In writing, as in bicycle races, there are mountains to climb. In bicycle races they are rated on how hard the mountain is. The steepest and hardest are called hors catégorie because are almost impossible to finish. Writing is a lot like those mountain climbs, unexpectedly difficult, very lonely, and rarely ending with the hoped-for success. Within the community of writers the hors catégories are the authors who work for years, don’t attract a big publisher, and yet have written a very fine book that only needs readers. This month I bring you some of them to you.
I usually rank the books in On the Nightstand by the number of watts a book generates in my bedside light, but this month I review books that are written by independent authors whose work is beyond category: great books, not published by the big publishers, and not well known, that deserve an audience. All are available from Amazon, in both e-reader and print editions, and worthy of your time and support. Without more, here for the Spring 2018 edition of On the Nightstand are my hors catégorie reviews:
The Dragon Soldier’s Good Fortune, by Robert Goswitz, is a classic tale of a man in combat who slowly comes to realize that the enemy is rarely the real enemy. With wonderful storytelling, the novel hooks you from the first page as Ed Lansky, one of the last men drafted and sent to Vietnam and utterly ignorant of what he was getting into, is busted for smoking pot on his first night in country and is tagged as a troublemaker. When he is shuffled off to one of the last American infantry units still walking combat patrols, the reader becomes a part of Ed’s platoon, where Ed soon learns that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those immersed in the terror of combat, and everyone else. Ed survives with the help of an unexpected visitor as he and the platoon struggle through inexperienced officers, disintegrating NCO’s, racial disgruntlement, a hatred for lifers, and the kind of laziness that gets men killed. Find and be a part of this engrossing story of men whose real battle was to stay alive long enough to come home.
A Mass for the Dead, The Faerie Hills, and The Study of Murder by Susan McDuffie are three medieval murder mysteries about Muirteach MacPhee, a scribe in the service of John MacDonald, the Lord of the Isles. Muirteach first is tasked with finding who killed his father, the local prior, an investigation made more difficult because the victim was a villain with a long list of priests, lovers, and others who wished him dead. The second novel is an investigation to unearth the truth behind the disappearance of a lad last seen around the fairy hills, believed by all to have been taken by the fairies. In both these novels Muirteach is helped, and frustrated, by the wickedly clever Mariota, a physician’s daughter who becomes his forensic examiner – and his love. Muirteach and Mariota traipse all Colonsay, Jura, and Islay to find out the murderers. In the third book Muirteach and Mariota are sent away to Oxford as guardians of the Lord’s reluctantly scholastic son, an adventure that sharpens when Oxford’s girls begin to disappear. Author McDuffie is a lineal descendant of the scribes of the Lord of the Isles so these are fictional family history that she writes with great joy and detail. And why did I mention all three titles? Because I binge read them.
Poet under a Soldier’s Hat, by E.P. Rose. This is an edited memoir of a gentleman rogue of the lost generation. Hugh Rose was too young to fight in World War I but gained a place in the military academy soon after, only to find himself sent to a frontier unit in then-India, which included what we know as Pakistan, Waziristan, Kashmir and other remote outposts. For the next two decades, Rose was in his majesty’s service as either a soldier in India, a diplomat in Yemen and Iran, or as a major in command of troops in England’s desperate fight against Germany in the Egyptian desert or in Cyprus. He marched, hiked, skied the Himalayas, ducked sniper bullets in the very places where the Taliban and ISIS are shooting people today, and led both Indian and British troops into places whose names seem to have come from Scheherazade. He was roguish in part because of a never-ending quest for the next girl and a quirky manner that infuriated half his commanding officers and endeared the other half, building unapproved hand-dug gardens and pools in the desert and mapping impossible snow-bound passes high in the Hopi, disobeying direct orders in some cases and in others chasing enemies of the Empire before his superiors knew of them. As with many children of the empire, Rose lived an exciting life that was tinged with false friends and unfaithful wives, but he is one of only a very few of whom it can be said he drank from the Brahmapurra and flew in an open cockpit Wapiti airplane across the sands of Mukulla. What a story!
Homeland Burning, by Brinn Colenda plays out a frantic cat-and-mouse quest to stop a shadowy foe from setting America on fire. When Tom Callahan practices a touch-and-go landing near Chesapeake Bay, he stumbles onto the trail of a terrorist believed to be dead but who not only is alive, is on his own path to set fire to the forests of the American homeland, to kill its leaders, and to get his own revenge against Callahan. Homeland Burning is written with pace and detail reminiscent of Gayle Lynds’ The Assassins and with the complexity of Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series, a page-turning thriller to read deep into the night.
Air Safety Investigators, by Alan E. Diehl, shares some of the most gripping stories that affect each of us daily, usually without our knowing them. While the number of humans hurtling through the air in scheduled flights multiplies daily, the number of crashes that take some of our lives has declined in the last decades, largely due to the thankless and painstaking work of those who reconstruct air crashes and then undertake to set up protocols to prevent them. Dr. Diehl, an air safety investigator who was along-time member of the NTSB go teams sent to the scenes of air crashes, has reported not only the explanations for such famous crashes as the Sioux City DC-10 that lost an engine during flight and John Kennedy Jr’s crash off Martha’s Vineyard in 1999, but also less familiar military and foreign crashes that involved mid-air collisions, missed maintenance failures, and a failure to understand crew resource management. It is not the crashes that he reports but the lessons learned from them that make his book a valuable read – it is those lessons that keep all of us safe in the air. And, if your interest is purely because of a bent toward the tragic, this book is a veritable catalogue of lost chances that led to lost lives. I enjoyed it very, very much.
All the Wild and Holy, A Life of Eunice Williams, 1696-1785, by Gayle Lauradunn, is a free-verse poem written from the view of Eunice Williams, a victim of the Deerfield, Massachusetts Indian raid of 1704. Unlike most survivors, Eunice chose to remain with the Mohawk tribe and, ultimately, her husband, although she had a good deal of contact with her family and others from Deerfield and Albany. All the Wild and Holy is a phenomenal work, describing from the captive’s view the experience of being kidnapped and watching some of her family killed, yet accepting the things she is taught, to build a fire, to make clothing, and ultimately to be a part of the society of women who make not only their own decisions but all the critical decisions of the tribe. Written in the three stages of Eunice’s life, her abduction, her marriage, and her visits with her English family and friends in later life, the book lovingly tells her story not as a prisoner nor even much as a captive but as a woman who perceives that always there are choices and makes her own, choices that reflect her sense of the dignity of life rather than of the clutter of owned possessions and canted scriptures. It is a wonderful book.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look under the tent into a world of fine books that should be on the Times and USA Today lists. Please look them up, buy some of them, and let others know what you think.
Oh, what else is on my nightstand? I’m currently reading:
Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain, the memoir of a WW1 Oxford student who joined the army nurse corps, only to lose her fiancé, her two best friends, her brother, and much of her generation to the war that did not end all wars. It is a classic work, published in the 1930’s, and painfully intimate.
Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides is ostensibly the biography of Kit Carson but is more precisely the history of American westward land grabbing, and native American Indian-killing, particularly in New Mexico, in the middle 1800’s.
Revolution Baby, by Joanna Gruda, is the fictionalized memoir of a boy who really was born in Russia to Polish Jewish parents after a meeting of a communist cell voted that Comrade Rapaport would not terminate her pregnancy.
Paris at War, by David Drake, is a remarkable, thorough history of what happened after the Germans marched in.
The History of the Republic of Texas From the Discovery of the Country to the Present Time: And the Cause of Her Separation from the Republic of Mexico, by Doran Maillard, is a breath of stinky air into the myth of Texas heroism.
The Corfu Trilogy, by Gerald Durell, the memoir of the literary Durrell family’s experimental escape from expensive rainy England to inexpensive sunny Greece in the 1930’s.
And, a final note: Are you subscribed to First Draft? It is my newsletter in which I report what I’m writing, where I’m speaking, some of my research and, for last year and this, a column on what was happening 100 years ago when America entered World War 1. I mention this because each edition of First Draft includes a chapter of a serialized novel that I am writing.
It began with The (very brief) War Diary of Bart Sullivan and continues with Footprints in the Sand, a story about a sailor lucky enough to wash up on a tropical island, unlucky enough for it to be an island inhabited by cannibals, a Komodo dragon, and a fiercely independent woman who wants to trap himto barter with the Japanese who run the prisoner of war camp….
Heads up: if you’ve been saving your chapters to read all at once, now is a good time to collect them and begin to read, because the next chapter will be the last chapter of Footprints that I will serialize. And, if you aren’t subscribed, send me an email and I’ll be happy to get you started on both First Draft and on Footprints. Send me a note at email@example.com; I’ll get right back to you.
Jack Woodville London