Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tell Me When It Hurts

Tell Me When It Hurts
by Christine M. Whitehead

(Hadley Press / 0-982-29460-3 / 978-0-982-29460-4 / June 2009 / 298 pages / $15.99)

Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM

Here's the setup: a woman graduates from an Ivy-League college, and, uncertain of her career path, begins working as a low-level paper-pusher deep within the Justice Department, where she's eventually encouraged to volunteer for "special training" leading to advancement. It's a two-year course, but when she realizes she's being trained as a hit person (a skill at which she excels) she quits.

She goes to law school, marries, and has a daughter. The daughter is murdered by a sexual predator who gets off due to legal technicalities. The woman's marriage falls apart and she becomes a hard-drinking recluse, blaming herself for her daughter's death.

Then she's contacted by a shadowy group of "volunteers" who have organized to correct just such injustices, mainly by bushwhacking those miscreants who have managed to avoid the wheels of conventional justice. Let us not forget the woman is already trained as a professional assassin. Is this a great premise or what?

Archer Loh is the woman, and the Berkshires of Massachusetts is where she goes to lose herself. Connor McCall is the sheep-owning rancher from Wyoming who becomes her neighbor, thanks to a vacation from sheep shearing. McCall is a low-key, semi-wealthy, secure male, single, crinkly handsome, and a terrific cook among his other appealing attributes, and he begins to draw Archer Loh out of her isolation. Archer has deep psychological problems, however, so can McCall overcome these, and can Archer even grant herself permission to leave the past behind?

That's all the plot this review will mention, or needs to, surely. Any fan of the romance genre should be salivating by now. It's enough to note that the story is a romance, and that the author, for whom this is apparently a first novel, is devoted to the healing arts. The story winds to a conclusion that should satisfy fans of the genre. We will not split hairs over the ethics of private citizens deciding to eliminate other private citizens without the messy imprecision of the legal process.

It should be added that the editing and proofreading are nearly flawless, though the pacing flagged occasionally, and the style, while adequate, did not quite sparkle. The cover, which makes sense in retrospect, could be "grabbier" as well; especially more colorful. Still, the story was a fun read, and given the great concept with which it began, makes it worthwhile to look forward to other fiction by Ms. Whitehead.

See Also: Christine M. Whitehead's Website

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Saigon Connection

The Saigon Connection
by Darrel L. Rachel

(CreateSpace / 1-448-69334-9 / 978-1-448-69334-4 / August 2009 / 294 pages / $14.99)

Reviewed by Lloyd Lofthouse for PODBRAM

The Saigon Connection is a mystery thriller that starts in Saigon, South Vietnam, in August 1969. The first chapter does not tell us who is risking his life spying on a bunch of criminals. Even by the end of the book, I wasn't sure. The mystery man in the first chapter takes a few pictures, then, discovered, is on the run being chased through the streets of Saigon. At the end of the chapter, he barely escapes in a boat.

Chapter Two introduces a new character, Charlie Manwalker, an FBI agent working in the Oklahoma City area in 1981. At first, I wondered if Charlie was the unnamed character in Chapter One but soon discover that it wasn't him. However, Manwalker was in Vietnam, and may have been in the same military police unit with the mystery man.

Soon, Manwalker is investigating the deaths of other members of that military police unit he was part of twelve years earlier. One after another, members of that military unit are being murdered. There is an envelope full of pictures and copies of a ledger that makes no sense. Charlie is on a short leash since his boss wants him working other cases in a week or so. That's when the clock starts ticking, and Manwalker is off to California, following the evidence trail. It doesn't help that his wife may leave him if he stays away from home for an extended time.

Manwalker also has what appear to be flashbacks. He has trouble sleeping and seems riddled with guilt for something that happened in Vietnam. This plot device didn't work for me. It was more of an irritant. To find out what was behind the nightmares and guilt, I had to read most of the book. This device might have worked better if I had known the reason much earlier. Knowing what happened would have helped develop Manwalker's character.

Even with this flaw and a few others, The Saigon Connection held my interest, but I was often distracted by the poor copy editing like this one on page 282: "Where these warning shots, or was the (I'm leaving this word out so I don't reveal the mastermind behind the bad guys) a poor marksman?" That "Where" should have been "Were". Blemishes like this appear often.

I may be wrong, but The Saigon Connection reads like a rough draft that didn't go through much editing and maybe one or two revisions. With competition like the Dave Robicheaux novels by James Lee Burke, Darrel Rachel doesn't stand much of a chance to gain a loyal following of readers in this genre. Burke's character, Dave Robicheaux, is a police detective and a Vietnam veteran with a serious case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am a Vietnam veteran with a case of PTSD too, and I've read all of Burke's novels and I identify with Dave. I could not identify with Charley Manwalker. The "head" problems Manwalker brought back from Vietnam did not ring true.

Editor’s Note: Darrel L. Rachel apparently has no web presence at all outside Amazon. He has also released Cherokee Morning (2009) with CS and six earlier books through iUniverse: Letters from Abigail (2000), Nora’s Song (2000), No Man’s Home (2001), The Magnolias Still Bloom (2001), Balinger’s Lake (2002), and The Circling Eagle (2007).

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

When Mermaids Sing

When Mermaids Sing
by Mark Zvonkovic

(iUniverse / 1-440-16717-6 / 978-1-440-16717-1 / September 2009 / 248 pages / $16.95 / B&N $13.56 / hardcover $26.95 / Amazon $19.40)

Reviewed by Malcolm R. Campbell for PODBRAM

Larry Brown's musings about life as he observes it are insightful, humorous and often jaded. Outwardly, the protagonist of Mark Zvonkovic's gently written novel When Mermaids Sing is a pleasant, unassuming Medford, PA, high school English teacher who tries to get along with everyone and avoid conflicts.

He often feels manipulated by the requirements of his teaching job and the endless expectations of his parents and his girlfriend Millie. Brown's parents, both college teachers, expect him to play a role in their world, while Millie, an actress who might be cheating on him, expects him to make dutiful appearances in her social and family life. At work, where he may not really be happy, he's hoping to be granted tenure, and his cousin Bradley has joined a cult and might have lost himself in the addictive peace it provides.

Brown can ponder the humor and the irony of such realities because he has a "cure”. He copes with the chaos of his job and his relationships by retreating into memories of the halcyon summer days of his youth at a Cape Cod vacation house with his siblings and cousins. Those were the best years of his life. The present cannot compete with them. He doesn't want it to. Henry David Thoreau once said of Cape Cod's Outer Beach, "A man may stand there and put all America behind him." Likewise, Brown retreats to the house of his youth to put all of life's troubling challenges behind him.

While making an obligatory appearance at his father's annual party for freshmen college students, Brown meets a personable young woman named Jenny with a strong aversion to cults. Her brother Josh has joined the charismatic Path to God, the same group to which Bradley has sworn allegiance, if not his soul. Jenny complains that Josh has repudiated their father as Satan and "become a different person”. A psychiatrist at the party remarks that the sudden personality change exhibited by cult members is due to brainwashing, not hypnosis. This, and the lack of fences and armed guards at an ashram, make it difficult for families to intervene.

Brown vacillates about the difference between the freedom to choose a path others don't agree with and losing one's freedom through brainwashing and choosing the same path. Jenny's family is no longer splitting hairs. They've engaged the services of a well-known deprogrammer to help them extract Josh from the Cape Cod ashram even though everyone involved might end up being charged with kidnapping.

When Jenny points out that Bradley and Josh are together at the same place and enlists Brown's help, he can no longer ignore the issue as a mere philosophical topic for debate. Will Brown help Jenny, Bradley and Josh? He would rather not, because if he does, he will have to admit there's more involved here than the rescue of two impressionable young people from the brainwashing of a cult. He will finally have to take a stand on something and answer a lingering question. Is escaping life by running away to a cult different than running away to the past?

The title of Zvonkovic's carefully written novel is suggested by a line from John Donne's playful “Go and Catch A Falling Star”. Catching falling stars and hearing mermaids singing are, in Donne's thinking, rather unlikely events. Readers of When Mermaids Sing may wonder whether substantive change in Larry Brown is also unlikely. As literary fiction, the story relies heavily on theme, interior monologue and a strong sense of place rather than non-stop action on its introspective journey to a powerful conclusion.

See Also: The March of Books Review
The Good Reads Review

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Holt Uncensored

A few minutes ago I stumbled upon the fact that Patricia Holt is once again writing her outstanding blog about writers entitled Holt Uncensored. Pat Holt is absolutely my favorite of all the many writers who blog about authors and writing from a traditionally published perspective. She used to be the Review Editor at The San Francisco Chronicle. The first version of Holt Uncensored was launched in 1998. Back in the good old days of my naive ignorance of the real truths concerning the POD industry, I used to read her blog religiously. When I discovered her work in 1999, I even went back and read the whole damn thing from the very first post. Pat Holt has a very intelligent, candid, compassionate attitude toward writers of all types. Now after a three-year hiatus, she has brought Holt Uncensored back to life! From this point forward, I recommend that all readers of PODBRAM check out Holt Uncensored for a nice, alternative, unbiased viewpoint. You can start with this excellent post. A link has been added to the left column for future reference. I offer a hearty Welcome back, Pat!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Going Rouge

Going Rouge:
A Candid Look Inside the Mind of Political Conservative Sarah Palin

by Bob Silber

(CreateSpace / 1-449-58794-1 / 978-1-449-58794-9 / November 2009 / 102 pages / $19.95)

Released just days before the fantasy tome penned by legendary Christian author, Lynn Vincent, Going Rouge is jam-packed with facts, figures, and an extensive display of carefully researched historical data missing from Ms. Vincent's best-selling release. Mr. Silber goes one better than the similarly titled Going Rouge: An American Nightmare, by Katrina van den Heuvel, Jim Hightower, Naomi Klein, Max Blumenthal and other luminaries. Whereas that book re-releases many insightful articles concerning the depth of the brain matter of its subject, Bob Silber goes right to the center of the madness.

Many questions have been asked recently concerning foreign policy, economic policy, and most of all, whose baby is that, really? Bob Silber's book answers all your questions in a stunningly factual manner. There is no obfuscation or word salad to confuse the pertinent issues. Mr. Silber lays it all out in black and white. Or at least I would like to think he has. Actually, as in Sarah Palin's world, there is no black, only white. This book carries on that great Civil War tradition in a manner heretofore unparalleled. The invisible text says it all: there is nothing between those ears but air!

From a perusal of the Amazon sales ranking, you can see exactly what sort of POD book sells really well in America today. Note that the coloring book version is selling even better! Now that's how you market and sell a POD book! Just the facts, ma'am.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

CreateSpace Pictures

Unlike most of you, I never write fiction novels. I like to read them, not write them. My thing is nonfiction concerning modern American pop culture. I read a lot of books that by intent and design have a lot of pictures, mostly of cars and motorcycles. My first book, about cars, contained 37 photos, the inclusion of which cost me $100 with iUniverse. I paid another $100 to put a single photo of my ugly mug in the back of my third book. My second book, about boats, could have used pictures, but it was not worth the cost in time or money. Photos in most POD books still cost way too much money, in both upfront costs and the retail prices set by page count, but CreateSpace has changed all that. When you create your book yourself for CS, you can include as many B&W (grayscale) photos as you want and the company will not charge you a cent. CS does not care if you add a single huge TIFF or two-hundred tiny JPG’s. When you pay the $39 upfront fee, the cost per page is only 1.2 cents. This means that a large number of photos may raise the retail price of the book a tiny bit, but nothing to the rip-off degree that iU does for large page counts.

I am quite buried in boat pictures these days. The book I am working on is called Ker-Splash 2: The High Performance Boat Book. I hope to release it on schedule 1/1/10. Why, you ask? It’s not Christmas I am concerned with; it’s the winter boat show season that begins the following weekend. CS allows a maximum file size of 100 MB, so I have to choose my selections carefully. Since the file sizes of the photos generally vary around one or two MB each, you can see where the limited number kicks in. This would be yet another limitation on the design of a color CS release. It would be nifty if they would offer something like a ten-color-pages option within a B&W book so you could have some color shots without breaking the cost or file size limitations.

As for putting photos in a CS book, I can tell you this much. I enjoy the hell out of the process. It is one of the main reasons I got interested in computers in the first place. I can also tell you that it practically doubles the time it takes to completely publish a book. I think I have a very good grip on the process, and I think the programs I have chosen are probably the easiest way to create the project. There will be about seventy photos in my book. This number has been steadily growing over the past couple of months until it has reached the maximum allowable 100 MB.

In the world of POD publishing, the physical size of a printed photo and its actual file size are everything. Just because a picture looks huge, colorful, and beautiful on your computer monitor does not mean this photo is suitable for printing in your book. The experts will argue all day long about how dots per inch (dpi) is a printer measurement and pixels per inch (ppi) is a screen resolution. Don’t let this silly, but true, argument distract you. It’s just like the old POD slap-fight in which POD is actually a process, but it’s really the birth of iUniverse and all its print-anything-you-submit competitors that really puts their panties in a wad! This is just like that. CreateSpace insists that any photos embedded in your manuscript must be of at least 300 dpi, just as iUniverse used to, and I assume, still do. The only difference was that when I submitted my earlier books to iU, the photos had to be TIFF’s and it literally took all night with a phone line connection to send them the books. CS does not require TIFF’s, although you can certainly submit your photos in this format if you want. Some people claim the photos will look better if you do, but I doubt that I can personally tell the difference. What I can tell you is that with the 100 MB file size limit, you will not be able to include very many TIFF’s in your book, at least not large ones. Most of the seventy pictures in Ker-Splash 2 will be much larger than many of the thirty-seven in Plastic Ozone Daydream.

All the photos in Daydream were taken before I was even very involved with computers. Most of that book was written from 1985-94. The photos were 4” x 6” snapshots that had to be scanned into the computer at 300 dpi resolution each. The fact that these shots began as scanned, small, non-professional photographs hurt their quality level far more than the fact that they were submitted as huge TIFF files helped. I really cannot imagine that if they had been converted to JPG’s and submitted that they would look significantly of any lower quality in the book.

The photos I am working with now are from an entirely different origin. Although I scanned a few shots from prints in the beginning, none of these will be in the book. The two weakest shots were taken with my Kodak Instamatic as Ektachrome slides in the late Sixties. These have been scanned in with my slide scanner at 1800 dpi and then processed into the system. The easiest and best way to include photos in your CreateSpace book is to simply take them with your own digital camera. Most digital cameras spit out very large, high-resolution JPG’s with nonchalant ease. All you have to do is to crop and shrink these to whatever physical size you need and insert them into your document. They will automatically be of a high enough resolution to use in any book in most any size you want without creating too large a JPG file size. A small number of the photos in my upcoming book originated in this manner.

Most of the photos I am publishing originated with boat builders and their publicity firms, and this is one of the leading reasons I thought some of you might find this article relevant. I am describing for you in detail the processes you may have to utilize in order to take photos from a wide variety of origins and place them into your book. I sent out requests to selected boat manufacturers describing my book and what I wanted from them. The replies I received were all over the map. Some companies obviously have paid large publicity firms to take hundreds of high-quality, posed shots, and others may have only taken quick snapshots of a few models. In some cases I had tons of photos to look through and in others I had to hope that at least one of the shots was technically acceptable to use. I had originally wanted the book to be in the 8 x 10 size so the photos could all be larger, but due to the necessary file specifications, I opted for the 7 x 10 size instead. Too may of the precious few photos that I had from some sources were just too small to use without serious cheating; i. e., using too many photos of too low resolution below 300 dpi. Some of the former files were humongous while many of the latter were just a few shots sent to me directly by the small boat builder. A lot more of this latter group could meet the 300 dpi level, or come close to it, at 5.75 inches wide than at 6.75 inches wide. How did I arrive at these dimensions? After comparing the look of a number of books on my shelf, I selected the margin sizes I wanted to use. The really sophisticated providers had set up what they call a Media Page in which every promotional photo of every model was posted in both a small JPG format for the web and a large TIFF or JPG for printing. Later on in this article you will read how I built a quickie version of my book in Microsoft Word utilizing many of these smaller file versions, while downloading the large file versions to actually use in the book. The quick versions could be downloaded and copied into my book’s file folder in moments. I would literally go make a sandwich or do some other mundane chore while each of the monsters downloaded! I hope I can cover every contingency and answer all your questions about this process in this very long article. Let the explanation of the process begin.

I download a bunch of photos from a boat builder's media page on his website or I receive the photos in e-mails. I look at the properties of each picture to see the size and resolution. All my pictures will be 5.75" wide and vary in height, probably from about two to seven inches. This is why I agonized over the 8x10 format for so long: the pictures could have been printed larger, but less of the ones I have could meet the minimum resolution requirements at the 6.75" width. After I check the size of a picture, compared to its resolution, I can decide if it passes technical muster. In this case, if it is 1800 pixels wide at 300 dpi, it passes. The larger format would have required 2100 width to be acceptable. (Both these stated dimensions offer a little margin for error, of course: 1800 divided by 300 = 6, not 5.75.) You may remember that I spent a bit of time trying to ascertain if I could cheat in my CS submission, and if so, how much could I cheat. A lot of that issue was over the 8"x10" format concept, when so many of my pictures were not making the grade. Any photos that I have pulled directly out of the camera can pass the test without question, so if you were working on the same process, the problems I had would probably not apply to you.

After the photos have shown to meet the minimum technical specifications, I open a photo in Picasa. Whatever program you like probably offers much the same functions. (I need to point out here that a few of the boat media pages use TIFF's. When I downloaded a bunch of these, in one case I created a folder on my desktop that was 339MB! In that case, the first thing I do is to convert them all to JPG's and dump the big TIFF's in the trash. You can use the TIFF's in your book if you want, but the file size would be a monster, and 100MB is the total size of manuscript that the CS system can handle. Obviously my book could not be made from TIFF's; although Daydream was, as iU accepted only TIFF's. It was an all-nighter to upload that book, too!) All I do in Picasa is to crop the picture and save the newly cropped copy. Then I close Picasa and open Photoshop Elements, the basic form of Photoshop that came with my slide scanner. (Of course, I don't really do this process one at a time. I prepare a bunch in Picasa and then I finish the job with Elements.) I open the newly cropped version of the picture in the Image Resize page of Photoshop Elements. In this program, you must select do not resample image, and then I put 5.75" in the width box and watch the new listing of the resolution. As long as it states 300 or higher, I am not cheating. I click to resize the image and then I save it as a JPG. When I do this, the box pops up asking for the specifications I want and I choose the highest quality level; then I save the new JPG with a notation that it is ready for the book, such as Sonic Prowler 26 Crop Trim. The original photo has already been saved as Sonic Prowler 26, and the version cropped in Picasa has been saved as Sonic Prowler 26 Crop. After I have completed this process, I change the Crop Trim notation to just CT and move all the CT-designated photos into a special folder of actual possibilities for the book. The first two versions of the photo are left in their original folder in case I need to change the cropping of the photo later. The shot of the Sonic Prowler 26 shown here is my favorite photo out of hundreds that did not make the cut: Sonic sent me a couple of others that were even better!

The use of Picasa and Photoshop Elements is purely my own choice. Most of my face time with these photos is actually spent in the Windows Picture Viewer that comes with Windows XP. In 98% of the cases, Picasa is capable of doing about four times whatever is necessary to modify a particular photo, and Elements does about ten times as much, so the process I am using is meant to honor the KISS Principle more than anything else. I am sure some of you would prefer to open up the big, bad Photoshop and modify the hell out of your pictures; whereas, I am much more concerned with how many minimally modified photos I can include in the book. With the quantity of photos I am working with, my little KISS Principle methodology still requires an enormous amount of time, probably as much as the creation of the text portion of the book!

There are three small picture modification tools that I have utilized on just a few of the photos I have prepared for publication. I have used the sharpen tool in Picasa on a few shots that I took of moving boats at full zoom. I used the blur tool in Picasa to distort a few state license numbers on boats. I read somewhere a while back that you should not publish photos with identifying license plates on cars, just as you should not publish identifiable faces without the subjects’ permission. I assume the license number concept would apply to boats, too, so it gave me an opportunity to check out the effectiveness of the blur tool, which works surprisingly well. The third modification tool I utilized was the JPG quality setting in Photoshop Elements. A few of the shots that had arrived in my computer as humongous TIFF’s needed to be reduced in size just to allow room for more photos inside the 100 MB limit imposed by CreateSpace. I was shocked to discover that the largest of these was 203 MB!! Even after converting some of these to JPG’s, cropping the photos, and trimming the size down to 5.75 inches wide, they were about 6 MB each. I saved a few of these with slightly reduced quality in order to bring them down to about 2 MB each, a file size at least somewhat comparable to the rest of the photos in the book.

Word is still a wonderful, quickie way to create a version of the book that isn't real. If I want to test what a picture looks like in a particular part of the book, I insert the photo from any format and just let Word resize it the width of the page setup (7") and click the grayscale button to see what my book will look like. All of this is a complete no-no for actually creating a CS manuscript. After much research, I have learned that Word will actually decrease the photo's resolution if you insert the picture and then resize it. It will also decrease your resolution if you copy and paste the photo into Word, even without resizing it. The only issue I have not concluded yet is that if I take that color Sonic Prowler 26 Crop Trim above and insert it into Word and then change it to B&W, will I lose anything? It may or may not be necessary to first change that finalized photo to B&W in Photoshop Elements before inserting it into Word. The experts are certain that you should not resize a photo in Word, but I have yet to verify if you can change to B&W in Word without a problem. Take note, though: the experts agree that each photo should be changed to B&W individually before submitting the book. You can submit the book with all color photos and CS will change them all to B&W, but the program will treat them all identically rather than on a case-by-case basis, possibly causing less than perfect results. To be on the safe side of these issues, I have saved a B&W version using Elements of every photo in my Crop Trim (CT) File, so when the book is finally put together, if there is any inserting of photos in Word, no modification to the photo will be necessary after the picture has been inserted in place.

I keep three Word documents for Ker-Splash 2 active at all times. The first is the actual text that I am constantly writing, editing, and updating as a regular 8.5 x 11 document. The second is a 7 x 10 mockup of what the actual book will look like with all the photos inserted in place in their actual sizes. This is the document I referred to above as not real, because the pictures can be inserted quickly as low-res JPG’s and converted to the size and grayscale in Word. Take note that the file size of this document can be only a fraction of the size of the genuine book. After working with this pseudo-document for several weeks, I have already created an updated version with the real photos in place. This monster is, of course, about 95 MB in size now. The third Word document I utilize is a conglomeration of all my notes for the book. The reason it is important is that one part of it contains a charting of the chapters, sub-headings, and other components of the text in the book. As I worked through the hundreds of photo choices, I used this as a template to decide which photo should be selected and exactly where it should be placed. This process allowed me to slowly build what would become the final template for the book, a template in Word that is 95 MB large and too unwieldy to actually work with on a daily basis. The last step I have completed is to set up the final order and placement of the photos and to number them in chronological order through the book. I removed any photos that have been eliminated from the competition, as well as all color versions, from my Crop Trim folder, leaving the photos sorted in order by their numbers. Now I can examine this folder at any time to see if I am satisfied with each and every issue concerning the photo selections. When I am ready to actually build the book, all the photos are ready for me to simply look at my chart and plug in the correct photo numbers.

There is one last project that I have yet to undertake, but I expect it to go quickly due to all the template setup I have already completed. I need to compose any photo captions and credits that I wish to place under any photos. The plan is to write each of these and give them a number in the chart in my Word Notes document, and then copy and paste each of them into place. The whole process will have taken only a million hours, but as I said at the beginning, I love doing this stuff!

See Also: The NIAFS Website/Blog
The CreateSpace Specifications Page

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Nothing You Can Possess

Nothing You Can Possess
by Jacqueline S. Homan

(Eagle Eye Publishers – Elf Books / 0-981-56793-2 / 978-0-981-56793-8 / June 2008 / 412 pages / $21.95)

Jacqueline S. Homan has carried her crusade for the less fortunate population of America to the next logical step. At least it is logical to a certain degree. Ms. Homan is apparently a combination of Whoopi Goldberg and Ralph Nader, with a little hot sauce provided by Michele Bachmann. It’s this last point that confuses me a bit. If all the Wall Street movers and shakers have ever wanted is to completely enslave the entire American workforce, then why would they want to go all wingnutty Hitler on us and exterminate most of their own slaves? Ms. Homan has defended tobacco smokers in her first book and now she has railed against the secret concentration camps coming for us all in Nothing You Can Possess. I do wonder at times if this author is the one who is possessed!

No, I cannot give Jacqueline Homan’s third book five stars because she has let the error count creep up all too easily as the text progresses toward its Glenn Beckish conclusion; however, the proofing of this book is a definite improvement over her first two. Jacqueline’s relentlessly detailed research and her control of the English language bring Nothing You Can Possess into the four-star realm quite easily, but the best is yet to come. Jacqueline S. Homan is the most socially and politically important non-famous writer I have ever read. She is a rarity among the many thousands of self-published, independent, and POD authors hawking their wares all over the internet. She writes what she knows. She writes nonfiction. She is a crusader for the poor and the underprivileged. She went after the multitude of side effects emitting from extreme poverty in Cla$$ism for Dimwits. She displayed an intensity for her subject matter combined with a deferential look at her own weaknesses in Eyes of a Monster. Now she has gathered up her facts, figures, and other data, and compiled it into a financial history of that side of our culture we had just as soon leave buried under a rock. Her next book attacks the subject of religion. I bet Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens would love it!

The title and cover of Nothing You Can Possess do little to impress me. If I had not read Ms. Homan’s first two books, I could easily have ignored this one wherever I might have seen it. Jacqueline has another, much bigger problem: all her books are overpriced and none are available in the Kindle format. I really wish she would get her act together about these issues. She so much deserves to be read by a lot more people! If you know anything about Ralph Nader or Whoopi Goldberg, you probably know that Ralph is the real deal when it comes to consumer protectionism and Whoopi really did once live on the streets as a very poor drug addict. Jacqueline Homan is very real in the same way as these two, except she isn’t famous. She has brought herself up financially from nothing but tragedy. She has educated herself to a surprisingly literate degree. Like the two better-known left-wing heroes, she has never forgotten from whence she came.

I recommend Nothing You Can Possess to the reader who likes to learn something from whatever he reads, a person who follows the premise that, at least to some degree, history does repeat itself. There is a lot of historical detail in the book, but not so much that the text is boringly bogged down like my Economics 101 professor that kept putting me to sleep. This book does not grip the reader by the throat like Eyes of a Monster does, but it is a much more mature and thoroughly developed one than Cla$$ism for Dimwits. I really wish more of the new horde of internet-based authors were interested in writing highly topical nonfiction like this instead of endlessly repeating genre fiction reruns.

See Also: Cla$$ism for Dimwits
Eyes of a Monster
Divine Right: The Truth is a Lie
Jacqueline S. Homan's Blog

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Boleyn Wife

The Boleyn Wife by Brandy Purdy
(Kensington / 0-758-23844-4 / 978-0-758-23844-3 / January 2010 / 384 pages / $16.00 / $10.12 Amazon)

Reviewed by Dianne Salerni for PODBRAM

History is not kind to losers, and Lady Rochford, Jane Parker Boleyn, is certainly one of history’s losers. She lost out against her sister-in-law for her husband’s love, and she lost her husband’s life while ingratiating herself to the king and Cromwell. She lost the respect of the Tudor court for her transparent perjury, and she eventually lost her life through her unaccountable involvement with the most foolish Queen ever to grace England’s throne.

Lady Jane, the narrator of Brandy Purdy’s newest novel The Boleyn Wife, is described on the back cover as shy and plain. Personally, I felt that based on this portrayal, better words to describe her would be manipulative and avaricious. Any sympathy I felt for her vanished on Page 29, when Jane’s father expressed misgivings about the proposed match between his daughter and George Boleyn, and Jane flung herself to the floor in a tantrum worthy of a three year-old toddler. Jane’s obsession with George seems ill-advised – they had nothing in common and George never showed anything but disinterest in her. Nevertheless, she desired him in a most obsessive way and resented everyone he truly cared for – most of all, his sister Anne.

In Purdy’s version of the tale, the Boleyn siblings were innocent of physical incest, but strangely connected in spirit. “It was as if they were made to be together and, as blasphemous as it sounds, God had made a mistake when He made them brother and sister so that full passionate love between them was forbidden.” There are few likeable characters in this story, but George Boleyn perhaps comes closest. His devotion to Anne is touching and would have been incredibly romantic – if she hadn’t been his sister – but since she is, it’s slightly creepy. Purdy’s portrayal of Anne Boleyn is a little different from others I have read: I found her dislikeable at first, but more sympathetic as the novel continues, until she reaches full dignity during the trial for her life.

One of the things I like best about Purdy’s writing is her ability to paint clear images with her words. Her style is very visual, and I have always found it a pleasure to read. Take this description of Henry’s infatuation with Anne: “And so it began, the chase, the hunt, that would consume the better part of seven years, shattering and destroying lives, and shaking and tearing the world like a rat in a terrier’s mouth.” How better to describe the manner in which one foolish love affair could forever change the history of religion and world politics? I also enjoy her non-standard approach to familiar characters – an Anne Boleyn who truly despises Henry, a Duke of Norfolk who would wrestle Lady Jane for the privilege of telling bad news to the Queen and provoking a miscarriage, and an Anne of Cleves who was cleverer than anyone suspected.

I had only a few, small reservations about the novel. One of the key aspects of Anne Boleyn’s character is her true love for Harry Percy in the beginning of the book, and yet I was never comfortable with their relationship. Purdy portrays them as opposites, and therefore I would have liked to have seen them together more often, so that I could truly believe in their love. Another is Jane’s propensity for eavesdropping and spying. Don’t get me wrong – I believe she was capable of such sneakiness, but sometimes the convenient availability of keyholes, tapestries, and shrubberies when important events were about to happen strained any credibility. Still, I found The Boleyn Wife to be a very enjoyable novel – for all that, it is full of despicable characters and follows a plotline that would have been completely unbelievable, if it hadn’t really happened!

PODBRAM readers may find special interest in the fact that Brandy Purdy first published this novel independently through iUniverse under the title Vengeance is Mine. It was snapped up by a traditional publisher in under a year, making Purdy one of the many success stories featured on this blog!

See Also: The High Spirits Review
The Confession of Piers Gaveston

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Crusading Spirit in Modern America

The Crusading Spirit in Modern America:
George W. Bush and the Radical Conservative Elite

by Richard J. Bazillion

(BookSurge / 1-439-22944-9 / 978-1-439-22944-6 / May 2009 / 410 pages / $20.99)

Reviewed by Lloyd Lofthouse for PODBRAM

If you want to have a better idea of what is going on in American politics, Crusading Spirit is an important book, not only because of the author's anger but also because of the evidence used to support that anger. There's a reason why America's two major political parties are polarized. Crusading Spirit provides another piece to the puzzle for those who want to unravel the misinformation used to mislead voters.
Reading Richard J. Bazillion's book caused me to do a bit of research where I learned that in 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that about ninety-six million Americans over the age of eighteen voted. One hundred-twenty-four million old enough to vote did not. Of those that didn't vote, forty million were registered. I will address this tragedy later in this review.

I've read two disturbing, but "necessary" books this year. The first was Murder of an American Nazi by Tim Fleming—a book that convincingly connects the far right, radical conservative movement in America to Nazi fanaticism. The Crusading Spirit in Modern America is the second book, and Bazillion's specialty is the history of modern Germany. The main reason I find these books disturbing is that only a few people may read them. Neoconservatism, like Nazism and Communism, also supports and pushes dangerous ideas.
Irving Kristol (mentioned on four pages in this book) is considered the godfather of American neoconservatism. While speaking at New York University, the professor once said, "I'll put it bluntly: if you care for the quality of life in our American democracy, then you have to be for censorship." He has also said, "What rules the world is idea, because ideas define the way reality is perceived." After his recent death, he was described by The Daily Telegraph (a British paper that has been politically conservative in modern times) as being "perhaps the most consequential public intellectual of the latter half of the 20th century": great praise from the conservative media.

What did Kristol say about truth? "There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults; and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work."
The godfather of neoconservatives said that telling people what you want them to hear is okay. After all, Kristol was up front about his belief in the "noble" lie. Today's neoconservatives claim they are not telling lies, but how can we believe them? Before you decide for yourself, read the AARP Bulletin for September 2009.AARP published a piece on the hype, lies and facts regarding health care reform revealing one lie after another coming from the political right and their allies.
The Crusading Spirit is a disturbing book because it reveals dangers to the American way of life that are real. Here's a quote from page 346. "So-called 'dominionists, (not demonists)' who occupy the far right fringe of Christian fundamentalism, are the vanguard of a fascist movement in the US."

This is a powerful claim supported with compelling evidence. Two men are mentioned often in the book, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss. Schmitt joined the Nazi party in May 1933, and is sometimes referred to as "the crown jurist of the Third Reich." He has had a powerful influence over neoconservatives. Crusading Spirit maps the connections in convincing ways linking these dangerous Straussian ideas to the George W. Bush Whitehouse and many of his influential advisors, including Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Abram Shulsky, Stephen Cambone, Elliott Abrams, Stephen Hadley, and Douglas Feith (page 65) explaining in detail why America went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and how these wars were botched and why.

It is a tragedy that this book will not reach a wider audience. Like most books written by PhDs spending decades lecturing to students in universities, Crusading Spirit bogs down with a reading level far above the average American. I had to treat this book like the textbooks I studied in college by highlighting and underlining important passages to keep the connections straight.

Although this process was painful (like walking slow on a bed of hot coals), the reason why I kept at it was because I know someone that matches the description Bazillion uses to describe the characteristics and beliefs of the average far-right radical neoconservative/evangelical. That description matches a friend of mine, who, like George W. Bush, was born again.
Before I go any further, I recommend that you read Bart D. Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. After all, radical evangelicals are part of the unholy alliance between neoconservatives and Christians, so it is a good idea to understand them. If you research Ehrman's book, you will discover that he stirred up a controversy and that evangelicals scrambled to defend their beliefs.
Recent discussions with my born-again friend taught me that evangelical neoconservatives only see good and bad, black and white, no gray or in-between. It's as if they lost the ability to reason and are more of a cult than a religion. Biblical scripture, as literally interpreted by them, is their guide (read Ehrman). You either agree with them or you have been brainwashed by the so-called liberal media. Strong evidence supports the fact that the liberal media is an invention of the far right to confuse and influence America's non-reading millions. Consider that Rupert Murdoch, a known neoconservative, owns Fox News, along with News Corp, a media empire. (To learn more, read Ann Sanner).
Neoconservatives and their allies believe there is one way to rule the world, and they have a loud voice. The loudest comes from Rush Limbaugh, mentioned on page 331 in Crusading Spirit. This talk-show king of neoconservative radio has a listening audience between fifteen and thirty million people making his show the number one radio talk show in America. Rush often says that his audience, referred to as "ditto heads", does not have to think because he will think for them. It's scary when you consider that there are that many willing, easy to influence people in America, and they vote.
The second loudest mouth is Ann Coulter, who calls liberals and Democrats godless. There are others that belong to this mud-slinging, fire breathing, right-wing political mafia besides Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter: Glen Beck, Sean Hanity, Dennis Prager, Mark Levin, Michael Berry, Hugh Hewitt, and Mike Gallagher.
If you have swallowed the right-wing propaganda that the media is liberal, you probably do not trust anything you hear unless it is from a one-hundred-percent biased neoconservative pundit who may believe it is okay to tell a "noble" lie.
Now, back to my earlier statement about eligible voters compared to the numbers that did vote. To make this American experiment in democracy work, people must be involved and be literate enough to understand the issues. They have to read, too. Literacy plays a vital role in democracy, so let's learn a few things about literacy in America. says, "There are over 42 million American adults, 20 percent of whom hold high school diplomas, who cannot read, as well as the 50 million who read at a fourth or fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate. In addition, their numbers are growing by an estimated 2 million a year. But even those who are supposedly literate retreat in huge numbers into this image-based existence. A third of high school graduates, along with 42 percent of college graduates, never read a book after they finish school. Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book.”

"The illiterate rarely vote, and when they do vote they do so without the ability to make decisions based on textual information (unless someone like Rush Limbaugh tells them what to think). American political campaigns, which have learned to speak in the comforting epistemology of images, eschew real ideas and policy for cheap slogans and reassuring personal narratives. Political propaganda (mostly misleading lies and half truths) now masquerades as ideology."

In 2003, the government center of national assessment for adult literacy reported the
number of adults in each Prose Literacy Level. The Prose Literacy Levels are defined as:

Below Basic: no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills – 30 million Americans (14% of the adult population)

Basic: can perform simple and everyday literacy activities – 63 million Americans (29% of the adult population)

Intermediate: can perform moderately challenging literacy activities – 95 million Americans (44% of the adult population)

Proficient: can perform complex and challenging literacy activities – 28 million Americans (13% of the adult population)

Consider that Rush Limbaugh has an audience of thirty million (probably below basic) and a book like Crusading Spirit will be fortunate to find a few hundred and most if not all of those people will be "proficient" readers. To find a larger audience, Bazillion should slim down his book by cutting about a hundred pages (due to repetition), and simplify the language. However, the odds are that even if Bazillion rewrote his book so someone with a sixth-grade reading level could read it, they wouldn't be able to understand the importance of the information.

That's why a neoconservative voice like Rush Limbaugh wins with his "noble" lies, and the majority of Americans will eventually lose. Pundits like Limbaugh know how to reach intermediate, basic and below basic readers and control the way they think and vote. This explains why America ended up with George W. Bush in the White House for eight years. Liberal authors like Richard Bazillion should learn how to communicate from right-wing pundits to get his message out.

See Also: Richard J. Bazillion's Amazon Page
The PODBRAM review of Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Honest Sid

Honest Sid:
Memoir of a Gambling Man

by Ronald Probstein

(iUniverse / 1-440-14187-8 / 978-1-440-14187-4 / May 2009 / 208 pages / $17.95 / $12.21 Amazon / $27.95 hardcover / $19.13 Amazon / $9.95 Kindle)

Reviewed by Donna Nordmark Aviles for PODBRAM

Sid Probstein lived the life of a gambler and bookie in and around the area of Broadway in New York City during the post WWI and Great Depression era of the 1920’s and 30’s. Sid lived by the motto, “If you’re going to live outside the law, you’d better be honest.” Friendly and well liked, as well as a master of impression, Honest Sid (as he came to be known) was skilled at covering up his shortcomings, creating the guise of success and accomplishment while in fact, he was often just one bet away from financial ruin. Ever the optimist, Honest Sid was quick to find the silver lining in every cloud that darkened his path. He lovingly pursued his wife-to-be, Sally and doted on his only child, Ronald, whom he came to view as his one big success.

Author Ronald Probstein provides for us, in Honest Sid: Memoir of a Gambling Man, a peek inside the social scene of two important decades in American history through the daily life and experiences of his father. Much more insightful than a typical history textbook outlining the facts and figures of a generation, memoirs such as Honest Sid serve to reconstruct the fabric of daily life for which written evidence is often scarce and would otherwise be lost to those of us who have not lived it.

Ronald Probstein left his father’s world of illegal gambling after graduating from high school in 1944 and enrolling at New York University where, during his sophomore year, he was offered a paid research position and awarded an academic scholarship to continue his studies. Probstein went on to become an eminent scientist and is now Ford Professor of Engineering, Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although they came to lead dissimilar lives (My father neither knew nor understood anything about science or engineering), the father-son bond remained strong until Sid’s untimely death. Mr. Probstein’s book is a loving tribute to his father’s life and is of greatest value to both his family for generations to come, and to those of us who savor the opportunity to step back and experience life in a different time.

Technically this book is very well done with a uniform, visually appealing layout and only a few errors in spelling and punctuation – easily overlooked by the engaged reader. I would have enjoyed the addition of some period photographs not only of the book’s characters but also of the NYC landmarks mentioned in the book and the family’s various living and workspaces. I enjoyed reading and learning about Honest Sid and can readily recommend Mr. Probstein’s book to anyone with an interest in the memoir genre or life during the pre-depression and Great Depression era.

See Also: Ronald Probstein's Wikipedia Page
Ronald Probstein's MIT Page
Amazon Listing of the Author's Nonfiction Works

Monday, October 19, 2009

Success Story: Donna Nordmark Aviles

Good Morning!

Thank you to everyone who has supported my books and Oliver's story. Whether you are a teacher, a family member, or a friend, I value each of you and appreciate your interest and enthusiasm in support of my efforts to bring back the history of the Orphan Trains and their riders.

I was very excited to wake to the news this morning that the audiobook version of Fly Little Bird, Fly! and Beyond The Orphan Train, which was read by voiceover actor Drucilla Nordmark and produced at SubCat Studios in New York, was named the WINNER in the Non-Fiction Narrative Audiobook category of the National Best Books 2009 Awards sponsored by USA Book News. Peanut Butter For Cupcakes was named a FINALIST in the Non-Fiction Narrative category of the same Award Contest. Books entered in this award contest were from all types of publishing houses - both traditional and independent.

Additionally, for those who have not heard, I will be traveling to Salina, Kansas, for two weeks in April for a Book Tour sponsored by the Salina Arts and Humanities Commission. I will speak to over fifteen schools and many community groups, as well as participate in a fundraiser for the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas. Many thanks to Sara Gault of the Salina School District for making this Book Tour a reality!

And finally, In November I will be in NYC at the First Annual Self Publishing Book Expo representing my books and Wasteland Press.

Many thanks again for the blessing of your continued support, without which this story would likely still be sitting on my shelf!


Saturday, October 17, 2009

God's Money

God’s Money:
A Novel Based on Actual Events

by Tad Hutton

(Foremost Press / 0-981-84189-9 / 978-0-981-84189-2 / August 2009 / 134 pages / $11.97)

Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM

In my previous review for PODBRAM, I observed that since books are food for the soul, then one might think of a particular book in terms of specific dishes. That tactic is useful with the present book. Take several nicely fried Filipino lumpia, a Vietnamese spring roll, a small saucer of Japanese sushi, some Chinese moo goo gai pan, and a bowl of steaming jasmine rice. Add a bottle of fish oil, Chinese mustard, plum sauce, a good soy sauce, chopsticks, and an American fortune cookie. The result: a small, exotic pan-Asian feast, highly satisfying and perhaps leaving you in good humor but wanting more. That's not a bad extended metaphor for God's Money, by Tad Hutton.

If the book is based on actual events, as is claimed, I have no knowledge of them, but they're not needed to enjoy the story. Basically, pirates sink a freighter, and a fortune in American money floats off, to be found years later by humble fishermen who must decide what to do with it. If you are thinking that the former owners of this money might get wind of the find and try to get the money back, you would be correct: thereby hangs our tale.

That bare outline could suggest yet another conventional boilerplate thriller, but that is not the case at all. Set among the thousands of islands in the South China Sea, the story is staffed with a marble cake of cultures, most of the representatives thereof qualifying as "characters" whatever their culture. The author seems well versed in the details of those cultures: of daily life, religion, bureaucracy, politics, and languages, all of which add to the sense of authenticity and local color. As for the characters themselves, start with a former Peace Corps volunteer/former financial manipulator, who got a little too clever in his dealings and decided to retire in obscurity to a small village on the South China Sea. Add a small group of poor but generous Christian fishermen and villagers, one timorous, bibulous Catholic Father, a boy who seldom speaks but who has a compass in his head and can commune with dolphins, a Filipino police lieutenant who has eyes for the village babe, comically grasping church officials, and an abandoned WWII Japanese soldier who has become a hermit and turned to meditation and the martial arts. Crown all with a truly scary pirate, and you have the makings of a juicy yarn.

The blurb says the story is unforgettable. This is a common claim for novels, but in this case it is justified. The writing and editing are pristine. My only complaint is that this "meal" (at only 134 pages) amounts to a working lunch. It could easily have been a banquet.

See Also: The Author's Website

Special Note: This is Tad Hutton's fifth book. His first two, published in '92 and '93 respectively, are out of print, but his third and fourth are available at Amazon alongside God's Money.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Recipe for Murder

Recipe for Murder: A Patrick and Grace Mystery, Book 2
By Janet Elaine Smith

(Star Publish / 1-932-99348-7 / 978-1-932-99348-6 / August 2006 / 160 pages / $16.95 / Amazon $13.22)

Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM

Patrick O'Malley is a retired New York City cop. Grace Johnson, a recent widow, does volunteer work as a cook at a homeless shelter. Though they have a bit of difficulty admitting it to anyone, the two are an item. In this second of three (so far) Patrick and Grace Mysteries, the duo, no longer young but as inquisitive and determined as ever, are perplexed by a letter from their gentle friend Walter, who has unaccountably disappeared from the homeless shelter's kitchen days earlier. Walter writes them he has returned to his childhood home in Albany, Nebraska, because of the death of his father. He adds that he needs a favor. He has found a “recipe for success”, but someone doesn't want him to have it, and in case anything happens to him, he is enclosing the key to his safety deposit box, the contents of which could make them millionaires.

Worried about their friend, they call his mother only to learn that Walter has died and his death was ruled a suicide. His mother, however, believes that cannot have been the case. Patrick and Grace decide to travel to Albany and investigate the matter.

What you have there, obviously, is a recipe for a murder mystery, one with detectives who call to mind the television show Murder She Wrote, which is in fact referred to in the story, since the characters themselves realize the parallel. Once in Albany, they encounter a number of citizens of the tiny town, leery of outsiders, and many of whom are worthy of suspicion. A gratifying number of complexities and reversals ensue before the guilty party is nabbed.

Recipe for Murder comfortably fits the classic definition of a cozy, light detective story with well-educated protagonists and little explicit violence. The title stayed in my mind as I coasted through the story, meeting the various odd characters of the town and pondering the mystery. Books are indeed food for the mind. Some amount to roast beef and mashed potatoes. Others might recall a hamburger and fries. An exotic, international volume might bring to mind General Tso's chicken, or even spigola arrosto alla ligure. Not a cozy, however. A cozy, to me, would be a dessert: a strawberry tart, pistachio gelato... or, in this case, applesauce and oatmeal cookies. Yes, that's it! How can I be so certain? It's easy: not only do applesauce and oatmeal cookies figure in the plot, the recipe is included at the back of the book. It's a fitting finish to a sweet mystery.

See Also: Interview with Janet Elaine Smith
Review of A Lumberjack Christmas
Review of A Christmas Dream

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Above the Fray

Above the Fray: A Novel of the Union Balloon Corps, Part One
by Kris Jackson

(CraigsPress / 1-607-48002-6 / 978-1-607-48002-0 / May 2009 / 304 pages / $19.95 / Kindle $3.99)

Reviewed by Malcolm R. Campbell for PODBRAM

Thaddeus Lowe said, “The sun’ll not rise today, Nathaniel. You and I shall have to rise to meet it.”

And so it is that a fifteen-year-old telegraph operator from Richmond inadvertently helps Professor Lowe direct a Federal artillery barrage by transmitting air-to-ground telegraph messages about the range and direction of fire. Lowe is pleased with the results, for the test further demonstrates the viability of aerial reconnaissance in the Civil War. Nathaniel Curry is conflicted when he realizes the target wasn’t a land formation but a secessionist battery at Falls Church, Virginia.

Kris Jackson’s protagonist in Above the Fray is in Washington, D.C., to help with the telegraph equipment while fellow operator Charlie Spence makes the ascent with Lowe. At the last minute, Charlie backs out, telling Lowe, “I’ll not go up in that thing again. I was scared to death the last time.” Charlie refused to reconsider even after Lowe tells him the test depends on him. Nathaniel suddenly blurts out, “I’ll do it.” Destiny, it seems, has called him into the war against the Confederacy— his family, his friends, his country.

In July 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Thaddeus Lowe Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps. Kris Jackson’s meticulously researched and well written novel brings to life a little-known civilian contract organization that supported Federal troops during the Civil War with real-time information and maps based on observations made from hydrogen balloons.

Part I of Above the Fray follows the battles of the Peninsula Campaign while Lowe’s Balloon Corps is assigned to General George McClellan. Mainstream readers will enjoy a dramatic story, while civil war enthusiasts will also appreciate Jackson’s attention to battlefield detail, balloon handling and equipment, and the highly credible interactions between the novel’s fictional characters with historical figures.

Service in the Balloon Corps represents a rite of passage for Nathaniel. Ballooning not only widens the physical horizons of his world, but plunges him into a role that exposes him to the ugliness of war and the condemnation of his brother who supports the South. Nathaniel’s sweetheart’s family is also fighting for the Confederacy, but she cautiously suggests that the Union cause might also be just if it brings an end to the immoral institution of slavery. Jackson has created a likeable character who questions why he is doing what he’s doing while learning to rely on spunk and grit to survive the war on a diverse team of aeronauts. For Nathaniel Curry, being above the fray does not mean being out of danger.
In addition to Lowe, the novel includes aeronauts John Wise and John LaMountain as well as the visiting Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Since most readers aren’t familiar with these individuals, the novel would be helped by an introduction or an author’s note that separated fictional characters from the obscure historical figures. The count’s presence foreshadows future developments in aviation while LaMountain’s presence brings another fine element of tension into the novel by illustrating differences between aeronauts. LaMountain was critical of Lowe’s reliance on tethered (secured to the ground with ropes) flight; Lowe thought LaMountain’s untethered flight made communication with the ground more difficult while adding control problems and other risks.
POD Book Reviews and More was sent only Part I of Above the Fray for this review. We don’t know why Above the Fray was split into two volumes or why those volumes are being offered as standalone books rather than a boxed set. Part I ends with a cliffhanger soon after the September 1862 Battle of Antietam. History tells us that Lowe resigned from the Balloon Corps in May 1963 due to continued pay and logistics disputes with the army. With Lowe’s absence, the corps folded up by August. This review, then, is provisional since we only considered half of the novel. If Part II measures up to the standards of Part I, then Kris Jackson has created a wonderful and informative story about a young protagonist who comes of age under fire at the same time the military’s use of balloons comes of age under fire.

See Also: Above the Fray, Part Two in Amazon Kindle
Kris Jackson's Authors Den Page
Kris Jackson Design
The March of Books Review
The Goodreads Review
The Amazon UK Review
The PODBRAM Review of Above the Fray, Part Two

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Fuhrer Virus

The Fuhrer Virus by Paul Schultz
(Eloquent Books / 1-606-93117-2 / 978-1-606-93117-2 / November 2008 / 320 pages / $17.50 / Amazon $14.18)

Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

This espionage-suspense caper is set during World War II, but during that odd and brooding breath-of-a moment-time period during 1941 when Russia and England were in a desperate, full-out balls-to-the wall war effort against Nazi Germany. America was officially a neutral nation but teetering on a knife-edge, with powerful and influential people and organizations – within the government and without, within America and without – pulling one way or the other, according to their own dictates and reasons.

The characters and their reasons for launching a scheme to infect Hitler, then riding high as the Third Reich looked to be all but unstoppable, are intricately linked. An American industrialist and his good friend, the Senator, have good reasons for wanting to keep America neutral. There are the German army officer and his old university friend – now influential in German Intelligence – who come up with a scheme to infect Hitler with an obscure viral disease. It is supposed to be only temporary and done from the very best of motivations: to sideline the Fuhrer just long enough to keep him from interfering in the conduct of the war on the Eastern Front, and allow his generals free hand to win in the campaign against Soviet Russia.

Roped into this convoluted plot is a disgraced American Army officer, with just the right medical background… and working against it is Michael Barnes, a military intelligence agent from the loose organization that would become the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA. In an ironic contravention of the usual sort of World War II espionage thriller, his mission is to save Hitler’s life, rather than end it; since it is in the best long-term interests of the US that Hitler be allowed to thoroughly bungle his military’s war against Russia. The tangle of plots and cross-purposes are very well worked out, and in accordance with the actual historical circumstances; there were indeed substantial influences working against any involvement in a European war at that time. The FBI and other anti-espionage bodies were also quite efficient at keeping tabs on German efforts to extract an advantage from association with German-Americans. In my opinion, the one structural weakness in developing the plot was that the coincidence of Doctor Ross being exactly the sort of medical expert necessary AND being German-American, and fluent enough in German, as well has having just that very week been caught in a honey-trap. It struck me as being altogether just too much of a contrivance, and contrary to Mark Twain’s advice for those who write fiction: “confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.” Aside from that turn of plot and character, The Fuhrer Virus is a brisk and entertaining tale, and a look into a period of WWII which is usually rather underrated by the writers of this kind of adventure.

See Also: Celia's BNN Review
Paul Schultz at Eloquent Books