"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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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Gun Games (Decker/Lazarus #20) (audiobook) by Faye Kellerman

Poor detective story, mostly the story of a romance between two high school kids

Published by HarperAudio in 2012.
Read by Mitchell Greenberg.
Duration: approximately 12 hours. 

This is the 20th book in Faye Kellerman's long-running Decker/Lazarus series, featuring police detective Peter Decker and his wife Rina Lazarus. Peter and Rina are serving as foster parents for Gabriel Donatti, a boy with parents who are estranged from him and one another. His father is a mobster and his mother is out of the country starting a new life.

A great deal of the book follows Gabe, although there is a mystery for Peter Decker to solve. It involves a suicide by a student from a local, very expensive private school. The case seems fishy to Decker as he and his team uncover nebulous links to a group of bullies from the elite school who like to pretend they are gangsters, carry weapons and intimidate teens in and out of their school. Unbelievably, these same kids get involved with Gabe and his new girlfriend, Yasmine. Yes, the foster father is investigating a case and the bullies that he can't quite get a handle on end up tangling with his foster son, making the case burst wide open. How many people live in Los Angeles? What are the chances?

My real frustration with the book comes from the lengthy, explicit details of Gabe and Yasmine's exploration into sex. I am in the midst of my 23rd year of teaching high school and middle school students - I am very aware that students have sex. I am a well-read person and hardly am a prude. But, this book crossed the line between demonstrating that Gabe and Yasmine had a strong, physical interest in one another and had begun a sexual relationship and instead went very close to child pornography with its emphasis on details and the constant discussion of Yasmine's physical immaturity when compared to Gabe (she was described as looking like she was 10 years old many times). What could have been a sweet romance between star-crossed lovers quickly (and frequently) became creepy and threw a pall over the entire book.

On top of that, Kellerman's teen characters rarely sound like teens when they talk or text one another. I speak with teens every day and these teens sounded nothing like them. There was very little slang, except for slang that no one under the age of 50 uses (like a boy "taking a shine" on a girl to say that he "liked" her). Most of the teen conversations sounded stilted and overly formal, like teenagers talking to an aged relative at a family gathering. Kids curse - and curse a lot, especially when no parents are around. Even more so when they are trying to act tough, like the gun-toting wannabes from the elite school. Nothing about their conversations sounded remotely authentic.

Narrator Mitchell Greenberg did a solid job with the reading of this story. He is especially good at keeping track of things like mentions that the characters have, for example, runny noses and incorporating that into his voices by making them sound stuffed up.

So, in a sentence - this story has unbelievable coincidences with teens that sound nothing like teens and long, detailed descriptions of underage teens having sex.

I rate this book 1 star out of 5.

Reviewed on February 27, 2012.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Next by Michael Crichton

Many hated it but I think it may be Crichton's best book

Published in 2006 by HarperCollins

Michael Crichton (1942-2008)
I have not read all of Michael Crichton's books but I have come close. His best books are generally warnings about the dangers of science without the guidance of ethics: Just because you can do something - does that mean you should do it? 

Next delivers that theme in spades. It is all about genetic manipulation - not just genetically modified corn or houseflies. No, Crichton is talking about genetically modifying people to eliminate certain behaviors and even splicing human DNA into animals.

The book comes at the reader in a kinetic mish-mash of bits of plot from several plotlines, news headlines and news articles. This mess finally coalesces into a real story about halfway through the book and I assumed that Crichton's writing had deteriorated when he wrote this thing and he was just not able to juggle it all.

Then, I got it.

This out-of-control story is supposed to be out-of-control. It is haphazard, random and full of too many crazy coincidences that work together. This is the way that Crichton saw our current state of research and funding in science - it is a crazy mix that is working towards "sexy" discoveries but not thinking about their consequences. It is Jurassic Park, but not just restricted to an island. Instead, it is being shotgunned into our everyday lives. As Jeff Goldblum notes in the movie Jurassic Park: "Life finds a way."

Crichton is warning that a willy-nilly rush into these discoveries cannot be reversed.

Yes, the plot is contrived. Yes, there are too many coincidences. Yes, the characters are often shallow. But, Crichton also demonstrated that through coincidence, accident and fraud there will be consequences that we have not imagined.

It is a warning worth considering.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

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

Reviewed on February 25, 2012.

Ronald Reagan: Our 40th President by Winston Groom

Published by Regnery Publishing, Inc. in 2012.

Winston Groom, forever to be known as the author of Forrest Gump , has busied himself with a series of non-fiction books as of late. His latest is this short biography, Ronald Reagan: Our 40th President. The publisher lists this book as "juvenile nonfiction" but this adult also enjoyed this 148 page biography.

This is not a controversial "let's set the record straight" book. I detected no political bias except for the fact that is a generally friendly book towards Reagan. That being said, Groom covers the lows of Reagan's personal (strained relationships with his children, for example) and political life (Iran Contra - it gets more attention than almost any aspect of his presidency) and covers them as thoroughly as a book of this size should.

Ronald Reagan (1911-2004)
This is a great book for high school students because it is easy to read, does not dwell on topics for too long and covers all parts of Reagan's life well, not just his eight years as President.  It tells the basics of an extraordinary life (Reagan's more than most, but all presidential lives are extraordinary since there have only been 44 of them). I particularly enjoyed the stories of his days as a sportscaster and his early days in Hollywood. Groom also explains that Reagan's transition from Hollywood actor to politician was not abrupt or even an unnatural move, although I did find it interesting to note that his first response was, "I'm an actor, not a politician." (p. 82)

In my real job, when I am not blogging, I am a secondary social studies teacher and I can easily say that if Groom wanted to busy himself writing biographies of all of the recent presidents I would be glad to put them all in my classroom library. This one tells the basics of Reagan's life. Let the student learn that and later on, when they know more, they can start to put value judgments on his actions and choices.

That being said, there is a problem with the book. While Groom may know how to tell someone's life story in an interesting way, he seems to have no head for figures. On page 4 he discusses the impact of a horrific 12% inflation rate (the rate when Reagan assumed the presidency) and he incorrectly asserts that a 12% interest rate means that in 8 years the value of a dollar saved 8 years earlier "would be worth exactly zero." That is not correct. A 12% inflation rate means that in 6 years the prices of everything would be double (following the "rule of 72") and that saved dollar would only buy half as much, but it would still have value. On page 144 he states the United States spent $8 trillion dollars on the Cold War. He states that equals spending $1 billion per day for 8,000 years. Considering that 1 trillion equals 1,000 billion, it would really equal $1 billion per day for 8,000 days (about 22 years).

So, read this book for what it is - a story well told. And, as always, check the other guy's math. Or, as Reagan noted: "Trust, but verify."

I rate this biography 4 out of 5 stars.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Ronald Reagan Our 40th President.

Reviewed on February 25, 2012.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Touched with Fire: Five Presidents and the Civil War Battles That Made Them by James M. Perry

  A unique biographical collection - a new angle on the Civil War

Published by PublicAffairs in 2003

I am a big fan of Civil War histories. I have more than 75 fiction and non-fiction Civil War books on my bookshelf (mostly non-fiction) so I am hardly a newbie to this area. When I comment that this is a new angle, I an really saying something.

It's not that James M. Perry has uncovered new documents or new information, but he has re-shuffled the "same old" information into a new pattern. In this case, he has focused on the five Presidents that fought in the Civil War (Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison and McKinley). Perry includes a modest pre-war biography of each of the men and then goes into greater detail on their war experiences. The level of detail is neither skimpy nor excessive - he strikes a nice balance.

As a group, they all had many things in common. To a man, they all became competent officers of brevet Major or higher, they all had extensive combat experience in the Western theater (although Hayes and his men were transferred to the Eastern theater) and they were all Republican (Perry does point out that the Democrats did run Civil War veterans, but none were successful).

Union Major General James A. Garfield 
Mercifully, Perry does not cover the entire career of U.S. Grant since his Civil War biography would essentially be a re-telling of the war itself and his war biography would dwarf those of the other four combined. Instead, he begins with Grant at Forts Henry and Donelson and only chooses to include him again when he interacts in the lives of the other four. The other four are hardly a homogeneous group, despite all being Republicans. Their temperaments range from stoic and quiet to loud and openly scheming. Their ages range from 18 to 38 and previous military experience range from a West Point education to none at all.

Perry includes a chapter at the end telling the post-war political history of each of the five men which is also a basic history of Gilded Age politics. Perry points out the powerful influence that Civil War veterans groups such as the Grand Army of the Republic had.

Interesting. Easily accessible. Worth the read by Civil War buffs and devotees of the Presidency.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Touched with Fire: Five Presidents and the Civil War Battles That Made Them by James M. Perry.

Reviewed on November 16, 2007.

Now and Then (Spenser #35) by Robert B. Parker

Parker and Spenser go over old ground, but it's still a lot of fun

Published in 2007.

Spenser is on the case again. This time, a simple "check and see if my wife is cheating on me" case becomes a double murder and takes Spenser back onto a college campus investigating yet another campus radical.

Robert B. Parker 
It is not terribly surprising that Parker is going over old ground - this is his 35th Spenser book. Hawk and others are brought in to help, as happens in most all of the newer Spenser books. However, the interplay between Spenser and the others is one of the best features of a Spenser book so that is not disappointing. All in all, this is one of the better Spenser offerings in years.

I enjoyed this book and was well on the way to giving it a 5 star rating until I got to the end. It was just too pat.

Still, it's a solid addition to the series and a must-read for fans.

I rate this book 4 out of 5 stars and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Now and Then by Robert B. Parker

Reviewed on November 16, 2007.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Best of John Mellencamp: 20th Century Masters: Millennium Collection

A review from a Mellencamp fan from way back

Released by Island in 2007

I was kind of torn about giving this collection a 5 star rating - not because it is not a quality sampling of his work, because they are all good choices. But, there's so much that has been left out. But, reality has to set in and the CD publisher just has to leave stuff out - there is only room for ten songs in this collection series.

I always check out the "20th Century Masters" series when I am browsing in the CD section because they usually get a strong cross-section of an artist's work. This is fairly easy if the artist is a flash-in-the-pan type, but Mellencamp has been cranking out hits for more than 25 years. Sure, his best days as a top seller are long gone, but he continues to put out quality work and scores an occasional top 40 song. The wealth of hits to choose from must have made the choices a bit tricky.

This album is arranged in reverse chronological order, covers most of his albums and definitely samples his changes in style. The only album that is represented with two songs is 1985's "Scarecrow". This is arguably his best album and although I personally like "Lonely Ol' Night" much better than "R.O.C.K. In the U.S.A.", "R.O.C.K." is one of his best-known hits and has earned its place on this compilation.

This is most likely not an album for the serious Mellencamp fan (or Mellenhead as some prefer or Mellencamper as John's concert T-shirts say) because a serious fan would have all of these songs on the original albums or on the greatest hits album ("Words and Music") that he recently released. But, it is a good starting point for the casual fan or as a gift for someone who is just starting to convert over to a digital collection (like I said, I'm a fan from way back - I still have Mellencamp on cassette tapes and even on a few on vinyl.)

I rate this collection 5 stars out of 5.

This CD can be found on Amazon.com here: The Best of John Mellencamp: 20th Century Masters: Millennium Collection.

Reviewed on November 18, 2007.

Star Wars: I Jedi (audiobook) by Michael A. Stackpole

         A review of the abridged audiobook

Published by Random House Audio in 1998
Duration: 2 hours, 54 minutes
Read by Anthony Heald

I was not a fan of this book. I'm not sure if it was the abridgment or the writing style, but I'll give the author the benefit of the doubt and blame the abridgment.

Like most abridged books, it was too abridged (where are the Reader's Digest abridgers when you need them?). Characters, ships and situations show up without preamble but we're expected to be familiar with them. The whole book seemed hurried.

The typical special effects that Lucasfilms provides their audiobooks are a bonus, but they were somewhat haphazardly applied in this case - sometimes the music overpowered the text and jungle background noises were on a continuous loop that was too loud and too repetitive. The lightsaber sound effects are wonderful, but they were not timed with the text very well - sabers were being turned on before the text mentioned danger and off during battles (which made me wonder if someone was trying to do the Obi Wan Kenobi letting-himself-get-killed thing from Star Wars Episode IV).

Anthony Heald read the text and did a strong job, as he always does. But, there was only so much he could do with this one.

Corran Horn's quick welcome into the secretive pirate group (the Survivors) as a pirate seemed contrived and I'll credit that to the abridgment. Think of pirates as a street gang and try to imagine joining a street gang as a full-fledged member over a drink at a bar and you'll see what I mean.

Also, the use of a Star Destroyer as a smuggler ship boggles my mind, and not in a positive way. Smugglers depend on the importation of small quantities of goods to keep the price high to justify the risks they take. They use stealth to avoid the law. A Star Destroyer is neither small nor stealthy. It would overwhelm the market and make prices plummet and it would be so obvious that it would demand government attention. Think of a drug smuggler pulling into San Diego harbor with an aircraft carrier full of drugs. It would be: A) super obvious; and B) a disaster for the local drug market prices. But, you'd have to unload the product there because the cost of operating such a ship precludes stopping off at little ports all over the coast and doling out little amounts.

I did like this quote: "Selflessness is the only antidote to evil."

So, I cannot recommend this one - I listened to it and liked parts of it, but on the whole, it was unsatisfying.

I rate this audiobook 2 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here:   Star Wars: I, Jedi

Reviewed on November 21, 2007.

Chasing the Dime by Michael Connelly

 Inspired by an event in the author's life, a bit of "film noir" on paper

First published in 2003.

If you are familiar with the movie style called "film noir" than you get a good idea what this book is like. In a "film noir" movie the protagonist is a regular guy with a secret. He gets sucked into the criminal underworld (or into the world of spies) by events he cannot control and does not understand. Betrayals make him question everything and his old life is shattered.

Michael Connelly
Well, all of that happens here. Henry Pierce gets a new phone number and a series of calls intended for the old owner of the number. He gets curious as he tries to tell the old owner, a prostitute who advertises herself on a porn site as an escort, to change her number. From that point on he gets sucked in to an out of control situation.

I wasn't in to this one for the first 75 pages or so. But, once it gets going this one really had me. Connelly noted in the book that he was inspired to write this book when he got a new phone number and got a number of questionable phone calls.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Chasing the Dime

Reviewed on November 22, 2007.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Petty Story & The Wrestler DVD

 Not a great movie, but a must for Richard Petty and early NASCAR fans (from a Petty fan from way back)

Just so you know, I've given this movie 4 stars - not because it is a great movie. It is not, unless you are a die hard Petty fan. But, it is a valuable piece of NASCAR history - a little gem that I picked up in the super-cheap DVD section of a local store. It is a snapshot of the beginnings of the modern heyday of stock car racing.

Released in 1974 and full of footage from the early days of NASCAR, the production values in this one are not great, which is a mixed blessing. The old footage does not stick out from the rest of the film because the film itself is pretty grainy and has questionable sound at times.

Richard Petty plays himself and he comes off as a fairly wooden actor, which would be a pretty unfair assessment to make if you are not familiar with Richard's personality. He is slow-talking (careful with his words), casual, straight-backed and was as hard a driver as there ever was. So, Petty pretty much plays himself as I've always seen him.

Long-time mechanic Dale Inman plays himself. Darren McGavin (most famous for his role as the dad in "A Christmas Story") plays Lee Petty and Noah Beery, Jr. (most famous for his role as Rockford's dad in "The Rockford Files") plays Richard Petty's grandfather.

The plot of the movie is basically a set of flashbacks from the Petty family while Richard is in the hospital after a bad wreck in the World 600.

The 2nd movie on the disc is "The Wrestler" starring Ed Asner. Asner is a wrestling promoter. The movie features a number of famous wrestlers from the old days such as Dick the Bruiser, Ric Flair, and Dusty Rhodes. The sound quality on my DVD was very poor (very quiet).

I rate this DVD 4 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: The Petty Story & The Wrestler.

Reviewed on November 25, 2007.

A Committee of One and Other Essays by Chuck Avery

Thoughtful Ruminations of a born and bred Hoosier

Published in 1997 by D and C Publishing

Chuck Avery writes a column for the Richmond Palladium-Item, the local paper in Richmond, Indiana. His typical essay could be classified as one of those slice-of-life pieces - a little reminiscing, a little wry observation, a bit of good-natured humor. Avery is also a teacher.

I never heard of Chuck Avery before I picked up this book at a local book sale (ironically, he describes picking up books in a similar sale in one of his essays  - the essay that gives the book its title). A Committee of One is one of those rare books that gets better as it goes along.

I particularly enjoyed the essays "Clevenger's Pond" (a humorous look at human nature and why his farm pond is no longer open to the public), "The Allure of Instant Esteem" (a look at the self-esteem movement in the classroom and why it makes no sense unless you have actually done something), "Solitude and Reform" (the world of instant communication vs. the need to talk to those closest to us and even to work on ourselves).

I particularly liked this serious line from a humorous essay called "Food: The Chore of Eating:" 

"In our continuing effort to make life effortless, we have made child rearing frightening to parents, pushed education beyond the scope of even the most competent teachers, confounded the family to the point that we must have psychologists to untangle relationships."

A little humor, some serious points. All in all, a good read.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: A Committee of One and Other Essays.

Reviewed on February 18, 2012.

Great Tales from English History, Volume III: The Battle of the Boyne to DNA (audiobook) by Robert Lacey

An Entertaining Take on English History

Published in 2007 by W.F. Howes Ltd.
Read by the author, Robert Lacey
Duration: 6 hours, 15 minutes

King George III (1738-1820)
Robert Lacey's quirky 3 volume collection Great Tales from English History was truly a joy to listen to. Volume III ran from the late 17th century to the 1990s and covered such topics as John Locke, The Boston Tea Party (a remarkably even-handed presentation of the American Revolution in general), King George III, the beginnings of the Methodist movement, the Industrial Revolution, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Charge of the Light Brigade, Darwin, Queen Victoria and World Wars I and II.

If you are listening to this audiobook to get a complete history of England, you will be sorely disappointed. This series cherry picks the interesting and fun stories (the type I love to tell  in the classroom) and strings them together for a most entertaining listen.

Lacey reads the book himself and does a very good job. Sometimes it can be a problem when the author reads his or her own work in an audiobook format but as a reader Lacey was everything a listener could ask for.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Great Tales from English History, Volume III: The Battle of the Boyne to DNA by Robert Lacey.

Reviewed on February 18, 2012.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Secret Weapon: How Economic Terrorism Brought Down the U.S. Stock Market and Why It Can Happen Again by Kevin Freeman

Exposes the vulnerable state of the American (and the world) economy

Published in 2012 by Regnery Publishing, Inc.

When I was reading this book I was tempted to make a sort of smart-aleck introduction about the complex nature of Kevin Freeman's warning about the dangers we face by way of economic terrorism. After all, Paul Revere just rode through the streets yelling, "The British are coming! The British are coming!" and that was enough. But, after a little thought I realized that Freeman can't just yell, "The economic terrorists are coming! The economic terrorists are coming!" It has to be explained and that explanation is long and can be full of statistics and new terminologies.

I am a licensed high school economics teacher and I can honestly say that I knew just enough about finance, the real nitty-gritty of the to and fro of the markets, to say that this book is downright scary. It is the proverbial "firebell in the night" that screams out that we have some serious weaknesses in the way we do business in America (and the rest of the free world as well). Some of this information was completely new to me (I am an econ teacher, but let's face it, high school economics is pretty basic stuff - I consider myself an informed entry level amateur in the world of finance - I know enough to know that I don't know much).

Freeman lays out evidence that we may have already been hit by economic terrorists - and more than once. Someone may have gotten quite wealthy on 9/11 due to foreknowledge of the attacks and we may have been hit again in 2008. On page 177 he has an interesting section called "A Failure of Imagination." To me, this section was a microcosm of the whole book. It seems that no one in authority has imagined that someone might be willing to risk a fortune to derail our economy because of the basic rule of economics that states that people tend to act in an economically rational way (this is the kind of stuff high school econ teachers like me stress).  But, if someone is willing to die to crash a plane in a building or to blow up a crowded street market, why not risk a few billion to bring the entire Western economy to its knees?
Freeman's message? Wall Street needs to watch out
for economic terrorism. Will they?
That remains to be seen.

I do not know if we have actually been victimized already, but the combination of massive government debt loads, dependence of foreign oil, lack of market transparency and tolerance of naked short selling and credit default swaps leaves us open to these sorts of attacks. Our financial front door is wide open and our economy is subject to manipulation by any number of foreign powers.

So, despite the jargon, Freeman's message came through loud and clear: We are at risk. Now, if only we could come up with some sort of catchy phrase like "The British are coming!" Perhaps, "Credit default swaps leave the entire market at risk of foreign manipulation and should be highly scrutinized by an independent agency!"

Nope. It just doesn't have the same ring, does it?

Nonetheless, I hope Freeman continues to shout it out to anyone who will listen.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Secret Weapon.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on February 12, 2012.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The First Rule of Ten: A Tenzing Norbu Mystery (Dharma Detective #1) by Gay Hendricks and Tinker Lindsay

A twist on the L.A. detective novel

Published in 2012 by  Hay House Visions.

For years, Los Angeles has been the home of the detective story. For Raymond Chandler, Dragnet, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly and even videogames like L.A. Noire, Los Angeles has been the seedy, diverse world that has all of the secrets that our intrepid detective heroes must dig up and expose.

Tenzing Norbu (he goes by Ten) is a different kind of detective in that he grew up in a monastery and used to be a Buddhist monk but moved to America at the age of 18. His literary hero is Sherlock Holmes and he has just retired from LAPD as a detective because the job was simply getting too bureaucratic - too much paperwork, not enough mystery-solving.

Ten may not be a monk any longer but he is still a practicing Buddhist. That's a different twist, and in some ways a refreshing twist on the stereotype of the alcohol-abusing chain smoking detective. Not that Ten is a prude, but he is mindful of what he does to his body,

But, this fresh character would be pointless if the story were poor. I am glad to say that this mystery is interesting and the story comes to a satisfying conclusion. This was an enjoyable read and I will keep my eyes open for more stories of Tenzing Norbu.

I was offered this book from the publisher through the Amazon Vine program in exchange for an honest review.

Edit: March 30, 2013: See my review of The Second Rule of Ten by clicking here.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: 
The First Rule of Ten: A Tenzing Norbu Mystery (Tenzing Norbu Mysteries)

Reviewed on February 11, 2012.

1812: A Novel by David Nevin

Good but with problems

If you do not already know something about the War of 1812, I cannot recommend this book for your reading pleasure. Why not? The author, David Nevin, goes into the story without much of an explanation of who the characters are and just assumes you know who they are. I would have recommended a small two to three page introduction that laid out the issues of the day and something about the personalities of the day as well.

Dolley Madison (1768-1849)
Instead, we spend page after page getting these introductions as a part of the story. Along the way, Nevin introduces us to the innermost thoughts of such people as James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Winfield Scott and Dolley Madison. Nevin seems fascinated in exploring each of these characters as sexual beings. We get to read about James Madison's lusting for Dolley (he refers to her breasts so often that I blush when I see Madison in my history book).

However, the book is saved by his descriptions of the battles. They are very well done.

If you don't know your War of 1812, be sure to keep your computer handy so you can check the 'net to learn the background material to the things Nevin is referring to.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: 1812.

Reviewed on December 7, 2007.

Campaigns of the Civil War: A Photographic History by Walter Geer

A very solid but one-dimensional look at the Civil War

Union General Lewis "Lew" Wallace (1827-1905)

Originally published in 1926
Photographic History edition published in 2009 by Konecky and Konecky.

Walter Geer's title for this book, Campaigns of the Civil War: a Photographic History, certainly describes it - this is a no-frills look at the battle action of the Civil War with little analysis of the political situation that led to the war or influenced the way it was prosecuted.  There is no chapter about the daily life of the typical soldier. There is nothing about home front difficulties or even much about the navies of either side. So, if you are looking for an in-depth history of the war, this is not your book. But, if you are a serious student of the war, especially the land campaigns, this is a very solid history.

The text is strong, but almost all of the original maps are too busy. They are clearly the style of map that was popular when the book was written, but the proliferation of detail makes them difficult to read. They are accurate, perhaps too accurate for their size and black on light gray color scheme.

On the other hand, the addition of more than 150 photographs to this book is a real joy (except for one detailed below). The book is large - each page is nearly the size of a regular piece of paper - and there are multiple pictures that fill or nearly fill an entire page.

Union General W.H.L. "Lew" Wallace (1821-1862)

But, the publisher made on regrettable error in the picture on page 51. The picture is of Union General William H.L. "Lew" Wallace of the 11th Illinois Volunteers who fought and died in the Battle of Shiloh. It is identified with the correct name but states that he was also the author of the famed novel Ben-Hur- the best-selling American novel of the 19th century. The author of Ben-Hur was Lew Wallace, but not that Lew Wallace. Ben-Hur was written by Union General Lewis "Lew" Wallace of the 11th Indiana Volunteers who fought at Shiloh (with controversy) as well but survived. In fact, he survived the war and I nearly stopped reading the book at that point, figuring that I could not trust the book if it had simple mistakes like listing generals as being killed when they were not. But, a little research cleared up the source of the mistake and I am glad to say that I did not find any more mistakes.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Campaigns of the Civil War: A Photographic History by Walter Geer.

Reviewed on February 11, 2005.

The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution by Brion McClanahan

Great as a resource but...

Published in 2012 by Regnery History
197 pages of text, 63 pages of appendices, end notes and an index.

I am torn when it comes to this book, which is the reason for the three star review. I will start with the positives:

-McClanahan gives a thorough, research-based look at the original arguments that went into the creation of the Constitution and is aiming right at the current debates about the proper roles of federal, state and local governments. This is a timely work and points out the obvious truth that our national government is busy doing things in 2012 that it was never designed to do and it has been doing those things for a long time despite the stated fears of many of the Founding Fathers that the government would eventually become bloated and intrusive .

-He points out both sides of the arguments and provides generous quotes that explain how the discussions progressed and eventually resolved themselves. This is a very strong point, in my mind. It is best to let them speak for themselves, especially if they say it well.

Now, the negatives:

-The way the book is organized. The book is designed to be a resource as it discusses the Constitution from the beginning (The Preamble) to the newest amendment, what McClanahan calls "a virtual clause-by-clause discussion of the Constitution" (p. 6). This makes it pretty simple to access the arguments about a certain point of the Constitution. For example, the discussion on Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 "To establish Post Offices and post roads" is placed in its chronological location based on the actual Constitution in Chapter 2 - the Chapter that discusses Congressional powers (pages 57-62). The only problem is, this makes for rather disjointed and often dry reading. The arguments are laid out, but there is no general context as there would be if the book were developed on a more thematic basis. The detailed small arguments are there but the larger philosophies behind the Federalist and Anti-Federalist arguments are scattered about throughout and not laid out in a coherent presentation.

Luther Martin (1748-1826)

-The Founding Fathers mentioned are not even briefly introduced so if the reader is not already familiar with important, but less well knows Founders such as Charles Pinckney, Luther Martin or Elbridge Gerry, he or she will remain ignorant of their roles. These men (and many more) are quoted quite often (which is good) but the reader is not told anything about them except that they were involved in this debate. This is not a problem for readers who know all of the men that came together to fashion our Constitution, but will prove to be a difficulty for the new learner who may have been encouraged to pick up this book by the its title.

-Some discussions are ignored completely or merely hinted at (because they are not germane to current day political struggles, I presume). For example, there is a long discussion on pages 16-22 about the ratio of Representatives in the House to the population. Would it be 30,000 to 1? 40,000 to 1? Should there be a cap on the number of Representatives? All of this discussion, but no mention of the three-fifths compromise which resulted in every 5 slaves being counted as 3 persons when it came to counting heads to figure out Congressional seats. Here is Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
 I am not sure why it was left out, but I think it should have been addressed, at least in a cursory manner. It was controversial then, it is controversial now and should be explained.

So, in balance, this book ends up being a strong resource for people who love to argue about things like the finer points of  the concept of "judicial review" and would find it handy to have a book that will provide insight and plenty of quotes. But, as an introduction to these concepts for the novice, it really would be analogous to learning how to swim by jumping into the deep end of the pool.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution by Brion McClanahan.

Reviewed on February 11, 2012.

Monday, February 6, 2012

London Bridges (Alex Cross #10) (audiobook) by James Patterson

Published by Hatchette Audio in 2004
Read by Peter J. Fernandez and Denis O'Hare
Duration: 8 hours, 19 minutes

The real problem with James Patterson's works right now is that he has become a corporate thing - James Patterson, Inc. James Patterson, Inc. produces a large amount of books, movies and even TV shows, but like nationwide fast food chains that produce large amounts of food in a short amount of time, Patterson's prodigious output suffers from a serious lack of quality.

The last 3 Patterson books I've reviewed have all had gaping holes in the plot. Does he even have his work edited any longer, or do they just print them up as soon as the rough draft comes in?

London Bridges features Alex Cross, Patterson's most enduring character and the star of much better books like Kiss the Girls. In this one, Alex is confronted by two of his arch-villain foes at the same time - the Weasel and the Wolf.

Unfortunately, Alex is cheapened by being in this book. The bad guys are so extreme as to make James Bond bad guys look reasonable. People are blown up and shot in the foreheads left and right and no one ever catches these people on a video camera?

Patterson stretches the book with lots of filler such as detailing Alex's musical choices, adding product placemements (Virgin records, etc.) and an extended sexual foreplay scene that did nothing to advance the plot but lots to titilate.

Most annoying are details that should have been included, such as why does the Wolf want the Weasel working on his conspiracy? Why do their choices of weapons of mass-destruction change? Why do their target cities change? Why were Arabs and Mafia-types and Russian ex-KGB guys brought in and tossed back out of the story? Why can't Alex find out about exposure to radiation when he is exposed to a nuclear weapon? You'd think they'd debrief a fellow about that.

Alex confronts a bad guy and kills him - a climactic scene in the middle of the book. No mention is made of the injuries Alex sustained and he is never de-briefed about the situation. It is never mentioned again. Why not? Maybe there was not enough space since I got to hear more about Alex's musical choices, angst about being separated from family (they are in and out of the story at odd moments, especially since they are apparently evacuated since Washington,D.C. is threatened by the super-villains). Alex's grandmother's health issues are hinted in yet another book and the reader is constantly threatened with her impending doom, a cheap stunt to gather interest in an underdeveloped story. Oh, what a story this could have been if Patterson had really developed it and turned it into a two or three volume series!

The audio version is narrated by Peter Fernandez and Dennis O'Hare. One of them reads the chapters that are 1st person in the form of Alex Cross. The other reads the sections that are 3rd person and feature the Wolf and the Weasel. Both are strong readers and cover it quite well  - the material is just not equal to their ability.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: London Bridges by James Patterson.

Reviewed on December 8, 2007.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Lonely Planet Not For Parents: The Travel Book by Michael DuBois, Katri Hilden and Jane Price

Have a little fun, learn a little something

Published by Lonely Planet in 2011.
208 pages.

The cover of this book perfectly describes it: "Cool stuff to know about every country in the world." Inside, every country, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe has one page in this book. Every page includes some basic facts, including the flag, the population, the language spoken, the currency and its area in square miles and kilometers. But, that is not the strength of this book.

The best feature of this book is the rest of each page - the random facts that make each country unique. For example, on the United Arab Emirates page we learn that they have the world's tallest building (about twice as tall as the Empire State Building), see a design created out of man-made islands and learn that they make snow on an indoor ski slope in a shopping mall there.

Everything is laid out with beautiful color pictures, always has information about people and animals in the country and is very easy book to flip through and lose yourself in for a while. I recommend this for kids (and adults) 4th grade and higher.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Lonely Planet Not For Parents: The Travel Book.

Reviewed on February 4, 2012.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Thin Man & The Maltese Falcon (audiobook) by Dashiell Hammett

Two Classics in One Package

Published in 2011 by AudioGO.
Narrated by William Dufris
Duration: approximately 13 hours.

I am reluctant to admit this but although I was very aware of these classic detective tales, I had never read either of these two books nor seen any of their many movie adaptations (however, I have seen many clips from the Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon over the years). So, when I found the unabridged audio versions of both of them I just had to get them - if for no other reason than to just end my ignorance.

The Thin Man was originally written in 1934 (although it is set in the late 1920s) and is Dashiell Hammett's fifth and last novel. It features a wealthy husband and wife crime-fighting duo. They are in New York City to renew some friendships, paint the town red and have an all around good time. Nick Charles is a former private detective who has quit the business to help his wife manage her extensive business holdings.  A mystery involving a former client and former acquaintances comes up and Nick and Nora are drug into the affair and are soon on the case.  To be fair, Nora is enthused about solving a mystery. Nick tries to back out of it at every turn, loudly denying that he has any interest in the case but ignored by the police, his wife, his would be client and everyone else.

Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961)
"And when you're slapped you'll take it and like it." - Sam Spade

The Maltese Falcon, first published in 1930, is the classic hardboiled detective story that will forever be linked with Humphrey Bogart and the 1941 movie. Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer are two San Francisco detectives hired by a young lady to follow a man that is supposed to have run off with her sister.  Later that same night Miles Archer and the man he was following are found dead and Sam Spade is the number one suspect. Spade sniffs around the case and soon enough finds out that the young lady that hired Miles Archer has not been telling the truth and her secrets may lead to untold riches, if he can survive.

The mystery in The Thin Man is the better of the two, but the mood and the story in The Maltese Falcon is so much more powerful that it ends up being the better of the two stories by far. So many of the characters in The Thin Man are rich, vapid drunken twits (Including Nick and Nora Charles throughout most of the story) that for the first half of the book, I just had a hard time really caring who killed one of the them and sometimes wished that the criminal would come back and knock off a few more. I suppose that was by design, given Hammett's fraternization with communism in the 1930s. But, by the end of the book, the mystery itself turns out to be a pretty good one. The clues were all laid out to the reader, I just missed them as they passed by.

William Dufris really shines as the narrator in The Maltese Falcon. His voice characterizations of Joel Cairo (the Peter Lorre character in the Bogart movie) and appropriately named fat thug named Casper Gutman are so strong that they made the story leap out of the speakers and drag me in. Dufris avoided the obvious temptation to read his Sam Spade like Bogart, but his characterization of Joel Cairo sounds almost exactly like Peter Lorre (I know I said I had not seen the movies, but those clips are everywhere). In the final scenes, Dufris' skills as an actor shine as he seamlessly moves from one strong character to another as they scream at, fight with and ultimately betray one another.

I rate this collection 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Thin Man & The Maltese Falcon (audiobook) by Dashiell Hammett.

Reviewed on February 3, 2012.