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Sean's Book Reviews

***** Excellent, highly recommend

  **** Good book, worth reading

    *** OK, you may like it

      ** Not worth reading

        * Not worth publishing!

Russian Writings on Hollywood by Ayn Rand ***

Interesting essays about Hollywood written by a young Ayn Rand while still in Russia.  (06/07)

State of Fear by Michael Crichton ****

An entertaining story which also exposes the flaws in the theory of man-made global warming.  (06/07)

The Chilling Stars by Henrik Svensmark and Nigel Calder *****

An excellent science book which provides a plausible scientific theory--with experimental data--which explains the global warmings and coolings that have occurred throughout history.  It is also an interesting look at how real science is done, with all the chance occurrences, necessary hard work and confounding surprises. (05/07)

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick **

An interesting premise--what if the Nazis and the Japanese won WWII--executed poorly.  The characters are thin and the plot quite boring.  (04/07)

Triggerfish Twist by Tim Dorsey ***

Similar to Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen--entertaining pop-fiction set in the seedy parts of Florida--but the characters were not as well developed.  (12/06)

Citizen Soldiers by Stephen E. Ambrose *****

Great history of World War II in Europe from the soldiers' perspective.  (10/06)

The Curse of Lono by Hunter S. Thompson ***

This book was about Thompson and his artist friend Steadman (who illustrated the book) going to Hawaii to cover a marathon and then getting mixed up in drugs, storms and nightmare fishing trips.  It was a mix of journalism and fiction and it was hard to tell sometimes where the line was.  (6/06)

The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics by James S. Valliant ***

The best part of this book is the last third which contains Ayn Rand's private journal entries about her affair with Nathaniel Branden and their break-up due to Branden's lies to and exploitation of her.  She demonstrates Objectivism in action in regard to her own personal problems, and it is highly insightful.  The rest of the book debunks the biographies of Nathaniel Brandon (Judgement Day) and Barbara Branden (The Passion of Ayn Rand) as groundless personal attacks on Ayn Rand.  Once I knew that both of the Brandens lied to and deceived Ayn Rand, I didn't need much more analysis on how the Brandens smeared Rand in their biographies.  This made the first two-thirds of the book somewhat tedious, but the last third more than made up for it.  (6/06)

Foundation by Isaac Asimov ***

This is a loosely connected series of short stories which is more political fiction than science fiction.  I didn't like it as much as I, Robot.  (5/06)

American Soldier by General Tommy Franks ****

Good biography covering Franks' experience in the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom.  I didn't like it as much as Schwartzkopf's autobiography because the writing was not as genuine.  (5/06)

Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen ****

Entertaining pop-fiction.  (4/06)

The Sword of the Prophet by Serge Trifkovic ****

This book has a lot of great information about Islam, from its founding by Mohammad, to its expansion through conquest, to its current rule in the Middle East and beyond.  Of most interest to me was that Islam is more than just a religion, it's a way of life which proscribes rules not only for ethics but also for politics.  Islam demands a connection between church and state, so I'm dubious about the prospects of a secular democracy taking hold in the Middle East.  This book also makes a strong point that Islam demands "jihad" against non-believers, making the case that Islam is definitely not a "religion of peace".

The book is a bit high-brow (too many phrases such as "cultural relativism and anti-historicism") and the author has a clear bias towards Christianity as an antidote to Islam.  But it did a good job of explaining what Islam really is and why it is a danger to Western civilization.  (4/06)

War Stories by Oliver North ****

Good, journalistic account of the second Persian Gulf war describing Oliver North's experiences as an embedded reporter.  Not great writing, but an honest and pro-American account of the war.  (3/06)

Ayn Rand Answers by Robert Mayhew ***

Really only of interest to Ayn Rand fans.  Not much new material and not as well composed as her articles.  Enough interesting comments to make it worth reading for fans of Ayn Rand.  (2/06)

Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose ****

As good as the HBO miniseries.  (1/06)

Sky of Stone by Homer Hickam *****

The third autobiography about Coalwood, and just as good as the first two.  This one has a Christmas theme and would have been a great Christmas classic if Homer has titled it "A Coalwood Christmas" as he had considered. (12/05)

It Doesn't Take a Hero by General H. Norman Schwarzkopf *****

Excellent biography which includes not only the first Gulf War but also Schwarzkopf's experience with the army during Vietnam and Grenada.  (11/05)

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov ****

Entertaining short stories about robots.  (10/05)

The Time Trap by Alec Mackenzie ****

Good suggestions to help in time management.  (9/05)

A Matter of Accountability:  The True Story of the Pueblo Affair by Trevor Armbrister ***

Only the second half of the book is about the sailor's time in captivity.  Not especially well written, but interesting enough to keep me reading.  (8/05)

The Ambassador's Son by Homer Hickam ****

This was an entertaining and well-written sequel to The Keeper's Son.  It takes the hero Josh Thurlow into the south pacific in the middle of WWII on a secret mission.  (5/05)

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein **

This was quite a silly book, and boring too.  I never really cared about the characters or their far-fetched circumstances. (1/05)

The Coalwood Way by Homer Hickam *****

I enjoyed this follow-up to Rocket Boys as much as the first--more good writing from Homer Hickam.  (12/04)

Monna Vanna by Maurice Maeterlinck ****

I enjoyed this play set with heroic characters and a captivating plot. (12/04)

Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee ****

This was a quick, entertaining play which was based on the Scopes Monkey trial. (12/04)

Essays on Ayn Rand's We the Living edited by Robert Mayhew ***

A number of the essay's were quite good but some were only so-so.  I will only be of interest to people who are fans of Ayn Rand and her novel, We the Living. (12/04)

Back to the Moon by Homer H. Hickam, Jr. ***

This is Hickam's first novel and, while action-packed, it is not as suspenseful or as well written as The Keeper's Son (see below). (11/04)

We the Living by Ayn Rand *****

This is a great book about the effect that communism--or any dictatorship--has on the individual.  The style is more similar to a Victor Hugo novel than Ayn Rand's later works (The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged), and contains a fascinating view of life in Soviet Russia right after the communist revolution. (10/04)

The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff **

This collection of short stories was well written but I didn't like the author's pessimistic sense of life. (08/04)

Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway ***

This was a good introduction to the techniques of writing fiction.  Especially useful were the tips on mistakes that beginning writers often make and how to avoid them. (08/04)

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming ***

This is the first James Bond novel and the first one I've read.  It is not particularly well written, but it kept me interested and was a quick read.  Unexpectedly, I found the screen persona of James Bond to be more heroic and cooler than his literary counterpart. (08/04)

Torpedo Junction by Homer Hickam ***

This non-fiction work covers the battles during World War II on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. between the German U-boats and the Americans who fought to protect the merchant shipping.  It is quite detailed which makes it a somewhat slow read, but it is for the most part interesting and well written. (07/04)

Rocket Boys/October Sky by Homer Hickam *****

The movie October Sky was based on this book, and--as is usually the case--the book is even better.  Homer Hickam is an excellent story teller, detailing his teenage years when he built rockets with his friends for a science fair competition. (07/04)

The Keeper's Son by Homer Hickam *****

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel which takes place during World War II on the outer banks of the easter U.S. where German U-boats are attacking merchant ships.  The characters are excellently developed and the plot is suspenseful and well-paced.  This is the first book in a trilogy, and I look forward to the next installment. (06/04)

The Crying Sisters by Mabel Seeley ***

This murder mystery was just OK.  I had a hard time caring about the main character and therefore I wasn't too interested in the story or the suspense. (05/04)

Angels & Demons by Dan Brown ***

After reading The Da Vinci Code by the same author, I was hungry for more.  This one was also enjoyable and a quick read.  Angels & Demons involves a plot against the Vatican using a new kind of bomb.  The main story is of two characters working together to decipher hidden meaning in art work placed throughout Rome in order to stop a killer.  As in The Da Vinci Code, the characters never really come to life, but the plot is fast paced and keeps the reader interested. (02/04)

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown ****

I enjoyed this thriller which is more of a screenplay for a Hollywood movie than a novel.  The premise is that Da Vinci and other renaissance artists hid clues to a dangerous secret in their art.  The story involves the two main characters trying to unravel that secret while being chased by the French police and by a sect of the Roman Catholic church.  It was quite interesting to view some of the art work mentioned in the book and see the hidden clues for myself.  Unfortunately, the author has a few too many plot twists at the end which stretched the imagination too far. (02/04)

The God Particle by Leon Lederman ****

This was an entertaining look at particle physics written by one of the scientists who made some of the major discoveries.  Written for the layman, it nonetheless gets quite technical at times and gives a detailed description of what is known about the constituents of matter.  Lederman also gives a brief but informative history of physics which I found useful. (02/04)

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card ****

This is the sequel to Ender's Game and was quite good.  The characters were better developed than in Ender's Game, although it didn't have a surprise plot twist that I enjoyed so much in Ender's Game.  Some of the science fiction biology was unrealistic, but it was interesting to think about nonetheless. (01/04)

Death in Paradise by Robert B. Parker ***

This is the third Jesse Stone novel, and I have to say I didn't enjoy it as much as the first two.  About one quarter of the novel dealt with the "hero's" attempt to get over his drinking problem, and I found it detracted from the story. (12/03)

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card ****

I enjoyed this science fiction novel because of its good plot.  The writing isn't great and some of the futuristic premises are off-base, but these are easy to look past and they do not interfere with the very entertaining story. (11/03)

Chess for Dummies by James Eade ****

This is an excellent introduction to chess for beginners--which I am.  It not only explains tactics (like pinning and forking), but strategy as well (e.g. controlling the center).  It was also entertaining to read as it was peppered with humorous stories and interesting chess facts. (10/03)

A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram *

This book was a huge disappointment.  I met Wolfram in 1996 when he was touting the new release of his Mathematica program.  He mentioned that he was working on his own research which dealt with the ways cellular automata (a type of simple program) can emulate living processes.  As I am interested in the field of artificial life, I was quite anxious to read his book.

The first six chapters (two-fifths of the book) are simply examples of cellular automata and the patterns that they make.  Chapters 7-10 show how these cellular automata can allegedly be used to explain things in the real world.  Having gotten through the very dry preliminary chapters, I was looking forward to the applications chapters.  Unfortunately, these chapters are very speculative with little substance.

I stopped reading the book after Wolfram claimed to have found an exception to the second law of thermodynamics (which deals with entropy).  In claiming that one of his programs was an exception, he is forgetting that the second law is for closed systems and his program--if realized in any concrete form--would be an open system requiring an input of energy.

Finally, the title is also a problem.  If one wants people to adopt a new science, it should be given a name.  The title "A New Kind of Science" only makes sense as a subtitle.  Any name would be better than no name at all.  But even more problematic is that most of the alleged new science he claims to have discovered is already known in the fields of cellular automata and artificial life.  For someone interested in these areas, I strongly recommend Steven Levy's "Artificial Life" over this book.  [read ch. 1-9] (10/03)

The Teeth of the Tiger by Tom Clancy ***

Tom Clancy moves onto his next generation of characters with this novel.  One of the three main characters is Jack Ryan, Jr., the former hero's son.  This book deals with a secret counter-terrorism group and is very timely.  However, the plot is fairly linear and is less complex than Clancy's best.  It also suffers from peaking about two-thirds of the way through, and the last third has little drama or suspense.  Despite these drawbacks, it was still an enjoyable read. (9/03)

Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan ***

This book had an interesting story up until about two-thirds of the way through when a catastrophe occurred.  The novel takes place in Halifax, and the catastrophe was a munitions ship explosion in 1917 in that city.  Unfortunately, the unexpected explosion was used to resolve all of the main conflicts and was anticlimactic. (8/03)

Essays and Sketches of Mark Twain by Mark Twain ****

Mark Twain cracks me up.  I especially enjoyed his "The Awful German Language"--because I took four semesters in college--and his "Extracts from Adam's Diary" and "Eve's Diary".  His essay "Is Shakespeare Dead?" convincingly makes the case that Shakespeare's plays were not in fact written by the Shakespeare from Stratford. Most of the other essays are interesting, although some of them would benefit from an editor explaining the historical context of the essay. (5/03)

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute ****

This book is about a woman who survives a Japanese "death march" during WWII and how the experience leads her to accomplish great things later in life.  The first part of the book describing the "death march" was a bit depressing, but I really enjoyed the last two thirds of the book after that. (3/03)

Poetics by Aristotle **

I didn't get much out of this book, but it may be the fault of the translator.  Half of the time, I didn't know what Aristotle was talking about because the translation was so literal.  The parts I did understand were either quite basic or arbitrary assertions, such as the "best" type of plot twist.  Oh well, at least it was short. (1/03)

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton **

I found this book fairly interesting and a quick read.  It was about a new strain of bacteria from space which had the potential to cause a plague-like epidemic.  However, even though I'm a scientist, I found that there was too much scientific detail at the expense of a more involved plot.  I got the impression Crichton was trying to impress everyone with his knowledge of science, and it detracted from the story. (1/03)

Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker ****

This is the third Spenser novel and I really liked it.  It involved a Red Sox pitcher being investigated for throwing games which quickly became much more complicated than the characters anticipated.  The action and plot are very good, and Spenser has some interesting moral dilemmas. (1/03)

Heart of a Pagan: The Story of Swoop by Andrew Bernstein *

I cannot recommend this book.  It was touted as comparable to Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead in terms of inspiration but it didn't even keep me interested.  The problem, I think, is that Andrew Bernstein is not a professional writer, and it shows.  The plot structure is very basic, there is too much narration, most of the characters are not well developed, there are too many unexplained references to Greek culture and mythology, the analogies are laughable and the dialog is terrible.  I was very disappointed and had trouble finishing it.  (12/02)

Red Rabbit by Tom Clancy **

Of all Tom Clancy's major works of fiction, this is the first one I cannot recommend.  It is a historical novel centered around the assassination attempt on the Pope in the early eighties.  Jack Ryan is featured in all of the key scenes, but he is less heroic than in previous novels.  The story is much less complicated than previous works, and there is little suspense since the outcome is already known.  (12/02)

The Diversity of Life by Colin Tudge ****

This is a fascinating yet quite technical look at how scientists try to classify all living things.  The premise is to group living things according to how and when they evolved, rather than on characteristics or modes of living.  It leads to some interesting groupings and some interesting insights into evolution.  It is probably only of interest to biologists or people who have always wondered how to classify living things--such as myself!  [read ch. 1-8]  (11/02)

Facets of Ayn Rand by Mary Ann Sures and Charles Sures ****

This was an enjoyable, quick memoir from Mary Ann and Charles Sures about their working and personal relationships with Ayn Rand.  It offered interesting glimpses into Ayn Rand's personal life, but it is probably only of interest for serious Ayn Rand fans.  For not-so-serious fans, Letters of Ayn Rand is a more thorough look into Ayn Rand's personality and also contains many more philosophical insights.  (7/02)

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler ***

I didn't enjoy this novel as much as Robert B. Parker's novels, but it was still interesting.  I found the plot overly complicated and I was indifferent to the characters most of the time.  On the positive side, Chandler's style is entertaining and sets a definite mood which fits the story well. (6/02)

Poodle Springs by Raymond Chandler & Robert B. Parker ***

Raymond Chandler only wrote the first four chapters before he died and Robert B. Parker finished it off in Chandler's style.  I enjoyed it almost as much as Parker's other novels, although I like Parker's main characters better than Philip Marlowe. (5/02)

God Save the Child by Robert B. Parker ****

This is the second Spenser novel which I enjoyed as much as the others.  I read it while waiting for my wife to be induced in the hospital (for our son Calvin), and it was a welcome diversion. (4/02)

Whispering Smith by Frank H. Spearman ***

This is the first western I've read, and it was an enjoyable story with a well-paced plot.  The characters were heroic, although they could have been more fully developed. (3/02)

Cold War by Jerome Preisler ***

This is part of the "Tom Clancy's Power Plays" series.  It was pretty good, but the plot structure was no where near as complex as Tom Clancy's novels.  Nonetheless, it kept me interested until the end. (2/02)

From Sea to Shining Sea by Robert Leckie ****

(Parts 1 & 2)  The first part on the war with the Barbary pirates was very interesting.  It was amazing how the events unfolded similarly to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The second part on the War of 1812 was also very interesting; it gave a very different perspective on the war than I got in school. (1/02)

Trouble in Paradise by Robert B. Parker ****

Another enjoyable story with Jesse Stone as hero. (8/01)

The Art of Non-fiction by Ayn Rand *****

Excellent advice for writing articles which apply philosophy to current events and issues. (7/01)

The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain edited by Charles Neider ****

I enjoyed about half of the stories because of their humor and satire, particularly his earlier works.  I didn't enjoy many of the later stories because they were cynical and had a pessimistic sense-of-life, the best example being The Mysterious Stranger.  It's too bad Twain didn't have a rational philosophy available to him; he was clearly disgusted by the irrationality he saw around him and took it as a fact of life. (6/01)

Simply Halston by Steven Gaines ***

This biography of the fashion designer Halston was quite entertaining.  It covered the ups and downs of his ever-changing career as well as his wild nights at Studio 54 with his famous and freakish friends. (3/01)

The Mysterious Valley by Maurice Champagne ****

Written in French and published in 1915 (I read a 1994 edition translated by Bill Bucko), this is a great adventure story which is action-filled and portrays truly heroic characters.  Although written more for children, it was very enjoyable reading it as an adult. (3/01)

Microbes and Man by John Postgate ****

This was a fascinating survey of the importance of bacteria and other microscopic organisms to industry, waste-disposal, agriculture and scientific research.  It is very well written for the lay person.  (2/01)

Night Passage by Robert B. Parker ****

This murder-mystery novel introduces Parker's character Jesse Stone, a police officer in a small town in Massachusetts.  He's a heroic character with many of the same qualities as Spenser, although less of a smart-ass and more reticent.  I enjoyed Night Passage as good, light reading.  (1/01)

Delivered from Evil - The Saga of World War II by Robert Leckie ****

This complete one-volume history of WWII is excellent.  Leckie describes the war on all levels, from global strategy to life in the trenches.  He also gives biographies of important people and discusses new weapons and new tactics which were developed.  (1/01)

The Bear and the Dragon by Tom Clancy ***

A typical good Clancy novel, but with some annoying political commentary.  I didn't like it as much as his last four books, but the last fifty pages were really good—except for that last sentence, what a horribly cheesy way to end a book!  (11/00)

I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane ***

Entertaining, but a bit silly in places.  Plus, the book I have is based on the 1981 movie and one of the captions under the pictures in the middle gave away the ending!  (9/00)

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk **

Frankly speaking, the movie was better.  The movie contains 90% of the scenes and it actually makes more sense.  Plus, the visuals in the movie add a lot to the mood, and overall it's more suspenseful than the book. (8/00)

The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker ****

This novel introduces Parker's main protagonist Spenser, a private detective with integrity, intelligence and wit.  I laughed out loud a number of times while reading this one. (6/00)

The Art of Fiction by Ayn Rand *****

Ayn Rand gives excellent advice to would-be writers on how to create a suspenseful plot, vivid characterizations and a riveting climax.  It is also useful for avid fiction readers who would like to understand why they like and dislike the things they read. (6/00)

Hush Money by Robert B. Parker ****

A very entertaining mystery with private investigator Spenser involving the death of a gay college student and university politics. I especially enjoyed Parker's portrayal of multiculturalist professors. (4/00)

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair *

An inept polemic for socialism. The protagonist is utterly unsympathetic, and the author does not understand the difference between economic power and political power. (4/00)

Hell's Angels by Hunter S. Thompson ****

A rambling account of the adventures of the California Hell's Angels. They're an interesting lot but probably only of interest to those interested in motorcyclists' bad-boy reputation—and these dudes were as stupid as they were bad. (4/00)

A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance by William Manchester ****

An interesting history which ties together life in the dark ages, the reformation of the Roman catholic church and the circumnavigation by Magellan. I especially liked learning about the orgies, murders and other bad deeds done by the popes and their bishops—funny, I didn't learn about that in catholic school. (3/00)

To the White Sea by James Dickey **

The Coen brothers—makers of one of my favorite movies, Miller's Crossing—are making a movie out of this book so I thought I'd read it. It's about an American shot down over Tokyo during WWII and his adventures trying to stay alive and to get north where he believes he'll be safe. While it was quite interesting and a quick read, I disliked the main character towards the end of the book and didn't really care what happened to him after that. It's definitely not a book for a hero-worshipper like myself, but interesting nonetheless. (2/00)

The Outer Reaches of Life by John Postgate ****

This book is a survey of interesting bacteria that live in extreme environments—heat, cold, acid, pressure. It also discusses interesting features of bacteria such as their ability to live cooperatively, to 'hibernate' and to eat rocks. The author is quite witty as well as knowledgeable about his subject. (2/00)

Dark Life by Michael Ray Taylor ****

Fascinating book about extremophiles—bacteria which can live in extreme environments like heat, cold, acid, high pressure—and 'nanobacteria', some of which the author found in caves he had explored. He also discusses the evidence for life on Mars, which was very interesting. A very entertaining book but I'm still not sold on the idea of 'nanobacteria'. (1/00)

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand *****

The best book I've ever read (and this was the third time). The best defense of reason, egoism and capitalism. The most heroic characters. The clearest explanation of what's wrong with the world today and how to fix it. (1/00)

Life Itself by Boyce Rensberger ****

Subtitled "Exploring the Realm of the Living Cell", this book is an excellent survey of some recent developments in molecular, cellular and developmental biology. (11/99)

Investigating Disease Patterns: The Science of Epidemiology by Paul D. Stolley and Tamar Lasky ****

Very interesting stories about how the causal relationships for diseases are discovered. (6/99)

Chance by Robert B. Parker ****

Quite entertaining and a good hero. Light summer reading. (6/99)

Drugs and the Brain by Solomon H. Snyder ***

Interesting look at how molecules affect the mind, from illicit drugs to medicines which improve health. (5/99)

Tales of the Mall Masters by David Gulbraa *

A really terrible book. It was advertised as a vision of an Objectivist world (along the lines of Galt's Gulch in Atlas Shrugged) but it was a big disappointment. Not only is the author unskilled at character development and plot construction, he also has some big misunderstandings of the philosophy of Objectivism. Save your money and don't buy this book. (5/99)

Genes and the Biology of Cancer by Harold Varmus and Robert A. Weinberg ***

Pretty good introduction to the how cancer develops and current strategies for treating it. (4/99)

The Ayn Rand Reader by Gary Hull and Leonard Peikoff ****

Excellent! Even though I'd read most of the selections, Ayn Rand's writing is worth reading twice. The selections are very good and I think it would be a fine introduction to Ayn Rand's philosophy for those who are interested. (4/99)

Molecules and Mental Illness by Samuel H. Barondes *

I didn't like this one. One of the author's premises (and most of the scientific community's) is that many psychological problems are genetically based, at least in part. I am not convinced by the evidence given in the book. However, the book gave a nice overview of the psychological problems currently being treated with drugs. (3/99)

The Secret of Life by Joseph Levine and David T. Suzuki ***

This is a very readable account of the ways scientists are using the tools of molecular biology to change living systems. It talks about gene therapy, cloning, cancer and immunology with an emphasis on how these areas have been influenced by molecular biology. (3/99)

Viruses by Arnold J. Levine ****

I really enjoyed this introduction to viruses and how they work. (3/99)