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A. Volk (Canada)
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Ender's Game
Ender's Game
by Orson Scott Card
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 9.49
125 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic in military science fiction, July 20 2014
Heinlein's Starship Troopers is rightly considered to be one of the best pieces of military science fiction ever written. Rather than being action-oriented, it is largely a philosophical book. In many ways, Ender's Game follows the same vein. There is more action and the philosophizing is less blatant. But I think it might actually surpass Heinlen's book in being thought-provoking. Heinlein asks what do citizens owe the military? Orson Scott Card asks much the same thing, only in a more ruthless fashion.

Because the hero of the book is a young boy. A brilliant young boy who will poked, prodded, and tested to make sure that he is indeed fit to lead humanity in a war against an alien species. The book brilliantly walks the line between outlining the angst and troubles of a boy growing up while simultaneously asking larger questions about morality, society, and duty. The ending is not a surprise to most people by now, but let me say that it clearly shocked me the first time I read the book. This is also one of those books that's definitely superior to the movie (which I though was actually decent). It's also a book that's well suited towards today's youth who are used to stories about child heroes. Only in this case, it's not nearly as easy to decipher who's a hero and who's a villain. Which is a large part of what makes this a brilliant book that's easy for me to recommend to anyone who likes fiction. The science fiction is important for the setting, but it's not a techno-geek story. Rather, the characters, the story, and the themes it addresses makes this a classic for the ages well worth reading. Five stars.

Superman Classic: The Superman Reusable Sticker Book
Superman Classic: The Superman Reusable Sticker Book
by Alaina Sudeith
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 7.59
28 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars Decent, but not great, July 16 2014
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This is a simple book of stickers that are broadly reusable. The children I gave it to had a hard time reusing the stickers more than twice, reducing its overall value. Still, the backgrounds are interesting and there are a variety of settings to put the stickers in. They work best on the specially surfaced paper in this book, but can also be applied to other surfaces (although that reduces their reusability). Overall then, it's an OK book for kids 3, maybe 3.5 stars out of 5.

The Big Bang Theory: The Complete Seventh Season
The Big Bang Theory: The Complete Seventh Season
Price: CDN$ 27.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Getting more comfortable with its new direction, July 15 2014
At around the end of Season 5, this series had to decide what direction it wanted to take. Was it going to continue being a series about a few awkward, nerdy men? Or was it going to be a show about awkward men and the women who love them? Well, the series went solidly in the second direction and I thought that it momentarily stumbled. The writing for the relationships was weird and awkward, and not in a funny way. Fortunately, in season 7 the writing seems to have straightened itself out. The relationships are still weird, but at least they seem to have developed in a plausible way. Raj still gets the short end of the relationship stick, but his latest fling involves someone who's weird enough to fit in with the group while still being different enough to have her own character. Sheldon and Amy seem to be evolving something of a normal relationship, while Penny and Leonard continue to be the stars of their group, but Sheldon remains the star of the show, even if he's softening some what over time and through human contact. That leaves Bernadette and Howard, who have become the "normal" pair of the group. Howard in particular has lost a lot of the bizarreness that made him unique, but he's still funny.

Overall then, I think the show is finding it's new footing as a weird version of Friends. It's still funny and it's still more intellectual than most shows. But I can't help but feel that some of the original charm, the oddness, of the show has gone missing for good as it transitioned into a more main-stream sitcom. It's still good enough to get four stars from me, but I can't quite give it a perfect 5 star rating.

Rockford Files: Season 2
Rockford Files: Season 2
DVD ~ James Garner
Price: CDN$ 12.99
22 used & new from CDN$ 12.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Solid Season 2 delivers for fans and for general audiences as well, July 15 2014
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This review is from: Rockford Files: Season 2 (DVD)
This is an excellent season for TV Guide's greatest detective (as he was voted). There is a good selection of episodes here, and the DVD set itself is rather sturdily constructed. One thing I like about these early episodes is that Jim rarely has to use his gun. This carriers through the series, but in Season 2 we hear Jim talking about his gun as a very last resort. Meaning his wits, guile, and smooth-talking are his main weapons. Which makes it more interesting to watch. Granted, it's not quite as far over in that spectrum as Columbo (my other favorite US detective), but it's definitely far more thought-oriented than most modern detective shows.

There is a short, but interesting interview with series co-creator Cannell, who reveals the origins of the ideas for the show, the challenges in getting it pitched, the challenge of creating new phone messages for each episode intro, and the importance of James Garner for the success of the pilot and the show. Speaking of which, we also get the pilot episode as a bonus. Given that I got this on one of Amazon's fairly regular DVD sales, it makes it a no-brainer for me to recommend this Season 2 of the Rockford Files not only for fans of the show, but for anyone who wants to watch some quality entertainment on TV.

Masterpiece Mystery: Endeavour Series 1
Masterpiece Mystery: Endeavour Series 1
DVD ~ Michael Matus
Price: CDN$ 24.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Superb prequel to Inspector Morse, July 9 2014
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This superb prequel to Inspector Morse features the life of our famous Inspector when he was early on in his career. The production values, the set design, the writing, and the acting are all superb. There are the four Season 1 epsidoes along with the pilot episode. There are no other bonus features other than subtitles, so it's a little thin on content. But in this case, quality more than makes up for quantity. I quite enjoy a range of detective shows, and Endeavour follows up on Inspector Morse's ability to deliver a top-notch British detective show that is less brazen and brash than its American counterparts (e.g., Rockford or Columbo), but equally entertaining. Great stuff, and easy to pass on a five-star rating for it.

Masterpiece Mystery: Endeavour Series 2
Masterpiece Mystery: Endeavour Series 2
DVD ~ Michael Matus
Price: CDN$ 27.97
16 used & new from CDN$ 25.92

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The legend of Morse continues, July 9 2014
The legend of Morse continues in this second series. It's rare for a prequel to capture the magic of the original series, but that's just what Endeavour does. The four 90 minute episodes are relatively few for a DVD set, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. Once more we get fantastic production values and great writing combined with great acting.

In terms of content, we get to see more of Morse's private side as he enters a romantic relationship. We also get a deeper glimpse into Fred Thursday's mind as we understand his life story. As I said above, the plots are well-written, but I can't really discuss them for fear of giving away spoilers. Let's just say that they are darn entertaining.

What we don't get are any significant extras such as director commentary or production notes. Which is a shame given how short the overall content is, and almost made me downgrade this season to 4 stars. But then the overall quality of the show, its actors, and its writing led me back to a five-star rating. If you liked the first season, Season 2 won't disappoint.

Hard Choices
Hard Choices
by Hillary Rodham Clinton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 20.00
33 used & new from CDN$ 19.21

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very detailed description, but lacking in deeper thoughts and connections, June 13 2014
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This review is from: Hard Choices (Hardcover)
This is the third book that I've recently read from Obama administration insiders. The first was Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. I quite enjoyed that book as it gave a very strong insight into Gates' experience under two difference administrations as well as very honest appraisals of himself and the people around him (or at least they seemed honest to me). The next book was Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises. It had plenty of details and made a passionate argument in favor of the Wall Street Bailouts. For the most part, I enjoyed it, but felt he ducked some pretty big questions. Which brings us to the current book. Overall, there's more depth and detail here than in either of the aforementioned books. That's not surprising given its greater length. A lot more pictures too. It offers some of the broader picture depth that Duty did as well as some of the passionate arguing that Stress Test did. But in some ways, it feels more shallow than either.

I think the problem was Hillary tried to cover too much. She also discusses events by theme (so China, then Burma), rather than a general chronological narrative. In some ways this helps keep your focus on a particular problem. But, by necessity, it also detracts from the overall flow of the book. You jump from one issue to another rather than seeing her tenure fold out in front of you like in the other two books. For me, it was a significant hindrance in understanding Hillary's overall path.

Also, the book really does read like a preparation for a US Presidential run. I would love to see a woman challenging for that position after having, as she says it, put 18,000,000 cracks in that ultimate glass ceiling when she almost won the 2008 primary. And given her significant experience, I think she's as least as qualified as the other challengers being mentioned in both parties. But while that might make for interesting history, it taints this book in that almost every decision, every moment, is explained. It feels like a mixture of defensive writing combined with a (slightly) preaching narrative. I would have preferred a more laid-back, honest approach. Don't get me wrong, she admits to mistakes when they happen. So it's very important for me to state that I didn't think she was lying or stretching the truth. It was just that the overall tone seems to clearly aim this book as a pitch for her credentials, making it a little drier to read than it might otherwise have been.

So do I recommend this book? If you are interested in Hillary as a person or politician, then the answer is definitely yes. If you are interested in what goes on behind the scenes for a US Secretary of State, then I also strongly recommend this book. It covers both famous events (infamous in the case of Benghazi) as well as important events that happened away from the world's cameras. Five stars for both of those reasons. If you are interested in reading a really entertaining, funny, and moving biography, well, then this is a little harder to recommend. It was good in places, but it did drag on in others. Maybe three stars for that.

That leads me to give this book an overall 4-star rating. If you know why you're buying it, you'll hopefully have a pretty good idea of what you're getting and whether you will enjoy it.

The Martian: A Novel
The Martian: A Novel
Offered by Random House Canada, Incorp.
Price: CDN$ 12.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Robinson Crusoe on Mars, June 8 2014
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The premise of this book is very simple- being shipwrecked/stranded on Mars. Mark Watney is an astronaut on the 3rd (?) manned mission to Mars. A severe storm comes up requiring everyone to evacuate. Unfortunately, during the storm Mark gets hit by debris and his signal is lost (so it looks like he's dead). Faced with the choice of waiting for him or losing their ride home, the remaining astronauts have no choice but to leave their (presumed) dead comrade behind. Only he isn't dead. And now he has to survive on his own until he can be rescued. IF he can be rescued!

This was a really fun book. It mixes Robinson Crusoe with MacGyver with accurate NASA-technology. It's well written, even if the characters are a little one-dimensional. This isn't the work of a great author in terms of character and story development. But the plot is awesome, full of surprises and great survival solutions, lots of techno-speak, and it moves along at a fast pace. So it's really a plot-driven story with enough grasp of character and story to keep it enjoyable. In fact, I read if very quickly in a very short period of time. Which is my usual go-to guide for whether a book is worth strongly recommending enough. The action was great, the problems and their solutions were fascinating, and the overall quality of the book is definitely good enough for me to recommend this book with 5 full stars!

Mr. Mercedes: A Novel
Mr. Mercedes: A Novel
by Stephen King
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 18.00
40 used & new from CDN$ 18.00

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fast-paced, well-written detective story, June 7 2014
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This review is from: Mr. Mercedes: A Novel (Hardcover)
I'll start off this review with what this book is not. It is not a horror story,although there certainly are disturbing scenes. It is not a supernatural story, although ghosts are referenced in the book. So what is it? A detective story, plain and true.

It starts off with a retired cop receiving a letter from a mass-murderer he never was able to catch. It then turns into a cat and mouse game where one tries to get the other (the cop to catch him, the murderer to get the cop to die). It's hard to discuss details without ruining the plot, so I'll try to stick to basic details. It's generally realistic and reminds me of a modern Rockford Files episode. As is true for most King novels, the characters are quick to grow on you. King's still a master of character development and the cast of characters is interesting and keeps growing as the book goes on. Some die, some stay on, but the plot keeps moving forward at a relentless pace.

The real strength of any detective story is the quality of the detective work. And it's quite high here. Nothing really implausible, just solid logic combined with the odd bit of luck here and there. I quite enjoyed reading about how Bill Hodges (the retired cop) profiles and starts closing in on Brady Hartsfield (the killer). King does a very good job with Brady, painting him as a very realistic psychopath. It might appeal to fans of shows like Criminal Minds, even though I don't like them (and King makes fun of them in his book).

So in some ways, this isn't a typical King book as the content is very mundane. But it is a typical King book in that it shows off the skills of a really good author (he even gets in a solid AC/DC reference or two). I read all 425+ pages in less than two days, which means it dominated my free time, which means it was a pretty darn entertaining book! If you are a fan of King's writing, or of detective stories in general, then this book is very easy to recommend to you. If you're looking for supernatural horror, then you're probably better off with some of his other books. Five stars.

Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises
Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises
by Timothy F. Geithner
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 25.08
39 used & new from CDN$ 16.51

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very detailed review of his work, May 27 2014
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Timothy Geithner was the head of the US Treasury Department during the second worst financial crisis of the country's history. This is his story of that crisis, himself, and the decisions that were made. It starts off with a brief biography, the main purpose of which is to emphasize his global background and like of ties with the banking industry prior to taking a job as head of the New York branch of the Federal Reserve. That is where he first encounters the troubling events of the Great Recession. A former Republican turned independent, he works with George W. Bush's team to try putting out of the fire that is the mortgage crisis. This turns into a 4-year gig as head of the Treasury under Obama.

Geithner comes across as someone who is genuinely passionate about his work and truly believes in his cause. His early exposure to market crises across the globe make him very wary of such events. He believes in a Colin Powell-style doctrine of bringing massive force to bear against a crisis. This underlies his very approach to the financial crisis. Using the analogy of fire-fighting, he views himself and his colleagues as the front line against a fire that could threaten to bring down the entire US economy (and the rest of the world with it). He argues long and hard for this approach. And for the most part, I believe him.

His general hypothesis is that the mortgage crisis, like all financial crises, was essentially a crisis of confidence. Once one bank/firm started to fall, people started running from others. This made them have to sell assets quickly to pay off people who wanted their money back, meaning they were selling into a losing/falling market, making them more likely to fail, making more people want to demand their assets, making them sell more at bigger losses, etc. I think he is right. It was a genuine panic. His solution was counter-intuitive, but sensible in this light. Pour lots of money into the system. Prop up the banks. Guarantee the security of firms that took out bad loans so that the panic would subside long enough for private money to begin propping up the banks and firms again.

Naturally, it's more complex than that with regards to different kinds of financial firms, a myriad of different government agencies controlling different kinds of financial groups, and a ridiculously uncooperative Republican base (for the most part, especially in Congress). Revealing more would be giving away the heart of the book, which is a very detailed review of the events, ideas, and decisions that underlay the government's response to the financial crisis. It makes for a very satisfying read in that it's easy to understand and clear to follow.

Only, I don't entirely buy the argument. Time and again Geithner pits the choice of propping up the markets, or giving in to fears of a moral hazard (i.e., encouraging weak banks to behave stupidly knowing they will be bailed out). He chooses the former, noting that fire alarms might encourage people to take risks with fire, but they're still good to have. He also points out that despite popular perception, the banks did end up paying the taxpayer a lot of money for the bailouts they received. That's all fine. But there are two huge wholes that he barely discusses.

First, banks almost immediately returned to record profits. Partly because the crises was generated by irrational fear that undervalued them (I bought as much stock as I could during the crisis myself). But that suggests that despite paying a penalty to taxpayers, they still made out very handsomely compared to the people who lost their jobs and their homes. Geithner argues that if he hadn't bailed them out, many more people would have lost their jobs and homes, so it was saving Wall Street to ultimately save Main Street. That's not quite cut and dry, even if I'm somewhat sympathetic to that argument.

Second, not a single person was prosecuted over the crisis. I for one can't believe no one at Standard and Poor didn't go to jail. It was so very, very, very clear to anyone who chose to honestly look that AAA mortgages where really garbage. I can't believe that no one in the big firms didn't see this either. In fact, I have an email from a major banking executive outlining a joke of what was coming in early 2008. They knew this was happening, and many bet on the government having to step in. Which they did. Sure, some like Lehman's or Bear Stearns lost that bet. But most didn't, and most made out well. I agree that refusing to repeatedly bail out AIG would have been cutting off one's nose to spite one's face (i.e., it would have sunk the economy), but surely someone was culpable of criminal negligence in their risk taking greed. But not one banker paid a legal price. A trend that continues to this day (read Taibbi's The Divide).

Overall then, I was quite satisfied that this book represents an honest and accurate behind the scenes look at the Feds' response to the biggest financial crisis in roughly a century. I am satisfied that, for the most part, Geithner made the right decisions, even if they weren't understood or weren't popular. But I'm not satisfied that the government did, or has done, all if could do to punish individuals for the moral hazard they created. For that reason, I'm giving this book four stars. As a purely accurate review of Geithner's experiences, then this is surely a five start book. It's got great details on the guts of the response, but also of all the people, personalities, politics, and pressures that went along with that response. And it does make me really very, very happy to be a Canadian- so long as our leaders take note of some of the lessons in this book. Four to five stars.

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