Book Review: Cold Black Earth

A few weeks ago, my never-ending search for new authors led me to Sam Reaves’ new book, Cold Black Earth.  Here’s my quick review.

Author: Sam Reaves
Title: Cold Black Earth
Genre: Mystery/Thriller (rural setting)

Interesting Fact:
I bought this book because the cover looks like rural fiction (recall my beloved South of the Big Four), but it’s actually a mystery/thriller set in rural Illinois.

It’s a mystery/thriller about a series of murders in and around an Illinois farming town. Most of the characters are farmers or the children of farmers, so the surroundings and much of the lifestyle elements are right in my wheelhouse. Add in a very realistic and scary depiction of some seemingly connected murders and a potential loss-of-farmland motive, and you’ve got a page turner.  I really liked it.

Purchase Links:


South of the Big Four


It’s been a long, long time since I’ve grieved over finishing a book, but for the past week that’s what I’ve been doing.  A week or so ago I finished Don Kurtz’s South of the Big Four.  When I was reading it, I knew I loved it.  As I neared the end, I dreaded finishing it.  Now that I’ve had time to think about it, it has become one of my favorite books.  Ever.

Here’s the Publisher’s Weekly summary.

In gracefully unencumbered prose that evokes isolation and loss, this first novel uses the story of two Indiana men in order to pay elegiac tribute to America’s dwindling number of small farmers. At 30, narrator Arthur Conason chooses to live on the deserted property of his late father, a failed farmer, and work the fields for neighbor Gerry Maars. More successful than Arthur’s dad was, the abrasive, resourceful Gerry displays a tenacity that Kurtz clearly means to be emblematic of people who are unable to loosen their ties to a way of life whose increasing hardships break both the heart and the wallet. Though the solitary Arthur keeps his distance from everyone, his relationship with Gerry deepens as he grows to see his employer as a surrogate father. Kurtz effectively portrays the rhythms and the socioeconomic facts of this threatened world, but he stumbles when addressing his characters’ psychological or moral dilemmas. Their motivations remain unclear (e.g., we don’t understand why Arthur drifts in and out of relationships with successive women, or why these women seek him out). But he does handle the novel’s structure skillfully, seamlessly taking Arthur from the present to the past and back to the present as he struggles to come to terms with “an ever more impatient world.”

That’s pretty accurate, but it’s way more than that.  It’s simply the best example of rural realism I’ve ever read.  It’s not action-packed, but neither is life.  Life is hard.  Sometimes the good guys win.  Sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes there aren’t any traditional good guys.  There’s just people.  Trying to make it though another harvest.  Another year.  Another day.

One of the many passages I highlighted in my copy (an awesome, under-used Kindle feature) sounds a lot like a conversation I heard between my uncle and my mom around 1970, and a little like one I had with another angry mom in 2014.


Virtually every line of dialog in this book rings true, and could easily be  something I heard growing up and living among farmers and rural people.  I felt like I was hearing a compelling story from a friend or neighbor.

I love this book so much.

The Savage Breed Story


I came across a discussion on Facebook a few months ago about Savage Breed, a book published in 1959, allegedly by a man from Chesterfield County, SC, my hometown county.  I’d never heard of it, but some of the comments intrigued me.

There were hints of censorship.

When I moved to Cheraw all the kids were talking about this book….could not be sold in Cheraw…could not be in the library…..there was talk back then that it was actually written by a woman.

And scandal.

At the time (60’s) I recognized all the characters. It was really the talk of the county!

And more scandal.

I remember being told the young man’s father tried to buy up as many copies as he could, out of embarrassment over the book’s content.

I wondered if there was any truth to the stories that this book referenced places and maybe even people from home.  So being the computer savvy cat that I am, I set up a few eBay, web and Amazon scripts and waited.  It took almost a year, but I got a hit.  Someone had a used copy for sale via Amazon.

So I bought it.  For $20.

Published by Newsstand Library Books in December 1959.  By William K. Douglas.  126 pages.  Originally 35 cents.   No “about the author” paragraph.  It’s pretty clear from the “other books” pages at the back that Newsstand Library Books featured a lot of soft-core pulp and not much high-brow literature.

Nevertheless, I was happy to receive my copy of the much-discussed book.  Here’s the first sentence:

“Luke Saxon turned off the Bloomfield Bypass, and got on Highway number 9.  He was going to Camel, 13 miles away, to pick up Dot Silvens.”  Hmm.  There’s no Bloomfield back home, but there’s a Bennettsville.  At first I thought maybe Camel was a thinly disguised pseudonym for Cheraw, but that turned out not to be the case.  More on this below.

It takes less than 10 pages to get racy.  By page 20, it’s crude and exploitative.  By 2013 standards.  Beyond that by 1959 standards.

First stop, “Lory’s Drive-In.”  Never heard of it or anything similar to it.  Same with “the Hightower,” described as the local beer joint.

In chapter 2 there’s a mention of Winthrop, “the state college for girls.”  I just think of it as one of the many schools to beat Wake Forest in basketball, since Ron Wellman’s ego assassinated the program.  There’s also a mention, in Chapter 2, of going to a Rock Hudson movie in…wait for it…Cheraw.  That is, however, the one and only mention of Cheraw.

Mostly, it’s just one scene after another in which some brothers and their friends do horrible things to weakly portrayed women.  A literary masterpiece, it is not.  “When you had enough beer, you didn’t need a woman.  They could go to hell, and be damned.”

In sum, two brothers and their friends do horrible things.  One brother is a completely horrible person.  The other brother is only around 90% horrible.  90% marries a girl, who has been abused for years by her pharmacist father.  100% impregnates her, while 90% is at work.  An abused farm hand kills 100%.  The abusive father marries the brothers’ young cousin.  At the end, there is some small nod towards resolution, as the remaining family gathers for a completely dysfunctional Christmas meal.  It’s bad, shallow writing, designed mainly to get from one soft-core scene to the next.

The more interesting question is whether any part of this was based on actual events or people from my hometown.  I’d have to say unlikely, as the events are really just your run of the mill horrible acts by your run of the mill horrible people.  Cheraw was mentioned exactly once, and none of the action takes place there.  One existing road (Highway 9) was mentioned.  Other than that, I saw nothing that sounded familiar.

I will say this, however.  To the extent any of these events or people really occurred or existed, there is no doubt that this book would have been extremely scandalous when written.  I also think the author would have been sued, or killed.

Bottom line?  It’s poorly written, trashy pulp, likely authored by someone in or near Chesterfield County, SC.  If any of the events in the book are factually accurate, it would be surprising and likely unprovable.

Winter is Coming: And Here’s a Great Song to Prove It

So we all know that Game of Thrones, books and TV show, are just about perfect.  To say I am immersed in George R.R. Martin‘s expansive world is an understatement.  In fact, I have dreamed on more than one occasion that I was in Westeros.  Those are my third favorite dream topics, behind only the times I’ve dreamed I was a member of the Grateful Dead and….  Well, other stuff.

While we wait impatiently for the next book in the series and season on TV, here is one of the most rocking songs I’ve heard in a long time.

I was previously unfamiliar with Dominik Omega and The Arcitype, but if this is indicative of their work, they should be performing in stadiums full of crazed fans.  This is really good stuff.

Classic Sci-Fi Book Reviews: Edmond Hamilton (Part 1)

My wife gave me a Kindle for our anniversary this past summer.  The short review is that I like the technology a lot, but since I’m not interested in much new fiction outside of Cormac McCarthy and William Gay, my use of the Kindle will depend largely on how many older books are released in the Kindle format.  I was pleasantly surprised to find quite a few vintage science fiction books in the Kindle store, many of them priced at just a dollar or two.  For example, I found some Andre Norton books.  Her Star Man’s Son, retitled Daybreak 2250 AD, was the first science fiction book I read, and is still one of my favorites.

I also found several books by one of the founders of the science fiction genre, Edmond Hamilton.  I read a few of his books on the Kindle, and then bought several more on eBay and read them.  In the first of a new series of posts, I’ll briefly review some of these books.  Other books by other authors will follow.

My vintage science fiction interest lies generally in books from the fifties through the seventies.  There may be a few outside that range, but they will be the exception, not the rule.

The first Edmond Hamilton book I read was City at World’s End (1950), a book about a city that is blown far into the future by an atomic bomb.   

It’s a good read.  I enjoyed the story.  The character development was good, certainly by pulp sci-fi standards.  The book is the equivalent of a Saturday afternoon B-Movie on AMC or Turner Classics.  Not one of my favorites, but worth a read.

Things got significantly more interesting with the next book: The Star Kings (1947).  This one is about a man named John Gordon, who is mentally contacted by a man from the far future and, out of boredom, agrees to a mind transfer.  Gordon finds himself in the far future, in the body of a  prince and in the middle of a galactic war.  It is a great read.  I liked it so much I bought the sequel, Return to the Stars (1970, 23 years later), on eBay.  The sequel is interesting, but not nearly as good as the first book.  Highly recommended.

Next, I read The Three Planeteers, accurately described on Amazon as the “science fiction pulp classic.”  It’s a short but interesting space opera about three outlaws who are called upon to save the galaxy from the evil League of Cold Worlds.  The writing is similar to The Star Kings, and it is my second favorite of the Hamilton books I have read so far.  It’s a good book in 2008.  When you consider it was written in 1940, it’s even more amazing.

I also read A Yank at Valhalla (1950), an odd book about a guy on an Arctic expedition who winds up in the middle of Norse mythology.  I didn’t like it at all at first, but by the time I finished, I thought it was worth a read.  Lastly, I read The Haunted Stars (1960) (boring, and my least favorite) and The Star of Life (1959) (not great, but worth a read).  There are lots of other Edmond Hamilton books out there, but they are not easy to find.  I continue to monitor eBay and will buy others as the opportunity arises.

Hamilton takes his place as my second favorite vintage sci-fi writer (behind Andre Norton), for now.

As always, I encourage other book recommendations via the Comments.

Next time: a vintage Arthur C. Clarke book that bored me to tears.

One-Post Science Fiction Book Club

My wife recently joined a book club, which seems to be the soccer moms’ preferred social network these days, followed somewhat closely by Bunco groups, which I thought until recently was some sort of organized crime (actually, the more I learn about those groups it may be).

Anyway, my wife joins this book club.  The first thing I noticed is that they read all these nerdy, high falutin’ books like the A Thousand Splendid Suns and whatnot.  Those books are too hard for me.  I’m still at the edges of post-traumatic stress disorder over having almost read Wuthering Heights in the 11th grade.  Thank goodness for Cliff’s Notes.  The second thing I noticed is that a couple of the founding members of this club keep picking books they have already read.  That sounds more like playing school than a book club.  If I was in that club, I’d call b.s. on that the first time it happened.  The second time it happened, I’d start turning furniture over.  But women are too nice to do that.  They either dutifully read the selected book, or they go all passive aggressive and start going to class unprepared.

Anyway, I’m not in a book club.  But I like to read.  Lately, I’ve been in a science fiction phase.  Here are some books I have read or reread lately, and enjoyed.  Other than the first one, I’m going to skip all the obvious must-reads, like Stranger in a Strange Land, Ringworld, etc.

elad First, and as I have mentioned before, I just reread Hyperion, followed in order by its four sequels, Fall of Hyperion, Endymion and Rise of Endymion.  These are all excellent books, and this has become my favorite sci-fi series.  I also reread another old favorite, The Eyes of Light and Darkness by Ivan Cat.  It’s as good as I remember it.  I am currently reading Cat’s second novel, The Burning Heart of Night.  It’s not as good as the first one, but it’s still to early to make a judgment.

I also recently read Robert Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold.  I bought it years ago, because it is in my favorite sub-genre: post apocalyptic, but didn’t get around to reading it.  It was considered pretty controversial when it came out in the 60’s.  I didn’t find the racial elements to be all that interesting, and I thought it was a pretty good story with or without that element.

Lastly, I started to reread the California Voodoo Game series.  When I read these books the first time, back in the 90’s, I thought they were great.  Among my all time favorite science fiction books.  I don’t find them as compelling this time around, but they are still worthwhile reading.

That’s my part.

Now I need some good science fiction recommendations for my next visit to the bookstore.  Can anyone help me out via the Comments?

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Catching Up on the Reading List

I’ve been off the grid for a couple of months, working hard, resting a little and trying to figure out how important this blogging business is to me.  During this time I read a few books.  Here’s a quick take on each:

theroadCormac McCarthy – The Road: Anything that combines my favorite southern literature writer and science fiction has got to be good.  And it was.  My only complaint is that is wasn’t Stand-like in length as well as tone.

Tom Franklin – Smonk: I really liked Hell at the Breech, but this was too over the top for me.  I thought parts of it were amusing, but on the whole I was disappointed.

Michael Lewis – Blind Side: A buddy of mine gave me this book.  I hadn’t read any of Lewis’s books since Liar’s Poker.  It is a very good read.  I learned a lot about college football recruiting.  The part where Lou Saban and Phil Fulmer go to the kid’s house is worth the price all by itself.

William Gay – Twilight: I love all of Gay’s books, including this one.  It’s not quite on par with Provinces of Night, but average William Gay is still better than the best work of almost anyone else.

I’m looking for something new to read.  Recommendations appreciated via Comment.

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A Sentence

I saw this on OmegaMom’s blog and thought it was cool.

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open it to page 161.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence along with these instructions.
5. Don’t search around and look for the coolest book you can find. Do what’s actually next to you.

Here’s mine:

Mitch crawled out on his porch.

From my copy of An Unfinished Life, which I just got back from a friend. Boring sentence, but a fantastic book.

Anybody else want to play?

Naked Conversations Shipping from Amazon

I just got this email with respect to the copy I ordered the other day:

The following items were included in this shipment:
Qty Item Price Shipped Subtotal
1 Naked Conversations : How Blo $16.47 1 $16.47

Item Subtotal: $16.47
Shipping & Handling: $0.00

Total: $16.47

Paid by *****: $16.47