Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bookviews - January 2013

By Alan Caruba

My Picks of the Month

There are so many pressing issues facing Americans these days that we are fortunate that 2013 begins with a number of books that address and clarify them.

The first of five volumes, America: The Grand Illusion—Book I, Orphans of the Storm by Jeffrey Bennett represents a herculean task he set for himself to bring together the defining documents that set in motion the creation of America, going back to the Magna Charta in 1215 and moving forward through 1620 as men of extraordinary courage and vision rebelled against the world of their time, filled with monarchies and restraints on freedoms, and sought to build a better world in a place called America from a wilderness known only to the native tribes that inhabited it. Their achievement is stunning, even to this day. Book I has some familiar documents (that we often have heard of but not read) but there is much that further illuminates them. For example, as Bennett notes “September 25, 1789 – During the debates on the adoption of the Constitution, its opponents repeatedly charged that the Constitution as draft would open the way to tyranny by the central government. Fresh in their minds was the memory of the British violation of civil rights before and during the Revolution. They demanded a ‘bill of rights’ that would spell out the immunities of individual citizens.” And it was a good thing they did! This is a book whose individual elements need to be read as such but which ends up weaving a story of America’s beginnings that seem to have come together as inevitable. It was never inevitable and it is the result of some brilliant minds and brave souls. The book can be purchased from www.the for $22.95 via a credit card and from the publisher, Kettle Moraine, Ltd., PO Box 579, Litchfield Park, Arizona 85340, for $29.95 by check (includes postage and handling). Anyone who loves America will find this book to be an exciting, inspiring adventure.

Since the late 1980s, Americans and others around the world have been told that the Earth is warming and that “greenhouse gas” emissions, chiefly carbon dioxide, must be reduced to avoid a terrible fate. The fact is, however, that the Earth is has been in one of its periodic cycles for the past sixteen years and it is a cooling, not warming, one. Global warming will go down in the history books as one of the greatest, orchestrated hoaxes to have ever been perpetrated and you can learn the facts in E. Kirsten Peters’ The Whole Story of Climate: What Science Reveals About the Nature of Endless Change ($26.00, Prometheus Books). Dr. Peters is a geologist and geology has a lot to say about the epochs through which the Earth has passed for the 4.5 billion years of its existence. For two hundred years, geologists have been studying the history of the Earth’s dramatic and repeated revolutions, as revealed in the evidence of rocks and landscapes. It is a fallacy to believe that the Earth’s climate has been essentially stable, but it is understandable that people believe this since the human race thrived in the current Holocene epoch of the last 11,500 years that followed the last major ice age. It was not greenhouse gases that brought that ice age to an end. It was, as always, the cycles of the Sun, increasing and decreasing the warming of the planet. Dr. Peters’ book is the most readable and accessible descriptions of the discoveries that, in combination with those of meteorologists, have provided an understanding of those cycles. Dr. Peters says “Because there’s no way to predict complex systems with many feedback influences we don’t understand, there is simply no way to know with certainty what global climate change will be like in twenty-five, fifty, or seventy-five years.” What we do know is that the interval between ice ages averages 11,500 years and the planet is at the end of its current interglacial period.

The month of December was taken up in the Congressional struggle to avoid going over “the fiscal cliff”, a combination of higher tax rates on everyone who has a job or is self-employed and the mandated spending cuts of the “sequestration” that Congress voted for after being unable to come to any agreement on how to deal with an economy that requires the government to borrow $4.8 billion every day! The theme the President has been talking about is “fairness” and his belief that taxing the “rich”, those earning $250,000, to solve the need for more revenue. In truth, the few billion that might be raised would keep the government going for about a week or so. If you want to learn the truth, however, you can and should read Stephen Moore’s new book, Who’s the Fairest of Them All? The Truth About Opportunity, Taxes, and Wealth in America ($21.40, Encounter Books). It is blessedly short, but filled with the facts about our present economic mess and why raising taxes on everyone is the well-known worst way to get out of a recession. Moore is a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal and a frequent contributor on CNBC-TV and Fox News. He has a gift for making complex economic issues easy to understand. Putting more and more people on government programs like food stamps or eliminating the requirement that those on welfare seek work has resulted in a growing number of the poor. In a nation where 47% of its citizens pay no taxes at all, the need to reform the tax code and repair “entitlement” programs like Social Security and Medicare is the only way to get the nation out of the deeper and deeper debt which has been increased $6 trillion just during the President’s first term.

Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds by Jim Sterba ($26.00, Crown Publishers) will astonish most readers with its abundant facts about the reforestation of a stretch of land between Maine and Virginia, as well as other parts of the nation, a process that has been taking place since the end of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth. It is about a part of the nation’s history that is widely misunderstood as early Americans pushed west beyond the Appalachians both the early history of deforestation was reversed by nature. As suburbs developed where Americans could escape cities, yet take a short commute to their jobs, nature ensured the growth of wildlife creatures such as deer, bears, coyotes and turkeys, among many others literally adapted to life and thrived! It examines the way Americans now live isolated from nature in homes that provide a multitude of ways to enjoy the forest in which they live and how the increase in wildlife has created problems for the millions who no longer raise livestock or grow their own crops for food.

I recommend that everyone read this intriguing look at modern life.

A new year means a new edition of The World Almanac® and Book of Facts and it is now available ($12.99, The World Almanac®, softcover). I know that most folks go to Google to get facts, but the Almanac offers the value of bringing the most important facts together between its covers. In addition, it chronicles 2012’s most notable stories, people and places. (It is available as an ebook as well.) The 2012 edition boasts brand-new features that include the 2012 Election Results, as well as its annual sections like “Year in Pictures”, “Offbeat News Stories”, and “Time Capsule” that recount the last year. There are sections on last year’s sports including the 2012 Olympic Games. All the key facts are literally at your fingertips from the world at a glance to health and vital statistics, the economy and employment, et cetera! For students or anyone else, it is a terrific resource. Another fact-filled book is John Withington’s Disaster! A History of Earthquakes, Floods, Plagues, and Other Catastrophes ($14.95, Skyhorse Publishing, softcover). No question that Hurricane Sandy was a super-storm and did a lot of damage, but this book demonstrates that all manner of horrible weather-related and other events have filled history and, in the process, blighted and snuffed out the lives of millions of people. This is a useful book to read in order to put current events in context.

The reelection of America’s first black President was a historic event in 2012, but the history of blacks in America is filled with such events and Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Events by Dr. Jessie Carney Smith ($24.95, Visible Ink, softcover) is testimony to their achievements. Now in its third edition, it is 800+ pages that celebrate African-Americans from all aspects of the nation’s society, including the arts, entertainment, business, civil rights, education, government, invention, journalism, religion, science, sports, music and more. The book itself is an achievement and is filled with surprises such as the black explorer who joined the famed Lewis and Clark expedition. As taught in our schools, there is little emphasis on the facts presented in this book. For young black students, it is a treasure trove of information about black history and surely an inspiration.

The Noisiest Book Review in the Known World—The Best of Ralph: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities ($50.00, Mho & Mho Works, Box 16719, San Diego, CA 92176, a boxed set of two volumes) drawn from the Fessenden Review, famed for its saucy take on books and the publishing industry that featured reviews by media writers at the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Library Journal, and on National Public Radio among others. The Fessenden Review had too many creditors to survive, but it made a return online and to date more than 230 issues have been posted, receiving between 10,000 and 20,000 hits a day. For the lover of books, philosophy and the humanities, this two-volume set will be a treasure that will offer countless hours of enjoyment.

I am a fan of books that provide entertainment and information that is often called trivia. One such book is How Long Can a Fly Fly? 175 Answers to Possible and Impossible Questions about Animals by Lars-Ake Janzon ($12.95, Skyhorse Publishing, softcover). The author is the on-call biologist at the Swedish Museum of Natural History and, over the past decade, he has researched the fun facts in the book in response to the questions he has received. The answers involve more than animals to include insects as well.  If you ever wondered if fish can swim backwards or whether a mosquito hit by a rain drop will die, this book will provide the answer along with a lot of other interesting and entertaining information. If, by chance, you have questions about chickens other than how to prepare one for dinner, then Chickens: Their Natural and Unnatural Histories by Janet Lembke ($24.95, Skyhorse Publishing) is the book you have been waiting for. The award-winning author of nineteen books, she knows how to pull together a lot of information and, it turns out, chickens have quite a history. Lembke surveys chickens in ancient Greece, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the 19th century and modern times. It is, in many ways, an amazing story.

If you have trouble figuring out what people are actually telling you, then I recommend you pick up a copy of The Secrets of Body Language: An Illustrated Guide to Knowing What People Are Really Thinking and Feeling by Phillippe Turchet ($14.95, Skyhorse Publishing, softcover). In poker body language is called “tells” by which one player can deduce what kind of hand another has, but in ordinary life, we try to perceive what others are thinking by picking up whatever clues they body language can suggest. Since we do this ourselves, the books tells you what kind of negative, positive, neutral or mixed messages we are sending those around us. Filled with illustrations, you can learn how to read visible and hidden emotions, what the hands have to say and gestures that convey a message. The author has spent the last twenty years developing these insights and they can improve your own body language as well as interpret other’s.

Getting Down to Business Books

There are only a few new books on business topics as the year begins. What Management Is: How It Works and Why it’s Everyone’s Business by Joan Magretta ($26.00, Free Press) is an excellent guide that will help any reader understand what it takes to make an organization perform. Published initially in 2002, it has been reissued with a new preface by its author. It presents the basic principles of management simply, explains why you need a business model and a strategy, and why it is impossible to manage without the right performance measures. It is a beginner’s guide, and a very good one. The author is a former editor at the Harvard Business Review and has boiled all that she has learned over the years into a simple, clear volume, explaining both the logic of successful organizations and how that logic is applied in practice.

In these days when the Internet and social media have transformed out to market goods and services, companies are learning how they can grow bigger and faster by “reversing their business plan.” Start at the End by Dave Kavinsky ($22.95, Wiley), the cofounder of GrowThink, a consultancy that helps entrepreneurs and business owners identify and pursue new opportunities, has written a book for anyone that wants to sell millions of your product, expanding operations to a new location, and generate more profits, His book offers a unique approach and action steps to redevelop your business plan and readers will learn how to re-create your long-term vision and then make continuous progress in achieving that vision while continuing to hit your short-term goals. His book offers inspiring stories of entrepreneurs who have achieved success while providing easy-to-follow exercises and next steps.

Many people these days are turning to writing to generate income and to satisfy the itch to write a non-fiction book or novel. The publishing industry is changing rapidly these days, from self-publishing opportunities to major publishers purchasing self-publishing firms as a pipeline to acquiring books they can turn into bestsellers. Writers, however, even if they have been professionals for many years, are learning there are all manner of new rules to the game, particularly if one is seeking to secure a mainstream publisher. Jennifer Lyons is well respected as a literary agent with her own international agency. She has written The Business of Writing: Professional Advice on Proposals, Publishers, Contracts, and More for the Aspiring Writer ($19.95, Skyhorse Publishing). For anyone with aspirations to be published, I would heartily recommend reading this book and absorbing its advice. The book is enhanced by personal essays and interviews from a wide range of publishing experts, published authors, an ebooks editor, translators, a magazine editor, agents, an expert on self-publishing, and many others who will provide the kind of insider knowledge and insight that could take years to learn. A good companion book for beginning writers is by Stuart Horwitz. Blueprint Your Bestseller, ($16.00, Penguin Perigee, softcover) lays out his method to take a text from first drafts to a successful, published book. Asserting that every book can be broken down into individual scenes, the author describes how to identify each one, put them in order, and thus be prepared to construct a finished book. The first to say it is not easy Horwitz has a proven track record for helping writers.

War as a Human Enterprise

The Civil War was the bloodiest conflict the nation engaged into until World Wars One and Two. Some 700,000 men died with the South losing far more than the North. It kept the Union together, but at a terrible price and it is an interesting aspect of it that it is reenacted to this day. Battlefields of Honor: American Civil War Reenactors ($34.95, Merrell, London and New York) features the photographs of Mark Elson and a text by Jeannine Stein with a foreword by James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Trust. The Civil War ended in 1865 just 72 years before I was born, so in terms of a generation or so, it is not ancient history, but one of the most interesting aspects of it are the groups that gather on its battlefields to reenact it, devoting themselves to learning its history down to the smallest details of uniforms and weapons. From Pennsylvania to Georgia and beyond, these living historians keep this history alive and this book is the most extraordinary collection of photos of real people representing those who fought or witness the great battles of that conflict. This book will appeal to anyone with an interest in that conflict and a lesson about it that is quite unlike traditional books of history, bringing its participants to life again.

World War Two was captured by the photos of John (Jock) Candler, MD, MPH, who takes the reader on an emotional journal behind the front lines. As a conscientious objector, Cobb volunteered as an American Field Service ambulance driver, serving from 1942 to 1944, saving lives when and where he could. Fragments of Peace in a World at War ($19.95, animist Press) is the story in text and 107 b/w photos of Cobb’s experiences, beginning with his training in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria where he shows what life was like among the Arabs and then onto the North Africa desert war from Egypt to Tunisia from March to October 1943 and then onto the Italian campaign. The book and its photos focus on the lives of the men fighting it and the civilians who had endure and survive it. It is quite extraordinary in its own way and a reminder not just of that increasingly distant time but how contemporary it all seems today.

Perhaps the greatest difference today is the creation of Special Forces, the Green Berets, who came about during the Kennedy administration. In The Guerrilla Factory: The Making of Special Forces Officers, the Green Berets ($26.00, Free Press), Tony Schwalm takes the reader inside the grueling training regimen endured by every Army officer who aspires to become a leader in the Special Forces and explores the important, stand-apart role these highly specialized forces play in today’s often unconventional wars. The author is a retired lieutenant colonel with the Special Forces and a veteran of multiple combat deployments around the world. As Douglas Waller, an author of several books on military affairs, says, “The Guerrilla Factor isn’t just an account of how Green Berets are made. It’s a highly personal, compellingly written and thought-provoking story of one man’s journal from conventional soldier to unconventional warrior.” To understand this aspect of today’s wars, this book is a major contribution and, I might add, a real page-turner.

Memoirs, Biographies, Real People

I have always had a fondness for biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs because they deal with the lives of real people. A recent biography of John Quincy Adams, recommended here, was a lesson in the early history of the new republic that was fascinating.

Biographies are often testimonies to the way a single man can change the course of history and Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice by Larry S. Gibson ($28.00, Prometheus Books) is an excellent example of that because Marshall transformed the nation’s legal landscape by challenging segregation, ending this backlash against the laws that freed the slaves, but left them second-class citizens for decades, indeed, for nearly a century after the end of the Civil War. Marshall won twenty-nine of thirty-three cases before the Supreme Court, was a federal appeals court judge, served as the U.S. solicitor general, and, for twenty-four years, sat on the Supreme Court. His biographer shows him to be a fascinating man of contrasts who fought for racial justice without becoming a racist. This is the only biography of Marshall to have been endorsed by his immediate family and anyone interested in law, civil rights, and American history will find much here to enjoy and celebrate. A bit further back in U.S. history, Prometheus Books offers Dear Mr. Longfellow: Letters To and From the Children’s Poet by Sydelle Pearl ($18.00, softcover) One of the most famed American poets of the late 19th century and his name is now enshrined among the great ones the nation produced. In his time he was known as the children’s poet because school children memorized his poems and they wrote hundreds of letters to him from all over the nation. The life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is charmingly told by drawing on the letters he received and those he wrote in response. His most famous poem was “The Village Blacksmith” with its opening line, “Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands.” Here’s an opportunity to visit a distant, less complex time in the history of our nation.

Some humans demonstrate an extraordinary capacity to survive the worst that life can hand them and Ping Fu, the author of Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds, ($26.95, Penguin Portfolio) is testimony to that. It begins when eight-year-old Ping is living a privileged life in Shanghai, China, with her intellectual father and loving mother. All that ended with the Cultural Revolution let loose by Mao Tse Sung, the communist dictator. Her family was deemed an enemy of the state and forcibly split as Ping was placed in a camp with her four-year-old sister. She persisted despite horrid conditions and was briefly detained by authorities again after her college thesis on infanticide was objected to. She persevered during the Revolution that affected 36 million Chinese and in which three million were killed or maimed. Her salvation came with exile and, in 1984, she arrived in the United States with just $80 in her pocket. Despite that, she would graduate in 1988 with a degree in computer science from the University of California, San Diego, working with a team that created NCSA Mosaic, later known as the Netscape Web browser. She is the founder and CEO of Geomatic, a global technology company, was an Inc. Magazine Entrepreneur of the Year, among many other achievements. This is an inspiring book and a look inside the early decades of Communist China.

Peggy Parsons Sands tells a personal, heartwarming story of a boy born with developmental disabilities and the family that loved and supported him. A Cup of Joe ($14.95, softcover), says the author was her way of showing everyone “that mental retardation isn’t a curse or a hardship, and that people with special needs are just like everyone else. My brother Joe had good days and bad, but mostly he was a funny guy who got into some crazy situations.” A collection of short stories, anecdotes, and recollections of her brother, born with brain damage, relates a story familiar to many other families with the same experiences and an insight for those who do not. Zoo Station, ($12.99, Zest Books, softcover), a memoir by “Christine” is written as a cautionary story for younger readers, but older ones will find it of interest as well. For the author, growing up in the 1970s, Berlin was a struggle. Her family was poor, her father was abusive, and she never seemed to fit in at school. By the age of 12, Christine was smoking pot and drinking and, by 13 she started snorting heroin and going to clubs. By age 14 she was shooting up before school and selling her body to pay for her addiction. It is not a pretty story, but Christine wanted a better life. When first published in Europe in 1978, it became a great success and was made into a popular movie. Even now it will resonate with many younger people and remains relevant when you consider that an estimated 20% of high school students have abused prescription drugs, 12% have been forced to have sex, almost 40% drink alcohol, and that 19% of girls have seriously considered suicide, along with 12% of boys.

An interesting, alarming memoir, Fatlash: Food Police and the Fear of Thin—A Cautionary Tale is by Karen Kataline, ($14.99, Swift Ink Books, softcover) in which she relates being restricted to 500 calories a day as a child and, by age seven forced into the spotlight by her weight-obsessed mother, trapped in a world of pageants, performances, and perpetual hunger. To escape she began using food and weight-gain to shield herself. The media is filled with stories about an obesity epidemic, food regulations, and child beauty pageants. Her memoir is particularly timely and tells the story of an adult who finally came to understand how her experiences affected her. She exposes the consequences of putting children on display and policing what they eat. She urges action against both.  On a happier note, there’s Memories of The Catskills: The Making of a Hotel by Alvin L. Lessor ($16.50, GSL Galactic Publishers, softcover, $9.50 ebook) is a memoir his family asked him to write about his parent’s hotel called the Lesser Lodge in an area of Sullivan County, New York that became famous for the vacationers, mostly Jewish, who went there to enjoy the outdoors, the recreation, the entertainment and the food. What began as a modest house and some out buildings became a resort where unknown newcomers learned their art as entertainers to become stars. From 1922 until it burned down in 1963, Alvin’s life reflected a special time and place.

Deep Thinkers

For those who like to immerse themselves in subjects that challenge the mind there are a number of books that fit that description. For the record, I do not take sides in taking note of these books.

Kore: On Sickness, the Sick, and the Search for the Soul of Medicine by Andrzej Szczeklik ($26.00, Counterpoint Press) examines the connection between sickness and the soul. His first book, “Catharsis”, put him in the ranks of physician-philosophers and this one combines his immersion in art, music, and literature. To that he brings his thoughts on experimental medicine and daily clinical experience. It is a life-affirming work of science, philosophy, art, and spirituality. The Science of Consequences: How They Affect Genes, Change the Brain, and Impact Our World by Susan M. Schneider ($21.00, Prometheus Books, softcover), an internationally recognized biopsychologist, tells the story of how something so deceptively simple can help make sense of so much. For better or worse, we all learn that there are consequences from the decisions we make and the book addresses how our life experiences teach us to choose between short-term and long-term consequences. Personhood Revisited: Reproductive Technology, Bioethics, Religion and the Law by Dr. Howard W. Jones, Jr., MD, ($19.95, Langdon Street Press, softcover) visits the issues involving invitro fertilization. This is his eighth book and reviews his battles with the Vatican, the policy surrounding personhood, and society’s ever-growing ethical questions.

The Inner Philosopher by Lou Marinoff and Daisaku Ikeda ($12.95, Dialogue Path Press, Cambridge, MA, softcover) brings together Marinoff, a professor and chair of philosophy at the City College of New York, and Ikeda who writes and lectures widely on Buddhism, humanism, and global ethics. He heads the Ikeda Center for Peace, He is the founder of Soka Gakkai International, a lay Buddhist organization with twelve million members worldwide. Both share an optimism about humanity’s capacity for improvement and the book examines the many cultural problems throughout the world and the way philosophy can play a role in treating culturally-rooted problems that include, in their view, obesity, bullying, hedonism, and consumerism. The Fact/Faith Debate: Why Science Hasn’t Killed Religion by Jack Gage ($15.99, Two Harbors Press, softcover) looks at the way 18 major Christian religions and 9,000 denominations often lead to conflict, but share common beliefs. Gate pulls together religious history, both ancient and modern, to create an intriguing look at their connections, Doomsday predictions, and creation stories. It is a history lesson and analysis of religion.

Cataract by John Berger with drawings by Selcuk Demirel ($22.00, Counterpoint Press) records the effects of cataract removal operations on each of his eyes and the result is an illuminating take on perception. Berger ponders how we can become accustomed to a loss of sense until the dulled world becomes the norm and how the operation reawakened his sense of sight with an acute attention to sensory detail. This little book beckons us to pay close attention to our own senses and wonder at their significance.

Children’s and Books for Younger Readers

A favorite children’s book series of mine has at its central character, Howard B. Wigglesworth, a young rabbit with whom any child can identify. The artwork rivals the text for fun. In the eleventh book in the series, Howard B. Wigglebottom Learns About Courage, by Howard Binkow, Reverend Ana, and Jeremy Norton, ($15.00, Thunderbolt Publishing, aimed at ages 4 to 8, it teaches how to work with issues of fear and Howard begins by being afraid of everything until he sees a young bird work up the courage to fly from her nest for the first time and is told “If you’re not afraid, you can’t be brave.” There’s another series I have been following called “The Teacher Who Would Not Retire” and in this one she Becomes a Movie Star ($17.95, Blue Marlin Publishers). In others she discovers a new planet and goes to camp in stories told by Sheila and Letty Sustrin with illustrations by Thomas H. Bone III. When a Hollywood film study holds a contest for student’s favorite teacher, Mrs. Bella wins and her adventure begins. The story and artwork will keep younger readers turning the pages to find out what happens next.

Also for the younger readers, 4 to 8, is The Adventures of Lisbeth ($13.54, AuthorHouse Publishing, by Liesel F. Daisley with artwork by Omni Illustrations that has the unique feature of having a text in both England and Spanish. This one, the first in a series, is devoted to a day at the beach with her parents where she enjoys all the activities the beach provides. Another learning experience is provided in The Case of…Itch and Rash by Erika Kimble, illustrated by Laurel Winters ($14.95, Bandages & Boo Press, Medina, Ohio) and, as you may have guessed it has a medical theme featuring Malcolm Finney, a fourth grader who will no doubt grow up to be a doctor. The book is filled with useful information for any youngster who encounters the various things that cause an itch or a rash. It may even inspire a young reader to become a doctor. Draw Plus Science by Freddie Levin ($8.99, Peel Publications, Vancouver, WA) uses art instruction combined with different aspects of science for some fun activity that teaches life cycles, scientific classification, and other topics for those age 6 and up who love to draw and, as all children, are interested in the world around them.

American Girl is a publisher that knows just what girls, age 8 and up, love to read. They have just introduced a new character, Saige, and one of a series of three books built around her is about an effort to save the school’s art program and Saige’s training of her friend’s horse. The plot moves along engaging in a variety of themes that teach relationships and problem solving. Also in the series is Saige Paints the Sky (both $6.95) and just out this month. Another American Girl book that is debuting this month is Express Yourself: Use Art to Explore the Emotions Inside You! ($9.99) that is filled with questions, quizzes, and projects to help the reader, 8 and up, how to explore their emotions and use art to discover more about themselves and the world around them.

Novels, Novels, Novels

Over recent years, I have learned to look forward to Lior Samson’s new novels. A pen name for an award-winning writer, designer, and university professor, his previous novels include “Bashert”, “The Dome”, “Web Games”, and “The Rosen Singularity”, all published by Gesher Press. His new novel is Chipset ($14.95, print, $3.99 Kindle). Samson combines the details of places and technology with the events of your times as they occur or affect Israel. In this novel, Karl Lustig and Shira Markham are expecting an easy excursion to the picturesque Portuguese island of Madeira, where Karl is delivering new military microchips to MIRI, the Madeira Intelligent Robotics Institute, and lecturing at the University of Madeira. The two of them look forward to exploring the island together, but Karl’s talent for trouble leads him to uncover a puzzle in the advanced avionics chipset he helped design with Israel’s IsTac Systems. His digital detective work will put him in danger and demand decisive action from Shira. I guarantee that you will not be able to put this novel down once you begin to read it.

Just out this month is a novel that has already begun to get raves. Truth in Advertising by John Kenney ($24.99, Touchstone, a Simon and Schuster imprint) is a wickedly funny and honest debut novel about the absurdity of corporate life, the complications of love, and the meaning of family. Drawing on his own background in advertising, Kenney imbues the main character, Finbar Dolan, with details that enhance the story of a mildly successful career at a Madison Avenue agency. Though he regards himself he’s happy, in truth it’s a mess. He has kept a careful distance from others, perhaps the result of having a formerly abusive father that neither his brothers nor sister intend to visit despite the fact he is dying and alone. He has recently called off a wedding. This is the story reevaluating his life at age 39 and single. None of this may sound like a lot of laughs, but the author’s sardonic humor ensures that the reader will find much to laugh at. In Y: A Novel by Marjorie Celona ($24.95, Free Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster) a comparable story is told. As a newborn, Shannon is abandoned at the local “Y” and then spends much of her young life asking ‘Why?”  Celona reconstructs Shannon’s life as she moves through several foster homes before she settles in with Miranda, a single mom with a daughter, Lydia-Rose. The relationship is rocky. Shannon is not the easier child to rear and throughout she struggles to understand her abandonment. This is an impressive debut novel.

For those who enjoy detective novels, they will be happy to hear that Inspector Banks, Peter Robinson’s creation, is back in Watching the Dark ($25.99, William Morrow). Robinson’s previous Inspector Banks novels have drawn high praise and the author has more than 20 award-winning and bestselling novels. When Detective Inspector Bill Quinn is found murdered in the tranquil grounds of the St. Peter’s Police Treatment Center, and compromising photographs are found in his room, DCI Banks is called in to investigate. It emerges that Quinn’s murder may be linked to the disappearance of an English girl called Rachel Hewitt, in Tallinn, Estonia, six years earlier. When he and a fellow detective visit Tallinn it becomes clear that someone doesn’t want the past stirred up again. This novel is sure to please. A new detective due has been created by two Mystery Writers Association Grand Masters, the husband and wife team of Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller. The Bughouse Affair ($25.99, Tor/Forge) introduces former Pinkerton operative, Sabina Carpenter, and her detective partner, ex-Secret Service agent, John Quincannon. What starts as two seemingly separate cases converge in a surprising fashion for the two when Sabina is hunting for a pickpocket and John is after a housebreaker who targets the San Francisco homes of the wealthy. The two cases eventually connect, but not before there are two murders, assorted other felonies, and a man claiming to be Sherlock Holmes joins in. It’s an entertaining novel that is sure to please.

Another page-turner is Trompe L’Oeil (To Fool the Eye) by Caroline Miller ($14.95, Kono Pono, softcover) whose previous novel, “Gothic Spring”, was recommended by yours truly. When a young college student, Rachel Farraday, gets an assignment in the French countryside to chronicle the story of a chateau during height of the French-Algerian war, she discovers his dark history of murder and, when her employer dies suddenly, she also learns that she has become the co-inheritor of the chateau with a likely insane young man. The inheritance threatens her life and I guarantee that you will want to read it through in one sitting.

Both the real world of insanity and the fictional one continue to hold our attention. In Shrunk, a novel by Christopher Hogart ($12.99, Bickerstaff Press, softcover) the author introduces us to Dr. Albert Prendergast, an eminent psychiatrist, a titled clinician at a leading hospital with a thriving private practice who is also crazy as a loon, the sole occupant of a paranoid rabbit hole, and the subject of a satirical novel that evolves out of his intent to destroy Henry Avalon, also a psychiatrist, whom Prendergast sets out to destroy both professionally and personally. This may not strike you as the subject of humor, but Hogart pulls it off against the background of psychiatric training and practice. We are reminded that psychiatrists are only human. A novel I previously reviewed, Next in Line to the Oval Office by David H. Brown ($25.99, AuthorHouse) has undergone a revision by the author because he took to heart the many suggestions he received regarding the plot which is filled with twists and turns. The subject, the succession to office, is not one that I have seen addressed and the revisions have, indeed, improved the new edition. When explosions kill both the incoming and outgoing presidents, along with many other notables, the novel takes off like a rocket.

For those who favor historical novels, they are in for a treat with Tracy Chavalier’s The Last Runaway ($26.95, Dutton) that tells the story of a young Quaker woman, Honor Bright, who has fled romantic disappointment in her native England only to experience yellow fever that leaves her awkwardly dependent on her sister Grace in Ohio. The transition to the rough-and-tumble ways of Ohio in the pre-Civil War days is jarring and, for the first time, Honor encounters African-Americans, along with a ruthless runaway slave catcher. As a strong believer in the Quaker principle of human equality, she soon finds herself assisting fugitive slaves on their way north to Canada and at the same time befriending two surprising women who embody the remarkable power of defiance. Suffice to say, Honor must cope with many challenges and the story showcases the author’s trademark talent of bringing the past to life.

That’s it for January! The new year begins with many new books, non-fiction and fiction, among which readers with different preferences are sure to find an abundance of information and entertainment. Be sure to tell your friends, co-workers and family about any of the books noted this month and about

Friday, November 30, 2012

Bookviews - December 2012

By Alan Caruba
Editor’s Note: Due to Hurricane Sandy, the normal flow of books into our office was significantly diminished in November.
My Picks of the Month
There is no more serious threat to Western civilization than the Islamic revolution that is transforming many nations in the Middle East and Africa for the worse. The “Arab Spring” has turned out to be a challenge in many ways, not the least of which were the attacks on Israel last month; a continuation of sixty-plus years of wars on that bastion of the West, a holy land to both Jews and Christians. Sharia versus Freedom: The Legacy of Islamic Totalitarianism by Andrew G. Bostom ($32.00 Prometheus Books) expands on Bostom’s two groundbreaking compendia, The Legacy of Jihad and the Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism. It is a collection of his recent essays on Sharia—Islamic law—in which he defines its religious principles and the consequences of its application across space and time, focusing on contemporary illustrations. Americans became aware of this with 9/11 when our homeland was attacked, but may not be aware of the attacks on Christians in the Middle East, Africa, and anywhere Muslims are the dominant population. Sharia is totally incompatible with modern, Western-driven concepts, particularly human rights.
Turning to one of the most serious problems facing the nation; the potential for financial collapse, there’s one state that will get there before the others and that’s California. No one knows better how bizarre the politics, governance, and control exerted by civil service unions there than Laer Pearce. He spells it out in Crazifornia: Tales from the Tarnished State—How California is Destroying Itself and Why It Matters to America ($15.95, available from, softcover) When the agency responsible for California’s roads spends $4 million on new cars and trucks, then parks them, unused, for two years, that’s Crazifornia. Residents and businesses are literally fleeing the state these days and Pearce tells you why. The book has a surprising entertaining quality to it as he recounts what amounts to horror stories of a state that has taken environmentalism to a point where it is increasingly impossible to live there. In the most recent election, Californians actually voted for higher taxes.
Greg Gutfeld is one of Fox News’ stars with his own “Red Eye” show and as a member of “The Five.” He brings humor to otherwise serious topics, but it is clear that he has a very sharp mind as he contemplates our present times. He has written The Joy of Hate: How to Triumph Over Whiners in the Age of Phony Outrage ($26.00, Crown Forum). He has a real problem with the kind of intolerance seen in the double standard when fun can be made of Christians, but nothing bad can be spoken of Muslims. He’s no fan of those in the media who consider themselves open-minded, but have no problem denigrating anyone who disagrees with them. He compares the way the Tea Party is labeled racists and wackoes, but Occupy Wall Street protesters got romanticized. This is a very interesting and provocative book about the times in which we live and how out-of-sync much of the media and its reporting is with the reality on the ground and in our homes. I have one caveat and that is Gutfeld’s constant inclusion of asides and comments that draw away from the worthiness of what he has to say.
Another Fox News personality, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee also has a new book out. Dear Chandler, Dear Scarlett: A Grandfather’s Thoughts on Faith, Family, and the Things That Matter Most ($24.95, Sentinel).The book began as a series of letters Huckabee began to write after the birth of his first grandson, Chandler, and continued with the birth of baby Scarlett one year later. The result is an inspirational book that addresses the timeless topics of faith, love, family, overcoming adversity, and staying true to your values in the face of failure and temptation. There’s a lot of good advice between its covers and, if you are a fan of his show, this is surely a book you will want to put under the Christmas tree for yourself or to send a friend.
I have been a fan of Burt Prelutsky for a long time. He was a top comedy writer in the heyday of television sitcoms, has been a movie critic, and like myself became a popular blogger. A Californian, Burt is no fan of the state’s and the nation’s liberal policies. He is a true conservative and his latest book is Sixty Seven Conservatives You Should Meet Before You Die ($24.99, available at or you can go to his website and order it directly from there. A softcover) It is a wonderful collection of questions and answers from entertainers, politicians, and others that run the gamut from former UN Ambassador John Bolton, a frequent contributor on Fox News, to Pat Boone. Along the way one can read the candid responses of Charles Krauthammer, Newt Gingrich, Bernard Goldberg, and even some who have passed from this world like Tony Blankley and Andrew Breitbart. And, oh yes, ME! Being in the company of these folks was earned by virtue of my own daily blog that recently passed the milestone of 2.2 million page views. Do I recommend this book? You bet! It is just so much fun to read. By asking essentially the same questions of each one, some commonalities emerge between them, even though each has achieved much as individuals. It is great fun to read their responses, open, honest, and often surprising.
An interesting book is The Real Story of Risk: Adventures in a Hazardous World by Glenn Croston ($19.00, Prometheus Books) which looks at the way we live in a world of risk and the way we are biologically and mentally wired to deal with risk, but still frequently are either blind to it or over-react to statistically minor risks. Croston is a biologist who reminds us that we are all the culmination of a long line of survivors who had to deal with life-and-death threats over the millennia from wild animals, starvation, disease, but who now life in a world of largely artificial or totally dubious threats such as the debunked global warming theory, as well as every manner of food we are told not to eat, or the real threats such as drug or alcohol abuse. He offers a wealth of information about health, sex, money, safety, food, and –yes—the environment. A good companion book to read is Loren Collins’ Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation ($19.00, Prometheus Books) and, as someone who founded The National Anxiety Center in 1990 as a clearinghouse for information about the many “scare campaigns” designed to influence public opinion and policy, I found it encouraging to read a book about will help the reader apply critical thinking to identify the common features and trends of misinformation campaigns. I spend a lot of time debunking pseudoscience on my blog and sorting out actual history from the more bogus versions. If you want to learn how and where to find the facts, this book will provide the compass. I highly recommend it.
Great Christmas Gift Books
Books make great gifts and, if they are in a slipcase and produced with the highest values of craftsmanship, they become heirlooms that are passed on to generations. This is the case of two books from the Folio Society, Elizabeth David’s Christmas ($54.95) and Andrew Lang’s The Olive Fairy Book ($84.95). A visit to the publisher’s website offers many comparable books, many of which are classics. Ms. David’s book is a cookbook filled with holiday dishes and ideal for anyone who loves to be in the kitchen to create memorable meals. The latter is by a Scots poet, novelist, and literary critic (1844-1912), part of a series, twelve collections of fairy tales that have been delighting generations, old and young, since they were first published. These and other Folio Society books represent some of the finest quality gift books you can own or give.

As a longtime student of history and a former photojournalist, I can heartily recommend 150 Years of Photojournalism as edited and written by Nick Yapp and Amanda Hopkinson ($39.95, H.F. Ullmann), the latest rendition of a collection of Getty images that represents one of the most important photo collections in the world. It is an extraordinary collection of black-and-white and color photographs in a single volume of just under 800 pages. It is a look at both mundane daily life over the many decades as well as its grandest events and personalities that include political, cultural, and scientific aspects of man’s journey to present times that provide a glimpse of life from the 1850s to present times with simultaneous text in English, French and German. These are photos that capture all the drama of the last, turbulent century, reminding us that history was written with the lives of real people. As a gift for oneself or for someone who shares a fascination with the past, this book will prove a worthy investment.
If you or someone you know is a fan of Mad magazine, Mad’s Greatest Artists: Mort Drucker—Five Decades of His Finest Works ($30.00, Running Press) features the greatest hits of his illustrious career, hand-picked by the artist, with page after page of movie parodies, TV spoofs, and satirical jabs at eight presidents. It has a forward by actor Michael J. Fox, essays by some of Hollywood’s greatest directors (his favorite targets) including George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and others. Topping it off is a removable vintage poster, available only in the book. Another book, Mad Magazine’s 60th Anniversary ($34.95, Time Home Entertainment) went on sale in October. Like Mort’s book, it is a coffee table size format and has 256-pages have hilarity from its writers, cartoonists, and illustrators.
The Best Food Writing 2012 ($16.00, Lifelong Books, softcover), edited by Holly Hughes, represents the 13th edition of this successful series and is filled with wonderful stories and essays that explore our fascinating with the culinary arts. My late Mother taught haute cuisine for over three decades and dinners at our home still linger in my memory. There is, in addition, a memoir, Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, by Candace Walsh ($16.00, Seal Press, softcover), Through the lens of food, she recounts her life and it was not an easy one, married, mother of two, divorced, and remarriage in a same-sex relationship. Her ancestors came from Greece, Ireland, and Cuba. They too encountered difficulties, but throughout it all were the wonderful meals. There are some recipes at the end of her story, but it is her story that makes the book worth reading.
The Amazing Kreskin and I have been exchanging Christmas cards for a long time though we have never met. He wrote to me at one point to ask my views on such subject and has stayed in touch ever since. He has a new book out, Conversations with Kreskin ($24.95, Team Kreskin Publishing) was written with Michael McCarty and has a special foreword by Roger Ailes, the Chairman of Fox News and Fox Television stations. Ailes had met Kreskin in the mid-1960s and was astonished at his mind-reading abilities, his often uncanny predictions, and his skill as an illusionist. The book includes an eight-page comic strip and lots of photos of his famous friends. After six decades in show business, Kreskin tells delightful stories of working with Betty Davis, the late Phyllis Diller, Johnny Carson, Regis Philbin and many others including Bob Hope and Milton Berle. The book reads like a trip down memory lane and, for those of a certain age—mine—it is a great trip, worth taking.
Know someone with a beloved cat? Peter Trachtenberg is a talented writer who tackles subjects in ways that often make readers say “That’s me” or “That’s my friend.” In Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons ($24.00, Da Capo Press) he has written a memoir in which he asks the reader to imagine that the two great loves of your life are both creatures who you fervently aim to please but you continuously disappoint. One is your temperamental cat and the other is your unpredictably moody wife. Trachtenberg tells of his marriage that is falling apart as he leaves to take a teaching position in North Carolina and she has departed for residency in Italy. The other is Biscuit, his mercurial, but beloved cat who has disappeared. It is a contemplation in which he tries to understand two different kinds of love and what they can teach us about sentiment, loyalty, privacy, and the reasons with try to make it work.
What better gift is there than happiness? You have to have it in order to share it and Jenn Flaa’s The Happiness Handbook ($14.99, Bush Street Press, softcover, available on Kindle) is an entertaining guide providing key steps readers can learn to identify what makes one happy. The author is a satellite engineer who began her career working for NASA and then started a new of businesses, earning clients like Microsoft, Dell and eBay. She wasn’t always happy. She transformed herself from a chubby, miserable divorcee, owner of a struggling high tech company, and even as a singer. She is now a successful author, entrepreneur, and rocker chick who is the CEO of two thriving companies. You can fulfill your dreams, too. You can be happy and a good place to start is her book!
A Historical Grab Bag
Two books about Louisa May Alcott are both published by Free Press. Alcott was one of the most successful and bestselling authors of her day, gaining everlasting fame with Little Woman, a mainstay of American literature since its release nearly 150 years ago. Biographers have consistently attributed her success to her father, Bronson Alcott, but Eve LaPlante, a grandniece and cousin of Abigail and Louisa—an award winning biographer in her own right—explodes this and other myths in Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and her Mother ($26.00). A companion book edited by LaPlante, My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother ($15.00, softcover) is also worth reading. As LaPlante reveals, drawing on a treasure trove of letters found in the attic and diaries in an archive, Abigail, an independent thinker, feminist and social reformer, who pushed Louisa to write and who inspired many of her most successful stories, while giving her the courage to pursue her unconventional path in life. Here is a look at what it meant to be a woman in 19th century America and its story will resonate with modern readers.
World War II continues to generate books about that tremendous struggle against the forces of evil and William F. Meller has written Bloody Roads to Germany ($25.95, Berkley), true and personal account of a man in combat who must transform himself from an ordinary GI into an audacious leader who showed, by example, how to survive a war. Anyone who loves military history will find this inspiring as he and his comrades in arms slog through the Huertgen Forest and confront the Battle of the Bulge. The images he paints remain as starkly ruthless as they were in 1944 when, in November of that year, a 20-year-old sergeant found himself promoted to squad leader by attrition since very single office in the rifle companies had been killed or wounded. This is war, raw, naked, and calling on him and others in the 28th Infantry Division to fight and defeat hardened Wehrmacht soldiers.
A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown by Julia Scheeres ($15.00, Free Press, softcover) revisits the horrifying day, November 18, 1978, when the followers of Jim Jones were told to “drink the Kool-Aid” laced with poison. The story of the Jonestown mass suicide is still etched in history and Scheeres reveals that it was planned by Jones and his lieutenants for several years before it happened. They were trapped and cut off from the outside world and, while Jones has been the subject of several books, Scheeres tells the stories of his victims and his survivors. It is a true horror story of what happened to those written off as crazed cultists and baby killers. In telling their stories her book restores their humanity as individuals. Based on FBI files only recently released the book contains material never before made public.
Getting Down to Business Books
As we try to make plans for the year ahead, there are a number of books with excellent advice on how to succeed in business. I liked The Leader’s Pocket Guide: 101 Indispensable Tools, Tips, and Techniques for Any Situation ($19.95, Amacom) by John Baldoni. A leadership expert and executive coach, he has compressed into a short, readable book, the kind of knowledge you could spend years acquiring in terms of practical and tactical advice. From developing your own skills to dealing with colleagues, to understanding the dynamics of an organization, this one is a keeper.
A famed teacher of leadership, time management, and other elements of business and life, Stephen R. Covey passed away in July 2012. Named one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential Americans, he sold over 25 million books in 38 languages and is best known for The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Now you can read The Wisdom and Teachings of Stephen R. Covey ($18.00, Free Press), a collection of his most memorable and important teachings, drawn from his bestselling books. He had a gift for motivating people to act in logical ways in order to transform their problems and challenges. You will discover your own potential in this short compendium.
Reflections of a Business Nomad: Stories and Poems from the Road by Pascal Dennis ($14.95, Skopelos Press, softcover) is a very different book by a businessman-philosopher who makes his living on the road “teaching the Toyota Way” which even he calls an odd life, but one he enjoys. It is a life that has taken him through countless airports, restaurants, and hotel bars. He kept a journal of his writings and this book is a selection of those which, while aimed at sharing his views on leadership and ethics, is an entertaining literary voyage. He has a unique, entertaining, and provocative way of looking at life.
Novels, Novels, Novels
In December you can always find new works of fiction around the Christmas theme and Scott Abbott and Amy Maude Swinton have collaborated to write The Ghost of Christmas Present ($16.99, Howard Books, division of Simon and Schuster, softcover). It is the story of Patrick Guthrie, a widowed public school teacher who learns that his insurance will only pay half of the cost for a procedure to fix his ten-year-old son’s heart. He tries moonlighting at a pizza place to earn the rest, but one night after a rehearsal of ‘The Merchant of Venice”, dressed as the ragged, bearded Shylock, he sits down at a bus stop with a cup of coffee and people begin to drop coins into his cup, assuming he is a begger. If he continues he may succeed in saving his son’s life. It is a compelling story.
A number of softcover novels are worth considering. Jerri Gibson McCloud debuts with The Liberators ($15.95, Hourglass Publishers), a WWII story about US Air Force Capt. Andrew Walters who enters the war with the human baggage everyone carries with them. It becomes a leader, despite his personal insecurities, and falls in love with a spirited Red Cross nurse who, in turn, rescues an orphaned toddler and becomes too attached, creating multiple problems with her commanding officer. This is a heartwarming story of the challenges, fears, and triumphs of ordinary people in extraordinary times.
A novel of choices is The Spirit of the Place by Samuel Shem ($16.00, Berkley, softcover) in which, following his mother’s death, Dr. Orville Rose learns that his mother has willed him a Victorian house with one catch. He must live in it for one year and thirteen days. As he struggles with his decision to return to his life in Italy or to stay in the home, he reconnects with family, unites with former friends, and comes to terms with old rivals and bitter memories. In the process, he discovers his own history, as well as his mother’s, and finally what it means to be a healer and to be healed. The author won the National Best Book Award in 2008 for his previous novel, The House of God, and is a skilled story-teller in addition to being a doctor, playwright, and activist.
For those who love mysteries, there’s Skulduggery by Carolyn Hart ($13.95, Seventh Street Books, an imprint of Prometheus Books). In Beijing, 1941, the ancient bones of the famed ‘Peking Man’ are placed in two wooden crates for shipment to the U.S. to save them from the invading Japanese Army. The bones are never seen again. Fast forward to New York in the 1970s when a mysterious woman offers to sell the bones to an unknown man at the top of the Empire State, but when someone takes a photo, he disappears. Then, in the 1980s, noted anthropologist Ellen Christie is contact is contacted by someone who says he has evidence of the bones, but he flees with the evidence from a couple of thugs who are also after the treasure. Ellen must navigate this situation and you get to go along. Also from Seventh Street Books is Mike Resnick’s Dog in the Manger ($13.95) in which a down-on-his-luck private eye, Eli Paxton, gets an assignment to pay his rent, find the number one Weimaraner, a prize-winning Westminster winner. The job turns out to be anything but a routine case. People start dying in mysterious ways, a cargo plane goes missing, and someone is taking shots at him. Paxton is bewildered. Even a top show dog isn’t worth all that trouble and he needs to find it to save his own skin. This is a fast-paced, exciting story.
All families represent a novel of some kind and The Brothers by Allen D. Anderson ($17.95, Langdon Street Press) is a story of Peter and Andrew Amonovitch see their own broken childhoods destroyed when they lose their mother and the hand of their alcoholic father, Theodore, whose mind was damaged by his service in WWII. They must make some sense of this tragedy and they both must go off to war in Korea and face its rigors. Alternately heartbreaking and uplifting, it is an account of resilience in the face of tragedy, the strength and fragility of families, and how love can coexist with hate. Also with strong family themes is Julie Lessman’s A Love Surrendered ($14.99, Revell) filled with romance, intense family drama, and emotional twists and turns. This is the third novel in her “Winds of Change” series that tells of Annie Kennedy, orphaned in Iowa, who moves to Boston to stay with her spinster aunt. She falls hard for a man who broke an engagement with her sister. This is an exploration of the heart by an author who was one of 2010’s Booklist Top Ten Inspirational Fiction winners. When you read her latest novel, you will know why.
The Bible has served as the basis for many novels and New York Times best-selling novelist Tosca Lee tackles one of the most challenging stories when she takes the reader back 2,000 years and examines why Judas betrayed Jesus in Iscariot ($22.99, Howard Books, a division of Simon and Schuster). She raises some pertinent questions as she lays bare the soul of a troubled man whose name has become synonymous with “traitor.” Anyone with a love of the great stories of the Bible will find this a challenging story.
That’s it for December and 2012. No doubt 2013 has many new fiction and non-fiction books to entertain and enlighten readers. Bookviews will do its best to select the best of them. Happy New Year!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Bookviews - November 2012

By Alan Caruba
My Picks of the Month

For a look at the obscene wealth of the Saudi Royal family and the way it is spent when some Saudi princesses and a huge entourage that accompanied them on a seven week visit to Los Angeles, they I recommend you read Jayne Amelia Larson’s entertaining book, Driving the Saudis: A Chauffeur’s Tale of the World’s Richest Princesses ($25.00, Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster). Like many aspiring actresses, Larson, who has a degree from Cornell University and Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre Institute, would moonlight as a chauffeur to make ends meet. A seven-week visit by a Saudi princess, her family, and an army of people to tend to her every whim gave Larson the unique opportunity to see the royals up close and the picture that emerged was of obscene wealth and a lifestyle of excess that she reveals in her entertaining and disturbing book. She was the only woman driver among a small army of chauffeurs and her women passengers were not permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia, nor travel anywhere without a male relative. It is a velvet cage.

Mexico is on our southern border, but it might was well be on the other side of the globe except for the many Americans of Mexican descent and those here illegally. A good trading partner, Mexico nonetheless poses a great problem for the U.S. as the conduit for massive amounts of illegal drugs which find a ready market here. It poses a problem internally as well because, since 2006, more than 50,000 people have died there as the infamous drug cartels battle one another. In The Fire Next Door” Mexico’s Drug Violence and the Danger to America ($24.95, Cato Institute) Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow for defense and foreign policies studies, has written a thoroughly documented look at what threatens to become a failed state as the result of the corruption and violence seeping across the border into the U.S. Carpenter reveals how the current U.S.-backed policies have been a disaster. Changes are necessary and Carpenter spells them out, as opposed to the band-aide approach that has failed. It is a true horror story and not one that current and future administrations can ignore.
Fast Food Vindication by Lisa Tillinger Johansen, MS, RD, a registered dietician, ($11.98, J, Murray Press, softcover) dispels the widespread belief that Americans are getting fat because of the fast-food outlets throughout the nation. In a clear, easy-to-understand text she offers the reasons why there is an epidemic of obesity in America and, indeed, in many other nations. People are just eating too much, not getting enough exercise, and snack too often. She notes that sit-down restaurants, more often than not, offer too much food on the plate and fill up the bread tray, thus providing more food than you need to eat at a sitting, as opposed to fast-food outlets that now commonly offer alternatives to a juicy, delicious hamburger or other food choice. And it comes down to choices and moderation. One thing is for sure, it is not the government’s job to intervene in what your child eats in school or what you eat. That’s your job. How people arrive at their beliefs in all manner of things, true or not, is the subject of Second That Emotion: How Decisions, Trends, and Movements are Shaped by Jeremy D. Holden ($25.00, Prometheus Books) an advertising and communications professional knows a lot about how to influence people’s opinions and he has written a lively, interesting book about the way people form those opinions. Contrary to the view that we arrive at our opinions via slick Madison Avenue and other “spin”, Holden shows that while advertising and propaganda can provide a spark and social media can provide the kindling, individuals create consumer, political, and cultural trends based, more often than not, on thought processes that they know logically are flawed. This is a book about the decision-making process and how our passion for an idea, a politician, or a brand is often emotion-based and fuels our support for movements of all kinds. For writers who take their work seriously, Constance Hall has written Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooth: Let Verbs Power Your Writing ($26.95, W.W. Norton) and it will greatly enhance anything you write as she takes the reader through contemporary and classic examples to demonstrate how to overcome some of the “rules” we carry around in our head about what works and what doesn’t.

People who read books, fiction and non-fiction, are so much more fortunate than those who do not. The very act of reading imprints ideas on the mind while expanding one’s intellectual parameters. Lately a number of books about the joy of reading have been published. The Books They Gave Me by Jen Adams ($19.99, Free Press) is a collection of nearly 200 poignant, funny, and provocative stories that comprise a love letter to literature and the pleasure of a physical book. It is a delightful read. Joe Queenan is one of the most successful freelance writers on the scene today. He writes a column for The Wall Street Journal, but his credits include many of the leading magazines and newspapers around. In One for the Books ($24.95, Viking) he tells of how powerful books were in facilitating his escape from a bleak and dysfunctional childhood. An ironic beginning for someone noted for his wit. This book is a look at the entire culture of reading and what books mean in people’s lives. “The confraternity of book lovers are united by a conviction that literature is an endless series of expeditions.” I agree.

A very unusual, but intriguing book is From the Forest by Sara Maitland ($28.00, Counterpoint Press) who examines the origins of fairy tales, the first stories most of us hear or read. They are our earliest experience with culture and forests are our most ancient landscapes. So many fairy tales are set in forests, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretal, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood come to mind. Ms. Maitland explores how nature itself informs our imaginations. You will never think of a fairy tale in the same way again. For anyone who has always wanted to read the classics they ignored earlier in life, Thunder Bay Press has released the Word Cloud Classic series, all for under $15. They make great gifts too. They run the gamut from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Pride and Prejudice, Les Miserables to Anna Karenina. Check out the series at

Memoirs, Biographies, Life Stories
No doubt, the many fans of Bruce Springsteen will welcome news of the first biography in 25 years to be written with the full cooperation of Springsteen. Peter Ames Carlin has written Bruce ($28.00, Touchstone, an imprint of Simon and Schuster) and was granted unprecedented access to the artists, his family, friends, and bandmates, past and present, including Clarence Clemons’ final interview before his passing. It does justice to his more than four decades of a remarkable career that has yielded twenty Grammy Awards, two Golden Globes and an Academy Award along with more than 120 million albums sold. It is a revealing account of an American music icon who overcame an unhappy childhood that included a mentally ill father who suffered from depression. It’s all here in a hefty book that is just short of 500 pages. Carlin has authored other such biographies including the Beach Boys and Paul McCartney. 

Who doesn’t like an inspiring biography, particularly in these times when “success” is considered a dirty word by some people. American Phoenix by Sarah S. Kilborne ($27.00, Free Press) is the story of William Skinner who moved from the slums of London to the United States in 1845, arriving penniless, a teenager, with a job offer and an unparalleled knowledge of silk dyeing. Over the next three decades he became a titan of the silk industry, the epitome of the self-made man, until it took a flood a mere fifteen minutes to destroy his life’s work in 1874. It was the worst industrial disaster of the era. He was the great-great grandfather of the author and she tells of his effort to rebuild his life after losing everything. It is a story of resilience, character, and the ability to recognize failure as opportunity.

The Fiddler on Pantico Run: An African Warrior, His White Descendants, a Search for Family ($25.99, Free Press) by Joe Mozingo, a journalist who was always curious about where his father’s family was from until a college professor told him his name came from Africa. That sent Joe, a blue-eyed white man on a journey to find the truth of his family’s roots. He discovered he was descended from a slave brought to the Jamestown colony in 1644. He sued for his freedom, becoming a tobacco farmer on the bank of a creek called Pantico Run in Northern Virginia, and married a white woman from a landowning family, fathering one of the nation’s first mixed race family lines. To research the story the author traveled around the US meeting other Mozingo’s and to the rainforest of Cameroon. It is an astonishing, gripping story.

The Spin Doctor by Kirk Mitchell ($24.95, New Horizon Press) is about a man who may have killed his wife, but has eluded justice. When police arrived at Kurt Sonnenfeld’s house, they found his wife fatally shot in the head. Kurt claimed she shot herself because she was depressed and unhappy in their marriage. Most women would just file for divorce and police were suspicious of his behavior and signs that pointed to murder. Though arrested, he never stood trial. Instead, he fled to Argentina and has avoided extradition. For anyone who loves a real-life murder mystery, this book will more than fit the bill.

Col. Scott F. Paradis, U.S. Army (Ret) has written Warriors, Diplomats, Why America’s Army Succeeds: Lessons for Business and Life ($24.95/$17.95, Cornerstone Achievements Publishing, hard and softcover editions) after more than thirty years of service that took him to the Middle East, Europe, and various stateside stations. He has an impressive educational background and his military awards include the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star, among others. It is not surprising that he has written about the lives of military heroes who were leaders, thinkers, and the kind of men who showed courage and selfless service to the nation, going back to its earliest days. The book is a tutorial on leadership and success. And a great book for a young man or woman who would benefit from its lessons.

Reading History
It is absolutely essential to read history if you are to understand the present and have some idea of what may occur in the near future. One of the great contributions to that was Larry Schweikart’s and Michael Allen’s “A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the War on Terror” published in 2004. I am pleased to report that Schweikart has teamed with Dave Dougherty to write A Patriot’s History of the Modern World: From America’s Exceptional Ascent to the Atomic Bomb – 1889-1945 ($29.95, Sentinel/Penguin Group) and, despite its hefty 475+ pages, it reads like an exciting adventure story because it is the period of America’s ascendency why it came to be as the result of fundamental conservative values and the free enterprise system. It was also a period in which two world wars were fought and modern warfare led to carnage beyond the imaginations of those who initiated them. Why do they call their books “A Patriot’s History”? Because the tone and purpose of these two books is to take pride in America, not in a jingoistic fashion, but to recognize and celebrate that America was and is an exceptional nation among all others. Sometimes it’s called a “can do” spirit, but from the beginning it was a nation that demonstrated a deep devotion to God while practicing a level of tolerance for other faiths unknown anywhere else. It attracted and assimilated millions yearning to enjoy freedom that was (and is) a scarce commodity in most other nations, bounded by caste systems, ruled by kings, czars, and despots. No, America was not perfect, but its ideals were. I heartily recommend you read both, but in particular the new book for the way it explains how we arrived at 1945, having fought and won WWII in both the Atlantic and Pacific.

One of the great battles of WWII was the Battle of the Bulge and No Silent Night: The Christmas Battle for Bastogne by Leo Barron and Don Cygan ($26.95, NAL Caliber) captures the drama of Hitler’s armies as they attempted to deal a death blow to the American army and, failing, sounded the death knell for the Third Reich. The triumph of the battle occurred during the last Christmas of WWII against outnumbered and undersupplied American troops in freezing weather. The book is an exciting chronicle of the one day that changed the course of the war and the world. It is based on some extraordinary research and extensive interviews. Dog Company by Patrick K. O’Donnell ($26.00, Da Capo Press) tells the story of “the boys of Pointe du Hoc”, rangers who accomplished D-Day’s toughest mission and then went on to lead the way across Europe. On June 6, 1944, the 2nd Ranger Battalion’s D Company, landed on the beaches of Normandy to assault a sheer cliff under enemy gunfire. The story of the heroism of the men defies the imagination, but it is real and told well by a distinguished military historian. Anyone who loves military history will want to read these books and add them to their personal library

Life’s Learning Lessons

One of the genres of books that has plenty of new ones vying for attention are advice and self-help books. The subject is life’s many problems and challenges. For those passing through them they can be a lifeline providing insight and information.
For the mother of a son or sons, I recommend What a Difference a Mom Makes: The Indelible Imprint a Mom Leaves on Her Son’s Life ($17.99, Revell) by Dr. Kevin Leman. I can certainly attest to that because my Mom imparted the values that have guided my life. A lot of men who left their mark on history such the WWII leaders, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Gen. McArthur, all had mothers who paid close attention to their upbringing, often well into their adult years. The author, a psychologist, provides the kind of advice that is particularly useful to a new mother. He makes a lot of sense.

Jennifer Grim and Sarah Bradley have teamed up to write Heartbreaks and Cupcakes: Living, Laughing and Moving on After Infidelity ($11.95, softcover) that takes a look at infidelity by sharing their experiences regarding their spouse’s extramarital affairs. They address how to get over the shock and betrayal, put the pain behind them, hit the reset button, and gain strength physically and emotionally. Never Letting Go: Heal Grief with Help from the Other Side by Mark Anthony ($15.95, Llewellyn Publications, softcover) requires a belief in the afterlife and psychic mediums. An Oxford-educated attorney, his life as a medium marks him as an unusual man. He maintains that departed loved ones are still connected and watching out for those they leave behind. Anthony says that both his mother and father were clairvoyants as well and that this gift enables them to help those grieving a loss.

Having an endorsement from TV personality, Paula Zahn, is a pretty good indicator that Dear Dr. V by Dr. Marilyn Varadi ($14.95, softcover) has written a lively book, a collection of her popular advice column as a psychologist, educator, and columnist who is a cofounder of the Varadi Ovarian Initiative for Cancer Education. Suffice to say her book is filled with good advice that covers many familiar situations and challenges in life. It is fun to read. Teenage girls will benefit from reading Graceful: Letting Go of Your Try-Hard Life by Emily P. Freeman ($12.99, Revell, softcover). It is based in faith in a higher power and addresses the way girls are told be nice, make good grades, don’t complain, and, in general, to be a good girl. This book gets behind the image that girls fashion for themselves as the author recommends the role of spirituality that is more than merely following the rules, fashioning a reputation, and developing a sense of oneself.

 Soul Songs: Reflections of Joy in Everyday Life by Heidi Levin ($15.00, Langdon Street Press, softcover) is one of those books written to help the reader cope with life by finding ageless paths to peace of mind. It is written for those who are caught up in the demands and obligations of work, home, family and the social pressure to stay busy all the time. Levin recommends we smile more, laugh more, dream more, love more, and appreciate the daily opportunities of just being alive. She does this in a very appealing way. Dog owners and lovers will enjoy Little Boy Blue: A Puppy’s Rescue from Death Row and His Owner’s Journey for Truth by Kim Kavin ($22.99, Barron’s). When a journalist decided to adopt a puppy, she had no idea that she was rescuing Blue from being put down. Though Blue was a happy, friendly brindle puppy, his manner indicated he had endured some hard times. Kavin began to trace his history and discovered a shocking reality that prevails in many of America’s taxpayer-funded shelters. She also discovered a grassroots canine rescue network of dedicated animal lovers seeking to save countless dogs from an unwarranted death. The upside was the great happiness that Blue has given his adopter.

Defining Moments: Breaking Through Tough Times by Dorothea S. McArthur, PhD, ($24.95/$19.95, Cove Press, hard and softcover editions) is a book for people whose lives have been battered by events beyond their control such as natural disasters or the economy. These people often cannot afford psychotherapy, but they can afford this book by a clinical psychologist with 33 years of private practice who cites many examples while emphasizing integrity, honesty, and ethical behavior as the means of building the depth of character and self-esteem that can withstand and overcome adversity. Issues of anger, anxiety, or depression are examined and solutions are offered. A lot of people worry about growing older and, frankly, at 75 I don’t know what the fuss is about. Both my parents lived well into their 90s and never seemed to be concerned, accepting age as a normal process. In a youth-obsessed society, however, I suppose it’s to be expected. The 17 Day Plan to Stop Aging by Dr. Mike Moreno ($26.00, Free Press), the author of “The 17-Day Diet” is pretty much more of the same as he offers his advice on avoiding “inflammation, oxidative stress, glycation, methylation, and immune impairment.” Big words, eh? Scary, too. I suspect I have seen too many diet books to take them seriously and this one is just one more talking about the merits of shellfish, meat, leafy vegetables, salmon, walnuts, ad infinitum. My guess is that, if you’re not drinking booze straight from the bottle or just eating too damned much, you will likely live as long as your genes permit.

Now We’re Cooking

Not that many cookbooks this month, although there may yet be for December. For those concerned with their salt intake there’s You Won’t Believe It’s Salt-Free! ($17.99, Da Capo Press, softcover) Robyn Webb, a nutritionist and the online food editor for Diabetes Forecast magazine, has collected 125 “healthy, low-sodium, and no-sodium recipes using flavorful spice blends.” She knows that people don’t want to eat bland food is a turn-off. Her book will surprise and delight who will learn how to prepare meals to please the palate.
Get Cooking! A Jewish American Family Cookbook ($19.95, Behrman House) is proof that you don’t have to be Jewish to eat like one. What we call Jewish food is imported in large part from Eastern Europe, but includes dishes from around the world. The book arrives in time for holidays from Thanksgiving through Hanukkah/Christmas and, of course, Super Bowl Sunday! The book comes with a “Rockin’ Mama Doni Celebration” CD, filled with music by Doni Zasloff Thomas (Mama Doni), entertainer and a co-author of the book with Rachel Harkham, a noted food writer. It is written to include the participation of children, filled with pictures of them helping prepare meals and the delicious items with their recipes. It’s just plain fun.

As Bookviews readers know, my Mother was an international famed authority on wine and “haute cuisine”. I grew up eating all the traditional foods including meat, chicken and fish, but there are many who choose a vegan diet and, for them, there’s Terry Hope Romero’s new book, Vegan Eats World: 300 International Recipes for Savoring the Planet ($35.00, Da Capo Press) that really delivers the goods, offering recipes from a variety of cultures from Greek, Vietnamese, Spanish, and many other homelands. There are popular foods like lasagna, pad thai, wonton soup, and a whole range of flavorful delights. Humans were and are meat-eaters, but if one chooses to eschew such things, this book will surely please those who prefer vegetables and other food choices.

Getting Down to Business Books

New books about business arrive every week. Among the latest is The Trust Edge: How Top Leaders Gain Faster Results, Deeper Relationships, and a Stronger Bottom Line by David Horsager ($25.99, Free Press). As he notes, trust has become an elusive asset with the dawn of the new century and a recent Gallup Poll shows that America’s confidence in nearly every major societal institution is in decline. The Obama administration eroded trust in many ways and then blamed everyone and everything from banks to corporations as the source of the nation’s problems. Horsager is a business strategist who has learned how the world’s most successful people gain and keep the trust of their customers and colleagues. He shared that knowledge in his book. It is not only a necessity, but a competitive advantage. Going Social by Jeremy Goldman ($19.95, Amacom, softcover) examines how the social media, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other platforms have provided a means to promote products and services, but as the author notes, it’s not something that can be mastered in six easy steps or ten immutable laws. It continues to evolve and expand. His book offers a range of advice that can be of value based on having managed e-commerce and social media engagement for major brands for nearly a decade. It is a very useful book.

Nowhere is the question and issue of trust more essential that the trust of citizens in any nation in the value of their currency. The Impending Monetary Revolution, The Dollar and Gold by Edmund Contoski ($19.95, American Liberty Publishers, Minneapolis, MN, softcover) provides the reader with an historic review of how money, currency, developed over the centuries, from trading furs and tools to today’s paper money. He also provides an easily comprehensible explanation of the ways governments debase their currency while, in past decades, spending too much—mostly on social programs—and relying on the national and international cartels of national banks or, in our case, the Federal Reserve (not part of the federal government, but granted the ability to simply print money without any actual value except trust. It is a very scary book. “As of June 2008, the notional amounts (face value) of financial derivatives, according to the Bank for International settlements, totaled $673 trillion—over 12 times the world’s nominal gross domestic product!” He warns that no nation has ever been able to spend its way to prosperity and, it must be said, that is exactly what the U.S. has tried to do with the failed “stimulus” program and other comparable efforts. If you want to understand what is happening in the U.S. and worldwide, this is the one book you absolutely need to read.

Michael R. Powers has authored Acts of God and Man: Ruminations on Risk and Insurance ($49.95, Columbia Business School) that looks at the private insurance industry and government’s role as both market regulator and potential “insurer of last resort.”  We saw this most recently in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as billions in government funding flowed into the states that experienced devastation to varying degrees. The author begins by looking at how risks from natural disasters impact our lives, health, and possessions. From there he moves onto a discussion of statistical techniques necessary for analyzing the uncertainties of hurricane, earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters. This is not a book for the general reader, but surely will be welcomed by those who must anticipate and grapple with such events.

No More Pointless Meetings by Martin Murphy (17.95, Amacom, softcover) takes a harsh, but accurate view of the way so many meetings fail to accomplish their goal of effective and productive collaboration. It doesn’t have to be that way says the author who presents an alternative he calls workflow management—how to get more done in less time and with much less grumbling for participants. Over the years I have seen any number of books on this topic and Murphy’s book offers a very comprehensive guide for managers to identify information gaps and use workflow sessions to create value for the entire organization. Murphy is the founder and president of Quantum Meetings, a management education consultancy whose clients includes some of biggest corporate names as well as nonprofits. If this is a problem within your organization, you should get a copy of this book.

An interesting book by a retired Army Colonel, Scott F. Paradis, is Success 101: How Life Works ($24.95/$17.98, Cornerstone Achievements, hard and softcover editions). As an Army officer he spent the last three decades working national security issues in the Middle East, Europe, and various stations in the U.S. He was a National Security Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a Congressional Fellow with the U.S. Senate. In retirement, he has turned his attention to the ways anyone can achieve success and lays out a few simple, but important rules. “Once you know the rules you can play to win. It’s the way life works,” says Paradis and if you are seeking to learn how life works and how to achieve success in your own life, this book will open doors for you.

Books for Younger Readers

I am a great advocate for getting kids reading at an early age and I believe that there’s something special for a child to hold a book in their hands, read, turn the pages, and, in the case of the very young, enjoy the wonderful illustrations in books especially for them.

Here are some new books for kids age 4 through 7 years. In no particular order, there’s Steve Light’s Zephyr Takes Flight, a picture book about an airplane-loving little girl that teaches important lessons about imagination, friendship and family ($16.99, Candlewick). Zephyr wants to fly and she has a secret door in her room that leads to a place full of flying machines where she a little pig named Rumbus share all kinds of adventures. The author has written and illustrated many children’s books. Nightime Ninja by Barbara DaCosta, is mostly one of artwork by Ed Young, a Caldecott Medalist, ($16.99, Little Brown and Company) in which a pint-size ninja climbs and clambers around the house taking thevery young to hot springs, salt flats, oil ponds and other extreme
 environments. More fanciful adventure can be found in Waking Dragons by Jane Yolen and wonderfully illustrated by Derek Anderson ($16.99, Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers) in which dragons do all the things that humans do when they wake up and get ready to go to school. It is a feast for the eye.

For those in the first years of school, The Poppy Lady by Barbara Elizabeth Walsh with extraordinary paintings by Layne Johnson ($16.95, Calkins Creek Books) tells the story of Moina Belle Michael who devoted more than 25 years to establish the red poppy as a universal tribute to U.S. war veterans in the wake of World War I. She was already in her 40s when the war began and the book is an excellent, short history of that horrific conflict. These days veterans in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day and Veterans Day distribute paper poppies to raise money for other veterans and their families. If there’s a veteran in your family, this is a good book with which to share their story of heroism and sacrifice. A very different book is Rangoli: An Indian Art Activity Book by Suma O’Farrell ($19.95, Mazaa LLC, ) and is a good antidote to today’s reliance on electric gadgets that often mesmerize both children and adults. Written for those age 9 through 12, it is filled with creative activities for boys and girls. Rangoli is a popular art form in India that is usually drawn on the ground with rice flour, colored powders, or chalk near the entrance to a home as a warm welcome to visitors. The book offers step-by-step examples and provides a variety of designs with easy-to-follow instructions.

For older young readers, ages 12 through 18, there’s Four Secrets by Margaret Willey ($$17.95 hardcover and $12.95 ebook, Carolrhoda Lab, a division of Lerner Publishing Group) that tells the story of Katy, Nate, and Renata, three teens who decide to rescue Renata from being bullied every day by a group of older boys and, in particular, the school’s biggest bully. Things go awry and they end up in juvenile detention and the question is whether they will keep their secrets and whether a social worker will discover the truth behind their silences. For any young person experiencing bullying or wanting to intercede for a friend, this will prove a very compelling story. A young adult novel, Refuge by Carole Rummage ($16.00, Sweetwater Books) tells the story of Laney whose parents and young brother have been killed in a car accident. She has accept the invitation of her aunt and uncle to move across the country and live with them in North Carolina next to a wildlife refuge. She meets and is attracted to a Gabe, a handsome artist with a mysterious disease and even more mysterious family. When she makes a shocking discover, she must face the dark truth about Gabe’s past.

Some time ago I reviewed Dr. Rick Niece’s book “Side-Yard Superhero” and gave it high marks. He’s back with The Band Plays On: Going Home for a Music Man’s Encore ($15.95, Five Star Publications, softcover). It is an autobiography of sorts as the author visits his childhood growing up in DeGraff, Ohio, population 900, and tells the story of the legacy of his father, Lewis Niece who for years was the director of the DeGraff High School’s marching band, teaching not just music, but lasting lessons of character. Rick D. Niece, PhD, has been a lifelong educator and, since 1997, he and his wife, Sheree have served as president and first lady of the University of the Ozarks in Clarksdale, Arkansas. It is a celebration of America’s heartland, of friendship, community, built around the story of an encore performance by “Lewie’s Alumni Band.” I heartily recommend it.

Novels, Novels, Novels

What would Christmas be without a good murder mystery? Kudos to Kensington Books for providing two entertaining holiday stories. Elvis and the Blue Christmas Corpse by Peggy Webb ($23.00, hardcover) continues her Southern Cousins series about the Valentine family plus Elvis the basset hound. When Uncle Charlie is pressed into service as Santa at a weekend charity event at Tupelo, Mississippi mall, the whole gang gets into the holiday mood, setting up a booth to raise money for a charity. A killer, however, has decided to ruin the holiday and the family must set a trap to capture him. Mistletoe, Merriment, and Murder by Sara Rosett ($7.99, softcover) continues the holiday theme with Ellie Avery—mother, military wife, professional organizer, and sleuth—to find a killer in her small Georgia town, using her white elephant swap gift as a murder weapon! This is the seventh book in a series about Ellie and a great read.

Most of the novels noted here are softcover, but Ashen Winter by Mike Mullin ($17.95, Tanglewood) is a hardcover and the second in the “Ashfall Trilogy” that began with Mullin’s novel about the eruption of the Yellowstone super volcano. The sequel has Alex and Darla staying with Alex’s relatives, trying to cope with the new reality of the primitive world where life and death battles for food and power between the remaining communities test the strength of the survivors. The volcano is the largest in the U.S. and could, indeed, erupt. When it does, it will wreak havoc and this novel reflects that. Another hardcover Lawyer-turned-novelist, James Sheehan, has penned a courtroom thriller in The Lawyer’s Lawyer ($22.99, Center Street) that is due out in January. He has two previous novels to his credit and this will add to his fan base. It is the story of Jack Tobin, a legend in Miami courtroom circles, who has regrets having freed a serial killer by ruining the prosecution’s weak case against him and is now desperate to hunt him down before he kills again. In the midst of his search, he finds himself falsely accused of murder. He must hire a lawyer to defend him and build a bullet-proof defense together. This is an outstanding example of this genre. For those who love a big, fat novel—nearly 700 pages—for those who like some heft to their books is The Day the World Trembled by Lee Levin ($16.95, Royal Heritage Press, softcover) whose previous novel “The Messiah of Septimania” was reviewed here. A historical novel, it tells the story of the most important few days when the Carthaginian Hannibal had invaded Italy and crushed every army the Romans had hurled against him despite being heavily outnumbered. His brother Hasdrubal joined him bringing the Gauls into the invasion with him. Thus, two mighty Punic armies were poised to destroy Rome. The fate of Western civilization hung in the balance and was decided by the outcome. Anyone who loves history will enjoy this excellent novel.

A number of softcover novels offer a variety of reading pleasure. Double Blind by Brandilyn Collins ($14.99, B&H Publishing) reflects the fact that some 20 million Americans suffer from depression and many hope for a magic cure. The novel is about an experimental brain chip. When 29-year-old Lisa Newberry, nearly immobilized by depression becomes a candidate for a medical trial for the chip, her illness is cured, but it is replaced with horrific visions that threaten to drive her mad. Millions of dollars are at stake and Lisa must make some major decisions and one wrong move could cost the lives of those who might elect to have the chip. Many Americans are facing foreclosure and Cadaver Blues by J.E. Fishman ($12.97. Stonegate Ink) tells the story of smoking hot Mindy Eider who walks into the office with a foreclosure notice aimed at her elderly Uncle Gunner, the cynical debt man, Phuoc Goldberg, just sees her as another month’s rent, but Mindy can’t find her uncle and suspicious characters lurk everywhere. A sleazy bank has designs on the old man’s little house. Phuoc gets sucked into playing detective and soon finds himself looking for cadavers instead of cash. The author has a number of novels to his credit and this one will add to his reputation as a story teller.
In the Keyhole Factory by William Gillespie ($16.95, Soft Skull Press) we find a poetic and experimental look at the world we know turned on its head. Set in an alternative present, it is filled with the interwoven destinies of disparate characters up to and beyond the world-as-we-know-it that begins at an academic poetry conference that links a poet-as-astronaut in deep space with a microbiologist, a sports-car-driving sociopath who murders utopian commune dwellers, and a lone pirate rate disc jockey who believes she is the last person left alive broadcasting her story to nobody. This involves science fiction and a dispensation of belief, but is likely to appeal to readers with its look at the near future. A novel based on today’s world of Islamic terrorism, The Ragnarok Conspiracy by Erec Stebbins ($15.95, Seventh Street Books) involves an American bin Laden, an FBI agent who now confront each other over acts of vengeance that bring the world to the brink of war. It is a classic thriller that spans the world in an ever-widening arc of intrigue, violence, and personal conflict. It is a real page-turner and, set against the real events occurring, will keep you reading to the last page. To end on a lighter note, there’s Rick Klass’s laugh-out-loud comedy, Excuse Me for Living ($14.95, Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing) which is headed for a movie house near year. In this debut novel, Klass tells a story of Daniel Topler who is grabbed from a suicide attempt based on his drug addiction woes and put in the care of an elderly psychiatrist to avoid a jail term. He falls for the psychiatrist’s daughter and must come to terms with his wasted life and restore his life to sanity. This may sound a bit dark—and it is—but it is told with a deft feel for romantic comedy.

That’s it for November! We are nearing the end of another year of great fiction and non-fiction is behind us and we will discover lots of great reading in 2013. Come back in December and remember to tell your book-loving friends, family and co-workers about for news of the many books that do not leap to the bestseller lists, but provide hours of entertaining and knowledge.

© Alan Caruba, 2012