Friday, November 6, 2009

Diane Fanning's "Mommy's Little Girl" will break your heart

There is no crime quite so heinous as the killing of one’s own child. In recent years the headlines have been riddled with names of child-killing mothers such as Andrea Yates, Susan Smith, Darlie Routier, and Casey Anthony. New Braunfels true crime writer Diane Fanning analyzes the case of Casey Anthony, the young Florida mother accused of murdering her two year old daughter, Caylee Anthony, in her new book Mommy’s Little Girl.

When two-year old Caylee Anthony was reported missing by her grandmother in June, 2008, there was an outpouring of public sympathy from across the United States. When the little girl’s body was discovered five months later by a utility worker just a quarter mile from the Anthony home, public sympathy was transformed to public outrage. And then when chloroform and gasses from human decomposition were found in the trunk of Casey Anthony’s car, the young mother was arrested for capital murder.

Anthony claimed that little Casey had been kidnapped a month earlier by her babysitter. When she pointed out the babysitter’s apartment to the police, the officers discovered that it had been vacant for months. When asked why the kidnapping had not been reported when it happened, a month prior, Anthony was unable to provide a coherent response.

Fanning skillfully traces Casey Anthony’s string of lies, deceptions, and erratic behavior to a logical conclusion: the young mother is the most likely killer of her two-year-old daughter.
Anthony had claimed to friends and family that she was employed by Universal Studios in Orlando when actually she had been fired by that company months before. She repeatedly stole checks and money from her mother, grandmother, and friends. During the one month interlude during Caylee’s “secret” disappearance, Anthony got a tattoo “Bella Vita” (beautiful life) on her shoulder and partied and drank incessantly. When asked by her friends the whereabouts of her daughter Caylee, Anthony claimed that the toddler was with her nanny.

This is a dark and gruesome tale of an unthinkable act of a mother whose cunning and duplicitous acts destroy everyone unfortunate enough to be in her path. It is also a story of a family so dysfunctional that the month-long disappearance of a toddler went unnoticed.
The Casey Anthony trial is set for next summer. Florida prosecutors are asking for the death penalty.

Fanning based her book on a careful review of more than 6000 pages of transcripts of police interviews, police reports, and other official documents, as well as audiotaped and videotaped conversations and interviews, plus information gathered from on-site research and personal interviews.

Fanning is the author of the Edgar Award finalist Written in Blood: A True Story of Murder and a Deadly 16-Year-Old Secret That Tore a Family Apart, as well as nine other true-crime books, the Lucinda Pierce mystery series, and a Molly Mullet mystery.

Fanning will be discussing and signing her book at Read All About It Bookstore in Boerne on Thursday, November 12, 2009 at 5:00 pm. Light refreshments will be served. Call Read All About It at 830-249-7323. You can check out Diane Fanning’s web site at

Book Details: Mommy’s Little Girl by Diane Fanning, ISBN 978-0312365141, St. Martin’s True Crime, November 3, 2009. paperback, $6.99. Available through all booksellers.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Susan Wittig Albert's 'Together, Alone' is an amazing book

Boerne Star, Tuesday, September 29, 2009
I have enjoyed Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles mysteries for many years. I relish Albert’s quirky plots, savor her droll sense of humor, and laugh out loud at her eccentric characters. For me, tucked within these page-turners is an enormous amount of insight into the human psyche, an element often lacking in series fiction. I was delighted, therefore, when Wittig Albert’s memoir, Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place, was recently released. It did not take many pages of reading to become totally absorbed in her personal narrative. Together, Alone embodies a rare power and intensity, a raw honesty, if you will, that elevates the ordinary and mundane of everyday life to a noble position of human existence within the context of time and place.

Growing up on a farm in Illinois made an indelible mark on Wittig Albert’s psyche. Her greatest desire was to live as her grandparents had.

“My dream, when I was a girl, was to live as my grandparents lived: in a small white house on a low green hill, with woods and fields and streams holding me in a sweet, enduring embrace through summer sun and winter blizzards, easy times and hard.”

That idealized life, however, was not to be, at least for a while. Immediately after high school graduation Wittig Albert got married and gave birth to three children in rapid succession. A full-time mother and wife, she carved out enough time to enroll in the University of Illinois where she earned her bachelor’s degree. She then accepted a fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley where she was awarded her Ph.D. in English. Divorced with three children, life was a whirlwind when she was offered a teaching post at the University of Texas at Austin and a few years later a full-time administrative position at Newcomb College in New Orleans, followed by another administrative job at Texas State University in San Marcos.

“Before long,” Wittig Albert writes, “my dreams and daytime imaginings were full of remembered landscapes, and I began to think of having a small place in the country with chickens, a garden, fruit trees. I could drive back and forth to the university—many people did, and it satisfied them. But that wasn’t what I wanted. I couldn’t really live in the country, in a full, whole-hearted way, if I had to divide my day between home and work. In order to have the kind of life I wanted, I had to leave the life I had. And on that day I walked out of the university, I felt astonishingly, astoundingly free—as free as those wild birds—and I could sing my own glorious hurrah. It was only a step, but it was the first, and it was necessary.”

Shortly after leaving academia Wittig Albert met Bill Albert, a software engineer who was also at a crossroads in his life and ready to move on. Albert owned five acres of Texas Hill Country land and the two married and moved to his secluded place which they named Meadow Knoll. They set up housekeeping in Wittig Albert’s eccentric old RV, Amazing Grace, with an uncertain future before them.

For Wittig Albert, achieving a balance between marriage and her need for solitude was critical for her success both as a writer and a human being.

Together, Alone is an amazing personal narrative. Through Wittig Albert’s self-examination and metamorphosis she empowers women of all ages and stations to similarly discover their own place in their own time.

Over the years, Wittig Albert has proven to be a prolific writer. With 20 China Bayles mysteries, 12 novels written collaboratively with her husband under the name of Robin Paige, six Beatrix Potter mysteries, and numerous non-fiction projects she is a compelling literary presence in the Texas Hill Country.
Book Details:
Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place
, University of Texas Press (2009), $24.95, ISBN 978-0-292-71970-5

Saturday, July 4, 2009

'Scribbling kid' Cary Clack publishes memorable columns

If you have never read Cary Clack’s columns in the San Antonio Express News, you’re in luck. Trinity University Press has just published 84 of more than 2000 of Clack’s columns in book form, Clowns and Rats Scare Me (ISBN 978-1-59534-037-5, Trinity University Press, 2009, $16.95). Clack’s thoughtful and often humorous commentary examines national issues such as terrorism, politics, civil rights, and culture and scrutinizes the mundane—Martha Stewart, strip joints, clowns, rats, and snakes.

Clack credits the late Maury Maverick, Jr., legendary civil rights lawyer and journalist, for jump-starting his career. “Were it not for Maury,” Clack writes, “I wouldn’t have this column. He’s the one who took some of my scribblings to the editorial board a few years ago, and that led me to getting a column on the op-ed page and eventually getting hired.”

Some of Clack’s most soul-searching and provocative commentaries focus upon September 11, 2001. In 12 days at Ground Zero he hammered out 12 heart-breaking, poignant columns that seized the surreal tragedy that brought our nation to its knees. “The world as we know it ended Tuesday,” writes Clack. “The two airliners that destroyed the World Trade Center not only changed the geographic landscape but also forever altered the nation’s psychological and emotional landscape.”

Naomi Shihab Nye’s foreword to Clowns and Rats Scare Me pays homage to Clack’s skill in capturing his readers’ attention. “Cary Clack has a brilliant knack,” Nye writes. “More than one, actually. He writes in strong, surprising sentences, with an uncluttered, sparely elegant tone.”

Clack’s knack, however, occasionally arouses contentious feedback from his readers. One column he wrote on ethnic cleansing in Bosnia generated a heated comment that called him “a scribbling kid.” Instead of responding negatively to that characterization, he embraced it. “The truth is,” says Clack, “that growing up in San Antonio, Texas, I’ve always been a scribbling kid. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Wyatt, who was also my mother’s first grade teacher, told my mother I would be a writer. I don’t remember not writing.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

“The Hidden Treasure of the Forgotten Pharaoh” is a whimsical contemporary fairy tale

Time travel and treasure hunting are universal wishful fantasies in our contemporary world. Lee Ann Johnston-Thomas has crafted a delightful magical story that combines both in “The Hidden Treasure of the Forgotten Pharaoh,” (Iuniverse, New York, 2008, ISBN 978-0-595-47552-0, $ 11.95).

Fifteen year-old Nikki Weston has travelled to Egypt with his parents, his personal tutor Tiggy, and Ian, a family friend. While his parents are involved in their daily business routines, Nikki, Tiggy, and Ian spend their time exploring Egyptian ruins. One day they stumble upon some ancient hieroglyphics on an old wall. These ancient drawings speak of the hidden treasure of Pharaoh Hatshepsut. Before this female pharaoh died, she had her trusted servant, Hapuseneb, hide her wealth from her successor, Tuthmoses III. The hieroglyphics offer clues as to the whereabouts of the Pharaoh’s treasure and the three adventurers set out to find Hatshepsut’s riches.

One morning, after discovering Dier-el-Basahari, the funeral temple of the Pharaoh, Tiggy has a vision of ancient Egypt. They enter the temple and she has another vision of a young woman who claims to need Tiggy’s help. Suddenly, they are transported back in time to 1458 BC where they meet Princess Merira, the youngest daughter of Pharaoh Hatshepsut. Merira is to wed Tuthmoses III, the successor to her mother’s throne who will steal her mother’s wealth. The Princess needs the help of Tiggy, Nikki, and Ian to save Pharaoh’s Hatshepsut’s riches.

The time-travelers are delighted with the beauty of ancient Egypt. Where there were ruins just a short time ago in their own time, now there is rich, verdant land laden with olive trees and other lush vegetation. Egyptian slaves bring them platters of food and drink and musicians entertain them. Pharaoh Tuthmoses III becomes smitten with Tiggy and decides that he will marry her. Tuthmoses’ evil magi is afraid that if Tiggy marries Tuthmoses she will prevent him from squandering the riches of the lost Pharaoh Hatshepsut. Tiggy, Nikki, and Ian must find their way out of this dangerous ancient Egypt and get back to their own time.

Lee Ann Johnston-Thomas has masterfully composed an enchanting story that will appeal not only to youth between the ages of 9-15, but to the adult members of their families, as well.

Johnston, a sixth grade math and science teacher at Kendall Elementary School, began telling her students a story of ancient Egypt. She would write parts of the story at home at night and read the developing adventures of Tiggy, Nikki, and Ian to her students the next day. In fact, the characters in the book are named after the children in her classes and they even helped Thomas design the cover of the book.

Thomas, currently in her 14th year of teaching, has taught underprivileged children for 13 of her 14 years’ tenure. She plans to return to her disadvantaged students next year.

While Thomas focuses primarily on math and science, she certainly displays an exceptional talent for writing. She initially began this project as a team-teaching leader when challenged by English and writing teachers who complained that their students could not read or write at their grade levels.

“This book motivated the kids to read,” says Thomas. “They are constantly asking for more.”

Thomas has written another book of stories for her school children and plans to write a sequel to The Hidden Treasure of the Forgotten Pharaoh.

The Hidden Treasure of the Forgotten Pharaoh can be ordered from and

Monday, April 6, 2009

‘The Color of Lightning’ is a disappointing read

Despite the fact that it was widely known that Native American Indian tribes often wreaked havoc upon early settlers, in mid-1800’s Texas became a refuge for Americans escaping “the war between armies and also the undeclared war between neighbors.”

If Britt Johnson, a freed slave with a wife and children, had known in 1863 that migrating to north Texas would be worse than enduring the dark clutches of slavery he might have chosen the latter. In her ‘Author’s Notes’
Paulette Jiles (“The Color of Lightning”; Harper Collins; March 31, 2009; ISBN 978-0-06-169044-0; $25.99) notes that Johnson was a real person and is mentioned in several historical accounts of the settling of north Texas as well as several oral histories. Jiles’ latest book, “The Color of Lightningchronicles the life of Johnson and his explosive relationship with the American Indian tribes who populated the area.

Writes Jiles, “This book is a novel, but it’s backbone—Britt’s story—is true. Britt’s story returned to me repeatedly as I read through north Texas histories over the years, and I often wondered why no one had taken it up. And so I did.”

Armed with idealistic illusions and a desire to build his own freight business, Britt, his wife Mary and their three children join a wagon train of twenty migrating Americans—fifteen white and five black Americans. They settle in Elm Creek just west of Ft. Worth; a small colony subject to invasion by harsh environmental elements as well as warring Kiowa and Comanche Indians.
While the colony’s men were away purchasing supplies, Indians swooped down upon the settlement and killed women and children alike before capturing Britt’s wife Mary and two of their children. They brutally murdered one of the couple’s sons. The remainder of the saga focuses upon Britt’s solid determination to re-capture the remaining members of his family from the Indians. When Britt successfully gets Mary and his two children back from the Indians, he is faced with rehabilitating their new alien personas.

Other than conflicts with Indians, there is very little action in this book. Jiles has a brilliant opportunity to thoroughly develop her characters to give them a richness that comes from knowledge but she only offers sketchy descriptions at best. Throughout the entire book Jiles disparages and denigrates the American Indian. About the Native American man she writes, “The men in a state of war from the moment they were born as if there were no other proper human occupation.” The U.S. government rounded up our Native Americans and attempted to hold them in small reservations. They were here before us. Who would expect them to be anything other than angry? They were and are not intrinsically evil people.

Jiles use of incomplete sentences is so pervasive as to make the book annoying. The restrained use of such a technique can serve to make a novel more interesting and more readable. Not so in this case.

A successful poet, Jiles has written two other novels, “Stormy Weather” and “Enemy Women.”

Monday, February 23, 2009

Lashner scores a home run with 'Blood and Bone'

A forlorn little boy whose greatest desire is to get to know his absent father faces the ultimate sorrow—he must attend the funeral of a man he barely knew, a man whose legacy consists only of a few cloudy memories and a hole in the child’s gut that can never be filled with anything but heartache, dejection, and regret. When the boy, Kyle Byrne, arrives at the funeral chapel with his mother and uncle, he is greeted with scorn and told to leave. All Kyle wants is for someone to tell him that they are sorry about his father dying. To be ordered to leave his own daddy’s funeral is more than Kyle can bear. The little boy spots the urn that contains his father’s ashes. He wants that urn. He wants his dad.

“The . . . man in the dark suit came up the aisle, slowly, jerkily, like in an old movie. Kyle charged right at him, threw out a straight arm, bounced off toward the front of the chapel. He sprinted up the aisle, snatched the urn, popped a spin move before dashing to the side door.”

Growing up, Kyle spots his deceased father everywhere he goes. He sees him at baseball games, in crowds, or just walking down the street. On the occasions that Kyle follows him, he is always disappointed. The shuffling old man with a “bob” of gray hair never turns out to be his dad. He reads obituaries and attends funerals, paying homage to his lost father’s memory.

One day, Kyle attends the interment of Lazlo Toth, his father’s former law partner who has been murdered. There, he meets Robert Spangler who claims to know certain things about Kyle’s father.

“Things that might surprise you,” Robert tells Kyle. “Secrets.”

With this meeting, Lashner’s tale of mysterious deaths, missing files, and human misfits, complete with nefarious characters and a plot that twists and turns with each page, unfolds at breakneck speed.

In addition to a clever, absorbing plot, Lashner has created engaging and endearing characters with whom the reader can identify and who successfully capture the reader’s imagination. His dialogue flows with ease and he imparts a feeling of familiarity through his successful execution of a tale that leads to the pinnacle of political power and the unraveling of dysfunctional family relationships.

Blood and Bone is a captivating read. It has broad appeal for suspense, mystery, and thriller aficionados.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Out with the old, in with the new? Not so fast!

My husband, John, and I have a long-standing tradition of celebrating the Christmas holidays at home with our brood of five. Over the past few years the kids have married, procreated, and settled down all over the country. To get even one or two of them to land in one place at one time has become an impossible feat. When we discovered that three of our grown children would be congregating in the New Orleans area for part of the Christmas holidays we decided that this was a road trip we couldn’t miss.

Obviously, as a book critic and writer, I love to read. We are a family of readers and we love to travel. Road trips and audio books are made for each other. On our way out of town we stopped at our local bookstore and surveyed their inventory of audio books. A really good one, preferably a thriller, was an absolute necessity to temper the miles and miles of Interstate highway. Brad Meltzer’s first novel, The Tenth Justice, a book that we both read and enjoyed more than ten years ago was our mutual pick. Sorry Brad, but we have consumed more books than hamburgers during the past ten or twelve years and our memories of the characters and plot had become rather thin.

We were half way through David Sedaris’ latest release, Engulfed in Flames, and the remainder of that audio book accompanied us to Baton Rouge. While the first half of Engulfed in Flames was funny and clever, the second half of the book proved repetitious and laborious. I’m happy that Sedaris was able to kick the habit, but three hours of tired ramblings about his 90 day junket to Japan to go cold turkey off of cigarettes was annoying and downright boring. Nevertheless, we listened, hoping that the author would get off the subject. What a disappointment.

The Tenth Justice and its addictive plot captured our full attention on the nine hour trip home. Even though memories of the characters and story line began coming back we weren’t bored or disappointed. This thriller has all the right elements—Supreme Court intrigue, the fragility of long-standing friendships, a plot with more twists and turns than we encountered on the highway, and, of course, romance. Scott Brick, who has also read the unabridged versions of Meltzer’s The First Counsel, The Millionaires, The Zero Game, and The Book of Fate, held our attention with his engaging voice. The 13 CD’s, however, represented fourteen hours of playing time. We turned into our driveway at nightfall in the middle of a romantic interlude between protagonist Ben Addison and his co-worker Lisa, bailed out of the car, and raced inside to our home office/library. John pounced on the book and we spent the remainder of the night taking turns reading out loud until we finished the last page. Now that’s a good book!