The Blog's Mission

Wikipedia defines a book review as: “a form of literary criticism in which a book is analyzed based on content, style, and merit. A book review can be a primary source opinion piece, summary review or scholarly review”. My mission is to provide the reader with my thoughts on the author’s work whether it’s good, bad, or ugly. I read all genres of books, so some of the reviews may be on hard to find books, or currently out of print. All of my reviews will also be available on I will write a comment section at the end of each review to provide the reader with some little known facts about the author, or the subject of the book. Every now and then, I’ve had an author email me concerning the reading and reviewing of their work. If an author wants to contact me, you can email me at I would be glad to read, review and comment on any nascent, or experienced writer’s books. If warranted, I like to add a little comedy to accent my reviews, so enjoy!
Thanks, Rick O.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The CLEVER Mill Horse

The author sent me an autographed copy of her novel for review:

What seemed like a boring concept, turned out to be a suspense filled tale with many twists, turns, secrets and discoveries. I know that I’m treading on fragile ground when I say that Jodi Lew Smith has blended the gothic and historical romance novel into one, but it’s true. Okay, consider this...the gothic novel; such as, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) emphasizes the devastating effect of jealousy and vengefulness: Heathcliff is rebuffed by Catherine in favor of Edgar and seeks revenge. In The Clever Mill Horse, Henry Emerston’s proposal of marriage is rejected by Aunt Lucille and Henry spends his life looking for retribution. I’m calling Jodi Lew-Smith’s novel a historical romantic gothic (is there such a thing?) because of our heroine Ella’s relationship with Zeke/Lucas and the fact that the Flax Gin was a real invention, albeit in the later 1860s. This is not to be confused with Maximilian de Winter, Rebecca and the second Mrs. de Winter in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (a 1938 gothic romance novel). However Daphne du Maurier had the best sinister character in a Mrs. Danvers. Are you confused yet? What I’m trying to say is that Jodi’s novel had a lot of the above characteristics which reminded me of those famous novels.

Now since gothic novels employed descriptive writing, how did Jodi do? I think she did very well. On page 43, Jodi describes Ella’s father, Amherst…”He was of middle height, but seemed shorter because of his unusually thick shoulders-derived from years of hefting flour sacks. Unlike his powerful shoulders, his face, which must have once been handsome in a rugged way, had sagged here and puffed there, until he had come to wear an old man’s face on a vigorous body.” Not bad for a farmer with 250 apple trees! Also intriguing is why Jodi named the novel the way she did. What was clever about Edgar (a 33 years old horse)? Because he carried the hidden gold watch? Because he walk in circles at Grandpa’s blacksmith shop? I read a review that said Edgar never reappeared, did you actually read this book to the end? Anyway, what is this book about?

Okay, it’s set in central New York from 1804 to 1811 in the fictional (?) town of Deborahville. Grandfather Tunnicliff and Ella, his granddaughter, are trying to perfect his design for a flax machine, similar to the cotton gin. They are attacked by the Loomis gang on a horse stealing venture. Grandpa is killed (really?), Pete, the indian, is wounded, but Ella, throwing a knife, kills one of the gang. Ella had previously agreed to get the patent for the machine if Grandpa Tunnicliff died before the machine’s patent was acquired. In the ensuing chapters, we meet Zeke, Ella’s long time friend, Aunt Lucille Tunnicliff (is she passing counterfeit notes?), the underhanded lawyer, Henry Emerston, who says he will help Ella get the patent for the Flax Gin. Aunt Lucille believes him, wise Indian Pete doesn’t (is he Lucille’s secret lover?) Henry lets Ella use a room in his mill to work on her Flax machine. Henry’s son, Lucas, an artist, shows up to sketch Ella while she works on the flax machine. Really? Meanwhile, Ella’s father, a drunk, comes home and beats up his wife, Catherine (same name as tragic figure in Wuthering Heights) and the children. He only stops when Ella comes home with her throwing knife. Ella finds out that Henry Emerston is planning to steal her patent. The race is on. How can Ella complete the machine and get to the patent office in Washington, D.C. before Henry and the Loomis gang? Get your own copy of this novel to find out. The real suspense is just starting.

I really enjoyed this novel, but I must say that I’ve read quite a few maiden novels this year and many have been five star and female written. Good job ladies! The only thing I did not like in this novel was on page 409, when I read…”end of book one.” I don’t mind sequels, but I don’t like reading a novel only to find out that the story is not over. I like to decide by myself whether I want to read a series. Many times this has stopped me from reading the second book. A good example of this is when I got to page 766 of Justin Cronin’s novel, The Passage, and realized that the story wasn’t over. I haven’t read the second one. I guess it’s just me. I prefer connecting works like All the Pretty Horses (see my review of 4/02/2013), The Crossing (see my review of 10/03/2013), and Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy. All three stories ended, but were related to each other. It was my choice to read, or not read the second and the third novels. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Jodi’s novel, I’m just relating to you my individual quirk. Enough said, read this gothic romance (?), it’s worth the effort.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: So what is your favorite gothic novel? I have written about this before, so I will not bring up those novels again today. I did consult with (one of my favorite sources) and eliminated the novels I previously talked about. So what’s left? Plenty, how about:

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, “First published pseudonymously in 1764, The Castle of Otranto purported to be a translation of an Italian story of the time of the crusades. In it Walpole attempted, as he declared in the Preface to the Second Edition, "to blend the two kinds of romance: the ancient and the modern." Crammed with invention, entertainment, terror, and pathos, the novel was an immediate success and Walpole's own favorite among his numerous works. The novel is reprinted here from a text of 1798, the last that Walpole himself prepared for the press.”

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte,”Orphaned into the household of her Aunt Reed at Gateshead, subject to the cruel regime at Lowood charity school, Jane Eyre nonetheless emerges unbroken in spirit and integrity. She takes up the post of governess at Thornfield, falls in love with Mr. Rochester, and discovers the impediment to their lawful marriage in a story that transcends melodrama to portray a woman's passionate search for a wider and richer life than Victorian society traditionally allowed.

With a heroine full of yearning, the dangerous secrets she encounters, and the choices she finally makes, Charlotte Bronte's innovative and enduring romantic novel continues to engage and provoke readers.”

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, “Written in his distinctively dazzling manner, Oscar Wilde’s story of a fashionable young man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty is the author’s most popular work. The tale of Dorian Gray’s moral disintegration caused a scandal when it first appeared in 1890, but though Wilde was attacked for the novel’s corrupting influence, he responded that there is, in fact, “a terrible moral in Dorian Gray.” Just a few years later, the book and the aesthetic/moral dilemma it presented became issues in the trials occasioned by Wilde’s homosexual liaisons, which resulted in his imprisonment. Of Dorian Gray’s relationship to autobiography, Wilde noted in a letter, “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.”

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, “First published in French as a serial in 1909, "The Phantom of the Opera" is a riveting story that revolves around the young, Swedish Christine Daaé. Her father, a famous musician, dies, and she is raised in the Paris Opera House with his dying promise of a protective angel of music to guide her. After a time at the opera house, she begins hearing a voice, who eventually teaches her how to sing beautifully. All goes well until Christine's childhood friend Raoul comes to visit his parents, who are patrons of the opera, and he sees Christine when she begins successfully singing on the stage. The voice, who is the deformed, murderous 'ghost' of the opera house named Erik, however, grows violent in his terrible jealousy, until Christine suddenly disappears. The phantom is in love, but it can only spell disaster. Leroux's work, with characters ranging from the spoiled prima donna Carlotta to the mysterious Persian from Erik's past, has been immortalized by memorable adaptations. Despite this, it remains a remarkable piece of Gothic horror literature in and of itself, deeper and darker than any version that follows.”

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, “A very young woman's first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children, Miles and Flora, at a forlorn estate...An estate haunted by a beckoning evil.

Half-seen figures who glare from dark towers and dusty windows- silent, foul phantoms who, day by day, night by night, come closer, ever closer. With growing horror, the helpless governess realizes the fiendish creatures want the children, seeking to corrupt their bodies, possess their minds, own their souls...

But worse-much worse- the governess discovers that Miles and Flora have no terror of the lurking evil.

For they want the walking dead as badly as the dead want them.”

Reading the classics is such a trip!

A drawing of the Flax Machine (gin): 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

in the KINGDOM of ICE

Hampton did it again! A narrative nonfiction book that is factual but told in a way that seems fictional. It doesn’t get any better than that. Having read Blood and Thunder, I knew what to expect...exciting reality. This book somewhat reminds me of three novels that I have previously read, Dan Simmons’s The Terror, Dan Simmons's The Abominable (see my review of 1/8/2014) and Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned (see my review of 7/9/2011). Maybe I’m a fan of true Arctic adventures that emphasizes man’s ability to survive the harshest challenges. In 1879, the idea was that once a ship got through the Arctic ice, it would sail into an "open polar sea" is hard to believe, yet the world’s leading cartographer, Professor August Petermann from Germany, convinced the world that it was true. This is the story of the U.S.S. Jeannette’s attempt to prove that theory correct. On page ten, Hampton Sides says the essential question was: “How would man reach the North Pole? And once there, what would it be like? Were there open sea routes? Unknown species of fish and animals? Monsters that lived on the ice? Lost civilizations, even? Were there whirlpools, as many people believed, that led to the bowels of the earth?” Jules Verne’s 1864 novel, Journey to The Center of the Earth, made this speculation seem feasible.    

Enter eccentric James Gordon Bennett, owner of The New York Herald, fresh off his fake "Wild Animal Hoax" and his 1870’s sending of reporter Henry Stanley to remote Africa to find David Livingstone. Combine Bennett with Lt. Commander George W. Delong, who, to his chagrin, missed all the action in The Civil War. Bennett said that he would fully fund the trip to the North Pole, and Delong would get a leave of absence from the U.S. Navy to make the attempt to sail to the North Pole. Bennett had to set up his home office in Paris after he became a pariah in New York City because, among other things, he urinated on his fiancee’s piano at a holiday party in full view of all the guests. Bennett meets with Professor Petermann in Germany and decides that they could reach the Arctic via the Bering Strait. The Centennial Expo (1876) in Philadelphia provides Delong’s exploratory trip with Alexander Graham Bell’s telephones and Thomas Edison’s arc lamps (the incandescent light bulb was still in the test phase). They will light up the Arctic! Delong finds a ship,The Pandora, on the Isle of Wight and sails it to France. Bennett renames it The Jeannette after his sister. By a special act of Congress, it becomes an American ship. They sail it from Le Havre, France to San Francisco in 166 days (18,000 miles). Then the expedition gets bad news...Professor Petermann, suffering from Manic Depression, hangs himself. Does this story read like a novel, or what?

Once in San Francisco, Delong hires Lt. John Danenhower as his navigator. Delong heads to Washington, D.C. to meet the Secretary of the Navy and hire the ship’s doctor, James Ambler. The doctor warns Delong that Danenhower has had previous bouts with insanity. But Delong finds out that Danenhower is doing a great job in San Francisco hiring people and reinforcing the ship for Arctic travel. The wacko Bennett is paying for everything. He also wants Delong to look for a lost ship (the Finnish ship, The Vega) led by explorer Adolf Nordenskiöld, who was trying to find a Bering Strait passage to the North Pole. Delong finally leaves the U.S.A. with a total of thirty three men and provisions. Once he reaches the Bering Strait area, he finds that Nordenskiold is not lost and, in fact, has proven Petermann’s theories wrong. The Bering Strait entry is “but a cul de sac." Wow, this is bad news. 

So is The Jeannette on a failed mission course? They proceed anyway. On September the 7th, 1879, they are stuck in the ice! Winter comes, the ice presses the ship, Edison’s lamps don’t work. Seventy one days in the dark doesn’t make the men happy. Many times during the winter…"the ice began to squeeze the ship-literally, to strangle it. Beads of oakum tar and pine pitch oozed from the seams. At one point, the decks bulged.” Danenhower starts showing symptoms of syphilis, the ship springs a 4,000 gallon per hour leak, and they are drifting with the ice flow. While drifting, Delong finds two unknown Islands. He names them, Jeannette and Henrietta Islands. The crew develops lead poisoning from the canned tomatoes. What else can go wrong? In the summer of 1881, the ice opened and The Jeannette was set free. Great, right? No. The ice came back with a vengeance and crushed the ship! On page 228, “Finally it came, the call they had been dreading but preparing for, off and on, for many months: Abandon ship!

Now, if you think I gave the story away...think again, knuckleheads! (Bill Murray of Meatballs fame and Charles Barkley (Outrageous!) both said this). This is where the story gets interesting. They are stranded on the ice, one thousand miles from Central Siberia. Who will make it and who will die? Will anyone make it back? I can’t tell your own copy of this bestseller. As usual, this type of writing is ‘the cat’s meow’ to me.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: As you know, I like books or novels that deal with hardships on the ice or in the cold weather. That said, the following are books that recommends (including their commentary), other than the books that I mentioned in my review:

The People's Act of Love (2005) by James Meek: “In the outer reaches of a country recently torn apart by civil war lives a small Christian sect and its enigmatic leader, Balashov. Anna Petrovna, a beautiful, restless photographer, is raising her young son by herself amid this brutal landscape. Stationed nearby is a company of Czech soldiers, desperate to get home but on the losing side of the recent conflict. Each soldier lives in a fragile co-existence and a troubling uncertainty prevails. Into this isolated community trudges Samarin, an escapee from Russia's northernmost prison camp. Immediately apprehended, he is brought before Captain Matula, the Czech company's megalomaniac commander. But the stranger's appearance has caught the attention of others, including that of Anna Petrovna. And when a local shaman is found murdered, suspicion and terror engulf this village. To be published in twenty countries, The People's Act of Love is quite simply magnificent storytelling and it promises to be an auspicious literary event.”

Arctic Dreams (2001) by Barry Lopez: “Barry Lopez's National Book Award-winning classic study of the Far North is widely considered his masterpiece.
Lopez offers a thorough examination of this obscure world-its terrain, its wildlife, its history of Eskimo natives and intrepid explorers who have arrived on their icy shores. But what turns this marvelous work of natural history into a breathtaking study of profound originality is his unique meditation on how the landscape can shape our imagination, desires, and dreams. Its prose as hauntingly pure as the land it describes, Arctic Dreams is nothing less than an indelible classic of modern literature.”

The Rifles (Seven Dreams) (1995) by William T. Vollmann: “Vaulting through time to another flashpoint in the long struggle between Indians and Europeans, William T. Vollmann's visionary fictional history now focuses on the white explorers of the mid-1800s, desperately dreaming of forging a Northwest Passage. As Sir John Franklin embarks on his fourth Arctic voyage, he defies the warnings of the native people, and his journey ends in ice and death. But his spirit lingers in the Canadian north, where 150 years later, in 1990, Inuit elders dream of long-gone seal-hunting days and teenagers sniff gasoline. And when a white man seduces and leaves pregnant a young Indian woman, he becomes Franklin reincarnated, bound for the same fate. Vollmann's vivid characters and landscapes weave together the stories of the past and present to live out America's ongoing tragedy of greed, ignorance, and violence.

Now, tell me, don’t you feel a little bit cold? Burr...burr!

The Jeannette stuck in the ice: