January 3, 2017

Random Acts… Past and present connect in new tales

Posted in Books, Politics, Women at 10:09 pm by dinaheng

Everything in life is connected. The things we do today affect what happens tomorrow. The things we did yesterday affect what happens today.

Two authors explore that concept in different, intriguing ways in their latest novels.Dinah Eng

James Rollins, whose adventures often combine historical mystery and scientific exploration, has penned a thriller about an ancient plague that could wipe out the modern world in “The Seventh Plague” (William Morrow, on sale now).

In the book, which features characters from Rollins’ Sigma Force series, the leader of a British archaeological expedition stumbles out of the Sudanese desert, two years after vanishing with his research team. He dies before he can share what happened to him, and reveal who had begun to mummify his body – while he was still alive.

When the medical team who performs the archaeologist’s autopsy dies from an unknown illness, Painter Crowe, the director of Sigma Force, summons his team to investigate. Helping the team is the archaeologist’s only daughter, Jane McCabe, who discovers a connection between what is happening in the present and a historical mystery involving the travels of Mark Twain, the research of Nikola Tesla and the fate of explorer Henry Morgan Stanley.

"The Seventh Plague" by James Rollins. Book cover courtesy of William Morrow.

“The Seventh Plague” by James Rollins. Book cover courtesy of William Morrow.

Rollins explores the question of whether a virus could have caused the Biblical plagues, and whether today’s society is really ready to deal with global pandemics. Noting in the book that the Zika virus originated in a monkey in Uganda, the organism in the book is in the same family of viruses, causing birth defects and death, but only in male children.

The author, whose parents recently passed away from complications secondary to Alzheimer’s, dedicated the book to them. One of the main characters in the book, Commander Gray Pierce, grapples with the challenge of caring for a father whose Alzheimer’s has worsened throughout the series, and clearly reflects an experience felt by all who have aging parents.

When it comes to understanding the complexity of scientific issues, Rollins does a great job of using facts to keep readers guessing as his plot unfolds. Whether humanity is truly ready to face the crises that climate change and potential pandemics will bring is anybody’s guess.

Facing crises of faith and magical battles is at the center of “Heartstone” by Elle Katharine White (Harper Voyager, on sale Jan. 17, 2017), an absorbing reimagining of Jane Austen’s classic “Pride and Prejudice.”

In this tale, White weaves an historical fantasy with characters who live in a world where gryphons and direwolves battle dragonriders and wyverns. The heroine, a headstrong Aliza Bentaine, is as resourceful and brave as Austen’s Lizzy Bennet, facing both the demons that threaten the kingdom and her fears about falling in love with the haughty dragonrider, Alastair Daired (known as Mr. Darcy in Austen’s world).

"Heartstone" by Elle Katharine White. Book cover courtesy of Harper Voyager.

“Heartstone” by Elle Katharine White. Book cover courtesy of Harper Voyager.

Despite its connection to “Pride and Prejudice,” this story stands on its own with a well-crafted plot, passionate characters who come to life, and themes exploring class lines and what true love entails.

When Anjey, Aliza’s sister, falls in love with Cedric Brysney, a dragonrider and Alastair’s friend, the two seem destined for each other. But when duty calls, Cedric must leave, and the separation tests the faith each has in the other. Little do they suspect that someone is scheming to break them apart.

When Aliza is called to help an aunt and uncle who live near the Daired estate, she investigates why Cedric has not replied to any of Anjey’s letters. The answer to this romantic mystery unfolds as an even greater threat to humanity surfaces. (There are monsters aplenty in this realm).

As in all things, past connections bring present crises to the fore in this tale, which affirms the power of love to heal all wounds. For those who love classic romance and stories set in magical settings, “Heartstone” is a tale worth reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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December 16, 2016

Random Acts… Finding “My Christmas Love” a Joy

Posted in Entertainment, Movies, Relationships, Television, Women at 3:22 am by dinaheng

When it comes to holiday movies, Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas is a sure bet for films that convey the nostalgia and true meaning of the season.

This weekend, a sweet tale about a children’s book author who’s always searching for – and never finding — the perfect love, unfolds in “My Christmas Love,” which airs Saturday, Dec. 17 at 8 p.m. Eastern.Dinah Eng

In the movie, author Cynthia Manning (played by Meredith Hagner) returns to her family home for her sister’s wedding, and invites her illustrator and best friend Liam Pollak (Bobby Campo) to join her for the holidays.

When a series of presents, reflecting each day in “The 12 Days of Christmas,” is delivered to her father’s doorstep, Cynthia is convinced that one of her former boyfriends is behind the deed.

Jeff Fisher, the director of the film, was hooked by the premise.

“I love romantic comedies,” Fisher says. “If you go on a journey with someone in the film, and they find love and happiness, you’re along for the ride. Romantic comedies make people happier when they leave the theater, their TV or their phone.”

Fisher, who has produced reality TV shows (“Keeping Up with the Kardashians”, “Flip It to Win It” and others), says “My Christmas Love” is a return to the genres he loves best – romantic comedies and musicals.

Bobby Campo and  Meredith Hagner star in "My Christmas Love."  Copyright 2016 Crown Media United States LLC/Photographer: Fred Hayes

Bobby Campo and Meredith Hagner star in “My Christmas Love.” Copyright 2016 Crown Media United States LLC/Photographer: Fred Hayes

“My first short films were in those genres,” Fisher says. “To pay those films off, I got some reality TV jobs, then my first movies (“Killer Movie” and “Killer Reality”) were off issues from the reality TV shows.”

“My Christmas Love” is probably as far from horror and reality TV shows as audiences can get. The importance of celebrating Christmas with family is central to the plot, as Cynthia’s dad, Tom Manning (Gregory Harrison), is a new widower who must be encouraged to get out into the community to enjoy the spirit of the holidays again.

As Cynthia searches for her “true love,” her father reminds her that life’s answers are often right in front of our noses.

“I liked Cynthia’s Nancy Drew personality, looking for who sent the presents,” Fisher says, “and I loved the twist of who’s behind the gifts.”

The film, he says, was shot in various cities in Utah, which offered a good tax incentive to the filmmakers.

Shooting the film in Utah, however, may be the reason why the film lacks diverse casting. The only minority face in the movie belongs to actress Yolanda Wood, who had a brief speaking role in the beginning of the film playing Sandra, the hostess of a café that Cynthia often patronizes.

“There can always be more diversity in films,” Fisher says. “I don’t know how diverse Salt Lake City is, since a lot of our supporting actors came from there.”

Regardless, love is a universal language, and the holidays are meant to be celebrated. To see whether Cynthia finds her true love, tune into “My Christmas Love.”

November 10, 2016

HE is now “The Queen of Blood”

Posted in Books, Diversity, Politics, Women at 6:27 pm by dinaheng

Everything has a spirit… from the land that is parched by drought to the sea that rises like a tsunami when angry. In human beings, the spirit that has driven Americans through this presidential election has been fear and loathing.

Now that Donald Trump has won the contest, the true test of leadership begins.Dinah Eng

I couldn’t help but think of our presidential candidates as I read Sarah Beth Durst’s insightful fantasy, “The Queen of Blood” (Harper Voyager, 350 pp). In Durst’s novel, the realm of Renthia is ruled by queens who must prove that they can control the spirits that inhabit the world around them.

While we live in a nation that has yet to elect a female president, all those who hold the office get there by convincing voters that they are the best candidate to control the forces that determine our economy, our nation’s defense, and our foreign policy. Of course, no one can control anything except the way we behave toward others.

The heroine in Book One of this saga is Daleina, a young woman whose village was destroyed by rampaging spirits when she was a child. Determined to prevent the carnage from happening to others, Daleina trains to become a potential heir to the throne of Aratay, learning to use magic to bend the spirits to her will.

The spirits in this world are easily understood. The spirits of the trees want to grow. The spirits of the air want to fly. Whatever the element, plant or animal, its wish is to fulfill its natural inclination and purpose. At the same time, the spirits want to kill human beings.

Courtesy of Harper Voyager.

Courtesy of Harper Voyager.

So it is that Trump has used great showmanship to persuade a society that worships celebrities and tawdry gossip to choose him for our leader.

America has voted for change, and we must be grateful that change is always possible in a democracy. Let us hope that Trump ends up doing more to bring us together than his campaign rhetoric did.

For too long, partisanship has divided us. It took a shocking election wake up call for those long in power to hear the deep-seated anger of those who feel powerless and in pain.

What people in pain don’t always realize, though, is that change for change’s sake is never enough. When Trump supporters see that he will not fulfill the campaign promises that were only designed to win protest votes, will they grow even angrier? Will those who voted against him stretch the partisan divide even more?

Or will we all come to understand that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s message that we are stronger together really is the only way to make America great again?

In “The Queen of Blood,” Daleina is not the smartest or strongest potential heir, but she is a young woman who, above all else, wants to do the right thing. It is only after many spirits and humans are slaughtered that she rises to take the throne.

None of us really know what is in Donald Trump’s heart. We can only hope that the Office of the President of the United States challenges him to be better than anyone imagines.

In Renthia, each queen is chosen by the spirits when the previous queen dies, and must keep the world thriving with natural forces while taking care of the needs of the people.

Clinton’s concession speech showed the kind of leader she is, gracious and inspiring, even in defeat.

Trump must now show what kind of spirit truly lies within him.

 

September 19, 2016

Tales of terrorism all too real

Posted in Books, Politics at 4:40 pm by dinaheng

If you’ve never been the target of a terrorist attack, you probably have no idea how thin the veil of safety is that separates your sense of normalcy from constant fear and death.

Stories about ISIS and Al Queda attacks in different parts of the world dominate the news, but most of us really don’t think much about the politics and poverty behind the tragedies that occur daily. Until, perhaps, the attacks hit home on U.S. soil, like the New York and New Jersey bombings this last weekend.Dinah Eng

Read Daniel Silva’s “The Black Widow” (Harper, $27.99), and you’ll begin to realize that whatever happens across the world is bound to find its way to our doorstep.

Silva, a best-selling author of spy novels, fills his books with history, politics, and a look at what really happens behind the scenes of terrorism in the news. “The Black Widow” is an entertaining and intelligent primer on the chaos roiling the Middle East.

We join master spy Gabriel Allon, who’s about to become the chief of Israel’s secret intelligence service, as he leads the fight against a man named Saladin, whose terrorist network hides in the shadows of the Internet.

Photo courtesy of Harper.

Photo courtesy of Harper.

To penetrate that network, Allon recruits a brave Israeli physician to pose as a vindictive “black widow” who’s ready to die for ISIS. The operative’s travels from Paris to Greece to a training camp in Palmyra to Washington, D.C. reveal how vulnerable, disenfranchised people are recruited for extremist causes.

The trail of terror is told with details of the failures of Western Europe security forces, the lure of jihad, and the path to attacks on U.S. soil. Silva’s narrative is a page-turner of moral issues and geopolitical conundrums that bring home how connected we all are, whether we want to see it or not.

If Silva’s spy novels seem too close to home, the fantasy and folklore in the Jackaby novels by William Ritter will distract, yet teach, important life lessons. The supernatural mysteries, which feature the sleuthing adventures of paranormal detective R.F. Jackaby, as told by his intrepid assistant, Abigail Rook, are intriguing tales of life in a 19th Century New England town called New Fiddleham.

Courtesy of Algonquin, Workman Publishing.

Courtesy of Algonquin, Workman Publishing.

“Ghostly Echoes” (Algonquin, $17.95), the third book in the Jackaby series, explores the murder of Jenny Cavanaugh, the ghost who lingers in Jackaby’s house on Auger Lane. Jenny, who has become a dear friend to Abigail and Jackaby, learns that a great evil was responsible for her death, and even though she no longer exists on the Earth plane, she is far from powerless.

There’s romance for Abigail with Charlie Barker, a shape-shifting police officer; a trip to Annwyn, the land of the dead; and encounters with a vampire and a nixie (otherwise known as an evil water nymph).

Jackaby, who has the Sight, long ago learned to ignore the world’s skepticism, for he knows that the things we do not see are often more important than the things we do. He tells Abigail that we all make our own luck in life, and that real power lies in “finding something to believe in.”

Both Silva’s spy novel and Ritter’s fantasy explore the nature of fear and the choices that determine the kind of human beings we want to be. Terror and darkness exist in both genres, as they do in real life. Thankfully, so are the heroes who fight for the Light.

 

June 27, 2016

Random Acts… Brexit and the “Free State of Jones”

Posted in Business, Diversity, Employment, Entertainment, Movies, Politics at 8:06 pm by dinaheng

Life can sometimes seem like a never-ending cycle of unresolved conflicts.

Great Britain surprised the world last week by voting to leave the European Union. The campaigns of the presumptive GOP and Democratic nominees in the U.S. Presidential election mirror the conflicting sides of the Brexit debate. A new movie about the Civil War – STX Entertainment’s “Free State of Jones” — reflects the intractable partisan politics of today’s Democrats and Republicans.

It all comes back to the power of fear versus the power of love.Dinah Eng

Fear of losing cheap labor (in the form of slaves) tore this country apart in the early 1860s. Fear of losing jobs to immigrants is a cornerstone of Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign and Brexit’s “leave” campaign today.

What we need is more Newton Knights in the world. Knight (played by Matthew McConaughey) in “Free State of Jones,” was a little-known figure in Civil War history whose contribution to this country proves that every action we take ripples through time.

Knight, a Mississippi farmer, led an unlikely band of poor white farmers and runaway slaves in breaking away from the Confederacy to form the region’s first mixed-race community. Refusing to fight a “rich man’s war,” Knight became a Confederate deserter, hiding in the swamps of rural Mississippi and inspiring a ragtag army to fight injustice and prejudice.

After the Civil War ended, Knight advocated for the right of freed slaves to vote in Jones County, Miss. and fought the Klu Klux Klan. He fathered five children in a common-law marriage to Rachel, a former slave, and while they could not legally marry, he deeded his 160-acre farm to her, making her one of the few African-American women to own land in the South.

Knight also fathered children by his first wife, Serena, who left him during the Civil War. After the war, Serena returned to the Knight farm, where both wives and their families lived.

Eighty five years later, Knight’s great-grandson Davis Knight, who looks Caucasian, was indicted for violating Mississippi law by marrying Junie Lee Spradley, a white woman. While Davis Knight was convicted of miscegenation in 1948, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the verdict.

Prejudice and economic inequality seem to go hand in hand in humanity’s history. No one knows what will happen when Britain formally leaves the EU. Since last week’s referendum, Scotland is considering the possibility of leaving Great Britain to stay in the EU.

Republicans who can’t stand Trump’s rhetoric will no doubt look for ways to oust him at the GOP convention, or break away to form a new party of their own.

Politically, we can always move from one party to another, or leave a block of countries to stand independently. What people seem to forget is that no matter where we go, if fear is the driving force, we will just end up under another label, afraid of something else.

Brexit’s “leave” faction won the referendum because the positive reasons for remaining in the EU got lost amid the shouts of fear against other cultures, a view held mostly by an older generation that feels left out and left behind in a global society. The same dynamic has driven Trump’s rise in the United States.

Today’s Republicans and Democrats have an opportunity to defeat the prejudice that divides us. We must realize, though, that the only way to end any partisan divide is to face our fears, build bridges, and let the power of love heal our wounds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 19, 2016

Random Acts… Meet three memorable men in Florence, Italy

Posted in Dining, Spirituality, Travel at 10:15 pm by dinaheng

Dinah EngThe best part of any journey, for me, is talking with the locals, who know the best eateries, the best shops, and the places that define the soul of a city. On a recent trip to Italy with my sister, we met three memorable men in Florence. Their stories reveal the three best reasons to visit the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region – the Renaissance artistry, the warmth of the people, and the wonderful food.

The Maestro of alchemy and jewels

Hidden amid the narrow streets of the Oltrarno neighborhood is an unusual artisan workshop that takes you back in time to the Italian Renaissance. Housed in the 15th Century Palazzo Nasi-Quaratesi, jeweler-sculptor Alessandro Dari’s atelier has been recognized by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage as a Museo Bottega (museum workshop).

Walking into the small showroom, I’m dazzled by all the intricate pieces of handcrafted gold jewelry and small sculptures made of precious metals in the display cases. Collections called “The Keeper of the Soul,” “Alchemy & Magic,” and “Space & Time” tickle the imagination, making me want to meet the artist who created them.

After a few minutes, the maestro himself appears, clad in dark clothes and an industrial apron. Dari, who speaks little English, smiles with warmth and gives me a look at his workbench area. His fianceé Antonella, who speaks some English, serves as the interpreter.

“Alchemy was born centuries ago in China, Arabia, and Europe,” says Dari, pointing to various pieces around his laboratory. “In alchemy, the material has a soul. When you work with the material, you discover its soul.”

Alessandro Dari holds a sword designed to honor the practice of alchemy. Photo courtesy of Alessandro Dari.

Alessandro Dari holds a sword designed to honor the practice of alchemy. Photo courtesy of Alessandro Dari.

Dari, who made his first ring at age 16, studied chemistry at the University of Siena, intending to become a pharmacist. But a fascination with metalworking led him down another path. Today, his work is exhibited at the Silver Museum in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti and at the Cathedral Museum in Fiesole.

He teaches several students in the back of his workshop, using “sacred geometry” as the basis of his teachings. In other words, God created the universe with a geometric plan, and in the alchemic philosophy, he explains, “God and gold are the same. One lives in your soul, and the other in the material.”

Listening to him speak in Italian, I wish I could understand first hand what he was saying. One of the things that travel teaches you, though, is that when there is a will to communicate, there is a way. With each question I ask, the couple struggles to understand me, and shares the answers they think I am looking for.

Antonella explains that the techniques Dari uses stem from the Etruscan, Classical, Gothic and Renaissance periods. He takes particular pride in his “Collezione Castelli” (Castles Collection), where the architecture of castles was celebrated in his jewelry.

It’s amazing to know that everything from melting metals to engraving and the setting of stones is done in the tiny workspace behind the showroom. As I get ready to leave, the master goldsmith shares one last thought.

“Everything I do is about the elevation of the soul,” Dari says. “When the work is finished, I put every piece in a collection. I don’t know why themes emerge. It is something I feel inside. The point of life is to share emotion.”

Alessandro Dari’s museum workshop is at Via San Niccolo 115r, Florence, Italy 50125; Phone: +39 055 244747; http://www.alessandrodari.com/en/.

The Concierge

“Bene! Bene!” You can’t help but beam as Paolo Mori, concierge at the Hotel Lungarno, gives you an approving smile when you make a request, or take one of his recommendations. This is a man who could sell bottled sunshine because his heart is so open.

One afternoon, he tells my sister and me about an artisan workshop near the hotel. Rather than just give directions through the labyrinthine streets, he walks us through the neighborhood. Along the way, he shares the story of his life.

On one block, he points to the apartment building where he grew up. His father has passed on, but “my mommy is home now,” Mori says, happily. “I go to see her every couple of weeks, and she still cooks for me. She was a chef in a restaurant in Florence, so we ate well.”

The Oltrarno neighborhood of his childhood was a quieter place where he and his friends would play soccer in the street because there were no cars, tourists, or pollution to contend with. The cobblestone streets are still lined with small shops that the locals patronize. We stop in front of a local cobbler’s store.

Hotel Lungarno Concierge Paolo Mori. Photo by Dinah Eng.

Hotel Lungarno Concierge Paolo Mori. Photo by Dinah Eng.

“Here, they make handmade shoes,” Mori says. “When I was a kid, I would sit in that window, pretending to make shoes. It was great fun.” A few more feet and we cross the street. “And that’s where I went to church!” he exclaims. “On Sundays, we would visit the museums.”

He is proud of the neighborhood he calls home, and while he didn’t become a cobbler, he did try several other trades. He worked for a retailer, as a waiter, and tried plumbing before deciding to go into the hotel business. In 1997, he joined the Hotel Lungarno as a porter, was promoted to doorman, then concierge.

“I love my work,” Mori says. “Florence is my home, and I love to welcome everyone to my town. Every day is different because you don’t know who’s standing in front of you. It’s a universe of people from different countries and different perspectives.

“You have to figure out who’s in front of you, and what they’re looking for, in order to help welcome them. Florence is a warm town. It’s not Milan, where people are professional and stay cold.”

The oddest question he’s ever had from a guest? “One woman asked, where are the gondolas?” he says, laughing. “They are, as you know, in Venice. She was visiting so many different Italian cities that when we told her, she laughed, too.”

Mori has a fondness for America, having visited the United States on his honeymoon. He raves about the sights he took in at the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. “Bellisimo!” he says.

Today, his wife works at IKEA in Florence, and they have an 11-year-old daughter. The family lives in the city suburbs, but Mori still loves the Oltrarno neighborhood of his youth.

“I love every single corner, because every corner has a secret, or something particular that only those who live here see every day,” Mori says. “A lot of the historical shops have been replaced by tourist shops and commercial places. Fortunately, Florence is still a wonderful town. Perfecto!”

The Oltrarno (meaning “the other side of the Arno”) neighborhood, lies south of the Arno River in Florence. Known as a historic, working-class neighborhood, the area is filled with local restaurants, small artisan workshops, and antique shops. Hotel Lungarno, Borgo San Jacopo 14, Florence, Italy 50125; Phone: +39 055 27261; http://www.lungarnocollection.com/hotel-lungarno.

The Food Connoisseur

One rainy afternoon, it was time for lunch at Irene Firenze, the restaurant inside the historic Hotel Savoy off the Piazza della Repubblica, The menu is different than most places in town, so Paul Feakes, the restaurant manager, stops to chat and explain why.

“We designed a menu for women,” Feakes says. “Men enjoy it, too, but we were very aware that people’s tastes and needs have changed. So while the menu is authentically Tuscan, the dishes are lighter, healthier, and address a number of allergies and intolerances. Vegan, gluten-free, lactose intolerant, whatever you need.”

Irene (the name of hotel founder Sir Rocco Forte’s mother) was chosen to give the restaurant a feminine feel, rather than a masculine title that might suggest a bar.

“Tuscan food is traditionally very heavy and very meat-based,” Feakes explains. “Considering a female palate enabled us to get creative with the menu. As a result, we’ve seen huge growth in both Italian diners and new international faces.”

Paul Feakes, restaurant manager of Irene Firenze. Photo courtesy of Rocco Forte Hotels.

Paul Feakes, restaurant manager of Irene Firenze. Photo courtesy of Rocco Forte Hotels.

Feakes, who has lived in Italy for seven years, is a food connoisseur whose journey has taken him around the globe. Feakes started in the catering industry in Great Britain, moved to work in California, then to an ashram mountain community in India, two hours north of Mumbai, where he cooked for about 300 people.

Eventually, he returned to the UK, where he helped to grow catering brands and re-styled food operations in the House of Commons when he was recruited to open Portcullis House, a building in Westminster that houses members of Parliament and their staff.

After a slight detour to become a psychotherapist, Feakes, and his partner of 21 years, gave everything up to move to Florence in 2009, looking for a total life change. There, Feakes started a private cooking school and opened an art gallery in Northern Tuscany’s Pietrasanta.

“I devised a way to put my creativity, my love of food, and my need for another adventure together by teaching English through the medium of cooking,” he explains. “This led to teaching at the Savoy, and I returned to my roots of pure food and beverage when I took over as restaurant manager for Irene.”

Moving to Italy suits the food connoisseur, who learned to speak Italian gradually as he acclimated to his new home. “I make mistakes, of course, but I like to think that I make beautiful mistakes, or make mistakes beautifully,” he jokes.

He sees food changing in Florence and Italy in many ways, and dislikes the trend toward over-complicating traditional dishes. For his taste, Tuscan food should be simple, seasonal and flavorful. A simple bruschetta with wonderful fresh tomatoes under the Tuscan sunshine, he notes, is divine.

Yes, there are cultural differences between England and Italy, but Feakes is more than happy where he is.

“For me the Italian culture fits how I wish to live,” Feakes says. “I miss things from England — a great beer in a country pub and our sense of humor. But I just love life here – being outside under the sunshine, and the rhythm of the life. I feel like a new Florentine, not like a foreigner in a strange town.”

Irene Firenze, Piazza della Repubblica 7, Florence, Italy 50123; Phone: +39 055 27351; https://www.roccofortehotels.com/hotels-and-resorts/hotel-savoy/restaurant-and-bar/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 1, 2016

Random Acts… Good reads for summertime

Posted in Books, Uncategorized, Women at 4:21 pm by dinaheng

Romantic suspense… science fiction… a sweet tale about an awkward, lovable creature. What more could you want for a good summertime read?

Dinah EngWhen Morgan Yancy, a covert team leader of a paramiltary group, is shot and nearly killed, his supervisor sends him to an isolated town in West Virginia to hide and recuperate. Little does Yancy know that his housemate, Isabeau “Bo” Maran, the part-time police chief of Hamricksville, is about to change the course of his life.

Courtesy of William Morrow

Courtesy of William Morrow

In “Troublemaker,” by Linda Howard ($26.99, William Morrow), romance and suspense combine for some fun summertime reading. Unlike many novels in this genre, the suspense takes a backseat to the romance. Most of the book explores how two wounded souls, brought together by the antics of Bo’s dog Tricks, help each other to heal.

The danger is muted in this tale, with the mystery of why Yancy was shot being solved almost as an after-thought at the end of the book. This is not a page turning thriller. But with a satisfying romance at the core of the story, who cares?

Fans of romance, mystery, and science fiction will enjoy “The Cold Between,” a debut novel by Elizabeth Bonesteel ($16.99, Harper Voyager) that sets up a universe where Central Corps engineer Commander Elena Shaw is determined to prove that her lover, Treiko Zajec, a former pirate, did not kill her crewmate on the colony of Volhynia.

Courtesy of Harper Voyager

Courtesy of Harper Voyager

After helping Trey escape the authorities, the two head into a wormhole, seeking answers to the murder, which may be tied to a government conspiracy that threatens the balance of power for all human civilizations. Galactic politics, it seems, is the same no matter which universe you hail from.

While the first third of the book starts slowly, the story picks up its pace and complexity with each page. Ancillary characters in the novel are well drawn, setting up the hope for more stories about the crew of the CCSS Galileo.

For younger readers, a charming picture book titled “Hello, My Name Is Octicorn” by Kevin Diller and Justin Lowe ($17.99, Balzer + Bray) speaks to anyone who has ever felt a little different.

Courtesy of Balzer + Bray

Courtesy of Balzer + Bray

Little Octi is half-octopus, half-unicorn, and more than a little sad because “when you don’t fit in, you don’t get invited to a lot of parties.” He shares his various talents – like being good at lots of sports, a good juggler, and a terrific dancer.

If others would only give him a chance, an octicorn would make a great friend “because in the end, we all want the same things. Cupcakes, friends, and a jet ski.”

Truer words were never spoken.

 

 

 

 

May 5, 2016

Random Acts… “War Hawk” possibilities all too real

Posted in Books, Politics at 8:20 pm by dinaheng

We live in a world where drones are capable of killing an enemy, and information cyber attacks are increasingly being used to blackmail corporations for money and more.

With that reality as the backdrop, James Rollins and Grant Blackwood have written a thriller that could be tomorrow’s headlines, putting a spotlight on the dangers of using technology without working out the moral consequences first.Dinah Eng

In War Hawk, (William Morrow, $27.99) Tucker Wayne, an ex-U.S. Army Ranger, works with the help of his military war dog Kane to figure out who’s killing cyber experts on a top secret project, and unravels a web of digital warfare that could end up toppling targeted governments.

Imagine a media mogul, manipulating the flow of information in publications and social media by using drones to secretly gather information and change what’s reported. Add in other drones to target and kill those who stand in the way of making profits to fund this man’s vision of a better world.

The tale reflects the military expertise of Blackwood, a U.S. Navy veteran who spent three years as an Operations Specialist, and the perspective of Rollins, a former veterinarian whose thrillers combine scientific breakthroughs, historical secrets and fast-paced action.

Beyond the taut suspense of a thriller, “War Hawk” explores the questions of who will control future drones, and the consequences of psychological warfare in an era where digital information spreads faster than our ability to discern the truth.

What’s frightening is that the technology cited in the story is already in play.

The concept of telling the story through the eyes of a former Army Ranger and his dog came from a two-week trip Rollins made to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010 as part of a USO author tour.

“Since a lot of the military were reading thrillers, the USO asked five of us who were members of Thriller Writers International to visit some bases,” Rollins says.

"War Hawk" book cover courtesy of William Morrow.

“War Hawk” book cover courtesy of William Morrow.

“We talked with the men and women there, and tried to encourage them to write about their experiences – whether through journaling or recording thoughts — so that events would be preserved, even if it was for personal family histories.”

Prior to going on the USO tour, the authors visited the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. There, Rollins met soldiers who had PTSD and who lost limbs.

“Moral injury is something they’ve been talking about in the last couple years, and the treatment regimens are different,” Rollins explains. “When it comes to PTSD, treatment may include drugs and psychological therapy. With moral injury, the better treatment is talk therapy. It can become a manageable condition over time.”

As a former veterinarian, Rollins was curious about military handlers and their dogs. He researched the emotional connection between the two, and decided to create the Tucker Wayne and Kane duo, writing parts of the book from the behavioral standpoint of the dog, and giving Wayne the little discussed condition of moral injury.

After returning from the USO tour, Rollins founded Authors United for Veterans, a group that raises money for USA Cares and its efforts to support veterans. He also supports the US4Warriors Foundation, which helps veterans and their families who have specific needs.

While doing research for “War Hawk,” Rollins learned that drone technology has advanced to the point where drones can act autonomously, with the capability of shooting without orders.

“A lot of this is being developed by corporations who are becoming more involved in running wars and the military, which is disturbing,” Rollins says. “It has me worried because drones make it easier to go to war, and as killing becomes impersonal, the likelihood of choosing aggression over diplomacy grows.”

And that’s a headline none of us want to read.

 

 

 

 

 

April 24, 2016

Random Acts… Bridging cultures in ‘A Hologram for the King’

Posted in Diversity, Entertainment, Movies at 4:35 pm by dinaheng

When you’re divorced, depressed and about to be downsized, what do you do?

If you’re business executive Alan Clay (played by Tom Hanks), you go to Saudi Arabia to sell a deal to save your career. That is, if you can find a way to bridge the cultural divide.

Hanks’ portrayal of Clay’s journey in search of personal and professional salvation is what saves “A Hologram for the King,” in theaters this week, from being a disjointed mess. The Lionsgate film, based on the novel by Dave Eggers, makes an earnest attempt at showing the many differences that puzzle Americans about Saudi culture, but gives few explanations about the traditions that created those differences.Dinah Eng

Clay, alone in an unfamiliar land, befriends Yousef (Alexander Block), a Saudi taxi driver who takes him through the desert to “the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade,” a virtual ghost town of half-built buildings, where Clay hopes to sell a state-of-the-art teleconferencing system to the Saudi government.

Trying to set up a meeting with the King of Saudi Arabia, Clay must navigate the bureaucratic obstacles of a receptionist who gives no answers, a Saudi manager who leaves him mid-meeting, and his own stressed-induced panic attacks.

When a boil on his back sends him to the hospital, he is treated by the empathetic Dr. Zahra Hakem (Sarita Shoudhury), a Muslim physician who must navigate the complexities of a woman’s role in Saudi society while asserting her authority in a male-dominated profession.

As Clay builds a friendship with Yousef, and explores romance with Zahra, the businessman who came to Saudi a lost soul begins to find new meaning in life.

The movie, shot in Morocco, has sweeping desert scenery and offers a credible substitute for Saudi Arabia, which denied permission for filmmakers to film there. Writer-director Tom Tykwer, who visited Saudi Arabia’s ghost town “King Abdullah’s Economic City,” shot photos that served as inspiration for the movie’s ghost town.

For those who may never have the chance to visit the Middle East, the film shows realistic cultural challenges that Westerners face. Clay’s encounters with different people along the way, however, are often shown without explanation, leaving the viewer confused about what just happened.

How he finally gets to make his sales pitch, and what happens to his deal of a lifetime, is told with irony and humor.

What makes the film worth seeing is the message that regardless of where we come from, cultural differences can be overcome, for friendship and love truly know no boundaries.

 

 

 

February 4, 2016

Random Acts… Sweetest words need to be spoken

Posted in Books, Diversity, Relationships at 5:29 pm by dinaheng

I was in line at the post office behind a woman holding her 20-month-old daughter. The little girl smiled shyly at me, then hid her face in her mom’s jacket.

I smiled back, and hid my face in my hands. A fast game of peek-a-boo ensued, creating lots of giggles until we parted at the counter, going to separate clerks to mail our letters.

We are surrounded by words of fear, indifference, prejudice… words that make the world narrow and small. But those words can be vanquished by a smile, a laugh, a game of peek-a-boo.Dinah Eng

Some of the sweetest words are uttered by children, who haven’t learned the words that reflect darkness and negativity. So it’s no surprise that words of love are the essence of the stories we love to read to them.

Three endearing children’s picture books are out for Valentine’s Day, but even if you don’t have a little one to read them to, read them for yourself, or someone you love.

“I Love You Already” written by Jory John and illustrated by Benji Davies ($17.99, Harper) is the comic tale of what happens when Bear wants to spend a pleasant day alone, but Duck wants to hang out… with his buddy Bear.

"I Love You Already" by Jory John and Benji Davies." Book cover courtesy of HARPER.

“I Love You Already” by Jory John and Benji Davies.” Book cover courtesy of HARPER.

The lesson, of course, is that no matter how much someone irritates you, all will be well if the Bear in you admits how much you love the Duck in the other.

Continuing on the animal theme — since adults seem to understand truths better when the characters are not people – “Worm Loves Worm” written by J.J. Austrian and illustrated by Mike Curato ($17.99, Balzer + Bray) is a charming story about what happens when a worm meets a special worm, and the two decide to get married.

Their friends want to know all the typical details… Who’s going to wear the dress? Who’s going to wear the tux? How will you wear the rings if you don’t have fingers? What are we going to do if things have always been done a certain way?

As one wise Worm answers, “…we’ll just change how it’s done.”

One thing that never changes is what happens when you “Plant a Kiss,” as the sweet story written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds ($7.99, Harper Festival) reminds us.

In this tale, Little Miss plants a kiss in the ground and watches it grow and grow. For no matter how small the gift, each genuine kiss is destined to result in endless bliss.

So smile. Giggle. Say the sweetest words you can imagine.

Love is sure to find you.

 

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