Review: ‘The Rebel in Autumn’ by Michael Shaara

This gem of a novel is an accurate immersion into campus life in the 1960s, especially the protests and the discussions of university censorship of student materials. Inspired by an event at Florida State University (FSU) in which the president banned a short story from the college literary magazine due to the use of a few “dirty words,” the story begins with a grim sense of reality.

Shaara (1928-1988), who taught creative writing at FSU at the time would have known about the incident as well as the machinations within a university faculty. The true event was resolved more amicably than the fictional event in “The Rebel in Autumn” which, for readers, presents an opportunity to see how in a time of national stress over the Vietnam War, segregation, and other issues a relatively mundane matter can spiral out of control to be the point of a looming threat of violence.

The characters–both students and faculty–are well developed and display multiple points of view about the prior restraint (pre-publication censorship) that had generally vanished from the American scene (except within student publications and college administrations).

Just how to “fix” the situation is more difficult than it sounds when you have a university president following the letter of the law that says he is the publisher of all student publications and can restrict what is released. As one faculty member said, the president had the power to ban the short story, but not the right.

Every character in the book is at risk one way or the other. Faculty members can be fired or demoted; students can be expelled. Anyone can be harmed if outside agitators or the National Guard (as we saw at Kent State in 1970) appear on campus. Shaara paints the evolving sense of danger perfectly down to the dramatic conclusion.

Kudos to Shaara’s son Jeff and daughter Lila for overseeing the posthumous publication of “The Rebel in Autumn” as well as other Shaara novels that had gone out of print. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Killer Angels” (1974) has remained in print. The family chose to publish “Rebel” as is rather than second-guessing the changes Shaara might have made during the editing and revision process that occurs once a manuscript is accepted. I agree with their decision with one exception, that being the lack of a blank line or a printed separator between scene changes; this would have reduced the confusion that occurs when scenes run together.

Disclaimer: I was a friend and a student in Shaara’s creative writing class at the time he was working on this novel. I didn’t know about the novel then, but students and Shaara had many discussions about censorship and other issues both in and out of class. My potential bias is enhanced because I was fired from a college after a long-running debate about its censorship of student publications of which I was the academic advisor.



New Title: ‘An Inchworm Takes Wing’

Thomas-Jacob Publishing has released a new novel by Robert Hays, An Inchworm Takes Wing in Kindle and paperback editions. A hardcover edition will follow in the near future.

Description: 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?

I’m looking forward to reading this!


Review: ‘Only Charlotte’ by Rosemary Poole-Carter

Only CharlotteOnly Charlotte by Rosemary Poole-Carter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Rosemary-Poole-Carter, an adept within the Southern Gothic genre, brings us a deliciously tangled post Civil War novel in Only Charlotte in which three intertwined lives–Leonore James, her brother Dr. Gilbert Crew, and Charlotte Eden–rise and fall like storm-tossed lily pads in the brackish waters of the swampy morals of New Orleans.

Thrice-married Lenore (who is now alone again) opens up her house to her younger brother who uses it as a base for establishing a medical practice. In sections narrated by both Lenore and Gilbert, we see that the young doctor has become infatuated with Charlotte while treating her children. At the outset, Lenore sees nothing less than catastrophe coming out of this while Gilbert sees a young wife whose troubles go deeper than is generally known.

Lenore and Gilbert grow in sense and sensibility throughout this novel. Lenore, who sees herself somewhat in the role of Paulina in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, is especially cautious about the problems Charlotte may or may not face because she is older than her volatile brother and well-schooled in the society’s rules and traditions. In a sense, Gilbert has a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” approach that might be based on his obvious love for Charlotte more than on the actual dangers she faces.

The novel is perfectly paced in a manner befitting a southern gothic novel, brings us multi-dimensional characters who have the capacity for change in an era in which “stagnant” and “corrupt” are watchwords, and a twisted mystery that is like a spiderweb in the dark. The prose is lyrical and exceptional and historically well-grounded in this highly recommended novel.

View all my reviews


Vietnam Navy Novel Free on Kindle for Three Days

My Vietnam War navy novel At Sea will be free on Kindle March 18-20, 2016.

AtSeaBookCoverDescriptionEven though he wanted to dodge the draft in Canada or Sweden, David Ward joined the navy during the Vietnam War. He ended up on an aircraft carrier. Unlike the pilots, he couldn’t say he went in harm’s way unless he counted the baggage he carried with him. As it turned out, those back home were more dangerous than enemy fire.

Here’s a short excerpt to tempt you out to Amazon. . .

David stood on the back porch on a spring evening listening to the slow sweet rising and falling howl of a wolf calling her pups while the wind stilled and the dark lavender lupine flowers disappeared into the gathering twilight. Behind him, the house was empty, his dinner long gone cold on the kitchen table along with the passionate Sparrow singing his chanson favorite “La Vie en Rose” again and again, and rather than stare at the letter in the silent company of canisters and chrome appliances, he brought the telephone and pinot noir outside where the world was less closed in on itself.

At the end of the long cord, he dialed her number, wondering—while the wolf pups yipped back at their mother—if her hello would still sound like her hello.

“Davey, how nice to hear your voice. I also hear wolves. Where are you?”

“On the porch looking down toward the box elders and the creek.”

“Don’t remind me. It hurts too much.”

“How are you?”

The book was inspired by my time on board the the USS Ranger.
The book was inspired by my time on board the the USS Ranger.

“Fine. I knew you would call. While practicing my flute this morning, I found myself playing a song we once knew.”

“I’ve lost myself to the war,” he said. “The letter arrived today. I report in July.”

“Davey, no. What do your parents say?”

“Not to rock the boat.”

“I hoped you went to Sweden with Brita. Then I heard the wolves.”

“I could never come home from Sweden.”

“If you die in Vietnam, I’ll forget you. If you survive, you’ll forget yourself. Either way, the vine may kill the elm.”

“You’re cold,” he said, “and dragging out old symbolism of fruitful grapes smothering their supporting tree.”

“Then stand quiet with me again.”

The wolves were silent. He heard her breath and her heart. The first stars were out. When she was at the ranch four years ago, she said, “Night is liquid magic; we’re stirred together. You’ve taken me beyond myself, higher than the wolf trail stars, and what we have of each other, we own.”

In the great quiet, he wept for the parts of himself that were no longer his.

“David, the baby’s crying. I’ve got to go.”

“Unfair! But I love you, Anne.”

USS Ranger at sea in 1968 - US Navy Photo, cleared for publication
USS Ranger at sea in 1968 – US Navy Photo, cleared for publication

“No doubt,” she said, hanging up and extinguishing the moon’s pure light.

He carried the wine bottle up to the chokecherry tree, sat beneath white flowers and watched the night where he once watched it with her.

She knows I’m here, he thought, because she knows me well. She despises me, too, because she believes some places are sacred.

He got an axe and chopped down the tree. It was neither the best thing nor the worst thing he’d ever done, but it was close.

If you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, you can always read the book for free through Amazon’s program. If you’re not a KU subscriber, now is a great time to download a novel about sailors and bar girls and mountain climbing and a young man wrestling with his conscience about military service.

I hope you enjoy the story.



Review: ‘Lowcountry Bribe’ by C. Hope Clark

Authors often ask “What if” when they have an idea for a plot. When C. Hope Clark first thought about a civil servant at the Department of Agriculture reporting an attempted bribe by a farmer, she must have asked “what’s the worst that can possibly happen?”

Carolina Slade (and you don’t call her “Carolina” unless you’re her mother) is a USDA official who plays by the rules. While others might have overlooked hog farmer Jesse Rawlings’ offer of a bribe in hopes he would never bring up the matter again, Slade tells her superiors. After that, the dust never settles.

C. Hope Clark’s protagonist in the dazzling debut mystery/thriller “Lowcountry Bribe,” is a Charleston County manager who coordinates federal loans and their repayment by farmers. When she leaves her desk, it’s to inspect a farm, not to carry a gun and catch bad guys. Yet, as a Cooperating Individual (CI) she has no choice but to help agents Wayne Largo and Eddie Childress prove Rawlings tried to bribe her.

The case is getting a lot of attention from Atlanta. Slade wonders why. Perhaps there’s more to the bribe than she knows, a greater level of fraud that might implicate her former boss who disappeared last year or a co-worker who shot himself in the office last week. Slade can’t even be sure Largo and Childress aren’t investigating her. A supposedly easy “Get Jesse to repeat what he said Friday” turns into a dangerous crash course in crisis management where the stakes are much higher than missed loan payment or a reprimand from the boss.

Some publishers would have categorized “Lowcountry Bribe” as a mystery/thriller/romance because the novel includes romantic elements as well as Slade’s feelings of approach/avoid, trust/distrust insofar as agent Largo and his motives are concerned. Regardless of the book’s official genre(s), the danger and intrigue Slade is drawn into are industrial strength, requiring a CI who is tough enough to view blood on an office wall as “O-positive primer,” savvy enough to think a like federal agent and experienced enough to apply humor and sarcasm to methods and practices that don’t measure up to her high standards.

Clark knows the territory. She lives in South Carolina, has a degree in agriculture, has worked with the USDA for 25 years, and is married to a former federal agent. This information appears on the novel’s back cover. By the time readers finish the novel and find out the worst that can possibly happen, they will have discovered that Clark also knows the territory of deftly plotted fiction, realistic dialogue and place settings, and how to tell a story that burns like a stiff drink with a touch of sugar.

Clark is now writing the next novel in the Carolina Slade Mystery Series. For readers who like great storytelling, that’s the best that can possibly happen.

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy, magical realism, and paranormal stories and novels, including “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”

Book Review: ‘The Miracle of Mercy Land’

The Miracle of Mercy Land: A NovelThe Miracle of Mercy Land: A Novel by River Jordan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This wise, well-told 1930s-era story about a young woman from the back woods of Bittersweet Creek, Alabama, who moves to a nearby city to work for the newspaper will haunt the jaded cloak off a cynic and the bloom off a Southern Magnolia in the arena of pure beauty.

A preacher’s daughter, protagonist Mercy Land is steeped in the spiritual and plain-spoken common sense of the rural South. She carries her heritage deep in her humble soul when she begins work for Doc on the Bay City “Banner.” While Doc is the epitome of a caring, community oriented small town newspaper editor, his kindness contains sad flaws.

The focal point of the novel is a shining book of light that appears out of nowhere on Doc’s desk. The book knows everything, roads taken and roads not taken, about the residents of Bay City. It contains secrets only an arrogant individual would dare to know. But then, why did it appear? To read or not to read is the bittersweet question that follows Doc and Mercy with more urgency than the daily news.

Like any good editor, Doc finds it difficult to sit on the story of a lifetime. Like any young woman who fondly recalls her formative years, Mercy cannot ignore what the book knows about a childhood companion who vanished without a trace years ago.

From Mercy’s point of view, “To say that it became a distraction would be a flat-out lie. It became an obsession. Doc swore me to complete secrecy so that no one in town knew a thing. But that wasn’t the toughest part; he swore me to keep the secret from everyone in Bittersweet Creek.”

As Jordan writes in a note to the reader at the end of the book, this is a story about choices and their impact on a person’s interconnected relationships. The novel’s fine-spun wisdom, mysterious and engaging plot and shimmering magical realism are the stuff of dreams and wondrous storytelling.

View all my reviews

Book Review: ‘Crush at Thomas Hall’

When Cassandra Martin attends Crush Weekend at Virginia’s Thomas Hall Winery with her good friends Sarah and Michael, she experiences the multiple meanings of the word “crush” in Beth Sorensen’s soon-to-be-released romantic mystery Crush at Thomas Hall.

In wine making, the crush–often called a grape stomp when it’s done with bare feet–gently splits the skins of the recently harvested grapes allowing the juice to escape. Thomas Hall’s annual Crush Weekend is a festive event in which long-time friends of the powerful Baker family gather to help with the harvest, taste the wine and enjoy each others company.

Cassandra quickly develops a crush on winery CEO and confirmed bachelor Edward Baker. The feeling is mutual. Yet, she has recently buried an abusive and controlling husband, and Edward–for all his gentle intentions–is used to being in charge. His behavior is not only emotionally crushing, but reminds her of the worst moments of her marriage.

A college professor on sabbatical to rediscover her life, Cassandra is a highly intelligent protagonist, eager to soak up not only the ambiance but the art and science of wine making. Yet, in personal matters, she is indecisive, vacillating between losing herself in Edward’s arms and running away to a safe place where she can avoid the danger of emotional commitments.

Complicating her evolving romance is talk of millions of dollars of funds embezzled from the winery, a dead body in the wine cellar, and an attack that sends Cassandra to the hospital. Beth Sorensen has spun a compelling mystery of champagne dreams and family intrigues in Crush at Thomas Hall. Sorensen’s protagonist must decide whether to continue her round-the-world travels or seriously consider whether she should make a commitment to Edward and his winery. No matter that she decides, she’s in jeopardy, for there is every indication that the killer wants her stomped dead and out of the complicated picture.

Crush at Thomas Hall is an exciting, romantic and highly recommended fine-vintage debut novel.

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “The Sun Singer,” “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire,” and “Garden of Heaven.”

Lila Shaara’s New Novel

Author Lila Shaara (“Every Secret Thing,” 2006) has a new novel called “The Fortune Teller’s Daughter” due out December 30 from Ballantine.

While the Kirkus and Publishers Weekly reviews are mixed, author Nancy Thayer says the new novel is “is fresh and authentic, the plot complex and full of surprises. This compelling suspense novel has it all–mystery, romance, fascinating characters, and some very creepy moments.”

I hope Thayer’s review is more typical of what Shaara will be hearing in response to her novel. I have high hopes for it, in part because fortune teller stories catch my attention and partly because the novel is set in north Florida where Shaara and I grew up.

While she would have no reason to remember me, I remember her as a “kid” moving around more or less behind the scenes of her father’s house. Her father, Michael Shaara (The Killer Angels) taught my Florida State University creative writing class at his house and his two children usually noticed the giant table of munchies set out for us at break time.

She has two heavy duty acts to follow, her late father as well as her brother Jeff (a prolific author of award-winning historical fiction). In light of that, I wish her well today as a pre-0rder “The Fortune Teller’s Daugher.”

Today’s Table Scraps

  1. Leave a comment on my Eye Blink Fiction weblog for a chance to win a free hard cover copy of the novel “Tethered.” What a great debut novel by Amy MacKinnon.
  2. My poem “Sock Puppet” won second prize in The Smoking Poet’s first annual poetry contest. You can see the winning poems here.
  3. Today’s quotation: “One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothin’ can beat teamwork.” –Edward Abbey