"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, July 28, 2012

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (audiobook) (abridged) by Robert A. Heinlein

 Easy to love and easy to hate

Published by Simon and Schuster Audioworks in 1987.
Performed by Robert Vaughn
Duration: 3 hours

Note: The 2007 re-release of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls clocks in at just over 13.5 hours, so this  3-hour-long 1987 abridgment is undoubtedly heavily abridged, even considering that acclaimed actor Robert Vaughn is a relatively quick reader.

Books like The Cat Who Walks Through Walls are hard to describe and easy to love and hate. This is a soaring piece of fiction that takes the listener into a fully-developed world that has enough internal coherence and relationship to our current world that the reader can feel comfortable (there are Volvo vehicles, they stop at a Sears store, etc.) On the other hand, the action is frenetic to the point of chaos (this may be due to the abridgment, but upon reading an online summary, it may not) and the interaction of the characters is often witty but unrealistic to the point of being laughable. For example, when the main character finds out that his new wife (he has only known her for 3 days or so) wants him to marry her granddaughter as well in a group marriage he doesn't question the arrangement for more than about 3 seconds.

The premise of the story is that Colonel Colin Campbell and his new wife named Gwen Novak are on the run, framed for a murder they did not commit. The story is told from Campbell's point of view and he soon discovers that his new wife can travel through time, is much older than she says she is and is a member of a quasi-military unit called the Time Corps. She has been sent to recruit Campbell to help with a mission and has fallen in love with him.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988)
Heinlein throws a great number of ideas around in this book, which is actually loosely tied into a number of his books. Heinlein continues his long string of books featuring women that are hyper-sexual, independent and yet often subservient to strong men. He explores time travel paradoxes and his idea of "World as Myth." World as Myth asserts that the multiverse is all fictional and that exceptionally good storytellers make their own universes and the rules of those universes. Members of the Time Corps have visited L. Frank Baum's Oz and Alice's Wonderland universes and John Carter of Mars makes a silent appearance in a dramatic scene towards the end.

Throw in talking space ships, smart-talking air traffic controllers and truly fun banter you have the making of a good book. Unfortunately, Heinlein's silly sexual politics, tendency to have long lecture scenes and his decision to keep the reader in the dark as long as possible hurt the book.

Robert Vaughn
A gigantic bright spot in this audiobook is Robert Vaughn. I have never heard Robert Vaughn read an audiobook before and I was uncertain as to what to expect. Vaughn has a very distinct speaking voice (he played Lee, the black-gloved gunman in The Magnificent Seven and Napoleon Solo in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and I was not sure how that would work. I am totally convinced that all of Heinlein's later books should have been read by Robert Vaughn (maybe they still could be, I am not sure how much Vaughn works nowadays). Vaughn's unique voice is able to pull off the pretentious and confident nature of Heinlein's prose and he is able to create any number of distinctive voices, both male and female. Truly a performance, not just a reading.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 28. 2012.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Fatal Dive: Solving the World War II Mystery of the USS Grunion by Peter F. Stevens


Three stories in one: A biography, a mystery and an adventure

Published in 2012 by Regnery History

The USS Grunion was  a top of the line submarine for the U.S. Navy in 1942. Literally, the fastest submarine in the fleet and outfitted with the latest in torpedo technology (magnet activated designed to go off near ships) and led by the highly-respected Lieutenant Commander Jim Abele, the USS Grunion was sent to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to harass Japanese supply ships (for those who did not know, Japanese forces held parts of the Aleutian Islands for a little more than in a year from 1942 to 1943).

The USS Grunion performed well, sinking two Japanese submarines and damaging a freighter despite problems with the torpedoes. What the crew of the USS Grunion did not know was that these advanced torpedoes did not work like they were supposed to. They did not track well towards their targets (although the magnetic trigger, called a magnetic pistol, was supposed to go off if it got near a ship, they often did not) and some of the torpedoes simply bounced off their targets when they hit (the freighter it attacked was damaged by two torpedoes that simply slammed into the hull with no explosions). In my mind, the fact that the Grunion did so well with an inferior torpedo is a testament to the ship and its crew.

But, the worst feature of these torpedoes was that some of them would miss their targets and go around in a broad circle back to the submarine that fired them, like a boomerang. It is one thing to use weapons that may misfire or miss. It is another to use weapons that have a tendency to miss and then circle back on the submarine that fired them!

The USS Grunion in March of 1942, before she was commissioned
No one is quite sure how the Grunion was sunk, but it went down while in a fight with a Japanese freighter. The U.S. Navy has been silent about possible causes, but it seems likely that a torpedo circled back on the Grunion and collided with it, causing the Lt. Cmdr. Abele to assume that the Grunion was under fire from a Japanese plane and order it to dive. The dive plane (or hydroplane) controls the angle of the dive and it may have been damaged from the torpedo or other combat and got stuck so that the submarine was forced to keep going down until it finally was crushed by the intense pressure of the ocean itself.

The families of the 70 crew members of the Grunion were never told anything about faulty torpedoes or even where their loved ones were serving when they disappeared. Instead, a few family members used the connections and resources they had and shared what they knew with each other. They pieced together what they had and with a few very lucky breaks and help from Japanese historians were able to get a very good idea where the Grunion sank.

Fatal Dive is really three stories. It is the story of the Jim Abele and the USS Grunion , the story of the detective work that went into finding the possible location of the USS Grunion and the story of how it was finally find (no easy task in the very rough waters around the Aleutians). Stevens keeps a feeling of tension throughout his description of the search for the missing submarine despite the fact that the reader knows the mystery was solved when he reads the title and can see the pictures in the middle insert section, which is no mean feat.

Stevens includes a mini-biography and a picture of almost every member of the crew and does his best to make Fatal Dive a testament to the entire crew and their families, not just the story of the Abele family.

I rate this book 4 out of 5 stars.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Fatal Dive: Solving the World War II Mystery of the USS Grunion by Peter F. Stevens.

Reviewed on July 27, 2012.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Jackson: The Iron-Willed Commander (The Generals Series) by Paul Vickery

A Nifty Little Biography

Published by Thomas Nelson in 2012.

Jackson: The Iron-Willed Commander is a welcome addition to a larger series called The Generals that offers relatively short biographies (about 200 pages) of America's better-known generals. This book is by no means the definitive biography of Andrew Jackson, but it is great introduction to this controversial man.

Andrew Jackson (1767-1845)
Andrew Jackson lived most of his life on the American frontier. His most famous battle was, of course, the Battle of New Orleans in the last moments of the War of 1812 (technically, it took place after the treaty was signed) but by that time Jackson was a veteran of many battles. He had already fought the British in two wars, skirmished with the Spanish several times and was involved in multiple frontier wars with Native Americans. Throw in Jackson's willingness to duel and one quickly realizes that Jackson thrived on action and danger. A great deal of his life seems to be consumed by organizing for a campaign, going out on a military campaign, recovering from injury sustained in a battle or a duel or recovering from an illness he contracted while on a campaign. His wife, Rachel, must have been a very patient woman.

Rather than go into the details of Jackson's life, I will comment on the presentation of Jackson's more controversial decisions in the book. Jackson is reviled in many Native American communities for his policy of  forcing Native Americans out of their traditional land and making them settle across the Mississippi, including villages and communities that sided with him during the wars and including groups that decided to live like white society. Vickery is to be commended for doing what so many biographers would not do - he explains why Jackson did this. Many writers would scold Jackson, but Vickery explains Jackson's reasoning without excusing him. It makes for a better biography if one can understand the thinking of the time.

Since it is a part of a series about generals, most of the book focuses on Jackson's long and varied military career. Jackson's presidency merits a few pages as does his personal life. This is a nifty little biography and I recommend it as a great place to start a study of Andrew Jackson or the frontier times of the South.

I received this book as a part of Thomas Nelson's Booksneeze program in exchange for an honest review.

Reviewed on July 24, 2012.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Jackson: The Iron-Willed Commander

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

The Significance of the Frontier in American History by Frederick Jackson Turner

Four Classic Essays By a Noted Historian

Collection published by Penguin Classics in 2008.

The Significance of the Frontier in American History is a collection of four essays written by noted historian Frederick Jackson Turner from 1893 to 1910. Penguin Classics has re-issued these essays as part of its Great Ideas series.

Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932)
Frederick Jackson Turner is featured in just about every U.S. History textbook for his essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History, written in 1893. I am embarrassed note that I had never read this classic essay until I read this collection, although I was familiar with its basic thesis. In this essay Turner notes that the 1890 census determined that as of 1890 there was no longer a definable "frontier." He asserts that this is the beginning of something new for the United States as it has always been defined by its (usually) westward boundary.

Turner notes that the Western settlers came from all parts of the eastern seaboard but created a new culture, and in some ways the definitive American culture, when these diverse groups of settlers brought their old ways of doing and thinking and mingled them with one another to make something new. These settlers are known for their rugged individualism, a more egalitarian mindset (the frontier states were the first ones to lift property requirements to vote and, later, to let women vote) and a demand for government intervention in curtailing the power of corporations (at the time of the essay the Granger movement was quite active). Turner is quite clear that the presence of "free" land waiting for settlement was a major reason for the "self-made" man of the frontier and openly wondered about opportunities for economic advancement in a future with no frontier.

The second essay is The Problem of the West, written in 1896. It describes the dissonance between the original states on the east coast and the states that came were settled later. In many ways, this continues on to this day - just take a look at one of the political red state/blue state maps. He points to the Old Northwest territory states as being the linchpin that tie the Union together. States like Illinois, Michigan and Indiana are a little bit Western and also have strong ties to the east coast.

The Significance of the Mississippi Valley in American History, written in 1909 and 1910, discusses how the Mississippi River system, including the Ohio and Missouri Rivers, were the key to the exploration and settlement of a great chunk of the country. Not only did the settlers follow the rivers, but those rivers were their lifeline to the larger world of trade.

The last essay is the weakest, in my opinion. It was written in 1910 and is entitled Social Forces in American History. In many ways, it is the bookend for the title essay. Turner describes changes that he has seen in American society since the closing of the frontier, including the growth of corporations and those that get fabulously wealthy from industry and the beginnings of activist government.

I rate this collection of essays 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Significance of the Frontier in American History by Frederick Jackson Turner.

Reviewed on July 24, 2012.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Capitol Murder (audiobook) by Phillip Margolin

Lots of plot threads eventually tie together

Published by HarperAudio in 2012.
Performed by Jonathan Davis.
Duration: 9 hours, 38 minutes.

I have been a Phillip Margolin fan since I read his book The Burning Man nearly 15 years ago. I worked at a used book store at the time and I remember turning a couple of people on to Margolin's stuff. I must admit that I have not read some of his more recent books, not out of lack of interest, but mostly due to the pressure of a massive To-Be-Read pile (do you REALLY need to add yet another book to the pile?).

Phillip Margolin
So, when I came across a Margolin audiobook, I knew that this was a good chance to catch up while not adding to the To-Be-Read pile, since I usually listen while doing things like driving.

So, what did I think of Capitol Murder?

First, this book is at least the third book in a series following the adventures of Brad Miller and Dana Cutler. This is not really a problem because Margolin sets up things early on with a dinner party scene that clues in the newbies to the series.

Second, Margolin has many, many plot threads going on at the same time. There is a terrorist plot from Pakistan, the ongoing saga of a serial killer named Clarence Little from an earlier book, an unfaithful Senator who opens himself to blackmail and the interactions of all of these threads in the lives of Dana Cutler and Brad Miller and Brad's wife. About halfway through this book I was pretty sure that Margolin had completely lost his touch and had thrown  bits and pieces of three or four book to fulfill a book contract. I just was not seeing how they all related.

Suddenly, they all come together and things get very, very busy very, very quickly. All of the threads tie together a little too neatly, although I did have a laugh out loud moment at the audacity of Dana Cutler in one of her last scenes. The Epilogue also has a nice twist that makes up for the quick ending of the main storyline.

So, does Margolin still have it? Yeah, he still delivers a very readable thriller. I won't wait so long to read my next one.

The audiobook was read by Jonathan Davis. The performance was often told in an emotionally flat tone of voice, like when reading a non-fiction text. This worked very effectively when describing the preparations of the terrorists or when the story is focusing on the actions of a serial killer. The methodical descriptions seem all  the more menacing when told in a flat matter-of-fact tone. But, when friends are sitting around having drinks and discussing what's been going on in their lives, there should be some punch to the conversation.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Capitol Murder.

Reviewed on July 23, 2012.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Nothing to Add to This Thought...

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

A Few Thoughts on Uncle Tom's Cabin

First Published in 1852.

Harriet Beecher Stowe sat down to write a book that would show the United States the evils of slavery. She wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly in response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, at the urging of her sister-in-law. She succeeded in fueling the debate over slavery and she pointed a finger of shame at the slave owners and at America as a whole.

Harriett Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)
It created a national sensation. Within ten years, it sold two million copies, making it the best-selling novel of all time in the United States, in proportion to population, according to noted Civil War historian James M. McPherson. The book was so controversial and so powerful that there were attempts to ban it in some parts of the South. Pro-slavery authors attempted to counter the book with their own books with titles like Uncle Robin, in His Cabin in Virginia, and Tom Without One in Boston in an attempt to show that African Americans were better off in slavery. Abraham Lincoln reportedly acknowledged the impact of her novel when he meet Harriett Beecher Stowe in 1862 and quipped, "So, you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war."

Stowe uses two plot devices to successfully make her case about the evils of slavery. The first is the theme of the splitting apart of slave families and the slave-owning families throughout the course of the book. The second is Uncle Tom's unwavering adherence to Christian principles. The book was written to persuade Christians of the Second Great Awakening that slavery was a great evil that should be eliminated. The reader is continually assaulted with images and exhortations designed to shame the heart of a nineteenth century Christian into action.

Stowe chose to focus on the rending of slave families and the abuse heaped upon the devout Christian, Uncle Tom, for good reason. If she had focused on the hard, forced labor of slaves in the field there would have been little sympathy. This was an era in which nearly everyone worked long, hard hours and many people worked for others and felt that they were forced to work or starve. For example, historian Harry L. Watson noted that the famed "Lowell Girls" of New England were forced to live in company-owned boarding houses and worked an average of 73 hours per week.

If she had made a straight argument about the basic immorality of one human being owning another, she probably would not have swayed many hearts. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney summed up the feelings of many people in the Dred Scott decision when he said that African Americans were "of an inferior order...so far inferior, that they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect."

I some states, it was even against the law for African Americans to reside within the state. In Indiana, for example, the 1851 state constitution made it illegal for African Americans to move into the state and fined anyone who hired them or encouraged them to remain in the state. The proceeds of those fines were put into a fund to re-settle African Americans to colonies in Africa.

Rather than writing an essay or an editorial that lays out the antislavery argument, Stowe uses a much more effective method - she introduces her readers to the slaves themselves and inflicts the horrors of slavery upon these slaves. The reader is forced to get to know slaves as people (undoubtedly a rare occurrence for Northern whites) and then witness the rending of their families, their struggles for dignity, their flights for freedom and terrible physical abuse.

From the very beginning of her novel, Stowe shows the fearful prospect that faced all slave families - the selling away of family members. The reader is shown, through these fictional characters, the impact of the selling away of a family member. The reader is witness to a slave auction in which a worn-out old woman begs to be sold along with her only remaining child.

The fear of being sold away was not just restricted to cruel or greedy masters. Kindly masters could have financial troubles and be forced to break apart families. In what is probably the most famous scene in Uncle Tom's Cabin, the readers follows an escaping slave named Eliza as she flees a loving mistress in the middle of winter so that her only child will not be sold away to help cover family debts. Eliza is so desperate to escape the runaway slave hunters that she flees across ice flows of the Ohio River.

The majority of the book deals with the title character, Uncle Tom, a slave sold away from his family and friends (including the master's son) in order to pay a debt. Uncle Tom's desire to return to his home in Kentucky is a constant throughout the book. The reader also knows that he would not have suffered his awful death if he had not been sold away from his home and family. By making fully developed characters of the slaves, Stowe shows that the reality of slave life was not like the comments of the white woman at the slave auction. She is  asked,

"Suppose, ma'am, your two children, there, should be taken from you, and sold?"

and she answers:

"We can't reason from our feelings to those of this class of person."

Stowe attacks that attitude by showing how "this class of person" would respond to forced separation from a child, and it was no different than the response of any other class of person.

Stowe takes us on a tour of the South by way of the slave Uncle Tom. He sees good masters and bad ones. He lives in a mansion (as a slave, of course) and works in the most horrible conditions on a desolate plantation. Through it all, Uncle Tom is a perfect Christian. He is intended to be this way. He never deviates from the ideals of the Christian faith. He shares food while he is nearly starving. He rescues a drowning child while he is being shipped down the Mississippi to be auctioned and he does not complain when his hymn book is taken from him and his faith is ridiculed. Uncle Tom does not take freedom when it is offered by his master in New Orleans because he is concerned about the condition of his master's soul and wants to make sure he becomes a Christian. Tom even forgives the master who orders him beaten to death and the slaves who gladly comply with his commands. Stowe makes him an unbelievably perfect Christian, even a saint. She does this so that she can demonstrate the cruelty of slavery. If it can destroy this man who has done nothing wrong, how can anyone survive it? It screams at the consciences of the Christians who let this situation continue and questions the Christianity of the Slave-owning class.

Harriett Beecher Stowe's goal was to reach out to touch the heart of America and demonstrate the evils of slavery. Coming from a family of evangelists, she created the character of Uncle Tom to reach out to Christians of the Second Great Awakening. He may have been a slave, but he was also a fellow Christian who lived the Christian ideals. If the readers could not sympathize with a slave or a black man, they could identify with his religious ideals and his faith. Suddenly, people who felt nothing for the plight of the slaves could see the evils of slavery.

Truly an American classic.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Uncle Tom's Cabin

Reviewed on July 19, 2012.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Spiritual Singularity (The Day Eight Series, Book 3) by Ray Mazza

Published by CreateSpace in 2012.

The action continues in Book 3 of the Day Eight Series. In The Spiritual Singularity the tech company Day Eight is moving forward with their plans to use computerized simulated humans ("simulants") to affect events in the real world in a very dramatic way. Political assassinations, dramatic leap forwards in technology and a physical link between the computer simulant Ezra and the President of the United States make computer programmer Trevor Leighton very worried for the future of humanity itself. Leighton is working as best he can to save himself and possibly even the whole world even though he is running out of money, running out of time and running out of options.

The Spiritual Singularity is full of rich, meaty themes that have been discussed in science fiction and fantasy for decades. In the Lord of the Rings series,Tolkien looks into the idea of what unlimited power does to a human being. In the original Star Trek series, Captain Kirk defuses multiple computers that have taken humanity's choices away from them in order to protect them. Book 3 of this series approaches this theme from the side of the entity that is amassing unlimited power.

I really enjoyed the previous 2 books in The Day Eight Series ( The Reborn and Of Mice and Hitmen ) and gave them both 5 stars. I liked this one a little less, not for the action, which is solid, not for the chase and the mystery for what is going on. Instead, it gets a little too "talky" at times. It's hard not to with all of these big ideas flying around.

Still, this is a very solid book in a very strong series.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Spiritual Singularity (The Day Eight Series, Book 3) by Ray Mazza.

Reviewed on July 17, 2012.

Of Mice and Hitmen (The Day Eight Series, Part 2) by Ray Mazza

Published in 2012 by CreateSpace

Yesterday, I posted a review of Book 1 of this series ( The Reborn ) and I wrote a lengthy rave review. I am not going to go into all of that here. Suffice it to say, I really liked Book 1.

Of Mice and Hitmen is where the series really hits its stride. In Book 1, programmer Trevor Leighton discovers that his employer, a tech firm called Day Eight, has created simulated human life in a computer. Not just Artificial Intelligence, but simulated life write down to the cellular level.  These computerized people are called simulants.

Trevor has already met one fairly simple version of the simulant program, a simulant 1.0 if you will. In Book 2 he meets Ezra, the most updated version of the simulant program. She lives in an accelerated world, programmed to go faster so that she can complete projects in the real world quicker. Her name is Ezra, which is an odd name for a female, but it means "helper" in Hebrew and she is being used to work on any number of projects for Day Eight - new computers, cures for illnesses, etc. She has lived for thousands of years in her simulated world and is far smarter than any human being has ever been in terms of raw knowledge.

But, there is another, darker purpose as well. Leighton senses this and narrowly escapes an attempt on his life. When a series of political assassinations change the results of elections, Leighton works to figure out how Day Eight, Ezra and the political chaos are all tied together while he is on the run.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Of Mice and Hitmen (The Day Eight Series, Part 2) by Ray Mazza.

Reviewed on July 17, 2012.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Reborn (The Day Eight Series, Part 1) by Ray Mazza

Published in 2012 by CreateSpace

So, I have on the table next to me three books by Ray Mazza. These books make up The Day Eight Series. They are self-published and most experienced readers know that a great number of the self-published are fair to middling and I am usually tempted to grade them on a curve, the thought process being, " Well, it's pretty good considering it's a do-it-yourself job and she did it all herself." This is much the same thought process I have when I do handyman work around the house and I proudly show it off to my wife - it's pretty good but certainly not professional.

I let these three books sit on my to-be-read pile for about a month.


I was not in the mood for, "Well, it's pretty good, considering..."

So, I pick up book one and about 15 pages in I am thinking, "Where is he going with this?" I read the back cover a couple of times and decided to give it a few more pages. Where are the human simulations running on computers? Where's the "catastrophic event" coming from?

By page 35 I decide I kind of like the main character, Trevor Leighton, and I'll ride it out a bit more.

On page 71, we hit pay dirt. My mind is blown. We are introduced to the simulations. Most importantly, we are introduced to how they are developed. Such a simple idea (and complex at the same time). Good sci-fi takes you to new places and shows you some new stuff. Great sci-fi takes what you already know and puts a little tilt to it, a twist that makes you see everything in a new way. It's all the same. It's all different.

Mazza's series is about human beings simulated on a computer. I figure he knows something about this since his bio shows that he has worked on several "Sims" projects. If you are not familiar with the Sims games, well they create a little world for you to interact in. In a way, they are very, very, very limited versions of Artificial Intelligence. They also show the glaring deficiencies of trying to develop it the way we have so far. This book shows a new path to achieving that effort and the series makes you question if you really want to.

So, in this book, Leighton, a talented programmer working for a tech company called Day Eight is screwing around with the firewall on his company's servers so he can download movies at work. That firewall breach starts a chain reaction that knocks out much of the internet and fries the computers in his office. On his flash drive, though, is a message from a dead girl that claims she is trapped. Since his office is closed for the time being, Trevor decides to do a little investigating and that is where the trouble starts.

These three books are not "pretty good, considering they're an indie effort." They are good. Period.

I rate book one in this series 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Reborn (The Day Eight Series, Part 1) by Ray Mazza.

Reviewed on July 16, 2012.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bad Moon Rising (Sam McCain #9) (audiobook) by Ed Gorman

Published by AudioGo in 2012
 Read by Joe Barrett 
Duration: 6 hours, 6 minutes.

This is the first book I have read (or for that matter even seen) in the Sam McCain series. Normally, I would not recommend jumping in on the ninth book in a series, but it is a testament to the skill of the author, Ed Gorman, that I was able listen to Bad Moon Rising and join right in and not feel lost at all. The titles in the series all come from music from the general time that the book is set in.

 It is late August 1968. It is hot in Black River Falls, Iowa. The book starts with Sam McCain at a party watching the violence of the Democratic National Convention. Hippies are on TV and hippies are in Black River Falls. They are a source of controversy as their free love lifestyle, long hair and drug usage rankle a lot of people in small town Iowa. They live on an old farm with a history of tragedy and that history continues as the daughter of the local millionaire is found dead in a barn on the commune. She was a frequent visitor on the farm and was known to date a resident so the finger of suspicion is immediately pointed at the hippies. Sam McCain is called out by the leader of the commune because he is the only attorney in town that will have anything to do with them. Tensions escalate as McCain tries to figure out what happened.

Ed Gorman
McCain is an interesting character. He sees why the hippies would want to "drop out" of society, but knows they aren't really going off the grid. He is irritated at the mindless anti-hippie reactions of many of his neighbors, but he is very aware that some of these folks cause serious trouble. He admires their talk about freedom, but notes that they live in a commune controlled by an iron-fisted dictator. What kind of guy is Sam McCain? He is the kind of guy that you like but your wife thinks is an asshole. And you know what, you'd  both be right. He is full of contradictions. He likes the hippies but he is a member of the National Guard. He likes to poke his finger in the eye of authority but he does a lot of investigative work for a judge.

I like this book for a lot of reasons. Number one, it's a good old-fashioned mystery. Number two, it's a bit of a history lesson, reminding readers of the upheaval of 1968. Number three, Ed Gorman reminds everyone that the Midwest is not all corn-fed country boys and girls riding on tractors. As a native of Indiana I can tell you that this is not "flyover country" - life happens here, too.

Reason number four for liking the book is the reader, Joe Barrett. Personally, I hate hearing audiobooks with  out of place accents. Barrett hits "Midwest" over and over again perfectly. His sheriff actually sounds almost exactly like a guy I know. Excellent job.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 15, 2012.

Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy by Rev. Robert Sirico

Published by Regnery in 2012

When I told two of my Catholic friends (who do not know each other) that I was reading a book about economics written by a Catholic priest, both reacted with a hearty laugh. Then, both commented about the political leanings of the priest, assuming that the priest would be quite liberal. Sadly, they were very surprised when I described some of the Rev. Sirico's thoughts.

Why sadly? It is sad that many people (not just Catholic priests) do not grasp the simple relationship between one's standing before God and one's rights - God has made you an individual and you are endowed with certain rights - as an individual. People are creative (as is the Creator), are intended for some sort of work and should have the freedom to find the work that pleases them and reap the benefit from what they have sown.

Reverend Robert Sirico
Sirico begins by telling his personal story - how he went from being a well-connected ultra-liberal to being a conservative priest. This story provides the framework for the book as he raises arguments from his youth and demonstrates that the questions are based on some serious misunderstandings. Sometimes it is by demonstrating relationships that are vital to freedom that some may not see, such as the relationship between personal freedom and economic freedom, how freedom and chaos are not the same thing, why a job is the best anti-poverty and a growing economy is the best cure for poverty.

Some arguments never even occurred to me before, such as the assertion that all foreign aid, even programs that send food and clothing to third world countries, hurt those countries more than they help (in the case of clothing, it discourages local clothing businesses from starting - who will buy a new shirt from a local manufacturer when they can wear your donated 5K run/walk fundraiser shirt for free? If that local manufacturer can't make any money, he can't hire someone to work in his factory or pay someone to supply him with cotton and the unemployment rate remains high).

Perhaps his most powerful comments run along the lines of the most basic of economic concepts - price indicates demand and when the government messes with price, it sends false signals to the market and causes  major problems.  Proper Capitalism is not cronyism (government making rules to benefit certain businesses in exchange for favors) because that also sends false signals to the market. Socialism sends lots and lots of false signals to the market and the longer those signals are sent, the worse the problems when the market re-sets. He also brings a very good point to the discussion of socialism - it drives some people out of the market entirely and puts the people in charge of the socialist apparatus in a powerful position to affect the market as they make rules that are not based on reality (think of the old USSR and the story of the shoe factories that  made thousands of left shoes but no right ones - there should have been a market signal to make right shoes as well). Besides, a capitalist that gets rich making pairs of shoes has benefited society (even if he does get rich along the way), a socialist who makes nothing but left shoes has just squandered scarce resources.

He also makes arguments about the value of "smart" (local) charity vs. welfare, why "creative destruction" is a good thing in the economy, the health care system, environmentalism and finally ends with thoughts about theology and economics.

This is a profound little piece of economic writing. It challenges some common assumptions, it is easy to read and digest and well worth your time.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 15, 2012.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Salvationist (audiobook) by Nancy Cole Silverman

 A Clever Twist on the Typical Western.

Published by Mind Wings Audio.
Read by Emily Durante.
Duration: 1 hour, 3 minutes

This short story is a clever twist on the typical western story. Many westerns have the theme of the banker, or other powerful businessman exploiting the townspeople for his own nefarious purposes only to have the local drifter come in and confront him and eventually save the day.

A Salvationist from the 1880s
Nancy Cole Silverman has a similar situation with the most powerful man in Bisbee, Arizona, a mining boom town, exploiting the local miners and young women by gobbling up their claims (in the case of the miners) or coercing them into becoming prostitutes in his brothel (in the case of the young women). The hero is not a cowboy or a gunfighter.  Instead, she is a bumbling, well-intentioned and brave rookie evangelist (Salvationist) named Fannie Johnston who has come to town with the Salvation Army as part of a team sent to evangelize to this rowdy boom town.

Loosely based on events in the life of the author's great-great grandmother, the story is often amusing and, even though it ends abruptly, it is still a solid western story and perhaps a bit more close to the truth than the more popular gunslinger stories.

Emily Durante does a nice job of voicing the great variety of characters (newspapermen, Salvation Army members, miners, young people, the sheriff and several more). Nicely done.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 13, 2012.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Lowdown: A Short History of the Origins of the Vietnam War (audiobook) by Dr. David Anderson

Delivers what it promises

Published by Creative Content Ltd in 2011.
Narrated by Lorelei King
Duration: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Creative Content has a whole series of short audiobooks and kindle books in its "The Lowdown" series. The main feature of the series is that they are short (a little more than an hour or about 35 "pages" on the Kindle) and give the reader a quick look at a topic.

In this case, the topic is the origin of the Vietnam War. Note, this is not a history of the entire war, but if you ever wondered just how the United States got involved in the Vietnam War, this nifty little history will do the job just fine.

President Lyndon Johnson signs the
Tonkin Gulf Resolution in August of 1964
Anderson roots his history in the aftermath of World War II. There are two major factors at play. The first is the desire of the French to re-establish their pre-war colonial empire and re-assert themselves as a major player on the world scene despite their being conquered by the Germans at the beginning of  World War II. The second factor is America's determination to contain Soviet Communism. Anderson traces these two movements and demonstrates that they led to a collision with Ho Chi Minh's anti-colonial communist movement in Vietnam. He follows them through the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He ends with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that was widely interpreted to give Johnson permission to act in Vietnam as he saw fit.

This is an easy to digest history. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know a little more about the Vietnam War or for use in any class that is looking for a relatively short reading (or listen) in a 20th Century American history class. The audiobook version is read by Lorelei King. King's reading is well done. She reads at the perfect pace - not so fast that you cannot absorb the new facts that she is presenting, not so slowly the listener's attention starts to lag. Nothing less than I would expect from a true audiobook pro.

Link to this audiobook at Amazon.com: The Lowdown: A Short History of the Vietnam War.

I rate this history 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 13, 2012.

Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in America by David K. Shipler

Highly Recommended

Published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2012

Last summer I read David K.Shipler's first book on this topic, The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties (see my review by clicking here) and I found it to be the most profound book I read that summer and maybe all year. I began my review of that book with this thought:

"I always tell people that the traditional left-right continuum used to describe someone's politics is so inaccurate as to be useless. Really, what is the difference between an aging hippie living on a hill somewhere  raising some dope for personal use and telling the government to get out of his business and a Barry Goldwater-type conservative (like me) living by himself on a hill somewhere that tells the government to get its nose out of his business? Some dope. Otherwise, they are both determined advocates of civil liberties - keep out of my business if it is not hurting anyone else."

When I read the first book I was expecting to get a snoot full of political commentary that I disagreed with from a New York Times reporter with a left-wing agenda. To be blunt, I was expecting one of those political attack books that Al Franken, Michael Moore, Ann Coulter and David Limbaugh produce with regularity (Well, Al Franken is busy being a Senator now so I suppose he has stopped). Instead, I found the book to be politically balanced and quite remarkable. This book is just as remarkable, if a little less balanced by the inclusion of a half-dozen snide comments that should have been edited out, in my opinion.

Rights at Risk focuses on multiple topics but here are the chapter titles (with descriptions): Torture and Torment (being abused while being investigated), Confessing Falsely (how some people, especially young people and the mentally impaired, are tricked into confessions), The Assistance of Counsel (the defense side of the trial), The Tilted Playing Field (the prosecution side of the trial), Below the Law (the lack of rights of immigrants, legal and illegal), Silence and Its Opposite (freedom of speech in turbulent times), A Redress of Grievances (spying on protesters, "free speech zones") and Inside the Schoolhouse Gate (freedoms of students and teachers).

Torture and Torment includes a discussion of jailhouse torture such as physically abusing suspects and CIA torture. It demonstrates that the famed water-boarding sessions have poisoned several other cases. The good news in the cases of the police abuse is that the system, in the cases Shipler cited, mostly worked to flush out the bad cops. Mostly, but not always. A weaker part of Shipler's argument comes from the discussion of people wanted for trial in America but arrested in foreign countries. He argues, correctly, that many countries do not offer any protection for defendants. But, his arguments are not as tight here and led me to the inevitable conclusion that anyone who confesses to a crime in a foreign country can just claim that they were tortured into confessing and the confession should be dropped. Arrested in Luxembourg? Claim torture and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The chapter entitled Confessing Falsely is quite interesting. Shipler discusses the various training methods police learn on how to question suspects and how those very methods can lead to false arrest and false trials and leave the real criminals out on the streets. He also writes about instances in which the rights of the accused were short-circuited in order to facilitate a confession. He includes a recommendations for how to address these problems, including the videotaping of all interrogations and prohibiting the questioning of children without the presence of his or lawyer or a parent.

You know the old adage, "You get what you pay for?" Well, the chapter The Assistance of Counsel was disturbing because it proves it. Public defenders in areas that have professional public defender offices are overwhelmed. In states and locales that have court-appointed public defenders from the general ranks of area defense attorneys there are serious issues of quality. Shipler encountered judges that admit to appointing certain defense attorneys over and over because they don't fuss much in court. Others appoint lots and lots of cases to their political contributors. Those attorneys make a good living on the sheer volume of these cases. But, appointing cases based on these criteria is not a solid foundation for justice. On top of that, court-appointed defenders have almost no budget for experts and in most cases, there are no funds available for appeals. It really is stacked against poor defendants.

The Tilted Playing Field looks at all of the tools the government has to coerce cooperation, including threats of deportation, violation of probation, plea bargaining and asset forfeiture. I was disturbed by the practice of sentencing based on parts of the case that were dismissed. For example, if you have a gun illegally and are brought up on charges of trafficking drugs and are found not guilty of the drug charge, some courts will still sentence you more severely for the gun charge because of the drug charge, that you were acquitted of.

Below the Law discusses the status of legal and illegal immigrants in the justice system. To be blunt, they don't have much status. I was especially disturbed to discover that a great number of immigration judges have no particular experience in immigration law except for a single short class with an online quiz taken the next day (page 144). This makes for poor justice when the judge is not an expert. Would you go to probate court with a judge who know next to nothing about wills? The case of the political refugee who was arrested for not having his papers and was on the deportation list is especially disturbing. Luckily, the refugee learned from other detainees that he did not need papers as a refugee. He told his attorney who educated both the prosecutor and the judge on this legal point. They were directed to a page on their own website that explained the law. (pages 184-5)

The chapter Redress of Grievances demonstrates that we spend an awful lot of time spying on groups that exercise their right to protest. While most of these groups would be silly to spy on, Shipler seems that there would never be a need to look at any of these groups at all. I don't know where the line is, but it is clear that some law enforcement groups are over-zealous and act spitefully towards protesters. For example, the Maryland State Police surveilled an anti-death penalty group and listed some of its members in an anti-terrorism database despite having no evidence of a crime. (page 229) In at least one case, Shipler does hurt his own argument. He notes the famed WTO riots in Seattle in 1999 (nicknamed the "Battle in Seattle" by some) one page and argues that the Washington, D.C, police had no reason to be worried about planned demonstrations against World Bank and the IMF meetings six months later. (pages 234-236) Shipler ends the chapter with a long discussion on flag-burning, which has been ruled legal for a long time and is still news to some and the Westboro Baptist Church protesters.

Inside the Schoolhouse Gate was the most interesting chapter for me because I am a teacher. It is a maxim that students have the right to express political opinions. But, since attendance at school is compulsory, it is also a maxim that you have the right to attend school and not be harassed. For example, is a Malcolm X t-shirt a threat to white students? Is a Hank Williams, Jr. t-shirt with a Confederate flag on it a threat to black students? Are both, or neither, disruptive to school so that teaching becomes difficult? Can high school newspapers be censored by their schools? (page 274, 278-9) Even worse, in my mind are the speech codes  at universities and designated "free speech zones," especially on public university campuses. Silly me, I thought the entire country was a free speech zone. I suppose we don't want students to discover new and different thoughts while being educated...

Shipler concludes with this thought: "If every American school taught the Bill of Rights in a clear and compelling way, if every child knew the fundamental rules that guide the relationships between the individual and the state, then every citizen would eventually feel the reflexive need to resist every violation. We had better begin now, for rights that are not invoked are eventually abandoned."

As a social studies teacher, I wholeheartedly agree and I worry because we are cutting those very classes across the country in order to make sure we pass the math and English standardized tests. The school I taught in last year cut 20% of the social studies classes in the third 9 weeks in order to provide more time for  English practice (language arts stuff, not English for non-English speakers) with a prescribed, decidedly non-social studies curriculum. I wonder what was cut?

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Rights at Risk.

Reviewed on July 13, 2012.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Grant: Savior of the Union ("The Generals" series) by Mitchell Yockelson

Published in 2012 by Thomas Nelson

Grant: Savior of the Union is an enjoyable, easy-to-read biography of Ulysses S. Grant, the Union General that seemingly came from nowhere to become the man that engineered the conquest of  the Confederacy.

Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885)
Yockelson covers Grant's entire life and also a bit of his father's life, with an appropriate emphasis on Grant's military service in the Mexican War, his resignation from the army between the wars, his difficulties as a civilian and his return to the service once war broke out between the Union and the Confederacy. Two-thirds of the book covers the four years of service in the Civil War. His Presidency and retirement years are quickly brushed over.

Grant's career is dealt with fairly throughout the book. His great decisions are applauded, his mistakes are pointed out (Cold Harbor, in particular) and the reader gets strong feel for his calm, determined leadership style and his emphasis on substance over style. This is a much more balanced biography than the Sherman biography in this series (click here for my review of Sherman: The Ruthless Victor).

That being said, the book is in serious need of maps and lots of them. There are a few pictures scattered throughout, but no maps. Also, there are times when the book tends to repeat itself, such as in the chapter on his Presidency.

Still, this is a solid biography recommended for the beginner or the serious student of the Civil War who just has to read everything that he or she finds (like me).

 I received this book from Thomas Nelson Publishers for free in exchange for an honest review.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Grant: Savior of the Union.

I rate this biography 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 9, 2012.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

All Good Things... (Star Trek: The Next Generation) (audiobook) by Micheal Jan Friedman


Published by Simon & Schuster Audio in 1994
Read by Jonathan Frakes
Duration: 2 hours, 55 minutes.
Based on a script by Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga

All Good Things... is an abridged audiobook presentation of the novelization of the two hour series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  There is a lot of room there for errors to be made. Will the reader interpret the material well? Is the abridgment done well? Is the novelization of the script done well? That's a lot of steps between the original authors and the audiobook listener and any of them done poorly could result in a poor audiobook presentation.

Jonathan Frakes as Commander Will Riker
This audiobook was done quite well. The novelist is a prolific author of Star Trek books so he knows his material. The abridgment was done well. The reader was Jonathan Frakes. Frakes played Commander Will Riker throughout the show's run (and directed several of them) so he knows how everyone is supposed to sound, how the show is paced, etc.  Frakes does an amazing impersonation of Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, captures the voice of Q and Data very well. His Lt. Worf voice is laughable, however. Happily, Worf's lines are few and far between while Picard speaks throughout.

In All Good Things... Picard is plagued by time travel. He is slipping backwards and forwards to three different moments in time. The earliest time is the time period covered by the first episode of the series. The second point is seven years later, the time period covered by the last episode of the series. The third point in time is in the far future when Picard is elderly and possibly suffering from a incurable dementia. The audiobook ties together the entire series (in a way) and let's the listener get a taste of the future lives of Worf, Crusher, Picard, LaForge, Riker and Data.

Picard keeps sliding between these times and as he goes along he is confronted by Q who lets him know that if he does not figure out what to do he will be responsible for the disappearance of all of humanity from the galaxy. Picard works to solve the problem from all three times, each with its own set of challenges.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook is available through Amazon.com here: All Good Things...

Reviewed on July 8, 2012.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Resonance (audiobook) by AJ Scudiere

  Great characters, lingering story.

Audio version published by Skyboat Road Company in 2008.
Multicast Performance
Duration: 16 hours, 25 minutes

The premise behind Resonance is simple - the magnetic poles are starting to switch and it is starting to cause frogs to be born deformed, messing up migration patterns and kill people who are in "hotspots" (areas where the reversal has already started).

Scudiere does a great job of creating believable characters and her five main characters are quite strong. We have two young doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and their boss (played by Arte Johnson of Laugh-In fame), a young narcissistic geologist and a young biologist who specializes in frogs.

These five race around the country documenting "hotspots" and trying to figure out why people exposed to them die. As they travel, we learn a lot more about the characters and a romance starts to bloom.

Well, it would start to bloom except for two things: 1) the entire world suddenly shifts causing half of the world's population to die and 2) the guy just somehow can't muster up the guts to tell her how he feels even though everyone knows it except for her for about 6 hours of the audiobook.

In fact, the book just goes into some sort of holding pattern about two-thirds of the way through. The explanation behind the mass deaths is discovered (because why would magnetic reversals kill people? If it so bad than an MRI would be fatality-inducing) and there is a Twilight Zone-esque ending that is fairly clever but takes too long to resolve.

What is not discussed is the concept of the world still running along like normal even though half of the population has died. No mass chaos. No nuclear power plants overloading. No rogue nations deciding "Hey! It's the end of the world so let's go ahead and nuke such-and-such country!" Deliveries are still made, the phones still work, bureaucrats are still filing forms and accountants are still watching the bottom line. Having never seen the end of the world, I can only assume that it would be less like a Midwestern blizzard and more like Hurricane Katrina when it hit New Orleans and the social fabric was torn to pieces.

This audiobook is billed as an "AudioMovie" because it has special effects and multiple actors reading the different parts, much like an old-fashioned radio show. Several audiobook producers are using this format and it can be a superior way to tell a story. The actors did a great job, especially Arte Johnson who stole every scene he was in with his role as the elderly brilliant but cranky CDC administrator.The special effects were relatively rare and did not intrude as can happen with some companies that have used this format.

This was a book in serious need of a thorough editing. Three or four hours could have been removed from this book without hurting it. Repeated conversations abound and the ending with a twist just lingered until it  eventually lost its punch.

I rate this book 3 out of 5 stars.

Reviewed on July 6, 2012.

Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV by Warren Littlefield with T. R. Pearson

   Published by Doubleday in 2012

If you remember the giant television shows of NBC's heyday in the 1980s and 1990s this book will be fascinating. Shows like Cheers, Cosby, Law & Order, ER, Will &  Grace, Friends, Frazier, 3rd Rock From the Sun, Mad About You and Seinfeld ruled the airwaves. Thursday nights were dominated by NBC and NBC usually made more money on that night than the other six nights combined - literally billions of dollars.

Warren Littlefield was directly involved in the creation of these shows or the in the decision to put them on the air. Littlefield tells the story of "Must See TV" through the voices of the participants themselves. The book is literally a series of quotes with very little in the way of narration from Littlefield himself. Littlefield calls it "oral history" format. If this book were a movie, it would be one of those "talking head" documentaries full of people talking.

But, what a documentary it would be!

I had my reservations about this book, especially when I saw its format. But, once I started it I blazed right through it. The stories behind the creation of these beloved television shows are interesting and told very well. Some stories are more interesting than others, of course, but the book zips along and is full of interesting tidbits like this one - Fred Dryer was the frontrunner for the part of Sam Malone of Cheers, instead of Ted Danson.

The inside story of what was going on in corporate NBC is interesting and, I suspect, a little self-serving on Littlefield's part. He is especially tough on Don Ohlmeyer (who does sound like a difficult person to work with) and makes it sound like NBC has not broadcast much in the way of quality programming since he left.

Nonetheless, this is an interesting book and I rate it 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 6, 2012.