Read More Books

November 27, 2009

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In case you missed it, there was a FNN news story published earlier today.  FNN stands for Fake News Network …

Happy Black Friday.  We’re delaying Fiction Friday this week, but will have a special two-part story on Saturday and Sunday.  Today, however, we make a blatant attempt to get you to buy more stuff.

Yep, it’s your conscience telling you to read more often!  In the spirit of the Thanksgiving season, one thing that I am thankful for is the written works of my favorite authors.  How different my life would be without the pleasure of reading.  Winter is a great time to catch up on reading, since the weather sucks.

You’re looking for suggestions on some good books to read?  Well, you’ve come to the right place.  I’ll not only recommend some books to read, I’ll recommend a baker’s dozen of my favorite authors.  (Note: all of the links are Amazon affiliate links – which means I will get a small commission if you buy something.)

Yes, the authors are listed in order of preference.  You might noticed that there are no women on the list.  Fear not, I do not exclude female authors from my reading list.  Patricia Cornwell and Sue Grafton would probably be #14 and #15, but I had to stop somewhere.  There is a decent dropoff between this group of 13 and the next dozen authors that I follow, so I stopped at #13.

1. Lawrence Block – Lawrence Block is my hero. That’s really what it boils down to. From the moment I read his first book, he has ranked among my favorite authors. I particularly enjoy the comedic Burglar series and the hard boiled Scudder books. I profiled Block several months ago, so I won’t rehash the details.

2. Michael Crichton – Michael Crichton left us far too soon. Crichton is best known for Jurassic Park and the television show ER, but there are plenty of treasures amongst his works – Timeline, Sphere, Congo, Prey – the list goes on.

3. Jeffery Deaver – I was introduced to Jeffery Deaver by the movie The Bone Collector. You might not know this, by Deaver has an entire series of books related to Lincoln Rhyme (the character played by Denzel Washington).

4. Dan Brown – I have devoted quite a bit of digital ink to Dan Brown, reviewing The Lost Symbol, as well as his other works. Whether you like him or not, he tells an interesting tale.

5. John Sandford – There a local connection to John Sandford. Sandford is the pen name of Pulitzer prize winning writer John Camp, who hails from Cedar Rapids, Iowa originally. Sandford’s fictional detective Lucas Davenport works in various capacities for the Minneapolis police or the state of Minnesota over the course of the “Prey” novels. Davenport is well off financially because of a software company he owned, which is a cool twist. One of Davenport’s friends is Dell Capslock … whose name was taken off a computer keyboard.

6. William X. Kienzle – Kienzle is himself a former priest, and he writes about a priest (Father Koesler) who solves crimes. The books delve a bit into the inner workings of the church as well as some theology, but in a non-preaching way. As a Catholic myself, I find this background information interesting. Note: I’m linking to the search results for him instead of the main author page, because the author page is missing the vast majority of his books!

7. John Grisham – I’ve fallen toward the outer edge of the Grisham bandwagon in recent years, as he has started to write fewer legal thrillers and more books of other types. When he does publish a new lawyer book, I’m always first in line. The master hasn’t lost his touch; he simply decided to go some new directions.

8. Michael Connelly – I never really intended to become a big fan of Connelly. I’d just read the occasional book here and there. One day, I glanced at the list of his books and realized that i had really nearly 20 of his books! In addition to the Harry Bosch detective novels, Connelly is the author of Blood Work, which was turned into a Clint Eastwood film..

9. Nelson Demille – One of my favorite books of all time is The Lion’s Game. Most of DeMille’s books deal with international incidents and/or the military. In addition to The Lion’s Game, I strongly recommend Up Country, Charm School, and The General’s Daughter (which was turned into a movie starring John Travolta).

10. Douglas Preston and 11. Lincoln Child – it’s unusual enough to see a successful writing duo, much less one whose members also achieve success as solo authors. Together, they write books about FBI agent Pendergast. Among their solo efforts, I recommend Preston’s The Codex and Child’s UtopiaThe Codex reminds me a bit of Grisham’s The Testament.

12. Ed McBain – McBain is our lens into the inner workings of a police department –   in this case, the 87th precinct in New York City. Detective Steve Carella stars as the good guy in the series, but there are some negative cop characters, too – most notable, Fat Ollie Weeks from the neighboring 88th precinct.

13. John D. MacDonald – MacDonald’s hero, Travis McGee, takes his retirement in installments, rather than waiting until he is older. McGee lives on a houseboat (The Busted Flush, which he won in a poker game) and helps friends out of trouble every once in a while.

Review of The Lost Symbol

November 9, 2009

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At long last, I finally finished The Lost Symbol on Sunday night.  Instead of the ten days I had alloted for it, it took nearly two months to finally finish the book.  Much of the blame for the delay falls squarely upon the amount of time consumed by writing The Cell Window.

So, what did I think?

Overall Observations:

First of all, the book is long.  It is slightly more than 500 pages.  I personally see this as a positive.  I enjoy reading (when I get the time) and if the book is good, why not extend the pleasure?

When I first heard that the book would be set in Washington, DC (rather than flitting from one locale to the next) I feared that it would turn into something like National Treasure.  Mind you, I enjoyed National Treasure,  but I consider Brown’s works to be a step above it.  Both are good, but picking up a Brown novel and finding National Treasure inside would be like ordering a ribeye steak and having the waiter bring a sirloin.  You’d still enjoy the meal, but it would be missing a certain je ne sais quois.  Happily, this was not the case.

I’ve seen the book get panned by a few people.  I don’t full understood why someone would react adversely to it.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it to be in line with Brown’s other works.  The only thing that makes sense is if a person was a fan of The Da Vinci Code and not of Brown’s others work.  [Note: see my author profile of Brown for information about his other novels.]

Plot:

It’s definitely a fascinating tale.  I don’t want to spoil the plot for those who haven’t read it, but the book packs quite a bit of action and quite a few interesting locations into the plot, considering that all of the action is contain within Washington, D.C.  We also get some interesting back stories into the lives of some of the principal characters.  And, once again, Robert Langdon is romantically linked to a female character.  Come on, Langdon, settle down!

Characters:

I’m of fan of the character of Langdon.  The fact that he wears a Mickey Mouse watch as a way to make sure he never takes himself too seriously coincides quite nicely with the fact that I have stuffed versions of Pooh and Eeyore in my cubicle (as well as a small menagerie of stuffed animals) for much the same reason.

The antagonist in the book is also very well developed.  It takes a brilliantly warped mind to develop the sorts of antagonists that find their way into Brown’s novels.

There are quite a few other fairly well developed characters in the book.  Quite a few of them are rather exceptional individuals.  Brown captured their essence well enough that I can imagine them quite well in my mind.

Moral / Philosophy / Controversy:

Many of Brown’s books contain a moral and/or philosophical thoughts.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that a major facet of the moral in The Lost Symbol is a philosophy that I have been advocating for several years.  I don’t think the messages within The Lost Symbol will be as controversial as those within The Da Vinci Code, but hopefully it will make people stop and think.

The Masons and masonic traditions and rituals are prominently featured in the book.  They are generally portrayed in a positive manner.

Closing thoughts:

This book initially had the working title The Solomon Key.  It quickly became apparent why – it is the surname of key characters in the plot.  I think I would have preferred for the book to keep that name.

I nailed a couple of the surprises at the end of the book.  I figured out the “mysterious location” quite early.

Buy it!

If you plan to buy the book, please considering buying it (and the other Dan Brown books) though the links below.  If you do, I’ll get a small referral bonus from Amazon.  Your price will be the same as if you entered through Amazon’s main site.

The Lost Symbol

Da Vinci Code

Angels & Demons

Deception Point

Digital Fortress

Initial Reactions to The Lost Symbol

September 16, 2009

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I know what you’re thinking.

“Kosmo – The Lost Symbol has been out for more than a day.  Where’s the review?”

I do indeed have my copy of the book.  I have not yet had the opportunity to read it.  Yesterday was spent getting Direct TV installed, and the next few days will probably be spent in a Direct TV induced coma.  I don’t typically watch much TV at all, but the availability of baseball will be very tempting.  (More on Direct TV in a later article).  However, I plan to finish the book in the next ten days or so, and will publish a review when I’m done.

I do, however, have some initial reactions.

  • The book smells really good.  The trees used for the paper were clearly harvested at precisely the correct time.
  • When picking up the book, remember to lift with your legs, not your back.  It’s fairly hefty – 509 pages.
  • The cover is très chic

Interested in other books by Dan Brown?  Read my author profile (written back in May)

On an unrelated note … I am taking suggestions for Fiction Friday articles.  If you have an idea that you would like to see turned into a short story, let me know (leave a comment below).  While I am perfectly content to keep coming up with my own ideas, I’m also open to the writing about things that are outside of my typical comfort zone.  The ideas can be just a few words, such as “dinosaurs“, “lesbian wedding“, or “attacked by a shark“.  (Note: the links point to stories I have written on those topics).

I can’t guarantee that I will have the time (or interest) to turn every idea into a story, but I will make an effort to use a bunch of the ideas.

A Salty Piece of Land

August 29, 2009

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I bought this book off a discount table for $4. I had my doubts that Jimmy Buffett could write a decent novel, so I pushed it to the side. Months later, I stumbled across the abridged audio book for $1 and took the plunge. Now that I owned the work in two different formats and had invested a grand total of $5, I really had to make an effort to read (or listen) to it. So I popped the first tape into the player, and off we went!

I quickly realized that I was a fool to doubt Buffett. After all, Buffet tells great stories in his songs, most of which he writes himself. Is this really much different than writing a novel?

Having said this, the book doesn’t quite fit the mold of a traditional novel. You could easily chop the book into several novellas that would stand on their own with minimal ties to the other parts.

The central character is Tully Mars. Tully began his journey in Montana before he was forced to flee from the injustice of bogus criminal charges. At points in the book, he ends up in Alabama, Florida, Mexico, Cuba, and Belize (come on, go grab a map and find it). The core theme of the book is Tully’s effort to help centegenarian Cleopatra Highbourne find a rare fresnel lens for the lighthouse on Cayo Loco. Caya Loco is the “Salty Piece of Land” referred to in the title.

During the course of the book, we are treated to rather length flashbacks of recent (and not so recent) events in Tully’s life. Tully really would like to settle down, but the bounty hunters that his former employer sent after him make it difficult to stay in one spot very long. Tully eventually ends up as a fishing guide at a fishing lodge in Mexico, where he does manage a bit of a respite before being forced to move on once again, this time to the lighthouse on Cayo Loco, where he works to restore the lighthouse to its former glory, while also coordinating an effort to find the rare fresnel lens.

While Tully is the narrator of the book, many other characters have significant roles. The aptly named musician Willie Singer tells his own adventures to Tully in the long letters he sends. Willie is attempting to circumnavigate the globe in an old sea plane, while also attempting to locate a fresnel lens for Tully and Cleopatra. Singer is welcomed in some interesting ways on his stops – including being welcomed as the second coming of a mythical US Navy pilot who had crash landed at the same place decades ago.

Then, of course, there is Cleopatra Highbourne, the 101 year old caption of the schooner Lucretia. While Cleopatra is completely consumed by her goal of restoring the Cayo Loco lighthouse to its former glory – complete with the elusive fresnel lens – so that it can serve as her final resting place, she also regales Tully with the story of her life. Even at her advanced age, Cleopatra spends much of her time sailing on the Lucretia. She is no figurehead captain, but is the unquestioned authority on board the schooner.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. If you like lighthouses, fishing, airplanes, or simply enjoy a good tale, you might enjoy this book. My only regret is that I listened to the abridged edition – now I’ll have to read the unabridged version in order to avoid missing any good parts.

A Salty Piece of Land (book)

Dinosaurs

July 23, 2009

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Like most kids, I was fascinated by dinosaurs when I first learned about them. Unlike most kids, I never really lost the fascination. An entire family of beasts that science could tell us very little about! This left huge gaps for my eager young imagination to fill. In hindsight, this was a foreshadowing of what would become a persistent interest in the unknown. My favorite books have always been mysteries, dating back to Encyclopedia Brown and The Boxcar Children until my modern day fanhood of Lawrence Block and John Sandford. My favorite TV shows – by a wide margin – are Monk and Pysch. My favorite type of math? Algebra – I always enjoy solving for the “unknown.”

I read nearly everything I could about dinosaurs when I was a kid. For the parents out there – if your kids have a fascination with some subject, encourage it. A desire to learn more about a specific topic can bleed over into a general desire to learn. My early fascination with sports and dinosaurs encouraged me to read. The desire to read also helped improve my reading comprehension and made me a better student.

Here are some of the more interesting dinosaur books I have read:

  • In the 1990s, I was exposed to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. The thought that we could manufacture living, breathing dinosaurs was very appealing to me – after all, who wouldn’t love to have a pet dinosaur in their back yard? It worked out OK for The Flintstones. I have read Jurassic Park and Lost Word multiple times, and have watched all three of the movies. Interestingly, Jurassic Park was my gateway novel to the world of Michael Crichton. Over the past few years, I have read a lot of his books.
  • I nabbed a copy of Eric Garcia’s Anonymous Rex mostly because there is a dinosaur on the cover (well, a dinosaur tail, anyway). (Hint to book publishers – put a dinosaur on the cover of a book and I can guarantee that I’ll at least give it a glance). Anonymous Rex is one of those books that you will either love or hate. You will think that it is the dumbest book you have ever read, or you will find it incredibly funny. The premise is that dinosaurs never died out, and are in fact living among us. They wear disguises, of course – the finest latest human suits that money can buy. Garcia subsequently published Casual Rex (a prequel) and Hot and Sweaty Rex. I haven’t had a chance to read them yet, but I enjoyed Anonymous Rex enough that the other Rex books are definitely on my reading list.
  • A recent find was a nifty little pocket reference guide from the Pockets of Knowledge series (published by DK Pockets), aptly titled Dinosaurs. I got a good deal on these and actually snapped up all the copies the store had. The book’s dimensions are small, but it’s really a pretty handy reference guide. Some of the book’s features include: a dinosaur classification chart, a list of major discoverers, dinosaur anatomy, information about the vareity of fossils found on each continent, and much more. It’s far from a comprehensive reference guide, but it packs a lot of information for a book that actually will fit in the back pocket of your jeans.

If you’re interested in these books, there are a couple of ways to obtain them. You can, of course, BUY them. If you choose to buy them, I hope you consider using the Amazon widget on the right side of the screen. When you buy by clicking on one of those links, I receive a commission on the sale – at no additional cost to you (the commission comes out of Amazon’s profits). Psst – Jurassic Park Adventure Pack is a steal – $15 for all three movies on DVD!

What’s the other way? Watch later in the day for a giveaway that will allow you to win Anonymous Rex or the Pockets of Knowledge Dinosaur book!


Anonymous Rex

DK Pockets – Dinosaurs

Jurassic Park – Book

Jurassic Park
DVD combo pack
All 3 movies!

Review: The Mind of Bill James

June 18, 2009

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The Mind of Bill James: How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball by Scott Gray

A few chapters into this book, I noticed that I was a bit disappointed. I quickly realized the problem – as a big fan of Bill James, I had simply built up too much internal hype. Additionally, I probably had more familiarity with the life of Bill James than the typical reader. I took a step back and took a slightly different approach when reading the rest of the book – and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Many of you are probably clueless as to who the heck Bill James is. Bill James is the father of sabermetrics. There you go – you have your answer.

OK, OK. Let’s go a bit deeper into Bill James and sabermetrics.

The story really begins with the history of how baseball teams evaluate talent. For decades, scouts (using the “eyeball test” for a decent portion of their analysis) have been a cornerstone of talent evaluation, aided by historical stats such as batting average (for hitters) and earned run average (for pitchers).

While working as a security guard at the Stokely Van Camp plant (guarding the Pork ‘n Beans) James began writing a series of essays that took a closer look at various aspects of baseball. Sometimes James would take viewpoints that were contrary to prevailing theories; other times he would focus on things that simply hadn’t been studied in any great detail before. James sold a few copies of his first book. Writer Daniel Okrent read a copy and helped push James toward the mainstream. Today, many in the baseball establishment bristle at his name, but James has a large legion of followers. Other writers have followed in his footsteps, and today sabermetrics is well respected in many baseball clubhouses.

James’ analysis exposed some of the traditional statistics as being poor judges of a player’s talent, or of the player’s value to the team. Fielding percentage had long been used to determine the defensive value of a player. However, a player’s range can be considerably more important, as a player with good range can take away a lot of hits – and hit minimization is the true defensive goal in baseball. James also showed that, many times, a player who steals a lot of bases can be counter-productive – if he gets caught a lot.

James also point out the importance on context with statistics. A ballpark can have a considerable impact on a player’s statistics. James also developed major league equivalent, a formula for taking a minor league player’s statistics, adjusting for park factors and level of competition, and determining what the player could have accomplished in the major leagues.

One of the more interesting concepts of James’ work is the “relief ace”. It is his belief than many teams make inefficient use of their best relief pitcher by using him to close out games in the 9th innings. James would prefer that teams use their best reliever (which he refers to as a “relief ace”) a bit earlier, in a critical point in the game. He notes that each run saved in a tie game has eight times the impact of a run saved in a game with a three run game. In spite of this, many teams keep their closer on the bench in the 7th inning of a tie game, but bring him into the 9th inning of the next game with a three run lead in order to close the game. The relief ace concept makes a lot of sense to me – but it doesn’t seem to be taking hold in Major League Baseball.

This book tells us more about Bill James – showing us the living, breathing human being behind the formulae – with anecdotes from family life, college, the army (as a college educated dog handler), and the Stokely plant. Interestingly, it also shows us that James isn’t a guy who believes that numbers are the complete solution. Instead, the gist of his philosophy seem to be in keeping an open mind to new ideas, as well as taking a fresh look at old ideas to determine if they are still relevant today (if, indeed, they were ever relevant).

The appendix has some of James’ research (scratching the surface a bit), and Gray mentions several of James’ books during the course of this book. This book won’t make you an expert sabermetrician, but it will give you a good understanding of the origins of sabermetrics. The book is essentially one part Bill James biography and one part sabermetrics primer. The book has a good flow and is an easy read.


Scott Gray
The Mind of Bill James

Dan Brown profile

May 14, 2009

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Dan Brown’s first foray into the world of entertainment was as a singer and songwriter. He released two CDs before turning his attention to writing – a very wise decision. His fourth novel made him a literary rock star. Perhaps you have heard of it – The Da Vinci Code.

There is some great news regarding Brown. His fifth novel, The Lost Symbol (formerly referred to as The Solomon Key) will hit shelves on September 15! Pre-orders are being taken on several sites, and I’ll be pre-ordering my own copy very soon. As is his nature, Brown is being secretive about much of the plot. It will feature cryptologist Robert Langdon and will be set in Washington, D.C. The jacket of The Da Vinci code holds clues to the plot.

Oh, yes. The other news. The movie Angels and Demons, based on the novel of the same name, will be in theaters on Friday. I doubt that it will come close to the success of Da Vinci Code, but spillover popularity should still turn it into a very successful film.

I’m a big fan of Brown’s work. Let’s do a mini-review of his previous novels.

Digital Fortress, 1998. Digital Fortress focuses very heavily on cryptography. A rebellious, genius programmer develops an uncrackable encryption algorithm and offers to auction it off to the highest bidder. This could be a huge problem for the United State government, which has just finished work on TRANSLTR, a computer capable of cracking any encryption algorithm known to man. It is imperative that the code not fall into the wrong hands. Unfortunately, the programmer dies – bringing into play the threat that his partner would publicly release the code if he should die. He is not the only person to die in a high stakes battle to control the code. Opinion: a reasonable understanding of computers makes the book more enjoyable, but it isn’t mandatory. There is a lot of action in the book that is unrelated to the technical issues.

Angels and Demons, 2000. Angels and Demons introduces us to world renowned cryptologist Robert Langdon. A dangerous weapon – a canister of anti-matter – is stolen from CERN and a scientist is murdered. The symbol of the mysterious Illuminati group – a group though to have died out long ago – is left branded on the chest of the victim. The head of the lab calls in Langdon to try to track down the missing canister. Langdon reaches the conclusion that the missing canister is connected to the election of a new pope. As Langdon races against the clock to find the canister, leading papal candidates begin turning up dead. Opinion: this is the prequel to Da Vinci Code, and is a pretty good book in its own right. It might come up a bit short of Da Vinci Code in some respects, but it does take readers on a nice tour of Rome.

Deception Point , 2001. Deception Point takes place in the arctic, where Rachel Sexton is sent to join a team that will analyze a meteorite. Evidence of life is contained with the meteorite – possible proof of extraterrestrial life. But Rachel soon realizes that things aren’t quite what they seem – and very soon, her life is in danger. Opinion: an interesting story with a good mix of science and politics.

The Da Vinci Code, 2003. Robert Langdon is once again awakened in the middle of the night to be informed of a grisly death, this time at the Louvre. A beautiful police cryptologist (Sophie) secretly informs Langdon that the police are not merely using him as a consultant in the case, but that he is the prime suspect. Langdon and Sophie make a tricky exit from the Louvre and elude the police. They combine forces in an attempt to solve the murder. As they put more pieces together, more complex puzzles appear. They eventually discover a truth that could rock Christianity to its core. Opinion: This is a great book, with clever ciphers and lots of twists and turns. It is, of course, a work of fiction. As a Catholic, I believe that the Catholic Church contributed to the success of the book and movie by attacking the book. Had they simply ignored the book – as they ignore many books that contain content related to the church – much of the furor could have been avoided.

The Lost Symbol

Da Vinci Code

Angels & Demons

Deception Point

Digital Fortress

Book review: The Lion’s Game

March 17, 2009

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The Lion’s Game
by Nelson DeMille

John Corey, former NYPD detective and current member of the anti-terrorist task force (ATTF) has a rather straightforward task to complete on April 15th. He and his team are to take custody of a terrorist who has turned himself in and transfer the terrorist from LaGuardia airport to a federal facility in New York City. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty can go wrong, of course. The terrorist, a Libyan named Asad Kahlil, makes quite a splash immediately upon arrival in he United States. Khalil quickly escapes and begins work toward his real mission – a mission that has been many years in the planning. John Corey and his team are a few steps behind Kahlil, and a great cat and mouse game begins. The lion begins to stalk his prey – and the prey have no idea they are being hunted until the very last moment.

The book moves back and forth between the viewpoints of John Corey and Asad Khalil, and also has flashbacks to Khalil’s adolescence. This allows DeMille an opportunity to let the reader inside the head of Khalil. We are able to understand why Kahlil acts the way he does – how his past and his country’s culture have shaped him as a man. We also get the opportunity to see how a major terrorist campaign is planned and carried out. Asad Khalil has revenge on his mind, and he has brought death to the “land of the infidels”.

John Corey and his sidekick, Kate Mayfield, are worthy adversaries for Khalil. Corey is a brilliant detective, but he rubs a lot of people the wrong way. He has some big problems with authority figures and also has a tendency to tell jokes that offend certain ethnic, religious, and gender groups. He has a tendency to operate outside the rules from time to time. Subtlety is not his stock in trade. These are some of the reasons why he is former NYPD, rather than active NYPD. Kate Mayfield, on the other hand, is the shining example of a by-the-books FBI agent. She, too, is a brilliant investigator, but she stays within the rules.

The synergy created by their partnership aids them greatly in working the case. They are a step behind Khalil out of the gate and have to play catch-up. However, they manage to muddle their way through bureaucratic red tape (and some folks who seem to be playing for a different team) and eventually figure out what Kahlil is up to and aggressively give chase in the latter portion of he book, culminating in a final, dramatic showdown.

* * *

I first encountered this book when I stumbled across the audio version in Barnes and Noble. I was about to take off on a solo trip from Illinois to New York State. The audio version of the book appealed to me for two main reasons. It was bargain priced, and it was 25 hours long. The book captivated me for the entire 25 hours.

Since that initial listening, I have listened to the audio version at least two more times, I have read the book twice, and I have listened to the abridged edition of the audio book. I don’t make a habit of overdosing on one particular book, so I obviously enjoy this book a lot. The Soap Boxers gives this book a rating of “freaking awesome”!

In my opinion, the abridged edition of the audio book falls fall short of the unabridged edition. They had to cut to book from 25 hours to 9, so obviously some of the plot had to be lost. However, I’m not a big fan of the way they made some of the cuts. Also, I much prefer the reading job done by Scott Brick on the unabridged edition to the job done by Boyd Gaines on the abridged edition. Gaines doesn’t really do anything wrong, but Brick is simply awesome.

Nelson Demille

The Lion’s Game – Book

 

Nelson Demille

The Lion’s Game – CD

 

NOTE: ABRIDGED 🙁

Lawrence Block author profile

February 19, 2009

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One day in the waning years of the last century, my friend Linda S loaned me the book Burglars Can’t Be Choosers. This small act has had a big impact. This book introduced me to Bernie Rhodenbarr and his creator, the author Lawrence Block. Over the course of a decade, he has become firmly entrenched as my favorite writer.

Block has several majors characters, and I ended up reading dozens of his books. First, let’s take a look at his characters.

Bernie Rhodenbarr

Bernie is a bookstore owner. He is also a part time burglar (thus all of his books contain that word). Bernie is semi-retired from the profession (mostly due to a distaste from the “free government housing” fringe benefit of the job). Nowadays, Bernie only takes the occasional job from a friend (or friend of a friend).

Unfortunately for Bernie, he has a tendency to stumble across murders, and usually ends up as the prime suspect. He has to figure out who the real killer in order to get off the hook.

Bernie’s books also feature his friend Carolyn (a lesbian who owns a pet grooming service) and his cat, Raffles. The books are very funny, and are my favorite of Block’s books.

There are ten books in the Burglar series, published between 1977 and 2004. I have read all of them. We should be seeing another one soon, right?

One of the books was turned into the movie “Burglar”, starring Whoopi Goldberg. Don’t blame Block for the movie, though. He didn’t like it, either.

Matthew Scudder

The Scudder books are a complete 180 degree turn from the Burglar books. The Burglar books are quite funny, whereas the Scudder books are devoid of humor.

Matthew Scudder is a former cop who now works as an unlicensed private investigator. He is also a sober alcoholic, so he generally finds the time to attend a couple of AA meetings during the course of a book.

The Scudder books have a tendency to be violent, especially when he is hanging out with his friend Mick Ballou, a bar owner/criminal (probably not the best situation for a guy fighting alcoholism, but Mick is an old friend). Scudder’s moral compass tends to point fairly close to north, though. He does some bad things, but he does them for the right reasons.

Scudder’s significant other is Elaine. Elaine and Scudder have a long history. They met when Elaine was a high priced hooker and Scudder was a young cop. Midway through the series, we are introduced to TJ, a kid with street smarts who proves very valuable to Scudder.

There are sixteen books in the Scudder series, published between 1976 and 2005. I have read all sixteen.

Evan Tanner
Tanner served in the Korean war and suffered a serious injury. The result was that the “sleep center” in his brain was damaged. This means that Tanner never sleeps – literally.

Tanner ends up as a spy, where his ability to be awake all the time is very useful. Tanner’s job take him all around the world.

I’ve read a couple of the Tanner novels, but they didn’t grab me. They weren’t bad, they simply didn’t have that ge na sais quoi of the Burglar and Scudder novels (those guys set the bar pretty high). I actively read a billion authors (well, maybe twelve) and Tanner’s books just miss the cut, unfortunately.

There are eight novels in the Tanner series. Seven were written between 1966 and 1970, and the last was written in 1998. That book – Tanner on Ice – features Tanner being awaken from a cryogenic state.

I have not read all of Block’s book. Here are some of his other characters:

Keller – A professional hit man. I have read one of the Keller books. They just aren’t my type of book. There are four Keller novels, published between 1998 and 2008.

Chip Harrison – There are four books in the Chip Harrison series, all published between 1970 and 1975.

Paul Kavanaugh – There are three books in the Paul Kavanaugh series, published between 1969 and 1974.

Other novels – Block has also written a variety of novels (and novellas) that are not a part of a particular series. Some of these have been published in collections. This is a great way to acquire multiple books for a good price.

Books for writers – Block has written four books for writers – Writing the Novel from Plot to Print (1979), Telling Lies for Fun and Profit (1981), Write for Your life (1986), and Spider, Spin Me a Web (1987). I have read Telling Lies and Spider, and they are great books for the aspiring writer.

Enough Rope
Enough Rope is a collection of short stories. It is a massive book, nearly 900 pages in hardcover. I originally received a paperback version of this book as a gift. I quickly realized that this book would be a companion for life, and purchased the hardcover copy (lending the paperback copy to the communal library at my office). You will see many of the characters from Block’s novels also appear in the short stories, as well as several stories about lawyer Martin Ehrengraf. If you’re not sure which of the Block characters you will like, this book would be a good place to start.

There are also a lot of free-standing stories in the collection. All of the stories can be read in one sitting. Two of my favorites are Cleveland in My Dreams and Funny You Should Ask.

If you only purchase one Lawrence Block book, buy Enough Rope (I would recommend buying several books, of course).

The man
Lawrence Block is now 70 years old. In addition to writing, he competes in distance walking (24 hour races, marathons, ultramarathons). You can buy signed copies of his books – and keep up with his exploits – at LawrenceBlock.com

Lawrence Block

Enough Rope

The Casebook of Forensic Detection

February 9, 2009

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The Casebook of Forensic Detection and Murder Two: The Second Casebook of Forensic Detection by Colin Evans

I have an interest in true crime (murder in particular, especially serial killers) and my bookshelf has a very interesting assortment of crime books. These two books by Evans are among the best.

The casebook of forensic detection set breaks cases, types of evidence, techniques, and famous criminalists (only in Murder 2) into bite sized sections of just a handful of pages.

The two books have a slightly different layout. The first book is broken down into the various types of forensic evidence (or foresenic techniques), such as ballistics, toxicology, trade evidence, serology (blood), and time of death. Evans introduces each section with a short introduction to the topic. The book spends a few pages on the subject, including how it has evolved through history.

At this point, the book really gets into the meat of the subject and discusses several cases dealing with this type of evidence (or technique). Some cases are famous (Ted Bundy, the Nightstalker, John Wayne Gacy, the Lindbergh kidnapping) while some are relatively obscure (including one old case that occurred in a state park that I used to visit frequently). Some have even inspired scenes in movies (that wood chipper murder in the movie Fargo? Not an original idea). Evans only takes a few pages to tell each story, and packs quite a punch, hitting all the high points in each case. It’s basically written in Bathroom Reader style – you can the book, flip it open to a random spot, read for ten minutes, and feel fulfilled.

Although Murder Two is really a continuation of the original, Evans altered the structure of the book Instead of organizing the book by topic, as with the original, it alphabetizes everything – the type of evidence, name of defendant, and criminalist. As a result, the pages for arson are followed by a case for a defendant with the last name Atwood, because his name is next alphabetically. I guess this allows Evans some flexibility in choosing cases (able to choose cases involving two sorts of evidence without having to choose which section is the best fit), but I really like the layout of the first book better. This is by far the biggest flaw in the book – which means that these books are extremely good.

Murder Two includes brief bios of famous (or less famous, but well respected) criminalists throughout history. While specific criminalists were mentioned in the first book, it did not include the bios.

Evans has chosen good cases, and tells the stories well. The original casebook has long since been a favored choice for my bedtime reading. The second book seems to come up just a wee bit short of the standard set by the first, but that’s largely because Evans did a good job picking the cases for the first book – essentially cherry picking the best ones, with the result that the cases in the second book are of a slightly lesser quality.


Colin Evans
The Casebook of Forensic Detection


Colin Evans
The Second Casebook of Forensic Detection

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