Friday, March 1, 2019

About: The Beginner’s Guide to Winning an Election

In The Beginner’s Guide to Winning an Election by Michael French, the year is 2025. The United States is afflicted with global cyber-attacks, economic crashes, foreign wars, and lots of anxiety. State budgets for public schools are hit hard. In a student body president race in a small city Indiana high school, popular, charismatic Matthew has his own consultants, bloggers, oppo researchers, and funds from an unidentified source that have helped him win every election since ninth grade.
Over-achieving, introverted Britain is a novice to elections, but as a history wonk, politics fascinate her. She also has a crush on Matthew. After she joins his SBP team, someone hacks Matthew’s website, leaking stories that the candidate is far from the Eagle Scout he pretends to be. Matthew and his team of 15 call the stories “spineless lies.” Britain is stunned when she’s scapegoated by Matthew as the mystery hacker. Kids dump on her for betraying the school leader. Her reputation in shreds, she decides to enter the presidential race to clear her name. No one gives the novice a chance, but that only makes Britain more determined to find a way to win.     
With the help of her three good friends, “No more secrets” becomes Team Britain’s slogan. For a while she stumbles in her campaign, until the anonymous hacker begins leaving notes in Britain’s locker, telling her which rocks to look under if she wants to beat odds-on favorite Matthew. She puzzles over who exactly is helping her—her favorite history teacher, an apostate on Team Matthew, or one of the many “undecideds” that impact any election? Every mystery solved leads Brit to face a more complicated challenge, some threatening her existence…

About the Author: Michael R. French graduated from Stanford University where he was an English major, focusing on creative writing, and studied under Wallace Stegner. He received a Master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University. He later served in the United States Army before marrying Patricia Goodkind, an educator and entrepreneur, and starting a family. In addition to publishing over twenty titles, including award-winning young adult fiction, adult fiction, biographies ad self-help books, he has written or co-written a half-dozen screenplays, including Intersection, which has won awards in over twenty film festivals. French’s work, which includes several best-sellers, has been warmly reviewed in the New York Times and been honored with a number of literary prizes.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Book Review: I, Claudia

I, Claudia: A Novel of the Ancient World by Lin Wilder is the story of Claudia Procula and Lucius Pontius Pilate. A Tribune at 28, after success in battle in Germania, Lucius Pontius Pilate was appointed Prelate of Judea, to rule over the Jews. They were considered to be a fractious, unruly people that answered only to a god who’d given them very specific rules of behaviour, diet and morality. A troublesome bunch, they fought among themselves in various factions, united only against a common enemy: Rome. Judea was a powder keg of trouble and the least spark could set it off. Not only that, a troublemaker called the Baptizer was turning people’s minds and a prophet called Jesus of Nazareth was drawing crowds with his talk of spiritual matters. This is the background for a wonderful love story between Claudia Procula, intelligent and well-educated daughter of the last of the Oracles of Pythia, and Lucius Pontius Pilate, a Roman soldier and hero.

History has defined the real Lucius Pontius Pilate as being the man who allowed Jesus to be crucified. However, the truth of the matter is that the situation was alarmingly more complex and volatile. Caught between the rock of the Sanhedrin and the hard place of Rome’s authority, Pilate was unable to deal with the festering political and religious issues of the time. Compromise was the only answer. And was that compromise somehow all part of God’s grand plan, even if it entailed the sacrifice of His only son? Such interesting questions are raised here that will intrigue both Christian readers and those of other faiths. Reading this story brings to life a tale well known to many Bible students.

The author cleverly incorporates enough ancient historical detail into the narrative to inform the reader while maintaining the flow of the story. The dramatic unfolding of events is told in short alternating chapters between Claudia and Lucius, and in this way, her maturing and the development of her powers as an oracle, and both of them falling in love with each other come across beautifully. Their emotional love story is set against the backdrop of a tumultuous chain of events which we see as both Claudia and Lucius are affected by the man people called the Messiah. Quotes from Cicero, Seneca, Plato, Socrates and other renowned writers and thinkers of the ancient world add extra food for thought and give insight into the mindset of the characters.

The pace is measured and in line with historical events. The region and the era saw its fair share of political turbulence and I liked how the author conveyed this throughout the narrative. The descriptions also evoke vivid imagery of the past, the setting, and social customs and behavior. This is a well-written and researched story that will satisfy fans of historical fiction as well as romance. The story itself encompasses themes and ideas which go far deeper than a review can adequately portray. Being a fan of ancient and biblical history, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author includes an afterword and a bibliography, both of which I found enlightening and useful.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Book Review: Before Long

Before Long: Sheer Romance of Finding a Home by Auralee Arkinsly relates the house hunting endeavours by a couple, Ernst and Esme, who find their perfect home with all the characteristics that they have dreamed of (a house with an orchard in the country) only to find their dream becomes a nightmare. Undeterred, they move and find a place in the city, but the gritty reality of city life is off-putting. Again, undeterred, they move… and so the story unfolds with each dream home and location turning into disaster, expenses, and disillusionment… Orchards unfortunately do attract fruit flies and roosters think it is their duty to wake the world up at 4 a.m. Will they ever find their perfect dream home? Does a perfect dream home even exist in the real world?

What an absolutely hilarious and charming story. I loved the format of photos of the various houses and settings and captions. Like many readers, I have bought and sold and moved a few times. I nodded and shook my head reading about the couple’s antics, new decisions, bad decisions, hopes and dreams so easily destroyed. The bills and repairs, the things you only find out after living in a place for a while are so true to life. No one tells you about the winters, the bad parts, the potential problems, and even the neighbourhoods themselves that can seem picture perfect at the start.

The beauty of this deceptively simple book is that at the end of their litany of disastrous choices, Ernst and Esme had learned significant lessons about the kind of home that would be right for them, what they needed (such as a stable internet), the kind of ‘tribe’ they would like to socialize with, how to integrate a balance of work and play, and how to budget for those inevitable home ownership expenses. Plus, they learned – as one hopes readers will – that having dreams is great, but not dreams that only exist in movies. They also learned that although the perfect dream home might not exist, with a bit of creative thinking, they could make a ‘nearly there’ home into something that suited them perfectly! Some lovely and relevant lessons for readers who might just be house hunting right now.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Book Review: Finding Myself in Borneo

Finding Myself In Borneo is a colorful memoir with a difference! The book is described as author Neill McKee's honest and buoyant chronicle of a young Canadian man's adventures during 1968-70, while teaching secondary school as a CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas) volunteer in Sabah, Malaysia (North Borneo). But it is much more than that for any reader. Neill relates with detailed, vivid descriptions his ups and down with the various cultural, social, and political markers of the era that readers will recognize.

However, for me, this is less a memoir and more of an immersive adventure for the reader who might be interested in memoirs but is also bitten by the travel bug and the desire to explore foreign climes and cultures. Neill has a descriptive style of writing that is quite wonderful. He is able to insert into the narrative an enormous amount of information about the country, the climate, the cuisine, the culture, and the mindset of the people without overwhelming the reader. The writing could be described as cinematic as I certainly found myself absorbed in the narrative and was able to visualize the colorful details especially with the inclusion of photos in the text.

Neill is totally honest about his experiences, ranging from learning to teach in a totally foreign environment to learning about life in general and indeed learning about love in particular. His interpretations of the people and religion, politics and culture come from a positive and open mind, and a willingness to embrace a new ethos. The years of his stay in the region were punctuated with disruption and danger at times, clashes between various groups and political rumblings. This was the dark side of the seemingly paradisiac environment in which he felt he’d initially arrived. Interestingly, his time in Borneo sparked his enthusiasm for movie making and an adventure taken as a young man resulted in a career and a life of travel and exploration.

One of the most charming features of this book was the discovery that North Borneo is, indeed, J.R.R. Tolkien's famed Middle-Earth of The Lord of the Rings! He and his American Peace Corps buddy, Peter Ragan, established the North Borneo Frodo Society, an organization Tolkien joined. What an honor! Interestingly, Neill was able to match up various elements of the story with the landscape, including the discovery of Mount Doom! A history of the NBFS is found at the end of the book. I liked the references at the close of the book for readers interested in learning more about the region and its history. There is also a detailed bibliography. A brief history of North Borneo as an end note puts the location into historical and political context. A glossary of Malay words and expressions is also included.

About the Author: Neill McKee is a creative nonfiction writer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. McKee, who holds a B.A. Degree from the University of Calgary and a Masters in Communication from Florida State University, lived and worked internationally for 45 years and became an expert in communication for social change. He directed and produced of a number of award-winning documentary films/videos and multi-media initiatives and authored numerous articles and books on development communication. During his international career, McKee worked for Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO), the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada, UNICEF, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore; Academy for Educational Development, Washington, D.C. and FHI 360, Washington, D.C. He worked and lived in Malaysia, Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda and Russia for a total of 18 years and traveled to over 80 countries on short-term assignments. 

Friday, January 25, 2019

Book Review: The Walk of the Wandering Man

The Walk of the Wandering Man by Ric Szabo is an epic story of humanity that starts 5000 years ago in the harsh environment of Central Europe. The story begins with the intertwining of the fates of a young boy called Konli, and a young man, Vratu, a Mesolithic hunter, brought together by tragedy. When Vratu is sent on his rite of passage, to walk with the Earth Spirit, he has no idea what the gods have in store for him, and how his quest will bring him manhood, pain, suffering, joy, and ultimately love. He knows treachery and killing, finds his conscience and learns compassion, and discovers a moral certainty to do what is right. Who is the mysterious boy with the strange tattoo, and the intriguing necklace? Why has Vratu been chosen to protect him?

Fans of Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series will absolutely love this book. The plot is complex in that it encompasses the lives and deeds of a number of characters and their clans. The reader embarks on a journey with Vratu that informs as it entertains. The age of the hunter-gatherer was ending as the farmers began to assert their right to land. Clashes and killings, and some degree of xenophobia were inevitable as the fight over resources raged. Alliances are formed, then broken, then remade in an intricate story line. The reader who enjoys prehistory and its detail will be impressed, as I was, at the meticulous research done to bring the epoch to life. The author writes in a lyrical style that is appropriate for the genre, slightly archaic but most pleasing to read. A modern author voice would not have worked, and Szabo gets it just right.

I enjoyed the descriptions which are vivid and immersive; indeed, readers find themselves thrust right into the action, be it fighting to survive the elements or in the midst of battle. The story takes the reader back in time most amazingly. One wonders how early man managed to survive, how they learned to create tools, to make clothing, shelter, medicines, all the things that the modern reader wouldn’t give a second thought. Social constructs and mores, traditions, customs, and laws are explained by seamlessly integrating them into the plot. The themes of spirituality and worship, and the place of nature in emerging society’s ethos are clear. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace, although the prologue starts with action and mystery, and death. This is an epic adventure and one that belongs not only to Vratu, but to the communities he encounters and the people he calls his friends and companions. A thought-provoking, instructive, and extremely enjoyable read.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Book Review: The Final Wars Begin

Could one man tip the balance of world power to set off the final wars? It’s possible. Bastien Lyons, once an orphan in New Paris on Earth, finds himself back in his old stomping ground as he escapes the colony on Mars, Port Sydney, where he was accused of a heinous crime. Everyone seems to be after him because there’s a bounty on his head. After World War 3, Earth is uninhabitable on the surface, and not much remains anyway. Earth has the colony of New Paris; the Moon has Nippon One; and Mars has Port Sydney. New Paris is the sewer-like habitat of the remnants of humanity, ruled over by self-styled Queen Marie, part cyborg, and the rest of her a drug-riddled, narcissistic egomaniac. But although he’s being hunted, New Paris is Bastien’s best place of refuge since he knows it so well. But if only he wasn’t so conspicuous with those yellow irises as well as being hunted by a seven-foot robot…

This is a short read and serves as a prelude for undoubtedly a much longer exposition by the author in the subsequent books of this trilogy. I really enjoyed it! The Final Wars Begin by S.A. is well written, with touches of unexpected humour. The author’s ability to describe the fetid, stinking atmosphere of New Paris, then contrast that with the sterility of Port Sydney makes for an excellent visual, almost cinematic unfolding of events. The main characters are developed into real people, although Bastien is by far the most realistic and charismatic. Interestingly, I found the bounty hunter robot Cube to be very appealing, with his penchant for the piano piece Fur Elise.

I enjoyed the various themes and questions raised in this story: does the butterfly effect exist, and could artificial intelligence become so self-aware that it takes over humanity? The chapters move from one character’s perspective to another, which gives the reader a very detailed look at the back history of the war, the colonies, and past events, as well as clarifying just what everyone wants to get in the end – all this without the proverbial info dump. The story starts with a bang, and the pace continues at the same speed. The end is a cliff-hanger but surprisingly, it works, and one closes the book not feeling dissatisfied but eager to get the next instalment. This is the kind of story that sci fi and dystopian fans will love. A hero with standards and a conscience, a believable dystopian world, a complex plot driven by the main players’ needs and greed, and the promise of more action and adventure.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Book Review: You Started WHAT After 60?

Before I began reading You Started WHAT After 60? Highpointing Across America by Jane T. Bertrand, I had never heard of highpointing. Not to be confused with mountaineering, highpointing (so says Wikipedia) is the sport of ascending to the point with the highest elevation within a given area (the “highpoint”). Examples include: climbing the highest point of each U.S. state; reaching the highest point of each county within a specific state; and ascending the highest mountain on each continent (the “Seven Summits”). To many armchair travelers or couch potatoes who consider themselves fit, why would anyone want to climb the highest point of each U.S. state? The author herself states she hadn’t slept in a tent or on the ground for 40 years! It seems the author’s family has a grueling tradition of doing something extraordinary on a special birthday.

The year Jane turned 60 was the year she decided to meet the highpointing challenge she had set herself, after considerations of health, and available options should she be unable to meet her first location goal. Planning, organizing, and reading on the topic were just a few of the preparations. Plus, Jane admits to two major weaknesses: lack of technological know-how and poor navigational skills (I know the feeling!). Once the challenge had begun, Jane then decided she had to make up for lost time…

Jane lays out the challenges in a chronological order with the number of the highpoint, location, date, and level of difficulty. Her highpointing adventure was not without health issues (a gammy knee and bunions) and Jane had to work around those. This could all make for dry reading, but Jane has a lovely conversational style, chatty and down to earth, and she mixes in details of family, friends, life events, and activities that took place around the highpointing expeditions. By the time one reaches the end of the book, Jane has become as familiar as a longtime friend and the reader feels part of the family. Photos interspersed in the text also put names to faces and make the book reader-friendly.

While some of the highpoints read like the proverbial pleasant walk in the park, others make the mind boggle, especially if you’re an armchair traveler or a couch potato (as mentioned above). This activity is not for the faint-hearted (bear spray?). When the author says she had to “get serious” about highpointing (which requires reaching the absolute, definitive highpoint, not just “getting close”), one can sense the adrenalin and, perhaps, the obsession kicking in. Jane’s sister Liz happens to be an avid journaler and these details came in very hand when Jane decided to start putting her experiences down on paper.

Jane includes references to other books on highpointing which could be useful to anyone considering taking up this challenge. Each highpoint experience is described in detail and this gives the reader an extraordinary view of the many beautiful places in the U.S., places that many of us would have neither the time nor energy to experience. I am not an avid hiker, mountaineer, or any kind of adrenalin junkie. I don’t think I’d have Jane’s stamina, courage, or confidence to embark upon what could sometimes be incredibly dangerous ventures, should the weather turn bad, for example. However, Jane’s exceptionally detailed, informative, and highly entertaining account is inspiring for many. It can be done. A ‘life experience’ must-read for anyone planning to do something very special as an adventure, and you don’t have to wait for a special occasion or be 60 to do it. Jane’s final reflections on the home stretch are interesting, honest, and illuminating. Read this book, even if you have no intention of climbing anything except the nearest gentle slope.
About the Author:
Jane T.Bertrand is a professor at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, where she splits her time between teaching in New Orleans and managing research on Tulane's family planning projects in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  A Maine native, she moved to New Orleans over 40 years ago where she and her husband Bill raised their children, Katy and Jacob. Her recurrent travel to Africa in connection with international family planning work generated many of the frequent flyer miles that made this highpointing pursuit possible.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Book Review: Silent Spring, Deadly Autumn of the Vietnam War

For the rest of the world, the Vietnam war is over. For the soldiers who fought in it, no matter what their role, it will never be over. Silent Spring: Deadly Autumn of the Vietnam War is described by author and Vietnam veteran Patrick Hogan as “part memoir, part exposé, and part call to action against the bureaucratic and legislative negligence and indifference that has violated, and continues to violate, the trust of veterans and US citizens as a whole.” Succinct and well put, this is the perfect description of a horrific cover-up, one of the greatest crimes against humanity of the 20th century, and one that, had it happened today, would have been labelled genocide. The author served two years, nine months and 22 days in Vietnam and that was enough to poison his body to the extent that he ended up with a laundry list of ailments. This only manifested 43 years after his service ended, but confirmed Patrick’s conviction that his time in Vietnam and his unbelievable laundry list of illnesses were linked. After all, on many occasions, among the reasons cited by medical experts for his problems were the two chilling words “environmental agents.” And thus began his exhaustive and minutely detailed investigation into the witches’ brew of potentially lethal tactical pesticides which he is sure contributed to the decline in his health and that of many other veterans.
Sidelined and pushed from pillar to post, Patrick came up against the stone-walling tactics of the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) and the US government, both of which deny the effects of the toxic chemicals Vietnam veterans were exposed to during the war. The reasonable person wonders why the government and chemical companies did not set about covering medical bills and compensating these men. The answer is simple. Money and greed. The refusal of the DVA and the US administration to accept responsibility is to protect them from international liability and accusations of use of chemical warfare/weapons (which is the case) and to avoid the massive payouts they would be forced to make. This is a shameful indictment of the political administration of the time and the current one, when reparations could, but won’t be made.

I had a vague idea of the Vietnam War when I picked up this book, and of course I had heard of the infamous Agent Orange, a horrifying herbicide and defoliant chemical used to destroy jungle cover for the enemy and any food supplies they might locate there. The US government destroyed millions of acres of South Vietnam jungles. It was an environmental catastrophe beyond any natural disaster ever known. I had never heard of Agent White and the numerous other toxic and deadly concoctions, a chemical poisonous soup, used as pesticides. Vietnam is home to myriad insects, bugs, and critters all carrying their own types of bites, stings and diseases. They had to be exterminated. The problem was that daily exposure to these poisons inevitably altered the molecular structure of the cells of people exposed, but took years, even decades to manifest. This gave the government and the DVA enough wiggle room to claim inconclusive evidence and the fudge the facts and manipulate the statistics.

Despite the horrifying details and chilling statistics contained in this memoir, the author has no moments of self-pity. He includes very detailed research, scientific, chemical and medical information, but all in a very readable, user-friendly style. I felt as if I were sitting with the author and chatting over coffee. He manages to intersperse fact and figures with events in a way that makes it easy to absorb the statistics and the information which is so relevant to his story. Photographs are an added bonus to help the reader visualize the location and the living conditions of the men who served in Vietnam. The facts are thoroughly researched with bibliographic and reference end notes to give credibility to Patrick Hogan’s story, one of tragedy shared by many, many other soldiers who gave their lives in a war that should never have been fought. Very impressive and highly recommended.