Thursday, December 30, 2010

Bookviews - January 2011

By Alan Caruba

My Picks of the Month

For ten weeks in 2010, America and the world watched as BP tried to cap an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico whose rig had suffered an explosion that killed several workers. Loren C. Steffy, a business columnist for the Houston Chronicle, has written Drowning in Oil ($27.00, McGraw-Hill). It is a gripping account of the efforts to stop the flow of an estimated 200 million gallons of oil. The event focused attention on the modern world’s dependency on oil, not just for transportation and heating, but for use in countless products and their manufacture. It also provided the Obama administration an excuse to close down oil drilling in the Gulf where it has been safely conducted for decades. Steffy performs a useful service by revealing BP’s history of safety failures and its reputation as a major oil company willing to cut corners and ignore rules. That is what lies at the heart of the event; not the oil industry, but one member who, ironically, spent millions prior to the tragedy to convince the public it was environmentally committed to good practices. The aftermath has severely impacted the economy of many Gulf States and left many in the oil industry unemployed for purely political, anti-energy reasons.

The Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C. libertarian think tank, publishes some of the best books on the topic of government and the policies that influence its behavior. Libertarians prefer smaller government, less regulation of the marketplace, and less interference with consumer choice. In short, it prefers the liberty the U.S. Constitution was drafted to ensure. It has three books of recent publication that are well worth reading to understand why the nation has suffered a financial crisis. I recommend them all. They are The Struggle to Limit Government by James Samples ($24.95), Liberty of Contract: Rediscovering a Lost Constitutional Right by David N. Mayer ($21.95) and, coming in February, The False Promise of Green Energy ($24.95) by four contributing authors. It is now obvious to everyone that the federal government has grown too large, expanding powers often not granted by the Constitution. In a period of high unemployment, the only segment of the economy not affected is government. In his book about contract law, the author examines the relationship between economic liberty and personal liberty, the subject of some very controversial Supreme Court rulings. There is much talk about “green energy”, a reference to wind and/or solar power that is supposed to also generate “green jobs.” The reality is that neither is sufficient to meet even the most minimal energy needs of Americans and they exist almost solely due to government subsidies and mandates. Green energy is essentially a myth and this excellent book explains why.

One of the best aspects of books, almost from the time there were books, is their ability to educate people regarding various aspects of their lives. A number of such books can prove useful in the year ahead and, in no particular order, let me present two. My friend Julian Block, one of the nation’s experts on all aspects of taxation, has written Julian Block’s Tax Tips for Marriage and Divorce ($19.95, Passkey Publications. Elk Grove, CA, softcover). This year in particular, everyone whether single, married, living together, separated or divorced needs to know how to navigate the complex tax system. Using a question and answer format, the book provides easily understood and excellent advice to the many questions people have regarding all aspects of relationships, along with warnings about various situations such as those in which a woman receives gifts from someone courting or just keeping them. In the case of divorce, the book discusses how still-married or ex-spouses can use information on a joint return to track down hidden assets. Recovering overdue alimony payments or child support is also addressed. A former IRS special agent, an attorney, and author of several books, Block’s new book is the place to start for anyone in a relationship who needs to know their way around how taxes will impact it. Dr. Andrew Weil, MD, is one of the nation’s best known physicians for his ten books on aspects of health and now he has written You Can’t Afford to Get Sick ($l6.00, Plume, softcover) that looks at a national health care system in crisis at the same time the national economy is in crisis. For those who want to understand why, Dr. Weil shows exactly how we have become embroiled in this contentious situation. All current polls indicate Americans want Obamacare repealed, but Dr. Weil seeks to provide a solution that will not only make healthcare affordable, but which will put the reader on the path to maximum health. He fears for the failure of the health care system, says that insurance companies have destroyed the opportunity to get good health care and that pharmaceutical companies rule the entire system. I, frankly, cannot judge the merits of his views, but there is little doubt he knows whereof he speaks.

For folks who enjoy getting in the car for a trip, there’s Along Interstate 75 by Dave Hunter ($24.95, Mile Oak Publishing) which is part of a series of traveler’s guides for the open road and among the best being offered. Whether you’re going south from Detroit to Marietta, Georgia, or north, this neat guide has 105 full-color maps, 144 photos, 15 charts and diagrams, all enclosed with spiral binding and laminated folding cover with a reference map of the entire route. Inside every page is filled north or south. To learn more, visit

The next book is not exactly a travel guide. About the only reason I can think of to spend billions to explore the planets in our galaxy is to remind us of the uniqueness of planet Earth. Alone among all the planets circling our sun, Earth sustains life. The contrast is made manifestly clear in Postcards from Mars ($30.00, Plume, softcover) by Jim Bell, a professor of astronomy at Cornell University. The photos, more than 150 full-color-process prints taken by the NASA Mars Exploration Rover missions, reveal an utterly dead planet, a surface so barren that the contrast with the fecundity of Earth makes it serve as a reminder of our planet’s extraordinary environment and ecology.

As a writer, I am probably more aware of all the phrases and idioms that are used by people in verbal and written discourse. As often as not, I have wondered where they come from and now, thanks to Harry Oliver, we have Flying by the Seat of your Pants: Surprising Origins of Everyday Expressions ($13.95, Parigee, softcover). I have enjoyed his previous books, “Bubble Gum and Hula Hoops” and “Black Cats and Four-Leaf Clovers” for the way they illuminate the world in which we live and his latest book does much the same. Words such as “swashbuckling”, “humbug”, and “tarmac” get the Oliver treatment along with phrases such as “wet one’s whistle” and “for the birds.” It is just great fun to read. For anyone who dreams of becoming a screenwriter, there’s Now Write! Screenwriting ($14.95, Tarcher/Penguin, softcover), subtitled “screenwriting exercises from today’s best writers and teachers.” Edited by Laurie Lamson, it shortcuts a long learning process by teaching how to solve problems like knowing where to start the story, why one should focus on your particular writing style and your personal character when digging out of a plot hole, and methods to stop your internal critic from too much negative thinking. Now go write that film!

Memoirs, Biographies & Autobiographies

It was a New York Times bestseller when first published and Mika Brzesinski’s autobiography, All Things at Once, is now available in softcover ($15.95, Weinstein Books). Mika came to fame as the co-host on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show with Joe Scarborough. Her fans are bound to enjoy this look at the many roles she inhabits daily as a wife, mother, and career woman’s advocate The daughter of a former Secretary of State to Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, she is comfortable around those who are at the center power but she has had to balance a happy marriage with two daughters against her own ambitions over twenty years of ups and downs in the high-profile, high-stress field of television journalism. In the realm of politics, there’s a lightweight memoir by Ron Reagan, My Father at 100, ($25.95, Viking) about our former, much beloved President. He has written a touching portrait man who he did fully come to know and understand as he reached his own maturity. Reagan, who lived a public life, first as a Hollywood actor, then as a spokesman for General Electric, later as the Governor of California, and finally as President, was also a very private man. His son came to admire his unshakeable principles that he sought to instill not only in his children, but in the country he so fiercely loved.

The wife of a noted percussionist and virtuoso snare drummer, Harry Brabec, pays him tribute with her memoir and biography, The Drummer Drives! Everyone Else Rides ($14.95, softcover). I have known Barbara Brabec for many years as the author of small business guides, but I was surprised to learn she had married Harry in 1961, in the wake of his dismissal from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1956 by the imperious conductor Fritz Reiner. It destroyed his career as a symphony musician and caused the failure of his first marriage. This highly entertaining memoir tells of his comeback and how he encouraged her entrepreneurial ambitions. “Neither of us ever imagined that I’d someday write a book about my life with him,” says Barbara and we can be very happy that she did. Musicians or those related to one will thoroughly enjoy this book. It can be purchased via and you can learn more by visiting

The Whistleblower by Kathryn Bolkovac with Cari Lynn ($25.00, Palgrave/Macmillan) is an extraordinary story about sex trafficking, military contractors, and how one woman, a Nebraska police officers and divorced mother of three answered a recruitment notice for a job with a private military contractor, DynaCorp International, she was hired. The money was good, there was an opportunity to travel and to help Bosnia rebuild where she was to assist a United Nations peacekeeping mission. It was not long after she arrived in Sarajevo that she discovered that some of her colleagues were involved in some very ugly crimes. It didn’t take long for her to be demoted and then fired. The situation was fraught with potential harm and she fled the country, but made sure to bring incriminating documents with her. Not only did she win a lawsuit against DynCorp, but she exposed what they had done. This is a cautionary tale about what really goes on inside UN operations and what can happen with war and its aftermath is subcontracted to private firms who may operate outside the rules of war.

Well known to Los Angelenos, Steve Lopez has written a column for the Los Angeles Times and as the author of “The Soloist” that was later made into a movie. In Dreams & Schemes: My Decade of Fun in the Sun ($17.95, Camino Books, Philadelphia, PA, softcover) provides hours of delightful reading about the city through a collection of his controversial, irreverent, trouble-making, and heart-warming columns. In the tradition of journalism, Lopez has had skirmishes with governors, mayors, moguls, and even raccoons. More than 90 columns written between 2001 and 2010 reveal much about life in LA and about Lopez. A similarly offbeat memoir is Take a Seat: One Man, One Tandem and Twenty Thousand Miles of Possibilities by Dominic Gill ($16.95, FalconGuides, an imprint of Globe Pequot, softcover). It is the story of when he set out from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, by bicycle on June 16, 2006 with the goal of reaching Ushuaia, the southernmost city in South America, nearly 20,000 miles away. He intended to invite strangers to join in on the long journey who would not only help peddle part of the way, but become friends in the process. By the time he arrived, 270 people had helped him on his way. Cyclists in particular will enjoy this story while others will find it filled with glimpses of the humanity we all share.

Another journey is told in the biography of Tupaia: Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator by Joan Druett ($44.95, Praeger) just out this month. The award-winning author of eighteen books, Druett literally stumbled into the story of a Tupaia, a man who was a gifted linguist, a brilliant orator, and a devious politician who was highly skilled in astronomy, navigation, and meteorology. In particular, he was an expert in the geography of the Pacific and thus invaluable to the English explorer. He was, in addition, a gifted artist whose work records Cook’s journey of exploration. His story, however, went untold because he died of scurvy seven months before the ship returned home. Anyone with an interest in history will want to read this book. The journey that the Lewis and Clark expedition took to map the vast new Louisiana Territory and the far west was followed by one that has been virtually unknown until now. It is the story of Captain John McCallen and historian John C. Jackson tells it in By Honor and Right: How One Man Boldly Defined the Destiny of a Nation ($28.00, Prometheus Books). It was McCallen, an army officer, who followed after Lewis and Clark with the mission of opening up the Santa Fe Trail. Deflected from that goal, he discovered a practicable route across the continent after exploring the Pacific Northwest where, for a brief but crucial moment, he blocked British claims to the Columbia River, south of the 49th parallel. History sometimes turns on such enigmatic figures.

World War Two spawned hundreds of memoirs of those who played a role in it. Whitey: From Farm Kid to Flying Tiger to Attorney by Wayne G. Johnson ($18.95, Langdon Street Press, softcover) is a classic American story, one of daring, adventure, hard work, and success. Johnson, known as Whitey, was the 11th of 14 children born to immigrant parents. He grew up on tenant farms in rural Minnesota during the Great Depression. “We were poor but didn’t know it.” He enlisted in the Air Corps the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was trained as a fighter pilot, and sent to China to join the famed Flying Tigers, As one of 16 P-51 Mustang fighters, he participated in the first strike against Japanese airdromes near Shanghai, destroying 97 planes on the ground without any losses. When he returned from war, he became a successful attorney. We need to remember what those times were like and how so many like Whitey returned from them to make a life for themselves. Another aspect of America is told in A Country Called Amreeka: U.S. History Retold Through Arab-American Lives by Alia Malek ($15.00, Free Press, softcover). It should come as no surprise that 9/11 dramatically changed the lives of many Arabs who immigrated or grew up here, often having been victims of discrimination in their home nations. The author presents a series of portraits of those in the Arab-American community, who do not fit the stereotypes they encounter since they are a diverse group including Democrats, Republicans, Christians and Muslims.

Getting Down to Business Books

These are nervous times for many who hold fulltime jobs so maybe an investment in The Employees Rights Handbook by Steven Mitchell Sack ($39.95, Legal Strategies Publicans, Merrick, NY), now revised and enlarged in its third edition will prove a good investment. This is the real deal. Between its covers you will learn how to get property hired, to protect yourself on the job, and how to fight back if you are unfairly and illegally fired. It will likely save the reader a lot of money, aggravation, and expense with its valuable legal strategies, checklists, forms, sample letters and contracts that will strengthen your position if and when you have a job-related legal problem.

The Leader Who Had No Title by Robin Sharma ($14.00, Free Press, softcover) is subtitled “A modern fable on real success in business and life.” It is filled with good advice on how stand out as a worker, no matter what your position may be. How to change just “being busy” to achieving real results, and how to build a world-class team, among many other elements of advice that have made Sharma into one of the world’s most highly respected leadership experts who has advised many of the top companies worldwide. This is not some huge tome, but rather an easily read and applicable book. High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout by Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter ($18.00, Prometheus Books, softcover) offers some excellent advice for women who get so obsessed with their work they forget to smell the flowers. If you recognize the signs in yourself or someone else, this book may pull them back from the brink and restore some sanity to their lives.

Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late Twentieth Century by Andrew L. Yarrow ($26.95, University of Massachusetts Press, softcover) is a particularly timely book insofar as the nation is trying to recover from its excesses of borrowing and spending, ever-growing entitlement programs, and a mortgage loan bubble that shook the entire economy at home and around the world. Yarrow examines how American’s values have been shaped by economic statistics and concepts during the last seventy years. These quantitative measures first emerged after World War II. Americans came to expect a booming economy would continue despite the cyclical recessions and down-turns. This is a well-researched and insightful book.

War! War! War!

Compared to the other creatures that share the planet there is none so dangerous as humankind. Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence: Religious Violence Across Culture and History ($28.00, Prometheus Books) by Jack David Eller is a reminder that war in the name of religion has been around a very long time, going back to the earliest pagan beliefs that include human and animal sacrifice, self-mortification, religious persecution, and including ethno-religious conflict, religiously sanctions homicide and abuse, and wars. This is an illuminating, in-depth and very broad-based study that demonstrates the many manifestations of religious violence. The irony, of course, is that the three major monotheistic religions preach love and compassion. In War and Sex: A Brief History of Men’s Urge for Battle John V.H. Dippel ($27.00, Prometheus Books) says that the reason why young men voluntarily go off toe war has long defied understanding. It is so contrary to the innate instinct for self-preservation, but they have throughout all of civilization and Dippel argues that one important, subconscious reason is to enhance their status as marriage partners for the women on the home front. This, says the author, is especially true for men from low socioeconomic backgrounds for whom becoming a soldiers offers a sexual and reproductive edge over their civilian male peers. He explores this against the background of the American Civil War to the Vietnam War and the current clash between the West and Islamic fundamentalism.

The premiere publishing of books about war is Zenith Press. Here are some of its most recent books. War has always been glorified in art and museums are filled with great paintings of battles and heroes. War in Pacific Skies ($27.99, large format, softcover) by Charlie and Ann Cooper, featuring the aviation art of Jack Fellows fuses art and history in accurate detail with many never-before-published photographs, artwork, and personal accounts that bring to life the battles at Pearl Harbor, Coral Sea, Midway, Guam, Tinian, the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and many more. The artwork is simply stunning with full color depictions of the famed Lockheed P-38 Lightning flown by many of the top aces, along with the variety of other fighting and bombing aircraft the turned the time of war to victory over the Japanese empire.

World War Two continues to interest the generations since it was fought to stop the totalitarian ideologies of Germany, Italy, and Japan. The German Wars: A Concise History, 1859-1945 by Michael A. Palmer ($29.00, Zenith Press) provides both detail and insight regarding a nation called “the Huns” by those it attacked. Feared for its excellence on the battlefield, the irony is that it lost both wars it initiated in the last century, but its full history is filled with a warning for a new generation that faces off against new potential enemies, not the least of which is Iran these days. Four Stars of Valor by Phil Nordye ($19.99, Zenith Press) recalls the combat history of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II and for anyone who finds this aspect of the epic war, it is a reminder that American warriors were drawn from big cities and small towns who came together after the attack on Pearl Harbor to serve their country and a greater goal to stop Germany. Drawing on interviews and official archives, the author conveys the story of those who were the spearhead of the invasion of Sicily in the first American mass combat jump. They would later join the combat at Normandy.

Modern warfare is both similar to that of the past and different for the remarkable technology involved. Predator: The Remote Control Air War Over Iraq and Afghanistan by Matt J. Martin with Charles W. Sasser ($28.00, Zenith Press) tells how this remotely piloted aircraft has had an impact on the modern battlefield. Superb in its ability to provide reconnaissance and to deliver death to the enemy with Hellfire missiles, these aircraft have a crew that are sometimes a half a world away from the missions they’re flying. Lt. Col. Martin provides a first-person account of the fight against global terrorism. It is filled with exciting stories of chasing and attacking armed insurgents in Baghdad or across the desert countryside. Because of the television cameras, the crews experience warfare more closely than traditional bomber crews.

All wars have left its warrior-survivors with its scars, but there has been increasing interest in what was formerly called battle shock, but is now called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). David Philipps, a feature writer for the Colorada Springs Gazette whose articles have appeared in many larger newspapers, has written Lethal Warriors: Uncovering the tragic reality of PTSD ($25.00, Palgrave MacMillan) in which he reveals that a number soldiers who have returned home from the Middle East conflicts, some of whom have murdered in the aftermath of their personal nightmares. Philipps tells of the efforts of General Mark Graham, a former commander at Fort Carson, Colorado, who recognized a growing problem and took steps to deal with it, providing a lifeline to the suffering soldiers.

Kid’s Books

I regret I must start off 2011 with a personal protest of the January 10 American Library Association Youth Media Award called The Stonewall Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award. While the Newbery and Caldecott Medals annually honor excellence in children’s literature, according to the ALA “The demand for quality gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (GLBT) children’s books continues to grow as the nation becomes more diverse and the ALA will be awarding a young adult book that brings these issues to the forefront.” I would argue that the nation is not becoming “more diverse” when it comes to fundamental moral values. I regard this award as harmful to a society being harangued to accept homosexuality as “normal.”

I long have had a problem with books claiming unscientifically and falsely that the Earth is either experiencing “global warming” or will be. This hoax was discredited in 2009. Like environmentalism, much of whose claims are baseless, homosexuality is being pushed on children as an acceptable, alternative lifestyle. I do not believe most parents want their children to be exposed to such advocacy.

Now let us turn our attention to some worthy books for your kids or teens.

For the very youngest who may need to be read to, there are books to teach them the fundamentals such as The Changing Colors of Amos by John Kinyon and illustrated by Kay Selvig Flanders ($14.95, Cherished Publications LLC, Springdale, AR). A sweet little leprechaun is, surprisingly, not green. In fact, he changes colors every day. Need it be said this book will teach a toddler the names of different colors as well as the day of the week. In a similar fashion Hockey Opposites by Per-Henrik Gurth ($15.95, Kids Can Press) teaches how to determine the size of things, along with such basics as “out” and “in”. It’s all very basic, unless you are a very young child just learning them.

All the rest of these books are from Kids Can Press, a very favorite of mine. A very amusing story is told in Spork by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault ($16,95). It tells the story of “Spork” the child of a Spoon and a Fork who doesn’t fit in with all the other cutlery and is the object of ridicule until one days a big “Messy Thing” arrives and overwhelms the others until Spork comes to the rescue. The lesson for the very young is not to reject those who may be different in some way. Though autumn has passed, Kitten’s Autumn by Eugenie Fernandes ($14.95) teaches the fundamentals about different animals and the noises they make as they dine outdoors.

An older group, ages 7 to 10, will have their horizons expanded with books such as Up We Grow: A Year in the Life of a Small, Local Farm written by Deborah Hodge with some wonderful photos by Brian Harris ($16.95) It takes the reader through the seasons and explains what farmers do, what the plant, what farm animals they keep, harvesting, and all the activities that result in good food for the rest of us to enjoy. Looking Closely in the Rain Forest by Frank Serafini ($16.95) is filled with photos that reveal the many different creatures and flora to be found in that environment. It’s educational, but mostly for the young, early reader, it is a feast for the eye and very memorable as they grow up, mindful of how extraordinary the world is. Some will find Ultimate Trains from the “Machines of the Future” series of particular interest. Written by Peter McMahon and handsomely illustrated by Andy Mora ($l6.95), it explains what we can expect from high speed trains while also teaching about how trains of the past developed from steam power to diesel. Those in the future will use magnet power. The book includes some interesting science projects a young reader can conduct. It is quite fascinating no matter what age one is.

Then, of course, there are books that are just plain fun and exist for no other reason than to entertain. As a former journalist, I enjoyed Boy Saves Earth from Giant Octopus!  Written by Frank Asch and illustrated by Devin Asch ($16.95) it tells of a day young Haywood joins his father, a journalist who works for a tabloid newspaper, thinking that all the stories are just made up and not real. Some great adventures ensue and Haywood discovers that being a newsman can be a lot of fun as some very fanciful events occur. The illustrations are delightful as the characters in the book tend to look a lot like famous folks including Elvis Presley. Turns out that life at The Daily Comet is a heck of a ride! Two comic-style books, Tower of Treasure by Scott Chandler ($17.95) and Mummy Mayhem by Mary Labatt and Jo Ruiux ($16.95) provide plenty of excitement as their young heroes and heroines have some adventures that will keep a young reader turning the page. A story with more text to read plus some fun artwork is Bogbrush the Barbarian by Howard Whitehouse and illustrated by Bill Slavin ($17.95). It is sheer mayhem, but it is also filled with lots of very real, very useful knowledge as it teaches the meaning of new words, phrases, and other interesting things. To learn more about these and others, visit

There is a big market among young adults for action-filled novels and Jon S. Lewis’s Grey Griffins trilogy has sold more than 500,000 copies. He has begun a new series called Chaos, filled with crackling plot twists, cliffhanger chapter endings, cyber attacks, alien invaders, and an undercurrent of teen romance. The novel is Invasion ($14.99, Thomas Nelson, softcover) and is just out this month. The “enemy” in the novel is a corporation and, to be candid, I wish it was not because such stories breed a distrust of corporations when, in fact, they employ a lot of people, produce a lot of things people want and need, and do a lot of good in many ways. That said, it is a theme that has been around a very long time. As the young hero, Colt McAllister tried to determine the cause of his parent’s death, he and two new friends embark on the adventure that reveals it isn’t just a corporation but a portal to an alien world that is planning to invade Earth.

Novels, Novels, Novels

I think it may be a roll of the dice that turns one novelist into a household name with all the benefits that come with such fame while another novelist, easily as good or better, remains unheralded to the point where a far larger audience misses the opportunity to enjoy his work. I felt that way about Lior Samson’s novel, “The Dome”, last year when I read and reviewed it. This extraordinary author has the ability to anticipate events in ways that enhance his novels and Web Games, his latest, is no exception ($15.26, Gesher Press, an imprint of Ampersand Press, Rowley, MA, softcover). Last year, a Stuxnet computer virus was introduced into Iran’s nuclear program (Russians? Israelis? The U.S.?) and some counterintelligence insiders estimate it wreaked such havoc that it may have put the program behind by two years based on the damage it did. True to form, Samson is just ahead of the curve with yet another thriller and its theme is cyber-terrorism. So far, the U.S. has been spared a major cyber-attack, but whatever can be turned on, can be turned off. Imagine, then, if the nation’s grid that moves electricity to consumers was the target? Behind the pseudonym of Lior Samson is a university professor whose own background brings to his work a reality that only such technical knowledge could produce. He is aided by others with comparable expertise, but the end result is the story of Destiny Allen, a Web designer for a computer security giant who finds herself in a deadly game that may bring down the electrical energy infrastructure of America. We have seen damage that the WikiLeak revelations have done with the release of classified military and diplomatic communications. Web Games dwarfs that as the main character must enlist her friends to deter a catastrophe. You will not put it down.

As often as not, I hear directly from an author with a novel that is struggling to be noticed amidst the usual avalanche of novels pouring forth in America. One such fellow was Tom Puckett, a California-based stage actor, graduate of UCLA, who has written for both stage and screen, and who researched The Big Blur ($12.99, Dog Ear Publishing, Indianapolis, IN, softcover) by working two summers as a background actor in Hollywood films. It is both hilarious and chilling as it begins with Charlie Thompson, a homeless drifter, waking up in the park to discover a film crew working on a movie about homeless bums like himself! Sneaking onto the set to flinch a free breakfast, he is taken to be just another actor recruited for the film, but he is such a convincing loser he wins a featured role in the film. Far from a rags to riches story, this one involves the mind games a sadistic director will play to get a performance from his players and, on an airport runway, filming the climax of the movie, Charlie’s own criminal past is about to catch up with him. Hollywood is about make-believe, but reality can have a nasty way of intruding.

The Radleys by Matt Haig ($25.00, Free Press) was a big hit in England when it was published in July 2010 as a very eccentric comedy because at 17 Orchard Lane Peter and Helen Radley are losing sleep trying to keep a secret from their teenage children, Rowan and Clara. They are, to their neighbors, the very picture of English respectability and, yes, it’s a bit odd that the children require factor 50 sun block even on the dullest of days, but it takes a shocking act of violence to turn everything in their lives upside down. Rowan and Clara are vampires! Even though they have done everything to turn their backs on this anomaly, they still ache for blood, the substance that makes them feel alive. A family story that is about quite normal folks is Suzanne Corso’s Brooklyn Story ($23.99, Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. This first-time novelist shows lots of promise and based the story on events from her own life, a sweet and engaging story about a woman coming into her own in the summer of 1978 where Samantha Bonti is fifteen years old, the child of a half-Jewish, half Italian, marriage, and living in Bensonhurst with her mother Joan, a woman abandoned and scared in a ruinous marriage. The mother is a major problem, but it is Samantha’s grandmother Ruth who is her greatest source of encouragement. A matrix of ancestors and traditions frames her life. Bensonhurst, then and now, is a tough place in which to grow up and the boy she has fallen in love with, a half-Sicilian, half-Dutch wannabe mobster poses a real threat to her dreams. Told from an adult perspective, its appeal will be to women who will likely identify with it out of their own experience.

There are always plenty of softcover novels to enjoy. “The Nanny Diaries” became a runaway hit in 2002 selling more than two million copies and was brought to the film screen in 2007. Well, the good news is that Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus have authored a sequel and the softcover edition of Nanny Returns ($15.00, Atria) is available. It is almost ten years later for Nan and she is just back from abroad with her husband. Things get very complicated when her troublesome charge, Grayer, now 16 and more messed up than ever, makes a drunken late-night visit to her apartment. For lovers of mysteries, Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano is back in The Track of Sand ($14.00, Penguin Books), the twelfth in her series. It begins when Inspector Salvatore Mantalbano wakes from strange dreams to find a gruesomely bludgeoned horse carcass on the beach in front of his seaside home. When his men go back to investigate, the carcass has disappeared, but before long two other people report missing horses. The hunt for the killer is on! A very different story is told by Nicole Seitz in The Inheritance of Beauty ($14.99, Thomas Nelson) in a nursing home where childhood sweethearts Maggie and George share seventy years of marriage and a dark secret which is awakened when a mysterious new resident moves in. His identity haunts them and seems to be more than a coincidence with an unexplained arrival of a long lost portrait of Maggie just days before his arrival. Turns out their lives intersected in 1929, a year that changed everything for the three of them. It is a very compelling story.

Tyndale House Publishers have prolific authors and this month and next, readers will be treated to several genres. For suspense, there’s Rene Gutteridge’s Possession that takes the reader into the scary world of post traumatic stress disorder as Vance Graegan, a detective is burned out in the wake of investigating the D.C. sniper case. Hoping to save his marriage, he quits the force and moves his wife and son to the other side of the country, but when the movers decide to hold his belongings for ransom, soon recovering them becomes the least of his problems. Coming in February, there’s Henry McLaughlin’s novel Journey to Riverbend in which a preacher, Michael Archer, is determined to carry out a son’s wish to be reconciled with his father, a very unpleasant man. When, however, he is kidnapped, Archer joins the search party. It is an old-fashioned Western filled with danger and romance. Also in February, Nicole Baart has penned Beneath the Night Tree, a conclusion to an earlier novel, “After the Leaves Fall” in which we meet an older and wiser Julia, a single mother to her son and her younger brother, living with her beloved grandmother and hoping to be engaged to the man of her dreams by year’s end. When the father of her son turns up a whole new twist to her otherwise content life occurs. It should be noted that Tyndale novels all have a Christian, spiritual element that address life’s challenges. The softcover novels are all priced at $12.99 and you can learn more at

That’s it for January! A whole new year filled with some wonderful new fiction and non-fiction books. You will find many here in my monthly report. Tell your book-loving friends and family about Bookviews and remember to bookmark it, too.