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.