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All the write stuff at the 2015 Baltimore Book Festival

So many great authors. So little time.

The 20th annual Baltimore Book Festival, held this weekend at the Inner Harbor, will pack nearly 350 authors on 13 stages into just three days.

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And that's not counting the numerous panels and workshops, the cooking demonstrations, a talent show and the strains of New Orleans jazz, hip-hop and a brass quintet that will emanate all weekend from the Music Stage.

Navigating the festival takes skill. It takes strategy. And it takes this guide.

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Below, we've highlighted three very different writers who will be on hand to present their work — a celebrity author, an up-and-coming local novelist with an intriguing background and a journalist whose book offers insight into race relations, arguably the most timely topic in America in 2015.

We've also put together a short list of don't-miss authors, and will offer up highlights of a new attraction this year — the Health & Wellness Stage — along with a few choice morsels from the always-popular Food for Thought Stage.

So, ladies and gentlemen, take out your bookmarks, get set and go!

The Celebrity Author: John McCain, senior U.S. Senator from Arizona and 2008 Republican presidential nominee

His book (co-written with Mark Salter): "Thirteen Soldiers: A Personal History of Americans at War."

Despite all that he's been through himself — imprisonment during the Vietnam War, torture, two years of solitary confinement, and a grueling run for president in 2008 that made the former seem like a stroll in the park — there's no mistaking the awe in John McCain's voice when he talks about the heroism of other real-life American soldiers.

"What they did for their country," McCain says, "is almost beyond comprehension."

McCain and his longtime collaborator, Mark Salter, spotlight 13 stories, one for each major American military conflict, in their newest book. "Thirteen Soldiers" includes chapters on 15-year-old Joseph Plumb Martin, who fought in the Revolutionary War and Mitchell Red Cloud Jr., a Native American from the Winnebago tribe.

After Red Cloud was badly wounded during the Korean War and knew he wouldn't make it out alive, he had his fellow Marines tie him to a tree with an automatic gun so he could cover his comrades' retreat while they escaped.

The 13 soldiers include a member of each branch of the armed forces, along with two women and two African-Americans. For the authors, the stories personify such abstract virtues as valor, obedience and love.

"It didn't matter where they came from or what their gender is," McCain says. "The common thread is that they served a cause greater than themselves."

The senator was interviewed the day after the second Republican debate, and he didn't hesitate to give his opinions about the crowded field.

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Current front-runner Donald Trump "does not have a significant grasp of national security," McCain says. Businesswoman Carly Fiorina, former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard "did an excellent job" and "has a real spark."

Not surprisingly, McCain expresses the most enthusiasm for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, for whom McCain campaigned earlier this summer.

Graham, who took part in Wednesday's earlier, undercard debate, "killed them," McCain says. "He really showed the kind of talent he has."

But McCain demurred at the suggestion that it's not too late for him to throw his own hat in the ring.

"Some people have said that I should jump back in," he says. "But I tell them that there's no education in the second kick of a mule."

You can try to change McCain's mind when he appears at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at the Literary Salon.

The Up-and-Coming Local Writer: Baltimore architect Charles Belfoure

His book: "House of Thieves: A Novel"

Just as John Grisham brought his expertise as a practicing attorney to writing legal thrillers, Baltimore writer Charles Belfoure is bringing his decades of experience as an architect specializing in historic preservation to his two novels featuring building planner antiheroes.

Belfoure's first novel, "The Paris Architect," was published in 2014 when he was 60. The novel, set in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, features an architect offered a large sum to create hiding places for Jews that are designed cleverly enough to fool the Gestapo. This summer, "The Paris Architect" made it to the New York Times' list of e-book best-sellers.

His newest novel, "House of Thieves," was just optioned by producer Mark Gordon for treatment for a possible television series, according to the Hollywood entertainment website, deadline.com.

"House of Thieves" is loosely based on the real-life story of Gilded Age architect George Leslie, who gave up a career designing buildings and a lifestyle among society's elite to plan bank robberies. Leslie became the head of the most successful gang in New York.

"He lived a double life," Belfoure says.

"I decided to spin a story off that forces my character, John Cross, to join a criminal gang to pay off his son's huge gambling debts. But, as the novel goes on, he discovers that he likes being a criminal."

Belfoure's architectural firm is based in Westminster, and at the moment, he's working on high-visibility projects recycling old buildings on Baltimore's west side. He's rehabbing two properties in the 400 block of Howard St. and three buildings in the 100 block of N. Eutaw St. When they're finished, these projects will contain retail space on the bottom floors, and apartments above.

"Writing fiction is far less stressful than being an architect," says Belfoure, who previously was the author of three architectural histories, including one on Baltimore rowhouses.

"When I'm writing a novel, I don't have to comply with the Baltimore City building code. When I'm writing a novel, I have the final say on all the creative decisions. When I'm writing a novel, I never have to delete a sentence or a paragraph because it's too expensive."

Belfoure will attend a librarian-led, community book club discussion of his novels at 3 p.m. Friday at the Ivy Bookshop Stage.

The Timely Topic: White House correspondent April Ryan

Her book:"The Presidency in Black and White: My Up-Close View of Three Presidents and Race in America."

"Ohmigod," Ryan says over the phone. "I just found out that Joe Biden might be attending the Congressional Black Caucus dinner."

It doesn't matter that Ryan, a Baltimore resident, graduate of Morgan State University and the White House correspondent for the American Urban Radio Networks, is in the midst of a telephone interview about her book, a cogent examination of race in America.

Ryan can't stop for even a single second from plumbing the sources she's made during her 18 years covering the occupants of the most exclusive address in Washington, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. She can't stop spotting potential stories even before they occur.

"Ohmigod," she says. "Hillary Clinton is going to be at that dinner. This could be interesting."

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Ryan hosts a daily broadcast, "The White House Report," which focuses on urban news and race and which is sent to nearly 300 stations nationwide.

"I have been blessed, blessed, blessed to come into this place for 18 years, to be called by name by three American presidents, and to have a relationship with each one of them," she says.

Her book comes to surprising conclusions about each president's successes and failures at advancing racial equality in the U.S.

President Bill Clinton, she says, "messed up on criminal justice, and he messed up on Rwanda [by failing to stop genocide], but he brought African-Americans to the table. More African-Americans bought homes and businesses under Bill Clinton's administration and sent their kids to college."

President George W. Bush, she adds, "didn't think the black community was his base, so he didn't reach out to them. He did more for Africa than any other president at the time in terms of fighting AIDS and malaria, but he didn't put his message out there."

And Barack Obama?

"We're seeing a very different Barack Obama in his second term than we saw in his first term," she says. "In his first term, he had to navigate the waters so carefully. Now, he's more confident in who he is. He's celebrating his ethnicity more and calling things out for what they are."

Her final grades: Clinton and Obama each earn a B+, while Bush receives a C-.

Find out more at noon Saturday at the Ivy Bookshop Stage, when Ryan discusses what she's learned with Towson University political science professor Martha Kumar.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

The 20th annual Baltimore Book Festival will be held from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. today through Sunday at the Inner Harbor. Events take place in West Shore Park and Rash Field and along the 400 blocks of Light Street and Key Highway. For details, call 410-752-8632 or visit baltimorebookfestival.org.

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