Worst. President. Ever. by Robert Strauss

The annual Presidential Rankings were released a few days ago (on Feb 22, President’s Day) and I  was intrigued by the complexity of the project.  This is the 3rd year C-Span has hosted this and it’s a pretty stable indicator – done by 90+ historians with the usual suspects in their usual places  – movement up or down from year to year is usually slight.
( see C-span.org https://www.c-span.org/presidentsurvey2017/  )  –  Obama came in at #12 this year and Eisenhower’s rating has inched up over the last three years.

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*******
Worst.  President.  Ever.
by Robert Strauss
2016 /  304 pages
read by Tom Perkins 8h 51m
rating: –    /  presidential biography
*******

Anyway,  I saw the name of President #15,  James Buchanan , at the bottom (#43)  of the lists almost every time in every category.   Only in 3 of the 10 categories analyzed did he move to #42 or #41.

So I asked myself why?  What all did he do that was so bad?   Look at William Harding or  George W. Bush or Franklin Pierce for comparison.   And because I felt like I wanted an answer I went to Amazon and checked out biographies of Buchanan.   I found a few,  nowhere near the number of many presidents and one was available in Audio format. It sounded kind of light and had got decent reviews – not a dry dissertation of dusty details.  I didn’t necessarily want to become bogged down in Buchanan,  so that’s what I got.

Strauss makes no bones about his own political leanings although I can’t find the specifics.  It just comes across.  And yet,  I think he’s fair to Buchanan because he does have some very good things to say about him.  The end effect on my was sympathetic because I think he really was a nice man who had ideas about what he could and could not do which didn’t turn out the way he wanted.   He stood firmly behind Lincoln and the Union.

There is an apparently outstanding biography of Buchanan by a University of Pennsylvania historian,  Philip S. Klein:  https://bestpresidentialbios.com/2014/02/24/review-of-president-james-buchanan-a-biography-by-philip-klein/  – but he may be a bit too easy  on Buchanan.

Strauss says that Buchanan’s whole personality of compromise,  playing to both sides of a dispute,  trying to just stay low and out of trouble,  which when combined with his habitual mind changing,  permeated all the categories.  It affected everything he did.  His strong points were  family,  friends, people in need and administration.

I did know something about Buchanan as President prior to reading Strauss’ book.  He presided in the White House just prior to Lincoln and did absolutely nothing when maybe he could have at least tried in some way to prevent the war  (which cost over 620,000 lives – more than all the wars from the French and Indian to Vietnam put together).   But I wasn’t sure if that, on its own, supported the bottom score in all those categories.   How could he know?   He was hoping for resolution.   So what else did he do –  or fail to do?   Buchanan sounded like a serious blunderer.

He was president at a time of changing alliances including the deaths of the Federalist and Whig political parties.   Buchanan had plenty of experience in government by the time he got to the presidency but maybe that was part of the problem – he didn’t want to make enemies.

There are several interesting things about Buchanan’s life but the presence of Ann Coleman to whom he became engaged and then she died rather mysteriously is high on the list.    There is quite a lot of speculation about this in the Strauss book and elsewhere because Buchanan never married – the only bachelor president.   James Buchanan and Ann Coleman at  Pennsylvania State University.

Another influence was William R King,  Franklin Pierce’s  Vice President,  another bachelor.   King was a slave-holder from a large plantation in  Alabama.  Many sources just skimp on any  mention of Coleman and/or in relation to Buchanan.  Buchanan’s diaries were burned at his death but King apparently kept some and there are sources which refer to King and Buchanan as a couple.   (There have been gay rumors about several presidents.)

The book is not just about the Buchanan biography and presidency – it’s also about Washington DC and the social/political/economic climate of the times.   There are some comparisons to and stories about other presidencies and there’s a brief discussion of presidential ratings in general.

There’s also a fair amount of authorial memoir in here – how he became interested in the subject at the age of 5 and continuing interest, difficulties and travel to study it over the years.  He also describes his daughter’s interest in the subject.  Buchanan was a strange favorite to study.   These parts kind of ramble and digress.

He disliked both free trade and tariffs – he was totally wishy-washy and spineless.  He couldn’t make a choice that would hurt someone.  He tried to take the middle ground in all cases.   And he would “re-think” things after a decision.  Not good in a president during troubled times.

One good thing, especially visible in these days,  is that Buchanan never said anything bad about anyone that researchers have found.  He got angry and despised a few people but he didn’t say so.  “If you can’t say something good about someone …”.    Another good thing is that he took good care of his family,  both wife and children as well as extended.   He was “liked” by just about everyone throughout his life.   He was a very hard worker ever since grade school,  researching cases meticulously,  writing speeches carefully,  etc.

http://millercenter.org/president/biography/buchanan-life-before-the-presidency

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The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

The title of this book is so apt and intriguing and the Gilded Age in New York  used to be one of my very favorite settings.   Add a little legal aspect to it and it’s just my cuppa.  The Gilded Age  was a time of post-Civil War expansion with big money to be made and spent in lavish conspicuous consumption by the rich while there was outrageous poverty of the poor.   And then there were the inventions – and the people.  And that’s what this book is about.   Rather than another “how rich can you be” story,  it’s the true-ish tale of some very real historical characters in a time of troubles as well as money.
These are some of  the characters in the book:
https://mrgrahammoore.com/books/the-last-days-of-night/cast-of-characters/

last
*******
The Last Days of Night 
by Graham Moore
2016/384 pages
read by Jonathan McClain  13h 1m
rating:  8.75 / historical fiction 
*******

Our protagonist, Paul Cravath of Nashville Tennessee,  is a young up-and-coming attorney who wants to make his name in the big city of big cities.   To that effect he has got himself hired by George Westinghouse to defend the latter against Thomas Edison‘s charges of  patent infringement.  Big money involved and the folks involved are very smart and less than ethical.

And of course Nikola Tesla is involved because it was he who developed a design for the safe and practical use of  alternating current (AC) of electricity.   Actually,  imo, Tesla is the hero of the book.

The main story is that George Westinghouse invented an incandescent light bulb only to find that Thomas Edison had already patented a bulb – or something like it.  Edison sues  Westinghouse who gets Cravath as an attorney.   There are twists and turns which lead to a complete and satisfying ending.

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There are no really heavy themes as such in this thoroughly well researched novel,  but invention and ambition are emphasized.  The characters are taken from history and wonderfully well “fleshed out,”  especially those of Paul,  Agnes, and Tesla.   The language flows for a 21st century reader,  although there might be a few   anarchisms in there.  The epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, from 19th – 21st centuries,  add a humorous but meaningful touch. As historical fiction the novel works wonderfully –  it piques my interest so I want to do a bit of my own research on Westinghouse and Edison and Tesla although I did know some before this.

There are many people,  places and events mentioned and alluded to in this novel.  but the story is so strong the setting almost,  but not quite,  passes into background.

Gilded Age in pictures:

https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/tag/gilded-age-new-york/

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Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird

Born in May 1819 and living until January 1901,  Victoria, the Queen of England lived a long time and that period would have been a fascinating study with almost anyone in Britain at the center.  The Queen of England was not only in the spotlight herself but she had a front row seat for a vision of the world.

Baird’s compellingly written biography makes Victoria really come alive in all her complexity- warts and all.

victoria

*******
Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire
by Julia Baird
2016 / 752 pages
read by Lucy Rayner 21h 8m
rating –    / nonfiction – biography
*******

When King George died rather suddenly in 1837,  Victoria  had just turned 18.  So,  as heir presumptive, she took the thrown and proceeded to rule  until her death at the age of 81 in 1901,  a full 63 1/2 years during which a whole multitude of important things happened to her, England, the British Empire, Europe and the world including the excesses of the industrial revolution,  the development of the arts and sciences, knuckle-crunching politics,  revolution and war.  She was one of the early users of anesthesia and her 9 children married royal cousins only to spread hemophilia amongst their ranks.  That’s just the barest of tidbits regarding her life and the times.

This is a truly impressive book,  but you might want to pay attention to the subtitle because this truly is “An Intimate Biography.”   It covers not only the people and issues of the times but it’s primary focus is on  Victoria’s ideas and her private life.  To that effect it is carefully researched and incredibly well organized (think of putting all those quotes into a narrative),    with Victoria’s character and family relationships threaded through the stories of the French difficulties, cholera, child labor,  the Great Exhibition, the Crimean War,  Indian uprisings,  the British Reform Laws,  the Irish Question,  etc.  through women’s issues (a particularly interesting section) and Disraeli and Gladstone and finally,  Winston Churchill,  Joseph Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt all knew of her as they grew to manhood – my own grandmother was 8 or 9 years old when  Queen Victoria died – and how long ago that seems.

The focus on family and personal life does not recede after Albert’s death and their children were mostly grown and gone to various places throughout the Empire, to Russia and Prussia, and Denmark with several in various places throughout Germany – only a couple left at home at that point.  Because after his death she still had run-ins with Gladstone and others  and it even seems Victoria had a couple of “best friends” who happened to be male –  John Brown,  a Scot with eyes similar to Albert’s,  and Abdul Karim a Muslim from India who had his own plans. She lived a long full life so it’s a long full book.

Still,  Victoria the woman seems wrapped in mystery  and myth.  She was certainly a strong enough ruler in general,  but she managed to balance a traditional family life along with her work – or the appearance of a traditional family life, anyway,  or the appearance of a strong leader.  And the surprising thing,  to me anyway,  was how active a part Prince Albert actually played in her reign – for as long as he lived, anyway.  And she was completely in accord with this as he was the man of the family.   Whatever,  they were generally well suited and very family oriented.   He was more intelligent while she was more sensitive.

Although she worked hard daily,  Albert also worked hard, harder maybe, at keeping abreast of all that was happening and the arguments for one side or the other on issues of the day.  For all that,  it also seems that while Victoria was a sentimental and dependent woman,  Albert was more distanced,  cognitive and sometimes calculating.   He too,  brilliant and pious as he was,  was also devoted to their children and their lives together.

Victoria never really recovered from Albert’s rather sudden death in 1861 at age 42.   Victoria was also 42 but lived another 40 years alone.  And unbeknownst to the public at large,  after awhile she went back to work although it took her 5 years to open Parliament.

I was fascinated by Victoria’s childhood and thought the book would probably lose its steam somehow.   Not so!  It was even more compelling as I read along.

I was intrigued by the woman of Victoria but that would have been too sweet-sop if it had not been broken by or interwoven with the accounts of world affairs.   These subjects and the issues are presented with enough detail to recognize their complexity but not so much as to overwhelm the reader.  Nicely balance overall.

There are great extras with the print or Kindle version of the book –  maps,  family trees, a list of characters,  a photo section,  notes at the end of each chapter (these are read in the Audible format) and notes at the end of the book.

The narrator is a bit heavy on the British accent  and a gossipy little tone but imo,  that might have actually made it less dry – (yes,  even intimate can get dry).  But I got totally used to the voice – it suited the book after awhile.

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Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and their nine children, 1857. Left to right: Alice, Arthur, Albert (Prince Consort), Albert Edward (Prince of Wales), Leopold, Louise, Queen Victoria with Beatrice, Alfred, Victoria and Helena[82]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert,_Prince_Consort

http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1126&context=forum

Author interview:  http://www.npr.org/2016/11/27/503489407/julia-baird-paints-a-stronger-more-likable-victoria-the-queen

Reviews:
Baird’s site:   http://www.juliabaird.me/books/

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Clotel: or, The President’s Daughter by William Wells Brown

“Clotel: or, The President’s Daughter”  is the first novel published by an African American – it was published in London in 1853 while William Wells Brown, the author,  was still living there following his final escape from slavery,  an education and the purchase of his freedom by a British couple.  The situations in the book, although fictional in themselves, are probably very representative of exactly what slavery in the US was about.  But much of it is propaganda to instill anger into more abolitionists and in that way is similar to 12 Years a Slave by  Solomon Northup which was published the same year and that of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was published only the year prior.

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*******
Clotel: or, The President’s Daughter
by William Wells Brown
1853 / 320 pages
read by J.D. Jackson 8h 43m
rating:  10 – / classic with great historical value
(both read and listened)
*******

The book as we read it was not published in the United states until 1969.  Instead Brown rewrote the book to accommodate US sensibilities.   In the original Jefferson is named as the father of two slave girls.  There is no mention of Jefferson in any of his 3 US revisions.  (The historical nature of the idea that Jefferson had any children by any slave was heavily disputed until 1998.)

The book opens with a brief Preface about the nature of slavery  as it was known in the 1850s as well as its history in the US.  Brown also states his reason for writing the book:

If the incidents set forth in the following pages should add anything new to the information already given to the Public through similar publications, and should thereby aid in bringing British influence to bear upon American slavery, the main object for which this work was written will have been accomplished.

It’s not great literature – it has a more journalistic or documentary style.  But Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not great literature either.   I suppose they’re educational for British readers hoping to put pressure on the US.

The plot:
Currer was the mistress of Thomas Jefferson and gave birth to their two light-skinned daughters,  Althesa and Clotel.   She is allowed to work independently,  but she is still a slave.   At Jefferson’s death, all three  clotelauctare sold into slavery.    The slave seller is an opportunity for Wells to describe the situations of  many slaves – beatings,  separations from family,  and preachers and others preaching lies.

Currer is  purchased by a preacher  who refuses to buy the daughters.  So Clotel at age 16, and a truly beautiful one,  goes to Horatio Green,  a rich, white northern man.  They fall in love and marry surreptitiously- it’s not legal which creates a lot of problems when Horatio gets ambitious.

Althesa on the other hand,  passes for white and marries her new owner,  Harry Morton, who loves her dearly but dies,  whereupon she and their daughters are sold into slavery.

These are the main threads of the plot – they go on for several years with other characters and escapes and tragedies.   As Wikipedia quotes one 21st century literary critic:

It is a “scathing, sarcastic, comprehensive critique of slavery in the American South, race prejudice in the American North, and religious hypocrisy in the American notion as a whole.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clotel

What Wells really looks at in the guise of a novel are the themes of slavery and marriage including family break-ups,  the cruelty of the owners,  variations in skin-color and treatment,  the political, legal, social and economic, structure of the Antebellum South in terms of slavery.

“The abolition movement, the economic importance of slave-based agriculture and production, the moral, philosophical and political debates about the “peculiar institution”—is written in a style that is manifestly journalistic and prosaic, not literary.”   http://barleyliterate.blogspot.com/2014/12/book-review-clotel-or-presidents.html

Because the three heroines are all women,  that aspect,  the female slave, has been studied by scholars of history,  literature and women’s studies.

For a more in-depth analysis see
http://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1264&context=etd_hon_theses

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IQ by Joe Ide

Sometimes a book comes along and I am just not in the mood for it or something.  This is one of those times.   IQ has had plenty of great reviews and it caught my eye several months ago and has been teasing me ever since.   I caved.  –

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***********
IQ
by Joe Ide
2016/336 pages
read by Sullivan Jones  9h 8m
rating:  C  / crime
***********

I’m not sure what the problem was – possibly just that I’ve been reading some really great novels lately – including books by and about African Americans.  This one just doesn’t hold up to those.

Here we have a  detective,  Isaiah Quintabe,  aka IQ,  who is a exceptionally bright young black man who helps people in his neighborhood  and area with solving their crimes which could be anything  from  stolen wallets to murder – crimes the cops won’t bother with or that the victims, for reasons of their own, won’t report.

IQ’s older brother Marcus was killed several years prior  and their parents died prior to that.  So IQ is alone except that a younger little con-artist named Juanell Dodson comes along and simply inserts himself into IQ’s life.  The pair find it necessary to get involved in  their own burglaries to supplement their meager income.

Mainly the plot in this book, an obvious 1st-of-series, concerns the attempted murder of a crazy but famous rap singer.  The attempt involves a pit bull, an ex-wife who has been “wronged,”  and various other twisted things.

What bugged me was the rap and gangster atmosphere,  too much sex, swearing, bad-mouthing, bragging about violence, sexism and so on.  Just kind of over-the-top for me in this regard.  That said,  Ide had a television series signed only 6 months after the publication date and it’s proven to be quite popular with some critics.

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Call It Sleep by Henry Roth

I read this back in 1971 or so and knew it was great literature then,  a time when I didn’t have a clue about what constituted  great literature.   But I guess I knew it when I read it because it’s stuck around and even made Time Magazine’s Best Books of Time list which goes back to 1923.   For a couple or three years there in my very early 20s I was choosing books from that same magazine’s  “Editor’s Choice”  lists and enjoying books like Roth’s Call It Sleep,  The Magus by John Fowles,  and several other really good books,  books which are still on my mental “best reads of my life” list.
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*******
Call It Sleep
by Henry Roth
1934 – 446 pages 
read by George Guidell  17h 28m
rating – 10 / classic 20th century
(read and listened)
*******

 I wanted to revisit Call It Sleep (I’d already read The Magus 3 times)  to see if it stood the test of time for me – personally.  So  I nominated it for  the Modern Fiction group where it was chosen,  and this time I read with both ears and eyes, (audio and Kindle).

The narrative tells the story of David Schearl, a small frightened immigrant Jewish boy in the early 20th century – maybe 1910-1915.    He and his parents are new immigrants from Austria where life was getting a bit tougher.  His mother,  whom he loves dearly,  tries very hard to be good in every way but she has secrets.  She’s very attached to her son, an only child.

Meanwhile David’s father is a difficult man in many ways typical-tenement-fire-escapes-lower-east-side-new-york-city-aym6fk.jpg(we’d send him to anger management classes today) and has a hard time keeping a job in his trade as a printer and although working as a milkman is somewhat better,  the Lower East Side of New York in those days was a rough place.

Over the span of a few years David starts going to school and takes Hebrew lessons.  He’s very bright but also very attached to his mother,  probably because of his father’s dangerous attitude and behavior.   The streets are full of what feels like authentically drawn ethnic groups,  Italians, Irish, Hungarians, most of whom are Catholics but his own building seems safe enough.  The story mirrors that of the author in some ways.

He memorizes his address –   749 9th street – in the Lower East Side,  near Alphabet City.

The tale is told primarily from David’s point of view so fear is a a huge theme. David is afraid of almost everything and because he’s very bright he’s curious and thinks about these things quite a lot – some things haunt him.   There’s his father,  the cellar,  hot coals, the neighborhood bullies,  sex and girls,  his mother,  getting lost,  the violence of the streets. But that’s just one theme.

The narrative is amazing in several ways.   The first is that although it’s told by an omniscient narrator,  it’s primarily a child’s point of view related with perfect pitch.  There is a brief section from the Rabbi’s point of view which captures the tone I expect,  and there are a couple of short sections in which David does not appear.  Nothing is revealed about the inner lives of those characters.

tenement-housing-new-york-city-usa-1890s-ddyc16.jpgSecond,  the language Roth uses to convey the sense of the streets in New York at the time runs the gamut from Yiddish to Irish and Italian accents along with the native languages of these people,  mostly kids. This falls in line with the fully realistically presented setting.  This made for great listening but there were some parts toward the end which needed the text to follow the chattering of the crowd overlapping with David’s distressed thoughts.

Third,  the overarching plot is masterfully developed with increasing tension as David gets involved in more and more dangerous adventures,  makes dubious friends,  escapes and continues a couple of major issues like his father’s disturbing rage.

Fourth,  the narrator’s sections are beautifully rendered with interesting and appropriate vocabulary, metaphors and other tropes.  Roth is what I wanted Saul Bellow to be.

And fifth, the themes are woven into the fabric of a compelling tale, tenement-dwellers-new-york-citys-lower-east-side-c-1900-cwaym0.jpgthey’re not spelled out anywhere – they’re shown. Fear, violence, secrets and a lack of understanding – in all languages – which translates into racism and other issues.

Roth was born in 1906 in the Ukraine the only child of Jewish parents.  His father immigrated shortly after Henry was born and he and his mother joined him about a year later.   They first lived in Brownsville in Brooklyn but then moved to the Lower East Side in Manhattan.

Fwiw,  1 penny was worth about 2.60 dollars of 2016 value.  A pair of roller skates which might cost about $4.50 in 1905 which would be about  $117 in 2016.

Reviews, criticism and analysis:

The Other In Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep

http://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1042&context=theses

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The Verdict by Nick Stone

Oh dear another long one!   What is the matter with me?   But it’s a self-select and a legal thriller – my favorite –  so I tried to like it in general,  but … well … see below.

At the age of 30-something,  Terry Flynt,  our first person protagonist,  is an older kind of guy to be a new law clerk and the reason has to do with the same guy he’s now in the position of having to defend against charges of murder.  Terry is very smart with a lot of initiative – he wants to do something more than type and file.

Terry despises his client, Vernon James and would love to see him found guilty and spend his life in prison. A black-skinned finance genius,  Vernon and Terry have a long history and it’s revealed a bit at a time. It ended with serious troubles and a blank spot on Terry’s resume.

verdict.jpeg

*******
The Verdict
by Nick Stone
2015 / 512 pages
read by David Thorpe 21h 20m
rating:  B+  –  legal thriller
*******

In the years since they knew each other Vernon has become rich and glamorous in the field of finance and real estate as well as highly esteemed for his ethical standards – what the public knows of them.  He definitely has secrets and from the Prologue we know he’s a fake.

Now he’s hired the pricey firm where Terry works as a law clerk to defend him.   The lawyers at  the firm,  thinking he’ll fail to get a not-guilty verdict, assign him to the case hoping they’ll be able to fire him afterwards – or at least that’s the impression Terry finally gets because, for all apparent purposes,  it’s certainly not a winnable case and, as one of the actual lawyers there says,  “We don’t lose cases.”

The murder of Evelyn Bates was  brutal and Nick was undeniably with a strange woman in a penthouse suite of an upscale hotel which he left with bruises and marks.  But the reader doesn’t know for sure if Vernon did it or not – Vernon absolutely denies it – but he is such a creep!    Anyway,  it certainly looks bad for him, his story doesn’t hold up and he has a history of – maybe.   He’s in big trouble and it gets much worse.

Terry hates him for more than one reason –  Terry really wants to see his old friend get found guilty,  but on the other hand,  they had been very good friends until that missing piece of Terry’s past.  And there are times when the evidence supports Vernon.    Terry is apparently an alcoholic trying to work some kind of program in getting his new life together and keeping it.

Stone writes well,  the plot is twisty and very original and the characters are nicely individualized and somewhat quirky.   It’s a good book although there are a few unlikely coincidences and less than likely scenarios.   Also,   one part of the ending was kinda-sorta predictable for me at about 2/3rds through.  But that was by no means the whole ending and the tale is still fascinating due to the twists to get there.

The story takes place in the English courts so there are some differences to what one would find in an American crime novel.  Stone does a fine job of explaining (to the point it seems he’s writing with an American audience possibly in mind).  There are also some general references to London and the times.   For instance,  about midway through the novel the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton takes place and is described in fair detail.   That was April 29, 2011.

Sad to say one of the big twists involved taking the novel into some really murky waters and gets over-the-top complex due to external events in which Terry becomes involved.   That’s the reason for the lower rating –  without this plot thread the book would have got an A+ from me.

But also,  a couple of words about the abundant courtroom scenes –  they are riveting and brilliantly done.   What the lead attorney does with the evidence is amazing.  And Stone takes the tension to excellent heights in these scenes.  The devil is in the details.   But courtroom scenes alone don’t make for great thrillers,  so there are a few chase scenes involved, too.  They’re fine,  rather unusual, and have a purpose within the story although tangentially because they take the story way outside the murder zone.

One more thing – print versions might be a tad better than the Audio because there are structural and print effects in the written narrative such as lists and email texts.  I enjoyed the audio version because the narration is great but … just saying.

Google books sample:  –   http://tinyurl.com/j2x29rs

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