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

The Life We Bury – A tense, engrossing and fast-paced debut novel – #bookreview

The Life We Bury

Allen Eskens

(Seventh Street – paperback, Kindle)

Minnesota writer Allen Eskens’ first novel is tense, engrossing and fast-paced reading–an excellent debut.

College student Joe Talbert has been given a seemingly simple writing assignment for an English class: Go interview and write a brief biography of a stranger. True to college life, Joe waits almost too long to begin working on the task. Then he hurries over to a nursing home, hoping to find someone interesting. The man he interviews, Carl Iverson, turns out to be a Vietnam War veteran who is dying of pancreatic cancer. Iverson, Joe learns, also is a convicted rapist and murderer who has been medically paroled to the nursing home to spend his final days. As Joe begins to dig deeper into Iverson’s story, he starts turning up proof that Iverson was wrongly convicted three decades ago.

Meanwhile, Joe also has become attracted to his next-door neighbor, Lila. Soon, he pulls Lila into his investigation of Iverson, too. Together, they keep digging deeper, until they finally get themselves into ugly danger that seems to offer no possibility of escape.

No big spoilers here, but this mystery thriller’s heart-thumping, nerve-jarring conclusion has more than one clock winding down to the final, deadly seconds. The Life We Bury is superb investigator fiction, with action.

Si Dunn

Raiders of the Nile – Steven Saylor brings fast-paced action & intrigue to ancient Egypt – #fiction #bookreview

Raiders of the Nile

A Novel of the Ancient World

Steven Saylor

(Minotaur Books – hardcover , Kindle )

Best-selling author Steven Saylor is well-known for his many books, including his Roma Sub Rosa series of historical mysteries set in ancient Rome, starring Gordianus the Finder, a B.C. equivalent of Sherlock Holmes.

Now, in Raiders of the Nile, Saylor again has turned the sundial back a few years and given us a young, pre-Finder Gordianus. In 88 B.C., on his 22nd birthday, Gordianus suddenly has to embark on a truly desperate quest. He must rescue Bethesda, the beautiful young woman he loves,  from fearsome pirates based in the Nile Delta. They have kidnapped Bethesda from the troubled city of Alexandria, where the latest in a string of Egyptian kings named Ptolemy is on a very shaky throne (despite, or perhaps partly because of, his huge girth). And young Gordianus finds that he has just one ally willing to be his John Watson in the Egyptian badlands: a 10-year-old slave boy named Djet.

A pleasingly complex plot unfolds as Gordianus and Djet barely escape death at several turns and have to join the pirate gang not only to save their lives but to have a chance to escape with Bethesda, who is being held for ransom.

What the pirates and their vicious leader don’t know is that they have kidnapped the wrong woman. And if they somehow find out, she, Gordianus and Djet all could be killed on the spot.

It’s the set-up for a lot of intrigue, action and entertainment. And Steven Saylor demonstrates that he is a master at telling fast-paced stories set in the seemingly slow-paced ancient world.

His characters, fortunately, do not speak in hieroglyphics or Latin. Nor do they sound like actors in grainy Old Testament movies. Indeed, they converse in reasonably modern English, which momentarily can be disconcerting the first time you pick up a Steven Saylor novel. But it doesn’t take long to get caught up in the tale and find yourself racing along on the back of a camel you barely can ride, while murderous villagers, also on camels, try to chase you down and hack you into mincemeat.

Saylor, widely recognized as an expert on ancient Roman life and politics, has done extensive research into the lives and politics of some ancient Egyptians, as well as key settings used in Raiders of the Nile. He needed a vacation, he says in the book’s concluding notes, from his long studies of the ancient Romans’ “murder trials, gruesome histories, and self- aggrandizing memoirs.” So he turned to the works of “Greek authors whose books were all about travel and exploration, love and sensual pleasure, religious exaltation and athletic glory.”

One outcome was his 2013 book The Seven Wonders, which brings 18-year-old Gordianus face-to-face with intriguing, challenging, deadly mysteries each time he stops to visit one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Raiders of the Nile is the second prequel novel that points toward how Gordianus eventually will become the famed Finder who solves cases involving prominent historical characters and events in Rome. While researching ancient Greece, Saylor encountered several books, manuscripts and websites that inspired him to look closely at Egypt, too. And that led to the absorbing tale which unfolds in this new book.

One downside to the many plot twists, intrigues, double-crossings, and surprises in Raiders of the Nile is that Saylor must rely on a fairly lengthy ending to wrap everything up and shake Gordianus loose for whatever will come next. Even then, some of the concluding events seem to happen just a bit quickly and conveniently.

Still, fans of Gordianus the Finder will not be disappointed. And readers encountering Gordianus (and Saylor) for the first time will find plenty to enjoy–including a whole series of Gordianus novels to savor.

Steven Saylor definitely knows how to blend imagination, good storytelling, historical accuracy and cultural details into tales of mystery, intrigue, action and, yes, love.

Si Dunn

Steven Saylor’s ‘The Seven Wonders’ – A fine intro to Gordianus the Finder, famous sleuth of ancient Rome – #bookreview #in #mystery #fiction

The Seven Wonders: A Novel of the Ancient World
Steven Saylor
(Minotaur Books, hardback, list price $25.99; Kindle edition, $12.99)

To be honest, until I picked up this book, I had paid zero attention to best-selling author Steven Saylor’s long-running Roma Sub Rosa series of mysteries set in ancient times, in the Roman Empire. The hero in that series’ 10 novels and two short story collections is Gordianus the Finder, Rome’s most sought-after investigator.

I’ve never been keen on stories (or movies) where people run around in togas and sandals, swear upon assorted gods and goddesses, and kill each other with swords or poisons.

Also, my notion of private detectives has tended to go back only as far as Sherlock Holmes. I’ve mainly been a Spenser/Marlowe/Hammer kind of guy. You know, fists and firearms, not swords and sandals.

The Seven Wonders, the new “prequel” to the Roma Sub Rosa series, has, however, just expanded my horizon quite a bit. Saylor has created a mystery- and adventure-packed tale that introduces Gordianus as a young man, before he has assumed the mantle of “The Finder” from his father.

The tale is set in 92 B.C., a time when the Roman Empire still dominates Greece. But rumors of war are afoot (literally), spies are everywhere, and even the most seemingly trustworthy friend cannot really be trusted amid all of the anti-Roman political intrigue.

It is also the year when Gordianus has reached – and at last crossed – the dividing line between childhood and getting to wear the “manly toga” of an adult. He’s now ready to leave home – Rome – and have some adventures.

He soon gets much more than he expects as he travels with his tutor and travel guide, the aging Antipater of Sidon, “one of the most celebrated poets in the world, famed not only for the elegance of his verses but for the almost magical way he could produce them impromptu, as if drawn from the aether.”

A real figure in history, Antipater has been given at least some of the credit for coming up with the famous list of the Seven Wonders of the World.

In the novel, the poet leaves Rome under mysterious circumstances but takes Gordianus along as he revisits each of the Seven Wonders. He carefully tutors the young Roman, yet things quickly and repeatedly go awry. At their first stop, for example, the Greeks’ wondrous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, a young girl drops dead unexpectedly during a major celebration. And Gordianus stealthily investigates, using skills learned from his father, a man who “called himself Finder, because men hired him to find the truth.”

The Finder’s son soon determines that the young girl was murdered. Meanwhile, another young girl has been blamed and will die if Gordianus can’t solve his first case fast enough. He succeeds in a clever way, kills his first bad guy, and also has his first sexual encounter, thanks to the sensuous generosity of a beautiful slave woman who has helped him trap the murderer.  

There are then six more Wonders to see, and at each stop, Saylor provides the reader with mysteries rich in history, legend, danger, plot twists and engrossing entertainment as the youthful Gordianus struggles to puzzle them out.

Steven Saylor, who lives in Berkeley, California, and Austin, Texas, is a rare kind of writer, one who deftly blends scholarly detail with fast-paced fiction and makes dead worlds seem to come alive again.

I’m now a Spenser/Marlowe/Hammer/Gordianus kind of guy when it comes to detective fiction. And, thanks to this clever prequel, I’m ready to stop ignoring and start reading the Roma Sub Rosa series.

The Seven Wonders will be available starting June 5, 2012 and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com.

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Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir. He is the author of an e-book detective novel, Erwin’s Law, now also available in paperback, plus a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.

Droid X2: The Missing Manual – #droid #bookreview

Droid X2: The Missing Manual
By Preston Gralla
(O’Reilly, paperback, list price $19.99; Kindle edition, list price $9.99)

Got, getting or giving a Droid X2 smartphone?

Consider adding this useful how-to manual to the mix. Droid X2: The Missing Manual bills itself as “The book that should have been in the box.” But it’s likely much bigger than the phone’s box.

The 399-page manual, written by veteran technology writer Preston Gralla, is nicely structured, well-illustrated and chock full of information on using the Droid X2’s many features. The book is organized into six parts.

 Part 1 covers “Android Basics.” It gives a guided tour of features and shows how to make calls, do text messages, manage contacts, use Caller ID, make conference calls, and handle other tasks.

Part 2 focuses on “Camera, Pix, Music, and Video” and how you can use a Droid X2 to take photographs, play and manage music, and record, edit and view videos.

Part 3, “Maps, Apps, and Calendar,” shows “how to navigate using a GPS, to find any location in the world with maps, to find your own location on a map, to get weather and news, to use a great calendar app, and to synchronize that calendar with your Google calendar, or even an Outlook calendar,” Gralla writes.

Part 4, “Android Online,” discusses “everything you need to know about the Droid X2’s remarkable online talents.” This includes getting online over Verizon’s network or a wi-fi hotspot, using your Droid X2 as a portable G3 hotspot, checking email, surfing the Internet and downloading and using apps.

Part 5 covers “Advanced Topics,” including syncing and transferring files between a Droid X2 and a Mac or a PC, using your voice to control your Droid, and using your Droid at your workplace. Part 5 also includes a nice listing of Droid X2 settings.

Part 6, “Appendixes,” has three “reference chapters” showing how to activate a Droid X2, which accessories are available, and how to troubleshoot various issues.

This “Missing Manual” includes a link to a website where you can keep up with updates and changes to the Droid X2, plus corrections to the book.

Meanwhile, a “Missing CD” web page link provided in the book gives clickable links to the websites that are mentioned in the text.

Many new users of the Droid X2 likely will find this book helpful. So will experienced users who have mostly focused on voice calls and text messages and now want to master some of their smartphone’s other features. 

Si Dunn

Treasure Hunter by W.C. Jameson – A memoir that’s a treasure itself – #nonfiction #bookreview

Treasure Hunter
By W.C. Jameson
(Seven Oaks Publishing, paperback, list price $14.95; Kindle, $2.99)

We’ve all had the great fantasy. We turn over a spade of dirt while doing some yard work and suddenly uncover Spanish doubloons or a rich cache of 19th-century silver dollars or some long-lost loot buried by a famous outlaw.

W.C. Jameson’s name is now virtually synonymous with “buried treasure.” Of his 70-plus published books, more than 20 of them are focused on treasure hunting, lost treasures and lost mines in the United States and North America.

Jameson’s huge and diverse literary output includes books of poetry, plus books on outlaws, cooking and even writing itself. Yet many of his fans think of him as a master treasure hunter first.

His newest book, Treasure Hunter, is a treasure in itself: an adventure-packed memoir that recounts and reflects upon his five-plus decades of expeditions – sometimes successful, sometimes disastrous – to find and recover long-lost gold and silver artifacts.

In treasure hunting, Jameson points out, if the rattlesnakes, rock slides and cave-ins don’t get you, state and federal laws and private landowners likely will, especially if you don’t keep stay completely quiet about what you are doing and what you have found.

Indeed, he stresses, “Anonymity is a great ally for a professional treasure hunter.”

So, before you quit your office job, cash in your 401(K), dress up like Indiana Jones, and head off for the mountains or desert, Jameson urges you to plant some harsh realities very firmly in mind:

“It is important to understand that almost everything treasure recovery professionals do is illegal,” he warns. “Thus, the bizarre and unreasonable laws related to treasure recovery have turned honest, dedicated, and hard-working fortune hunters into outlaws. Announcing a discovery often leads to negative and unwanted developments, primarily the loss of any treasure that may have been found. As mentors explained to me years ago, the fewer people involved, the better. Silence is the byword.” 

Throughout most of his fortune hunting career, Jameson has worked only with a small group of partners, none of them identified in this book, except with names such as “Poet” and “Slade” and “Stanley.”

At one point in Treasure Hunter, after a complicated expedition ends in disaster and near-death experiences, “Poet” sums up the “glamour” of their many quests:

“This little trip reminds me of most of our expeditions. Lots of action, nothing goes as planned, we get shot at, and we come back empty-handed.”

But Jameson has had some successes in his long and often arduous career: “From a few of these excursions, my partners and I acquired enough wealth to pay off houses and purchase new vehicles. With some of the money, I paid college tuition for myself as well as for my children.”

And, despite his long career and advancing age, he remains “on the hunt” for more treasures, he says.

Not surprisingly, Jameson identifies library research as one of the toughest and most essential parts of treasure hunting. And the lands around certain “lost” treasures may be accessible only after paying bribes, dealing with unsavory characters, surviving potentially fatal double-crosses, dodging deadly snakes and being willing to risk cross-border smuggling.

If that sounds like exciting “adventure” to you, pay close attention to Jameson’s additional cautions:   

“The truth is,” he writes, “adventure was never an objective, merely a byproduct. Anyone who has ever been on a quest will tell you that adventure happens when plans go awry. The great explorer Roald Amundson once said, ‘An adventure is merely  an interruption of an explorer’s serious work and indicates bad planning.’ Our plans often turned out badly, which may give you some idea of our collective ability to arrange and organize a perfect expedition, to prepare for any and all contingencies.”

For some readers, the many quests described in Jameson’s book likely will fuel or refuel a passion to go out anyway and search and dig for riches. But, for many others of us, some of the armchair adventurers of the world, his book will provide entertaining hours of safe reading, absorbing escapism and comfortable daydreaming.

And that will be treasure enough.

Si Dunn

Captain John R. Hughes: Lone Star Ranger

 

Captain John R. Hughes: Lone Star Ranger
Chuck Parsons

(University of North Texas Press, $29.95)

 John R. Hughes is often considered one of the Texas Rangers’ “Four Great Captains,” alongside William Jesse McDonald, James A. Brooks and John H. Rogers. (Chuck Norris, as Walker, Texas Ranger, figures nowhere in this equation.)

Before Hughes became a Ranger in 1887, he tracked down and killed several thieves who had stolen horses from his ranch and and some neighbors’ ranches.

This well-written biography by Western historian Chuck Parsons describes how Hughes intended to be a Texas Ranger for just a few months after he signed up. But he stayed on and eventually served almost 30 years, chasing horse thieves, sheep thieves, fence cutters, train robbers, bank robbers and others.

Hughes also helped provide security for three presidents who visited Texas: William H. Taft, Theodore Roosevelt and Porfirio Diaz of Mexico.

The Ranger tried to keep a low profile, but writers hailed him in newspaper and magazine articles, particularly after he retired. And novelist Zane Grey dedicated a novel, The Lone Star Ranger, to Hughes and other Rangers.

Chuck Parsons has written several other books, including The Sutton-Taylor Feud: The Deadliest Blood Feud in Texas.

Si Dunn

Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal

 Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal
By James D. Hornfischer
(Bantam Books, $30.00)
Amazon Link: http://amzn.to/giTclq
Kindle Link: http://amzn.to/fKzayj

Guadalcanal typically is remembered as a small Pacific island where U.S. Marines stayed locked in savage combat for months with tenacious, desperate Japanese defenders during World War II. U.S. Army troops, however, also fought heroically in the battle for Guadalcanal, which stretched from Aug. 7, 1942, to Feb. 9, 1943.

But as military historian James D. Hornfischer makes starkly clear in his new book Neptune’s Inferno, the U.S. Navy actually bore the biggest brunt of the fighting. The Navy also made the greatest sacrifices during the protracted campaign that is now remembered as a turning point in the Pacific theater of the war. 

“When it was all said and done at Guadalcanal,” Hornfischer notes in his book, “three sailors would die at sea for every infantryman who fell ashore.”

Much of the fighting focused on Guadalcanal’s airfield, which could be used to threaten or protect key sea lanes between the United States, Australia and New Zealand. U.S. Marines seized the airfield and part of the island in a surprise landing that drove Japanese defenders inland.

During the next six months, seven major sea battles ensued as the Imperial Japanese Navy attempted to destroy American planes and reinforce Guadalcanal’s Japanese troops, so they could retake the airfield.

Five of the encounters were fearsome, grinding night clashes. And, more than once, American ships blasted each other, as well as enemy warships, in the chaotic darkness. In the two daylight battles, carrier-based and land-based aircraft ultimately won the day for the Allies.

The toll of ships, men and aircraft was horrific on both sides. As Hornfischer makes grimly clear, torpedoes and shells ripped through hulls and thick armor plates and ended dozens or even hundreds of lives in an instant. The U.S. Navy lost 25 major warships, including two aircraft carriers and several cruisers and destroyers, as well as numerous smaller vessels. Australia’s losses included its heavy cruiser Canberra. Japanese ship losses included an aircraft carrier, two battleships, several cruisers and other vessels, including six submarines.

Thousands of Allied and Japanese sailors and officers died, and hundreds of planes were shot down. Meanwhile, Guadalcanal’s Japanese defenders never retook the airfield. Instead, their counterattacks were repulsed, and they suffered massive casualties from air assaults, naval gunfire and Marine and Army ground attacks.

Much of Hornfischer’s book focuses on officers and crews of individual battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers, recounting how they veered into combat, absorbed savage hits and valiantly kept fighting and struggling to stay afloat. But he also zeroes in on the strategies, indecisions, failures and heroics of task force commanders and ship captains.

“The campaign,” he writes, “featured tight interdependence among warriors of the air, land, and sea.” Yet that interdependence was tenuous and troubled at best. Lives and ships were lost because of inter-service rivalries, jealousies and stubborn attitudes among key admirals and generals.

Some American warship captains made efficient use of a new technology, radar, while others failed to embrace its early-warning capabilities, with fatal consequences.

Another vital technology, radio, also was not used effectively. Ships, aircraft and ground units frequently could not communicate with each other. And important alerts often were delayed, misrouted or ignored.

Neptune’s Inferno is well written, rich with scene-setting details and very clearly the product of extensive research, as well as interviews with some of the battle’s now-aged survivors.

The author’s two previous WWII books, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors and Ship of Ghosts, brought him into the major leagues of American military history writers. Neptune’s Inferno is solid proof that he deserves to be there.

Si Dunn

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Fast-Paced Action: By Sea, by Land and by Air

Corsair
By Clive Cussler with Jack Du Brul
(Putnam, $27.95, hardback)

Some fans of Jack Du Brul’s writing think his name should be listed first on the cover of Corsair, a new installment in the popular Oregon Files series.

But, regardless of who actually wrote what within this 437-page action-thriller, the team of Cussler and Du Brul has cranked out an impressive and fast-paced tale. It has surprising twists and turns on almost every page once the story hits full stride (or full speed ahead).

The Oregon is a ship within a ship. On the outside, she appears to be a 560-foot freighter so battered and rusty that Davy Jones’ locker will be the next port of call. Very cleverly hidden inside, however, is a world of surprises. When the ship is commandeered and the crew is seized by Somali pirates off the coast of Africa, the cocky sea criminals have no idea they have climbed aboard an amazing death trap.

In secret compartments deep inside its cargo holds, behind and beneath tightly packed containers and goods, the Oregon has another crew. (The ones now being held at gunpoint by the pirates are actors who happen to be skilled at fighting and killing.) The real crew is manning computers, video monitors, the ship’s enormously powerful high-tech engines, and a staggering array of weapons. The pirates are unaware that their every move now is being watched and that the hidden part of the Oregon’s crew is in complete control of the ship, not them.

Indeed, the Oregon is a ship full of mercenaries of the toughest type. “They typically worked for the (U.S.) government, tackling operations deemed too risky for American soldiers or members of the intelligence community, on a strictly cash-only basis,” the co-authors have written.

When the Somalis take their battered and rusty “prize” upriver to their leader, they are unaware that they are helping the Oregon capture him for the CIA and the World Court.

That operation is just the beginning of the action for the Oregon’s crew of weapons and technology specialists. Led by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, chairman of the shadowy “Corporation,” and Max Hanley, its president, the ship soon has to go into harm’s way in a very big way. Their mission is to try to figure out what has happened to the American Secretary of State, whose plane has gone missing somewhere near the Tunisian-Libyan border on the eve of a vitally important peace conference.

What unfolds next is a sequence of unexpected events that tests virtually every weapon the Oregon can muster and almost every new idea her leaders and crew can create — in the heat of battle after battle after battle.

Corsair quickly accelerates to fighting speed for an afternoon or two of engrossing reading. It loses momentum only briefly amid some of the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics. All in all, it is a very satisfying action-thriller. 

 — Si Dunn is a screenwriter, script doctor, book author and book review columnist.

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