"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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Saturday, December 30, 2017

CALAMITIES and CATASTROPHES: THE TEN ABSOLUTELY WORST YEARS in HISTORY by Derek Wilson



Published in 2015 by Marble Arch Press

Going into this book, I knew that I would have a bone to pick with almost every one of the author's choices. After all, there are 5,000 years of recorded history and every last one of them is filled with tragedy. How can you pick and choose the actual worst 10 years?

Wilson, a British historian, focuses in this book on a Western point of view and the earliest date is 541 A.D. So, if you are making a pitch for the 10 worst years in the West in the last 1500 years, his choices are pretty solid.

The years he picks are:

541-542: The first outbreak of the Bubonic Plague weakens the nascent Byzantine Empire and the Persian Empire, killing millions.


1241-1242: The Mongols invade Eastern Europe.

1572: The Spanish Inquisition and everything that came with it.

1631-1632: The worst year of the Thirty Years War.

1709: The Great Freeze

1848: The "Year of Revolutions" in Europe

1865-1866: The assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the failure of the United States to follow through properly with Reconstruction after the Civil War. Also, the rise of terror groups like the KKK.

1942-1943: He almost exclusively focuses on the Russian front - the bloodbaths around Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad.


Robert Kennedy (1925-1968)
1968: The Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, protests around the world.

1994: The Rwandan genocide. There is a lot of focus on how and why the Western powers just watched it happen.

Sometimes, Wilson has a nice turn of phrase in his writing. I especially liked this line from page 151: "Over the centuries, whatever game Europe's nations played, the weakest had always seemed to be dealt to Poland."

But, there were lots of typos, a weird use of texting-style writing on page 122 and several errors with commas that made me have to re-read passages just to figure out if what Wilson had written was what he really meant to say. Other times, there are factual errors (that may have been editing errors - as I just noted, editing was a real issue in this book). The most egregious error was actually a double error in the same paragraph on page 227. Wilson notes:

 "By the end of 1967 the war had cost the lives of almost 16,000 combat troops and was gobbling up more than $2-3 million per month. What made matters worse was that America's youth had no way of avoiding military service because conscription (the 'draft') still existed."

First: a quick internet search says the Department of Defense spend $168 billion between 1965 and 1972 on military operations in Vietnam. I am sure he meant to say $2-3 billion, not million.

Secondly, there were ways to avoid the draft. Let's look at three recent American presidents. Bill Clinton chose the most popular way to avoid the draft - he went to college. It was no guarantee, but it was a good bet. Many universities grew during the Vietnam War due to increased demand. George W. Bush joined the Air National Guard. Also, it was no guarantee not be sent to Vietnam, but it was not likely. Donald Trump claimed disability (bone spurs in his feet).

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5. The limited focus on the West while claiming to be about all of history was a disappointment. The atrocious editing was also a concern.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: CALAMITIES and CATASTROPHES: THE TEN ABSOLUTELY WORST YEARS in HISTORY by Derek Wilson.

FAMOUS LATIN-AMERICAN LIBERATORS by Bernadine Bailey



Published in 1960 by Dodd, Mead and Company 
Part of the "Famous Biographies for Young People" series

In the 1950s and 1960s, it was common for the children's section of the library to have scads of biographies like this one. Most of them were about 100 pages of a simple biography of a single person, featuring a lot about that person's childhood. They must have been effective because I remember enthusiastically plowing through them and learning about Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln and other historical figures. Now, I am a history teacher.

This series is a variation on that theme. Rather than a single biography, it features approximately 12 page biographies (they vary in length) starting with a line drawing. All of the biographies are very readable, if not particularly compelling. But, in the days before the internet, books like this were gold if you were a young scholar assigned a write a report about a historical figure.

Other books in this extensive series include: Famous American Poets, Famous Pioneers for Young People, Famous Engineers and Famous Modern American Women Writers.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: FAMOUS LATIN-AMERICAN LIBERATORS by Bernadine Bailey.

Friday, December 29, 2017

BRAVE COMPANIONS: PORTRAITS in HISTORY (audiobook) by David MCCullough



Originally published in hardback book form in 1991.
Published by Simon and Schuster Audio.
Read by the author, David McCullough
Duration: 11 hours, 19 minutes
Unabridged

David McCullough
Brave Companions: Portraits in History is a collection of previously published articles and speeches. It's a smattering of this and that - sometimes it's about art, sometimes about scientists, sometimes about politicians and sometimes it's just some musings from McCullough about history. It doesn't matter, almost all of it is interesting and well-told. McCullough understands the value of telling history as a story - as always he is very approachable.

My favorite entry was the story of the railroad that preceded the Panama Canal. It was an amazing story of the power of human will against nature.

McCullough reads this audiobook, which is great because McCullough has a fantastic speaking voice and is well known for his voice work. I envy both his writing ability and his talents as a speaker.

My favorite quote from the book is from President Harry S. Truman: "The only new thing in the world is the history you don't know."


I rate this collection 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Brave Companions: Portraits in History by David McCullough

A CHRISTMAS STORY: THE BOOK that INSPIRED the HILARIOUS CLASSIC FILM (audiobook) by Jean Shepherd



Published by Listening Library in 2004.
Read by Dick Cavett
Duration: 3 hours, 36 minutes.
Unabridged

Jean Shepherd (1921-1999)
A lot of people aren't aware that the plot for the classic Christmas movie A Christmas Story was not written as a coherent novel but was actually a collection of short stories that the author had written about his childhood in northwestern Indiana during the Great Depression over the years that were then skillfully edited into a movie.

These stories don't follow the plot of the movie exactly, but all of the high points are here, including the infamous lamp, the bully, the BB gun, the visit to Santa and the Bumpus hounds. 


Interestingly, this audiobook was not read by Jean Shepherd, who was a professional radio personality and told most of these stories over the air (he is also the narrator in the movie). Instead, it is read by television host Dick Cavett. At first, I was disappointed but Cavett did a great job. This audiobook was a lot of fun.

5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: A CHRISTMAS STORY: THE BOOK that INSPIRED the HILARIOUS CLASSIC FILM (audiobook) by Jean Shepherd.

FROM a BUICK 8 (audiobook) by Stephen King



Published by Simon and Schuster Audio in 2002
Read by James Rebhorn, Bruce Davison, Becky Ann Baker, Peter Gerety, Fred Sanders, Stephen Tobolowsky
Duration: 13 hours, 21 minutes
Unabridged

Troop D is the name for the troopers in a Pennsylvania State Police post in western Pennsylvania. They are a close-knit bunch, as you would expect. But, it's not just because of their shared struggles as police officers - they share a secret and it's hidden in a shed behind their post station.

In that shed is a 1953 Buick Roadmaster - but it's not any kind of Buick that was ever built in Detroit. It was left behind at a gas station when its driver stepped out of the car, told the attendant that the oil level was fine, headed towards the bathroom and then literally disappeared.

The car is weird. In fact, it really isn't a car. It can't actually drive. It's almost like someone who didn't understand the mechanics behind a car tried to build one. But, that's not the problem - the problem is that it pulses - it pulses deep sounds that people hear on a subconscious level and it calls them...

From a Buick 8 is, mostly, a series of stories told to the son of a deceased state trooper about his dad's investigations into the car. In that sense, it is a lot of sitting around on the "smoker's bench" behind the station looking at the shed across the parking lot and talking. The stories are strange and rather repetitive, but King's strength in developing believable characters shines throughout.

The audio version was read by 6 different voice actors, each taking a turn (or several turns) at telling stories about the car. They do a great job, as they should since each of them are actors that you recognize from television and movies, even if you don't actually know their names. I really liked that fact that the voice of the original driver of the car sounded exactly like that of Flagg from the audio version of The Eyes of the Dragon.

However, the book suffered from way too much mood-setting and philosophizing and not enough actual action. It isn't until the listener is more than 10 hours into the book that the story actually gets some real "current day" action. I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: From a Buick 8 by Stephen King

Thursday, December 28, 2017

DAD IS FAT (audiobook) by Jim Gaffigan



Published in 2013 by Random House Audio
Read by the author, Jim Gaffigan
Duration: 5 hours, 26 minutes
Unabridged

Despite the title, stand up comic Jim Gaffigan's first book is not about weight or food. No, Dad Is Fat is about being a parent and raising 5 little kids in a small New York City apartment.

Jim Gaffigan
If you are not a parent, there is probably not much about this book that would appeal to you. This is a point that Gaffigan makes at the beginning of the book in a story early on about when he and his wife traveled with parents of a new baby. True, those parents were obsessive to the extreme, but just about any parent could look at that extreme and think to themselves, "Yeah. That's nutty...but it's not crazy nutty.

For me, the best part was when Jim talked about his own parents and growing up in northern Indiana. His impersonation of his father and his constant throat clearing (something that Jim never points out but always does) was funny and ending up being thoughtful and poignant.

This is not nearly as good a book as his second book, Food: A Love Story. But, it wasn't bad. I would give it 3.5 stars. 


This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Dad Is Fat by Jim Gaffigan.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

FIRE in the WATER by James Alexander Thom



Published in 2015 by Blue River Press

Not many people know about the horrible story of the Sultana, a paddlewheel steamboat that sank into the Mississippi River in April of 1865. It is the worst maritime disaster in American history but was largely overshadowed by the events surrounding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and his dramatic funeral train tour from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois. The Sultana was grossly overcrowded. It was designed to carry 376 passengers, but it was carrying 2,155 passengers when three of its boilers exploded in the early morning hours of April 27, 1865.  Most of its passengers were survivors of the infamous Andersonville prisoner of war camp that were being shipped home. 

This book is technically a sequel to Saint Patrick's Battalion. It continues the story of a boy who traveled with an American army during the Mexican War. In Fire in the Water, that boy has grown up and become a famous war correspondent. He is traveling to Springfield with his newlywed wife to cover Lincoln's funeral. Along the way, he interviews as many of the former prisoners of war to work on a story about Andersonville.

This book starts out too slowly, but the last 50 pages or so are full of the kind of magic that James Alexander Thom can bring to historical fiction. 

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Fire in the Water by James Alexander Thom.

JOSEPH ANTON: A MEMOIR (audiobook) by Salman Rushdie



Published in 2012 by Random House Audio
Duration: 26 hours, 59 minutes
Read by Sam Dastor
Unabridged

For most people, Salman Rushdie is, and will always be, that author that the Iranians tried to have killed all of those years ago. I freely admit that this is an accurate description of me. Although I am an avid reader, this is the first Salman Rushdie book that I have even contemplated reading. 
Salman Rushdie. Photo by Andrew Lih.

Rushdie narrates this autobiography in the third person, which is a little weird and gave me the impression that he is trying to distance himself a bit from his own story.

The biggest chunk of Joseph Anton tells about how Rushdie dealt with the fatwa, or ruling against him and his book The Satanic Verses by the leader of the Iranian Revolution himself, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini ruled that the author, the publishers and the editors of the book should die for blasphemy and that anyone who died in an attempt to kill them would be considered a martyr. This caused Rushdie to go into hiding and be officially under police protection provided by the British government. Joseph Anton became his code name.

Rushdie the "icon" - the man who came to symbolize the intolerance of government-sponsored religion and offered a real-life preview to the dangers of radical Islam - and Rushdie the actual man are quite different people. I admire iconic Rushdie, but everyday life Rushdie is hard to like sometimes. Rushdie is often brutally honest about his friends and colleagues and their shortcomings - as he saw them. I can only imagine that many of his friends read this book and were horrified at how they were portrayed.

The book ends with a moving account of the 9/11 attacks on New York City, his adopted hometown. It makes a elegant bookend to a book that basically is about Islamic terror aimed at one person that morphs into terror aimed at an entire city.

The reader, Sam Dastor, was excellent. Interestingly, he is also the reader of the audiobook version of The Satanic Verses.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5. Way too long and too many uncomfortable comments about the author's supposed friends.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

WHAT IF? SERIOUS SCIENTIFIC ANSWERS to ABSURD HYPOTHETICAL QUESTIONS (audiobook) by Randall Munroe



Published by Blackstone Audio in 2014
Read by Wil Wheaton
Duration: 6 hours, 36 minutes
Unabridged

Randall Munroe is the illustrator of the web-based comic strip xkcd. On his website, he has a place where people can leave "What if..." science-based questions and he tries to answer them. Why would they leave science questions on a comic strip website? Well, it turns out that Munroe is also a physicist - with a sense of humor.


The author, Randall Munroe
Munroe has collected the best questions and put them into a book. Questions include things like what would happen if the earth kept growing and when would you notice a change in gravity? What would happen if you fired in an arrow in a zero-gravity environment? How does all of the computing power of all of humanity stack up against all of the actual computers? What would happen if you opened up a giant drain in the lowest part of the ocean and drained it all away? And more.

Many of the questions are interesting and some of the explanations are really interesting. But, many of the explanations go on too long for my tastes. The author takes the answer and extends it on too long - many times he goes beyond the scope of the question and expands it to the point where the results end up in the destruction of the earth and/or the death of all of humanity. It was cute at first but after a while I began to roll my eyes when I saw it coming. There were times when I got tired of the length of the answer and just forwarded on to the next question.

Wil Wheaton read the audiobook version and did a stellar job like he usually does. He captured the attitude of the author perfectly.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5 - too many answers that were just too detailed and too long.


This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: WHAT IF? SERIOUS SCIENTIFIC ANSWERS to ABSURD HYPOTHETICAL QUESTIONS.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

NATIONAL BURDEN: CORPS JUSTICE SERIES, BOOK 5 (audiobook) by C.G. Cooper



Published by Tantor Audio in 2017
Read by David Colacci
Duration: 8 hours, 17 minutes
Unabridged

The Corps Justice series continues its tales of SSI (Stokes Security International), a private security firm that sometimes doubles as the President's personal private paramilitary army that acts when he just can't do things politically.

The President is in political trouble. There is a plot to frame the President and a very connected contact of SSI is concerned about strange movements in the stock market. So, he contacts his friends at SSI to give him a hand. And, they soon discover that things are much worse than they had ever imagined...


Politics, as portrayed in this book, are just not realistic. For example, the President appoints a new Vice President (it was a vacant position) and he just goes to work as the VP. No hearings. No fuss. No muss. No Congressional approval (as required by the 25th Amendment). Imagine all of the squabbling and all of the controversy that would be generated if Donald Trump had to replace Mike Pence as Vice President. It would go on and on for weeks, if not months.

I think the idea of a private army that only answers to the President is just really a bad idea (and very illegal), but the book justifies it by making all of the characters in SSI very honorable, upright heroes who depend on their own sense of justice to guide them. That's great, but we don't depend on self-regulation because, in the long run, it's a horrible idea because people can't be trusted. But, hey, that's not just me. Read the thoughts of the guys who wrote the Constitution - it's why they didn't let the President just do whatever he wanted.


For a book series that is mostly about action (terrorists being foiled, explosions, car chases and the like) there was a surprising lack of action in this book. Lots and lots of talking in offices, hardly any action.

Anyway, if you like political fantasy, I suppose this is the book for you. I found it way too cartoonish.

David Colacci read the audiobook. He reads a lot of C.G. Cooper's books and does a stellar job with the accents and the voices but he couldn't save this book all by himself.

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

I rate this audiobook 1 star out of 5.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

THE OTHER WES MOORE: ONE NAME, TWO FATES (audiobook) by Wes Moore



I Blasted Through this Audiobook.

Published by Random House Audio in 2010.
Read by the author, Wes Moore.
Duration: 6 hours, 12 minutes
Unabridged

Wes Moore, the author of this book, is originally from a tough Baltimore neighborhood. His family struggled with loss, poverty, his neglect of his own education and rebellious flirtation with crime. But, he "made it", eventually becoming a Rhodes Scholar, have a career in international finance (which was interrupted when he volunteered to serve as a paratrooper in Afghanistan), and now heads two educational foundations, writes articles and makes political commentary.

One day, Moore was sent an article about another young man from Baltimore also named Wes Moore. The other Wes Moore is a convicted murderer and is serving time in prison. This prompted the author to reach out to the other Wes Moore and eventually write this dual biography about how they both ended up in two very different places.

It is not a judgmental book. The author is very aware that he was oftentimes on a path very similar to that of the other Wes Moore and sometimes it is hard to tell their stories apart.

It is a very absorbing story. I listened to the audiobook version of this book over the course of a weekend, going out of my way to find reasons to listen. The narrator is the author, which can sometimes be a bad idea. In this case, the author is an excellent reader.

This is simultaneously an inspiring and depressing book and well worth your time.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: The Other Wes Moore.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

THE STATE of JONES: THE SMALL SOUTHERN COUNTY that SECEDED from the CONFEDERACY by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer



Published by Random House Audio in 2009
Read by Don Leslie
Duration: 13 hours
Unabridged

Newton Knight (1837-1922)
I am an avid reader of Civil War era histories (I own more than 100 and who knows how many that I have read from the library) and it is rare for me to find a book that covers new territory for me.

This book did. I knew as an abstract fact that there were thousands of white Union soldiers that came from the Confederacy. They are mentioned in many histories, but they are rarely a focus.

The State of Jones focuses on the family of Newton Knight, an unwilling Confederate soldier who was forcibly drafted, fought in multiple battles and eventually went AWOL. 
Newton Knight was not afraid to fight and kill for what he believed in. When the government tried to force him back into the military he started an anti-Confederate insurgency movement centered in Jones County, Mississippi. Those renegades tied up Confederate military assets and virtually stopped in-kind tax collections that were necessary to feed the Confederate military.

Newton Knight was a larger-than-life figure. A complicated man from a complicated family. His grandfather was one of the largest slaveholders in Jones County. But, Newton Knight's parents were outspoken opponents of slavery and Newton continued that tradition. Newton was an anti-secessionist but, when drafted, he became a competent soldier who earned at least one promotion.

The book's authors do a fantastic job of describing life on the march in the Confederate Army - no luster and no sheen. Very honest.

Knight's family back home was often targeted because of his political stances and that was one of the reasons Newton Knight left the army and, in his mind, switched sides and began to fight for the Union. The book runs into some of his weakest parts (scholarship-wise) in this section. Generally speaking, insurgency movements don't keep detailed written records of the membership or their plans, so there are gaps. The authors are clear that they are filling in the gaps with extremely educated guesses - but they are still not confirmed. These educated guesses are the only reason that I am giving the audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

Newton Knight's post-war life was just as complicated. He supported the Reconstruction government of Mississippi as it dealt with its own insurgency movement. Eventually, he completely broke with Southern tradition and married a former slave. They may have been the first interracial couple in the county. And, the county didn't know what to do with them. Thanks to the fearsome reputation of Newton Knight, the county mostly ignored them because they did not fit in to an easy category.

The audiobook was read by Don Leslie. His mournful, somber voice was perfect for Newton Knight and his story.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here:   THE STATE of JONES: THE SMALL SOUTHERN COUNTY that SECEDED from the CONFEDERACY.

Friday, November 24, 2017

BECAUSE I SAID SO!: THE TRUTH BEHIND the MYTHS, TALES and WARNINGS EVERY GENERATION PASSES DOWN to ITS KIDS (audiobook)by Ken Jennings


 
Published in 2012 by Tantor Audio
Duration: 5 hours, 2 minutes
Read by the author, Ken Jennings
Unabridged

Ken Jennings takes his famous encyclopedic knowledge of trivia that served him so well on Jeopardy and applies it to 125 bits of folk wisdom that we've all heard of the years that we all know but never really think about, let alone question. Do you really need to wait an hour after eating before you swim? Will your eyes really freeze that way? Do you really need to drink 8 glasses of water or will you ruin your eyesight if you read in low light? Ken Jennings does the research and finds the answers in a short, succinct and sometimes snarky fashion.

I am only rating this audiobook 4 stars rather than 5 for one reason - the narrator. The author, Ken Jennings, read the book himself and there is always a danger when an author reads his or her own book rather than hiring a professional.  It must be great to keep it all "in house" but there's a reason why most authors do not read their own work. Reading an audiobook well is a real skill.

In  read way too fast - at a very quick conversational level. It was very hard to listen to and it made me tired to try to keep up. I found that I had to turn it off after ten or fifteen minutes of listening and come back to it after I listened to something else for a while.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: BECAUSE I SAID SO!: THE TRUTH BEHIND the MYTHS, TALES and WARNINGS EVERY GENERATION PASSES DOWN to ITS KIDS.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

PARADISE VALLEY: A NOVEL (Cassie Dewell #4) by C.J. Box



Published by Macmillan Audio in July of 2017
Read by Christina Delaine
Duration: 10 hours, 6 minutes
Unabridged

Cassie Dewell moved to North Dakota in her last book, one of the few experienced police officers in an oil boom town. The boom has mostly died down now, with the drop of petroleum prices but it is still a much busier place than it was before the boom. The local sheriff is pondering retirement and wants Cassie Dewell to replace her.

But, Dewell has other goals - and one of them is the pursuit of the serial killer known as the Lizard King. He is a long haul trucker who specializes in killing truck stop prostitutes (known as "lot lizards", thus the serial killer's nickname). He was also part of a conspiracy that resulted in the death of her mentor and partner, Cody Hoyt and nearly killed her.

Dewell has a plan to capture this serial killer - a plan that is not officially on the books with the department. But, when the trap is finally sprung, things go sideways in ways that no one could have imagined and a kicks of a string of events that change everything...

This book was full of surprises. Christina Delaine, the reader of the audiobook, was one of them. She had to cover a wide variety of characters, including one with a strong Minnesota accent, a young man with a profound speech impediment, a bombastic old man and more. Excellent job.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Paradise Valley by C.J. Box.

IS SCIENCE RACIST? (DEBATING RACE) by Jonathan Marks



Published by Polity in March of 2017.

If you have ever had the misfortune to run across one of the alt-right's psuedo-scientific webpages that discuss the genetics of race and how science proves one race is smarter/better/nicer/whatever than other races you will see the need for this book.

Unfortunately, an author I used to Tweet back and forth with a little used to re-Tweet some posts from one of these sites and I got my fill of them during one long evening. They are the internet's version of those young men marching in Charlottesville with the white polo shirts and khaki pants. Like those men, on the surface these sites were pleasant enough until you pay attention to what was being said.

They wrap themselves in pseudoscience that, unfortunately, is twisted around to sound reasonable. It is these types of people that Jonathan Marks is talking about when he notes:

"Every science has had its own set of ethical issues - chemistry and poison gas; physical anthropology and grave-robbing - but there is one question that only scientists working in human genetics and race have to grapple with. And that is: 'What is it about me that the Nazis like so much?'" (p. 25)

Marks explores the relationship between science and politics and how scientists have to be careful to guard that their work is not perverted into something evil. Of course, some scientists don't care about where their funding comes from just so long as the checks cash. Others are duped. As noted by the author, "Scientists think like everybody else, and are beset by the same kinds of aspirations, insecurities and disappointments as everybody else." (p. 66) In some cases, scientists with latent racial biases are themselves are victims of confirmation bias - "their presuppositions adversely affect the framing of the research, the collection and analyzing of the data, and the interpretation of the results." (p. 22)

To Marks' credit, he works very hard to make this book accessible to the layman, making reference to popular works such as Frankenstein and Jurassic Park to warn of the dangers of science unfettered by morality. His discussion of genetics wandered a little deeper into the deep end than I preferred a couple of times but, on the whole, this was a surprisingly brisk and informative read.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Is Science Racist by Jonathan Marks.

Note: I received a free copy of this book in order to write an honest review through the Amazon Vine Program.

JUST MOVE!: A NEW APPROACH to FITNESS after 50 by James P. Owen



Published in September of 2017 by National Geographic

The author, James P. Owen, was 70 and realized that he was horribly out of shape. By out of shape I do not mean that he was fat. I mean he was walking around like a stiff and brittle old man - more content to sit and watch the world go by rather than get up and be a part of it.

Rather than go to the gym and try to become buff, he decided that he needed to combat aging by becoming "functionally fit". Instead of bulging biceps he would pursue these 5 goals in an effort to be more mobile and become less likely to injure himself in his everyday life:


-Core stability and strength
-Flexibility
-Balance
-Muscular strength
-Cardiovascular endurance

And he succeeded. He claims that at age 75 he is the most fit shape of his life.

There is nothing really shocking in this book, but he gives tons of practical advice to make things happen more safely and more quickly, especially if you have a few extra bucks to pay for a membership to the local YMCA and have access to a personal trainer (including tips on how to pick out the right trainer for you).

But, he also includes a lot of activities for people that don't have that extra padding in their budget but still want to work on that extra padding around their middle.

I have gone through my own fitness metamorphosis in the last 18 months after having a diagnosis of being pre-diabetic. A diet change and an effort to walk a lot more and hit the gym (something I literally never did before) helped me drop more than 80 pounds and out of the pre-diabetes danger zone and, like the author, I feel better than I have in years. 


This book was an well-written affirmation of many of the principles that I have stumbled upon, such as making fitness a habit, making the goals simple and more about feeling better and being fit to make life more enjoyable rather than setting some sort of arbitrary goal of a certain weight or a certain pants size.

This book has an encouraging tone rather than a lecturing one.


I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Just Move!: A New Approach to Fitness after 50.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

RETROGRADE by Peter Cawdron



Published in September of 2017 by John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

A Mars colony has been established by four separate factions: China, Russia, America and Eurasia (Europe, India, Israel, Japan, and more). The groups work together, but not always smoothly but they are building a successful colony.

Suddenly, everything is thrown into a tailspin when the major world powers begin firing nuclear weapons at one another and 15 cities are obliterated - and each faction of the colony has suffered losses. And...there's little chance that there a re-supply ship coming any time soon.

The colonists have to figure out if they can trust one another despite the nuclear strikes back on Earth and they need to figure it out soon because Mars is a tough enough place to live when everything and everyone is working well, it's really tough when no one trusts one another.

And, it gets even tougher when they finally figure out what is really going on...

This is a throwback kind of sci-fi book with a lot of effort going into how a Martian colony would actually work. Sometimes that is great, sometimes it drags. On a positive note, there are lots of plot twists that move the story in unexpected ways.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.


This book can be found on Amazon.com here: RETROGRADE by Peter Cawdron.

Note: I received an advance reading copy of this book through the Amazon Vine Program.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

V-S DAY: A NOVEL of ALTERNATE HISTORY by Allen Steele



Published by Ace in 2014

Alternate histories always deal with a what if...? moment in history and how things might have been. In the case of V-S Day, the moment is what if Nazi Germany decided to throw the resources that it was throwing into a its buzz bomb program into an actual space program led by Wernher von Braun? The Germans are building a a primitive space shuttle like device that can take off from the Reich, circle the globe and drop bombs on New York City from a low earth orbit, far above the reach of America's anti-aircraft guns. And, it can do it again and again with no hope of a defense.

Fans of NASA know that in the real world, Wernher von Braun was brought back to America after World War II and helped develop America's space program. In this world, rocket pioneer Robert Goddard leads a team to develop an American space fighter "plane" to go up and take out the German space bomber.

Most of the book details the space race between the two powers, which was okay, but not nearly as good as the spy story of how the Allies received a set of the German plans. Sometimes the book sails along and sometimes it drags. Sadly, the climax of the book is undercut by the fact that the entire book is told as a flashback from 2013 and the final result is pretty obvious. 

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: V-S DAY: A NOVEL of ALTERNATE HISTORY.  

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

MIKE TYSON SLEPT HERE by Chris Huntington



Published in 2011 by Boaz Publishing Company

First - a confession. I know the author of this book. However, the last time I spoke to him was most likely in December of 1989. We had one class together in high school and 3, maybe 4, classes together at the School of Education at Indiana University where we discussed movies, a mutual love of reading and Roy Orbison.

But, I've kept track of Chris as a writer in magazines and newspapers - mostly essays about his new family and his globe-trotting life teaching in all sorts of places, including ten years at a men's prison in Indiana - the subject of this book.

The book Mike Tyson Slept Here is set in and around the Plainfield Correctional Facility, where Mike Tyson served nearly three years for rape from 1992 to 1995. Tyson does not appear in the book, but he was its most famous resident, seeing as how he went in at the height of his career.

Mike Tyson Slept Here is not an autobiography, but there are semi-autobiographical elements to the book. The main character is Brant Gilmour, a new teacher who just got a job trying to help the prisoners earn their GEDs at the men's prison in Plainfield, Indiana - a suburb of Indianapolis. He meets another, older female teacher and they start dating.

Most of the book is about Brant, his girlfriend and their relationship, but not all of it. This book is really a collection of vignettes about several loosely connected characters that live in and around Indianapolis. Even though the plot was not a traditional story, the book was well-served by the dialogue. Dialogue is often difficult for writers, but it flows perfectly in this book. 


The stories flow easily as well. Even if I couldn't tell where it was going, I enjoyed the book for what it was - a series of stories well-told.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Mike Tyson Slept Here by Chris Huntington

Saturday, November 11, 2017

CAPTAIN to CAPTAIN: STAR TREK LEGACIES, BOOK 1 (audiobook) by Greg Cox



Published by Simon and Schuster Audio in 2016
Read by Robert Petkoff
Duration: 9 hours, 40 minutes
Unabridged

Number One from the original pilot of Star Trek
This book is part of a series marking the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. Captain to Captain features Captain Una, better known as Number One in the original pilot episode of the Original Series ("The Cage") and the regular cast of the Original Series.

Captain Una, a legendary Starfleet officer, comes to the Enterprise on a surprise visit for vague reasons and promptly steals a secret object that captains of the Enterprise keep hidden away from even the Federation. Kirk isn't even sure what it is exactly, but he knows it can't fall into the hands of the Klingons, the Romulans and maybe not even the Federation because what he does know is that it is the key to more power than anyone should be able to control. 


Now Kirk has two questions:

Why did Captain Una steal the object?

Why is Captain Una heading to the Klingon Empire as fast as she possibly can?

A few years back I swore off of Star Trek novels. I used to read them almost obsessively and I owned an impressive collection - but that was 30 years ago. In the last few years I have tried to come back to them and re-kindle the magic but I just can't. I tried this audiobook and, once again, I found that it just didn't have to the old pizzazz. The story seemed flat. I just didn't buy into a lot of it. It was just okay, but nothing special.

I will not be moving on to the other books in the series, even though this book left off with a pretty big cliffhanger.

None of my complaints about the book can be lain at the feet of the reader, Robert Petkoff. He did a solid job with the accents of the Original Series characters, including Number One.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: CAPTAIN to CAPTAIN: STAR TREK LEGACIES, BOOK 1 by Greg Cox.

Friday, November 10, 2017

THE NOT-QUITE STATES of AMERICA: DISPATCHES from the TERRITORIES and OTHER FAR-FLUNG OUTPOSTS of the USA (audiobook) by Doug Mack



Published by HighBridge, a Division of Recorded Books in February of 2017.
Read by Jonathan Yen
Duration: 10 hours, 24 minutes
Unabridged

In The Not-Quite States of America, Doug Mack takes his readers on a sometimes serious, sometimes humorous tour of America's territories: the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico (in that order).

Mack goes into a little history of each territory and sets off to experience a more in-depth tour than the typical tourist might normally take. He meets with local leaders, well-known personalities, mainland Americans who have moved to the territory and goes out of his way to meet talkative locals who are willing to discuss the relationship between that territory and the United States government (which is usually riddled with strange rules that cause all sorts of unintended consequences).

Along the way Mack visits a restaurant that allows its guests to feed beer to pigs in the U.S. Virgin Islands, goes on a deep hike in the jungles of Samoa, visits a bio-luminescent bay in Puerto Rico, solemn World War II memorials in the Northern Marianas and delves into the hyper-commercialized version of America that is hawked to foreign visitors in Guam. The discussion of Puerto Rico's future is especially well-done, but overshadowed by the tragic disaster of Hurricane Maria that occurred about 7 months after the publication of the book.


The reader, Jonathan Yen, did a solid job. There were times that the book dragged, especially at the beginning, but that was not the the narrator's fault. Most of the time he kept the reading lively and well-paced.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. 

Note: I received a free copy of this audiobook from the publisher in order to write an honest review through Audiobook Jukebox.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: THE NOT-QUITE STATES of AMERICA: DISPATCHES from the TERRITORIES and OTHER FAR-FLUNG OUTPOSTS of the USA by Doug Mack.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

FALLEN: CORPS JUSTICE DANIEL BRIGGS #2) (audiobook) by C.G. Cooper



Published in 2016 by Tantor Audio
Read by David Colacci
Duration: 7 hours, 17 minutes
Unabridged

Photo by Niels Noodhoek
Daniel Briggs is a retired Marine sniper who is struggling with alcohol and his own personal demons, especially an internal drive to fight and kill that he calls "The Beast".

Briggs is a drifter who stumbles into trouble as he wanders the country and often finds himself in the middle of trouble, much like Lee Childs' character Jack Reacher. If you are familiar with the Reacher series, Briggs is more morose and angry than Reacher, but I think that they would find a lot in common.

Briggs is in Maine, drinking at a touristy bar when he encounters some drunks giving the waitress a hard time. He takes them on, wins and then discovers that the police are coming for him. Briggs takes off on foot and encounters a friendly local preacher who is delivering food to members of his church - sort of a rolling food pantry.

The preacher takes in Briggs for the evening and Briggs discovers that he is a single dad caring for a remarkable 15-year-old daughter that is able to get Briggs to open up his hard outer shell for the first time in years and Briggs starts to re-think some of his hermit-like ways. But, Briggs makes a horrible discovery and starts a cascade of events that will re-shape everyone's lives before it all stops...

This is my third book by C.G. Cooper and the second book I have listened to in the Daniel Briggs series. I find Cooper to be an up and down author and this one was one of his "up" books. The plot, while full of plot twists, was pretty well-paced and much more believable than the other Daniel Briggs book I listened to (#3 called Broken). This is a pretty solid thriller.

David Colacci read this audiobook and I think he does a very good job of nailing down Briggs' crusty side - gravelly and tough.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Fallen: Corps Justice Daniel Briggs by C.G. Cooper.

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

Thursday, November 2, 2017

NAVY SEAL DOGS: MY TALE of TRAINING CANINES for COMBAT by Mike Ritland



Published in 2013 by St. Martin's Press.

Mike Ritland served as a Navy SEAL, became a trainer of SEALs and eventually moved into training dogs that work with SEALs - the most elite of all service dogs. 

While they look a lot like German Shepherds, Ritland points out that the SEALs usually use Dutch Shepherds or Belgian Malinois - breeds that are lighter, leaner and even more trainable. He describes how they sort out only the most focused dogs and then spend months training them to do things that most dogs would never do - like ride in helicopters, jump out of planes, fight people (but stop on command) and chase down a target through and over everything and be able to sniff out specific odors, like bomb-making materials. 

Ritland's stories of training and combat are interesting and sometimes touching, especially the stories of the soldiers bonding with the dogs in their down time (the dogs are supposed to be segregated from the rest of the soldiers, but oftentimes they hang out with them and sleep in their cots - a little bit of normalcy in the middle of a war zone).

The book also includes a "Brief History of Canines in Combat" as an afterward.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: NAVY SEAL DOGS: MY TALE of TRAINING CANINES for COMBAT by Mike Ritland.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

THE EYES of the DRAGON by Stephen King



Originally published in 1984.
Published by Penguin Audio in 2010.
Read by Bronson Pinchot.
Duration: 10 hours, 18 minutes.
Unabridged

Stephen King
The ancient kingdom of Delain is ruled by a good king, but not a great king. He is a widower with two sons and an ancient, yet seemingly ageless, magician adviser named Flagg. His oldest son is Peter - a son who shows all of the signs that he will be a great and good king in the future. His youngest son is Thomas, a young man who is a lot like his father. Thomas is very jealous of the well-deserved attention lavished upon Peter and often turns to his only friend - Flagg.

Flagg is very powerful, long-lived and an omnipresent dark force in the royal palace. In reality, he is more than a mere magician, he is a malignant force that seeks to create chaos and disorder above all else. Flagg is a frequent character in Stephen King books, most notably in The Stand and The Dark Tower series. This book is his second appearance in King's work.

Flagg poisons the king and frames Prince Peter for the regicide. Peter is sentenced to live in a high tower the rest of his life and the young and woefully unprepared Prince Thomas becomes King. Flagg advises Peter and steers the kingdom on a course that will lead to chaos and civil war.

But, high up in his tower, Peter has a plan...


This book is different than the majority of King's books, being an epic fantasy rather than a horror book. It is also presented differently as well. This book has a narrator that acts as a storyteller that often speaks directly to the reader as though we were all sitting around a campfire or a hearth on a cold winter's night. 

The audiobook is read by award-winning narrator Bronson Pinchot. When I say that it is read, though, I am not doing his work justice. He doesn't just read this book. He performs it. He screams, he cries out, he laughs. His characterization of Flagg is so creepy, so scary, that it makes the character emerge fully formed in the listener's consciousness. At the end of the book, when Flagg's true nature is shown to everyone, his screams, his anger, his unhinged-ness (if that is a word) are captured by Pinchot perfectly. 

This is not a perfect audiobook - the story simply lags at too many points for that. But, it is a good story and it is well worth it just to hear Pinchot's audio performance.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: THE EYES of the DRAGON by Stephen King.

Monday, October 9, 2017

GULP: ADVENTURES on the ALIMENTARY CANAL (audiobook) by Mary Roach



Published by Tantor Audio in 2013.
Read by Emily Woo Zeller
Duration: 8 hours, 21 minutes.
Unabridged

Mary Roach focuses her often-humorous, always oddball approach to science on the human digestive tract in GULP, a book that always entertains, even if it doesn't always stay on topic.

To be fair, she stays in the general area of the topic. For example, when she talks about how much your sense of smell affects your sense of taste she goes into a long (and interesting and sometimes gross) look at the pet food industry and how they convince dogs and cats to eat gross food by making it smell really, really enticing. 


Topics include: saliva, how much a human stomach will actually hold, why lots of animals eat their own poop, why cows ruminate, the role of bacteria in digestion, enlarged colons, why prisoners sneak things into jail by putting them up their rectum but terrorists don't put bombs in the same place, why farts smell and, in an off-topic moment, she discusses if the Inuit actually do rub noses rather than kiss.

Emily Woo Zeller read this audiobook and did a wonderful job with it. This is a fun ride and Zeller read it with just the right amount of enthusiasm. Highly recommended (if you have a strong stomach!)

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. 


This book can be found on Amazon.com here:  GULP by Mary Roach.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

A WALK in the WOODS: REDISCOVERING AMERICA on the APPALACHIAN TRAIL (audiobook) by Bill Bryson



Originally published in 1999.
Unabridged audio edition published in 2012 by Random House Audio.

Read by Rob McQuay.
Duration: 9 hours, 47 minutes.


Bill Bryson. Photo by Wes Washington.
Bill Bryson discovered that he lived near the Appalachian Trail, which is no surprise since it winds more than 2,200 miles from northern Georgia to Maine and literally runs within an hour drive for millions of people. After looking into a little, Bryson decided to walk the trail. Why not? He had no equipment, no real experience in wilderness hiking and was woefully out of shape. What could go wrong?

He is joined by his friend, Stephen Katz (not his real name), who is even more out of shape than Bryson and off they go to northern Georgia. The book is more than just a story of their hike, though. It is also a running commentary on consumer culture, the irksome (and all-too-often) ineptitude of the National Park system, the camaraderie of almost every hiker he met, friendship, compulsion, the experience of walking in a society that has forgotten how to walk and makes few accommodations for people to walk, the dangers of invasive species and both the fragility and strength of nature. 


This book is simultaneously a buddy book, a nature lecture and a comedy routine and is thoroughly enjoyable. Well worth your time - and not just if you are aspiring hiker (I am an urban walker - in short spurts of 1-3 miles, not a marathon walker, like you would have to be to "hike through" on the Appalachian Trail).

The reader, Rob McQuay perfectly nailed the tone of the book and made it all the better. Great job.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.


This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: A WALK in the WOODS: REDISCOVERING AMERICA on the APPALACHIAN TRAIL by Bill Bryson.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

THE LATE SHOW (audiobook) by Michael Connelly



Published by Hachette Audio in July of 2017.
Read by Katherine Moennig
Duration: 9 hours, 22 minutes
Unabridged

Michael Connelly. Photo by Mark Coggins.
Michael Connelly moves away from the aging Harry Bosch character and starts a new character firmly in his literary universe.

Renee Ballard is a detective that works the night shift. Most of her cases aren't really her cases at all - her job mostly consists of taking names, doing preliminary interviews and then turning everything over to the day shift to finish. This job was a demotion because she filed a righteous sexual harassment claim on a boss but was not backed up by her partner who was more interested in sucking up to his boss for a promotion than doing the right thing.

So, Ballard tries her best to do more than just be the person that hands the cases off to other guys. She is a good cop with shades of Harry Bosch, meaning she can get obsessed and play with the rules if she feels like the rules get in the way. When she catches a case that no one cares about involving a transgendered streetwalker prostitute who was nearly beaten to death. Ballard thinks that there may be more to this case than meets the eye so she decides to pursue it. Besides, she loves the underdog and no one is more of an underdog than this victim...


Personally, I was disappointed by this story. There are two mysteries - the one with the prostitute is an excellent mystery, the secondary story involving multiple murders at a night club was too far-fetched for me. Also, I was not very fond of Renee Ballard's backstory. I am generally a fan of all things Michael Connelly. I have reviewed 23 Michael Connelly books and this is only the third that was not a 4 or 5 star.

The reader, Katherine Moennig is an established actress (she worked in a movie based on a book written by Connelly), but I did not enjoy her work as an audiobook reader. It never felt like she established any sort of stride or comfort level as a reader. 


I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: The Late Show by Michael Connelly.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

THE WALK-IN by Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzulo



Published in 2008 by Crown Publishing

Matt Freed is summoned on very short notice to Bucharest to interview a member of Iran's intelligence community. He was unrecruited, meaning that he is a "walk-in" - literally someone who walked into the embassy and offered information that the American government would want.

Freed has been asked to talk to this man because he is an expert on Iranian politics and he speaks the language. He is also an extremely capable intelligence operative. The interview yields valuable and very scary information. Freed starts to act on it and soon discovers that there may be more to this situation than he has been led to believe. He starts his own investigation and becomes convinced that this may be a double cross. His superiors disagree and it becomes a race against time with Freed working against foreign governments and his own...


This is a middle-of-the-road spy novel. The action was good but sometimes the narration needed to be made more clear as the action moved from person to person. The supporting characters were never really fleshed out so they always seemed to be fairly arbitrary in their actions because they were faceless uniforms or suits, depending on the bureaucracies they served. This is a book that would have been much better if it had been expanded.

I rate this novel 3 stars out of 5.

This novel can be found on Amazon.com here: The Walk-In.