Reviewing the Ozarks

In southern Missouri, the Big Piney flows from the hamlet of Dunn northward for one-hundred-and-ten miles, through pastures and hilly national forest, until it reaches the larger Gasconade River, which flows into the Missouri.

DOWN ALONG THE PINEY is the title for my collection of short stories that will be published in 2018 by the University of Notre Dame Press. I believe it makes a good title for this blog as well. Like a river, it will meander somewhat.

Mainly, it’s a blog devoted to book reviews. I’ll review whatever I run across, fiction or nonfiction, where the subject is the Ozarks. I’m partial to old books in need of a friend, but if writers want to send me something, I’m open to it. Of course, I don’t guarantee a review.

I was Adult Books Editor at Booklist some years ago. Editors were always keen to get their  hands on the galley of the new bestseller, but once I asked, “What’s the point of covering this book librarians can’t help but know about, and will buy no matter we say? Why not cover the books they haven’t heard about?”

My colleagues thought I was crazy, but anyhow you get my, excuse me, drift.

One other (occasional) emphasis: I’m fond of small town museums, many of which I’ve visited while researching my fiction. Sometimes, these have been carefully curated to represent the county or region where they are located. Just as often, they’re full of odd items outside the boundaries of professional curation. Collections of well-drilling tools, or treadle sewing machines. Reconstructed telephone exchanges from the 1920s, or dental offices from 1910. At Pioneer Village in Minden, Nebraska (, there’s a delightful collection illustrating the history of the riding lawn mower, spread out like a chart of evolution, from dangerous-looking, reel types to sleek modern machines.

A writer needs a blog to promote his work. Publishers seem convinced of this, though often it’s because they themselves are incapable of promotion. It’s a RULE TO LIVE BY: the more a publisher comes after you for how you plan to promote your work, the more you should consider self-publishing.

Like many writers, I’m a private sort, with little to communicate outside my fiction. And fiction, if it’s a form of communication at all, is a rather opaque form.

What I can do is write reviews.

Two of my eight books are guides to genres—Westerns and Christian fiction. Including the titles covered there, I’ve reviewed something on the order of 6000 books. I began in 1979 with Library Journal.  I’ve reviewed for Springfield Magazine, the Springfield News and Leader, Library Quarterly, the Kansas City Star, the Vietnam Veteran, American Reference Books Annual, Roundup, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and most importantly for me, the aforementioned  Booklist.

I’ll avoid books about which there’s nothing good to say. Or boring museums, for that matter. A negative review doesn’t really accomplish anything except to anger the author. Within your positive review, it’s always possible, and essential if you want to serve your reader, to point out shortcomings.

In the long run, a buddy review won’t help you much, either, though writers will kill to get them.

After a while, a year or three, the website will become a good resource for books on the Ozarks, my own included.

I hope so, though I suspect the prime virtue of a blog is to provide oneself with a deadline. Every two weeks if I can manage it. Maybe only once a month, if I’m deep down in the slough of  concentration.

First up, the classic Ozarks (and American) novel, Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine.  — John Mort