A Crack in the Lens by Steve Hockensmith

This is the fourth installation in a fairly new mystery series, but it was the first one that I read. And it caught my eye not because of the relationship of the two main characters to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, but because the author chose to place his characters in San Marcos, Texas, my chosen home for the past 20 years.

The two central characters in the book are Gustav Amlingmeyer (aka "Old Red") and his brother Otto (aka "Big Red"). What has gone on before the central plot is that both "Old Red" and "Big Red" are roving cowboys in the late 1890's, moving from place to place. "Big Red" reads Sherlock Holmes stories to his brother, who is illiterate. "Old Red" fancies himself a detective in the fashion of Holmes and has taken up cases along the way and solved several.

Which brings us to the current novel. The Amlingmeyers end up in San Marcos to try to determine the cause of death of a prostitute that "Big Red" knew from 5 years prior. A lot of people aren't happy that he has returned to town, and some of them are determined to see that he moves on posthaste.

Speaking as only a recent resident, I tried my damnedest to place the buildings and events in the context of the current layout of the town (and failed miserably, only one of the streets still bears the same name 100 some odd years later. But I had fun with it and enjoyed meeting a couple of new characters to add to my list of favorite detectives. Fortunately my library has the other three books so far published so I will be able to catch up on them quickly.

I rate this one 8½ stars.

Ad Nauseum: A Survivor's Guide... by Carrie McClaren and Jason Torchinsky

As it started out, this book was very interesting, but it got a little dull towards the middle, especially the mock debate between two separate viewpoints on the merits and problems with advertising, represented by one Sut Jhally and James Twitchell. I think its more geared towards someone who is more of a student of marketing and advertising than someone who has a passing interest in the field.

I can't give it more than 4 stars.


K Blows Top by Peter Carlson

In 1959, the leader of the Soviet regime, Nikita Khruschev, visited the United States for a lengthy tour of both major cities and country fairs. He was met with varying levels of interest, sometimes parades and sometimes protests (and sometimes both).

The author begins his story with Vice-President Nixon's visit to Moscow and the "Kitchen Debates", but that is only the preface to the real story. Originally Khruschev was to reciprocate the invitation to come to America with an agreement to meet for talks on the arms race. But wires got crossed, and the codicil to the invitation went unvoiced.

This put the tour by Khruschev on a somewhat tense level with the Eisenhower administration which felt it had an obligation for diplomacy by allowing the tour to be one-sided from their point of view, but it was pulled together nonetheless. What follow in the latter ¾ or so of the book is an entertaining and often hilarious tale of the Soviet premier's encounters with diplomats and ordinary citizens as he goes from New York to Los angeles to a county fair in the Mid-West, with people fawning over him in some of the most unlikely of places, given the atmosphere of the time. (This, you will have to be aware, occurred not long after the McCarthy "Red Scare", and just following on it's heels would have been the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis of the next President's term.)

All of this proves to be one of the more readable biographies I have read in recent years (albeit not a true "biography" in the sense of the word that I would normally mean, since it spans less than a year in total time). I highly reccommend it to anyone who normally avoids biographies, though, because it hardly feels like one, more like an anecdotal remembrance instead.

I rate it 7½ stars

The Return of the Remiss Reviewer

Once again, I have been reading books and not doing reviews. Expect a slew of them of the next few days.


Discover's 20 Things.... by the editors of Discover Magazine

To the authors' credit, they admit in the introduction that the title of this book is misleading; it's not 20 things about "everything". But there are 20 chapters of various subjects, ranging from aliens to weather, each contained in it's own chapter.

If you are familiar with the monthly magazine and it's regular column "20 Things You Didn't Know About...", then you may have seen these before, or like me, you may not. I'm not entirely sure if they are reprints since I have only been an infrequent browser of the magazine.

That said, there is still plenty of reason to read the book, even if you do know everything. It's fun, for one thing. There are the 20 things in each chapter, but there are a lot of sidebars with other intriguing pieces of info, and numerous quotes from different people that are peppered in the text.

Give it 7½ stars.


Mr. Monk and the Dirty Cop by Lee Goldberg

The final season of the TV series Monk is on us and that presents a problem for fans of the series. Where will we get our Monk fix now? The answer is in the person of Lee Goldberg, a writer for the show and, with this book, an eight-time novelist of the series. Fortunately Mr. Goldberg (who is still a young chap, from the looks of him) doesn't seem to be dry on ideas for novels for our "intrepid" hero. (If, by "intrepid", you take to mean will go to any lengths to catch his man, as long as there aren't any germs, heights, snakes or a bottle of milk between them...)

At the outset of this mystery, Monk has been laid off as a consultant for the San Francisco PD due to budget cuts, but Monk, being Monk, can't just let the crimes go unsolved. He begins making "anonymous" calls to the police hotline giving clues that solve the various crimes that are on the police docket. This is OK with Monk, but both his assistant Natalie and Captain Stottlemeyer are frustrated with him for not keeping out of the mix.

To the rescue comes a private agency called Intertect who hires him on with a very generous salary to work for them. And work for them he does, staying up all night to solve cases. In the meantime, a rather unsavory former policeman with SFPD, now a police officer in a neighboring town, turns up dead, and evidence seems to point to Capt. Stottlemeyer. It is up to Monk to save the day. Except for one problem. The evidence even convinces Monk that the Captain is guilty.

Will Monk save his friend or will the Captain get the electric chair? Will natalie strangle Monk to keep him from solving cases for free, thus putting her job and lifestyle in jeopardy? And more importantly, will Monk even get within a hundred yards of this dirty cop? Tune in (or rather read in) to find out.

With the exception of two early issues in the novel, with Monk having an larger, more self-important ego than I previously thought he had, and felt out of place (although probably not as out of place as they felt to me), I did enjoy this installment.

I rate this one 8 stars.


Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

I recently set for myself a lofty goal of reading every book in a list I found online of 50 Banned Books. After struggling through this one, I put off the goal for a while.

One of the acknowledged "classics" of American literature, I found this stream-of-conciousness styled story very hard to continue. I admit at the outset that I had never encountered this style of writing before, and that may shade my opinion of it somewhat. But I found it extremely tedious, and the main character Holden Caufield to be the most boring fictional character I have ever read.

The basic premise, for those of you who may never have read it either before now, is a weekend in the life of a young teen who has recently been expelled from a prep school. His adventures in New York City, while living extravagantly (in my opinion) on money he has acquired prior to his expulsion.

Most of the time, he is either drinking himself silly or ranting about the jerks he has met. Apparently he doesn't like anybody he ever met, except for his younger sister. While in NYC, he has a couple of encounters with the seedier side of big city life, including an experience with a prostitute. In every encounter, he goes on about what jerks the people are whom he meets.

While I am the most vocal of advocates against censorship, and despite my opinion of the piece, I still think it shouldn't be banned. I just don't have a very high opinion of the book.

Rate it 3 stars. And that's being generous.


¡Ask A Mexican! by Gustavo Arellano

Why do Mexicans wear clothes when they go swimming? And what's up with those monuments to dead people on the windows of their cars? And, by the way, what is it about the word illegal that mexicans don't understand?

These are the kinds of questions that the author gets all the time for his syndicated column, ¡Ask A Mexican!, and answers them in said column each week. He does so with some panache and a little bit of humor, helping gabachos and wabs alike. (Look them up in the beginning of the book if you don't know what they mean; the author graciously tells you there, as well as several times in the text to whom he is referring with those slang words.)

Occasionally, the author gets a little long-winded on some subject, (in particular, the article on Mexican infatuation with singer Morrissey), but for the most part, these are short concise answers to inquisitive and sometimes antagonistic questions. I leave it to the author to either verify or dispute whether these are the actual questions he received for his column, since some of them seem made-up to me, especially the sometimes funny, sometimes unbelievable psuedonyms that the alleged letter writers use to sign their queries.

But don't let that dissuade you from reading a pretty good book in its own right. Just go into it with an open mind. I rate this one 6 stars.


The Rocklopedia Fakebandica by T. Mike Childs

An encyclopedia dedicated to all the fake bands that appeared in movies and TV over the years, while not inclusive, is still a hoot to read. The author acknowledges that he may have missed some (and I noted a few myself, such as Billy Wayne and Bobby Shelton from the movie Oh God, You Devil).

Its highly unlikely you will have heard of all of these fake singers and musical groups, although with some, you would have either had to just been born within the past few years, or lived in seclusion your whole life. In which case, the book will hold no interest for you.

The book is laid out like an encyclopedia (hence the name), with entries for hundreds of fictional bands that either appeared on screen, with either real musicians posing as the band, or in the case of some, characters from the movie or TV show pretending they can sing.

Of course you get the obvious ones like Spinal Tap, The Archies, Josie and the Pussycats and others that are immediately recognizable names. But you also get the names of bands that appear in both well-known movies and obscure ones, which makes it all the more challenging to track down if you have your interest peaked by the entry.

The author's sarcastic wit may wear you down at times, but I think the subject matter definitely is worth wading through it. I give this one 7 stars.


The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God by Jonathan Kirsch

Having previously read Kirsch's The Harlot by the Side of the Road:
Forbidden Tales of the Bible
and Moses, A Life, I was fully expecting to immerse myself in a bok that would grab my attention and keep me interested. I had read both of those and thoroughly enjoyed them. I found Kirsch's style engaging and entertaining.

How can a writer go from good to worse? I don't know, but I was, by page 10, convinced that this was not the same author who had witten those two previous tomes. Not only did I find the whole thing a drag to keep focused with attention, the author's occasional slip into his own political view grated on me. Whether or not I agree with his stance is immaterial. To point out comparisons to past history to present may be acceptable. But to allow it to be the basis of a soapbox, however brief, is not.

Not only that, but it appears that all the author did was update (and codensation) an older tome on the subject. A great portion of his references are to one book (or books, as the case may be) in particular; Henry Charles Lea's 4 volume History of the Inquisition of Spain. There appeared to be more quotes from this source than all of the other sources combined.

Forgive him for his repeated comparisons of the terror tactics of the inquisitors to the Nazis, since I assume he is of Jewish origin, and would thus have a right to his stance. But driving home his point to include what is obviously a political agenda by comparing the tactics to those at Guatanamo is just a bit much.

Only 5 stars for this one.


Schemers by Bill Pronzini

The newest in the Nameless Detective series brings back a classic genre in the mystery detective novel; a locked room mystery. How did eight valuable first editions get taken out of a multi-millionaire's private library, and who is the guilty party?

Thats part one of the novel. As has been the case, however, in the recent run of the series, there is also a secondary story line, and this one is the source of the title. An unknown maniac has surfaced in the lives of two brothers, threatening them and causing wonton destruction to their property. Is this because of their deceased father, a pillar of the community, and supposedly without enemies, or is it something in one of the two brothers' past?

I think I have stated elsewhere in this blog that I much prefer the older stories, before the addition of secondary characters Jake Runyon and Tamara Corbin, and this one, despite the return to my favorite "locked room" mystery, just did not wholly add up to an enjoyable experience. I hope I am not tiring of "Nameless" himself (and I don't think I am), but I do grow weary of Jake and Tamara.

all in all, only 5½ stars for this one.


Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph T. Hallinan

No that's not a copying error. The most intersting part of this book is the cover, which is actually skewed like the picture to add some light-heartedness (or maybe just to be cute) to the book.

I found some of the material to be interesting, but to be honest, the author's writing style did not capture my interest, despite the fact that I was actually interested in the subject.

I didn't make it far enough into the book to give a fair rating, so I'll leave that part of the review out.


365 Four-Star Videos You (Probably) Haven't Seen by Leslie Hamilton.

Well, as it turns out, more like "200 Four-star Videos" in my case, since quite a number of them I had seen. And some of those were among my list of favorite movies, so apparently I have good taste. Or at least, have the same taste in movies as the author.

What you get here is an interesting collection of potential Saturday night time wasters (or whichever day of the week you prefer). There is a short synopsis as well as interesting tidbits throughout the book. Included in a sidebar for each pick is a suggestion for another movie to go along with the pick as a second feature. And, just in case you have seen the movie in question, and alternative that is along similar lines, although that line is tenuous in some of the entries if you ask me.

Added as an afterthought for each entry is a trivia question related to either the movie or one of the actors or even the director which you can have fun trying to answer, as well as look up the answer (the answers are interspersed on other pages, rather than conveniently located at the end)

Interesting reading, whether you are just ooking up one idea for a movie for the night, or are reading the entire book for entertainment. 7 stars.


Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary Wolf

I was intrigued when I saw this book, because I thought the movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, was an original. And after all, I am one who reads almost all of the opening credits, and my memory fails me that it was credited in them. Of course, its been a few years since I saw the movie.

The book that gave us that inspired movie is quite different, however. For one thing, the cartoon characters are not animated characters, but cartoon comic strip actors (two-dimensional as opposed to three). And they are not indestructible, as they are in the movie. They can be "censored" (which here means killed).

At the outset, Eddie Valiant, an alcoholic private investigator, is hired to look into some dirty double-dealings with Roger's employers. But soon thereafter Roger is "censored". Fortunately for Eddie, he has the help of Roger Rabbit to find out who censored him. What's that you say? How can he help if he has been killed?

Well, it turns out that just prior to that killing, Roger had created a doppleganger, which is a temporary version of himself, for purposes which the real Roger did not want to experience first hand. The doppleganger is on a limited time though, as he is due to vanish soon. Eddie has to work against the clock to solve this mystery.

This is a much darker, more film-noirish style than the movie, and should be approached as such. Going into it with hopes of re-experiencing the movie magic is only doomed to disappointment unless you are willing to change that attitude in mid-stream.

I give this one 6½ stars.


Spade and Archer by Joe Gores

Advertized as the "prequel to the Maltese Falcon", this book takes you back to 1921, when Sam Spade, the hero of that famous novel is just getting started in his own private detective agency. There are three separate stories here, beginning with 1921, and then four years later in 1925, and yet again in 1928.

Each story is a separate mystery in itself, but there is a running theme that connects all three. I won't give it away here, but it is probably the best part of what is really a rather mediocre output.

For one thing, the dialogue just doesn't ring true. Not to mention the fact that the author chose to use the word "of" in dialogues instead of "have", which, while maybe true to the way the people were talking, still was annoying to this reader.

Another thing is that, aside from Spade, and his woman Friday, Effie, most of the characters in the book are barely cardboard characters. Even the villain is barely drawn in the climatic scene at the end of the book. You want to care about the people, but are denied enough to actually care.

It is my opinion that the author did a fairly good job of imitating the style of Hammett, but as for crafting a story worthy of being called a "prequel" to such a classic is something I can't agree.

Give this one 5 stars


The Wicked Wit of the West! by Irving Brecher as told to Hank Rosenfeld

If you are like me, the first thing that comes to your mind when you saw the author of this book was "Who the $%&* is Irving Brecher?" Well, it turns out that he is one of the wittiest writers in Hollywood that you never knew existed. He wrote several screenplays, two for the Marx Brothers (At the Circus and Go West), and was influential in the early career of Milton Berle.

He was also the creator the radio show The Life of Riley, one of the classics of yesteryear. In essence, he was the behind-the-scenes man in Hollywood in the 30's and 40's. He ran into some trouble with the McCarthy Red Scare and the right-wingers who fingered him and other leftists in the 50's, but he did manage to get back in the good graces after that unfortunate period in history.

And he was funny. (I say was, because he was not fortunate enough to survive to see the printing of his autobiography, having died late last year.) The stories and anecdotes here are, for the most part, laugh out loud hilarious. Only when Brecher gets on his soap box about politics does it bog down, but that is rare in this book.

I rate it 7 stars.


You Must Remember This: The Warner Brothers Story by Richard Schichel and George Perry

I never really knew so many classic movies were from Warner Brothers. This coffee table book takes you down through the years from the early beginnings of Jack Warner and siblings right up to modern day. Filled with movie stills from such classics as the Al Jolson first "talkie" The Jazz Singer, Casablanca, Rebel Without A Cause, and Batman, among numerous others, it also has plenty of behind-the scenes shots of stars on the sets of those movies, and many classic movie posters.

The writing is OK, although I did notice a few errors that should have been caught before the book went to press. Notably, one of the sections claims that Bette Davis won the Oscar for her performance when actually the winner was Judy Holliday for a different movie. But like I always say, I don't actually read coffee table books for the witty and inspired writing. I get them for the pictures. And this one is well worth the look for that part.

6 stars for the writing; 8 stars for the photography. Enjoy!


The Stand by Stephen King

In 1978, Stephen King first published The Stand, clocking in at some 800 pages. Some 13 years later, he re-released the book, "complete and uncut", with what was said to be material left on the editing room floor to comply with his editor's suggestion that a novelist who only had a couple of novels under his belt (at that time) would be ill-advised to have an 1100 page novel released.

I read the original published version of The Stand in 1984, while working as a security guard, with a lot of time on my hands between my rounds. I was impressed with it then, but not being the big Stephen King fan that make up the majority of his following, I saw no need to rehash the story again when the unabridged version came out in 1991.

However, while discussing the filmed version one day last week, I was informed of several things that intrigued me by a friend who was working from a reminiscence of the longer version. So I set out to re-read the book, something I usually never do. I have to say, I was impressed by it. As the author states in the introduction, if you read it before, you won't find the characters behaving differently, but you will find them doing a lot more things.

I found that I really liked the expansion of some of the sub-characters, going into a little more detail with how some of them arrived to their final destinations, be it Boulder, Colorado or Las Vegas, Nevada.

For those of you who have never heard of the book or seen the TV movie, here is the briefest of synopses. The government is working on a super-virus in a restricted area of the U.S. The virus gets leaked into a controlled area, but the base is immediately shut down as to prevent it from speading. Unfortunately one security guard does manage to get out.

This one security guard manages to spread this extremely communicable disease to others and like that commercial from days gone by, they spread it to friends and those freinds spread it to more friends until there is aultimately about a 99% death rate among the population. For some reason, the remaining 1% are immune, and begin having strange dreams about a dark man and an old black woman. These are the two marshalling forces that bring about a good vs. evil battle to which the finale is ultimately drawn.

I think I would have rated the original a 10 if I had been doing this blog back then. As it is I am giving this expanded version 8½ stars.


Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney

This is the classic story on which, so far, three theatrical movie versions have been based. It is more closely aligned with the 1956 version which stayed true to the novel and based it in the small town of Mill Valley. (Ed. note: There actually is a town in southern California called Mill Valley, although the descriptions of the town cannot be verified by me, since I live some 2000 miles away.)

The hero of the story is Dr. Miles Bunnel, a small town doctor who knows most of his patients rather well, as is typical of Hollywood 50's portrayals. Several of his patients have started to believe that some of their family members are not the people they seem to be, s if imposters have taken over. But ne by one, they gradually come back and say they were wrong, they had experienced a brief delusion, but now are certain that the people are who they are supposed to be.

The novel was pretty much paralleled by the 1956 screenplay, at least by my vague memory of the last time I watched it. Nevertheless, it does catch your attention rather marvelously, as is to be expected. I found Finney, long before I knew of his connection to the movie, with an old novel I pulled out of a library book sale called Time and Again, and it was reading that that lead me to other books.

The version that I got here was another audiobook, since the local library didn't have a print version. The reader was one George Wilson, who did an above par job of reading it, although I generally prefer to read them for myself. However, beggars can't be choosers.

I rate the story iotself 8 stars and Wilson's reading is great too.


A Slobbering Love Affair: The True (and Pathetic) Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media by Bernard Goldberg

The self-proclaimed champion againt the left-wing bias in the media has come out with a new book, detailing the overt way the media seemed to be in the Obama camp the entire time of the Presidential race. Earth-shattering news, if you have been in a cloistered commune for the past 2 years, but hardly unknown otherwise. The point is, Goldberg, like his compatriots in the right-wing camp, have always been bemoaning the left-wing bias of the media. Will it do any good? I sincerely doubt it.

The usual cast of aspersions here is typical; Jeremiah Wright, bad American and even worse preacher, how could Obama sit in his church and NOT hear his views. (I interject here that I have sat through entire sermons and not heard a word that was said, but I have ADHD.) William Ayers, bad American and how could Obama even touch the same doorknob that Ayers touched 30 years ago. And then of course, the outright ridicule of Sarah Palin, while nothing was said about the incompetence of Joe Biden, who let's face it, makes Dan Quayle look a little less scatter-brained.

While he does make some good points, if you have read any other conservative authors or heard any commentary from Limbaugh and Hannity, nothing is new here. Except for the revealing fact that Goldberg is an elitist, since he thinks "guys working the overnight shift at 7-11...are more introspective" than a lot of journalists, and that "[t]here's a better chance they will understand the dire implications, for journalism and the American people, than these clueless wonders".
Which not only reveals his low opinion of journalists, but by comparing them to that other group, reveals his low opinion of the 7-11 employees, too.

5½ stars.


Odd Jobs by Nancy Rica Schiff

You think your job is hard? How would you like to be a semen collector? Or a hairdresser for corpses? Or an underarm niffer, as the front cover depicts? These are just some of the jobs described herein.

Once again, the writing in these coffee table books are only secondary to the photography, and this one is no exception. You don't read coffee table books, you look at the pictures, and then if interested, scan the descriptions.

I'm willing to bet that you did't know half these jobs existed, and even more, I imagine you are probably going to be glad it is somebody else doing it for quite a few of them. Still, all in all, it is neat to look at and discover these jobs.

rating it 6 stars

The Pessimist's Handbook: A Guide to Despair and The Optimist's Handbook: A Guide to Hope by Niall Edworthy and Petra Cramsie

I originally picked this book up because it was displayed at the library with the back cover up. The Pessimist's Handbook is printed upside down at the back of the book. You get both in one volume. I thought, how neat, a book designed for someone like me. (I am the pessimist's pessimist. Pessimism means never having to say you're disappointed.)

Essentially, what I found, is an entertaining collection of quotes on a variety of subjects. And on the opposite side is a collection of optistically flavored quotes on the same subjects. The subjects range over the spectrum, from Advice to Boredom to Smoking (you can be optimistic about smoking?) and about 2 dozen others.

It's not high class literature, just a quick breezy jaunt into some of the best quotes out there from people dating back to ancient Rome up to the near present. Only good as a reference book, but still not entirely bad.

I give it 6 stars.


The Timekeeper Conspiracy by Simon Hawke

Most of the details involving how this series started were covered in the review of the first book, The Ivanhoe Gambit. Since I don't want to rehash the setup every time, I have reclassified a special listing for these books. If you click on "Time Wars series" on the right side of this web page, you will see the entire list of books I have reviwed to date.

The second book in the "Time Wars" series, The Timekeeper Conspiracy involves a renegade terrorist group out to destroy the war machine. The Timekeepers have a goal to create disturbances that will force the entity governing time stasis to exert a lot of manpower to prevent time splits, thus forcing them to eventually quit using time travel altogether.

The second book takes place in 17th Paris, and as with the previous book, many of the characters are "real" historical figures whom we readers always thought were just fictional. To wit. the time Commandos interact with the characters from The Three Musketeers here. i.e. Athos, Porthos, Aramis, D'Artagnan. And a new, yet familiar ally, comes into the fight. Andre de la Croix, the French woman posing as a male knight, has come to 17th century Paris with a deserter from the Time army.

The renegade Timekeepers are led by a maniacal Adrian Taylor, whom at the start of this novel, has just had himself transgendered to look like Milady de Winter, another important character from the Dumas novel. More and more however, the man Taylor becomes overtaken by the pesonality of the character he has taken and becomes more demented.

The Time Commandos, as they are called from this novel on, have their hands full, not only dealing with the terrorist group, but also with a CIA-like group (conveniently called the TIA here) who seems determined not to let them have all the information they need to complete their mission.

I rate this one 7 stars.


90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper

This book might be easily tapped as a companion piece to Bill Weise's 23 Minutes in Hell, which I reviewed last year. My review of "23 Minutes"

Once again, you are expected to believe a premise of going to the supernatural realm before life is over. This time however, that the author, a practicing pastor in a Texas church, actually did "die" in an automobile accident and reached the gates of Heaven. The author, or more or less his body at that time, had been declared technically dead by onscene medics, when a fellow man of the cloth supposedly received word from God that he should lay hands and pray for the "dead" man.

This ensued with the miracle of the "dead" man coming back to life. I'm sorry, but only one person has ever been dead and come back to life, pastor. All others may have been technically "dead", but as we see every day, there is much we do not know about the way the world works, or even the science of such things.

Outside of the tale of his trip to "heaven", we have the story of his recovery. (He was pretty much a bed case for a long time due to his injuries.) Then we have the struggle like in "23 Minutes" of the author trying to get people to accept his story. I don't know why I bother with these more fantastical stories, insteadof just reading how to live the right kind of life. I'm always disappointed and skeptical.

Give this one 5 stars.


Reduced Shakespeare by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor

An irreverent look at Shakespeare by the founders of the Reduced Shakespeare Theater Company, this is quite funny as well as quite informative. The life of Shakespeare is boring if you read what your teachers give you to read. But here, its not only interesting, but entertaining.

And Cliff Notes has nothing on brevity for the bard's plays that these guys do. Hamlet: Poop or get of the pot. There's a section on the sonnets which even entertained me, and I usually skip the chapter(s) on the sonnets in most of the Shakespeare books I've read.

And last, but definitely not least, the authors recommend film versions for most of the plays, including a few that are not the plays themselves but based on one of them.

I give it 7½ stars


Stalking the Unicorn & Stalking the Vampire by Mike Resnick

Mike Resnick is a guy who I will always think of as an editor first, because that is where I first encountered his name; as the editor of collections of stories in a themed series of books of alternate history. (Alternate Presidents, Alternate Warriors, Alternate Kennedys, etc. But Resnick is also an author, and was well before his days as an editor if I read his biography correctly.

The man as an incredibly biting sense of humor. It was his Adventures, starring a character named Lucifer Jones, that I found out how engaging a writer he could be. But I lost track of his work over the past decade since reading that, and didn't even know about the first book in the John Justin Mallory series until my library got it and the newer one this year.

Stalking the Unicorn was actually first published in 1988, so Resnick waited 20 years before writing a sequel, and a third one is in the works to be released sometime later this year according to his website. Be that as it may, 20 years is not the amount of time that passes between the two in the context of the story, so you won't encounter a doodering old detective in the sequel, thank God.

In the first book, Mallory is just beginning to celebrate New year's Eve alone in his office in Manhattan. Just as he starts in on a bottle, an elf shows up to ask for his help in locating a unicorn that was stolen from him. Thinking the elf is a hallucination, he dimisses the thing, but the elf persists, so Mallory ends up taking the case.

Much to the detective's surprise, an alternate Manhattan exist on the same plane as the real Manhattan, only one where all the fairy tale creatures are real; unicorns, elves, trolls, goblins and the like. Along the way, Mallory picks up a few followers who add comic humor and sometimes genuine help in his search for the unicorn. The funniest of these is Felina a cat-woman, who is constantly hungry.

He also encounters his nemesis for the novel, the Grundy, a demon who seems to be as interested in the unicorn as he is. What happens next is what makes the story great, but i won't reveal the twist here. you'll have to read it to find out.

Stalking the Vampire picks up a couple of years after the story ends in Stalking the Unicorn. In the interim, Mallory has picked up a partner in his detective office, Winnifred Carruthers. It's All Hallow's Eve, the biggest event of the year for the fairy tale Manhattan. At the start of the story, Carruthers' nephew, Robert Newton, has come for a visit from Europe.

Somehow he is not very healthy and it is determined that he has been bitten by a vampire. Several times, in fact, an obviously on the boat trip from Europe. Fortunately he is not entirely converted to vampirism. unfortunately, however, someone kills him.

Mallory and Carruthers are on the case. Seeking out this European vampire becomes and adventure, taking Mallory all over the place trying to find him. Again, as with the first, he picks up several helpful (and not-so-helpful) characters along the way before his final encounter.

I liked both books, but I have a partiality to the first one simply because of the introduction to a rational human from this world into that alternate reality.

Rate Stalking the Unicorn 8 stars.
Rate Stalking the Vampire 7½ stars.


The Shack by Wm. Paul Young

This book was passed on to me from my mother, who had it passed on to her from her hairdresser. Apparently a whole hell of a lot of people are doing the same thing, because it is a fairly popular book. Why, I can't for the life of me understand.

The basic premise of the book, stated in the beginning by the author, is that a friend of his lost his youngest daughter to a child molester/killer on a weekend camping exhibition, and had totally blamed himself for the event. Four years after the fact, he receives a note, purportedly from God, asking him to spend the weekend with Him at the shack where the evidence showed his little girl had been murdered.

The book starts out interesting enough, with some background leading up to the death of his daughter, but by the time it gets to the meat of the story, my interest was rapidly replaced with disbelief, boredom, and sometimes, even outrage. I don't mean to say I couldn't accept this fictional meeting with God. (And fiction is what it is, by the way, despite the author's attempt to set it up as having really happened). What I had problems with is that this isn't the God that the Bible portrays. [Note: from here on I refuse to capitalize "god" "jesus" or "the holy spirit" intentionally, because I do not accept these characters as the Christian Trinity.]

I can't say for sure who this "god" is, although a google search for the name he gives the "holy spirit" character, Sarayu, gave me a connection to Indian theology, so maybe its a Hindu religion. Young does stick with the idea that the three characters of "god", "jesus" and "the holy spirit" are individual, but at the same time, one being, but that effort crashes and burns as he reveals characteristics about the "trinity" that one would fail to find in years of intense scrutiny of the Bible.

As far as the boredom, well, the book just drags on shortly after the main character, Mack, shows up at the shack. Most of the effort is spent in trying to justify whatever religion the author is trying to espouse. The attempt to rescue Mack from his depression is at best, mildly interesting, but it drags on for page after page.

I don't recommend this book to anyone, much less anyone who is Christian. And I will not, as the back of the book exhorts, be passing it on to others.

2 stars just to give it a rating, but don't let that influence you.


1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die by Tom Moon

Crank up your ghetto blaster and prepare to be seduced by the cacophony of rap music, or pull out the old Victrola and get ready for the sugary strings of baroque classical music. Whether you binge on hard-drive of thrash metal or you are more into the boot-scooting twang of country, there are some choices here to please you.

When one picks up a musical compendium like this, it is likely that he/she will, as I did, thumb through it briefly to find out if your favorites are listed. First crack out of the box, no Rush. Hmmm. Van Halen? Nope. Maybe a different category... How about Waylon Jennings? Not here, either.

Well, I guess Rush and Van Halen and Waylon had to be scrapped in favor of having 6 (count'em, 6) Beatles albums. Of course, there had to be the ubiquitous Sgt. Pepper's... and Abbey Road. (No list ever seems to be without them. I bet even a list of greatest country albums would manage to sneak them in somehow.) But then there are 4 more.

I do congratulate the author for not being entirely focused in favor of one genre over the rest, though. It is an eclectic mix, with samplings from, as near as I can tell, all genres of music. And I am no elitist when it comes to music, myself. I have some of these same recodings in my CD shuffler, classical, rock, jazz or what have you.

I did especially like the endcap for each entry. TMoon not only gives you the essentials, such as which tracks to especially note on the recordings, but gives you helpful suggestions such as other notable recordings by the artist, as well as Next Stop, which sends you on to similar stylings by other artists.

All in all, its a nice introduction into some styles of music you may have overlooked, as well as increasing your range of music in your favorite styles.

I give it 7 stars.


Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century by P. W. Singer

Science fiction meets the future in this book that tells of how ideas that were once only in fantastic tales of the future and movies like The Terminator are now rapidly becoming reality. Remote controlled robots like the one described at the beginning of the book are being used for what are highly hazardous missions in which the lives of human soldiers, who used to perform the tasks, are preserved.

I first heard the author in an interview on the Art Bell/George Noory late night radio show. For me, the technological episodes of that show are much more interesting than any of the psuedo-cultural ghosts and aliens that predominate it. When I heard what the show was about, I had to tune in. What I heard there was enough to spur me to read the book.

The subject matter here is the ongoing rise of the use of robotics in the war field. Drone planes that are not remotely controlled from a base in Afghanistan, but actually from a base in Nevada. Robots based on the same kind of technology as the Roomba floor sweeper performing what would otherwise be dangerous tasks for humans. And as we speak, the technology is getting even more refined.

Admittedly this is a rather large tome, and I would have preffered the author be more succinct, since it took me the better part of a month to wade through all this. But if you have a keen interest in the workings of robotics, or how they are being used today, you might want to skim through it.

I rate it 6½ stars


Heroes among Us: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Choices by john Quiñones

Do you have what it takes to be a hero? Author John Quiñones makes a case that even the weakest and most timid of us can have the potential to be a hero under the right conditions. Across the board we learn heroic tales, and not just of people who run into burning buildings and drag out helpless children. There are also tales of people who sacrifice time and money to help out those in need. these are also heroes in Quiñones' eyes.

It's not an easy book to read at times. I defy you to be able to read the whole thing without shedding a tear or two. The story of the Barrios family's efforts to help the young alleged killer of their matriarch, Viola Barrios. So is the memorial to Christa Macauliffe, the teacher who was one of the victims of the explosion of the space shuttle Discovery in 1986.

But death is not the outcome that makes people heroes throughout this book, otherwise it would be an extremely depressing book indeed. There is also the stories of two former Marines who were significant in the rescue of two victims buried under the rubble of the towers after 9/11. And one of the resue of a busload of children on a bus that happened to be in the middle of the 9340 Bridge when it collapsed in 2007.

And that too is not the only way to be a hero. Although tragedy is a central point in many of the stories, there are ones where every day people just do the right thing, such as the wealthy businessman who organized a food drive, and personally handed out sandwiches to the homeless.

Every story in here is inspiring, and makes you feel good. It might even lead you to do something heroic on your own, or at least to not ignore that homeless man next time you pass him on the street.

I give this one 9 stars.


Lost Histories by Joel Levy

What happened to the missing colony of Roanoke? Or Amelia Earhart? What and where is the Holy Grail? These and other intriguing mysteries of times past are discussed within these pages. Did Atlantis really exist, and if so, where was it? Where is this place called El Dorado, the mythical city of gold?

The author covers most of the theories in brief, discussing the possibilities of each being the correct solution, as well as presenting the evidence for each theory being mistaken. I can't say for sure whether he covers every known theory surrounding each mystery, but for the ones in which I was previously well-versed, I can vouch that he does cover all of the theories I knew.

Levy never actually commits to any one theory, although he does debunk a fewof the more outlandish theories surrounding some of the mysteries. For instance, he is convined that the wacky theory that the colony of Roanoke was a victim of alien astronaut kidnapping is not likely the solution.

The writing is interesting, if a bit dry, but for an introduction into the mysteries of disappearances and lost cities, it is a very good place to start. Guaranteed you will be able to hold forth on the subjects should hey come up in conversation,and if they don't well, you can bring them up yourself.

I rate this one 7 stars.


The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet by Neil deGrasse Tyson

The story of how one man single-handedly brought down a planet. Well, not entirely so, but it was partially due to the displays that astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson worked on at the Hayden planetarium that ended up with the reclassification of Pluto. This is mostly his story, but it also has some background story and history.

Peppered with lots of feedback, mostly from children, decrying the author's decision to not list Pluto among the bona-fide planets at the planetarium, this book is still a bit hard to take. The engaging style of the author does not detract from the fact that much of the story is not very interesting. To be sure, a devotee of astronomy won't be entirely put off by it, especially since the author makes a great case for his decision.

However, I found that it took a bit of an effort to complete the book. The collected cartoons were interesting, as were the letters from Tyson's younger debators. Still, I can only rate this one 5½ stars.


Napoleons Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped by Tony Perrottet

For your you prurient perusal, this provacative publication is presented. You thought history was boring? Not so, says Perrottet and he proceeds to disprove that theory.

Did you ever see the movie Cabaret? Let me tell you, it was Disneyesque compared to the real story of Weimar Berlin's decadence. And the French aristocrats of the 1700's were just as bad as those wacky sex-crazed emperors of Ancient Rome.

Who discovered the clitorus? Which popes exercised their papal priveleges in ways not condoned to the masses? And just how did the condom come into being? These questions and many more are answered within the confines of this book. Not for the faint-hearted, but if you have an open mind and a curiosity, then it is a book you can enjoy, as well as garner tidbits of information to bring up at parties.

I'm giving this one 8½ stars.


Maximum FF: A Visual Exegesis of Fantastic Four #1 by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Walter Mosely, & Mark Evanier

From dictionary.com: ex·e·ge·sis (ěk'sə-jē'sĭs) n. pl. ex·e·ge·ses (-sēz)
Critical explanation or analysis, especially of a text.

Just wanted to point that out. I don't know what you call this book, but I think exegesis is a pretty lofty term for what is contained within.

For one thing, most of it is just the reproduced story presented in the original Fantastic Four #1. And not very good reproduction either. Many of the frames of the comic are cut off at the top, making you have to decipher what the character in the frame is saying.

Added to this is a reminiscence by author Walter Mosely which doesn't really reveal anything except his fascination for comics stemming from an early encounter with a box of cast off comics in a mom and pop store. Not much there to interest any one except maybe a Walter Mosely fan.

Finally, about three quarters of the way through the book is a history of how Fantastic Four came about as a phenomenon. Included in the essay are the original plot line drawn up by Lee, and a reproduction of the original cover of Fantastic Four #1. What is not here is a "critical explanation or analysis, especially of a text." I guess you could call it an analysis of the history, to put a stretch on it. But the essay, reminiscence and text of the comic took all of 30 minutes out of my life, and I'd really like to have them back.

This one only gets 3 stars. If you just want the original comic book, and can't afford a collector's price, you can find it reproduced in
Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four Vol. 1.


It's Not News, It's Fark: How Mass Media Tries to Pass off Crap as News by Dan Curtis

Is Your Next-Door Neighbor A Terrorist? This headline causes people to immediately perk up and read the rest of the article. What is actually in the article is a story about an interview with one of the neighbors who, for a time, lived next door to one of the terrorist cells that attacked the World Trade Center. No need to get out your lie detector and shotgun and force your neighbor to take the test. This is just a made-up example on my part, but it epitomises fearmongering.

Fearmongering is just one the cases where non-news is reported as news , according to Drew Curtis, who is the founder of fark.com, a site devoted to pointing out ridiculous non-news stories. In this book, he points out the different ways that media spices up stories, changes headline content, or just outright invention of so-called news, all in the effort to raise ratings 9for TV news) or sell papers.

One of my favorite chapters was the one on how celebrity quotes were mangled to mean something entirely different from what they actually meant. Case in point Sharon Stone believes kids should have more oral sex. What really was said by Stone was that she tells young people that she believes oral sex is much safer than vaginal sex. Not so shocking is it? Unless you are a pude, I mean.

The interesting thing is how blatant some of these media people are to get a story out, even resorting to witnesses, who are not really witnesses at all. The chapter entitled "Equal Time for Nutjobs". Here whackjob theories are supported by interviews with whackjob "experts". And this is in turn reported as news.

Eye-opening, maybe, but definitely entrtaining, this book is for someone who is tired of all the time he or she has wasted reading an article or watching a news broadcast only to find that the story has nothing to do with the hype that preceeded it.

I give it 6½ stars


America's Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation by Kenneth C. Davis

Kenneth Davis has a style that is engaging and has kept me coming back to his books every time. I first encountered him with his Don't Know Much About... series. Any one of those would be a good starting point to read and improve your knowledge on the subjects which he writes.

This book was entirely different from the trivia style tidbits that made up the format of the Don't Know Much About... books. Instead of the brief vignettes that comprised the volume of those books, here, Davis discusses only 6 stories. And those stories only cover a period of history involving the first 200 years or so of its history.

The author, whose style I so admired from the Don't Know Much About... series, however, seems to have morphed into a less-focused writer in the interim. I found myself trying hard to stay focused, as he doesn't seem to be very focused himself. He jumps around a lot in getting to the main story, and even then, I was left a bit unclear as to what conclusions he was trying to draw.

And the title is a bit misleading to a fan of history. Actually, only one of the stories was unknown to me, so "Hidden" is not necessarily the best choice for a title (although I bet plenty of people buy the book for that title, so maybe it was a good choice after all). All-in-all, I think you would be best served to stick with the Don't Know Much About... books, and leave this one on the shelf.

I rate it 4½ stars.



I can't seem to get organized. I need help. Anybody want a job as a maid?

One of these days, I'll just sit down and write up a storm, and post about a dozen reviews in one day. That's how many books I never got around to reviewing yet, but did actually read. More coming soon, but probably not until the weekend.


Amazing Texas: Fascinating Facts, Entertaining Tales, Bizarre Happenings, and Historical Oddities about the Lonestar State by T. Jensen Lacey

Trivia books are a dime a dozen, theoretically speaking. You can find just about any subject and there will be a pop culture style book with little facts and anecdotes about it somewhere. Even truer for something like Texas, where the people of the state tend to create an enthusiasm within their oit outside the confines of the state.wn ranks, as well as oft times inspiring enthusiasm for it outside the confines of the state.

Personally my favorite to fill this niche is
Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into Texas. But I like the format and random tidbits style of all the Uncle John's books.

It would be unfair to judge this book against another. a book should be judged on it's own merits. To her credit, the author does include a lot of interesting material about the state, it's history and it's general makeup. And there are even some things here that I did not previously know. (And, believe me, I know a lot about Texas, having spent almost my entire life here.)

The problem I had with the book was not so much as the content itself, but as with a lack of interesting style. Nothing seems to reach out and grab you. Bland stating of facts is what I felt from the start. Not that you can't learn anything from the book, especially if you are a novice to things Texas. I just feel your time would be better spent seeking a different book.

I only give this one 5 stars.


Ponzi's Scheme: The True Story of a Finincial Legend by Mitchell Zuckoff

A car trip of over 5 hours can be pretty boring. That's why whenever I make the trek to visit family, I listen to the radio quite a bit. But eventually that gets pretty boring too, even without having to channel jump to keep getting a station with a clear signal.

This year, I decided to try a book on CD. After all it would make the time go by just as easily. And, as an added bonus, I could get a book "read" while driving.

My choice was Ponzi's Scheme. This being my first book on CD, and the first time in many years for audio books of any kind (back in the day, there were no CDs yet and my books were audio on cassette tapes), I didn't quite know what to expect. I found out right off, that due to CD capacity, the book was unabridged, meaning I got to hear the whole book, not just an edited down version, as was the case with the cassettes of old.

The book was read by Grover Gardner. A few words on the quality of the reading is in order. I thought the monotone delivery was a little dry. Hardly any emotion comes through on the reading. That much I remember from the old days. I imagine it is a standard in the industry, because I have never heard an audio book with much emotion in the reading.

That said, the story was quite interesting. With the exception of one chapter that was devoted to the life and politics of former Boston mayor, James Michael Curley, I thought the story went rather well. The fact that Curley does not seem to be a major player in the rest of the story was the cause for me to find this section out of place. At least with the case of Edwin and Richard Grozier, publishers of the Boston Post, there was a constant link to the story, so delving into their lives did not cause any comment.

What the story boils down to, in case you are not familiar with it, an Italian immigrant, Carlo (Charles) Ponzi, ran an illegal racket in which he claimed to be dealing in postal reply coupons, buying them in one country that had a cheap rate, and selling them for a higher value to another country. Investors were guaranteed a 50% interest on their investments, but what it really came down to was a "robbing Peter to pay Paul" scheme in which he used later investors money to pay off previous investors.

Knowing all this does not in the least take away from the enjoyment of the book, whether read by you or by the audio reader. I know, because I was fairly well knowledgeable on the subject beforehand, and still got enjoyment from it.

I rate the book 7 stars, but I rate Gardner's audio version only 5. I think you would find it more enjoyable just taking the time to read it yourself.

Shine On: 1909-2009 100 Years of Shiner by Mike Renfro

I like beer. I also like books about beer. And my favorite beer just happens to be Shiner, specifically Shiner Bock. If you are not priveleged to be living somewhere that Shiner is distributed, then you are missing out. Get thee to Texas for a vacation, so you can try it. If it is available, then for God's sake what are you waiting for?

Reading about the history of my favorite beer was without a doubt a great way to start the new year, I mean besides toasting it with a bottle at midnight New Year's Eve. This is another coffee table book, but aside from that fact, it is not just a overinflated picture book, like some of that type are. The writing is good, and intriguing enough, and the author has a genuine love for the beer and the history behind it. Not just a dry reporting, the author actually infuses the book with a passion that I have not seen in any of the other coffee table books I've read.

Of course, there's no denying that part of it is due to my passion for the same brew, but I can accept that. I give this one an unashamed to admit it, 9 stars.