The Wolfman

Nicholas Pekearo’s debut novel, The Wolfman, breathes new life into one of the horror genre’s legendary characters, the werewolf, amazingly enough turning the monster into the sympathetic hero of the story. Sadly, it has to be mentioned that Mr. Pekearo lost his life while patrolling as an unarmed volunteer policeman in New York before publication of The Wolfman and that his hopes of turning this book into a series died with him.

Marlowe Higgins, a Viet Nam vet with a tainted military discharge, did not inherit much from his father. But unfortunately for Higgins, he did not come away completely empty-handed. Instead, upon his father’s passing Higgins found himself burdened by a curse that originated with his great-great-grandfather, one that turns him into a killing machine with the appearance of each month’s full moon.

To his credit, Marlowe is a man with a conscious and, for a time, he fought the monthly transition from human to werewolf with a determination that caused him tremendous physical and psychological pain. But, try as he might to avoid it, he was forced to make a kill each month, so he found a way to ease his feelings of guilt by killing only those who deserved to die, murderers and criminals who preyed on those weaker than themselves, especially those who targeted women and children.

If Marlowe wanted to stay under the radar of law enforcement authorities, he knew that had to live a drifter’s life, something he did until taking a break from the road and settling into the little town of Evelyn where he worked as a short-order cook. For the first time since returning from Viet Nam, Marlowe lived what passed for a relatively normal existence despite the curse which continued to plague him. But, sooner or later, all good things manage to come to an end. That end came for Marlowe’s lifestyle when a serial killer, who was to be known as the Rose Killer because of his habit of replacing the eyeballs of his victims with roses, came to Evelyn and decided to stay for a while.

The Wolfman so skillfully walks that fine line between reality and fantasy that Pekearo is able to transform a werewolf not only into a sympathetic character, but into a thoroughly believable one. The story is set in the dark little world of Evelyn, a town desperately in need of the protection of a superhero, if there ever was one, and one peopled by characters who would be right at home in the shadows and alleyways of the big city. Pekearo has skillfully combined the elements of several genres in a way that ensures the novel’s appeal to fans of each of them: horror, detective fiction, thriller, and American noire.

The book’s weak point is the relative ease with which most readers will determine the identity of the Rose Killer long before Marlowe manages it, something that diminishes some of the novel’s tension level. But in a novel that is as much fun as The Wolfman that is an easy thing to forgive.

Rated at: 4.0

Originally published at Curled Up with a Good Book

102-Year-Old Librarian Still on the Job

While most people dream of retiring from the job somewhere between the ages of 60 and 65, Martha Smith has continued working for about forty years beyond those ages. She still puts in her time every Sunday at the Vinland, Kansas, library that she first started working at in 1926. The Kansas City Star has her story:

Smith is 102 now. She wears a hearing aid and needs an oversized pair of magnifying goggles to read. She has to bend over so far to walk her eyes stare straight at the ground.

Others might have retired 30 years ago. Not Smith. She still shows up every Sunday to put in her hours at the 400-square-foot, one-room library 10 miles south of Lawrence.

Sure, she took a break in 1944 to raise her only son, Edwin. But she returned in 1956 and has been there ever since.

She has been there so long the Kansas Department of Human Resources honored her with an outstanding older worker award as the oldest female worker in Kansas.

That was six years ago.

Ray Wilbur, president of the Coal Creek Library Association, said Smith is one of a kind.

“She’s loyal, she’s diligent, she’s always optimistic and cheerful,” he said. “What’s not to like?”

The article is interesting, but even better is the video that the newspaper has attached to it. Take a look…it will make your day.

Sweetsmoke Review – A Correction

I’ve had a short conversation with David Fuller, author of Sweetsmoke over the last two or three days about his book and one of the comments I made about it in my August 21 review. I don’t think that Mr. Fuller generally makes it a practice to respond to reviews so I appreciate his willingness to discuss mine with me and to, in fact, give me the opportunity to set the record straight on one of the points I raised.

I enjoyed the book and my review was generally a very positive one but I did question the believability of two aspects of the story. Mr. Fuller sent me an explanation of both my points and, in the first case, I find that I missed a key element of the story that explains away my doubts about the main character’s ability to read and write at a rather sophisticated level.

From my review:

“The reader is asked to believe, for instance, that Cassius, a man who had just a few days in which to learn how to read and write, is able to do both so well that he is able to comprehend all the nuances of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when he steals his master’s copy of the play and to forge the passes he needs to seemingly authorize his travel away from Sweetsmoke on his own.”

Mr. Fuller’s response (“bolding” added by me):

“In fact, Cassius begins to learn to read over a three week time period back in 1857. That was five years before the novel begins, and in the ensuing five years, Cassius continues his reading education with Emoline (you can find that information on page 48). I took liberties with the timing of Cassius coming into contact with the texts of THE ILIAD as well as JULIUS CAESAR. All writers learn to telescope time from Shakespeare, and I wanted to give the reader an opportunity to experience Cassius’s initial attempts to grapple with Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer, so I placed this within the context of the narrative. Realistically, he would have been likely to read THE ILIAD earlier, with Emoline’s assistance. But I took the liberty as I wanted the reader to experience Cassius’s first encounter with the god Apollo. Five years seems to me to be more than enough time to take on a first reading of Julius Caesar, as well as more than enough time to learn to forge passes.”

I have gone back and re-read page 48 and I find that the detail concerning the number of years that Cassius studied with Emoline escaped me by the time I finished the book. That information completely invalidates the point I made in the review and I am pleased to correct the wrong impression that I inadvertently gave.

Mr. Fuller, over at the official Sweetsmoke website, comments on another point I made in the review and discusses some of the research upon which he based that aspect of the novel. If you’re interested in more of Mr. Fuller’s thoughts, just click on the link I’ve provided to that site. While you’re there take a look at the rest of the site and you’ll likely find yourself placing Sweetsmoke on your TBR list.

Some Things Never Really Change

I’ve always kind of identified with Linus for some reason. I suppose it’s because he could see through others and yet not get all that riled up about anything they did to him. This particular strip reminds me that readers are still fighting the same battle that Linus faced all those years ago, only now we have to put up with music players, cell phones, laptops, etc. when trying to read in a public setting. It happened to me again just this morning, in fact, while I waited to have the oil changed in my car…cell phone screamers and mp3 players so loud that I could understand the song lyrics through the headphones being used by others (their ears must be mush by now).

But Linus, bless him, saw the humor in the situation a long time ago.

(You’ll have to click on the image to see it in a more legible size – this is as big as the blogger software will allow it to be.)

The Clinton Diaries

It hardly seems possible that it has been almost ten years since Bill Clinton’s impeachment and Senate trial but we are rapidly approaching those milestone dates: December 19, 1998 for the impeachment and February 12, 1999 for his acquittal in the Senate. Fred Petrovsky marks those rather dubious anniversaries with his new novel, The Clinton Diaries, an account using excerpts from Bill Clinton’s fictional diary to illustrate the events leading up to the impeachment and how things might so easily have turned out differently were it not for the bad luck that Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski would someday, against all odds, cross paths.

Frankly, before I started reading The Clinton Diaries, I was not really sure that I wanted to relive those destructively painful days. Let’s face it, no one involved on either side, certainly not Clinton, Lewinski or Clinton’s head-hunting opposition exactly covered themselves in glory during those months. Having carefully watched the actual process, I still carry negative impressions of just about everyone involved in it, in fact. But, of course, the ultimate blame has to be placed squarely on the shoulders of President Clinton himself, so I did not expect to come away from the book feeling the slightest bit of sympathy for the man. But, surprisingly, I did.

That happened because the Bill Clinton character of The Clinton Diaries is a vulnerable and self-aware man who admits to himself, if to no one else, his own weaknesses and the fact that his lack of control over certain of his appetites dooms him to be less than the man he could, or wants, to be. The voice that Petrovsky has given to Bill Clinton sounds eerily like that of the man that Americans have come to know over the last two decades, so much so, in fact, that it is easy to imagine the real Bill Clinton saying and thinking the very words attributed to him in the novel.

Now perhaps it is time for someone to do the same for Monica Lewinski although I suspect it will be much more difficult to make her into as sympathetic a character as Petrovsky has managed to make Bill Clinton.

The Clinton Diaries, I have to say, is not a book that I enjoyed reading but that is not the fault of the book itself. It is more that I would like to forget the annoyance of those months and what this fiasco cost all of us in terms of “what could have been” and the book all too vividly and painfully reminded me of that.

Rated at: 4.0

Canadian Library System Embezzler Sentenced to Jail Time

Rather unbelievably, the head of a Saskatchewan library branch seems to have stolen something between $500,000 and $1,000,000 from a group of rural libraries for which he was responsible. Bruce Cameron, 65 years of age, admits to bilking the system of $500,000 over a 14-year period but others believe that he stole much more than that.

According to The Canadian Press:

“Only a person of good reputation can continue a crime like this,” said Singer. “That’s why it is such a significant breach of trust.”

Court officers placed the grey-haired Cameron into handcuffs and led him into custody.

Crown prosecutor Gary Parker described the scheme as “sophisticated and elaborate.”

He said Cameron set up a fake company called Desert Rose Books based in Carson City, Nev.

Cameron ordered books that didn’t exist, then pocketed the money.

Arlene Pederson, the new president of the library board, said outside court that nearly $1 million actually went missing while Cameron was employed. But officials could only prove the half million was stolen.

She said she had always respected Cameron and believed he had the library’s best interest at heart.

“To find out that he had done this to us, there was anger – extreme anger,” she said.

Cameron was fired from his job after returning from one of his many Mexican holidays in 2004, said Pederson.

What strikes me in this case, as it always does when this kind of thing happens, is why someone of authority didn’t notice that so much money was being spent with nothing to show for it. Why is it that so many businesses and government agencies fail to notice that they are leaking money until it is too late to recover much of it, much less in time to ever determine exactly how much has gone into the wrong pockets?

Penguin Books Offers Dating Service in U.K.

At first glance, the idea of a major publisher branching out into a cheesy dating service seems more than a bit silly. After all it’s tough enough to sell books these days, so any kind of business plan diversification that takes away from that main focus seems to be at least somewhat risky.

But considering how ineffective (and sometimes dangerous) existing dating services seem to be, this might actually turn out to be a good thing. Book lovers are passionate about their reading, and finding someone equally passionate to match up with is a huge head start in a world so dumbed-down that Britney Spears and Madonna seem worthy of attention to so many people.

Penguin might even sell some books in the process.

Sky News has the details:

Penguin says readers will be offered a place to meet and indulge in the age old art of writing love letters as the boom in online dating fast restores the importance of the written word to modern courtship’.

Subscribers will be asked to write about the last book they read in their online profile and will then be able to search the profiles of thousands of other book lovers.

Jason Stockwood, Managing Director International at added: “This partnership gives us a unique opportunity to successfully match lovers of literature.”

“The written word has become increasingly important in modern day romance and the process of falling in love because online dating has returned us to the romantic notions of traditional letter writing.”

Who knows? It might just work.

Finding Nouf

Despite the fact that the Middle East’s role in world affairs increases as each decade passes, most Westerners have only a hazy comprehension of the region’s culture and its people. And, ever since the chain of events that began with the September 2001 murders in New York City, what we do know is largely distorted by the media coverage that tends to deal almost exclusively with the terrorist segment of the Muslim world. That makes a novel like Finding Nouf, one that tells its story through the eyes of ordinary Saudi citizens trying to do the right thing despite the constraints of Saudi Arabian society, one of the more intriguing books of 2008.

When sixteen-year-old Nouf ash-Shrawi disappears from her wealthy family’s isolated home, it is at first hoped that she has simply run away, perhaps suffering a bad case of nerves about her impending marriage. But an examination of her body after she has been found dead in the desert leaves little doubt that Nouf has been murdered and Nayir ash-Sharqi, a family friend and desert tracker who failed in his quest to find her before she died, feels both the guilt of that failure and a responsibility to determine exactly what happened to the girl.

Nayir finds a ready ally in Katya Hijazi, a lab technician who, like Nayir, is a friend of the Shrawi family (she is the fiancée of Nouf’s adopted brother, Othman) and who has been asked to keep an eye on the official investigation into Nouf’s death. But Katya is more than Nayir, a strictly religious Palestinian who has had only limited contact with Saudi women, knows how to handle. He finds her aggressiveness and willingness to display her face in all but the most public of venues to be shocking, especially when he learns that she is engaged to his good friend, Othman.

But even more shocking to Nayir is his realization that Katya’s personality and behavior make her so attractive to him that he has to continually remind himself that she is to be married to his best friend. Part of the charm of Finding Nouf is watching the relationship between Nayir and Katya evolve during their investigation into one of mutual respect and affection, something that neither could have dreamed would ever happen.

Nayir and Katya link their individual skills in a way that slowly uncovers the facts surrounding Nouf’s disappearance and death and, although what they find brings them dangerously close to disturbing truths about the Shrawi family, they remain determined to bring her killer to justice. Zoë Ferraris has created two very likable amateur Saudi sleuths who deserve a sequel, a hope that the book’s ending seems, in fact, to encourage.

Finding Nouf is a fun mystery that, along the way, allows the reader a look at ordinary Saudi citizens and their relationship to each other and to the wealthier class. It explores both the formal and informal relationship between Saudi men and women and wonderfully illustrates the pressures felt by both sexes in a society willing to deal out harsh punishment to those not strictly observing the sexual mores of Islam and Saudi Arabian culture. Zoë Ferraris has written a first-class mystery but what makes it special is the unique setting in which she has placed it. This one is not to be missed.

Rated at: 5.0

Hurry Down Sunshine

On July 5, 1996, Michael Greenberg suddenly had to face the fact that his fifteen-year-old daughter was exhibiting severe mental problems. Hoping at first that her mania was drug-induced so that it could more easily be corrected, Greenberg finally came to realize that he and the girl’s stepmother had completely missed his daughter’s gradual descent into the illness that would require her to be committed for a time to a New York City mental health facility for treatment. Hurry Down Sunshine is Greenberg’s account of what his family faced that summer and how they survived the crisis.

What Michael Greenberg has to say as he describes his family’s experience is somewhat terrifying and comforting at the same time. On the one hand, he and his daughter, Sally, were lucky that they stumbled onto caring professionals from the beginning, starting with the policeman who recognized Sally’s irrational behavior on the street and brought her home, on to those who manned the mental health facility itself, and ending with the woman who treated Sally after her release from that hospital. Sally’s best interests were always foremost in the minds of these people. On the other hand, Greenberg was a self-employed writer with very little in the way of cash or other assets that could be earmarked to pay for Sally’s treatment. Consider his shock, for instance, when he went to the pharmacy to pick up her prescription drugs for the first time and was told that they would cost him $750 since he had no medical insurance.

Sally was slow to get better and, as Greenberg and his wife faced mental, physical and emotional exhaustion, they found indications that Sally was making any progress hard to detect. Greenberg had to deal with a multitude of family situations in addition to his worries about his daughter’s future, assuring that the summer of 1996 would be one he would never forget. There was the older brother, suffering mental problems of his on and for whom Greenberg had assumed some financial responsibility, the tension of watching his former and current wives forced into intimate proximity during the immediate crisis, the pressure to write something that would generate an immediate income, and the stress that culminated one night with him slapping his wife in the face and having to deal with the policemen called to the apartment by his terrified daughter.

Hurry Down Sunshine is an unflinching look through the eyes of a man who would have done anything to spare his daughter the pain of her illness and still wonders how he could have missed the early signs that she needed professional help. Much too harshly, he seems to blame himself for what happened to Sally and still mourns the loss of the daughter he once had, that bright teenager with an unlimited future ahead of her, who was replaced by a fragile young woman forever dependent on the medication that makes it possible for her to cope with life.

Sally’s story, sad as it is, is the perfect illustration of how mental illness changes the lives of more people than just the one bearing the brunt of the illness. Parents may find this a difficult book to read but what Michael Greenberg has to say about his family’s tragic summer and its aftermath will leave them better able to cope with anything similar that might one day happen to them and their own children.

Rated at: 4.0

Idiot Arrested for Failure to Return Library Books

Some people seem to think that the world revolves around them and that no one else could possibly be as important as they are. How else do you explain the actions of this jackass who refused to return two library books despite the numerous efforts of her local library to get them back? Did it never cross this woman’s little mind that others might want to read those books she stole from the library?

KMBC TV has the story:

Heidi Dalibor borrowed “Angels and Demons” and “White Oleander” last year, WISN-TV in Milwaukee reported.

“I said, what could they possibly do? They can’t arrest me for this — I was wrong,” Dalibor said.

Dalibor did not respond to four notices from the library, two phone calls and two letters. The library forwarded the case to the police, who issued a citation over Dalibor’s failure to return the materials or pay the fine. The citation included a court date, which Dalibor admits she ignored.

Dalibor paid her $170 fine and was released.

“I completely take responsibility for not paying my fine on time and not going to my court date,” Dalibor said.

Still, she isn’t planning on returning the books.

“I still have the books, and I don’t plan to return them because they’re paid for now,” Dalibor said.

If my assessment of the mental ability and attitude of this woman upsets anyone, I apologize to them…but not to her. Look at her picture if you doubt that she is exactly the jackass I call her out to be. She still doesn’t get it despite being publicly humiliated and having to pay at least five times the price of the books she stole. Yeah, she’s real bright.


Civil War fiction can be a hit or miss proposition and one has to look no further than to two books that are now considered to be classics to make that point. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is on one end of the spectrum and Gone with the Wind is on the other. Both are sentimental representations of slavery in the American South, one taking an emphatic negative view and the other an almost positive one, with definite agendas and strong points-of-view but neither is even remotely realistic. David Fuller’s Sweetsmoke falls somewhere in the middle of the two when it comes to point-of-view, and it better represents slavery at the time of the Civil War than either of the two more famous books despite suffering from its own moments of unreality.

Cassius, one of the slaves owned by Hoke Howard on the plantation he calls Sweetsmoke, is in a unique position there due to his carpentry skills. Neither field hand nor house slave, he has managed to carve out a relatively independent position for himself, one that requires a minimum of supervision or oversight from others and allows him to wander the plantation almost at will. But Cassius has a skill of which he is even prouder than his carpentry mastery, his ability to read and write, something he secretly learned from a woman he has come to see as a substitute mother, Emolie Jolie, a now-freed black woman who nursed him back to health in her home during one of the worst periods of his life. This is a talent, of course, that Cassius must never admit to having, but one that he often secretly uses to his advantage around the plantation and when his duties take him into town.

Cassius has his life forever changed when his friend and secret teacher, Emolie, is cruelly murdered by a blow to the back of her head one night. He becomes obsessed with identifying her killer and avenging her death, a seemingly impossible task for a slave who hardly dares speak to white people and is supposedly confined to the grounds of Sweetsmoke. Through a combination of circumstances and the help of a Northern spy who seems to be just a rogue smuggler of Northern goods into the South, Cassius is able to piece together a theory to explain Emolie’s death and identify her killer.

Determined more than ever to avenge the murder, he heads north in search of Lee’s army and the man he believes killed his surrogate mother. As he moves steadily northward, Cassius barely escapes slave traders and meets soldiers from both armies, Underground Railroad volunteers risking their own freedom, and slaves now working for the benefit of both sides. Needless to say, this adventure of a lifetime changes Cassius Howard in ways that will never allow him to be the same man he was when he left Sweetsmoke.

David Fuller has created a believable world through which he explores the horrific effects that slavery had on both those who were kept as slaves and those who owned them. A section of the book describing a celebratory gathering of slaves from several nearby plantations, a dance and feast during which they were left virtually to themselves, is particularly affecting and memorable. Unfortunately, other aspects of Fuller’s story do not always read so realistically. The reader is asked to believe, for instance, that Cassius, a man who had just a few days in which to learn how to read and write, is able to do both so well that he is able to comprehend all the nuances of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when he steals his master’s copy of the play and to forge the passes he needs to seemingly authorize his travel away from Sweetsmoke on his own. But perhaps the book’s biggest stretch is the relative ease with which Cassius makes his way to Lee’s army in Maryland and back to the plantation. If it had been this easy to cross into a Union state in 1862 there would likely have been no slaves left in the South by the end of the war some three years later.

Sweetsmoke is still a worthy addition to the collections of those who enjoy Civil War fiction, however, and it is filled with memorable characters, both black ones and white ones, especially Cassius Howard himself, a man who managed to transform himself from slave to detective and dared to seek vengeance for the death of a woman no one seemed to miss but him.

Rated at: 4.0

Why Waiters Shouldn’t Rant

I’m a perpetual fan of Lonesome Dove, have been right from the moment I first picked up the book. When the TV series came along, I had my doubts that it could possibly do the book justice but they picked they perfect actors for the series and the rest is history.

So when I spotted this short clip on YouTube this evening, why did it remind me of Waiter Rant, the book I gave a mixed review to just a few days ago? Take a look and you’ll understand.

There’s one waiter who blew his big tip – but he got exactly what he earned, so life is fair.

Fake Autographs Solicited by Publisher?

Baseball players, politicians and actors, among others, have done it forever. Clubhouse employees often fake dozens of autographs a day for ballplayers who do not have the time or inclination to sign all the items sent to them for autographing. Politicians, including presidents, have made good and steady use of the autopen, a mechanical device that perfectly mimics their signature, and actors often use family members or employees to fake their signatures on pictures sent to them for signing. We all know it happens and, these days, no one is shocked by the practice.

Up to now, I have not wanted to believe that it happens much in the publishing world but it looks like that may just be wishful thinking on my part. The has a story today showing that, since some authors can no longer be bothered to do the grunt work involved in signing their own books, publishers are willing to pay others to sign their names for them. After all, lifting that ballpoint pen is damned hard work.

One smart publisher seems to have devised a way of easing the pain for the millionaire bestseller writer. They have posted an advert on the listing site, Craig’s List, inviting a team of part-time workers to fake the signatures and get paid in cash for the privilege.

The advert says it is looking for 14 people who can do a blitz of false autograph signing on behalf of two unnamed co-authors of a newly released, and equally anonymous, book. “You will need to be able to copy the look and style of both author’s signatures,” it says.

In return, the successful applicants will be paid $25 for 200 books signed. The New York-based blog Gawker, which spotted the advert, has been unable to ascertain the identity of the publisher, or the authors involved. But they are clearly major players, judging by the scale of the operation.

Some millionaire bestselling authors continue to astound me with their willingness to take credit for writing with which they had relatively little to do, slapping their names atop the covers of books that automatically hit the bestseller lists even though they may not have actually written a word of them. So I suppose this is just the next logical step in automating the branding of a few names.

At this point, I am hoping that the ad is as fake as the autographs described, but I would not at all be surprised to find that it is the real thing.

(The photo shown is an actual autopen machine – the machine used to produce countless autographs every year that are passed off as the real thing to unsuspecting fans and collectors.)

The Steel Wave

The Steel Wave, the second book in Jeff Shaara’s proposed World War II trilogy, covers a key period of the war, January-September 1944, months during which plans for the Normandy Invasion were finalized and a successful invasion of France allowed Allied troops to begin the push that would ultimately rid France of the occupying German army. This may sound like just another dry bit of American history, but Jeff Shaara does such a remarkable job of capturing the nerve-wracking tension experienced by those who lived through those nine months that this 493-page book is a page-turner from start to finish.

Shaara does a huge amount of research in preparation for each of his historical novels, largely relying on primary sources such as diaries, interviews, radio transcripts and memoirs in order to place his readers in the minds of those who saw the making of history firsthand. In The Steel Wave, he primarily uses three voices, in alternating chapters, to tell the story of the planning and successful execution of the Normandy Invasion: General Dwight Eisenhower, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel and Sergeant Jesse Adams, a paratrooper of the 82nd Airborne.

The book opens several months prior to the actual invasion with the description of a three-man commando raid on Normandy whose sole purpose was to obtain rock samples from the beach. Even at that late date, Eisenhower and his staff remained uncertain that the surface of the beaches of Normandy could physically support the tanks and heavy artillery pieces that needed to be unloaded there in support of the invading ground troops, and they hoped the gathered rocks would answer that question. But that was only one of the unknowns faced by the Allies as they worked toward a plan that they hoped would surprise the German defenders.

Therein lays the beauty of Shaara’s style of historical fiction. The way that he contrasts the day-to-day activities and mindsets of Eisenhower, the aggressor, and Rommel, the defender, emphasizes the precarious nature of the invasion and just how big a gamble it really was on the part of the Allies. As Eisenhower worries about storm forecasts, German gun emplacements and making the Germans believe that the invasion will happen at Calais rather than at Normandy, Rommel is desperately trying to convince Hitler and Hitler’s staff that the entire French coast needs to be defended, not just the port of Calais. Both men fear failure as the invasion approaches and takes on a life of its own, and the reader gets to spend time in both their heads.

Shaara also uses Rommel and Eisenhower to explore the politics and internal power struggles that nagged at both sides as the war progressed. Eisenhower unexpectedly finds himself defending Montgomery’s lack of success when Churchill and British officers are calling for his head while at the same time he tries to keep George Patton, Montgomery’s opposite in almost every way, under control. Rommel, on the other hand, is determined to do his duty to the German nation without being implicated in a plot to assassinate Hitler, something he was unable to do and which, of course, cost him his life.

The Steel Wave is one of those books that make history come alive and it will be enjoyed by more than just the history buffs who will be most likely to pick it up, but it will likely disappoint some readers because of the very limited number of pages it devotes to describing the beach landings themselves, a minor quibble, perhaps, but a noticeable omission.

Rated at: 4.0

Originally published at Curled Up with a Good Book

Book Blurbs and Back-Scratching

We’ve discussed book reviews and what obligation the reviewer has, if any, to keep in mind that he/she is dealing with a real live human being on the other end of that review. I think that most would agree that reviewers are obligated to produce a fair and meaningful review without letting themselves be influenced by the “feelings” of those whose work is being discussed. Of course, a certain level of civility is also to be expected, and a lack of that civility reflects more poorly on the reviewer than on the one being reviewed. But the bottom line is that a review in which the reviewer allows himself to be influenced by the author, or a fear of hurting the author’s feelings, is a worthless thing.

But there is another game that publishers and authors sometimes play that is every bit as dishonest as a tainted review: the use of meaningless book blurbs written by friends who trade rave blurbs about each others’ books in an attempt to increase sales for both. We’ve all seen them, and seasoned readers learn to recognize them for what they are pretty quickly, but they probably do work more times than not. The New York Times Sunday Book Review talks about the practice in today’s issue:

The endorsements on books aren’t entirely impartial. Unbeknownst to the average reader, blurbs are more often than not from the writer’s best friends, colleagues or teachers, or from authors who share the same editor, publisher or agent. They represent a tangled mass of friendships, rivalries, favors traded and debts repaid, not always in good faith. There’s some debate about whether blurbs actually help sell books, but publishers agree they can’t hurt. Often, agents try to solicit blurbs even before a publisher buys a book.

For writers, to blurb or not to blurb can be a tricky matter. Blurb too little and you’ll have a hard time drumming up the requisite superlatives when your turn comes. Blurb too often, or include too many blurbs on your book, and you might get called a blurb whore.

The article goes on to separate “blurbing” into the three subsets of “blurbing down,” “blurbing up,” and “lateral blurbing,” all based on the industry reputation of the author providing the dust jacket quote. Blurbing up occurs when a lesser known writer provides a blurb for an author better known than himself (something he will jump at the chance to do, of course), blurbing down is the opposite (and, I suspect, is the source of the most honest blurbs being used), and blurbing laterally is likely to be the source of countless back-scratching blurbs that are especially meaningless.

Whatever you think about blurbs, and whether or not they influence you in the least, this is an interesting article. Take a look.

Live Fast, Love Hard: The Faron Young Story

Faron Young, who is today one of the more underestimated country singers of his generation despite his long career and many hit records, was a hard man for even his friends to peg. That is because, as so aptly described by Diane Diekman in her Faron Young biography, Live Fast, Love Hard: The Faron Young Story, he was a man of strong contradictions.

Faron Young was one of the nicest men in the world but he was one very mean drunk and no one wanted to be around him when he was drinking heavily (and that was much of the time). He was extremely generous to those who had less then him (often they were songwriters on the way up, such as Willie Nelson) and were in need of a few hundred dollars to tide them over, but was known to refuse his road band the extra five dollars a day that would have made all the difference in the world to them. He loved his children and considered himself to be a good family man but he made it a point to speak of his youngest daughter as his “only little girl” and never publicly acknowledged the other daughter he had out of wedlock or how terrible his relationship with his oldest sons really was. Faron could curse like a sailor, and he usually did, but would behave respectably around the wives of his band members. He had lots of longtime friends and he had lots of longtime enemies. He was an astute businessman who made some terrible business decisions that cost him a whole lot of money.

All of these contradictions, taken as a whole, are probably why so many people explained their toleration for Young’s behavior by saying, “That’s just Faron.” Connie Smith used those words to explain how someone with her temperament could endure working on the road with the fast-living Faron Young. And even Jean Shepard, as brash as she sometimes appears to be, finally refused to go on the road with him any longer.

Longtime Faron Young fans who witnessed him in his prime will probably still find some surprises in, or have their memories nudged by, Diane Diekman’s well-researched and detailed biography. She reminds us that Faron was founder of the influential Music City News and reveals just how much personal money he put into the newspaper in order to keep it afloat long enough for it to pay its own way. Her readers also learn that he would have had more hit records, and number ones, if he had not refused to let his label use payola to move his records up the charts the way record labels bought higher chart positions for so many other singers.

And that is just the beginning of what is packed into Live Fast, Love Hard. The book covers the childhood that may explain Faron’s own cold approach to fatherhood, the national, though bogus, scandals that damaged his career, his failed marriage, and his tragic death at his own hand. About the only thing missing is a comprehensive discography of Faron’s recordings, although the book does mention most, if not all, of his record albums and notes which ones include his biggest hits.

So this is a book both for those who are already fans of Faron Young’s great voice and for those to whom he is hardly more than a name from country music’s past. Put a copy of “Wine Me Up” on the turntable, grab a cold one, prop your boots up on the foot stool, and enjoy this book. If you’re not already a Faron Young fan, you probably will be by the time you finish Live Fast, Love Hard.

Rated at: 4.5

When Authors Obsess Over Reviews by Amateurs

The Washington Post (online version) has a feature from this Sunday’s edition up already and it should prove to be a thought provoking piece for those who write book reviews for various websites. I do sincerely try to be fair in every review that I write and I don’t make a habit of taking cheap shots, although I imagine it’s happened more times than I realize or intended. In fact, I’ve had some nice comments from some of the authors I’ve most criticized saying that they appreciate honest reviews and can see the point I was making – and then they usually tell me why they think I am wrong. Fair enough, that, and I very much appreciate their willingness to discuss their work with someone as anonymous as me.

Author Chris Bohjalian admits to being a little obsessed by the reviews of his books over at but, thankfully, he still has enough of a sense of humor to laugh at the absurdity of some of those “reviews.”

…there are few worlds as barbed as the digital one, and people say savage things about my work online that they wouldn’t dare say in person. Such are the privileges of anonymity and distance.

To wit, a recent post at Amazon for one of my novels is headlined, “Not getting better.” The reader concludes “In a word: vacuous.”

It gets worse: “The writing is crude, the yarn slack. He’s not been ‘Oprah’ed’ for nothing.”

Or this from another customer review titled “Ugggghhhhhh”:

“I was asked to read this book for my job,” the reader volunteers, and then explains why he gave the book just one star out of five (I have not added the following typos to impugn the critic’s qualifications; they were already there): “I proceded to read it untill i got to chapter 7, and when i found that no plot has even erupted yet. The entire chapter was about a deer. How can a book be seven chapters in, and about 100 pages in, and still have expostition material. this book was terrible and would never suggest to anyone.”

It only takes one thorn like that in a rosebush of 30 or 40 flowers to leave me bleeding and wounded and thinking to myself, “Wow. You really aren’t very good, are you? You’re certainly not good . . . enough.” Am I thin-skinned?

Perhaps. Vulnerability and creativity don’t always go hand-in-hand, but often they do.

It affects both book sales and, yes, my self-esteem. Certainly, there are lots of enthusiastic reviews for my work by readers online, and there are plenty of critics — and I am not using that term facetiously, I promise — who understand a book in precisely the fashion I intended. That, too, is what draws novelists to pore over the Web reviews. In that mosh pit of online commentary, that galaxy of single-star and five-star reviews, a lot of people who are far smarter than I have said things about my books — both good and bad — that left me humbled.

Nonetheless, it is hard to resist a review that uses the word “Stoopid” or to argue with someone who calls himself “Bic Parker.”

Please read the whole article over at the Post website because my clips don’t really do it justice. Mr. Bohjalian makes some great points and, although he does it largely with humor, there is a serious message here.

Sometimes It Just Feels Right

Have you ever run across a book, one that you had not known even existed, but knew from the instant you picked it up that you had to read it, and read it soon? I don’t know quite how to explain that feeling, but I am willing to bet that many of you know exactly what I’m trying to describe. Sometimes it just feels right.

It happened to me at the library this evening as I was walking toward the scanner to make my selections legal. There is always a shelf or two of “New Fiction” within a few feet of the scanners and I usually make a pass through the books to see what is available. This time I spotted a debut novel by Zoe Ferraris called Finding Nouf and I had to pick it up because the “Nouf” part of its title rang some kind of bell, a memory of all the years I spent working in the Sahara Desert among mostly Arab Muslims of similar-sounding names, I suppose.

A quick look at the premise of the book (young Saudi girl drowns in the desert and only a friend of the family seems skeptical about the cornoner’s official verdict that her death was accidental) and I was hooked. I’ve read the first four chapters now and, so far, it is everything I hoped it would be. It is an inside look into a culture few Westerners ever get close to, written by a woman who married into it and lived in it before divorce brought her back to the United States.

My only fear at this point, and it has happened to me several times, is that the book will start to lose its magic appeal somewhere around the halfway point (an authoritative one-star review on the site has me particularly concerned), leaving me disappointed that it turned out to be less than it could have been. But that’s part of the great Book Chase we are on, isn’t it? This is the kind of experience that keeps me enthusiastically turning pages.

Swan Peak

Swan Peak is the seventeenth book in James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series and, by now, longtime fans of the series probably know Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell better than they know their own real life first cousins (and might even enjoy their company more). What makes Swan Peak different from other Robicheaux novels, though, is that it is the first book in the series to be set entirely someplace other than in south Louisiana, home base for Robicheaux and his sidekick. But even in Montana, Robicheaux and Purcell, being who they are, manage to attract the attention of the same kind of people who have caused them so much grief in New Orleans and New Iberia for several decades.

Being one of the good guys (and these two, despite their numerous flaws, are definitely two of the good guys), even while on summer vacation, is not always easy. It is especially not easy for Clete Purcell who cannot control his mouth when he is hassled by two thuggish security guards for inadvertently camping overnight on private property. And it is not easy for Dave Robicheaux for one simple reason: he is Purcell’s best friend, and nothing about being Purcell’s friend is easy. Dave, his wife, Molly, and Clete may have come to Montana for a little R&R and lots of fishing, but very little fishing, and even less R&R, is what they get.

When a pair of college students is brutally murdered on a hill that overlooks the property they are staying on, Dave and Clete find themselves slowly sucked into the crime’s investigation, an investigation that soon threatens to blow up in their faces when every rock they overturn unmasks yet another lowlife pervert willing to do whatever it takes to remain under the radar of local cops and the FBI.

A James Lee Burke novel is one to be savored and, unlike most novels of its type, Burke’s books do not make for quick reading. Swan Peak, containing several subplots and numerous characters that sometimes cross from one plotline to another, is no exception, demanding to be read with a certain degree of attention if its full impact is to be felt.

Along the way, we meet both a Texas prison guard searching for the escaped prisoner who almost stabbed him to death and that prisoner, a talented country singer and picker who has come to Montana to find the woman he still loves, herself at one time a successful hillbilly singer. But before he can find the man he so badly wants to hurt, the guard finds Candace, a waitress who sees good in him that he does not even see in himself. There are the Wellstone brothers, unscrupulous oil operators from Houston, one of them terribly disfigured by burns but married to the very woman for whom the escaped prisoner is searching. And then there are characters like the sexual predator and tent preacher, Sonny Click, and the insane serial killer who delights in killing in the most painful ways imaginable – lots of characters, lots of subplots, all masterfully tied together by the end of the book into yet another powerful chapter in the lives of Dave Robicheaux and Cletus Purcell.

Rated at: 5.0