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Book Report: Going back keeps stories going

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Sometimes an author doesn't realize he's got a good thing going and plunges on ahead when he might well have done better had he looked back.

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Popular Minnesota author Jon Hassler's first adult novel was "Staggerford," which drew rave reviews from the New York Times.

Unfortunately Hassler killed off one of his most attractive heroes, Miles Pruitt, at novel's end.

More recently, Dan Woll did the same thing with his novel about the Madison bombings in the 1960s in "Murder at Cache Lake."

So what's a poor author to do?

Write a "prequel," that's what.

That's just what Connie Claire Szarke has done this year. Szarke's "Delicate Armor" was a Minnesota Book Award nominee.

She had a wonderful cast of characters, some of them on the way out. So Szarke has backed up to World War I and created "A Stone for Amer" (Heron Bay Publishing, $14), which reintroduces the same characters.

Szarke calls it a "sequel" but I like prequel because she picks up her story before Callie, her memorable character in "Delicate Armor," is even born.

Callie was the irrepressible little girl growing up in rural Minnesota in the 1950s. She's always in trouble and gives her father, Will Lindstrom, a small-town office holder, more than a few premature gray hairs.

They're both back in "A stone for Amer," and this time father takes over the narration.

It's the present and Will is determined to find out what happened to his Uncle Amer, who left Minnesota for the wilds of Eastern Montana after World War I.

Soon after his Minnesota family receives a letter saying that Amer is dead, murdered.

Why would anyone want to murder Amer, a gentle kindly man?

More murder from Minnesota murder mystery mavens Marilyn Rausch and Mary Donlon, who met at the Loft Literary Center and have collaborated on their first novel "Headaches Can Be Murder" (North Star Press, $14.95).

It's a tour de force in that there's a story within a story here.

It starts with Chip Collingsworth, a loser whose psychiatrist tells him to write as therapy. He writes and his book turns out to be a bestseller.

Now he's in a pickle because his agent has signed him to a multi-book contract and his deadline is running out.

He runs off to Iowa to be alone with his work on a new medical mystery called "Brain Freeze," set on Minnesota's North Shore.

As the story develops, his work in progress intertwines with his own life and things get hairy with brain implants and all manner of stuff.

Rausch is a CPA and Donlon is a market-research consultant with imagination to spare.

Their description of breakfast at a small town Iowa greasy spoon is spot on:

"Each morning a group of farmers surrounded one of the large tables. The corn had been harvested and these guys seemed to have time on their hands. They all wore grimy seed caps and plaid flannel shirts and a few actually wore bib overalls. He listened to the clinking of the spoons as sugar and cream were added to cups of steaming black coffee. He was fascinated by one of the oldest-looking farmers, who poured his coffee into his saucer to drink it...."

That's priceless.

Not so priceless comes two paragraphs later when they create a farmer bragging about the new "Chalmers" over at the implement dealer. As a longtime aficionado of rural greasy spoons, I know of no farmers who refer to Allis-Chalmers tractors with that term.

It's never "Chalmers," ladies. It's always just "Allis."

But they can straighten all that out in their -- yes, you guessed it -- sequel, tentatively out in 2013.

"Sasha and Emma," by Paul Avrich and Karen Avrich (Harvard University Press, n.p.) is a labor of love by a scholar and his daughter, who completed the manuscript.

It tells the story of Russian immigrants Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, anarchists to the core. They were lovers, then good friends, passionate in their search for freedom -- Berkman so much so that he tried to assassinate industrialist Henry Clay Frick and was given 14 years in prison for his efforts.

Goldman, the more famous of the two, was deported from the country she loved and spent most of her years in Europe.

I never knew much about her except for E. L. Doctorow's portrait of her in his novel "Ragtime." After reading the Avrich book I know a lot more.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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