Kid’s Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon

There wasn’t a dry eye in the movie theater, including grandpa and grandson (granddaughter is pre-teenager, so she would not admit to it through her sniffles).

Robert Redford plays an old wood carver whose daughter Grace is a forest ranger. The woodcarver loves to tell people the story about the dragon who lives in the nearby woods, but no one believes him.

Pete is a 10 year old whose parents died in a tragic accident. He lives in the woods with a dragon named Elliot. Eleven year old Natalie, her Dad Jack and Grace head into the woods to find out where Pete comes from and the truth about the dragon.

Pete’s Dragon is a sweet tale about magic, and those who believe in it. It’s not a tale for the jaded and the cynic…unless of course they take their grandkids to watch this latest Disney movie. If that happens, the movie pierces their cynicism chainmail and put a dent on their jaded helmet. This, like the three or four Disney productions I’ve seen recently seem to do a good job of restoring that faded place in an old man’s spirit where magic used to live.

Lord knows we need to reacquaint ourselves with magic and fantasy these days. Don’t be afraid to look foolish in front of the kids and grandkids. Take them to see Pete’s Dragon. Try to keep magic’s flame alive!

Pete's Dragon

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What America did we fight for?

Now that the candidates have settled comfortably in their partisan roles there is a question that is likely running through the minds of those of us who served. When we answered our country’s call which of the political factions did we fight for? What was the America we had in our minds?

There is the candidate who would continue the current administration agenda. For whatever reason, polls have already declared her the winner. A newspaper article this morning has her sitting back, confidently working on her White House agenda.

The other major candidate appears to have shaken off a group of advisors who were guiding him into mainstream politics. He is now returning to his initial strident message on immigration and bringing back a brand of America which he terms ‘great,’ and attracts persons angry at multiculturalism, Islam and social welfare.

Finally, there are two outside candidates whose platforms support more moderate aspects of the two main camps. Polls are less kind to them.

It occurs to me, and probably to many other veterans, that we had a vision of an America for which we decided to ‘sign a blank check for up to an including our lives.’ It must have been a powerful vision because it’s lasted many years and continues to foster a certain protective spirit for the country we love so much.

Seeing the opposite poles facing off in the ultimate political contest it is natural to ask: which of these visions did we risk our lives and our families for?

Did we toil in harm’s way for the faction who would weaken and reduce our numbers? Did we dodge the enemy’s wrath for the faction who would highlight and act upon racial, ethnic, social and religious differences? Or did we perhaps fight for legalized drugs and pretty green trees?

I don’t think there is a veteran/military consensus on what makes us tick. After all, we are largely a crosscut of the society we sought to protect. There are many of us who at one time or another have espoused at least parts of all the current political platforms; in an understated manner because we generally stay quiet on politics. I suppose that we could agree the American military is not a Praetorian Guard ready to depose or install Caesars.

“Make a decision, Lieutenant” would push our Fort Benning teachers. “You, up in the bleachers, in the green shirt, you’ve got all the facts and the time is here: make a ‘blanking’ decision, which vision of America did you sign on to defend?”

The answer is so obvious it hurts.

“Whatever the voter decides.”

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A mi Tio Pancho

Hoy me he acordado de ti, Francisco Álvarez, mi querido tío Pancho. Cuando niño pensaba en ti como apéndice de mi querida tía Julia, hermana de mi adorada Nanita, y por lo tanto tía-abuela, pero ¿a quien le importan los detalles?

Desde mi altura inferior se te veía alto, siempre vestido de blanco en el sol tropical; con un sombrero jipijapa y un bastón de roble carmelita oscuro que empujaba el suelo con una cabeza de goma color ladrillo.

“Tato” te decía Yuya, “ve a buscar el filete del niño.” “Tato” en otras ocasiones, “trae el jamón dulce del niño.” Eras de importancia solo cuando ibas a buscar algo para mí. No, mentira, había otra cosa.

Me encantaba ir al cuarto trastero donde tenías tu colección de jarritos llenos de clavos, tuercas, arandelas y tornillos. ¡Qué tesoros maravillosos había en ese cuarto para un niño de ocho años! ¡Qué cosas extrañas habían entre las sogas y los cables bien enrollados! Y claro, que nunca le dijeras nada al niño cuando quería jugar con tus tesoros; ¡que Dios te cogiera confesado si me regañabas!

Hoy estuve pensando en ti porque es mi turno de enrollar cablecitos y prepararme para ese momento en que uno de mis nietos, por una de esas casualidades de la vida, necesite o le dé la gana de jugar con estos tesoros de viejos.

Con lo tanto que adoraba a la tía Yuya no me daba cuenta que pensaba en ti solo como un apéndice de su nombre: Yuya y Pancho, la tía Julia y el tío Pancho. Que poco importante te debí hacerte sentir, algo así como me siento a veces cuando me doy cuenta de lo que valgo en realidad. Valgo para hacer cosas por las hijas y por los nietos, excepto que ellos me dan muchas veces las gracias que no se me ocurría darte porque, claro está, me lo merecía todo. ¡Qué descubrimiento tan atroz!

Quiero hoy darte las gracias por arrastrar tu bastón hasta la bodega, y por comprarme los cinco centavos de jamón dulce, y por traerme el filete envuelto en papel de estraza. Hoy quiero mandarte un abrazo de esos fuertes por todos los que te negué en aquel entonces. Me gustaría también plantarte un beso en la mejilla de barba escasa. Quizás te hubieras podido afeitar más a menudo si no hubieras tenido que pasar tanto tiempo haciendo cosas para el niño.

Hoy me saltan las lágrimas por no haberte demostrado que, si lo hubiera sabido en aquel entonces, me importaban los dolores de tus piernas, y los sudores que pasabas por el niño. Hoy me duele en el alma que no tengo ni una foto del Tío Pancho.

Francisco Álvarez, Tío Pancho, Tato de mi Yuya. Te quiero.

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Book Review: The “Atlantis Gene: A Thriller,” by A.G. Riddle.

It’s been a long time since I’ve given up on a novel. To be fair, I’m not a science fiction fan. But I’m always looking to widen my horizons. So I said ‘why not?’ when I should have said ‘why?’ 

The plot is overused. The lost city of Atlantis, Nazis, the Kaiser’s forces, the CIA and a mysteriously gigantic corporation all play a role interrupted by several flashbacks. The interruptions are not bad; in fact, some are downright entertaining…which is more than I can say for ‘Atlantis Gene’ as a whole. One of the flashbacks is the female protagonist reading a journal to a comatose hero. Not only does it change the narration from third to first person, but it made me wish I were comatose too. 

I’m being too harsh. Riddle is a skilled writer. The tale flows, except in the scientific explanations (unless you are a PhD in Biochemestry you’ll gloss over those explanations). The transitions from third to first person narration are clearly predictable. And I guess I could finish the book in another twenty sittings; but why? My other foray into verisimilitude, The Hunger Games, at least had entertainment value for the young reader. 

I’m angry Riddle fanned the flames of my disappointment. I wanted so much to enter that final frontier of science fiction with a captivating and addicting tale. Inexplicably, it’s a ‘Million Copy Bestseller.’ Holy cow! The scary part is that the author made it the first of a series! Well, look, there’s someone out there for everyone…but millions? 

Over 12,000 readers rated the novel. Almost half of them gave it Five Stars. I’m with the 4 percent who gave it One Star. 

The rest of the million buyers, around 988,000 could not bring themselves to rate the book. 

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Book Review: “There Was A Little Girl” by Cynthia Luhrs.

I didn’t know what to make of this novel when I began to read it. It was all wrong for me. It’s the story of a Southern woman in an unlikely amorous relationship with a stuck-up punk. She turns into a serial killer who differentiates her revolvers with colored nail polish marks. To top it all it was written in first person narrative, which leaves me cold. I must have rolled my eyes in my sleep as I put it down for the night after the first couple of chapters.

The FBI says that only one in six known serial killers is a woman. So, for someone like me who insists on realistic plots, the story of a female serial killer challenged me even further. Add the fact that her father had abused her and I expected to be saddled with a trite, uninteresting plot; a plot unlikely to keep Dan Santos awake past his bedtime. This was as appealing to me as what they call a “chic flick.” The last one I watched was “Love Story” in the 1970s to impress my new bride with my sensitivity.
The protagonist’s initial victims were animal abusers: that grabbed my attention. The FBI lists serial killer motivation in areas such as sexual perversions, religion, mercy killings and even cannibalism; but outrage at animal abuse…never. So Cynthia Luhrs gets the first good mark for originality. 
My first indication Luhrs had well developed characters was that their voices sounded distinctively different. Yes. When you read a good novel your mind hears the characters speak, the brakes screech and the water drip. If you don’t, put the damned book down because either you do not have the required imagination to be a serious reader or the author doesn’t have the talent to make you hear the sounds. I heard Hope’s Southern drawl, Jackson’s haughty tone and the splash of the alligator entering the water with its prey in its mouth.
Next, Luhrs amazed the technical writer in me. She changed from first to third person narratives to mark plot twists. I had never seen that done. Had you? Wow, that made the first person narrative totally palatable and suspenseful because when next I saw the narrative turn to third person I knew something strange was about to happen.
You’d say that after several victims the plot would go flat. Bite your tongue! Each victim was unique and interesting. And there was no let up in all the surprises Luhrs had in store for this reader. Not even Hope’s stay with her grandma was boring. And I’m itching to tell you about the suspense a black Maserati can create and how it stops your heart at the end…but I won’t.
You have to read this book. It has all the excitement of a New York Times bestseller, and I’m betting it will be.
If I don’t give this book Five Stars I’ll have no credibility whatsoever. Well done Cynthia Luhrs.

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Book Review: Christopher Greyson’s Jack Stratton Series

This is the first time I’ve reviewed a series rather than an individual book. Christopher Greyson deserves the honor more than someone in other genres. The reason: its entertainment value.

Perhaps not so cleverly named, there is a comfortable consistency to the titles: Jack Knifed, Girl Jacked, Jacks are Wild, Jack and the Giant Killer and Data Jack. There is also the comfort of well developed characters such as Jack and Replacement. And last but least, the injected but predictable sexual tension, without the nudity and explicit sex scenes. This is really a series that parents should find no objection to their budding adults reading.

The writing is technically flawless: direct, declarative sentences; few, if any, flow impediments; a dearth of sophisticated words that would send the reader running to a dictionary; and, exquisite plot development with the right kind and number of interesting subplots. Also, Greyson has made his characters truly three-dimensional, people you can believe in.

I’m going to stop short of declaring Greyson the new Ernest Hemingway but he certainly writes “hard and clear about what hurts.” The fact is that his novels keep me awake into the wee hours, and I know no better compliment to pay a Young Adult genre novelist.

A well deserved Five Stars to the series.

Greyson series

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Book Review: “Girl Jacked” by Christopher Greyson

I prefer thrillers to whodunits. But sometimes I need to change pace and get a break from wars, spies and international conspiracies. So I raise the bar significantly for my detective and police writing colleagues.

Christopher Greyson has put together a series of books on police hero Jack Straton. I didn’t discover these books until recently, so I approached them with the expected trepidation.

I don’t know who of you remembers a cereal commercial from the 1990s where two brothers are faced with a new “healthy” cereal they’re afraid to try. One of them says to let the youngest brother try it first. ‘Give it to Mikey. He hates everything.’ Of course, Mikey loved it. That’s what happened with this book.

I started to read “Girl Jacked” with a highly critical eye, especially in what concerned the former military background of the hero. Aha! I pointed at Greyson’s description of an ‘assault gun.’ This is not going to be good. This author doesn’t know a thing about military weapons. But I read on anyway.

Soon, the plot had me by the toe. I didn’t count on how good this Greyson guy is about describing feelings and relationships, and love and hate, and angst. In addition, the plot was highly original except for the beginning when a character gets another one to get Jack Straton involved in finding a missing foster sister: the typical reluctant cop routine.

There are no memorable literary turns of a phrase or creative prose. There’s just entertainment bordering on the Young Adult genre, and you know how I felt about “The Hunger Games.” While there is sexual tension there is no sex. There are certain very graphic torture scenes, but those are mild as torture goes.

What “Girl Jacked” does is grab you and not let you go. It was two in the morning when I finished it. It was well worth a loss of a few hours of sleep, especially for during those times when you really need to get out of the reality surrounding you.

Five well deserved Stars.

Girl Jacked

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Book Review: “The God’s Eye View” by Barry Eisler

I usually take a little time to collect my thoughts before writing a book review. This time I had to rush to the keyboard. This is one of the most exciting and blood-pumping novels I have ever read. You have to read it before Hollywood gets a hold of it and turns it into an unbelievable mess.

Barry Eisler is a great novelist. He had won a bunch of awards and his books sell like hot cakes. But this…this is his very best.

Drawn from the Snowden affair, Eisler cooks up a thoroughly realistic scenario about an all-seeing but flawed intelligence program. The detail is exquisite for those who revel in cyber-magic. That said, it is a masterful work of human character development. Yep, Eisler will capture your heart and imagination through Evie, Manus, Delgado, Dash, the Director and Emar.

Those who either dislike or misunderstand cyber-magic won’t have a chance to get bored. They will not be able to put down this book, just as I was not able to do so. The reader who thrives on the humanity of the protagonists in a sea of incomprehensible “1s” and “0s” will just love what the author has done with the human story.

There are two departures from the usual Eisler, if there is such an author: sex and violence. Oh, he’s succumbed before to the current thinking that a novel must have sex and violence; but never to this extent and never with such intensity. His sex scenes border on the vulgar, but totally within context. His violent scenes will turn the stomach of the squeamish reader. I thought about using those two issues as mild detractors from his otherwise flawless writing. But, I don’t know anymore. I believe “God’s View” has altered the parameters.

You need to get this book now! You need to read this book now!

Five Incredibly Deserved Stars, more if they would let me.

God's Eye

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Book Review: “Satori” by Don Winslow

Trevanian was no Hemingway, but Winslow is no Trevanian. That was the first thought that came to mind.

I really fought the urge to arrive at a harsh judgment of Shibumi’s sequel. I really did because I wanted Satori to be so much more. In fact, I wanted Winslow to be the new Trevanian, just so I could get over the fact that one of my favorite writers had died. No such luck.

Trevanian had a delicate way with words and thoughts. Winslow…well Winslow is not quite so delicate. Where Trevanian slid through concepts Winslow took to a bulldozer. Where Shibumi described sensuality without explicitness Satori envelops the concept in vulgarity. Where Trevanian sliced through the villain with a razor blade Winslow carves him up with a machete.

If you are looking for a spoiler, belated as it may be, this is the wrong place. I do not give away plots. I do however thrive on style and catchy stuff. Winslow’s most original thought was “a liberal is a man who will not take his own side in an argument.”

The rest is trite: “Tortured, he had learned what no man should have to learn – the sounds of his own screams…” “Small victories, Nicholas thought, ought to be savored.” “Never consider the possibility of success – consider only the impossibility of failure.”

There were moments of wordsmith artistry: “A cloud of cigarette smoke hovered like protective coverage over the triumphs and disappointments.” Later: “Two hours later, the room was full of stale smoke and fresh tension.” And, finally: “When tigers fight, one is killed, and the other is mortally wounded.” But the moments were few.

By all means, read the book; especially if you didn’t read Shibumi first. Then, read Shibumi and experience the quality that Winslow could not bring back.

Three generous Stars.Satori


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Book Review: “The Revenant” by Michael Punke


This is the very well written novel which inspired the movie.

As billed, it is “a novel of revenge,” and the subtitle actually takes away from the suspense. We know from the outset that a character will last long enough to avenge something done to him or her, and quickly enough  — I believe in page 2 of the print version — we learn that Glass might be the protagonist. That is one of the novel’s two weaknesses. I personally would have preferred to delay his appearance a bit longer, building on the travails of the fur trade or even the personalities of Captain Henry’s team.

The second weakness is the surprising wrap up just as the reader expected an exciting denouement. In this case the reader might expect the just deserts that would complete the protagonist’s overarching objective. It really doesn’t happen and the reader can’t help to ask ‘is that all there is?’ Of course, the author offers at the end that it was actually inspired by a true account. There is a piddling account of what really happened to each character. In this account, he leaves the unremarkable finality of Glass’ life to the end of the list. Ho-hum!

I pointed out the weaknesses first because the novel’s strength does much to overcome them. Punke is a master wordsmith. He produces superb visuals:   “Once Glass emerged from the protective shelter of the pines, the horizon broadened in a landscape broken only by rolling buttes and scattered clumps of cottonwoods. Thick willows along the river impeded his ability to crawl forward, but did little to block the penetrating heat of the late morning sun. He felt the rivulets of sweat across his back and chest and the sting of salt when it seeped into his wounds. He took one last drink from the cool spring creek. He gazed upriver between swallows, giving one last consideration to the idea of direct pursuit.” The reader’s imaginative eye is superbly guided into the picture of a man emerging from the tree line, hampered by the natural landscape and feeling despondency.

Evidently, the writer also follows Hemingway’s advice to “write hard and clear about what hurts.” In this regard, his style is not original but his successful adherence to Papa Hemingway’s dictum is noteworthy enough to recommend reading whatever second novel Punke may produce after his federal stint as US Ambassador to the World Trade Organization. That in itself recommends “The Revenant.”

Four cautious stars.


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