"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
Fifteen years reviewing books, audiobooks, graphic novels, movies and music!

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

City of Bones (Harry Bosch #8) by Michael Connelly

Not the strongest of the series but very, very good

Michael Connelly is one of the two best living detective writers, in my opinion, the other being Robert Crais. Having noted in the title for this review that this book is not the strongest in the series, I must also note that it makes this book receive a grade of merely an "A" rather than the normal "A+."

Michael Connelly
Bosch's books are gritty but not over the top like Lethal Weapon. He is principled but not a boy scout. This particular Harry Bosch novel, City of Bones, deals with an old homocide uncovered in the hills surrounding Los Angeles. Bosch finds romance, has a major career shift and it has a surprise ending. No other plot details to avoid spoilers.

You can join the Bosch novels at any point but I'd recommend starting at the beginning.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on May 3, 2009.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Dangerous Book of Heroes by Conn Iggulden and David Iggulden

Oh, how I wanted to be able to recommend this book!

As a history teacher I often decry the politically and factually correct, but dreadfully dry and boring history textbooks. I was hoping that this book, The Dangerous Book of Heroes, could be a popular antidote and a return to the famous Landmark books series that I grew up reading. Mostly, A Dangerous Book of Heroes is just that - a collection of biographies - some just a few pages, some longer. They are illustrated with the same kind of line drawings that I remember from the Landmark books.

But, this book does have a danger to it, and not the tongue-in-cheek kind suggested by the title. The publisher has declared that it's target audience is 18 years old and above. If this was truly was aimed at high school seniors and college students, we have become an illiterate society indeed. Not that this book is horrible, it is just simplistic. College students should be reading real biographies, not 8 page biographical sketches complete with line drawings.


Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton
(1821-1890)
One of the authors claims it is aimed at 14 year olds and above. Sadly, the series is aimed at pre-teens and some of the topics discussed are just not appropriate for elementary school students, especially in the story about "Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton."

In fact, if it were not for this entry, I'd recommend the book for pre-teens and older. However, the Burton entry is full of references to drug experimentation, frequenting prostitutes, male and female brothels, spousal murder, the Kama Sutra - unnecessary references in a biography that was already so laden full of facts that it had bogged down and became an endless list, much like a bad powerpoint presentation with an endless supply of bulletpoint entries.

Note, I am not squeamish when it comes to teaching kids history. When I teach world history, we discuss, among other things, facts like Alexander the Great's sexual orientation(s), how Nero kicked his wife to death, slave owners abusing their female slaves in America (and throughout time) and the slaughtering of thousands in the fall of Jerusalem and Constantinople. But, there is context in that presentation. In this book, it seems to glorify the negatives of Burton's personality - he's a hero so let's look at everything he did and celebrate all of it, the good and the bad.

Other issues that really are small compared to the issue of the Burton entry:

-Multiple references to the "sneak attack" on the "small British garrisons at Lexington and Concord." The way it is worded seems to imply that the Colonial militia attacked 2 forts rather than noting that 700 British regulars secretly marched out of Boston to take the munitions depot of the Colonial militia in Concord and were turned back by militia who were informed by spies (like Paul Revere) that the British army was on the move.

-He incorrectly notes that the Indians remained Loyalist and neutral in the Revolutionary War. Loyalist is a questionable concept - they were not pro-British so much as they were in favor of the British policy of not developing the Ohio River valley. For the Igguldens to comment that Indians did not work in conjunction with the British in the George Washington entry is to disagree with their own article on Daniel Boone. For those that doubt that the British worked in concert with Indians in the Ohio River Valley, read about Henry Hamilton the "Hair Buyer" Lt. Governor of Detroit who was believed to have paid bounties for white scalps in an effort to destroy the settlements in Kentucky.

-The "Forks of the Ohio" near Louisville were actually the "Falls of the Ohio". They are no longer there due to flood control dams.

-The atomic bombing of Japan was actually done with atomic bombs, not hydrogen bombs (much bigger than the A-bombs and, more importantly, they were not invented during World War II).

Those last areas of concern are relatively small and would not have much affected my review of this book. However, the Burton entry must be the reason the publisher is recommending the book for people 18 years and older and certainly is the reason that I would not recommend it for the age group that the rest of the Dangerous Book series is designed for.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on February 26, 2011.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Free To Choose: A Personal Statement (audiobook) by Milton and Rose Friedman

A prototype of the current crop of approachable books on economics

12.5 hours
10 CDs
Read by James Adams

Free To Choose: A Personal Statement is the manifesto on the power of capitalism and freedom (and how they go hand in hand) that was designed to be read, digested and discussed by the common man, not the economist. In fact, this is the book that was designed as a follow-up companion to a 10 part PBS mini-series that fleshed out the ideas in the series and addressed issues and further questions that came up in the making of the television program.

Listening to Free to Choose as an audiobook is sort of ironic since the Friedman's mention that the book is a superior form for deep thinking on these topics because the reader is able to re-read passages, turn down pages and compare passages at will. Try that with an audiobook, especially with the relatively unsophisticated CD player in my car!

Milton Friedman won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1976 (he always credited his wife for helping develop his theories so I would imagine he considered it a shared prize).

The audiobook follows the lead of the mini-series and has 10 broad areas that it covers, including:

-The Power of the Market;
-The Anatomy of a Crisis (an in-depth study of the Great Depression);
-Created Equal:
-What's Wrong With Our Schools;
-Who Protects the Consumer;
-Who Protects the Worker;
-How to Stay Free

Friedman is very much an advocate of the free market. For example, in a topic not discussed in the book, Friedman is famous for advocating the all-volunteer army we have now. It uses incentives rather than the draft to get people to join and that seems to have worked out quite well.

Rose Friedman (1910/11-2009)
and
Milton Friedman (1912-2006)
I will comment in detail on the only topic that they discuss that I know intimately: Education. I have been a teacher for 21 years in tiny rural schools and large urban systems and now I am in a suburban system that is becoming more urban every day.

The Friedmans rightly decry the gigantic bureaucracy that sucks money right of the system, all of the way from the Secretary of Education to his 50 counterparts in the various states and all of their myriad ways of creating even more positions to look over the shoulder of school corporations, school boards, superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals, department heads and all of their office assistants. You would be amazed how many people it takes to make sure I have chalk and staples in my class. Actually, I have almost always had to buy them for myself.

So, just what do these people do anyway?

I take great issue with the Friedmans' assertion that bad schools create bad neighborhoods and crime rather than bad neighborhoods and crime creating bad schools.

The Friedmans also too quickly dismiss the costs of private schools and parochial schools. They claim that they are cheaper for any number of reasons than public schools. They blithely comment that they are cheaper because they have to compete and they move on. But, are they cheaper? My church has a new school. It was built at a cost of several million dollars, almost none of which is passed on to the consumer because this is looked upon as a mission for the church. We also provide absolutely no tranportation in any way - not to and from school, not for field trips, not for sporting events. That is a cost borne by the parents and not typically figured into the bill (but public schools MUST provide transportation to and from school). My church's school has contracted with a caterer to provide meals, but the costs are not subsidized. Subsidized meals are part of the cost you always see when you hear how expensive public schools are. Private and parochial schools also rarely deal with severely mentally or physically handicapped students. That is an expensive part of any school and public schools are required to educate all students, even those who have little or no hope of ever learning how to write their names and require aides to help them do the simplest of tasks.

Anyway, I have done a lot of complaining about what was a pretty solid economics book. Some of it is dated, some is a little arcane and jargon-filled but most of it is presented in plain, easy to understand English.. This is the grandfather of more recent and more accessible books like Naked Economics and Freakonomics, and for that it has to be respected.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on February 25, 2011.

Also mentioned in this review:

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Aftermath (abridged audiobook) by LeVar Burton



LeVar Burton creates the framework for an epic yet...

Read by LeVar Burton
Approximately 3 hours

...he fails to follow through.

Have you ever read a book in which the author takes a premise that would, at most, fill about 150 pages and yet he or she stretches it out to 400 pages? This is not one of those books.

Aftermath has the opposite problem - an awful future is described and peopled. The cure for cancer and brain disorders is discovered, stolen and recovered with lots of gunfights, chases, psionic warfare, attempted child rapes, attempted suicides, kidnappings galore, slavery and people being skinned alive. However, none of it is fleshed out - we are left with the skeleton of an epic story - a framework of what could have been. Think Stephen King's The Stand told in less than 300 pages. I just wish he'd added more.


LeVar Burton
I am reviewing this as an abridged audiobook (no doubt the abridgment is part of the problem as well. Too often, too much is taken out). LeVar Burton, well-known television actor, read it, as would be expected - he has a fine voice and lots of experience due to his well known PBS show Reading Rainbow and, of course, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Sometimes, however, his tone of voice just isn't quite right. He uses the same tone and quality of voice that he uses when discussing a children's book of Reading Rainbow (earnest and happy) when reading about the plight of hundreds of African Americans who have been kidnapped, chained and drugged and are waiting to have their skins forcibly removed. It was more than a little too much dissonance.

So, in short, the relatively low score is a reflection of Burton's failure to follow through with the potential of the book.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of  5, mostly based on the strong premise rather than the anemic follow through. 

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Aftermath by LeVar Burton.

Reviewed September 30, 2005

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Alternate Gettysburgs by various authors

It's a collection and like all collections...

...it suffers from the fact that it was written by a dozen different authors. Some are very good, most are decent. Two are awful.

The gimmick in this alternative history is, of course, 'What if the Battle of Gettysburg had turned out differently?' It is inspired by this Faulkner quote:

Confederate Major General
George Pickett (1825-1875)
'For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble...'

Is it worth reading? If you're a Civil War buff and don't mind 'slumming' by reading an alternative history rather than a normal history book - yes it is worth your time. Personally, I don't think of it is as slumming - I think of it as nice little foray into what-may-have-been. However, alternative histories are often looked down on by more than a few serious readers of history.

I would recommend if you are not very familiar with the facts of the Civil War and general and the Battle of Gettysburg in particular that you read the Appendix (the last section) first - included are the 'Gettysburg Address', three good short histories of the war and the battle and one interesting essay (controversial, but also my favortite) that tells you why the Confederacy never could have won anyway, no matter the outcome of the battle.

I rate this collection 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed September 19, 2005.

Ring of Truth by Nancy Pickard

 This Edgar Award nominee does it again!

Nancy Pickard
I've regularly read Nancy Pickard's 'Jenny Cain' series and have been heartened by the growth I've seen in her work. Pickard's detective stories have slowly been growing in power and complexity. This novel, however, may very well mark Pickard's arrival as a true master of the detective story.

I admit that I have not read another of this series, but I was struck by its simple cleverness. The writer of a 'true crime' novel becomes unnerved by doubts concerning the outcome of the trials and criminals that she has recently written about. Her own private investigation, interspersed with chapters from her recently completed 'true crime' book that fill the reader in on the back story, causes a great deal of distress and irritation among both the police and the real criminals.

Very well done. Very clever. I'll be looking for more in the series.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on September 12, 2005.

Monday, February 21, 2011

An Essay on the American Contribution and the Democratic Idea (kindle edition) by Winston Churchill

An interesting piece of history

Winston Churchill (1871-1947)
Note: this is not written by "THE" Winston Churchill. This one was written by an American novelist and essayist with almost the same name who lived from 1871-1947. Sir Winston Churchill signed his works Winston S. Churchill in order to differentiate between the two.

The essay is inspired by a 1917 visit to the battlefields of Europe during World War I.

Churchill's essay is an interesting bit of history in that it appeals to old ideals of the old Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are many comments that hold to all of the hallmarks and ideals of the movement, including an obsessive faith in science and psychology (line 200) and a belief that human nature is basically good but just needs to be re-educated (line 228).

He advocates a new political party based on the teachings of modern social science (line 290), a centralized economy in order to be more efficient (line 360) and he proposes that "incomes are to be taxed above the necessary cost of family maintenance (line 367) and the "progressive elimination of the private capitalist" (line 368).

Interestingly, he argues that the solution to all of society's ills comes from centralized economic power in the form of a democratically elected central government that will be led by people who have been properly educated with our newly-discovered scientifically-based methods that will get rid of the dangers of greedy human nature. (lines 395 & 462)

This essay would be a wonderful historical document companion to Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, a scathing look at these sorts of "Progressive" policies.

Reviewed on May 14, 2009.

I rate this essay 4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Human Blend: The Tipping Point Trilogy, Book One (audiobook) by Alan Dean Foster



Lackluster characters hurt a very interesting premise

Read by David Colacci
Published by Tantor Media, November 2010.
10.5 hours

Ultra-prolific author Alan Dean Foster introduces yet another series with The Human Blend, the first installment of a trilogy set in a relatively near-future Savannah, Georgia.

In this interesting new world the direst predictions about global warming have come true. America’s southern states have become near-tropical. Flooding ocean waters have buried coastal cities, forced them to move onto stilts or have caused cities to move inland. Much of Florida is underwater, the Everglades have swallowed the rest.

Political changes have swept the world as well. The United States is now part of a larger country called Namerica. Several countries in Asia are equal to, if not more important than Namerica. The moon, Mars and Jupiter’s moon Titan have been colonized as well.


Alan Dean Foster
But, the most important changes are the changes to the individual. In this future world, plastic surgery has become relatively cheap, easy and almost entirely safe. Called “melding”, new technologies have allowed millions upon millions of clients to “gengineer” themselves in an amazing number of ways. They can add animal tissue and literally grow feathers, gills, become amphibians, or fly. Clients can become exact duplicates of movie stars, athletes or anything else they can dream up. Do you want extra arms, eyes in the back of your head, or robotic hands with interchangeable parts? No problem. Want something a little more dangerous? Back alley gengineering clinics offer more dangerous options such as hidden weapons.

Alan Dean Foster introduces us to this strange new world through a meld named Whispr – a street thug who has had radical gengineering to make him hyperthin. Whispr and his accomplice Jiminy are working the streets of Savannah with a weapon that turns off pacemakers so that they may loot the dead bodies of their victims. They have just removed an exquisite hand from the body of their latest victim in hopes of selling it to a back alley clinic when they find an electronic storage device, a futuristic flash drive that is made of an unknown metal but is literally as thin and as flexible as a thread.

As Whispr and his various companions travel through the underworld trying to identify this thread and perhaps even download the information on it, they become the targets of police, hitmen and the bodies start to pile up in a hurry.


David Colacci, narrator
The narrator, David Colacci, does a fantastic job of creating a number of distinct character voices and accents ranging from Asian to Creole to Eastern European to southern redneck to South American Spanish. However, even the considerable talents of Colacci could not save the book from an inexplicable attack of wordiness for wordiness’ sake. Alan Dean Foster demonstrates in the book that he can be a master of the language with truly brilliant riffs of alliteration, simile and witty bits of conversation that make the listener smile at his cleverness. But, like a drum solo at a rock concert, a little bit of this goes a long way. Keep it up too long and the fans step out and look for popcorn. I found my attention wandering as a character named Wizzwang let loose with one cutesie, sex-crazed, pseudointellectual verbal barrage after another in the last hour or so of this audiobook. It seemed like Foster was trying to stretch the story out rather than cover new territory.

Another problem with the book is that there is really no one to root for. Whispr is not really likable – he kills people just to loot their bodies. His friends are no better. They are not lovable rogues, like Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. Rather, they are just criminals with bland but talkative personalities. There is the mystery of the threat data storage device, but this is not enough to compel the reader to carry on.

Fortunately, I found the world created by Alan Dean Foster to be quite interesting and I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the food dispensers, the new climates created by global warming and the effects of gengineering on society. As this installment ends, Whispr and his accomplice (a beautiful “natural” doctor who specializes in creating high-quality melds) are heading off to Africa to try to discover more about this “thread” and discover why everyone wants it so badly. I find myself wondering what new things I will learn about this distinctive vision of the future in the next installment.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Human Blend.

Reviewed January 22, 2011.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

First Blood by David Morrell



Decent, but not Morrell's best work

The copy I have of First Blood includes an interesting forward by the author in which he discusses the Rambo phenomenon that swept the world after the Stallone movies were made. That forward was written several years ago and the Rambo legacy continues today. Just last night I saw a commercial for a Nicholas Cage movie that mentions Rambo twice.


David Morrell
Anyway, this is Morrell's first novel and it is not bad. Morrell tries to work in several serious themes and tries to make it a piece of really violent literature rather than settle for just a bit of escapism. In fact, this novel was used for several college and high school classes as a novel to discuss until the Rambo movie phenomenon overwhelmed the books.

Even though this was regarded highly enough by some instructors to be used in the classroom, I think that it missed the mark a bit too much - the rivalry between Rambo and the sheriff was a bit too contrived and the Special Forces officer sent to help with Rambo never really worked well for me. He was too aloof, too uncommitted to his soldier (Rambo) or to the people he was sent to protect.

As an action thriller this book seemed overblown - it reminded me, ironically, of the Rambo II movie (Morrell discounts Rambo II and Rambo III because he had little say in the screenplays. He wrote the novelizations in an attempt to salvage a bit of the flavor of his original character) - too over the top. Just too much.

I rarely say this, but now I have said it in two of my last three reviews - the movie is better than the book. The motivations of the Rambo character are more defined (even though the sheriff and deputies are reduced to stereotypes of redneck country cops) and, ironically, the action in the blockbuster Hollywood action flick is more believable than in the book.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

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

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Princess Bride: S Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman

Great book, great movie, great story no matter the format!

I wasn't even aware that The Princess Bride: S Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure was even a book until I was looking through the special features on my DVD and they were speaking of the difficulties they had bringing the book to the big screen. Once I found out about the book I just had to get it!

William Goldman
So, is it better than the movie?

While I certainly enjoyed the background information on Fezzik and Inigo, this is one of the first books that I can honestly say is better as a movie. Notice, that I have given this book 5 stars, so we are distinguishing between very good and very, very good here. Still, the movie is a further abridgement of S. Morgenstern's classic tale (wink, wink) that makes the story even stronger.

My edition had a wonderful new introduction the recounted some of the struggles and joys in making the movie and includes the first chapter of the long-lost 'sequel' entitled 'Buttercup's Baby.' Both are worth your time.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed August 18, 2005.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Crisis on Centaurus by Brad Ferguson

A pleasant enough read but at times it was just 'off'


The premise of Crisis on Centaurus is that the colony Centaurus is bombed by a terrorist group and approximately 1 million victims die. The planetary government is in a shambles and the Enterprise is dispatched to aid in whatever way possible. However, Enterprise is having a series of computer failures and is not up to full capacity so things get tricky for Kirk and the crew.

Ferguson has written an adequate Star Trek novel - his main characters are written very solidly, but his supporting characters are rather like cardboard cutouts. The women weep and the men clench their teeth and pound their fists in anger at the news of the terrorist attack.

Having the benefit of hindsight in regards to the 9/11 attacks, I found the behavior of many of the characters to have been implausible at best, including doctors taking time away from the thousands of refugee patients to tour the Enterprise and especially the Mardi Gras-type partying that was going on in the new capitol city just a few days after a million people were killed in the planet's old capitol city. Remembering the somber mood of the country after 9/11 that went on for weeks with only a few thousand deaths, I found it to have been a jarring, hard to believe part of the story.

The first half of the story was really much, much better than the contrived second half. It is the first half that pulls it up to the third star and makes this a book that I recommend, albeit weakly.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on August 12, 2005.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Return to Common Sense: Seven Bold Ways to Revitalize Democracy by Michael Waldman

 Some good thoughts but...


Michael Waldman
Written by a former speech writer for President Bill Clinton, A Return to Common Sense: Seven Bold Ways to Revitalize Democracy features a series of suggestions for how to improve democracy in America. His seven suggestions are:

1. End Voter Registration as We Know It.
2. Rocking the Vote. (issues such as voter ID, changing election day, changing the primary system.)
3. Stop Political Hacking. (use electronic voting machines but with scan-tron type backups.)
4. Campaign Finance Reform (public financing based on the NYC model)
5. Gerrymandering (stop the creation of "safe" districts for both Democrats and Republicans)
6. Flunk the Electoral College (recommends not changing the Constitution but rather going around it at a state level)
7. Restore Checks and Balances (more Congressional oversight of the Executive branch)

I have no problem with many of these suggestions but Waldman is a bit simplistic in some of his recommendations. For example, he suggests a national voter registration system but has no plans for how local election officials should deal with local registrations.

He bemoans the fact that fundraising is so important to the modern Congress and the election system that demands an endless supply of funds. He also is bothered that Congress does not do enough to oversee the Executive Branch (with some justification, in my opinion) but on page 128 belittles the efforts of Congress to investigate the Clinton Administration's use of White House Christmas Cards to fundraise. Huh, you'd think he'd be all for oversight and limiting fundraising...

Interestingly, he is very excited about Congressional oversight over the Executive and never worried about the growing power of the court system in "creating " law.

His recommendations on changing the election day, the way we create Congressional distructs, having paper backups for electronic elections, campaign finance reform and increasing Congressional oversight have value. On the other hand, his suggestions for the other problems are, quite often, silly and should be dismissed out of hand.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5. A good place to start the discussion, but not the end.

Reviewed on May 17, 2009.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae by Steven Pressfield



I know I have little or nothing to add that has not already been said...

...but I'll try.

First and foremost - Gates of Fire is a top-notch bit of writing. It is one of the better books that I have read and is a fantastic example of the value of historical fiction. Pressfield takes the Spartans and makes them real. He takes their struggle for independence against a world-shaking power and makes it not just an academic enterprise, but something the reader becomes invested in. He takes these names from history and makes them flesh and blood for the reader. Is that the way they really were? No. Most likely not. But, no history book can do that definitively either.

This is Steven Pressfield's most popular book for a reason. He makes the Spartans and the battle between the 300 Spartans (and a few hundred other semi-professional Greek soldiers) against the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae come to life. This battle was most recently featured in the cartoonish (but still great) movie 300, which is not based on this book but, of course, shares many of the same characters and themes.


Steven Pressfield
Pressfield drags you into the story and makes you feel like you are there - in an ancient battle - in the maelstrom of death and destruction and blood and confusion. Pressfield takes a spare skeleton of a story passed down to us in our modern age and makes it do more than just come alive - you almost feel like you were there and that you know these characters personally. That is a true gift.

I have but one quibble - the map in the front of the book is a big help, but it would have been better if it had been more detailed. I wish that it would have included all of the city-states mentioned in the book as well as have included the roads that the main characters (and the armies) take multiple times.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Also mentioned in this review:

The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 years by Bernard Lewis



2000 years in 387 pages - A great effort but somewhat unsatisfying.


Don't get me wrong - I am came to this book as a true fan of Bernard Lewis. His book The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror was one of the more thought-provoking books I read last year. However, this book is quite different than 'Crisis'. It's scope is massive, and it is a history book rather than a work of examination and informed conjecture.

Lewis addresses these shortcomings in his introduction and admits that it will be a difficult undertaking to do it well. He acknowledges that whatever format he chooses to cover this history, it will be unsatisfying for some. I give him credit for doing it well, but not as great as the other books and articles of his that I've read.


Bernard Lewis
The book is broken up into three general sections. The first is a general overview of the Middle East over the last 2,000 years. It is a bit overwhelming and frustrating. Overwhelming because the empires, dynasties and civilizations rise and fall so quickly that I felt like I was watching a time-elapsed movie. It was frustrating because there were some new areas (for me) that I really wished he would explore, such as the link between the Persians and the Jews of the Roman Era. I was also intrigued by the Coptic Christians, but learned little more than I already knew. Lewis is fairly skimpy with the life of Mohammed and the early spread of Islam as well. I give this section 3 stars.

The second section is called 'Cross sections' and it deals with specific topics throughout the 2,000 years of history, such as the military or agriculture. I give this section 4 stars.

The last section goes into the struggles the Middle East has experienced since Europe and the West have become such a vital part of the world since the European Renaissance. This is Lewis' strongest area and by far the most interesting to read. I give this section 5 stars.

So, the average of the 3 sections is 4 stars - my final score for this book.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years

Reviewed on August 2, 2005. 

How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq by Matthew Alexander

A fascinating read

How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq is a fascinating must-read for anyone who is interested in the war on terror. I was handed this book by a friend and I assumed it was going to be a typical anti-war screed that demands that terrorists be "understood" and coddled.

There is also little fear of coddling with Alexander. He is repulsed and haunted by the senseless butchery that went on in Iraq and was sickened by those that were willing to kill innocents with suicide bombings. Alexander's techniques only prove that his eyes were strictly on the goal - stop Zarqawi.

Alexander's techniques are hardly "touchy-feely" - in a way they are a form of psychological trickery. He fools his interview targets into giving him the information he wants and then expolits their trust. It is also the type of technique that any regular viewer of TV detective shows see every day.

Matthew Alexander
The methods Alexander espouses only make sense to me, a veteran teacher. It is easier to get cooperation from someone that you can create a sense of rapport with, even if it is only temporary.

Anyway, the book reads like a suspense novel. It is a quick and intense read and absolutely riveting and informative.

Well done. Highly recommended.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on May 18, 2009.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Increment: A Novel. by David Ignatius

David Ignatius
It started out so strong but...

The Increment started out so strong, the characters were so strong, the plot was crisp and the whole thing just felt right.

The plot centers around two characters. One is an Iranian nuclear scientist that is disillusioned with the Iranian regime. The other character is a veteran CIA chief - the head of the Iranian desk.

Like I said, the book starts out very strong. I was intrigued by the characters, the situation and the back story of the two main characters.

By the end of the first page I was convinced I was reading a 5 star book.

But, the characters started to change. They started acting differently. For example, the head of the CIA is a retired Admiral. He comes off as a principled, with-it kind of leader who is just out of his element when he's not commanding a ship. Fine. Later on, he has multiple scenes in which he just plays with toy ships rather than making decisions. He goes from being a leader to being a little boy. Other characters make similar shifts.

So, for the 2nd 100 pages I had determined that this was probably a 4 star book. Good, but not great.

Throw in the goofy technology (you cannot realistically power an electronic device through radio waves, folks, if we could your cell phone would never run out of power. This book has a device being powered by a hand held device hidden under a robe beaming signals through the walls of a hardened nuclear facility - fun stuff but more sci-fi than reality), the satellite system that literally takes dozens of photos of ALL of Iran, including dumpy little towns that aren't even on the map (we photograph every square inch all day long and we don't know what's going on?), and the skimpy treatment of the special unit that the book is named after and...

well, the book degenerated to a 3 star piece of pulp fiction. Nothing special. It's a good airplane ride read.

Reviewed on May 20, 2009.

Friday, February 11, 2011

1601 Conversation as it was by the Social Fireside in the Time of the Tudors (kindle) by Mark Twain

The commentary is actually more interesting than the story

Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Literary critic Edward Wagenknecht called 1601 "the most famous piece of pornography in American literature."

Just to be clear, it's not really pornography, at least not by modern standards. Rather, it's a short story featuring Queen Elizabeth I, Ben Jonson, Beaumont, Shakespeare, the Duchess of Bilgewater, Sir Walter Raleigh and a few other people all in a closet talking about passing gas and sex.

Sound strange?

Well, it is and only so-so funny.

3/4 of this download is a fairly interesting commentary on the history of the story and about the characters. We learn that Twain wrote this as a diversion after the publication of Tom Sawyer (while he was working on Huckleberry Finn) during a time of writer's block. Twain showed it to some friends who published a few copies and then it snowballed. Twain's 1601 went "viral" before there was an internet, apparently.

I rate this kindle short story 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on May 20, 2009.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The House of the Scorpion (audiobook) by Nancy Farmer



Recommended for middle schoolers through adults 
 
Limiting The House of the Scorpion to a young adult audience is a disservice to the book and to the themes it brings up. This would be a fantastic book for an adult discussion group - there are so many themes and controversial topics that a group could discuss for hours and hours.


Nancy Farmer
That being said, I nearly quit listening to this audiobook after the first hour. It was sooooo slow to get started. On top of that, it was often dark and opressive. However, after the character Tam Lin comes in to the story the whole book changes and you would have had to fight me to get me to give the book up. By the time the end came around I felt like I had lived a life with Mateo and was thoroughly satisfied.

So, what kind of themes are there? Well, this book, in my opinion, points out the dangers that many of the more Conservative thinkers warn us about with our current policies towards bio-technology and, to a lesser extent, immigration.

The future, as portrayed in The House of the Scorpion is often a dark place with clones created solely to provide body parts for their originals and "eejits" - people with computer chips inserted into their brains to make them completely docile and the perfect slaves who will literally do the task they're assigned to do until they are told to stop (or die). The United States is no longer the world's only superpower and there is a new country between Mexico (now called Aztlan) and the USA. It is called "Opium". Opium serves as a buffer between Aztlan and the U.S. that is run by a cartel of drug lords with drug plantations worked by eejits, most of whom are illegal aliens from the U.S. or Mexico who were captured and enslaved (the parallels with the American underground labor force comprised of illegal immigrants can be easily made).

Aztlan has become a country obsessed by economic success and the duty to the larger society as a whole. The goal there seems to be the bee hive - all workers know their place and sacrifice for the good of the society. The mantra is the "5 principles of Good Citizenship" and the "4 Attitudes Leading to Right-Mindfulness." The success of the state is paramount over the interests of any individual.

Grand themes run throughout the book such as:

-What does it mean to be human?

-Who is accorded human rights?

-What are the limits of cloning? Do we clone people just to use them for parts? Do we clone fetuses just to use their parts (as happens in the book)?

-The rights of the individual vs. the demands of the state? Where are the boundaries or should there be any? Is the individual entirely free? Can the state demand everything of the individual? Is there a difference between an eejit and an Aztlanian worker bee?

The audiobook lasts 12.5 hours and is read brilliantly by Robert Ramirez (NOTE: There are other audiobook versions out there with different readers). I'm glad I stuck through the initial slow parts - I was thoroughly rewarded.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: The House of the Scorpion

Reviewed May 21, 2009.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Beyond Suspicion by James Grippando



Beyond Suspicion is a quick-moving book and is a sequel to Grippando's first published novel 'The Pardon'. I read 'The Pardon' many years ago, but reading the first book is not a necessary requirement - Grippando sets the stage very well in this book so it can be a 'stand alone' novel.
James Grippando

I shot through this book very quickly - the plot drags you in pretty well and Grippando's writing style keeps the book moving along at a quick pace. The main character is fairly average and his world is suddenly turned upside down by one case and its connections to the underworld. Murder, mayhem and one family crisis after another keep it interesting. Grippando fills this novel with a multitude on interesting characters, any one of which would be strong enough to be the main character in a book.

A good solid read - a great summertime novel.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Beyond Suspicion

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 25, 2005.

The Man Who Met the Train: A Carl Wilcox Mystery by Harold Adams



So, what is a 'rawboned' mystery?

My copy of  The Man Who Met the Train had a snippet from a review from the Chicago Sun-Times in which they said it was a 'rawboned' mystery. I was intrigued by that characterization and can now report to you what that means.

It means that this mystery is sparsely written - no extravagant detail and most conversations aren't even fully fleshed out. It's a quick and dirty read about some quick and dirty crimes set in two small towns in Depression-era South Dakota. In style and setting it reminded me of a western. The hero, Carl Wilcox, comes upon a wrecked car. Inside are four dead adults and one survivor - a little girl.

Wilcox is eventually hired on by local bigwigs to investigate the circumstances of the crime, seeing as how he has previous experience as a police officer. Wilcox starts to pull at the loose threads of this crime and starts to discover that some very prominent local names are being implicated in these murders and other crimes.
Harold Adams

The most interesting aspect of the story is the budding personal life of Wilcox. One of the local ladies enjoys serious flirtation with him and the little girl he saved from the wreck who trusts no one but him. It is enjoyable to follow along with Wilcox's discomfort and awkwardness in dealing with this traumatized little girl. He has obviously been a loner for a while and suddenly he is looking at the prospect of a family and dealing with having to sing little kid sings in the car and telling stories before bed time.

This is a solid little read. Now I'll be on the lookout for other books labeled 'rawboned'.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Man Who Met the Train: A Carl Wilcox Mystery

Reviewed on July 21, 2005.

The Jury by Steve Martini

A great legal thriller

The oddly titled The Jury (it's not about the jury at all - they are barely mentioned) is a sharp, tight legal thriller that hums right along until the neat little twist at the end.

Steve Martini
Paul Madriani and his law partner Harry Hinds have are defending a murder suspect, a genetic researcher named David Crone. The book joins the trial already in progress. Madriani and Hinds have one big problem, though. The unflappable Crone keeps so many secrets - trade secrets, research secrets and vital information that he just didn't think was important enough to mention to his attorneys that they don't really know where they stand in any of this.

Throw in a family friend with a genetic disorder that may be cured by Crone's research, you get a solid mixture of urgency, ambiguity and frustration that kept me glued until the end.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on February 8, 2011.

A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future by Charles Van Doren



The Past and Present parts were very well done but...

...the future part was a different story. More on that later.

Van Doren's A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future is a truly remarkable book. He breaks down a number of key philosophies and religions and makes them palatable to the reader and also demonstrates their influence over time. It is a very well written book - very enjoyable to read.

He is particularly good at succintly describing why the end of the Roman Empire was such a disaster for knowledge and explaining why the Church was afraid of the astronomy discoveries of the Renaissance.

Problem areas:

-He almost exclusively focuses on Western Thought. Very little Asian philosophy, except for Confucius. How can it be a History of Knowledge when it leaves out most Asian thought?

-Sometimes he blithely labels things as fact. For example, he claims that Jesus was born on December 25th while every Christian church body on the planet merely claims that it is the observed day of his birth.

-He asserts that Martin Luther wanted his religious opponents to be murdered in the Thirty Years War. I know that Luther railed against his opponents but he also railed against religious war. Perhaps Van Doren is confusing Luther's strong support for a violent response to the incredibly violent Peasant's Uprising of his younger days. That was not so much a religious war as a response to the brutal treatment the peasants received. Luther was not sympathetic to the peasants since they had burned churches and killed priests.

-Van Doren goes onto shaky ground when discussing Darwin's Theory of Evolution when he supports it by saying that breeds of dogs are a great proof of this theory. I say that this is shaky ground because different dog breeds are not new species. This same argument is used by racists who claim that the different races are fundamentally different from each other due to breeding. It was an especially poor choice of an argument.

Van Doren's book goes off track when he gets to his future section. Until I reached that section, I had been telling my wife and my friends that I had been reading a phenomenal book - wonderfully thought out and written. Then Van Doren indulges in silly speculations about the future. His predictions about computer technology completely missed the direction that we took. He is very concerned about Artificial Intelligence, a field that is not nearly as hyped as it was when he wrote his book. Unfortunately, he sounds like he's a supporting writer for the movie I, Robot rather than a serious writer.

He also advocates the need for a World Government, but the arguments he makes sound flat when compared to the history that he has just written - a history that warns of the dangers of concentrations of power. What is the old saw about learning history so as not to repeat it?

So, if I were grading the first 85% of the book, it'd be a solid 5 stars. However, those last 50 pages are truly awful and the overall score is dropped.

Despite the fact that most of this book deals with problems I have with the book, I do heartily recommend the book - just not the last section.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future by Charles Van Doren.

Reviewed July 18, 2005.

A Place Called Freedom by Ken Follett



An informative historical adventure

Follett's A Place Called Freedom was one of the most requested books when I worked at a now-defunct used book store more than 10 years ago. I finally got around to reading it and I can see why it was in such demand.


Ken Follett
Follett introduces the reader to the turbulent politics on 1760s England, Scotland and America. He throws in a liberal dose of romance and the reader will be reminded of the Tom Cruise / Nicole Kiddman epic movie Far and Away. There are plenty of similarities - both feature poor, rural heroes who fall in love with the landlord's spunky daughter. Nevertheless, it's a great read and unique enough to stand up in its own right.

I recommend it to anyone who is interested in a view of England's politics and turmoil on the eve of the American Revolution - it puts America's arguments for revolution in a clearer context - it even strengthens them. On top of that, the book is a great read.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: A Place Called Freedom

Reviewed on July 16, 2005.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven



A wonderful book - it creates a world for the reader...

...and at the end, you are sad to leave it.

For me, when I read an absolutely excellent novel, I have a hard time getting into another one - you end up rejecting the new one because it's not as good as the last one. This is one of those novels for me. So, I guess I'll be cleansing the reading palate with a few magazines.

I first read this novel when I was 14 or 15 years old. I haven't thought about it for years until I came across it at a book sale and picked it up on a whim. I approached re-reading it with some trepidation - I was afraid that it would not be as good as I remembered and I would be disappointed.

Well, it wasn't as good as I remembered - it's much better! Age and experience make you appreciate some things better, I suppose.

I shot through I Heard the Owl Call My Name in less than 24 hours - a new record for this slow and steady reader. Granted, it's a short novel (my copy was 159 pages), but it pulls you in an you want to learn more about this native American village and the young vicar sent to minister to them. I teach high school and I have a small library of books in my classroom. From time to time, I am asked by students to recommend a book and this one will shoot up to the top of my list with Of Mice and Men.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: I Heard the Owl Call My Name.

Reviewed on June 30, 2005.