A Man for the Ages

Leonardo da VinciLeonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An illegitimate, homosexual, left-handed, genius who could also paint. That describes Leonardo in broad strokes. He pitched himself to patrons as a military engineer, hydrologist, architect, and city planner. Painting was an afterthought. Ultimately, he supported and amused himself as a designer of stage sets. At various times he was patronized by a Medici, a Borgia, and a pope. He was notorious for accepting commissions, then never finishing them. He hauled the Mona Lisa around with him for fourteen years and died without delivering it to Lisa’s husband who commissioned it. To perfect his ability to paint figures with precision, he dissected dozens of human cadavers, horses, and the odd pig, which he vivisected to study the beating of the heart. He made numerous discoveries that were centuries ahead of their time, including the function of heart valves, the function of the retina, and the lift mechanism of birds’ wings. Perhaps the most bizarre study on which he embarked was to learn the nature of a woodpecker’s tongue. He wore foppish clothes of outlandish colors, kept pretty boys, and practiced vegetarianism. The scholarly journals that he prepared ran to thousands of pages, but he never published anything.

Walter Isaacson, who previously wrote biographies of Steve Jobs and Einstein, obviously travelled the world to research da Vinci. His credentials gained him access to remarkably arcane bits of information on this unique character from the time of Columbus. Isaacson delves into the quest for lost masterpieces, the intricacies of Leonardo’s genius, and workings of his studios, where students often contributed to his paintings and churned endless copies of them. This book is perhaps a little long and occasionally dense with detail, but it is the end all and be all of Leonardo da Vinci.

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FBI Good or Evil


In the light of the #ReleaseTheMemo flap, Congressmen, reporters, and news anchors trip over their tongues to venerate the FBI while accusing its leadership of corruption. They repeat, “The vast majority of FBI agents are loyal hardworking Americans.” Fine, but to whom are they loyal? One thing an FBI agent does extremely well is follow orders.


The FBI was founded in 1935 by Franklin Roosevelt, Democrat, with the assistance of its first director, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover remained director for thirty-seven years because he collected damaging files on Americans, especially politicians and dissidents.


The following is a taken from Wikipedia:


Later in life and after his death, Hoover became a controversial figure as evidence of his secretive abuses of power began to surface. He was found to have exceeded the jurisdiction of the FBI, and to have used the FBI to harass political dissenters and activists, to amass secret files on political leaders, and to collect evidence using illegal methods. Hoover consequently amassed a great deal of power and was in a position to intimidate and threaten sitting presidents.


Wikipedia also quotes Harry Truman:


… we want no Gestapo or secret police. The FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail. J. Edgar Hoover would give his right eye to take over, and all congressmen and senators are afraid of him. —Harry S. Truman


Even Richard Nixon was afraid to fire Hoover. He was the original untouchable.


Hoover did not personally place wiretaps or steal personal information, rank-and-file FBI agents did—those same hardworking, loyal Americans who the contemporary pundits set on a pedestal. It is not my intention to paint today’s FBI agents with the Hoover era brush, but I would call your attention to the inescapable fact that from 2008 to 2017, FBI recruiters must surely have had an overarching liberal agenda. The FBI’s attrition and new hire rates are apparently classified, but in nine years it would not be hard to imagine a significant ideological shift.


Robert Mueller served as director of the FBI from 2001 until 2013, longer than anyone except J. Edgar Hoover. Mueller was criticized by George Bush, who nominated him, and Dick Chaney for failing to incarcerate terrorists in the US. Obama extended his term by two years. Comey succeeded Mueller as FBI director, and Mueller and Comey are personal friends. Those are the facts, and I draw no conclusion from them. However, it is abundantly clear that Comey lied to Congress and to the public. Mueller interviewed Comey, and thus far, Comey has not been indicted, whereas Flynn has for the same crime.


In conclusion, I see no need to blindly glorify the FBI. History shows that FBI agents are perfectly capable of corruption. The most frequent failing of politicians, and people in general, is to ignore history. It always repeats itself.

Who Are This Guy’s Readers

The President's Daughter (Donovan Creed)The President’s Daughter by John Locke

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Hitman, Donovan Creed, finds the billion dollars in his Swiss bank account missing, and his wife tries to kill him. To add insult to injury, a mobster offers him $1500 to kill a dog that bit him. Eventually, the president’s chief of staff offers him eight million to kidnap president’s daughter. Well, a guy has to make a living, so he takes the job, only to discover that this has been in works for years, and a veritable troop of look-alikes and body doubles are on the government’s payroll. Creed’s overly complex plan evaporates when the president’s daughter voluntarily lets herself be kidnapped.

Okay, it’s a silly story. Now, I’m not one to criticize a silly story. I may have been guilty of writing one or two myself. The President’s Daughter, however, is a bit much. Creed and his partner, Callie, have sex with and kill everyone they meet. The body count is astronomical, and I only recall disposing of two bodies, yet no one seems too concerned to arrest them. The wackiness aside, this book has some issues that don’t appeal to me. It bounces back and forth from past tense to present tense, and it shifts viewpoints from first person narration by the main character to third person narration by unimportant characters. It has its bright moments and a few flashes of humor. Mr. Locke is not shy about claiming some pretty impressive credentials, including million-seller status. This is apparently true. That worries me about the nature of the reading public, but I can’t fault his success.

For $.99 I was willing to give it a try. It’s now $2.99, but if you feel inclined, here’s the link:

Buy at Smashwords

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A Brief History of TimeA Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I reread “A Brief History of Time” every few years thinking that, if I read it enough, I’ll understand it. Originally published in 1988, this 2017 edition is wonderfully updated by Stephen Hawking himself, who is the longest surviving victim of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Since the original publication, Hawking and others have determined that the prospect of a big crunch at the end of the universe is highly unlikely. That revelation, and others, makes it fascinating to explore the progress that has been made in cosmology and quantum physics in twenty years. Evaporating black holes, gravity waves, the multiverse, and the uncertainty principle; these mind-bending concepts, and many more, are laid bare by Hawking’s straightforward explanations. Straightforward? Well, all things are relative, including time and gravity. Hawking does speak plainly and with humor, but my eyes glaze and my brain hurts every time he says “…the sum over all possible histories.” Nevertheless, this is a book to read and reread by all thinking persons.

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Artifact Chapter 1

Proto cover3


Scott Skipper

Copyright 2017

All rights reserved

Chapter 1

Probably a real estate agent, she thought as Vicki peeked at the strange car in the driveway and the strange woman exiting the driver’s seat. The woman carried a brown paper package that was considerably tattered. Vicki went to the door and waited for the doorbell. She swung the door inward and studied, through the screen, the black-haired, blue-eyed woman who wasn’t smiling.

“Mrs. Vicki Rice?” she asked with a trace of British accent.

“Yes,” Vicki replied tentatively.

“My name is Martine Durand. I have something for you from your husband.”

“Are you a process server?”

“No, nothing like that. This is some kind of message. It’s not my business, but I think he may be in some sort of trouble.”

“Oh, God. What are you saying?”

“I met him only briefly—in México. He gave me this and asked me to mail it. I sensed that it was too important to trust to the mail.”

Vicki was stunned. “Please come in and explain all this.”

The stranger smiled for the first time. She had a crooked, if engaging smile that Vicki thought would appeal to Robert. “Thank you. I won’t take much of your time.”

“Please sit here. May I offer you something?”

“Just some water would be lovely.”

Vicki quickly returned from the kitchen with a tumbler of ice water and iced tea for herself. “So, you met Robert in México, and he gave you that?” She gestured at the battered package. It was about the size of half a ream of paper and was tied with sisal twine.

“Oh, yes, here.” Martine gave it to her. “It was at the airport at Cancún. I had just arrived on holiday and somehow got into the departure lanes while looking for a taxi. Robert was dropping off his friend. I must have looked hopelessly confused, so he offered me a lift to the hotel.”

“Sounds like him.”

“Yes, well, he was quite gallant about it. When we got to the hotel, an enormous tour bus had just arrived, full of Japanese tourists. There were so many, and they were so rude, that there was literally no room to stand in the reception. To repay Robert for his kindness, I offered to buy him a drink, since I had to wait to check in anyway.”

“He wouldn’t turn that down.”

“No, he didn’t. Well, you know, we just had a casual conversation about what we were doing there. I was meeting a girlfriend for two weeks at the beach, and he said he had just spent a week in the jungle with the friend who he dropped at the airport.”

“That would be Carl.”

“That’s right. So, a week in the jungle sounded pretty adventurous to me. I wanted to know more about it. That’s when he got sort of mysterious—said he had something to do now that his friend had left. I didn’t press it.”

Vicki sipped her tea while trying to read the truth in what this woman was saying. “He said he had to do something that Carl couldn’t see?”

“Like I said, I didn’t press it. Here was someone I just met telling me about something that sounded clandestine. At that point, I thought I might not want to know.”

“So, what happened next?”

“That was it. We had a nice conversation over another drink. He tried to pick up the tab, but I insisted, then I went to check in, and he disappeared into the jungle.”

“He didn’t try to hit on you?”

“No, he was a perfect gentleman.”

“Maybe you’ve got the wrong Robert Rice.”

Martine smiled her one-sided smile.

“When did you get this?” Vicki raised the still sealed package.

“Hmm, that was a couple of days before I was due to go home. My girlfriend had already left, but I had some more time to work on a tan—I burn easily. Anyway, Robert showed up at the hotel and rang my room. He invited me to dinner at a place called the Sunset Bar. I was happy to accept. The place was lovely—”

“I know it.”

“Oh, well, then you know how lovely it is. We had a great time. He talked me into trying conch ceviche—good but a bit rubbery. Then he pulls this already ratty package from a backpack he was carrying and asks if I would mind mailing it when I got back to the states. When I saw the addressee, it was the first time I knew he was married.”

“In your defense, we’re separated.”

“Yes, he told me. Then he told me a very strange story.”

“And what was that?”

“I don’t think that I am the one you should hear it from. I believe it’s all in there.” Martine pointed at the parcel she had brought.

Vicki felt a prick of irritation with this woman who had seemingly dropped out of the sky and stirred memories she was trying to stifle. “I suppose you two were…”

“Intimate? No, not at all. Just one chaste kiss goodbye when he dropped me at the airport.”

“You said you had a couple more days before you had to go to the airport.”

“Yes, I did spend more time with him. Like the complete twit that I am, I thought all there was to do was lay on the sand and take windsurfing lessons. Sure, I’d heard of Chichen Itzá, but I had no idea what it was, and it seemed a bother to spend most of the day on a bus to go see it. Robert offered to give me tours of some places he said were better. He showed me two beautiful spots called—”

“Tulum and Cobá,” Vicki interrupted.

“Why, yes. He took you there as well then.”

“Oh, yes. Our special places.”

“Sorry, I couldn’t have known.”

“No, and it’s all right. I’m moving on.”

“I see. Well, when Robert wasn’t in his tour guide mode, I thought he seemed sad. Later I thought that he was missing you.”

“I doubt that.”

“Still, it concerned me. Little things he said gave me to think he needed looking after.”

“What do you mean?”

“He sounded sort of hopeless. Frankly, I wondered why he wasn’t making, you know, suggestions.”

“Yeah, that’s not like him.”

“Then he said something that convinced me I should deliver his parcel, what I figure is a very long letter, to you in person.”

“What did he say?”

“He said in it was the key to your future wellbeing.”

That struck Vicki mute. She fondled the string binding the sheets and felt tempted to open it, but she couldn’t read it in front of this woman. “Is that all he said?”

“Yes, but his demeanor made me think that after you read it, you will have to make a trip to México.”

“I doubt that, but thank you for going out of your way to bring this to me.”

“It was no bother. I hope things work out for you, and that Robert is all right.”

“Do you mind leaving a number where I can reach you in case I have questions?”

“I’d really rather not.”

Martine showed herself to the door as Vicki slid the twine from the brown paper package.

Dear Vicki,

By the time you read this…

It was dark when she finished the handwritten missive. She was trembling slightly, and she knew that she was going to have to go to México to recover the body of her estranged husband, and perhaps something else.


A Soul BurnedA Soul Burned by RJ Curtis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

James was a bomber pilot with twenty-plus missions over Germany. He was good at his job and was picked to lead the raid on Dresden in February, 1945. As he circled the target, pinpointing the places undamaged so other bombers could drop their loads wherever there were no flames. At the end of the mission, James makes it home safely, but not undamaged. Although due some leave, he is tasked with one more mission—a milk run over Denmark in the daylight—one more mission and then free time to spend with Colleen. But the unthinkable happens.

The firebombing of Dresden was one of the most controversial raids perpetrated by the Allies during World War II. The wanton barbarism of annihilating an ancient city with no strategic value has been bemoaned ever since that day in 1945 when it was reduced to ashes. RJ Curtis has done a magnificent job of telling the story through the eyes of a participant. The emotional impact on the character, James, is told with great skill, and the subsequent tragedy that befell him is also related masterfully. There is additionally the viewpoint of young boy who survived the firestorm, and in a strange twist of fate, has an impact on James life years later. A Soul Burned is a fine piece of historical fiction.
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