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Desert God: A Novel of Ancient Egypt
Desert God: A Novel of Ancient Egypt
by Wilbur Smith
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.33

4.0 out of 5 stars he's the greatest archer, poet, September 27, 2014
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I apparently live far from the cutting edge. It only took Wilbur Smith selling over 125 million copies of his books for me to pick him up for the first time with "Desert God," the fourth novel in Smith's Egyptian series. The legendary eunuch-slave Taita is back for another adventure as the right hand of Pharoah - this time waging war and weaving intrigues with the warlike Hyksos and the eerie Minoans.

Taita narrates the book, and he is a piece of work. Taita may be the most arrogant character I've ever encountered. At first, I confess that Taita's unrelenting self-love rankled - although this may be a problem caused by jumping into this series in Book 4. If you take everything Taita says about himself at face value, he's the greatest archer, poet, strategist, winemaker, horsemaster, architect, fashion designer, navigator, etc., the world has ever seen. The fact that this often turns out to be true is a bit tiresome as Taita teeters on the brink of the Superman Syndrome - a supremely gifted hero without flaws is actually rather boring.

But Smith actually has a lot of subtle fun with this as Taita's arrogance on several occasions does not hold up - if you pay attention, Taita's a rather unreliable narrator, and these are some of the most enjoyable and hilarious passages in "Desert God."

Smith's story is rather grim, as Egypt is weak and at the mercy of the barbarian Hyksos. These brutes occupy the land to the north of Egypt, barring Egypt from the sea and isolating Egypt in the hinterland. The mighty Minoans could aid Egypt in its efforts to eliminate the Hyksos, but it will take a spark to set the two other nations at odds. Taita is just the man to light that spark in a daring raid that is the first step in an adventure that eventually leads Taita to the glories of Babylon and the macabre depths of Knossos.

Smith is a robust writer, keeping the pages flying by but also transporting the reader to the ancient world. Bernard Cornwell may be Smith's British counterpart - Smith could easily step in as a ghost writer on Cornwell's Saxon series and Cornwell could write the fifth Egyptian novel and neither series would suffer. I adore Cornwell, so this is a high compliment.

To be fair both to Smith and to "Desert God," I need to read the first three books in this series - and I look forward to doing so.


Egg and Spoon
Egg and Spoon
by Gregory Maguire
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.37
59 used & new from $8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A new entry in the pantheon of great parables and myths for younger readers, September 11, 2014
This review is from: Egg and Spoon (Hardcover)
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Gregory Maguire ("Wicked," "Out of Oz," etc.) has left Oz behind in favor of an even-more-magical Tsarist Russia circa 1905 with "Egg and Spoon," a wonderful tale for older kids that, for my money, leaves the erratic, bloated "Oz" books in the dust. This is a fairy tale to rival Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy . . . a comparison I do not make lightly.

"Egg and Spoon" has a bit of a complex structure, as the tale is narrated by a prisoner of the Tsar, who is also a part-time player in the action. It makes for a slightly slow opening act, but pays off in the end as the narrator is sarcastic, insightful, and economical with details, but the details he employs are magical. Indeed, "Egg and Spoon" evokes the ancient, wild magic of Russia as well as any tale of magic I've read in years - perhaps better than any novel I've read since "The Night Circus." If you're a fan of lands teeming with fantastic creatures, mythical landscapes, and a sense of the fantastic, this book is for you. Without giving too much away, I reread a passage involving dragon-born soldiers dancing with enchanted matryoshka dolls three times, just thanks to sheer magical beauty of the scene.

At the outset, it seems that "Egg and Spoon" will be the tale of a simple Russian girl from the hinterland, Elena Rudina. Elena has all the makings of a heroine - poor, devoted, strong, soon to be an orphan, etc. Her village is dying as something seems to be playing havoc with the seasons - the winter snows are melting too early, which means there won't be enough water later for crops. The land is sick. A mere Russian peasant girl can't do anything about that, can she?

Well, when a train destined for a meeting with the Tsar stops in her village, fate drops Elena a lifeline. The train has characters and is a means to meet more, and Maguire populates "Egg and Spoon" with a number of wonderful characters, both mundane and fantastic. None are more fascinating and thrilling than the mystical Baba Yaga, a child-eating witch of Russian folklore. In Maguire's telling, she is an irreverent spirit of Mother Russia, but one with surprisingly modern sensibilities. Baba Yaga may dominate much of the book (in a good way), but she is only one of the terrific characters whom Elena will meet . . . many of which will grow and develop as much as Elena does in this wonderful book.

A terrific parable about age, wisdom, and folly, "Egg and Spoon" should be given to the young readers in your life (not too young - it's too much for many readers under 10).


Lexmark MS315dn Monochrome Printer
Lexmark MS315dn Monochrome Printer
Offered by Gadzooks.
Price: $206.80
22 used & new from $197.67

1.0 out of 5 stars We have been unable to make this printer work - no connectivity, September 4, 2014
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I hate to write a review at this premature stage, but I have had this computer now for over a month and we still have not been able to get it to work with our computer. Full disclosure, my wife has IT experience so we aren't exactly computer illiterate. We just cannot get the darn thing to connect to our computer during the set-up phase. We have bought new cables to bypass the wireless aspect, and that hasn't helped either.

Customer service has been less than helpful.

I reserve the right to revise this review when I get the computer up and running. I am praying for evidence that it is a problem on our end, but to date we have not been able to move this forward despite some reasonable diligence on our end.


If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission
If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission
by Jo Piazza
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.45
22 used & new from $7.88

7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A quick, inspiring glimpse into the lives of ten nuns quietly improving their corners of the world, August 24, 2014
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Jo Piazza ("Celebrity Inc.," "Love Rehab") has written long and well about the glamorous and the wealthy (and the intersection between the two). The former gossip columnist has turned her eye on a seemingly-anti-glamorous contingent, modern-day nuns. "If Nuns Rule the World" may not be a scholastic tome or academic treatise, and it may come across as skin-deep heroine-worship, but Piazza has undeniably selected ten wonderful case studies of the benefits of a purpose-driven life.

INRtW is a light, breezy book (around 250 pages) that can be easily digested in tidy chapter-sized bites. Her introductory chapter describes the world of the modern nun - freed from the cloisters, the penguinish habits, and the stereotypical vocation of beating terrified schoolchildren with yardsticks. Today's nuns are educated and dedicated to solving the world's real problems by living among the afflicted, whatever the afflication may be. In a saying that the religious might recognize, if you're going to be a shepherd, eventually you're going to smell like sheep. These nuns believe in the crazy notion that in order to improve the lives of the downtrodden, you must live and fight side by side with them rather than living above like so many other religious figures do.

And perhaps it comes as no surprise that today's nuns aren't exactly fully endorsed by today's Catholic leadership . . . a group that, shall we say, is not exactly balanced in gender composition. Piazza finds ten nuns who have found their calling nonetheless, and Piazza tells their stories in ten brief but moving chapters.

These nuns range from the defiant - taking on global inattention to torture and sex trafficking to denying the reality of age by running Ironman Triathlons at the tender age of 83 - to the compassionate - caring for children born in prison as well as their mothers, or ministering to young women exercising their legal rights to have abortions - to the brilliant - using the church's status as a prominent investor to push corporations toward adopting more ethical business practices. These nuns may come from different starting points, but they each found the same path to the Church. And they love it, in spite of its flaws.

Piazza makes the compelling case that these ten nuns are solving problems through investing their lives in the solutions. These are not women who pay lip service to anything. If these nuns ruled the world, actions might be valued a little more highly than a PR slogan.


Olympus Has Fallen (Two Disc Combo: Blu-ray / DVD + UltraViolet Digital Copy)
Olympus Has Fallen (Two Disc Combo: Blu-ray / DVD + UltraViolet Digital Copy)
DVD ~ Gerard Butler
Price: $9.99
113 used & new from $3.62

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A big box office smash-em-up fails on nearly every other level besides smashing., August 11, 2014
On occasion, Hollywood cranks out two such simliar movies that you wonder if market research has taken over, like a hive brain. (Pixar and Dreamworks unleashing "A Bug's Life" and "Antz" seemingly within seconds of each other remains the gold standard.) Hollywood thought that terrorists attacks on the White House were such an important artistic message that it cranked out "White House Down," complete with the Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum action figures, and "Olympus Has Fallen," which is among the most craven exercises in bombast I've ever seen.

I want to be fair - this is not a one-star review. A well-spoiled opening scene creates a surprising bit of tension for the First Family and their favorite pet, Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, a game action hero). Following the incident in which Manning saves the life of President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart, further indication that a lot of great actors were wasted here), Manning is nevertheless demoted to a desk job with the U.S. Treasury. The demotion is understandable, but you can hear the Good Man Will Earn Redemption plot wheels creaking mighty early.

President Asher has a nice moment with his son, Connor (Finley Jacobsen) cut short by the arrival of the South Korean Prime Minister for a diplomatic session. The ensuing action scene provides the high-water mark for the movie. A gunship, piloted by robotic Koreans, leads the first wave of an awesome attack on the White House. (For any Big Brothers reading this, I am speaking solely about how the attack is portrayed on film, not that an attack on the White House is awesome. It would be bad.) Blasting aside U.S. fighter jets, gunmen defending the White House, and random tourists, the gunship is truly terrifying before it finally brought down on the South Lawn, decaptiating the Washington Monument in the process.

President Asher and the other VIPs have been whisked away to the Presidential Bunker and everyone is fine. Incident over, right?

Wrong. As I wrote above, this was Phase I.

Manning has run to the White House from Treasury to protect the place and arrives in time to see two Koreans dressed as civilians move ominously toward the White House fence. He blasts one, but the other blows himself up, blasting a hole in the fence in the process. Another wave of Korean terrorists stream onto the White House grounds, blowing away the outmanned Secret Service (and in the process capitalizing on the relaxed culture of "conceal and carry" gun laws so adored by Republcans - I'm just saying there are counterarguments).

Within minutes, the terrorists have seized the White House and, thanks to a scummy bit of turn-coatery, the Bunker. Terrorist demands ensue, basically dictating that the U.S. turn its back on its commitment in Asia and opening the door to World War III

Agent Manning gets involved (turns out he's John Rambo's slightly-less efficient little brother) and becomes an avenging angel of American justice. He wins, and so do we.

Words cannot describe how, excluding the virtuoso attack scene, this is a paint-by-numbers affair that squanders talent. Morgan Freeman has never looked more ill-used as a timid (timid! Morgan Freeman is not timid!) Speaker of the House. His high-water mark occurs when he orders coffee - but leading the country, not so much. Angela Basset looks great (of course) and sounds like the steely woman you want to see in a crisis, but she basically gets to spout Manning's resume and listen to his updates on the phone. Dylan McDermott has some nice moments, but his character's motivation make no sense. Melissa Leo of "Treme" fame gets to chew the scenery a bit, but her character's fate surprises nobody.

Our villains invoke a plot with a stereotypical doomsday clock scenario that allows the ticking of an inanimate object to provide the tension that the script fails to deliver. Should the terrorists succeed in their effort, the consequences would be so dire that the real movie would be about the aftermath, not the event itself. Plus, this is a Hollywood Rock-em-Sock-em summer movie - the terrorists won't win. The question is how much collateral damage they will inflict and to whom.

Perhaps the most aggravating aspect of the movie is its borderline-racist treatment of the Korean terrorists. Please understand me - I DO NOT CRY 'RACISM' AT MOVIES! I DEFENDED JAR JAR BINKS WHEN HE WAS CALLED AN INTERGALACTIC BUTTERFLY MCQUEEN! But "OHF" treats the Korean terrorists as having the emotional range of spiders. Americans fighting for the flag shout, scream, and . . . communicate. The Koreans are denied the humanity of communication. Take the two Korean pilots who fly the initial attack - they do not say a word, not when attacking, not when under attack, NOT EVEN WHEN FLYING UPSIDE DOWN INTO THE WHITE HOUSE LAWN!!! They accept their fate with stoic silence. This is the same for virtually all the terrorists. The lead terrorist, Kang (Rick Yune) manages to look steely, smug and angry all at once, and his dialogue is so manipulatively villainous that Snidely Whiplash would be impressed.

I like the choice of Koreans as villains - it's a nice break from using the British or the Germans as safe stand-ins - but give these bad guys something to do. When director Antoine Fuqua watched "Die Hard" to prep for this movie, he should have noticed the small but very effective moments even the most minor villains had. Our Korean friends deserved better villainy.


Swiffer Wetjet Wood Starter Kit
Swiffer Wetjet Wood Starter Kit
Price: $19.49
10 used & new from $11.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent cleaning product - picks up the messes - but the hair-trigger solution dispenser needs a safeguard, August 7, 2014
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I am far from an expert in the home cleaning products market, but here is what I like about the Swiffer Wetjet Wood Starter Kit:

This product clearly picks up dirt - one look at the wiper/cloth after a few passes and you'll be slightly grossed out how much filth you're living in.

The cleaning solution appears to do the trick, it has a nice scent, and it dries quickly.

While not as good as a big heavy mop for difficult messes, for a lighter-weight product it attacks bigger and caked-on messes aggressively.

The Swiffer Wetjet stores easily in the closet and the little bottle/dispenser of cleaning solution clips firmly into place.

On the negative side, the Swiffer Wetjet has a hair-trigger button for dispensing the cleaning solution, and it is placed on the top of the handle in a location that makes it easy to accidentally squirt more cleaning solution than you intended. If you're going to have a sensitive button for this purpose, which is fine, it should be placed in a location that reduces casual bumping into the trigger - the hair trigger seems more designed to escalate your consumption of the cleaning solution than it does to help the user.


Tigerman: A novel
Tigerman: A novel
by Nick Harkaway
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.81
73 used & new from $11.00

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An original, heartwarming and surprising novel of heroism and decline, August 1, 2014
This review is from: Tigerman: A novel (Hardcover)
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Looking back over my reading history on Amazon.com, it appears that I am a big fan of familiarity. I like the comfort of series - A Song of Ice and Fire, the Gabriel Allon novels, Shelby Foote's epic Civil War narrative history . . . apparently I am drawn to big stories that just keep going. Apparently picking up The Lord of the Rings as a kid has left its mark.

But there is nothing like the thrill of discovering a new place and a new hero. Nick Harkaway's latest novel, "Tigerman," offers both, plus a new sidekick. Our hero is a unique creation - Lester Ferris, a middle-aged British soldier wounded in Afghanistan, seems at first to be the world-weary Brit you'll find in Graham Greene or John le Carre's books rather than a heroic figure. Stationed on the fictional island of Mancreu in the Arabian Sea, Ferris has an unusual beat - he represents Her Majesty's Government on a dying island. Ripped apart by (growing) ecological disasters, Mancreu will soon be put out of its misery by fire. The remaining population is gradually fleeing - Harkaway compares Mancreu to Casablanca, and the comparison is apt.

Ferris, as a lonely man, has few connections. He pursues a tortoise-paced courtship, but his strongest relationship is with a ten-year old island boy of unknown parentage but under the strong influence of comic books. Ferris and the boy - who eventually calls himself Robin - are the heart and soul of "Tigerman," but I will not spoil the journey of how these two vastly different souls connect. Suffice it to say that this is a relationship roller coaster that I'll ride again and again.

Mancreu itself provides the other completely original creation in "Tigerman." The island is dying in spectacular fashion as gases erupt from inside the earth to taint the sky, which in turn unleashes hellish red rain. While the good people of Mancreu gradually flee, the Black Fleet arrives to take advantage of the chaos - a rag-tag collection of pirates, drug-runners and other criminals - infests Mancreu's bay as the island's calamity offers a strange refuge from the Powers That Be. Lawlessness and chaos rise on Mancreu, and Ferris and the boy rise to the occasion to stop it.

Avoid all spoilers, or even highly detailed reviews, of "Tigerman." Harkaway has written an entirely original novel that should be explored on its own merits rather than through the filter of Internet reviews that give away its charms - to put it another way, you'd rather hear Eddie Murphy tell a joke than have your friend tell you an Eddie Murphy joke. The joke remains funny, but you'd rather hear Murphy tell it.


The Wind Is Not a River
The Wind Is Not a River
by Brian Payton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.33
102 used & new from $1.85

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterful setting for an insightful, occasionally discombobulating war novel, July 29, 2014
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The Internet was built for hyperbole, and five-star reviews on Amazon.com seem to be one more outlet for irrational exuberance. If you've listened to the "How Did This Get Made" podcast, you know that Amazon reviewers have willingly bestowed five-star reviews on the worst artistic dreck imaginable. And so it is that I try to be sparing in my five-star reviews. (You also have to protect yourself - if you give away five-star reviews like penny candy and then come across something you truly love, how can you praise it? If you should be wary of crying wolf, you should be wary of crying awesome.)

But Brian Payton's "The Wind Is Not a River" got to me in a way that few books have recently. While on its surface this is yet another WWII love story, Payton has written a book that is entirely new to me by setting the novel in one of the bleakest, oddly fascinating landscapes of the War - the Aleutian Islands. You surely know the plot by now and I am going to be brief so as to preserve the book's charms for you, but Payton's sense of setting is masterful. Scores of authors have placed us in the trenches of war, but no author in my experience has set his novel in the frigid islands to our north, where isolation can terrorize while it protects you.

Payton's love story is true, his understanding of a single human's role in the great dance is somewhat bleak while also captivating, and his story does not lead you to an obvious conclusion five chapters in advance. This is not necessarilly a fun read, but it is a great one.


A Colder War
A Colder War
by Charles Cumming
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.07
68 used & new from $10.79

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A murky spy novel in the vein of John le Carre or Graham Greene, July 26, 2014
This review is from: A Colder War (Hardcover)
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Spies in novels tend to come in two categories. They are either descendants of the James Bond/Spy as Superman lineage, or they are more in the Spy as Tortured Soul, such as Alec Leamas from "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold."

Charles Cumming's Thomas Kell (some of you may have seen him in Cummings' earlier work, "A Foreign Country," although I did not) definitely falls into the latter category, which I confess I prefer. It's hard to out-Bond Bond without becoming a dull juggernaut, but something rings true in tales of the personal toll espionage takes on patriotic, talented men and women.

At the outset of "A Colder War," Kell has been sidelines due to the events of the previous novel, but he gets called back into the game after a joint British-American mission goes terribly wrong and a good British agent dies mysteriously soon afterwards. MI6 leader Amelie Levene knows she can trust Kell to do his level best to get to the bottom of things, so she brings him back into the game.

Daniel Craig could never play Thomas Kell - he's from the Richard Burton class of spy, far more content to keep his weight down through cigarettes rather than hitting the gym. But Kell's got a big old brain and the tenacity of a bulldog. Those two traits serve him well in Cummings' world, where spies spend a lot of time sitting, thinking, and observing. Someone once said that fighting in a war is several hours of boredom followed by five minutes of absolute terror. Cummings' espionage is like that, for while on occasion guns are drawn and blood is shed, for the most part spies are detectives, sifting through details that regular schlubs like me would easily miss.

A jet-setting novel largely set in Constantinople, "A Colder War" offers a complex story, murky motives, and a dizzying cast of characters. While at several points in the novel I had lost track of just who was who, and the American presence in the novel is not always clear, I must admit that this may be due to the fact that I had not read Cummings' early Thomas Kell novel so I may be missing some critical backstory. Thanks to the successes of "A Colder War," I will definitely go back and read "A Foreign Country," and I reserve the right to amend this four-star review if getting that backstory puts "A Colder War" on firmer footing.

Definitely recommended.


Fool's Assassin: Book One of the Fitz and the Fool Trilogy
Fool's Assassin: Book One of the Fitz and the Fool Trilogy
by Robin Hobb
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.71
69 used & new from $13.01

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Living (largely) on the sidelines with a hero, July 7, 2014
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With "Fool's Assassin," Robin Hobb kicks off another trilogy that follows in the wake of her demi-classic Farseer trilogy. This is my first foray into Hobb's books, and one quickly gets the sense that the characters in "Fool's Assassin" have a lot of juicy backstory worth exploring.

"Fool's Assassin" confounds expectations. The fantastic cover features a promising shot of Fitz Farseer, assassin and key political player in the Six Duchies. Fitz trods through snow with a grim look on his face as he scans the horizon, equipped with a lethal two-headed axe. For the uninitiated, Fitz appears to be a man of action.

Hobb confounds that expectation by giving Fitz as much ambition as a plowhorse. For a variety of reasons, Fitz has left the excitement (and, admittedly, the dangers) of his former life behind to run a bucolic rural estate. This move makes sense as Hobb makes it clear through Fitz's memories that he has little love for his former life - plus Fitz is now married to Molly, his childhood sweetheart. Fitz struggles with domesticity, and the reader wonders what will be the spark that gets him off the sidelines.

For hundreds of pages, no such spark occurs. We literally spend years with Fitz on the estate - it's as if Hobb wants to write "The Pillars of the Earth" about running a fictional estate. Several characters try to bump Fitz out of his life of blessed normalcy, but he fends them off, all the while ruminating over his former life and the scars he carries.

Hobb writes very well, and I enjoyed Fitz's thoughts and occasional bursts of semi-action. But while Fitz is not Jack Reacher - a cipher if not given a murderous plot to thwart - he's an assassin gifted with magical talents . . . he needs more to do than "Fool's Assassin" gives him. With "Sharpe's Devil," Bernard Cornwell gave us a Richard Sharpe trying to live the life of a country farmer before getting re-entangled with Napoleon's adventures. Imagine if the first 300 pages had been Cornwell's description of Sharpe on the farm - Cornwell surely would be able to make it interesting, but this is not why we read the Sharpe novels.

I enjoyed learnig about Fitz's role in the Six Duchies, but I imagine that if you knew this backstory from reading the earlier books you might be extremely frustrated with the languid pace of "Fool's Assassin." I recommend the book, advisedly.


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