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Audiobook Review – Medieval English History

I recently listened to two offerings from Audible’s Great Courses series, “The Story of Medieval England:  From King Arthur to the Tudor Conquest” and “1066:  The Year That Changed Everything“.  Both are lecture series given by Professor Jennifer Paxton, and were both entertaining and informative.

“The Story of Medieval England” is a good survey of English history from the late Roman period through the end of the late Middle Ages.  Professor Paxton spends about 3/4 of her time going over the timeline and personalities of the period, but intersperses information about society and life for both commoners and kings.  These vignettes are sometimes separate lectures, but more often are woven into a lecture about events.  If you’re looking for the roots of American history and history, you need to start here.

“1066” delves deeper into the 100 years before and the 100 years after the Norman Conquest.  Where the other series was a survey of almost 1000 years, this course goes into detail about the people, events, and cultures that molded England in the 10th and 11th centuries.

If you’re a history nerd like me, you’ll enjoy these lectures.  Professor Paxton is obviously an expert in her field, but she also has the rare ability to present her information in a way that is informative and interesting.   Between the two courses, you get about 22 hours of lecture. To be honest, I was disappointed when they were done, because I wanted to learn more.

Disclaimer:  I received nothing for doing this review, and I purchased both audiobooks myself.

Deal Alert

Peter Grant’s book, War to the Knife, has been picked up as Amazon’s Deal of the Day.  I reviewed the book earlier this year, and if you haven’t read it yet, now’s a good time to pick it up.

Book Review – The Grey Man: Payback

In a follow-up to last year’s Vignettes, Jim Curtis, who blogs at Nobody Asked Me, has come out with “The Gray Man: Payback“.  This novel picks up a few months after the end of Vignettes, with John Cronin and his family getting ready for the marriage of Jesse, his granddaughter, and Aaron.  Here’s the blurb from Amazon:

Deputy Sheriff John Cronin and his granddaughter, Jesse, are preparing for Jesse’s upcoming wedding to her Marine when the Cartel decides to murder some South Texas cops as a payback for arresting their drug smugglers. They send a hit squad to kill Cronin, Jesse, and everyone close to the family. The only problem?

They missed the old man.

Leaving his badge behind, John Cronin, Francisco and a few others head south to teach them a lesson about what old school western justice really means.

Yeah, it’s a story of revenge, and Curtis does an excellent job telling the yarn.  This book is better than the first one, and I loved the first one.  The characters of John Cronin and Fransisco are especially well done, and as the story goes on, they become more and more three-dimensional.

This book is a page turner.  Don’t be surprised if you read it in one sitting.  The story flows very well, and Curtis does an excellent job at tying up the story threads in the end.  I give this one of the highest compliments I can when I say that I would feel comfortable giving this book, which is in no way geared toward children, to my teenagers.  Curtis makes the story real and gritty without being vulgar or graphic.

If you’re looking for a good book to read while you enjoy a couple of fingers of bourbon on a cool night, try this one out.

Disclaimer:  I have known the author for several years, and consider him a friend.  I was a beta reader for this book, but I also bought the final copy that I used for this review.

Book Review – The Book of Barkley: Love and Life Through the Eyes of a Labrador Retriever

The Book of Barkley:  Love and Life Through the Eyes of a Labrador Retriever, by L.B. Johnson, is a memoir that tells the tale of her experiences raising a puppy and letting it become her companion and protector.  The story Mrs. Johnson tells is at different times funny, introspective, and sad.  From the adventures of teaching a labrador puppy manners and housebreaking him, to the final trip to the vet that all pet owners dread, but know will happen someday, this book gives us a window in to the love and trust between a woman and her best friend.

Mrs. Johnson is an outstanding writer, and the amount of thought that went into this work really shows.  When she describes a scene, such as when Barkley chases a miscreant away from her yard, I could see it playing out in my mind’s eye.  Her descriptions of environments and people are excellent, and her writing evokes emotions on every page.  To be honest, I laughed out loud at a lot of this book, and I shed tears at times.  I can’t say that about most things I read.

However, while this book was not difficult to read, it is not a fast read.  Cover to cover, it took me two weeks to finish it.  This was due to a need to set it down and give myself time to ruminate over the chapter or two that I had just finished.  Like I said, the author is a master at setting a scene and transporting you to a time and place she wants to describe.  After doing that for a while, I needed to think about what she was trying to say and the message she was trying to convey.

One of the best things I can say about any book is that I plan to read it again and that I plan on giving it to my children to read.  The Book of Barkley has found a permanent home on my bookshelf, and once Girlie Bear and her brothers have found a space in their school reading lists, they are going to be encouraged to experience Mrs. Johnson’s story.

In other words, this is a book in which I think everyone will find something that will touch them.  If you’ve ever had that special pet that was your constant companion, you will connect with this story, and I heartily recommend it.

 

Book Review – Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving

Reader Dennis the Librarian Shusher asked for the recipe for Irish Woman’s Apple-Cinnamon-Bourbon preserves, but since it’s a variation on a recipe from a book, I thought I’d just tell you about the book.

Irish Woman and I use the “Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving“, edited by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine, for a lot of our home canning recipes.  The book has everything from basic techniques for water-bath and pressure canning, to charts for how much product you will get out of a given amount of fresh produce, to recipes for sweet, savory, and spicy foods that can be canned.  Irish Woman took their “Apple Pie in a Jar” recipe, removed the raisins, and added a bit of bourbon into the recipe*.  It’s an excellent reference if you’re an old pro, or a great way to get information on getting started.  It has several recipes for pasta sauces and salsa that I have used, as well as a ton of jam and jelly recipes that make your mouth water.  The section on pickles came in very handy last summer when I over-planted cucumbers.

The layout of the book is logical and easy to use, and the index is outstanding for when you need to search for a topic or recipe.  Directions are laid out in an easy-to-understand way, and they are given in a way that ‘s useful to both the neophyte and the old hand.

If you’re gardening, hitting the farmers’ market, or just noticing good sales at the grocery store, and want to try your hand at canning, give this book a shot.

 

*OK, more than a bit.  She put about half a cup of cooking bourbon into the mix while it was cooking, then put a dash of it in each jar before adding the jam for canning.

Book Review – War to the Knife

Peter Grant has debuted his newest book, War to the Knife.  If you enjoyed his “Maxwell Saga” books, you’ll like this even more.

This book takes place in the same universe as the Maxwell series, but centers on the small, backwater planet of Laredo.  The planet has been invaded and conquered by the Bactrians, but resistance continues.  The Bactrians are a despicable breed, and are either killing or enslaving what is left of the planet’s population to make it into a new possession.  The story centers around efforts by the resistance to hurt the Bactrians, until an opportunity to mortally wound them comes along.

This book is a page turner, and you will find it hard to put it down.  Since the setting doesn’t encompass an entire galaxy as it did in the Maxwell books, Peter was able to concentrate on describing the people and places on Laredo in detail.  The action comes early, and is frequent, but there are also a lot of places where the story is carried along with conversation.  This is not a thriller by any means, but neither is it a bunch of talking heads going on for 100 pages at a stretch.  The story is compelling and grabs you in the first few pages.  Don’t be surprised if you finish it in one sitting.

If you’re looking for  Tom Clancy techno-babble or a Star Trek “everything works really well and happens pretty quickly in space” book, then keep looking.  Grant asks that you believe that faster-than-light travel is possible, that fusion reactors and energy weapons work, and that space travel within star systems is common, and that’s about it.  He makes an attempt to stick with at least a bit of Newtonian and Einsteinian physics when it comes to space travel, in that you can’t just drop into hyperspace at the drop of a hat or get across a star system or between star systems in a few hours.  Communications between systems are handled via messages on ships, and everyone is restricted by the speed of light when it comes to space combat and communications.  It makes the story longer when you have to say “The missile will get there in six hours”, but I find it more realistic.

The principle characters in this book, both good and bad, are straight out of central casting.  The gritty, honorable resistance fighters, true to their last act, are there.   So are the despicable Bactrian security forces, who are even called the “SS”.   Some of the more interesting characters are in the Bactrian army.  Where the black-suited security guys are sadists and villains, the brown-uniformed professionals of the army seem to be honorable and fair, even if they are part of the forces repressing and destroying the Laredan population and culture.

War to the Knife can probably be enjoyed by anyone from teenagers to senior citizens.  It’s not a children’s novel, but it definitely can be enjoyed and understood by younger readers.  There is a bit of language and implied sex in it, but it’s not flagrant.  I would definitely allow Girlie Bear or Little Bear to read it.I wouldn’t suggest starting this book after dinner, because you’ll be up late finishing it.   Like I said, it’s a page turner.  Get in the hammock with a cool beverage, tell the kids to leave you be for a few hours, and enjoy.

Disclaimer – I was a beta reader for this book, and Peter gave me a gift card to Amazon to thank me for my help.  However, I used that gift card to purchase a copy of the book once it was published, and I received nothing for this review.

Book Review – Pendragon Resurgent

Holly Chism has come out with the second book in her “Pendragon” series, in which the knights of the Round Table were really dragons, magic still lives in the world, and old rivalries can become bloody.  I reviewed the first book in the series here, and Pendragon Resurgent is an excellent follow-on to the original story.

The story opens with Sara, the main character from “The Last Pendragon”, preparing to shut down her career as an educator to join Mordred, son of Arthur Pendragon, leader of the European population of dragons, and the love of her life, when someone attempts to assassinate her.  A rogue group of dragons is trying to rekindle a millenium-old war, and the European dragons are in danger of being snuffed out just as they are beginning to rebuild.  Mordred and Sara have to not only figure out how to survive this onslaught, but also how to create a new home for their family in Europe.

Chism truly seemed to enjoy telling this story, and the characters she creates are easily visualized and filled out, at least on the good-guy side.  The bad guys, who are rogue dragons, tend to be less three-dimensional than the good guys, but they aren’t cardboard cutouts.  This may be because the story is told from the perspective of Sara, so the only time we see the antagonists is when they are interacting with her or when she is magically eavesdropping on them.  The exception to this is Morgan, Mordred’s mother.  Her character gets more time in the story than the other antagonists, and she is filled out quite nicely.

Overall, the book is a great page-turner.  It’s not a thriller, but it keeps your interest through the interactions of the characters, human, dragon, or wizard.  Chism doesn’t belabor the plot by going into excruciating detail about settings and tactics, but neither does she gloss over things.  The book is a quick read, but after reading it, I broke out my copy of the first book and re-read both stories again.

If you’re looking for a good weekend book, I’d suggest checking this one out.

 

Disclaimer- I was a beta reader for “Pendragon Resurgent”, but I bought a copy of the finished work.   I received nothing for doing this review.

Heads Up!

Holly Chism is putting her excellent collection of short stories, Survivors, up for free download from Amazon this weekend.  I reviewed it here. If you need a good read for the weekend, this is it.

P.S. A little bird tells me that Mrs. Chism is busy at work on the second installment to her Pendragon series.  If you haven’t read that one or her Modern Gods novels, you’re missing out.

Book Review – The Grey Man – Vignettes

Many of you have been reading Jim Curtis’s writing for years at his site, Nobody Asked Me.  To my surprise, he asked me to beta read his first novel, The Grey Man – Vignettes, last year, and I, of course, said “YES!”.  (Full Disclosure – OldNFO flew with a member of my family back in the good old days, and he’s been a good friend and guiding hand for me as a writer and shooter for several years.)

Vignettes tells the story of John Cronin, a Special Forces veteran, deputy sheriff, investigator, and overall badass.  He is joined by his granddaughter, Jesse, as well as a former Mexican Federale and his wife, two Marines who luck into being a part of their lives, and assorted Texas and federal law enforcement people.  It’s a good first book from Curtis, and while it’s not a thriller by any means, it’s a page turner that’s worth reading twice to pick up the things you might have missed the first time.  I enjoyed reading the book, even the first time when it was very rough, and I felt comfortable letting Girlie Bear read it.  It’s adult enough that it caught and kept my attention, but not so adult that a teenage boy or girl shouldn’t read it.

Vignettes breaks down into three main parts – a sniper competition, a shooting and criminal investigation/persecution, and an overseas mission for Cronin.  Holding all of these parts together are several chapters that expand the story to show the everyday life of Cronin and his family.  Curtis is an accomplished story-teller, and all of these plots and sub-plots knit together very well.  The story includes romance without becoming mushy or steamy, action without becoming bloody, and tension without becoming a soap opera.

Mr. Curtis does an excellent job of developing the characters of Cronin and the other main members of the story.  Cronin is the man you meet at the hardware store or restaurant who shows impeccable manners, seems absolutely normal, and then you see flashes of him being much more than he appears.  Jesse, his granddaughter, reminds me of the good country girls I knew growing up and while stationed in Texas.  Matt and Aaron, the Marines, remind me a heck of a lot of the men that I worked with in the military.  None of these characters are straight out of central casting, and none of them are cardboard cutouts of the crusty old deputy, the country hellion, and the generic military man.  In other words, Curtis has created characters that live and breathe.  These characters will remind you of real people because that’s how they were written.

That’s not to say that the book is perfect.  The author’s politics shine through in spots, and occasionally it’s laid on a bit thick.  It’s not so heavy that it detracts from the story, but it is noticeable.  While his main protagonists are three-dimensional and fully developed, his antagonists tend to be a bit one-dimensional.  This is mostly due to the fact that there is no main bad guy throughout the stories in the book, so there is less space to develop them as a character.  I expect that if the next book is more of one big story arc, the bad guys will be better developed.

That being said, The Grey Man – Vignettes is an excellent story and read.  Mr. Curtis is writing about what he knows and loves, and it shows.  I give this one 4.5 stars out of 5, and I recommend it to anyone who likes a good, old-fashioned novel.

 

Update – OldNFO has put up a passage from the sequel, as well as a map of the Cornin ranch.  I’m pawing at the ground to get my hands on the new book.

Heads Up

OldNFO has just published his first book.  I was fortunate enough to read the rough draft, and that was excellent.  I imagine that it was only improved with polishing.   If you’re looking for something to read, I think you’ll enjoy this one.  I’ve bought my copy, and I’ll do a review once I’ve read the final product.

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