Wednesday, September 23, 2015

No bull—Ben Rehder’s “Bum Steer” is an entertaining read

This review was published in the
Sept. 18 edition of the Boerne Star
     When Billy Don Craddock shoved $142,000 in chips onto a Vegas casino blackjack table, his good buddy Red O’Brien felt like the quart of cheap beer in his stomach was going to erupt. Half of the money that Billy Don just bet belonged to Red. When Billy Don first bragged to Red a few months ago that he was a damn good blackjack player, Red thought it was liquor talking. After playing a few hands, however, Red became convinced that Billy Don had been harboring a very lucrative gambling talent that could lift them from their run-down trailer trash existence into a life of luxury and leisure.
     When Billy Don was sixteen, his father took him to Vegas. “My old man drug me along ‘cause he said I was a better player than he was,” Billy Don explained to Red, “and he was right. See, you learn when to hit and when to stay, when to split, double down, and all that stuff. There are charts you can memorize that tell you what to do. But there are other times when you’re operating on nothing more than a gut feeling. Sometimes you gotta go with it. I was always good at that part.”
     Billy Don was good at adding numbers in his head, too. His dad made him deal cards for hours at a time. Even though Billy Don hated doing it, he humored his dad and even passed math that year because he had learned to add numbers at a phenomenal clip.
     In true Ben Rehder style, Bum Steer, the ninth installment of his rollicking Blanco county mysteries, is a tribute to Texas hillbilly humor. There are numerous unpredictable plot twists and turns that keep the story going at breakneck speed. Rehder’s cast of memorable characters reappear in this latest novel, but “Bum Steer” is a stand-alone story that does not require reading the previous books.
     Three weeks before Billy Don’s and Red’s foray into the Vegas world of glitz, glamour, and gambling, Rodney Bauer’s red Brangus bull is shot dead in the middle of the night. As if that is not bad enough, a deceased young woman is discovered underneath the body of the bull and Sheriff Bobby Garza calls in game warden John Marlin to assist in the investigation. Just as expected, they find that the young woman has been gored to death. The evidence suggests that she was not alone with the bull and that someone had attempted to steal the prize steer. And, of course, Billy Don and Red become entangled in a web of murder and mayhem.
     Rehder’s first book in this series, Buck Fever, was nominated for an Edgar award. He has also authored ten “Die Laughing” crime novels and several standalone books including the YA book The Driving Lesson.
     Rehder is recognized for his satirical and irreverent approach to contemporary issues. Much like Carl Hiaasen, his novels parody the circumstances of everyday life. Bum Steer is a delight.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Fort Hood massacre detailed in Porterfield book

This review was published in the Sunday July 5, 2015 edition of the "San Antonio Express News" and was written by Capt. Vincent Bosquez (Ret), who is the coordinator of Veteran Affairs at Palo Alto College in San Antonio. 

Fort Hood, home to two full-armored divisions with more than 41,000 infantrymen, cavalrymen and tankers, is the largest active duty military post in the United States.
But even an installation with a storied history and a mission designed to rapidly deploy and conduct operations to “seize, retain and exploit” the initiative to defeat any adversary around the world can fall victim to the whim of a lone gunman in its own backyard.
“Death on Base: The Fort Hood Massacre” by Texas writers Anita Belles Porterfield and John Porterfield, is an intense, transfixing look into events surrounding the worst mass shooting on a military base on American soil.
When Major Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, walked into the Fort Hood Soldier Readiness Processing Center in November 2009 and viciously murdered 12 soldiers and a civilian medic and wounded 43 others, he set into motion national debates on a myriad of topics ranging from the definition of home-grown terrorism, acceptance of religious freedoms, and the perennial discourse on the death penalty.
The Porterfields succinctly cover all the salient points of events leading up to the catastrophic hour of the attack and painstakingly dissect the anatomy of the massacre. They also provide tangible comparisons to other mass shootings and reveal missed opportunities where the Army could have required Hasan to master techniques related to his profession instead of allowing him to be passed along to the next level of responsibility.
In one telling passage, the authors note that one of Hasan’s advisers recognized that over time his views on the military and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were becoming increasingly extreme. The advisor offered Hasan the opportunity to resign his commission, but unless Hasan could be assured that he would get an honorable discharge, he insisted he wanted to remain in school and in the Army.
Incredibly, during this same time period his official Army rating described his performance as outstanding with the recommendation “must promote; best qualified; a star officer.”
With sensitivity and haunting rhetoric, the book details the terror, chaos and despair the 300 soldiers packed into the crowded SRP Center felt as they heard a fellow soldier shout “Allahu Akbar!” — Arabic for “God is great!” and the shooting began. In the end, after more than 55 people lay dead, dying or wounded, the last person shot was the gunman himself.
The authors take us through the gauntlet of Hasan’s legal maneuvers in the aftermath of the disaster, the Article 32 hearing, which is similar to a preliminary hearing in a civilian court, and continued comparisons to other high-profile cases involving mass murders.
In what may be disturbing to some readers, the Porterfields detail how the Department of Defense and the Army initially classified Hasan’s shooting rampage as workplace violence and denied benefits to the victims that they would have received if they had suffered death or disability in a war zone.
“Death on Base” is a well-researched look into a fateful day in November when Fort Hood, also known as “The Great Place,” was delivered an incomprehensible deadly blow by one of its own. It is a superb work that will be referenced by researchers, historians and the military community for years to come.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Culper Ring Holds the Key to "The President's Shadow"

      It was an alarming discovery—a severed human arm unearthed by the first lady in the White House Rose Garden, a strange coin clasped in its clenched fist.  From one electrifying moment to another, that dismembered arm drives the plot of Brad Meltzer’s new novel, The President’s Shadow. President Orson Wallace calls upon archivist Beecher White to investigate the gory discovery and to find out who could have possibly permeated the tight security around the president’s home. 
     Beecher is a member of the secret Culper Ring, a small organization founded by George Washington to protect the presidency. One of the senior members of the ring is in a Washington, D.C., hospital fighting for his life and it is up to Beecher to act as front man in hunting down the villain.
     Beecher has other concerns, too. His friend Clementine is dying of cancer and has disappeared after helping her mentally ill father, Nico Hadrian, escape from St. Elizabeth’s sanitarium. When the strange coin points to Beecher’s dad, however, the young archivist is compelled to leave no stone unturned in finding out the cause of his father’s death and, hopefully, identifying the felon who buried the arm. It wasn’t a car accident that killed his father, as he had been told, and his dad’s death now points to a little-known military unit, the Plankholders.
     Soon, another arm is excavated from Camp David. This time the clenched hand gripped a white card with a message written in invisible ink. The disclosures in the hands of the unearthed arms contain coordinates for a secret Navy installation and all of the players—some good, some evil—converge upon one of the dry Tortugas, Devil’s Island off of Key West, the secret home base of the Plankholders. They must fight for not only their lives but for vital information that holds repercussions for the whole nation.
  This is a fun read. If you have read Meltzer’s two previous Culper Ring books, the characters in The President’s Shadow will be familiar. If you haven’t read them, you should. Meltzer’s character development is particularly superb in this book. The author is a historian and his obvious love for historical trivia is not lost in this book. He is the creator/director/narrator of the TV shows Decoded and Lost History. He has also written a delightful childrens’ book series based on historical heroes such as Helen Keller, President Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other notables.

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.