2008 was a rich year for really great books. Most of you that know me know that I refuse point blank to step into a Book Store, the books found inside such dens of iniquity are either over edited, under achieving New York Times Bestsellers or their fellow siblings from the giant Wall-Mart publishing houses. I prefer to seek out more satisfying fare. I am not sure how many books I read in 2008, but I will guarantee its at least 100 more than the average reader!

I am not sure that I have a favorite book for the year, but I certainly have a favorite author, so good were his books that I am going to recommend all three. Last spring I was invited to review Phrophecy by Paul Mark Tag. It was a great read, a thriller with just a hint of Sci Fi. What would happen if ESP was found to be a genetic trait? A little twist in part of our DNA. Would a government view this as a potential weapon? Could this gene be a way to create the ultimate fighting force? I am not usually a fan of Sci Fi themes, but Paul Mark Tag, hovers in that gray area where science fact meets science fiction. I found the book irresistible.

Following an interview with him he asked if I would be interested in reading his first book Category 5, a weather related thriller, once again a book that plays on the very edge of established science. This book was superbly crafted, it grabbed you on page one and held you in its grasp till he hit the back cover. The bad guys were pure evil, the heroes, heroic, a classic thriller, score two for Paul Mark Tag.

Late Summer he contacted me once again, would I be interested in his soon to be released book The Errant Ricochet. I said ‘of course’. But, he warned me, this is not like Cat 5 or Prophecy, this is a collection of short stories, most of which were written a while ago. It transpired that short stories were the medium Paul used to hone his craft. Quite frankly he could have told me that the title was ‘How To Avoid Diaper Rash’ and I would still have read it, I really like this authors style of writing.

The Errant Ricochet had one failing, it was too damn short! The stories are wonderful. In the early 70’s childrens author Roal Dahl produced a series of adult short stories, which formed the basis for a very successful TV series ‘Tales Of The Unexpected’. The stories themselves were compact in construction, yet deep in plot, and each one had a sting in its tail. This sums up The Errant Ricochet very well. If I ever have the opportunity to teach a short story writing class, The Errant Ricochet would be on my must read list.

The rest of my picks are not in any order of significance, I have however tried to keep them in the order that I read them. They are all splendid, and every one is an award winner in my eyes. I read because I enjoy it, and these authors represent the best of the best!

My favorite Non Fiction writing team is Terry Turchie and Kathleen Puckett, two ex FBI wheels who wrote the wonderful book ‘Hunting The American Terrorist’ in 2007, a book whose timing was maybe not quite right. It hit the market right when a whole plethora of books on terrorism were published, and did not get the publicity that it richly deserved. Their new collaboration is Homeland Insecurity. This takes a long hard look at how the political machine, and some of Capitol Hills household names have taken advantage of homeland security to further their political ends, rather than the security of our borders. My good friend Don Bracken of History Publishing Company permitted me to take a sneak peek a couple of months prior to release. This meant I had to sit on my review for weeks! Hardest darn thing I think I have ever done! This book should be read by anyone who has an interest in the American political system.

Those of you that know me also know that when I am not buried in a book I am likely listening to music. I have not counted, but I would be willing to bet that I wrote over 250 reviews in 2008. My favorite musical period being the 1970’s and the rise and fall of progressive rock. One of my musical contacts sent me a CD by Ken Hensley, Ken was one of the forces behind the 70’s prog band Uriah Heep. Although they did not reach the prominence of Yes or ELP, they were certainly a force to be reckoned with. The CD Blood On The Highway was very well done, and it did not take a great deal of brain power to work out that it was a biographical work that covered Ken’s life then and now.

When I mentioned this to Ken’s PR guy in the US he said, “If you like it, you should read his book also called ‘Blood On The Highway‘. I did. I liked it. This is a wonderfully personal adventure that chronicles Ken’s life. Everything you have ever heard about super stars and excess are true. They had it all, but was it really theirs? What happens when the Rolls Royce’s are gone? What happens when your name is no longer on the billboard and the spot lights dim? You enter the long middle age of the fading star. The stages are much like those that face an alcoholic or drug addict, there is denial. In the case of many rock stars this takes the form of touring constantly, but bit by bit you realize that the venues are smaller, the crowds are smaller, the glitter is gone.

Over the past couple of years I have interviewed well over a dozen superstars from the 70’s and the story remains fairly constant. Blood On The Highway was my first opportunity to really understand the process. It is also rich in photography, any music lover would covet this book in their collection.

Sometimes I don’t want to wrap my head around a complex book. One with seemingly hundreds of characters and so many interwoven sub plots that you need a note book to keep track of what is going on. Sometimes I just want to read a ‘feel good’ book, enter Dean Whitney and his delightful yarn Pinch Hitter. A forty something middle manager for a mega mart has long dreamed of playing baseball as a pro, but his aspirations were destroyed with a life altering accident on the baseball field when at age 16 his brother was seriously hurt by an accidental hit. His love for the game has not diminished, neither has his natural ability at bat, but now his at bat’s are confined to the pay as you go Batting Cages. Through a strange set of circumstances, his life may be forever changed. I personally do not like baseball, I can not see the attraction in it, but I can see the attraction in Pinch Hitter, if you have a base ball fan in your family, pick them up a copy, it is a fun little read.

A much more serious and thought provoking work is Paul Miller with A Place To Belong. Paul has wanted to write this book for 40 years, but could not bring himself to commit pen to paper. The memories being so traumatic to both him and his family all that could result would be the opening of old wounds. I am really glad that Paul found the courage to write A Place To Belong. It involves an unhappy and abusive childhood, and much time spent learning to survive on the streets, while kids of his age should have a warm and loving home environment. Somehow Paul made it. I spent more than 6 years working with the homeless in Calgary, the street is a lonely and unforgiving place. If you have an at risk teenager, they need to read A Place To Belong.

Everyone needs a little humor in their life, and when it comes to humor books in 2008 the one that stands head and shoulders above the rest is Bill Seaton with his wonder book My Seven Years In Captivity. This charming tale concerns Bill’s time as head of the San Diego Zoo Public Relations department. The San Diego Zoo was one of my favorite haunts when my children were young, and knowing the layout of the place, and the often quirky animals, I laughed till I could not laugh any more!

Bill really manages to capture the humor in situations that I am sure were anything but funny when they occurred.

Occasionally I dip into the realm of Historical Fiction, this tends to be a bit of a hit and miss affair. Credibility forces the author into a set of circumstances that are well documented, the fiction must be woven into the fabric of the existing circumstances. Sometimes it works well, most times it does not, either the story line is too far from the actual events to be believable, or the factual events are bent, again causing a credibility gap. That is not the case with El Tigre by John Manhold. He has created a wonderful work of fiction that weaves in and out of the facts in a seamless fashion. Our hero is Johann Heinrich von Manfred a young man born of Prussian aristocracy who finds himself without friends or safe haven who moves to the New World and becomes embroiled with the establishment of the Republic Of Texas. History buffs, and folks that enjoy a good yarn will love El Tigre.

My final pick for the year is Unholy Domain by Dan Ronco. I mentioned early on that I am not much of a Sci Fi lover, but this one stands out. Maybe it is because the Internet is the life blood of what I do, or maybe it is because the plot line contains themes that we are already acutely aware of. Could terrorists create havoc by using the Internet? Not to send Spam, but to take control of parts of our infrastructure? Power Plants, Telecommunications, Transportation, the list of vulnerabilities goes on and on. Already the world has become dependent on a small number of technology companies, Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, to name but three, what would happen if one of them deliberately installed some kind of virus?

Unholy Domain is set in the very near future, so the technology is most definitely science fact, the company that he uses is science fiction, but the plot line is haunting. For the Sci Fi fan on your Christmas list, you can not go wrong with this book.

My great books of 2008 list could go on and on. But I think I should stop here, either that or I should find my own publisher and write a book about books! It has been a great year for great books. if your book did not get a mention, it is not because I did not like it, it is because I am out of space on this column. 2008 was also the year when I can honestly say I did not read one single ‘stinker’, usually I get conned into one or two books that should never have seen the light of day. Oops, I am wrong, there was one, I can’t remember the authors name, or the title, but it concerned the JFK conspiracy, as I recall it involved clones and body doubles, trap doors in the open topped limo JFK was riding in, and there was some tie in with the supposed UFO that crashed at Roswell, New Mexico. I would go find the title of it, but I keep those books in a special dark corner, and even I am scared to go near it!

Have a great year everyone, and make a resolution for 2009, feed your brain, read some books.

Simon Barrett


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