Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert L. O’Connell

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert L. O’Connell
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 1400069726
432 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 1st July 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

I used to know a fair amount about the Civil War and Sherman, but not having read much about it in years, many things had slipped my mind. Having lived in St. Louis for a good time and knowing Sherman’s connection to the city I was interested in giving this biography a read. Overall it is a fascinating and very approachable volume, never getting bogged down in too many details and presenting the history and personalities in an engaging style. While not skimping on details and analysis, O’Connell effectively avoids academic tones, relating a good deal in almost conversational fashion. The writing makes it clear that he is really interested in this story and the character of Sherman.

The downside to the book, however, is its organization. O’Connell in the introduction makes the point of needing to separate the various aspects of Sherman’s complex character or personality and behaviors, which at times he feels could become seemingly incongruous or too scattered to follow as one coherent chronological line. This results in the book being divided into three sections: 1) a military perspective (campaigns and his relations with the military hierarchy), 2) another military perspective (his relations with the troops under him), and 3) his personal life. O’Connell’s previous work, which has focused on military and weapons makes the focus of this wartime hero understandable. But, a large amount of the introduction points out the important contributions that Sherman made after the war, which have often gone ignored, particularly in realizing or enabling the “Manifest Destiny” of the previous political years prior to the war’s outbreak.

Sadly, very little text is spent on this period. The bulk of the book is taken up just with the first part. The second part is really a continuation or a rehash of things already covered, but provides a slightly more detailed perspective of Sherman as viewed by his troops. In this way the two chapters of that second part feel more like a biography of the soldiers rather than Sherman. Additionally, much of the private life of Sherman in the final part (again only a couple of chapters) still gets discussed (just more fleetingly or generally) in the earlier sections. The entire end of the book thereby feels like a slightly more specific discussion of things already mentioned, leaving them feel tacked on and superfluous, too separated from the whole.

Despite my issue with the breakup of the organization, this volume would be a fine addition to the library or reading list of those interested in the Civil War and the people involved. O’Connell summarizes other historical accounts of Sherman’s life well within the entirety of his text, often analyzing conflicting views or offering up his own unique take on interpretation of events or beliefs that the historian can only speculate upon with the evidence we have. In all O’Connell seems well-reasoned and informed and he offers copious notes to original sources for those who wish to delve deeper.

Four Stars out of Five

Odd Men Out, by Matt Betts

Odd Men Out, by Matt Betts
Publisher: Dog Star Books
(Raw Dog Screaming Press)
ISBN: 1935738461
224 pages, paperback
Published July 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

“The Civil war has ended but not because the South surrendered, instead it’s on hold while both sides face a new enemy—the chewers, dead men who’ve come back to life. Cyrus Joseph Spencer didn’t fight in the war and couldn’t care less about the United Nations of America that resulted from it. His main concern is making money and protecting his crew from all manner of danger. But when tragedy strikes he’s forced to take shelter onboard a dirigible piloted by the U.N.’s peace-keeping force. It’s soon apparent that many more dangers are lurking and Cyrus must decide whether to throw in with strangers in a desperate bid to protect the country or cast off on his own.” – publisher description

A quick read that surprised me in how much I enjoyed the ride. “Odd Men Out” largely works positively because Betts appears to have had so much fun writing it, and such an endearment for fun pieces of genre fiction from sci fi to horror. Mention of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the introduction to the novel got me excited and hopeful; entering into the story fulfilled those emotions, Betts manages to keep the story serious enough in tone while still having a lot of fun poking at troupes and throwing in amusing references. One lovely pun in reference to “Jaws” made me chuckle for a while.

As others note, the novel is a hodgepodge mix of genre elements from apocalyptic to alt history, to steampunk, to B movie monster movies, and on and on. What makes this work is that Betts keeps the same tone throughout and above all the same style. Despite many elements, the book at heart is a simple adventure story, full of action and crisp writing. The story, and its execution are just simply fun.

What disappointed me about the novel was firstly that it is too short. Some portions seem rushed, with action taking place off-screen that I would’ve been curious to ‘see’. Betts could have also used some more room to get in better characterization (without losing the story’s pace and pulse). At the end of this I have a vague sense of who the characters were – as in their ‘role’ to the story. Their identities, however… What really makes them tick and unique… not so much. In addition their interactions – particularly in the romance aspect – is predictable, clichéd, and thus kind of lifeless. Obviously though, these sorts of issues aren’t what’s at the forefront of a book like this, so while I could imagine it being better, these disappointments didn’t seriously detract from the entertainment at its core.

Despite how much I enjoyed it, this isn’t the type of book I’d normally first go to and pick up cold without knowing the author or trusted reviews. I had entered a previous giveaway from the publisher, Raw Dog Screaming Press, a title I actually was more interested in from the blurb. Failed to win that, but at the time I had looked into the publisher and their entire independent catalog I was intrigued. When I saw this from the same publisher I signed up more to see one of their titles moreso than this particular novel. I’ll gladly seek out future works by Betts though, hoping they’ll keep the fun and magic with improvements to boot.

I could never afford to get lots of their releases, (being independent small press, they aren’t likely to be easy to find second-hand) but I would also be willing now to try ones at full price that did look good. Normally I wouldn’t comment on price and construction like this, but this book is also one of the sturdiest and nicest paperbacks (trade) that I’ve had, and for once I’d consider the full price of a trade paperback to be worth it. I carry books around all the time, on the bus reading to work, etc, and usually they become bent, scarred, creased, despite my best attempts at keeping them pristine. This kept its corners rigid, had no easy creasing, etc. I was so impressed I thought I should say something.

It should be easy to tell if you like this kind of book: the genres, the easy reading, etc. If you do, definitely try getting ahold of a copy. Then watch some MST3K, you’ll be in the mood assuredly.

Four  Stars out of Five

While merging this review from Goodreads and adding a publisher link I noticed that Odd Men Out has garnered some award nominations. Check out the news here.