BLEEDING KANSAS: Coming-of-age adventure and danger on the American frontier just before the Civil War – #fiction #bookreview

Bleeding Kansas

Dave Eisenstark

(World Castle Publishing, LLC - paperback, Kindle)

 

It is very tempting to say: “This book is a lot like Huckleberry Finn, but on land, with lots of horses and guns!”

However, amid the humor, the horrors and the main character’s many dangerous, coming-of-age adventures, readers also get close, unnerving looks at a very rough, very dark chapter in American history.

During a seven-year period leading up to the Civil War, violent clashes in Kansas and parts of Missouri pitted anti-slavery “Free-Staters” against pro-slavery “Border Ruffians.” It was gang warfare on horseback, and it also was a proxy conflict that demonstrated what was about to happen on a gigantic scale once the North and South split and took up arms against each other.

In Bleeding Kansas, a Quaker youth from Pennsylvania, James Deeter,  heads west, trying to avoid being drafted into the Union Army. But Deeter makes some naive and unfortunate decisions along the way. To survive, he finds himself suddenly facing his worst nightmare: He must ride in raids as part of the pro-Confederate gang known as Quantrill’s Raiders.

Eisenstark’s fiction in this book can stretch credulity at times, and it relies on a few coincidences and confluences of historic characters. Yet those just enhance the dark humor and the moments of real horror and surprise that keep coming as the well-written work of history-based fiction unfolds.

Memo to producers: Bleeding Kansas has the makings of an action-packed movie for a rising young star.

Si Dunn

River of Angels – An excellent tale of two families and their divided city: Los Angeles – #fiction #bookreview

 

River of Angels

Alejandro Morales

(Arte Público Press, paperback )

 

This third novel by Alejandro Morales is a compelling, evocative portrait of  two very different families whose lives become intertwined through their children, in ways both loving and tragic.

Set in the 19th and 20th centuries, River of Angels is also the story of a burgeoning U.S. city divided by a dangerous river yet   linked by bridges and marriages, as well as shifting economic, cultural and racial balances.

Los Angeles today is divided by many ethnic, political and financial lines. And these divisions have been defined not only by major currents and undercurrents in California and American history but also by the river powerfully described in Morales’s book:  El Río de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de la Porciúncula, “The River of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula.”

The completion of a bridge over that river in 1887 provided a more convenient way for people to cross from either side, the author makes clear. But the bridge also helped set discriminations into easier motion.

“Most of the Los Angeles residents and people in neighboring communities were soon enjoying the convenience the bridge offered,” Alejandro Morales writes. “Laborers who worked on the west side of the river used the bridge every day to return to their dwellings on the east side. On certain days and hours during the week, it seemed that only workers moved back and forth across the river. Mexicans, blacks and Chinese had settled in the center of the city around the old plaza. However, that was changing, and [after the bridge was built] there was a deliberate and obvious push to house Mexicans on the east side of the river. The City Council made it easier for Mexicans to buy property and build houses on the Eastside.”

Some years later, a savage storm and flooding washed away the first bridge, and two more were built. Meanwhile, as this tale of families makes clear, the growth of Los Angeles’ Anglo population continued to push and squeeze minority groups, including Mexicans, African-Americans, Chinese and Japanese, out of their homes and businesses and into other areas of the city.

“The residents of the original Mexican colonias in Los Angeles proper–near La Placita and other sections newly designated as Anglo-only–were evicted and forced to relocate to the immigrant quarters of Los Angeles that were thought of as Mexican reservations,” Morales writes. “The city’s Anglo population needed the Mexicans for labor. The Mexicans had to live near, but not among, the Anglo families.”

That segregation sets up major tensions and drama within this engrossing novel as two families from widely separate realms are forcibly pulled together.

River of Angels delivers a unique and vivid portrait of Los Angeles at some of its worst and best. At the same time, Alejandro Morales skillfully illuminates racial, cultural, political and economic tensions that can be found today in virtually any other American city, whether a river runs through it or not.

Si Dunn

BOOK BRIEFS: Movie Stunts, Famous Bandits and a World War I Regiment – #bookreview

Cowboy Stuntman

From Olympic Gold to the Silver Screen
Dean Smith with Mike Cox
(Texas Tech University Press – hardback, Kindle)

Dean Smith won an Olympic gold medal in the 400-meter relays at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. Then the 20-year-old returned home to Northwest Texas, where he had been a rodeo cowboy. Later, he dropped out of the University of Texas at Austin, spent time in the Army and briefly played professional football with the Los Angeles Rams. But he dreamed of working in Western movies. He finally got his break in 1957, in Dallas. He met up with a friend from Oklahoma whom he had known as Jim Bumgarner. Bumgarner now called himself James Garner, and he was the star of a new TV show, “Maverick.” Garner got Smith into the Hollywood movie and TV stunt business. More than 50 years later, Smith’s entertaining memoir covers not only his rural Texas years but his long career “doubling” in risky action scenes for some of Hollywood’s biggest names, including Roy Rogers, Robert Redford, and even Maureen O’Hara.

***

Butch Cassidy: The Lost Years

William W. Johnstone with J.A. Johnstone
(Kensington Books – hardback, Kindle)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid most likely are dead — very dead — by now. But rumors persist that the two famous bandits survived a shootout with Bolivian soldiers after they stole a Bolivian silver mine’s payroll in 1908. Then they escaped back to America and disappeared. Prolific author William W. Johnstone has taken those rumors one step further and created a clever, pleasant novel set in 1950. It features a dedicated young Pinkerton detective who happens to be the son and grandson of Pinkerton agents who tried and failed to track down the famed bandits. But the book’s key character is an 85-year-old West Texas rancher who can spin a very good tale–and who might be, or may not be, be Cassidy himself.

***

They Called Them Soldier Boys

A Texas Infantry Regiment in World War I
Gregory W. Ball
(University of North Texas Press – hardback)

Historian Gregory W. Ball’s new book is a well-written study of the 7th Texas Infantry Regiment, its combat experiences in France in World War I, and what happened to many of its soldiers after they returned home to Texas n 1919. One of the Texas National Guard regiments that made up the U.S. Army’s 36th Infantry Division, the 7th Texas  took part in some of World War I’s biggest battles. “What those soldiers experienced, what they felt, and how they expressed themselves to their loved ones back home,” Ball writes, “is important to the history of World War I and of Texas, as their experiences form an important, albeit neglected, part of the Texas military experience.”

Si Dunn

The Ides of April – An entertaining new Lindsey Davis detective series debut – #mystery #bookreview

The Ides of April

A Flavia Albia Mystery

Lindsey Davis

(Minotaur Books, hardback, paperback, Kindle, Audio CD)

Many fans of the Marcus Didius Falco mysteries set in first-century Rome will delight in this new spin-off series by London author Lindsey Davis. Readers eagerly seeking another unusual detective to follow may relish this series debut, as well.  

In The Ides of April, Flavia Albia, the adopted daughter of Falco and Helena Justina, makes her series debut as a private informer in Rome during the reign of Domitian, an emperor who later will be ranked somewhere in the safe middle between the best and worst rulers of the Roman Empire.

The year is A.D. 89, and a young widow named Flavia Albia has taken over Falco’s old apartment and is struggling to build up her business as an investigator. Flavia is British-born and served as nursemaid to Falco’s children before Falco and his “unofficial” wife Helena Justina adopted her.

The pay scale for a private informer is “no win, no fee.” Also: “As a female, I had no rights at all in matters of law, but why let that stop me?” Flavia has two other qualities that work in her favor as a detective in Rome: She doesn’t like to be defeated, and her adoptive parents taught her how to comfortably blend into virtually all levels of society.

Of course, it’s never easy to be a female detective in ancient Rome. As Flavia points out: “Fortune never favoured me and the problem with being a woman was that sometimes I could only obtain business that all the male informers had sniffed and refused.”

One of those “refused” cases, of course, starts out simple and soon turns into a murder investigation that includes the hunter being hunted by the killer.

The cast of characters in The Ides of April extends for two pages, and new readers of a Lindsey Davis novel likely will find themselves frequently flipping back to it for reminders of who exactly Junillus or Robigo or Felix or Serena is.

Indeed, if this is your first exposure to Lindsey Davis’s well-detailed, history-based fiction, you might consider photocopying the extensive cast list and keeping it close at hand so you won’t have to keep flipping back to the front of the book.

One other note. While the setting is ancient Rome, many of the descriptions, attitudes, and dialogue exchanges would not seem out of place in a 21st century English detective novel. This can be at least momentarily jarring for new readers of a Lindsey Davis mystery. However, we must remember that English had not yet been cobbled together in A.D. 89. And, thankfully, the author does not throw a lot of Latin at us.

Fans of Marcus Didius Falco may grumble about Falco being downsized to a much smaller character in this tale. Yet as Lindsey Davis points out on her website:

“After 20 novels, I need a break and have no current plans for a new Falco novel. I am enjoying the ‘spin-off’ series about Flavia Albia….” (The one that will follow The Ides of April will be titled Enemies at Home).

“I am also excited to be writing a ‘QuickRead’ for 2014. These are a special series of short books for adults who came to reading late or who don’t read very much. Mine is called A Cruel Fate and is set in the Civil War.”

So Marcus Didius Falco is not dead. He has just been put out to pasture while Flavia gets an entertaining and engrossing chance to make her mark in the family business.

Si Dunn

Book Briefs: Cormac McCarthy, Prehistoric Central Texas, Rio Grande border – #bookreview

Here are three specialized books for serious readers of specialized topics. The first provides a “comprehensive yet concise overview” of Cormac McCarthy’s “legacy in American literature.”  The second examines a 14th century civilization in Central Texas that “represents the last prehistoric peoples before the cultural upheaval introduced by European explorers.” And the third delves into the complex, often violent history of the Rio Grande border area that separates Mexico and the United States.

***

The Cambridge Companion to Cormac McCarthy
Edited by Steven Frye
(Cambridge University Press – paperback, hardback)

An “international team of McCarthy scholars” provide more than a dozen insightful essays that examine and analyze some of the prolific and reclusive author’s “best known and commonly taught novels,” as well as his “work in cinema, including the many adaptations of his novels to film.” Some of the titles reflected upon include The Road and All the Pretty Horses.

***

The Toyah Phase of Central Texas
Late Prehistoric Economic and Social Processes
Edited by Nancy A. Kenmotsu and Douglas K. Boyd
(Texas A&M University Press – hardback, Kindle)

In this important gathering of “studies and interpretive essays,” the editors and other contributors focus on a mobile, prehistoric society of hunter-gatherers whose culture “arose in and around the Edwards Plateau of Central Texas” and whose homeland covered much of Central Texas and South Texas in the 14th century. They were, the book contends, “never isolated from the world around them”–a world that included neighboring tribes and groups in northern Mexico and eastern New Mexico, plus newcomers such as the Apache and Comanche. Yet these “last prehistoric peoples” soon would have their culture changed and overturned by the arrival of European explorers.

***

River of Hope
Forging Identity and Nation in the Rio Grande Borderlands
Omar S. Valerio-Jiménez
(Duke University Press – paperback, hardback, Kindle)

America’s border with Mexico has a complex and troubled past, a complex and troubled present, and likely will have a complex and troubled future. In this thoughtful, well-researched study, Omar S. Valerio-Jiménez, an associate professor of history at the University of Iowa, focuses on how the people who lived in the border area during the 18th and 19th centuries fared as Spain, Mexico, and the United States all vied for control. Ultimately, Spanish colonists near the border became Mexican citizens but then became Americans, whether they wanted to or not, as political and military power shifted and territory changed hands. Meanwhile, those who were caught up in the seesaw battles did not “adopt singular colonial or national identities. Instead, their regionalism, transnational cultural practices, and kinship ties subverted state attempts to control and divide the population.” In short, they intermarried, formed defensive alliances (Mexican, Indian, and Anglo), and identified more with where they lived than with any distant capitol that allegedly controlled them.

Si Dunn

Sophie’s Diary: A Mathematical Novel – Imagining French mathematician Sophie Germain as a young teen – #bookreview

Sophie’s Diary: A Mathematical Novel
Dora Musielak
(Math Association of America, hardback)

The Mathematical Association of America recently has published the second edition of this intriguing “mathematical novel.” Its story is built around a fictional diary and a real-life French mathematician, Marie-Sophie Germain.

The well-written tale imagines Ms. Germain writing down her thoughts and experiences while coming of age and learning mathematics amid the social turmoil that is roiling 18th-century Paris.

Marie-Sophie Germain is remembered primarily for her number theory work that offered several “novel approaches” to solving Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Si Dunn

The Last Camel Charge – An intriguing look at America’s pre-Civil War desert military experiment – #bookreview

The Last Camel Charge: The Untold Story of America’s Desert Military Experiment
Forrest Bryant Johnson
(Berkley Caliber, hardbackKindle)

The U.S. Army employed camels as transportation and pack animals in the American West during the mid-19th century and tried to create “a U.S. camel cavalry, a true camel corps,” the author of this fascinating history work notes.

Initially headquartered near San Antonio, Texas, the fledgling camel corps soon became involved in expeditions of discovery, as well as fighting in several areas.

The notable actions included a victorious camel charge against Mojave Indians in the Arizona Territory and helping naval lieutenant Edward Beale’s successfully create a wagon trail from Texas to California.

The Civil War ended the camel corps experiment, the author shows. But Union and Confederate forces both used camels during the conflict, and the last U.S. Army camel died in captivity in 1934.

Meanwhile, rumors abound that a few wild camels, distant offspring of the Camel Corps, are still alive and roaming the most desolate and isolated areas of the American Southwest. Indeed, the author notes, several wild camels were photographed near a West Texas railroad track in 2003.

Si Dunn