Posts from the ‘book review’ Category

BOOK REVIEW: WEST OF PENANCE

Book Review: West of Penance
By Thomas D. Clagett
278 pages, plus an epilog and comments from the author
Published by FIVE STAR, a part of GALE CENGAGE Learning
ISBN 13: 9781432831417

west of penance cover

WEST OF PENANCE by Thomas Clagett

Behold the cliched western novel – a gunfighter or two, a saloon singer, a haunted gold mine and a tribe of hostile Apaches. Not here – not here at all in Thomas Clagett’s WEST OF PENANCE. Through some fine historical research and hard work, here is a superb story spun out of a famous French Legion Battle, a Catholic clergyman and a land grab plot in the wild west days of New Mexico. Though the setting may be the American Wild West, Clagett weaves a tale that extinguishes all of those “Western Novel” clichés, delivering an interesting and exciting story as the reader follows Clement Grantaire from his humble military beginnings (on and off the battlefield), his growth as a spiritual leader, and his attempt to make good on a promise to a man he owes so much. This is a swell combination of a historical novel and the western themes of the Great American Frontier.

We first meet Grantaire in a poker game in Paris, France. No sign of a western tale here. On then to a flight from the law and into the secret life of the French Foreign Legion – still no cactus or horse in sight. Jump a few years, and the reader finds Clagett’s main character, having experienced a change of morality, serving the poor in the arid west of the territories of the new American frontier. Now, we get a savory taste of a western. Clagett weaves more of his tale, and sure as the sun sets beyond the hills, here’s our western, complete in its setting and its characters.

It is the late nineteenth century at the New Mexico/Texas area. Towns are growing as the settlers are arriving to farm, to be merchants, to create a new state. However, rich men hungry for more and more land, use every legal angle and corruption to gain acreage, strong-arming many in search of wealth. It is in this world that we find Clement Grantaire and a majority of his tale. Will he get help from the Sheriff? Who can he trust? Turns out, some are more trustworthy than others, and some are so corrupt that they can’t help but get in Grantaire’s way.

The worst of this bunch were those who chose to steal as much land as they could – be it through intimidation or even raw torture. The names and personalities are for the reader to discover – and those scalawags are as nasty as the rattlesnakes in the rocks.

Clement Grantaire’s allies a few, but effective. Some of the henchmen of the land grants bosses have a change of heart, for example, but it the strongly able lady rancher Rachel Scott who provides the encouragement Grantaire needs.

Thomas Clagett gives us deep characters, both the good and the evil. He gives us realistic scenes as the characters interact. He gives us colorful descriptions, concise dialogue, and solid emotions as we learn to love and detest each character and situation.

Thomas Clagett is a well-trained writer who has also done work in the film and television. WEST OF PENANCE is his second novel. Let’s hope Mr. Clagett continues to blend his practice of historical research with the world of the western genre.

PS … Since I posted this, I learned that Mr. Clagett is releasing a new book in April 2018.  Entitled LINE OF GLORY, it is a tale based on the last hours of the Alamo.  I am looking forward to it!

 

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Book Review: ESCAPE TO FORT ABERCROMBIE

EscapeToFortAbercrombieFront - Copy.jpgBook Review: ESCAPE TO FORT ABERCROMBIE
By Candace Simar
Published by Five Star Publishing
49 Chapters
275 pages
ISBN: 9781432838188

NOTE:  DUE FOR RELEASE IN FEBRUARY 2018

Candace Simar’s first books featured the lives of Scandinavian pioneers in west-central Minnesota, living near Fort Abercrombie. In ESCAPE TO FORT ABERCROMBIE, Simar’s latest effort focuses on the adventures of children of those Scandinavian pioneers, as they struggle in the late summer’s heat to find their way to the safety of the fort amid an Indian uprising during the 1860s. Ms. Simar establishes the routine of the pioneer life in the first few chapters, complete with farm chores, disgruntled parents, children who think they are worked too hard as they hunger for school, and the escapades of the livestock. The next few chapters reveal details of the uprising at it strikes the Landstad family farm, just a few miles from the safety of Fort Abercrombie. A majority of the chapters concern the children who had gone off to school, arriving home to find themselves alone. They are required to scrabble their way to the fort through several days of hunger, thirst, and threats of attacks by both Indians and beasts. They are frightened in some instances, and yet they revel in their successes that allow them to progress their way – often at a cost that is not expected. Each chapter deals with an episode towards safety, allowing a buildup to the question, “Will they make it?”

Candace Simar gives us a fine taste of pioneer spirit in her characters – the reader meets the hard-working father and mother, each with their own set of regrets and wishes. The children bubble with the traits of their ages – the oldest, Ryker, has a sense of responsibility but still fights his own juvenile tendencies. The younger children follow Ryker, butting heads with each other and with some of Ryker’s decisions. We meet other adults – some of them Indian, some of them pioneers, some of them the soldiers at the fort – all of them lending a part to the story. All of them carry motivations that span from “I can’t wait to get out of here”, to “Why did I ever come here” to “I can’t stand that person” to “I miss him so much” – and more.

The spectrum of the action certainly ranges from peaceful serenity to frightful violence (therefore intended for mid-teens and above) . . . there is joy, there is suspense, there is relief, there is tragedy. Such emotions are not limited to the children. We learn, too, how the emotions affect the adults as we meet them through the book. The reader rides along with the characters through each cornfield, each mosquito infested bog and along wagon ruts and chilly streams to find a book that grounds itself in historical storytelling that is so well done by Candace Simar and her writing skills.

Book Review: AL FRANKEN, Giant of the Senate

Book Review: AL FRANKEN, Giant of the SenateFranken.jpg
By Al Franken
Published by Hachette Book Group
396 pages, including a forward and an acknowledgment
ISBN 978-1-4555-4041-9

What do you get when you read a book by a guy who has written for one of the premiere comedy TV shows of all time and is in his second term as junior senator from the great state of Minnesota? Do you get a light hearted, white bread pun-filled tale of silliness? Do you get a serious discussion of political philosophy and an issue-oriented debate? You get both.

Franken’s wit is renowned from his years on Saturday Night Live, and it shows up throughout the book – mostly in the first half when he discusses his years on SNL and in how he learned the ropes of running a campaign for the office of senator. The wit tones down some in the second part of the book as he turns more to his intelligence as he discusses issues, as he describes his feelings as he faces disagreement with senators from both sides of the aisle – and reveals who he admires and who he finds seriously in need of some help. In such cases, he pulls no punches as to who fits the last category.

To conclude the book, Franke includes a pep talk about thinking positive, of maintaining a constructive attitude as we struggle through the tough issues of the day, no matter where they come from.

But let’s not leave it there. I do think there are times when Franken spends too much time trying to sell the line of the Democratic Party – yes, its good that he does so to some degree, but at times, he surpasses that level for me. Franken includes a good amount of personal words – his family, his co-workers, his constituents back in Minnesota – and that’s good, too. Let me point out, too, that there are some fine tributes to citizens of Minnesota who have affected Senator Franken’s way of working.

AL FRANKEN, Giant of the Senate is a readable book – no heavy vocabulary to burden the reader; it is plain spoken and honestly stated.

BOOK REVIEW: DEAR HOMEFOLKS

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BOOK REVIEW:
DEAR HOMEFOLKS
By Candace Simar
Published by River Place Press
Of Aitkin, Minnesota
ISBN 978-0-9989116-2-5
195 pages

If this collection of short stories and poems were a restaurant, it would get five stars for its offerings.

Candace Simar provides a large menu of literary tastes in DEAR HOMEFOLKS. There are longer stories several pages long for the larger appetite. There are shorter stories of just a few pages to cleanse the reader’s palette. Is gourmet more to your liking? There’s some of that, but then there’s some very tasty ‘meat and potatoes’ stories, too. Do you want some dessert? There are humorous accounts as well.

Candace Simar draws from several sources for DEAR HOMEFOLKS. She gives us a taste of her understanding of the pioneer prairie days of Minnesota that you may have read in her Fort Abercrombie books. There are testaments to her Scandinavian heritage. There are some touching memoir-type moments, as the reader gets to meet the real Candace Simar as she reveals herself in a story or two about her own life experiences. There is a bit of a follow-up (maybe you could call it a semi-sequel) to one of her later books, SHELTERBELTS, in which we meet one of the characters of that book as he struggles to maintain his farm.

As for the poems, they are often paired with one of the stories – and the pairing reinforces both the story and the poem. You’ll find this especially true in the memoir section of the book.

Yes, there are sections; four of them. Each section is set off by a page with a short paragraph or two from the author, where she offers an introduction of sorts to each section. This lends yet another angle of getting to know the author in a personal way.

The tone throughout the book, like the first paragraph mentions, is a grand taste of Candace Simar’s writing. The vocabulary is accessible to all, the style is warm. The storytelling offers a spectrum of emotions from sadness to some truly happy and joyous pronouncements.

Candace Simar’s DEAR HOMEFOLKS would be a solid addition to the bookcase at home.

 

BOOK REVIEW: THIS STRANGE WILDERNESS The Life and Art of John James Audubon

audubon cover
BOOK REVIEW:
THIS STRANGE WILDERNESS
The Life and Art of John James Audubon
Juvenile Nonfiction by Nancy Plain
Published by University of Nebraska Press
91 Pages, followed by an appendix of notes, glossary and index
ISBN 978-9-8032-4884-7

John James Audubon – the boring bird man, right?

In Nancy Plain’s well -researched book, the reader finds out that Audubon was much more than that boring birdman. John James Audubon’s life crossed international borders, reached levels of academic achievement on his own, enjoyed his family, and truly experienced the American pioneer years as they grew from its very rugged beginnings in the early 1800s until his death in 1851. He influenced the entire world of sciences with his observations, thoughts, and artwork.

The reader meets the young James in his birthplace of Haiti. Then off he goes to France, then to America, where he travels the outback of the new country – and his artwork brings him back to the larger cities in search of a publisher for his work – and even to England for more publishing opportunities before he returns home to an America that finally recognized his work for the excellence it held.

Ms. Plain takes us on the journeys that Audubon underwent, as he observed new species, as he added to the knowledge of already known birds. These trips included the frontiers of Kentucky, the bayous of Louisiana, and the far reaches of the remote north end of the Missouri River. Audubon meets a variety of folks on his travels – the roughnecks in the local taverns, other naturalists who question his skills and abilities, and some Native Americans, who leave quite an impression on the artist/scientist.

Ms. Plain includes a large selection of the artwork of Audubon – from the smallest sparrow to the egrets and eagles. These pictures became the basis of the definitive book on the birds of America – and that book and those colorful drawings are still the standard of anyone who calls himself a ‘naturalist’, as Audubon often chose to call himself.

The book is billed for juveniles – starting with ten-year-old readers. Even with the great amount of illustrations, the text is extensive and the vocabulary is not for the beginning reader. The color illustrations are interesting to explore for the features of the bird and the habitat that is favored by that bird. Some of the illustrations are quite graphic when it came to the meat eating birds – causing controversy even when they first appeared in print. To add to the bird art, there are also some pictures of John James Audubon himself, and of some of the homes he lived in. Maps of the Audubon excursions would have been a good plus to include – perhaps such will show up in future editions of the book.

There is a strong historical value in this book for the young reader seeking to learn more about the man and his times – not only does Ms. Plain deliver deeper details about Audubon, but she also includes a solid basis of the first half of the 19th century of American History.

You can’t ask for much more.

Book Review: HUNDRED MILES TO NOWHERE: An Unlikely Love Story

HUNDRED MILESBook Review: HUNDRED MILES TO NOWHERE: An Unlikely Love Story
By Elisa Korenne
Published by North Star Press of St. Cloud, Minnesota
ISBN: 978-1-68201-064-8 (Paperback); 978-1-86201-080-8 (Ebook)
328 pages (Reader’s Guide and an Afterword follow the text)

In her memoir of her transition from Big City Girl to Small Town Citizen, Elisa Korenne describes her presence in central Minnesota as she transplants herself, a musician from New York City looking to improve her songwriting skills, to a small artsy town known as New York Mills, where she finds a new breed of people, one of whom becomes very important to her. It is a struggle in some ways, and a natural flow of her life in other ways. She takes the reader from day one (arriving in New York Mills, Minnesota from New York City, totally throwing anything resembling caution to any kind of wind) to the end of the book, where she finds she has become entirely comfortable in her new self that develops out of her New York Mills experiences.

We follow the love between Elisa Korenne and the man in her life, Chris. The two grow together and grow apart, and back together in ways that every couple faces. This is the ‘city mouse – country mouse’ element that the reader might expect – and the story is totally believable with every stressful moment and every tender scene that the couple shares.

There are other people here as well: her long-time friends in New York, her new friends in New York Mills; all of whom vary between nice, ordinary examples of Americana to eccentric folks formed by their surroundings – and of course, the families of Elisa and Chris. We find the landscapes of both places clearly described, often poetically – the big city has its manicured parks, its fine architecture, its robust and crowded traffic patterns. The small town has its serenity (and the boredom that often comes with it), its simple, slow life pace, and smaller vehicles (canoes and four wheelers) that would be out of place in New York. Ms. Korenne’s descriptions help the reader sense the qualities of both environments in every way possible.

Ms. Korenne’s adventures include outdoorsy tales of canoe trips and watching early morning birds in a field. Switch to the big city, and the reader is taking in the sounds and smells of city traffic – and indoorsy things like coffee at the local diner in the small town, singing for crowds in towns with populations smaller than her apartment building in her New York City days. Her writing for such goings-on include humor and an emotional range of pure joy to loathsome moments of conflict with even those closest to her. Guaranteed laughing moments: a wedding that features a blend of Jewish culture and Lutheran traditions, and an experiment in lost ways to experience adult language. Pieces of drama appear throughout as well – self-revelations, those outdoor adventures, and nasty weather top that list.

There’s a big difference in setting throughout: we find the hard-concrete world of the city, and just a few pages later, we find the hardscrabble existence of families who keep their houses barely tar-papered and sealed against the elements. The common element is Ms. Korenne’s literary vocabulary that keep the reader totally aware of every tree, every animal, every sound, taste and smell, and every twinge in her introspective mind and heart as she evolves into her new self – sometimes willingly, sometimes, not so sure about the whole idea. There’s a delightful, clear style here – literary, yet reader-friendly.

Suffice it to say, Elisa Korenne can verify that one can’t hail a taxi in front of the New York Mills Cenex gas station with a loud two-finger whistle any more than one can drop in on the Hello Deli just off Broadway in New York and order a pastrami on rye with a “Yah, sure, you betcha.” But, in the end, she sure makes her choice clear to the reader as she leads us through the years covering this memoir.

MURDER BOOK by Frank F. Weber – A Review

Murder Book cover

MURDER BOOK
By Frank F. Weber
Published by North Star Press
Of St. Cloud, MN
Copyright 2017
ISBN 978-1-68201-068-6
263 pages

I live in central Minnesota, where the murder rate is quite low. However, according to author Frank Weber, when there is a murder in that locality, it comes from a dark world steeped in horror, suspense and a good dose of nastiness. Fortunately, the author also blends in some great forensic police work and characters who are believable, no matter what side of the law they favor.

Using actual towns and places (Little Falls, Pierz, Genola and the Black and White Café), we are introduced to a decade of interest in a cold case murder, farm families with ties to success and failure, and secrets that are better left as secrets.

We meet John Frederick, a native of the area, who has become an investigator for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He finds himself back home at the investigation of a missing ten-year-old child, but as he digs into the case, he finds threads to a different (yet very personal) case from ten years back. John is professional in his thinking, but his heart’s memory nearly compromises that work.

We meet Serena Bell, a lady that John knew back in those older times. She has retained her beauty, as well as her friendly ties with John. As they are reunited, other matters surface that she handles sometimes with innocence, sometimes with insecurity.

We meet the mind of a killer who manages to disguise such tendencies with the taciturn manner we have come to know as “Minnesota Nice” when it is to that killer’s advantage.

We meet a squad of criminologists who work together (mostly), finding themselves amid a crime that seems to lead everywhere and nowhere at the same time – or at least in circles.

We meet a team of townspeople as well, who work into the story in clever ways, thanks to the thoughtful writing of Mr. Weber.

The book reads nicely for someone like me who is not a big crime novel fan. Having lived in the area for forty years now, I know the locations and can imagine the surroundings as the events unfold – but I can also assure a new reader that the author writes in such a way that having been in Minnesota is a requirement before enjoying this novel.

The plot moves along quickly – I felt no slacking in the pace of the story, as is so common in some other crime novels I’ve read. At the right times, the suspense and tension ratchets up at a satisfying rate that will increase the reader’s blood pressure and raise the hairs on the back of one’s neck.

This is no pasteurized Saturday afternoon movie or the plotline of a MATLOCK episode. When you page through this one, you will be drawn into an adult world of crime, police work, personal failure and success, and even some passion.

I look forward to more crime novels from Frank Weber.