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Randal

Cold Hearted River - Keith McCafferty
McCafferty has penned another great mystery. The series follows the adventures of Sean Stranahan, an artist/fly fisherman/private detective. This time, the story incorporates Ernest Hemingway into the fold. The author is a wonderful writer, his descriptions (especially of the rivers Stranahan is fishing) make you feel like you are there. The character development, even of the minor ones, is thorough, you are made to feel like you actually know the people. The stories flow very well, and I especially appreciate that McCafferty manages to wrap up all the loose ends in his books, and doesn't leave you hanging at the end. 
The only complaint I can make about this book is that the main character, after several books, is getting a bit stale. The eventual seduction of every interesting woman he meets is cliche, almost like the author wants him to be James Bond. Other than that observation, the book is very good. 
Cold Hearted River is the latest in the series, but it could be read as a stand-alone book. 
I received an advance copy of this book from "First To Read" in exchange for a fair review.
 
 

 

Intriguing!

The Parkhurst Years: My Time Locked Up with Britain’s Most Notorious Criminals - Bobby Cummines

Bobby Cummines is a British ex-con who, during the 1970's and 1980's, served twelve years in some of the UK's maximum security prisons. He has penned a memoir of his early years of crime, his time in prison, and how he used those experiences to turn his life around. Upon release from prison, he founded a company to help people with criminal convictions reintegrate into society. A program similar to whats being tried now in America, only 30 years earlier.
Cummines pulls no punches, he is very honest about his life of crime, and what he has done and seen. No "I'm a victim of a set-up", he accepts his actions wholeheartedly.
The book is full of interesting stories and characters. The author relates his dealings with the infamous British inmates of the time. I especially liked hearing his language, and some of the terms he used that were unfamiliar to me. Screws, banged up, a bit of work, loo, bird, bum smuggler, nicking, Old Bill; the list goes on and on.
After working in US Federal Prisons for 21 years, I found this story to be very engaging. Even as different as British and American prisons are, there were still times I found myself thinking, "yeah, that happened to me, too". Cummines has a way of pulling you into what he is experiencing.
All told, this is an interesting book. I recommend it.

Unsatisfying!

The Separatists - Lis Wiehl, Sebastian Stuart

A timely, interesting concept for a novel. What would happen if one of the states (in this case, North Dakota) attempted to secede from the United States? What with the red/blue divisions we are currently experiencing, I did not find the idea to be too "far-out-there".
And the author wrote a good story, for the most part. I found the main character development to be well thought out, and the writing "flowed" well.
But.....(spoilers ahead).
I found the idea that a small number (maybe 5) of people could overthrow a state's government and declare it's removal from the union to be unrealistic. Honestly, just because someone is elected governor means that all other government agencies are going to throw their lot in with her? The US Senators, US Congressmen, the Federal (and State and local) law enforcement agencies? And that the US President is just going to stand by as this group takes over military bases, makes globally reaching decisions, and threatens war? In fact, no one, not the FBI/CIA/Homeland Security, is able to root out any of this, but a simple news reporter could? Not hardly.
And then there are the sloppy mistakes, somethings that should have been caught in editing. "She also got a permit and bought a handgun-she refuses to touch an automatic, she considers them killing machines that should be banned" (uhh, handguns cannot be "automatic"?). And identifying the second in command of an important military base as a Corporal. And having to identify any (several) characters as being "black"; you didn't id the other characters as white/asian/etc, why does it matter if they are black? Or charging a Canadian citizen with treason against the US, is that really an option?
Despite the main character being kidnapped, threatened, having inside info on numerous murders, she blindly plunges forward, never alerting law enforcement. And despite her having knowledge about where nuclear missiles are being readied against the US in Canada, instead of calling out the calvary, she flies to Canada, where she single-handedly takes down the base where the missiles are, preventing their launch in the nick of time (where they were to be launched with the stereotypical red button).
And, finally, after approximately 330 pages, the entire "suspenseful" ending is done in about 3 pages. Very rushed and unsatisfying.
I would really like to see this concept rewritten in a more thought out, "believable" manner. That would be a good book!

Disappointing!

Wine. All the Time.: The Casual Guide to Confident Drinking - Marissa A. Ross

Disappointing. If you are looking for juvenile and profane writing, you may enjoy this book. Otherwise, there are many, many better introductions to wine. Let me quote just a few examples. "Or you can just pour it in a glass and let it chill out for a while, and boom, you just aerated that shit!" "Brut: Pretty fucking dry champagne". "It was easy to ignore that they were unemployed, only wanted blowjobs, and always smelled like cigarettes" (there are numerous wine/oral sex comparisons). "the finish is the flavor and sensation a wine leaves in your mouth after you've swallowed, insert innuendo of choice" (I warned you). "I should know the difference by now, just not when it's 9:00 am, and I'm totally stoned, which is the only way I go to the market".
So, if you want to equate your education in wine with profanity, unsatifactory sexual encounters, or abusing drugs, maybe this book is for you. Me, I'll stick with more mainstream literature.

Excellent Alternative Fiction!

All the Way With JFK? Britain, the US and the Vietnam War - Peter Busch

Finally! An excellent alternative fiction novel that is very plausible, and no "alien space-bats" or "time shifts". Schaefer has penned a serious, thoughtful, believable novel using the event of the Dallas JFK assassination as his vehicle. What if Oswald didn't succeed in his attempt? The author uses that assumption as his beginning. His tale involves the Kennedy's, the US Government, the Cubans, the Mafia, the Russians, the Iranians, the Vietnamese, and on and on. It is told through the viewpoints of multiple people, very effectively. I don't want to give any more away of the story, but it is fantastic. And Schaefer ends the book masterfully. I finished it feeling completely satisfied.
If you enjoy great alternative fiction, or even a great fiction/mystery/thriller, I cannot recommend this book enough!

I Am a Secret Service Agent: My Life Spent Protecting the President - Charles W. Maynard, Dan Emmett

Maynard has given an intelligently written, easily readable, and good book on his time as a Secret Service Agent. The dedication to his career, and the pride he took in it is very admirable. The non stop training, as well as the other sacrifices he made are admirable. I was told that this book was written for a younger audience, those hoping to follow in his career footsteps. It would be a valuable reference for them, and it reads very well to an adult audience also. 

Sad!

Nixon's White House Wars: The Battles That Made and Broke a President and Divided America Forever - Patrick J. Buchanan

A view of the Nixon presidency, through the eyes of it's arch conservative member, Patrick Buchanan. The detail is amazing. The author must either have an incredible memory, or kept notes on everything he has done.
Throughout the book, the central theme is that Buchanan's ultra conservative beliefs are the only path to success for the United States. Everyone who has a differing opinion is just wrong, and is the enemy. (Sounds eerily familiar to the current administration). It must be something to be so sure of oneself, and to have never an inkling of doubt of one's beliefs, or that you may sometimes be wrong. However, I think it would be a sad and lonely existence. It makes me feel bad for Mr. Buchanan.

A Behind The Scenes Look

Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America - Michael Ruhlman

A behind the scenes peek at the operation of a grocery store. And of the overall management and strategies of grocery stores nationwide.
I have to confess, of all the jobs I held in my career, all the way up through the upper levels of a federal law enforcement agency, the one I loved the most was as a simple "bag boy"/clerk in my local grocery store while in high school. To this day, I get a feeling of satisfaction out of bagging my own groceries. In this, I felt a kinship with the author's father, who said "When I retire, I think I'm going to bag groceries".
There is so much information in this book, I don't know where to start! If you have ever wondered about where the food in your store comes from, Ruhlman explains it very well.

Awesome!

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency - Chris Whipple

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Whipple created an accounting of the White House Chiefs of Staff from Nixon through Obama. The successful and the not so successful. The successful ones were given the authority to actually control the fire hose of information coming into the President. And to prevent the people who attempted to go around them to reach the President with what they thought were unique and special needs. Similar to the military, a lieutenant does not jump the chain of command and go directly to the general, he goes through channels. Otherwise, the General (President) would be overwhelmed with opinions and subject to following the most influential talker, regardless of facts.
As I finished reading this book, I was left with a feeling of awe in how well some of the Chief of Staffs could "herd cats" successfully. It takes a real talent.
I read a lot of political history books, and this one ranks up there with the best. It fills in a lot of holes and explains a lot of actions that I wondered about in my reading of presidential memoirs.
Highly recommended!

Outstanding, as always!

The Frozen Hours: A Novel of the Korean War - Jeff Shaara
Shaara has created another masterpiece. This time it's a stand-alone novel of the Korean War. Well written and superbly researched.
As in all of his novels, Shaara explores the conflict through the eyes of a variety of people. In this book, he shows the war through three main characters, an American General, a Chinese General, and an American PFC soldier. In the beginning, I was hoping for more main characters, perhaps a Chinese soldier or someone closer to MacArthur. But, as the novel progresses, I came to realize the reasoning. First, the "average" Chinese soldier was really a non-factor, as they, sadly, were thought of by their "superiors" as just a piece of meat to be thrown into the maelstrom. They did not last long enough to flesh out an individual character. And as far as MacArthur goes, Shaara shows that the sycophants surrounding him were basically as mindless as the Chinese soldiers, blindly throwing themselves into whatever the "superior" wanted, to curry favor for their own careers.
In this novel, there is none of the "glory" found in his earlier novels. No feelings of a job well done, or of giddy patriotism. Shaara expresses the drabness, the drudgery, the feeling of "why are we here" and "what is the endgame" of the Korean conflict. His descriptions of the weather, the cold, the misery, make you want to sit in front of a fire and warm up yourself. You're left with a bleak feeling of "why". Why were we there? What were we trying to achieve? Why was there no oversight over MacArthur?
And talk about timely! I couldn't help but wonder if history might be repeating itself. Today we again find ourselves with a crisis in Korea. We find ourselves again with a leader who seems to bend the facts to what he wants to see, all in the interest of satisfying his outlandish ego. My hope is that this time, someone steps in and prevents another disaster. That we don't back down to the ego, that we think things through. Because this time, if China intervenes again, the stakes are much much higher than they were in the last Korean War!
Bravo, Mr. Shaara!
 
 

 

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Open Season: True Stories of the Maine Warden Service - Daren Worcester

As a young lad, I remember listening in amazement to the stories my father and his game warden friends would tell while sitting around a table playing cards.  Their exploits and adventures made me think they were like gods. Now, 50 some odd years later, Worcester has reminded me of those times. His chronicle of conservation wardens in Maine tell so many wonderful stories. The short but well written chapters tell of events that were frightening, funny and sad. Each one can be read at leisure, in any order the reader wants. The book serves as a great reminder of the men who dedicate their lives in a daily struggle to protect the fish and game of our country. A wonderful read!

Useful

The Key to Making Money on Craigslist: How I Make Thousands in My Spare Time - Steven Fies, Marian Kelly, C. Thomas Arthur

As a sporadic buyer and seller on Craigslist, I found this book to be interesting. There is a lot of information, some of it common sense, interspersed with some "tips" to help buy and sell. It's an easy read, and you can go through it quickly. 

LIfe in the Bureau of Prisons

Kingpin: Prisoner of the War on Drugs - Richard Stratton

Kingpin is a chronicle of the author's time spent incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons for trafficking in marijuana in the 1980's. As a retired official in that agency, I fully expected this book to be another "hit-job" on some con's prejudices against the BOP, as well as how he was an innocent bystander who never committed the crime. I was very pleasantly surprised. While Stratton (the author) does not pull punches over what he thinks was a bad organization (the Bureau of Punishment), he also doesn't deny his crimes. On the contrary, he admits them, is totally unrepentant, and is what we would have called a "real convict" (that's actually a compliment among officers). Stratton "does his own time", and never rats on anyone else. Even when the forces of the federal government are stacked against him to get him to roll over on his higher-ups, Stratton sucks it up and takes his lumps, receiving a much harsher sentence than if he had cooperated.
As far as his description of life in the BOP, I question some of his experiences with "dirty staff", but am not naive enough to not admit they may be true. In my over 20 years of service, I ran into dirty staff. And many, many staff like his "Smurf". Furthermore, his chronicling of the "diesel therapy", the life in the units, and his knowledge of (and exploiting) of the rules is pretty much spot-on. And, this may surprise Stratton, but even former BOP employees are dismayed at the way "the war on drugs" was handled.
There are times that I think Stratton overplays his sense of importance in prison. One example was "given my elevated status as the jailhouse lawyer par excellence in the joint". Yes, it was admirable that he self-taught himself law while locked up. But, F Lee Bailey he is not. And his claims of running units for the officers was overdone.
But, and this is the part I most enjoyed about the book. Stratton has an amazing gift of insight into himself. Time and time again in the book I found parts where he let down his guard and laid bare his soul. In the very beginning, he states "prison is an unreasonable place, for we live in a world of damaged men where all that matters is how one carries oneself". That describes prison to a T! Your life in prison, as an inmate or BOP employee, is all dependent upon how you carry yourself. Treat others with respect, be a man of your word, and do what you say you will, are the secrets to survival in prison.
Another quote: "Maybe my life here is not so bad, but it is still prison. The worst thing about prison, as I've said before, and I'll say it again, is that it's lonely. It is so fucking lonely. Brutally lonely, especially for a man who loves the company of women. Yes, you make friends.....And I've learned a lot about men from all strata of society. But at the end of the day, life in prison is as lonely as the tomb. You are cut off from the people you love, cut off from the real world and real life; and that is the punishment". So true. I wish he could speak to young people and express that to them.
Towards the end of the book, Stratton sums up his experiences well. "Criminal, inmate, convict, prisoner, kingpin, drug smuggler; these are the words the authorities use to describe me. But there is something to be said for having taken responsibility for my actions and having served the time. Whatever else they may call me, they can never say rat; that's a name I would have had to take to the grave". Bravo, Stratton. Believe it or not, even an old hack can give you props for that!
An excellent book. Very well written. Very well told. I'm looking forward to going back and reading some of his earlier work.
Highly recommend!

LIfe in the Bureau of Prisons

Kingpin: Prisoner of the War on Drugs - Richard Stratton

Kingpin is a chronicle of the author's time spent incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons for trafficking in marijuana in the 1980's. As a retired official in that agency, I fully expected this book to be another "hit-job" on some con's prejudices against the BOP, as well as how he was an innocent bystander who never committed the crime. I was very pleasantly surprised. While Stratton (the author) does not pull punches over what he thinks was a bad organization (the Bureau of Punishment), he also doesn't deny his crimes. On the contrary, he admits them, is totally unrepentant, and is what we would have called a "real convict" (that's actually a compliment among officers). Stratton "does his own time", and never rats on anyone else. Even when the forces of the federal government are stacked against him to get him to roll over on his higher-ups, Stratton sucks it up and takes his lumps, receiving a much harsher sentence than if he had cooperated.
As far as his description of life in the BOP, I question some of his experiences with "dirty staff", but am not naive enough to not admit they may be true. In my over 20 years of service, I ran into dirty staff. And many, many staff like his "Smurf". Furthermore, his chronicling of the "diesel therapy", the life in the units, and his knowledge of (and exploiting) of the rules is pretty much spot-on. And, this may surprise Stratton, but even former BOP employees are dismayed at the way "the war on drugs" was handled.
There are times that I think Stratton overplays his sense of importance in prison. One example was "given my elevated status as the jailhouse lawyer par excellence in the joint". Yes, it was admirable that he self-taught himself law while locked up. But, F Lee Bailey he is not. And his claims of running units for the officers was overdone.
But, and this is the part I most enjoyed about the book. Stratton has an amazing gift of insight into himself. Time and time again in the book I found parts where he let down his guard and laid bare his soul. In the very beginning, he states "prison is an unreasonable place, for we live in a world of damaged men where all that matters is how one carries oneself". That describes prison to a T! Your life in prison, as an inmate or BOP employee, is all dependent upon how you carry yourself. Treat others with respect, be a man of your word, and do what you say you will, are the secrets to survival in prison.
Another quote: "Maybe my life here is not so bad, but it is still prison. The worst thing about prison, as I've said before, and I'll say it again, is that it's lonely. It is so fucking lonely. Brutally lonely, especially for a man who loves the company of women. Yes, you make friends.....And I've learned a lot about men from all strata of society. But at the end of the day, life in prison is as lonely as the tomb. You are cut off from the people you love, cut off from the real world and real life; and that is the punishment". So true. I wish he could speak to young people and express that to them.
Towards the end of the book, Stratton sums up his experiences well. "Criminal, inmate, convict, prisoner, kingpin, drug smuggler; these are the words the authorities use to describe me. But there is something to be said for having taken responsibility for my actions and having served the time. Whatever else they may call me, they can never say rat; that's a name I would have had to take to the grave". Bravo, Stratton. Believe it or not, even an old hack can give you props for that!
An excellent book. Very well written. Very well told. I'm looking forward to going back and reading some of his earlier work.
Highly recommend!

New Americans - Geoffrey C Scott Harrison

A good resource for late middle school or early high school students. Very timely!  Explores the history of, and the pro's and con's of immigration to the United States. Very easily readable. Somewhat of a more liberal leaning bias, but all in all, a good text. I did find the number of, and placement of the numerous insets and dialogue boxes to be very confusing, detracting greatly from the flow of the book. 

Golden Prey - John Sandford

It's been several years since I have read one of Sandford's "Prey" novels. I'm happy to say that I picked the right one to jump back into the series. This was a highly enjoyable book, and I had a hard time putting it down.
Sandford's protagonist, Lucas Davenport, has found himself in a new and exciting position. He has now been assigned to the U.S. Marshal's Service, as a special appointee. This move has allowed Sandford to move beyond the Minnesota area and expand the scope of Davenport's adventures.
Golden Prey's focus is on the robbery of a drug money counting operation, the people who stole the money, the cartel employee's trying to get the money back, and Davenport's team trying to apprehend them all. The novel moves across several states in the South, ending in the finale in Texas.
The novel moves along very fast, with action in every chapter. The characters are well developed. The action sequences are loads of fun. And the novel ends well, with enough of a teaser to keep readers coming back for the next one.
All in all, a great, fun read!