"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, April 30, 2016

WHAT the DOG SAW and OTHER ADVENTURES (audiobook) by Malcolm Gladwell

Published by Hachette Audio in 2009
Read by the author, Malcolm Gladwell
Duration: 12 hours, 49 minutes

This fascinating audiobook is actually a collection of articles that Malcolm Gladwell has written over the years. Each story is about 30-45 minutes long and cover a great variety of subjects. Topics include ketchup, mammograms, FBI profilers, pit bulls, menstrual cycles, Ron Popeil (founder of Ronco), the dog whisperer, plagiarism, the Challenger Explosion/risk, home hair coloring products and the opportunities that those products offered for female executives, first impressions/job interviews, homelessness and how to solve it (really!), The Pill, Enron and the importance of having a great teacher in every classroom.

I am a teacher and I was of course interested in his discussion about teachers. What was best was his emphasis on the day-to-day interaction between students and teachers and how one can observe quality education in action. What was worst was the insistence that a standardized test can really identify good teaching. There are so many variables that go into a one time standardized test such as overall climate of the school, the day-to-day mood and health of the students and the teacher, the students' personal lives (at home and at school) that I would compare it to a giant stew rather - and it is hard to figure out what makes a great stew great. Is it the meat, the potatoes, the broth, the temperature it was cooked at, the way the ingredients were cut, and so on.

The article about one of the creators of The Pill was tedious at best. Unfortunately, it comes fairly early and I decided while I was listening to it that if there was another one like this one I was going to bail on the whole audiobook.

Malcolm Gladwell.
Photo by PEN American Center

Thank goodness I didn't. The rest of the book is really very interesting and provided some good discussion fodder between my daughter and I as we carpooled to school in the morning.

The Enron article was mind-blowing for me. It was a massive scandal when Enron collapsed but the fact that they were doing was literally posted on their website and the IRS had figured it out beforehand (they did nothing because it wasn't illegal, just really, really stupid) makes me wonder about the people who rate stocks and investments. 

The article on homelessness hit the listener in the gut in multiple ways. By not dealing with it, we are making it much, much, much more expensive and gumming up the works in other areas, like emergency rooms. But, by dealing with it do we break faith with people who are doing things "the right way" but not having much success.

The book was read by the author. He has a lot of experience being interviewed and participating in panel discussions on TV and radio so it wasn't like he was a complete rookie in front of the microphone. There are times when he has a peculiar way of saying a word but I think it really was an overwhelmingly positive experience having him read the book. His slightly quirky reading style matched his offbeat topics and writing style making the whole experience feel like Gladwell was riding in the backseat of the car telling you all about some topic that he thought was interesting and was sure that you would to. 

And, he was almost always right.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: What the Dog Saw.

Friday, April 22, 2016

KINGDOM COME by Mark Waid (author) and Alex Ross (illustrator)

Published in 2008.
Originally published in 1996.

This edition collects the original four volumes of this limited series into one complete volume.

If you liked the feel of the recent Batman v Superman movie, you will likely enjoy this graphic novel. If not, you are probably better off skipping this introspective spectacle.

We start with a world out of control. A new generation of Meta-humans abound. They have the skills of the old Justice League but none of their standards. The good ones still fight with the bad ones but they do it with little regard to the regular people who live all around them. Cars explode, buildings crumble and people get hurt. In a single fight Kansas was obliterated in a massive explosion caused by the death of a nuclear-powered Meta-human.

Where is old Justice League? It has disbanded since Superman retreated from the world and is living on a pretend hologram Kansas farm inside of his Fortress of Solitude. He is sick of watching his regular friends age and die. He is sick of "The Never Ending Battle" - the non-stop parade of criminals and human depravity. But, even a depressed Superman can't just let his second home (Kansas) be nuked without any sort of response.

Superman's new "coming out of retirement" logo.

So, Superman comes back with his old friends to restore order, reign in the new heroes and fight the new enemies. But, things aren't as simple as all of that. Some don't want to submit. Some have to be rounded up and jailed in a special prison to be rehabilitated.

There are questions everywhere.

Will Superman become the world's dictator in order to save the world from itself?

Why is Wonder Woman so fired up to fight everyone?

Why is Batman working with Lex Luthor? 

Speaking of Lex, his comments about the need for regular humans to reclaim the planet from the Meta-humans aren't so crazy when you consider the devastation caused by the Meta-humans. And, of course, Lex has a plan.

Brooding and filled with too many characters but also brilliantly conceived. I especially like the way that the story is told through a neutral third party human.

This graphic novel can be found on Amazon.com here: Kingdom Come

I rate this graphic novel 5 stars out of 5.


Published by the National Park Service in 1996

The format of this small book  (88 pages) is much like a small old-style National Geographic with three wide-ranging informative essays by Larry Gara, Brenda E. Stevenson and C. Peter Ripley. The pictures are excellent in that they are reproduced wonderfully and well-shot.

A notice from 1851.
Most importantly, these three essays are an excellent introduction to the topics of slavery, the slave trade (not just to the United States but also to the Caribbean and Brazil) and the contradictions of some of the Founding Fathers fighting for their personal freedom while owning other people.

But, the heart of the book is the fight against slavery - both political and practical. After all, it is one thing to say you are against slavery and it quite another to help a runaway slave that comes to your door and help her move on to another safe place.

The book documents the different strains of Abolitionism (Do you help fund the fight in Kansas? Do you lobby Congress? Do you advocate for secession from the slave states?) and the Southern responses to them as well as telling a good number of individual stories of escaping slaves.

Really, the only complaint that I have is the book's treatment of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. It assumes that the reader is familiar with the law and how radical of a change it was in federal policy towards runaway slaves. On the whole, it is a great introduction to the topic of slavery in the United States and the struggle against it. 

I rate this book 5 out of 5 stars.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Underground Railroad.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

TROPHY HUNT (Joe Pickett #4) by C.J. Box

First published in 2004.

I am a serious fan of C.J. Box, having been introduced to him by a person who left a suggestion on one on my reviews on Amazon.com. Since then I have read most of his books in the order that I have found them - which is no order at all. So, this is probably my 15th or 16th book by C.J. Box but it is only now that I am getting around to #4 in the Joe Pickett series.

Photo by DWD.
This is a weird one.

If you like to watch "news of the weird" type of stuff than you are probably familiar of the urban legend about cattle mutilations. These stories suggest that aliens are picking up cattle, performing surgeries on them and then leaving their mutilated bodies scattered across the countryside.

In Trophy Hunt, farm animals and wild animals are being mutilated. Their faces and genitals are being cut away with precise cuts so Game Warden Joe Pickett knows that they are not the result of animal attacks - at least not anything he's used to. When men are killed and mutilated as well Joe is appointed to a task force but even Joe cannot seriously entertain the suggestion that alien spaceships are involved...

Despite the weirdness, it is always good to check in with Joe Pickett and his family. This is not the best in the series, but it has its moments. Those moments and these characters makes for a rating of 4 out of 5 stars.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Trophy Hunt.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

VALLEY of DECEPTION: JAKE MATTHEWS, BOOK 1 (audiobook) by T.H. Michael

Published by Tobin H Michael in February of 2016
Read by Tom Lennon
Duration: 8 hours, 33 minutes

Valley of Deception is a thriller featuring Jake Matthews, an experienced U.S. Marshal who lives and works in Iowa.

The book starts out with a lot of action as Jake Matthews and his team are out to execute an arrest warrant in a small town in Iowa, accompanied by an inexperienced local deputy who is serving as the local guide. The arrest goes poorly and most of the team gets shot. 

Jake takes some much-needed time off with his wife to recover emotionally in his vacation home in Iowa. It is a farmhouse where Matthews can play at farming a bit and go hunting. But, this time for rest and relaxation is not going well - Matthews is experiencing panic attacks and having a hard time sleeping at night. 
Photo by DWD

One day, he decides to go on a walk along his property line when he smells the all-too-familiar smell (in his line of work) of a meth lab. He crosses onto a neighboring piece of property and soon finds the new, well-maintained meth lab. Plus, he sees the physically intimidating leader of a very private and mysterious local religious sect, Zebadiah Caldwell, walking away from the lab.

Matthews still does not feel steady enough yet to step in and arrest Caldwell so he decides to tell the local sheriff about the lab the next time that he goes to town. And, that's when things start to fall apart...

I listened to this book as an audiobook. The narrator, Tom Lennon did a great job with the voices. He had to create multiple characters, including men, women, a geeky pharmacist, a mildly mentally handicapped girl, a teenage boy and the accented, hyper-masculine voice of the religious sect. 

But, Lennon's outstanding work as a reader could not make up for an inconsistent book. 

Up to the point where I left off describing the action, I was more than pleased with this book. But, it just started to slip from that point. I thought that some of the characters started to act in an inconsistent manner which hurt the book. But, the biggest problem was that the book became repetitive.  I am fine with characters re-stating things so that the readers (or, in my case, listener) can be reminded of things as the story goes along. But, there were so many times when the sheriff's and Caldwell's internal thoughts were repeated in an attempt to create drama and underscore their motivations that I got tired of hearing them.

Too bad, because the first part of the book really did hold out a lot of promise but it just broke down.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Valley of Deception.

Note: I was provided with a free digital copy of this audiobook so that I could provide an honest review.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

WYNNE'S WAR by Aaron Gwyn

Published in 2014

Wynne's War is a war story and a western with a bit of A Few Good Men thrown in as well. It starts out in Iraq where Army Ranger Elijah Russell is filmed rescuing a horse during a firefight and becomes a YouTube sensation. Russell and his buddy are taken out of Iraq to a remote base in Afghanistan. Russell is tasked with training horses for a special forces unit to use against Taliban fighters. They want horses because they are quiet compared to any motorized vehicle, can go places where four-wheelers can't and never need to be re-fueled so long as there is available grass.

Russell grew up breaking horses and a great deal of the first third of the book is about Russell thinking about his childhood and detailing his "horse whisperer" style of breaking horses. 

The charismatic leader of this special forces unit, Captain Wynne, is a mystery and so is his real goal with these horses. Russell can't quite figure him out and when he and his buddy are drawn into their first real mission with the horses he just has a feeling that there is more to this mission than meets the eye and that is not good.

I enjoyed the "horse training" part of this book and I admire author Aaron Gwyn's ability to describe a firefight but, on the whole, I felt the book fell short. It left me with a lot more questions than answers and the ending was way too abrupt considering the time and care taken to even get to the heart of the story. I just felt like asking, "Is that it?"

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Wynne's War.