Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Movie Review: Insidious

Insidious (2010)

Director: James Wan
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Stars: Patrick Wilson, 
             Rose Byrne
             Ty Simpkins 

Ratings: ★ ★ ★ ★ 


Insidious is the terrifying story of a family who, shortly after moving, discovers that dark spirits have possessed their home and that their son has inexplicably fallen into a coma. Trying to escape the haunting and save their son, they move again only to realize that it was not their house that was haunted.

My thoughts:

I've been seeing this movie for weeks in HBO but I never had the chance to actually watch it until last week while I was on leave. Wow! Insidious was really that scary! I did scream more than a few times due to some creepy images of ghosts appearing in almost all scenes matching with terrifying sound effects. I love the story! A ghost story that is so original, ooh I was really scared the whole time and could not sleep without the lights on for days! 

The writer did a great job in weaving a thought-provoking ghost story. I've watched some documentaries about walk-in souls, soul-swapping and astral projection and I can't believe that some people do it because they are curious, they want to try it for fun! Just thinking about it, hell no! I wouldn't do that even if it is only temporary.     

Knowing the twist in the story, I consider Insidious a one-time-scary-movie. You cannot watch it again and be that scary like the first time. Remember the movie by Nicole Kidman, The Others? Finding out the twist in that movie made it predictable the second time I watched it. Overall, this is a great horror movie that could give you nightmares for days! 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Give Away Winners: A World Apart by David Brown


e-BOOK and $20 Amazon GC giveaway winner:
e-BOOK giveaway:

Confirmation emails sent and please reply within 48 hours or new winners will be re-drawn. Thank you to the author for these giveaways!

If you didn't win, you may join another upcoming giveaway this week:



Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book Spotlight: Steven Greenberg's ENFOLD ME

Enfold Me – A Novel of Post-Israel
by Steven Greenberg

File Size: 577 KB
Print Length: 293 pages
Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0985687312
Publisher: Steven Greenberg (May 28, 2012)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.



Written by an Israeli, Enfold Me is a provocative and dark journey into a chillingly-realistic post-Israel Middle East.
Precipitated by a massive earthquake and an Iranian-led attack, the fall of Israel rips Daniel Blum from his suburban life and scientific career. Alone and scarred, he endures subjugation and terror in Hamas-controlled Northern Liberated Palestine.
Now, Daniel must follow George Farrah, a figure from his past, deep under the Carmel mountain and through Egyptian-controlled, quake-ravaged Tel Aviv. Haunted by tragedy, Daniel strains the bonds of duty and family as he and George uncover a secret that could alter the region’s balance of power.

About the author:

I am a professional writer and an Israeli. I am also a full-time cook, cleaner, chauffeur, and work-at-home Dad for three amazing young children, and the lucky husband of a loving and very supportive wife. Born in Texas in 1967 and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, I emigrated to Israel only months before the first Gulf War, following my graduation from Indiana University in 1990. In 1996, I was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, where I served for 12 years as a Reserves Combat Medic. Since 2002, I’ve worked as an independent marketing writer, copywriter and consultant.

Chapter 2 – The Jizya

Northern Liberated Palestine
The Present

A chill dawn rose over Nazareth, sharp wispy orange beaks of clouds pecked the carcass of the landscape bloody. It was not much of a bus stop. Really just an old sign pole, the sign removed, the pole painted hastily in orange oil-based paint. The painter had obviously been less concerned with technique than with expediency – drips had congealed into solidified smooth lines of orange, frozen in time as they followed gravity to the ground, trusting its lead yet ultimately betrayed. A few rocks that had been caught in the orange deluge moped stickily at the base of the pole.

Daniel trudged up the stony road embankment, through dust-encrusted Rosemary bushes – multicolored plastic bags nesting in tangled branches – and over shards of broken glass that were just starting to gleefully catch, and play with, the morning sunlight. The asphalt was a grey skillet, still cool in the viscous morning fog, but waiting, biding its time until the sun heated it into a grease-spattering conduit, sizzling at the feet or tires of its conveyances.

Looking at his watch, a cheap digital thing he’d traded for in the market last week, Daniel approved his excruciatingly consistent, yet clearly pointless, promptness in arriving at the Dhimmi bus stop on Road 79, the Nazareth highway.

The remaining evergreens dotting the hills to the southwest drooped morosely, as if bemoaning their dramatic fall from pampered Jewish National Fund poster children to plain old future firewood. With his back to the once green hill, Daniel watched as the other Dhimmi men of Safuriya began to arrive.

Some were clad in threadbare, graying work clothes, lunches of bread, lubbaneh, and desiccated cucumbers in various-hued plastic bags clutched in their calloused hands. Some had on worn-out designer-label jeans and slick running shoes that had seen better days, brushed leather jackets over t-shirts brightly emblazoned with hi-tech company logos. 

Backlit by the menacing orange sun, which had now started consuming houses in the east with a mouth of blazing shadows, they shuffled to the makeshift bus stop. As the rising sun clinched them from behind, the lines etched on their faces told the tale of the trials they'd endured these past months, much as the dull reflections of their eyes would do in the evening light, after this day’s trials. 

All had lost loved ones. All had lost property – things, trifles. Some had lost all – humanity, compassion, self-respect, love. These moved mechanically, responding in monosyllables to any enquiry, enduring humiliation with bent back and lowered head. Post-Zionist Mussulmen.

The bus shelter, now reserved for Muslims only, shone in the morning sunshine – fading plastic roof an untouchable shrine, cracked wooden bench an unreachable luxury. The Dhimmis waited – alternating standing, sitting uncomfortably on the curbstones, walking back and forth, leaning on the lone orange signpost. As the hours passed, tense nonchalance gave way to subdued impatience, which morphed momentarily to disguised outrage, and then came to rest squarely in the realm of mute resignation. 

Dhimmi regulations permitted inter-city travel only on pre-approved methods of transport – walking was not an option. And besides, nobody knew where they were being taken.

Three hours later, at 9:00am, with the sun already high and heating the asphalt, a diesel-belching bus – overloaded with travelers – came around the curve sluggishly, pulling over to allow the Dhimmis to embark. Daniel and several others made straight for the ladder at the back of the bus, which led to the roof luggage rack – preferring the dust and sun to the sardine-like conditions of the interior for the presumably short ride.

Heaving himself wearily up the rusty, rickety ladder at the rear of the ancient bus, Daniel threw himself like a sack of self-motile potatoes over the top rail of the luggage rack, alighting heavily on a cushion of worn suitcases in varying degrees of disrepair, and – to his surprise – a significantly less cushioned man, who had been lying prone across the luggage rack. Daniel’s elbow in the man’s stomach produced a “what the hell?” that Daniel was surprised to hear in English.

“Sorry,” Daniel mumbled, sizing the man up briefly before casting his eyes downward, seeking, then finding a roosting spot from which he’d be less likely to tumble when the bus lurched forward. “Didn’t see you there.”

“Well you bloody well would have if you’d been looking, wouldn’t you?” the man spit testily in a clipped British accent, sitting up and turning away from Daniel’s intrusion on what had been his personal space. “Like I haven’t got enough people figuratively stepping all over me on a daily basis, I need one of our own to do so literally.”

Daniel sat, clumsily clutching the luggage rack as the bus pulled away from the bus stop, jerking the roof passengers in perfect unison, like marionettes in a synchronized swimming meet. After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence between them, the man looked up. Daniel, casually swinging his gaze away from an invisible spot on the horizon, met his eyes for a brief moment, then looked away. “Name’s Daniel,” he said, holding out his hand.

“I’m David,” he used the Hebrew pronunciation Daveed. “Used to be called David, once upon a time in the seat of the British empire,” said the man, trying unsuccessfully to again meet Daniel’s eye, and grasping his hand with a limp, almost effeminate handshake. “You a Yank, then?”

“Way back when. I grew up in a little town in the Midwest, before I came to the Holyland to seek fortune and glory,” Daniel smiled ironically. “And look how far I’ve come.”

David was a slight man, so clearly an academic that “Property of Oxford,” or whatever institute of higher learning he represented, may as well have been tattooed across his forehead. Completely bald, glasses with lenses as cloudy as watery milk perched on an understated nose that seemed to exist for the sole purpose of diverting attention to a thick-lipped mouth with a set of crooked white teeth. Daniel’s eyes unconsciously locked on those teeth as he listened to the professor – which was how he immediately began to mentally refer to him.

“Been here over twenty years, myself,” spoke the professor. “Taught over there, until the Fall, that is,” he gestured vaguely to the southwest, in the direction of the only university in the region, the now-ruined Haifa University. “Islamic History, believe it or not. A Christian, living in the Jewish state, teaching Islam to Jews and Arabs. I guess I had all my bases covered, religiously and ethnically. I’m staying now with my daughter in Nof Alonim. Not doing much but reading, these days.”

The bus driver had been instructed to proceed directly to the Jizya collection venue – the only destination of any Dhimmi traveling that morning. None of the passengers knew exactly where the bus was going, but the speculation was Nazareth. And, for once, the speculators ruled the day, as the bus took the right fork at the junction with Road 79, towards downtown Nazareth.

“I figured they’d get around to putting on a show for the masses, one of these days,” David  reflected, half to himself. “Looks like today’s the day, and you and I are going to be on center stage, my friend.”

Daniel nodded glumly. A student of Middle Eastern history, Daniel had known the term Dhimmi  well prior to the Fall. Under Koranic law, a Dhimmi  is a non-Muslim subject, afforded protection under the Dhimma, or protection pact. Never, even in the farthest reaches of his creatively pessimistic doomsday fantasies, had he expected to live as one. 

“I’ll bet you didn’t know that by donning that orange armband, we’ve joined the ranks of an auspicious tradition dating back to the Prophet Mohammed himself,” David  continued, his voice taking on a bombastic, if somewhat monotonous, lecture timbre that must have bored generations of students to tears, Daniel thought. “It’s true. In the year 629, after his army conquered the oasis of Khaybar, which is in what used to be Saudi Arabia, Mohammed granted the Jews there religious freedom and security, in exchange for a yearly tithe. Of course, this was short-lasted freedom – the agreement was reneged upon by Caliph Umar several years later. But modern-day Muslim scholars, and especially our friends in the Hamas government, prefer to overlook this little blip in the storyline.”

Daniel had now turned, interest piqued, and was actively listening to the professor’s soliloquy.

“You see, Muslims love using the Dhimmi system as an example of the historically enlightened nature of Islamic government. And I suppose it could be considered ‘enlightened’ by historical standards,” he mused. “I mean, Dhimmis were neither systematically massacred nor forcibly converted. They retained basic property rights, they were guaranteed basic freedom of worship, and they even had legal recourse against Muslims. It’s not a mystery why the status was even welcomed by Jews when the Muslims took over after centuries of Byzantine persecution. “

Something behind Daniel’s eyes caught fire. “Enlightened?” he snapped, just as the bus lumbered through a deep but smooth pothole, slamming his ass down hard on the luggage rack. 

“Enlightened, indeed,” the professor continued, shifting uncomfortably, enjoying the parley. “You see, you and I understand – in 20-20 hindsight – that the Dhimmi system legitimized disenfranchisement, segregation, arbitrary violence, and disproportionate taxation. However, history is nothing if not relative. Some scholars compare the Dhimma status to life for ex-slaves in the southern United States, from the end of the Civil War until the 1960s. And, the very fact that these people were no longer slaves made their treatment more ‘enlightened’ – even though by our standards it was abysmal,” David  continued. “Enlightenment,” he postulated, “is in the eye of the enlightenee, so to speak.”

Daniel looked up. The Dhimmi bus had already crossed into Nazareth from the northern checkpoint – no hassles getting in today – and was working its way through slow-moving traffic on the main streets of Nazareth. As David  finished speaking, Daniel noticed the hush that seemed to fall over the street as the bus passed – the way a blanket draped over your head at the beach dulls out the sound of waves just enough so you can focus on each watery crash. Bypassers stopped, pointed, stared at the bus, with its hastily painted but distinctive orange stripe. Daniel watched their faces – some eyes just curious, some mocking, even a few pitying – but most hardening like red-hot metal cooling in a blacksmith’s water bath.

The Hamas-led government of Northern Liberated Palestine, with the enthusiastic support of its Iranian masters – who had a long history of zealously embracing the Dhimmi system – had enacted Dhimmi  legislation soon after taking power in the previous August. The Christians and Jews that remained in Northern Liberated Palestine – those who had not fled to the Egyptian-held territory south of the Carmel, secured a coveted ticket out prior to the Fall, or been slaughtered in the post-Fall Terror – were now officially Dhimmis.

“To sum it up,” the professor broke the silence, jolting Daniel back into focus. “The Dhimmi system was – is – a codification of the discrimination and subjugation of minorities under Islamic rule. It ensured basic rights, true – but far more for the financial gains of the ruling majority than for some greater humanistic ideal. For,” David ’s voice became less oratorical and more conspiratorial, “as we are likely to soon find out firsthand, at the base of the Dhimmi system was the collection of the poll tax – the Jizya.”

Imposed only on Dhimmis, Daniel recalled, the Jizya was not just a crushing tax – ostensibly to cover the cost of the protection pact – it was an opportunity to ceremonially demonstrate the Dhimmi’s subjugation to Muslim rule.


There are moments when life becomes a movie, a flimsy celluloid veil which – if only pushed aside – could reveal the actual. It is as if the human psyche throws up a translucent scarf as it retreats to a safer haven – attempting perhaps to delude itself that the phantasmagoric is only the surreal.

A filter of this sort descended over Daniel as the bus stopped at the Nazareth municipal stadium, not far from the new government compound. Tires crackling on gravel, the bus turned into the parking area, and it was like when the ophthalmologist clicks the wrong lens in place – the letters on the chart go just blurry enough to become unidentifiable, but still clear enough to be recognizable as letters. 

Their rooftop perch afforded David and Daniel a view of the scene in the soccer stadium. There, the Jizya officials had set up a stage at one end, and marked out two paths in lime  from the parking-lot gate to the stage.

Recognizing individual aspects of the scene, yet still unsure of their holistic meaning, Daniel’s eyes found and focused on the first item they could identify. It was to remain the defining image of the entire experience. Industrious municipal employees, lacking plastic garbage bags to serve the refuse needs of the substantial crowd in the stadium, had diligently created an environmentally-friendly, reusable alternative. From simple steel frames located every several meters around the stadium hung grease-stained cloth trash bags, hastily fashioned from sewn Israeli flags.


The Jizya had been fixed at PD 2000 for this first collection, around US $500 at current exchange rates, and was to be payable in any currency, including the now-defunct Israeli Shekel.

For Safuriya  residents, the early-morning bus-stop meeting took place on less than a day’s notice, following receipt of notes in Arabic deposited in the mailboxes of all residents the evening before. A thoughtful local Arabic-speaking resident had quickly posted a Hebrew version of the order by the mailboxes, which sent Daniel and the other Dhimmi residents scrabbling to gather or borrow enough cash to meet the household tax. According to the notice, a Dhimmi bus would arrive at 6:00am to transport the male taxpayers. Attendance was, of course, unquestionably and unpardonably mandatory.

Clambering down from the bus rooftop, Daniel and David found themselves in a sea of Dhimmis, and were quickly separated in the throng of kippah-wearing religious Jews, white-capped Druze elders, and Christians or secular Jews who wore nothing definitive except their fear. Music was blaring festively from the stadium’s tinny loudspeaker system, and the giant TV screen on the scoreboard was alternating between white-on-green Arabic text, video of children making the “V” sign climbing on burnt-out Israeli tanks, and live action shots of the Dhimmis themselves, thronging in the parking lot.

The Muslim crowd had taken advantage of the government-declared holiday and turned out en masse to witness the spectacle. Daniel could see the crowd from his position in the mass of Dhimmis – these people who had been nothing to him previously, and with whom he now shared a common, uncertain fate. How ironic that the people in the stands, many of whom he undoubtedly also knew, had meant equally little to him in pre-Fall Israel. For now, they held the power over his life, or were at least part of the power that controlled his life. Had he once held such power? If held, had he abused it, and would he have come when bidden to gloat in their misery, even that of former enemies? 

The Dhimmis shuffled forward toward the crowded stadium, where the Jizya collection had already begun. Pushed and herded by heavily-armed Hamas guards into a chain-link chute, which had been erected outside the gate, they awaited their turn to approach the Hamas official on the stage. 


Despite a fundamental disregard for international convention, a tight communications and media blackout, and the Western powers’ profound silence and inaction in the face of the events leading up to the Fall – the Nazareth-based Hamas government was not entirely inept at public relations. 

Objectively, Daniel had to admit that they had initially implemented the anachronistic practices of the Dhimma – fundamentally unjust and warped as they were – in an intelligent way. As CNN looked on, Dhimmis had been mandated to pay the Jizya (at a yet-unspecified time and place), to maintain separate residences from Muslims, to study in separate schools, to limit public religious displays, and to carry their blue Israeli ID cards as a temporary Dhimmi identification.

Some of these requirements differed little from de facto practices in the former Jewish state, where segregation had existed, albeit undeclared. It was easy, therefore, for both the world media and the local Dhimmi populace to accept the changes – the former because the regulations so closely resembled past practice, and the latter out of pure gratitude for not suffering the outright slaughter that many of their ranks had met during the Terror.

It was only with the second round of Dhimmi legislation – passed quietly in January, without media fanfare, and slated for gradual implementation – that the true nature of the Northern Liberated Palestine Dhimmi system was revealed. 

From the beginning of February, all adult and child Dhimmis would be required to wear the orange Dhimmi armband. Separate public transportation was mandated, as were strict rules of conduct in Muslim-Dhimmi interaction – notably forbidding Christian and Jewish Dhimmis from operating motor vehicles on Muslim roads, forbidding interaction of Dhimmis with Muslims except in necessary business matters, delineating Dhimmi  behavior upon meeting a Muslim, and setting up the first annual Jizya collection.

To assuage the international media's occasional scrutiny, and the occasional Red Cross outcry, the Hamas government spun the new regulations as part of its magnanimous campaign to protect the minorities that had fallen under its care. The armbands – to assist security forces in differentiating law-abiding citizens from insurgents. Segregation – partially a natural result of wartime emigration and population movement, and partly to alleviate sectarian frictions. It all made perfect sense, given the mitigating circumstances and recent upheaval. Curiosity appeased, passing pangs of guilt eased, the world moved on to the next human-interest story.


As the bizarre and terrifying scene before him resolved itself in Daniel’s reeling mind, it became clear that the Hamas government was making the most of the Jizya collection. Traditionally, collection of the Jizya had both financial and symbolic significance. On one hand, collection of the Jizya was a serious boon to Muslim economies; on the other hand, it was a very public affirmation of the Dhimmis’ state of absolute subjection – saghir. 

As each Dhimmi arrived from the crowded chute to the stadium gate, two guards, one on either side, forced him to his knees at the origin of the lime-delineated path. Daniel had the sinking rollercoaster feeling he always felt when entering a situation utterly lacking control – an operating room, a dentist’s chair, the army induction center, a trans-Atlantic flight. He was pressed forward by the crowd, which was being herded – yes, herded was the right word, Daniel thought – like sheep by whip-wielding Hamas soldiers, and then kicked or prodded in the direction of the stage.  

Daniel watched the line of Dhimmis on the field waddle forward slowly, clumsily – like a wounded worm writhing earthward, away from a marauding child. Every now and then, a roar went up from the crowd as a Dhimmi tripped or fell, often causing a domino effect that knocked down several meters of the line, or when the Hamas official on the stage delivered a particularly resounding blow with his cane.

Arriving at the stage, still on painful knees, each Dhimmi was forced to kiss the holy Koran held out to him. Each then handed over ID card and the tax, and – following a careful counting and rubber stamping of the ID card – received either a blow to the back of the neck or a kick in the buttocks, depending on the whim of the Hamas soldier.  Due to the large number of Dhimmis, several officials, and a small group of soldiers, were working on processing the arrivals.

Daniel was swept forward, rollercoaster feeling supplanted by something more removed, yet more ominous in its distance. As he watched, a young man – perhaps 25 – arrived on his knees at the stage. Ignoring the threats, shouts, and blows from the Hamas guards, and the pleading from the other Dhimmis – he defiantly rose to his feet. The crowd fell silent almost immediately, anticipating. Staring directly at the officials on the stage, and then looking around to ensure the eyes of the crowd were upon him, the man ripped off the orange armband, and then turned and spit luridly onto the Koran which had been waiting, extended, for him to kiss. 

Absolute silence. After several seconds of collective shock, the crowd, soldiers, and Hamas officials broke the silence simultaneously with a roar that filled the air like a flock of birds scared off a smooth African lake by a predator – voices beating the air, arms flapping like wings, as if struggling to break gravity’s stifling hold over their outrage.

They took him to the side of the field, within full view of the crowd, and beheaded him without ceremony. At the Hamas official’s bidding, soldiers crossed from both sides of the field, closing in on the line of Dhimmis. An officer came forward, and counted off the next twenty Dhimmis in line. Marching them to the sidelines, the soldiers lined them up, backs to the line. Bearing a still-dripping bloody sword, the executioner and his assistant, who held the heads, worked their way down the line. The sword bearer was visibly panting from exertion and covered in gore by the fourth or fifth head, but persevered to the end of the twenty. While this was going on, the crowd remained respectfully, perhaps fearfully, silent.

The line began to move forward again. An hour had gone by since Daniel had arrived. Another thirty minutes passed. The guards became bored, the blows became more and more theatrical – growing in crowd-pleasing and humiliation value, if not in pain infliction. Still the Dhimmis kept moving forward to the stage, then shuffling back slowly, still on their knees, to the gate. After that, they were free to go.

Daniel had grown up in a culture that veiled its underlying distaste for Jews, cloaking it in guises ranging from curiosity to disinterest. Having survived the Fall, the Terror, and the following months in the ranks of the Resistance eating stringy wild Carmel boar – hardship, suffering, and fear were no longer strangers to him. 

However, as he eased forward with dew-damp grass soaking his gravel-racked knees, he saw the hard eyes of the guards tracking their progress with the aloof bemusement of schoolchildren watching a line of ants. He saw the line of still twitching orange-armbanded bodies to his right. And he saw in the spectators’ eyes not silent outrage, not indignity, not pity, and not even mild surprise at the extremity of the abasement – but rather, pure, undeniable Schadenfreude.  As he approached the stage, bent his head to kiss the Koran, and handed over his money, Daniel realized that fear has an older brother – one who, in the absence of mitigating motherly hope, is far more powerful in the family of emotions. As he felt the stinging slap of the soldier’s hand on his cheek, he met, and truly came to know, despair.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Guest Author: Elaine Russell

I came to writing fiction somewhat late in life after a career in energy and environmental research and analysis. In my early forties, while taking care of my small son and working part time at home, I finally had the chance to pursue creative writing. It began during nap time, but soon I found myself grabbing every spare moment available. I was obsessed and thrilled with the process of writing fiction and wished I had started sooner. I took classes, wrote about every topic I could think of, and spent over a year on what I call my “practice” novel. 

Eventually, I settled down from my experimental frenzy and concentrated on stories that mattered to me. The inspiration for my novel, Across the Mekong River, came through a series of unrelated events. It started with the Hmong children in my son’s elementary school and articles in the Sacramento Bee about the struggles of the Hmong community in my home town. Then my book group read Anne Fadiman’s wonderful non-fiction book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.  I wanted to learn more the refugees from Laos.

In 2002, I wrote a short story about a Hmong woman, but further research convinced me there was a much larger story to tell. About this time, Lee Yang, a young Hmong woman, came to work in my husband’s office. She shared her story of marrying at the age of twelve and having a child at thirteen, and how she constantly struggled with Hmong cultural expectations. She introduced me to her friends and helped explain Hmong traditions and customs. I traveled down a fascinating path where each new discovery resulted in another, and I felt compelled to write this novel.

Lee, her friends, and other Hmong I met along the way told me of the conflicts they faced trying to live in America while maintaining Hmong traditions. I read every book I could find on the Hmong–their life in Laos, customs, beliefs, and traditions—and studied the civil war in Laos, part of the wider second Indochina War, our American Vietnam War. After the communists took over Laos, close to 300,000 Hmong and other Laotians were forced to flee their homeland. I read accounts of families’ escapes, the years in refugee camps, and experiences on coming to America. I attended Hmong New Year’s celebrations in Sacramento, learning more about Hmong music, traditional dress, and other customs. Hmong associations working in the Sacramento area and nationally provided me with additional materials. Meanwhile, I wrote and rewrote the novel, struggling with point of view and how expansive to make the story. I put it aside for long stretches of time, but always came back determined to get it right.

In 2006, I traveled to Laos to gain a greater sense of place, of what had been left behind. I fell in love with the people and landscape and have returned on four occasions. While there, I learned about the extensive problem of unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from U.S. bombing campaigns during the war. Nearly fifty years later, there are close to 80 million unexploded cluster bombs, which are still killing and maiming Laotians, many of them children. I joined a U.S.-based non-profit, Legacies of War, which works to get additional funding for UXO clearance. Through my association with Legacies, I met other Hmong and Laotians and learned even more about the war and its aftermath. 

I hope readers will enjoy the story and find a new appreciation for the immigrant experience of Hmong refugees, escaping war and persecution and adjusting to life in the U.S. It has been particularly difficult as most were rural, subsistence farmers high in the mountains of Laos. They could not read or write in their own language, making it even more difficult to learn English and understand their new environment. Families continue to struggle with poverty and prejudice. Across the Mekong River is the story of a Hmong immigrant family, but there are themes true for all new immigrants who come to the U.S., filled with hope, but often facing a harsh reality.   

About the book:

Across The Mekong River tells the adventurous and gripping story of a Hmong family forced to flee Laos after the communist takeover to pursue a dangerous journey across the Mekong River, leading them from Thailand to the United States. Through the eyes of each family member, Elaine Russell spins a moving, deeply personal, and yet universal portrait of the immigrant experience of leaving one's homeland to begin anew in a strange and foreign culture.

Across The Mekong River was praised by Kirkus Reviews as "a multifaceted tale of complex characters finding new lives in their new world," that explores the resilience of the human spirit to overcome tragic circumstances and make impossible choices." 

About the author:

Elaine Russell worked as a Resource Economist and Environmental Consultant for 22 years before beginning to write fiction for adults and children. She became inspired and actively involved with the Hmong immigrant community after meeting Hmong children in her son’s school in Sacramento and reading Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Since then she has been to Laos many times to research her book and as a member of the non-government organization Legacies of War. For more info, visit http://www.elainerussell.info/

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review: Happily Never After by Isabella Fontaine

Happily Never After
The Grimm Chronicles Book #2

Author: Isabelle Fontaine 
File Size: 277 KB
Print Length: 99 pages
Publisher: Brew City Press (June 10, 2012)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Note: I received a review copy of this book free from the author, Isabella Fontaine. The review posted below is based on my personal thoughts while reading the book.

Ratings: ★ ★ ★ ★

My thoughts:

This is the second book to The Grimm Chronicles. Both stories are entertaining but I like this Happily Never After better than the first one, Prince Charming Must Die since I just don't have any idea what will happen next, not that familiar with this Grimm story. At some point, I got confused with Cinderella's story. Funny because I had to ask my husband about it if she has dwarfs. It was only at the end of the story that I remember it is Snow White that has seven dwarfs not Cinderella. 

Again, the book did not disappoint like the first one, Prince Charming Must Die. If you are looking for a quick and funny read, try these books. I can't wait to read the next installment!

About the book:

200 years ago, the Brothers Grimm unleashed their stories upon the world.


Now the characters of the Grimms’ stories walk among us. With every day that passes, they grow more evil. They are the Corrupted, and only a hero can save them.

For 18-year-old Alice Goodenough, that means taking precious time off from her summer vacation. In addition to volunteering at the local library, Alice must stop the Corrupted who are now actively hunting her down. With the help of her magic pen and her trusty rabbit friend, the world has suddenly gotten a lot more complex. The Corrupted are everywhere, and only Alice can see them for what they truly are!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Guest Author: Tali Nay

It's like this: I love reading memoirs. While I can certainly appreciate a well-written novel (I'm just as into things like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter as everyone else), my favorite things to read are memoirs. I just love real life, because if the book is good, there's an extra sense of satisfaction in knowing that it really happened. The author really did accomplish this great thing, conquer this pesky demon, learn this poignant lesson, make it through this unimaginable trial, etc. And if the memoir is more entertaining than serious, that's even better. Because that means the author really did make this big a fool of themselves, say this ballsy thing to that other person, get themselves into this hilarious shenanigan, etc. 

The typical memoir plays on a unique set of circumstances in a person's life. We've all read them. We've all been fascinated by them. People who have been imprisoned, abused, addicted, or held hostage. People who survived the horror of war, the despair of disease, or the injustice of corruption-riddled countries. We're fascinated by these stories because we can’t possibly imagine what such an experience would be like. Then there is the celebrity memoir. We’re fascinated by these stories too, because what we really want to know is what their lives are like outside of the spotlight; what they were really thinking or feeling during a pivotal moment that the whole world saw on TV.

So what could a regular person like me possibly have to write a memoir about? The answer, of course, is nothing. Not in the conventional sense of the word, anyway. Because I’m not famous, nor have I lived a particularly fascinating life. Yet life is exactly what I found myself scribbling about in my notebook when I actually sat down to write something substantial. Traditional? No. Refreshing? Absolutely. Because the more I thought about it, the more I came to believe that there is room in the market for a book like this. A series like this. A series of memoirs that celebrate the universal aspects of life we can all relate to. 

As for the background on this first book, Schooled, I was barely 21 when I graduated from college, and one of my first tasks after graduation (other than finding a job) was to update my personal history with everything I hadn't had time to pen down during those years. Which was pretty much everything. When I finished, I was struck by two things. First, I realized that the majority of my life up to that point had taken place in a classroom. And second, after looking at everything I'd recorded over the course of my life, I was surprised by how little my school musings actually had to do with education. What I remembered and recorded were the teachers (both good and bad), the classmates (both friend and foe), and the emotions associated with growing up (both triumph and failure). I realized right then and there that much of what I had written could be turned into a book, a collection of vignette-style lessons that we can probably all relate to. And that is my hope for you, reader. That you will read my books and remember the times in your life when you were in similarly humiliating, hilarious, or heart-wrenching moments. That you will be reminded of simpler times, perhaps even better times, and come to more fully appreciate the everyday experiences that make up our lives. 

For more information on Tali, please visit www.talinaybooks.com.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Book Spotlight: Steven Mohr's THE LISTLESS

by Steven Mohr

Reading level: Ages 15 and up
Paperback: 198 pages
Publisher: Silver Shield (contemporary fiction imprint of Dare Empire) – releases in early Fall
Language: English



Living in the crudeness of Detroit, Michigan and working in the refinement of the metro area suburbs, first year teacher Conor Batey is having difficulty adapting to a world plagued by greed and vanity. In his college days, the response was to rebel against society through music and art, but with age creeping in and a recession on the lookout for those in the undeserving working class, he chooses the suit and tie life.

Quickly, however, anticipation rises and fears are avoided as Conor, together with his past musician friends, are offered a record deal for their fairly successful but recently defunct band Listless. The group doesn’t immediately see the value in this brief stint of regression and avoidance of their everyday existences. However, with adult/professional life during the recession looking so bleak and their past dreams so close to realization, they choose to take this one last chance to tour their favorite music venues and play with some of the their favorite bands.

Along the way, the band meets the beautiful young journalist Ellie Cruz who opts to travel with the indiepop rock group and document their sometimes funny and other times awkward jaunt around the East Coast. The story ends in a realization that takes the characters (and reader) right back to the start in this vicarious ride through the cyclical reality we call life.


Chapter 1 

A Petite Tragedy

 “Cowards die many times before their deaths! But the valiant never taste of death but once!” roared the defiant cage fighter as he leaped to safety in thwart of the towering Soviet wrestler.

“Aidan, if you quote from some lame old book one more time while I’m playing Street Fighter, I’m gonna pile drive this androgynous joke of a fighter you picked back into pre-pubescence,” Kurt declared with squinted eyes and a shrugging display of pity.

“Whoa! Since when does Kurt Hammit use big words like ‘androgynous’ and ‘pre-pubescence’?” remarked Aidan. “And why did your first grownup use of the English language have to be so lewd?”

Without even the slightest indication of blow to his ego, Kurt shot back, “Well, we didn’t all have the genius idea of going to college in a recession and racking up tons of debt with no way to pay it off. I got those words from the internet… no charge.” His words were laced with the stunted vocal rhythm and distinct mannerisms of Bill Cosby. Whether by reason or chance, when Kurt lashes out in a sarcastic way, the delivery comes across like he’s mimicking the comedian.

“Besides, look at Conor over there, spending most of his day grading papers for a job that pays just about the same as mine. And I pretty much do nothing! I check people’s IDs and get to watch bands for free.”

“Don’t bring me into this,” I said.

I was sitting in my usual spot in the corner of the living room, finishing the grades on a test my junior high students had taken that morning. I wasn’t about to get into a discussion on jobs with Kurt. The guy had already gone through three of them in the past six months, ever since he moved in with Aidan and me. I’ve gotten used to getting paid rent in old vinyl records. But I’ll admit, the month I got Of Montreal’s first pressing of Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy made it all worth it. 

“At least I get summers off,” I continued. “And besides, aren’t you working now at that dive bar over on Cass Ave that brings in all those jam bands and their weird hippy fans, banging their heads to the same first-fifth chord progressions over and over again? How can you stand that, man?”

The question hung in the air for a while.

“I know… I don’t think I can take it much longer.”

He paused the game and turned to Aidan. With a devious look in his eyes, he said, “But… if Aidan could get me a job down at the record shop… things would be completely different.”

Aidan gave Kurt one of his jolly smiles that is known for its ability to do two things: brighten the moods of all those nearby and stop most girls dead in their tracks.

With a drawn out shrug and a heavy pat on Kurt’s back, he lamented, “Ahh, I’m sorry, man, but Lee’s strapped. His shop hardly makes enough to keep up with what he’s got now. And even I’m only there part-time, which is cool for now while I’m still going to Wayne State. “

He paused for a few seconds and let the natural elation his face normally showed turn down a notch, “But maybe you’re right about college… I started this English degree hoping that at some point along the way I’d find out what I wanted to do, where I would go into from here… but I’m almost finished with it and I’m still clueless…”

In his usual avoidance of serious discussion, Kurt rolled his eyes, stood up and replied, “Owen’s back in town, and I’m meeting up with him at the hippy bar. But I have two things to say about that, Aidan: one, I agree. You are clueless. Two… well that’s all. Oh, and by the way.” He glanced back just before walking out the door, “Owen said he had some good news for all of us. He wouldn’t tell me what it was about over the pho—” The last word was cut short as the thick mahogany door slammed shut.

“I wonder what that’s about,” Aidan questioned.

“I haven’t seen that Owen in months, not since whenever that last show at the Ottawa Tavern was.”  

Owen was an old friend who I had first met in high school. At the time, I was playing in a Weezer cover band—we played only the 90s material. When the band’s bassist decided he could take no more of our singer’s insatiable ego he quit, leaving a gaping hole in our rhythm section. The drummer asked a guy he knew named Owen to fill in. After seeing what he could do on such a limited instrument, I continued asking him to play on recordings and live projects for the next seven years Though, I’ll admit, the fact that he was African American also helped. Who wants to listen to some lame band of all white guys? Now, I’m not saying all single racial group bands from the past were lame (that’s obviously far from the truth), but that was the past. Today, people want variety, an integration of ideas for a newer, more complete sound. Owen was perfect for all of those reasons. But, to be honest, for how long I’d actually known him, I knew very little about Owen.

I stopped reminiscing and gathered my thoughts about what I was doing. “Hey, I’ve only got a few more papers to deal with. I’m gonna work on them outside. I can’t sit in this living room anymore with such a great day outside.”

“Sure, man. I’ll be out there in a minute, too.  Let me get a book,” Aidan said as he turned off the game and practically sprung up. For people like us, the thought of reading a good book on a nice day, with the sun shining and a cool breeze blowing, was enough to put a spring in every step. And anyone who’s seen the state of our house would understand how literally that statement could be taken. 

The floorboards creaked as he moved up the stairs, making the roughly 150 pound guy sound much larger than he was. We first moved into this old house a little under a year before, and no single part of this “fixer-upper” had yet been fixed. It wasn’t that any of us lacked ambition, and we all had enough personal experience in carpentry for moderate fixes. And for what we didn’t know, there’s always research. We just had lives filled with things we found more important.

After graduating from the University of Toledo, I found a job teaching junior high social studies at a charter school in Southfield, Michigan, right outside of Detroit. My longtime friend, Aidan, had still been living with his parents in Ann Arbor and was looking for a cheap place to stay while he was in college. Between our combined incomes, and Detroit’s desperate need of home owners, I was able to get a four bedroom house in an only semi-seedy area for a great price. Aidan—and Kurt as well soon after—pay me enough rent to make my monthly expenses very cheap, which, regrettably, is essential to my survival. The paycheck I take home every week seems to jokingly skirt the poverty line.

Seeing as I teach kids that probably top my salary in their allowances, when one talks about becoming a teacher and asks me how much we professional educators make, I just say it’s not about the money, it’s about enjoying what you do. Recently, that statement has seemed less and less true. Not the money part; I’ve never felt the need to make a whole lot of that. It’s the part about enjoying what you do. Do professionals ever really enjoy what they do? Or maybe it’s just the thrill of victory over another that brings some kind of adrenalin rush to type-A people, a rush I have never felt, nor want to feel.

I’ve been told that in the first five years of the education field, a third of teachers leave the profession never to come back. I sometimes wonder if I’ll find myself in that minority that gets away and never looks back. I imagine many of them, like me, thought this profession would be different from the rest—some kind of altruistic oasis of society giving sustenance to a world ruled by dry-mouthed bureaucrats, with only money on their minds. I was wrong.

In my experience, these factories that we call schools today suffocate both teachers and students in their regulation and procedure. I knew it was my own fault for continuing with such a juvenile faith, though. I was given the warnings. A particularly good professor I had in college once told our class that he never worked a day in his life until the federal regulations of the early 2000s. Every day in his fiction writing class was an experiment in teacher and student creativity, with interjected thoughts ranging from the life of a poor pedestrian in the ancient world to the power and prestige of a galactic empire in the midst of revolution. After the brick of federal regulations broke the shop window it was nothing but flash cards and standardized assessments. He said that once the government came into the classroom, all teacher discretion vanished and it became a punch in-punch out industry. When the class was over, he finished his monolog with a sympathetic, “Good luck!”

I walked out the door. The Midwest spring temperature was ideal. A slight breeze was playing against the sun’s warm presence to the perfect degree. The grass was green, and probably could use a cut. The birds were chirping, and my cul-de-sac was as at peace as a neighborhood four blocks down from a recent break-in could feel.  Our neighborhood watch group was on special alert since they first heard news of that last situation. I was growing more worried by the day. Not so much about the robbery; I was more worried that my neighbors would guilt me into joining them in their righteous quest.

All in all, my neighbors are pretty awesome people. Whenever I have car trouble, all I have to do is walk three doors to my right and tell Sam what’s going on. In lightening speed that guy will have a diagnosis, prognosis, and any other kind of nosis that’ll get it back up and running in no time.

Evelyn, in the yellow house just to the left of mine, is our neighborhood’s resident chaplain. While her day job involves running a shelter/after school program for the Detroit youth, in the afternoons she’s the one my neighbors go to with questions about God and the afterlife. While I have a lot of respect and appreciation for a girl in her twenties taking on so much responsibility in such a selfless way, I steer clear of any discussion on religion with her. Though, she seems to always swing it around to that. It’s amazing how pervasive it is in some people’s lives… I told her, it’s not that I didn’t believe in something supernatural, I just needed more time in life to see these clues that are supposedly hidden all throughout creation, certainly more time than it took this young woman to find them.

I chose this city block because it reminded me of the cul-de-sac I grew up on in Toledo, Ohio. Our road dead ended into a large circle of pavement where we played baseball and roller hockey all summer long. We tried hard not to shoot the puck over the tall fence at the end of the road because if we did, that was it. The game was over. On the other side of that fence was a cavernous slope filled with broken bottles and lost toys that had been accruing for as long as I could remember. And it only got worse once you reached the bottom. From the heights of our cul-de-sac, all day and all night, we could hear the roar of the mighty I-75 Interstate that lies below. Cars flew by with little regard for the speed limit. Trying to recover a lost puck or ball through these mighty obstacles was treacherous—and we knew it as well as any grade-schoolers could—but it stopped us only occasionally.

Coming back into the present, the first thing I noticed happening on my block was my neighbor across the street painting his garage. In the sun’s glare, I couldn’t quite make out the colors, but I was pretty sure they didn’t match those of the house.

Since the 1970s over a million residents have left the city limits of Detroit, leaving it open for communities of artists and open minded people who want the freedom to do what they feel is right for themselves. There are no housing regulations in this neighborhood that say if your house is some pastel blue so is your garage. When one neighbor decided to grow pumpkins and tomatoes in her front yard last year, no one stopped her. There were no little old ladies bereft of open mindedness or upper middle-class businessmen desperate for the respect of others to tell her she couldn’t do that. It was her property and her right. When I was searching for a place to live over a year ago, the freedom so prevalent in this community called to the artist in me, a part I had so often been forced to cover up in the professional world. It felt like the America we read about in our textbooks; a place where outcomes were of our own making.

“Hey dude. Wow, it’s nice out!” Aidan exclaimed as he walked out the door, breaking me from the state of sullen contemplation I had been finding myself in more and more for the past year. “What do you think Owen is gonna say to Kurt?”

“I’m not sure, but I’ll definitely ask one of them what went on,” I answered. “Even with nothing special to talk about, those guys always have something interesting to say.”

“Yeah, man. They’re characters.”

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