Thursday, August 30, 2018

Review: The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch ~ Lone Star Literary Blog Tour

foreword by Bill Hobby

  Genre: Memoir / Texana / Politics / Eastern European History
Publisher: Texas A&M University Press
Date of Publication: April 16, 2018
Number of Pages: 336 pages w/50 B&W photos

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As a boy in Houston, Bill Sarpalius, his brothers, and their mother lived an itinerant life. Bill dug food out of trashcans, and he and his brothers moved from one school to the next. They squatted in a vacant home while their mother, affectionately called “Honey,” battled alcoholism and suicidal tendencies. In an act of desperation, she handed her three sons over to Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch north of Amarillo.

At the time, Bill was thirteen years old and could not read. Life at Boys Ranch had its own set of harrowing challenges, however. He found himself living in fear of some staff and older boys. He became involved in Future Farmers of America and discovered a talent for public speaking. When he graduated, he had a hundred dollars and no place to go. He worked hard, earned a scholarship from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and obtained a college degree. After a brief career as a teacher and in agribusiness, he won a seat in the Texas Senate. Driven by the memory of his suffering mother, he launched the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse in an effort to help people struggling with addiction.

Sarpalius later served in the United States Congress. As a Lithuanian American, he took a special interest in that nation’s fight for independence from the Soviet Union. For his efforts, Sarpalius received the highest honor possible to a non-Lithuanian citizen and was named a “Grand Duke.” The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch is a unique political memoir—the story of a life full of unlikely paths that is at once heartbreaking and inspirational.


“The autobiography of Bill Sarpalius reads like a 20 -century version of the American dream – equal parts heartbreak and inspiration, culminating in an unlikely political career capped by three terms in the U.S. Congress.” -- University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs

“The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch is an inspiring tale of perseverance and personal courage.” -- Si Dunn, Lone Star Literary Life


I normally only read fiction, and I can’t remember the last time I read a biography or autobiography. But as someone whose life has been affected by alcoholism, I was grateful for the opportunity to read The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch and learn about the life of Bill Sarpalius, a survivor who didn't let a difficult childhood hold him back from living a meaningful life.

At first, I wasn't sure how to approach reviewing a memoir. In a fiction review I might talk about the setting, the voice of the characters, and the tone and pace of the narrative. As it turns out, however, most of these elements apply to Bill’s story as well. In addition, there are a number of photographs included in the book that provide visual support for the text and show all the ages and stages of Bill’s life, including most of the family, friends and other important people who had an impact on his life. The photos also provide a backdrop for the various places described in the book. I was also surprised and pleased to note how few grammatical and editing issues I encountered as I was reading, considering this is a first-time author. These types of errors will usually catch my eye, but in The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch, I was happy to overlook the few I encountered and just enjoy the book for the story it told.

Written in plain, everyday language, Bill tells his life story to the reader in a way that is well-paced and engaging. It flows well and is written, for the most part, in chronological order. One gets a real sense of the author's personality in his writing - his distinct voice - which grants an intimacy to the reading experience. The other characters introduced in the narrative are less distinct, which makes sense as the focus is on how all the experiences affected the author's life. What we are given, ultimately, is a story of a life hard-fought and well-lived. Bill Sarpalius overcame very significant obstacles in his life, but also experienced deep love, true friendship, the honor of public service and the Providence of God.

When Bill was 13 years old, he and his brothers were removed from the care of their mother, Honey, who was an alcoholic, and were sent to live at Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch outside Amarillo, Texas. Bill’s father had abandoned their family, and Honey was not able to support her children. Even though there were many instances of abuse while Bill and other boys lived there, the author gives much credit to Boys Ranch for the lessons he learned about hard work, overcoming obstacles and not giving up on one’s dreams and goals. I was saddened by reading about the level of abuse that occurred at Boys Ranch, for all the children who suffered at the hands of older bullies, and even some staff members. Bill claims it made him stronger, but I'm sure many of the boys were damaged irrevocably by those experiences.

Although illiterate when he arrived at Boys Ranch, Bill went on to graduate high school in five years, after many failed classes. When his high school counselor told him he would have a hard time passing college courses, Bill writes:

“It was clear to me that the school counselor didn’t understand what was in my heart and how hard I was willing to work to become successful. I knew God had a plan for me to help people, and I would just follow His guidance.”

This quote is is indicative of the rest of Bill’s life: he had a heart for service, a deep faith in his God, and a strong desire to improve his life and the lives of others. After high school, with no plans and barely any money, Bill ran his first campaign, on a shoestring budget, and became the president of the Future Farmers of America. This achievement provided him a scholarship to attend college, during which he worked six different jobs to make ends meet. He also managed to obtain a Master’s Degree, and went on to run very successful campaigns for the Texas Senate and the U.S. Congress. I won’t go into a lot of detail about Bill’s political life, as I hope many people will read this story and see the impact he had as a public servant during his political career. But a few are worth mentioning.

Bill was instrumental in changing the penalties for drunk driving offenses and changing the legal drinking age in Texas, with much opposition by a powerful lobby. He was involved in revising the laws to allow adopted children to locate their biological parents, and vice versa. He also found a clever way to convince lawmakers to make dog fighting a felony, after which Bill received severe backlash, including death threats. The laws he changed to provide more regulations for ambulance services would, ironically, end up saving his life after an accident in which he broke his back. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, he played an important role in the historical freedom of countries stifled by the oppression of Soviet rule, beginning with Lithuania, from which Bill’s ancestors originated.

One thing that radiates throughout this book is Bill's belief that God would provide him with opportunities to make a difference in other people's lives. Ultimately, what resonated the most with me upon finishing the book is this: every time someone reached out a hand in need, Bill reached back to help.

The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch is a deeply personal story, and I feel my own life is richer having read it.

BILL SARPALIUS represented the Texas 13th Congressional District from 1989 to 1995, and from 1981 to 1989 he served in the Texas State Senate. He currently is a motivational speaker and serves as CEO of Advantage Associates International. He divides his time between Maryland and Houston, Texas.

BARNES & NOBLE, #2665 2:00 PM
2415 Soncy Road
  Amarillo, TX 79124

Notable Quotable
Video Interview, Part 1
Scrapbook Page
Video Interview, Part 2

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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Magic Triumphs by Ilona Andrews - The End of the Road....

Magic Triumphs (Kate Daniels) by [Andrews, Ilona]Magic Bites (Kate Daniels, Book 1) by [Andrews, Ilona]

Magic Slays (Kate Daniels Book 5) by [Andrews, Ilona]Magic Rises: A Kate Daniels Novel by [Andrews, Ilona]

I was fortunate to get early access to Magic Triumphs (thank you Bridget at Berkley!), with the caveat not to reveal any spoilers or do any promotion prior to publication, upon pain of death, or worse! But since today is the publication day, I can finally talk about this final book in the Kate Daniels Urban Fantasy series, and my history with these great books which began with Magic Bites in 2007. I've also loved seeing the evolution of the main character over the years through the cover art. The authors, a husband and wife writing team, are signing books in my city tonight, but, alas, I will not be able to make it. I'm sure they will have a large crowd eager to meet them and get the new book signed. 

I've reviewed other books in this series over the years, and you can find the reviews by doing a keyword search for "magic" in the box at the top. A summary of the series follows:

In their long-running Kate Daniels series, the husband and wife writing team known as Ilona Andrews, has created a truly unique world – an alternate Atlanta unlike anything we’ve seen before.  In this world, magic existed for millennia, but the rise of technology caused an imbalance in the world and magic disappeared for a long time. When magic returned to the world, it did so with a vengeance, destroying buildings and releasing all kinds of creatures and dead gods back into the world.

Kate Daniels is a mysterious character with a magic sword who works as a bounty hunter of sorts, and responds to requests to capture dangerous creatures in order to keep the citizens of Atlanta safe.  In this world, the magic and technology shift back in forth without rhyme or reason, and when the magic ascends, all technology, including guns, phones, lights, and cars ceases to work.

It’s a great world, filled with the Pack, shapeshifters who hang on to their human sides very carefully, the People, who are Masters of the Dead and control vampires created by an immortal being named Roland, as well as witches and all sorts of other magical beings, including old mythological gods. Kate and other characters in the novels have many action-packed adventures, some light romance (which gets steamier over the course of the series), and their share of triumphs and tragedies. 

In the final book, Magic Triumphs, Kate receives a mysterious box that is a threat, combined with a courting attempt, from a powerful god from another realm. Of course, Kate is happily married now to Curran and attempting to be a loving mom to her son, Conlan, a toddler who isn't quite human and is manifesting some interesting powers of his own. I don't want to give away any spoilers to those who have been anticipating reading this final book, but will say that all the characters get a chance to shine. It's a bittersweet feeling that the series has ended, as I've been reading about one book a year for over 10 years, including some novellas, too.  But I'm so happy to have been a part of this world from the beginning, and the authors have assured their fans that they are not finished writing books, just finished with this series.

I recommend this series to anyone who likes Urban Fantasy, and most of my patrons come back for more.  Do start at the beginning, with Magic Bites. It's not the best of the bunch, but it does lay the groundwork and world-building very well.

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Liar by Steve Cavanaugh - Eddie Flynn Book 3


I have been a fan of legal thrillers since reading Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent many years ago. I can still remember where I was sitting, in a 70's era rental house in Indianapolis, when I got to the end of that book, with its  big, twisty ending. In fact, that is probably when I became a fan of big, twisty endings in books! Steve Cavanaugh has taken Turow’s knack for such an end and put it to good use in The Liar, another book with an ending I did not see coming.

The Liar is the third book in the Eddy Flynn series, after The Defense and The Plea, but only the latter two titles are available in the U.S. right now. When I found out that the author had written more books in this series, but couldn’t get them here yet, I ordered The Liar and TH1RT3EN from the UK, and waited impatiently for them to arrive.  There is also a novella, The Cross, you can only get it as an ebook in the UK right now.

Eddie Flynn is a former con-man and hustler turned lawyer who retired from courtroom work after a disastrous case. In the first book, The Defense, he gets pulled back into trial work after his daughter is kidnapped by the mob, who expect Eddie to defend them in order to get his daughter back. It all works out, of course, after lots of misdirection and twists by the author.

In this third book, The Liar, Eddie is contacted by an old family friend named Leonard Howell whose own daughter has been kidnapped. Lenny is about to take an action for which he will need legal representation, and Eddie is drawn in over the memories of his own situation in the past. The kidnappers have contacted Lenny for a ransom, and he’s planning to go around the FBI to make a secret ransom drop in order to save his daughter’s life. Eddie uses his old con-man skills to switch the ransom cases, and after that all hell breaks loose.

There is so much that happens in this book that you almost get whiplash reading it. I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning, ON A WORK NIGHT, to finish it because I had to see what happened at the end! I can’t give away too many details of this expertly plotted legal thriller, but there are several courtroom scenes that have jaw-dropping surprises for everyone, even Eddie.

The book has a non-linear aspect, in that several chapters are written in italics discussing events that have happened in the past to characters who seem to have no bearing on the current case. But gradually the author reveals the connections, and it all comes together with an explosive ending.

There are a few, very few, plot holes, and a bit of suspension of belief is required at the end, but it was such a fun ride that I happily overlooked those minor hitches. I just wish that I knew when The Liar would be published in the U.S. so that I could purchase copies for my library. I'm so ready to begin recommending The Liar to my customers who love legal thrillers and intriguing mysteries.

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

WWW Wednesday - Post-Vacation!

San Francisco is a city made for photography, and I had some Instagram fun with my pics! The photos above are some amazing graffiti and murals I found in China Town, where we stayed. (The SW Hotel is wonderful, affordable, and so close to all we wanted to see). 

I also did some reading over the 5 days we were in the City by the Bay.

What I Finished Reading:

I was very lucky to obtain access to the e-galley for Magic Triumphs by Ilona Andrews, the final book in the excellent Kate Daniels series. The publisher has asked for no promotion or spoilers, so I can't review it here. Suffice it to say that the author does a great job of closing out the series and giving each of the characters a chance to shine!

What I'm Currently Reading:

Foundryside: A Novel (The Founders Trilogy) by [Bennett, Robert Jackson]

I am about half-way through Foundryside, the first book in The Founders Trilogy, by Robert Jackson Bennett. A creative and imaginative series starter, Foundryside is set in a world of magical haves and have-nots (but not like Harry Potter)! The powerful Elites in this world have found a way to imbue magical sigils onto inanimate objects which force the objects to react in opposition to the natural laws of physics. They have used this power to attain great wealth. The rest of the population lives in poverty and fear. The main character, Sancia, is a thief who can "sense" the sigils and steals magical items for a price. All is well until she steals something she shouldn't have. Great world-building in the this novel! Oh, yeah: there's a magical talking key named "Clef," too!

The Dinner List: A Novel by [Serle, Rebecca]

I started The Dinner List last night, a debut novel by Rebecca Searle, and stayed up until 2:30 a.m. reading! Of course, the time zone issue was a factor for me, as California is two hours earlier than home, so my sleep schedule is all out of whack. In this book, Sabrina arrives at her 30th birthday dinner to find, other than her best friend, some people she wasn't expecting: her deceased father who abandoned her, a former philosophy professor, an old boyfriend and, strangely enough, Audrey Hepburn! The reader discovers that years before, in college, Sabrina made the titular list of the 5 people with whom she'd most like to share a meal. All of these dinner companions represent certain issues she has never dealt with. The non-linear structure of the novel switches from the dinner party back into the past to establish why these guests are important to the main character. The Dinner List will be published in September by Flatiron Books, and I'm grateful to have received an ARC of this one!

What I Plan to Read Next:

Always a dilemma: I have so many great books on my TBR! I'm really excited about a book coming out next spring by debut author Angie Kim called Miracle Submarine. It looks to be a combination family/community/courtroom drama, and received a nice recommendation from Scott Turow. Plus, that cover!!
Miracle Submarine: A Novel by [Kim, Angie]

Here are some more of my Instagram pics from San Francisco that I particularly liked:

Street scene at night near our hotel in China Town

Golden Gate Bridge peeking out from the fog that I took on the ferry to Sausalito 

Flying book lights courtesy of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers

Happy Reading, and Viewing!

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Hope of Azure Springs by Rachel Fordham


Genre: Inspirational Historical Romance
  Date of Publication: July 3, 2018
Publisher: Revell
Number of Pages: 336

ABOUT THE BOOK: Seven years ago, orphaned and alone, Em finally arrived at a new home in Iowa after riding the orphan train. But secrets from her past haunt her, and her new life in the Western wilderness is a rough one. When her guardian is shot and killed, Em, now nineteen, finally has the chance to search for her long-lost sister, but she won’t be able to do it alone.
For Azure Springs Sheriff Caleb Reynolds, securing justice for the waifish and injured Em is just part of his job. He’s determined to solve every case put before him in order to impress his parents and make a name for himself. Caleb expects to succeed. What he doesn’t expect is the hold this strange young woman will have on his heart.
Welcome to the charming town of Azure Springs, Iowa, where people care deeply for one another and, sometimes, even fall in love.


PRAISE FOR THE HOPE OF AZURE SPRINGS: “In her promising first novel, Fordham assembles an endearing cast of characters in the rugged Midwest plains for a tale about surviving and thriving. . . .Fordham depicts heartbreaking emotional and physical suffering, while beautifully illustrating the power in simple acts of kindness to foster healing, hope, and happiness.”

Iowa, 1881

     She dead?”
     Em heard a man’s voice from somewhere above her. A strange thumping pulsed through her with each word he spoke. Her throat burned, screaming for water, but she could not cry out.
     “There’s life in her. Not much of it though,” a second, raspier voice answered. She felt a hand press against her throat and then move over her body, gently probing. “She’s bleeding pretty bad.”
     “Gunshot?” the first voice asked.
     If only her eyes would open, and she could see them. Straining, she struggled to pull her heavy eyelids open. Finally, bits of light darted in front of her eyes, but she could not focus. The faces above her were fuzzy and indiscernible.
     Fear swept through her, suddenly waking her battered body. Afraid the men from before had returned, she opened her eyes wide, finding strength that only moments before she had lacked. With thrashing arms, she flailed at the men. Her arms flopped about but offered little defense—she was too weak from blood loss. And then they moved no longer, subdued by large, strong hands.
     “Easy, girl. We aren’t going to hurt you. We just want to help. Take you into town, that’s all. There’s a good doctor there.” The man’s deep voice sounded gentle, but still she did not trust him. Voices could be deceiving. Arms could hurt as well as help. She knew these things well.
     Soon she felt her body being raised above the ground, and moments later the hard planks of a wagon became the resting place for her injured frame. Too weak to move, she lay looking at the sky, wishing there were a way to end the agony, but knowing that for Lucy she would fight on.
     Once the wagon lurched forward, she lost track of everything again. The wheels bouncing over ruts made her pain so intense that everything closed around her and then faded to black.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Fordham started writing when her children began begging her for stories at night. She’d pull a book from the shelf, but they’d insist she make one up. She hasn’t stopped since. She lives with her husband and children on an island in the state of Washington.
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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

WWW Wednesday! August 1, 2018

San Francisco!!
Image result for golden gate bridgeImage result for san francisco trolley imagesImage result for san francisco chinatown imagesImage result for san francisco sea lions

One more night's sleep and I'm off to San Francisco with the whole family for vacation! We are going to be true tourists and see all the sights, including a Segway tour - a little nervous about that one!

Here's an update on BOOKS!!

What I (Recently) Finished Reading:

A Romantic Way to Die: A Sheriff Dan Rhodes Mystery (Sheriff Dan Rhodes Mysteries) by [Crider, Bill]
I listened to an audiobook of the late Bill Crider's Sheriff Dan Rhodes mystery series called A Romantic Way to Die. The unusual cover is due to the plot: some romance writers gather for a conference and people start dying, including the handsome cover model and one of the authors. This series is set in Texas and narrated by the incomparable George Guidall (who also narrates Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series and Craig Johnson's Longmire series, two of my other favorites). Listening to the books in this series is like curling up in a porch rocking chair and sighing with contentment.
What I'm Currently Reading:

The Liar by Steve Cavanaugh. This is part of a great legal thriller series starring a former con-man- turned-attorney named Eddie Flynn. This is the third book, after The Defense and The Plea. The next one in the series is TH1RT3EN and it sounds like a winner, too. Books 3 and 4 are not available in the US yet, so I ordered them from the UK!  The author is Irish, but he does a great job in setting his books in our country.

Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating by [Lauren, Christina]
Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren. Hazel, the titular main character in this humorous novel, is one of the wackiest literary personalities I have encountered lately, and the author has done a great job in crafting her. Hazel would love the word "titular," actually, and make a dirty joke out of it!  This is a fun read with the theme of "opposites attract," and a nice break from other more serious "literary" books I'm committed to read. In my own life, I'm "Josh" and my husband is "Hazel." It's worked out OK, so far - we've been married 35 years!

What I Want to Read Next:

November Road: A Novel by [Berney, Lou]
November Road by Lou Berney. A road trip novel set in the era of the JFK assassination that has gotten major buzz and starred reviews. I just read an excellent review from The Real Book Spy who you can follow on Twitter @TheRealBookSpy or read about on the website:

I really wish I had more time to read - there are so many great books out there to discover - but this working full-time is getting in the way of that! For now, I have my Kindle loaded and a few print books packed for my trip. I'm planning some great #epicreadingspot pics for Instagram!

Happy Reading!