Danger, glamour, and a family: Is being a war correspondent a way to have it all? #bookreview

Dirty Wars and Polished Silver

The Life and Times of a War Correspondent Turned Ambassatrix

Lynda Schuster

Melville House, hardcover, Kindle

Lynda Schuster grew up in Detroit wanting to not repeat her mother’s safe-at-home-with-family lifestyle. So, she did the exact opposite. She left home and ended up in Israel during the Yom Kippur War. This sharpened her appetite for adventure, so she soon became a war correspondent in gritty, dangerous places: primarily Central America, South America, the Middle East, and Southern Africa, writing for the Wall Street Journal and later the Christian Science Monitor.

Her new book, Dirty Wars and Polished Silver: The Life and Times of a War Correspondent Turned Ambassatrix, is a well-written memoir that intimately describes three major chapters of her life: How she worked as a reporter in dangerous war zones; how she became the wife (while still reporting) of a Los Angeles Times correspondent who was killed 10 months later in Honduras; and how her life again changed dramatically after she married a U.S. diplomat who became Ambassador to Liberia and then Peru. For her, it was quite a transition, from dodging bullets and meeting deadlines to being sure the proper silverware was set out for posh embassy dinners.

In her book, she tells many funny stories and anecdotes from within the worlds of journalism and diplomacy. But she does not hide her sadness and disgust over the senseless violence and destruction that wars bring to helpless civilians.

For anyone who has ever dreamed of reporting from the frontlines of war or trying to do good works for humanity in isolated, faraway places, Lynda Schuster’s Dirty Wars and Polished Silver can be eye-opening, informative, entertaining–and definitely sobering.

— Si Dunn

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‘Raining Fire’ is a fast-paced steampunk sci-fi action thriller

Raining Fire

Rajan Khanna

Pyr Books

I’ll be honest. I’ve thought I’m a bit too old to read steampunk novels. But Rajan Khanna’s Raining Fire has opened my eyes and widened my horizons a bit. It is a fast-paced sci-fi action-thriller where the steampunk hero goes into battles armed with an old Smith & Wesson revolver and can fly airships when he can get aboard one.

Raining Fire is set amid a dark, post-apocalyptic Earth that is being hammered by two deadly forces. One is the Ferals. These are disease-ridden, zombie-like humans can infect other humans and turn them into Ferals, as well. The other baddies are the twisted, evil scientists who live aboard a large floating city known as Valhalla. They keep spreading terrifying diseases so that raiders from Valhalla can plunder, kill and further add to the misery in what’s left of Earth’s civilization.

Ben Gold, the book’s central character, is a former airship pilot who now has lost his friends and the woman he loves, as well as his own airship. What he has left, essentially, are a thirst for revenge, a strong desire to set things right, and his father’s old but high-caliber six-shot revolver.

Raining Fire moves at a fast clip, and Ben gets into many hair-raising and life-threatening scrapes as he charges from fisticuffs to firefights to battles, and beyond.

Author Rajan Khanna emphasizes in his acknowledgements that Raining Fire “is largely about finding your will to fight, and about trying to defeat the bad guys.” Ben repeatedly has to find his will to fight and stay alive. And he encounters some surprising “bad guys.”

Raining Fire happens to be the final book in this three-book series. While it does work well as standalone reading, you might wish to consider starting with the first two books, Falling Sky and Rising Tide, to keep the chronology straight.

Incidentally, (and no spoilers here), a pathway is left open to future adventures for some of the characters.

Si Dunn

Want some enlightening escapism? Try this ninja detective thriller set in 16th-century Japan

Betrayal at Iga

A Hiro Hattori Novel

Susan Spann

Seventh Street Books, paperback

In this fifth novel in Susan Spann’s Hiro Hattori series, danger starts on page one and doesn’t let up until almost the very end.

Set in 16th-century Japan, the series focuses on Hiro Hattori, a master ninja from the Iga province who once refused a commander’s orders and is now serving what is supposed to be a long, humiliating punishment. Hiro is tasked with protecting a Portuguese Jesuit priest named Father Mateo, who, at first, speaks insufficient Japanese and doesn’t understand how easily he could be hurt or killed for inadvertently blundering over an important local custom or taboo.

During the four previous books of the series, Hiro grudgingly has been helping Father Mateo get a better grip on feudal Japan, its rulers, its warlords and its strict and unforgiving social order. Along the way, the ninja and the priest also have been thrust into situations where they have had to work together to solve some murders.

In Betrayal at Iga, Father Mateo now is more knowledgeable and comfortable with being in Japan, speaking its language and reaching a few Christian converts. And Hiro has recognized that the foreign priest is an honorable man in his own way. Hiro now admits that he and Father Mateo have become friends. But it is a time of trouble, so he and the Portuguese Jesuit have had to take refuge among Hiro’s clan. And, in their “safety,” they soon discover they are sheltering in a village where many people are trained assassins.

Indeed, when an ambassador from a neighboring clan appears and tries to negotiate a peace agreement with Iga, he is poisoned during a welcoming dinner and dies right in front of Hiro and Father Mateo.

If the killer is not found soon, war may break out between the ninjas of each clan. Or Hiro and Father Mateo themselves may be killed. No pressure at all on the two investigators!

The author, Susan Spann, has a degree in Asian history and has maintained a lifelong fascination with Japanese history and culture. She has an excellent eye for detail and creates believable settings and scenes without bogging down her smooth writing. She also has her characters speak with straightforward, accessible dialogue.

Betrayal at Iga is fine escapism: a 16th-century ninja detective procedural. The story also offers subtle and absorbing lessons in Japanese history, geography, customs, warfare, love, honor and friendship.

It’s five-star reading and definitely recommended if you are looking for something well beyond an ordinary detective thriller.

Si Dunn

 

Fleeing war to find a safer life: ‘Flesh Wounds’ is an excellent poetic memoir

En Carne Propia: Memoria Poética
Flesh Wounds: A Poetic Memoir

Jorge Argueta

Arté Publico Press, paperback

Jorge Argueta was a youth trying to have a normal childhood in an impoverished El Salvador neighborhood known as the Colonia Ameríca. But the Salvadoran Civil War (October 15, 1979 – January 16, 1992) was going on. And Jorge lived in a rural neighborhood “teeming with drunkards, prostitutes, servants, popsicle vendors, mechanics–the working-class or the poorest of the poor.” In his area, there also were supporters of some of the guerrilla groups fighting the government army. Jorge became a member of one group that managed to steal a pistol from a guard and also set fire to a bus.

When the army finally came to his neighborhood, the teenager had just two stark choices: stay and die (a few people from his neighborhood already had been killed) or flee for his life. Jorge ran, made it over the El Salvador border into Mexico and, four months later, made it to the United States and a safer life in San Francisco.

Argueta is now the author of more than 20 books, and his latest, Flesh Wounds: A Poetic Memoir, is a short but intense blending of prose and poetry. Each chapter opens with one or two pages of prose that delve into his childhood memories, his escape and then his struggles to adapt to American life. These chapter-opening pages then are followed by groupings of poems that give deeper expression and clarity to his memories.

Flesh Wounds: A Poetic Memoir actually is two books in one: the Spanish version, En Carne Propia: Memoria Poética, and the English version.

This two-in one structure provides an excellent arrangement for readers who are learning Spanish or English or who are trying to maintain fluency in both tongues. Yet even if you are unable to read one of the book’s two languages, you can find much to enjoy and to ponder within the pages.

Jorge Argueta’s En Carne Propia / Flesh Wounds demonstrates clearly that he is a superb writer and poet.

 — Si Dunn

‘Make: Drones’ – A hobbyist’s how-to guide – #bookreview

Yes, drones are controversial. And drones of any size or type make many people nervous. As someone who built and flew seemingly thousands of model airplanes in my youth, I have decidedly mixed emotions about drones. They can be used for many good things, for many evil things, as well as for actions within virtually any gray area of human endeavour.

Drones now are with us for the present and the future, and many young people and adults fly them for fun, the same way I flew a few radio-controlled model airplanes. Good advances in technology someday may result from the enjoyment a kid currently is getting from flying a tiny plastic drone.

Therefore, as a book reviewer, I will now mostly put aside my personal reservations and offer a few comments on the contents of Make: Drones, a new how-to hobbyist book from MakerMedia.

The book offers several hands-on, do-it-yourself (DIY) projects for crafting your own drones, using some existing frames.

By the way, you don’t worry much about aerodynamics when flying multirotor ‘copter drones. Your concerns are the spinning rotors, the control system that receives your radio signals and adjusts the drone’s movements, and the drone’s battery. Multiple rotors provide the lift, propulsion and steering. If the rotors quit turning for some reason, your drone instantly becomes a stone. And, if the battery overheats, your drone may become a flaming stone.

Make: Drones presents projects covering three classes of multirotor drones.

In the small drone category, author David McGriffy notes: “First we take some measurements and try to improve the performance of an existing small drone, the Hubsan X4C. Then we build a new small drone using a Hubsan frame and an open source flight controller. It’s called the X4Wii since it uses an X4 frame and MultiWii flight control code.”

In the medium-sized drone category, he explains: “Once again we start with the frame from an existing drone, the Syma X5. We use an Arduino Teensy 3.2 as the core of our new flight control system, adding modules for power, sensors, and radios. A custom circuit board ties it all together. Finally, so people can see this new custom controller, we put a clear lid on it and call this project the Visible Drone.”

And the large-drone project “is based on the S500 frame kit,” McGriffy states. “For flight control, this one uses the powerful Pixhawk Lite control and ArduCopter flight control software. Combined with a high-performance GPS unit, this system can fly completely autonomous missions–and it has the power to carry a useful payload while doing it. This one will make a great aerial photography platform.”

McGriffy’s book offers good, clear writing, plus a sufficient number of photographs, drawings, diagrams and code examples. Many different issues are covered, from choosing propellers that give the most thrust, to dealing with vibration, and picking good failsafe settings so your drone automatically will return to the takeoff point if you somehow lose control of it.

You also get good advice for dealing with assembly quirks and wiring issues involving some of the frames.

As for safety, McGriffy predicts: “I believe we will learn to build a class of drone that can be safely flown in and around people. People fly their drones close to people all the time now, regardless, so this will be good for everyone, pilots and bystanders alike.”

Until the creepiness factor goes away, however, I predict I will instinctively swat at any drone that flies anywhere near me.

 

Si Dunn

Make: Drones

Teach an Arduino to Fly

David McGriffy

Maker Media, paperback, Kindle

 

‘Make It Glow: LED Projects for the Whole Family’ – #bookreview

Back when I first learned basic electrical and electronic circuits, I also learned how to burn my fingers on a hot soldering iron and how to accidentally cut and pinch my digits with wire cutters and needle-nosed pliers. Years later, I learned how to make printed circuit boards, using nasty, corrosive chemicals and an electric drill with tiny bits that frequently broke. It was not all that much fun.

Make It Glow: LED Projects for the Whole Family, written by Emily Coker and Kelli Townley, offers some kinder, gentler approaches to learning basic circuits and how to wire together batteries, switches, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), conductive thread, and electroluminescent wire.

The new book from MakerMedia presents some two dozen projects divided into skill levels 1, 2 and 3, with Skill Level 1 projects being the simplest. “No special skills or experience are required for these projects,” the authors note, ” though hot-glue guns, craft knives, and other common materials and tools may be needed.”

Some of the Skill Level 1 projects include soda-bottle ghosts and simple bug-like creatures with glowing eyes.

The intermediate Skill Level 2 projects “introduce new materials, tools, and techniques–from paper folding (origami) to simple sewing skills–and they may require participants to follow more precise instructions. Adult supervision suggested.”

Some of the Skill Level 2 projects include an origami firefly that flickers and a wearable, glowing cuff.

And the “more challenging” Skill Level 3 projects “may take longer or require more complex skills, including sewing and soldering. Some introduce new components, such as resistors. Adult supervision highly recommended.”

Typical Skill Level 3 projects include a glowing pinwheel and a glow-in-the dark dog collar.

The key items in the projects at all levels are light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and 3-volt coin-cell batteries.

The book is well-organized, written with clarity in step-by-step format, and well-illustrated with color photographs. The book also uses coil binding, so it lies flat on a table.

I have not seen this binding used in previous MakerMedia books I have reviewed. It is  a very practical choice, especially for family projects where several children and adults may be trying to work with the book at the same time. (A Kindle version of the book also is available.)

Si Dunn

** Get the book here **

Make It Glow

LED Projects for the Whole Family

Emily Coker and Kelli Townley

Maker Media, spiral-bound paperback, Kindle

 

 

Maker City: How to reinvigorate local economies and cultures – #bookreview

Reinventing a city does not have to start from the top down.  You don’t need big government initiatives and huge funding, this noteworthy book contends.

People within America’s growing “Maker culture” can rework and improve a local economy. They can bring needed and worthwhile changes to a city’s culture using significantly smaller budgets and much less government intervention. And the reinvigoration can happen in small, rural towns as well as in large metropolitan areas, the authors of Maker City believe.

What, exactly, is Maker culture? Here’s how it is defined in this book:

“Today’s Makers are crafters, artists and artisans, technologists, hobbyists, amateur scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, woodworkers, roboticists, and many others. They are young people engaging in hands-on projects that introduce them to science and technology in creative ways. Makers are also adults who see themselves as inventors and experimentalists. Some have PhDs and others are self-educated. Makers are practicing a craft or challenging themselves to learn a new hobby. They are creative problem-solvers who gain the confidence that they can tackle ever-larger problems.”

The movement brings the local “best and brightest” together with other Makers around the globe, linked together via the Internet or in person as solutions to problems are sought, made and tested.

A key tenet of city-level Maker culture is “Open Innovation, the idea that the best solutions do not lie with any one individual or institution inside city government but must be created through collaboration and engagement that looks outside for answers and examples of what to do to affect change.”

The notion of city reinvention typically puts spotlights on big cities where factories and industries have been lost and large buildings and neighborhoods have fallen into ruin. For example, efforts to find a major new role, such as commercial shipyard, for the old Brooklyn Navy Yard repeatedly failed, until a new, Maker-oriented approach was tried. That’s when the Brooklyn Navy Yard “started to make a comeback as a community housing many smaller businesses made up of Makers, artists, artisans, and manufacturing concerns. Today over 330 businesses and 7,000 people work out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 3.5 million square feet growing to 5.0 million square feet by 2018,” Maker City reports.

Small towns also can benefit from Maker innovation and talent, the book emphasizes. Ways can be found to take advantage of local history and draw visitors, as well as new residents. Old, unused buildings can be upgraded to emphasize and celebrate local history and serve as meeting centers or performance sites. Other buildings can be converted to innovation centers and incubators that give local residents places or other help to start businesses and hire other local residents.

The book is well-written and well-organized and offers a wide range of ideas, case studies and trend reports. For example, big assembly line jobs are not coming back, unless robots provide the “labor.” But small-scale manufacturing is expanding, thanks to 3D printers and other devices and innovations. Small-scale manufacturers also are often selling their products directly to customers from their sites. And customers are showing a stronger preference for buying locally made products.

Whether you work in business, government, science or education or are simply concerned about urban renewal, Maker City deserves careful consideration.

Si Dunn

Maker City

A Practical Guide for Reinventing Our Cities

Peter Hirshberg, Dale Dougherty, Marcia Kadanoff

Maker Media, paperback, Kindle