BOOK REVIEW by Charles Johnson



Book Three in the Zebadiah Creed series

Published by FIVE STAR, a part of Gale, A Cengage company

ISBN; 9781432868505   Genre: Western    268 pages

Reviewed by Charles Johnson

In the Western genre of books, there are gunfights, posses heading the bad guys off at the pass, hotly contested poker games in smoky saloons . . . and in BLUE RIVERS OF HEAVEN (as well as the first two books of the Zebadiah Creed trilogy) these trite situations are calm afternoon teas compared to the adventures Mark C. Jackson concocts for the reader to experience. There are no such cliches of this genre: Jackson sees to that with great effect. The author is deeply skilled in his descriptions of fights, chases, and even the tension created in the exchange of heated words before any physical action actually occurs.  To top it off, Jackson finds fresh new ways to bring action to the western genre that will wow the reader; sometimes with a level of brutality, sometimes with unexpected sensitivity.

Zebadiah Creed, the protagonist of the book, is not necessarily a moral man, but he certainly adheres to what he sees as the correct way to behave in different instances.  Give him a formal dinner and he will know what to do.  Face a surly crowd, and he will make choices of wisdom.  Present a young lady for him too woo, and Zebadiah can be smooth and suave as any cultured gentleman.  Yet, his flaws will betray him from time to time, and that makes for an interesting character.  And yes, even a man such as Creed has his love interests that he deserves.

The backdrop of this story is varied: there are dank prisons, fancy plantations, joyous riverboats, and cabins in the woods filled with a variety of circumstances that are unique and sparkling.  Every scene moves from one to the other with no delay.  This keeps the reader’s attention at a peak that rarely sags throughout the book.  As for characters, there are several of varying stature from the first two books – and it is also important to note that Jackson’s characters are none of your one-dimensional western characters – no dumb farm hands, no schoolmarms – characters are fully developed in every way – the good ones and the bad ones equally.  Even the horses have personalities

BLUE RIVERS OF HEAVEN continues the story of Zebadiah, tying in a good many portions of the first two books (AN EYE FOR AND EYE and THE GREAT TEXAS DANCE).   In this book, Zebadiah is manipulated into a position of being forced to assassinate a rather important person – but you’ll get no spoiler here as to who and how it all turns out – Zebadiah’s adversaries use every tool for force our hero into the unsavory task – just more of that great action that author Jackson so readily delivers.

Some technical thoughts: the chapters are short, which enhance the pace of the book.  There are no vocabulary challenges – the language is well handled, even in a few instances of profanity.  I wonder about the title as well … it is not as clearly connected to this book as the titles of the first two are connected to theirs.  HINT:  Read all three books close together – it will help keep track of the characters and situations as Zebadiah courses through his adventures.

Thanks to the writing and storytelling skills of author Mark C. Jackson, BLUE RIVERS OF HEAVEN delivers a great deal of action, setting and personality with vivid descriptions of all of that, and then more.  Perhaps that means book four isn’t far off…..


Book Review: JOSIE AND VIC


Written by Debra Thomas

Published by She Writes Press

270 pages

ISBN: 978-1-64742-393-3

Book Review by Charles Johnson

My literary agent friend Krista asked me to read JOSIE AND VIC.  After reading the blurb on the back, I figured that I’d be reading a book that would be a future chick flick, soap opera, or a Hallmark TV Movie. I was wrong.

In JOSIE AND VIC by Debra Thomas, the reader will find a truthful human story where the people are real.  They feel.  They get angry.  They revel in the right moments.  They fear when they should fear.  Best of all, with all their faults and attitudes, they find ways to manage their own burdens and assist the others with theirs.

The author allows the readers to see and feel their own lives by summoning upon a common list of emotions with the characters in this novel.  This allows the readers to experience the sense of the pursuit of life and of healing of JOSIE AND VIC that arise from a blend of forgiveness, humility, and an ability to listen at new levels. 

The storylines are braided together in such a way as to appear nearly seamless; the strands of the braid include the sibling relationship between Josie and Vic: the edgy relationship between Josie and her daughter; the polar differences between Josie, Vic and their estranged father – and in a seemingly unrelated but yet a large part of the story, Josie’s relationship with a veterinarian and her horses.  Let’s not forget the social issues of immigration and beleaguered military veterans that are dappled throughout the braid.  There are very few flaws in the strands of the braid that make up JOSIE AND VIC.

It can be said that JOSIE AND VIC belongs on your shelf along with all the other books you’ve read that exceeded your expectations.

HARDLAND: A book review


By Ashley E. Sweeney

ISBN 978-1647422332

368 pages

Published by She Writes Press

Reviewed by Charles Johnson

The first chapter (both pages) gives it all:  Here’s Ruby Fortune in all her guts and verve, in her own version of style.  There’s a driving swagger to the heroine with no apologies to social norms or politically correct ways expected of women of the west.  She’s a survivor of a circus world of Wild West shows, abusive roustabouts at carnivals, and a particularly sleazy dude – I use the word ‘survivor’ for a reason that I won’t go into now.

Here’s Ruby, a loved but unguided young girl at first, with adventures that would consume any young lady.  Not Ruby.  She develops into an experienced, wise and controlled figure in her community.  Yet, she exudes flaws that may bring her downfall – notice: I said “may”.  Various characters in her life pull and push on Ruby’s options.  Travel with her great friend? Be the best mother she can be to her troupe of four boys, each flawed in ways that defy parenthood?  The miner who meanders through her life?  Those who abandon her?  The local law official, who seems to waver in so many ways? 

Ruby Fortune lives in a dusty, hot, sunburned desert world of a small-time mining town of Arizona in the 1890s.  Here she is, having bested previous trials, running a mildly successful business in the scrabbled territories of the mining crazes of the era.  Here she is, facing social pressures as she cannot (or refuses to) follow community expectations. It is hot, dusty, snake-bitten town that can’t seem to decide to accept or reject our Ruby.  After all, she carries her own firearms at will; she’s nowhere near shy with her opinions and actions.  Yet, she reserves moments for those quiet walks (sometimes alone, sometimes with that one special son) in the post-sunset walks in the desert where she reflects on life.

The author Sweeney, by the way, tells Ruby’s story all in present tense, which is an intense exercise for both writer and reader.  This review is an attempt at it – I could barely hang on for one page.  Ms. Sweeney did it for almost 400 pages.

In the end, the reader learns if Ruby Fortune complacently rides off into the sunset – or with some other distant goal in her sights.  The reader, as the first chapter says, is challenged to make the pick as to which occurs.


St. Olaf College Orchestra in concert

Brainerd High School Gichi-Ziibi Auditorium

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

So on the way to the concert hall, I was hoping they’d play FESTIVE OVERTURE by Shostakovich.

AND THEY DID!!!  What a great way to start a concert!  Crisp brass, precise rhythms, all done in the great acoustics that is the new GITCHI-ZIIBI auditorium in Brainerd, Minnesota.

The piece is as Olympic as they come – it requires virtuoso performances from the entire group.  Clarinet runs, brass blends, strings flying their bows with mastery, and a solid, controlled percussion section to bring it all there.  A fine start to the concert.

The St. Olaf Orchestra, under Steve Amundson, brought their A game and used it wisely and beautifully all night long.

VALSE TRISTE (Sibelius) was next, with Amundson leading the musicians in a wonderfully sensitive tour of the piece.  Clarinetist Elijah Schouten bounced his way through a very showy last movement of the Weber clarinet concerto, playing with great facility and range that is so necessary for the piece.  Steve Amundson’s own composition GRATIA VIVA was next, a piece he wrote to honor a retiring St. Olaf College friend.  The piece is tender and deep, full of emotion and thanks.  Amundson wrote it as a thanks to his career at St. Olaf – he is retiring after 40 years of leading the orchestra.  As a tribute to the Ukraine and all the strife in the world, the orchestra performed MELODY, by Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk.  A beautiful melody wove its way around the orchestra, first very soft, and then filling the wonderful acoustics of every corner of the year-old auditorium.  St. Olaf alum Matt Peterson wrote a symphony for the orchestra (again to honor Amundson’s retirement) based on the writings of Minnesota Naturalist Sigurd Olson.  The symphony, entitled THE SINGING WILDERNESS, is based on various texts from Olson’s book of the same name.  Tonight, the orchestra played the portion “The Loons of Lac La Croix” – and sure enough, the program notes that cite Olson’s actual words, which describe hearing the loons in the spring as they cross the waters of Lac La Croix and how they and the canoeists would meet near Warrior Hill (personal note – I’ve been to that hill and seen that body of water …. Peterson’s music and the orchestra’s rendition caught it all!)  To end the concert, Amundson selected Arturo Marques’ piece DANZON No. 2 – a Latin rhythm filled piece of delicate dances and joys. This brought the audience to its feet, requiring the orchestra to play a traditional St. Olaf encore entitiled THE TURTLEDOVE, a sweet, short piece.

It was a nice evening of music.  I’m glad we went.



By Kathleen Morris

Published by Dunraven Press, January 2022

ISBN Numbers

E-book 978-17379866-2-1

Paperback 978-1-737866-3-8

278 pages

Reviewed by Charles Johnson

Strong, independent women fare well in the books written by Kathleen Morris, including Big Nose Kate (THE LILY OF THE WEST), Fiona (THE WIND AT HER BACK) and Chastity James (THE TRANSFORMATION OF CHASTITY JAMES).  In FALLEN CHILD, Morris adds another to that list, and her name is Josephina Fallon.

The reader first meets Josephina as a pre-teen in an orphanage in the Old West, somewhere in southeast Arizona.  Wise for her years, she realizes the operators of the facility are not necessarily all that benevolent when she discovers that some of her orphan friends and residents of the place are sent off and away from the orphanage – not to be adopted or to learn valuable trades under the tutelage of some merchant or skilled artisan.  Not at all.  The boys are sent to toil for hours and days and years on end in the dirty underground mines.  The girls find themselves offered for bawdy (and bodily) favors at the saloons throughout the area.  These kids have been Josie’s friends.  She fears the worst as she watches them transported off the grounds in carriages and wagons, headed for a fate they are not aware of.

Josie learns she is very soon to become one of those who has already left the orphanage.  She and her friend Colin formulate a plan.  They manage their escape just minutes before Josie is scheduled to shipped out.  They are chased down by the henchmen of the orphanage.  In the struggle as the henchmen catch up, Josie and Colin (and another who had managed to tag along) manage to disable and/or eliminate their pursuers, requiring them to seek a safe hiding place.

In a nearby ranch, they are taken in by a sympathetic man and his crew.  Under his supervision, Josie and Colin learn skills of staying alive in the deserts and nasty conditions of the southwest, include riding horses and handling pistols and rifles, to name a few.  The ranch is set upon by foes of the ranch owner, forcing Josie and Colin to flee yet again out into the wild and desolate square miles of Arizona.

They pick up a few friends along the way – Billy, for one, who becomes enamored with Josie.  The small rag-tag group learns that there are other orphanages that exist for the same purpose as Josie’s original home, so they decide that their mission is to travel to each orphanage.  Their goal; handle the managers of each site, and then make sure the kids are taken care of.  As a sidelight in the mix, they discover the mastermind behind the whole network is living in Prescott, Arizona, so they decide to make a visit to him as well.  At every site and in Prescott, the skills they learned back on that first ranch come in quite handy – the evildoers are dealt with in ways they deserve – bullets fly and knives flash, and our group escapes on their strong horses.  And all the time, it is Josie who makes the decisions, Josie who leads and inspires them along the trail and it is Josie who mediates when her group squabbles amongst each other.

Of course, their activities attract the attention of the law – wanted posters appear across the state.  Posses track and besiege Josie and her compadres.  More struggles – some violent, some battles of wits – keep the reader guessing as to what comes next.  Ultimately, Josie finds peace, but not without a cost that leaves her with scars to contend with for the rest of her life.

In FALLEN CHILD, author Morris paints the Old West gracefully when she needs to – and harshly, when she needs to.  That applies to her characters, her settings, and her descriptions of the action.  There is a good pace in changes from action scenes where gunfire is common, or nights spent around a campfire as Josie’s crew moves along their trail from orphanage to orphanage.  Some of her characters are highly likable, some absolutely polluted with vile personalities, and some are charming – either as royalty or as snakes in the grass.

Once more, here is another good yarn from the Old West of author Kathleen Morris.


. . . And so much to be thankful for. 

My dad has been gone for three decades.  My mom for a quarter of a century.  In addition, there have been at aunts and uncles and grandparents that have gone on before me who are part of every single cell in my body.  I miss them all.

My two sisters Jean and Cher and their husbands Tim and Ger and their families – a great start to a list of family that extends to cousins near and far, nephews, nieces, (and GRAND-versions of those relations) near and far from every branch of the family, including a great group of in-laws.  Aunt Shirley, my dad’s last remaining sibling, a 94-year-old sister, adds her energy to our family functions. There’s my wife Sue, who has been with me coming up on four decades, (through rain, or snow, or shine).  Our two kids Heidi (and her Hubby Jon) and Steven (and his fiancé Shea), who have been so wonderful and such sources of joy.  And two grandsons – Jonathan, who will be two years old on Christmas Day, and Henry, who just joined us two weeks ago.

There are so many more – and naming names is simply too voluminous, so I won’t try, but I give thanks to God that I am surrounded by so many fantastic people.

There are many from my early years who I still see online or in person that date back to kindergarten – and that was 1959, folks!  Great friends that have delivered so much to my soul and being … friends from Parkville, from Mt. Iron High School, from the youth groups at church, and then on to Gustavus Adolphus College, where lifelong friendships flourished and still abound. I am proud to include former teachers and professors as well.

I spent half of my life as a teacher for the Pillager School district – a career of 34 years with great people – fellow teachers and students alike.  Some have left this world; some are still a big part of my life.  There’s no end to the list of people who blessed my professional career in Pillager, and then overlapped into my everyday life.

My entire adult life has been spent in the Brainerd area, resulting in so many good friends beyond my work at Pillager.  They are in the church choir, they are from plays and musical performances I’ve been involved with around the area, they are folks I’ve met through a great many different engagements.  After retirement, I found even more people who helped me foster some other pursuits – mentors from writing groups, bowling league team members, photo club gurus, and all-around experiences that have defined these retirement years.

The Facebook way on birthdays is to send comments and likes – and I am so glad to have so many friends and family who will acknowledge me on my birthday – I am always amazed at who takes the time and the good will to send a like or to add a word or two in the comments.  You are all so very special to me.  I always feel so good reading such messages.  And here’s a thought . . .

Facebook will often give the birthday people a chance to designate a charity to honor a birthday – that’s all good, but I want to break out of that notion. Here’s something I’d like you to consider instead of leaving me a birthday comment (but go ahead and do that too.  I am enough of a ham to feed sumptuously on that . . .).  It is immediate, it is easy, and it is beneficial. 

Take that good will I mentioned a few paragraphs back and share it with another.  Allow me to make some suggestions:  ask your grocery store clerk if they’re having a good day. Greet someone at work that you usually don’t see often enough. Let someone go first at a four way stop.  Pet your dog a little longer.  Smile at that person who is on the other side of your political fence.  Call that person you haven’t heard from in a while. Don’t get mad at the news (that’s a gift to yourself, really.)  Give thanks to anyone for a beautiful day.  Have that extra treat with your lunch – and get one for someone else while you’re at it.  Listen a little longer to whoever you need to listen a little longer to.  Add your own ideas – each one of you has it in you to do so.

And if anyone asks you what you’re up to, you can tell them you’re just doing an old TV commercial thing.  (You have to be about my age to know which commercial it is . . .)

Just tell them, “Charlie sent you.”

Thank you all.  Deus nobis familia et amicis.

Book Review: OUR DIVIDE


Two Sides of Locked-in Syndrome

A Memoir

By LaDonna Harrison

Published by She Writes Press

ISBN-13: 978-1647421472

304 pages

Reviewed by Charles Johnson


LaDonna Harrison has pursued and earned several degrees – some at an advanced level.  She has taught at colleges of all levels on many campuses around the country.  She is retired now, having enjoyed a long career.  Yet, you would never know . . .

Her background is totally unrelated to what appears in the paragraph above.  She grew up in a rather indigent home in a very small town in an area of Minnesota swathed with more small towns just like hers.  After her high school years, she picked up jobs here and there, and she was, as the saying goes, picked up by guys who populated the taverns and bars in the area.  She floated along the waves of the social norms of the area and of the day.   It may be fair to say her horizons had no east or west, north or south, so she wandered quite aimlessly through these years.

Her only anchor was Cleve, who eventually became her husband.  They drank together, they rode snowmobiles together, they fished together.  They lived in a handful of houses and apartments that were not much better than her childhood home.  Their circle of friends and family was no different – same lifestyle, same desires and pursuits, same horizons.

And then Cleve, still in his twenties, suffered a bizarre and lengthy illness, leaving him totally unresponsive and in the care of a hospital staff – and later, a nursing home staff.  She came to know the  phrase  “Locked-In Syndrome” applied to her Cleve.  Ladonna visited often, but as time passed, the Cleve she knew was more than likely not going to return.

In OUR DIVIDE, the reader can certainly feel the post-teen angst LaDonna experiences as she goes through life.  Happiness appears in some ways, but then they are swallowed up.  She sometimes manages to shrug off the down times, and sometimes they consume her as they eat away at her emotions and her thoughts of Cleve. Questions abound of what has happened to her life, what will become of Cleve, and how it will all affect her and her expected child.

As it turns out, LaDonna finds herself taking a few college classes on a whim – and we get the lady of the first paragraph.  There is little in the pages of OUR DIVIDE that foreshadow her academic success – but that title alone reveals the separation between Ladonna and Cleve, as well as the separation between her early years and her later career as a college professor.   

OUR DIVIDE is a testament to the idea that horizons can indeed change – and life can indeed go on.  Ladonna Harrison has shared that with us.