Paperboy by Pete Dexter

Pretentious and unfocused

This meandering, self-important book meanders from north Florida to south Florida in search of a plot and in search of a theme. Is it justice denied? Is the theme the importance of family? Is it the value of good journalism? Yes, no and maybe.

The Paperboy is about three newspapermen - two brothers (one with no personality and one that can't figure out what he wants to do except hang around the newspaper for a lack of anyplace else to go) and their father (he's just as annoying as his sons - maybe more so - because at one point he has a personality but by the end of the book he's faded, too).

It's also about corrupt local politics that, in the end, did the right thing when they stuck a man in jail with inconclusive evidence. It even includes a sexism, racism, class-bias and even gay-bashing. Dexter tries to write the "Great American Novel" and it shows. He tries too hard and, in the end, he gets nowhere because he is unfocused. Too many themes and none is developed.

A bit of unasked for advice to Dexter - keep the story simple to make the point better. Look to the example provided by "Of Mice and Men" - a simple plot full of simple, living characters that illustrate deep and profound thoughts on life. By contrast, Dexter flounders around so much with his ghostly characters that he just irritated this reader.

I rate this book 1 star out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Paperboy

Reviewed on March 7, 2005.

Pursuit of the Mountain Man by William Johnstone

This will be unpopular - but I just couldn't finish it!

I know Johnstone's Mountain Man series is extremely popular - I used to work in a used bookstore and we had a hard time even keeping them on the shelf! So, I was really looking forward to delving into this new series of books.

I was really disappointed. Not because Pursuit of the Mountain Man was not readable - it was. But, because I quickly lost interest in the main character. I did not see the point in reading about him. So, I stopped after 65 pages since...

He is unstoppable - he cannot be outdrawn in a gunfight.

He can't be outfought in a fistfight.

No one hunts better than him.

No one rides better than him.

No one tracks better than him.

No one shoots better than him.

No one is smarter than him.

No one can beat him.

In fact, no one is even a challenge to him at all.

Well, if that's the case, why even read the book?

I would compare it to watching Superman take on a 3rd grade basketball team. Why watch? You know the outcome and its bound to be ugly.

In this case, I knew who was going to win and there was no point to reading anymore. There was no challenge for him to overcome. There was no compelling reason for me to continue.

I rate this book 1 star out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Pursuit of the Mountain Man.

Reviewed on March 5, 2005.

The Court Martial of Daniel Boone by Allan W. Eckert

Not your traditional piece of historical fiction

Nominated for seven Pulitzer Prizes in literature, Allan W. Eckert brings us the little-known true story of Daniel Boone's court martial in Kentucky during the American Revolution.

The bare facts are that Boone and a great portion of the fighting men from Boonesborough were captured by Shawnee raiders who took all of them back into modern day Ohio and eventually some were taken to Detroit to meet with the British Lt. Governor Henry Hamilton, known as the "Hair Buyer" for his policy of buying scalps of settlers.

Boone behaved so strangely during this entire episode that when he finally escaped the Shawnee he was brought up on charges and court martialed.

Daniel Boone (1734-1820)
The Court-Martial of Daniel Boone narrates the court martial and not the actual events. Eckert tells the story much like a modern courtroom drama. Boone had an unorthodox defense style that allows the prosecution to lay out their entire argument and puts Boone in the worst possible light. Of course, Boone would not be the celebrated figure he is today if here were found guilty so the outcome is never really in doubt. But, Eckert does allow a great deal of tension to build in the form of indignation on the part of the reader.

An enjoyable piece of historical fiction. I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Court-martial of Daniel Boone.

Reviewed on January 28, 2011.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Paths of Glory (audiobook) by Jeffrey Archer

Sometimes exciting, sometimes tedious

Published in 2009 by MacMillan Audio
Read by Roger Allam
Duration: 11 hours, 6 minutes

This is my first Archer book. I used to work in a bookstore and we would sell quite a few of his books so I was looking forwards to experiencing both a rousing adventure and an Archer book. But, based on this work, I doubt I will be looking for more by Archer.

The book is about the man who may have been the first person to to get to the top of Mount Everest, George Mallory and who is, perhaps, most famous for saying, "because it is there" when he was asked why he wanted to climb Everest. Paths of Glory is a historical fiction of his life and shows evidence of a lot of research and care.

This audiobook runs 11 hours on 9 CDs. It could use some serious editing. The climbing and personal life details of the book are, for the most part, interesting. Some of the particulars of his academic career slow the book. The in-depth re-creation of meetings of the Royal Geographic Society (with the accompanying interjections of "Here, here!" and "God Save the King!") reminded me of being in most of the meetings I've had to suffer through throughout my career - I kept wondering if I could have just skipped the meeting and received the abbreviated memo version instead.

George Mallory (1886-1924)
The last CD is solid. The extra attention to detail is dropped in favor of a quicker form of narration: a summary letter from Mallory to his wife. The ending is satisfying even if the reader is quite aware of the way it has to end.

So, in sum, the book is too long for its own good. At least two hours could have been edited from it without hurting the story - in fact, it would have helped. If you are interested in the topic but want to devote less time, I suggest instead the documentary The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found here on Amazon.com: Paths of Glory.

Reviewed on July 4, 2009

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Don't Know Much About the Civil War: Everything You Need to Know About America's Greatest Conflict But Never Learned by Kenneth C. Davis

A great introduction to the Civil War

Ulysses S. Grant
First, I need to tell you something about me. I am a Civil War buff. I can go into long expository speeches about nearly any topic of the war at the drop of a hat. I think it is a great moment in TV when the local PBS station shows Ken Burns' Civil War mini-series. The movie Glory is my favorite movie and I personally own more than 80 books on the Civil War. I love to debate any number of topics about the war and I truly believe that it is the pivotal moment in the history of our country in any number of topics including race relations, the growth of government power and the growth of the industrial might of the United States.

Don't Know Much About the Civil War is a very solid introduction to the Civil War, the issues and events that led up to the war and a much smaller section on the results of the war. Davis has a very approachable, easy to read style and I would gladly hand this book to anyone who was a Civil War newbie and wanted to learn more. Just about any topic that could be covered in the war is covered in this book at some point or another, maybe not in depth, but it is covered.

Each chapter begins with a series of questions. For example, Chapter Three begins with 10 questions, including:

-Where Did the Underground Railroad Run?
-Who Was Uncle Tom?
-What Happened at Harpers Ferry?

Kenneth C. Davis
Davis then spends the next 50 pages answering those questions, including a couple of timelines that repeat some of the same information as the text, but puts the information in a slightly different format.

This book would benefit from maps and pictures, but this should not detract a potential reader.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Don't Know Much About the Civil War.

Reviewed on January 22, 2011.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield

"This is the devil's country...and you are fighting the devil's war"

The Afghan Campaign is one of two pieces of historical fiction that Steven Pressfield has written about Alexander the Great (the other is The Virtues of War). Pressfield has written about several historical eras but his real area of interest seems to be the Greek and Hellenistic eras. His most famous and, in my opinion, his best novel is Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae.

Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.)

The Afghan Campaign is a solid novel. Pressfield does his best to put us on the ground with the troops, much like he did with Gates of Fire.  The reader follows a group of young Macedonian recruits as they ship off to join Alexander's army as it approaches what is now known as Afghanistan.  Pressfield's choice to view the war from the level of a raw recruit (Matthias) as he learns to fight and eventually becomes a sergeant is an interesting one - and a good one. The reader gets a chance to learn all as he learns and gets a real feel for the Alexander's army and the difficulties they experienced.

Steven Pressfield

One of more interesting aspects of the novel is Pressfield's choice to incorporate what I assume is made up Macedonian slang into the story. Every profession has its slang and the military seems to create more than most. In this novel, Alexander's army is no different. It gives it a more authentic "feel" even if the slang is not authentic. Fortunately, Pressfield provides a glossary in the back that I used heavily until I learned the expressions.

So, what do we learn in this book? Nothing new, but lessons that seem to have to be re-learned with every generation like war is brutal, ugly and terrible, people will die defending their homes and their ways of life, no matter how worthless they seem to outsiders and war changes the people that experience it, including the woman and children in the war zone.

I would be most interested in hearing any comments from soldiers who have served in Afghanistan and also read this book.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This novel can be found on Amazon.com here: The Afghan Campaign.

Reviewed on January 16, 2011.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Luther (LCA School of Religion series) by Robert H. Fischer

Excellent beginner's history to Luther and his times

Fischer's book on the life and works of Luther is obviously intended to be a school-age biography of the great leader of the Reformation. I would suggest it for Middle or High School age students. Luther has several simple pencil illustrations spaced throughout the book that neither add nor detract from the text as a whole. This would also be an appropriate book for anyone new to Martin Luther or the Reformation.

Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Fischer starts by setting the scene for the reader. His description of life and politics in pre-Reformation is Europe is one of the best short summaries that this world history teacher has ever read. Fischer sets the scene wonderfully for the reader to understand Martin Luther and the magnitude of his demands for the Church to reform itself.

Fischer takes great care not to cast the Catholics as devils and Luther as an angel. All of Luther's warts are exposed (anti-semitism, etc.), but Fischer lingers longest on Luther's positive achievements and qualities. This is appropriate since those are the things that have had such a large influence on Western history.

Fischer includes lots of quotes from Luther and his contemporaries, letting them speak for themselves (and to his credit, Fischer doesn't overquote and just supply us with an endless string of long quotes, as some historians do).

The last 30 pages of the book are quotes and comments on Luther's teaching and writing about a number of topics, including "The Lord's Supper", "The Christian and his neighbors" and comments about what Luther really wanted to do when he begin the Reformation movement.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Luther.

Reviewed February 19, 2005.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices by Brian McLaren

Not What I Hoped It Was

I hate to fault a book for what it isn't - you cannot condemn a recipe book for lack of character development or a romance novel for it's lack of discussion about thermodynamics. But, in the case of this book, I was really hoping for an in-depth discussion of ancient Christian practices that have fallen by the wayside but are deserving or a re-assessment.

The title and the blurb on the back cover led me to believe that this is a thorough discussion of certain practices. Instead, this book is an introduction to an entire series of books about specific practices. This book frustrated me for three reasons:

#1) I'm starting out with a very petty reason, but it bothered me throughout. McLaren makes extensive use of charts to demonstrate his points, but his first chart (pg. 7) was so much like the one about rating the value of a poem in the Robin Williams movie Dead Poets Society that I almost laughed out loud. For those who are unfamiliar with the reference, or that have forgetten it, here is the quote from a book about poetry that the Robin Williams character later dismisses:

If the poem's score for perfection is plotted along the horizontal of a graph, and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.  A sonnet by Byron may score high on the vertical, but only average on the horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, would score high both horizontally and vertically, yielding a massive total area, thereby revealing the poem to be truly great. As you proceed through the poetry in this book, practice this rating method. As your ability to evaluate poems in this matter grows, so will - so will your enjoyment and understanding of poetry.

To all of this nonsense Williams' character comments: "We're not laying pipe, we're talking about poetry."

"St. Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy"
by Caravaggio
McLaren's graph is not about poetry, but attempts to makes a point about "Faith as a System of Belief" and "Faith as a Way of Life."  However, his graphs and charts come no closer to making the point than the passage in the book from Dead Poets Society does about great poetry.  McLaren's prescription, when he finally gets around to it is that certain ancient practices may be helpful in making your system of belief grow stronger and make it more of a way of life. Nice idea but he fails to make the point by providing little more than personal anecdotes and several unrelated stories about St. Francis (if you don't know much about him before you read this book, this will be little changed).

#2) McLaren spends a long time talking about this concept in vague terms. He names the practices but does little more to tell us anything in any detail until the very end of the book and even then he comes up with this simple concept - in times of stress in our Christian walk these practices are solid routines and practices to fall back on (and you can learn about them in more detail in the other books in this series). Sure, I get this as a concept, but I was not impressed by McLaren's roundabout way of getting there. I felt like the book was all buildup and little payoff.

#3) McLaren makes the point over and over again about the inter-relatedness of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. This is not news, these 3 faiths are commonly called the Abrahamic faiths for that reason. At times, McLaren sounds like he is making an appeal to Islam and Judaism to rejuvenate themselves by following these practices as well - making this a book designed for three faiths, which just seemed odd to me in a book designed for Christians.

So, to sum up, I was mostly irritated because the book took a long time to get to its point and when it finally got there I am told that I need to get yet another book to find the information I was hoping was contained in this book.

I reviewed this book in conjunction with Thomas Nelson's BookSneeze program. I was not compensated for this review. The opinions expressed are mine.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices

Reviewed on January 9, 2011.

Perry Mason and the Case of the Velvet Claws: A Radio Dramatization

Perry Mason plays fast and loose with the law in a deadly case

2 CDs
1 hour 31 minutes
Dramatized for audio by M.J. Elliot. Based on the book by Erle Stanley Gardner.
Voiced by the actors of The Colonial Radio Theatre on the Air.

The Case of the Velvet Claws was the very first Perry Mason book, published in 1933. This radio dramatization is based on that book but, of course, it had to be adapted for the "radio play" format.

Erle Stanley Gardner
 Perry Mason, Paul Drake and Della Street all figure large in this murder mystery that all began with an adulterous wife who wants to avoid political scandal. Eva Griffin, married to a powerful millionaire,  was discovered in a hotel with a married Congressman due to an un-related crime at the hotel. Spicy Bits, a magazine that specializes in reporting scandal, is on the trail of this potential scandal and Griffin wants Perry Mason to act in her stead and offer the magazine a bribe to drop the story. Mason agrees to contact Spicy Bits and see what he can do but soon enough Griffin's husband is murdered and his client is, of course, a suspect. But, in a twist, Perry Mason is also a suspect!

Perry Mason and the Case of the Velvet Claws is an entertaining audiobook (or radio play, if you prefer). Special effects are well-utilized and the characters all have distinctive voices and accents and work well together. I was struck, however, by Mason's willingness to tamper with evidence, create fake alibis and flat out lie in order to save his client. Nevertheless, it was still a solid bit of entertainment.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Perry Mason and the Case of the Velvet Claws: A Radio Dramatization

Reviewed on January 9, 2011.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Sandy Knoll Murder: Legacy of the Sheepshooters by Melany Tupper

Could have been so much more

Perry Mason had Paul Drake. Ben Matlock had Tyler Hudson, Conrad McMasters and Cliff Lewis. What did they have? Tremendous investigators - researchers that covered the whole thing and then turned it over to someone else to make it sound nice for the judge and the jury.

Melany Tupper has thoroughly investigated (and thoroughly documented) the murder of John Creed Conn in 1904. Conn was a frontier businessman who disappeared, presumed to have committed suicide or accidentally drowned but than his body suddenly appeared on Sandy Knoll 7 weeks later.

At the same time, sheep were being slaughtered dozens and sometimes even hundreds at a time in yet another confrontation between cattle ranchers and sheepherders and there was a possible serial killer was living in and around the area.

All of this sounds like a great recipe for an exciting bit of history. This is where my reference to Perry Mason and Ben Matlock comes in. Tupper is like his investigators.  Note that Paul Drake does the investigating for Perry Mason but Perry Mason tells the story. Matlock did not do the difficult leg work - he had others do that while he weaved it together into an interesting and convincing tale. Tupper has dug and scraped at a history that was presumed to be "settled" and came up with a completely different conclusion. This is a very good bit of investigative work.

Central Oregon Sheepherders
But, it is hard to read, especially the first few chapters. There is an assumption that the reader knows all about the Conn incident and the sheepshooters (I only know about this book and this particular incident because it was brought to my attention on an internet board). This is a critical mistake and makes the beginning of the book difficult at best. The commentary about Ray Jackson at the end of the book are quite good and quite convincing but too many times it was a hard slog to get to that point.

Working with another author to make the presentation more palatable and would have done this thorough and impressive piece of research a favor.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Sandy Knoll Murder: Legacy of the Sheepshooters

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on January 2, 2011.

Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters by Jean Shepherd

Excellent. Absolutely Excellent.

Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters is written by the man who co-wrote and narrates the classic movie A Christmas Story, Jean Shepherd (1921-1999). Shepherd's book  In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash is the inspiration for that movie, although the infamous dogs in the kitchen scene comes from Wanda Hickey.

If you love the movie A Christmas Story, you will absolutely enjoy this book. Set in Hammond, Indiana (he fictionalizes it as Hohman, Indiana) in the 1930s, Wanda Hickey is actually a set of 8 semi-fictional short stories loosely based on actual people and events in Shepherd's life. Hohman is described as being "nestled picturesquely between the looming steel mills and the verminously aromatic oil refineries and encircled by a colorful conglomerate of city dumps and fetid rivers" which is an unkind, but not inacurrate description of Indiana's industrial northwest corner.

Jean Shepherd

These short stories cover Shepherd's youth from elementary school to his high school prom (his date is the Wanda Hickey from the title). Shepherd's genius in story-telling is his ability to take a fairly normal situation and somehow milk it for every bit of humor and add a bit of wisdom in the re-telling. All of the stories were originally published in Playboy magazine from 1966-1970.

The Bumpus Hounds from
A Christmas Story

He begins with The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds. If you have ever had bad neighbors - neighbors with no concept of cleaning up after themselves or keeping their arguments and music inside the house - you will appreciate this story. As a bonus, this is the story that contains the infamous dogs in the kitchen scene from the movie A Christmas Story. However, in this story, it is an Easter ham, not a Christmas turkey.

Three other stories deal with Jean as a younger child. I enjoyed them all but particularly enjoyed County Fair! Three of the last four deal with Jean's forays into the world of dating and The Return of the Smiling Wimpy Doll is about the memories stirred up by a crate of childhood toys that are sent to an adult Jean Shepherd in New York City.

An absolute joy to read. 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here: Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters

Reviewed January 2, 2011.

Also mentioned in this review:

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Skin (X-files) (abrdged audiobook) by Ben Mezrich

A competent, but not great audiobook

Published in 1999 by HarperAudio
Abridged audiobook
Format: Cassette
Duration: Approximately 3 hours
Read by Bruce Harwood
Bruce Harwwod

I heard Skin as an abridged audiobook. It was narrated by Bruce Harwood, who portrays the most 'normal' of the conspiracy-addicted threesome known as 'the Lone Gunmen' on the X-Files TV show. Harwood does a competent, but ultimately uninspiring job of narrating the story.

In fact, this is also a decent description of the book as a whole. It is okay, but not great. The characters act like they are supposed to, but those wry comments from Fox are mostly non-existent and Scully is just not quite right throughout most of the book.

I am sure that the abridgment is at least partially to blame. The unabridged version is 8 and 1/2 hours. This one clocks in at three hours. Something had to give and it sounds like this one gave away its personality.

The plot itself was okay. The ending was a bit anti-climatic.

It's entertaining, but not great entertainment.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Skin (The X Files)

Reviewed February 16, 2005.