Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Confederate War Bonnet


The Confederate War Bonnet: A Novel of the Civil War in Indian Territory
by Jack Shakely

(iUniverse / 0-595-46140-9 / 978-0-595-46140-0 / February 2008 / 272 pages / $17.95)
Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM

The Prologue of Jack Shakely’s The Confederate War Bonnet poses an intriguing question about an elaborate Pawnee war bonnet donated by the Ford Foundation to the University of Oklahoma. Why, in its intricate beadwork, should there be the repeated motif of the Confederate flag? Was it a hoax, or a joke, or a political statement?

Why indeed? That war bonnet, now in the Smithsonian Institution, was not a hoax. It is real, and mentioning it at the outset of the book brilliantly and concisely illuminated to me how I, despite being a reasonably educated person and not unfamiliar with the Civil War, knew nothing at all about the war’s effects on American Indians.

The author, a fourth-generation Oklahoman of Creek descent, is a former journalist whose family owned newspapers in four small Oklahoman towns. His novel is an expertly fictionalized account of the plight, and the fate, of a number of Indian tribes during the unpleasantness between the states. The average person might expect that the Indians would not come to the defense of the Union, which after all had forced most of them off their ancestral lands and relegated them to strange lands, breaking treaty after treaty and dealing with them shabbily at best. And that would be true, for many Indians. But others did indeed cleave to the Union, and this difference often divided individual tribes. Unfortunately, many of those tribes were at odds with other tribes in the first place. The Civil War only served to subdivide them even further.

It was a very complex situation, and beyond the scope of this review to explain. Suffice it to say that the general reader will gain an appreciation of the complexity, sadness, and eventual glimmers of hope that emerged from this national disaster. The student of history will find a good deal more.

All readers will enjoy the highly readable narrative the author has laid over the historical record-the book is worth reading simply as a tale of the American west. Long term, however, it adds to our understanding of who we are as Americans, and what we have done and failed to do as a nation. To that end, readers will appreciate the author’s note at the end: all but a couple of the characters in the story are real. The battles and so forth are described as accurately as can be known.

That war bonnet figures into the story, beginning, middle, and end. I hope I visit the Smithsonian some day and see it, or stumble across a photograph. It will inevitably recall a flood of impressions made by The Confederate War Bonnet. How many books can you say that about?

See Also: Dr. Past's B&N Review
Dr. Past's Authors Den Review
Jack's Authors Den Page
Jack Shakely's Blog
Celia Hayes' BNN Review
Dianne Salerni's Review (scroll down the page)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

God Outside the Box



God Outside the Box:
A Story of Breaking Free

by Patricia Panahi

(AuthorHouse / 1-434-36775-4 / 978-1-434-36775-4 / April 2008 / 292 pages / $15.95)
Reviewed by Dianne Salerni for PODBRAM

For many people, a diagnosis of cancer at the age of 28 would be a devastating blow. For Patricia Panahi, who was as shocked and frightened as anyone would be by such news, it turned out to be a crisis point which set her on a path of spiritual development which she continues to follow today.

God Outside the Box: A Story of Breaking Free is Panahi’s narrative describing her spiritual journey towards understanding herself and breaking through negative and self-deprecating beliefs that limited her potential for growth. Born of a Catholic mother and a Moslem father, Panahi spent her younger years "trying on" various religions, including not only Catholicism and Islam, but also Hinduism and Shamanism and a host of others. Each exploration left her feeling confused and unsatisfied. She eventually concluded that most religions confined God in a box and presented him to believers as a "package deal." Not liking any of the packages, Panahi avoided religion altogether, until a close brush with cancer in 1979 caused her to reconsider her purpose and role in life.

What begins as a tentative search for spirituality leads the author into a lifelong quest for "the path to God within." Panahi starts out as a skeptic, who rolls her eyes over such things as "rebirthing sessions" and "Spiritual Mind Treatments," but gradually becomes aware that these inner explorations provide her with relief from spiritual pain. Her quest for a better understanding of her Higher Self leads her to open a metaphysical book store, develop her own quiescent leadership talents, bring an end to a marriage that had ceased to function, relocate herself to a faraway state, find her soulmate, and eventually to write this book.

There were many parts of God Outside the Box that were personally significant and meaningful to me. There were also times when I thought Panahi’s spiritual adventures sounded a little too "out there" for my tastes, but I think the author would sympathize with my perspective, because she, too, began as a skeptic and only by degrees came to change her beliefs. Patricia Panahi clearly states that everyone’s spiritual evolution is different and each person must find her own path to God. The beginning of the book was a little disjointed, with several slips of verb tense and some of Panahi’s important life experiences presented in a non-chronological order, but these small problems disappeared by the end of the second chapter and did not diminish my overall appreciation for her message. God Outside the Box is a book that I will remember for a long time and may turn to the next time I need a little spiritual guidance.

See Also: Dianne's B&N Review
Dianne's High Spirits Review
The Well Woman Cookbook
Patricia Panahi Book Signing

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

When Pigs Fly



When Pigs Fly by Bob Sanchez
(iUniverse / 0-595-40770-6 / 978-0-595-40770-5 / November 2006 / 307 pages / $18.95)

If you’re looking for a light, quick, entertaining, summer read, When Pigs Fly is an excellent choice. Retired technical writer Bob Sanchez has released his first novel and it’s a slam-bang hoot with the offbeat energy of Raising Arizona raging through its pages. In fact, most of the action takes place in Arizona, and that’s not a bad coincidence at all.

The storyline is both twisted and convoluted, so try to stay with me here. Since I never give away any more of a book’s plotline than I as a consumer would want to read in a review, the following description is merely the beginning. An eighty-year-old couple in Lowell, MA, buys a lottery ticket with the jackpot numbers printed right on it. A stinky, three-hundred-pound, sleazebucket thief steals the ticket, but he does not put it in his pocket. The thief has already been sentenced to a time of less than one year for a previous conviction, and the ticket is good for a year. Instead of cashing it in immediately, he hides the ticket inside an urn in the couple’s house, planning to retrieve it after serving his time. Little does he know that the urn contains the ashes of a dead city policeman. The son of the couple is a retired Lowell cop now living in Arizona. After losing his longtime wife, Mack Durgin had chosen to retire where he and his wife had always planned. He had not planned to receive a FedEx package from his parents containing the urn of ashes, the hot ticket, and some costume jewelry his addled elderly mom had included as a bonus. Mack has a drunken quickie with a lady of less than stellar reputation, and her boyfriend with a tattoo of a brain on his skull doesn’t care for the dalliance. Two brothers in crime once familiar to Officer Durgin back in Lowell join forces with the brain/skull guy and Mr. Piggie to track down the high-flying lottery ticket. In the meantime, Mack has come to his erotic senses and begun courting a nicer young lady, one whose charms have also entranced an Elvis impersonator who doesn’t know when to zip up. Last, but far from the least interesting, is Poindexter, a pet javelina pig that has just won a big ribbon as his owner’s science project. Trust me: you’ll be rootin’ for Poindexter all the way to the end!

A lot of action, humor, poignant dialogue, and, of course, wild and crazy characters have been crammed between the covers of When Pigs Fly. Bob Sanchez has said that he enjoys making people laugh, a concept that becomes obvious from the style of his first novel. There are some of the standard POD boo-boos such as misplaced common words and punctuation errors present in the book, but the number of incidences is considerably less than average. You can tell that Mr. Sanchez cares enough to present a professional product to his readers. Due to line spacing within the dialogue and the presence of many short chapters, When Pigs Fly is a somewhat quicker read than its page count might imply. Especially as the author’s first foray into the humor genre, When Pigs Fly is a highly commendable first effort. You’ll fly through this quirky little story just like Poindexter!

See Also: The B&N Review
The Blogger News Network Review
The Authors Den Review
Bob Sanchez' Website
Review of Bob Sanchez' Getting Lucky

Friday, July 18, 2008

Cyberdrome




Cyberdrome
by Joseph & David Rhea
(CreateSpace / 1-434-80995-1 / 978-1-434-80995-7 / January 2008 / 292 pages / $14.95)
Reviewed by Dianne Salerni for PODBRAM

The Cyberdrome Corporation has found a unique way to develop ground-breaking technology: create a supercomputer containing hundreds of simulated human worlds, allow them to divert naturally from the true course of Earth’s history, and watch for the development of revolutionary technologies that don’t exist in the real world. The millions of inhabitants of these worlds have no idea that they are only programs, living simulated lives and observed by scientists from Earth Zero. Of course, the scientists from Earth Zero don’t realize that they are only programs, living in a simulated world and supervised by employees of Cyberdrome who are biologically interfaced with the digital universe.

When a rogue virus gets past the firewalls, wreaking havoc on the program and trapping forty humans interfaced with Cyberdrome, corporation leaders bring in Alek Grey, an expert at preventing break-ins to secure systems. Alek is not only the son of Matthew Grey, the top scientist of Cyberdrome currently trapped in the program, but he is the creator of the Cyberphage, the program which inserted the attack virus after it was stolen from Alek himself.

Cyberdrome is a fast-paced techno science fiction adventure, but do not be put off by the term “techno.” Written by two brothers with a background in designing computer games, Cyberdrome is nevertheless accessible to readers without experience in computer programming or simulations – like me. I prefer my science fiction to be based on unique settings, complex plots, and fascinating characters, and here Cyberdrome does not fail. Certainly, there is a degree of technical language, especially in the first couple of chapters, but I considered this to be “world building” and the Rhea brothers introduced the universe of Cyberdrome by immersion, rather than by tedious explanations. It was not more than I could handle, and I loved the storyline.

When Alek ultimately interfaces with Cyberdrome, he encounters programs that think they are human, humans who might just be programs, and a program that could possibly be turning into a super-human intelligence. Layer after layer of plot twists and double-crosses add to the delicious tumult, and the authors even tip their hats at the reader by acknowledging this. When the heroine warns the hero that the character they have just encountered is “not real,” the character replies, “I’m quite real. At least in the context of our current understanding of what defines reality in this world we have created.” Now that’s a mouthful!

Action packed, with memorable characters and imaginative settings, Cyberdrome is a satisfying science fiction adventure. And, if you do happen to have a background in computer programming or gaming, you’ll probably appreciate it on a whole other level!


See Also: Dianne's Authors Den Review
Dianne's High Spirits Review
The Cyberdrome Website
Joseph Rhea's Website

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Second Anniversary

Today is the Second Anniversary of PODBRAM. Of course, we passed the first anniversary as iUBR, so the two-year period covers the history of this same website in all its guises. Surely I have said in some previous post somewhere that when I stop learning new things in the process of working on any project, I soon get bored with it. New experience is the secret of happiness, as far as I am concerned, so you can expect PODBRAM to continually grow and evolve as a book review site.

Here is a very brief history of my own writing experience. You might understand why my books span such a broad base of subject matter, as well as why PODBRAM has always been a work in progress that never really stops evolving. I began putting together my first book in about 1967. I actually do not remember the exact year. It began with handwriting in a spiral notebook, just as many of your earliest works probably did. I began this as a freshman in college majoring in General Liberal Arts. By the time I had graduated with a BA in Psychology, the book was complete and my personal theory of personality development was completely baked. I knew it was not much of a commercial effort, and I also knew that one day I would rewrite the whole thing into a much more professional release. That project became the first thing I did after I retired in 2001.

Although I am quite unmechanically inclined, I have been a car nut since I began identifying the year of a Cadillac by its tailfins in about 1954. I have been reading books about cars and the car culture for decades. At the beginning of 1980, the next new experience I desired was to locate and purchase a 1970 Corvette Stingray and begin writing stories and articles about classic Corvettes and the car culture in general for the local Corvette club newsletter. That newsletter became the most famous of its kind for Corvette clubs, but I had planned my own new experience of the future even before I had completed all my compositions. I knew that I would eventually turn all of The Corvette Chronicles into a book entitled Plastic Ozone Daydream. About eighteen years after setting this plan in motion, I got married (for the first time), sold the car, left the club, and began editing the book. Daydream was released on the last day of December, 2000.

I am almost as fascinated by boats as I am by cars, and at the end of The Nineties, I saw a most unpleasant pattern developing that made me want to capture something special before it was forced out of the marketplace forever. No matter how much American manufacturing had already left the USA, recreational powerboats were still a strongly American industry, but I could see its demise coming from a mile away. Outboard Marine Corporation had been struggling as a company for decades. All the wonderful little mini-jets of the early Nineties were either being discontinued or moved disgustingly up-market in size and price. Many boat brands from decades back were either being consolidated or filing for bankruptcy. The boat industry was clearly one of the last strongholds of American manufacturing to die a slow, painful death. It did not take much effort for me to complete my research and organize it into a book for all the boat lovers of the past and future.

A genre I read a lot, in addition to car books, is that of economic and political nonfiction, so I began planning one of those for my fourth performance. I had planned to write a book named 2010 and release it last year. I had been following the housing bubble long before it popped. Did I mention that most of my career life had been spent in the financial services industry? 2010 was going to be an historical summation of how and why Americans have gotten ourselves into this current economic tsunami. I completed the first chapter and a complete outline of the rest back in about 2005, but before I went much further with the project, my wife convinced me that its approach and tone were too negative. The next step was to switch gears a little and present a tightly edited package of all the good, positive, fun things about America. The view down the steep hill from the exclusively expensive neighborhood on the book's cover is an inside joke. We were at the peak of the housing bubble just before it popped, and I was fully aware of that fact.

My books all have common threads running though them. I write about entertaining megatrends on the surface, but I am also deeply conscious of the undertow these same trends harbor. My goal is to entertain and inform. Accomplishing only one of these goals is not enough. I want to do both.

PODBRAM has lately become my most favored project. I have greatly diminished the time I spend on other projects such as my original e-tabitha website. That's why it seems to have been static for the past year or so. I just don't have the time to do both. For the time being at least, PODBRAM will retain its iUBR URL, so newcomers finding the site through links scattered all over the web will still find PODBRAM. If you put PODBRAM in Google, you will always find us, one way or the other, and that's what really matters. Authors Den will be phased out of the review system at the end of 2008. This is not a negative reflection on AD in any way. It's just that I personally as an author and PODBRAM as a review site have outgrown the advantages AD offers to new authors. I have always said that AD is one of the best ways to move you and your books upward in the Google search rankings, and I still think that is true. The situation now. though, is that you can put my name, POD Book Reviews, or PODBRAM in Google anytime and you will find us all instantly.

The goal is and always has been to expand the horizons of both authors and readers. The PODBRAM of the future will continue to offer new and surprising features and changes. My entire life and all my goals are about quality instead of quantity, and PODBRAM is no exception. I have never been a prolific writer, and I never intend to become one. I am as slow, methodical, and meticulous as a turtle, but as I continually remind my wife, the turtle always wins the race. I want PODBRAM to become known as a review site that is as exclusive as the neighborhood pictured on the cover of Timeline. and like any legitimate review site, reviews will always be free. They may not be exactly what the authors had in mind, but they will be real.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Shadow Warriors


The Shadow Warriors
by Judith Copek
(Imprint Books / 1-591-09960-9 / 978-1-591-09960-4 / November 2003 / 476 pages / $19.99)
Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM

If you are reading this, then you are a computer user, and if you are using a computer, you are probably aware that doing so can expose you and your machine to many dangers: viruses, Trojan horses, worms, bugs, bots, spyware, malware... the list seems endless. Countering them (and creating them) is the province of highly specialized, intelligent, and often, quirky people.

The Shadow Warriors is a book set in this world, spanning several genres: mystery, thriller, techno, and techno-thriller. There's also a generous dose of romance. The narrator and main character is an attractive woman with a history, many male admirers, a lover of good food, fancy restaurants and hotels, and a classy dresser. She's also intelligent, computer-savvy, and inquisitive, traits which put her in the middle of a complex and dangerous situation.

Apparently not inspired by, but certainly reminiscent of, the famous, feared, fizzled Millennium Bug of 2000, the story centers around the efforts of a group of computer hackers (not necessarily a term of opprobrium, it turns out), including the protagonist, Emma Davis. Their task is to retrieve some software that has gotten away from its creators and been turned into—possibly—a fearsome, world-stopping doomsday suite of computer programs. While this goes on, Emma must sort out her personal life with three men, one being her husband. The threat of digital disaster is a timely and entertaining notion, and there is no need to detail the course of the action here. It's enough to say there are murders, chases, narrow escapes, creepy suspects, intimate trysts (PG-13), and building tension enough for anyone looking for an absorbing experience.

While there is some amount of techno-speak it is minimal and will not disturb the reader who does not care to wallow in it. It should also be said that the heroine closely observes the clothing of other characters and describes meals and hotels in considerable detail. It may be that female readers will particularly enjoy this aspect, but in fact this male reader did too—the author's descriptive powers are considerable. Many of the settings are described wonderfully well—those who have traveled widely, or would like to, will especially enjoy this aspect of the book. The author also has a fine ear for dialog.

On the other hand, the cover was not nearly as appealing as it could have been. The text was cleanly written and edited, and the small number of typos and grammar glitches that slipped through did not significantly detract from the experience. The story line was quite complex, what with the heroine's personal life intertwined with a large group of other significant characters, some with similar names. I'm glad I didn't try to read the story at the beach or in an airport lounge: it required concentration to follow. A list of characters at the back of the book would have helped. (There are some promising recipes there, but alas I didn't try them.) It was a long tale, moreover, and while it grew increasingly absorbing as it proceeded, looking back I wonder if whittling it down a bit, concentrating it, might have made it even more compelling.

The Shadow Warriors was a timely and fun book. The general reader would enjoy it, and I for one look forward to more by this talented, promising author.

See Also: Dr. Past's B&N Review

Judy Copek's Website

Monday, July 07, 2008

Palace Council


Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter
(Knopf / 978-0-307-26658-3 / July 2008 / 528 pages / $26.95 retail / $17.16 Amazon)

Special Note: This review of Stephen L. Carter's Palace Council represents the first of several big changes coming soon to PODBRAM. This book is to be officially released tomorrow, but I began reading a pre-release copy late last month, and my reviews have been available at B&N and Blogger News Network since 7/2/08. Of course this is not a POD book, but we are now & More, and this is some of the More. From now on, the POD books selected for review at PODBRAM will bump covers with a few traditional bestsellers. More details will follow in a later post. On with the show!

Although I had heard of Stephen L. Carter long ago, this is the first book of his that I have read. As a Baby Boomer born six years prior to Mr. Carter, I have been living through and following the same historic, modern American events that the author has so explicitly integrated into his complex tale of intrigue. Palace Council displays a clever conceit similar to the one so prevalent throughout the movie, Forrest Gump, in which lead fictional characters intertwine seamlessly with famous figures and events in history. To compound the power of the story, the book is written with the same fascinating depth of family saga that made certain books from an earlier decade such bestsellers. Palace Council, in one way or another, aptly reminded me of Rich Man, Poor Man, Kane & Abel, and All the President’s Men. With its plot encircling the interrelationships among Joe Kennedy, his legendary sons, LBJ, MLK, and the grand poohbah himself, J. Edgar Hoover, this book is certainly a second cousin to a lesser-known miniseries that I have always loved entitled Hoover vs. The Kennedys. The punch line is that Palace Council is as good as any of these famous, wonderfully detailed books and movies.

Stephen L. Carter’s third novel tracks an ambitious young writer and social commentator as he interacts with his friends, family, fans, and many famous names in American politics. The reader might envision Denzel Washington as a very intelligent Forrest Gump who happens to know all the right people during the tumultuous years between 1952 and 1975. The main element of the book that fascinates me is the way the author has so adeptly combined what is almost a non-fictional, historical storyline with an extensive fictional saga of the exploits of key members of several wealthy, influential families. Stephen Carter is clearly a high-level intellectual who is fascinated by The Sixties and all the changes that did or did not have a lasting effect upon the American social and political landscape. Palace Council is every bit as much fun to read as some of the better Harold Robbins novels, and with its covers crammed with real movers and shakers of our lifetimes, the poignancy drips off the pages.

Whether or not you believe in conspiracy theories of one theme or another, I feel that most deeply thinking Americans have at least considered this fact. There have been many cases throughout the country’s esteemed and infamous history in which, if a conspiracy was not afoot, then our great nation has been ruled either by insufferably long strings of consequence or notions of deep stupidity. I have long harbored at least a few thoughts toward the former simply because the alternative is far less fathomable. Palace Council is one of those poignant, yet on the surface fictional, books destined to pose as many questions about our history as it does answers.

Some reviews of Stephen L. Carter’s previous novel, New England White, mentioned the complexity of the plot and characters of that book as a negative issue. Although I sincerely think the readers who will enjoy Palace Council the most are ones who are old enough to remember many of the events, the complexity of the plot or characters never even once left me scratching my head in confusion. Certainly this is not a book composed for morons, or even for those who think the antics of Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan are news, but is it too obtuse for the citizenry? Never. Palace Council is one whopper of a sophisticated, highly topical, thought-provoking novel. The plotting and editing are impeccable. The storyline is fascinating. Splitting the difference between political nonfiction published by numerous television talking heads and some of the best fictional, epic sagas, Palace Council impressed the hell out of this author and longtime avid reader. This book will reside on my bookshelf with some of my favorite fiction and nonfiction. However you want to categorize Palace Council, let’s just say that Mr. Carter has written one hell of a fascinating saga of thrilling intrigue.

See Also: The B&N Review
Stephen L. Carter's Wikipedia Page

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Cla$$ism for Dimwits


Cla$$ism for Dimwits
by Jacqueline S. Homan

(Elf Books / 0-981-56791-6 / 978-0-981-56791-4 / February 2008 / 488 pages / $21.95 / Amazon $17.78)

Jacqueline S. Homan is acutely disturbed by poverty in America, her own as well as everybody else’s. What differentiates her book from most of those that delve deeply into the same subject matter is that she is talking about lower class white poverty. Although Ms. Homan recognizes the obvious issue of race as it pertains to poverty in America, that particular element is clearly not the subject of her obsession. That subject, as implied by the title as it is written, Cla$$ism for Dimwits, is just plain money, cash, moohlah, the stuff with which you pay the bills. Those bills are the most basic you can imagine, from rent to gasoline to electricity to the phone bill. Cla$$ism for Dimwits is about the everyday struggles of the poor in America, how they fell into a financial hole and why they are unable to dig themselves out.

The author states her case beginning with her own personal life history as an orphaned two-year-old raised by her grandmother. She was thrown into the street when her grandmother died eleven years later, but she eventually moved in with her older half-sister. The two sisters retained a minimalist subsistence by utilizing multiple low-wage jobs for a number of years. She moved up the income ladder a bit by entering the construction industry at age 22, but an auto accident less than two years later prematurely destroyed her burgeoning career in the trade. Many years later she would graduate from college with a BA at age 34, in spite of the detrimental effects of mild dyslexia and severe poverty.

Cla$$ism for Dimwits is a difficult book to rate for readers because its supremely significant message is marred by technical foibles and amateurish presentation. Although you could make a case that I am being overly critical, I would say that many potential readers will promptly feel the slap from being called dimwits before they even open the cover. They might also be put off by the 3D WordArt graphic on the cover that is barely readable. Oversized margins and 1.5 line spacing turn what should have been a 200-page book into 480 pages. The author has told me that others advised her to publish the book this way because the text would be easier to read, but as soon as the average reader opens the book, he will see that the author was misled. The book is also full of the usual proofreading errors indigenous to self-published books these days. Far too many of the points made by the author are repeated throughout the text, most using the same or similar phrasing or terminology. Last, but not least, there are numerous missed opportunities in which supporting references to key points of data are not included, either within the text, as footnotes, or in the bibliography.

Ms. Homan is to be congratulated for both her personal climb out of the educational and poverty hole enough to compose and publish this book, and for her guts to face down her accusers in such a blatant manner. Most of what she says in Cla$$ism for Dimwits is most certainly true, whether she is describing labor riots of several decades ago, the rise to power of a Howdy Doody-like President on the backs of unfortunate Americans, or the final destruction of our middle class safety net by the current administration. My opinion in the final analysis is to give Jacqueline Homan an A for effort, but a C in execution. That leaves Cla$$ism for Dimwits with a four-star average. I loudly applaud her choice of subject matter, the personal approach to it, and the energy and resources she fired into the project; however, certain elements lacking professionalism drag the book down to a somewhat lower level.

See Also: The B&N Review
Jacqueline Homan's Blog
The Blogger News Network review
Review of Jacqueline Homan's Eyes of a Monster
Divine Right: The Truth is a Lie