The Bone Trail by Nell Walton is a well-crafted mystery novel marred by a scattering of f-bombs, “Jesus Christ” profanities, references to excrement, and an instance of masturbation, none of which added to the story, but indeed detracted from what is otherwise a compelling page-turner by a gifted writer. This reader got the impression that the gutter language was more an expression of I am Woman, Hear Me Roar than anything else. However, in every instance of crass verbiage another choice of a lesser crudeness would have worked as well with less jarring to the sensibilities of readers who do not cotton to such verbal assault in everyday life, much more in recreational reading. Readers should be prepared also for an undertone of anti-establishment a la the hippie and yuppie movements of the Sixties and Seventies of the last century. Toss in a bit of PETA-like horse love, the disappearance of two women, a journey of self-discovery by a big city journalist who investigates the disappearance, the blossoming romantic entwinement of the journalist and a male hero in the form of a handsome and sensitive Native American soul-mate, a bit of Native American mythology, a satisfying ending, and you have the story. It was good. Very good. It could have been better.
A few pages into Death After Midnight by Dean Fetzer and I realized that the author's effort was not working for me. A page or two later and it dawned on me that the author was especially enamored of adverbs. Rarely was a verb allowed to rest on its own merits without an adverb that was both superfluous and amateurish. “Glared menacingly...glitter disconcertingly... raising a hand unconsciously...staring blankly...waved distractedly...eyes actually focused...throbbed sullenly.” And so it went. In addition, there was a similar problem with adjectives, not to mention pleonasm. Toss in a jarring new scenario every two or three pages that seemed disconnected from the previous scenario and that had no bearing on the next scenario, an unbelievable murder sequence involving a stiletto heel (including one of the more foul language tirades you will read anywhere), a female psychic who materializes out of nowhere, a 170 year-old blind entity (human? demonic?) and his muse, and, well, after reading some 60 pages of this literary effort, I gave up. The overall syntax and the disconnected scenarios did not meet my expectations for an entertaining read.
The story's “what-if” premise of the the Southern States peacefully seceding from the Union in the 1860s and forming a separate nation called the Confederate States of America (CSA) and then some decades later forming an alliance with Nazi Germany is an interesting twist on history. However, the reader will have to take a leap from “what-if” to a suspension of disbelief if you are to enjoy “Beneath Gray Skies” by author Hugh Ashton. For example, you will have to believe that a nominally-educated male CSA “Negro” slave is freed as a result of a stereotypical racist incident and then – with no vetting or prior intelligence experience – is embraced by the British intelligence service as an instant colleague. In addition, you will have to believe that this former slave and a beautiful, white, Jewish female, a member of the American intelligence community, have an instant chemistry on first-sight and fall in love, resulting in the former slave marrying the woman and being warmly welcomed into the woman's socially- and politically-prominent and quite wealthy family and social circle.
Next, you will have to believe that a character named “David” – a private in what is described as the uneducated “white trash” Confederate Army – is discovered to have extraordinary aptitude for the game of chess – a game that he had never played before – said skill causing him to gain the notice of his superiors who, in turn, determine David also has extraordinary skills in calligraphy, the ability to read well, and even do “some calculating with figures,” all of which lead David to an eventual rank of Sergeant and a key role with a group of Germans building a Zeppelin airdrome on Confederate Georgia soil.
Next is the enigmatic English hero, Brian, who darts in and out of the narrative with exploits of daring, deception, and spying in an effort to disrupt the CSA-Nazi alliance. Toss in a bunch of nasty Nazis and an equally nasty CSA President, a “save-the-world” United Kingdom intelligence service and its operative named “Dowling” (the former slave's original mentor), a plot to kill the bad guys, and it turns out that all's well that ends well.
The writing is adequate; however, with the exception of some British dialogue, the dialogue of most of the other characters too often lacked the ring of authenticity because what should have been dialects and idioms unique to those characters was lacking. Said another way, the drawl of the South and the unique syntax of German-to-English was missing.
Finally, I felt that the author also had a subtle and personal political and social agenda woven into the story – an agenda that can be explained best by reading both the author's preface to the first edition and his preface to the second edition.