Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Books Read 2012

Starting in 1994, following the example of a list I saw in Louis Lamour's autobiography, I've kept a record of every book I've read. 

In 2012 I broke my all-time single year record by more than a score, in the process surpassing my long-time goal of 100 in a calendar year - finishing with 104! 

Hot dog!

(I'm not sure the format of this list converted corrected for the blog, but to be blunt - I ain't retyping the thing!)

1.       I've finished reading the first book of the year, "The Leopard" by Jo Nesbo, a serial killer novel featuring detective Harry Hole (hee hee). It's the latest in a line of Scandinavian crime novels imported in the wake of 'Dragon Tattoo's" popularity. The plot has a gazillion twists and turns, so many I more than once felt exhausted by it all. I'd rate the story itself a B. BUT the writing . . . yowsas. Nesbo has a gift and at times - not always, but often - he makes the words on the page get up and dance a little pirouette for your pleasure. What a gift. A damn fine writer but be warned; the action in the book ain't pretty. There’s a whole heapin' helpin' of gore to be found between the covers. It won't be for everyone.
January 4, 2012 at 12:51 am Public

2.       Time for bed. It's been a long day, but generally a good one. I did want to mention that I finished the book "Nigh Ominipotent" by A. Lee Martinez today. The god who created the universe keels over, leaving chaos and entropy behind. It's up to his estranged and laid back brother to figure out a way to save the universe from certain disaster. And giant eggs with guns. But mostly the certain disaster part. Great fun, as all of Martinez's work is; at 107 pages it's listed as an extended short story, but to me that's at least a novella, so I'm officially listing it on my tally of 2012 reads.
January 6, 2012 at 1:22 am

3.       Last night I finished reading Michael Koryta's "So Cold the River", a horror novel set in Indiana (as if those poor people don't suffer enough just by living there). I'm jealous of Koryta. Not only is he young and prolific, his writing style is beautiful; his "Cypress House" made my 'best of' list of 2011. I had to read this novel in spurts, which as always makes me resent it and want to hurry it along, but that's my schedule's fault, not the book's. Keep Koryta in mind as a successor to King. B+/A-
January 18, 2012 at 12:04 pm Public

4.       I was stuck at work tonight for two hours after I punched out, waiting for my ride (mainly due to the snow). No bother, as I used the delay to read Seamus Heaney's translation of 'Beowulf' cover to cover. Over the years I've read every bit of Beowulf in various chunks, but this was the first time I've read it straight through so it's the first time it counts for my obsessive "Books Read" list. It is, was, and probably always will be one of my personal favorites. I am also unduly proud to have attended a poetry reading of Heaney's back in the day. January 21, 2012 at 2:18 am

5.       Late last night I finished reading "Death of Kings", the newest book in the Saxon tales by Bernard Cornwell. Uthred, the fierce pagan warrior, remains loyal, if indifferent, to Alfred the Great and his quest to unite 9th century England. With Alfred's death Wessex faces its greatest test: a Danish invasion from the north and dissension from within, and Uthred must ride forth, no longer as the shield of the Saxons, but as their sword. A GREAT historical adventure by the master of the form, and even as a devout Catholic I LOL'd at Uthred's blasphemous retorts to the Bishop's who seek to reign him in. Well worth a read. A+  January 24, 2012 at 11:41 am Public

6.       I finished reading "Raylan", the new novel by Elmore Leonard. It's a Raylan Givens story, aka the character from the TV series "Justified". I love 'Justified' and Leonard's a legend, but . . . I don't know. I've always felt Leonard is over-rated. Sure his dialogue is sharp, but he relies on it too much - think Quentin Tarantino. Sometimes you just want the characters to STFU, and it wouldn't hurt to read a description of something once in awhile. I didn't love it. Maybe you will. But my opinion is the one that counts in this here box, so I give it a C.  January 29, 2012 at 2:21 am Public

7.       I finished two books today, the first being 'The Rook' by Daniel O'Malley. Myfanwy Thomas wakes up with no memory of who or what she is, but soon discovers she is a high ranking official in a centuries old British agency devoted to dealing with the supernatural. Someone in the agency betrayed her and stole her memories, and oh, by the way - mutants from Belgium are getting set to invade England. I loved the book. It had plenty of action, a great protagonist in Thomas, slime, tentacles, and a lot of humor. A.  January 31, 2012 at 10:45 pm Public

8.       The second book of the day? 'Taken', an Elvis Cole/Joe Pike novel by Robert Crais. Cole is hired to find a young Hispanic woman abducted by the drug cartels along the Mexican border. The POV switches back and forth from Elvis, to the girl, to Pike, and let me tell you, it's a nail biter. A few times I got squeamish, anticipating the worst case scenario to come. Grade: A January 31, 2012 at 11:09 pm Public

9.       During a veeeerrry long wait at the Dr's office today I finished reading " The Last Great Game: by Gene Wojciechowski. It's the story of the monumental Duke/Kentucky match-up in the 1992 Elite Eight. It's a joy to read, very similar in scope and style to "Game Six" (one of my favorite bks of the last few yrs). I'll forever remember watching that game live on TV in '92. I was crushed when Duke went down w/ 2.1 seconds left in overtime - and screaming with joy when Laettner sank "The Shot" to win it for the Blue Devils. I loved that team. Hurley, Hill, Laettner, Coach K. It was good to revisit them in their prime, and to learn the background of that ferocious KY team. Recommended for sports fans. Grade: A February 2, 2012 at 4:50 pm Public

10.   I've stayed up late to finish reading an advance copy of "Midnight in Peking" a true crime book by Paul French. It's the story of the gruesome murder of Pamela Werner, a 20 year old British woman living in Peking on the cusp of WWII. Despite taking place in a city literally surrounded by invading Japanese, the murder of a white woman still makes headline news around the world and spawns an intense manhunt, but one that may have been rigged to fail from the beginning. It's a fascinating tale and French tells it well, although I think he runs out of story 4/5ths of the way through. Grade: B+ On sale April 24th February 6, 2012 at 2:28 am Public

11.   I just finished reading Josh Bazell's "Wild Thing". It's a sequel to "Beat the Reaper", a book I reviewed in '09 (you'll find the link in the first comment below). Our resident MD/former mafia assassin is sent into the wilds of Minnesota to verify the existence of a mythical creature that's allegedly chomping up folks in a lake. Along the way there's meth dealers, gunfights, and, naturally, a sword wielding Sarah Palin. It's a very enjoyable novel, and I continue to be a fan of Bazell's style of annotating the text. On the down side the character is more than a little bit of an as*hole - and judging by the afterword, that goes for the author too. But if you can put aside his ludicrous political, religious and social opinions, you've got a heck of a read. Grade: minus the author's paranoid rants, an A. As is, with nuttiness embedded, a B/B+ February 10, 2012 at 2:36 am Public 

12.   Today I finished reading "Zone One", a novel by Colson Whitehead. It is, on the surface, a zombie book, tracing the life of a single soldier assigned to Zone One, an area of Manhattan being cleared for reoccupation. What the book really is is a beautiful examination of ourselves, our fears, and what it means to be human. It's a powerful literary work, and Whitehead can dance with the English language like he's one of the few to hear the music. I loved it. A+  February 21, 2012 at 12:48 am Public 

13. On Thursday I finished reading "The Walking Dead" by Greg Rucka. Yes, the title is confusing and out to be changed, because it's not a zombie book. It's a thriller, the 7th of the Attitcus Kodiak series. I've been a fan of the series for over a decade, but I can't say I'm in love with the abrupt change in direction it's taken. Atticus started out as a professional bodyguard/bouncer with a foster child in his care. Now, he's a globetrotting fugitive trained as an elite assassin. Uh . . . ok. Still, Rucka has a great style that makes up for many flaws - such as having a plot that could double as the movie "Taken". Grade: B/B-   February 25, 2012 at 12:25 pm Public 

14. YaYa has been bugging me for months to take her to the Hunger Games movie (opening March 23rd) and to see what all the fuss is about I read the book by Suzanne Collins. The verdict? To my chagrin it's a pretty damn good read, with a good mix of action, character and chaste romance. I'm actually kind of looking forward to the movie now. Huh. Whodathunkit? Grade: B  February 29, 2012 at 12:20 am Public #14 of the year

15.  Tonight I finished an e-ARC of "Anglemaker" by Nick Hardaway [publication date 3/20/12]. It's the story of Joe Spork, the son of an infamous but beloved gangster, who tries to live a good and peaceful life as a clock maker. Unfortunately, his family's past includes the construction of a doomsday device centered around mechanical bees, and things begin to go poorly for our hero. It's a "modern world collides with secret steampunk" set in London, and features a 90 yr old female super spy, mysterious monks made out of metal, and a dastardly villian worthy of a movie serial, the horrid Opium Khan. It's a rollicking adventure, but Hardaway will have to tighten up the construction a wee bit before he earns an A from me: B/B+  March 3, 2012 at 11:27 pm Public 

16.  I've finished reading "Caligula" by Aloys Winterling, an upcoming bio of the Roman emperor. It argues that, contrary to parochial belief, Caligula was neither insane nor, for that matter, all that wrong in what he did. I tend to agree. Look at his actions objectively in the context of his era, and you'll find an Emperor who was pretty good at what he did (and popular with the masses). It was the aristocracy that he treated with contempt, and of course its the aristocracy who lived to tell the tale of his life. Stylistically, not the greatest, so I rate this only a B+ for history fans.  March 11, 2012 at 1:46 am Public 

17.I also finished reading Peter Straub's "Mrs. God", a ghost story set in the English countryside. While I 'got' the gist of the book, the last few pages left me scratching my head. Since it's clear the author meant the dénouement to make you gasp with delight, either I missed something or he got it wrong. Since I'm the schmuck that would be forking out the dough, I vote for "he got it wrong". C+/B-  March 11, 2012 at 1:52 am Public

18. I've finished reading "Hitchers" by Will McIntosh. It begins with a terrorist attack that kills half a million in Atlanta, but oddly that plays almost no part in the bk; saying it does would be like saying a bk that starts w/ a rainstorm is all about meteorology. Finn is a 30'something on the rise when he becomes possessed by the voice, then the personality, of his gruff, abusive - and quite dead - grandfather. Soon the phenomenon becomes widespread, and Finn must scramble to find a way to close the 'hole' to the afterlife before the dead consume the living. If you can tolerate a brief foray into New-Agey philosophy, it's quite an intelligent novel. A-  March 11, 2012 at 8:45 pm

19.  I was eager to read "The Man from Primrose Lane", so eager, in fact, that I read it in a single day. I loved the first 3/4ths of the book, which was a compelling blend of mystery and thriller with a subtle thread of sci-fi sneaking around in the shadows. And then . . . ah, and then. Then the book hit a wall and turned 100% into a sci-fi novel, and not a very good one. Essentially it was two different books, pasted together under the same cover. Sadly, I have to give this a C at best.  March 15, 2012 at 11:14 pm Public

 20. Today on my lunch hour I finished reading "Destiny of the Republic" by Candice Millard, a non-fiction account of the assassination of President Garfield. Personally, I think Millard made it read a little too "pop history" for the subject matter, but she does a great job of letting the modern reader get to know Garfield. He sounds like a great man by any definition : the poor child who grew up without a father but scrapped his way to college degree; who led Union forces to victory in Kentucky during the Civil War; who not only didn't campaign for the Presidential nomination, he tried to refuse it; the man whose views on racial equality would be impressive in 1970, much less 1880; and the father who, on the day he was shot, started the day by playing on all fours w/ his children. His death was a waste of goodness and potential, and the method of his death (rotting away for 80 days as infection literally consumed his body from inside) is horrific. RIP. Grade: A-/B+  #20 of 2012March 15, 2012 at 11:25 pm Public 

21. For the last few days I've been enthralled by "The Last Stand", a history of the battle of Little Big Horn by Nathaniel Philbrick. It's a detailed narrative of the events leading up to that infamous battle, effortlessly weaving both the Sioux and U.S. Calvary perspective. As should be the case, there are no devils - or angels - to be found, but there is plenty of courage and human failings. Reno is given a bit of a (tempered) scourging for his loss of nerve, but so is Benteen for his ill-timed tantrum against Custer. Sitting Bull is praised but also shown to be resented by fellow Sioux who felt he bullied them into a war they didn't want. And Custer? He was careless and wild, but a genius at war, and one who came perilously close to turning this tragedy into a staggering victory. A well deserved A+.   (finished reading it outside of dance class) March 21, 2012 at 11:51 pm Public

22. Today I polished off "The White Mountains" by John Christopher, a fine young adult sci-fi novel from the late '60's. It was adapted into a long running comic in Boy's Life magazine and I lived and breathed for each issue as a kid. The book was very good - think Hunger Games, (only w/ a boy as the protagonist) but written forty years ago with a more literary edge. While I read it on my Nook, I've kept a hard copy around forever, and borrowed it to Grace tonight. I hope she likes it as much as I did at her age. Grade: A .

23. I just finished reading "Catching Fire", the 2nd book in the Hunger Games trilogy. I liked it, but thought that a return trip to the arena was a predictable and somewhat lazy plot device. And enough with this Gale yahoo already, Katniss; sure, he's the best looking of the two in the film, but it's plain Peeta is the better man. Grade: B   March 23, 2012 at 10:55 pm Public 

24. Yesterday I finished "The City of Gold and Lead" the 2nd book in the Tripods trilogy of John Christopher. It brought back a lot of memories of its serialization in Boy's Life back in the '80's. Also, wi/in a day of my "White Mountains" post Grace finished it, saying it did read like the Hunger Games. (and yes, she read it; I quizzed her on the plot and characters). March 25, 2012 at 12:09 pm Public 

25. I finished reading "Mockingjay" by Suzanne Collins today. I'd heard this was the darkest of the three books (which it was) and that it 'ruined' the series (it didn't). SPOILERS: I would have preferred if Book 3 didn't devolve into a standard shoot 'em up, but I think the growing realization that the rebellion was just the old gov't in different clothing was an important and mature turn of events. I don't like Katniss' decision to host one final Hunger Games - b.s. is what that was - but I loved the climactic scene of Snow's scheduled execution. And that final exchange between her and Peeta "You love me - real or not real?" was perfect. Grade: B March 27, 2012 at 8:33 pm Public 

26. Today I finished reading "Sacre Bleu" by Christopher Moore. Per the terms I agreed to when I was given the electronic ARC, I am not allowed to comment on or review the novel until after its publication date. That is bull, esp. since the book was good and deserves some word of mouth advertising. But, c'est la vie. I will say there is a great, almost throw-away line in the book. When his young son asks him to explain the word 'rape', a father asks him if he remembers how he explained that he and his wife "make love". When the son responds that he does, the father says "Well, rape is making hate." Well said.  March 29, 2012 at 8:04 pm Public 

27. I just finished reading "Pool of Fire" by John Christopher, the last of his Tripods trilogy. It's a fitting conclusion to the series, and, IMHO, a stronger and more tension filled effort than the second book. Grade: A  March 29, 2012 at 10:35 pm

28. Today I finished reading "Jesus and His World" by Craig A. Evans. It's a book that refutes many of the conspiracy theories about the life of Jesus by examining the archaeological evidence at hand. It's not a book that addresses or advocates his divinity, but a scholarly work that simply - but absolutely - establishes his historical existence. I found it fascinating and was genuinely sad when the book ended. This is one I may have to own in a paper edition. Grade: A. #28 March 31, 2012 at 9:52 pm Public

29. I finished reading the winner of the Tanizaki Jun’ ichiro Prize, 'The Navidad Incident: The Downfall of Matías Guili' by Natsuki Ikezawa. It's set in a small island nation in the South Pacific where a tour bus of elderly Japanese WWII veterans dissapears into thin air. The bus is then seen in a scientist's microscope slide, flying alongside a jet, ordering soda at a grocery store, and attending Mass (but refusing Communion). Meanwhile Guili, the benign dictator of the islands, faces a late mid-life crisis, in part because of the arrival of a young holy woman whom he enlists as an advisor. It's a hard book to explain: part comedy, very small part fantasy, and overall an insightful and engaging glimpse into the soul of a troubled head of state. I really liked it. Grade: A  April 18, 2012 at 9:15 pm Public

30. I finished reading "Unholy Night" a novel by Seth Grahame-
about role the Three Wise Men played in the days after Jesus' birth. Balthazar is an infamous thief and sworn enemy of Herod the Great who stumbles upon the Holy Family while on the run. Despite the misgivings of his own nature he feels compelled to escort the family to the safety of Egypt, all the while trying to avoid the Judean army and keep his two fellow thieves/"Wise Men" in line. Oddly reverent and action packed, I found myself liking this book far more than I thought I would when I picked it up. Grade: B+/A-  #30 of the year April 19, 2012 at 12:02 am Public

 31. Recently I finished the 877 pg 1st volume of the late Fr. Raymond E Brown's "Death of The Messiah". It is an in-depth, parallel exegesis of the Passion narratives of the four Gospels. Put simply, Brown takes each 'act' of the PN and examines each verse of the Gospels side by side. He breaks down the grammar of the original language, the narrative thrust of the segment, the theological and Christological intent, the literary technique, and then analyzes it for verisimilitude and historicity. It is a daunting book to tackle (forty pages in I realized I had to highlight each page as I went to stay in the game) but well worth the effort. As with his "Birth of the Messiah" I found myself engrossed in Brown's work and admiring of his skill. If I had the resources, I'd own a copy of each of his works. Soon, on to Volume 2 . . Grade: a resounding A+ April 26, 2012 at 7:52 pm Public #31 on the year

32. Bereft is a novel by Chris Womersely set in rural Australia at the conclusion of WWI. Ten years ago Quinn Walker fled his hometown on the night his 12 year old sister was raped and murdered, leaving his family and community thinking he was the killer. Now a grown man with a face disfigured by war, he has returned in secret, but for what reason? To avenge his sister? To confess? And what of the mysterious young girl he meets in the woods, the girl who seems to know secrets far beyond her years? It's a strong, well done mix of literary fiction and thriller, with a hint of the supernatural thrown in, all written with wonderful style. Grade: A April 30, 2012 at 11:51 pm Public #32 of the year

33. Seth Grahame-Smiths' "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" left me torn. On one hand I greatly enjoyed the novelty of the premise for about 3/4's of the book (Lincoln's life as we know it was nothing compared to the bitter, life-long war he waged against Vampires, many of whom wished to keep slavery intact to ensure a plentiful supply of food). And then . . .then it became woefully apparent that it was just a novelty, a cheap little means of piquing your interest in hopes that you finish the book before you realize the author has very little content, and only a hint of style, to offer you. Grade:  C #33 of the year May 1, 2012 at 12:00 am Public

34. I finished reading Stephen King's "Cell" yesterday. A suspected terrorist attack causes cell phone users to have their heads scrambled, and a pretty typical zombie novel follows. However, about mid-way through King ratchets it up a bit and the book is rescued from mediocrity to become a halfway decent tale. Still, it remains a glorified Luddite morality tale, and has the required # of stale King-isms: 1. The '60's were the highlight of all creation 2. people who believe in Christianity and (gasp!) actually say so are meanies. 3. JFK was Lincoln and Christ all rolled up in one 4. George Bush was evil 5. loudly proclaiming my love for classic rock and disdain for other music means I'm a cool kid, not the awkward, unloved horror geek I am, er, was! Grade: C #34 on the year May 2, 2012 at 8:11 pm

35. I've finished reading "The Fourteenth Day : JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis: The Secret White House Tapes" by David G. Coleman (publication date of 0ct 8th of this year, to coincide w/ the 50th anniversary of the crisis.) I did learn some things, like the extent of the Kennedy administration's legally dubious actions towards the press, and the fact that the crisis (barely) scooped Khrushchev's plans for a November gamble to take the initiative in the Cold War. But as the title states, this book is crafted from secret recordings JFK made (clandestine recordings, vindictive attacks on reporters - JFK and RN were Bobbsey Twins in some regards). So . . . it might have been nice to actually have included more than a few lines of transcripts scattered throughout the book. For 200 pages the author essentially summarizes what's on the tapes, and because of that - and a lack of panache by the author - this reads like a well done but uninspiring research paper. . Grade: C  #35 on the year May 4, 2012 at 12:05 am Public

36. When I was a kid I consumed - there's no better word for it - the 'Illustrated Classics'  edition of every classic novel you can think of; ok, maybe not Tropic of Cancer. They weren't the hardcover version you see above, but stout little paperbacks that fit in your hand. On the left hand page, text; on the right side, a full page illustration.

They did a marvelous job of introducing me to literature and the construction of plot and character, but on the down side, given my published aversion to re-reading a book, I found it unnecessary to slog through 600 pages of the (actual)The Count of Monte Cristo to find out  - again - that he gets his revenge.

Cue 2012, when I sat down, NOOK in hand, to finally read the full version of Mark Twain's
 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

The verdict? Eh.

Look, I hate writing this because who gets brownie points for saying they don't like a masterpiece? Might as well say the Sistene Chapel's a doodle of monkey dung, no?

But . . .

I thought there was no coherent plot, just a jumble of loosely tied events. The novel seemed more a collection of anecdotes and sketches than a 'book'.  I thought there were abrupt and jarring divides between material aimed at a young audience and that fit for adults. Worst of all, Twain (at that point in his career) seems to have no grasp on how to establish tension, or keep the reader at the edge of their seat. The characters emerge unscathed, then calmly sit down and tell you how they managed to get out of trouble. You never 'see' the action, and the reader is the worse for it. I mean, really now - the villain dies 'off camera'. Really???

After I worked out those points I poked around a little and discovered my complaints weren't unique. Certainly Twain improved over time (dramatically, I hope) but even if he didn't, the story itself and his talent for dissecting an event and coming to the heart of it were strong even at that point.

My honest grade, independent of its importance to literature: C+

37. I am a longtime fan of Mario Puzo's The Godfather and the universe it inspired. I rank the film as my 2nd favorite movie of all time, while the book holds the unique record of being the only - the ONLY - book of the hundreds I've read that I've re-read more than once.

 (Er, it actually might be the only adult book I've re-read period. Why re-read a book when there are thousands waiting to be read for the first time?)

I was looking forward to reading The Family Corleone
 by Ed Falco, a prequel to the original novel that was authorized by the Puzo estate and supposedly based on an unpublished GF4 script by Puzo himself.

The verdict? Eh.

It's not awful, although I fear any Godfather work carries with it built-in brownie points that prohibit a failing grade. The book is centered around the years '33-35 and the mafia war that brought the Corleone's to prominence. The war was mentioned in the original novel at some (moderate) length, and I was eager to read about it in more detail.

Unfortunately, the book was bogged down by several anachronisms - one literally on page one - , coupled with characters who felt compelled to reference the few pop-culture cliches of the era - you know, to establish "setting"
 - and who run around talking like dime store hoods. They also voice a ton of  vulgarities in Italian (enough that Falco included a glossary in the back), which is probably realistic but comes off as a bit contrived between these covers.

 There's also a glaring editorial error on the inside cover. Above an an organizational flowchart of the New York families is a title reading "Names and Families" - only it mistakenly reads "Games and Families".


Here's my problems with the plot. I think there's a pretty wishy-washy lead up to the war; not that there wasn't violence and disagreement, but I'm still not clear how this drew every family into conflict. Nor do I think Vito's little speech with Luca was nearly enough to establish his loyalty, and the Irish subplot was pointless. Worst of all, the 'war' seemed more like the invasion of Grenada -some people got hurt, but it lasted a blink of an eye.

And Falco messes with established cannon. Luca killed Capone's thugs with an ax, and one choked to death on his gag in fear. Not here. Vito himself was ill at ease with Luca - not here. Sonny was corrupted by seeing his father kill Fanucci - there's a different victim here. Rescuing Tom Hagen was an act of selfless piety - not here.

Screw that.

I'm not one of those idiots who spent page after page blasting Mark Winegardner's literary sequels of the last decade. I enjoyed them, even if I didn't love what they did to Tom Hagen. But I honestly thought this was a mediocre novel that lacks Puzo's grim brilliance.

I grade it a C.

38. There's something about John Sandford's writing style I'm too dense to define. I think its the way he delivers a strong, character driven plot in short staccato bursts. Those 'bursts' divide scenes into separate and  unique actions, like the panels on a comic page. Sometimes they relate to the subject at hand only perfunctory, but sometimes they're so intertwined you wonder why or how they were separated in the first place.

Or something like that.

Here's all you need to know: it works. And in
 Stolen Prey, a Lucas Davenport mystery surrounding the brutal murder of an entire family by a drug cartel, it works very well. Sandford deserves to be mentioned among the mythic elite of the genre, alongside names like Ross McDonald, Rex Stout, and Hammett.

Grade: A+

Book #38 of the year

39. The Third Gate is a forthcoming thriller by Lincoln Child, an author best known for his collaborations with Douglas Preston. The titular gate refers to the opening to the third and secret chamber of the tomb of Egypt's first pharaoh, discovered below the rot and stench of miles of swampland. Unfortunately, the curse on this tomb might be a wee bit more effective than the one's this archaeological crew is used to dismissing. Thankfully though a ghost hunter, er, enigmaologistis there to lend a hand.

Like too many thrillers the novel features scads of space devoted to the characters telling you details of the history/machinery/terminology in use, a practice I think is both lazy and prone to dating a story (ten years from now, when you pick this up second hand at a yard sale, the medical procedures will make this read like the equivalent of Nehru jackets and shag carpeting).

Still, I enjoyed it for what it is - a quick, harmless, but entertaining book. And I'll remember it forever as the book I was reading as I waited with Smiley to have his abscessed tooth pulled.

Grade: B

Book #39 of the year

40.  Harry Lipkin, Private Eye is another forthcoming novel I read, this time by Barry Fantoni (release date July 10th of this year). The titular character is an 87 year old Jewish private eye still licensed and practicing in Florida. He takes the case of an elderly widow who suspects her staff of stealing personal mementos from her home. Sounds exciting, doesn't it?

Let's not mince words. The style was fine if not impressive, but the book read heavily like something  constructed by design. Sure, sure, it's good, even necessary, to map out a book length work, but I got the impression he set a goal for himself   - "8 pages in chapter four buckaroo" and then stuck to it, whether that meant the scene was padded or shortchanged. It all felt forced.

Worse yet, I think the main character came off as subtly racist, especially when it came to the Asian butler. Yes, an older man will carry more baggage than one from a younger generation, but then it should come across as a fault, not a source of humor.

As for the mystery . . . if you didn't see that ending coming, shoot yourself now.

I'd give this book a D, but who am I to judge? At least he got published.

Grade: C--

Book # 40 of the year

41. First things first, and I don't mean this tongue in cheek: what a lousy title. No serious work of fiction should ever instantly remind the reader of a Jon Bon Jovi song. Never. Ever. 

None-the-less, with
 A Blaze of Glory Jeff Shaara has returned to the cornerstone of his family's literary legacy, the Civil War. This time its a visit to the Battle of Shiloh, with Albert Sidney Johnston and William Tecumseh Sherman as the primary focus of the bloody two-day affair, with a few lower ranking voices tossed in for good measure. 

At times the novel slides out of the world of fiction and summarizes the days events to move the action forward, a necessary but cumbersome device that jars you out of the 'here and now'. I also felt shortchanged by his treatment of the second day, when the Union counterattacked and won the day. Yes, there is more drama to a surprise attack and the tense hours when the battle was in doubt, but I still hold that the second day could have been given more space in the novel and a better effort than what was put forth.

Those are minor quibbles. Overall I enjoyed the book immensely, as I have with most Shaara novels. He can certainly grab your emotions with his depictions of warfare: during a scene where a Union captive was threatened with torture, my heart screamed in rage, and I remember thinking that we were far too lenient of a nation at Appomatox.

If a work of fiction can get you that fired up about a 150 year old battle, then brother the author did something right.

Grade: B+

Book #41 of the year

42. Shiloh 1862 by Winston Groom (yes, the same guy who wrote Forrest Gump) is a work of popular history about the epic Civil War battle that nearly ended the Union's thrust into the west (and with it U.S. Grant's career). Groom has become a prolific author of military history in recent years but this was the first time I've read his non-fiction. The verdict? 
 Shelby Foote good, as the blurb on the cover indicates?

This is a work of history meant for the masses, more of a detailed introduction to the battle than an in-depth historical work. You'll learn a lot about the battle if this is your first exposure to it, but I can't say I walked away with any more information than I knew going in, aside from some accounts taken from civilian diaries that help make the narrative more accessible.

Groom writes smoothly, and you'll find he delivers the information with ease, so no problems on that score. Maybe I'm paranoid, but I thought I detected a hint of southern bias at some points in the book, especially in the  'wrap-up' sections after the battle concludes on the field. And, as usual, too little emphasis is given to the monumental second day, when the Union not only rallied but mauled the Confederate Army to retake the field. 

Grade: B/B+

Book #42 of the year

43.  Joan Rivers' new book, I Hate Everyone . . . Starting with Me is vulgar, occasionally repetitive, and laugh out loud funny. It's not for the faint of heart, but those with heart problems  probably won't survive the $26 price tag anyway. 

My only complaint is that it's obvious Rivers hasn't been slumming in awhile. If you're going to joke about McDonald's or other fast food places, it might be a good idea to check out a recent (post-1985 menu);. McDonald's does offer healthy options, and it doesn't serve onion rings (at least not in any of the franchises  where I've eaten. 

Anywho, damn funny. 

Grade: A 

Book #43 of the year

44. When FDR Died is a 1961 book by Bernard Asbell that chronicles the events of April 12, 1945, the day FDR died while vacationing in Warm Springs, Georgia.

I've owned the book for close to 20 years now, so I'm happy I finally got off my duff and crossed this off my 'to be read' list. It's a very readable, very informal account of the day and the events culminating in his funeral, and I certainly learned a lot. For starters, I always assumed he died in the White House, and I never could have guessed at the extent of the public mourning for the man.

Regarding that mourning . . . well it strikes me as over the top, even creepy. Sharecroppers literally prostrating themselves before his funeral train. A Madison factory going on strike because the owner wouldn't fly a US flag in mourning during a rainstorm. Newspapers refusing all commercial advertising. Stores closed. Concerts cancelled. The public warned that the expected run on mourning clothes could cripple the wartime cotton industry. People of all ages falling to their knees and weeping to the heavens.

I was born 29 years after his death, so I can't begin to put myself in the shoes of your Average Joe of the day, but it seems so excessive. I can understand it for Lincoln, a man murdered by a vengeful enemy in the hour of his triumph, or Kennedy, a young icon struck down in his prime. But for a frail, sickly man who had propped himself up as President for Life? No. It's very nearly blasphemous.  He was a man, not a diety.

I'm sure it's a generational gap. But I'm equally certain my opinion was shared by contemporaries of the event, and that the love affair was not quite so universal as advertised. Said William C Murphy, Jr, later an RNC publicity director but at the time a beat reporter on the funeral train "You guys will be coming back as soon as the old man is buried, but not me. I'm going to sit by his grave for three days and see if he . . . rises."

A worthwhile, detailed look at a watershed moment for the Greatest Generation.

Grade: A -

Book #44 of the year

45. John Scalzi's Redshirts is a science fiction novel that starts out with a fun take on the old Star Trek cliche that 'extras' on the show - often garbed in security red - were doomed to die. What if these low ranking folks began to take notes, calculate the odds, and decide things needed to change? 

Unfortunately, at that point Scalzi decides to go all 'meta' and have the cast become part of a fractured universe where they are mere characters in a TV show. With no alternative, they decide to venture to 'our' world to speak with the show’s creators. 

I'm sure it's that last bit that some people will argue 'makes' the book, but it was the opposite for me, and from that point on I was less than enamored with the novel. 

As for the three codas, the third was moving, the second moderately so, the first a ridiculous waste of time, and the whole a needless exercise. 

I grade this is a B-      Book #45 of 2012

46. I picked up Eoin Colfer's Half Moon Investigations because YaYa left it in the van one day and I thought it looked interesting. I was right.

It's rather like Encyclopedia Brown meets The Three Investigators meets The Bloodhound Gang, and although I'm sick of pint sized protagonist (what, no chunky or tall kid can play a hero?)  I thought it was a hoot. As the highest praise of all, may I just say that I would have tore this s**t up as a kid.

Grade: A+ Book #46 on the year

47. Around six years ago Lisa and I stayed at a bed and breakfast a few hours outside of Milwaukee, and on the morning of our departure we wandered the streets of the town and, being me, we would up inside a bookstore. While I was there I bought "Empire of the Eagle" by Andre Norton and Susan Schwartz. I am happy to report I finally crossed it off my TBR (to be read) list. 

I loved it. 

The novel traces the fate of Quintus, a Roman tribune whose family was evicted from their estate in disgrace, a man who still seeks to regain the family honor and reclaim their land. It is not to be. The Romans are horribly defeated at the battle of Carrhae,  and their Eagle standards taken as trophies for their enemies. Quintus and his men are purchased as slaves to be given to the Chinese emperor thousands of miles to the East. Along the way disaster and misfortune strike the group, and in those dark hours the survivors learn what it means to be Roman - and what it means to follow the Eagle. 

That's the 'straight' part of the novel. There's also a significant supernatural element, involving Roman and Hindu lore. At first that turned me off, and led me to put the book aside a few years ago. This time I felt the realistic and fantastical plots melded perfectly, with neither overshadowing the other. It works. 

I really enjoyed this book. I grade it an A. 

Book #47 of the year

48. I'm a fan of the USA Network's Psych, and yes, for the record, shame on CBS for ripping it off for The Mentalist. The great thing about "A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Read" is that author William Rabkin accomplishes the near impossible for a TV tie-in novel. He not only make it readable, he captures the characters to a 'T'. The dialouge is spot on and literally LOL. I grade this a personal A, and an objective B/B+. 

49 . I am also a fan of A.Lee Martinez, and I did enjoy  his latest novel, "Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain". But . . . it ain't his best work. Not his funniest. Not his most original. Not the best plot. Not, in short, my favorite.

Grade: C+

Book # 49 of the year.

50.For the Pysch tie-in novel  The Call of the Mild you can second most of my praise of author William Rabkin. But I ID'd the killer long before Shawn and Gus did, and I wasn't pleased with the way the subplot of Henry's protege worked out. This was the weaker effort of the two.

Grade: C

Book # 50 of the year.
51. A week or so ago I finished reading "Mr. Polk's War: American Opposition and Dissent, 1846-1848" by John H. Schroeder. This was a book I bought at a UWM library sale years ago and finally crossed off my TBR list. It's a story of the domestic opposition to the Mexican American war. It's a work strongly influenced by the era in which it was written (early '70's/Vietnam) so you have to allow for some bias in his POV, but overall I thought it was well written and informative. I will say it'd be a hard book to follow w/out some prior knowledge of that war, as Schroeder dang near *ignores* the war itself while still referencing domestic reaction to those events. I'd grade this a pleasant B+ July 15, 2012 at 7:26 pm Public #51 of the year

52. I finished "Eureka: Brain Box Blues" by Cris Ramsay, a novel based on the Scyfy series. In brief, I thought it captured little of the series charm, had a weak plot, and failed to find the 'voice' of the characters. I was not impressed. Grade: C
July 15, 2012 at 9:46 pm Public
#52 of the year

53. I finished reading "In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote, and unlike other "classics" that alternate "suck" and "bore" with every page, this was a thing of beauty. Not one word was wasted and his prose sings. His description of the handwriting in Nancy's diary, equating her different styles with a teenage search for identity, demonstrates perfectly his ability to dissect a moment and reveal its truth. Great book, and all praise to Capote. Grade: A+ (with extra credit on the side)  July 16, 2012 at 9:36 am Public#53 of the year

54. On Saturday I finished reading "Bye Baby Bye", a Nate Heller mystery by Max Allan Collins. In this one Nate, PI to the famous and infamous, is drawn into the last few troubled months of Marilyn Monroe's life. As with all/most of Collins' work it's a good, enjoyable read, and I certainly learned a few facts about MM along the way. I doubt I'll remember this book in twenty years, but I'm still glad I read it. Grade: B  July 16, 2012 at 10:08 am Public#54 of the year

55. Today on break I finished reading "The Bro Code" by Barney Stinson ( of How I Met Your Mother). It was funny, but book length funny? No. Not even skinny book length funny. But it had its moments. Grade: C+  Book#55
July 17, 2012 at 4:15 pm Public

56. I finished reading another Psych tie-in novel, " A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Read" by William Rabkin. When I stop to think about it the plot, or at least its resolution, was nonsensical and patched together by happenstance and wild leaps of faulty logic. But it was great fun to read, and I literally LOL'd at several scenes. I grade this one an A
July 19, 2012 at 11:01 pm Public #56 on the year

57. I finished reading 'The Empty Glass' by JI Baker, a novel about an LA County deputy coroner caught up in the death of Marilyn Monroe. It's very dark and reminiscent of James Cain, and you know from the moment you open the cover that no character is going to finish this book with a smile on their face and a song in their heart. Stylistically it is exceptionally well done. Where it falters is in the motivation. There is no reason, professional or personal, for the protagonist to champion this cause to the bitter end, and that's where Baker lost me a bit. I'd still grade this a strong B+  #57 of the year
July 25, 2012 at 10:55 pm Public

58. Today I finished reading "Niceville" by Carsten Stroud. It's an eclectic mix of supernatural ghost story, thriller and crime drama that moves at rocket speed. I saw a negative review from Kirkus but I vehemently disagree, as I thought the book was excellent and a joy to read. In summation: Stroud can WRITE. Grade: A  #58 on the year
July 28, 2012 at 12:34 am Public

59. Yesterday I finished an electronic ARC for "Return of the Thin Man" a collection of previously UNPUBLISHED Dashiell Hammett 'Thin Man' stories. He wrote these as treatments for MGM back in the '30's. Hammett's prose still packs a punch, even in this truncated format, but his genius shines in the dialogue; some of it is so sharp I was worried I'd need bandages. Individually, I'd grade "After the Thin Man" an A+, "Another Thin Man" a B+ and the oddly angry "Sequel to the Thin Man" a C. As a whole I'd grade this slice of history a B+/A-  #59 of the year
July 29, 2012 at 12:38 pm Public

60. I just finished reading a Perry Mason novel by Erle Stanley Gardner called "The Case of the Caretaker's Cat". I've read Gardner before and enjoyed him, but this one, eh, not so much. The first third moved well, but the theatrics and the extended 'reveal' at the end were too much for my taste. I'd grade this a C
July 31, 2012 at 12:14 am Public
#60 on the year

61. Today I finished reading "Siddhartha: An Indian Poem" by Hermann Hesse [translation by Susan Bernofsky, The Modern Library]. I think if you were going to read one "finding yourself" narrative from the first half of the last century, I'd skip this and read The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham. (great book, great Tyrone Power movie).With that being said, I thought this short novel was engaging and, at times, enlightening. Grade: B  Book #61 of the year
July 31, 2012 at 6:32 pm Public

62 and 63. I finished reading both 'The First Quarry' and "Quarry' by Max Allan Collins. They're both hard boiled novels featuring a contract killer. As usual, Collins delivers. Grade for each: B+ #62 and #63 of the year
August 4, 2012 at 7:12 pm Public

64. I've finished reading "Stargate SG1: Trial by Fire" by Sabine C. Bauer, a readable but forgettable tie-in novel from the TV series. Grade: C (book #64 of 2012)
August 5, 2012 at 11:17 pm

65. I finished reading "Mind Altering Murder" a Psych tie-in novel by William Rabkin. This was easily the weakest of the bunch. It was poorly constructed and relied on wild happenstance to link the plot. Blech. The only plus was that he captures the Gus' voice to a T. Grade: C (book #65 of the year)
August 9, 2012 at 9:16 pm Public

66. I finished 'The Billionaire's Vinegar' by Benjamin Wallace. It's the very well written history of a wine scandal involving 1787 bottles of wine alleged to have been owned by Thomas Jefferson. I dislike wine and I still found the book fascinating, even if the resolution wasn't worth the buildup. I grade this a solid A- (book 66 of 2012)
August 11, 2012 at 6:19 pm Public

67. While watching the two lil' ones play at McDonald's I finished reading Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man, a thriller that mixes a phobic distrust of computers with a Frankenstein twist. I think the plot lacks a wee detail - namely an antagonist that isn't a 3rd rate criminal - but overall I really enjoyed it. Grade: B (book #67 of the year)
August 12, 2012 at 7:43 pm Public

68. I finished the last of the five Psych tie-in novels by Willam Rabkin. This one was "A Fatal Frame of Mind", in which Shawn and Gus investigate a murder at an art museum that might lead back to an international cabal dedicated to finding Arthur’s Excalibur. I thought it was a hoot, and wish he'd write some more books in the series. B+ (book#68)
August 16, 2012 at 9:55 pm Public

69. 'Round about a quarter century ago I watched A Bell For Adano on American Movie Classics, a station that at the time actually played classic films and not television series and second rate flicks. Yesterday I finished reading the novel of the same name by John Hersey. It's the sentimental and at times comedic story of the American occupation of an Italian town during WWII. I liked it a lot, but was routinely put off by the casual use of slurs (dago, wop) in the daily speech of the Americans. It's accurate for the time, just a little jarring. Grade: B (book # 69 of 2012)
August 23, 2012 at 11:11 pm Public

70. I finished the novel "Aliens vs. Predator: Prey" by Steve Perry and Stephani Perry. I thought it started out like a cookie cutter media tie-in, grew into a pretty darn good sci-fi adventure, and sadly finished back where it started. Definitely a mixed bag. Given my low expectations going in, I'd grade it a B. (book #70 of 2012)
August 23, 2012 at 11:12 pm Public

71. Thursday I finished reading "Mr Monk and the Two Assistants" by Lee Goldberg, a book based on the tv show "Monk". I liked the premise (bringing back the old assistant Sharona and having her lock horns with Natalie) but I thought the book was flat, with a messy plot and no real zest. Goldberg is the writing partner of William Rabkin, author of the Psych novels, and judging solely from this effort I'd say Rabkin has the lion's share of the talent. Still, the dialogue worked well so perhaps Goldberg is just handicapped by his history as a scriptwriter. Grade: C [book #71 of 2012]
September 2, 2012 at 12:59 am Public

72. Friday I finished reading "Guest of Honor" by Deborah Davis. It's a non-fiction account of the 1901 White House dinner of Teddy Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington - the first time a black man was invited to break bread with the President, and an action that enflamed the South. I respect the dinner and the courage it took for all parties - but I think the book as a whole failed to live up to the importance of that moment. It was organized loosely, spending far too much time tracing the biographies of the two men and then relegating the dinner and its aftershocks to less than a third of the book. Also, while I know it’s a work of popular history and not a scholarly treatment, I could have done without some of the annoying hallmarks of that genre; such as endless times when successive, often irrelevant anecdotes and trivia were used to establish the feel for the time and place. One thing it did do well was re-establish the brilliance of Washington, a man long dismissed by historians weened on the jealousies of his rival W.E.B. DuBouis. Grade: C+/B- (book# 72 of the year)
September 2, 2012 at 1:01 am Public

73. I finished reading John Hersey's "Hiroshima", a great early example of "new journalism". It was superb, and I have since passed it on to Grace. If I had a complaint it is that the bombing is presented without any context. There is no discussion of Japan's rape of China, its attack on Pearl Harbor, the torture and murder of thousands of American POW's, the fierce resistance on Okinawa that cemented the certainty that a conventional invasion of Japan would be an epic bloodbath, etc. It was not the TOOL that was evil, but the war that spawned it. That is touched on for a sentence or two in the epilogue, but that was not enough Grade: A+ (book 73 of 2012)
September 3, 2012 at 6:43 pm Public

74. Saturday I finished reading "Fire in the Streets: The Battle for Hue, Tet 1968" by Eric Hammel. As the title states, it's a detailed narrative history of American efforts in Hue during the Tet offensive. It is very detailed at the small unit level, up to and including estimates of how many rounds were expended during an action, and there's plenty of eyewittness accounts to hold your interest. Some flaws: I think the depth of the detail numbs you after awhile, and certainly puts it out of reach of the casual reader. It's also devoid of any overall context or analysis of the battle, reducing it to just a record of a shoot-em-up. Still, I enjoyed it. Grade: B

Book #74 of 2012

75. Today I had the pleasure of finishing The Devil in Silver, a novel by Victor Lavalle. Nominally, it's about a sane man who is admitted into a psychiatric unit for evaluation. To add to his misfortune, the hospital is terrorized by a flesh-eating demon that preys on the patients.

That, of course, makes the book sound like a horror novel. Not a bad thing in itself, but woefully off-base. This isn't a horror novel any more than it's "Girl, Interrupted." This is a story reminiscent of Catch-22; full of pain and loss and idiocy but also humor, self-discovery, and yes, some genuine frights.  I loved the story and the author's style, which often included witty, tangential asides.  I'm going to give this book my highest compliment: this guy can WRITE. Grade A+
September 15, 2012 at 1:30 am Public

76. Today I finished reading "Mr. Monk and the Blue Flu" by Lee Goldberg. When San Francisco's cops go on a work stoppage Mr. Monk is drafted by the mayor to become the temporary homicide Captain. I liked the story, and the dialogue, but dang nabbit I still feel using Natalie's voice to tell the tell is wrong, in part because I don't think Goldberg has enough flair to pull it off. Grade: C+ Book #76 of the year
September 18, 2012 at 9:36 pm Public

77. In "The Broken Ones" by Stephen M. Irwin, on a day forever known as s "Gray Wednesday", every human being on Earth found themselves haunted by a ghost only they can see. Three years later society has nearly crumbled, plagued by alarming suicide rates, spiritual confusion, and economic collapse.

In this landscape Detective Oscar Mariani is assigned to investigate murders that are said to be the result of people driven mad by their ghosts, and he stumbles upon a ritualistic murder that no one seems to want him to solve. The case will threaten not only his career, but his life and the lives of those he loves.

What did I think of the book? Eh. I'm ambivalent. Great premise, but the ghosts didn't have all that much of a role in the book beyond ruining society, and I'm still not clear on how they did that. The writing was solid but didn't 'zing', but, BUT I think the mystery itself was really developed well, and I liked all the emotional baggage Mariani carried around.

My grade: B  Book#77 of the year.
September 22, 2012 at 12:47 am Public

78. Tonight I finished reading “Running out of Time”, a young adult novel by Margaret Peterson Haddix that Grace polished off a few weeks ago. It’s the story of a young girl raised in a village in the 1830’s that discovers it is actually 1996 and her family is part of an elaborate historical preserves. When diphtheria hits the village she alone must flee to the outside world to bring help. Remind you of The Village? Me too, but this predates the movie and makes a lot more sense. I liked it – Haddix has a knack for spinning a good yarn. Grade: B  Book# 78 of 2012

79. I’ve also finished reading The Westing Game, the Newberry award winning young adult novel by Ellen Raskin.  Yes, the Wisconsin setting was swell. But . . . this book won a Newberry and has been read and beloved for more than 30 years. I have to ask: WHY? The mystery at the core of the book was OK, but nothing special, and the writing (if the late Ms. Raskin will forgive me) is slipshod and devoid of style or skill. I don’t see the charm or the value of the book, and I’m going to grade it a C.
Book #79 of the year

80. I’ve finished reading Lee Child’s latest Reacher novel, A Wanted Man. Reacher hitchhikes on a lonely country road and is picked up by a car just as the local sheriff orders roadblocks on the highway. It seems there’s been a murder, and the killers are almost certainly on the road, but what are the odds the killers would take the time to stop and pick up everyone’s favorite former MP/hitchhiker? This is a good adventure novel from the great Lee Child. The stakes escalate exponentially, and for a second I thought Child was going to go wobbly and venture into paranoid conspiracy land, but he reined it in nicely – if you view world-endangering espionage and armed assault as ‘nice’. Grade: A Book #80 of the year

81. I’ve finished reading Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistanby Sean Parnell (with John Bruning). It’s a memoir of Parnell’s time as a motorized infantry platoon leader in eastern Afghanistan.

 It’s the first book of any kind I’ve read on either the Iraqi or Afghan war, and found it informative and enjoyable. Parnell (well, Bruning) has a good flair for putting you right there in the heat of the battle. Still, at times the ‘warrior’ mystique is shoved down your throat with all the finesse of a B movie WWII flick. That’s fine I guess, but even taking that into account there’s the occasional hyperbole that makes you roll your eyes.

All things are relative, to be sure; for instance, if someone throws a punch at me today it will be enough of an affront to my world to inspire a blog post or two. Likewise, the skirmishes and ambushes Parnell encounters are awful, certainly by the standards of my life and probably yours as well. But having been groomed on tales of WWII and Vietnam. . . another platoon is attacked and the horror of it shatters their moral; in the attack a single American is wounded, shot in the foot. Chapters are devoted to horrific attacks that spawn not a single American killed or wounded. Wave after wave of the enemy are wiped out for literally hours – resulting in about 40 enemy dead. The back of the book compares the number of men wounded in Parnell’s platoon in a year to “a [casualty] rate not seen since Gettysburg”.

All love to the Parnell and the platoon, but you are 30 men. Should you stumble into your own Alamo, it still won’t come remotely close to being worthy of comparison to Gettysburg.

Like I said tho’, it is informative and entertaining. I grade it a B+/A-

Book #81 of the year

82. I’ve finished reading Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death by Mark Essig, an account of the invention of the light bulb and the contentious invention of the electric chair in its wake. Edison, while an opponent of the death penalty, advocated the chair as a humane method of execution; but he also took care to make sure that rival technology was used for it, equating his rivals work with danger in the eyes of the public. I enjoyed the book and grade it an A-   Book # 82 of the year

83. On the 26th of Oct  I completed reading The Killing Zone: My Life in the Vietnam War by [2nd Lieutenant] Frederick Downs. [It was one of three Vietnam history paperbacks I bought off of Ebay a few months back; the cost for all three, including shipping? $1.99.] The book covers a period in late ’67 when Downs was a fresh faced lieutenant in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It’s very readable, honest in its depictions of combat and the treatment of civilians, and I recommend it. I detested the constant use of the term ‘dinks’ to describe just about any Vietnamese, but I’m sure that’s just staying true to the language of that platoon at the time. Grade: B+  Book #83 of the year.

84. Early on the 28th I finished reading No Safety In Numbers by Dayna Lorentz. This is a new release, young-adult hardcover YaYa bought on her birthday. She read it and highly recommended it, so I gave it a shot. It’s a novel about a shopping mall that’s hit with a biological weapon, forcing the patrons to remain quarantined inside. Order and civility collapse as the number of dead and dying grow, and the characters – mainly teenagers – must do their best to survive the chaos. There were a few very short but suggestive scenes that I wasn’t happy YaYa read, and I think the mall patrons were far too willing to surrender their freedom at the onset, but aside from that I enjoyed it. Grade: B+ Book #84 of the year

85. Thursday I bought a copy of Cheaper by the Dozen (by Frank B Gilbreth Jr and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey) at a local Goodwill. It’s the memoir of a family of 12 children growing up in the first two decades of the 20th century, and is the basis for both the Steve Martin and Clifton Webb movies of the same name. More specifically it’s their memories of their Dad, a famous efficiency expert who drilled them like little soldiers but never failed to show them love and affection, mixed in with plenty of laughs and smiles. It’s a heartwarming book that holds up very well given its age (original printing appears to be 1948) and I think the Dad is a role model for every father out there. This book is grand. Grade: A+ Book #85 of the year
86. I’ve finished reading “Draw the Dark” by Ilsa J Bick. The book is set in Winter, Wisconsin, where a teen age boy begins to draw disturbing images of the past, images that feel more and more real as time goes on. Winter has seen its share of death and secrets, and something wants those secrets revealed . . . This is a young adult novel given to me by YaYa. The book failed to hook her and she never finished it, but I thought it was quite compelling and very well done. I’m going to encourage YaYa to give it another shot. Grade: B+ Book #86 of the year
87. As I waited for the election results I finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Here’s my one word review: Wow. Grade: A+ Book# 88 of the year
88. Yesterday I finished reading "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell. It's an unusual novel that's composed of six separate novellas, each wildly different than the next. Each story is told in a different fashion and is set in wildly varied times and locales (the West Indies of the 1800's, Korea in the the far future, 1931 Europe, etc). Most feature characters that for the most part don't exist outside of the individual tale. Yet all six are connected by a thread of rebellion and struggle that wind through them all, and there are hints that these individuals are the same struggling souls born time and again.

This is not a book I recommend to a casual reader, or someone looking to make the jump from pulp novels to something meatier; I initially found the format confusing and even intimidating, and I'm not exactly a casual reader.

I came to love the book, although a nagging part of me feels that the novel failed to make the final leap and accomplish what it set out to do - the problem is, I'm not 100% sure what that goal was to start.

89. I've finished reading Double Feature by Owen King (ebook ARC; the on sale date is my bday in March). Sam Nolan is the estranged son of a beloved B-Movie actor (think Bruce Campbell or Vincent Price). Although he chooses to go into film himself, Sam's own work is serious and dour, and when a disaster hits his first major production his life is knocked off the tracks. Now, eight years later, he's trying to figure out what went wrong while also coming to terms with his elderly father.

King is the son of Stephen King and the brother of horror writer Joe Hill, so it's hard not to see the parallels between the father/son dynamic in the novel and his own career (after all, this is a 'literary' novel, not horror or a thriller). I'm not sure those comparisons are apt; sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but their presence lends an extra layer to the novel all the same.

I though the denouement was a bit passé, but I did notice that I 'knew' these characters quite well by the end of the novel, and felt quite attached to them. Overall, a well done book. Grade: A

90. I finished reading "Gunn's Golden Rules" by Tim Gunn, a collection of chapters detailing the maxims by which he lives his life. I'm sure he is far to the left politically, but his personal philosophy is very conservative, based on personal responsibility and an entrepreneurial spirit. Plus he dishes out some gossip about Vogue and Project Runway. I enjoyed it. Grade: A (book #92 of the year)

91. Following a late night viewing of Flowers in the Attic with Lisa, I sat down to read the eponymous V.C. Andrews book that seemed to grace the desk of every girl in grade school back in the ‘80’s. To my surprise, I enjoyed Andrews’ style and found the book well written, even if she had a nasty little obsession with incest. For a classic cheesy horror novel, it wasn’t bad at all. Grade: B
92.  In the middle of the night I finished reading Loon : A Marine Story by Jack McLean. It’s the memoir of McLean, a son of privilege and wealth who volunteered for the Marine Corps when his grades precluded a quick acceptance into college.  The title of the book refers to three bloody days in 1968 he spent battling the NVA at Landing Zone Loon near the Laotian border; forty-three Marines would die before the battle was through, and a photograph of the aftermath would appear on the front page of the New York Times.  While that’s the alleged focus of the memoir, I found that the section on Loon was the most disjointed and strung together of the book, while recollections of his time at boot camp and his acclimation to Vietnam were meticulous and powerful. Perhaps the memories of those three days are l too strong for him to properly harness them in print. Overall I felt the book was emotional and compelling, although I’m not a fan of McLean’s tendency to drop one sentence paragraphs back to back to back.  Grade: A-
93*. This one is dubious, but it fits the criteria I’ve followed since ’94 – it’s a book, complete with ISBN, read cover to cover including introduction, etc. Father to Son: Life Lessons on Raising a Boy by Harry H. Harrsion Jr. is a collection of sayings and advice on raising boys. I bought this book around the time Smiley was born, as I bought the father-daughter equivalent back in 2001. I remember being so excited that I could finally buy the ‘son version ‘lol! It’s a sweet, practical little book. I feel guilty about listing this due to its size, so I may mention here that I’ve read a few novellas that I’ve rejected for this list just for that reason: Legion by Brandon Sanderson being one. I’ve also read short stories by Lee Child (Deep Down), Stephen King (A Face in the Crowd) and Michael Connelly (The Safe Man), so all told it certainly adds up a standard book. That said, I’ll still try and aim for 101 this year just to be on the up and up.
93. The Anderson Tapes is the Edgar award winning first novel by Lawrence Sanders circa 1970.   It’s the story of a high stakes robbery told via the fictional transcripts of conversations recorded by surveillance equipment. It’s a fair tale told in a quick entertaining way, tho’ some of the slang and racial/sexual language is quite dated.  I’m not sure I see this as Edgar worthy, even for the time, but I’d still grade it a B.
94. A Right to Die by Rex Stout is the rare Stout novel that really seems pigeonholed into a specific, very bleak time in history. A black man attempts to hire Nero Wolfe to dig up dirt on his son’s white fiancé, all in an attempt to discredit her and nix the marriage(he and his wife are angered and disgusted by the prospect on an interracial marriage).  The fiancé turns up dead, the son is charged with the murder, and before it’s all through we have a very awkward mix of racists on both sides of the color barrier competing for attention. Putting all that aside (it was published in 1964, when it was probably spot-on), it is a good yarn told by a master of the written word, even if the clue by which Wolfe ID’s the killer is goofy and unrealistic.  Given the dated nature of the book, I have to grade this only a C.

 95. Mad River is a Virgil Flowers novel by John Sandford.  Three people go on a killing spree in a remote Minnesota county, leading to a manhunt that will last days and leave a trail of bodies behind.  I fully acknowledge Sandford as a genius of the mystery genre, and this one is a fine example of his craft. The portions of the narrative devoted to the killers’ flows like In Cold Blood mashed with Bonnie and Clyde, but without stumbling in blunt imitation, and I love how Sandford incorporates an affection for his home state into every facet of the book without turning it into a tourist guide put out by the local chamber of commerce.  Grade:  A+
96. West to Cambodia by S.L.A. Marshall is a contemporary non-fiction retelling of US Army small unit action along the Cambodian border in late 1966. I consider myself a fan of Marshall’s narratives, but I think this one read a little choppy and heavy-handed; I’m hoping it is a fluke and that my prior opinions weren’t mistaken. Still, it’s an interesting read and he doesn’t spare the troops he interviewed from an honest assessment of their actions. Men leave equipment behind, miss from point blank range, engage in an hour long firefight with an enemy who wasn’t there, and in the last episode an American company walks headfirst into a bloody, catastrophic ambush. Grade: C+
97.  Might as Well Be Dead by Rex Stout is a swell Nero Wolfe mystery centered around a young man who, for misguided reasons  of love, refuses to help prove his innocence when charged with murder. Lucky for him Wolfe and Goodwin are around to ignore his wishes, and along the way there are plenty of twists and the trademark Stout style.  I loved it. Grade: A
98. Scorcher is a book written by a co-worker of mine (pen name Kelly Edwards) and available through Amazon.com.  When you agree to read a book by someone you know, you always run the risk of having to plow through a clunker, all the while struggling to think of what faint praise you can bestow on it to save their feelings. Thankfully, that isn’t the case here. Kelly is a fine stylist and the book ‘reads easy’. The subject matter – it’s an action thriller centered on costumed superheroes – isn’t my cup of tea, but I know this would be a favorite of a lot of people here on my Facebook account. Complaints? I think it would have been more powerful had it ended a chapter or two earlier, leaving the final confrontation to a sequel, and I thought the romance at the center of the novel was entirely too chaste for entirely too long. Beyond that, it was an impressive debut. Grade: B

99. If Death Ever Slept is another Nero Wolfe mystery by the masterful Rex Stout.  Archie is sent undercover into the home of a millionaire who suspects his daughter-in-law of being a ‘snake’, and before too long there’s a body or two laying around to get the plot rolling. Few complaints here, as Stout is rarely off the mark as a writer and his prose zings as expected,  and the plot was sharp, *but * I do think they wrapped this one up at warp speed and without making a convincing case for guilt.  Grade: B+

100. For my epic 100th book of the year – the culmination of a goal established 18 years ago – I wanted something with a bit of intellectual heft, something worthy of the iconic spot. I killed two birds with one stone by selecting a book that has sat on my shelf since about the time I set that goal; Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience by Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas. Written in 1968, during the height of Vietnam, urban riots, and social upheaval, the book seeks to define the “limits and the scope of permissible dissent and civil disobedience” in America.
Fortas promotes a liberal philosophy but one tempered with a respect for this nation and the institutional framework of democracy. Various arguments, such as those related to the draft, are no longer pertinent (though powerful) and at one point I vividly remember him writing that he can’t imagine anyone ever arguing that flag burning would be considered  freedom of speech – a psychic he was not.
But there are a lot of reasoned, valid points in the book, all delivered without any lawyer speak.
“A citizen cannot demand of his government or of other people obedience to the law, and at the same time claim a right in himself to break it by lawless conduct, free of punishment or penalty. He cannot substitute his own judgment or passion, however noble, for the rules of law”.
“ . . . In a social revolution the demands for action, for cure, for restitution, for reparation, are not easily met. The demand is not satisfied by the initial or moderate response. It is fed by it. The vigor and fervor of the demand increase as its justice is admitted and some steps are taken to meet it. As demand outstrips the early response, attitudes on both sides harden. Frustration sets in. Those demanding change see no prospect of satisfaction; those who initially offered reform despair of a reasonable resolution. And so, conflict and crisis occur.”
“Dissent and dissenters have no monopoly on freedom. They must tolerate opposition. They must accept dissent from their dissent . . . they must give it the respect and latitude which they claim for themselves. Neither youth nor virtue can justify the disregard of this principle.”
“In my judgment, civil disobedience – the deliberate violation of law – is never justified in our nation where the law being violated is not itself the focus or target of the protest.[emphasis mine] . . Civil disobedience is a violation of law. Any violation of law must be punished, whatever its purpose, as the theory of civil disobedience recognizes. But law violation directed  . . . to unrelated laws which are disobeyed merely to dramatize dissent, may be morally as well as politically unacceptable.”
“good motives do not excuse action which will injure others. The individual’s conscience does not give him a license to indulge individual conviction without regard to the rights of others.”
There are other points worth reading, and if there’s a copy in your local library I encourage you read this relatively short treatise. I grade this an “A”.

101.  I’ve completed reading Infantry in Vietnam: Small Unit Actions in the Early Days , 1965-66 edited by LTC Albert N Garland, USA (Ret), with a foreword by William Westmoreland. It’s an excellent collection of contemporary accounts of platoon and company sized actions during the early years of the war, complete with wonderfully specific details that are largely lost to time. (50 years on, the emphasis is rightly on the broader handling of the war, not, for instance, the subtle agricultural clues that give away the presence of VC). 

As I read the book I picked up on the fact that action after action, the US was learning. They were adapting tactics, technology, and thinking to the odd new war they had inherited, and it’s a fascinating transition to experience - second-hand.  I’m glad I wasn’t there to iron out the kinks myself.

One troubling thing I read was a passage on pg. 110. “ . . . Brigadier General Ellis W. Williamson . . . emphasized whenever he could the deliberate and effective use of firepower.  . . [he] advanced the concept of using this firepower in any and all situations where its use might precluded the unnecessary exposure of personnel to hostile fire. He continually urged his subordinate commanders to use firepower first, and to use as much as necessary in lieu of or to precede the actual advance of the troops.”  [emphasis mine]

Jump ahead twenty years to a documentary about the Gulf War, in which Gen. H. Norman Schwartzkoff referenced his time during the Invasion of Grenada. He mentioned, with disdain, that infantry movement stalled at the slightest hint of enemy contact, with troops calling in air strikes or artillery to eliminate a single sniper. The aggressive, offensive nature of infantry had been curtailed by this holdover mindset from Vietnam, and he made immediate efforts to change that culture.

During the rest of the book you see evidence of that idea influencing action on the ground. Oh, there was plenty of fighting, and no one, least of all me, is equating that doctrine with cowardice, but from a distance it’s hard not to scream “What are you doing? You are giving the VC the initiative.” Unit action reports end with American units surrounding VC only to sit and wait for air support or daylight, allowing their escape, and one chapter revolves around a unit that expended, to modern eyes, an ungodly amount of air, naval and artillery support, all for (IIRC) a single Viet Cong.

This book was the last of three I bought in an Ebay lot earlier this year, and I’m happy to say that was $1.99 well spent. I hope there are other titles in the series detailing the later years of the war. Grade: A+

102. I have finished reading Night by Elie Wiesel, his account of his time as a teenager in a Nazi death camp.  It is terse, shocking, and rumbles along towards a horrible fate at breakneck speed. The pages that involve his relationship with his father were filled with agony, still felt keenly after many decades.  I began to cry reading it, and was so moved at his loss that I put down the book and texted “I love you Dad” to my own Father (this, in the middle of the night).  A masterwork. Grade: A+

103. I’ve finished reading my 103rd book of the year Air War – Vietnam by Frank Harvey, a 1967 expose advertised as the story of “What our Airmen are really doing in Vietnam!” and “The headline making eyewitness story of America’s devastating new brand of warfare!”.  Harvey spent several weeks embedded with Navy and Air Force pilots in 1966, and what emerged is a frank portrait of the air war at the time.  It is frank, in that it discusses the good and the bad, but it is by no means prescient; while more a dove than a hawk, Harvey is a bit awed by the blunt power of our weaponry and overestimates our success. Not the greatest stylist in the world, Harvey still composed an entertaining account that is filled with details of everyday life that would now otherwise be lost to time. Grade: B

104.  Gambit by Rex Stout is a mystery set around the murder of a chess whiz . Nero Wolfe is hired by the daughter of the accused killer to prove his innocence, and before it’s all said and done Wolfe will have the real killer trying his best to avoid checkmate. Standard Wolfe fare, which is too say, grand. Grade: A

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