Monday, November 29, 2010


Kevin Coolidge

Let’s see—sunscreen… check…extra batteries…check…bacon in a can…check…machete…check…extra ammo…check. You may have noticed that Election Day has come and gone, and let me tell you, I’m none to happy with the results. I don’t care who has control of the House or who rules the Senate. I’m tired of the whole big, bloated mess. Before I proceed further, I have a public service announcement from my editor: To whom it may concern: Tioga Publishing, its affiliates, employees, and especially the editor does NOT knowingly or willfully advocate, abet, or advise overthrow of the United States Government by violence…

Okay, if I can continue. Where was I? Endless taxes....pork belly's time to put government on a diet! Let's vote the incumbents out you say? Have you seen the new boss? He's a lot like the old boss and that's why I picked up a copy of How to Stage a Military Coup: From Planning to Execution by David Hebditch and Ken Connor.

Eagerly, I grabbed a notebook and pen to summarize the important aspects of each chapter, but I grew more and more disappointed. This book is not entirely a guide on how to stage a military coup, as promised by the cover, but part fictional story, part historical survey of military coups, and finally the much sought after practical advice of the planning and execution of the coups. It’s a devious way to get a budding dictator to read military history.

The coup remains the single most common form of regime change throughout the world, and in some countries is much more frequent than government sanctioned elections. For example, Bolivia has experienced approximately two hundred coups--plus or minus a putsch--after gaining independence from Spain in 1825, that's an average of more than once a year.

How to Stage a Military Coup explores these violent and bloody overthrows of authority along with the social, military and political conditions in which they may prosper. Ken Connor is one of the longest serving members of the Special Air Service of the British Army. He explores coups from Nigeria to Cuba to Iraq and even Germany. Ken Connor writes from the experience of engagement with a humorous, dark cynicism that I found entertaining.

Sure, you’re planning on taking over the world, but you have to start small. Be sure to check out the ten-point checklist to see if your intended country is more likely to be ripe for the picking—tropical latitudes are looking sweet, and if public speaking is your number one fear—right behind death and burning in effigy – then you’re in luck, because a sample speech is included for the novice head of state to deliver, complete with labeled blanks such as-- "INSERT NAME OF FOUNDING FATHER OF NATION/POPULAR HERO.”

Make sure to factor in accounts of timing, media control, and government structure, and be sure your overhead bag is securely in the overhead compartment, and you can be on your way to a successful government takeover, but not the United States. Of course not, that’s just ridiculous. Have you seen the size of the U.S. military? That’s why I’m working my way through the checklist. 1. Former colony? 2. Strategically located? Hmmm, maybe Canada, a land of rich, unsoiled beauty and great beer…

The Ballot? Or The Bullet? Shoot me an email at Miss a past column? Reload at . Coming soon! Hobo goes south of the Border in “Hobo Finds A Hogar”, but first…a siesta….

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cat Tales: Writing About Reading


“Hey! That’s not work-related reading!” – a certain husband to his wife, when he found her doing logic puzzles instead of reading her book for book club or writing her book review column for this week’s newspaper.

When I was in middle school, the “gifted and talented” students were allowed, for one year only, to go to “enrichment” classes during the seventh grade’s normally-scheduled “reading” coursework. I was one of those lucky students who thought we were getting away with murder. For one period a day, I escaped those horrid “reading” textbooks – usually containing stories about some simpering kid who was more of a goody-two shoes than I was – and the dry as dirt worksheets that accompanied each assignment. I read enough exciting stuff on my own, so my teachers had miraculously agreed to let me go take “mini-courses” (one for each nine week period) in subjects such as logic, communications, creative writing, and psychology (and didn’t I feel like a big shot, with titles like that?).

It was only years later that I began to understand that I didn’t escape “reading” assignments in seventh grade, and certainly not with those mini-courses. If hard-pressed, I would have acknowledged that all my classes in the Wellsboro school system – even Ms. MacNaight’s gym classes in ninth grade, where, much to my chagrin, she gave us written tests on the rules of field hockey – required some ability to read. I just never realized how much literacy affects us until I sought my French teacher certification at Mansfield University.

In order to graduate from Mansfield University with a degree in education, every future teacher must take a class in teaching reading. Certainly, one would expect elementary school teachers to invest a great deal of time in their students’ acquisition of reading proficiency, but what about secondary teachers? Why should a high school teacher in the chemistry classroom, or the wood shop, or the culinary arts department, spend much time assessing how well their students comprehend what they read? Nevertheless, I found myself in a class entitled, “Reading in the Content Area”, sitting by people hoping to teach everything from algebra and geometry to foreign language to home economics. As someone who has always enjoyed reading as a hobby, pastime, and source of entertainment, I had never truly thought about how difficult school would be for a student who couldn’t read the instructions on a test, the homework questions for chemistry problems, or the definitions of vocabulary terms on the dreaded worksheets.

Why is it, then, that we are still so hung up on getting our school children to read books – and almost exclusively FICTION novels – for reading programs such as “AR” (Accelerated Reading) and Scholastics’ “Reading Counts”? Why shouldn’t we give equal rewards to kids who like to read articles in Car and Driver, or Fly Fisherman, magazines? What’s wrong with letting reluctant readers show their reading prowess with gourmet cookbooks, ultralight construction manuals, or logic puzzle problems?

To look at this another way, I recently had a grandmother come to the bookstore, looking for suggestions of “puzzle books” for her young granddaughter. She and her granddaughter had enjoyed doing some of grandma’s easier crossword puzzles, word searches, and “what’s different between these pictures?” logic problems from a book the grandmother owned, but the child was only able to do these because the grandmother read the words and/or explained the directions. Grandma wanted a book of these kinds of puzzles that the child could do by herself. Literacy levels, however, do come into play, even in picture puzzles, or with number-oriented puzzles, like Sudoku, so this was not an easy task.

How, then, should we encourage children to read, especially children who would prefer to play in the mud or build a Boxwood Derby car rather than curl up with Harry Potter? I propose we expand our definitions of “reading” and “literacy”, to encourage people of all ages and across all interest levels into our schools, libraries and bookstores. So, whether your favorite hobby is photography, gunsmithing, knitting, or fantasy football, before you dismiss “reading” from the list, check out all the great information that is waiting for you in the written word.

Hobo loves to curl up and read with his humans. He wanted to encourage kids to read, so he wrote a fun, easy to read story about his adventures as a stray kitten in Hobo Finds A Home – perhaps you’ve heard of it? Lately, Hobo has been reading up on military history, ballistics, quilting, Christian romance, marketing, wood carving, and werewolves. Check out his other book reviews at his blog,

Monday, November 15, 2010


by Kevin Coolidge

So many books, so little time—it’s hard choose just one. So, I didn’t. Lately, I’ve been reading young adult novels, and I’m going to share my recent favorites.

I enjoy a good zombie novel. Why? Face it. Deep down I’d love to see the world end. Wouldn’t you? Relax. It’s a natural instinct to crave chaos. Breathe in. Breathe out. Watch the empire expand; watch it crumble into dust. Grab the best parking spot. A good zombie novel lets us do that in the comfort of our home, as a writer conjectures on society’s demise, gives us some socially acceptable violence, and allows us to draw pleasure from it without breaking out the shovel or the lime.

That’s why I loved Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry. It’s fifteen years since “First Night” and Benny needs to join the work force—or he’ll lose his food ration. He’s not really interested in taking on the family business, zombie hunting. He expects a boring job of destroying zombies for cash. What he discovers is a job that will teach him what it really means to be human.

Rot & Ruin is about more than just the brains, but the heart as well. Benny’s brother Tom is a first class bounty hunter who prefers to be called a “closure specialist”. A zombie may be a shambling, rotting meat puppet, but it was once someone’s loved one, and would you want just anyone to mulch mom? Just because you’re a zombie doesn’t mean you are a monster, and sometimes the most terrible monsters of all are human.

Fear of the unknown. It’s our deepest fear. It’s why we fear death, because no matter what you claim to believe, no matter what you want to believe, you just don’t know. It’s why the necromancer in Hold me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride is such a terrifying adversary. Meet Sam, just your average college dropout rocking the fast-food career. Enter Douglas, a powerful and vicious necromancer. Douglas recognizes Sam as a fellow necromancer—which is news to Sam—and he’s not happy to have competition.

Now Sam’s pal is an animated head, a werewolf wants to devour him, the necromancer wants him neutralized, and a cop has a “few” questions to ask. All Sam has to do is stay alive, figure out how to use his mysterious, latent powers, and save himself and his friends without being consumed by power.

It’s been said that a writer must suffer for his craft, but anyone who’s attended the public school system and the torment that is middle school has all the requirements needed. Undersized weaklings share the hallways with taller, meaner kids who need to shave twice a day. Being a kid can really stink, and no one knows this better than Greg Heffley. Diary of a Wimpy Kid takes place in the first year of middle school. There’s the terror of the school play, the prestige of safety patrol, the ebb and flow of popularity, and the sibling rivalry of being the middle child. The author and illustrator Jeff Kinney introduces an unlikely hero that children of any age can identify with.

Choosing not to choose is a choice, but sometimes one just isn’t enough for the true bibliophile. Winter is approaching, the nights are longer, and next adventure--or three-- awaits…

Sepulchral? Or School? Drop me an email at and let me know. Miss us? Check the crypt for those columns we’ve put to rest at Hobo has learned his lesson. He used to be a hobo, but now he’s just a bum. Read about his past life in “Hobo Finds A Home” a children’s book about a kitten’s adventures.

Flannery O'Connor Goes to Wisconsin: A Northern Gothic, or A Good Woman is Hard to Find

One of Americans’ all-time favorite series about the settlers on the frontier remains the Little House on the Prairie, based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life and remembrances. Although hardships exist both in the Little House books and TV series, the abiding feeling is one of sweetness of this simple life. Without a doubt, this time period is romanticized in our literature, our movies, our imaginations and even our “history” books. The starting premise, then, of Robert Goolrick’s novel, A Reliable Wife, is familiar: in 1907, widower Ralph Truitt, a wealthy businessman in an isolated settlement of Wisconsin, places an ad in a Chicago newspaper, asking for a woman to come be his wife. He offers perhaps not a life of love, but one of comfort and respect. The woman he chooses is Catherine Land, who, in answer to Truitt’s ad, describes herself as “a simple, honest woman.” In further letters, she sends a photo of a plain, serious-looking woman, telling him of her life alongside her missionary father, who has recently died.

Certainly, this premise has been used in other historical novels, since it was a common enough occurrence for the times. Indeed, a series of books by Christian romance author Janette Oke, beginning with Love Comes Softly, were such huge hits that they spawned several movies, and still continue to be solid bestsellers, more than twenty years after their first publication. Following in Oke’s footsteps, entire careers of Christian romance authors have been built on this theme and era, bringing couples together across the prairies and mountains, as rough and beautiful lands are settled and civilized.

Perhaps Goolrick’s shockingly different approach to what has become a rather pedestrian plot is the reason the critics and the independent bookstores alike have focused on this new novel. Goolrick’s style of writing, and the twisted plot he fashions, is anything but ordinary. Described by more than one reviewer as a “Northern Gothic”, A Reliable Wife evokes Faulkner’s disturbing family dramas of the deep South. His style compares to that of Cormac McCarthy’s writing in The Road. Ultimately, Goolrick’s wording in this novel is as stark and flintlike as the harsh Wisconsin landscape he describes. This author holds no punches. In those long winters, in the raw landscape, as a result of the bleak life of endless work, he reminds the reader frequently that people went raving mad. After too many winters where they buried too many children, where they worked their fingers to the bone and still barely survived, they killed themselves, their families, other townspeople. They gave up. Against the constant reminder of this brutal environment, Goolrick brings his main characters into play. This is no sweet Christian romance. This is a chess board, with lonely, desperate people who believe they have little to lose.

Why would a reader choose to stay with a story like this? For much of the book, it is simply the reader’s anxious curiosity which will drive him on to read through uncomfortable erotic scenes; grim descriptions of poverty, insanity, depravity and hopelessness; interactions with characters he isn’t sure he likes. Goolrick’s talent is revealed in the subtle but insistent undertow of curiosity the reader feels, because, ultimately, the reader wants to know: what will happen to Ralph Truitt, at the hands of his “reliable wife”? From the beginning, the reader knows Catherine Land is playing a role. She is neither simple nor honest. She has come with plans of her own – to marry, placate, and eventually kill Truitt, slowly but surely, with poison. Ralph Truitt has plans for his future family, which will use his new wife to draw his estranged son home. The author has other plans for his characters, though, where even amidst such depravity, loss, confusion, and pain, there may be a glimpse of grace, the slightest possibility of hope.

Ultimately, readers will be glad they read A Reliable Wife even if they don’t particularly like it: Goolrick’s writing is accomplished; his technique and plot structure, talented and clever. Though they may want to give up as the pace sags a bit in the middle, the end is incredibly satisfying, making it more than worth any discomfort along the way. A Reliable Wife may be more literary, historical crime novel than moral tale. Nevertheless, the author obviously struggles with deeper issues, and the realization that not everyone can saved, but even the most destitute may be forgiven. Perhaps Goolrick’s books have more in common with those Christian writers than would first appear.

Hobo was in hiding, but now he’s back and immortalized in a lovely butternut wood. He wants you to believe he was out tramping on the prairie, but really he was sleeping the summer away. He hopes you will forgive a writer’s (and a cat’s) depraved ways. Email Hobo your thoughts on sin and sloth, fiction and forgiveness at

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Walk Like An Egyptian! Rick Riordan & the Red Pyramid

All the school kids so sick of books ….
When the buzzer rings (oh way oh)
They’re walkin’ like an Egyptian…

--“Walk Like An Egyptian”, performed by The Bangles, lyrics by Liam Sternberg

Well, folks, summer vacation is here! [Well, it was when I first wrote this!!] The kids always think they’re so sick of school, but the first time they say they complain they’re bored, tell them to walk like an Egyptian, right into their local bookstore.

If you and your kids are fans of the Rick Riordan series that relayed the adventures of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, then you’re in luck! (If you don’t know about Percy Jackson, or the Lightning Thief, or this great young adult series weaving new, contemporary fun out of Greek and Roman mythology, then check out past reviews in our blog, from earlier this year.) Alas, the Percy Jackson series is finished, but bestselling author and former history teacher Riordan has gifted us a brand new series, focusing on Egyptian mythology, beginning with the book The Red Pyramid.

Riordan’s newest venture, “The Kane Chronicles”, gives brother and sister team, Carter and Sadie Kane, the chance to tell their story of how the world of ancient Egypt exploded from ancient history to modern reality during their vacation. Their father, brilliant Egyptologist Dr. Julius Kane, takes them to visit the Rosetta Stone fragment housed at the British Museum in London. Ever since their mother’s death several years ago, the two siblings have lived separately – Sadie, with her grandparents, in London; Carter, traveling with his father, doing research, going on digs, and being homeschooled along the way. When the two Carter men come visit Sadie, Dr. Kane enigmatically promises to “set things right,” then disappears in a huge explosion at the Museum. Before they can gather their wits or mourn their father, Sadie and Carter are whisked away by strange relatives, traveling through time-and-space warps with an ancient Egyptian boat, protected by a cat and a crocodile, befriended by a baboon, attacked by mythological creatures, and charged with saving the world.

Some of the devices Riordan uses in The Red Pyramid follow the same plotline as his “Olympians” series, making the book at times a little formulaic, although there are some wonderful additions to the Kane Chronicles which promise to hook an even wider audience. First of all, the story is told from alternating perspectives, with chapters switching back and forth between Carter, the older brother, a young black man who has traveled with his famous father but longs for a permanent home; and Sadie, younger sister, fairer-skinned like her mother, little Brit smart-aleck ‘tween, longing for time with her father and for world-traveling adventures like her brother. I really enjoyed the modern truths about mixed-race families, both the normalcy of it alongside the reality of people’s deep-seeded reactions. I was also extremely pleased to have the story from both brother and sister, a narrative which should draw in the children who grew up on the Magic Tree House series.

Since I know little about Egyptian history, culture, or mythology, I decided to bone up a little by studying Linda Honan’s guide, Spend the Day in Ancient Egypt. Written predominantly for use with 8 to 12 year old children, perhaps as a curriculum guide, Honan’s book describes a typical day in ancient Egypt, following a fictitious but probable family, including mother, father, son, daughter, and the family cat. This wonderful book gives little pieces of history, explanations for customs and beliefs, information about clothing and food (including recipes!), typical names, lessons on basic hieroglyphics, games and activities, the geography and weather of the region, and more. I learned more history, culture and geography from this little book than I would have learned in a summer school session devoted to Egypt! Perhaps my favorite part was learning how to play Senet, the world’s oldest board game….. but don’t tell Hobo the game was my favorite. He’s still convinced I read this book to learn how cats ruled ancient Egypt, with some help from their assistants, the Pharoahs.

Since Hobo wants to continue his “vacation” from writing the column for the Gazette, Kasey and Kevin are stepping up to do it again. In the meantime, Hobo will be studying up on the ways cats were honored in ancient Egypt – just don’t pierce his ears! The Bangles or bangles & bling? Tell us what you think at Want to go back and read past columns, like the earlier ones on Rick Riordan? Check out our blog at

Monday, November 1, 2010

Curiosity is the Cat's Saving Grace

Drilling for natural gas and oil. The protection of state forests and parks. Fathers who are in the National Guard as part-time soldiers, called up to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. The worries of families left behind. The hope of maybe, one day, seeing an elusive animal in the wild land nearby – the panther, the puma, the cougar.

When I picked up Carl Hiaasen’s newest young adult novel, Scat, I had no idea the storyline would be so relevant to our current experiences in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania. I just wanted to read Scat because I’ve enjoyed Hiaasen’s other books – those mysteries written for adults, and the eco-adventures more recently penned for the younger crowd.

Hiaasen is a great summer read, as his crazy cast of characters faces off over environmental issues, political scandals, and corporate greed-driven lies. The fodder for Hiaasen’s fiction comes straight from the headlines he helped write in his many years as investigative journalist for the Miami Herald. Hiaasen joined the writing team at the Miami Herald when he was 23 years old, first as a staff reporter, then later on their award-winning investigative team. As his novels became best-sellers, he decided to cut back to writing a weekly column for the Herald, but he likes to joke in interviews and on his personal website about how he has “pissed off just about everybody in South Florida, including his bosses,” most of whom he has outlasted at the Herald.

This aspect of his professional life shows up in several of his novels, including Tourist Season, Skin Tight, and Basket Case, which feature slightly washed-up, burned-out and otherwise cynical retired investigative journalists who have gotten involved, usually against their will, in cleaning up the dirt in some local Floridian scandal. As Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes commented after an interview with Hiaasen, “Whether he's writing fiction or journalism, Carl Hiaasen's main character is always Florida.” When I picked up Scat to enjoy for a little summer reading, I expected a book about kids helping get to the bottom of an environmental scandal in their area of Florida, the same structure Hiaasen used in his first two books for young adults – Hoot, which won a Newbery Honor Award and was made into a movie; and Flush – my personal favorite.

Certainly, Scat is standard Hiaasen fare, but I was so pleased and surprised to find how the elements of this Hiaasen novel, in particular, dovetail the experiences many kids in this area are having right now. Every day, our children are hearing about gas drilling, oil companies, corporate greed, protecting the environment, state game lands, fathers and friends’ fathers in the National Guard, or off on a tour of duty in the Middle East. Furthermore, although Scat follows the saga of the endangered Florida panther, this panther is a relative of the cougar, the mountain lion that folks around here love to talk about. It was so easy for me to put myself in the shoes of Nick, the main character in Scat, and his mom, and his best friend, Marta.

Although Nick and Marta and their classmates find their teacher Mrs. Starch more than a little strange, Nick is glad for her yearly field trip to the Everglades, for he desperately hopes to get a glimpse of the majestic, elusive, powerful Florida panther. When Mrs. Starch disappears after the field trip, most kids at the Truman School rejoice, but Nick and Marta grow suspicious. And, in Hiaasen’s world, curiosity doesn’t usually kill the cat. In fact, in this story, curiosity may be the cat’s saving grace.

Curious scat or serious scandal? Email your thoughts to Hobo at Miss a past column? Track them down at Hobo’s book blog, For another great book with a yellow cat on the cover, check out Hobo’s book, Hobo Finds A Home, free in every box of Hobo breakfast cereal.