Category Archives: Book Reviews

Short book reviews of recommended books.

Code Girls – The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of Work War II

Code Girls by Liza Mundy – is the fascinating story of the thousands of women who worked on the top secret project to crack the German and Japanese codes during World War II.  These woman were not just a part of the project, they were the key component and often leaders of the code breaking success. I can proudly say that my own mother was one of these code breakers; which is what lead me to this book. I recently posted a description of my mother’s work on code breaking. This post was followed almost immediately by both of my sisters calling me and telling me all the details I had gotten wrong. One of my sisters sent me Code Girls, and it turned out to be a fascinating read.

Liza Mundy, author of Code Girls
Liza Mundy, author of Code Girls

Unlike me, Liza Mundy has not missed any of the details. Code Girls was meticulously researched, and Liza Mundy met with many of the surviving people who were part of the World War II code breaking effort. The result is that Code Girls not only gives the technical details of the work, but also has moving personal stories about many of the women.

The Navy recruiting women in World War II
The Navy recruiting women in World War II

The first thing to realize is that the position of American woman at the onset of World War II was vastly different than it is today. At the time, American women were in many ways a huge, yet undiscovered, resource. It was unusual for a woman to attend college, and even more unusual for a woman to study science or mathematics. There were no woman in the Army or Navy, except for nurses.

The American Navy was the first branch of the services to realize how much women would be needed to help win the war. The Navy secretly started searching for the top female talent at the top universities. The American Navy has always been elitist, so it began recruiting at the Seven Sisters of the Ivy League, and at other top universities. Navy officers surreptitiously contacted key Professors to help in the search.

Code Girls were secretly recruited from the Seven Sisters
Code Girls were secretly recruited from the Seven Sisters

 The professors secretly contacted the students they thought would be best suited to the work. The students were given tests and crash courses in code-breaking and the top women were asked to join. Brown University was actually blackballed, since one of the Professors could not resist talking about this exciting project. Once that happened, Brown was scratched off the list. My own mother was at Barnard College of Columbia University when she got the secret nod.

My mother in her Navy officer's uinform in World War II. The mere Army Private is the man who became my father
My mother in her Navy officer’s uinform in World War II. The mere Army Private is the man who became my father

The Navy was also the first to bring the woman in as officers and enlisted women instead of just civilian workers. They began the famous WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). As you can tell from the acronym it was assumed that allowing women into service would be a temporary measure.  (Of course, the woman were so successful at their jobs that they ended up changing the composition of the Navy forever.)

Not only did the Navy want the most brilliant women, they also wanted them to look sharp. Consequently, a huge amount of attention was devoted to designing a beautiful uniform, which even today, many of the Code Girls say was the most flattering outfit they ever owned. As silly as that may seem, the female officers uniforms sent a message that these were important women who mattered.

The American Army was late to the game, and the Navy made it clear that the Ivy League was Navy territory and that the Army better not try to recruit any Ivy League women. Consequently, the Army recruited at colleges throughout the country, especially the South. The Army found that female Southern school teachers were eager to join up, and were very good at code breaking.

By the end of World War II over 200,000 women were in the American Navy and Army, and their work was essential to winning the war.

There were giant code breaking facilities around Washington D.C. mostly staffed and run by women.  The amount of work was staggering. Many thousands of messages in code were constantly being sent by the Germans and Japanese. The more that would be broken the more lives of Allied Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen could be saved. This put tremendous psychological pressure on the code breakers.  They knew that they were not just dealing with columns of numbers and letters and solving complex mathematical problems. They knew that if they failed in their jobs, men might die as a result.

As the war progressed, the code breaking efforts became more and more successful. This was particularly helpful to American submarine warfare. The Pacific Ocean is unimaginably huge, and the possibility of an American sub just happening to find a Japanese ship is almost nonexistent.  The Allies were able to intercept Japanese messages about shipping routes and times, de-code the messages, and transmit instruction to an American sub in time to catch and sink the Japanese ships.

When you think about the staggering distances involved, and the short time available to decode the message, and re-route the submarine, you realize how incredible were the achievements of these code breaking women. In fact, the Japanese thought the American submarine fleet was many times larger than it actually was. There were times when every single American submarine was on route to verified targets due to the code breaking women in Washington D.C.  

Without the Code Girls, World War II would have been much longer than it was, and many more people would have died.

Who knew that my mother had secretly been a code breaker in World War II?
Who knew that my mother had secretly been a code breaker in World War II?

So what became of the Code Girls when the war ended? They blended back into American life, not allowed to talk about what they did during the war. Men had heroic stories to tell, but these women had to lie and pretend they had not done anything much during the war.

Of course, men may not have realized it at the time, but World War II had forever change the position of American women in the world. At the most frantic period of the war there was a huge competition for American Woman.  The Army and the Navy wanted them, but so did factories and offices. Women were given good pay and huge responsibilities.

After the war, most American women became those 1950s American housewives that Hollywood loves to make fun of. But that was not the end of the story. Most people think the feminist revolution began in the late 1960s, but it actually started in World War II. These 1950s housewives had not forgotten what they were capable of. They taught their daughters how truly important women are to society. They made sure their daughters got good educations, and made sure their daughters realized that they were capable of anything.

Well, I hope I have properly gotten all the details of Code Girls correct.  If not, you can be sure that I will soon receive 2 phone calls. One from each of my sisters.

Rules of Civility – a witty novel of 1938 New York

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles is a charmingly witty novel of two young women in 1938 New York as they take different paths through the stratified social maze of the city.

Katey is the well-educated but not wealthy narrator, and her best friend is Eve, a young woman of indeterminate social standing from the Midwest. The fact that neutral Midwest accents keeps you from knowing a person’s social class is something that truly annoys Katey.

You can always tell a rich New York girl from a poor one. And you can tell a rich Boston girl from a poor one. After all, that’s what accents and manners are there for.”

The lives of Eve and Katey are changed by a chance meeting in a jazz club with “Tinker” Grey a young man from the super wealthy “old money” circles, that most people can only dream of .

Rules of Civility - 1938 New York
Rules of Civility – 1938 New York

Throughout Rules of Civility, Katey finds herself occupying the two worlds of New York. By day she is a secretary with low wages that can barely pay for her minuscule apartment. At night and on the weekends she is hobnobbing with people who own mansions, Rolls Royces and summer estates in The Hamptons.

A career woman lunching in New York - 1938
A career woman lunching in New York – 1938

In 1938, life choices were relatively few for a poor young woman, no matter how well educated or intelligent. Eve embarks on the well-traveled path of finding a rich man to help smooth the bumps of life. Katey tries the much more difficult course of actually becoming a successful career professional at a time when such a thing was almost unheard of.

1938 New York - when all information came from newspapers
1938 New York – when all information came from newspapers

Evey page of Rules of Civility is a pleasure to read, with wonderful witticisms throughout. At one point, Katey visits The Plaza Hotel and has this encounter in the elevator.

“Before the doors closed a pair of honeymooners joined us.  Bright, rosy and young, they looked like they were ready to spend every last penny they had on room service. When they skipped down the hallway on twelve, I offered the elevator boy a friendly smirk.

Newlyweds, I said 

Not exactly, ma’am

Not exactly?

Not exactly newly. Not exactly wed.”

Amor Towles is an incredibly talented writer. He spent the first 20 years of his career in Finance in New York, and Rules of Civility was his first novel. He followed this with the brilliant Gentleman of Moscow.

Amor Towles - author of Rules of Civility
Amor Towles – author of Rules of Civility

It is wonderful to see that all successful new writers don’t have to be young. In fact, it is Amor Towels’ life experience that make him such a brilliant commentator on the world. Whatever he publishes next, I will definitely be the first in line to buy it.

Be sure to read our review of A Gentleman in Moscow.

Read our review of The Right Burgee – the book that shocked the yacht club set a half century ago

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A Gentleman in Moscow – a beautiful novel

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is the most beautiful novel I have read in many years. It begins in 1922 , after the Communist Revolution, with the trial of Count Alexander Rostov. Normally at such a trial Count Rostov would have been sentenced to death, simply for having been a close friend of the Tsar. In addition, Count Rostov is a lazy “man of leisure” who has never worked a day in his life, and who occupies a luxurious suite at the Moscow Metropol Hotel. Not exactly the type of man the Communists admired.

The Moscow Metropol Hotel
The Moscow Metropol Hotel

However, in 1913 Count Rostov had written a beautiful poem praising the working class and the revolution. This poem saved the Count’s life. Instead of being condemned to death, Alexander Rostov is declared a “former person” who must live the rest of his life in the Metropol Hotel. He will be immediately executed if he ever steps foot outside. To make Rostov’s humiliation complete, he is moved from his grand suite into a tiny room on the top floor of the hotel.

A Gentleman in Moscow - a beautiful novel
A Gentleman in Moscow – a beautiful novel

A Gentleman in Moscow chronicles Count Rostov’s life in the hotel over many decades, as both he and Russia undergo changes. Rostov is not confined to his room, but has the run of the gigantic hotel, which is in the center of Moscow, and where all the power brokers of society meet.

It may sound like A Gentleman in Moscow would be limited in scope as it is confined to a single hotel. However, that is not at all the case. For although Rostov may not go out into the world, the World comes to Rostov.

Somehow the ballet survived the Communist Revolution in Russia
Somehow the ballet survived the Communist Revolution in Russia

Communist party leaders, ballerinas, actresses, mistresses, American spies and reporters all stay at the Metropol. As a former person, Rostov himself is almost invisible and unnoticed, and thus is in a perfect position to observe it all and see the changes in his beloved Russia.

Over the years Rostov himself changes as much as Russia. In a way, his sentence to the Metropol is the best thing that ever happened to him. For the first time in his life he must work, and takes a job as a waiter in the grand dining room. As a former Count he is excellent at this job due to his knowledge of fine wine and elegant dining.

Amor Towles - author of A Gentleman in Moscow
Amor Towles – author of A Gentleman in Moscow

Rostov becomes friends with Nina, the daughter of a Communist Party official who lives at the hotel. Nina is only 9 and bored and she and Rostov explore the hotel together. Through the child’s eyes, Rostov sees things he never knew existed. Nina has discovered all the secret passageways, rooms staircases and hidden doors in the grand hotel. Together Nina and Rostov spy on everything.

A Gentleman in Moscow works so well as novel, because Count Alexander Rostov is such a wonderful character. At first he seems sort of ridiculous, trying to maintain the attributes of a gentleman as the world collapses around him. Count Rostov is concerned with reading great works of literature and keeping his hair perfectly trimmed, while Stalin comes to power and the Secret Police control Moscow.

However, as A Gentleman in Moscow progresses, we see that there is more to Alexander Rostov than meets the eye. He is a good person who is genuinely concerned about the people around him. Rostov is much tougher than he appears and tries to help those in need in whatever small way he can. Maybe that is the real definition of being a gentleman.

Read all our book reviews

Read our review of the Amor Towles novel – Rules of Civility

Read our story The Last Connecticut Gentleman

Read our review of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

The Book of Answers – Information before Google.

Before Google existed, the fastest way to get an answer was to call the New York Public Library Telephone Reference Service. It has been operating 9 hours a day 6 days a week since 1968. The Book of Answers is a fascinating summary of the most interesting answers and questions fielded by the service.

The Book of Answers
The Book of Answers

Unlike Google or Wikipedia, the NY Public Library goes to great lengths to make sure that the answers they give are accurate. The Library’s answers are not influenced by what most people “think” the answer should be. What goes into Google or Wikipedia is not the truth, but rather what Stephen Colbert refers to as truthiness. That is, something that people think is true because it sounds true.

What percentage is each color in a bag of M&Ms?
What percentage is each color in a bag of M&Ms?

The Book of Answers has a section devoted to correcting misconceptions people have on a number if items. These include items such as:

  • Despite what most people believe Poinsettias are not poisonous.  Despite this fact every Christmas season every local T.V. station runs at least one story warning people about poisonous Poinsettias.
  • Panama Hats are not made in Panama. They are and have always been made in Ecuador.
  • Abraham Lincoln was not the first President born in a log cabin. Andrew Jackson was actually the first.
The New York Public Library's main Reading Room.
The New York Public Library’s main Reading Room.

There are also some fascinating but lesser known facts about a huge variety of subjects.

  • New Zealand was the first nation to give women the vote in 1893. Switzerland did not allow women to vote until 1971.
  • The most common color candy in a bag of M&Ms is Brown composing 30% of the candies. Red, Yellow are 20% each and Green, Orange & Tan are 10% each.
  • The covering on the end of a shoelace is an “aglet”.
  • The metal hoop that supports a lampshade is a “harp.”

The Book of Answers was written by Barbara Berliner with Melinda Corey and George Ochoa. The Book of Answers was published in 1990 at which time Barbara Berliner was the head of the New York Public Library’s Telephone Reference Service.  It is nice to know that despite Google and Wikipedia, this service still exists.  

Women did not get the vote in Switzerland until 1971.
Women did not get the vote in Switzerland until 1971.

There strict rules the Reference librarians must follow before they can answer any questions. There are:

  • Librarians are not allowed to guess about any answers. They must have a verified source for the answer or else truthfully state that the answer is “We don’t know”. In that case the library will try to find the answer and call you back at a later time.
  • Librarians will not give you the answers to any contest that is still open. In other words, you can’t use them to cheat on a quiz show or radio contest.
  • They won’t give you the answer to the impossible questions such as “what is the meaning of life?” or “why does anyone watch The Kardashians?

You can still find this little gem of a book on Amazon, and it is a lot of fun to browse through. After all, in this confusing world don’t we all really need to have “The Book of Answers?”

Be sure to rad What’s New On The Blog.

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Invisible Murder – a fascinating Danish Crime Novel

Invisible Murder by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis is a novel of crime, terrorism and racism in modern Denmark.  Most people do not think of Denmark as a hotbed of crime. However, beneath the surface of safe and polite Danish society are the problems of mass immigration, right-wing nationalists, and terrorist infiltrators.

Invisible Murder, a Danish crime novel.

Invisible Murder, a Danish crime novel.

The  plot begins in Hungary, where Sandor, a young Roma (Gypsy) man is working hard at his studies to become a lawyer. Despite doing brilliantly on his oral exam, his professor fails him. The professor makes it quite clear that the Roma are not welcome in Hungary in any profession.  Sandor is forced to leave law school and return to the Roma slum he came from, only to discover that his younger brother Tamas has stupidly gotten involved with Roma mobsters while Sandor was in law school.

Roma people protesting against discrimination

Roma people protesting against discrimination

The mobsters had sent Tamas to Denmark on an illegal assignment and have not heard from him since. The mobsters tell Sandor that he must go to Denmark to finish the mission, or else the mob will take revenge on Sandor’s mother and sister. The more Sandor learns, the more he suspects that his brother’s “mission” is to sell terrorists a powerful weapon to use in Denmark.

Agnete Friis & Lene Kaaberbol, authors of "Invisible Murder"

Agnete Friis & Lene Kaaberbol, authors of “Invisible Murder”

Lene Kaaberbol and Agnente Friis are masterful story tellers. You don’t need any pre-knowledge of Denmark’s society or political events to follow the plot and enjoy the action. Invisible Murder shows what happens when a little country finds itself unwillingly at the crossroads of opposing and sometimes violent ideologies. The Danish police are professional, efficient and need to be multilingual just to keep up with the various groups they must monitor and protect.

Beautiful Denmark, the location of "Invisible Murder".

Beautiful Denmark, the location of “Invisible Murder”.

In the middle of all this are the Roma people, who for centuries have been outcasts throughout Europe as they travel on the outskirts of society. Sandor finds himself very much in the middle. Police are always suspicious of him because he is Roma. At the same time, because of his education and way of speaking he is not trusted as a “real Roma” by his own people.  He wants to save his brother, but at the same time prevent mass destruction in Denmark. This is an almost impossible task.

Tiny Denmark surrounded by more powerful neighbors

Tiny Denmark surrounded by more powerful neighbors

Invisible Murder is an exciting read. A modern mystery novel with an international twist.

Night Of Camp David – the 1965 Novel about an insane President

Night Of Camp David by Fletcher Knebel is a 1965 novel about an insane President of the United States. People have been taking a lot about Night Of Camp David, due to the recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times which questions President Donald Trump’s sanity. In 1965, it became a best seller and had people panicking about what would happen if there ever was an insane President.  Reading it today, the most interesting fact is that the “insane” proposals in Night Of Camp David have now become mainstream American policy.

Night Of Camp David - The novel about a crazy President of The United States

Night Of Camp David – The novel about a crazy President of The United States

In Night Of Camp David, President Hollenbach invites a young Senator Jim MacVeigh to spend the evening at the Presidential retreat of Camp David. Once there, the  President reveals to the Senator the President’s plans for the future of America. The more the President talks the more Senator MacVeigh realizes that the President is crazy. In the rest of the book,  Senator and other high-ranking government officials secretly meet to decide what is the best course of action when a President of the United States is insane.

Is President Trump Insane?

Is President Trump Insane?

However, the “proof” that President Hollenbach is insane are some of his plans that don’t sound that crazy today. This fictitious President’s first “crazy” idea was that “the FBI be empowered to impose an automatic tap on all telephones in the country.” Thirty-six years later, in 2001 Congress did enact The Patriot Act, which basically gave the government compete authority to spy on anybody at any time.

The Patriot Act gave the government the right to spy on any American at any time.

The Patriot Act gave the government the right to spy on any American at any time.

The second “crazy” President’s idea in Night Of Camp David, was that the United States, Canada, and Sweden should merge into one country. Not a trade partnership, an actual country. This does actually sound insane until you remember that there is currently a Canadian political party called Quebec Parti 51 which wants Quebec to secede from Canada and become the 51st U.S. State. Maybe getting rid of U.S-Canada tensions by simply making Canada a part of The United States is not such a crazy idea after all. Of course, Sweden remains content to be completely independent.

Quebec Parti 51 wants Quebec to leave Canada and become part of The United States

Quebec Parti 51 wants Quebec to leave Canada and become part of The United States

Some of the parts of Night Of Camp David have an eerie familiarity with today’s current events. Like President Trump, President Hollenbach does not trust his CIA director or lots of  other senior people in his own government.

Many members of President Hollenbach’s government want to get rid of him, but are afraid of the harm that would do to their political party. (Not the country, but the political party). Today number of the “traditional” wing of the Republican party have made exactly the same comments (off the record) about President Trump. They want to dump Trump but do not want to lose the power Trump has brought to the Republican Party.

Seven Days In May - The novel about secret forces trying to take over the United States Government

Seven Days In May – The novel about secret forces trying to take over the United States Government

Fletcher Knebel was also the co-author with Charles W. Bailey II of Seven Days in May. This best selling novel (and later a motion picture), was about an attempted coup d’etat to remove by force a President Of the United States.

Has there already been a successful coup against President Trump?

Has there already been a successful coup against President Trump?

Unlike many countries in the world, the United States has never had a coup, an attempted coup or even the rumors of an attempted coup. That is, of course, until now. The anonymous Trump administration official who wrote the Op-Ed piece in the New York Times is claiming that a successful coup has already taken place. The writer claims that senior government officials are right now running the government the way they think is “best”, completely ignoring President Trump’s explicit instructions. That certainly sounds like a successful takeover of the government.  Even Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II never thought of a plot that convoluted.

Night Of Camp David and Seven Days In May are fascinating books and still worth reading today. However, given today’s political climate you may find yourself a little depressed after reading them. You may end up longing nostalgically for 1965. That was when talk of a crazy President and the takeover of the government by unknown forces were still things listed in the realm of Fiction.

The Naked Sun- Isaac Asimov’s Erotic Sci-Fi Mystery

The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov was the first Science Fiction book I ever bought . It had a beautiful naked woman on the cover, which was why I bought it.  I was in middle school, and the library was having a used book sale. I could not believe the school had an erotic book for sale. I grabbed it and quickly paid, half expecting the ancient librarian to snatch it out of my hand and slap my face. Instead, she simply took my money and moved on to the next customer.

The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov - the original erotic cover

The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – the original erotic cover

Of course, the woman on the cover of The Naked Sun was not completely nude. A couple of key parts were strategically covered by stars. However, to a  a boy in middle school in those days, this was still incredibly exciting, even with the stars.

The Naked Sun author Isaac Asimov

The Naked Sun author Isaac Asimov

The Naked Sun was not the smutty sex book I was expecting. However, it did turn out to be a terrific story, and turned me on to the wonderful universe of Science Fiction writing. Of course, Isaac Asimov was one of the best science fiction writers of all time. Although The Naked Sun was released in 1957, its story still resonates today.

People on the internet, completely ignoring the real people next to them

People on the internet, completely ignoring the real people next to them

The Naked Sun is a murder mystery that takes place on the planet Solaria, and the investigating detective is from Earth. The main suspect is Gladia, the beautiful widow of the murder victim. On Solaria, the main form of communication is “Viewing” where people contact each other through devices allowing them to see and hear each other remotely. Remember that The Naked Sun was written decades before the internet or Skype.

Twilight Zone to get social commentary past T.V. censors

Rod Serling used The Twilight Zone to get social commentary past T.V. censors

Asimov’s predictions of how such viewing devices would change human behavior were amazingly accurate. In The Naked Sun, people prefer Viewing to any actual face -to-face meetings. People will be very open and even intimate while viewing, yet feel awkward and shy in real physical meetings. This prediction came true. Take a look at any Starbucks, and you will see people having “relationships” on their cell phones or laptops, while completely ignoring the real humans  sitting right next to them.

Star Wars was actually about the religious awaking of Luke Skywalker

Star Wars was actually about the religious awaking of Luke Skywalker

There is actual nudity in The Naked Sun. The detective Elijah first interviews Gladia on the viewing device, and she is completely relaxed about changing clothing while speaking with him. He is shocked to find that she does not consider it at all inappropriate for a stranger to see her naked. However, later when they actually meet in person, she is covered head to toe, including long gloves. The Naked Sun accurately predicted our strange modern world where people act completely different on the internet than they do in “real life”. In some ways in The Naked Sun, Earth is 1957, while Solarnia is Earth of The Future.

Science Fiction has never gotten the respect given to other genres. In some ways this has been its greatest strength. Censors never took science fiction seriously and consequently did not pay that much attention to it. Rod Serling was able to use the The Twilight Zone to explore social and moral issues that television censors would have banned in “serious” dramas. Star Wars was actually about a religious awaking in Luke Skywalker, who comes to believe in an invisible  “force” which connects all living entities in the universe. In  Half A Life, Soviet author Kirill Bulychev was able to criticize the Soviet Union, without getting himself thrown into a gulag.

So take a look at the classics of science fiction, even if the last time you read science fiction stories was when you were a kid. You may find that now that you are an adult you find a new and deeper meaning to these adventures. The Naked Sun is a good book to start with. By the way, even after these years, the woman on the cover of The Naked Sun Still looks great.

I IAGO – a novel about Shakespeare’s most fascinating villain

I IAGO by David Snodin is a novel about Shakespeare’s most fascinating villain, after the events of Othello. Iago was stabbed and imprisoned at the end of Othello, but he did not die.  The events in I Iago take place many years later when Iago is secretly  returned to Venice for questioning.

Shakespeare created many evil characters, but what makes Iago so interesting is the way in which Iago carried out his evil plans. Iago never acted directly. Instead, Iago was able to get inside other people’s heads and sow the suspicion, mistrust and hatred which eventually lead to violence. If Iago lived in modern times, he would no doubt be working   on the internet anonymously posting hate speech messages day and night just to see the results.

IAGO, a fascinating novel by David Snodin

IAGO, a fascinating novel by David Snodin

David Snodin’s Iago is a fascinating novel which give us a glimpse into every day life in Venice in 1520. Though Venice was supposedly an enlightened democracy, the class distinctions were rigidly enforced. Venice in 1520 was fantastically wealthy and prosperous, yet threatened on all sides by the Turks and the French. The Chief Inquisitor of Venice is both fascinated and frightened of Iago. Over the years the name Iago has become a rallying cry for those who would bring down the established order in Venice. The Inquisitor wants to find out how Iago is able to so thoroughly control other people.

Iago still fascinates people

Iago still fascinates people

Iago remains the complex villain of the story, while the hero is a young Venetian named Gentile Stornello. He is  from a low level but noble family, and is the cousin of the late Desdemona. Gentile is a well educated, likable boy of 15 whose only goal in life is to catch the eye of a beautiful girl he has seen around Venice.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Through a series of unfortunate events Gentile is falsely accused of murder, and is thrown into a cell with Iago. The tough and clever Iago decides to use Gentile to help him escape. Along the way, Iago becomes a sort of evil mentor to Gentile by teaching him all the underhanded, treacherous and violent ways for a man to get what he really wants from life.

David Snodin author of IAGO

David Snodin author of IAGO

I `Iago by David Snodin is a brilliantly written novel. It fleshed out the character and motivation of Iago, while still  remaining true to Shakespeare’s concept for the man.

The Sympathizer – A Viet Cong Spy in America

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a fascinating novel about a Viet Cong spy who was an aide to a general in the South Vietnamese army. The spy is writing this memoir from his prison cell as a confession, although it is not clear whose prison he is in. Did the Americans discover the aide and convict him as a spy, or did the communists arrest him as an anti-revolutionary for being too close to the Americans?

The final American evacuation of Saigon.

The final American evacuation of Saigon.

It begins just as the Americans are evacuating Saigon. The communists order the spy to accompany the general when  general flees to The United States. It may seem there is no point in this. After all, the communists had won the Viet Nam war, so who cares about a fleeing losing general? However, the communists were very worried that the South Vietnamese who fled to America would join together and try to re-invade Vietnam. Therefore,  the spy was sent to discover what plots were being hatched in America.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

However, the spy soon discovers that America for Vietnamese refugees is far stranger than anything he could have imagined. For one thing, there was really no place where they fit in. He finds that that,

” The majority of Americans regarded us with ambivalence, if not outright distaste, we being living reminders of their stinging defeat. We threatened the sanctity and symmetry of a white and black America whose yin and yang racial politics left no room for any other color…”

Thus begins a communist’s spy’s strange travels through the maze of American society and politics. The Sympathizer is wonderfully written and won both a Pulitzer Prize and an Andrew Carnegie Medal For Excellence In Fiction.

Viet Thanh Nguyen himself was born in Vietnam but grew up in America. His writing captures the odd absurdities related to the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese refugee experience. In some ways The Sympathizer treats the Vietnam war the way Joseph Heller treated World War II  in Catch-22. He points the weird and humorous experiences without minimizing the overall tragedy and violence.

Tourists in 2018 in Vietnam having a fun time exploring Viet Cong tunnels from the war

Tourists in 2018 in Vietnam having a fun time exploring Viet Cong tunnels from the war

The Sympathizer points out that the final American retreat from Vietnam was such a farce it is almost impossible to believe. On April 28, 1975 President Gerald Ford gave the order for the final American evacuation of Vietnam. Previously  all field commanders had been given secret orders that the signal for this would be when American Armed Forces Radio played Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. As soon as that was played all American forces were to get out of the country as fast as possible.

However, when the final order came from President Ford, no one at the radio station could find a copy of the record.  Finally, someone was able to locate a Tennessee Ernie Ford version of White Christmas and that was played. American commanders in the field were totally confused since almost no one had ever heard this version, and no one was sure if this was the evacuation signal or not.  This event actually happened. As hard as Americans would like to forget the Vietnam War, the entire war seemed to be nothing but one mistake like this after another.

The Sympathizer switches back and forth between flashbacks of the war and Vietnamese  life in post-war America. Both venues are fascinating.

There have been a huge number of books and movies about the Vietnam War. However, The Sympathizer is one of the few from the point of view of the Vietnamese who fled to America at the end of the war.

Unlike other immigrant groups who came to America, the Vietnamese never ended up having a large political impact. Well-meaning American charitable organizations helped Vietnamese find housing and jobs all over the United States. While this seems nice, it also meant that the Vietnamese were spread too thin to be politically important anywhere. Compare this to the Irish immigrants of an earlier century, who stayed in large numbers in New York City. This allowed the Irish to eventually dominate the New York City police force, create a political machine and get many Irish-American mayors elected. Later Italian immigrants became a political force in New York and New Jersey. To this day, Italian-Americans are the largest ethnic group in New Jersey and have major political influence.

As The Sympathizer progresses, the Communist Spy (who does not mention his own name). Begins to realize that the Communist takeover of South Vietnam may not be the paradise he had dreamed of. As more and more Vietnamese refugees arrive in America, he hears stories of the atrocities that the new Communist rulers are imposing back in Vietnam. The spy also begins to see the psychological toll the relocation to a new land is having on the refugees. A man who was a General in the South Vietnamese Army is now just a liquor store manager. Another brave man who was a decorated Special Forces Captain now pumps gas all day and gets drunk each night. The Spy knows that these men fought against Communism, but he still feels sorry for their loss of dignity.

The Spy admits that his great strength as a human is also his greatest weakness as a spy. He has the ability to see all sides of every issue. This a wonderful attitude for a philosopher, but dangerous  one for a man who is supposed to be a Communist zealot.

We highly recommend The Sympathizer, and hope you enjoy it.

Need To Know – the spy in the family

Need To Know by Karen Cleveland is spy novel about a CIA analyst caught between loyalty to family or country, when she discovers that her own husband is a long-time Russian sleeper agent. Vivian Miller , the CIA analyst, has created a sophisticated software program, theoretically allowing her to hack into the computers of suspected Russian control agents.  If the program works, the CIA will be able to see what spies Russia has working in America.

Need To Know

Need To Know

No one at the CIA really expects the computer program to work. Vivian has been tinkering with it for months with no success. Then one day during testing, Vivian is able to hack into the computer of a top level Russian spymaster. This will be the crowning  moment of her career and assure her a promotion.

Inside CIA headquarters

Inside CIA headquarters

Vivian finds a file on the spy master’s computer, with photographs of all the agents he is controlling in America. She is ecstatic until she sees that one of the photos is of her own husband Matt.  They have been married for years and have 3 children. He can’t possibly be a spy for the Russians. But the more she tries to convince herself that Matt is not a spy the more she realizes he is.

Memorial honoring CIA agents who died serving The United States. No names are displayed as they lived and died in secret.

Memorial honoring CIA agents who died serving The United States. No names are displayed as they lived and died in secret.

The correct course of action would be for Vivian to immediately notify her superiors. However, she knows that the second she does that, her life as she knows it will be over. Matt will go to jail, possible for life. Vivian will be suspected of being a traitor herself. Even if she is not arrested her career as a trusted CIA agent will be ruined. What will happen to her kids?

In a moment of panic, Vivian deletes Matt’s picture fro the Russian spymaster’s computer. In that one second she realizes that she moved from a woman with a dilemma, to an actual traitor to the United States.

The plot of Need To Know then follows the complex story of what to do next. Vivian realizes that she has dug herself a hole that may lead her to prison for life.   Can she save herself, her family and still be loyal to America? As a computer analyst herself, she understands that it is only a matter of time until both the Russians and the Americans will zero in on her tampering.

"Need To Know" author Karen Cleveland

“Need To Know” author Karen Cleveland

Karen Cleveland is an excellent writer and Need To Know is her first novel. Karen Cleveland herself is a former CIA analyst (whose husband is not a Russian spy). She has a Masters  degrees from Trinity College in Dublin in international peace studies, and a degree in public policy from Harvard University.

Like John  Le Carrie, Karen Cleveland zeros in on the emotional and personal aspects of spying, rather than political implications. Need To Know is a fast moving novel with an unexpected ending. We look forward to reading Karen Cleveland’s next book.

Naked Came The Stranger – The 1969 Hoax that became a best selling novel

The 1969 novel Naked Came The Stranger by Penelope Ashe was a hoax written to prove that Americans will read any piece of trash as long as it contains enough sex. The plot made no sense, there was no character development and the writing was awful. However, it was jam-packed with sex scene after sex scene. Add to that the fact that the author was a beautiful woman, and there was a naked woman on the cover, and Naked Came The Stranger was an instant best seller

Naked Came The Stranger the 1969 best selling trash novel that was really a Hoax.

Naked Came The Stranger the 1969 best selling trash novel that was really a Hoax.

In fact, there was no Penelope Ashe. Naked Came The Stranger was written by 24 Newsday journalists and their literary friends  lead by Mike McGrady. They went out of their way to write a bad book. Each of them wrote different parts of the book, and had no discussions with each other about the plot during the writing. This is why the plot seems so disjointed, and the writing styles vary from chapter to chapter. When the first draft was completed Mike McGrady insisted that some of the chapters  be re-done, because then were too well written

Ashe" who pretended to be the author of"Naked Came The Stranger"

Billie Young, AKA “Penelope Ashe” who pretended to be the author of”Naked Came The Stranger”

Once this collection of garbage prose was completed it was time to try to get it published. Everyone agreed that sex novels written by beautiful young women, somehow seem much more titillating than those written by middle-aged men. Billie Young, Mike McGrady’s sister-in-law, therefore agreed to pretend to be the author Penelope Ashe, although she had not written a word.

Mike McGrady, the real force behind Naked Came The Stranger

Mike McGrady, the real force behind Naked Came The Stranger

The next step was to choose a publisher. That was easy. They chose Lyle Stuart, a Fort Lee New Jersey publisher of sleaze books, who was also a Las Vegas casino owner and an overall “colorful” character.  Rumors were that Mr. Stuart might be “connected” to some people. (If you live in New Jersey you know what that phrase means). Lyle Stuart did not question the book’s authenticity. He accepted Billie Young as the author Penelope Ashe.

Lyle Stuart - publisher of Naked Came The Stranger

Lyle Stuart – publisher of Naked Came The Stranger

In fact, Lyle Stuart decided to make a sexy book even sexier. It was Lyle Stuart who decided to put a naked woman on the cover. Of course, there still was some censorship in 1969, so the photo was an “artful” picture showing only a nude young  woman from behind, submissively kneeling on a rug.  The photograph suggests much more than it actually reveals.

The real authors of Naked Came The Stranger

The real authors of Naked Came The Stranger

Lyle Stuart had actually plagiarized the photograph from a Hungarian nudist magazine and did not pay or credit the photographer. Later on when Naked Came The Stranger became a best seller, the Hungarian photographer successfully sued Lyle Stuart, and received payment.

When Naked Came The Stranger was published, it became an instant best seller. Before the end of 1969 it had sold 20,000 copies. At that point, the real authors decided to shame the American public and reveal the truth. They all appeared on The David Frost Show and exposed the hoax.

But the American public was not ashamed of its poor taste in literature. After the revelations on the David Frost Show, sales of Naked Came The Stranger skyrocketed. The book eventually sold over 400,000 copies.

After the book was revealed as a hoax, Americans had the best of both worlds. The could go out and buy Naked Came The Stranger and pretend they were not really just reading it for the sex parts. People could now openly carry a copy of Naked Came The Stranger and say they were just interested in  the hoax and wanted to see just how bad the writing was.

Naked Came the Stranger became the topic of conversations at middle-class suburban cocktail parties throughout 1969 and into the early 1970s. Suburbanites could now openly discuss a raunchy sex book and pretend it was really a literary discussion.

In its own  way, Naked Came The Stranger did reveal quite a lot about American culture in 1969 . Today, Americans can see or read or hear any kind of sexually explicit material instantly on the internet. However, 1969 was a different world. Only 10 years earlier, even such classics as the D.H. Lawrence masterpiece Lady Chatterly’s Lover were still banned throughout the United States. Only a series of long and expensive court cases allowed publishers to begin to print and distribute books that a few years earlier would have landed them in jail.

Released from their Puritanical bonds, Americans were eager to buy and read everything that had been denied to them for so long. If a book like Naked Came The Stranger was released today, it would hardly cause a ripple in the literary community. In 1969 it was a Tsunami.

So remember – books, movies or songs don’t have to be good to be “classic”. What makes something classic is its power to perfectly capture a specific period of time. In 1969, that classic was Naked Came The Stranger.

Second Nature – Ric Flair & Charlotte

Second Nature is the story of professional wrestlers Ric Flair and his daughter” Charlotte”. Second Nature  is a brutally honest look at their professional successes and personal failures in and out of the public spotlight. Many people do not like professional wrestling because it is “fake”. Even the names are fake. Ric Flair’s real name is Ric Fliehr, and Charlotte’s real name is Ashley Fliehr. Ashley chose her stage name since she grew up in Charlotte North Carolina.

Charlotte Flair (real name Ashley Fliehr)

Charlotte Flair (real name Ashley Fliehr)

Like Rodney Dangerfield, professional wrestlers get no respect.However, to be a successful professional wrestler, you have to be a combination of stunt-person, and stage actor. The reaction from the crowd instantly lets you know if your performance is worthwhile. It is great if the crowd loves you or hates you. If the crowd doesn’t care, then you will not last long in the business. And professional wrestling is a business. One that brings in millions of dollars and supports thousands of performers. Circuses may be disappearing, but professional wrestling keeps growing each year.

Ric Flair demonstrates that Old does not mean Weak

Ric Flair demonstrates that Old does not mean Weak

We previously reviewed the early days of Ric Flair in his book  Ric Flair – To Be The Man. However, Second Nature is about the  twilight days of his career and the entry of his daughter Ashley and his son Reid Fliehr into the business. Second Nature is no fluff piece. Ric and Ashley are remarkably open about their personal failings. Ric Flair has been married 4 times and goes into detail about how his professional and personal behavior was the cause of the problems. His travel schedule was so hectic, that during one year of his first marriage, he was only at home for 10 days.

Ric & Reid Flair share a happy moment.

Ric & Reid Flair share a happy moment.

Realizing his prior failures, Ric was determined to be the perfect father to Reid and Ashley. He spent lots of time with them, gave them tons of presents, and never lost his temper. Growing up it seemed like the perfect family. But, of course, it was not. Ric was actually having a long term affair with a good friend of his wife. Ashley was devastated when she found out.

Reid Flair- who his from the world that he was a drug addict

Reid Flair- who hid from the world that he was a drug addict

Reid Fliehr went into professional wrestling and Ashley went to college on a full athletic scholarship for volleyball.  But then things began to fall apart personally for both of them. Reid secretly was a heroin addict. It seems incredible that he could be super athlete “Reid Flair” in the ring, and then  go home and shoot up heroin, but he did. Ric spent thousands of dollars sending Reid to the best rehab centers in the country.

At one point, a rehab  center needed $15,000 immediately and Ric just did not have it on hand. Wrestler Hulk Hogan happened to call Ric that day about an upcoming wrestling event. Hogan could tell that Ric was upset about something and asked what it was. When Ric reluctantly admitted the money problem, Hogan immediately wired $15,000 to Ric Flair. Not as a loan; a gift.

Ric Flair and Charlotte together in the wrestling ring

Ric Flair and Charlotte together in the wrestling ring

Ashley Fliehr had her own personal issues. When her college life seemed to be going perfectly, she one day simply dropped out and moved to Chapel Hill North Carolina to move in with her boyfriend who was a student at UNC.  Even worse was the fact that he was a heavy drug user who abused her mentally and physically. Despite all advice from her parents and every one of her friends, she married the guy. Writing in Second Nature years later, Ashley says she just cannot explain why she did something do stupid.

Second Nature by Ric & Ashley Fliehr with Brian Shields

Second Nature by Ric & Ashley Fliehr with Brian Shields

It would be nice to say that Second Nature has  a  happy ending and everything ends up perfectly. However, Second Nature is a true story and all true-life stories have good and bad aspects. Some parts turn out wonderfully and some parts are tragic and irreversible.

Brian Shields - collaborated with Ric & Askhey Fliehr to create the book Second Nature

Brian Shields – collaborated with Ric & Ashley Fliehr to create the book Second Nature

Despite all the rehab stays and a loving family and girlfriend,  Reid Fliehr died of a drug overdose.  Ric and Ashley both blamed  themselves. Ric asked himself over and over if he had pushed Reid too hard by bringing him into wrestling. Ashely wondered if she had been tied up with her own problems too much to understand what was happening with Reid. The truth, of course, is that sometimes nothing can be done to save a true addict.

It is impossible to read Second Nature without thinking of the Mickey Rourke movie The Wrestler. Rourke plays a professional wrestler who is a hero in the ring while his personal life is a complete disaster. In fact, both Ric and Ashley reference the movie several times and worry that it is just a little too close to their own lives. Second Nature was a fascinating, behind the scenes, glimpse into the lives of wrestling “superstars” Brian Shields did a terrific job helping Ric and Askhey Fliehr create Second Nature.

Yes, Professional wrestling is fake. However, never forget that the challenges, joy and pain of the wrestlers themselves is very real.

Who Knew?-Things you Didn’t Know About Things You Know Well

Who Knew -by David Hoffman is a little book filled with fun facts about food, entertainment, pop culture and celebrities. Here are just a few examples:

  • “Marilyn Monroe developed her signature walk by hacking off the heel of one shoe.”

Marilyn Monroe's signature walk was because one shoe had no heel.

Marilyn Monroe’s signature walk was because one shoe had no heel.

  • “The punk rock group the Ramones got their name from Paul Ramon, an early stage name used by Paul McCartney- and the pseudonym under which he would often check into hotels during the heyday of the Beatles.”

Paul McCartney's early stage name was Paul Ramon

Paul McCartney’s early stage name was Paul Ramon

  • “People who work at Disneyland are never referred to as employees; rather they are called ‘cast members’. Cast members who work on It’s a Small World refer to it as ‘the asylum’, on the theory that’s where they’ll end up as a result of repeated (over)exposure to the song.

"The Asylum" exhibit at Disneyland

“The Asylum” exhibit at Disneyland

  • “One side of the couch that was in the Ricardos’ living room on I Love Lucy was constructed with three inches of additional padding, so Desi Arnaz, when seated would look taller than he actually was.”

Lucy & Ricky Ricardo's couch has a secret

Lucy & Ricky Ricardo’s couch has a secret

  • “One hundred shares of McDonald’s stock purchased for $2,250 when first offered in 1965 has grown to 74,360 shares worth approximately $7 million.”

McDonald's stock was one of the best investments of all time

McDonald’s stock was one of the best investments of all time

Who Knew is a great stocking-stuffer or small Hanukkah gift. Who says facts can’t be fun?

Who Knew? Things You Didn't Know About Things You Know Well author David Hoffman

Who Knew? Things You Didn’t Know About Things You Know Well author David Hoffman

A Legacy Of Spies – cold war lessons for today

John Le Carre’s latest spy thriller A Legacy of Spies takes place during the Cold War but has lessons for today’s world. In fighting evil and terrorism Western democracies never seem to ask, “how much of our human feeling can we dispense with in the name of freedom, would you say, before we cease to feel either human or free?”

A Legacy Of Spies by John Le Carre

A Legacy Of Spies by John Le Carre

In A Legacy Of Spies, an retired British intelligence officer, Peter Guillam, is suddenly pulled in and asked to defend his actions during two top secret operations in East Berlin many decades ago. The grown children of those killed in the operation have somehow gotten hold of previously secret records and are suing the British Government and Peter personally. The British Government is more that happy to throw Peter under the bus, as long as things can be settled quietly and without too much fuss.

Kim Philby - British Intelligence officer who was actually a KGB agent

Kim Philby – British Intelligence officer who was actually a KGB agent

However, the aging spy is not the old fool he pretends to be, and is the keeper of secrets within secrets withing secrets. His only question is which ones, if any,  should he reveal?

The timeline of A Legacy Of Spies switches back and forth between modern England, and Cold War East Germany. In the old days, Peter was a master spy whose good looks and charm made him especially valuable for his ability to recruit and seduce female agents. That is why he was chosen to deal with a beautiful East German, code-named “Tulip”, who has been providing the British with their most valuable information. However, even all these years later, Peter is not sure who was seducing who and if he ever knew the real story of  Tulip.

ohn Le Carre author of A Legacy Of Spies

John Le Carre author of A Legacy Of Spies

John Le Carre, whose real name is David Moore Cornwell takes the long view of espionage, having just celebrated his 86th birthday. Before he was a novelist, David Moore Cornwell himself worked for the British Secret Intelligence Service. In his lifetime there has been the rise and fall of both the Nazi regime and the Soviet empire. His novels seem to always ask the question, that if all evil empires eventually fall, should we allow ourselves to become evil to fight them? Americans, of course, have recently answered “Yes” to that question. Guantanamo prison, NSA surveillance, The Patriot Act and the CIA’s “dark prisons” all show that Americans quickly and easily gave up the freedoms their ancestors had fought for.

But John Le Carre does not give the reader easy answers. The East German regime was evil, and was perfectly willing to shoot it’s own citizens for nothing more than trying to move to West Germany for a better life.

There is also the overriding despondency that many Cold War era British Intelligence agents feel that perhaps everything they did was useless. In John Le Carre’s novels, Bill Haydon is high ranking British spy who, in reality, was a Soviet agent giving all the secrets away. In real life, this person was Harold Adrian Russell “Kim Philby”. From 1945 to 1965 Kim Philby worked for British Intelligence but the entire time was a KGB agent. While the fictional Bill Haydon was punished, the real life Kim Philby escaped to the Soviet Union and was awarded the Medal of Lenin.

Kim Philby - British Intelligence officer who was actually a KGB agent

Kim Philby – British Intelligence officer who was actually a KGB agent

Lovers of John Le Carre novels will be happy that in A Legacy of Spies many of the characters they have come to know over the years make an appearance and we find out how their lives turned out. Of course, the ever elusive George Smiley (who may or may not still be alive)  might still  be pulling the strings of the entire intelligence community behind the scenes. Or is that just all the old spies being paranoid?

The Medal Of Lenin given to Soviet Spy Kim Philby

The Medal Of Lenin given to Soviet Spy Kim Philby

At age 86, John Le Carre’s writing is still sharp, complex and fascinating. His characters are always multifaceted individuals trying desperately to be more than pawns in a very dangerous  world.

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time by Mark Haddon, is a murder mystery, where the detective is a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. Consequently, the hero looks at the world and people in a unique and fascinating way.

Christopher Boone is a high school student in suburban England, and the murder he has chosen to solve is one the police have no interest in. It seems wrong to Christopher that the police have ignored the murder simply because the murder victim happens to be a dog. Wellington was a good dog and Christopher liked him more than he likes most people.

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time

Someone has gruesomely  killed Wellington with a pitch fork, and Christopher decides to solve the crime the way Sherlock Holmes solved the mystery of The Hound Of The Baskervilles. Of course, Sherlock Holmes himself was definitely on the Autistic Spectrum.

Christopher Boone is a wonderful, gentle person trying desperately to get along in a world  he does not fit into. He is a genius at math, puzzles, and game theory, but the emotions and reactions of ordinary people are often beyond his comprehension.

Autistic people prefer this puzzle to the puzzle of human emotions

Autistic people prefer this puzzle to the puzzle of human emotions

His special education teacher, Siobhan, thought it would be good therapy for Christopher to write down his every day thoughts and feelings. Christopher decides to do better than that, and writes a complete book about his search for Wellington’s killer. The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time is that book.

In attempting to solve the murder of the dog, Christopher inadvertently uncovers the tangles of lies, deception, infidelity and betrayal that have been hidden for so long in this quiet English neighborhood.

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time tries to solve the murder of the dog Wellington

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time tries to solve the murder of the dog Wellington

Of course, like most people with Asperger’s Syndrome, Christopher constantly gets off track and focuses exclusively on subjects that fascinate him.  Consequently, in addition to the murder mystery, the book is full of stories about famous puzzles, math problems and game solutions. This sounds like ti might be dull, but it is actually quite fascinating. It is a glimpse into a world that few of us really comprehend.

Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time

Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time

If you have a child or someone close to you with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, you will find The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time touching but also sometime quite sad. We loved the hero Christopher and it is difficult to read about the way he is sometimes treated by people who view him as “strange”.

Saint Christopher - What was his name before he carried Christ?

Saint Christopher – What was his name before he carried Christ?

Christopher also asks many questions that we never even thought of before.  One of them, for example, has to do with Saint Christopher, who was the giant that carried the Christ child across a raging river. The name Christopher literally means “Christ-bearer” or “Christ-carrier”.  In The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, Christopher Boone asks the question, “What was Saint Christopher’s name before he carried Christ across the river?”

Sherlock Holmes a detective on The Autistic Spectrum

Sherlock Holmes a detective on The Autistic Spectrum

It is this kind of inquisitive mind that allows Christopher to solve the murder of Wellington and many other mysteries as well. The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time is one of the best books we have read in a very long time, and we highly recommend it.

The Woman In Cabin 10 – murder & mystery on the high seas

Ruth Ware’s The Woman In Cabin 10 is a terrific murder mystery novel with an added twist. The twist is that we are not sure if a murder really took place. The only “witness” is an excitable young woman who was high on  prescription drugs and alcohol when she supposedly heard the murder.

Was Woman In Cabin 10 murdered?

Was Woman In Cabin 10 murdered?

The setting for the “murder” is a small luxury cruise ship at sea. Like Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express, this means that the list of suspects is limited to passengers and crew.

"The Woman In Cabin 10". Murder on a luxury cruise ship.

“The Woman In Cabin 10”. Murder on a luxury cruise ship.

The heroine of the story is travel writer Lo Blacklock, who has been given the once in a lifetime  assignment of traveling and reporting on the maiden voyage of the luxury ship Aurora. Unlike the giant cruise liners catering to the masses, the Aurora has only 10 cabins, and is designed to serve an exclusive clientele of billionaires.

Agatha Christie would have loved The Woman In Cabin 10.

Agatha Christie would have loved The Woman In Cabin 10.

Unfortunately, Lo is recovering from a a recent break-in at her London flat, where she was confronted and attacked by the thief.  Ever since that traumatic event,  she has been shaky, and consuming more alcohol than is good for her.

Getting ready for dinner the first night of the cruise, Lo realizes that she has forgotten her mascara. She borrows some from an angry young woman in the #10;  the cabin next door. Many hours later, after a night of eating and drinking, Lo  is in bed when she hears a scream from cabin 10. Going to balcony facing the sea, Lo is sure there is a body in the water.

Norway's Fjords. A perfect murder setting.

Norway’s Fjords. A perfect murder setting.

When Lo reports the crime, she is told that there never was a passenger in Cabin 10, and that none of the crew are missing. Either there is a conspiracy, or the stresses of Lo’s life have become too much to deal with and she has hallucinated the whole event.

The Woman In Cabin 10 shares many similarities with The Girl On The Train. In both stories, the heroine is a fragile but determined woman fighting internal and external demons. We loved The Woman In Cabin 10. Anyone can be a hero when you are strong and confident and trusted by all around you. But what can you do to  summon up courage for an emergency when just making it through every day life is an ordeal?

Ruth Ware. Author of "The Woman In Cabin 10".

Ruth Ware. Author of “The Woman In Cabin 10”.

Agatha Christie would have loved The Woman In Cabin 10. It is a classic mystery story where all the clues are given, but the reader still cannot guess the ending. The setting is also wonderful. A luxury ship sailing the Nordic fjords, where the cliffs are so high that they block the cell phone and internet access that could be used to call for help. Whatever is going on, the frail young Lo Blacklock is definitely on her own. If the murder did not happen, she is going crazy. If she is sane, that means Lo is the only witness to a murder. And the killer is still on the ship.

The New Rules Of Work – an essential book for your career

The New Rules Of Work by Alexandra Cavoulacos and Kathryn Minshew is an essential must-read if you are serious about your career. Whether you are looking for your first job, or are well along in your career The New Rules Of Work has detailed practical steps to help you succeed.

The New Rules Of Work  “begins at the beginning” with techniques for deciding  what you really want. This may sound silly, but it is amazing how many people charge full speed into a job search without once pausing to examine what kind of career they want or what type of company they want to work for. As a consequence, people often  end up unhappy at work because they simply took the first job offered to them, or made a selection based on salary alone.

The New Rules Of Work

The New Rules Of Work

Alexandra Cavoulacos and Kathryn Minshew are the co-founders of which is devoted to helping people succeed at fulfilling careers. The New Rules Of Work, uses many of The Muse techniques, such as a “Muse grid” to map our your values and align them with an industry and company that is right for you. This is not as “touchy-feely” as it may sound. If you have been in a career for a while you may be tempted to skip this step. However, Alexandra and Kathryn point out that people’s opinions and goals change throughout life, and that their careers should change accordingly.

Alaxandra Cavoulacos & Kathryn Minshew, authors of The New Rules Of Work

Alaxandra Cavoulacos & Kathryn Minshew, authors of The New Rules Of Work

You should not let yourself get locked into a set path based simply on what major you happened to chose when you were 18 years old.  You have grown and developed tremendously since your school days, and you should update your career objectives to reflect who you are now.

The New Rules Of Work has very detailed and practical advice including how to best write a resume and how to get that resume actually looked at by people who do the hiring. Ironically, many of the very tools that were originally designed to help people find jobs are now keeping you from being noticed by hiring managers.

Human Resource directors receive thousands of resumes in response to any job they post on Monster, ZipRecruiter, Carigslist or any other electronic job boards. It is so easy for applicants to submit a resume, that many people simply “point & click”, thereby applying to hundreds of jobs a week, whether they are qualified for the job or not. These people are the “traffic” that gets in your way and keeps Human Resources from even seeing your application. You may be the absolute best individual for a particular position, and still never even get your application viewed.

The New Rules Of Work details techniques for going around the crowds at the massive job boards, and getting directly to the people who do the hiring at companies. The key is to be very selective and to pinpoint particular companies and people to connect with.

The New Rules Of Work is useful even if you already have a good position. Not so long ago, companies took the time to train employees and guide their career paths. Those days are gone. You are responsible for managing your career, and if you don’t you will find yourself falling behind.

The New Rules Of Work even has helpful hints for everyday tasks such as managing emails and dealing with passive-aggressive coworkers. We highly recommend The New Rules Of Work. It is well written and researched and is an invaluable tool for all those serious about their careers. (For full disclosure, we would like  to point out that we received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.)

However, there were a few issues that The New Rules Of Work overlooked. The special needs population was completely ignored. For example, people with Asperger’s Syndrome have a particularly hard time getting through the critical interview phase of the hiring process. In addition, older workers face automated age discrimination on many job sites. It would have been nice if the authors had covered these types of topics.

Still, despite come drawbacks, The New Rules Of Work is an excellent work. In the crowded field of business books, it really stands out.

How To Archer a crazy guide by the world’s “greatest” secret agent

Secret agent Sterling Archer barges into other countries knowing nothing about their culture or language. He then proceeds to waste huge amounts of money and kill lots of people. In the end, Archer leaves the country in complete chaos and declares his mission a success. Basically, secret agent Sterling Archer approaches his foreign assignments the same way The United States approaches its own foreign policy

How To Archer is authored by none other than Sterling Archer himself- the world’s “greatest” secret agent.  If you have never heard of Sterling Archer, then obviously you have never watched the animated series Archer on FX. Don’t let the “animated” part fool you. Archer is not for kids. Archer is a combination of James Bond, Austen Powers, and pure insanity, with raunchy humor and plots that are simply bizarre.

Sterling Archer the world's greatest secret agent

Sterling Archer the world’s greatest secret agent

How To Archer, is Sterling Archer’s guide to espionage and life. If you are a fan of the show Archer, you will find this a hilarious little book. If you do not know the show and  read the book you will say, “what’s wrong with this guy?”

Archer & Lana

Archer & Lana

We have to admit a guilty pleasure. We are fans of Archer, and have watched every episode. Archer takes the self-centered, misogynistic attitude of James Bond and multiplies it by a thousand. It is hard to believe that this show is on regular T.V. no matter how late at night it airs.

H. Jon Benjamin is Sterling Archer the world's greatest secret agent

H. Jon Benjamin is Sterling Archer the world’s greatest secret agent

The cast of Archer is terrific. Voice actors often do not get the same recognition as those we actually see, but Archer has some of the best. They bring the animated characters to life.

Aisha Tyler is Lana Kane the world's sexiest secret agent

Aisha Tyler is Lana Kane the world’s sexiest secret agent

H. Jon Benjamin is Sterling Archer, a grown man who still has the mindset of a preppie Lacrosse jock. The love of his life is Lana Kane (voiced by Aisha Tyler) Lana is a much better agent that Archer, but basically even more  insane than Archer.

 Unlike James Bond, Sterling Archer has a very “ugly American’s” view of the world. This comes across in How To Archer, when he describes other countries:

“Cote D’Ivorie – I don’t care what it wants to be called. I’m still calling it The Ivory Coast. Cote D’Ivorie sounds like some type of cheese.”

Canada  – I like Quebec because it’s just like being in France, only everyone drives pickup trucks.”

Despite knowing nothing about foreign countries, Archer has an eclectic knowledge of completely useless facts. Like the fact that an Indian Elephant’s ear is shaped like India, while an African Elephant’s ear is shaped like Africa.  Perhaps the strangest fact concerns the roulette wheel. The numbers on a roulette wheel are 00 through 36. If you add them all together you get the Satanic number 666.

Woodhouse on Archer. George Coe recently passed away at the age of 88

George Coe who played Woodhouse on Archer. George Coe recently passed away at the age of 88

No discussion of Archer would be complete without mentioning George Coe, who played Woodhouse the long suffering Valet of Sterling Archer. George Coe recently passed away at the age of 88. Instead of just replacing him with another voice actor, the writers had Woodhouse pass away on the show as well, with a moving tribute.

Sterling Archer with tiger friend

Sterling Archer with tiger friend

So, if you have never watched Archer on FX, and are a fan of spy spoofs, give it a try. Just be aware that this is a very R rated show. If you are already a fan of Archer, then you will love the book How To Archer.

How To Archer

How To Archer

PS: We have no idea who is the actual author of How To Archer. After all, Sterling Archer is an fictional animated character, so someone else had to do the actual writing. It is only fitting that we do not know who. After all, Archer is a secret agent.

Crazy Is My Superpower – the story of professional wrestler A.J. Lee

Crazy Is My Superpower by A.J. Mendez Brooks is the autobiography of one of the most popular female professional wrestlers of all times. April Jeanette Mendez performed under the stage name “A.J. Lee“, and in 2012 was voted “the most influential female athlete on Twitter, beating out Serena Williams.”  At five feet two inches tall and a little over 100 pounds, she does not fit the stereotypical mold of a professional wrestler.

Crazy is My Superpower is the fascinating story of how this intelligent but  desperately poor Puerto Rican  girl from New Jersey ended up making her living entertaining millions of fans by playing the “crazy chick” and “vengeful ex-girlfriend” inside a wrestling ring.

A.J. Lee's signature "crazy girl" look

A.J. Lee’s signature “crazy girl” look

Lots of people look down on professional wrestling, calling it a stupid joke that is not a real sport. People who say that are missing the point. Of course it is not a real sport. It is a form of escapist entertainment performed by superb athletes that have to be a combination of stunt-people and actors. And unlike stunt-people in movies, professional wrestlers perform live with very little safety equipment and no chance for a second take.

A.J. Mendez Brooks, better known as wrestler A.J. Lee

A.J. Mendez Brooks, better known as wrestler A.J. Lee

As a kid, April Jeanette Mendez used to watch professional wrestling on T.V. as a way to escape from her real life. Her family was very poor and constantly moved to avoid creditors.  A.J. kept all her clothing in a backpack just in case the family had to leave in the middle of the night at a moments notice. This happened so often that A.J. considered it a normal part of childhood.

Crazy Is My Superpower by A.J. Mendez Brooks, better known as wrestler A.J. Lee

Crazy Is My Superpower by A.J. Mendez Brooks, better known as wrestler A.J. Lee

April Jeanette’s parents were heavy drinkers and frequent drug users. There was never enough food in the apartment, but there was always beer in the refrigerator. Despite all of this dysfunctional behavior, the Mendez family was actually very loving. A.J. was very close to her brother and sister, and her parents really did try to care for the children. It turns out that A.J.’s mother was suffering un-diagnosed bipolar disorder for many years.

Despite all of this, April Jeanette was an excellent student and got into NYU. In addition to working hard in school, A.J. had worked part-time jobs to save money to go to college. Then it came time to give NYU the $500 initial payment.  A.J. went to the drawer in her desk where she kept her savings, only to discover it empty. A.J.’s mother had stolen all the money and used it for alcohol, drugs and “household expenses”.

A heartbroken A.J. told her high school guidance councilor, Mr. Donnelly, the story and that she would now not be able to attend college. There was only a short time left to get the $500 to NYU on time. A few days later, A.J. received happy news.  Mr. Donnelly and all the kids in the school had collected money, and gave A.J. the $500 she needed.

April Jeanette loved NYU. She loved working on her creative writing, but felt the extreme tension of being on her own and out of her depth. As the pressure mounted A.J. sought help from the psychiatric services NYU provided to students. It was there that A.J. discovered the frighting fact that mental illness is an inherited trait and that she was showing some of the same patterns as her mother. But there was good news. There was treatment for her disorders.

A.J.’s life was on track. She was getting her college education and the medical treatment she needed. Perhaps she could finally get the type of life that other more fortunate people so easily took for granted. Then A.J. got a call from her sister Erica.

“You need to come home. Ma overdosed.”

That was the end of A.J.’s college career. She had to quit school and take a full time job in a Pathmark supermarket so that she could help take care of and support her mother. A.J. reached a low point in her life. Everything  she had worked so hard for her entire life was suddenly taken away. When she was forced to leave NYU, A.J. also lost the psychiatric support at the exact time her life entered a period of maximum stress. Psychiatric services were for students only.

Though she tired her best, A.L. eventually cracked under the pressure. She began taking antidepressant pills she had received from an NYU psychiatrist more than a year earlier. She also took pain killers. Unfortunately, A.J. had been misdiagnosed. She was not suffering from depression, she was in fact bipolar. People who have a bipolar disorder have extreme highs and lows.  Usually they only seek help when they are at the low point, which mimics depression. It can be extremely dangerous for a bipolar person to take antidepressant medication. Bringing pain killers into the mix only makes things worse.

A.J. almost died, and ended up in a New Jersey hospital. This was the turning point in April Jeanette’s life. She decided to make a change. In most pictures of A.J. you will notice that she is wearing three thin black bracelets in her right wrist. These represent her new found freedom. In her own words, A.J. describes what these bracelets mean:

“The day I got home from the hospital, I cut the plastic hospital band off my wrist and replaced it with three thin black bracelets. One representing the life I had lived and the mistakes I had made, one representing the death I had escaped, and the last representing my second chance at life-my rebirth. I have worn them every day since.”

Thus began the new  life of the person who would become known to the world as “A.J. Lee” the professional wrestler whose specialty was playing the “crazy chick” or the “psyco ex-girlfriend.” She went from being a college dropout working in Shoprite to a wrestling superstar loved by millions of fans. The road from the hospital to the wrestling ring was not an easy one.

AJ Lee jokes around with John Cena, who thought of her as a little sister he needed to protect

AJ Lee jokes around with John Cena, who thought of her as a little sister he needed to protect

A.J. Mendez  decided to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a professional wrestler. It was a ridiculous idea. She was too small, too poor and let’s face it, too crazy to attempt such a challenge. But attempt it she did. She trained in gymnasiums with men three times her weight, and eventually the other wrestlers began to see her as a miniature dynamo.

Through hard work and a lot of luck, A.J. got into FSC (Florida Championship Wrestling) which is sort of the minor leagues for professional wrestling.  That was when she discovered the sexist realities of the business. A.J. was very much a tomboy with great athletic skills. But that was not what Management wanted. Management wanted sexpot beauty queens who would stand around the ring in skimpy outfits and longingly watch the male athletes perform.  That was not A.J.’s style. She was not  going to change who she was. In fact, A.J did not even own a pair of high heels.

However, A.J. Mendez finally got to perform (under the state name A.J. Lee.) Management may not have liked A.J. Lee, but the crowds loved her. Fans, especially women, loved seeing a real girl they could relate to. Here was a girl who played video games, wore sneakers and shorts and who actually knew how to wrestle.

A.J. Lee’s big break came when she started playing the “crazy chick.” For those of you unfamiliar with the WWE, suffice it to say that professional wrestling is a show rather than a sport. The wrestlers play various roles in ongoing story lines.  How long the story lines last depends on how well the fans respond.

C.M. Punk and A.J. Lee share what was supposed to be a stage kiss. However the passion turned real. They are now married.

C.M. Punk and A.J. Lee share what was supposed to be a stage kiss. However the passion turned real. They are now married.

A.J. Lee played that crazy vengeful ex-girlfriend that may suddenly show up out of the blue and do anything. A.J. was perfect at it. Crowds went  wild for her performances. She was a ground-breaker  in the WWE, proving to Management that a woman could bring in the big audiences and the big money if given the right opportunity.

Crazy Is my Superpower is a terrific book. A.J. Mendez Brooks is a gifted writer, who is willing to bare her soul and show the readers her  most intimate feelings no mater how painful they are. This is no fluff piece autobiography. It is the story of a young woman facing adversities and accepting who she is. In A.J.’s own words,

Everything I was told should be my greatest insecurities, my biggest roadblocks – everything I’ve been labeled: SHORT, NERDY, SKINNY, WEAK, IMPULSIVE, UGLY, TOMBOY, POOR, REBEL, LOUD, FREAK, CRAZY – turned out to be my greatest strengths. I didn’t become successful in spite of them. I became successful because of them. I am not afraid to be called crazy. Crazy is my superpower.”

In real life, A.J had very little time to be anybody’s girlfriend. Between her family stress, mental health issues and physical training, A.J. had almost never dated. She surprised herself when she and star wrestler C.M. Punk (real name Phil Brooks) fell in love. In one show they were to have a stage kiss, which to their own shock turned into a passionate real life kiss on national T.V. When they were off stage and back in the locker room A.J. was immediately surrounded by the other performers who wanted to know, “what the Hell was that?” “A.J. Lee” and “C.M. Punk” married not long after that first kiss.  They have both since retired from professional wrestling.

A.J. Mendez Brooks and her husband Phil (better known as C.M. Punk)

A.J. Mendez Brooks and her husband Phil (better known as C.M. Punk)

Now that A.J. Mendez Brooks has left wrestling she is not sure what will be next. We at East Coast Stories are sure she will be a success at anything she puts her mind to. Crazy Is My Superpower is proof that she has the skills to pursue a career in writing. Whatever she chooses, we wish her the best.

The Lost Book Of The Grail – a fascinating novel of an age-old quest

The Lost Book Of The Grail by Charlie Lovett is a fascinating novel about a modern day hunt for the Holy Grail. Instead of a quest by chivalrous  knights, the searchers are a group of introverted bibliophiles from rural England. However, they  might just have the exact set of skills to succeed, where thousands of others have failed over the centuries.

Charlie Lovett author of The Lost Book Of The Grail

Charlie Lovett author of The Lost Book Of The Grail

The unlikely  hero of The Lost Book Of The Grail is Professor Arthur Prescott, a man who would prefer living in an earlier century. Arthur teaches as little as possible, and spends all his free time in Barchester Cathedral’s  medieval library, studying the ancient manuscripts. Arthur believes the books hold the secret to the location of the Holy Grail, which Arthur has been fascinated with since he was a little boy.

The Holy Grail - The cup from which Jesus drank at The Last Supper

The Holy Grail – The cup from which Jesus drank at The Last Supper

Arthur is a very likeable fellow, but definitely suffers from OCD. His life is completely structured in a series of routines, which revolve around the library and the cathedral.  He attends Evensong at the cathedral each night, walks the grounds of the church with the minister each morning, and once a week meets with a group of fellow book lovers. That is Arthur’s whole life.

Then Arthur’s entire world is changed with the arrival of a beautiful young American woman named Bethany. She is the opposite to Arthur in every way. Bethany is extroverted, well-traveled, computer savvy, and makes friends easily. Arthur is both fascinated by and petrified of Bethany.

The Monty Python crew searches for The Holy Grail

The Monty Python crew searches for The Holy Grail

You see, Bethany is there to destroy what Arthur loves most. Bethany has come to “digitize” the ancient books in the cathedral’s library. That is, copy them into a computer database. There are also rumors that once that is completed, the library will be selling the original  manuscripts for much needed funding.

Arthur comes up with a wild idea of how to save the library and the cathedral. He believes the secret to the location of Holy Grail is hidden in coded messages in the library’s books. If he can find them before Bethany completes her work the Cathedral would become so precious a landmark that nothing would ever have to be sold. As ridiculous as this idea is, we readers desperately want Arthur and his team of bibliophiles to succeed.

Indiana Jones finds The Holy Grail

Indiana Jones finds The Holy Grail

There have been many stories of quests  for the Holy Grail, from Indiana Jones to Monty Python. However, The Lost Book Of The Grail is one of the best. Charlie Lovett is an excellent writer, and brings to life characters who are flawed yet heroic. Arthur Prescott’s search is not just for the Holy Grail, but also to find out who he really is. Despite his life revolving around a church and a holy object, Arthur is himself an atheist. When Bethany points out this inconsistency, Arthur responds,

Just because I don’t believe in God, doesn’t mean I don’t want to.And it doesn’t mean I can’t find comfort in routine and in connecting myself through those words and this space to a hundred generations who have come before me here.”

We recommend The Lost Book Of the Grail, and hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

“All Our Wrong Todays” – why don’t we live like The Jetsons?

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai is a Sci-Fi novel that explains why we don’t live like the Jetsons. Let’s face it, by this time we were supposed to have flying cars, world peace, Moon Colonies and teleportation machines. What happened to the future that the 1964 World’s Fair promised the Baby Boomers?

What happened to the future The Jetsons promised us?

What happened to the future The Jetsons promised us?

Tom Barren, the hero of All Our Wrong Todays is the man who ruined the future for all of us. It turns out that the utopian future really did happen.  Things were going smoothly right up to the point where time travel was invented. That’s when Tom travels to the past, and in a matter of seconds, unintentionally changes human history. When Tom returns to the “present” he finds it has become the messed up  world we live in today. Oh, by the way, his actions also destroyed the time machine, so there is no way he can go back and undo the damage he created.

The 1964 World's Fair promised us a perfect future

The 1964 World’s Fair promised us a perfect future

There have been many time-travel novels, but All Our Wrong Today’s is one of the best. Instead of getting hung up on technical jargon, Elan Mastai delves more into the psychological and ethical issues of experimenting with technology of unlimited power.

When Tom comes back from the past into our “wrong today”, at first all he sees is how technologically backward we are. Then he begins to realize that his  own life has improved. He has merged with the person he is in this new time line.

What really happened when the World's Fair ended

What really happened when the World’s Fair ended

In his own time, Tom was a screw-up only child. In our world, he is a rich and famous architect, with a wonderful sister. Tom also meets a woman and falls in love. Tom realizes   that the technology of his world had muted the senses of people. Our world may be harsh and often terrible, but it also allows people to truly feel every experience.  But is it right for Tom to continue in this false world that was created by accident? Shouldn’t he try to change time back? Is there any way he can get the best of both worlds and merge the two realities?

Elan Mastai author of All Our Wrong Todays

Elan Mastai author of All Our Wrong Todays

We don’t want to reveal too much of the plot for fear of ruining the exciting twists and turns of All Our Wrong Todays. Suffice it to say that Elan Mastai is a brilliant writer who brings all the characters of these fictional time-lines to life. We look forward to reading more by this gifted author.

Girl In Disguise – the woman who saved Lincoln

Girl In Disguise by Greer Macallister is a historical novel which begins in 1856, and is the story of America’s first female private detective. Kate Warne was a real person who worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and who interacted directly with many of the most famous people in American history, including Abraham Lincoln.

Girl In Disguise - a terrific historical novel

Girl In Disguise – a terrific historical novel

Immediately after Abraham Lincoln was elected President,  his life was in  danger. In those days, the government provided no security protection for Presidential candidates or even for the President-elect. There were grave doubts about whether or not Lincoln could make it to Washington alive for his inauguration. Lincoln ended up traveling to Washington in disguise as a invalid, his extreme height hidden by the fact that he was in a wheelchair. Kate Warne traveled with Lincoln as his sister, pushing the wheelchair and handling all of the travel arrangements. Despite this, the name of Kate Warne is virtually unknown in American history.

Greer Macallister author of Girl In Disguise

Greer Macallister author of Girl In Disguise

Girl In Disguise is a terrific novel that brings this fascinating period in American history to life. Greer Macallister shows what it was like for a woman in 1856 trying to make a living in what was very much a man’s profession. At first, no one takes Kate Warne seriously, and everyone assumes that Allan Pinkerton must be sleeping with Kate. (He was not.) However, Kate is quickly able to show her usefulness in the field of private investigation.

Abraham Lincoln's life was in danger even before he became president

Abraham Lincoln’s life was in danger even before he became president

The fact that no one could imagine a woman as a detective is exactly what made her so effective. She could go under cover as a shop girl, a rich socialite, or even a “lady of the evening”.  Men made a lot of assumptions about Kate, but they never suspected she was a detective.

Kate Warne America's first female private detective

Kate Warne America’s first female private detective

Kate Warne’s usefulness to Abraham Lincoln did not end after Lincoln successfully made it to Washington. During the Civil War, Washington was full of Southern spies, and Kate worked undercover to help ferret them out.

Political cartoon lampooning Lincoln for sneaking into Washington in disguise

Political cartoon lampooning Lincoln for sneaking into Washington in disguise

Kate Warne eventually started the woman’s division of the Pinkerton Detective agency and hired a number of female  operatives of various backgrounds, who themselves became great detectives.  Despite Kate Warne’s contribution to the security of the United States, she never got the recognition  she deserved. Her whole life, behind her back, people whispered that the only “work” she really did at the Pinkerton Detective Agency was being Allan Pinkerton’s mistress. There were no medals and no state funeral for Kate Warne when she died of a sudden illness in 1868. She was quietly laid to rest in the Pinkerton family plot. Her name was misspelled on her tombstone.

A Hero Of France

A Hero Of France by Alan Furst is a novel of the dark days of France in the winter of 1941, when the Nazis controlled Europe  and the Allies were losing the war.  Mathieu is a leader in the French Resistance, trying to help downed British pilots escape back to England.

A Hero Of France by Alan Furst

A Hero Of France by Alan Furst

A Hero of France is the latest in a series of novels by Alan Furst about the French  Resistance. Although the characters are fictional, the facts about the war and the Resistance are well documented. The bravery of the French resistance is truly remarkable.

Hitler in Paris 1940

Hitler in Paris 1940

A Hero Of France shows how the people in the French Resistance were not young trained soldiers, which makes their bravely more remarkable.  Before the war Mathieu owed a small newspaper. Now in German Occupied Paris, his resistance cell consists of people he hopes the Nazis will not suspect as a threat. His Resistance “organization” consists of an elderly professor, a young high school girl, a bar owner, a woman who sells religious statues and an assortment of petty criminals. This is the group that has to try to outsmart German Military Intelligence, French Police, and various French paid informers.

Germany captures Paris while The United States remains neutral

Germany captures Paris while The United States remains neutral

Most people today have the wrong impression of French Resistance “fighters”. In fact, fighting was not the primary function of the French Resistance, for the simple reason that it was suicidal. The Nazis had a brutal system of reprisals. If any German soldier was killed in Occupied Paris, the Germans would immediately gather a minimum of 10 random French citizens and execute them.

Alan Furst, Author of A Hero Of France

Alan Furst, Author of A Hero Of France

A Hero Of France shows what the French Resistance really did in World War II. They saved downed airmen, hid escaped Allied POWs, and gathered intelligence about German troop movements.  Much of this was directed from London by British Intelligence, with which the French Resistance groups had a very tense relationship. On the one hand the French needed the supplies and money the British provided. On the other hand, it was quite obvious that British Intelligence considered the French Resistance groups as expendable commodities.

French woman with German soldier. Maybe she is a collaborator, maybe she is a spy working for the French Resistance

French woman with German soldier. Maybe she is a collaborator, maybe she is a spy working for the French Resistance

The British view was that if the French Resistance could be of help to the war that was good, but if French people got killed in the process it was no big loss. After all they were not “real” soldiers anyway.  However, Mathieu does care about the people in the group. He wants the Allies to win the war, but he also wants all the people in his Resistance cell to still be alive when that happens.

A Hero Of France is an excellent novel and we highly recommend it. It is a tribute the small group of civilians who stood alone in France against the might of the Nazis, while Americans stayed neutral and safe an ocean away.

I Am A Celebrity in Estonia for Naljkad Toointervjuud by Gregory F. Farrell

Like most vain people, I constantly Google my own name to see how the internet perceives me. I was shocked to discover that I have become a celebrity in the country of Estonia for a book I wrote 20 years ago. A Funny Thing Happened At The Interview has been re-released in Estonia as Naljakad Toointervjuud, with a somber  cover.

Naljakad Toointervjuud by Gregory F. Farrell the Estonian business expert

Naljakad Toointervjuud by Gregory F. Farrell the Estonian business expert

Apparently Naljakad Toointervjuud is being marketed with a much more serious tone than A Funny Thing Happened At The Interview was sold in the United States. The scruffy cartoon resume on the cover had been replaced by a pair of serious all-business wing tipped shoes.

A Funny Thing Happened At The Interview by Gregory F. Farrell

A Funny Thing Happened At The Interview by Gregory F. Farrell

The book has become a hit, and there have been a lot of comments from readers on the websites of stores that sell Nalkakad Toointervjuud. Unfortunately, I do not speak Estonian, so I had to use Google Translate to convert the comments to English. Somehow, I think something got lost in translation, resulting in some bizarre comments like:

  • “Anyone can fly ninuli-important back up on its feet”
  • If any of this happens, put it behind the ear, and learn from their mistake.”

However, other comments are really cool and very complimentary.



So to all my readers in Estonia, Aitah! Good luck on your job search! Remember always that you and your family  are more important than any job, and that things have a way of working out. If the interview goes great you may get the job. If you have nothing but a series of horrible interviews, maybe you were meant to be an author.

A Farther Shore – Ireland’s Long Road to Peace

A Farther Shore  by Gerry Adams is the fascinating story of the negotiations that resulted in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which created a road map for peace in Northern Ireland. Some consider Gerry Adams a terrorist, while for others, he is a great civil rights leader. Since 1983, Gerry Adams was the leader of Sinn Fein, the political group closely associated with the Irish Republican Army (IRA). A Farther Shore was written in 2003 when the details of the negotiations were fresh in mind. A Farther Shore still holds up today, and gives the reader a wonderful historic perspective.

British troops in Northern Ireland

British troops in Northern Ireland

It is difficult for people outside of Ireland and the U.K. to understand just how desperate the Northern Ireland situation was in the 1970s through 1990s.  There were daily shootings and bombing. People could be imprisoned indefinitely without trial and the British Army was a large occupying force. At one point in Norther Ireland, there was 1 British soldier for every 3 Catholic males between the ages of 16 and 60.

Margret Thatcher tried unsuccessfully to beat the IRA using the military

Margret Thatcher tried unsuccessfully to beat the IRA using the military

It seemed impossible that there could ever be a negotiated settlement. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, and her goal was to militarily destroy the IRA by any means, legal or illegal.  The British have always portrayed themselves to the world as the epitome of “the rule of law”. However, the law did not apply in Northern Ireland.  British SAS forces had orders to “shoot to kill” rather than arrest suspected members of the IRA, even if those people were unarmed.

Gerry Adams in Northern Ireland

Gerry Adams in Northern Ireland

The RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) was in many ways worse than the British Army. The RUC was supposed to be the police force protecting all the citizens of Norther Ireland. In reality, it was the force of the Protestant majority only, and considered all Catholics to be the enemy.

At one point Northern Ireland had 1 British soldier for every 3 Catholic males between 16 and 60

At one point Northern Ireland had 1 British soldier for every 3 Catholic males between 16 and 60

As well as the Catholic IRA, there were many armed Protestant “Unionist” paramilitary groups. The Unionist groups were technically illegal, but in fact were often being given intelligence and weapons by the British and the RUC.

Lord Mountbatten killed by IRA August 27, 1979

Lord Mountbatten killed by IRA August 27, 1979

The brutal methods of the British and the RUC did not destroy the IRA, and instead made it stronger. Once the British began to treat  ALL Catholics in Northern Ireland as the enemy, the Catholics turned to the IRA as the only force which would protect them.  The IRA itself continued bomb and gun attacks.  On August 27, 1979 the IRA killed Lord Mountbatten in Ireland in a bomb attack and killed 18 British soldiers in a separate attack in Northern Ireland on the same day.

Gerry Adams & Bill Clinton 1995

Gerry Adams & Bill Clinton 1995 at Queen’s University. Clinton also met with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party  Ian Paisely.

A Farther Shore is the story of how the groups battling in Northern Ireland came through those dark days to sign a peace accord in 1998 which came to be known as the Good Friday Agreement. Gerry Adams admits that his is not an unbiased account. He rightfully states that it may be 50 or 75 years before anyone will be able to write a story about Northern Ireland from a neutral, unemotional perspective. A Farther Shore is Gerry Adam’s account of the Sinn Fein struggle and its involvement in the peace process.

Gerry Adams and Prince Charles share a friendly moment. Margaret Thatcher must be turning in her grave.

Gerry Adams and Prince Charles share a friendly moment. Margaret Thatcher must be turning in her grave.

The negotiations that lead to the Good Friday Agreement took decades and included a huge number of people, countries and political and paramilitary organizations. Just to name a few these included, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, U.S. Senator George Mitchell, Ted Kennedy, the IRA, the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Party, and more.

Results of the popular vote accepting the Good Friday Agreement

Results of the popular vote accepting the Good Friday Agreement

This was not a simple matter of just having groups sit down and talk to each other for a deal. Many of these groups hated each other and would have no direct conversations with each other, even if they were in the same room. The IRA and the various unionists paramilitary organizations were illegal and could therefore not even show up directly for any talks.

Senator George Mitchell ad Gerry Adams

Senator George Mitchell ad Gerry Adams

Peace would never have been achieved without the involvement of South Africa and The United States.  At one point,  representatives of all the involved Northern Irish  parties (other than the paramilitary groups) traveled to South Africa. There they met with Nelson Mandela and the ex-leaders of the all -white government.  There were long discussions about how it was possible to achieve a lasting agreement even among groups that had fought each other for decades. The Irish peace negotiators were inspired by the South African example.

Nelson Mandela & Gerry Adams

Nelson Mandela & Gerry Adams

United States Senator George Mitchell lead the negotiations that resulted in The Good Friday agreement.  Most Americans, even to this day, are not fully aware of the incredible achievement of Senator Mitchell. The fact that he was able to hold together such a diverse group and get a workable accord would have seemed impossible given the history of the conflict.

A Further Shore is a wonderful read, and Gerry Adams is a terrific writer.  Gerry Adams’ writing style is very personal, which makes this tale of an individual’s journey, rather than a dry historical document.  Gerry Adams sprinkles the book with amusing anecdotes. For example, at one point, he took a break from negotiations which were  taking place in an old castle.  As he walked the grounds of the estate he found himself being followed by a herd of wild cats who lived in the nooks and crannies of the old castle. Throughout his political life Gerry Adams has tried to continue to enjoy the simple pleasures of life and family. Despite having been imprisoned by the British and shot by Unionists, he has kept an amazingly positive outlook on the future and truly believes in the possibility of a better future for future generations throughout the world.

A Farther Shore is a very inspirational book since it shows that seemingly “endless” conflicts can be resolved.  It is easy to think of today’s problems in the Middle East and elsewhere as completely insurmountable.  A Farther Shore shows that there is always hope and possibility. Of course, the problems of Northern Ireland have not all been solved. The IRA and the Unionist military groups still exist. The political situation is still incredibly complex and fluid.

Just this week an election was held for the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Unionist group the DUP came in first 28 seats. In a stunning success, Sinn Fein came in second with 27 seats. It was a hard-fought election, but the fighting was with words, not guns or bombs.  A Further Shore tells the tale of what made this possible.

Rogue Heroes – a fascinating book about the SAS in World War II

Rogue Heroes by Ben MacIntyre is a fascinating story  of the British unit in World War II which created an entirely new way of fighting the Nazis. It reads more like an action novel than a history book, except that all the characters and action sequences really happened.

The SAS (Strategic Air Service) was the brainchild of David Sterling, a young British Lieutenant who was more known for his  parties, drinking  and lack of discipline than his military skills. He felt that the middle ranks of the British Army had no imagination whatsoever, and were still trying to use tactics from World War I.

Jock McDiarmid and his SAS team o a raid in the North African desert

Jock McDiarmid and his SAS team o a raid in the North African desert

Lieutenant Sterling envisioned a small group of highly trained soldiers which would  strike the German air bases in North Africa using hit-and-run guerrilla  tactics. This concept may seem common-place on today’s battlefields, but at the outset of World War II, this was a brand-new concept. At the time, commanders were still relying solely on full scale frontal assaults.  As a result, the traditional Army men were very hostel  to Sterling’s concepts.

Author Ben MacIntyre (left) & SAS founder David Stirling (right)

Author Ben MacIntyre (left) & SAS founder David Stirling (right)

In fact, Sterling probably never would have gotten a chance to try out his ideas, except for one thing. David Sterling came from a very upper class British family, and in those days, class was still  important- even in the Army. Sterling got invited to dinners with various high ranking officers, where he used the opportunity to present his plan to command generals. He was able to skip the middle-rank bureaucracy which normally would have prevented any general from seeing such a wild scheme.

The SAS in World War II

The SAS in World War II

At the time, the war was not going well for the British in North Africa. Rommel was beating back the British forces and it looked like the Germans would soon drive the British out entirely. The British generals sanctioned the SAS and gave Sterling men and equipment. The British high command did not really think the idea would work, but at this point they were willing to try anything that could possibly hurt Rommel. If the SAS  worked it would be great. If it did not, then the few men lost (killed) was very considered very minor.

The SAS did succeed beyond everyone’s wildest dreams.  The men worked in small teams that lived far out in the desert. The Germans were not expecting attacks to come from the desert since they did not think it was possible for any troops to stay in the desert for long periods of time.

With small teams of men, the SAS was able to sneak onto the German airfields and plant bombs on planes. Over the course of a few months, the SAS has destroyed hundreds of aircraft.

Rogue Heroes gives fascinating details. For example the very name “SAS” had started out as the name of a fictitious unit, long before there was an actual group. A British intelligence officer had been giving the task of creating false intelligence reports to confuse the Germans. He came up with the impressive sounding  name “Strategic Air Services”, and started rumors that this was a gigantic force which would be parachuting in to attack Rommel’s men. This larger than life fictitious unit existed long before there were any real soldiers to go along with it. Throughout the war British Intelligence continued to create false reports to make the SAS appear many times larger than it really was.

In fact,  the psychological impact of the SAS on the German troops was one of the main successes of the group.  The SAS hit and run tactics behind German lines made the German troops worry that they were never safe no matter where they were.

When the war in North Africa was won, the SAS moved to Europe and continued its work. This is where the war became even nastier.  They were so successful that Hitler himself had taken notice of them. He issued his infamous “Commando Order”. This directed that anyone found operating behind German front lines was to be immediately executed, even if in uniform and surrendering. In addition, the Gestapo carried out reprisal executions of French civilians every time there was an SAS raid.

There is one shameful period in SAS history that Ben MacIntyre left out of the book. In the 1970s-1980s the British used the SAS in Northern Ireland as murder squads to kill members of the IRA without trial. On the one hand, the British claimed that all people in Northern Ireland were British citizens. However, the SAS was given instructions to “shoot on sight” any leaders of the IRA even if they were unarmed. No capture or trial. On other occasions, the SAS did not do the killings itself, but provided intelligence to Ulster Loyalists who then carried out attacks on Catholic civilians. Even today, this period of SAS history has been conveniently swept under the rug.

Ben MacIntyre is an excellent writer, and makes history come alive. He focuses on the individual men of the SAS and we get to know these unique personalities on a first name basis.  Of course, this makes parts of Rogue Heroes very sad. War is not a game, and a high percentage of SAS men were killed due to the large amount of combat they were in.  Rogue Heroes is a real tribute to these men. It has the respect to treat these men not as superhuman, but as real people who made extraordinary sacrifices.

We highly recommend Rogue Heroes, and hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

THE DOSSIER – a 1984 novel with an eerie similarity to Trump’s “dossier”

The Dossier is a 1984 novel where secrets about a major political figure are contained in a hidden dossier. Today there are reports that Trump’s secrets are tucked away in a dossier held by the Russians.  The Dossier was written by Pierre Salinger and Leonard Gross. Pierre Salinger was well-versed in political intrigue, having been President Kennedy’s press secretary.  The main character of The Dossier is Andre Kohl, the news chief of a U.S. T.V. network. Of course, Andre is a thinly disguised version of Salinger himself.

Street mural spoofing the Putin-Trump "Bromance"

Street mural spoofing the Putin-Trump “Bromance”

The Dossier explores the ethical dilemma  faced by any American  reporter who discovers information that might be damaging to Unites States interests.  How do you weigh the responsibility to show the truth against the potential damage that revealing the truth might cause?

In The Dossier, the French are about to finally elect a President who is very pro-U.S. It seems like he will win by a landslide. He is handsome, well spoken and a war hero. During World War II he was the leader of a French Resistance group.

The Dossier written in 1984

The Dossier written in 1984

However, through his contacts in the intelligence community, Andre begins to hear rumors that there may be a dossier about the French political candidate. Supposedly the dossier contains proof that the candidate was no war hero. In fact, he was actually a Nazi collaborator.

There is a secret war going on to find this dossier. The Soviets want to find and publish it so as to keep a pro-American Frenchman from being elected. The CIA wants to find and destroy all evidence of the dossier. Andre wants the dossier for news purposes, but is not sure what he will do if he actually finds it. Throughout all this, no one is really sure if this mythical dossier really exists.

John Kennedy and Pierre Salinger

John Kennedy and Pierre Salinger

The parallels to the current situation in the United States are amazing. It is rumored that Russia has a dossier containing devastating information about President-elect Trump and are going to use it to blackmail Trump  into favoring Russia in foreign policy. Trump and Russia deny the dossier’s existence. Reporters throughout the world are desperately trying to find the dossier.

The plot of The Dossier is interesting, although the writing is not particularly good.  It has way too many detective novel cliches, and the love story wedged into it is not very romantic or believable.

From a modern perspective, there is also one major flaw in the plot. It is assumed that the dossier has to actually be found to destroy the career of the political candidate. If recent  elections have shown us anything, it is that you do not actually need to have proof of anything  to destroy someone’s reputation.  You simply have to fuel a negative  rumor.

The Soviets could have destroyed the candidate by simply going public with the allegations that the French candidate had been a Nazi collaborator. They then could have truthfully demonstrated that intelligence agencies and news organizations throughout Europe were looking for the dossier.  Even if there was no dossier, the fact that everyone was looking for it would have wrecked the French politician’s career forever.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Dossier is that it demonstrates how much the press and politics have changed since 1984.  Everyone in the book just assumes that the dossier had to be found and verified as real before anything could be revealed to the general public.

In today’s world, no one would wait to find actual proof before releasing a “story”. The days of proof and verification are long  dead. Today the battles are fought with rumors, half-truths, and false news stories. If a real story happens to exist underneath, that is merely coincidence.

The Dossier is still  worth reading for the story and more so for the historical perspective it brings to current events.

The Art Forger – book review

The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro is a fascinating novel about a beautiful young artist in Boston who makes a Faustian deal  to create and sell a forgery of a world famous masterpiece by Degas. The Art Forger raises the question of what makes a painting valuable. If a forger can create a piece identical to the “masterpiece” then why is the original artist considered great and the forger a pariah?

B.A. Shapiro author of The Art Forger

B.A. Shapiro author of The Art Forger

The Art Forger’s plot has intertwining mysteries of the present and past. It is a great detective novel, and also ends up educating the reader about the intricacies of the legal and illegal art world. For example, we learn of the great Dutch forger Hans van Meegeren, who sold forged paintings to the Nazis during World War II.

After the war, van Meegeren was charged with treason, for selling stolen Dutch masterpieces to Nazis. To defend himself, he had to prove the paintings were  actually his forgeries, and the only people he had betrayed were the Nazis. To prove his innocence, he had to reveal his techniques in detail in open court.  For the art world, this may not have been a good thing. Hans van Meegeren’s testimony was like a training manual for up and coming art forgers throughout the world. His methods were so ingenious that they are still followed by all modern forgers.

Hans van Meegeren on trial for selling stolen paintings to Nazis

Hans van Meegeren on trial for selling stolen paintings to Nazis

Claire Roth is a struggling Boston artist who is given a proposition by the city’s leading gallery owner, Aiden Markel. If Claire will create a forgery of a Degas piece, Aiden will give her a large amount of money and an exclusive show at his gallery for her own works. He is offering her fortune and a high place in the rarefied art society world.  The fact that Claire and Aiden also have an immediate sexual attraction to each other makes the deal irresistible.

Claire creates a wonderful Degas, following Han van Meegeren’s techniques. B.A. Shaprio describes this in fascinating detail which is enjoyable to read, even for those of us who know nothing about art.  Of course, creating a forgery is one thing. Selling it without getting arrested or even killed is quite another.

one of Degas' After The Bath paintings

one of Degas’ After The Bath paintings

Claire soon discovers that when she crosses the line from artist to forger, she enters an environment for which she is completely unprepared. The police, FBI, high society and even some very violent people take a dim view of art forgers. She is, after all, just a poor young woman in Boston, with nothing to protect herself except her vast knowledge of art and her exceptional talent.

We do not want to give too much away, for fear of spoiling the book. Suffice it to say that, we highly recommend The Art Forger, and hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Half A Life And Other Stories – Kirill Bulychev’s masterful Sci-Fi Stories

In 1977, Americans were introduced to Kirill Bulychev, a science fiction writer from the Soviet Union, when Half A Life And Other Stories was first published in English. Even today, these stories still hold up as beautifully crafted tales.

The reason these sci-fi stories have not gotten stale is that Kirill Bulychev is much m ore concerned with the emotions and motivations of the people than with the imagined  technical innovations of the future.

Half A Life by Kirill Bulychev

Half A Life by Kirill Bulychev

Kirill Bulychev’s stories were very popular in the Soviet Union, and the authorities never seemed to catch on to the fact that there were hidden anti-Soviet messages in many of the stories. In totalitarian countries, science fiction stories have often been able to get “radical” ideas past the government censors, since Sci-FI is never considered “serious literature.”

The title story Half A Life is about a young Russian woman named Natasha, who is suddenly captured  by robots from outer space. The robots are collecting samples of intelligent life forms from throughout the galaxy and taking them to a sort of prison ship for examination.  Natasha struggles to retain her humanity and dignity, and slowly begins to form a coalition with the other prisoners against the robots. Although the prisoners know there is almost no chance of escape, they agree that their lives would be a waste if they did not at least try to fight back.

Igor Vsevolodovich Mozheiko whose pen name was Kirill Bulychev

Igor Vsevolodovich Mozheiko whose pen name was Kirill Bulychev

Somehow the Soviet censors failed to notice that this alien spaceship actually represented the Soviet Gulag prison system. Natasha simply disappeared one night and her family had no idea what had happened to her or if she would ever return . This is exactly what happened to thousands of ordinary Soviet citizens as they were sent to prison.

Natasha’s struggle against her captors and her pride in survival is reminiscent of the book One Day In the Life Of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. However, unlike Solshenitsyn, Bulychev was never considered a “dissident.”  The social commentary in Bulychev’s science fiction stories was able to sneak right past the Soviet censors.

Another story titled Red Dear White Dear takes place on a planet where intelligent humanoid life has been wiped out by violent ape-like creatures. The story notes that,

Nature is cruel to intelligence. Still untempered and unaware of its potential strength; it hovers always on the brink of extinction.”

Joseph Stalin believed he could create a “workers paradise” using violence and oppression

Joseph Stalin believed he could create a "workers paradise" using violence and oppression

Joseph Stalin believed he could create a “workers paradise” using violence and oppression

This is a clear reference to the days of Stalin’s “workers’ paradise”, when being labeled an intellectual was a sure ticket to the gulag.

Kirill Buluchev himself outlasted the Soviet Union, despite being an intellectual. Kirill Bulychev was the pen name of Igor Vsevolodovich Mozheiko who lived from 1934 to 2003. He had a PhD in Oriental Studies. He was a prolific writer, although many American’s still have not of heard of him.

So if you love short stories and science fiction we recommend you read the works of Kirill Bulychev. It is best to start at the beginning with his 1977 Half A LIfe.

The Right Burgee – the book that shocked the Yacht Club set a half a century ago

The Right Burgee by Henry Lee was a novel published in 1965 which created an uproar in the Yacht Club crowd. It put in writing all the unspoken truths about yacht clubs, and the fact that they have nothing whatsoever to do with yachts. The East Coast yacht clubs in 1965 were a social class measuring tool.

You could not  just pay a membership fee and get in.  How much money you had was only one factor. You also had to be of the proper race, religion and ethnic background. How you made your money was also important. “Old money” was many times more valuable than “new money”. If you came from Old Money it meant your family had been part of the upper classes for generations.

How to display a burgee

How to display a burgee

The Right Burgee takes place in the fictional Housatonic Yacht Club. Of course, readers in the know realized it was actually the Stamford Connecticut Yacht Club, of which Henry Lee was a member. It is well written and the characters all come across as real people rather than stereotypes. 

The Right Burgee cleverly  shows the incredible stress on people and families when their main goal in life becomes trying to prove to the world that they belong as part of the chosen few. You see, just getting into a yacht club is not enough. It has to be the right yacht club.  A burgee is that little triangular flag that people fly on the front of their boats to show what yacht club they belong to.

Burgees of Yacht Clubs

Burgees of Yacht Clubs

Not all burgees are created equal. The top of the top in The United States was the New York Yacht Club, which in 1965 still proudly displayed the America’s Cup trophy in its clubhouse. In their hearts, the members of the Housatonic Yacht Club know that despite all their pretensions their burgee really ranks somewhere in the middle rather than closer to the top.

The main character in The Right Burgee is a man who in the beginning of the story has completely bought into the whole system. His goal in life is to become Commodore of the club, and wear the stripes on the sleeve of his yacht club blazer. He has no interest in boating, but keeps a small sailboat, since that is the only way to obtain “flag rank”.

The Stamford Connecticut Yacht Club emblem

The Stamford Connecticut Yacht Club emblem

However, along the way, he begins to question  the point of the whole  system. He sees the stress his wife is under to always be invited to the correct parties. He sees how his daughter is crushed if she does not get to go to the proper cotillion.   He eventually falls in love with a beautiful woman in New York. Getting a divorce and marring her would ruin him socially forever. Not because of the divorce, but because she is Jewish. He will have to choose between love and social standing.

The America sailing Yacht

The America sailing Yacht

The Right Burgee is hard to find, but there are still a few copies floating around on Amazon. It is worth getting, to see a glimpse into the social structure of a half a century ago. It may seem silly that grown men were willing to spend huge amounts of time, money and effort just to be able to wear a blue blazer with little gold stripes on the sleeve. But it wasn’t about the jacket. It was about the right to show the world that you were better than everyone else. The yacht clubs of those days were not about who got in. They were about who got kept out.

The America's Cup when it was on Display in The New York Yacht Club

The America’s Cup when it was on Display in The New York Yacht Club

Even in 1965, the whole yacht club structure was beginning to change. Irish-Americans had recently been admitted to some of the clubs, and there was even talk in some clubs of possibly letting in Italian-Americans. Traditional members argued that letting in the Irish-Americans was the beginning of the end for the whole system. Of course, they could still not even imagine a future where Jewish-Americans or African-Americans would ever be admitted to any club with a proper burgee.

The Right Burgee by Henry Lee (The image on the cover shows someone being "blackballed - refused membership to the club)The Right Burgee by Henry Lee

The Right Burgee by Henry Lee (The image on the cover shows someone being “blackballed” – refused membership to the club)

When I was  young, I met the author of The Right Burgee, Mr. Henry Lee. He was eating at the Stamford Yacht Club, and my mother introduced me to him. I had read the book and I was surprised that he was still a member of the club all those years after its publication. However, it was obvious that the other members of the yacht club had neither forgiven nor forgotten the theme of The Right Burgee. Henry Lee was in the main dining room, eating at a large table, completely alone. The dining room was packed, but Mr. Lee was being studiously  ignored by the other members of the club, while they happily chatted to each other. As you can guess, he never became Commodore of the yacht club.

Where Am I Now? – Mara Wilson, the little girl in Mrs. Doubtfire & Matilda

What ever happened to the little girl from Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire?  Where Am I now? is the autobiography of Mara Wilson, who went from child actor to awkward teenager to playwright and stage performer.

Where Am I Now? is a series of very personal introspective essays, which makes it a much more interesting read than the standard self-serving autobiographies which most celebrities produce.

Danny DeVito and Mara Wilson in Matilda

Danny DeVito and Mara Wilson in Matilda

Despite being a child star and coming from a happy home, Mara suffered from OCD and many anxieties. There was a time as a little girl when she was obsessed with death to the point where it was all she could think about.

Mara’s mother was definitely not a stereotypical pushy “stage mother”. She was happy that Mara was a successful actress, but also made sure Mara took her schoolwork seriously and never became stuck-up. Unfortunately Mara’s mother died of cancer during the filming of the movie Matilda.

Danny DeVito, Mara Wilson and Reah Perlman

Danny DeVito, Mara Wilson and Reah Perlman

Danny DeVito is one of the heroes of Where Am I Now?. He was always kind to Mara and was a comfort to her when Mara’s mother died . He and his wife Reah Perlman treated Mara like a member of the family and she loved them for it. Mara was upset that her mother never got to see Matilda.  Years later Mara found out that before the film was even complete Danny DeVito had taken a print of the film to the hospital and had  done a special screening in the cancer ward. Mara’s mother did get to see her little girl as Matilda after all.

Mara Wilson with Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire

Mara Wilson with Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire

Like many child stars, Mara reached a point where she understood she would never become a star as an adult.  In her teens she went to auditions where she met a couple of other actresses. They were friendly and Mara liked them very much. But Mara immediately realized she could not compete with them. One was Kirsten Stewart and the other was Scarlett Johansson.

Mara Wilson Today

Mara Wilson Today

However, it was the normal petty slights  and meanness  in middle and high school that bothered Mara much more than any competition for acting jobs. Mara’s comment about high school girls is something that thousands of other young women have felt for decades. Mara states that:

The ones who scared me, who still scare me, are the girls who see all other girls as competition, who see themselves as the persecuted ones, the ones the pretty and popular girls hate. When you believe you’re persecuted, you will believe anything you do is justified.”

Mara is an excellent writer. She captures the essence of the struggles of a sensitive girl growing up in an ever changing environment. Mara stresses how important is is for women to be supportive of each other. She says,

A lot of men wonder what a woman wants. The answer is power. There are many ways to get it, but the easiest way is to tear other girls down. Any girl can play that game, but there’s no way to win, except not to play at all.”

Mara was very upset over the suicide of Robin Williams. She says that Robin had been wonderful with the kids on the set of Mrs. Doubtfire, keeping them entertained and telling them jokes. Mara kept in touch with Robin Williams through the years, and as an adult came to realize that he was actually a very shy person who had trouble communicating when he was not performing.

So where is Mara Wilson now? After graduating from NYU, she stayed in New York. Mara Wilson  writes plays, has a blog and performs stories at various small clubs. She  is very happy with her life.

Mara speaks of when she first moved to New York, and describes it by saying:

I was terrified, and there was nothing I could do but get used to it. New York, I soon learned, wasn’t so much scary as it was indifferent. In Los Angeles, I had felt judged. In New York, I felt ignored. Sometimes that was what I wanted: to disappear. But sometimes I wanted to be cared for, to belong, and I had to find that myself, because the city would not  provide it on its own.”

Mara Wilson did find a way to belong, by becoming part of New York’s artistic community. She faced her fears by expressing  her deepest thoughts and emotions in her writing and stage performances. Of course, this kind of exposure has its risks. Audiences can be mean or worse, indifferent. Internet trolls  are always ready to pounce and ridicule.

We are glad that Mara took the risk bare her emotions in her writings and performances. As Robin Williams once said:

“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”

Ghost Man – a terrific crime novel by Roger Hobbs

Ghost Man by Roger Hobbs is an exciting  robbery novel. In fact, it is about two  robberies. One is a casino heist in Atlantic City New Jersey, and the other is a bank robbery in  Malaysia. The novel begins after both robberies have ended in disaster and death.

The “Ghost Man”  is the guy in any major robbery whose job it is to make sure that everything runs perfectly. He is the one who does all the intelligence work before the heist. He checks out the alarm system, sees where the guards are, times the police patrols, sees what kind of vault or armored car is used.

Bank robber with Uzi

Bank robber with Uzi

After the casino heist in Atlantic City goes bad and the money disappears, Jack Dalton is sent in to figure out what happened and to find the missing money before the cops do. Jack is the best Ghost Man in the world. Of course, his name is not really Jack Dalton. He changes his name and his appearance after each robbery and simply disappears. (Hence the term “ghost”).

The only reason Jack is willing to get involved in such a mess after the fact is that he owes a debt to the crime boss Marcus. Jack was the person who screwed up the Malaysian robbery years before. It was the kind of mistake that got a lot of people killed and there are still  lot of people still trying to find Jack to kill him.

Don't we all really fantasize about being able to bathe in money?

Don’t we all really fantasize about being able to bathe in money?

As soon as Jack starts to check things out in Atlantic City he realizes the situation is more dangerous than he ever imagined.  Not only must he avoid the police and FBI, but it turns out that Atlantic city has a drug lord called “The Wolf”who is a hundred times more violent  than Marcus. The Wolf wants to find the casino money for himself, and doesn’t care who he has to kill to get it.

Author Roger Hobbs

Author Roger Hobbs

In any crime novel what matters is attention to detail and pacing. Ghost Man is great at both.  Roger Hobbs has shown himself to be a master of the big crime genre.  Step by step he lays out how to pull off a major robbery down to the smallest detail. Let’s face it, haven’t we all secretly fantasized about what it would be like to rob a bank or casino?  Haven’t we  imagined what we would do with millions of dollars in cash?  Ghost Man shows how you might actually get away with it.  Then Ghost Man lets us see how even  a slight mistake can get you killed or sent to prison for life.

Ghost Man is terrific and we highly recommend it.  Roger Hobbs has also published Vanishing Games which continues with some of the same characters. Best to start at the beginning with Ghost Man, which we are sure you will love as much as we did.

Frog Music

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue is a fascinating historical thriller taking place in 1876 San Francisco. The plot revolves around the murder of a young woman, but the true star of the story is San Francisco itself.

Emma Donoghue and Frog Music

Emma Donoghue and Frog Music

In 1876, San Francisco was an odd mixture of people from different cultures, all of whom had come to the city to make their fortune. There were wealthy silver & gold  miners, and destitute miners who had never found a nugget. There were Chinese coolies and Italian businessmen trying to make it big in America. Then  there was a whole “other” layer of society consisting of prostitutes, pimps, thieves, madams and corrupt policemen.

California Dreaming

California Dreaming

One of the people trying to earn her fortune is the French  dancer/prostitute Blanche Beunon. She is a star dancer, who earns extra for “special performances” for rich men. She is doing do well she has been able to save money and even  purchase a house.

Prostitutes in San Francisco 1876

Prostitutes in San Francisco 1876

Then Blanch’s view of the world is turned upside down when she meets Jenny, a young  woman who forces Blanche to see things differently. Jenny is what we would call today a Feminist. Jenny wears men’s clothing (which was illegal at the time), carries a gun, and depends on no man to make a living.

Gold Miners

Gold Miners

Jenny prods Blanche into  realizing  that Blanche’s  “fancy man”  (pimp) and his friend are really just parasites living off her work. With Jenny’s prodding Blanche decides to make a painful journey to find out what really happened to Blanch’s  baby; who her “fancy man” insists was given to a loving farm family. She soon discovers the horrors of what really happens to unwanted children.

Chinaman carrying supplies, San Francisco c1870

Chinese man   carrying supplies, San Francisco c1870

Frog Music begins with Jenny being brutally murdered. The rest of the novel is the story of what lead up to that event, and clues as to who committed  the crime. As the story unfolds we find out that Jenny is much more complicated than Blanche eve suspected. Was Jenny the real target, or was the murderer really after Blanche?

Frog Music is a wonderful book, which we highly recommend. Frog Music is based on a real murder, and the characters actually existed. It tells a fascinating historic tale.

Killing Donald Trump

In 1995 former New York City Mayor Ed Koch murdered Donald Trump.  As much as Ed  Koch hated Trump, he could not kill Trump for real. So instead, Koch wrote a detective novel entitled Murder At City Hall, where the murder victim was Donald Trump.

Of course, Koch could not mention Trump by name, for fear of becoming the target of one of Trump’s hundreds of lawsuits. In Murder At City Hall, the murder victim is a real estate developer named Karl Kreig. This real estate developer is a despicable fellow who is hated by so many people that there are a large number of murder suspects.

Donald Trump & Marla Maples

Donald Trump & Marla Maples

The real estate developer also has a much younger wife who comes to parties in scandalously revealing outfits. This  real estate developer treats his wife as bait to allow him to get close to city officials that approve building contracts. He cheats on contracts and on every deal everyone but him loses money. He also cheats on his attractive wife, with a series of mistresses.  But of course, Koch insisted that this was not supposed to be Donald Trump.

Donald Trump, Ed Koch & Roy Cohn in 1983

Donald Trump, Ed Koch & Roy Cohn in 1983

Mayor Koch and Donald Trump started out as friends, but that did not last long. The problem was that even in a city as large as New York, there was only room enough for one of their gigantic egos. Koch and Trump both had an almost childlike need to be the center of attention for everyone,  all the time.

In Murder At City Hall (by Edward Koch with Herbert Resnicow), the Mayor’s giant ego comes through loud and clear. The main character of the book is Ed Koch himself, who is not only the Mayor, but also the detective solving the murder. He goes to lavish parties, meets beautiful women and is a better crime solver  than the police.

Murder At City Hall is interesting to read for its historical perspective, but is not a very well written detective novel. Ed Koch is no Agatha Christie. There is just way too much talking and description of Koch riding around the city, and not enough plot and character development.

Still, it is fun to note how much things have changed since 1995. The Mayor has assistants that are constantly running out and getting newspapers to check the latest goings on, and to see how the Mayor’s popularity is holding up.  Nowadays, you can do this instantly on the internet.

As the title indicates, the murder itself took place at New York’s City Hall. There were metal detectors in place, but there were not the hundreds of security cameras we now have in our post 9/11 world.  In fact, the police never even talk about checking the cameras. Nowadays if a murder happened at City Hall it would all be caught on camera.

Ed Koch may not have been a good detective novelist, but most New Yorkers believe that he was he was a good Mayor. (Of course, there  are those thought he was awful.) Whether you agreed with his political views or not, everyone agreed that Ed Koch loved being mayor and that he loved the City Of New York.

Ed Koch passed away in 2013. It is a shame he is not around today to comment on the current Presidential term. Koch was known for his quick wit and his ability to skewer his political opponents with his sharp wit and humor. Given today’s technology, the Twitter wars between Ed Koch and Donald Trump would be fun to see.

Queen Of Kings book review

Queen Of Kings by Maria Dahvana is an exciting novel of witchcraft, gods, heroes and vampires. This is all intertwined with the love story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Unlike most stories about Cleopatra, her death is the starting point of the book rather than the end.

Queen 1

Throughout Queen Of Kings Cleopatra wanders through the realms of the dead trying to outwit  ancient Greek and Egyptian gods and goddesses. Cleopatra is willing to pay any price, even losing her soul, to take revenge on Octavian Caesar, and bring back Mark Antony from the dead.

Queen 2

Maria Dahvana Headley uses an extensive knowledge of Greek and Egyptian mythology to present the gods in a whole new light.  In Queen Of Kings, all of the Greek and Egyptian gods exist simultaneously and compete with each other for power and worshipers. They are willing to deal with Cleopatra, but  only to help themselves.

Queen 3

Unfortunately, many people want nothing to do with any story about Mark Antony and Cleopatra. This dates back to the disastrous 1963 movie in which Elizabeth Taylor was Cleopatra, and Richard Burton was Antony. Those performance were so bad that they forever tainted the story of Antony & Cleopatra. Wash the memory of that awful film from your memory by reading Queen Of Kings.

Queen of Kings is a great novel in which death, love, revenge and sacrifice intertwine for exciting and gruesome action throughout.  The novel culminates in an epic battle in which gods, goddesses, Roman Legions, witches and even an the Roman  Emperor battle for control of the world.

We highly recommend Queen of Kings and think you will enjoy it as much as we did.

The Killer’s Wife – a novel of the “other victim”

Can you have sex with a man night after night and not suspect that he is a murderer? Why didn’t you notice the scratches on his body and the faint smell of still-fresh blood?  Was there anything you could have done to stop his killing spree? These are the questions that haunt Leigh, the heroine of The Killer’s Wife by Bill Floyd.

Can you really have sex with a killer and never suspect?

Can you really have sex with a killer and never suspect?

Six years after her husband was sent to death row for a series of brutal ritualistic murders, Leigh has tried to rebuild her life.  She got a divorce, legally changed her name, moved to a new State. But there is no escaping the past.

The father of one of the murder victims tracks Leigh down and exposes her to the community. Leigh is no longer the friendly co-worker and neighbor. Overnight she becomes the feared and despised wife of a sadistic deranged killer. Many people believe that Leigh is not really an innocent victim at all, but actually joined her husband on his killing rampages.

The Killer's Wife

The Killer’s Wife

When Leigh feels things could not get any worse, the nightmare begins again with a series of murders using the same horrible techniques. With her ex-husband in a maximum security prison who is the killer?

Author Bill Floyd

Author Bill Floyd

The Killer’s Wife is an extraordinarily well written debut novel of Bill Floyd. It is exciting throughout and would make an excellent movie. If you enjoyed The Girl On The Train, you will love The Killer’s Wife.

Those That Wake – a novel of struggle for the human spirit

In the novel Those That Wake by Jesse Karp, a small group of people from different walks of life suddenly begin to notice things  they never saw before. Strange doors appear where there should be none. There is building in the center of New York that everyone else just walks by without even seeing it.

Those That Wake by Jesse Karp

Those That Wake by Jesse Karp

Those That Wake takes place in the not so distant future in New York City. Although the city is teeming with people, they have become completely isolated from each other with their heads always looking down  into their cell phones instead of up  at each other.

The main characters of the novel are two teenagers, Mal and Laura. They are among “those that wake”. However, there is a price to be paid for seeing things as they really are. As soon as they begin to notice what is going on, bad things happen in their lives. Friends and relatives no longer remember who they are. People tray to kill them.

Mal states that , “I think there’s a secret machinery that makes the world work that we’re not supposed to see, and we saw it. And now we’re paying the price.”

Jesse Karp

Jesse Karp

Bookstores place Those That Wake under the category of “Teen Fiction” or “Young Adult”. There is a special alienation that one feels as a teenager. Teenagers often feel that adults are trying to hide from them the true nature of the world and that adults have comfortably settled into a mind-numbing apathy. All too often, teenagers are completely correct in these assumptions.

Those That Wake is an excellently written novel and is a fascinating read for people of all ages, not just teenagers.  The point that we should never allow depression, apathy and hopelessness to rule our lives is a message people need to remember throughout their lives. We recommend this book even if your “young adult” days are many years behind you.

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is a hilarious spoof of the horror movie genre. It takes every horror movie cliche imaginable and turns them around to comic effect.

Alan Tudyk as "Tucker", and Tyler Labine as "Dale"

Alan Tudyk as “Tucker”, and Tyler Labine as “Dale”

Tucker and Dale are two nice  working-class guys who have saved their money to buy an old cabin in the woods and fix it up as a vacation home. They bring with them all the equipment you would need to clear the brush around the cabin – chain saws, machetes and a wood chipper.

At the same time Tucker and Dale are working on their dream home, a group of college students is camping in the woods nearby. The college kids become convinced that Tucker and Dale are psycho killers ready to chop them up.

Katrina Bowden as "Allison"

Katrina Bowden as “Allison”

Tucker and Dale end up up saving one of the college kids, (Allison) from drowning.  They bring her back to the cabin to recover. While there, Allison and Dale get to know each other and become friends.

Jesss Moss is perfect as the Preppie psyco "Chad"

Jesss Moss is perfect as the Preppie psyco “Chad”

However, just when you think there might be a happy resolution, the movie shifts into high gear and goes into full fledged violent, gory horror movie mode.

Chad, the leader of the college kids, convinces the others that Allison has been captured by Tucker and Dale, and that the only way to save Allison is to kill Tucker and Dale. In a reverse of the normal horror movie, the hillbillies are the ones being attacked by the college kids.

The more you love horror films the more you will love Tucker and Dale vs Evil. It uses to comic effect all the things that drive viewers crazy about horror movies. Cell phones don’t work. People never call the police. Everyone continually makes stupid decisions.

Be warned, however, that this is a very bloody movie. It has every bit as much gore as “real” horror films. In fact, it goes “over the top” on the gore as just one more way to make fun of other movies.

The acting is fantastic. The beautiful Kartina Bowden is great as Allison, who, (without success)  tries to be  the the voice of reason in this crazy world. Alan Tudyk is perfect as Tucker, a shy gentle man who the college kids think is a killer. Tyler Labine is Dale, who just wants a nice vacation home. Jessie Moss is “Chad”, the sneering arrogant preppie who holds a dark secret within.


Shikar by Jack Warner is a beautifully crafted novel about the hunt for a man-eating tiger in rural Georgia. The tiger escaped from an  illegal carnival. Since the carnival owners did not have a permit for this exotic creature, they quickly left town without reporting the missing tiger. This leaves the local people total unprepared for the attacks to come.

Shikar by Jack Warner

Shikar by Jack Warner

A full grown tiger is 650 pounds of pure muscle and can move in absolute silence with blinding speed. Shikar (which means “the Hunt” in Hindi) does a great job of describing the power and beauty of a tiger without making it out to be a monster.

Tigers normally do not hunt people. However, this one was having a difficult time finding enough game in the local woods. Finally, in desperate hunger,  it turns to hunting the slowest, easiest to kill,  animal of all – people.

A successful hunt

A successful hunt

Local deer hunters go after the tiger, and soon find out that if you go into a forest after a tiger you very quickly become the hunted instead of the hunter,.

Tiger on the attack

Tiger on the attack

Jack Warner does a great job of describing the local people as well as the tiger. You care deeply about what happens to them; especially a young poor boy who develops an almost mystical connection with the tiger.

We are sure you will enjoy Shikar as much as we did.

Brittni’s Notebook

Brittni’s Notebook is an eclectic mix of stories, book, movie & T.V. reviews, and even includes a cooking and recipe section. It is written by Brittni Kayne, a young woman in a small rural Wyoming town.

Brittni Kayne

Brittni Kayne

Brittni describes herself a “not so modern woman” as she has a love of William Shakespeare and Old English literature.  Brittni also notes that she is an “English major and not afraid to use it”. However, she does have a sense of humor about the hurdles English majors face in today’s world. In one post she says,

“During my last semester as an English major, I was required to take Senior Seminar: a horrific class in which students were pelted with literature spanning 3,000 years along with theory from the last 300 years in a last-ditch attempt to make sure we knew everything English majors ought to know before going out in the world to have long theoretical discussions with our coworkers (because that’s what people at insurance companies and restaurants like to talk about, right?).”

Despite poking  fun at  herself  Brittni does put her English degree and study of history to good use,  by providing historical context for her excellent  reviews. In commenting on the modern viewers of Game of Thrones, Brittni notes:

” If there’s one thing I learned from this season of Game of Thrones, it’s that HBO’s modern television audience isn’t so different from the audience that sat in the theaters of Ancient Greece. Today’s business executives, fast food workers, college students, and stay-at-home moms love bread and circuses as much as the Roman people who cheered on gladiators or the French peasants who attended guillotine executions during the 1700s. Perhaps witnessing a man get stabbed several times by his so-called brothers and watching his blood leak out onto the snow reminds us that traffic jams, missed appointments, or late papers aren’t the end of the world after all.”

Brittni’s Notebook also has a number of incredibly beautiful photographs of Wyoming.

Brittni Kayne in Wyoming

Brittni Kayne in Wyoming

The posts describe the  simple pleasures of a road trip or a hike, while being surrounded by beauty.

rural Wyoming

rural Wyoming

While calling herself  “not so modern”, Brittni Kayne is, in fact , a true Renaissance Woman. She is using the modern technology to produce a truly professional blog.  She has not limited herself to one theme and wants to explore all the aspects of life, from music to food and entertainment and photography.

View from a Wyoming road

View from a Wyoming road

We look forward to reading more of Brittni’s Notebook in the future, and wish Brittni success on all her future writing.

Red Star Rogue and America’s Hiroshima

On March 7, 1968, The United States was within seconds of being hit by a nuclear blast 100 times more destructive than the A-bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Over 500,000 people would have died immediately in Hawaii, and radiation would have made most of the Hawaiian Islands uninhabitable for decades. This is not the plot of a fiction thriller. It really happened, and is documented in Red Star Rogue by Kenneth Sewell and Clint Richmond.

Red Star Rogue was first published in 2005, yet most people today have not heard of the book or the incident it documents.  This is probably since Red Star Rogue covers a topic most of us do not want to think about. We desperately want to believe that the threat of nuclear war is just a part of history, and that the U.S. was never in any real danger of a nuclear strike.

Red Star Rogue

Red Star Rogue

Red Star Rogue contends that on March 7, 1968 the Soviet   submarine K-129 surfaced 360 miles from Honolulu and prepared a nuclear missile for launch.  Who exactly authorized the strike remains a mystery. The authors state that it must have been fanatical political elements very high up in the Soviet Union.  Only a handful of people would have had access to the launch codes.  This group thought that a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United  States could actually be won by the Soviets.  They believed that Americans were to weak to accept massive losses, while the Soviet people would make that sacrifice.

Soviet Golf II class ballistic missile submarine similar to K-129

Soviet Golf II class ballistic missile submarine similar to K-129

It is a frighting story, but how much of Red Star Rogue is true and how much is pure speculation on the part of the authors? It is a fact that on March 7, 1968 a Soviet submarine equipped with nuclear missiles  sank  off Hawaii. We also know that was operating hundreds of miles away from where the Soviet Navy thought it was. The mere fact that the Soviet Union did not know where one of its nuclear-equipped subs was, is frighting by itself.

It is a fact that The Soviet Union accused the U.S. submarine Swordfish of deliberately ramming and sinking K-129. A few months later, the American submarine Scorpion was lost in the Atlantic while observing a Soviet navel exercise. Most American military experts believe the Soviets sank the USS Scorpion in retaliation for the loss of K-129.

However, Red Star Rogue contends that K-129 sank because a fail-safe mechanism on the missile blew up when the sub tried to launch a nuclear strike against the United States without all the proper codes.  It is a fascinating theory and the authors present compelling arguments and documentation for this scenario.

USS Scorpion, Believed to have been sunk by the Soviets

USS Scorpion, Believed to have been sunk by the Soviets

The one problem with the book, however, is that the authors do not emphasize enough that this is a theory not a fact. They do not give enough weight to the many other possible ways the Soviet sub may have been lost.  It is a very real possibility that the U.S. Navy actually did sink the Soviet sub for daring to get too close to Hawaii.

However, regardless of what really happened to K-129, Red Star Rogue is a fascinating and frighting read.  The Soviet Union is  gone, and the Cold War never turned into the nuclear annihilation that people feared. However, it is quite possible that the U.S. was much closer to nuclear war that its citizens were ever told.

Ric Flair -“To Be The Man”

Ric Flair’s 2004 book, To Be The Man is a fascinating glimpse into the old days of professional wrestling. Even if you are not a professional wrestling fan it is an enjoyable nostalgic read.

Of course, professional wrestling is not a real athletic contest, but the people in it are superb athletes. Professional wrestling is basically a traveling circus. Like circuses, many of the performers are part of families that have been in the business for generations.

Young Ric Flair in his fancy robe

Young Ric Flair in his fancy robe

It is also a very nomadic life, especially for the lower level wrestlers. They perform in one city, then right after the show get in cars to drive to the next city to perform the following night. Unless you are one of the stars you probably  have to do  double duty by helping set up the ring and chairs in the arena.

But how do you get to be a professional wrestling champ in something that is not a real sport? Who actually decides the winners and losers? Ric Flair’s book shows how it is the fans that ultimately decide who will become great. The key to becoming a professional wrestling champion is to get the fans excited about you. You want the fans to love you or hate you, as long as they don’t ignore you.

Ric Flair uses models to promote himself

Ric Flair uses models to promote himself

Ric Flair made himself a wrestling star by inventing innovative ways to promote himself and get the fans and press to notice him. He used his own money to get publicity and start acting like a star long before the fans had ever heard of him. It is sort of what the Kardashians do today. He made himself famous by simply acting like he already was famous.

Ric Flair would get to a city the day before a wrestling match and go to a modeling agency. He would hire 3 or 4 beautiful models for the night of the match.  When it was his turn to wrestle, he would  walk down the ramp to the ring, with these beautiful women hanging on his arms and pretending to be his girlfriends.  He also spent a fortune on his wrestling costumes, with robes and boots costing thousands of dollars. The fans got a real show just seeing Ric Flair walk into the ring, before the match even started.  The fans loved his antics and  soon demanded to see more of “The Nature Boy”.

Ric Flair with Hulk Hogan. Flair thought Hogan was a terrible athlete since Hogan can wrestle for no more than 15 minutes without getting tired.

Ric Flair with Hulk Hogan. Flair thought Hogan was a terrible athlete since Hogan can wrestle for no more than 15 minutes without getting tired.

However, all of the promotion is just what got Ric Flair noticed. It was his athletic ability that made him great. The stamina and strength to be a professional wrestler is incredible.   Whenever they are  not in a match, wrestlers are working out. Ric Flair’s warm up routine before even starting his regular exercises was to do 300 sit-ups, 300 pushups and 300 squat thrusts.

Ric Flair showing that he still has the muscles

Ric Flair showing that he still has the muscles

If you can find a copy of To Be The Man, we recommend it as a fun summer read.

Somebody Up There Hates You

Somebody Up There Hates You by Hollis Seamon is a teenage love story set in a a hospice. It sounds like it would be depressing, but instead it is funny and touching and well written, without ever becoming sappy or melodramatic.

Somebody Up There Hates you

Somebody Up There Hates you

Richard is a 17 year-old boy dying of cancer in a hospice where everyone else is ancient, except for a lovely 15 year old girl named Sylvie, who also has cancer. As the only two teenagers in the place, they naturally gravitate towards each other and get into as much trouble as their frail bodies will allow.

You don’t get put into a hospice unless you have less than a month to live, so don’t expect the story to have a magic happy ending. However, it does show that even in the final days, no matter what their age, people are still alive. Somebody Up There Hates You does not use any cliche stock characters. All of the patients and staff in the hospice are portrayed  as real people with the mixture of flaws, meanness, courage and fear that all of us have.

The title Somebody Up There Hates You Comes from a joke Richie likes to tell. It is obvious that he was a bit of a wise-ass kid even before he got cancer. He hates the way various Priests and Ministers are always barging into his room and trying to talk to him about God. After all, it is somewhat difficult to believe in a kind and loving Supreme Entity when you are a 17 year old who has known nothing but pain for most of your life.

Hollis Seamon

Hollis Seamon

Sylvie is a frail and dying girl who just a few years earlier was the most beautiful girl in school. She and Richie spend whatever time they can together playing pranks on the staff and having a very Romeo and Juliet type of relationship. You see Sylvie’s father wants her to have nothing to do with the cancer boy, and keeps thinking that somehow she will actually get better.

One of the most moving episodes in the book comes on Halloween when Richie’s wild uncle Phil comes to visit. Phil sneaks Richie out of the hospice and for a few hours Richie can actually pretend to be “normal”. Richie is in a wheelchair, has a blanket wrapped around himself and has a shaved head, but on Halloween night people just assume it is a costume. Richie is able to watch kids play and store owners give out candy, without anyone staring at him, or worse- avoiding looking at him.

A few days later crazy Uncle Phil sends Richie drawings of the people in the hospice. They are beautiful drawings in which Phil has portrayed the people as the should be instead of as they are in the hospice. The two old men dying down the hall, are shown as young and strong watching a football game together. Richie is portrayed as a King. Sylvie is shown as a beautiful young mother. It is a life she will never have except in the picture.

This is one of the best books I have read in a very long time. Hollis Seamon herself has spent countless hours in hospitals caring for her own sick young son. Her real life experiences come through in the beauty and vitality of her writing.

A hospice is one of those places most of us simply pretend is not there. We ignore its presence and pray to God that we never have to go to one or visit anyone there. Somebody Up There Hates You shows us that beauty and love can still grow even on the most barren of soil. I am glad Hollis Seamon gave us a glimpse of what happens  behind the close doors of the hospice.

The Blending Time -book review

The Blending Time by Michael Kinch is a Sci-Fi novel in the YA (Young Adult) category.  Those two classifications immediately mean that most reviewers will not take the book seriously.  That’s a shame, since The Blending Time is a very will written novel that has a lot to say about human nature, race relations and the consequences of environmental change.

The Blending Time take place in the near future when the Western Wold has a severe water shortage, and Africa is suffering from the genetic impacts of a Solar Flare. The genetic mutation is a recessive gene making it impossible for any two pure Africans to successfully have children.

Blend 1

The world  government (The Global Alliance) has come up with a solution to the problems of both hemispheres. Young people from the overcrowded and drought-stricken Western Hemisphere are sent to Africa to marry and mate with pure Africans.  In this way the gene pool will be “blended” and people in Africa will once again be successfully able to have children.

Blend 2

While this plan sounds brilliant in practice, the leaders of the Global Alliance never thought out the details. There are huge social and racial implications to moving thousands of young, untrained White people  to Africa where they are not welcomed by everyone.

Michael Kinch is actually  using The Blending Time to tell the story of current-day Africa and the misguided attempts of Western Governments to “help”. Anyone who has closely followed the operations of the Peace Corps or the United Nations knows that their well meaning efforts often do more harm than good.

This is an excellent book and I recommend it, whether you are a YA (Young Adult), or like me an OF (Old Fart).

Nothing But A Smile – book Review

In the 1940s if someone saw a picture of a naked woman, the joke would be that she was “wearing nothing But A Smile“. Of course, in those days pictures of naked women were not easy to find. That was long before  the internet; and even Playboy magazine was decades away.

Nothing 1

This was during World War II, and the armed forces were very strict about what their “boys” were allowed to see. There were “pin-ups” of women like Betty Grable in every Army barracks. Then there were the hidden “girly  magazines” which were secretly passed around and sold.

Nothing But A Smile by Steve Amick is a novel about where those girly magazines came from. The hero of the story is Wink Dutton, an Army Illustrator who is wounded in his right hand and can no longer draw.  He is shipped home and is despondent that he can no longer make a living.

Nothing 3

He winds up teaming up with the wife of one of his Army buddies who owns a photography shop. She has been keeping secret from her husband the fact that the shop is losing money and may go out of business.  She (Sally)  and Wink decide to make money publishing their own erotic magazine, with Wink as the photographer and Sally as the model.

Nothing But A Smile is a well written and fun to read novel.  Steve Amick has kept  it historically accurate with the views of nudity and sex. Pictures that were considered naughty or  even illegal in 1942 would be mild by today’s standards.

The characters are interesting and the plot is great. Wink and Sally begin their adventure to make a few bucks without actually realizing what they are getting into. There are questions they forgot to ask when they started.  Isn’t  it wrong to take nude pictures of your friend’s wife while he is away fighting a war? Can you really stay emotionally detached from the model you are taking naked pictures of?

Nothing 2

They also forgot that the girly magazine business already existed and has some rules they are ignoring.  There are very rough and violent characters in that world. There are laws and the  moral standards of neighbors. In other words, a lot of people who don’t want a couple of amateurs just showing up unannounced.

We recommend Nothing But A Smile and hope you enjoy the book as much as we did.

Free Books!

Libraries are doing something I never thought I would see in my lifetime. They are throwing out books. They are putting them on carts in front of the library and you can take as many as you want for free. If no one takes them, the library simply throws them out. Books are no longer needed in a modern library. They are being replaced by computers. No need to have stacks and stacks of books when they can be replaced by a few rows of computers that can access all the literature in the world instantly.

books 003

I know it will make me sound very old and out of touch to say, but I find it almost sacrilegious to throw out a book .

The Library in my  home town of Basking Ridge New Jersey has  been giving away books for months now, and I have been gathering them up as if they are gems thrown in the garbage.

It is incredible what was being thrown out.  The Complete Works of Shakespeare, A Dictionary of Classical Mythology, a book with beautiful photographs of all the buildings ever designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. There were also mystery novels, books of poetry and erotic thrillers. All of these items are now proudly on my den shelves at home.  My wife thinks I am crazy, but I can not pass up an abandoned book any more than she can pass up an abandoned bunny.

But some of the books have sadder stories to tell than others. Many of the books have inscriptions in them. Some of the inscriptions show that the book was donated to the library in memory of a loved one. How could a library throw that out?

Other books have things inside them that people left as bookmarks and then forgot to take out when they returned the book to the library.  One was a letter in which a woman had written down all the phone numbers for support groups for Military Moms.  Her son was fighting in Iraq and she was worried sick about him.

She must have tried reading a book to take her mind off her worries. I don’t think it worked. The fact that the paper was still there as a bookmark meant that she had never finished the book. I pray that her son made it home safely.

I love physical books and old time libraries and dens filled with them. Throwing them out seems like when all the old Vinyl records were tossed. It was only after they were gone that people began to realize just how much them missed them.

When the last book from the last library is gone and there is nothing left but rows of computers; the libraries will be more efficient and cost effective.

But something will be gone forever.

An Object of Beauty – review of the Novel by Steve Martin

An Object of Beauty is a remarkable novel by Steve Martin. Yes- The roller-skating King Tut Steve Martin. In addition to being a comedian, dramatic actor and movie screenwriter, Steve Martin is also an accomplished novelist.

Object 2

An Object of Beauty is a combination mystery/love story which takes place in the New York art world in the years just before and after 911. The title is a double entendre, which refers both to artwork, and a beautiful young art dealer who is the main character.

Object 3

The real star of the book, however, is the New York art community itself. Steve Martin takes us inside this rarefied world of Artists, Dealers, Celebrities, Billionaires, Pretenders and Thieves. The time frame of the novel is at a period when prices for art were reaching stratospheric heights never before seen.

Object 4

This is a fascinating and well written book. Not only is it an exciting story but it ends up teaching you more about art than any dull art-history textbook. An Object of Beauty even has pictures of the artwork begin discussed.

I highly recommend this novel, which will undoubtedly make you look at both artwork, and Steve Martin a little bit differently.

Playing With Matches – book review

Playing With Matches is a wonderful first novel by Brian Katcher.  It is the story of a high school Junior in Missouri, named Leon,  whose life is changed when he meets a girl whose face was disfigured in a fire. The girl is named Melody and he had paid no attention to her until by chance her locker ends up right next to his.

matches 1Brian Katcher captures the real spirit of high school. He is a clever and humorous writer, without resorting to the use of stereotype characters. Leon and Melody had been in school together since Eighth Grade, but the reason they had never interacted before was that,

“Like at any school, some people at Montogomery Zummer were universally shunned. That girl in the wheelchair. The guy with leukemia who was obviously gong to get his own page in the yearbook before graduation. The retarded kids from the resource room. And Melody.”

Once Leon actually gets to know Melody he finds that they love the same movies, T.V. shows and jokes. She would be the perfect girlfriend. Except of course for her burned face.

Matches 2

Leon wants to love Melody, but like Bonnie Raitt says, ‘You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t”.

Playing With Matches explores some serious questions without being preachy. It retains its humor throughout. Brian Katcher never forgets that high school boys are essentially shallow creatures obsessed with sex.  Even Leon notes that “Now, when a guy says a girl has a nice smile, he usually means ‘You have amazing breasts.'”

Armed Struggle The History of The IRA -book review

Armed Struggle The History Of The IRA by Richard English is a well written and extensively documented study. Depending upon your point of view, the Irish Republican Army is either a heroic revolutionary movement, or a terrorist organization. Richard English is able to present the social and historical complexities of the IRA, without taking a political side.


Without a doubt, the IRA is one of the most successful guerrilla armies in history. With a small group of lightly armed people, it was able to successfully fight the British army to a standstill. The United Kingdom was forced to grant independence to most of Ireland on January 21, 1919.

It is that most part which lead to the split of Northern Ireland from the rest of the Island, and caused a split in the IRA itself.  This lead directly to what the Irish refer to as “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.


Most Americans, even those of Irish heritage, have very little idea of the issues in Northern Ireland other than some sort of vague notion of it being some sort of religious war.  This book is fascinating, since it shows that while religion is one of the issues is is not at all the most important.

How did the IRA rebels allow Northern Ireland to be split off in the first place? Why fight a war of independence and then settle for a partial victory? The answer is that most Irish always considered the Northern Irish to be something different.

IRA leader Michael Collins himself stated that the Northern Irish were different. He considered them part Irish, part English  – not really fitting in anywhere. That was because most of Ireland was a rural nation, with Dublin being a city of professionals. Belfast, on the other hand, has always been a working class factory city. The people there seemed more like people from Manchester England than those from Southern Ireland.


It is this attitude that left Northern Ireland out of the independence agreement signed with the UK. The Northern Irish Catholics felt betrayed and became an unwanted minority in their own homes, since the majority of those in Northern Ireland are Protestant.

Armed Struggle The History Of The IRA covers in detail all The Troubles. There was Bloody Sunday on January 30, 1972 where peaceful Catholic protesters were  massacred. There was the formation of the PIRA (Provisional Irish Republican Army). There were prison hunger strikes and deaths, and ongoing bombings in Ireland and the UK.


For an outsider is it difficult to follow exactly what happened during that time period. Armed Struggle The History Of The IRA explains and makes sense of these times.

Perhaps the most amazing part is that peace actually did come to Norther Ireland. On April 10, 1988 the Good Friday Agreement was reached which allowed for a sort of power sharing arrangement in Northern  Ireland.  For the most part it ended the violence. Of course, it is still a very uneasy peace. All sides are unhappy with the agreement, and all sides do not trust each other. However,  somehow the Good Friday Agreement has held together.

Most Americans do not realize that President Bill Clinton was one of the major reasons that the Good Friday Agreement happened.  Clinton was a driving force bringing peace to Northern Ireland. However, Americans were much more interested in his sexual escapades to pay attention to this achievement.

What will happen next in Northern Ireland? This is hard to tell. The PIRA still exists as to the Ulster Unionists. The sister of the IRA hero Bobby Sands (who died in a prison hunger strike) has said many times that this is not what her brother died for.

Perhaps the best way to describe Northern Ireland is to use a quote from the American novelist William Faulkner, who once said:

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Go Set A Watchman – a very disappointing sequel for To Kill A Mockingbird

Harper Lee never intended to have  Go Set A Watchman published. She wrote it decades ago  and then locked it away in a safe deposit box. Perhaps she intended to eventually take the draft out and re-write it. Perhaps she knew it was not a good piece of literature, but like all writers, she could just not bring herself to throw away something she had toiled on.

Harper Lee then reached an age where she no longer understands completely what is going on around her. That is when her agent suddenly “rediscovered” the manuscript of Go Set A Watchmen and rushed it to publication.  Undoubtedly it will bring a financial windfall to the agent and the publisher. Sadly , the poor quality of Go Set A Watchmen leaves the literary reputation of Harper Lee somewhat tarnished. It also is very disappointing sequel  for the millions of readers who so loved To Kill A Mockingbird.

Harper 1

The basic set up of Go Set A Watchmen sounds like it could be interesting. It takes place long after the events in To Kill A Mockingbird.Jean Louise (“Scout”) is now 26 years old and living in New York City. She returns home to visit Atticus, and suddenly finds herself very disappointed in him and in the town. Atticus is the chairman of a committee which is actively fighting school desegregation and associating with a crowd of overt  racists.

It is a clever concept, but somehow the story just does not come across as real. The main problem is with the characters. Except for Scout and Atticus there are almost no characters carried  over from To Kill A Mockingbird.

Most disappointing is that it turns out that  Scout’s brother, “Jem” died a long time ago. This piece of information is given to us in a very back-handed way as an awkward plot device to introduce a new character.  This charter is a young man named Henry Clinton. He works as a lawyer with Atticus and is supposed to be Scout’s home-town boyfriend.

In order to explain how Henry first came to work for Atticus we are told that Henry graduated from law school and:

“Just about that time, Jean Louise’s brother dropped dead in his tracks one day, and after the nightmare of that was over, Atticus, who had always thought of leaving his practice to his son, looked around for another young man.”

That’s it? That’s all we get to hear about the death of a beloved character from To Kill A Mockingbird, and Atticus’s reaction to the death of his only son?  One sentence?

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There also seems to me no real chemistry between Jean Louise (Scout) and Henry although they are supposed to be in love. The most award and badly written dialogue in the book are the scenes with these two “lovers”.

All the book’s flaws could be forgiven if there was some sort of final riveting courtroom scene like there was in To Kill A Mockingbird. Instead, the big supposedly dramatic finale is a very long and boring private  discussion between Jean Louise and her uncle about States’ Rights and court-imposed desegregation.

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I think when Harper  Lee finished her draft of the book she realized that it just did not work and she locked it away.

I do wish that Harper Lee had made another attempt at a different kind of sequel. I would have loved to read the story of Scout as an independent young Southern  woman now living in New York City.  After all, that is exactly what happened to  Harper Lee herself.

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To Kill A Mocking Bird will always be an American classic and Harper Lee one of our most revered authors. The fact that she chose to lock Go Set A Watchman away instead of releasing it and making millions of dollars only makes me respect her more.