Book Report: A hero with a passion for public service

41nczJM0fwLThe Salvation of San Juan Cajon

Last month at my 50th high school reunion, I chatted with a Michael G. Vail, a classmate who had just published his first novel. And since I know how difficult it is for unknown writers to get the word out about their books, I bought it and read it.

The title and lack of cover art gave me no clue as to the genre or subject matter. A spy thriller? Historical fiction? A military saga? So, I just started reading, hoping I could review it positively.

I am relieved to say that I can.

It turns out to be a modern heroic tale. Think Don Quixote living in Southern California in the late 20th century. Our unlikely hero, workaholic Micah Wada, is a facilities planner for the San Juan Cajon School District which is facing the impossible situation of massive overcrowding and nowhere to grow. Contentious factions, including the school board, city hall, California State Legislature, and the diverse population of the community must come to consensus or lose funding for a proposed and much needed new high school. Economic, cultural, and racial issues are pitted against each other. And then there is a suspicious death of a prominent woman.

Micah is a widower and has built his very successful professional life around solving such problems, but his failure as a father gnaws at his conscience. His teenage son ran away four years ago and he has no idea where he is.

If you have ever worked for a school or municipality, or wondered why public projects take forever to accomplish–this story will likely resonate with you. Mike’s insider knowledge–borne of a career as a manager of facilities and construction for some of California’s largest school districts—illuminates the challenges of balancing conflicting interests for the greater good.

Mike even left room at the end to carry the story forward. Good job!

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Book report: A lusty, time-traveling romance

51PrW27sXWLWhile my daughter has been a fan of the STARZ TV series for a while and I’d known of the books’ popularity, I had resisted starting the series. But when the Outlander series was named the second most popular book on PBS’s Great America Read poll, I decided to give it a try just to see what the fuss was about. Besides, I had several long trips and car rides coming up and could dedicate enough time to read its 642 pages. I loaded up my Kindle and set off on what turned out to be an epic journey.

Author, Diana Gabaldon’s skill as a storyteller is evident on every page–telling details, romance, adventure, sex, and history all leave a trail of breadcrumbs compelling readers to keep turning pages. And her judicious use of Gaelic and Scottish words, folklore, and culture immerse the reader deeply into the time and place.

The gist: A young and strong-willed British Army nurse, Claire Randall and her husband are enjoying a second honeymoon in Scotland after WWII when she is unexpectedly transported through a time portal at a stone circle. She finds herself suddenly in a time two hundred years in the past. Claire’s goal, at first, is to get back to her husband and her own time as quickly as she can. However, she is assaulted by a nasty Redcoat–who bears a striking resemblance to her husband—and then rescued somewhat roughly by a band of kilt-wearing Scotsmen.

And thus begins her adventure in which her nursing skills and knowledge of local flora are called into service repeatedly, mostly saving the life of the young, strapping, red-headed Jamie, who of course becomes her love (and lust) interest.

When at last Claire is offered a chance to return will she take it? Is she bound by her marriage vow to a man who hasn’t yet been born? Will she thrive as a physician or be burned as a witch?

So many scrapes. So much swashbuckling. So much sex.  All very enjoyable, but I think I’ll not read the rest of the eight-book Outlander series just now. There are simply too many other books out there winking at me and crooking their fingers. So many books, so little time.

Book Report: Just one kiss

51Y+LLxP6nL“It Only Takes a Kiss” is the second in Wilma Counts’ “Once Upon a Bride” trilogy, in which she gives three familiar stories the Regency Romance treatment. Kiss is inspired by Sleeping Beauty, but in this tale both the hero and heroine have been asleep.

Hero Whitby is her physician father’s assistant in every way allowed in her time and place. Now in her mid-twenties, she is intelligent and compassionate, but mistrustful of the men of her class. Hero has buried the reason for her mistrust—a brutal assault by some upper class boys. She remains “on the shelf.”

When a badly beaten, unconscious, and handsome stranger is brought to her father’s Devonshire clinic in the dead of night, Hero and her father patch him and wait days for him to regain consciousness. Hero finds herself drawn to him, and inspired by the fairy tale, kisses the sleeping patient.

When Alexander Stern awakens, he has no memory of his identity, although his nightmares are of bloody battles in Wellington’s army on the Peninsula.

Having read several of Ms. Counts books, I appreciate how she places her stories in the historical and social context of the period. She brings readers into the time not only with her skillful use of language but also with pertinent details of clothing, food, women’s issues, customs, and the workings of local estates. Estates were not merely grand houses, occupied by an oblivious upper class. Estates were economic centers that needed to be wisely managed and maintained. Farms, mills, breweries, mines, and all other industry worked together for the community’s well-being. The local aristocracy could make or break the system.

In Kiss, the town of Weyburn has for years been terrorized by Willard Teague, the estate’s evil steward. Teague exerts considerable power in the absence of the Weyburn heir who has been off soldiering on the Peninsula or whoring in London. Teague and his band of bully boys use the vacant estate, its mine, and farms in an increasingly violent smuggling operation. Teague employs fear and coercion to enlist the reluctant cooperation of the citizenry. And he’s got his eye on Hero as his next wife. <shudder>

Teague’s advances repulse Hero. After all, she treated his first wife for the abuse he dispensed. She also sees patients at a local home for unwed mothers, the unhappy result of men exerting their power.

“The young mothers were of two sorts: either daughters of upper class, even aristocratic families, or servant who had been seduced—or, in some cases, raped—by males in such households. The babes were most often placed with foster families.”

In fact, Hero has taken in one such child, raising little Annabelle as a member of her family.

As the story unfolds, most of what Hero holds dear in life is threatened–Annabelle’s place in her home, her position as her father’s assistant, the lives of her siblings, and her romance with the handsome stranger.

When all seems lost, Ms. Counts compels readers to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion, complete with a little swashbuckling and, of course, a happily ever after for the newly awakened lovers.

 

Book Report: The President is Missing

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If this hadn’t been a book club choice, I might have overlooked The President is Missing, simply because of the hype—the teaming up of two bestselling authors. Seriously? I guess I’m a bit contrary. Besides, I haven’t read the much in the mystery/thriller/suspense genre for more than twenty years when both my husband and I read a lot of Tom Clancy. He read for the technology; I read for the story. Happily, this book is loaded with both.

President Jonathan Duncan is facing a congressional inquiry and possible impeachment when warning of a credible cyber-threat reaches him through his daughter. The book weaves foreign policy, cyber warfare, terrorism, political ambition, and infighting into the narrative through vividly drawn characters and taut action. Who is the assassin aiming at? Who hired her? Who is the traitor among the President’s closest advisors? Who developed this virus? And what would happen if all the collected data stored on the cloud and our computers simply disappeared? Would we find ourselves thrust back into the Dark Ages?

“I lower my head and close my eyes, shutting out the rest of the room. I have a team of highly competent, well-trained professionals advising me. But I am making this decision alone. There is a reason that the founders of our country put a civilian in charge of the military. Because it is not only about military effectiveness. It’s also about policy, about values, about what we stand for as a nation.”

Patterson is skilled at creating and maintaining suspense. Written in present tense, each scene feels visceral and immediate. And the little cliff-hanger at the end of every chapter that forces you to turn the page and stay up past your bedtime? Masterful.
Clinton, on the other hand, knows firsthand about the complexity and frustrations, the power and limitations of being the President of the United States. He sees the big picture as well as all the moving parts.

“Our democracy cannot survive its current downward drift into tribalism, and seething resentment. Today it’s ‘us versus them’ in America. Politics is little more than blood sport. As a result, our willingness to believe the worst about everyone outside our own bubble is growing, and our ability to solve problems and seize opportunities is shrinking.”

If you’re up for a thrilling and satisfying ride, this book is your ticket. Recommend.

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Co-authors, Bill Clinton and James Patterson

Book Report: Echoes of the Holocaust

51-9fVVctULAuthor, editor, and writing coach Joan Dempsey slays. Period. This is How it Begins weaves present day issues of religious freedom, LGBT rights, immigration, and free speech into a deep, evocative, and compelling story.

Local school boards—at the direction of a charismatic pastor– have recently fired a dozen gay teachers, one of whom just happens to be the grandson of two Holocaust survivors, art professor, Ludka and retired Attorney General, Izaac. He’s also the son of the President of the Massachusetts State Senate.

“The Poles…no matter which century, had come to America largely to escape something: unemployment, foreign occupation, Communist oppression, and ethnic discrimination.”

The Redeemer Fellowship has plans to go nationwide. It has not only infiltrated school boards but has written bills and gained unwitting sponsors for “religious freedom” legislation.

“They’ve added a paragraph that allows the board of education to define sound moral character, which basically means that whatever characteristic the current board likes in their teachers—or, maybe more importantly, doesn’t like—the board gets. They just write it into their policies and guidelines…meaning people applying for teaching jobs could once again be asked about their religious beliefs and political affiliations.”

“Faith can be worse,” said Izaac. “It trumps reason all too easily. Reason? Reason is impotent. They see what they see, believe what they believe, and that’s that. Discrimination born of moral conviction is infectious.”

Dempsey keeps the tension tight throughout her novel. We feel empathy for her vividly drawn and complex characters who experience ambition, mistrust, hate, blackmail, violence, and arson. She reminds readers, “The Holocaust did not begin with the gassing of the Jews at camps. The Holocaust began here.”

Just as her characters are called to action, so are readers. Recommend.

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Author, Joan Dempsey

Book report: A kindness to those you leave behind

518O8BPzqEL._SY346_“A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you. Not all things from you.”

This is a dear little book that has been making the rounds among my friends and acquaintances of a certain vintage. Many of us have begun downsizing, distributing, and divesting. My husband and I did so when we moved to a smaller house three years ago. Margareta Magnusson gives gentle tips for making the process easier and more pleasant. Her reasons are simple.

“I have death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone else has to death clean after me.”

“Do not ever imagine that anyone will wish—or be able—to schedule time off to take care of what you didn’t bother to take care of yourself. No matter how much they love you, don’t leave this burden to them.”

She recommends not starting with photographs or papers. Start with furniture and clothing. And invest in a shredder.

“In general, when death cleaning, size really matters. Start with large items in your home and finish with the small.”

“Now that I am the oldest person in my family, if I don’t know the names of the people in the photos, nobody else in the family is likely to. More work for the shredder.”

The best bit of advice is to ask yourself, “Will anyone I know be happier if I save this? If after a moment of reflection I can honestly answer no, then it goes into the hungry shredder, always waiting for paper to chew.”

This is not a sad book. Much of what Magnusson suggests reminds me of the common sense and generosity my family–including my half-Swedish mother–practiced. Share what you have with those who need it. Let your old things start new lives and form new memories with a new family.  It is a gentle, sometimes humorous reminder that someone will have to deal with all our stuff one day. If we love them, we should make it as easy as possible. Recommend.

 

Book Report: On the trail of those little shoes

41Bwc+dgsyL._SY346_First, let me just say that having Reno author Pamela Everett, an attorney with the Innocence Project and a UNR professor of criminal justice, meet with our book club was a wonderful privilege. She told us about the very personal journey that ended with the publication of Little Shoes.

In 1937–long before most of us were born–in Inglewood, California three little girls were raped and murdered. Albert Dyer, a mentally challenged crossing guard, was arrested and confessed. He was quickly tried and executed. End of story.

Years later, teenaged Everett learns of her family’s connection to the story. Two of the three victims were her father’s younger sisters. Her aunts.

“Maybe that’s why he was so terribly strict. Maybe he saw his parents assume the best about people and he would spend his life assuming the worst, never for a minute risking his children to dangers, hidden or otherwise.”

“Thinking of their forgotten lives, something changed for me, something in my relationship to these girls who were my aunts, my dad’s little sisters. It was just so tragic, to have died as they did and then to be buried away—literally—as if they never lived at all. They’d been alone so long.”

Those little girls stayed with Everett and she began asking questions of surviving relatives and former neighbors of her grandparents. As if nudged by something unseen, she dug into court records, newspaper accounts, state archives. With each little piece of information, something kept pricking her conscience. Could they have gotten the wrong man?

We learn that reporters in 1937 were just as invasive and aggressive as today’s tabloid and cable reporters. The horror of the killer crossing guard soon became front-page news across the country. And although eyewitnesses were plentiful, they were and are quite unreliable.

“Eyewitness misidentifications have led to 75 percent of the wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in our country, and many of those mistakes happen early in the process when police are desperately seeking a suspect…”

These were the days before Miranda rights and police interrogated Dyer for ten hours—without an attorney present. Dyer alternately confessed and denied his guilt. His confessions—while inconsistent– weighed more heavily and the police stopped pursuing any other suspects, even as witnesses came forward to say that Dyer was not who they saw with the girls.

During Albert Dyer’s incarceration it was determined he had an IQ of 60. He was essentially a nine-year-old boy, which goes a long way to explain why his confession might not really have been a confession.

“Confessions are the most powerful evidence in any courtroom, and jurors—indeed, most of us—cannot comprehend how someone can confess to something they didn’t do… In some cases, confessions will overcome overwhelming evidence of innocence such as eyewitness identification and forensic evidence, even DNA… Yet more than a quarter of the documented wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in the United States have involved false confessions…”

In this case, the transcripts of the session reveal the interrogator telling the story of what happened and Dyer merely agreeing, “Yes, sir.” And with a riotous mob outside the jail and the pressure on police to bring a killer to justice, it wouldn’t be hard for police to convince their mentally challenged suspect that he was going to die—sooner or later.

Everett found holes in the prosecution’s case. She “couldn’t find testimony about the physical evidence that should have been admitted in this case… There was nothing? …no testimony whatsoever about the fingerprints or blood from Dyer’s clothing, nothing connecting Dyer to the knife or the ropes the prosecution introduced.” Furthermore, what forensic evidence was available was contaminated almost from the beginning. “…one of the more unbelievable case photos shows several investigators handling barehanded the tiny nooses and the girls’ clothes, with one of them even smoking a cigar over the pile of evidence.”

Everett manages to balance the horrific nature of the crime, the investigation by police, and the trial of Albert Dyer with the long-lasting impact it had on her family. So yes, there is some really bad stuff here, but just enough. And for someone like me, who never reads True Crime, I appreciated not spending any more time on the brutality than necessary. I was also grateful that the photos of the girls were ones while they were alive.

Certainly, suspects have more rights today and police procedures have improved. While Everett continues to question wrongful convictions, she recognizes the dangers.

“… we open old wounds, forcing victims and families to relive everything, and in many cases to fear the release of someone they believe is guilty… No matter how painful, we should share these histories so victims are not lost and so future generations can know all that came before them and what molded their parents, grandparents and others.”

Little Shoes offers much to contemplate the next time a crime is sensationalized in the headlines and we all jump to judgment. Recommend.

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Reno author, Pamela Everett

Book Report: Another political wife who stood by her man

51tPdMoM89L._AC_US218_My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton

Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie

For months the Hamilton soundtrack quickened my step on long walks in the neighborhood. Then there were the months I slowly slogged through Ron Chernow’s tome. Still, I was left wanting to know more about Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth. Living until she was ninety-seven years old, she made it her life’s mission not only to ensure that her husband’s many contributions to the United States be remembered, but also to provide for the care of hundreds of orphans. After all, Alexander Hamilton had been one.

“I was struck by the powerful conviction that God put us here to make a better world. And it is a conviction that has informed the rest of my life.”

hamilton_elizabeth-wife-feature.jpg__400x412_q85_crop_subsampling-2_upscaleThe Eliza we encounter in this well-researched historical fiction, is a reminiscent one. This mature Eliza (called Betsy by her family) already knows the betrayal and tragedy that is to come, as do most readers. But the authors work some sort of magic that both informs and compels us. Eliza’s loyalties and her longstanding mistrust or both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr are perfectly clear, as is her intellect and diplomacy. Early on she adopted a “policy for the dinners that took place at my table: no man’s politics should be held against him, and all were welcome.”

 “Silence is often the only weapon available to ladies. And I wield mine expertly.”

The Revolution

My Dear Hamilton provides insight into the monumental struggles of the Revolutionary War. Eliza and other officers’ wives, including Martha Washington, aided the troops by knitting socks and serving as nurses. After all, their lives were at risk as well.

“Inside the church, officers lay upon church pews, but the rank and file rested on naught but piles of straw. Nurses moved amongst the groaning mass of patients, combing hair for lice, and dousing everything with vinegar as a purifier.”

“Win, and nothing would ever be the same. Lose and, well, my husband, my father, my family, my friends—we stood to lose everything.”

The battles continued

Even winning the war didn’t bring peace. Yes, there were battles over the writing of the Constitution, but imagine rubbing elbows and doing business with those who had been on the other side.

“No royalists should not be suffered to live amongst patriots…. how easily any man could lay claim to the title Son of Liberty now that the war, and the danger of being hanged for it, had passed.”

“…angry, unpaid soldiers seized the city arsenals and held my husband, Jemmy Madison, and the rest of Congress at bayonet point in a standoff. After that Congress became a runaway government, fleeing to Pennsylvania, to New Jersey, then Annapolis.”

And then there were the personal battles

A woman whose husband is unfaithful is often judged more harshly than the man himself. Eliza and her contemporaries expected a wife to make her husband happy and to give him children. She knew  “…how society looked upon a wife who wasn’t enough to satisfy her husband. Not enough. Not enough. Not enough.”

 “For I was a wife who’d failed to inspire fidelity. And yet, my fidelity to him was now also to be counted against my virtue. I could neither leave my husband nor love him without offending someone.”

Modern, political, and very public infidelities remind us that not much has changed.  For the most part it seems, Eliza followed her father’s advice when she discovered Hamilton’s affair.

“And, as you will find is so often the case in life, …the only prudent thing to do was frown, make them humble, and forgive.”

imagesEliza Schuyler Hamilton’s intelligence and contributions to her husband’s career–as well as her pain and prejudices–come alive brilliantly in this retelling. It also serves as a reminder of just how brutal American politics has always been, even at its inception. The founding fathers and mothers were all too human.

 

 

Book report: The power of the book

51WSWSDYnKLThe People of the Book

Australian archivist Hannah Heath has come to Sarajevo to investigate and conserve a priceless text, an illustrated haggadah. The small book relates the story of the exodus from Egypt and is a common part of the ritual at a Passover Seder.

“…The hagaddah came to Sarajevo for a reason. It was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us. That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.”

This particular hagaddah is special because of its detailed illustrations. It has been sought by warring factions and preserved at great risk by individuals over centuries of conflict. But who made this unique book and why? How far has it traveled and by what means? What stories can be told through the analysis of inks, parchment, and butterfly wings? Through stains of blood, wine and salt? The reader is transported to every place and time that the book has traveled. The surprising stories of each person connected to the book–its creation and its rescue over centuries—make for a compelling read.

“A book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand.”

Geraldine Brooks’ research of this hagaddah also resulted in a 2007 article in The New Yorker. So yes, this is fiction, but VERY historical fiction. In fact the story of the Jewish girl protected by a Muslim family is true as are other characters Brooks employs to tell this story. There were and are good and heroic people of all faiths, just as there were and are monsters and murderers.

Because the audio-book was available through my library and the book-book was not, I listened to this book. While Brook’s writing alone is rich and evocative, the vivid voices and accents provided by narrator Edwina Wren worked well to place the me in the scenes. Brava!

“I had to remind myself that Islam had once swept north as far as the gates of Vienna; that when the haggadah had been made, the Muslims’ vast empire was the bright light of the Dark Ages, the one place where science and poetry still flourished, where Jews, tortured and killed by Christians, could find a measure of peace.”

Trust me, this is a good, profound book illustrating man’s historic cruelty to and mistrust of anyone perceived as “other.” However, the very survival of the Sarajevo Hagaddah also demonstrates that Christians, Jews, and Muslims have lived and worked together without fear and hate. Indeed, our shared humanity can and must outweigh the ideologies that divide us. Recommend.

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Author Geraldine Brooks

Book report: The “good old days” weren’t all that great for women

51Ja3naWT8L._SY346_Frequently we hear folks of a certain age bemoaning progress and the passage of time. They wish for bygone days when life was simpler. Not me. Especially after reading  Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times  by Jennifer Worth.

The author first gives us a little history of maternal healthcare before 1948 and the advent of Britain’s National Health Service.

“It is hard to imagine today that until the last century no woman had any specialist obstetric care during pregnancy. The first time a woman would see a doctor or midwife was when she went into labour. Therefore, death and disaster, either for mother or child, or both, were commonplace. Such tragedies were looked upon as the will of God, whereas, in fact, they were the inevitable result of neglect and ignorance.”

“In the mid-nineteenth century, maternal mortality amongst the poorest classes was around 35-40 percent, and infant mortality was around 60 percent. Anything like eclampsia, hemorrhage, or mal-presentation, would mean the inevitable death of the mother.”

Worth graphically describes— in sometimes intimate and cringe-worthy detail—the conditions and very real life and death struggles of the residents of the London Docklands just after WWII.

“Children were everywhere, and the streets were their playgrounds. In the 1950s there were no cars in the back streets, because no one had a car.”

Many of those children were born into two-room tenements without a toilet–or even running water–where four or more other children were already present. Some lived in ruined buildings left standing after the Blitz. Domestic violence and mental illness were common and mostly untreated. A girl “in trouble” was ostracized and–after surrendering her child for adoption–was many times forced into a life of prostitution. And while races bumped into one another frequently and companionably in the streets and at work, a mixed-race baby was unthinkable.

Those were the “good old days.”

What difference did reliable birth control make?

“The Pill was introduced in the early 1960s and modern woman was born. Women were no longer to be tied to the cycle of endless babies… Women could, for the first time in history, be like men, and enjoy sex for its own sake. In the late 1950s, we had eighty to a hundred deliveries a month on our books. In 1963 the number had dropped to four or five a month. Now that is some social change!”

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Fans of the television series, Call the Midwife, will enjoy becoming acquainted with the real-life Jenny, Trixie, Chummy, and Cynthia, as well as Sisters Julienne, Monica Joan, Evangelina, Bernadette. Dr. Turner and Fred are here as well.

But mostly this book is a reminder that things have gotten better. We know that access to affordable healthcare—especially birth control—matters. And to the most vulnerable women and children among us–the poor and the sick–it is a matter of survival.