Book Review: “True Crime in the Civil War” by Tobin T. Buhk

Every now and then a little book faire thing shows up at work. There’s a guy with a table and a few movable shelves full of books. I usually don’t buy anything because they’re fairly pricey, but this one was only $15 (and I’d seen it a few times before). I’m something of a Civil War buff and a book about crime during this period is a bit different than my usual fare, so I decided to fork over the fifteen bucks plus the damn taxes tax and give it a go.

To summarize shortly, it was an interesting read. Different by far from the kind of books I usually read about this time period in US history. The tone was a bit more conversational than I’m used to, not quite as scholarly as a Chernow biography, but it was well-researched and highly informative.

I learned a good deal about some events I’m generally familiar with, like the murder of Admiral “Bull” Nelson or war crimes at the Andersonville prison, and also about things I knew nothing at all about, like some massacres committed by guerilla fighters. The author also did a deep dive into the fate of John Wilkes Booths’ fellow conspirators after the Lincoln assassination.

One of the more interesting chapters talked about a murder trial for a woman who shot and killed one of her former slaves. It was shortly after the Civil War ended and the former slaves were still living at the plantation due to a lack of options. One of the freed women got into an argument with her former slaver’s mother and shoved her down. The daughter, named Temperance, retrieved a pistol and shot the woman dead.

The breakdown of the trial, from witness statements to jury selection, was fascinating, and I was a little surprised by the verdict they handed down.

All in all this was an enlightening read and a nice addition to the library of any US Civil War buff. If you can find it for cheap, I’d recommend picking it up.

Book Review: “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” by Ian Fleming

This is the third 007 book I’ve read in the past year and at this point I’m not sure if I’m going to read any more. Not that they’re bad, because that’s certainly not the case. Thus far each book has left me turning pages as fast as I could, breathless in a daring escape or tense card game with a criminal mastermind.

However, I’ve noticed that I’ve enjoyed each book slightly less than the one before it. Maybe it’s just happenstance, but that’s the truth of the matter. Casino Royale absolutely blew me away, Moonraker was very good, and now On Her Majesty’s Secret Service I call ‘just good’. Worth the low price tag and low page count.

These books are 60+ years old, so part of it is the outdated writing style (and the occasional cringey 1960’s sexism), but also the formula feels stale too. It’s the same with the movies, but at least with movies a stale formula can be papered over with incredible acting or stunningly choreographed fight scenes.

Anyway, I need to actually talk about this specific book. As I said before it was good, enjoyable. This time around, Bond has been tasked with locating his arch-nemesis from a previous book. The world believes him dead but MI6 thinks he’s in hiding and want to flush him out.

It’s revealed that this assignment is driving Bond crazy. Not because of its twists and turns but because, to Bond, it is boring. He believes this kind of basic investigative work could be handled by any cop or detective and that, as a double-oh agent, his talents are being wasted. In fact, he even drafts a resignation letter early in the book because M refuses to take him off the case.

But 007 finally gets some solid intel on the bad guy’s location, in Switzerland, and that’s when the plot really starts. Bond goes undercover to a mountain resort to unmask the villain but ends up having to make a daring getaway at night on skis, and that was an intense bit of writing there. Eventually he gets help from an unlikely place and returns to the mountain one more time in the book’s climactic scene.

I won’t say anything more about the plot in case you decide to read this one. What I did like about this one, apart from the usual action scenes, was the way Fleming opened James Bond up a bit more, showed a more emotional side. As aforementioned, he’s frustrated with the current state of his job to the point of quitting. Later on he meets a girl who he thinks he could settle down with, much like Vesper from Casino Royale.

You also see Bond show an aversion of sorts to killing, a drastic difference between movie-Bond and book-Bond. What I found interesting was that this aversion doesn’t seem to stem from a philosophical or moral conundrum with taking a human life. In this case, it seems like Bond doesn’t enjoy killing because it means he’s failed at his job. To me, Bond believes that if he’s good at his job, being 007, then he should be able to go anywhere in the world, collect whatever information he needs, and then get out without a peep, as if he never even existed.

By killing a guard or a henchman, he leaves a paper trail. Here is proof that he was there on a job, and that means he failed. Maybe he still got what he came for, but now the enemy knows he was there and that could make his information useless. So I found that interesting.

The ending dragged on a bit, then ended rather abruptly, and that was a bit jarring. Probably a large reason that I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the others. But all in all a good read.

Midweek Update: Post-Holiday Edition

Time for an unexpected midweek post! I know I’d been somewhat neglecting my blog here over the past few weeks, what with Christmas and the New Year. It’s always a busy season seeing family, in-laws, traveling, and just relaxing.

Anyway, I had a pretty great holiday seeing said family and getting extra time at home with the wife and kids. It’s always fun to watch them excitedly tear the wrapping paper away from a gift you got them, see their little eyes light up. I was pretty excited about gifts that I got too, mostly books (4,500 pages’ worth of books).

I already finished a couple, and I posted my review of one (The Book of Accidents) earlier this week, you can check that out here. Now I’m working on “The Personal Memoirs of US Grant”. It’s been a great read so far and I’m really enjoying it. You can tell Grant was a military man by its very straightforward style of writing, he just gives you the facts exactly as they are.

Oh, and I finally saw Spiderman: No Way Home last week. It was pretty okay, I thought. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I think most folks did, but it was certainly worth the cost of admission and I’m also not much of a Marvel fan these days anyway. As far as superhero movies go, if it’s not Superman or Captain America, I’m not terribly interested.

That’s it for this week! Stay tuned for another book review on Monday, this one a review of a surprisingly fun read on infamous crimes in the US Civil War!

Book Review: The Book of Accidents

I got this book for Christmas and finished it in two days, and I gotta say that I’m blown away by the story (not so much the characters, but we’ll get to that).

I won’t say much about the plot because this is one that you have to read without knowing anything about it. All I knew going into it was that a man and woman from the same small town experienced some weird things as children, moved on with life, but are now back to face their demons.

It was almost impossible to find places to stop reading, as it seemed like every chapter ended with some tantalizing revelation or a terrifying turn of events. It keeps you tightly wound the entire time you’re on this rollercoaster of a read. Towards the end the story threatened to unravel a couple times, at least in my opinion. There were moments were I thought, “Great, he’s really jumped the shark now. What a convoluted mess!”

But every time the story snapped back into place and powered ahead, like a rubber band stretched almost to its breaking point before being released.

The tension was also well done. Malignant shadows were constantly in my peripherals, lurking. And when they appeared the story became truly horrifying. No spoilers here but the scene in a coal mine was frightening as hell. Very poor (good?) choice I made to read it just before bed!

The writing was also great. The dialogue was for the most part natural and believable, that’s something I care a great deal about in books I read. A little bit of head jumping and the occasional switch from 1st to 3rd person as the author would go from narration to inner thoughts sometimes too abruptly, but not a major issue.

The ending was great. I wasn’t sure I liked it at first but the epilogue knocked it out of the park. Left a great taste on my palate.

(Also the author’s note at the end was funny and a delight to read. It also contained some excellent advice for aspiring authors struggling with a story that is threatening to burst out of them.)

Now for the negatives: most of the characters. Maddie, one of the main protagonists, drove me absolutely nuts for the first third of the book. She’s the “Strong Woman” of the book, and I mean that as a bad cliché.

I’ve written before how much I dislike this stereotyped kind of character, where a woman is “strong” because she gets piss drunk on whiskey, curses all the time, and carries at least 37 chips on her shoulder. She’s not strong, she’s just a jerk and early on is constantly gaslighting her husband.

At one point, when Maddie’s husband is struggling with the trauma associated with his childhood home, Maddie just straight up tells him that if he gets too mopey about it then he’s on his own. But a couple chapters later, when weird things happen to Maddie, she just packs a suitcase, refuses to tell hubby what’s going on, where she’s going, or when she’ll be back, and she does this fully expecting him to just go with it. Seems like she expects to get far more than she gives in that relationship.

Also, and thank God this didn’t continue past the first 100 pages or so, but Maddie was constantly called ‘Mads’ by her BFF and husband and that was infuriating. It is such an affront to my eyes and inner voice to have to read/think of ‘Mads’ as a nickname that anyone would be okay with. It’s dissonant, hard to say, plus Maddie is already a nickname. Stop it, just stop.

Some characters were good (Nate, Fig, Carl). A couple were great. But a couple important ones drove me nuts, and several minor ones were such bad clichés.

Another thing was the near constant injection of the author’s politics into the story. Several times the characters are discussing how messed up the world is, but they only ever harp on two things and these two things only: climate change and school shootings. I kid you not, I lost track of how many times this was brought up just in the first 50 pages (oh and of course a thinly veiled shot at former President Trump too).

There was also a random argument between the protagonists Fig and Nate. They’re coworkers, Fig is black, and he’s upset on their first day together because he thinks Nate’s whiteness got him an opportunity he himself would never get. This creates instant animosity, but literally a handful of pages later they’re fast friends and the incident is never again addressed. So that just seemed random and unnecessary.

I’ve mentioned before that I HATE when authors bludgeon me over the head with their politics. I get it, these are issues near to your heart. No need to remind me every ten pages.

Also it is SO shortsighted to look at the issues in the world today and say “Things have never been worse”. Humans have been around for a very long time. School shootings and climate change are terrible things but maybe read a book about Genghis Khan or Ivan the Terrible before proclaiming this the bloodiest, bleakest era of human history.

There’s a few more things that rubbed me wrong but this review is really long already. All I’ll say is unfortunately this author hit a lot of my pet peeves with his characters, but the story itself brought this read from a 2-star to 4-star. Which is weird because usually it’s great characters rescuing a bland story.

Alright I lied, one more thing. Would it kill authors or TV/movie producers to have a group of teenage friends who don’t swear like sailors? Yeah I know a lot of kids swear but a lot don’t, or at least not so much. Please, I’m begging now. Just one story with teenagers who only let slip the occasional ‘damn’ or ‘ass’.

Writer’s Block

The title says it all. Unfortunately right now I think I’m dealing with some major writer’s block for Creed: Solomon’s Fortune. Especially during this holiday season and all that comes along with that, I just can’t find the proper inspiration to continue the story at the moment.

I still have the first book in this series completed and ready to publish, so that will be coming soon. I’m holding out a few last strands of hope that an agent or publisher will pick it up, but if not I’ll be releasing it in February, shortly after the upcoming Uncharted movie is released. I’d been hoping to have the first two books ready to release right away but I’m not sure that’s gonna be possible.

Still, Mandate of Heaven should be available soon so you can look forward to that! In the meantime I might just step away from the story and remove expectations from myself. Perhaps the pressure of getting pen to paper every morning has me burnt out and I need a refresher.

Book Recommendations!

Recently, I received an email from someone running a new book-themed website called Shepherd, and it’s supposed to act as a place where readers can get book recommendations from authors. After doing my usual vetting of unfamiliar folks claiming to want to advertise my books to make sure it’s not some scam, I decided I wanted in! Here’s a link to my recommendations, but I’ll also have the link again at the end of this post.

It was a simple concept, and fun to do. I provide 5 books that I would recommend to readers, give a few sentences why I recommend them, and I keep them all under one theme. For me, the theme was “books with strong, admirable women”. I chose this theme because 1) it’s supposed to be related to the book I chose to have them promote, which in this case is Her Name Was Abby, and 2) because it’s something I want to see more of in books, movies, and TV shows.

I have a daughter, and I want her to have exciting stories with strong, honorable women to geek out about, and too often I think that second word is lacking. There’s plenty of ‘strong women’ characters out there, but unfortunately too many content creators have decided that a ‘strong woman’ is nothing more than a mean, selfish, jerk who demeans everyone around her, and I don’t think that’s what makes a woman (or anyone for that matter) strong.

When I wrote Her Name Was Abby, I wanted Abby to be that strong young woman, but I tried to flip the convention on its head. During the time when she played the part of the typical, modern strong woman, that is actually when she was at her weakest, when she was not so honorable and definitely not someone to admire. It wasn’t until she hit rock bottom, made some changes, became a kinder, more disciplined woman, that she truly became a strong and good person.

So anyway, here’s a link to my list of book recommendations! You might spot a couple recognizable titles from very talented authors I interact with too!

Weekend Update: Holiday Season!

This time of year is my favorite time of year! You get two major holidays within a month of each other, and that means lots of food, time with family, and time away from work.

I had a great time with my family this past week. We ate tons of good food (including some not-so-good food like late night Taco Bell and some rum and Cokes) and played a lot of games. I once again hold the UNO crown in my family, and I hope to retain it for a very long time.

And now we’ve got Christmas coming up! I put the lights up on the roof about a month ago while the weather was still mild, but now that Thanksgiving is over I can actually plug them in without feeling weird about it! The kids helped get all the inside decorations up, and they had a blast with that.

How was your Thanksgiving weekend? I hope you had some great times with your loved ones!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Just a short note today to acknowledge the holiday. I hope you all have a day full of relaxation and time spent with family planned! I’ll be visiting my family and having dinner with them. We may also watch some football, as is tradition. The Chicago Bears are playing but their star quarterback Justin Fields is unfortunately injured so I can’t say it will be a fun game to watch.

And make sure you take a moment to give thanks for all the blessings you have in your life, no matter how small or few you may think them. I know that there are days when I feel like I don’t have much going for me, but after all the places I’ve been and the many sorrows I’ve seen, I know to be extremely grateful to merely be alive, healthy, and amongst family.

What’s in a Name?

Ask 100 different authors what the most difficult part of writing is and you’ll probably get 100 different answers. Ask me that question, and I’ll tell you:

Picking a damn title.

I mean, the title is that first big impression; you can’t afford to blow it! It has to entice the reader, but not be over the top. It needs to convey some kind of feeling or message, but only in a few syllables. It must give the potential reader an idea of what they’re in for while still hiding something interesting behind the veil. That’s a lot of pressure.

His Name Was Zach, the title of my debut novel, was originally just a placeholder, the first thing I could think of. And honestly, I don’t even remember how exactly it came to me. But after the story was written and I returned to the title, I couldn’t think of anything more fitting. His Name Was Zach contained the name of the protagonist, gave a little clue about the tone of the story, but left something to be imagined.

If you’re a writer, and you’re struggling picking a title for your book, here’s some advice. First, start with a placeholder. Just as I did, whatever comes to mind first, jot that down and move on. Come back later and play with it a little, you might twist it just enough that it becomes workable.

Or maybe your placeholder doesn’t work out, that’s okay! At least now you know what you don’t want the title to be. As Thomas Edison famously said about his repeated failures: I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Second, and be careful with this one, but look to other books in your genre for ideas. I say be careful because you obviously don’t want to go plagiarizing. However, skimming some titles of other books in your genre can be a big help. You’ll see formats that inspire you, and titles that give you a clear indication of what not to do, as well.

Now, I know some of my readers are also authors, so I must ask you: how did you pick the title of your book? Share your titles in the comments below!

Critiquing Yourself

One thing I’ve always struggled with when it comes to writing is critiquing my own work. I’ve noticed that I tend to be an extremely harsh critic of the things I write, and that’s led to a few cases of extended writer’s block. Where I don’t write anything for days or even weeks because I’m stuck on a particular plot point or scene that I can’t seem to overcome.

It has to be perfect, I tell myself. If I can deduce any kind of plot hole, inconsistency, or even feel a sense of incredulity towards what I’m writing, I’ll scrap it.

I’ve written before and in some book reviews that I’m generally a very forgiving book reader or movie watcher when it comes to this. I was watching that new movie Red Notice on Netflix this weekend and caught myself thinking Well that’s obviously impossible but whatever on several occasions.

And I finally realized that I should offer my own works this same kind of leniency. Obviously I need to keep things tight, realistic, and believable, but I think the degree to which I do these things can be slackened up a bit. If people are enjoying my stories, they’re probably gonna be okay with a bit of action or an event that would be unlikely in the real world.

Hopefully that can help fuel a surge to the end of my current work-in-progress, Creed: Solomon’s Fortune. I’ve been having a hard time with the plot on this one and I think part of the problem has been critiquing my ideas too harshly. I’m at 32,000 words but want to get to at least 70,000 before I call it a completed story.

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