"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, October 31, 2014


  An Honest Look at Urban Schools

Published in 2014

Throughout the 1994-95 school year Lloyd Lofthouse, a veteran high school English and Journalism teacher teaching in a rough "inner city" type of environment in California, kept a daily journal of his experiences. Finally, he worked them up into this book.

First, I think that I need to tell you that I am a 25 year teacher and I have spent 15 of those 25 years teaching in what some would euphemistically call "urban" schools. I also agree with Lofthouse's comments about so-called education reform and fads in education like the self-esteem movement.  For those reasons I found this book to be compelling - I simply flew right through it.

The book is mostly a set of journal entries with the occasional expanded commentary and, rarely, a reference to an article or a study about education. The way the book is set up is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The book rolls along day after day just like a real school year does - unrelenting,  seemingly unending yet with never enough time. Each class has its own distinct personality, some kids improve but most bad students just remain, sadly, bad students. Quite simply, he nails the day-to-day grind of teaching. 

But, the lack of elaboration on the school, its students, its staff hurts the book. Lofthouse leaves out almost all details about his family. When he mentions he has a wife I was shocked. When he mentions his son at the end of the book I was even more shocked. The home vs. work balancing act is a tough one for most teachers and deserves a lot of exploration. 

Lofthouse's commentary on district-level administration and the way they forget what it is like in the classroom is dead-on correct. I would have loved to have read what Lofthouse thought about some of the new trends in education like Common Core.

Lofthouse's confession that he found himself attracted to one of his students makes for uncomfortable reading. Thankfully, he never acted on those feelings but it leaves an taint on the book. 

Despite that, this book is one of the very few serious descriptions that I have read about education in the real world by a real teacher with real students over the long haul. That makes it worth reading.

Note: I was sent a copy of this book at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Crazy is Normal: a classroom exposé

Reviewed on October 28, 2014

Monday, October 27, 2014



My daughters and I give it 5 stars

Published in 2007 by HighBridge Company
Multicast performance
Duration: approximately 1.5 hours

NPR has a series of audiobooks published through HighBridge Company called Driveway Moments with the added thought that these are "radio stories that won't let you go." These are designed to be the types of stories that you sit in the car in your driveway and continue to listen to after you've arrived home.

In this collection the stories are about animals. We've got cats, dogs, raising baby hummingbirds and letting them go (it brings a tear to the eye), a giant turtle in Vietnam, a drive through pig semen store, a parrot that talks with the voice of the storyteller's deceased mother's voice and a farm for retired racehorses. There is also a long story about how pets made it through the chaos of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. This is a tough story with lots of sad stories and great stories of re-uniting people and their animals. 

The collection ends with a touching tribute by frequent NPR contributor Daniel Pinkwater to his recently deceased dog. It is so touching that I have gotten a catch in my throat both times I have tried to describe it to my wife.

I listened to this collection with my two daughters (3rd and 9th grade) and it generated a pretty good discussion over the Hurricane Katrina story. The pig semen story went over the little one's head and the last story by Daniel Pinkwater touched us all.

The audio quality is very good since these stories were all broadcast over NPR. My kids did not appreciate NPR's offbeat musical interludes between stories but all three of us rated this collection 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: NPR DRIVEWAY MOMENTS: ALL ABOUT ANIMALS.

Reviewed on October 27, 2014.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

CODE BLOOD by Kurt Kamm


The twisted tale of a paramedic, an albino with a vampire fetish and a blood researcher...

Published in 2012 by MCM Publishing

Code Blood is the story of three people whose lives are tied together in this thriller but barely interact throughout the book.

Photo by Werner Vermaak
Colt Lewis is a brand new paramedic in the Los Angeles area who is struggling with the emotional toll this sort of job can cause. He is an open young man who became a paramedic because he truly cares about people and wants to help them. But, he is struggling with the reality that some of the victims he helps just cannot be saved. He keeps on going back to his first run and the beautiful young woman who was found on the side of the road after having been hit by a hit and run driver. She died while Colt was reassuring her because her foot had been amputated in the accident. Strangely, the foot was never found and Colt starts to obsess about this woman, the tragic loss of such a young life and the total creepiness of the kind of person that would steal someone's foot.

Markus is that creep. He is an albino who lives a goth vampire lifestyle in which he not only dresses like a vampire, he also drinks blood and has developed a sexual fetish about blood. He is also in serious need of cash and he is running out of options. That is, until he meets a Chinese blood researcher named A Li. A Li has a rare blood type that Markus craves. He also knows that he can sell it for a lot of money to his vampire friends.

A Li is struggling in America. She is a minority in China (from near Tibet) and political repression has forced her to give up everything and dedicate herself to science so that her family can prosper back home.

One thing I enjoy about reading is that, if you are lucky, a book will take you someplace you have never been and teach you something new.These three characters are all part of a larger story that delves into all kinds of interesting new places. I learned about paramedic training and how many cars actually fall off of those twisting mountain roads around Los Angeles. I also learned about rare blood types, the city morgue, the underground market for body parts, real-life vampires and more. 

The story gets off to a pretty slow start but once it gets going and all of the pieces are in place it is quite good. Plus, it did not have the ending that I figured it would so it's always good to be surprised!

This book was sent to me at no charge in exchange for an honest review.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Code Blood by Kurt Kamm.

Reviewed on October 23, 2014.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

REPUBLIC: A NOVEL of AMERICA'S FUTURE (kindle) by Charles Sheehan-Miles

Very well-written and guaranteed to make you think.

Originally published in 2007.
Approximately 346 pages.

Set in America's near future, Republic is a look at the authority of the federal government run amok in the name of national security. Imagine, if you would, the government's reaction to a series of timed bombings that target the Pentagon and the first responders that come to save as many of the victims as they can (as was common in the Iraq War) but instead of a foreign attacker, the culprit is a domestic terror group. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sweeps in and starts to get very nervous about every sort of domestic disturbance.

In this environment a profitable factory closes down in a small West Virginia town that depends on this employer for its very existence. The profitable factory closes because its holding company determined that it can make an even larger profit by relocating to Indonesia. When the newly unemployed American workers trespass and occupy the factory and resume production the DHS is called because, now, even labor disputes are a risk to national security.

When the federal building in West Virginia's capital city is bombed federal agents assume that it must be Muslim terrorists and start rounding up literally all Muslim males above the age of 14 in a neighborhood known as "Little Cairo". They are not arrested, just "detained". The West Virginia National Guard is supposed to assist in locking down the neighborhood but an idealistic officer is shocked at the gestapo tactics of the federal agents, intervenes and a firefight ensues, resulting the in the death of a guardsman and an agent.

More importantly, the tactics of DHS are exposed for all to see and a constitutional crisis starts when the federal government demands that the lead officer of the Guard unit be turned over for prosecution for the death of their agent. West Virginia's governor refuses to turn her over and a grassroots secession movement adds fuel to the fire that only gets bigger as a ham-fisted DHS raid and various federal pronouncements make the situation more and more tense and everyone prepares for a second Civil War...

I picked this book up three years ago on my kindle when it was temporarily offered free of charge but I never got around to reading it. On a whim I started reading it on my phone and I found that this was an absolutely compelling read. The characters are kind of stock characters but they are clearly drawn out. They really just a means to a larger discussion about the federal government's growing reach in to so many things and the militarization of situations that really just need common sense and some level-headed discussion.

The battle scenes in this book, especially those with the tanks fighting in the mountains in the winter, are strong (they ought to be, he is a Gulf War veteran and served in a tank unit) but the real thing that is impressive is that he works in a discussion of the proper role of DHS and just how much security is too much security and when does it become just another excuse for government to curtail rights throughout the book and it does not seem artificial or forced.

Read my review of Insurgent, book two in this series by clicking here.

I rate this novel 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Republic: A Novel of America's Future.

Reviewed on October 16, 2014

THE RACKETEER by John Grisham

   It's not great literature but it is certainly entertaining.

Originally published in October of 2012

John Grisham and I have an on again, off again relationship (as reader and writer, I have not had the pleasure of meeting the gentleman in person). I grew tired of his legal thrillers and of late I have been occasionally listening to his regular novels like A Painted House or Bleachers

This is my first legal thriller of Grisham's that I have read in more than five years, but even Grisham admits in the author's note that as a thriller it's fairly long on story and not so deep on the minutiae of the courthouse. All that is true, but it is a compelling read - a real page turner that I blasted through at a very fast pace for me (I tend to doggedly plod through books rather than blast through them).

The story starts out simply enough. A small town black lawyer named Malcolm Bannister gets caught up in a real estate scheme thought up by a Washington, D.C. insider. This is a spectacular case of fraud, bribery, prostitution and all this small time attorney did was help broker a small real estate deal. He is innocent He knew nothing of the overall plan but he is accused and convicted of the federal crime of racketeering (obtaining money illegally, such as by fraud or extortion). He loses his wife, his family and the respect of his father. He has nothing.

Bannister has serves as a jailhouse attorney while he is serving his sentence in a low security prison and he has heard lots of stories from his clients (his fellow prisoners). When a federal judge is murdered Bannister approaches the warden and tells him that he is sure that he knows who did it and will trade that information for a full pardon and a new life in the witness protection program.

However, once Bannister gets out he starts to act very strangely and this is when the story gets interesting when Bannister puts on his white Panama hat and begins to act on his own plan that he has been developing in prison for all of these years...

Like I said, this story caught me up and carried me away. It's not great literature but it is certainly entertaining.

I rate this novel 4 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on October 16, 2014.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

HARD PLACE (short story) (kindle) by Ernie Lindsey

Published in 2013 as an e-book short story.
Approximate length: 46 pages.

Alan Parker is a professional killer who works for an employer called The Company. His wife also works for The Company but she is currently in the last stages of an unsuccessful fight with cancer.

It is not really clear if The Company is a government entity or not, but any way you slice it The Company has lots and lots of resources, including an impressive list of hired assassins. Parker (nicknamed "Boom") is one of the very best, but a series of mistakes made his last hit a failure and The Company rarely forgives failure.

Photo by Niels Noordhoek

So, "Boom" Parker knows that he cannot mess up his new assignment. He has been sent to kill a female scientist that is working on a bio-fuel that threatens the big oil companies.

But, this case starts out badly (it looks like someone has already killed his target or, at least, botched an attempt on her) and as he looks for her he finds out that she has been working on a side project and may have developed a cure for cancer. So, does he kill his target and doom his wife or does he save his target, save his wife and doom himself?

This is a solid short story with a heck of a moral quandary. The ending is a little too quick and a little too neat but this is worth your time. The middle of the story when "Boom" Parker is struggling with his options is quite good.

I rate this short story 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Hard Place by Ernie Lindsey.

Reviewed on October 15, 2014.

Monday, October 13, 2014

IT'S SUPERMAN (audiobook) by Tom De Haven

  How Hard Is It to Nail Down Superman's Personality?

Published by GraphicAudio in March of 2014
Adapted from the novel It's Superman by Tom De Haven
Multicast performance
Duration; Approximately 7 hours

Let me be clear from the beginning about two things:

1) I am a Superman fan

2) I do not mind re-makes or re-interpretations so long as they are done respectfully of the source material.

However, this book does not do that, with the exception of Lex Luthor.

This re-imagined world of Superman is set in the 1930s, which I liked as a choice because that's when Superman was created. Most of the first part of the book deals with a struggling Lois Lane living with a a freelance photographer named Willi Berg in an apartment in New York City (the book dispenses with the Metropolis conceit). Lois is much more worldly than I have ever seen her, but I was fine with that. 

Willi Berg witnesses Lex Luthor, a New York City politician, in the middle of a crime and discovers that Luthor is muscling out the established crime bosses and using his position in city government to provide him cover. Berg flees the city and eventually winds up in Smallville, Kansas.

Up to this point Clark Kent has definitely been the back burner story in this book. You might has well have called it, "It's Willi Berg!" rather than "It's Superman!"  Clark has been in the story a little bit, mostly to show that he and his father are not racists while the rest of Kansas is. Fair enough, 1930s Kansas was not the center of racial inclusiveness. 

Jonathan Kent has, as far as I can tell, always been described as a fantastic father figure.  Think of the 1977 movie version played by Glenn Ford or the Man of Steel version played by Kevin Costner. So much of what Superman is comes from being raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent. In this story, though, Jonathan is inconsistently described an indifferent man (with a hint that he is mentally ill due to a reference to his own father who cut his own abdomen open in front of a mirror) who hates churches with a passion and shows sporadic flashes of being a great father. 

Clark is shown as an earnest cub reporter who hates being treated as a small town rube. He and Willi partner up and head to Hollywood after being tramps for a while, cruising America and doing odd jobs. During this middle part of the book Clark has to be encouraged to use his powers to help people or be restrained from using them to hurt people. This is not Superman's character, at all. I know it's a re-write of the basic story but this is too much of a re-write because now it is not a Superman story. Superman's character is what makes him Superman. He is the constant Boy Scout, the living embodiment of an ideal. Take, for example, this quote from the Man of Steel movie: "You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But, in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders."

This version of Superman has no compass except for the external one provided by his friends. Rather than being a leader, he is a follower. How can he inspire anyone when he cannot even move himself? Superman is not nuanced. He is not filled with gray areas.


The characterization of Lex Luthor is well done and interesting. His evil nature is obvious from the start but his true nature only becomes more obvious as you go along. Funny how Lex's character remains a constant but Clark Kent/Superman does not.

I liked the way 1930s current events and people were peppered in throughout the story. 

As always, the performance by the GraphicAudio team is amazing. My complaints with this audiobook have nothing to do with the way they performed it or with their adaptation of it. If you adapt a weak text you will have a weak adaptation.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars.
Reviewed on October 13, 2014.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A FISTFUL of COLLARS (Chet and Bernie #5) by Spencer Quinn

Chet and Bernie Break into the Movies!

Published in 2012 by Atria Books.

I have four mystery writers that I regularly follow: Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, C.J. Box and Spencer Quinn's Chet and Bernie series.
 The premise of the series is simple. They are buddy books featuring Chet and Bernie, crime-fighting partners much like Holmes and Watson or Spenser and Hawk. Except for one important point - Chet is Bernie's dog. 

The story is told from the point of view of Chet, a trained police dog that never quite graduated from the academy to a "leaping" incident that "involved blood." 

Chet understands enough about human society so that the story doesn't bog down but he has that easily distractable live-in-the-moment quality that all dog lovers recognize.

In A Fistful of Collars Chet and Bernie are hired by the mayor (a politician that Bernie hates for a variety of reasons) to safeguard the city's interests while a major Hollywood film is made right there in the Valley. This Western movie stars Hollywood's current top-of-the-heap pretty boy action hero with a whole bunch of hidden problems. Chet and Bernie are supposed to keep this star out of trouble but soon enough Bernie finds that some things don't seem quite right and soon enough Chet and Bernie find a dead body and a possible connection to something else that could derail everything...

Although I was not convinced by the way that Bernie initially discovers the problems, once the mystery gets going it is pretty good. However, this may be the best book for Chet. I thought that his character was pulled off especially well. Better character writing tips the balance and makes this a 4 star book.

Reviewed on October 10, 2014.

THE SEA of TROLLS (Sea of Trolls Trilogy #1) (audiobook) by Nancy Farmer

Published in 2004 by Recorded Books
Performed by Gerard Doyle
Duration: 13 hours, 51 minutes

Brilliantly read by Gerard Doyle, The Sea of Trolls is essentially the story of a young boy living in 793 England who is kidnapped by Vikings, taken back to their home and eventually returns home.

But, this story is so much more than that.

Jack is an adolescent that lives in an English coastal village with his parents and younger sister. This world is Christian with a hefty bit of pagan practices thrown in. This is not a comfortable mix.

Jack is invited to be the apprentice for the local bard. Bards are more than mere story-telling musicians - they can weave magic by being in touch with something called the Life Force. Their music can enhance and focus their magic. Jack's mother exhibited such tendencies as well but she was never formally trained.

While in the midst of his training, Jack's teacher is magically attacked by a half-troll Viking queen (married to King Ivar the Boneless) and the village is soon physically attacked by Berserker Viking raiders from the same kingdom. Jack and his sister are captured by these raiders and their leader, the fearsome Olaf One-Brow plans to sell them as slaves back in the kingdom of Ivar the Boneless.
A Viking Longship in the Bayeux Tapestry. Photo by Urban.

While traveling back to the Viking kingdom, Jack's nascent talents as a Bard are discovered and he moves into a new, precarious position - still a slave yet also valuable to Olaf as a weaver of spells and singer of his praises. But, if he casts a spell incorrectly or sings a song wrong his life may be forfeit.

A mistaken spell in the great hall of Ivan the Boneless and his half-troll wife sends Jack, Olaf and the sullen young shield maiden Thorgill on an epic quest across the Troll Sea into a land that only exists in legend - a land filled with trolls, man-eating plants, giant spiders, sea monsters, dragons and more...

This is a fun story, has lots of depth and plenty of opportunity to talk about how people are rarely all good or all bad. For example, the Vikings warriors are thieves, slave traders and brutal murderers of an entire village. But, they are also honorable friends, wonderful hosts and fantastic family men.

I listened to this audiobook with my freshman daughter. It was her first audiobook experience and she absolutely loved it. I was more than impressed by the narration of Gerard Doyle. He voices men, women, boys, girls, trolls, crows, and even more with great skill. 

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: THE SEA of TROLLS (Sea of Trolls Trilogy #1) by Nancy Farmer.

Reviewed on October 12, 2014.

Read my review of The Land of the Silver Apples, volume 2 in this trilogy by clicking HERE

Thursday, October 9, 2014

DOCTOR WHO: DESTINY of the DOCTOR #3: VENGEANCE of the STONES (audiobook) by Andrew Smith

The Third Doctor

Published in 2013 by AudioGo (Blackstone/BBC)
Read by Richard Franklin and Trevor Littledale
Duration: 1 hour

As a part of the 50th Anniversary celebration of Doctor Who, the BBC released a series of audiobooks called Destiny of the Doctor. Each of the Doctors has a 1 hour audiobook story.

In Vengeance of the Stones the Doctor and UNIT are called in to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a RAF fighter jet from the skies above Scotland. While the Doctor is poking around he encounters Lt. Mike Yates for the first time (who becomes Captain Mike Yates and a companion in the television series). 

The Doctor soon discovers that the disappearance of the jet is the work of an alien species that has a ancient grudge against humanity and that they are the reason for the prevalence of so many recumbent stone circles in this area. 

A recumbent stone circle in Scotland. Photo by Bill McKelvie
Also, he discovers that these aliens are more than willing to inflict their revenge upon humanity even though it has been hundreds and hundreds of years since they were wronged. Of course, the Doctor leaps to the defense of humanity but the story is amusing and entertaining and certainly will be of interest to any Doctor Who fan. 

The two readers were very solid, both being veteran audiobook performers in this series. Richard Franklin, of course, played the part of Mike Yates, the character he played in the television show from 1971-1974.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Doctor Who: Destiny of the Doctor #3: Vengeance of the Stones.

Reviewed on October 10, 2014