Friday, February 20, 2015

'Wink of an Eye'—small town Texas, big time crime

This review ran in the Feb. 17, 2015
edition of the Boerne Star
Las Vegas private eye Gypsy Moran double-crossed a mob boss and he’s on the run back to his childhood home of Wink, Texas—a place he closed the door on twenty years earlier, vowing that he would never set foot there again. At least he could enjoy a visit with his sister, Rhonda, whom he hasn’t seen for years.
A vacation, however, isn’t in the cards for Gypsy. One of Rhonda’s former students, twelve-year old Tatum McCallen, has enlisted her help in proving that his father’s recent death was not the suicide that the sheriff’s department claimed it was. The boy found his father hanging from a backyard tree. Tatum believes that his dad, deputy sheriff Ryce McCallen, was killed for launching an investigation into the disappearances of several undocumented teenage immigrant girls.
Tatum’s mom is out-of-the picture, and with his dad’s death, the boy is being cared for by his disabled grandfather, Burke McCallen. Wheel chair-bound, Burke is a retired deputy who was almost killed by a bullet in his back. He and Tatum talk good-hearted Gypsy into looking into Ryce’s death. With his death classified as suicide, Ryce’s life insurance won’t pay a dime. Tatum is in jeopardy of losing the family home and there certainly won’t be funds for college.
Gypsy and Rhonda have something in common with Tatum—their dad walked out on them when they were kids about Tatum’s age. Gypsy is very much aware of the emotional pain that Tatum is experiencing with the loss of his father and abandonment by his mother. He reluctantly agrees to help unravel the truth.
After only a day in Wink, Gypsy runs into his former love interest, Claire, who he left in a lurch twenty years earlier. He had abandoned her just as his father had deserted him. Despite being married to a state senator, Claire is ready to rekindle her relationship with Gypsy. The attraction between them is just as strong as ever and they pick up where they left off years before.
Gypsy enlists the help of a beautiful investigative reporter to help him solve the mystery of the true cause of Ryce McCallen’s death. As they uncover an illegal human trafficking ring, they put themselves in jeopardy.
Wink of an Eye by LynnChandler Willis (St. Martin’s Press Minotaur Books, ISBN: 9781250053190) has something for everyone—a boy and his dog, murder, romantic entanglements, police corruption, high tech surveillance, and suspense galore. Willis won the “Private Eye Writers of America” competition for this debut novel and is the first female in a decade to do so. She is a natural storyteller and, hopefully, Gypsy will be back in a sequel.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Every hunter's dream -- 'Stag Party'

Reviewed in the Boerne Star, Jan. 20, 2015
It was every hunter’s dream. From his perch in a tree, Jasper Endicott scrutinized a huge herd of agitated bucks below him.
      “As he watched, more bucks arrived. Dozens more. They didn’t emerge tentatively from the brush, wary of danger, as deer usually did. Instead, they came bursting from the woods at full speed, caution to the wind. . .Their brains weren’t sophisticated enough to understand they’d been tricked.”
      It was a special scent that 102-year-old Harley Frizzell, an eccentric recluse, invented. He wanted to sell it and Jasper’s family was interested in buying the pheromone. The Endicott entertainment empire inspired hunters all over the country with their weekly reality television series.
       “A typical episode might include the men castrating bulls, shoeing horses, repairing a tractor . . . filling deer feeders, or building a barn.” But mostly the Endicotts hunted and they had a very large following.  Throngs of “wallhanger” bucks just for the picking would surely increase their ratings.
      Stag Party is Texas hill country author Ben Rehder’s eighth irreverent installment of his Blanco County mysteries. His cast of memorable characters reappear in this latest novel, but the book is a standalone story and does not depend upon reading the previous books.
      When Harley Frizzell’s lifeless body is discovered by Red O’Brian, Sheriff Bobby Garza questions Red and dismisses him as a suspect. Red, however, believes that he is number one on Garza’s list and enlists his buddy Billy Don to help him find the killer. He and Billy Don had recently won a feral pig shoot with a bounty of $25,000.00 for each of them. Red had considered buying Frizzel’s deer scent formula, but before he could cinch the deal, the old man was murdered.
      The two bungling rubes track down Frizzell’s girlfriend, a seventy-one-year-old hippie sculptor named Sparrow Holliday, who was purportedly the last person to see Frizzell alive. Could she have murdered him in a fit of jealous rage? Or did one of the Endicotts kill Frizzell to obtain the old man’s deer scent without having to pay for it?
      At the same time, 19-year-old PETA activist Liam Mooney and his partner Jessi Winslow, 18, set out from Nebraska to Texas to protest the Endicott’s fervent incitement of the public to kill innocent deer. The two misguided teens use Google Earth to locate the Endicott’s massive compound, which overlaps Kendall and Blanco counties, and they hatch a plan to burn the main house down.
      Lurking in the background of the story is Aaron Endicott, the sociopathic son who does not appear in the television show and who the Endicotts would rather not acknowledge. Aaron is a grotesque, colossal man with a pocked face and feral eyes. Aggressive and combative, the youngest Endicott seems always on the offensive for violent encounters. When Liam and Jessi mistake Aaron’s cabin in the Endicott compound for the main house and set it on fire, Aaron confronts the young couple and fireworks ensue.
      Stag Party ( ISBN-13: 978-1505440263, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, December 15, 2014) is bawdy, clever, irreverent, and infinitely entertaining. It is available on Amazon as a kindle e-book or paperback.

GOODBYE GLUTEN: Happy, healthy, delicious eating with a Texas twist

Reviewed in the Boerne Star, Nov. 21, 2014
Pizza. Pasta. Hamburgers. Biscuits. Fried chicken. These are forbidden foods for individuals with celiac disease or for those who have an intolerance to wheat, barley, and rye. In their new cookbook, GOODBYE GLUTEN: HAPPY, HEALTHY, DELICIOUS EATING WITH A TEXAS TWIST, authors Kim Stanford and Bill Backhaus prove that even decadent deserts can be successfully prepared without gluten.
    Over the past decade, gluten has gained a reputation as a devil in disguise. For individuals with celiac disease, gluten, a protein, causes an autoimmune response in the digestive system that can be deadly. In recent years, even people who can safely ingest the substance have joined the gluten-free bandwagon, declaring that they feel better avoiding it.
    There are problems inherent with sticking to a gluten-free diet. Many processed foods contain gluten, as do canned goods, condiments, cured meats, and liquor. Gluten-free foods are expensive, are sometimes adulterated with unhealthy additives and preservatives, and are often bland and flavorless.
    The backbone of Stanford’s and Backhaus’ cookbook is their assertion that gluten-free can be just as delicious as mainstream food. Their two hundred-plus gluten-free recipes will restore the enjoyment of great food to people who have been forced to miss out on their favorite dishes.
    When Backhaus called his former wife, Kim Stanford, to ask if she was interested in collaborating with him on a gluten-free cookbook, she responded with an enthusiastic “yes.”  Backhaus had been diagnosed with celiac disease more than thirty years before when there were virtually no packaged or processed gluten-free foods, so he and Stanford, a former financial consultant, learned to cook without gluten. Stanford continued to consume gluten until she was diagnosed with a thyroid deficiency. She eliminated gluten from her diet and also turned to organic whole foods. To her amazement, her thyroid healed without the surgery her doctor told her she needed, her allergies disappeared, and she lost weight with no effort.
    Stanford grew up in north Texas and lives in Austin. As the owner of a catering company, she borrows recipes from her childhood and jazzes them up with her own special twists. Her “Guadalajara Gazpacho,” “Lasagna with Mexican Crema,” and “Spiced Tequila Chicken” are succulent, delectable entrees that any good restaurant would be proud to have on its menu.
    After his celiac disease diagnosis, cooking quickly became Backhaus’ passion and he spent thousands of hours developing entrees like “Herb-Crusted Parmesan Chicken” and “Bacon-Wrapped Quail with Dates and Jalapeno.” A meat-lover, he has included numerous recipes for barbeque, rubs, and sauces. One notable sausage recipe, “East Austin Trailer Park Spicy Homemade Chorizo,” is downright addictive.
    Stanford loves dessert and looks forward to sitting around the dinner table at the end of a meal with a cup of coffee and a luscious sweet treat.
    “Previously,” Stanford says, “gluten-free desserts were like eating raw corn grits with sugar baked on them, then set out in the sun for a couple of days and, of course, freeze-dried for a couple of months. They were dry as concrete, tasteless, and so different from regular desserts.”
    The desserts that Stanford included in GOODBYE GLUTEN are anything but tasteless and dry. Her “Best Little Coconut Cream Cake in Texas,” “Ooey-Gooey Chocolate Brownies,” and “Southern Bell Peach Pie” will please anyone.
    Because food manufacturers add gluten to a myriad of products—cheese, chips, cereal, salad dressings, frozen vegetables, baking mixes, and processed meats—Stanford and Backhaus have included a list of gluten-free, brand-name pantry items found in most supermarkets. Even ketchup frequently contains gluten so the authors include a recipe for a homemade version.
    Some liquors and spirits also contain gluten. Popular brands of beer use barley for the fermentation process and are on the gluten-free forbidden list. Stanford and Backhaus list gluten-free beer brands and also include a bar guide in their cookbook. While vodka made with potatoes, unflavored rum, and tequila are naturally gluten-free, rye whisky and certain other blends contain the offending protein. Many cocktail mixers also contain gluten. Wine is generally gluten-free, but the authors warn the reader to stay away from malted wine coolers.
    GOODBYE GLUTEN is a comprehensive guide to enjoying a gluten-free lifestyle. At the same time it is a wonderful tool that any cook, gluten-free or not, can rely upon for a cache of recipes that will impress family and friends—with a Texas twist.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Let's not keep "The Secret Twins" a secret

I recently came across a captivating middle grade childrens’ chapter book (110 pages) on Amazon that had slipped under my radar—The Secret Twins by Lilly Bell. This delightful book plays on a common childhood fantasy of having a twin.

Ester and Betsy are nine-year-old twins. At only a half inch tall, however, Betsy is a teeny twin who constantly faces peril. Even though the twins’ mother outfitted Ester’s top dresser drawer with all of the conveniences of a regular home, Betsy prefers the company of her family to solitude. When they watch TV, Betsy has a special place on top of the coffee table. She is careful not to stray from her spot because her father sometimes rests his feet close by. Betsy is in charge of the remote, and hoists herself up on the gadget and leaps on the appropriate button to change the channel.

One morning when Ester is grumbling about having to go to school, Betsy wishes that she could go. It just isn’t safe and Betsy resigns herself to the fact that she must be homebound forever. All of a sudden Betsy hears Ester scream that a bee has flown in the house through an open window. When the startled bumble bee lands in Betsy’s dresser drawer, she hops on its back and off they go to school.

Unbeknownst to Betsy and her parents, Ester is being bullied by a dreadful little girl at school named Taylor. Through a series of missteps and by virtue of the bumble bee that carries Betsy to school on its back, the teeny twin is able to solve a mystery and vindicate Ester from accusations made by Taylor.

The Secret Twins is a charming book that is appropriate for kids from ages seven to twelve to read by themselves. Younger children from five to seven years will enjoy a parent reading the book to them. The story will spark a child’s imagination and will foster creativity.

The Secret Twins is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book. It is beautifully illustrated by the author and is free for kindle unlimited, or a true bargain at ninety-nine cents. Bell says she is working on a second installment of the story—let’s hope she writes a series.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Minerva Koenig’s hill country noir has more twists than a Texas corn maze

Reviewed in the Boerne Star Nov. 4, 2014
Julia Kalas’ San Francisco construction business is a money laundering front for her gun-running hubby’s illegal enterprises. When members of a skinhead group shoot the two of them, Julia survives, turns states evidence, and joins the witness protection program. She is placed under the supervision of Theresa Hallstedt, the Police Chief of Azula, Texas—a small, boring hill country town. Chief Hallstedt has arranged for Julia to work at the local downtown watering hole, Hector Guerra’s bar.
      Hector is single and good looking and Julia sets him in her sights—“long black hair, big dark eyes, Aztec nose, delicious mouth. The man was gorgeous.” Hector and Chief Hallstedt are close friends and Hector was doing her a favor by hiring Julia.
      When Chief Hallstedt is found dead on the roof of the bar, the local sheriff tries to pin the murder on Hector. Julia jumps into the melee, determined to find the real killer. She risks exposing her criminal past by contacting her former associates for help. When a mummified hand shows up, she almost gets herself killed.
      “Nine Days” by Austin author Minerva Koenig (ISBN 9781250051943, Minotaur Books), is her debut novel and she doesn’t disappoint. With more twists and turns than a Texas corn maze, her flawed characters expose their foibles and stumble through a series of nefarious machinations that lead to a stunning revelation.
      Unlike so many of the boilerplate crime novels where the heroine is a gorgeous lanky blonde who drives an expensive sports car, Koenig’s protagonist is a short, chubby, almost-forty, meddling interloper who finds comfort tooling around in her pale yellow 1987 Dodge pick-up truck.
      Other characters are just as quirky. Hector’s adoptive sister, Tova, is a calculating platinum blonde with a French twist and chilly, blue eyes. Richard Hallstedt, the police chief’s colorless estranged husband is a physician who is also a member of the city council and who is pushing for a package of commercial property tax incentives for a downtown revitalization project. Then there is Hallstedt’s alcoholic, busy-bodied maid, Maria, who stumbles upon something that turns the case upside down. Even the local curandera, Silvia Molina, inserts herself into the murder investigation. She follows Julia around town in her old, sunburned Cadillac and, when Julia confronts her, the sorceress turns to her tarot cards and reveals personal knowledge about Julia, leading her to conclude that her witness protection cover has been blown.
      The surprising conclusion explodes in an ironic twist, leaving plenty of room for a sequel.
      “Nine Days” is a gem. It’s hill country noir at its finest.

Monday, June 30, 2014

One Hundred and forty year-old Texas Ranger murder solved by Texas hill country author

This review appeared in the June 27, 2014, issue of the Boerne Star.
When author Cynthia Leal Massey began researching a history book about Helotes, Texas, she came upon bits and pieces of a story about the murder of Sergeant John Green, a Texas Ranger in the Minute Men Troop V of Medina County, mustered into service in September 1872. Almost one year later, in the summer of 1873, Green was shot and killed by another Ranger in his troop, Cesario Menchaca.

As she continued in her research, Massey stumbled upon another group of stories about naturalist Gabriel Wilson Marnoch, a prominent and eccentric Scottish emigrant who discovered four new reptile and amphibian species native to the Helotes hills. The Marnoch homestead, built in 1859, is a designated Texas Historic Landmark. When Massey discovered that there were links between John Green and Marnoch, she was hooked and spent the next few years writing her new book Death of a Texas Ranger: A True Story of Murder and Vengeance on the Texas Frontier, (Lyons Press, ISBN 978-0-7627-9305-1; $16.95).

“I realized this was more than a story about a killing,” writes Massey in the Preface of her book. “It was the story of an era. Green’s killing exemplifies the chaotic frontier society in Texas after the Civil War, a time fraught with political turmoil, cultural clashes, and a tenuous hold on life.”

John Green (born Johann Gruen) was originally from Fredericksburg. He and his sister were orphaned as children and Green was taken in by former Gillespie County Sheriff Louis Martin who had since become a cattle breeder. Martin’s large ranch was situated on the north bank of the Llano River, forty-two miles northwest of Fredericksburg. Green thrived under his care and learned the livestock business. He took off on his own at age seventeen and became successful, eventually marrying Augusta “Gussie” Specht, daughter of the Fredericksburg postmaster. They settled on Green’s hundred-acre Helotes ranch and established a horse breeding business. The Marnoch family was one of their neighbors.

Gabriel Marnoch had an affinity for attracting trouble. In addition to tax problems, he was indicted for “the offence of taking up and using an estray horse without complying with the law for regulating estrays,” a serious charge during that era. Cesario Menchaca attempted to serve Marnoch with a warrant for his arrest, but Marnoch ripped the warrant into pieces. He did not show up in court to answer the charges.

These three men—Green, Marnoch, and Menchaca—are seamlessly woven together in a fascinating tale of murder, betrayal, and vengeance. Menchaca appeared to have no motive for murdering Green, and after shooting him he fled to Mexico as a fugitive from justice. Thirty years later John Green’s son tracked Menchaca down. Menchaca claimed that the murder had been an accident—others believed that he had been hired by Gabriel Marnoch to kill John Green. After years of research, Massey believes that she uncovered the real reason for the murder.

Death of a Texas Ranger: A True Story of Murder and Vengeance on the Texas Frontier, is a fascinating book. Hill Country readers will recognize many of the names of the characters: Heubner, Braun, Mueller, McAllister, and numerous others. Massey also includes a section of interesting photos including an 1860’s photograph of John Green and a 1927 photo of his son, Will, when he served as a San Antonio police captain. An early 1900s photograph of the Marnoch homestead shows the 1,515-acre ranch land that later became the town of Helotes.

Ultimately Massey wanted to learn the truth behind the story of the murder of John Green. She says that she “came away from the project with a deeper appreciation for our Texas pioneers and a profound respect for the storytellers who keep alive their families’ important histories.”

Monday, March 24, 2014

Maneuvering Life

What do President Ronald Reagan, actress Elizabeth Taylor and former New York mayor Ed Koch have in common? Each was saved from choking to death when a bystander performed the Heimlich maneuver. The inventor of the procedure, Dr. Henry J. Heimlich, describes how he developed the anti-choking procedure in his memoir, Heimlich’s Maneuvers: My Seventy Years of Lifesaving Innovation.

            Heimlich says that a 1972 newspaper article first sparked his interest in devising an intervention for saving the lives of  choking victims.

            “What caught my eye,” he says, “was the sixth leading cause of accidental death—it was choking on food or a foreign object. Nearly four thousand people were dying from choking each year in this country alone.”

            No stranger to controversy, Heimlich began performing experiments on anesthetized dogs by inserting an object into the animal’s airway and trying various means of dislodging it. He discovered that pushing in and up on the dog’s diaphragm created a burst of air that expelled the foreign object and allowed the dog to breathe freely. He submitted an article about his procedure to a medical journal and the rest is history. The Heimlich maneuver is recognized throughout the world as a reliable method for saving the life of a choking victim. He has been harshly criticized, however, for his canine experimentation.

            This anti-choking technique was not the only medical intervention that Heimlich devised. In the early 1950’s he invented a surgical procedure that restored the esophagus of individuals who could not swallow because of scarring from the ingestion of caustic substances such as drain cleaner or patients who had esophageal blockages for other reasons. Next, in the mid-1960’s, came the Heimlich Chest Drain Valve, a device used after chest surgery to prevent lung collapse. The military latched on to the valve for use in Viet Nam and ordered thousands of them.

            “All told,” says Heimlich in his book, “since I invented the device, more than four million Heimlich chest drain valves have saved or improved the lives of patients in hospitals, ambulances, and palliative-care settings at the end of life.”

            Heimlich received an almost fatal blow to his choking maneuver in 1976 when the American Red Cross suddenly disavowed its use as the preferred intervention in saving choking victims. Instead, that organization promoted the use of back slaps as a first resort. If the back slaps did not work, only then should the Heimlich maneuver be employed. Heimlich became incensed and refused to allow the Red Cross to use the term “Heimlich maneuver.” That organization changed Heimlich’s terminology to “abdominal thrusts” and has never looked back. Later, the American Heart Association also adopted the term “abdominal thrusts” and, today, it is mostly journalists and mainstream media who call the procedure “Heimlich maneuver.”

            Heimlich, now ninety-four years old, makes it known throughout his book that he has enjoyed life as a celebrity. In fact, his memoir opens with a two-page description and photos of his appearance on the “Tonight” show with Johnny Carson.

            “I ask myself,” Heimlich writes, “How in the world did I, a physician, wind up on Johnny Carson? How is it that I invented a lifesaving method that led to my becoming so well known?”

            Heimlich served in the Navy for two years during World War II. He was one of twelve Americans assigned to Camp Four in Mongolia where he provided medical care to American and Chinese soldiers as well as local villagers. He fell in love with the Chinese people and vowed to go back after the war ended.

            Heimlich did, indeed, return to China in the 1980’s to conduct experiments on HIV positive individuals by inoculating them with malaria. He is convinced that malaria has the potential for curing the AIDS virus as well as some types of cancer and Lyme disease. Heimlich has been harshly criticized for these clinical trials and labeled a crackpot. Public opinion, however, has never dissuaded Heimlich from doggedly pursuing his controversial ideas.

            More revealing than what Heimlich includes in his memoir is what he leaves out. While he writes about his wife, Jane Murray (heir to the Arthur Murray dance dynasty), and three of his children, he never mentions his son, Peter, with whom he has been embroiled in public controversy for years. Peter Heimlich has accused his father of stealing the “Heimlich maneuver” from a colleague as well as faking his medical credentials. Heimlich also does not disclose that he was fired from The Jewish Hospital of Cincinnati in 1977, ending his career as a surgeon, nor does he acknowledge his co-developer of the Heimlich maneuver, Dr. Edward A. Patrick, who died in 2009.

             Heimlich also fails to mention that his proposed malariotherapy for curing AIDS has been castigated by the Centers for Disease Control and other recognized medical authorities.

            Throughout his book, Heimlich cherry-picks the parts of his life that he wants to publicly reveal, making sure that there are no pits left on the plate.

Published by Prometheus Books, Binding: PaperbackPages: 253, ISBN: 978-1-61614-849-2

Saturday, February 8, 2014

I would like to welcome my guest blogger, Matthew Pitman, a sixth-grader at Earl Wood Middle School in Rockville, Maryland. An avid reader, Matthew reviews Brad Meltzer's two new childrens' books about American heroes Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln, released in January 2014, by Dial books. Meltzer plans to release four more in the coming months.

Thriller writer inspires children with stories of American heroes

by Matthew Pitman

Brad Meltzer knows a few things about heroes. He has written very entertaining books and comics featuring fictional super heroes. For the first time he has published two childrens’ books about the real-life American heroes Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln.

In his book  I Am Amelia Earhart, Meltzer describes Earhart’s childhood and her career in aviation. When she was young, Amelia acted very unlady-like by the standards of the of the early 1900s. For example, she refused to play with dolls and wear dresses. Instead, she built miniature roller coasters and day-dreamed about flying.

As Amelia gets older, Meltzer describes the aviation records that she broke. She was the first woman pilot to reach the highest altitude ever recorded by flying to 14,000 feet.

Some memorable quotes that Earhart is known for are, “Never interrupt someone who is doing what you said could not be done,” and “I know no bounds.” These words are inspiring because they encourage kids to not limit themselves.

Clearly, Meltzer’s theme is to chase your dreams no matter what gets in your way. He lets kids know that dreams are not just for adults.

Illustrator Christopher Eliopoulos does a good job of making Earhart look like a little kid throughout the story which connects young readers to her and her accomplishments.

Children from kinder to third grade would enjoy this book because of its fun pictures, interesting facts, and easy to comprehend language.

Meltzer delivers another fun everyday hero story with I Am Abraham Lincoln.

When Abraham Lincoln was young he could not stop reading. He would even lie to his parents and say he was working in the corn field when he was really reading. He continued attending school even after most kids his age had stopped going.  Although he was bullied in school, he never stopped being himself.

When Lincoln got older, he put his reading to good use and became president. He had always been unhappy about slavery, and so during the Civil War he freed the slaves. And out of respect, some of the slaves came and fought for the Union.

Lincoln’s most important lesson was about equality of all people. He said, in his most famous speech at Gettysburg, “All men are created equal,” giving the people of the Union the confidence to win the war.  Meltzer shows that Lincoln’s greatest lesson is to fight for what you believe in, whether it is freeing a turtle or freeing the slaves. Lincoln is a great example of how far loving to read can take you.

The illustrations by Christopher Eliopoulos are fun, but because Lincoln is shown in a suit and a beard even as a child, it struck me as a little odd. Just like in “I Am Amelia Earhart,” the illustrations do a good job of making the story easy to read and understand because the pictures are so closely related to the story.

Children will enjoy these inspirational books. Meltzer plans to write four more childrens' books about heroes. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

History Decoded: The Ten Greatest Conspiracies of All Time"

"'History Decoded' explores fascinating, unexplained questions. Is Fort Knox empty? Why was Hitler so intent on capturing the Roman “Spear of Destiny”? What’s the government hiding in Area 51? Where did the Confederacy’s $19 million in gold and silver go at the end of the Civil War? And did Lee Harvey Oswald really act alone? Meltzer sifts through the evidence; weighs competing theories; separates what we know to be true with what’s still—and perhaps forever—unproved or unprovable; and in the end, decodes the mystery, arriving at the most likely solution. Along the way we meet Freemasons, Rosicrucians, Nazi propagandists, and the real DB Cooper.

Bound in at the beginning of each story is a custom-designed envelope—a faux 19th-century leather satchel, a U.S. government classified file—containing facsimiles of relevant evidence: John Wilkes Booth’s alleged unsigned will, a map of the Vatican, Kennedy’s death certificate. The whole is a riveting, interactive adventure through the compelling world of mysteries and conspiracies."*

This is a wonderful book--fascinating and beautifully produced. I couldn't put it down. The photos and drawings, as well as the removable facsimile documents, add richness and texture. Counting down from the mysteries surrounding the Lincoln assassination, to the search for Confederate gold, to the existence of UFOs, Meltzer questions our beliefs in some of the most intriguing history mysteries of our time and presents evidence that just might change our minds about the outcomes of some of the most notorious events in history. The conspiracy theories associated with all ten events in the book will have your mind spinning. 

If you are a devote' of Meltzer's Decoded television series on the History channel, you will love this book. Even if you have never seen the programs, the book would make a great Christmas present for any history buff from age eight to eighty.

History Decoded was co-authored by Keith Ferrell, author of more than a dozen books, thousands of magazine and encyclopedia articles, and former editor of Omni magazine.

History Decoded was published by Workman Publishing, ISBN 978-0-7611-7745-6.

*from Brad Meltzer's website

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Wilder women on the Prairie

from the Tuesday, November 12, 2013 edition of the Boerne Star
It was President Ronald Reagan’s favorite TV show and Sarah Palin’s most beloved childhood book. Just like Reagan and Palin, the “Little House on the Prairie” stories are uniquely American. How they came to be written is the subject of  Susan Wittig Albert’s new book, A Wilder Rose: Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Their Little Houses.
From the time that they were first published in the 1930’s, the “Little House on the Prairie” books have captured the hearts of both children and adults. These endearing stories of  life on the American prairie chronicled a much simpler time in history, a nineteenth century lifestyle filled with stories of a close-knit family overcoming obstacles as they built their homestead and helped settle this country.
            While Albert’s book is fiction, it is based on fact. She used Wilder’s and Lane’s diaries, journals,  letters, and scholarly research materials as her guide. Just as Wilder and Lane were true to real life events in the “Little House” fictionalized stories, Albert is just as true to history in A Wilder Rose.
            Rose Wilder was the only child of Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder. Born in 1886, she grew up under austere conditions. She and her parents lived a hard-scrabble life working long hours to eke out a living from the unforgiving South Dakota prairie. Because Laura’s attention was focused upon physically demanding manual work, she did not have a surplus of time to spend with her daughter. Rose often felt neglected.
            Not only did Rose feel that she was deprived the mothering she so desperately wanted and needed, she suffered from the absence of childhood friends. Her classmates poked fun at her bare feet, shabby clothes, and odd ways. Rose was envious of the other girls’ fancy store-bought dresses and she longed for even the plainest pair of shoes. She was an outsider, not only because of her clothes, but also because her behavior was bizarre—she even spoke her own language that she called “Fispooko.” Rose learned at a tender age to conceal her true feelings behind a fictional façade and she carried that trait with her throughout her life.
            There was not enough money for Rose to attend college, so she taught herself to write and learned several languages on her own. She worked as a journalist, some would say a “hack,” for publications such as the “San Francisco Bulletin,” the “Call,” and the Red Cross. Many of her stories were filed from distant locations—Paris, Russia, Albania—and she lived a rather wild, bohemian lifestyle. Rose made enough money to travel to exotic places and to flit in celebrity circles. She subsidized her parents’ income so that they could have some comfort in their advanced years.
            It was largely because of Rose’s generous financial assistance that Laura gained the freedom to establish her credibility in her community. She joined ladies’ circles and began writing for the “Missouri Ruralist” and other farming publications. Throughout Rose’s life, she and her mother had a contentious relationship—sometimes openly, sometimes passively, but always grating just under the skin with only a word or slight causing an eruption.
            The stock market crash of 1929 wiped out Rose’s and her parents’ savings. Rose began ghost writing books for Lowell Thomas, Frederick O’Brien, and pulp biographies of Hollywood celebrities. Publishing houses took a beating during the great depression, but Rose was a prolific writer and managed to stay afloat. Laura had toyed with the idea of writing accounts of her childhood on the prairie and she sought Rose’s advice about the possibilities of publishing these stories. Rose saw a possible market for fictionalized versions of Laura’s life and, through her own agents and publishers, she made sure that her mother’s books were given an opportunity to succeed in the marketplace.
            Rose dutifully typed up the stories that Laura wrote by hand on orange tablets, sprucing them up and adding her own editorial flourishes and she was able to secure good publishing deals for Laura.
            “A Wilder Rose” is a fascinating story of a complex mother-daughter relationship and is a departure from Albert’s serialized fiction. On the surface, the “Little House” books are uncomplicated, simplistic stories of life on the American prairie but Albert does a masterful job of carrying the reader through the complexities of the evolution of Rose and her mother.
            For “Little House” fans this book is essential reading. For Susan Wittig Albert fans, it is pure pleasure.

 “A Wilder Rose: Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Their Little Houses,“ by Susan Wittig Albert,  ISBN-13: 978-0989203500, Persevero Press, September 2013.

"Books and Butts" chronicles high school life in the 80's

Published in the September 9, 2013, edition of the Boerne Star
With the ink barely dry on his school administration certificate, in 1980, Joseph F. Doenges, Ed.D., accepted the position of Assistant Principal of Boerne High School. During the chaotic year that followed, Doenges very quickly discovered that he would be called upon to handle disciplinary problems on an order that he could have never anticipated during his training.
            It wasn't as if he had not been forewarned. The Assistant Principal position was a new one, established in response to demands that something be done about the discipline problem in the school.
            “The graduation ceremony in May was a farce,” Superintendent Bob Chambers told Doenges during his interview for the position. “It was held in the football stadium. Some of the kids were drunk. They were throwing Frisbees and spraying shaving cream at one another. The whole thing was an absolute disgrace. All summer long there were letters to the editor in The Boerne Star about graduation.”
            “The purpose of this book is to reveal the frustration and failure, as well as the joy and success that exist in any public school system,” Doenges writes in the preface of his new book, Books and Butts: Diary of an Assistant Principal (, ISBN13:  9781300827177, July 4, 2013). “It is difficult to do so truthfully without offending someone. It is certainly not my intent to tarnish reputations, damage carefully nurtured images, or cast doubt on the ‘sacred cows’ of education. Nevertheless, if some are offended, reputations tarnished, images damaged, or doubts cast, so be it.” Doenges changed the names of the students whose discipline problems he chronicled.
            From the first day of school, Doenges was called upon to deal with truancy, disruptive behavior, fights, students selling their free lunches, irate parents defending their childrens’ bad behaviors, and students who repeatedly set off strings of firecrackers and deliberately clogged up toilets. 
            Three weeks into the school year, Doenges wrote in his journal, “One discipline problem after another came through my office. It was the busiest day yet. Two boys knocked a hole in the sheetrock wall in English class. Several students were put out of class by the teacher for incessant talking. Three girls were sent to the office for passing notes in class, and two more for chewing gum. Most of these problems should have been handled by the teachers involved, but it was one of those days when tolerance and patience were in short supply.”
             There were serious discipline problems, too, that were difficult for Doenges to handle. Most of these were incidents of vandalism, drinking on the school grounds, or worse, drinking and driving. In these situations he had no other option but to call the Boerne Police Department.
            Doenges kept his wife’s old sorority paddle on display in his office. It served as more of a threat than a viable method of disciplining disobedient teenagers. That is until one day he had to call a student’s father to discuss his son’s constant interruption of his teacher. The father immediately came to the school. When he saw the paddle in Doenges’ office, he got right to the point.
            “I want him paddled, and I want him paddled every time he gets in trouble in the future.”
            Doenges had never actually used the paddle, but this time he did.
            “I got Martha’s old sorority paddle from my desk, where it had been stored since August, just in case I ever needed it. The boy bent over and grabbed his lower legs while I gave him three swats as dad witnessed. I knew by his reaction that the paddle stung, and thus the desired effect had been achieved. I then reached out and shook the boy’s hand, told him there were no hard feelings, and sent him back to class. Dad thanked me, reminded me that future problems were also to be handled with the board, then left.”
            At the end of the school year Doenges did some soul searching about his role as Assistant Principal. He felt that his greatest accomplishments were that he had helped to establish order and control at the school and that he had earned the trust and respect of students, teachers, and parents. It was a frustrating year but he was satisfied that “things were better in May than they were in September.”
            Doenges was conflicted about renewing his contract. That one year had been more physically and emotionally draining than any he had experienced as a teacher. He  returned to his job in August, but it didn’t last very long. During the year the principal resigned and Doenges was appointed in his place. By May, he had decided to accept a position overseas. He returned as Assistant Principal at Boerne High School in 1985. When the superintendent of schools retired, Doenges was persuaded by the Board to take over as superintendent. He served in that capacity for eleven years.
            Books and Butts is an entertaining read filled with humor and wisdom. At the conclusion of his book, Doenges reflects upon his many years of experience as an educator and provides the reader with his personal philosophy concerning issues such as corporal punishment, school and class size, advanced placement, and foreign language instruction.

            The bottom line, says Doenges, is that expectations are too low in the American educational system. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

'Vessel of Fire' chronicles Bar-Kochba rebellion in the Holy Land

The year is C.E. 131. The place is Betsha’al, a small village in the Holy Land. Fifteen-year old Tamar is a potter’s apprentice to her father and over the years she has become a gifted artist. Her  exacting father rejects some of her creative designs and Tamar hides many of her creations in a secret cave. Although she is betrothed to a young man, Yitzak, she has no feelings for him. Throwing pots is the driving force in her life.

One evening when Tamar goes to fetch water for the family, she is accosted by a Roman soldier. She manages to pull away from his grasp just as a kind stranger named Yacob happened to be walking by. Yacob wraps Tamar in his robe and takes her home. When her parents see her torn clothes they imagine the worst. Her mother wails and cries.

“I’ve always taught you to be careful and modest. . . I teach you to be plain and unprovocative, and so you disgrace us with a pig of a Roman soldier?”

One day Roman soldiers enter Betsha’al and arrest Tamar’s betrothed, Yitzak, for treason against Hadrian, the Emperor of the Roman Empire. They murder Yitzak and drag his body through the village. With her future husband gone, Tamar has little chance for marriage. She finds herself thinking of Yacob, but she believes that a relationship with the man who saved her from the Romans is not possible.

As violence against the Jews escalates in the small villages of the region, Tamar’s father knows that if they are to escape death at the hands of the Romans, he, his family, and fellow villagers must flee to caves in the wilderness. With only the possessions that they can carry, they set out on their long journey. Once there, Tamar feels compelled to return to Betsha’al and implores her father to leave. That night, when everyone else is asleep, Tamar quietly slips out of the cave and sets out for home where she must confront the horrors of the war and come to terms with the atrocities committed by
the Romans against the Jews.

Vessel of Fire by Elena Tucker is the first book of  her “Time Pieces” historical fiction trilogy. It chronicles the life of a family during the Bar-Kochba rebellion of the Jews against the Romans. While the story takes place during a single year, Tucker explains in her author’s notes that the actual time period stretched over half a decade.  “Fighting was intense all over Judea,” Tucker writes, “centering around Jerusalem where the Tenth Legion was stationed. . . It is estimated that 400,000 untrained Jewish men gathered in a well-orchestrated revolt that began a few miles west of Jerusalem, and ended with the eventual ‘Redemption of Israel.’ In triumph, a new Jewish calendar was begun, government restructured and new currency issued.”

Tucker cleverly presents the compelling tale of Tamar and her family side-by-side with a current-day story of Dr. Lemuel Fort, one of the world’s leading Near Eastern archeologists on a dig in the ancient city of Beit Sha’al. Lem and his wife, Emily, have experienced a recent tragedy and are trying to repair their relationship. As Lem and his crew unearth the artifacts of past lives, Tucker’s story streams seamlessly back in time to Tamar and her family. At the same time, Lem cautions his students not to forget the people who made and used the relics that they retrieved.

“The problem with artifacts” says Lem, “is that we forget what they really are. . . what we’ve forgotten is who made these lamps: a man just like me or maybe some of you. Maybe he was shy. Maybe he dreamt of women as he worked the clay and sang whatever songs were popular in his day.”

Tucker’s characters have depth and they spring to life through the historical tapestry that she weaves. “What is most important to me,” says Tucker, is that we understand the flesh-and-blood-ness of ancient peoples; they were not merely abstractions or myth. They were smart, feeling, loving people who—however different their circumstances—were folks who struggled and enjoyed life just like you or I.”

This is a story of the ancient and the contemporary, side-by-side, both struggling  for the survival of their families. The book flows seamlessly back and forth through the ages, with characters whose cores resonate with the struggles of a common humanity—two cultures united by the thread of time.

Tucker is an award-winning columnist and staff writer for The Boerne Star. She has also penned a historical novel about Magellan, West About, available through The Vessel of Fire and Tucker’s second and third books of her “Time Pieces” trilogy, Vessel of Hope and Vessel of Strength, are available as Kindle editions through for the very nominal price of $ 2.99 each, a real bargain for such good reads.

This review was published in the Boerne Star on March 1, 2013

Friday, January 18, 2013

The CIA protects the president . . . the Culper Ring protects the presidency

“. . .suddenly the bullet dropped out through my fingers and fell, breaking the solemn silence of the room with its clatter, into an empty basin that was standing beneath. There it lay upon the white china, a little black mass no bigger that the end of my finger—dull, motionless and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world’s history as we may perhaps never realize.”

Those are the words of Dr. Edward Curtis, the physician who performed the autopsy of President Abraham Lincoln.

Every president since James Madison has attended religious services at St. John’s church, a house of worship that sits directly across the street from the White House. When the rector is murdered, Secret Service agents question archivist Beecher White because his name and telephone number have been discovered in the pocket of the suspect, along with a nineteenth-century deck of playing cards. In an effort to clear his name, Beecher and his sidekick, Tot, along with other members of the Culper Ring, jump into the fray only to discover that the prime suspect is one of Beecher’s childhood pals, Marshall Lusk, from Sagamore, Wisconsin.

While investigating the rector’s murder, Beecher finds a peephole in a wall of the church that directs his eye to President Abraham Lincoln’s pew. Coupled with the fact that the rector was murdered with a forty-four caliber, single-shot Derringer pistol, the identical weapon that John Wilkes Booth used to kill President Lincoln, Beecher concludes that the murder is a re-creation of Lincoln’s assassination. Beecher also discovers that the ace of spades is missing from the deck of cards belonging to the alleged killer.

The following morning Pastor Kenneth Frick, leader of the Foundry Church, located a scant mile from the White House, is shot twice in the back. When Beecher and Tot put together the evidence, they are convinced that the attempted murder of Frick was a meticulous re-creation of President Garfield’s assassination by Charles Guiteau in 1881. Beecher and Tot learn that Guiteau had a tattoo of a dagger with a red diamond on it. “Two presidential killers,” Beecher concludes. “Two suits of playing cards.”

Because the current president of the United States, Orson Wallace, had attended services at both St. John’s and the Foundry churches, Beecher and Tot believe that he is the common link to the murders of both pastors and speculate that Wallace is the killer’s ultimate target. Would Wallace’s assassination, like Lincoln’s, foist “mighty changes in the world’s history?”

After assassination re-enactments of presidents McKinley and Kennedy, the novel’s twists and turns take the reader over the edge into an accurately depicted but largely unknown presidential hideaway where secrets are born and honor dies. 

In his latest thriller, The Fifth Assassin,  Brad Meltzer entwines the past with the present through the use of flashbacks to Beecher’s childhood and gradually reveals the lurid backstory that drives Beecher and his childhood friends through a web of political ruthlessness, misplaced loyalties, and ultimate betrayals. As the story builds to a critical mass, Beecher must resolve his contradictory feelings in order to preserve his code of honor.

Meltzer is a student of history and this novel unfolds within an accurate historical context. He brings back familiar characters from The Book of Fate and The Inner Circle, probing their psyches and exposing their inner conflicts, and giving the reader a multi-dimensional insight into their foibles and motivations. His characters are authentic and credible and they beg for a series of novels based upon the Culper Ring. There is never a dull moment and the suspense builds with the turn of each page. The Fifth Assassin is great storytelling, brilliantly executed. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Ben Rehder Hits a Home Run With "The Driving Lesson"

Fourteen-year-old Charlie Dunbar adores his grandfather, Opa, and the feeling is mutual. When classes are dismissed on the last day of school for summer vacation, Charlie is surprised to find Opa outside waiting for him. The old  man wants Charlie to drive him to a doctor’s appointment. After expressing his reluctance because he didn’t have his learner’s permit yet, Charlie finally agrees to drive him. Before he realizes it, Opa has directed him to the interstate. With each mile travelled, Charlie becomes a little bit more nervous. Finally, after an eighteen wheeler rumbles up beside Opa’s car, Charlie asks how much further to the doctor’s office. That’s when Opa tells him that they were headed for Seattle.

Just a few days earlier, Charlie had overheard his parents talking about Opa. They mentioned hospice, an unfamiliar word to him. During a driving lesson with his father the following day, Charlie learns that Opa is terminally ill with cancer. Charlie knows instinctively that the doctor’s appointment in Seattle has something to do with Opa’s condition.

By the time Charlie and Opa reach Lubbock, Charlie is feeling comfortable behind the wheel. His mom has been leaving numerous, frantic voicemail messages on his phone, but Opa isn’t particularly concerned. When they get to Amarillo, Opa asks Charlie to stop at a motel. Once inside, Charlie confronts his grandfather and demands to know what is going on. Opa explains his choices in facing terminal cancer: do nothing, follow the doctor’s treatment plan, or take control of the situation and deal with his impending death on his own terms.

“All I wanted to do was spend some time with my favorite person in the world. That’s you,” Opa tells him. “The truth is sometimes none of your choices in life are good. Sometimes you’re faced with a terrible problem, and the only thing you can do is pick the least objectionable solution. Sucks, Huh? Believe me, I wish I had a fourth option, or ten more options, but I don’t.”

Before they leave Amarillo, Charlie and Opa visit Cadillac Ranch, a sprawling auto museum/junk yard for deceased cars. In Tucumcari, New Mexico, they stop at a local café for a bite of lunch and when Charlie glances at the television he does a double-take.

“It was so totally unexpected, like when you suddenly catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror, except you didn’t know there was a mirror there. . .that’s what was happening now, because there, on the TV screen, was a photo of me in my football uniform.”

By the time Opa and Charlie get to the west coast, they’ve ditched their credit cards and cell phones, disguised their appearances, visited the Grand Canyon, driven through the breathtakingly beautiful Kaibab National Forest, and had their car burgled. They have observed their own faces in every corner they’ve traversed—television news in motel rooms, cafes, and restaurants and splashed across newspapers at every convenience store.

Ben Rehder’s new young adult novella, The Driving Lesson, chronicles the cross-country journey of a young man and his grandfather. Like Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, it’s the road trip and the companion that elevate the story. While Rehder is best known for his Blanco County mystery series, The Driving Lesson shows his depth and breadth as a writer. He skillfully and with great sensitivity weaves a difficult subject—mortality and loss—into a heartwarming, poignant story filled with humor, hope, and love. This is a story that will have you shedding tears and cracking smiles at the same time. Although it is marketed as a young adult novel, The Driving Lesson is a compelling read that adults will also enjoy.

The Driving Lesson is available through Amazon in print, e-book, and audio editions. All of Rehder’s books, including his latest novel, The Chicken Hanger, are available on his web site at

Appeared in the Boerne Star, January 1, 2010