Grant, by Ron Chernow**

grantI’m tempted to add this title to my Southern fiction shelf. For a Pulitzer winner to be so careless with his facts is egregious. I got 200 pages or so in, and I found a glaring error. To be honest, I thought maybe it was me. I haven’t taught the American Civil War in 8 years now; am I slipping? Because I could swear that the famous tidbit about a single battle killing more soldiers than the American Revolution, War of 1812, and war with Mexico all added together was about the battle of Antietam, yet here is Chernow, saying it’s Shiloh.

This is when it’s nice to have a physical library nearby. I rummaged on my Civil War shelves and plucked Battle Cry of Freedom, which he (rightly) appears to cite more often than anything except perhaps Grant’s Memoirs, and I also grabbed McPherson’s book on Antietam, and I double-checked. Yup. The reference is to to Antietam, not Shiloh.

At this point I wondered what else might be amiss. There’s a Sherman quote that’s supposed to be in a section in BCF, but the page number Chernow cites is actually in a section about the nurses of the ACW. Well, of course there are different editions, so page numbers may shift a bit, especially in a lengthy source. But I chose–randomly, from the citations at the back–3 other quotes from BCF, and read 8 or 10 pages before and after the page where the quote or fact is supposed to be located, and didn’t find them. A more meticulous reader might have different results, but I am not running a courtroom prosecution; I am trying to decide if I now trust this author enough to believe him regarding other information. And I am not all that sure I do.

I have a lovely hardcover copy of this biography given me by one of my sons at Christmas, and I would hate to abandon it entirely at the 200 pp. mark; but I’ll tell you one thing. I’m rereading Battle Cry of Freedom again before I turn another page of this biography. Because at the very least, this is a work to be read critically, rather than with innocent faith in its author. I like some of the analysis Chernow offers, but I would hate to see a newbie miseducated by using this title as an introduction to Grant or to the Civil War. As for me, I am going to strengthen my own foundation before I approach this tome, which must be read cautiously.

The Big Get Even, by Paul Di Filippo*

TheBigGetEvenDon’t do it, don’t do it. Put your wallet away.

I received a galley of this story free and in advance from Net Galley and Blackstone Publishing in exchange for this honest review. That said, if I’d been given a free copy plus a million dollars, I wouldn’t be able to write this thing a favorable pitch. An indifferent product rates 2 stars, sometimes 3 if there are redeeming aspects; when I give 1 star, it means I’m pissed.

Part of my indignation, to be sure, comes purely from disappointment. The book jacket looks for all the world like an entertaining read is in the offing. I was so certain this would be a rousing good time that I held it away from myself as an incentive to make myself plow through what I thought would be a couple of less promising projects. And the story’s hook, the voice that arrests us at the outset, also promises us big fun. My first reading note to myself says, “Oh hell yes.”

As we move into the story, a tale of a combination of grift and revenge on the part of two ex-convicts, cracks start to form. For starters, Glen, our protagonist, who tells us he is lazy, free of all ambition, and has enough gold buried in the backyard to keep him happy for a good long while, is attacked by a man that has been watching him. Our protagonist is offered two options: to go in with his attacker on a plan to buy land on speculation and fraudulently sell it to a man the attacker hates, or else be robbed. This is the basis for a partnership. Glen agrees to let all of the gold be placed in a bank account bearing the name of the attacker’s girlfriend, a large, fierce woman that doesn’t do much in this story except make out with Stan and at one point, Glen. And at no point does Glen hatch a plan to get his money back and escape; instead, an instant friendship forms. The hell?

So the story doesn’t hang together very well from the start, but a strong writer can get us to believe almost anything, and I am ready to buy this premise in order to move forward.

There are a number of nasty little remarks about “queers” that frankly don’t set well with me, and they have nothing to do with the plot, apart from establishing Glen and Stan as real live he-men. But at this point I am still prepared to breeze past the offending references, make brief mention of them, and look toward a 4-star rating. If the rest of the book had been well-written and as engaging as the first chapter, I could even have seen a 4.5 rating rounded up. I had seen the bad reviews others had written, and I wanted to be the blogger that steps forward to tell the world that those folks are wrong, and that this is a terrific novel. I was primed and ready.

“Oh hell yes” becomes “Oh hell no” when the partners settle into their newly purchased resort and our middle-aged protagonist wakes up to find the barely-legal desk clerk giving him a blow job. Because, you know, she couldn’t stay away from him.

There is one other female character here. Vee also wants revenge against the mark targeted by Stan, and so she is brought aboard. But like Sandy (Stan’s girlfriend) and Nellie (the blow-job clerk), she has to have a roll in the hay with Glen, and as with Sandy and Nellie, Vee’s greatest role in the story is sexual. At this point I feel as if the author cannot decide whether he wants to write a tale of bold adventure and high stakes crime, or soft porn for middle-aged men; my eyes rolled so high they nearly lodged themselves in my hairline. However, there is foreshadowing that lets us know that the women in Glen’s life are “not through with me” and are going to surprise him, so I read to the end, hoping against hope that there will be a second shoe dropping, a colossal punchline in which the three women turn out to have pulled one over on him and his testosterone-laden (but not queer, oh please!) buddy. Maybe this whole absurd fuckathon is actually leading up to the revenge of the women.


As if the whole thing wasn’t a big fat mess already, Di Filippo puts one last, ruinous flourish on this pitiful tale by adding a host of additional information right at the end that makes it impossible for readers to guess the outcome. This hunk of junk is so badly crafted that not only do I not recommend it, I won’t read this author again.

Bluff, Bluster, Lies and Spies, by David Perry*

bluffblusterliesThe American Civil War is part of the curriculum I used to teach, and in retirement I still enjoy reading about it. When I saw that Open Road Media had listed this title on Net Galley to be republished digitally this summer, I swooped in and grabbed a copy for myself. I was so eager to read it that I bumped it ahead of some other DRCs I already had, and I really wanted to like it.  Unfortunately, this is a shallow effort and it shows.  Don’t buy it for yourself, and for heaven’s sake don’t advise your students to read it.

It begins gamely enough with a discussion of events in Europe and how the changing contours of that part of the world affected the attitudes of England, France, Russia, Prussia, and Spain. At this point my curiosity was piqued, because I had never read anything about which side of the Civil War the last three of these countries favored.  But if the rest of the text can be believed—and parts of it cannot—the reason we never hear about Russia, Spain, and Prussia with regard to this rebellion is that they decided they had no stake in its outcome. This part of the text could have been dealt with in one sentence rather than owning a share of the introduction and being dragged in again later, but this is not the only bit of obvious filler that burdens this misbegotten book.

I am tantalized initially when Perry brings in a controversy that does interest academics: would Britain have recognized the Confederacy in order to get cotton, or was it busy with other considerations and willing to obtain cotton from colonial holdings in Egypt, India and elsewhere for the duration? This question is discussed, leaves the narrative and is broached again several times, because although the book has chapters, it isn’t organized. The same topics of discussion, and the same quotations that serve as its meager, questionable documentation are dropped into the text again and again. It’s as if Perry doesn’t expect anyone to read it all the way through and is hoping we will drop into the middle of the book somewhere to look up a fact and then leave again without seeing whether he actually knows what he’s talking about.

He doesn’t.

For example, after citing the same obscure document for pages on end—since I read it digitally, I highlighted “Dispatch 206” seven times before noting that this section, at least, is garbage—he brings up Poland. He talks about Poland and Russia’s attachment to same as a buffer state, but never shows any relationship between Poland and the American Civil War other than that Russia had other greater priorities at this time, which had already been established in an earlier section.  And he misuses the term “Manifest Destiny”. Perry apparently believes this term has equal use to multiple governments in reference to themselves around the world.

He tells us that privateers are outlawed during the Civil War and infers that this, therefore, will surely mean that all the sad pirates will dock their ships and get honest jobs. No more privateers out there now, matey!

He says that Lincoln was a slow thinker, and he refers to American diplomats as ditherers.  He documents none of it.

I read the citation section to see if more joy would be had if I pursued this book past the halfway mark. I read his author bio, which indicates no expertise regarding this conflict, which by now doesn’t surprise me.  Frankly, I don’t understand why this book ever saw the light of day, or why Open Road would republish it.

I would love to say that those with deep pockets should go ahead and order it if they can afford all the books they want, but I can’t even say that. The book is unreliable, disorganized, and badly documented. It contains falsehoods and insults the reader’s intelligence.

Put your plastic away. This is dross.