Tag Archives: book review

“American Nations” — A very interesting book, but a bit snarky

American nations 1 I read an interesting book a few weeks ago, “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” by Colin Woodard.

Woodard takes a very interesting, historical look at North America, mostly the USA, and the various cultures that comprise us. It goes a long way to explaining the cultural and political differences among our national regions, such as the significant differences between the Deep South and New England.

Woodard’s approach is historical and not overly technical. It’s a fascinating story.

My only issue with Woodard is towards the end of the book, as his narrative starts to approach the present. A New Englander himself, he makes no secret of his contempt for the South, where I spent most of my adult life. He allows himself the satisfaction of making some snarky comments that undercut his credibility. For example, he suggests the South needs research universities that don’t look to the King James Bible as a primary science text. I trust he meant that comment a little tongue-in-cheek and not literally. However, it does make you wonder how much his personal prejudice influenced other descriptions in the book. That having been said, I still found the book very interesting.

In case you are curious, here is a map of Woodard’s, 11 nations of North America.

American Nations 2

“The Age of Miracles” — interesting read

AGE OF MIRACLESMy most recent read – “The Age of  Miracles” — by Karen Thompson Walker – is a long way from my usual read-for-fun fare. This short novel is half a “coming of age” story and half a science-fiction end-of-the-world story.

The story is told in the first person by 11-year old Julia, who lives in Southern California with her parents. The world awakes one morning to discover the Earth’s rotation is slowing down. While Julia is working her way through the perils and pitfalls of being a bright, thoughtful, but socially inept adolescent, she and the rest of the human race are dealing with a series of calamities associated with the “slowing” as they call it.

The Julia half of the story is pretty much standard young-adult material. Best friends drift away. Julia has issues with her parents. There is a boy who interests Julia, but he doesn’t know she exists. And so on.

What makes it different is the setting in the world that is changing rapidly, and not for the better. Days and nights become longer. Gravity increases, killing birds and causing “gravity sickness” in some humans. Plants die. Entire ways of living change. No one knows what the world may look like tomorrow. In this book tomorrow may be 50 hours away.

The entire book is filled with angst. Julia deals with the usual young adolescent uncertainties. At the same time, the reader watches the changes happening on Earth with impending doom. The author intersperses Julia’s narration with comments like “And that was the last pineapple we ever ate.”

The ending is not what I expected, but I won’t spoil it by telling you what it is.

“The Age of Miracles” is a different kind of story, and one I would recommend.

‘Mad River’ is an excellent read!

If you take a look at the “Books” tab at the top of the page, it will be no secret that I’m a big fan of author John Sandford. I just finished his most recent Virgil Flowers novel, “Mad River,” and loved it.

Sandford’s books aren’t great literature; he doesn’t even try for that. He just tells a great story.

The Virgil Flowers series is one of two of Sandford’s crime novel series. His primary, and longest-running series is the “Prey” series, which he began about a hundred years ago. That series of books focuses on a Minneapolis police detective, turned assistant chief, turned state investigator, Lucas Davenport. Davenport is smart, rich, urbane and smart-assed. Several years ago, Sandford took one of his secondary characters from the Prey books, Virgil Flowers (also known by his friends and colleagues as “that f_cking Flowers”) and created a second series of crime novels. While Davenport and his crew work the Twin Cities, Flowers works crimes out in rural Minnesota.

While it is helpful to read some of the books in order, it is not necessary. While with some authors (Patricia Cornwell, for instance) there are often important plot references to previous books, that is not so with Sandford’s books. It helps to know the characters, but you can pick up any of his books and fully enjoy it without having read any others.

Sandford’s strength is in his characters. His protagonists are the kind of people you would love to go hang out with for a while. He even creates bad-guys who can generate some empathy. And since all his main characters are wise-crackers, the dialogue can be great.

In Mad River, Flowers is standing on a street corner drinking beer with a friend when he gets a call from Davenport to work a multiple murder in a small down several hours drive away. When Flowers tells Davenport he won’t be in any shape to drive for a few hours, Davenport agrees and tells Flowers to be careful with the alcohol and driving.

“It would be best if you were gunned down in the line of duty and not killed in a drunk-driving accident.”

Mad River focuses on a trio of teenagers who start a minor killing spree across the Minnesota countryside – a kind of Bonnie and Clyde with a sidekick. The main plot isn’t a mystery, since there is never any question about who did the deed. It’s Flowers’ job to catch the kids before they kill two many more people, and hopefully before the local sheriff’s department takes things into their own hands and kills the kids first. There is also a sub-plot about what prompted the trio to start their crime spree to begin with.

As always, Mad River is a well written and compelling crime novel. Grab it for your own enjoyment or buy it as a Christmas present for a good friend or family member. They will thank you for it.

“Death of Kings” is a good read!

Sometimes I read for knowledge or understanding, and sometimes I just read for pure fun. The sixth book in book in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, Death of Kings, is just plain fun.

The series is set in ninth and early tenth century Britain, at a time when the Danes (Norsemen) have invaded and occupied the central part of the island. The Saxon king, Alfred (the Great), is attempting to unite the other feuding parts of Britain to fight off the invaders and preserve Saxon Britain. The stories are told in the first person by Uhtred of Bebbanberg. Uhtred is a Saxon who was orphaned as a boy and was raised by a Danish family. So he has sympathies in both camps.

Uhtred is quite a character and it is his personal version of events that makes the stories so interesting. Uhtred is a sly, smart and very talented warrior. While serving a devoutly Christian king, Uhtred clings to the Norse gods, like Thor and Woden. He believes firmly in the “fates” who weave the outcome of human lives.  Much of the first five books revolve around Uhtred’s hot-and-cold relationship with Kind Alfred. Alfred doesn’t approve of Uhtred’s pagan religion or his disrespectful attitude towards the Church and the West Saxon nobility, but he needs Uhtred’s sword and his leadership.

In Death of Kings, Alfred dies. Uhtred is caught up in the scheming and back-stabbing as the Saxons and Danes all use the death to advance their personal agendas for their own futures and the future of the island.

Cornwell is an excellent writer who does a great job putting the reader in the middle of the action.

My only complaint is that sometimes it was difficult to keep track of all the characters, many of whom have strange, but similar names. In this book alone, for instance, there was an Aethelred, Aethelflaed and Aethelwold, all of whom were important characters in the story. When I read the next book in the series, I think I’ll keep a slip of paper stuck between the pages and use it to jot down some of the names and their roles for later reference.

You can read Death of Kings as a stand-alone, but I would suggest you will enjoy it more if you go back and start the series with the first book, The Last Kingdom, and work forward from there.

One fair warning – While the books do not contain much sex, they are full of violence. And Cornwell does not pull any punches. If you are squeamish about reading about someone losing his head, you might not enjoy them as much as I did.

Two good books

I recently read two pretty good books that are definitely worth a mention.

Liar’s Poker – Michael Lewis

I have been a Michael Lewis fan ever since I read his “The Big Short” that explained the way several people got rich during the housing-mortgage crash of several years ago. Since then, I have also read “The Blind Side” (which, I think everyone is familiar with via the movie) and “Boomerang,” in which he examines why the economies of countries like Greece, Iceland and Ireland crashed over the past several years.

“Liar’s Poker” was published in the 1980s and, in it, Lewis tells the story of his brief foray into the world of bond trading. As with Lewis’s other books, it is both enlightening and hysterically funny. Lewis has the ability to explain complex issues and be very entertaining at the same time. It’s a good story about some really crazy times.

Kill Shot – Vince Flynn

I’ve enjoyed Flynn’s novels since my cousin turned me on to him several years ago. Flynn’s main protagonist is CIA assassin Mitch Rapp. The books are almost a 21st century American version of Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels, but without Bond’s worldly sophistication or Fleming’s sometimes off-the-wall bad guys. Flynn initially wrote 10 Rapp novels that brought the story to the present day. Then for books 11 and 12, Flynn went back in time and wrote two (“American Assassin” and “Kill Shot”) that tell the story of Rapp’s recruitment, training and his first few assignments.

Flynn novels are pure adventure. There isn’t a subtle bone in his protagonist’s body. There are the good guys and the bad guys, and very little in between. Rapp is one of the good guys, and his stories pit him against his obvious enemies, usually Islamic terrorists, and sometimes the not so obvious — like American politicians.  And in Rapp’s world, the bad guys almost always get what they deserve.

In “Kill Shot,” Flynn tells the story of one of Rapp’s early “hits” that went bad and all the subsequent fall-out.

Flynn doesn’t write an intricate, slowly developing story like a Fredrick Forsyth.  But his novels are exciting, fun and difficult to put down. “Kill Shot” and the rest of Vince Flynn’s books won’t be remembered as great literature, but they sure an entertaining read.

A good read

I stayed up too late last night finishing a book. Both Mrs. Poolman and I read for pleasure, she more than I. Mrs. P can knock of a standard paperback book in a single off day.

The book I was reading, The Time Traveler’s Wife, was not my typical fare. I tend to lean more towards action fiction and historical non-fiction. I enjoy authors like John Sandford, James Patterson, W.E.B. Griffin, Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn, John Grisham and Patricia Cornwell. I also have a spot in my heart for Andrew Greely. On the non-fiction side, I consume history, especially military history. And if it flies and shoots, I’m all over it.

Time Travelers WifeAll of that is just a way of setting up that I really enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife. I have always been intrigued with the fictional treatments of time travel, starting with HG Wells’ The Time Machine and working on up through Michael Crichton’s Timeline (another really outstanding time-travel book, by the way). Before reading it,  I suspected The Time Traveler’s Wife was a literary version of a “chick flick.” You know what I mean – a movie that deals mostly with relationships and emotions and one of the endearing characters dies at the end, usually of a long lingering illness. (See Steel Magnolias, Terms of Endearment, Fried Green Tomatoes, and others.) While The Time Traveler’s Wife does have many of those characteristics (I won’t spoil it by being more specific.) those are balanced out by the fact that it is still an interesting, well written story that moves along.

The story is about Henry and Clare. Henry has a genetic abnormality that causes him to involuntarily travel in time. One moment he is here, and the next, he is stark naked in another place and time. The author, Audrey Niffengger, avoids the cliché of many time-travel authors by not inserting her  character into any historical settings. This is not a story in which the protagonist performs any great or historical acts. Henry’s time travels are much more personal.

Very early on, Henry and Clare meet. Clare is a stranger to Henry, but Clare has known Henry all her life. An older Henry was repeatedly transported back in time to Clare’s childhood. So when they meet, Henry is Clare’s long-time visitor and friend, while Henry has yet to meet Clare in his “real life.” The book develops their relationship, more or less following the chronological pace of Henry’s “real life.” There are lots of adventures and a couple of mysteries.

All told, it was a good book and I’m really glad I read it. It is definitely worth the effort. We didn’t see the movie when it was at the theaters. I’m looking forward to it’s release on DVD in a few months.