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