Great books are like high-octane fuel

The Night Watchman: A NovelI began reading Louise Erdrich’s novels with Love Medicine in 1984, thought about what might have been when her 2009 novel The Plague of Doves was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and thought “about time” when The Night Watchman won the Pulitzer this year. I’m reading it now, a little over halfway through, and I have to say that like all of her books, it’s a parched drinking of high-octane fuel to my system.

I think a lot of writers, and readers as well, react to wonderful writing and important themes this way. Just what happens is difficult to describe. It’s more than inspiratiion, though it is that. What it is is transcendent, a reader recognizing heretofore unknown needs within himself/herself that are met by the book. Or, like a high-performance automobile that’s finally given high-performance fuel. Now body and soul are running on all cylinders.

I remember then in 1953 the subject of terminating Native Amerian Nations of the governmental support that had been mandated to them by treaty. (Andrew Jackson’s nasty spirit was still at work.) Among other things, it was a land steal, not the emancipation the governemtn claimed.  What exactly was at risk? In part, this:

“The sun was low in the sky, casting slant regal light. As they plodded along, the golden radiance intensified until it seemed to emanate from every feature of the land. Trees, brush, snow, hills. She couldn’t stop looking. The road led past frozen sloughs that bristled with scorched reeds. Clutches of red willow burned. The fans and whips of branches glowed, alive. Winter clouds formed patterns against the fierce gray sky. Scales, looped ropes, the bones of fish. The world was tender with significance.”

If you know your history, you know how the battle against termination ends. If you don’t and if you plan to read this book, I won’t tell you here, for that would be a spoiler. Yet, nothing really can spoil this book except (momentarily) blurbs that just don’t work, like this one from the  Boston Globe: “Thrills with luminous empathy.” What the hell does that even mean?

Okay, I think I’ve gotten past reading that blurb now and can absorb the wisdom of this novel. As the Tampa Bay Times wrote, “No one can break your heart and fill it with light quite like Louise Erdrich.” In this story, she’s not only writing about her Chippewa people, but her family. And that comes through the words, I think, and makes then dear and sad with no sentimentality, but raw power.



Review: ‘Camino Winds’ by John Grisham

Camino Winds brings back many of the characters from Camino Island, a novel the New York Times aptly decribed as “a delightfully lighthearted caper.” Camino Winds begins with wind, the monster hurricane Leo that takes aim at the Florida Island with deadly intentions and mind-numbing accuracy.  In her blurb, author Delia Owens (Where the Crawdads Sing) calls this second book in the series a “wild but smart caper.”

The novel is easy to read but the most exciting part of the caper is provided by the hurricane, and this is where we find the book’s most effective writing. A man is killed during the story, purportedly by falling tree limbs, but bookstore owner Bruce Cable of Bay Books doesn’t think so. The local police don’t seem interested, so the caper aspect of the novel begins when Bruce and his friends start trying to find out what really happened.

They begin by disturbing the crime scene, borrowing the dead man’s car, and appropriating the food and liquor in his kitchen that will dertainly go bad if left for any forensic techs who might one day show up. The dead man, an author named Nelson Kerr–among those who hung out at Bay Books–won’t miss the food and probably wouldn’t begrudge the amateur sleuths a great meal and all the high-priced drink they can handle, which turns out not to be a lot.

Kerr as apparently writing a novel about something that somebody didn’t like so, probably–the amateur sleuths speculate–the killer was mixed up in the pièce de ré·sis·tance crime Kerr plans to thinly diguise as fiction in his new thriller. If so, they no doubt wanted to stop him before (a) he finished the book, or (b) the book get to a publisher if he did finish it.

Bruce, et. al. have some good ideas, the kind that just might get them killed. If they (the sleuths) were black ops types, they dould take the next step and go after the bad guys with enough gear that woud make Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler exited. But they aren’t, so they can’t, and they don’t. For the reader, this means a lot of time is spent listening to the characters’ pondering which, fortunately, is punctuated with a few laughs, scares, and dicoveries along the way.

They mean well. They’re likeable. And they keep pushing on whoever they can influence until heavy hitters become involved and the crime is solved. Until then, nothing much happens. When the pros show up, a considerable amount of time is spent describing how the bad guys scammed the government out of a lot of money while hurting everyday people. Yes, we suspect this kind of thing is true. But how they (the bad guys) do what they do takes the focus of the story simultaneously closer to its climax and farther away from the main characters.

This is an unsatisfying plot solution. The characters who begin the caper really need to end the caper. If you read every Grisham novel, you’ll nonetheless have fun reading this one. If you don’t, you won’t.


Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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Book jacket descriptions aren’t that great

When you read enough book jacket copy—that’s the stuff on the back of the book or inside the jacket flap, telling you what to expect within—you start to notice strange patterns. Books from one of the big four publishing houses will have a line or two promising that the latest in literary fiction is a sober look at our current dilemma/modern age/social media addiction/technological approach to dating. If the copywriter is feeling bold, maybe they’ll let us know that the writer is a “dazzling new voice,” or that the release of this debut novel is “heralding a brave new voice in fiction.” From there, a frustratingly vague description of the plot usually contains a foreboding line letting us know the protagonist needs to go on a journey to another country to find herself, or that a man will try to save his marriage or family. End with a reminder that this book is very important and/or brilliant. Just like every other book.

Source: Book jacket descriptions for titles like Luster and The Silence are terrible.

Book jacket copy is so bad, that I’ve come home from the store with a greatly anticipated new book that it turns out I’ve already read. Or, I waste time at the store trying to figure out whether–if I haven’t read the book–is it something I want to read. It’s hard to know when the jacket copy makes most books sound like the same book.

This is what happens when droids are allowed to write the jacket copy.



I probably shouldn’t show you this

My aunt, uncle, and father are all long gone, so my promise (to my late aunt) was that I would never tell my late father about my late uncle’s book. All this happened during the war when I was stationed briefly in San Francisco and had an apartment down a steep hill from my aunt’s apartment.

She said I want to show you something but you can never tell your father. That “something” was a paperback novel called A Present for Harry (1967) written my my father’s younger brother Maury. Maury didn’t want Dad to know about it because, well, the cover and the title made it look sexier than it was and, according to my aunt, Maury just didn’t think it would help family harmony for the existence of the book, worse yet, the book itself, to get back to Florida where my parents lived.

My aunt gave me an extra copy after I signed on a stack of Bibles that I wouldn’show it to my parents. I think my rounger brother also read it and might (like I do) still have a copy.

It was all hush hush. Presumably, Uncle Maury wrote it as a joke and was surprised when it got published. Frankly I think the story itself was a hoot as well as all the hush hush.  My uncle had previously written a very popular  nonfiction book called Pay Dirt! San Francisco. The Romance of a Great City. It was well reviewed and praised, and my Dad was very proud of the book as well.

Suffice it to say, a novel with a beach babe on the cover about a wife who givers her husband a beach babe as a present was, shall we say, and my uncle saw it, a fall from grace. As far as I know, my parents never found out about it. My aunt as a live and let live relative, strongly independent, and one of my favorite people. I called her one time during a San Francisco earthquake because there was rather large fire near her apartment. She said she didn’t know anything about it because their power was out and she couldn’t see the news. However, she said, “My building didn’t fall down, so not to worry.”

And, as the years went by, it turned out that more than one of us shared our hush hush secrets with her. But the statute of limitations on this book has run out (I think).


This book is a bit gritty, so goodness only knows how my parents would have reacted to it had they still been around then it first came out. I would have told my aunt about it, though.

A cool selection of fiction

From my colleagues at Thomas-Jacob Publishing

Child of Sorrow by Melinda Clayton

When fourteen-year-old foster child Johnathan Thomas Woods is suspected of murder, an old letter and a tacky billboard advertisement lead him to the office of attorney Brian Stone. Recognizing the sense of hopelessness lurking under John’s angry façade, Stone is soon convinced of his innocence. When John offers up his lawn-mowing money as payment, Stone realizes this is a case he can’t refuse.

In the face of overwhelming evidence assembled by the prosecution, Stone and his team find themselves in a race against time to save an angry boy who’s experienced more than his fair share of betrayal, a boy who more often than not doesn’t seem interested in saving himself.

An Inchworm Takes Wing by Robert Hays

In the tranquil solitude of a darkened Room 12 in the ICU on the sixth floor of Memorial Hospital’s Wing C, a mortal existence is drawing to an end. His head and torso swathed in bandages, his arms and legs awkwardly positioned in hard casts and layers of heavy gauze, he’s surrounded by loved ones yet unable to communicate, isolated within his own thoughts and memories.

He does not believe himself to be an extraordinary man, simply an ordinary one, a man who’s made choices, both good and bad. A man who was sometimes selfish, sometimes misguided, sometimes kind and wise. A man who fought in a war in which he lost a part of his soul, who then became a teacher and worked hard to repair the damage.

When faced with the end, how does one reconcile the pieces of an ordinary life? Does a man have the right to wish for wings to carry him to a summit he believes he doesn’t deserve to reach?

Chasing Eve by Sharon Heath

Everyone expected big things from Ariel Thompkins. Wasn’t she the girl who’d roped her friends into one madcap adventure after another, who’d met the challenge of losing both parents before turning eighteen, who’d gone on to graduate summa cum laude from UCLA? So how did this livewire end up delivering the day’s mail for the U.S. Postal Service, hunkering down each night with her half-blind cat in front of the TV, ruminating over the width of her thighs? It looked as though it would take a miracle to get her out of her rut. Who knew that miracle would come in the form of an acutely candid best friend and a motley crew of strangers—a homeless drunk once aptly nicknamed “Nosy,” a lonely old woman seeing catastrophe around every corner, a shy teenager fleeing sexual abuse, a handsome young transplant from the Midwest with a passion for acting and for Ariel herself? Not to mention the fossil remains of a flat-faced crone who just might have been the ancestress of everyone alive today? Chasing Eve takes us on a funny, sad, hair-raising adventure into the underbelly of the City of Angels, where society’s invisible people make a difference to themselves and to others, and where love sometimes actually saves the day.

Who’s Munching by Milkweed? by Smoky Zeidel

When Ms. Gardener discovers something has been munching on her milkweed plants, she embarks on a fun and educational monarch butterfly journey that enchants both children and adults. 

With Photographs. Zeidel is a Master Gardener.

Nightbeat: Why Book Sales Are Down

Nightbeat column, Star-Gazer News Service, Junction City, TX, July 1, 2021–Woke up early this morning because the “patriots” across the street were firing off cherry bombs and M-80s before the dawn’s early light even had a chance to pull itself together.

When I called the cops, the 911 dispatcher said they thought all that racket was “simply another neighborhood gang war, so hadn’t bothered to investigate.” I made coffee and checked to see if my typewriter had finished the column I started last night. Unfortunately, the only words on the otherwise blank sheet of Eaton’s Corrasable Bond typewriter paper was the title:

Nightbeat: Why Book Sales Are Down

Sometimes evil spirits, haints, and things that go bump in the night write my columns while I’m sleeping or passed out. No luck, so I showered, shaved, drank two cups of Maxwell House Coffee, and walked to the bad part of the neighborhood which, actually, is right next door. I cut through the unmowed backyards so the “patriots” wouldn’t see me and knocked on the man’s back door.

“Who sent you?” he asked.

“Bob Costas,” I whispered.

The door openly quickly and a withered arm snaked out and yanked me into the mudroom which, coincidentally, was filled with mud.

My source looked like death warmed over. “What do you need?”

“The straight skinny about falling book sales,” I said.

“Did James Patterson die last night?”

“No, but that wouldn’t matter since Tom Clancy is still churning out bestsellers.”

“When you’re right, you’re right, Jock,” he said as he lit up a Lucky Strike. “Otherwise, serious small press authors are being hurt because everyone thinks they have a book in them–actually, many books.”

“The old gag was ‘every journalist thinks he has a book in him and that’s where it should stay,'” I replied.

“My sources tell me the old rules and the old morals no longer count. Today’s self-published and small-press authors have developed writer’s diarrhea.”

“That stinks.”

“No sh_t. They’re–how should I put this?–spewing out cookie-cutter genre books at the rate of thousands of words per day per person. It’s the chief cause of global warming and insanity. I checked a secret survey last week and, as it turns out, only two or three people in the country are not writing books. You know what that means.”

He took a swig of Jack Daniels and passed me the bottle.

“Damn, that’s good,” I said. “Of course I know what it means. It means that Larry, Moe, and Curry, and the scum across the street are the only people out there who are still reading.”

“Damn straight.”

“So, that means that two or three people are using different names to post highly positive reviews on Amazon for those tawdry books while the good writers are lucky to find a review anywhere.”

“You planning to stay for breakfast.”

“Bacon and eggs?” I asked hopefully.

“Bangers and mash with gravy.”

“I’ll pass.”

“As always, this conversation never happened.”

“I know.”

I went home, typed up my notes, and faxed this column to the newspaper. The editor wouldn’t like it, but I don’t give a flaming rat’s butt about that because she knows I know she’s one of the people ruining literature with her 40-book series “The Piper and the Piper’s Missus.” People are addicted to it. It’s worse than Fentanyl.

Her readers are reviewing her books before they’re even released. We’re entering the end of times, kind readers, and you read it here first.

Story filed by Jock Stewart, Special Investigative Reporter



Briefly noted: ‘A Search for Safe Passage’

Available from the association’s online shop.

When I saw a story about this book and the related efforts near the Great Smoky Mountain’s National Park in the summer 2021 issue of “National Parks Magazine,” I had to share it here. The author, Frances Figart, is the creative services director of the Great Smoky Mountains Association. Her book, as the article says, “is part of an effort to raise awareness about the real-life situation along Interstate 40, a four-lane road that runs through the Pigeon River Gorge” near the park.

I know the road well, but it’s not a friend of the wildlife that find it to be either a fence or a death trap to their natural migrations through the area. A coalition of groups is looking for solutions, including animal overpasses and tunnels.

From the Publisher

“A Search for Safe Passage” tells the story of best friends Bear and Deer who grew up together on the North side of a beautiful Appalachian gorge. In the time of their grandparents, animals could travel freely on either side of a fast-flowing river, but now the dangerous Human Highway divides their home range into the North and South sides. On the night of a full moon, two strangers arrive from the South with news that will lead to tough decisions, a life-changing adventure, and new friends joining in a search for safe passage. The book is closely connected to Safe Passage: The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project, a new public education and infrastructure development campaign in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee. It includes an additional nonfiction section with educational lessons about animal habitat requirements, behavior, migration patterns, and roadway ecology problems and solutions developed with input from both international and local experts. Aimed at readers ages 7 to 13. 122 pages, 5.5″ x 8.5″.

Beautifully illustrated by Emma DuFort, the book presents a compelling story that should help make young people aware of oversights (being corrected in many areas) of the federal highway system when it comes to the animal populations who live where humans want to drive cars and trucks.


‘scenic science of the national parks,’ by Emily Hoff and Maygen Keller

This beautifully illustrated, well-written guide presents a capsule of information about each U. S. National park in an easy-to-use format that will make this a take-into-the-field companion. There’s even a place for each park’s “passport” stamp.

For each park, you’ll find a superlative statement, crowd-pleaser hikes, primary mammals and plants, a so-called “iconic experience,” and a “worth noting” fact. This book uses illustrations rather than coffee-table-book photographs. These are immensely helpful in making quick identifications of what you’ll see in the park.

When I first picked up this book, I looked up the parks I know well and found the information to be accurate and spot-on in terms of each park’s ambiance and character.

From the Publisher

Explore the fascinating science behind the national parks in this charming illustrated guide.

The national parks are some of the most beloved, visited, and biodiverse places on Earth. They’re also scientific playgrounds where you can learn about plants, animals, and our planet’s coolest geological features firsthand. Scenic Science of the National Parks curates and breaks down the compelling and offbeat natural science highlights of each park, from volcanic activity, glaciers, and coral reefs to ancient redwood groves, herds of bison, giant bats, and beyond. Featuring full-color illustrations, information on the history and notable features of each park, and insider tips on how to get the most out of your visit, this delightful book is the perfect addition to any park lover’s collection.

From the Opening Pages

We know this looks like a book, but our collection of pages is actually more like a secret decoder ring or a pair of X-ray glasses because it will help you see some of the most iconic landscapes in the United States in a whole new way. Whether you’re traveling through the national parks by car, bicycle, boat, or foot, or even in your imagination, this is an opportunity to unlock the scientific stories behind the scenery.

This guidebook will teach you to spot the extraterrestrial-like organisms lurking in Yellowstone, the spiky teddy bear clones in Joshua Tree, the slick snails of Acadia—and more! Contained here are true stories about plants, rocks, animals, bodies of water, and the night sky that you aren’t likely to find anywhere else than in these parks. We’ve steered away from people-centric history and from big, obvious questions (like, How did the Grand Canyon form?) in favor of more fascinating, offbeat questions (like, How are strange ocean animals that look like plants connected to the rocks that make up the Grand Canyon?). This is an invitation to be inquisitive and pay attention to the small details that bring the big picture into view.

We had a blast writing this book and hope our work sets you off on a question-asking frenzy of your own. Go forth and get curious!

This is the best general national parks guidebook I’ve seen in a long time. Better yet, it was an early Father’s Day gift from my daughter.


P.S. I had her permission to open the package early!

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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BRIEFLY NOTED: American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee

I have no idea why it took me nine years to get around to reading Karen Abbott’s detailed, well-written, and a dripping-with-atmosphere book about Gypsy Rose Lee (1911-1970). I enjoyed the book, partly because of the nostalgia of vaudeville and burlesque that I heard about years ago when watching The Steve Allen Show, Johnny Carson, and other programs that often featured older performers who got their start in the older art forms. The use of the word “art” here depends on who you’re talking to.

There’s an old theater I know that once featured Vaudeville acts that’s being restored and serves its community by using its facilities for regional theater groups. On several occasions, I’ve asked the management why their website says absolutely nothing about the Vaudeville performers who appeared there during its heyday.  They said the old posters and records would require a grant to compile. Get one, I said. Don’t let this slide because without displaying what happened there in the old days, your theater is without most of its heart.

If you saw the 1962 film “Gypsy” (that grew out of Gypsy’s 1957 autobiography), you were exposed to a cleaned-up version of the real story. I liked the movie, especially the performances by Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood. But compared to Abbott’s book, the movie is a mere hint about the realities of the heart and soul of Vaudeville and burlesque–and the hopefuls, stars, gangsters (and other denizens) who made the system work.

From the Publisher:

America was flying high in the Roaring Twenties. Then, almost overnight, the Great Depression brought it crashing down. When the dust settled, people were primed for a star who could distract them from reality. Enter Gypsy Rose Lee, a strutting, bawdy, erudite stripper who possessed a gift for delivering exactly what America needed. With her superb narrative skills and eye for detail, Karen Abbott brings to life an era of ambition, glamour, struggle, and survival. Using exclusive interviews and never-before-published material, she vividly delves into Gypsy’s world, including her intense triangle relationship with her sister, actress June Havoc, and their formidable mother, Rose, a petite but ferocious woman who literally killed to get her daughters on the stage. Weaving in the compelling saga of the Minskys—four scrappy brothers from New York City who would pave the way for Gypsy Rose Lee’s brand of burlesque and transform the entertainment landscape—Karen Abbott creates a rich account of a legend whose sensational tale of tragedy and triumph embodies the American Dream.

From the Book:

“Mother was,’ June thought, ‘a beautiful little ornament that was damaged.’ Her broken edges cut her daughters in ways both emotional and physical, and only sharpened with age.”

“And truth is malleable, something to be bent or stretched or made to disappear, but direct lies always find the path back to the one who tells them.”

“Later, the sisters would remember things differently, as sisters do, old grudges and misunderstandings refracting each memory, bending them in opposite directions.”

From the Critics:

American Rose is a fitting tribute to an amazing woman, telling her story beautifully while revealing as much about post-Depression America as it does about celebrity life. It’s cultural history at its best.”—Rebecca Skloot, New York Times bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“Abbott creates a brainy striptease similar to the one her subject may have performed.”—Newsday

“With staggeringly in-depth research . . . Abbott composes a story wrought with personal drama and insight into a dark era in American history. . . . The story is as beguiling as it is timeless.”—Elle

The book takes you into the heart of things Vaudeville and burlesque, and we find that it’s not as pure as we wish it were, nor as kind. But the grit is a large part of the story, one worth telling and one worth reading about and ya gotta love it in spite of its worst sins, for it was a heady time, the roaring twenties when everyone was pushing the envelope.


You may also like.

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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Facebook author’s page – an invitation

You are hereby and herewith, &c. invited to stop by my Facebook author’s page. I change the header from time to time, but right now it looks like this:

As you can see by the graphic, the page mentions my work. Yet, it is by no means a giant advertisement.

In fact, most posts focus on publishing news, author interviews, upcoming titles, book reviews, opinions and criticism, writing tips, genres, and book news that provide you with a snapshot of the latest activities from the world of books. I usually post about five links a day so that visitors can quickly scan the page to see if there’s anything that leaps out and grabs their attention.

Sure, I also have a Facebook profile, but it’s personal stuff, weird memes, pictures of kitties, general news, and other typical stuff that friends want to see. Most of the book world information is on my author’s page.

I hope to see you there.


I was happy to see that the first reviewer of the new “Fate’s Arrows” audiobook was happy with the story and the narrator’s presentation.