"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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Friday, May 31, 2013

Coolidge (audiobook) by Amity Shlaes

Book Marred By The Author's Insistence On Including Everything and Analyzing Nothing

Published by Harper Audio in February of 2013
Read by Terence Aselford
Duration: 21 hours, 8 minutes

Amity Shlaes' previous book was a history of the Great Depression called The Forgotten Man. In his own way Calvin Coolidge is also a forgotten man. He sits midway between two presidential giants (Wilson and FDR) who vigorously expanded the power of the federal government and the executive branch. His term was not marked by wars, but rather by a general rise in America's prosperity. Coolidge is not remembered as a great president but as an oddity - Silent Cal who took naps every afternoon.

Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), president from 1923-2929
This is unfortunate. While hardly a perfect president, Coolidge has some important lessons to offer. I feel that I have to offer some bonafides at this point. I am not a fan of this book but I do find Coolidge interesting, On my blog you will find 2 Calvin Coolidge quotes. I am a big fan of his "economizing" and thought his interesting experiment in cutting taxes to increase revenue to be an wonderful confirmation of the Laffer Curve. He had things he was short-sighted on but this book largely ignored them or explained them poorly, such as the Billy Mitchell air power vs. sea power controversy and the damage his support of tariffs caused in the long term.

In fact, that is the crux of the problem that I have with this book. It tells the story of his life thoroughly but offers no analysis..In his book Winged Defense, Billy Mitchell predicted that American warships were vulnerable to air attack and that planes from the Empire of Japan would attack the American navy at Pearl Harbor in 1925, 16 years before Pearl Harbor!  Does Shlaes mention this? No. Does she discuss how tariffs  hurt trade and damaging trade hurts long-term economic growth? No.

What Shlaes does in this self-described  "mammoth project" is line up every possible fact she could find and lay them all out in chronological order with almost no discussion or analysis at all. It makes for a fact-filled but not very informative book.  Billy Mitchell, the "economizing" and Coolidge's attempts to "outlaw" war by way of multi-lateral peace treaties deserve more than the mention as they go by on the timeline. They deserve discussion

Shlaes thrills to include little details from Coolidge's life and this book was an almost un-ending stream of factoids. We hear about Coolidge's college life, including an almost week-by-week look at his first semester, including his living quarters, how much rent he paid and lots of quotes from letters about his indecision about joining a fraternity. This book quotes Coolidge's letters frequently, which can be a nice touch. Oftentimes these quotes are used to illustrate a point that was already made and add nothing new. Or, they are rather pointless altogether like his letter to a tenant farmer on his land with unsolicited and unremarkable advice about farming (save some seed back in case of drought).

There are multiple ongoing touchstones in this book that serve as themes - emblems of ongoing important ideas in Coolidge's life. For example, the book continues to look at Amherst College as it tells the story of Calvin Coolidge. We hear about the ongoing struggles and successes of professors and fellow alumni and their reactions to changing times as a way of talking about how the philosophy he learned at Amherst served him throughout his life. She does the same with the limekiln plot back home in Vermont. This was a piece of hardscrabble farmland that symbolized his New England roots. Unfortunately, these touches were done rather clumsily and so often that I grew weary of them.

The official White House
portrait of Grace Coolidge
The discussion of Coolidge's family life was quite well done and stands out throughout the book. Shlaes does a good job of incorporating his family life in with the rest of the story. The reader (or, in my case, the listener) gets a strong feel for his father, his step-mother and his wife, Grace.

There are also long discussions of Charles Lindbergh and Gutzon Borglum (the designer and carver of Mount Rushmore) that were intended to add a little flavor of the times to the biography but mostly succeeded in dragging out this already overly long book even longer.

This audiobook tips the scales at 21 hours and 8 minutes. I think it would be safe to say that editing out a full one-fifth of this book would do nothing but make it better. It is full of extraneous details such as the cancellation of a state dinner by the leader of Cuba costing the White House $32 fill the book (he cancelled because of a controversy that is mentioned once and never mentioned again - apparently it was brought into the biography discuss the $32 charge to the kitchen in a time of economizing). Or, how about the story of Coolidge paying the property taxes on the limekiln plot and how he included a self-addressed stamped envelope for the receipt.  It is not noteworthy that Calvin Coolidge of all men paid his property taxes.Of course he paid them that is exactly the kind of man he was.

Part of the problem I had was that this was an audiobook. It is difficult to skim an audiobook. It is divided into 10-12 minute sections that are not separated by topic. So, I was forced to listen to stuff that I would have just skimmed right over in a print book. My frustrations with the audiobook do not include the reader Terence Aselford. His voice was just about  a perfect voice for a book about Calvin Coolidge. I especially liked that he created a voice for Coolidge that he used when he read from his letter, columns and speeches.

So, for a book that is about a man who was famous for being succinct and was nicknamed Silent Cal, this book was way too wordy. Throw in an almost complete lack of analysis of Coolidge's decisions and policies and you end up with a rating of 2 stars out of 5. for this audiobook.

This audiobook was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Coolidge by Amity Shlaes.

Reviewed on May 31, 2013.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Trouble Comes to Sorrow (#2) (audiobook) by Jack Bates

Published by Mind Wings Audio in 2012
Read by Joe Barrett
Duration: 1 hour, 9 minutes

The Adventures of Cal Haskell Continue

Cal Haskell is the main character of a western series with a twist. He is the new Sheriff of Sorrow, Michigan. Westerns, of course, should take place in the West. But, this is Michigan's frontier and there are plenty of similarities to make it work. I reviewed the first book in the series in December of 2012. You can read my review by clicking here.

Sorrow is a troubled town. Cal Haskell and his motley crew of deputies keep an eye on things but sometimes things get out of control. Just recently, a jury has quickly found a black man guilty of killing a white prostitute. But, Cal is told by one of the town's most respected citizens that the wrong man was convicted. Once Cal starts to look into it things start to get real dangerous. Clearly, someone does not want him to look into this and they are willing to do anything to keep their secrets hidden.

Be prepared, the story does not really end once you get to the end, this is just part one of a multi-part tale.

Joe Barrett's midwestern twang rings true while he voices this town full of characters. Men, women, old and young - they all come through with a distinctive voice.

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

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

The kindle format of this book can be found on Amazon.com here: Trouble Comes to Sorrow.

Reviewed on May 25, 2013.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

UR (audiobook) by Stephen King

My new favorite Stephen King short story
Stephen King

Published by Simon and Schuster in 2010
Read by Holter Graham
Duration: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Normally, I am not a fan of short stories - they end just about the time I get comfortable with the story. But, Stephen King has a gift for short stories. He is able to get the reader comfortable with the characters very quickly and pack in a lot of weirdness very quickly. I can get tired of Stephen King in the novel format, especially in audiobook format where they books can last longer than 50 hours! But, Simon and Schuster's decision to issue his short stories as short audiobooks is perfect for me.

UR is the story of a small college Literature professor named Wesley Smith who decides to buy a Kindle after experimenting with a student's kindle. When this book was written, the only choice in Kindles was the Kindle 2. It came in off white, had no color and 5 years ago it was top of the line cool technology and I have one.

Wesley's Kindle is pink so he knows that there is something a little weird about it  they're all supposed to be off-white. The Kindle 2 has a menu choice called "Experimental." The Experimental setting has a few choices like internet. Wesley's Kindle has even more choices, including one called UR. And, once Wesley starts experimenting with the UR function, nothing will be the same again...

I liked Holter Graham's low-key reading of this short story. It hit the right note for a story about a low-key man whose life is in a bit of a rut and who loves books more than anything else.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: UR by Stephen King.

Reviewed on May 22, 2013

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Rogue (audiobook) by Mark Sullivan

Published by Macmillan Audio in 2012
Read by Jeff Gurner
Duration: 10 hours, 59 minutes

Mark Sullivan is yet another author who is working with James Patterson as a co-author in the hopes that Patterson's name will serve as a midwife to an ultra-successful career in books. I have not read the Patterson/Sullivan collaboration but I did enjoy the audiobook version of this solo effort by Sullivan.

Rogue starts with CIA operative Robin Monarch breaking into a Turkish research lab to steal a series of files called "Green Fields." Green Fields is supposed to be the collected archives of Al-Qaeda, but when Monarch gets curious, goes against his orders and opens a few of the files he discovers that he was being used to steal something altogether different and he decides to walk away from the CIA in mid-operation without saying a word in explanation. Time passes and Monarch uses his skills to become a professional thief (of the Robin Hood persuasion). Eventually he is snared in a complicated web of deceit that has him going after Green Fields yet again.

Robin Monarch is an amalgam of other legendary characters. I already mentioned Robin Hood. The traumatic death of his parents reminded me of Batman. He has a bit of Oliver Twist, James Bond (of course, it's a spy book!) and an extra large helping of Jason Bourne. The story follows the James Bond template - meet the bad guy in an elegant environment, get invited back to his place, get threatened and go after some sort of secret item stuck in some secret castle in some unheard of place while bedding the pretty women all over the place (except for the girl on your team who probably has a crush on you).

That being said, the book worked. It is not great literature but it is a solid summer read - perfect for a mental vacation.

Jeff Gurner did a great job as the reader. In fact, I would not say that he read it, I would say that he performed it. He created a multitude of accents and characters and made the reading sound like it was a multi-cast performance. He was even strong with female characters, usually a weak area in books read by males. Great job!

This audiobook was provided to me for free by the publisher in exchange for an honest review through the Audiobook Jukebox Solid Gold Reviewer program.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Rogue by Mark Sullivan.

Reviewed on May 18, 2013

Friday, May 17, 2013

Johnny Rutherford: Indy Champ by Hal Higdon

Kids Book, but still an interesting read for Indy 500 fans

Published in 1980 by G.P. Putnam's Sons

Johnny Rutherford: Indy Champ is a short biography aimed at elementary/middle school aged readers. It has 123 pages of text and 2 pages of end notes and is part of the extensive series of sports biographies known as the Putnam Sports Shelf.
Rutherford (by rear wing) and his car
at the 1975 Indy 500.

Even though I am long past the targeted audience for this book, I found it to be entertaining and informative. Higdon's roots as a magazine writer shine throughout the book - the text is lively throughout.

For those who do not know, Johnny Rutherford is a three-time winner of the Indy 500 with wins in 1974, 1976 and 1980. He was known as a hard luck driver until he broke through and finally started to win. His wins are even more remarkable when you consider he raced and won against all three four-time winners of the Indy 500 (A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Sr. and Rick Mears) and other legendary Indy 500 drivers such as Mario Andretti and Tom Sneva.

The book emphasizes Rutherford's humble beginnings in racing and his struggle to get quality equipment and to even finish the Indy 500. He used to joke and say, "If I ever finish this race, I'm going to win it." That is exactly what he did in 1974.

This book captures his approachable manner and "good guy" personae very well. The on track action is described very well. It also covers his 1963 appearance in the Daytona 500. It was published just before he won the 1980 Indy 500.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Johnny Rutherford: Indy Champ.

Reviewed on May 17, 2013

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Innocence Game by Michael Harvey

Taut Thriller - Until the End

Published in May of 2013 by Alfred A. Knopf

I have read three of Michael Kelly's five books. I found the first one I read (#3 in the Michael Kelly series) to be gritty but very solid. I was disappointed in the third Michael Kelly book when it went over the top with a man-made plague devastating Chicago. But, when I saw this one was not a Michael Kelly book I jumped on it. Just to let you know, Michael Kelly is in this book, he just is not the main character.

The book is based on a real-life class at the Northwestern Medill School of Journalism that re-investigates criminal cases in which they believe that the defendant was wrongly convicted. Three students are brought in to this summer's program and they change the parameters a bit. Rather than re-opening a case, they decide to solve an unsolved murder. Once they start digging they start to be pressured from all sides - their professor is against it, the police are using very dirty tricks and it looks like there is a cover-up in the works when key evidence goes missing or gets stolen.

This one seemed to be a solid mystery thriller until the end. The final reveal of the conspiracy was so over the top that it just ruined the book for me.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through the Amazon Vine program.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: The Innocence Game by Michael Harvey

Reviewed on May 16, 2013

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Locked In (Jessica Daniel #1) by Kerry Wilkinson

Solid first step by a self-published author who later went on to win himself a publishing contract

To be published by Thomas and Mercer in July of 2013

Kerry Wilkinson has done what almost all of Amazon's self-published authors have dreamed of - he has published a Kindle e-book, outsold the established names and got the attention of mainstream publishing houses and won himself a publishing contract.

And it all started with this book: Locked In. I read Locked In in paper form and found it to quite a good mystery. While this was not life-changing literature, I found it to be much better than the latest offerings that I have read by much more established authors such as Patricia Cornwell and James Patterson.

Wilkinsin is helped by the fact that he was a working journalist (he recently quit in order to focus on being an author) so he has the ability to write for the everyday reader. His journalistic background helps with one of his main characters, a reporter for a local newspaper. His police characters are also solid and believable.

The story revolves around two characters. The first is Jessica Daniel, a relatively new detective whose mentor has suddenly retired from law enforcement and refuses her calls. The other character is Gerry Ashford, a relatively clueless newspaper reporter who works for a slowly-dying newspaper and is getting the tips of a lifetime from an unknown source about a series of murders of people in their own homes. The houses have not been robbed, the doors are not broken, the windows are not jimmied and the doors have been locked behind the murderer, even doors that can only be locked by a key. Interestingly, all keys are accounted for so no can figure out how the murderer has gotten in and gotten out of the house.

Disclosure: I was given an advance uncorrected proof copy of this book by the publisher through the Amazon Vine Program in exchange for an honest review.

This is an enjoyable mystery. I rate it 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Locked In.

Reviewed on May 11, 2013

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and the Birth of the Indy 500 by Charles Leerhsen

A Total Joy 

Published in 2011 by Simon and Schuster

Full disclosure: I am a huge fan of the Indy 500. I have been to every 500 since 1986 and I live within earshot of the track. I have whiled away many a day at the track watching qualifications, practice or just going through the gift shop during the winter when the track is silent.

Charles Leerhsen's recounting of the first few years of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an interesting, fun and controversial book.

What is interesting?

An ad from a San Francisco newspaper bragging that the
Marmon Wasp won the Indy 5000. Note the inclusion of the
riding mechanic even though Harroun did not have one.
Leerhsen tells the story of early 1900s Indianapolis, the beginnings of America's automobile culture, auto racing and the construction of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a nearly seamless manner so that it all becomes one large story. It is a story of inspired (crazy?) businessmen, a fascination with what is "modern", and a growing fascination with cars in a time when life was comparatively cheap (auto racing was extremely dangerous for drivers and spectators).

What is fun?

Leerhsen has a knack for finding the humor in any situation and keeping the story moving along in a fact-filled and entertaining way. It was truly enjoyable to get his take on life in Indianapolis around 1910.

What is controversial?

Leerhsen dares to challenge the conventional story of the first Indianapolis 500 and asserts that in the confusion of this very long race (200 laps in a time when 10 laps was considered a long race) Ray Harroun and his Marmon Wasp did not win. I remain unconvinced (as does the hugely-respected Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson) but freely admit that the scoring system was flawed.

A thoroughly enjoyable read.

5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Blood and Smoke.

Reviewed on May 4, 2013