Howard Bahr: The Black Flower (1997) Literature and War Readalong January 2014

The Black Flower

This year’s Literature and War Readalong starts strong with Howard Bahr’s powerful book The Black Flower, a novel on the American Civil War. The book is at times a bit patchy, with an eccentric structure and a style reminiscent of an expressionist novel, but it manages one thing admirably well: bringing the Civil War to life for those who were not there.

The book is set in 1864, before, during and after the battle that took place in Franklin, Tennessee. It is told from different POVs, but mostly we see the story unfold through the eyes of Bushrod Carter and Anna Hereford. But Bahr jumps from them to different others from whose point of view we see a small incident or a chapter. One particularly powerful scene is told from the point of view of a wasp.

Anna stays at her cousin’s house, which will be occupied by the army shortly before and after the battle. It will be turned into some sort of field hospital. That’s where Anna and Bushrod meet and fall in love, amidst the chaos and mayhem.

Before he meets Anna we see Bushrod together with his best friends, Virgil and Jack. They wait for the battle to begin and talk about old times. In the afternoon, in what is one of the best scenes of the book, they bury their dead, together with soldiers from the Union. Meeting them up close, shows Bushrod and his friends once more how alike they are and how absurd it is to kill them.

The Black Flower concentrates entirely on these few people and on what happens to them during a short period of time. The strength lies in the way Bahr magnifies details and in his almost expressionist writing. Passages like the one below reminded me of the paintings of Otto Dix.

In the starlight, and in the torchlight as far as it carried, the dead possessed the violated earth. They were draped all over the parapet, festooned in the osage orange hedges, blown back from the embrasures in meaty fragments. In the ditch before the works they lay in geologic strata of regiments and brigades, piled six and eight and ten deep: an inextricable mass of gray and brown, a tangle of accoutrements and muskets, a blur of faces and claw-like hands. Some were almost naked, torn to shreds by canister and rifle fire, the clothes ripped from their bodies;others lay whole and peaceful, dreaming among their comrades. Here and there, dead men who’d had no room to fall stood upright in the pile, still holding their rifles, their faces still set toward the memory of the vanished foe.

Some of the dead were busy. They twitched and jerked from the violence of their passing, they heaved stubbornly as still-living men tried to push up from underneath. The surface layer of wounded writhed and groaned and implored; the whole pile crawled with movement. Steam rose from the fragments, from open skulls and blue pails of entrails. The smell hung close to the ground in the damp night.

If you don’t know a lot about the American Civil War, this book is not going to give you a lot of information. But it will show you how much it cost in terms of human life, safety, and hope. Every war is horrible, but these early wars, with their mass amputations, and improvised field hospitals have a particularly gruesome side. I don’t think that I was fully aware of this. Bahr also describes very well how tired, dirty and worn-out these men were.

Most of the characters in the book are well rendered. Even the minor characters are carefully described. We feel for all of them. Of course we feel particularly strongly for Anna and Bushrod and when the end of the book comes, it’s quite heartbreaking and unexpected.

I was surprised to find almost modernist elements and an episodic structure in this book, as the novel starts rather conventionally. Once I had finished the book, I realised that Bahr not only manged to paint a canvas of this war, but that he also told a tale of  love and friendship without sugar-coating or glossing over anything.

I’m glad that the next book is also on the American Civil War and that it contains an introduction. Background information on a war I’m not that familiar with, was the only thing I was missing here.

Should anyone wonder  – the title is an allusion to Death.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Kailana (The Written World)


The Black Flower is the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the American Civil War classic  The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. Discussion starts on Friday 28 February, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Rebecca Park Totilo: Organic Beauty With Essential Oil

Organic Beauty

I’ve always been interested in essential oils and also used them quite frequently in the past, still I would never have thought I’d enjoy reading this wonderful book so much. Rebecca put knowledge, passion and enthusiasm into this book, and wrote it in an accessible and engaging way. It’s a real pleasure to read.

The book opens with a detailed introduction to making your own beauty products with essential oils. It gives tips and advice on which are the best carrier oils, what oils are best for the skin, which will help set a specific mood and so on. You will also find instructions on how to store your oils, how to dilute and blend them. Rebecca also enumerates all the different products that you can do with the help of this book. At the end of the introduction you find a detailed description of  far over 70 essential oils, from Angelica to Ylang Ylang. Each section describes what the oil is for, how to use it and whether you have to be careful with it.

After the description comes the “recipe section”, which contains the following chapters: Bath Oils, Bath Bombs, Bath Salts, Bubble Baths, Bath Soaps, Milk Baths, Body Scrubs, Body Powders, Body Sprays, Body Lotions, Facial Scrubs, Facial Masks, Facial Creams, Facial Toners, Shampoos and Shower Gels, Toothpaste, Lip Balms and Glosses, Cuticle Oils, Hand Creams, Products for the Feet.

As you can see, the book is very rich.

I picked two recipes for you, to give you and idea

Energizing Bath Salt


2 cups Epsom Salt

1 cup Sea Salt

10 drops Natural Green Food Coloring

5 drops Natural Blue Food Coloring

6 drops Eucalyptus essential oil

10 drops Rosemary essential oil

15 drops Peppermint essential oil


  1. In a large bowl, add salts and food coloring
  2. Add the essential oils, one drop at a time and mix well. Let it sit overnight.
  3. For the bath: Add 4 heaping tablespoons of bath salts to the running water for one full tub.

Sweet ‘N Sour Nail Growth Oil


20 drops Lavender essential oil

10 drops Lemon essential oil

2 tablespoons Sweet Almond Oil

Small dark glass bottle


  1. In a bottle, add the almond oil and the essential oils.
  2. Tighten the cap and shake the bottle vigorously for one minute to blend.
  3. To use, massage the nail bed once a day to encourage healthy growth.

I hope this gave you a good impression. I think Rebecca did a great job. It’s an inspiring and colorful book with tons of recipes, ideas and tips. It’s great for people who are fed up with toxic beauty products, for everyone who likes to experiment and try out new things, but also for those who are simply interested to learn more about essential oils.

Here is Rebbecca’s page.

And some more information on the author:

“Rebecca Park Totilo’s flair and passion for life bursts into living color when she writes and speaks, as you will see in the visual way she presents herself.  She literally believes in the “show, don’t tell” principle in everything she does.  Becca has ministered to literally millions of people via television, radio and live appearances. She is an award-winning published author of over 40 books, including “Therapeutic Blending With Essential Oil”, “Heal With Essential Oil”, and “Through the Night With God.” Her credits include working as a contributor writer on two best-selling series (“Quiet Moments with God” and “Stories for the Teen’s Heart”) which sold over one million and five million copies respectively.  She is also a freelance writer for several national magazines include Christian Parenting Today, Discipleship Journal and Woman’s World.

Rebecca’s photography work has appeared in numerous national magazines such as Woman’s World, Sports Spectrum, Evangel, and Sharing the Victory.  But by far, her greatest accomplishment, if you asked her, is after a decade of rejection slips (with almost 150 in one year!), Rebecca hit it big in 1999, with over 13 books contracts, ranging from teaching curriculum to gift books and devotionals for adults.  Truly, its her grit determination that makes her inspirational writings draw such a mass market appeal.

Rebecca graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1986 with a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Information Systems. In addition, she attended Faith Bible Institute in Richmond, Virginia for instruction in ministry and University of the Nations in Hawaii. She is also trained as a Clinical Aromatherapist and is an international educator offering online courses on the art of perfume-making and how to blend with essential oils worldwide on her website Rebecca owns a cute soap boutique, Aroma Hut, near the beach in Florida where she practices as an Clinical Aromatherapist.

Rebecca won the Writer of the Year in Non-Fiction (National Writer’s Association)

Rebecca Park Totilo

Thanks to Virtual Author Book Tours for letting me participate in this tour. I enjoyed it a great deal. If you’d like to enter for a giveaway, don’t miss the other tour dates, which you will find here.


Ken Bruen: The Dramatist (2004) A Jack Taylor Novel

The Dramatist

The impossible has happened: Jack Taylor is living clean and dating a mature woman. Rumour suggests he is even attending mass…The accidental deaths of two students appear random, tragic events, except that in each case a copy of a book by John Millington Synge is found beneath the body. Jack begins to believe that ‘The Dramatist’, a calculating killer, is out there, enticing him to play. As the case twists and turns Jack’s refuge, the city of Galway, now demands he sacrifice the only love he’s maintained, and while Iraq burns, he seems a step away from the abyss.

I probably have to thank Guy (His Futile Preoccupations) for discovering Irish crime writer Ken Bruen as he has reviewed a couple of his books, although not The Dramatist. Bruen has written standalones, one of which London Boulevard, has been made into a movie and he’s written the series, featuring the luckless, loveless, ex-Cop turned PI Jack Taylor.

Jack Taylor is a cynic, disillusioned tough-guy with a good heart. He stumbles through live and his cases, gets beaten up, finds love, loses it again, battles addiction and his demons. All this are ingredients which are quite common in PI series, still I found this to be extremely original. The voice is very unique and the fact that Jack Taylor is a great reader adds an additional layer to the books.

The Dramatist is the fourth in the Jack Taylor series. Jack is newly clean and sober and even gives up smoking in the middle of this novel. It’s not easy for someone like him to stay away from booze as he lives in a hotel and spends most of his free time in bars. At the beginning of the novel he visits his ex-dealer in jail. The guy’s sister was found dead. Allegedly she fell down the stairs but her brother thinks it was foul play and wants Jack to investigate. Jack doesn’t buy the murder idea, but must admit that it’s weird that a book with Synge’s plays was found under the student’s body. When a second student dies the same way, also found with a book by Synge, Jack is convinced as well that it is murder.

I really liked The Dramatist and will read the first in the series soon. The mix between crime, character study and insights into contemporary Ireland and Irish culture worked extremely well for me. The novel is much more about Jack Taylor and his bad luck than it is about the crime, but since I really like this character, I liked the book. I’m tempted to compare Taylor to Marlowe, but I’d say he’s a tad more cynic and much more talkative. While his views on society and his own character are dark, he hasn’t given up the fight. He still hopes for love and a sober life. Maybe this sounds as if this was a one-man show, but it isn’t. Jack has a few enemies, but he also has a lot of friends and a knack to talk with “little people”, which is endearing.

Kate Scott: Counting to D (2014)

Counting to D

I knew when I accepted a review copy of this novel that I wasn’t the ideal reader for it. Not because it’s a YA novel, but because it’s not the kind of YA novel I normally read (Fantasy Dystopian,  . . .). Still I accepted it because I thought it deserved attention. Kate Scott has chosen a hairy topic, one that deserves more understanding and one she knows better than most.

The narrator of Counting to D is 15-year-old Sam who has just moved from San Diego to Portland with her architect mother. Leaving behind best friends is hard. In her case even more so than in the case of other people because she has a special bond with one of her friends, Arden. Arden isn’t only her best friend she’s the person who opens a door for Sam, which would normally stay closed – the door to books and reading. Since they were little Arden reads to Sam. Sam is dyslexic and at the age of 15 she still can’t read any better than a 7-year-old. But Sam is unusually intelligent, a math whiz with an audiographic memory. She can memorize every book that has been read to her and make the most stunning calculations in her head. Math is her joy and her refuge. Whenever things get emotionally stressing, Sam curls up inside of her head, counting and calculating. At times she’s suspected to be autistic.

In her old school Sam was seen as too clever and too dumb at the same time. Leaving San Diego and going to a new school could be her chance to start anew.

The story which follows is one of  hope and encouragement. Sam makes new friends, falls in love for the first time, takes baby reading steps and overcomes prejudice and biased thinking.

While not entirely my cup of tea, I must say, this was a cute, warm book with endearing characters. I would highly recommend it to discussion groups, people who know someone who is dyslexic, parents with dyslexic kids, teachers and, thanks to a special font, it’s a great choice for dyslexic kids too.

The most amazing thing is certainly that Kate Scott is dyslexic herself and that she wrote a novel is a message of hope for all the kids who try to overcome their illiteracy. I have never met a dyslexic person, so it was interesting to read about this. It’s a sad fact that even nowadays once students are labelled “special ed”, many of their co-students will think of them as dumb.

I have no idea how often dyslexic kids show the traits Samantha shows in this book. She’s a genius, only one that cannot read.

Counting to D, which will come out in February, is a cute and important book with a hopeful message.

Thanks to Mindbuckmedia and Elliott Books for the review copy

Sarah Moss: Cold Earth (2009)

Cold Earth

Last summer I read Michelle Paver’s excellent ghost story Dark Matter and Max pointed out in a comment that the description reminded him of Sarah Moss’ first novel Cold Earth. Both novels are set in the North, under extreme conditions and both use a similar technique. The protagonists write diaries and/or letters. In Cold Earth the story is told from six different subsequent points of view, while there is only one in Dark Matter.

Cold Earth is the story of an archeological dig, set in a remote part of Greenland. Six young people, under the supervision of one of them, start excavating the remains of a Norse society. Something has wiped out that society, a fact that unsettles our diggers early on. At the same time they are aware that a pandemic is spreading and communication with the outside world isn’t possible. They are not only afraid that their families and friends might die but that nobody will come and get them once the date for their departure arrives. If  that wasn’t enough already, one of the six young people, Nina, the only one who isn’t an archeologist but working on a PhD in literature, pretends that the site is haunted and shows signs of either severe trauma or delusion.

The story is told from the point of view of the six people. The first part, Nina’s part is the longest. She’s the one who reacts the most to the circumstances. She has weird dreams at night that seem to come directly from the past, she is certain that someone or something walks around the camp at night. The others react to that in many different ways. There are those who are affected and those who just find her a pain in the ass. But the letters or journal entries all show that whether they believe in the ghost theory or in the possibility that Nina’s going mad, they have a hard time coping. Some have come carrying a past loaded with grief and sorrow others are badly affected by the idea that the pandemic is killing off their families and friends.

The longer they stay, the colder it gets and they have to expect the worst, namely that nobody will come and get them and that they will run out of food and not be sufficiently prepared to face  the Arctic winter.

I’m sure if I hadn’t read Dark Matter before, I would have liked this better. The elements which are similar, the ghost story parts, are much more scary and convincing in Dark Matter, I even thought that Paver did a better job in using a ghosts story as a means to illustrate fragility of human existence, and the influence of extreme weather conditions and surroundings on people. I also liked the structure better. Cold Earth starts strongly with Nina’s point of view, which takes up almost a third of the book, but the subsequent chapters, narrated by the others are shorter and shorter, as if she’d run out of breath. Of course you could say she chose that approach to create tensions but I felt some parts were too short to be entirely satisfying. What is very well done in Sarah Moss’ book is how she includes the dimension of society. Paver focusses more on the individual, Moss more on society and groups. I found it impressive how she described how hellish the wrong company can be. I’m not exactly a gregarious person and if I choose company it really needs to be the right one. I could sympathize with Nina who felt she wasn’t only among strangers but among people who were even a tad hostile.

I guess it depends on personal preference whether you will like Dark Matter or Cold Earth better. I could relate more to  the idea of a lonely person thrown into an awful situation than to a group facing disaster. I’m glad I read them both, as they are both extremely good, I just loved one more. If, like me, you like extreme and well-captured settings, you shouldn’t miss either one of tem.

If you’re interested here is Max’s very detailed and insightful review.

James Sallis : Others of My Kind (2013)

Other of my kind

Back in 2012 I read and reviewed Drive by James Sallis. I’ve been meaning to read more of him ever since and when I saw Others of My Kind at a local book shop I decided to read it.

The narrator of the book is Jenny, a woman who had been abducted as a child and held captive in a box under a bed for a couple of years. When her captor comes home at night, he gets her out, abuses and plays with her.  After managing to escape she lives in mall before she’s found and enters the foster care system. Suing for emancipation she becomes an adult at the age of 16. When the novel opens she works as production editor for a local TV station. One evening, when returning home from work, a detective waits for her in front of her house. Recognizing a fellow loner when she sees one, she asks the handsome detective in and serves him dinner. Right away there’s an intimacy and an understanding between the two. Jack has come to ask Jenny a favour. A twenty year-old woman who has been kept under similar circumstances has been found. The young woman shows signs of trauma and isn’t talking. Jack believes it would help if Jenny spoke to her. She agrees and the incident triggers memoroes of her own past.

Others of My Kind is a slim novel, saying more about the plot would spoil it too much. I found it very unusual in its choice of topic. In a way all of our expectations are turned upside down and we learn to see horrible things form an unexpected angle. I liked the main character Jenny quite a lot. She’s a character who has grown from what has happened to her and who has developed an astonishing capacity for compassion and a genuine ability to do something truly good without asking for anything in return. I found it refreshing that an author attempted to show that horrible circumstances don’t necessarily have to damage a person for life and that he managed to illustrate this without belittling the horrible events that happened in Jenny’s past. The result is a crime novel with an almost Buddhist vibe.

Sallis isn’t your usual crime writer. Not only because his stories are unusual but because of his pared down style. When you pare down sentences and scenes like Sallis, leaving only the most necessary, each and every single of your sentences will have a special power and meaning. Each element is chosen carefully, each scene stripped down to the bare minimum. A lesser writer would achieve something choppy and fragmented, while Sallis reaches another kind of fluidity. 

This book really put me in the mood to read more of him. I want to read The Killer is Dying next but I’m open for other suggestions.

S. J. Bolton: Dead Scared (2012)

Dead Scared

Dead Scared was my third novel by S.J. Bolton. It’s the second novel featuring Lacey Flint and DI Mark Joesbury. I liked Sacrifice and Now You See Me a lot, but I really loved Dead Scared. I think it’s one of my all-time favourite crime novels. It’s got everything I like in a plot-driven crime novel. Great setting, evocative atmosphere, appealing characters, a well-paced plot and a really great story. For once she didn’t even stretch believability all that much.

Evi Oliver is a student counsellor at the university of Cambridge. She has contacted the police because she is alarmed that so many female students commit suicide. Maybe there is an internet community or a group that drives them to take their own lives? The police don’t know what to make of this and decide to send an undercover agent who will pretend to be a vulnerable young student. Lacey Flint seems the right choice. Nobody but Evi knows her identity and even Evi doesn’t know her name.

What is striking in this series of suicides is that the young women choose very violent forms, which are not typically chosen by women. Just when Lacey arrives another woman has tried to take her life. She set herself on fire but could be saved. She has been severely burned and it’s not sure she will survive.

As soon as Lacey moves into her room, she starts to feel weird. It does make her nervous to pretend to be a young student and the many suicides are quite creepy. Additionally she’s targeted right away and becomes the victim of a rather sinister student prank. The fact that she doesn’t sleep well, has peculiar nightmares and wakes feeling groggy doesn’t help either.

After some investigations, Lacey concludes that Evi isn’t imagining things. It’s even possible that there is no online community but that there is something  much more threatening at work. When Evi is suddenly being stalked it becomes obvious that the situation is very dangerous for the two women.

Dead Scared is set in the university milieu of Cambridge and the way Bolton described the city is very evocative, giving the book traits that could have been taken from a Gothic novel.

As readers know from the first Lacey Flint/DI Joesbury book, Lacey isn’t exactly who she seems to be. She’s tough but due to a troubled past also very fragile. The relationship between Lacey and Joesbury intensifies in this book and is even more important than in the first.

The idea behind the crimes is really great and I wondered the whole time what was going on. I had a feeling but still kept on turning pages as quickly as I could.

I had barely finished the book when I already ordered the next in the Lacey Flint series. I’m pretty sure it’s not one of those books that will stay on the unread books pile for long.