Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Books 2017

My books are nearly all in audio format these days. I save my reading time for news, scriptures, The Economist mag and a few other things. I check Amazon to see if a book has charts or photographs. If yes, I get it at the library to look at. Often I don't even take it home from the library, but flip through it right there and turn back in.

There are a few five star books in my list, and plenty of enjoyable books that were nearly that level. 1776, The Unthinkable, The Men Who United the States, Astoria, True Grit, and The Virginian made the top cut. 29 books this year are non-fiction, and 27 are fiction.

*asterisk indicates audio book


1776* by David McCullough, 5 stars: I love McCullough's books. Each delves into a time period or event in our country, and tells the reader just about everything they need to know about that time or thing. 1776 was a tough year for Americans. The hand of God is apparent in our nation's birth, which the author brings out.

If I Can't Have You: Susan Powell by Gregg Olson, 3 1/2 stars: Susan Powell disappeared from her home in December 2009 and has not been seen since. A devoted mother of two pre-school boys, she also worked full-time, was active in the LDS Church, and had deep fears about her future. Her husband was a narcissist who strictly controlled their finances, social life, etc., could be irrational at times, and kept their lives in a state of constant turmoil. Her fear of him was intense enough that she secreted a note at work telling friends and family that if something happened to her, look at Josh. His story about his actions the night she vanished was so crazy weird that I'm surprised the cops didn't arrest him on the spot. With all the evidence pointing to one perp, Josh, it's unfathomable that he was out walking around, corrupting the two boys with his hatred of Susan's family and church. He never was arrested for Susan's disappearance, and in 2012 took the lives of his boys and himself in a most dreadful way.

One Man's War* by Tommy LaMore, 3 stars: Some reviewers think that parts of this book are made up, as events push the edge of reality. This guy joined the Army Air Corps in World War 2 and ended up in air missions over Europe. After his plane was shot down he joined the French Resistance, was captured and interned in a POW camp, and escaped. Meanwhile he fell in love with a prisoner he freed at another camp. Worth reading.

Duke: The Life and --- of John Wayne* by R.L. Davis, 4 stars: Why do I like John Wayne?  I decry the sleaze and self-importance of modern day actors, yet am impressed with Wayne, who everyone knows was no saint. I loved this book even though yes, John Wayne had affairs, was particular about his friends, and drank like a fish. The strong, do-right, patriotic characters he played created his fan base. He had zero tolerance for sissies and liberals and held antiquated ideas on race and women's rights. What a guy!

Undisclosed 2* by Rabia Chadrey, 3 stars: A 20+ hour podcast series, it delves into the case of Joey Watkins, a teenager who was convicted of murder in Rome Georgia. The case against him was full of errors and mistakes, and this series is working with The Georgia Innocence Project to get his case overturned. Not as riveting as Adnan Sayed's case, but still detailed and fascinating. Studying Adnan's case gave me the realization that I live in a bubble, and the Watkins case reinforces that. Kids smoking dope, running people off the road with their cars, shooting at friends to scare them, sheesh. That stuff doesn't happen here in Bethany, but then, what do I know? Oh, we do have an arsonist on the loose burning down new houses.

The First Heroes* by C. Nelson, 3 3/4 stars: Jimmy Doolittle's Raid in detail. It was not quite halfway through 1942 and the US needed a morale-building and strategic victory against Japan.  Pearl Harbor had been bombed recently w/ great loss of life. The audacious idea to bomb Tokyo was just what the US needed. Those who participated could have bailed but they did not, even knowing their chances of survival were minimal. A great Allied victory makes a great narrative.

The Unthinkable, second reading, 5 stars. Everyone should read this book. It is full of examples of how people did or did not survive disaster, and though we don't know without experience how we will react in disaster, reading The Unthinkable will at least motivate us to contemplate and plan how we should react. Interesting and tragic real life examples relate to my own activities. I have ridden huge commuter ferries, flown on planes, and have visited places that have been attacked by terrorists, thankfully not while I have been present. No one knows the future. The book is not attempting to cause panic or make people unreasonably hyper-sensitive. Rather it is equipping readers with tools they can use when when the unthinkable happens, because it will.

Eleven Days in December* by Stanley Weintraub, 3 stars: A short chronicle of not the entire Battle of the Bulge, but focusing on Christmas for the soldiers and civilians. The unexpected surge by the German army surprised the Allied command and foiled celebrations for all. Patton himself commented on hoping for good weather to kill Germans and what an irony, given whose birthday was being celebrated. My Dad's cousin Andy was killed near Bastogne in early January 1945. I picture him having one last Christmas, perhaps stuck in a frozen foxhole wondering when the horrible war would ever end.

Adnan's Story by Rabia Chaudrey, 3 3/4 stars: Rabia reviews Adnan's case as it was presented in Serial, with many additional details and her own commentary. It ends with Adnan's 2016 hearing. The case is fascinating and appears to be one of mistaken conviction. Convictions are being overturned all over the country, based on DNA evidence that wasn't available when the crimes were committed.

The Innocents Abroad* by Mark Twain, second reading, 3 3/4 stars. Published in 1869, the language and Twain's attitudes towards residents of other countries are antiquated. If you can wade through that, the book is full of marvelous observations of even obscure lands not long before modernity changed everything. My favorite is Twain's description of Damascus Syria.

When Breath Becomes Air* by Paul Kalanathi, 4 stars: Author was a dedicated neurosurgeon and writer who contracted cancer. He tells his story and the struggle between being a physician and a patient. This is a moving story that all should read. However, reading it made me realize that as a "civilian," meaning I am not involved in health care in any other way than being a patient, I probably would not receive the advantages in treatment the author did, because of his connections within his profession.

Hero of the Empire* by Candace Millard, 4 stars: Winston Churchill's young adult years. He was unusual in that he knew without a doubt that he was destined for something great. Because of his firm belief, he truly knew that he would not die, even when involved in the Boer War in South Africa. He became a POW there and had some tough experiences. It's kind of amusing though, that his his patrician life followed him even into the POW camp, to some degree. I have to wonder how he would have coped had he been in a "real" POW camp, say under the Japanese during WW2. A good book.

Lincoln and the Decision For War* by R. McClintock, 3 stars:  Even though the topic of the book was similar to my BYU senior thesis (1976), it was difficult to get into this book. I listened to it on my phone. Reading it would have been better so that I could take my time digesting the facts and complicated situations. The buildup toward the Civil War did not happen in overnight, or even in a few years.  It was a drawn out process involving misunderstandings and resentment. Buchanan, Lincoln's predecessor, neglected to take actions which could have pruned the conflict. Lincoln stepped into office to face a powder keg whose fuse had already been lit, and was shrinking by the minute. In his first month in office those around him noticed he became aged and weary.

David and Goliath* by Malcolm Gladwell, 3 stars: Author's premise is that an easy life is not always a successful or productive life. He presents a multitude of examples to show how challenges, heartbreak and trials breed achievement in many people. I can personally attest to this in my own life, yet his premise seems too simple. Too many folks are crushed under by the same circumstances that forces others to rise to the top. Why is anyone's guess. Still, I do believe that most do better with hard work.

King of Kings* by D. Carlin, 4 1/2 stars: Dan on the Persian Empire in 3 parts; 13-hour total podcast. If you like history you'll like Dan Carlin. I sure do!

The President Will See You Now* by P. Grande, 4 stars: Author worked in President Reagan's office. She writes about what she observed and experienced in that intimate setting. Reagan was a true gentleman. At times I had tears in my eyes thinking about what Americans have lost, especially since the 2016 election.

Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar, 3 1/2 stars: In the late 1950s, nine Russian college students on a winter camping trip disappeared under weird circumstances. This modern explorer outfits an expedition to determine what happened 50 years ago in the frozen north of Russia. He ends the book with his theory which sounds very plausible.

D-Day: The Battle For Normandy* by A. Beevor, 3 stars: review of the invasion Normandy and its aftermath. Detailed and informative, I learned stuff I didn't know.

Flags of Our Fathers* by J. Bradley (2nd reading), 4 stars: Great chronicle of a group of average American boys who stepped up in the cause of their times (including Bradley's father). Their stories center around the famous flag-raising at Iwo Jima. Not long before listening to this book in mid-2017, the Marine Corps announced that the author's father was not one of the flag raisers in the famous photograph, after all. But still, the portrayal of a few who went into harm's way is a marvel.

The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin* by SL Myers, 4 stars: Putin's rise from his early life in the KGB to being head of it, then lifted by Boris Yeltsin and to the Russian presidency. Author makes out Putin to be a one-track dedicated principled man. By the end of the book, as his life has progressed, much of that principle has vanished, but he'll always be dedicated to making Russia great again. Eye-opening and frightening to see what Putin has become. Book lends to understanding of Russia and Putin.

Shark Drunk* by M Stroksnes, 3 3/4 stars: I would not have listened to this book but for a strange switcheroo. On my audio book website I downloaded a different book, but when I played it, it was Shark Drunk. What the heck? The first few minutes sounded interesting, so I read the Amazon reviews which were good, and ended up liking it. It's by a Norwegian who tells us all about the sea over the backdrop of him and his friend wanting to snare a Greenland shark. It's an amusing and interesting book.

The Men Who United the States* by Simon Winchester, 5 stars: Weaving the story of America's explorers and innovators, author reviews American history. Earth, fire, metal, wood and water--all of these elements, in conjunction with the men who used them, connected and unified the states and made America what it is today. This is a great book.

The Radium Girls* by Kate Moore, 4 1/4 stars: After the discovery of radium, this important element was put to work in numerous ways, one of which was the painting of dials and watch / clock faces with the element. That's what made them light up to be easy to read. The author goes into great detail about the women who began developing severe, even fatal illnesses that doctors could not diagnose. After a few years some of the women accused the factories of hiding the danger of working with radium; factories lawyered up and a lot of years passed before they were found guilty of knowingly exposing their workers to dangers. Not a pleasant topic but a well-written book.

Way Below the Angels by Craig Harline, 4 stars: A transparent honest memoir of the author's Mormon missionary service in Belgium over 30 years ago. He experienced the trite stereotypes about Mormon missions, such as greenie missionaries making astronomical baptism goals, returning missionaries declaring their missions the best two years of their lives, and so on. Europe is not exactly fertile ground for missionary success, and some of the author's experiences were scarring.  I appreciate his candor. What I welcomed most was his understanding at the end of his mission that perhaps the lasting impact he made was the friendships with some of the non-Mormon Belgian people.

The Great War of Our Time* by Michael Morell, 3 3/4 stars: Former CIA employee and deputy director, Morell discusses terrorism mostly post 9-11, post-OBL, post Arab Spring. He was with President Bush on 911, he gave daily briefings to two presidents, and witnessed first-hand the US strategy in combating terrorism. It's a mostly non-biased account of his work under several presidents and CIA directors. Well worth reading for an understanding of how our government has approached the terrorism issue.

Astoria* by Peter Stark, 5 stars: Astoria reminds me of Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose, a book that is on my top ten list. John Jacob Astor was determined to create a fur-trade monopoly in the early 1800s. A successful know-how business man, he sent a ship around Cape Horn to the mouth of the Columbia River to establish an emporium, or clearing-house, for all the furs that could be got in the Pacific Northwest. At the same time he sent a party overland with tons of supplies to meet the ship. That party suffered terribly in their attempt to make it to what became Astoria, Oregon, founded 1811. Even though Lewis and Clark had made a similar journey half a decade previous, neither Astor or the men making the journey could have known the punishment that the vast empty landscape and the Western  elements would impose on them. What a fascinating well-written story this book is! The only negative is that the maps and text are not exact enough for me in describing where events happened. It has made me crazy poring over modern maps attempting to match places with descriptions given in the narrative. But I highly recommend the book.

Ghosts of the Tsunami by R.L. Parry, 4 1/2 stars: One Japanese town suffered an unspeakable toll from the 2011 tsunami. Scores of children in the elementary school were not evacuated to higher ground, and most were lost. Book examines the whys of this, and the aftermath, and delves into the psyche of the surviving family members. Parents were desperate to locate their children's remains. One woman went as far as to become a licensed backhoe operator, and was able to dig up bodies in the muck. Super tragic, but more so because many children could have been saved if they had been guided to the hill behind the school. There was time. Fascinating study, and low-key. Author simply an observer, does not moralize.

 Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher*, 4 1/4 stars by T. Egan: Egan chronicles the life of Edward Sheriff Curtis, a Seattle photographer who photographed Indian tribes all around the US, recorded their language, filmed them, and published a 20-volume archival-quality work on many of the tribes. He did all this from the 1890s until the 1930s, before the American Indian was much thought about as anything but savage. He impoverished himself, lost his family, ruined his health. His work is now recognized as remarkable. The book isn't gripping, as in, "I can't wait to see what happens next." It's a methodical examination of a man who certainly today might be seen as ADHD, or even manic or bi-polar. The work he did probably couldn't have been done by anyone who wasn't driven like he was.

Conscience of a Conservative* by Jeff Flake, 4 1/2 stars: For conservatives like me who are deeply disturbed by the divisive nature of modern politics, the abandoning of tried and true principles, and the fact that enough Americans drank the Trump kool-aid in 2016 to send our country spiraling, Flake's thoughts are a breath of fresh air. Much of what he says dittos my own thoughts. Every time I hear someone say, "Look at all the great things he's done in his first year!!," I wonder what they're talking about, yet simply say, "But at what cost?" The long-term cost of this administration will be devastating. Flake champions a Congress that can act for the good of the country, not for the good of the party. Amen.


Sovereign by C.J. Sansom, 4 starsThird book in Sansom's lawyer Matthew Shardlake series. I love the setting in the time of King Henry VIII of England. Sansom does a swell job of making you feel you are there on the street with his characters. This book takes place in York and London.

In Sunlight or in Shadow by Lawrence Block, 1 star: This book is a collection of short stories by writers, some well-known. Each was asked to write a short story based on one of Edward Hopper's paintings, and the one they chose is printed with the story. I didn't like most of the stories. A few of them were interesting. The premise is a good one though, but it just didn't hit the spot for me. 

The Three Musketeers* by Alexander Dumas, 4 stars: A young man named D'Artagne finds himself in a few scrapes, and becomes companions to three older men who are musketeers in the king's army. Adventures and love follow. Enjoyable classic story.

Shadow of Doubt* by T. Blackstock, 3 stars: A woman's second husband is poisoned with arsenic and all eyes turn to her as the suspect because. Because her first husband also was poisoned with arsenic, and he didn't make it. Not a bad plot and a good but not great book. Faith and belief play a part in this story and it is squeaky clean, which I appreciate.

Tipperary* by Frank Delaney, 3 3/4 stars:  A deftly woven tale about a Tipperary Irishman and an Englishwoman with Irish roots, focusing on a castle and estate in Tipperary which she apparently is heiress to. Both become involved in the rebellion and civil war that followed in 1922. Modern-day narrator himself becomes a key player in the story. Dreamy and holds interest well.

Byzantium* by Steven Lawhead, 3 1/2 stars: The Irish monk Aidan is among a group from his abbey at Kells who creates a marvelous illuminated text with covers made of tooled silver. The book is a gift to the Holy Roman Emperor in Constantinople, but during the pilgrimage to the city the monks are attacked and dispersed. Aiden ends up a prisoner and loses his faith. He finds himself among Danes, Arabs, and other "heathen" peoples. The story is pretty good mostly. I was able to visualize the abbey and gray wet shores of Eire, the Danish settlements, and the great city Byzantium.

The Dry* by J. Harper, 3 1/2 stars: An Australian policeman returns home to attend the funeral of an old friend, and comes to find the death suspicious. He dives into an investigation rather reluctantly, now being an outsider, but with a past that the townspeople remembered. I enjoyed the book.

Revelation by C.J. Sansom, 4 stars: Fourth book in the Shardlake series. I really love this series. The setting, the characters, the investigations, etc. are well-done. This is the first one in the series where I was able to guess the ending about 4/5 of the way through the book. Shardlake is so gloomy, and rightly so I guess. He's a hunchback who is picked on and discriminated against, will likely never marry, and even his friends sometimes turn against him. This book takes place in London and Westminster, and begins with the murder of one of Shardlake's long-time friends. He figures out that this murder and others have followed a pattern described in the book of Revelation.

1906* by J. Dealessandro, 3 stars: Set in San Francisco at the time of the 1906 earthquake. A female journalist becomes an informant against a mob boss at a time of deep corruption in the growing city.  Good but not great story.

Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale, 3 1/2 stars; The Princess Academy graduates become involved in the political turmoil in their kingdom, even putting their lives at risk. Not as good as The Princess Academy but a satisfying story.

The Black Tulip* by Alexander Dumas, 4 stars: As with many books written in this era, I couldn't keep the characters straight for a while. My secret is to look up the book in Wikipedia to read about the plot and characters, and then proceed. It turned out to be an intriguing story pertaining to a man who spent years developing a black tulip in order to win a monetary prize in Holland, for doing what it was thought could not be done. The tulip is hijacked and during much of the story it appears his hard work was for naught. Dramatic tale!

Trailin'* by Max Brand 2 1/2 stars: Precocious Easterner travels West to solve a family mystery that was breathed to him by his dying father in NY. Entertaining.

Ben-Hur* by General Lew Wallace, 4 stars:  Saw the movie as a child and it was so memorable. Now I've finally read the book which is excellent. It's Christ's story as it affected certain people at the time, and the author creates three dimensional characters to portray Christ's life-changing message.

The Day of the Jackal* by F. Forsyth, 4 stars: Second reading. This is a well-crafted, intriguing story of an attempted assassination of Charles DeGaulle when he was president of France. Great book for mystery - intrigue  fans.

The Murder of King Tut* by J. Patterson, 1 stars: I got this audio book because I thought it was non-fiction and that new information had come forth about Tut's death. It's a fictionalized account of Tut's life, doesn't go deep, and sometimes puts forth silly-ish descriptions of life in ancient Egypt. Meh. Didn't know until after reading it that this author cranks out the pulp fiction like it's a meat grinder. Not my style and not worth reading.

Quiet Until the Thaw* by A. Fuller, 4 stars: Setting for story is the Lakota's Pine Ridge reservation. Despite the tragic heritage of Native Americans, Rick Overlooking-Horse is able to live a peaceful life, while You Choose cannot. The book's message seems to be that heritage plays a strong part in who we are and how we act. That's way more true for Native Americans than for most of us. Many white Americans know next to nothing about their ancestry. This isn't my favorite Fuller book, and the language got pretty bad at times, yet the message is clear and valuable.

Radigan* by Louis LAmour, 2 1/2 stars: A rancher is pushed off his land in wild, lawless Montana. Entertaining but average story.

The Virginian* by Owen Wister, 5 stars:  I never ever get tired of this classic and have read it many times, and have listened to it about five times. The narrator is superb and a good match for the reality and roughness of the landscape in which the story occurs. Must read!

The Chilbury Ladies Choir* by Jennifer Ryan, 2 1/2 stars: The story is not a bad one, even though formulaic. Set during World War Two in an English village suffering through the Battle of Britain, the story contains stock characters: a bossy older woman, an obnoxious World War One veteran, tiresome English patricians, a pair of beautiful sisters, a conniving midwife, a level-headed widowed nurse, and of course, billeted soldiers. The intense emotions that people would feel in their various trying circumstances, did not come through. I felt like people were shrugging their shoulders at the hardships they had to endure: bombings, deaths, sons going off to war, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, etc. I listened to this book on tape which probably made it better than reading would have been. Each part was read by a different actor, which added to the story. It's a book I wouldn't have picked up if it had not been my book group's choice. I find most modern fiction is not very enticing (too shallow).

Because of Winn Dixie* by Kate DiCamillo, 4 stars: Sweet, fun story of a girl looking for acceptance and love. Motherless Opal goes to the store for groceries and comes home with a dog.  The dog opens doors in her life. All of her adventures with the dog end up bringing people together in a very nice way. Read it with your kids.

 Hondo* by Louis LAmour, 2 stars: Rough, tough military scout meets woman left alone on their ranch by her husband. It's Apache country, and he's concerned about her. Average Western story, though unrealistic in terms of their relationship (too fast). Not L'Amour's best.

True Grit* by Charles Portis, 5 stars: This book is now on my top-ten list! The narrator is so excellent; I ended up listening to it twice in a row. A young teen tracks her father's killer through Arkansas with a drunken criminal sheriff. Two good movies have been made from this extraordinary story.


Death in Holy Orders* by P.D. James, 3 stars: Inspector Dalgleish takes a holiday but ends up investigating four seemingly unrelated deaths at a remote seminary on England's coast. I like the Dalgleish mysteries. This one is worth reading though not my favorite PD James.

The Women in the Castle* by Jessica Shattuck, 2 stars: Various women and children are brought together in the manor house of one of them, for better or worse, during and after World War 2 in Germany. They are widows, and several of the husbands were executed for participating in the plot to assassinate Hitler. I never felt very engrossed in the lives of the characters. The personalities and events were rather dull and flat. The story stayed on the surface of the women's lives. It was all kind of "meh."

Shane* by Jack Schaefer, 4 1/2 stars: A Western classic, I've read it before and have seen the Alan Ladd movie. But still, I find myself analyzing it over and again. "What was it about Shane that changed the lives of the Starrett family and of the town, and even that region of Wyoming?" And, "How did the family, the town and the region affect Shane?" So much isn't said about Shane, so it takes some deep thinking to fully understand this story. What is not in the book is, "Shane! Come back Shane!" When high school English classes showed the movie after reading the book, for days students walked the halls quoting this line from the movie, which is absent in the book. The movie's setting is stunning. A must read book. Here is the trailer from Shane.

My Cousin Rachel* by Daphne DuMaurier, 3 stars: Dark and mysterious, like Rebecca. Young English man is heir to his cousin's estate, when cousin dies unexpectedly in Italy. Cousin's widow shows up in England and mesmerizes young man, to the point he is headed for destruction. Intriguing.

Number the Stars* by Lois Lowry, 4 stars: Based on the true story of the Danish people sheltering and transporting Jews to safety during World War 2. Older children could read this in conjunction with The Hiding Place, The Diary of Anne Frank, and The Book Thief.