"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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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship (audiobook)by Tom Ryan

A story of a man and his dog and so much more

Read by the author, Tom Ryan
Duration: 9 and 1/2 hours.
Published: 2011 by Harper Audio

At first glance, this is a simple book: A man gets a dog and the dog changes his life. This is true, but this book is so much more than that. Tom Ryan has written a deep, thoughtful book about a man and his dog, but also about a man and his work, fathers and sons, the relationship between man and nature and men and women. In short, this book about a little dog and a lot of hikes in the woods is also a book about life itself.

Tom Ryan is the editor of the upstart newspaper the Undertoad in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He has a full life with plenty of friends, a fulfilling job and all of the challenges of a small business. An exceptional elderly dog comes into his life and he realizes he has been missing some things, especially companionship and love. When that dog passes away, Ryan quickly buys another and he and his new dog, Atticus M. Finch, quickly bond. They literally go everywhere together - board meetings, restaurants, nature walks, business meetings.

Those nature walks grow into full blown hikes up to the peaks of New Hampshire's 48 4,000 foot tall peaks. Tom and Atticus become consumed by the desire to climb all 48 of them and they quickly become the least likely pair to ever accomplish this feat: a middle aged overweight man with no experience and his 20 pound miniature schnauzer. Tom and Atticus roam these mountain peaks seeking the solitude of his thoughts and an escape from the pressures of running his newspaper.

Sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes profoundly sad, Tom Ryan's memoir of their adventures is more than just the tale of their adventures - it is also the tale of his difficult relationship with his father, the difficulties of loosing friends to cancer, the joys of nature, and a running commentary on many of New England's most famous authors and their thoughts on the natural world. I literally knew nothing about New Hampshire's 48 peaks (or schnauzers - I am a beagle man myself, although we currently have a Jack Russell terrier/beagle mix) and I really don't have a lot in common with Tom Ryan. But, he took me into a whole new world and made it alive for me as I drove back and forth across my city this week and for that, I have to thank him. It makes for a fascinating book and one that I am pleased to recommend to all readers (or listeners), not just dog lovers.

Tom Ryan narrated the book and I am glad that he choose to read it himself rather than hiring a professional reader. Usually, the author-as-narrator is, at best, a mixed bag. In this case, Ryan's New England accent made the story work all the better (I love regional accents!) and he is quite adept at portraying the emotions of the moment in his voice. I cannot imagine how it could have been performed any better by a professional and I recommend the audiobook version over the printed version because of his performance and what it adds.

Tom Ryan updates the world on his adventures with Atticus on his blog "The Adventures of Tom and Atticus."

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: 
Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship

Reviewed on October 29, 2011.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Tomb of the Ten Thousand Dead (audiobook) by L. Ron Hubbard

Three solid adventure stories

Multicast Performance with music and sound effects
Duration: 2 hours, 2 minutes.
Published by Galaxy Press

Tomb of the Ten Thousand Dead is part of a large series of books and stories that are being re-published by Galaxy Press as part of their Golden Age Stories series. In reality, they are a collection of L. Ron Hubbard's early works that were published in magazines and as pulp fiction books. Hubbard was a prolific writer and he wrote a lot of action stories that translate quite well into the multicast performance audiobook format.

This edition features 3 short stories. The first is Tomb of the Ten Thousand Dead, the story of a team of freelance archaeologists that are searching for a lost treasure of Alexander the Great in what is now southern Pakistan. When a down on his luck pilot and a local guide find the map, well, who knows what they will find?

The second story, Price of a Hat, is the weakest. It is set in Siberia at the end of World War I when the major powers invaded in an attempt to weaken the new Communist government. The story features a distinctive Russian hat that everyone is searching for.

The third story was my favorite. Starch and Stripes is set in the heyday of America's Gunboat Diplomacy period. The U.S. Marines are involved in a pacification campaign against a local warlord. Just when they think they have the perfect trap for him, several Senators and a general are on their way for an inspection tour that threatens the entire operation.

The multicast aspect makes these stories very entertaining - very much like the old-time radio shows that were popular when these stories were written. Makes for very compelling listening.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Tomb of the Ten Thousand Dead.

Reviewed on October 23, 2011.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe (audiobook) by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

A glimpse behind the veil in Taliban-held Afghanistan

Read by Sarah Zimmerman
Duration: 6 hours, 16 minutes
Publisher: Harper Audio, 2011

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon had an interest in how women survive in male-dominated war zones. In the modern world, the war zone is, all too often, not a distant battlefield, but instead includes cities, small towns and plenty of women and children. She was interested in the types of businesses women might open in order to feed their families and she was given the name of Kamila Sidiqi, a college-educated woman who lived through the Taliban invasion of Kabul.

Kamila Sidiqi (right)
Kamila Sidiqi considered fleeing to Pakistan or Iran but decided that she would stay in Kabul with most of her family. Women were mostly confined to their homes, unless accompanied by a male "minder" to do the shopping. They were certainly not supposed to attend school, have a job or own a business. Kamila Sidiqi does all of these things during the Taliban occupation, and of course her dressmaking business is the true topic of the book. Through a combination of prudence, grit and diplomacy she is able to open a dressmaking business and add employee after employee in her home-based factory. She is the CEO, the head salesman and a quiet spokesperson for women's rights in an environment that treats women more like cattle than equals.

Kamila Sidiqi's story is inspiring, even if Lemmon's telling of it is understated. Sarah Zimmerman's narration adds a surprising depth to the story, invoking a sense of warmth as she reads.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

Reviewed on October 22, 2011

Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons

An Eye-Opening Book - A Must for Parents and Teachers

Published in 2011 by Mariner Books.
This is revised and updated from the 2002 edition.

Rachel Simmons' Odd Girl Out helped open up a mostly hidden world for me, a dad and 22 year teacher. Sure, I have lots of experience dealing with kids, but I was missing some of this subtle meanness because I am a guy and the minds of  most guys just don't work this way.

Since Simmons completed her original work she has become a teacher and she can now add the perspective of an outsider to the tone of her original book which was based on a series of interviews with girls from around the country in a variety of schools.  The basic concept of the book is that girls bully one another in a way that goes under the radar in schools and at home. Unlike the overt taunting and physical violence that often happens in male bullying, girl bullying is more sly and includes such actions as shunning, sharing secrets, building alliances of friends against other girls and more.

Simmons provides personal stories that illustrate her points - these are the product of hours and hours of interviews with groups of girls and individuals and even her own experiences (she was bullied - an experience she vividly remembered and she also participated in a bullying, an experience she had forgotten, but was vividly remembered by her victim). The book is immensely readable and tragically depressing - it is the most profound and the saddest book I have read this year. It has given me  more clarity on the experiences of my daughter and of the girls in my classroom.

While these actions are not nearly as visible as overt classical male-type bullying, they can be just as devastating because the very people that these girls trust the most end up betraying them. Simmons includes a helpful "What to do if..." type guide for parents and for teachers that is organized by topic.

Rachel Simmons
Simmons and I disagree as to the root causes for this style of bullying. She consistently blames American culture's expectations for how "good girls" behave which means that aggression and  disagreement are shunted into less overt channels because good girls do not argue, do not fight and do not bring up unpleasant topics of conversation. That may well be true, but the only way to determine it would be to undertake research like she has done here in other cultures. She thinks she has done this by looking at Hispanic and African American girls in a couple of schools, but as a teacher who has spent half of my career in urban school districts, I think she has missed the mark on that one. I think that it may be more of an innate thing in girls. In some girls, the need to keep a relationship, even a hurtful one, may be more important than the need to live without fear. Of course, my thoughts also would need to be proven in cross-cultural studies.

Regardless, this book is a must-read for parents, teachers and administrators.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Odd Girl Out.

Reviewed on October 22, 2011.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Most Dangerous Thing (audiobook) by Laura Lippman

A different kind of book

Read by Linda Emond
Duration: 10 hours, 45 minutes
Published by Harper Audio.

Laura Lippman's The Most Dangerous Thing is a superbly deep character study that looks into the lives of 5 suburban children in the 1970s and follows them into the present. These kids are the best of friends for a couple of summers. They consist of three brothers, a beautiful tomboy and a chubby girl who blossoms. They come from three different families, go to three different schools but all live in the suburban neighborhood of Dickeyville, near Baltimore. They spend hours exploring the woods near their neighborhood and what they find there becomes part of a secret that eventually drives the least stable member of their quintet to commit suicide as an adult decades later.

Laura Lippman
As the friends gather for the funeral the secret is slowly drawn out for the reader through a series of flashbacks (through the eyes of all five of the friends and their parents) and current time discussions. The characters are developed in extraordinary detail, which can be frustrating because the book seems to go nowhere, but eventually it does pay off - family secrets are exposed and the true faces of some characters finally come to light. Along the way, Lippman delivers some interesting observations about family life, relationships between men and women and careers. Well worth your time.

Narrator Linda Emond did a great job with a variety of different accents, ages and characters, including the same characters decades apart.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: The Most Dangerous Thing by Laura Lippman.

Reviewed on October 20, 2011.

Sherman: The Ruthless Victor by Agostino Von Hassell and Ed Breslin

A troubling biography.

Thomas Nelson Publishers has stepped out and published an attractive series of short biographies of American generals - all nicely bound and immensely readable. But, I found Sherman: The Ruthless Victor to be more than a little troubling for what really amounts to just a few sentences in a 163 page book.

Clearly von Hassell and Breslin are not writing this biography as fans of Sherman - they dislike the man as a person and do not respect his accomplishments on the battlefield. That is fine. I can live with a negative biography of an historical figure, but this book has moments that stretch the limits of responsible biography. For example, on page 22 the authors note that Sherman's difficult childhood may have caused strains in his relationships with his wife and his children. Reasonable assumption. But, then they go on to say that his "revulsion from scenes of domestic happiness" caused him to be particularly rough on the South during the Civil War. Why? "The South, unfortunately, presented such scenes in abundance. This prevalent and blissful state of domesticity seems to have ignited in Sherman a gratuitous pyromania, justified within himself as an exigency of war."

Really? The man went insane and burned the South because it was home to lots of happy families?

Sherman near Atlanta in 1864
This is scholarship at its worst - psychoanalysis of a patient 135 years in the past. It calls into question much of the rest of their analysis of Sherman's thoughts and motives. Later in the book they acknowledge that Sherman's use of slash and burn warfare against civilian populations was probably adapted from the Seminole War that he participated in right after he left West Point, not due to pyromania inspired by hatred of familial bliss. But, the damage to his reputation was already done. His style of warfare is a perfectly debatable topic - in fact it was so brutal that it should be discussed, but they set it up so poorly that there cannot be any debate - Sherman did it because he was crazy. End of discussion.

Another problem - on page 81 the authors were discussing pre-Bull Run conditions in D.C. in 1861 and how impatient the men were to fight. They write: "...they were ready to return home and that if an attack was not launched soon, they would simply defect." I looked up defect in several online dictionaries to see if it meant more than what I thought it meant and, like I thought, all indicated that defecting was leaving one side for its opposition (leaving the Democrats to join the Republicans or leaving the old USSR for the USA). Can you imagine that tens of thousands of Union volunteers wanted to fight so badly that they would join the Confederates just for the chance to fight? That is a serious error due to a simple incorrect word choice - I assume they meant to use "desert" rather than defect.

Like I noted, this is not a bad biography except for a few words here and there amounting to less than a paragraph, really. They should have been caught in the editing process but they were not. Too bad - there was a lot of good information here but those few words change the tone and quality of the text so much that I cannot recommend this biography.

I received this copy of the book from Thomas Nelson publishers as part of the BookSneeze program in exchange for an honest review.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Sherman: The Ruthless Victor.

Reviewed on October 20, 2011.

Act of Deceit (Harlan Donnally #1) by Steven Gore

A very busy book that just didn't do it for me.

I enjoyed meeting retired detective Harlan Donnally who was forced to retire due to an injury sustained during a shootout. He goes about his business with a battered body but a world class commitment to following the trail to wherever it leads.

But, the book has so many twists and turns that it felt like the author was whipsawing the story around just build an artificial sense of tension. We start out with an investigation that dates back to the Haight Ashbury Summer of Love movement in San Francisco but the investigation soon veers into other territory: Catholic priest sex abuse and international sex trafficking as well as the dynamics of the dysfunctional relationship between a father and son. The first part was interesting to me, the last part - old and tired territory.

Gore notes at the end of the book that his wife is involved in investigating Catholic priest sex abuse accusations in the San Francisco area, which is the inspiration for involving that angle in this story. However, I for one am tired of having that brought into so many stories. Was every priest a pedophile? Hardly, but you wouldn't know it from the bestseller list.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on October 20, 2011.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sky Birds Dare! (audiobook) by L. Ron Hubbard

Lots of Fun!

Duration: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Multicast Performance
Published by Galaxy Press

First published in 1936, Sky Birds Dare! is part of a large series of books and stories that are being re-published by Galaxy Press as part of their Golden Age Stories series. In reality, they are a collection of L. Ron Hubbard's early works that were published in magazines and as pulp fiction books. Hubbard was a prolific writer and he wrote a lot of action stories that translate quite well into the multicast performance audiobook format.

Sky Birds Dare! is the story of Breeze Callahan, a young glider pilot who is convinced that the U.S. military's pilots could learn a lot from learning how to pilot gliders before they fly motorized aircraft. A glider is like a small plane that has no engine and is towed into the air by a motorized plane or by a car with a rope (much like a person running with a kite trailing behind). Callahan and his mentor Pop Donegon are thwarted over and over again by Badger O'Dowell, a rival that wants to sell the military his conventional motorized training planes.

This is not a subtle story - there are no shades of grey. But, it is a fun story and there is plenty of adventure, danger and brawling - all of which was surprisingly entertaining for me, a listener with absolutely no experience with flying a plane. Hubbard's extensive experience as a glider pilot shines through as he explains it all while telling the story. I was particularly intrigued by his suggestion that gliders could be used to insert soldiers behind enemy lines. We did that 8 years after he published this story during the D-Day invasion in June of 1944.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on October 19, 2011.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Germline (The Subterrene War, Book 1) (audiobook) by T.C. McCarthy.


Read by Donald Corren
Duration: Approximately 9 hours.
Published by Blackstone Audio, 2011.

T.C. McCarthy’s Germline is a non-stop military techno-adventure set in the middle of a war in Central Asia in the 22nd century. Russia and the United States are fighting over the resources of Kazakhstan. It turns out that Kazakhstan is rich in rare metals that are needed for the 22nd century’s technological devices. They have to be mined deep in the mountains of Kazakhstan and the mines, countryside, little villages and cities of Central Asia become battlefields.

Oscar Wendell is a washed-up, drug-addicted reporter for Stars and Stripes. He is the only reporter in the entire theater of war and he is not quite sure how he was picked over better-known reporters. But, he is determined to make the best of his opportunity, already envisioning the Pulitzer Prize as the world’s biggest story unfolds in his lap. He is given some very basic training sent to the front, attached to a unit and outfitted with the latest gear – a self-contained mechanized body suit that provides heat or cooling and even has a rather gruesome system of self-contained waste disposal.

T.C. McCarthy
I mention that system because this book excels at putting the reader (in my case, listener) at the ground level – what famed World War II reporter Ernie Pyle called the “worm’s eye view.” McCarthy’s characters are vivid, earthy and exposed to one insane situation after another – which they can only respond to by going crazy themselves. Some decide to drug themselves, some decide to retreat into themselves, some decide die in battle and others kill themselves. The wide-ranging battlefield leads Wendell from one complicated scenario to another as he drops all pretense of being a reporter and simply fights alongside the men he was supposed to be covering – not because he believes in the cause but because he is so tied to these men that he can that he cannot leave them.

An added dimension is America’s introduction of genetically modified soldiers – all identical and all grown from a test tube and all 16 to 18 year old females (the males were too aggressive) who have been raised in an environment that worships death and sacrifice. Their bodies are programmed to begin to die at the beginning of their 18th year. The title of the book, Germline, comes from a slang term for the military program that developed these super soldiers. Soon, the Russians have their own genetically modified soldiers (all males) and the war takes on a whole new face. Wendell decides to get close to an American “genetic” and soon finds himself falling for her despite the overt prejudice against them.

Donald Corren reads Germline and he does a great job of covering an amazing number of accents. His voice characterization of Oscar Wendell is perfect – he is loose and jaded and wound too tight all at the same time. The only problem was his inexplicable mispronunciation of the word “corpsmen” – he pronounced it “corzman” when it is pronounced "coreman".

This is a roller coaster of a read. The technology is advanced, but this is not a gizmo-based story. Instead, it is character-driven story and it is well worth the read. It is the first in a trilogy about the war that is supposed to follow the separate experiences of three different characters that interact briefly in all of the books but have their own stories.

I rate this audiobbook 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Germline (The Subterrene War, Book 1)

Reviewed on September 26, 2011.

Click here to see the review of the second book in the series, Exogene.

Fyodor Dostoevsky by Peter Leithart

A tepid introduction to Dostoevsky

Published in 2011 by Thomas Nelson.

I freely admit to knowing only the barest of details about Fyodor Dostoevsky before starting this book. I was aware of the arguments of some of his works and am familiar with the broad strokes Tsarist Russian politics before the Revolution.

I picked up this book after becoming intrigued with some of Dostoevsky's ideas while reading a book by A Point in Time by David Horowitz. Horowitz quotes extensively from Dostoevsky and talks about his thoughts about evil in the world, God's place in the world, if there is one. Sadly, I learned more about Dostoevsky's philosophy from Horowitz than I did from this slender biography dedicated to the man.

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)
Don't get me wrong, this is a solid little book to learn about the details of his personal life, but it suffers from the lack of in-depth discussion about his ideas and the use of reconstructed conversations throughout that really makes it much more like a piece of well-researched historical fiction than like a true biography.

I received a copy of this book at no cost from Thomas Nelson publishers in exchange for an honest review of the work.

I rate this biography 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on October 8, 2011.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam Is Dying Too) by David P. Goldman

An interesting, disorganized read

Published 2011 by Regnery Publishing

David P. Goldman's Why Civilizations Die is an ambitious study in demographics, history and cultural legacy that attempts to predict the future of Western Europe, the Middle East and the United States. In a way it is a less humorous  version of Mark Steyn's After America, except that Goldman takes in the same data and comes up with radically different conclusions.

Goldman is writes a monthly column under the pseudonym of Spengler at Asia Times Online, a fact that Goldman assumes his readers know before they open the book and a fact I did not know (it's on the dust cover, but I had set aside the dust cover). I kept wondering who Spengler was and why Goldman was quoting him so liberally and did not get the joke until the second-to-last page of the book. Throw in a chaotically arranged beginning to the book with lots of wonderful points arranged in an apparently random fashion and this reader was frustrated for the first 50 pages or so.

But, somewhere in the middle some wonderful observations and themes start to come together and Goldman really hits his stride. There are powerful observations about why religious faith has all but died in Europe, why fertility rates will fall farther and faster in many Muslim countries (this is the crux of his disagreement with Steyn who gets only the briefest of mentions, but whose arguments are referred to throughout) and why this fall in fertility is a crisis in countries like Iran is a serious crisis that must be managed with a deft hand. He includes more than enough statistics, charts and analysis to drive his point home. I would love to listen to a debate between Steyn and Goldman on this topic.

Almost as an aside, Goldman makes a brilliant set of arguments as to why the United States was truly created in the Judeo-Christian cultural mold and how that worldview is causing America to avoid the fertility crisis that will de-stabilize many other countries. I truly hope that Goldman's next book is an in-depth look at that heritage, why it matters and how it affects us.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. I have to take off a point for the chaotic start. Once I got through the rough start it was a tour de force.

Reviewed on October 6, 2011.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

An entertaining superhero story with a twist

Published 2011 by Tor.

Imagine if your parents were both legendary superheroes and you have no super powers at all. In fact, the closest you have come to being physically heroic is winning a silver medal at a high school swim meet.They have been "outed" and everyone knows them by their regular identities and as superheroes and you are a frequent target of various supercriminals who kidnap you to try to influence your parents. It happens so often that it would be funny if it wasn't interrupting your attempt to blend in, be normal and succeed in your career as an accountant.

Carrie Vaughn
That's the premise of After the Golden Age, a book that promises a superhero story with a twist and delivers. Celia West is a promising young accountant whose parents are the larger-than-life superhero duo of Captain Olympus and Spark. He's a Superman knock off with the nasty attitude and wealth of Batman. She creates fire at will. They have founded Commerce City's version of the Justice League. They are legends. They are beloved. They are just so-so parents and Celia has major issues with her parents.

Celia has tried to distance herself from her parents but the trial of a supercriminal has demanded her skills as a forensic accountant. As she digs and digs in the records of the case she may have discovered information that no one wants disclosed about the origins of both the superheroes and the supercriminals as her love life heats up, a new type of crime wave is sweeping the city and the mayor begins a crackdown on the vigilante-ism of the superheroes.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on October 4, 2011.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever (audiobook) by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard

An interesting history that has been told plenty of times before.

Read by the author, Bill O'Reilly
Duration: 8 hours
Published by Macmillan Audio

Probably no figure in American history has received more attention than Abraham Lincoln. Political commentator Bill O'Reilly was, in the early 1970s, a high school history teacher. He wrote this book out of a true passion for Abraham Lincoln. It is clearly not a professional work since it does contain many simple mistakes (for instance, he refers to the Oval Office when it was not actually added to the White House until the early 1900s).

I listened to the audio version of this book. To be honest, I was reluctant to listen to it since it is narrated by O'Reilly and I am not a huge fan of his work as a political commentator. In fact, O'Reilly's rather odd style of speech both made the read more interesting.

John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865)
The book tells the story of the last few days of Lincoln's life, including the flight of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia from the lines of Petersburg, the surrender at Appomattox Court House, the celebrations in Washington, Booth's various plots to kidnap and/or kill Lincoln, the assassination of Lincoln and the manhunt for Booth.

O'Reilly is known for taking stands on issues and defending those points of view loudly and vociferously. He does the same here. The historical figures are simplified: Lincoln is the long-suffering hero, Booth is evil personified (not that I sympathize with Booth, but O'Reilly comes on a little strong). The history is enthusiastic, if not particularly deep. His descriptions are strong and the story is paced quite well. Much to the chagrin of my ever-patient wife, I am a serious student of the Civil War (I personally own more than 100 books on the topic and have read dozens more) and I found the book to be entertaining, well-told and I even learned a couple of new things.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Killing Lincoln.

Reviewed on October 3, 2011.