"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.
Reviewed on December 28, 2013.


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


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.
Reviewed on December 28, 2013.

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.
Unabridged.

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.
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.

Reviewed on December 26, 2013.

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.
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.
Reviewed on December 23, 2013.

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.
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.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

JACK IRISH (Set #1) DVD



This will be of interest to fans of brooding mysteries

Guy Pearce (the villain in Iron Man 3) plays Jack Irish in this Australian mystery show. Jack Irish is a former prosperous defense lawyer who lost his wife when a past client came to his office to argue about how his case was defended in court. Jack Irish tells his wife to leave the office and head for the car and he will meet her after he and his client talk a bit. Instead, the client follows his wife out to the car, shoots and kills her and then kills himself right in front of Irish.

Irish's life goes into a tailspin. Now,he spends his time woodworking, drinking,doing a bit of bill collecting and gambling. But, sometimes the right case comes along and he gets motivated to really care about something that matters again...

I was honestly not impressed by Guy Pearce in Iron Man 3, but I thought he hit all of the right notes in his portrayal of Jack Irish. His new (and seedy) friends are there to help as well and there is the alluring promise of new romance for Irish.

This DVD contains two 90 minute full-length episodes plus a 17 minute behind-the-scenes bonus feature.This show would be rated R in the United States due to language and nudity.

I rate this DVD 4 stars out of 5.

This DVD can be purchased on Amazon.com here: Jack Irish (Set #1).

Reviewed on November 26, 2013.

STAR WARS: JEDI ACADEMY by Jeffrey Brown

  A Unique Entry Into an Crowded Field


Published by Scholastic in August of 2013.

If you have read the Diary of a Wimpy Kid or the James Patterson Middle School series you get how this book is designed. The twist is that Roan Novachez is a middle school student from Tatooine who really wants to get into Pilot Academy Middle School (much like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode IV). If you were trying to place this book in the timeline of the Star Wars movies it would be about 200 years before the events of Return of the Jedi based on Yoda's stated age.

Anyway, Roan does not get into the Pilot Academy but Yoda extends a special invitation for him to come to the Coruscant Jedi Academy. He is the newest student and has the traditional new student problems at a middle school (finding friends, figuring out your teachers, finding your classrooms and so on) plus he has additional problems such as trying to understand what his Wookie gym teacher is saying and figure out how to actually move things using the Force.

My kids (ages 8 and 13) loved this book (my 8 year old just took it from me and started reading it for the second time), I liked it quite a bit but did not love it. It has some funny bits and is a quick, light read. Of course, things work out well for Roan but it's fun to read how he does it.

I rate this book 4 out of 5 stars.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Star Wars: Jedi Academy

Reviewed on November 26, 2013.

Monday, November 25, 2013

RUSH REVERE and the BRAVE PILGRIMS: TIME-TRAVEL ADVENTURES with EXCEPTIONAL AMERICANS (audiobook) by Rush Limbaugh



Published by Simon and Schuster in 2013.
Read by the author, Rush Limbaugh.
Duration: 4 hours, 31 minutes

This is bound to irritate some listeners of Rush who may not read any more than the simple fact that I was not impressed by this book. Let my establish my bona fides right off. I have been a semi-regular listener to Rush since 1991 when I heard his parody song about Ted Kennedy called "I'm a philanderer" to the tune of Dion's "I'm a Wanderer." I have read Rush's books. I remember his TV show, if you look at my reviews you will see that I'm fairly well-read in Conservative literature and I even have a subscription to National Review.

That being said, I cannot say that I was a fan of this book. I am a history teacher and I really have no problem with the history Rush presented. The book is about the Puritans, the Mayflower, their trip across the ocean and their first year in the New World. It was a bit simplistic and did not go into much detail except about Puritan beliefs and how they differed from the official Church of England line. Also, Rush ends the story before he gets to the utter deterioration of Puritan-Indian relations and the awful wars that ensued. But, his real point is to detail the personal bravery of the Pilgrims in the face of long odds and terrific adversity and he does that, even if he leaves other parts of the complete history out.

What he does go into is an excessive amount of detail explaining how Rush Revere and his horse Liberty are
The Mayflower Compact, 1620 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 
able to travel back and forth in time to interact with historical figures. The book is sort of a mix between the Magic Tree House series (traveled back in forth in time) and the Magic School Bus series (crazy field trips with the teacher) except the horse is the magical thing. He can talk, travel back and forth in time by creating a time portal, turn invisible and even stop time. But, Limbaugh spends so much time explaining the premise behind this book while setting down the ground rules for what he hopes will be a series of books focusing on American history that it just gets boring.

Even worse, Rush does just a so-so job of reading the book. If you are a frequent listener to Rush you know that he has a rule against listeners reading from prepared remarks when they call in. Reading does not sound as good as just talking with the host or even telling a story. You may have heard someone reading an article from the paper or instructions for a piece of do-it-yourself furniture out loud and they rush it. Well, ironic as it is considering his name, Rush rushes this reading and gets the pacing all wrong. On top of that, he does almost nothing to create voices or anything else to individualize the characters so it just sounds like a non-stop near-monotone of Rush rushing through his story. It is very odd that a man who spends 3 hours a day using his voice just missed the mark here. Don't get me wrong, it's not like he's not understandable, it's just not a high-quality audiobook performance.

So, in short, I am going to take what would have been a 4 star book and take off a star for the poor reading and another star for the slow pace of the book.

I rate this audiobook 2 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on November 25, 2013.

NOTE: I received a copy of this book for free from the publisher through Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer program in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, November 22, 2013

THE LIBERTY AMENDMENTS: RESTORING the AMERICAN REPUBLIC (audiobook) by Mark R. Levin


Published by Simon and Schuster Audio in August of 2013.
Narrated by Jason Culp. Opening and closing chapters read by Mark R. Levin.
Duration: 6 hours, 54 minutes.

For the past several years Conservative commentator Mark R. Levin has been laying out his arguments that demonstrate the government is over-reaching its Constitutional limitations in a series of books. He has discussed the Supreme Court in Men in Black, the roots of statist politics in Liberty and Tyranny and pointed out the ongoing actions of statists in Ameritopia.

Now, in The Liberty Amendments, Levin details how he would address the problem using a series of Constitutional amendments.

Since it is unlikely that the current crop of Senators and Representatives would vote to amend the Constitution and limit their power, Levin urges the states to initiate the process by calling for a national convention.

Mark R. Levin
His proposed amendments include:

-Term limits for Congress (12 years);

-Repeal the 17th Amendment (direct election of Senators) and let states legislatures choose them (the way most states did it before the 17th Amendement);

-12 year term limits for members of the Supreme Court;

-An amendment to limit the amount the government can borrow;

-An amendment limiting the percentage of GNP the government can spend;

-An amendment to limit the rule-making ability of the federal bureaucracy;

-An amendment to let the state governments overrule a Supreme Court decision if enough of them vote to do it.

I found Levin's suggested amendments to be well-explained as was the rationale behind them. But, sometimes Levin gets a little too dedicated in making his arguments and he quotes multiple lengthy passages from the Founding Fathers that make for tedious listening. There was nothing that veteran reader Jason Culp could have done to make those passages more interesting and since I am reviewing both the content of the book and its experience as an audiobook I have to deduct a star for those tedious passages.

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

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on November 22, 2013.



Tuesday, November 12, 2013

OVERTIME in the WOODS (short story) (kindle) by Ryan Sean O'Reilly


Published in 2013 as an e-short story in kindle format.
Estimated length: 29 pages.

This short story follows Rich Lacey, a private investigator who often works for insurance companies and investigates people who claim to have been physically disabled at work  but who are actually just fine. He is tracking a man named Rufus Stumford in the back woods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula who is suspected of faking a back injury claim. Usually, Lacey works in the city, but Stumford case looks so obvious. The problem? He lives out in the real wild country - well out of cell phone range and out of Lacey's comfort zone.

But, Lacey has a case to prove, even if has illegally placed a homing device on Stumford's truck and has illegally trespassed to get good pictures of Stumford at work at his cabin - splitting and hauling wood.
But, what happens when Lacey actually meets Stumford makes him question the justice of what he does for a living...

This short story was well done - it had a good amount of tension and an interesting bit of mind games between Stumford and Lacey. 

I rate this short story 4 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on November 12, 2013.

AMERICA'S PROPHET: MOSES and the AMERICAN STORY by Bruce Feiler

 

Published in 2009 by William Morrow (HarperCollins)

I love the premise of America's Prophet - that America has a special connection with the story of Moses beginning with the Puritans and going right up through Martin Luther King, Jr. He lays out the correlations with some skill but, in the end it just started to drag.

This review (and the book, to a lesser extent) is helped by a basic knowledge of the story of Moses. Feiler provides the necessary background on Moses and then proceeds to make comparisons. For example, the Puritans saw themselves as fleeing a domineering power (England) and taking refuge in the wilderness (New England) like the Children of Israel fled the Pharaoh and went into the Sinai. The Puritans took comfort in the story of Moses because they believed that they would also be led by God.

Martin Luther King, Jr. during the
"March on Washington"
A slight change in interpretation and Moses becomes an inspiring symbol for the Americans in the Revolutionary War, the Abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad, both sides in the Civil War, immigrants, the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement (with the oddly prophetic "mountaintop" speech given by King right before he was murdered). Of course, there is a long discussion about Charlton Heston's portrayal of Moses in the movie The Ten Commandments. Oddly, there is only a very brief mention of Brigham Young leading the Mormons to Salt Lake City, fleeing from the United States in search of religious freedom. I am not a Mormon, but that story has every bit as much correlation to the original story as any of the others do.

Sadly, the story drags in in the later parts of the book with the discussions of post-Civil War immigrants and Charlton Heston. Feiler's attempt to wrap it all up with a discussion of his family's Passover celebrations is well-intentioned but really slow, capping off a solid book with an ending that never seems to end.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on November 12, 2013.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

WHO OWNS THE FUTURE (audiobook) by Jaron Lanier



Published by Simon and Schuster in 2013.
Read by Pete Simonelli
Duration: 12 hours, 2 minutes

Computer expert (to say the least, the man was a pioneer in the field of virtual reality and was at the ground floor in multiple Silicon Valley projects and companies) Jaron Lanier discusses possible futures of the economy and the online community in this rambling, interesting audiobook.

Lanier spends quite a bit of time discussing what he calls Siren Servers. Siren Servers are massive collectors of data such as search engine sites, credit bureaus, the NSA, and some very large retail sites. These servers collect "free" data from you that is provided by tracking your searches, purchases, phone calls or GPS location on your cell phones and sell it to advertisers. Facebook is a sterling example.

Lanier believes that you should be reimbursed for this information through a series of hundreds or even thousands of micropayments which would be used to support a middle class that will be increasingly squeezed by technological improvements that will destroy traditional middle class jobs. He calls this an Advanced Humanistic Information Economy.

Lanier's rambling style eventually gets to the details of this point about 10 hours or so into a 12 hour audiobook. It's not that he wasn't interesting as he was building up to his point, it's just that he has a hard time getting to the point. Along the way he tells about his favorite musician as a child and how he got to visit him, why the Laffer curve in economics is wrong (but why it is hopeful that so many people have a grasp of the concepts behind it), how Steve Jobs used guru techniques to motivate his people, including outright bullying some of his employees. He also talks about e-books vs. paper books and Singularity University and motivational speakers and why he is not on Facebook and on and on and on. He even truly off topic chapters called "interludes."

Note: this meandering conversation was usually interesting but was also a serious case of thesis drift. I listened in the car over the week and decided to listen as if the experience as a giant one-sided conversation with an especially talkative and intelligent companion. This impression was helped by the style of the reader, Pete Simonelli, who kept everything very approachable and friendly - like a conversation between friends.

Did I agree with everything presented? No. Did I find it interesting? Absolutely.

Note: I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher through the Audiobook Jukebox Solid Gold Review program in exchange for an honest review.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on November 9, 2013.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A FATE WORSE THAN DRAGONS by John Moore



Fair to Middling 

Published by Ace Fantasy in 2007

There is a market out there for parodies of the traditional King Arthur/Lord of the Rings fantasy stories. Some are quite excellent, such as the The Princess Bride and the Xanth novels. Some are just so-so, like this one.

The book is about Terry, a knight trying to win the hand of Princess Gloria. He actually kills a dragon, but it took place in the wrong kingdom. When he returns home he discovers Gloria is now engaged to the son of one of richest men in the kingdom (his family invented sliced bread). Terry and Gloria decide to fake the kidnapping of Princess Gloria so that Terry can "rescue" her. Of course, none of it works out the way that it is supposed to...

The problem with this book is that it is just so-so funny. Not that it doesn't have its moments. The running joke about people being afraid of sliced bread (because it is unnatural, etc.) was cute, but the long discussions about the rules concerning marrying a princess by winning her hand (and the precedents and how they became precedents) were repetitive and just too long. The scene where the virgin-eating gryphon is coming through town has one very funny, very original scene, but for the most part this book just kept telling the same jokes over and over and they weren't all that funny the first time.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on November 4, 2013.


Sunday, November 3, 2013

DOCTOR SLEEP: A NOVEL (Sequel to The Shining) (audiobook) by Stephen King

      A Tour De Force

Published in 2013 by Simon and Schuster
Read by Will Patton 
Duration: 18 hours, 35 minutes

I am an occasional reader of Stephen King. When I was younger I used to be an enthusiastic fan of all things Stephen King, but I took a break (about 15 years) and have slowly come back to the Stephen King fold, picking through some of what I missed, listening to his short stories as audiobooks and sometimes reading a book as it comes out. In this case, I am very glad that I did not hem and haw over this one. It is a tour de force of how to write horror, human frailty, human resilience and the power of friendship and love. Throw in the amazing performance by reader (and veteran actor - he is the coach in high school football movie Remember the Titans) Will Patton and this audiobook is an experience that must not be missed.


Stephen King
As already noted in the title of this review, Doctor Sleep is the sequel to the classic novel The Shining. I read it many, many years ago and decided NOT to re-read it before I listened to the audiobook. If you have not read the book in a while or even just saw the movie,  King provides enough background material for the reader to piece it together.

The child protagonist of The Shining, Danny Torrance, returns in Doctor Sleep. In his author's notes after the book King notes that he is often asked what he thinks happened to the kid from The Shining and he found himself wondering how he character would react to the horrific events that happened in the book.  He has .psychic powers that his mentor called "the shining." Danny can see certain spirits, he can tell when someone is going to die and he can communicate with only his mind if the other person also has "the shining."


Having this talent takes a tremendous toll on Torrance and, like his father before him, he turns to alcohol to quiet the voices and dull its abilities so that he can sleep. Soon enough, like his father before him, he becomes a violent alcoholic who cannot keep a job and he just rolls from town to town, getting work when he can and moving on when the alcohol gets in the way. He hits a low point when he wakes up in a stranger's apartment after a one night stand and he steals all of the cash from her purse even though he knows she has a little boy in diapers. At least he moves the cocaine out of his reach before he runs off with the rent money!

Dan ends up in New Hampshire and meets a couple of older gentlemen. One offers him a job, the other introduces him to Alcoholics Anonymous and helps Dan get sober. Dan eventually gets a different job at the local hospice and he uses his special talents to help dying guests pass over easier. He earns the nickname Doctor Sleep because word of his talent spreads among the residents and nurses of the hospice. The three scenes in which King describes what Torrance does with these patients as they pass away are quite beautiful.


What Stephen King does best is create characters. Dan Torrance is described in such approachable detail that the reader (listener, in my case) feels like he is real. At his lowest, the reader feels a level of both pity and disgust for Torrance. But, as he begins to pull his life together the reader feels like Danny is redeemed in some sort of way. I felt like I had been to the bottom with Torrance and had now come through the worst of it. This would have been a great story if this is all there were.


But, Stephen King does not leave it there. He makes you love a character (or a bunch of them) and then he makes you worry over them as horrific things come at them from all over the place and try to kill them. 


In Doctor Sleep the monsters are a group of psychic vampires called the True Knot. They travel the highways of America looking for children with "the shining." They capture them and slowly kill them and absorb their life essence as it slowly ebbs from their damaged bodies. They can live for hundreds of years and they look the same as everyone else. They have also targeted a twelve year old girl who lives in a town near Dan Torrance's and when she contacts him he knows that he must confront an evil that he has never imagined.



Will Patton
Will Patton read this book. Saying he read this book is really an insult to what he did with the material. A great audiobook reader can turn so-so material into a good story. A good story can make a so-so reader sound good. In this case, Patton is an amazing reader with an excellent story. Patton performs almost every sentence of an eighteen hour plus audiobook with such skill, such a solid feel for the story that I can honestly say that I have not heard anything better in ten years of listening to audiobooks. I have reviewed almost 250 audiobooks and I can unequivocally say that this was the best performance I have ever heard on an audiobook. The accents, the pacing, the nuances were all perfect. Whether he is voicing an elderly black man from Florida or a crusty old New Englander or an evil woman who likes to torture young people for their souls or a middle school girl or an old Italian grandmother or a panicked small town mom - he nailed it. 

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.


This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Doctor Sleep

Reviewed on November 3, 2013.

Disclosure: I was given a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review through Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer program. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

TIM RUSSELL: MAN of a THOUSAND VOICES (A Prairie Home Companion) (audiobook)


Published in September of 2013 by HighBridge Audio.
Duration: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Multi-cast Performance


NPR's "A Prairie Home Companion" has an extensive collection of audio CDs based on lots of different themes, including skits that highlight certain regular actors on the show. This CD focuses on Tim Russell, an actor with a real talent for mimicking celebrities and an admirable repertoire of original characters to draw upon. He has been a member of the cast since 1994. 

This CD has 19 different tracks that were broadcast from 1996-2012. Some are laugh-out-loud funny, some are merely amusing, and a couple are just okay (I am not a fan of "Guy Noir" or "The Lives of the Cowboys" - these are two recurring and popular skits that feature Russell) . To be fair, Russell figures prominently in the collection of highlights featuring fellow cast member Sue Scott and I think she got the funnier bits on her CD.  Altogether, this is still a very solid hour of listening and a sure thing for any fan of Garrison Keillor.


Disclosure: I was sent a complimentary copy of this CD by the publisher through the Audiobook Jukebox Solid Gold Reviewer program in exchange for an honest review.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on October 28, 2013.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

THE ROBBERY: A SHORT STORY by John Brinling



Published in 2011 as an e-short story in kindle format.
Estimated length: 11 pages

The most interesting thing about this short story is the opening paragraph:

Like Superman, Walter tried to catch the bullet. Unlike Superman, it went through the fleshy part of his palm between the thumb and forefinger.

After that, the story just deteriorates in a hurry.

Walter is stealing a fortune in bearer bonds from his company without his partner's knowledge, but he gets robbed almost as soon as he steps out on the street. From there, things spiral out of control with one betrayal after another and once it got going it was pretty obvious that it was going for full bore ridiculous - and it got there.

I found none of the characters sympathetic and it was very hard to actually care about them in any way.

Friday, October 18, 2013

HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGON (Temeriare #1) by Naomi Novak



Originally published in 2006.

Way back when when I got my Kindle 2 in 2009 this was one of the first books that I got - it was part of a free promotion and somehow I never read it. I guess I was afraid that it would be too cheesy.

Boy, was I wrong.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)
The premise of this book is a mashup of How to Train Your Dragon with Master and Commander. It is the middle of the Napoleonic Wars and Napoleon is planning to invade England. All that stands between England and Napoleon's massive army is their far superior navy and a small contingent of dragons. Yes, dragons. It turns out that in this alternate world dragons occur naturally in the wild and have been trained to fight in war, much like horses and dogs occur naturally in the wold and have been trained to fight in war.

Dragons, however, are smart and are able to talk with people. In fact, dragons bond with a human and they become a team. Dragons come in different sizes and jobs, much like an air force's planes or a navy ships. Some are quick and small, some are like giant air-borne battleships. Some spray acid, some just have nasty claws and teeth and can drop big rocks on fortifications, ships, etc,

Captain Will Laurence's ship captures a weaker French ship that puts up a surprisingly tough fight, Once aboard, the English discover why they fought so hard - they have a dragon's egg in their hold! The English immediately move it to their ship, thrilled that their country will get a much-needed dragon (being severely outnumbered by the France's dragons).

But, the egg starts to hatch and when it does the dragon picks Captain Laurence as the person it will bond with. The Captain steps aside as the Captain of his ship and tries to learn as much as he can about dragons, which is not a lot (think about a fighter pilot becoming a tank commander in our modern armed forces and you get the idea). Together, the reader and Laurence learn about dragon behavior and training and even eventually go into battle against Napoleon's forces.

This book is written in period style and pays careful attention to the attitudes and mores of the time period, making it all the more authentic feeling. The bond between the dragon Temeriare and Will Laurence is as natural as that ideal bond between a K-9 officer and his dog - they are different but they are also partners, roommates and loyal friends. If that police dog could talk, the bond would be even stronger. 

This was a fantastic read. I am sorry that I waited more than four years to finally get it off of my to-be-read list.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on October 18, 2013.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

SNIPER ELITE: ONE WAY TRIP (audiobook) by Scott McEwen with Thomas Kolonair



Published by Simon and Schuster Audio in 2013.
Read by Brian Hutchinson.
Duration: 10 hours, 8 minutes.
Unabridged.

Author Scott McEwen co-wrote American Sniper, the auto-biography of famed SEAL Chris Kyle and from those contacts and the stories he heard he was inspired to write this fictional story of American special forces in Iran and Afghanistan.

The insignia of the Navy SEALs
This is really three separate operations deftly told as three separate stories with overlapping characters and a little overlap when they get back to base. The first operation is the insertion of a lone operative into Iran to kill a weapons designer. McEwen uses this fairly straightforward story to introduce the weapons and other equipment that will be used throughout the book.

The second and third operations deal with a captured American female helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. She is part of a unit that inserts and extracts special forces all of the time so the men feel a real connection to her. When a video is released showing her being raped by one of her captors the men of multiple special forces units decided to act, even when their orders tell them to stand down and let the diplomats try to free her.

The action is first rate, although I can honestly say that I have no idea how realistic it was at all. Nonetheless, it was very entertaining. There were interesting questions raised but not dealt with very well, such as the uniquely weird position of the Afghani translators - they are forever between their own people and a foreign military - part of both at the same time.

If you are easily offended by curse words I suggest skipping this book because men in combat tend to curse and F$@% is used at least one hundred times in the first couple of hours. After that, it was just part of the story.

Brian Hutchinson read this story and did a great job with different accents and depicting the men in different situations. This book was not read, it was performed as he whispered, shouted, threatened and made smart-aleck comments as the characters died in the middle of a firefight - all without making it seem hokey (this book had that potential if read incorrectly).

Very enjoyable.

NOTE: This book was provided to me at no charge by the publisher in exchange for an honest review as a part of Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer Program.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on October 13, 2013.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

THE SECRET SOLDIER (John Wells #5) (audiobook) by Alex Berenson



Published by Recorded Books in 2011.
Read by George Guidall
Duration: 11 hours, 23 minutes
Unabridged

This is my first John Wells book. For those not in the know, John Wells is a former CIA agent who is also a Muslim (if not a particularly devout one when it comes to all of the formalities). He now freelances, sometimes working with the CIA, sometimes not.

The first part of The Secret Soldier deals with John Wells tracking down a former operative in Jamaica and bringing him back to the United States. I am unsure as to why this was included in the book - it had nothing to do with the rest of the story except to establish that John Wells is burned out and is unsure about the life of violence that he has led. 


The heart of the story involves a plot against the royal family of Saudi Arabia. Wells is hired by the King  of Saudi Arabia himself to investigate a series of terrorist attacks within Saudi Arabia. As Wells investigates he discovers that the source of these attacks may by closer to the King than he ever imagined and the trail leads Wells to the Saudi kingdom and into the holy city of Mecca itself.

Once the audiobook moves into the main plot, this book hums along. There is plenty of action, intrigue and the occasional funny moment. The author includes plenty of background information about the political state of Saudi Arabia and its relationship with the Wahhabi movement in Islam so the reader gets a solid grasp of what is at stake. This book is eerily on track with current events even though it was published two years ago. The NSA program that became so controversial in the summer of 2013 is explained in detail as well as the dangerous line walked by governments that do not completely kowtow to the rule of Muslim clerics (witness the current struggles in Egypt and Syria).


Legendary audiobook reader George Guidall reads The Secret Soldier. Guidall covers the wide variety of accents that a book of this scope requires in his typical professional and competent manner. But, in the fight scenes Guidall shines - he speeds up and slows down and makes it like a movie scene with sped up segments and slow-mo parts that makes the reader sit up and take notice. Well done, sir.


This is an excellent book with the exception of the Jamaica-based introduction. Overall, it comes out to a score of 4 out of 5.


Reviewed on October 10, 2013.


This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Secret Soldier

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

NOBODY'S PERFECT (Dortmunder #4) (audiobook) by Donald E. Westlake



Published by HighBridge Audio (Mysterious Press- HighBridge Audio Classics) in 2013.
Read by Jeff Woodman
Duration: 7 hours, 24 minutes
Unabridged
Originally published in 1977.

This is my first Dortmunder novel. I know this is a classic series and I was looking forward to hearing it once I saw HighBridge audio was re-issuing these books.

Nobody's Perfect features master thief (who always has the worst luck) Dortmunder being recruited by a "rich" man who has run out of cash thanks to his philandering and spendthrift ways. This man wants Dortmunder to recruit a team and steal a piece of art in an insurance fraud scheme. Dortmunder will keep the painting and then return it once the insurance check clears in exchange for $100,000.

Sadly, I have to say that while I found the oddball characters refreshing at first, the first half of the book was slow and the amusing situations took too long to develop. they stopped being funny and started being unwelcome intrusions into already slow-moving story. Once the book moves into its second phase (the original plan goes very awry) the book picks up and becomes much more interesting and funny but does not make up for the slow-moving first half.

Jeff Woodman did a great job of creating numerous accents and voices in this audiobook. He delivered the funny lines well but just could not save the first half of the book.

I received a free copy of this audiobook from the publisher through the Audiobook Jukebox Solid Gold Reviewer program in exchange for an honest review

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on October 9, 2013.