A Chain of Thunder: My Review

A Chain of Thunder Book CoverJeff Shaara continues his Civil War narrative with the second book in a series focused on the pivotal battles and campaigns fought on the Western Front. Book One, “A Blaze of Glory,” chronicled the Battle of Shiloh, a confrontation that resulted in the combined loss of over 23,000 lives.

Both sides will claim victory. However, as Book Two begins, Federal forces have been replenished while Confederate manpower continues to steadily diminish. After months of combat the Union Army under Major General Ulysses S. Grant has gained the upper hand forcing Confederate forces under Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton to retreat. The next pivotal engagement will take place at Vicksburg, Mississippi, the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.”

As he always does, Shaara recreates the strategies and tactics of both armies. He lets the reader inside the minds of leaders whose names we all know. But, unlike most authors, he actually gets inside the psyches and egos of these generals, letting us understand the hopes, fears, personal animosities, friendships, and political pressures that determined their decisions and the eventual outcome of the war.

These insights are fascinating studies in leadership. However, it is his descriptions of common soldiers and their contributions that truly anchor our understanding of what it was like during the war. Their suffering is gut wrenching, as is their devotion to duty. Many had no inkling of the horrors they would face or what their reactions would be. Some rose to heroics, others fled the field. All fought not out of any great hatred of their adversary, but for the love and respect of the men around them.

One such individual is Private Fritz “Dutchie” Bauer of Wisconsin. Bauer knows the disgrace of courage lost. At Shiloh he loses his to the unending waves of Confederate soldiers that almost succeed in breaking him and the entire Union Army. Somehow, however, he and his fellow comrades in blue regroup to turn the tide, their baptism of fire turning them into veterans. Bauer transforms from a scared raw recruit into a soldier. He comes to believe in fate, that nowhere is safe on a battlefield, that good men die simply because their time has come. If God has decided your destiny, there is no reason to succumb to fear. The fear is constant, but controllable. At Vicksburg he again survives two failed assaults against the city’s fortifications before the decision comes to lay siege and starve the Confederates into submission. Bauer becomes a sharpshooter, patiently picking off any defenders unfortunate or foolish enough to expose themselves from behind the barriers.

The brutality of war is not limited to soldiers. Civilians are also tragically caught up in any conflict. Credit Shaara with his depiction of the citizens of Vicksburg forced to leave their genteel lifestyles, abandoning their mansions to huddle inside caves, trapped by the constant bombardment of Federal artillery, witnesses to the slaughter, and participants in the hunger that will in the end bring Vicksburg to its knees.

To tell their story he focuses on nineteen year old Lucy Spence. She endures starvation but volunteers as a nurse. While many only gripe about their circumstances, she tries to comfort men whose bodies have been ripped apart by cannon and musket balls. Initially scorned because she has no experience as a nurse and must also bear the malicious comments of her neighbors who believe that a decent Southern woman has no place among soldiers, she eventually wins both admiration and respect.

“A Chain of Thunder” is Shaara at his best! He makes us experience the siege by voicing all aspects of the battle and the experience of all participants. And, he also recreates another pivotal moment in history. The fall of Vicksburg will reverberate throughout the South, dealing a monumental blow to the Confederacy by cutting off the Mississippi River as a vital artery for transport of troops and supplies.

Witness to History

A Blaze of Glory Book CoverA recent broadcast on CBS Sunday Morning, entitled “Witness Trees,” caused me to once again reflect on this nation’s Civil War and the tremendous cost in human lives that became the price to preserve our Union.

There are, of course, no living veterans or immediate descendants of that conflict. However, there are trees, some over two hundred years old, that existed at the time and managed to survive the monumental clashes between Confederate and Federal forces. At Gettysburg alone over seven million musket and cannon balls were fired over a three day period. One image from the broadcast was a tree trunk embedded with munitions. It vividly brought to mind the horrors faced by the men who fought on both sides. If a tree could be so riddled and scarred by these shells, you can only imagine the carnage that was dealt to the human body.

Because of the show I returned to my favorite Civil War author, Jeff Shaara, and began re-reading his trilogy on the Western Theater campaigns. It begins with his recreation of one of the war’s bloodiest engagements that took place at Shiloh Church in southwestern Tennessee. There were over 23,000 combined casualties.

Shaara’s meticulous research recreates the battle “with a stunning you-are-there immediacy.” You get inside the minds of key commanders on both sides, their strategies, and their crucial decisions (often flawed) that result in both victory and defeat, but more importantly, unprecedented loss of American lives.

It is those lives, the thoughts and voices of the ordinary soldiers, that are the strength of Jeff Shaara’s prose. It is his ability to find the humanity in war that elevates his work and makes us rethink what it is to be so dedicated to a cause that you are willing to give “the last full measure of devotion” towards its achievement.

Modern society has distanced itself from the motivations that turned father against son, brother against brother. It doesn’t endeavor to view life through their eyes. It judges the past by today’s standards. Today veneration of anyone who wore the grey uniform stirs national controversy. However, as a soldier, I cannot help but admire the bravery of all combatants regardless of their allegiance.

Both sides claimed victory at Shiloh, but while Union forces will continue to grow to almost one hundred thousand troops, Southern forces dwindle to one-fifth that number. Though the war will continue, it has been said that “after Shiloh, the South never smiled again.”

 

God Save Texas: My Review

God Save Texas Book CoverPulitzer Prize winning author Lawrence Wright has written what can best be described as a meditation on what it is is about Texas that makes it so unique and influential. His thoughts are presented with a great deal of wit and humor, and contain insightful information on everything from history to culture to politics.

Politically, Texas has always influenced national discourse and policy. Three of its favorite sons –  Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush, and George H. W. Bush were elected to the presidency of the United States. And today, its leaders in Austin have made it one of the most conservative states in the Union, not only aligning Texas with the nationalistic policies of the Trump administration but leading the fight against illegal immigration and the establishment of sanctuary cities.

Wright voices his misgivings about the direction of this leadership both in Washington and Austin, but does so in an introspective contemplation on why he loves Texas so much. Obviously, when you’re searching for the “soul” of what makes Texas… Texas, you have to look beyond political differences to examine everything that sets it apart from every other state.

Oil magnates, cattle barons, musicians and writers have all shaped our conception of the Lone Star State, and Wright covers them all. He journeys from Austin to Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso (and all places in between from the Rio Grande Valley to the plains of West Texas.) He discusses the oil boom from its beginning at Spindletop to today’s fracking in the Permian Basin and the role oil, cattle and cowboys have played in forging the image of Texans to the rest of the world. He looks at NASA and our place in space exploration, the influence of Texas musicians from Buddy Holly to Willie Nelson, and the contributions of authors like Larry McMurtry with his ode to the great cattle drives (Lonesome Dove) and his description of life in an isolated and dying Texas town (The Last Picture Show.)

Wright also describes the beauty and diversity of the land from the pine forests of East Texas to the deserts of the Trans-Pecos. He finds serenity in Big Bend National Park, and relishes the quirkiness of places like Marfa, Texas that attracts artisans and tourists with its emergence as a cultural center smack in the middle of nowhere, its linkage to one of the most influential films ever made about the state (the 1956 movie “Giant” starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean) and, of course, the eerie phenomenon of the Marfa Lights that fuels speculation about extraterrestrial visitations.

There’s really no way to encapsulate all the ground covered by Wright in this book, nor his ability to truly entertain readers as he does so. I’ve lived in Texas almost fifty years, but wouldn’t know where to even begin to attempt to articulate why Texas is so extraordinary. My hat is off to Lawrence Wright who manages to educate, intellectually stimulate, and delight readers with a thoroughly engaging portrait of a state that I also happen to love.

Tangible Spirits: Author Interview

  
TANGIBLE SPIRITS 
by
BECKI WILLIS
Genre: Paranormal / Thriller / Suspense 
Publisher: Clear Creek Publishing
Date of Publication: May 13, 2017
Number of Pages: 316Scroll down for giveaway!

Reporter Gera Stapleton has a difficult choice to make: write the story of a lifetime or save the legacy of a town—and a man—she has come to love. Assigned to a piece in Jerome, Arizona about a once-friendly ghost gone on a crime spree, Gera stumbles upon an amazing tale of greed, deception, and family honor—and murder. When the killer targets her as the next victim, an unlikely savior comes to her rescue. Smart dialogue, plenty of action, and a touch of the supernatural make this a must-read novel.
“Becki Willis blends bits of history with bits of fancy and weaves a tantalizing tale you won’t soon forget.”

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AMAZON    TEXAS ASSOCIATION OF AUTHORS
 SIGNED PAPERBACK 

2018 Best Paranormal Fiction
by The Association of Texas Authors 
2018 RONE Award Finalist for Paranormal Long
Crowned Heart Recipient from InD’Tale Magazine

AuthorInterview

What’s something interesting, fun, or funny that most people don’t know about you?

When I was in high school, I met and interviewed country superstar Kenny Rogers during the height of his popularity. I share a funny anecdote about it on my website, http://www.beckiwillis.com.

 How has being a Texan (or Texas) influenced your writing?         

I try to be as authentic as possible. Several of my books are set in our beloved state, so I try to share the flavor and spirit that is unique to Texas without being over-the-top. So often, I read a book that continually reminds readers that it’s set in the Lone Star State, with long, unnecessary explanations, or, worse, some over-the-top situation that comes off portraying Texas, or Texans, badly. I try to weave the flavor of Texas in naturally, making it part of the scene.

What is something you want to accomplish before you die?

Although I hope to reach many more goals in my lifetime, if the unthinkable were to happen tomorrow, I have already accomplished my primary goal in life: I’m the proud mother of two fine and extraordinary adults. They’ve made good choices in whom they married and are doing an excellent job of raising their own children. The bonus is that I’ve spent thirty-six years with a wonderful husband at my side, and I’ve realized my dream of being an author. Anything else I happen to accomplish is icing on the cake.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

The research for Tangible Spirits was a lot of fun. The town of Jerome has a rich and colorful past, which I tried to depict within my story. Not only do I love history and learning about the past, but it was fun to go on the ghosts tours, especially with my daughter.

 Why did you decide to self-publish?

I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I’m a very hands-on person. (Some might call me a control freak.) After spending so much time and effort writing my books, I don’t like the thought of handing them over to someone else to decide their fate. By acting as my own publisher, I have full control of the entire project. Nice bonus: I also make more profit.

Are you a full-time or part-time writer?  How does that affect your writing?

I’m a full-time writer but also a full-time wife, mother, and Nana. My husband and I own a business and are active in our community. Wearing so many hats, I have to be flexible but dedicated with my writing schedule. I’ve finally learned to tell my family “I’m writing today” in order to limit intrusions.

What do you like to read in your free time?

I love to read but my bookshelves, whether virtual or real, cover many different genres. Mystery, cozies, women’s fiction, historical fiction, a few romances and westerns, occasional autobiographies of people I find interesting, and some inspirational non-fiction or self-help books, in that order.

What projects are you working on at the present?

I’m in the process of launching The Lilac Code, Book 7 of my most popular series, The Sisters, Texas Series. I have three other books started – a new non-mystery series, a stand-alone novel, and Book 2 of The Spirits of Texas Cozy Mysteries. In the very near future, I’ll need to select which project to concentrate on and complete first. Wish me luck.

What do your plans for future projects include?

I actually have a movie option for one of my series, so we’ll see what happens with that. I’m developing a new series that will be a good fit for television, and I have an idea for a non-fiction book. I’d also like to do more stand-alone novels.   


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To the delight of readers around the world, Becki Willis writes memorable characters in believable situations. Best known for Forgotten Boxes and The Sisters, Texas Mystery Series, Becki has won numerous awards, but says her biggest achievement is her family and her loyal reader base.

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Review
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The Captive Boy: Promo, Review, and Giveaway

THE CAPTIVE BOY
by
JULIA ROBB
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Date of Publication: December 20, 2015
Number of Pages: 170Scroll down for the giveaway!

Colonel Mac McKenna’s Fourth Cavalry recaptures white captive August Shiltz from the Comanche, only to find August is determined to return to the Indians. McKenna attempts to civilize August to nineteenth century American standards and becomes the boy’s foster father. But when August kills another boy in a fight, McKenna rejects him, and August escapes from Fort Richards (Texas). When war with the Comanche breaks out, McKenna discovers August is a war leader – and his greatest enemy.




PRAISE FOR THE CAPTIVE BOY:

“THE CAPTIVE BOY by Julia Robb is a story told in a unique way – through journal entries by several different characters, and a novel within the novel. Robb is masterful in her depiction of each character, bringing to life an intriguing tale of the Old West.”
 Writer’s Digest competition judge

“It will capture you and keep you engaged from the beginning all the way through the end and also give you insights into the difficulties faced by those who fought on both sides of the Indian Wars in Texas after the Civil War. Buy this book. You will not be disappointed.”
— Steve Mathisen

“Ms. Robb’s research is evident on every page. Without becoming bogged down in detail, she employs just enough of it to paint an accurate picture of a dangerous and unforgiving time.”

— Samuel L. Robinson

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CHECK OUT THE TRAILER!


Review
One of the many hardships endured by settlers along the Texas frontier was the abduction of their children by the Comanche. The Captive Boy by Julia Robb looks at the emotional toll and tragic consequences of these abductions in the story of one such captive.
The author uses the perspectives of different characters in the book to advance the plot. This approach is simultaneously the strength and lure of the story as well as a challenge to readers to funnel the multiple points of view into a cohesive body of work. Each of the character’s accounts is presented as either a memoir, a journal entry, or even a novel within the novel, which certainly adds to the story’s authenticity, however it also means that the writing styles vary from first to third person and the sequencing of events is not always chronological.
The fictional anthology alternates between the memoirs of Joseph Finley Grant, “With the Fourth Cavalry in Texas,” published as a serial in 1899, “On the Frontier with McKenna,” published in 1878 by Major Sam Brennan, the journal of Dr. Rufus Champ covering 1870-1874, and an Untitled Novel, discovered at West Point, author unknown.
Just as there are alternating viewpoints, there are multiple subplots – the violent confrontations between Native Americans, settlers and soldiers; acts of torture and brutality perpetrated by both sides; murder, suicide, and frontier justice; as well as the  hidden agendas, tested loyalties, and romantic relationships that threaten both friendships and military careers. At the heart of the the story, however, is the relationship between August Shiltz and Colonel Theodore McKenna.
Captured at age nine, August is adopted into the Comanche tribe as the son of a war chief and isn’t returned to white society until five years later. By this time he has accepted his new identity and lifestyle, but Colonel McKenna is determined to make him forget his former life as an Indian. He becomes a surrogate father to the boy and almost succeeds before fate intervenes. After another officer’s son bullies and even physically attacks August, he retaliates by killing his tormentor which leads McKenna to denounce August as a savage. The boy escapes and returns to the Comanche where he will become a warrior and enact his vengeance. The climactic ending plays out in the context of the Indian Wars.
As someone who has researched and written about this period in Texas history, I lobbied for the opportunity to read and review this book. I devoured it in a few nights, but confess to some trepidation writing this critique. Certainly the style is unique. It’s as if the reader is pouring through actual historical documents rather than reading a novel. Since each account is dissimilar in its presentation, the whole doesn’t come together until the very end.
Initially I found this style distracting, but credit Julia Robb with forging a detailed, historically accurate portrait of the Texas frontier, and a poignant tale of psychological trauma and self-discovery. 
Julia grew up on the lower Great Plains of Texas, eventually became a reporter, and lived in every corner of the Lone Star State, from the Rio Grande to the East Texas swamps. She couldn’t shake images and experiences and began writing them down.

A priest once disappeared on the Mexican border and that inspired parts of Saint of the Burning Heart. She discovered a hypnotic seducer, who she turned into Ray Cortez, the bad guy in Del Norte. Reading about child Comanche captives and their fates made her want to write about a cavalry colonel who attempts to heal a rescued boy, and that turned into The Captive Boy. Finally, what happens to a man who is in love with another man, in a time and place where the only answer is death? That became Scalp Mountain.
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6/24/18
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6/25/18
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6/26/18
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The Which Way Tree: My Review

The Which Way Tree Book CoverI wasn’t sure how I felt about the book as I read it. The style is unique. It evokes the humor of Mark Twain in both “Tom Sawyer” and the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” while also recalling the work of Charles Portis and his novel “True Grit.”
The story unfolds in a series of letters written by seventeen year old Benjamin Shreve in which he gives testimony to a circuit judge about a chance encounter with a hanging and its perpetrators. It’s the letters and manner in which they’re written that are reminiscent of Twain.
To give his testimony Benjamin also tells the story of his younger half-sister Samantha and her relentless pursuit of a panther that mauled her face and killed her mother. It is her dogged determination for revenge that is at the core of the story and which reminded me so much of the character Mattie Ross and her need to avenge her father’s murder in Portis’ novel.
It wasn’t until the final few chapters that I truly appreciated all the colorful characters that take part in this adventure, the dialogue and locales that capture the Texas Hill Country of the late 1800’s, and a tale that might well have been handed down as legend in Comal County.
Frankly, I’m still mulling over my reaction to the book, which is exactly why “The Which Way Tree” is worth reading!
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COMMENT: Let me know whether you’d like to see “STAR” ratings attached to these reviews. I’ve avoided doing so to date because of their subjectivity and different interpretations dependent upon the social media platform in which they appear. I prefer to simply post my written review and let the reader decide.

The Demise of Billy the Kid: My Review

The Demise of Billy the KidPreston Lewis has once again combined his sense of humor and gift for story telling to give readers the real life history of the Lincoln County War as told by someone who claims to have been involved in most of the momentous events that shaped Western lore, H. H. (Henry Harrison) Lomax.
In the first of a series of books featuring the adventures of this fictional character, the author begins with his purported discovery of Lomax’s memoirs while conducting research at Texas Tech University. While acknowledging that most historians have dismissed their authenticity, he expresses his own tongue in cheek confidence that they were indeed written by H. H. Lomax but he “can’t vouch for their veracity.”
So begins the humorous recollections of Lomax’s association with Billy the Kid, the legendary cattle baron John Chisum, Sheriff Pat Garrett, and the factions that fought over cattle interests and control of the dry goods business in the New Mexico Territory in the late 1800s.
Lewis certainly captures the violence of the period. The Lincoln County War began with the cold blooded murder of John Tunstall by the Jessie Evans Gang. Tunstall, an Englishman, was a newcomer to the territory who challenged the monopoly of the local general store known as “The House.” Billy the Kid was in the employment of Tunstall at the time, so he and his “Regulators” followed up his murder with a revenge killing of their own. The ensuing feud resulted in countless deaths and continued until 1881 when Pat Garrett finally hunted down and killed the famous gunman at Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
Lewis ameliorates the historical accuracy of his narrative with his typical wit and humor. H.H. Lomax rides a mule named Flash, is frequently mistaken for a conman and swindler by the name of Gadrich Lomax who pays in counterfeit money, sells a blind horse, cheats at cards, and peddles bad liquor, and Lomax also has the same love interest as Billy the Kid, the hot-tempered señorita, Rosalita. Of course all of these lead to hilarious circumstances and outcomes, indelibly establishing H.H. Lomax as someone who “had the good or bad luck to be where Western History was made,” and whose subsequent exploits will link him to the Outlaw Jesse James, the Gunfight at the
O.K. Corral, and Custer’s Last Stand.
I’ll definitely be along for the ride!