"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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Sunday, December 29, 2013

ENDER'S GAME (The Ender Quintet #1) by Orson Scott Card

I decided to take the plunge and see what all of the hype was about.

Originally published in 1985.
Winner of the Nebula Award (1985).
Winner of the Hugo Award (1986).

Ender's Game is a classic and I had not read it until now. Why? I don't know. I was reading a lot of science fiction when it came out, but I just missed it. Of course, I couldn't miss all of the sequels and prequels that came in the ensuing years but I figured that I was just too far behind to catch up. 

But, when the movie came out this fall a cousin of mine told me that he had gone to see it because he read it multiple times as a kid and loved it. So, I decided to take the plunge and see what all of the hype was about.

The positives:

Orson Scott Card. Photo by Nihonjoe
-Orson Scott Card creates an interesting, integrated universe to tell this story. It holds together well and has a solid internal consistency.

-The descriptions of the command school battles and the way that the command school operates are quite good - in fact, the battle scenes are excellent.

-Considering that the book was written in 1985 (and edited a bit in 1991) Card's descriptions of the internet and internet forums and online news agencies that are reminiscent of the Huffington Post are amazing, simply amazing.

I liked the ending with the computer game simulation which I will not go into to avoid spoilers.

The negatives:

-The story line involving Ender's sister and brother, Peter and Valentine and their plot to manipulate public opinion to take over the world is weak and I found it to be an unwelcome distraction from the much more interesting Ender at the Command School story arc.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Ender's Game (The Ender Quintet)

Reviewed on December 29, 2013.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

THE DROP (Harry Bosch #17) by Michael Connelly

Published in 2011 by Little, Brown and Company

I am a big fan of the Harry Bosch series, having read 15 of the 16 books in the series and given all but one top marks. The Drop continues that excellent trend. This is a gritty mystery story (really, it is two mysteries) with a number of twists and turns and a morally ambiguous ending.
Michael Connelly. Photo by Mark Coggins

Bosch is part of the D.R.O.P program - the Deferred Retirement Option Plan. This allows police officers to work up to five years past their mandatory retirement age, with the department making the decision as to how long he will work. When the story starts Harry has 3 years left in the DROP program and he is working cold murder cases with a young partner named David Chu. 

Harry sees the end of his career coming and he wants to get as many cases solved as he can. When a DNA hit on a rape/murder from the late 1980s points to a convicted child molester who would have been nine years old when the victim was killed Harry suspects that something else is going on. 

Just as he starts to dig into this case he get called into a current case involving the death of his son of his nemesis, former cop and current city councilman Irvin Irving. The preliminary investigation suggests that Irving's son jumped from the balcony of a hotel room, Irving suspects that it was murder and wants Harry to be involved so that it will be investigated properly.

The book goes back and forth between the cases and introduces a new love interest for Harry Bosch who forces Harry to consider why he is a detective in the first place. The strain of these cases strain the new partnership with David Chu and Harry is dismayed to hear that his daughter might be interested in police work as well (but proud as she participates in a target shooting contest).

Like all of the books in this series, The Drop is often brooding and intense as the reader watches Harry pursue the case over everything else. Simply one of the  best series going.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: The Drop (Harry Bosch #17) by Michael Connelly

QUINN CHECKS IN (Liam Quinn #1) by L.H. Thomson

Originally published in 2013.

From the opening lines of Quinn Checks In I was hooked. Literally, the opening sequence was so cleverly done that I knew I had see what else L.H. Thomson (new to me, but he has a good-sized list of titles) had to offer in this book. 

Liam Quinn is an artist gone bad but then turned back to the good. He used to make money making copies of someone else's art and then selling it as the real thing. But, once he was caught and went to prison he straightened out and now works as an insurance investigator in his hometown of Philadelphia. He does a little bit of everything but he is really on the payroll as the art expert. He is also working off the court-ordered restitution for his criminal past.

But, things are not all wonderful for Liam Quinn. His father was a beat cop and one of his brothers still is. It is hard for a cop to have an ex-con brother. But, Quinn keeps on plugging along.

Quinn gets a big art case that comes with a big reward for him if the insurance company can find the art rather than pay for it. An art gallery was robbed during the middle of an art showing (there was a party, food, people standing around, etc.) and only one piece of art was stolen, which seems odd because you could make even more money if you stole more art.

So, Quinn gets the case and starts investigating and soon enough finds himself being questioned by the police, a local mafia figure and, even worse, he must answer to his mother about missing her Sunday dinner!
The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the famed Rocky Balboa statue
 Photo by Bobak Ha'Eri

The mystery in this mystery story is just  so-so. But, the characters are so vivid and Quinn and most of his family (and his should-be but isn't girlfriend who works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) are so likable that you just want to read more. This is a solid book and an especially good start for a new series. This is a self-published effort and that can be a problem sometimes. This book, however, is not one of those times. Thomson has built a very solid foundation to build a series here, and it should be an interesting one.

Nice quote from the book: "You can never undo a wrong; you can only try to do right from there on."

NOTE: I was sent an e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: QUINN CHECKS IN (Liam Quinn #1) by L.H. Thomson.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

DANCE HALL of the DEAD (Joe Leaphorn #2) (audiobook) by Tony Hillerman

Originally published in 1973.
Audiobook version released in 2005 by Harper Audio.
Read by George Guidall.
Duration: Approximately 6 hours.

Winner of the 1974 Edgar Award, Dance Hall of the Dead is an early entry in the Leaphorn series and is one of the best.

Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police is called into a case that technically occurred on the Zuni reservation but there is a Navajo involved. Ernesto Cata, a middle school-aged Zuni boy and his friend George Bowlegs are missing. All that is left behind is an immense amount of blood that makes it clear that one or both of the boys died. Joe is brought in by the FBI who is coordinating a joint FBI/Zuni/Navajo task force to find the boys.

Leaphorn has the feeling that the Zunis think the Navajo boy killed the Zuni boy and he has just been brought in to lead a manhunt as far as the Zunis are concerned. The FBI makes it clear that they think it is related to drug trafficking and they think the boys were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Leaphorn thinks that it might be best to learn all he can about George Bowlegs and then try to figure out what happened to them. Leaphorn's investigation leads him to George's pathetic drunken father and George's miserable family life, a group of hippies that have moved into an abandoned Navajo property and a professional archaeological dig site looking into a theory about Folsom Man.

The more he digs, the more interesting things that Leaphorn finds out about young George Bowlegs and the more interesting ideas he has about what may have happened to Ernesto Cata and George Bowlegs...

As I said before, this is one of the better Leaphorn novels and would make a fine place to start into the series of you are new to it. The reader is introduced to the Zuni and Navajo cultures as well as getting a first-class mystery.

George Guidall read this audiobook. He has read most, if not all, of the Leaphorn and Leaphorn/Chee audiobooks. He has a solid feel for the series and his pacing suits its unique landscape and mood.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: DANCE HALL of the DEAD (Joe Leaphorn #2) by Tony Hillerman.

Reviewed on December 26, 2013.

REDLINERS by David Drake

Published in 1996 by Baen

David Drake is well-known for his various series of military science fiction books. Redliners is a rare stand-alone book for this prolific author. 

There is a struggle between humanity and an alien species called the Kalendru. The Kalendru are similarly built to people, more slender and covered with fur. But, unlike people they cannot conceive of the idea that humans and Kalendru can coexist as equals since their own society has no such concept. They have a definite pecking order within their own society and they want to put humans below the Kalendru in the galactic pecking order.

Strike Force Company C41 is roughly analogous to an American Special Forces unit - they are elite soldiers, they are sent in when the situation is nigh-well impossible and in this case, Strike Force Company C41 is pretty much used up after an attempt to create a beach head during an aborted attack on a Kalendru planet. The soldiers are tired and suffering from combat fatigue, PTSD or "the thousand mile stare." The current term for this condition in this book is Redlined, as in pushing an engine past its safety limits on a tachometer.

The computer-enhanced leader of humanity decides to re-assign Strike Force Company C41 to something that should be fairly lightweight duty - providing security while a new colony is established on Bezant 459. The company is surprised since they are not really ready for extended public contact - they have been prone to violence when told, "No" by people outside of their company.

But, they head off in a quickly made transport designed to be broken apart to provide the start of a new colony once they arrive. But, on their way they learn that scans of Bezant 459 show that it is an unfriendly place in the extreme. Even the plants actively hunt the animal life. The Strike Force works out a rough plan only to find that they don't land in the right location, the ship is damaged during the landing and the plant life is much worse than they ever imagined. It is enough to make settlers and soldiers alike to wonder why they were even sent here in the first place...

Filled with brilliantly-described battle scenes, Redliners is a throwback science fiction adventure. Sadly, the ending falls a bit flat, making this a 4 star book out of a possible 5 stars.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Redliners by David Drake.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

HAVANA QUEEN by James Bruno

What will happen to Cuba when the Castro brothers are gone?

Published in 2013.

James Bruno was a diplomat and a member of military intelligence. He served in Cuba during his career, a fact that makes his current offering pop with a realistic feel (and has irritated official Cuba since their official newspapers have attacked him for this book. See links in blog post here: link. )

Havana Queen features a Cuba dealing with the impending deaths of the Castro brothers. Considering that they have been the leaders of Cuba for more than half a century it would not be unreasonable to expect the transition to a post-Castro Cuba to be a rocky one.

The book works best when it features the unrest of the Cuban people due to their pent-up demands for food and even the simple the freedom to express themselves about the regime's ability to maintain the infrastructure of the country. The characters to arise from this part of the story - a young military officer, a blogger, a older war hero with new-found doubts, a loudmouthed rock star - those characters and their struggles against the regime work and are fascinating.

The Cuban regime is nervous and reacting badly, both at home and abroad. Brutal repression of protesters and a series of assassinations of spies who had been turned by the FBI (making them double agents who were feeding the Castro regime worthless or tainted information). Plus, the regime is selling information to other governments as it is pumping its own agents for anything that can distract America's focus away from Cuba while it transitions.

Che Guevara, Raul Castro and Fidel Castro

Nick Castillo is a Cuban-American FBI agent who is looking into these murders and is finding more connections to the Cuban regime than his superiors are willing to acknowledge. When he finds out that a prominent Cuban officer that he the Americans hope to turn is in danger from the Cuban government he flies to Cuba to warn him without knowledge of his superiors.

What Castillo finds is that this officer that the Americans hoped to turn was actually a plant - a fake to entice the Americans and he is captured. At this point we meet Larisa Montilla, Che Guevara's fictional half-American daughter and the heir to the Castro brothers. Montilla is unbelievably sexy and unbelievable deadly. She is the Havana Queen referred to by the title (it is actually a double entendre, there is also a former hotel that was converted into an apartment building that collapsed in the Prologue that goes by the same name. This leads to a lot of protests about how the regime is failing to provide the basics that it promised, such as housing).

Montilla takes an interest in Castillo and, for me, this is where a five star book stumbles and veers from gritty political thriller into something more indulgent and something akin to the spy parodies of the Austin Powers series. This new leader is into seriously kinky sex (Yet another supreme leader with yet another sexual fetish! This is straight of central casting for political thrillers.) and only Castillo has what she wants for reasons that were never clear to me. However, sadly for Castillo, Montilla still has him put on the firing squad.

Of course, at this point the book is just getting started...

Despite my dislike of the Montilla character, this is a solid book and is worth your time reading. On a very positive note,  this Spanish (and history) teacher is pleased to the note that the Spanish in the book is top notch (I have read too many books by world famous authors with horrid Spanish that any Spanish 1 student could have written better).

Note: I was sent a review copy of this book by the author in exchange for an honest review.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Havana Queen by James Bruno.

Reviewed on December 24, 2013.

Monday, December 23, 2013

SCARCITY: WHY HAVING TOO LITTLE MEANS SO MUCH (audiobook) by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

Published by Simon and Schuster in 2013
Read by Robert Petkoff
Duration: 8 hours, 47 minutes.

I teach in a public high school that is in the midst of transforming from a suburban/affluent to an urban/poverty school. I currently teach Spanish but I am also licensed to teach several social studies classes including economics. While this hardly makes me an economist, it does mean that I know enough about economics to make me dangerous to myself.

I always think that it is interesting when economists take on non-traditional topics, like the Freakonomics guys do. In this case Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir look at the effect of scarcity on impulse control, poverty, time management, dieting and lonely people. Kids at my school have a horrible time with impulse control, poverty and time management so I was hooked when the authors started to look at how scarcity affects these behaviors.

Through a series of studies (theirs and others) they demonstrate that people who are financially insecure, lacking food, lacking companionship or are too busy tend to tunnel vision and make decisions that make sense in the short term (like rolling over a payday loan because there is not enough money to pay the rent now) but make little sense in the long term (the payday loan will just get bigger and harder to pay every time it is rolled over to the next month and there will also be rent to pay next month). They postulate that the human mind is like a computer in that it has limited computational resources. If you run too many programs on the computer it bogs down. If you tax the human mind with too many preoccupations it bogs down as well. They call this taxing the mind's "bandwidth." The interesting studies that are detailed in this book show that that this bandwidth tax can result in up to 13 IQ points loss in the same people.

That difference in IQ points explains a lot of the lack of impulse control and poor financial decisions. I see it all the time at my school. A student's grade crashes and when you talk to a parent you find out that the kid's parents are getting a divorce or one of them has lost a job or a big brother is in jail or they were evicted or something else is taxing the kid's bandwidth. The author's go to pains to note that this is different than just stress. This is a crushing preoccupation.

In economic theory there is a useful affectation called homo economicus - economic man. Economic man responds rationally to incentives and is the stand in that shows the supply/demand curve in action (For example, does homo economicus buy the upgrade smart phone at the store for $300 now or online for $245 even if he has to wait a week to get it?). Well homo economicus makes sense on paper but this book gives us the studies that show why real people don't always act in the same ways.

The studies are interesting, the conclusions are fascinating and there are even some practical suggestions offered. I found it to be quite enlightening.

I listened to the audiobook version of Scarcity and I thoroughly enjoyed the narration by Robert Petfkoff - his style blended perfectly with the "for the layman" writing style of the authors. In addition to being interesting, this book was just a great listen.

Note: I was sent a copy of this book by the publisher through Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer Program in exchange for an honest review.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars our of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: SCARCITY: WHY HAVING TOO LITTLE MEANS SO MUCH (audiobook) by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir.

Monday, December 16, 2013

47 RONIN (audiobook) by John Allyn

Originally published in 1970.
Audiobook version published in 2013 by HighBridge Audio.
Read by David Shih
Duration: 7 hours, 34 minutes.

Based on historical facts, the story of the 47 Ronin is a very popular one in Japan that has been told and re-told hundreds of times in books, plays, films, manga and more. A friend of mine that teaches Japanese compared it to the tale of King Arthur in England in that some versions feature magic, some extra characters, some are longer and some are shorter but there are some things that are consistent in every version.

Of course, not being Japanese, Westerners often miss some of the power of the story. John Allyn's knowledge of the language, his time in Japan during the Post-World War II occupation and his extensive experience with theater made him a fairly unique talent to present this story to Westerners. Allyn explains quite a bit as he tells the story , including items that would not have to be explained to native Japanese.

It is 1701 and Lord Asano, one of the many feudal lords of Shogunate Japan is making his yearly trip to meet with the Shogun and pledge his loyalty. Asano's lands are a fair distance away from the Shogun's capital city and the glitz and glamour that comes with it. Asano is considered to be a bit of a country bumpkin by some because he does not wear the latest fashions and he does not desire to be involved in the intrigues of the Shogun's court. He also has little interest in learning how to do all of the pomp and procedure a visit to the court requires and this is where the problems start. Asano is old-school in a new world where knowing a ceremony seems to be a lot more important than being a loyal soldier of unquestioned talent and loyalty.

The court's Master of Ceremonies, Kira, is supposed to teach men like Lord Asano where to stand and how to bow so that they ceremonies move smoothly. Kira is good at his job but he has been demanding a fee for these services even though they used to be provided by the Court for free. Lord Asano is sure that Kira is corrupt and he refuses to pay. Kira tries to provoke him to pay by whispering in Asano's ear that he will take his fee in trade by sleeping with Asano's wife is Asano is too poor or too cheap to pay in cash.

With this insult to his honor and pride Asano draws his sword and strikes down Kira even though fighting in the Shogun's castle is forbidden. Kira's injuries are severe and everyone says that he will die soon. For this Asano is ordered to commit seppuku, ritual suicide by his own sword and his family's lands are turned over to the Shogun. Asano's samurai are now ronin - lordless samurai. Their master has been dishonored, his family scattered and their lives overturned by the greed of Kira.

19th century woodblock print of the 47 Ronin gathering to attack Kira.
But, Kira survives his wounds and the ronin feel the need to finish the work that their Lord Asano had started. If Kira had been killed by Asano then they would just have to accept their fate. But, since Kira lives a group of these Ronin, led by Asano head samurai, Oishi, plan to kill Kira, no matter if it costs them their own lives...

The foreward by Stephen Turnbull explains the historical significance of the story of the 47 Ronin and what makes John Allyn's version fairly unique. David Shih's narration is excellent, especially with the pronunciation of some of the people and places.

But, I rate this story only 3 out of 5 stars because it just drags in the middle while Oishi is letting his long-term plan develop. Not that his plan was a poor one (really it was quite clever) or that it did not need to be explained (it did) but it just took too long to explain what was essentially a waiting game of deception to make sure Kira let his guard down. On top of that, the fight scene at the end was a bit anti-climactic.

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

Note: This edition of the book claims to be a tie-in to the Keanu Reeves movie version also called 47 Ronin due to be released in December of 2013. From what I can tell by the commercials there are significant differences.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: 47 Ronin by John Allyn.

Reviewed on December 16, 2013.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

VIGILANTE (Jessica Daniel #2) by Kerry Wilkinson

Published in July of 2013 by Thomas and Mercer

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.  While this series is not life-changing literature, I found it to be better than the latest offerings that I have read by much more established authors such as Patricia Cornwell and James Patterson.

In the second book of this series Detective Sergeant Jessica Daniel is searching for a serial killer. But, there are people who don't seem to care too much if she actually catches this murderer since the only people he kills are criminals. While vigilantes are officially discouraged, more than one police officer notes that this murderer is making their jobs easier.

The DNA results make everything all the more confusing because the results point to a man who would be a great suspect except that he is already serving a life sentence in prison. As Jessica Daniel and her colleagues begin to investigate they just generate more questions than answers. Soon, Jessica Daniel is becoming more and more sure that the vigilante just might be someone who is supposed to be upholding the law, not taking it in their own hands...

The dreaded sophomore slump is a real danger for artists of all sorts. Vigilante suffers a little when compared to the first book. It tends to plod at times and the ending came out of nowhere, so that I felt like I really had no chance to figure it out for myself. That being said, I do like the Jessica Daniel character and I enjoyed reading more about her.

Note: I was sent a review copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review through the Amazon Vine program.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Vigilante by Kerry Wilkinson.

Reviewed on December 7, 2013.