"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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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Warrior Woman: The Exceptional Life Story of Nonhelema, Shawnee Indian Woman Chief by James Alexander Thom and Dark Rain Thom

Not up the high standards that have been set by other books by James Alexander Thom

To start, let me establish my bonafides as a fan of Mr. Thom's work. Five of his novels proudly sit on my bookshelf . I have the featured review of his novel The Red Heart on Amazon.com. When I teach world history I have my kids read a piece of historical fiction as part of a semester project. I have proudly placed copies of Follow the River and Panther in the Sky in my classroom library as examples of historical fiction at its finest. I met Thom at a conference this past spring and told him that his books were the reason I created this type of project. When at his best, Thom's books make you feel as though you have stepped into that world of the past.

Warrior Woman, while accurate is just not entertaining reading. The plot meanders around and never seems to pick up steam. We never really understand Nonhelema's motives in the book - why is she so desperate to negotiate a peace when it is so obvious that those treaties will be broken? Perhaps if her early life had been explored in more detail. The reader is offered snippits of earlier times - past battles, a trip to New Orleans some twenty years earlier but we don't know how these things formed her Revolutionary War-era self.

George Rogers Clark 
Warrior Woman seems to be the capstone on the series he has written about the Ohio and Missouri River Valleys. He mentions the legendary "Welsh Indians" he writes about in The Children of First Man. George Rogers Clark, the star of Long Knife appears several times, as does Tecumseh who is the focus of Panther in the Sky. William Clark, who is featured in his two books about the Lewis and Clark expedition makes a cameo appearance. Kidnapped whites raised by Indians are featured prominently in The Red Heart and Follow the River. They are important in this book as well since Nonhelema's daughter is one of those kidnapped children who chooses to stay with the Shawnee. Even a young George Drouillard is mentioned twice in passing. He is featured in yet another book entitled. Sign-Talker: The Adventure of George Drouillard on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. To me, it seemed that Thom was closing the circle on his interpretation of this period of history.

Before you read this book, read any of the other ones I mentioned above.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Warrior Woman.

Reviewed on November 21, 2008.

Kari's Saga: A Novel of Viking Iceland by Robert Jansson

A Viking book that's less of a "bash 'em, slash 'em" book and more of a legal thriller

So, you pick up a book about Icelandic Vikings and what do you expect? Well, if you're like me you expected a lot of men with long hair brandishing swords and axes along with lots of blood and longboats, much like the Saxon Chronicle books of Bernard Cornwell.

A Viking Longhouse
Kari's Saga starts out with just that - a failed attempt to burn a rival's longhouse. But, there's a twist. Iceland is trying to limit the the amount of violence that plague the island (revenge killings and so on). The Icelandic Vikings are actively trying to be more creative in applying Viking laws and the legal system to limit this violence. Notice I said limit, not end it - these are, after all, Vikings.

Throw in the threat of political change (invasion from Viking kings back in Denmark - Icleand had no king, just a loose collection of weak semi-feudal lords) and religious change (Christianity was supplanting the Viking gods and the desire to make Iceland Christian was one of excuses used to threaten the invasion from Denmark) and you have an interesting story line with lots of twists and turns.

The author, Robert Jansson, does a great job of explaining the political, religious and legal issues involved. His battle scenes, while few, are well done. He adds in greed, lust and love to make this a worthy read. 

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon at this location:  Kari's Saga: A Novel of Viking Iceland

Reviewed on November 29, 2008.

Gotham Central Vol. 5: Dead Robin (graphic novel) (DC Comics) by Greg Rucka

Batman, super-villains and the insanity of life in Gotham from the point of view of the police

Ever wonder how Batman and his cronies seem to the cops? Ever wonder how cops deal with super-villains, super heroes and the insane amount of crime that Gotham City generates?

Gotham Central is a great twist on the Super hero tale. Told from the perspective of Gotham's Major Crime Unit, this series puts a different point of view on the super hero story. Besides that, many of these cops are involved in super heroics of their own. Imagine NYPD Blue or Law and Order SVU with the occasional super villain and super hero and you've got the idea. Gritty, tough, action-packed and good.

I rate this graphic novel 5 stars out of 5.

This graphic novel can be found on Amazon.com here: Gotham Central Vol. 5: Dead Robin.

Reviewed on November 29, 2008.

Identity Crisis (graphic novel) by Brad Meltzer and DC Comics

So, what happens when you take a best-selling author of thrillers and have him work with a great comics team?

Brad Meltzer
You get a strong story, great art and some of the cherished ideas of comics are re-worked.

To quote the introduction by Joss Whedon, "it's unlikely that Elongated Man is your favorite-ever character. But halfway into issue one he was certainly mine. Brad and Rags paint a portait of a man - and a marriage - that is so unassumingly lovely, it's unbearable to think anything bad might happen to either. And inevitable that it will."

****Spoiler alert****

Thank novelist Brad Meltzer for making you care and thank artist Rags Morales for making you feel the pain of Elongated Man's loss on page 31 (even now, I just glanced at THE page and I felt it all over again).

Meltzer re-works some of the bad guys and makes them truly awful. Why shouldn't they be. Regular villains stalk, kill, rape, maim and torture. Shouldn't super villains do even more of that? To combat that, the super heroes are not morally upright in all of their actions. They are after all, human (except for a few of them). They are scared for their families, friends and loved ones that cannot defend themselves against freaks with a funny suit and a good search engine. The scene in which Batman and Robin (Tim Drake) rush to save Robin's father (p. 170) illustrates this fear and is great only because of the art - the art tells the story better than paragraphs of text would. But, the text does add something - Batman says only two words: "Not again..." as he mashes the Batmobile's pedal to the floor. We all know what the orphaned Caped Crusader's motivations are. On page 182 the art is equally compelling. You can see the horror in Robin's eyes with Batman assuming an unusual compassionate role - cradling Robin and saying, "...I've got you..." The accompanying narration notes "Batman and Robin. Orphans."

*******End Spoiler Alert**********

I give Identity Crisis 4 stars out of 5 simply because I did not like the Whodunit of the whole mystery. It seemed odd and random, but then again lots of life is odd and random so maybe I'm overly critical.

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

Reviewed on November 29, 2008

The Fire-Eaters by Jason Manning

Good historical fiction about an oft-forgotten era of American History

The Fire Eaters is the sequel to Long Hunters, a book about Timothy Barlow and his experiences as a young officer during the War of 1812 and the Creek Uprising with Andrew Jackson. You do not have to have read the first book to read this one.

In this second book of a Barlow Trilogy, Captain Barlow is asked by Andrew Jackson to go on a fact-finding mission to find out the source of a dispute between the Cherokee and White Georgians. Jackson is pre-disposed to remove the Cherokee and Barlow is upset by the idea. However, he fulfills his mission since he is honor-bound to fulfill his duty as a soldier.

Later, he is sent on another mission to deal with the nullifiers of South Carolina (AKA the 'Fire-eaters').

Andrew Jackson 
If you are not familiar with the real life Fire-eaters or with the issues involved with the Cherokee disputes, Manning does an exceptional job of explaining the issues and putting Barlow right in the middle of the action. Manning does something that I've never seen done before as well, and that is to tie both issues together in such a way that you can see the logic behind Jackson's actions concerning the Cherokee, although I personally strongly disagree with Jackson's actions.

The only problem with this story is Barlow's romantic life. It is tedious in a male action-adventure sort of way. By this I mean that all of the love interests in action-adventure books are all stunningly attractive, lusty, itching to take off their clothes and are insatiable in bed. Nice daydream material but C'mon! This type of woman abound in action-adventure stories but is rarely seen in the real world. However, Barlow's love life is the glue that holds the story together so I guess it has to stay in.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: The Fire Eaters by Jason Manning.

Reviewed on June 6, 2006.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Anthem by Ayn Rand

A simple but profound piece of science fiction

I have not read any Ayn Rand before Anthem. I know this may seem strange for a person that enjoys politics, leans heavily to the right politically and enjoys science fiction, but it is true. The reason is quite simple - the people at the Ayn Rand Institute are so enthusiastic about Ayn Rand and her ideas on talk shows and in interviews that they seem like a religion to them. I feel similarly creepy about the postage paid information card that is included in my book. Plus, let's face it, her most famous works are L-o-o--o-n-g and I was not sure I wanted to invest that much time into Rand.

But, I decided to give Anthem a try because it is very short (105 pages) and my local bookstore had it on clearance.

So, what did I think?

There was a stretch of time before and after World War II, when the collectivization political movements were gaining momentum (fascism and communism) when some great novelists grew wary and wrote some fantastic and simply written works to warn others. Specifically, I am thinking of Brave New World, Animal Farm and 1984. Now, I can add Anthem to that list.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982)
Anthem is set in a future world that has collapsed technologically due to some sort of disaster and the survivors value group cohesiveness, stability and tradition above all else. Innovation and original thought are stifled (violently, if necessary) and individualism is repressed to the point that the word "I" does not even exist in the language any longer. No individual choices are allowed - not in education, not in profession and no one is allowed to choose their own mates. One of their favorite sayings is: "We are nothing. Mankind is all. By the grace of our brothers we are allowed our lives. We exist through, by and for our brothers who are the State. Amen."

Some are fine with this emphasis on the group but the main character, Equality 7-2521, is a natural-born scientist who likes to question and experiment. He is assigned to be a street sweeper instead (the reader is led to assume that he is not chosen to be a scientist precisely because he is know to be an innovator).  Equality 7-2521 mentions other characters who are especially gifted in an area but are not allowed to act upon those gifts who seem to be slowly going insane.

Equality 7-2521 develops a friendship with an artist (friends are not allowed) he falls in love with a pretty girl and he re-discovers some of the lost technology from the past (electricity and light bulbs). When he shows the science council what he has discovered and re-built they condemn him to death for daring to make the candle obsolete. They say to him, "...how dare you think that you could be of greater use to men than in sweeping the streets?" and, "How dare you...to hold yourself as one alone and with the thoughts of the one and not of the many?" and "What is not thought by all men cannot be true." Equality 7-2521 is sentenced to die but he escapes into the forest that surrounds his small city with his girlfriend. Together they begin to re-discover what has been lost and make plans to re-build civilization. Symbolically, they re-discover the word "I" and begin to use it.

Anthem is written in dramatic broad strokes. It is over the top in many ways - but it makes its point even stronger - it is a warning against the collectivist ideologies, telling the reader that this is where those ideologies all end eventually, if they are unchecked. I am still not a fan of Rand's philosophy (Objectivism), but this is still a remarkable novella - a warning of what can go wrong with collectivism.

My book had an introduction by Leonard Piekoff, the founder of the Ayn Rand Institute. It also includes the original UK version of the story with Rand's handwritten edits. I found that mildly interesting but mostly ignored that section (fully half of the book).

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Anthem by Ayn Rand.

Reviewed on June 28, 2011.

The Legend of Bagger Vance: A Novel of Golf and the Game of Life by Steven Pressfield

'It's not about golf,' said the student to this teacher.

Steven Pressfield
The Legend of Bagger Vance: A Novel of Golf and the Game of Life was on the shelf in my classroom. I hadn't read it yet and was discussing it with one of my students who was looking for something to read. I had suggested it to him since he is a fan of many sports. He said he'd already read it. I told him I had not, since I am not a fan of golf. He looked at me like I was a small, silly child and said, 'It's not about golf.'

At that moment, I determined to read this book. So, this was my first free choice of a book this summer and I enjoyed it.

First things first. You do not have to understand golf to understand the book. The golf match is merely the vehicle to move the story forward. When Bagger Vance encourages his pupil to find his 'authentic swing' I simply inserted my own experiences with baseball to understand the feeling.

Secondly, the book is full of eastern philosophy. It's an interesting dichotomy - the American South during the Great Depression and Hinduism. Search 'Bhagavid-Gita, Bagger Vance' on the search engine of your choice and you'll find it laid out quite nicely on many, many sites.

So, my final grade: 4 stars. Not Pressfield's best work but still quite interesting and well done.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Legend of Bagger Vance: A Novel of Golf and the Game of Life by Steven Pressfield.

Reviewed on June 4, 2006.

The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (abridged audiobook) by Jane Smiley

An interesting look at the 1850s in the Kansas Territory through the eyes of a young woman.

Read by Mare Winningham.
Lasts about 5 hours.

John Brown
I purchased the abridged version of The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton on tape (5 hours) and found it to be quite enjoyable. The listener is treated to a ground level view of the politics of slavery in the 1850s and how violence based on the 'goose question' (code for the slavery issue) swept through households, towns and eventually the entire Kansas Territory.

Smiley's characters are not simple cardboard cutouts - some of the pro-slavery people are quite nice, some of the anti-slavery people are quite insane (she mentions 'Old Brown' and his atrocities and his actions cause some dissent in Liddie Newton's household).

Many readers have complained of the plodding pace. Although my version was abridged, there were still some plodding moments. However, the superb reading by Mare Winningham spared the listener from most of those moments. She is able to express so much emotion and humor with her voice that I found myself forgetting that Mare Winningham is a modern actress. She sounds like she is an older woman telling of her sad, profound trip through a bit of American history.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton by Jane Smiley.

Reviewed on May 30, 2006.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

Revealing. Fascinating. Educational. A valuable experience. A+++

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to see the world through the perspective of someone whose mind works much different than your own? How different? Do you want to visit a mind that has different opinions and points of view? What about someone whose mind works in a fundamentally different way than yours? How about someone whose mind perceives the world differently than almost everyone you have met in your entire life?

The wonderful thing about a work of fiction is that the reader can be transported into the mind of anyone and see the world as it might be seen from another's point of view. There are no constraints. Elizabeth Moon has done just that in her novel The Speed of Dark.
Elizabeth Moon

As it proceeds, The Speed of Dark does bring up many important themes and holds its own on matters such as the rights of the individual to be the person he or she wants to be, tolerance and the inherent value to society of people who think differently. Perhaps most importantly, she does give the reader just a taste of what it might be like to experience the world as a person with autism sees it.

Moon's motivations for attempting this novel are readily apparent. Moon has a son who is a young adult with autism. Already an established, award-winning author of science-fiction, Moon decided to put her investigative energies into learning as much as she could about autism and learning about the world as seen by people with autism. The result is The Speed of Dark, a fascinating novel featuring a man named Lou Arrendale living approximately 35 years in the future.

The strength of the book is that most of it is told from the first-person perspective of Lou, a man who has autism. Lou is very high functioning: he has an apartment, a job and good friends both in and out of the autistic community. He is entirely independent and is incredibly intelligent. Lou lives in a future in which autism has been cured. Children born with autism receive treatment when they are two years old and their brains develop and they are nearly indistinguishable from those that Lou calls `normals.'

However, Lou was too old to receive the treatment when it was developed. Instead, his parents made sure he was enrolled in the best training programs possible so that he could learn what was expected out of a member or society as a whole. Lou was a very good student and he learned to read the social cues that the `normals' pick up and send throughout the day. Rather than instantly recognizing them, Lou must recall them as isolated facts and respond to them with much thought since these gestures, facial expressions and idioms have no innate meaning to Lou. His experiences and confusion bring to mind the experiences of many foreign travelers who must re-learn all of the gestures and social cues of a new culture as they travel. On top of this, Lou struggles with the reality that normals expect him and his friends with autism to respond and behave `normally', even though normals themselves often do not behave normally.

We learn about Lou and his life and the difficult choice he must make when he is offered the chance to change his life forever and take a part in an experimental surgery to make his brain 'normal.' Guaranteed to make you think.

One of the best books I have read  - period.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5. Highly recommended.

This book can be found in multiple formats on Amazon.com here: The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon.

Reviewed on May 29, 2006.

The King of Torts (audiobook) by John Grisham

Grisham continues with a trend previously established

Published by Random House Audio in 2003.
Read by Michael Beck
Duration: 11 hours, 43 minutes.

Grisham's The King of Torts continues the trend that he started in other books such as The Chamber and The Runaway Jury. The book isn't really about the characters or the plot. Instead, it's a easy to swallow education into how the legal system actually works.

In The Chamber the reader sees how death penalty cases work in detail. In The Runaway Jury the readers sees how a civil jury trial works in detail - from selection of the court venue to clothing worn by the attorneys to jury selection specialists.

In The King of Torts we learn all about how the class action lawsuit works. Ever wonder how former presidential candidate John Edwards made his money? This book well give you a good idea. Grisham argues all sides of the class action lawsuit as he tells the story. It can help and hurt the little guy. It can enrich an attorney, but that's not entirely a bad thing since he's put money into telling people about bad products that injured them with no promise of an actual payoff. It can wipe out businesses, but if you've put a bad product out there why shouldn't you be hurt? Then again, wiping out a bad business still puts a lot of people out of work through no fault of their own.

Grisham argues all sides and leaves the reader to make up his or her own mind. It was a wonderful education, well-read by Michael Beck who created dozens of voices for his narration. However, the actual story was less than satisfying. The plot seemed to meander around with pointless interludes that did little to advance the plot but did take up lots of time. I gave it 3 stars - 5 for the education averaged with just 1 star for the plot. It's worth a listen, but only for the education.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: The King of Torts

Reviewed on November 29, 2008.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

An enjoyable read but does it do what it claims to do?

Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking is an enjoyable read - I breezed right through it and found it to be a book that I would look forward to opening up. Gladwell does a masterful job of weaving together 3 or more points at the same time without losing the reader and frequently leaving me amazed at his organizational skills.
Malcolm Gladwell

That being said, does Blink get the job done? Does he prove his thesis about "The power of thinking without thinking"? Yes and no. He starts out with a great example of a supposed piece of Greek art that may or may not be a real piece of ancient art. His thesis plays out well there, with his comments on why certain musicians make it and others don't and his comments on police and the need to think quickly are all strong.

His arguments about Paul Van Riper and the war game he won, however, were more about the power of de-centralized decision-making versus centralized planning, in my opinion. Nonetheless, it's a good read and well worth your time.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

Reviewed on December 6, 2008.

"J" is for Judgment (Kinsey Millhone #10) by Sue Grafton

Hits the spot

So, here I am reviewing an 18 year old Sue Grafton novel. What does this tell me? It could be telling me that I need to find more current things to read, but I remember 1993 just fine so this book did not feel old to me. What it really tells me is that I have not come anywhere near reading this series in alphabetical order and have never went out of my way to find them. Not that I don't like them - I have liked all but a couple. It is more like they have been my backup books when I'm needing something that I know is going to be solidly written and interesting.

In this case, I am knee deep in my summer reading marathon in which I feel I need to catch up on a bit of some of my more difficult reads in my to-be-read pile. Now, wait. I know that the Kinsey Millhone series hardly qualifies as difficult reading. This book was an easy one in the middle - dessert, so to speak.

Sue Grafton
"J" is for Judgment features Kinsey Millhone's search for a man who was presumed to have committed suicide because of a horrible financial situation by throwing himself off of a boat at sea. But, years later, he is spotted at a resort city in Mexico. Kinsey Millhone is hired by the insurance company to go and find him, if she can so that they can get their money back - you don't pay out a life insurance policy for a guy who is not dead.

Kinsey heads off to Mexico and, of course, opens up a whole can of worms. She also, incidentally, gets herself involved in one of the funnier scenes that I have read for a while in a neighbor's hotel room. In a separate storyline, this is the book in which Kinsey discovers her long lost relatives.

Rather than insert a lot of spoilers, let me say that "J" is for Judgment hit the spot - a good mystery, a chance to re-connect with Kinsey Millhone and a couple of good laughs along the way.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: "J" is for Judgment (Kinsey Millhone #10) by Sue Grafton.

Reviewed on June 27, 2011.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Where Lincoln Walked by Raymond Bial

Great introduction to Lincoln for children

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
Where Lincoln Walked is a wonderful little history mostly about Lincoln's pre-Presidential life. Lots of beautifully shot full color pictures of such places as Lincoln's mother's home in Kentucky, Lincon's boyhood home in southern Indiana and his law offices in Springfield. The author, Raymond Bial, took most of these pictures himself. He has a good eye for photography and does a great job with the text and the captions.

Recommended for budding young history buffs, classrooms and the hardcore Lincoln collectors.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Where Lincoln Walked.

Reviewed on December 6, 2008.

Angels Flight (Harry Bosch #6) (audiobook) by Michael Connelly

Race is an issue in this great mystery

Published by Hachette Audio
Read by Dick Hill
Duration: 10 hours, 55 minutes.

Michael Connelly
Angels Flight, an early installment in the Harry Bosch series, is as good as the rest in the series meaning, at least in my mind, it is a proud member of one of the best set of detective novels currently being produced.

Michael Connelly's books are usually deep and gritty and this one is no different. The lead character is Harry Bosch, the leader of a 3 detective team in the LAPD that is assigned an unusually sensitive case. A well-known civil rights attorney that has successfully sued LAPD over and over again for violations of federal civil rights laws has been murdered on the eve of an especially notorious case against the LAPD. Of course, everyone inside LAPD and out believe that a police officer killed him in a fit of revenge and the city is seething.

Set just a few years after the Rodney King riots and the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Los Angeles is racially tense, to say the least. This works well with one of the main themes of the entire series - Harry Bosch's name. Harry's real name is Hieronymus Bosch. If you are not familiar with Hieronymus Bosch let me explain. The real Hieronymus Bosch is a Renaissance painter that painted detailed and fanciful paintings of the torments of hell, including demons, strange creatures and their victims. Connelly often presents Harry Bosch as a man walking among the sites and smells of hell - torture, betrayal, riots and the literal burning of parts of the city in protest are the backdrop of this moody, brooding book.

Connelly deftly handles the tricky topic of racial discrimination and issues of black and white in this book. While the case is being worked race tints every aspect of the case - Black vs. White vs. Blue (LAPD) is a frequent topic that is discussed - not overtly but neatly inserted as conversations that flow quite naturally in the context of the story.

I heard this book as an audiobook and it was truly a joy to hear Dick Hill's narration. He's done several of Connelly's novels and I've never been disappointed with any that he's narrated. He is as good as it gets.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Angels Flight by Michael Connelly.

Reviewed on December 19, 2008.

The Last Stand of Fox Company: A True Story of U.S. Marines in Combat by Bob Drury

A slow start but don't let that deter you

Although I am a history teacher, I have to admit that I am woefully under-informed on the Korean War - at least when compared to our other wars. Sadly, I am not alone in this fact - there's a reason why the Korean War is called "The Forgotten War".

Drury and Clavin start off slowly, in part because there is no context as to why the soldiers are marching around in the subzero weather in northern Korea. However, once they explain the purpose of this particular campaign in the war as a whole and show the reader a few maps I got a lot more comfortable with how they were telling the story and appreciated it a lot more.

Marines during the Chosin Campaign in the Korean War
The Last Stand of Fox Company: A True Story of U.S. Marines in Combat is not a fancy history - it is told from the ground level perspective of the the Marines on the hill and is full of tales of bodily fluids, men too young to actually join the Marines, frozen toes, poor equipment and a command structure that not only failed to realize the Chinese Army had entered the war, but failed to realize that a few thousand Marines were up against tens of thousands of those same Chinese soldiers.

Highly recommended for those who enjoy a "Band of Brothers" type perspective on the war. This book is not a general history but I'd suggest it as a companion to any general history in order to get that gritty feel of the front line perspective - the point of view of the men who actually fought the war.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: The Last Stand of Fox Company: A True Story of U.S. Marines in Combat.

Reviewed on December 19, 2008.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins

  Fascinating. Disturbing. Inspirational.

Alexandra Robbins
The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids is a fascinating investigation into the lives of some of America's top students - the kids who want to do it all and oftentimes do, but at great personal cost and for dubious reasons.

Alexandra Robbins befriends and follows several students from Whitman High School in Maryland through one school year as they try their best to score perfect 1600s and 2400s on the SATs, be accepted into Ivy League schools and pad their resumes to impress the admissions officers with tons of extracurriculur activities (one student she interviewed had SIX typewritten pages of extracurricular activities!).

Robbins intersperses research and interesting facts with her stories of the students and discusses the unhealthy obsession with perfection and how the true values of education (knowledge, exploration, wisdom, self-discovery to name a few) is often subverted in the name test numbers, be they SAT, ACT or No Child Left Behind tests. 

She correctly notes that honesty and any actual learning is routinely sacrificed for the GPA points due to widespread cheating, especially by the good and even great students. I've been teaching for 19 years now and I've never encountered so much cheating (and plagiarism) as I have in the last three years. It's rarely the weak students - the ones that outsiders would suspect. Nope - it's the good students - the ones with so much riding on maintaining super-high GPAs that they cannot afford even one bad quiz.

The students ring true to me. I know kids like she's profiled here - the flirt, the Slacker, AP Frank, the Meathead, the Superstar. They come from a variety of homes and financial situations (though most are upper class - money does not seem to be a worry for most of them).

I hope that Alexandra Robbins turns her talents to documenting other groups of kids in schools someday, but in the meantime this is a fine and thought-provoking introduction to the modern American high school.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on December 19, 2008.

Update: I am now in year 30 of my teaching career. The comment on cheating is still true - even more so with the advent of smart phones. Students can take a picture of an assignment and "airdrop" it to everyone in class with little effort. They can text it to friends in other classrooms or even post it on Instagram (if it is a textbook-based assignment it is on Instagram). 
This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Beowulf by Gareth Hinds

A strong and relatively short re-telling of the classic tale

Gareth Hinds
If you are like me and are well read, are mildly interested in Beowulf but just plain lack the desire to read a 3000-line long medieval poem, this volume may be the answer. I plowed through this graphic novel in about a half an hour and certainly was entertained and a bit more enlightened as to the tone and nature of the Beowulf saga.

I was aware of the outlines of the first two sections of this story which are about the battle against Grendel and the battle against Grendel's mother. I was totally unaware of the story of Beowulf's death from the fight against a dragon.

To his credit, Gareth Hinds includes sections of a translation of the original text to narrate his text. Hinds' artwork is fantastic, especially his renderings of the beasts that Beowulf fights.

Does it replace the original? No, of course not. But, it's a pretty good stopgap substitute and its pretty darned entertaining.

I rate this graphic novel 4 stars out of 5.

This graphic novel can be found on Amazon.com here: Beowulf.

Reviewed on December 20, 2008

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Marvel 1602 by Neal Gaiman

Didn't do much for me

Marvel 1602 just didn't do much for me, which is surprising since I'm a casual comics fan but a serious reader of history. I figured (correctly) that there'd be no problem taking superheroes into a different time period. But I also figured (incorrectly) that the story would be more interesting and have more of a focus.

Lack of focus is really the problem I have with the series. Is it a spy novel in which the familiar superheroes are involved in a complicated web of deceit and danger? Yes and no. Is there more than that and the entire world (actually every universe) is threatened with destruction and everyone must bring their unique talents to save the day?

Yes. It degenerates into that. Degenerates? Yes. Degenerates. Every character is brought into the fray and the storyline is muddied by bringing everyone in for a token cameo and the whole story becomes an over-the-top "jump the shark" type of plot usually reserved for aging and decrepit series that can't seem to drum up interest unless the stakes are the salvation of the universe itself. Puh-leaze! Gimme a break.

While beautifully drawn, I lost interest as even more characters were brought into the storyline. There was precious little character development after the first 3 parts of this 8 part volume. Plus, what's up with the dinosaurs? Why are dinosaurs wandering around?

I rate this collection 2 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Marvel 1602 by Neal Gaiman

Reviewed on December 22, 2008.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Quantum (abridged audiobook) by Tom Grace

So-so effort

Duration: approximately 3 hours
Read by Jerry O'Connell

For once this was an abridgment to an audiobook in which I didn't feel like something important was left out.

Unfortunately, the plot and the characters in Quantum were only so-so. Jerry O'Connell read the story - and at first I thought that would be a big plus since I've liked most of the stuff that he has done. However, this time I was not impressed. Not his best work.

Nolan Kilkenny, who should be known as 'the one man army' based on his unstoppable one man's (a former Navy SEAL) performances against several teams of battle-tested, better-armed former Russian Special Forces throughout the book, is a tiresome character. Many of the supporting characters were much more interesting and I would have preferred it if some of them would have had a greater role throughout the book.

If you are a fan of Tom Clancy and want something that is similar (but not as well done) to hold you over until the next Clancy book, this may fit the bill.

This audiobook can be purchased on Amazon here:  Quantum

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on May 23, 2006

Out of Season: An Undersheriff Bill Gastner Mystery (#7) by Steven F. Havill

Well depicted characters make this one a winner!

The mystery is not all that mysterious. No international criminal ring threatens. National Security and the fate of the free world do not depend on what happens in Posadas County, New Mexico and its tired and ready to retire Undersheriff Bill Gastner. That, of course, is the charm and strength of Out of Season.

Posadas County, New Mexico's small sheriff''s department suffers the loss of its well-intentioned but inexperienced Sheriff in a plane accident - except it looks like it was not an accident after all - the pilot was shot before he crashed. Undersheriff Gastner looks into the private investigation that the Sheriff was looking into and finds that his inexperienced boss may have had good instincts after all.

First, let me praise what Havill does best in this book - character development. Gastner is a tired old horse who is ready to go out to pasture but when duty calls the value of his years of experience (more than anything else) move Federal, state and local authorities towards finding out who has killed Sheriff Martin Holmann. He is a restraining hand on the young pups, a prod to the confused and a sounding board to the others.

This is my first Havill book. You do not have to start the series at the beginning and I give this one 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Out of Season: An Undersheriff Bill Gastner Mystery

Reviewed on May 23, 2006.

Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

As an adult fan of both Barry and Pearson I couldn't resist picking this one up...

Dave Barry
Dave Barry has long been a favorite of mine and Ridley Pearson is on my list of writers to look for as well so when I saw that they had taken on the Peter Pan storyline and created a prequel,  I knew that I just had to read it.

Happily, I was not disappointed. This is fun, escapist fiction at its best. The book works on multiple levels - adults will understand several double entendres while kids will love the quick pace and high adventure.

Ridley Pearson
The plot revolves around a group of people called Starcatchers, people who collect starstuff, glowing magical stuff that falls from the sky and makes the people that use it superhuman. Michelangelo, Attila the Hun and Zeus are all historical figures that have found and used starstuff. The Starcatchers try to capture it to keep it out of the hands of evil people.

I am more than happy to recommend this one to readers of all ages. Well done Barry and Pearson.

This is the first of the Starcatchers Series.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.

Reviewed on May 17, 2006.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Crooked Man by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

Great potential but fails to deliver

A Crooked Man features U.S. Senator Nick Schlafer who has proposed to de-criminalize drugs across the United States. Soon afterwards he is caught up in a confusing maelstrom of drug power players who may or may not want the bill to be passed, including the Drug Czar and mafia-types.

Schlafer's difficulties are complicated by a messy family background, inlcluding a daughter whom police believe slit her wrists while high on drugs. Family politics and national politics become intertwined and the book really starts to lose its focus. Schlafer is confused about who to trust and family secrets are exposed that shake him to his foundations. However, so many different things are going on that Lehmann-Haupt does a poor job of keeping all of the strands moving forward in a credible and meaningful way.

While a breeze to read, I was not terribly impressed.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: A Crooked Man by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt.

Reviewed on May 11, 2006.

Thereby Hangs A Tail (A Chet and Bernie Mystery #2) by Spencer Quinn

The Second in a Nifty Series

I read the first book in the Chet and Bernie series as part of the Amazon Vine program, meaning I was given a pre-publication copy of the book for free. I thought the series had a good hook to it (Chet is a dog, his owner Bernie Little is a private detective - the only detective in the Little Detective Agency. The story is told entirely from the point of view of Chet) but I doubted it would have staying power. I am pleased to say that I was mistaken - not only does this series have legs, but each of the two follow up stories are better than the original.

Chet is a completely trained police dog who will only say that he washed "out on the very last day, a long story, but it's not secret that a cat was involved!" Bernie and Chet are now partners in the best sense of the word - Chet often is well on his way to solving the mystery before Bernie has anything figured out due to his superior sense of smell and hearing, but it is so hard for a dog to explain things to humans (and sometimes Chet does not even know he has solved it because it is so hard for dogs to concentrate and use those higher level thinking skills).

Spencer Quinn and his dog
In Thereby Hangs a Tail, Chet and Bernie are hired to protect a prize-winning tiny dog as she competes in a dog show. But, Chet's enthusiasm and impulsiveness when it comes to dog treats causes the prissy owner to fire Chet and Bernie, only to be kidnapped hours later. Her husband hires the Little Detective Agency to find both the owner and the dog and that's when things start to get real complicated....

This is a truly fun series. I hope that Spencer Quinn keeps up the high quality and the great insights into dog behavior and psychology as he continues to tell Chet and Bernie's stories.

Click on the 'Spencer Quinn' or 'Chet and Bernie' tags below to see my reviews on books 1 and 3 in the series.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Thereby Hangs A Tail (A Chet and Bernie Mystery #2) by Spencer Quinn.

Reviewed June 20, 2011.