"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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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

A Classic

Set in 1871 and written in 1912, Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage is a classic, perhaps THE classic of the Western genre.

The plot is a little more complicated than most Westerns - it features two concurrent stories. Jane Withersteen is a wealthy Mormon with no husband. Her local church leader (an Elder) wants to marry her, in fact has all but ordered her to do so even though she has no interest in him. Tull orchestrates a plot to have the local Mormons shun her as much as possible (including not working for her) and not help her as rustlers steal entire herds of cattle that are no longer tended.

Zane Grey (1872-1939)
In the meantime, a stranger named Lassiter arrives. He has a reputation as a Mormon-hater and a gunslinger and becomes a defender of Jane Withersteen. Meanwhile, one of her last employees (Venters) goes after a herd of cattle that is being rustled and discovers a secret pass and a secret valley that they have been using. The story splits at this point and largely becomes the story of Venters and the story of Withersteen and Lassiter. The stories come together from time to time until the final culmination.

The question is, of course, does this 99 year old story still hold up after all of these years? Yes, after you get used to the stilted language. Grey is wordy and given to using some phrases over and over again. But, the story is solid and entertaining. There is an exciting chase scene towards the end that is quite riveting.

If you are a fan of Westerns you should take a look at this one - it is the one that set the parameters of the genre.

Note: If you are a member of the LDS church, you will probably be offended by some of Grey's comments about the Mormon church. Grey is not dismissive of the entire church, but he is clearly not a fan of the early Mormon pioneers of Utah, especially the men. He thinks they abused the rules of the religion to manipulate others. On the other hand, Jane Withersteen is a Mormon and she is quite faithful to the ideals of the church, so it is a mixed bag.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey.

Reviewed on November 23, 2011.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ain't Nothing But A Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson with Marc Aronson

A Fascinating Investigation into American History

Published 2008 by National Geographic

Scott Reynolds Nelson went on a search to see if there was a real John Henry that inspired the songs and the legend of the man with the hammer who beat the steam drill in a contest.

John Henry statue near Talcott, West Virginia
First and foremost, this is a book written for children, but it was interesting to this grown up as well. The topic was interesting, the pictures are great - lots of real pictures from the past of men on railroad work crews with their equipment. Nelson goes on to explain how the songs were used by work crews not just for entertainment but to keep time while moving tracks and pounding on spikes. Lastly, he explains, step-by-step how he makes his investigation. This could have been extraordinarily boring, but Nelson keeps it interesting. He actually creates a sense of tension as he tracks down his information.

Nelson does come up with a potential source of the legend, provides a ton of internet resources, including websites to hear versions of the John Henry song and other similar songs, as well as other books. Aronson steps in with a easy-to-read short essay with 6 steps on "How to Be a Historian."

Nice book. Should be in every library.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Ain't Nothing But A Man.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on November 19, 2011.

Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman by Marc Tyler Nobleman

Entertaining and an artistic homage

Published by Knopf, 2008
Illustrated by Ross MacDonald

Boys of Steel tells the story of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two painfully shy teenagers from Cleveland who created Superman. The two met in school and discovered a common interest in science fiction and fantastic tales. One wrote stories, the other drew. Together they created story after story that never sold. Eventually created Superman and, believe it or not, no one wanted Superman either for three years.

Nobleman tells about their eventual success and their ongoing struggles with DC Comics. He tells the story well but the real star is the art of Ross MacDonald. He has illustrated the entire story in the style of those early Superman comic books and the art just leaps off of the over-sized pages. My eleven year old daughter read it and enjoyed, but probably not as much as me. This one was a winner.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Boys of Steel.

Reviewed on November 19, 2011

We All Fall Down by Michael Harvey

Not as good as the last one

Published by Knopf, July of 2011

Michael Harvey's Chicago-based series features Michael Kelly, a one-time cop turned private detective who seems to have connections all over Chicago, from the Mayor's office all the way down to the street gangs. We All Fall Down takes place immediately after the previous book, The Third Rail (which I rated 4 stars out of 5) with very little explanation to get the reader up to speed. I just barely remembered the ending of the last book - I read more than a year and a half ago.

Michael Kelly finds out about a conspiracy to defraud the government of Chicago led by Mafia types and a top man in the Mayor's office. As he looks into it, he stumbles upon a drug dealing conspiracy gone bad and eventually it all links up with the release of a biological agent and an ensuing epidemic into a very tough Chicago neighborhood.

We All Fall Down is best during its descriptions of the epidemic and its impact upon Chicago, even though I have yet to figure out how and down and out ex-cop merited the all-star access he had to the top levels of Chicago's government, the top levels of the Homeland Security's bio-weapons team and a free hand to roam anywhere and everywhere in and out of a quarantine zone. Sadly, this book may be a "jump the shark" moment in this series.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: We All Fall Down.

Reviewed on November 19, 2011.

Beautiful Boy DVD

DVD released in 2011 by Anchor Bay entertainment.

Maria Bello and Michael Sheen star as a decent, upper middle class married couple who are slowly but surely growing apart. Their only child is off to college and they are much more interested in their careers than in each other. They do not fight, but they do not care enough to stop the drift. But, tragedy strikes in the form of their son who goes on a shooting rampage at his college and then committing suicide.

And then we get to the story itself: What happens to those families who are left behind by these spree shooters? Of course, the denial, the shock and the horror at what their son has done overwhelms the couple. Soon enough, the national media follows them everywhere and camps on their doorstep hoping for a quote or a bit of telling video.

Bello and Sheen both shine as they take the viewers through the amazing array of emotions and behaviors that this shell-shocked couple experience. There are no fakey moments. No contrived scenes. Instead, this battered couple do their best to deal with the feelings of loss, shame and failure as they try to start over again. Interestingly, their shared loss pulls them closer to one another.

I rate this film 5 stars out of 5.

This DVD can be found on Amazon.com here: Beautiful Boy.

Reviewed on November 6, 2011.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Two Nero Wolfe Mysteries: The Golden Spiders & Murder by the Book by Rex Stout

Read by Michael Prichard
Duration: 13 hours, 5 minutes
Published August 23, 2011 by AudioGo

As an avid reader of mysteries, I am sorry to say that I waited so long to check out Nero Wolfe and all of his valuable and useful assistants. If you are not familiar with Nero Wolfe, let me introduce you. Nero Wolfe is an obese genius who solves mysteries but rarely leaves his New York City Brownstone home. His true passions are meticulously prepared meals, orchids and keeping to his routine. Instead of leaving his home and doing the legwork himself, he has several trusted and talented investigators who serve as his eyes and ears. The Nero Wolfe stories are told by Archie Goodwin, Wolfe's number one employee.

Goodwin is an interesting character himself. He is Wolfe's employee, but not a toady. He speaks his mind, sometimes too freely. He is flippant, clever, tough and quite the ladies man. When I heard these stories, I realized how much a debt the late Robert B. Parker owes to Rex Stout - Parker's Spenser character is Archie Goodwin with his own detective agency.

This audiobook contains two short Nero Wolfe novels. The Golden Spiders was first published in 1953. The story starts when a 12 year old who makes a little extra money cleaning car windows at stop lights comes to Nero Wolfe with the story of a woman in a Cadillac who mouthed to him through the windshield that he should get a policeman to help her. She is wearing earrings shaped like golden spiders. The kid finds Nero Wolfe instead. Wolfe takes his story and starts to look into it. The next day, the boy is run down by a Cadillac. Soon, two more people are run over by a car and all of the deaths seem related and Wolfe is on the case...

Rex Stout (1886-1975)
First published in 1951, Murder by the Book is the stronger of the two stories. Wolfe is hired by a Peoria grocer to find out what really happened to his daughter. She died in a New York City park, but her father thinks she was murdered rather than accidentally killed in a hit-and-run incident. As Goodwin starts to dig they discover links to even more deaths and it all seems to be tied to an unpublished novel. Goodwin shines as he comes up with one clever way after another to pull the information from a variety of sources.

Veteran reader Michael Prichard captures the voice of Archie Goodwin perfectly  - he shows just the right amount of respect and sass for his boss, Nero Wolfe.

I rate this audiobook set 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Two Nero Wolfe Stories.

Reviewed on November 18, 2011.

The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag by Robert A. Heinlein

Creepy Change of Pace for Heinlein

Read by Tom Weiner
Approximately 4 hours
Blackstone Audio

Multiple Hugo Award winning author Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) changes his tone with the novella The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.

This audiobook seems much more like a Philip K. Dick story than a Heinlein story since it features none of the themes that Heinlein is well known for, like space travel, alien contact or time travel. Instead, we get an extra helping of creepy with a surprise ending that truly demonstrates Heinlein’s ability to master a variety of styles.

First published under a pseudonym in the now-defunct magazine Unknown in 1942, The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag features Ted and Cynthia Randall, a husband and wife private detective team based in Chicago. They are approached by a fastidious little man with a topcoat and silk gloves named Jonathan Hoag. He has an odd proposition – he offers them a preposterously large retainer to help him figure out what he does for a living. Mr. Hoag knows that he has a well-paying job that pays him cash, but he does not have the faintest idea what that job is. The crisis began while he was at a dinner party and another guest commented on the reddish stains under his fingernails and asked what he did for a living to leave such a residue behind. He was very bothered to find that he did not know.

Ted and Cynthia agree to help him and find that this may not be as easy as they thought.  They find that everything about Mr. Hoag seems to be a mystery and the more they interact with him, the more they doubt their own eyes and ears. Soon enough they discover that “the whole world might be just a fraud and an illusion.”

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988)
The story suffers a bit from age, which is to be expected. After all, this story is nearly 70 years old. Some of the expressions that are used may have been very hip and stylish in 1942 but they sound a bit clunky to the ear nowadays. Also, some aspects of the story such as elevator operators and doctors making house calls may be totally foreign concepts to some listeners. That being said, the underlying story overcomes all of that window dressing. Rumor has it that a movie version of this story is in the works as well.

Award-winning narrator Tom Weiner skillfully handles a variety of different voices throughout. He voices Mr. Hoag perfectly, catching his prissy, fussy nature throughout, but adding a different tone once we discover his true profession. His characterization of the story’s bad guys (I am intentionally not describing them so as not to ruin their scenes) has the perfect amount of menace and mystery.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.

Note: I received a free copy of this audiobook from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Reviewed on September 3, 2011.

NPR American Chronicles: World War II (audiobook)

Absolutely Fantastic

Original Radio Broadcast by NPR
Duration: 3 hours
Published 2011 by HighBridge Audio

NPR's American Chronicles: World War II is a 3 hour collection of 27 stories broadcast over the radio network from 1982 to 2010 around the topic of World War II.

Atomic mushroom cloud over Nagasaki
This collection is not designed to introduce the reader to the war or to its causes - it assumes the listener has a basic grasp of the facts. But, what it does do is delve deeply into certain topics that are associated with the war, such as the life of Londoners during the Blitz, the story of a young Japanese man who was in an internment camp, the Doolittle Raid, Bill Millin - the "Mad Piper" who played the bagpipe for his Scottish regiment as they landed at Normandy (because tradition demanded it), women on the home front, artists who may have used their skills to help the Americans to trick the Germans and an interview with one of the pilots of the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

This is an exceptionally strong collection - even the worst stories are quite good. My favorite is the story of Tuskegee Airman Alexander Jefferson who tells his story with a lot of zest and hauntingly tells of visiting the death camp at Dachau and noting that the ovens used to cremate the victims were still warm. The reports are well narrated and  include lots of music from the era and bits of radio reports to give the listener more of a feel for the time.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: NPR American Chronicles: World War II.

This audiobook was sent to me for free by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Reviewed on November 18, 2011.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Boat of a Million Years (audiobook) by Poul Anderson

Ambitious idea but it tends to drag.

Read by Tom Weiner.
Duration: 20 hours, 16 minutes.
Published by Blackstone Audio, Inc.

Multiple award winner and science fiction legend Poul Anderson’s The Boat of a Million Years did something that science fiction all-too-rarely does when it was published in 1989 – it got the attention of the mainstream literature critics. The New York Times named it a “New York Times Notable Book.” Besides mainstream recognition, it was also nominated for multiple science fiction awards as well.

The Boat of Million Years follows a group of immortal people through their lives. These are regular people in every respect except that they never age. They were not all born at the same time – some were born earlier (as early as 5,000 years ago), some later but there seems to be no pattern that explains their immortality. Their ancestors are not necessarily long-lived, their descendents do not inherit their immortality. They recover quickly from injury (their teeth grow back, for example) but they can be killed by accidents, disease and battle.

Poul Anderson (1926-2001)
The book is not a traditional novel. Rather, it is a series of vignettes – snapshots of these characters at some moment in time, usually a time of great change or opportunity. We follow characters as they explore new trade routes with the Ancient Greeks, or narrowly escape being lynched for being a witch or have a meeting with Cardinal Richelieu (a rarity – the book mostly avoids the temptation of having these characters meet celebrities throughout time).

There are themes and patterns that Anderson develops throughout the book. The immortals are lonely. This is understandable since there are not many of them (and they rarely encounter another one – and if they do, how can you be sure? There is inherent danger in revealing oneself) and the people they grow up with and live with all age and die while they look like they are still 25 years old. Their children and their grandchildren grow old while they remain young. Anderson reminds us of this loneliness over and over again with every character. Anderson does not have these characters come up with much in the way of Great Truths. Yes, they have lots of experience, but are not necessarily wise.

While ambitious, nearly every vignette drags. Perhaps it was the audio format that made certain qualities of Anderson’s writing style leap to the forefront but I quickly grew tired of his frequent descriptions of landscapes by way of lists. I kept imagining bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation rather than the landscapes themselves. The writing is often clunky, almost like everyone is participating in a low budget drive in movie gladiator movie from the 1950s. Tom Weiner’s narration is solid – he does a lot with multiple accents, for example - but he can do little to breathe life into this audiobook. 

I rate this audiobook 1 star out of 5.

This audiobook can be purchased on Amazon.com here: The Boat of a Million Years.

Note: I was sent a free copy of this audiobook by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Reviewed on September 18, 2011.

Tribe by James Bruno

Power plays in Afghanistan and in D.C.

When I first picked up the book Tribe, I assumed that the title referred to the complicated loyalties of local Afghan politics that create the hard-to-decipher undercurrents that permeate Afghan politics. After all, the cover photo features the silhouette of what looks to be a mujaheddin soldier brandishing an assault rifle. My assumption was wrong on multiple levels.

If I were more adept with my weapons identification skills, I would have known right away that the soldier was brandishing an American M16, not the omnipresent AK47 favored in Afghanistan - which is a clue to the direction of the book. While wild and hairy adventures in Afghanistan and Yemen exist in the book, this is not really a book about American adventurism in the Muslim world. Instead, the tribe referred to is the brotherhood of intelligence agents - Russian, Afghan, American who do the secret work of their governments but really have more in common with one another than they do with the people who issue their orders.

Bruno would know something about this, having served in the diplomatic corps and as a military intelligence officer for many years. In Tribe we see that ground level CIA operatives and their bosses at the top of the political food chain in Washington, D.C. live in two different worlds with different sets of goals and neither may be quite based in reality.

CIA officer Harry Brennan has a game-changing operation that is about ready to swing into action in Afghanistan - a plan that might very well destroy the Taliban. Suddenly, his superiors pull the plug on his operation and his decision to go ahead with it on his own has spectacular but mixed results that result in his being called back to D.C. and put on a very short leash. But, political winds shift and Brennan becomes involved with major elite power players - the kind that craft grand  policies. Through Brennan we see policy created and implemented from the White House level on down to the dusty mountain roads of Afghanistan - we see operatives that are unaware of larger issues and top level officials that create grand plans for Central Asia that have no basis in ground-level realities.

Brennan is a likeable character with an admirable devotion to his daughter, even if he has a wandering eye for the ladies. His network of friends and a (mostly) constant devotion to his own standards of what is right make this an enjoyable trip through the jumbled world that produces American foreign policy. Throw is some behind-the-scenes look at the world of spies and spying and some well-written adventure and you have a solid book.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Tribe by James Bruno.

Reviewed on November 5, 2011.