Reviews of what you should be reading next.

Month: May 2022

SAWBONES by Ed Kurtz

“I was to make myself a killer.” In 1865, a man calling himself Septimus Whitehall slashed, shot, and burned his way from New York to California in a frenzy of violence. This is his own story, told in his own words.
Seven names were on the doctor’s list. Seven men and women scattered all over the United States and its western territories. Seven souls judged guilty by a mysterious man with no past apart from the loss for which his enemies are blamed. The War Between the States is over, but Septimus Whitehall intends to wage a bloody war of his own and he is willing to cut down almost anyone who stands in his way. From New York City and Boston on the cusp of the Gilded Age to the war-ravaged ruins of Alabama and Arkansas, through the mythic American West and beyond, Whitehall will practice his violent vocation until everyone on that list meets the Sawbones.

Thanks to NetGalley and Crossroad Press for this review copy!

SAWBONES is quite the unusual read. The author creates a sympathetic character in Septimus Whitehall as he travels from New York City to the Dakota Territory, seeking to murder those who are on his “list” of victims. Whitehall is avenging the death of his only love by taking the lives of those who were involved in her death, either directly or indirectly. There is wonderful detail in the author’s descriptions of Five Points in the 1800’s, as well as the Civil War, and the unsettled West. As I read, I felt as if I were there, seeing, hearing and smelling the same things Septimus was.

Another curious and fascinating thing about SAWBONES is the author’s use of language. I consider myself to be quite familiar with the English language; yet there were many words that I needed to look up. As I read the definitions I felt as if I had struck gold. I became familiar with words such as effigial, pantophagy, and raillery. As I’ve said before, any book that makes me look up definitions is always a winner.

Septimus is at times a complete gentleman and then a murderer. He stalks his prey yet remains courteous to others. He is clearly an intelligent man with deep emotions but with a singular goal; eliminate those on his macabre list. During his journey he encounters many roadblocks, skirting his own death all the while. He is a solitary man with one purpose in life, and it is easy to cheer him on as he searches for his victims.

This is definitely a violent and gory read, but the balance of gore and period detail are perfectly blended. As I kept reading, I wondered when the book would draw to a close – it is actually quite long. However, the author kept me interested by throwing in some action just as the book bordered on dull/too much description. That being said, I totally loved SAWBONES. It’s a quirky, intelligent read that will stay with you long after you are done reading. I would love to see a sequel to see what Septimus is up to now.

You can get your copy here.

LAST RITES by Todd Harra

The Untold Story of American Funeral and Mourning Traditions

Why do we embalm the deceased? Why are funerals so expensive? Is there a reason coffins are shaped the way they are? When—and why—did we start viewing the deceased? Ceremonies for honoring the departed are crucial parts of our lives, but few people know where our traditional practices come from—and what they reveal about our history, culture, and beliefs about death. In Last Rites, author Todd Harra takes you on a fascinating exploration of American funeral practices—examining where they came from, what they mean, and how they are still evolving.
Our conventions around death, burial, and remembrance have undergone many great transitions—sometimes due to technology, respect for tradition, shifting sensibilities, or even to thwart grave robbers. Here you’ll explore:
• Influences for American rituals—from medieval Europe, the Roman Empire, and even ancient Egypt
• When mourning fell out of fashion—and how George Washington’s passing brought it back
• Abraham Lincoln’s landmark funeral and its widespread impact
• Flowers, liquor, mourning gifts, and caskets—the reasons behind our grieving customs
• Unknown soldiers—how warfare influenced funeral and bereavement practices … and vice versa
• How growing populations, religion, inventions, and media have changed and continue to shape our traditions
• The future of our death rites—mushroom suits, green burial, body donation, flameless cremation, home funerals, and more
The rich story of the American funeral is one of constant evolution. Whether you’re planning a funeral service or are simply intrigued by the meaning behind American burial practices, Last Rites is an informative and compelling exploration of the history—and future—of the ceremonies we use to say farewell to those who have departed this world.
The rich story of the American funeral is one of constant evolution. Whether you’re planning a funeral service or are simply intrigued by the meaning behind American burial practices, Last Rites is an informative and compelling exploration of the history—and future—of the ceremonies we use to say farewell to those who have departed this world.

Thanks to NetGalley and Sounds True publishing for giving me this ARC to review!

Todd Harra is an excellent writer and extremely knowledgeable about the funeral industry. LAST RITES is not his first book; he has written multiple books about the funeral business and (interestingly enough) some mystery books with an undertaker as the main character. I’ll be checking those out quite soon! You can find the first book on Amazon.

I have always been fascinated about death and funerals – when I was in high school, I was early accepted to the McCallister Academy of Mortuary Science.  The only thing that stopped me from attending was an interaction between me and a funeral director (who was the only woman in my town to own her own business) I approached her for some information and offered to work there, like an externship. I would set up the rooms, clean, etc., and possibly watch an embalming or two just to see what the business was really like. She was quite rude and told me not to bother going to school, since I didn’t have “family in the business” I would never make it. She went on to say that no one would hire me because I was an outsider, not part of a funerary family. I was young and I took her words to heart and chose a different career path. It’s ironic that now, most funeral homes are owned by a corporate entity and employ staff with all kinds of backgrounds…family “in the business” is no longer an issue.

So, back to LAST RITES. The author takes us through the history of everything funerary, from early funeral customs during Egyptian times to the present as well as embalming, mourning customs, burial procedures (especially interesting is the “alarms” that bodies were buried with, in case the person inside the coffin was not truly dead (!), the evolution of hearses, and superstitions surrounding death and dying. There is enough substance for both serious students and curious laypeople to enjoy. There is the occasional yucky detail but not enough to make the book a struggle to read.

The author made this book very information-dense; it can be overwhelming if you choose to read it over the course of a few hours. I preferred to limit my intake to 30-45 minutes, as it helped me to really absorb the details and/or look up more information on a subject that I wanted to learn more about. There are footnotes at the end of every chapter, which helped me to gain a new level of understanding to what was written in the body of the book.

What I liked most about LAST RITES is that there were enough nuggets there to complement the knowledge I had already. The author gives a lot of detail and examples to make the book a multi-layered approach towards death customs and the like.  At times it did read like a textbook, but the information needed to be written in such a way to include the level of detail I mentioned above. The author’s style makes it easy to read, which is a blessing considering the ultra-serious subject matter.  The United States perpetuates the avoidance of death and dying, which is a shame considering everyone must deal with it eventually. Perhaps LAST RITES will help shed some light on the history of this long-standing profession and help people make informed end-of-life decisions.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book! You can pick up your copy here.

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