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16 Jul
2014
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Book Review: “The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B” by Sandra Gulland

The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B

Reviewed by Bev Scott

Sandra Gulland is an engaging writer offering vivid descriptions beginning in the late 1770’s in Martinique and taking the reader to the Court in Paris.  In Trois-Ilets, Martinique, we join Rose in her worry about being unmarried, without a dowry and no hope at fourteen.  Through conversations, Gulland cleverly leads us to understand the ravages of malaria, rum and gambling on the family dynamics as the pressure mounts for a decision about Rose’s future.  She is punished with eight days in the cellar for going to the voodoo fortune teller who predicts she will be unhappily married and widowed, but most importantly she will be Queen.  The “Devil” woman also predicted that Rose’s sister Catherine would be in the ground before her birthday.  With Catherine’s foretold death, Rose becomes the potential bride of a handsome, well-educated godson of her aunt in France.  With this beginning, I was definitely hooked.

The author uses the diary technique where Rose describes her experience and we are privy to her insecurities, fears, loneliness and secret hopes.  Gulland has done extensive research and offers the reader rich fact-based descriptions of life in 18th Century France.  We learn about her first marriage, children, her husband’s infidelity, insights into the French Revolution including her own imprisonment and the relationship she develops with Napoleon who calls her Josephine.  Initially the diary technique allows us into the nuanced emotional life of the young Rose, but as the book proceeds, the narrative moves into more description of her experiences.  I found myself wanting more depth and insight into how she was absorbing and incorporating these experiences into who she was becoming and how she comes to terms with the internal conflicts and contradictions she faces.

I thoroughly enjoyed learning about this minor historical character and a well-researched plunge into 18th Century France.  The pace is energetic and only an occasional slow pace, however, some parts seem to jump ahead leaving me in some confusion about the flow of the story.  In addition to using the diary, the author also uses correspondence from her husband to tell much of his story.  These techniques work for the most part but limit the reader’s understanding of characters through the eyes of Rose/Josephine.

Overall, I found it to be a gripping story that kept my attention from beginning to end.

Author website: www.sandragulland.com

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15 Jan
2014
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Book Review: “The Beautiful American” by Marilyn Holdsworth

The Beautiful AmericanReviewed by Bev Scott

I was engaged in this story which begins in current time with an antique dealer, Abby, who purchases a coveted lady’s desk for herself.  The desk is not only the connection between Abby and her suitor, Nathan, but also to primary character of the second and major story line, Jasmine, a slave in the Virginia household of the future President James Monroe.  This second story unfolds when Abby finds a diary in her new desk.

The author’s descriptions are vivid and clear and carried me into the experience of Jasmine’s struggles to help with and learn her letters beside her master’s spoiled and self-centered daughter, Eliza.  Jasmine’s character develops from a naïve inexperienced young girl awed by her opportunity to move into the big house, receiving clothes, an education  to a more confident young woman enchanted with a young aspiring artist she meets in Paris where Master Monroe serves as Ambassador to France. Jasmine supports her mistress, Elizabeth Monroe, in preparations for entertainment, settles the high-spirited Eliza, keeps confidences for Elizabeth and earns a privileged place in the Monroe household.

I liked the inclusion of actual historical characters in this story.  We follow the realistic characters of James and Elizabeth Monroe, as James becomes a significant player in the politics of our new nation.  Monroe is encouraged and supported by Thomas Jefferson.  The author even brings in Napoleon and his wife Josephine while the Monroes are living in Paris.  The story is not deeply involved in the historical realities of these characters but adds spice to bring them into the story

Jasmine’s story is told primarily in her voice.  This point of view allows the author to give us an intimate view of Jasmine’s character by using the dialect of the uneducated slave. Following this dialogue can be a challenge for the reader, but Holdsworth manages to use it to convey image and character of without slowing the reader down too much.  As Jasmine is educated, including learning French, the author drops the use of the dialect.  At times it was a bit confusing when the point of view moves from the intimate first person to the observer’s voice in describing the experiences and actions of James and Elizabeth Monroe.  Since the point of view is Jasmine’s telling of the story, I wanted Jasmine to tell me more of her internal dilemmas and thoughts about her condition.  Does she worry about being surprised and perhaps raped by Gabriel, the bitter rebel slave from a nearby planation?  Did she have internal conflicts about leaving her love in France?  The story doesn’t tell us.

As a reader, I anticipated the evolving romance between Abby and Nathan as well as the outcome for Jasmine.  I would like a little more uncertainty.  The author uses the diary as the vehicle to reveal Jasmine’s story.  Yet I wonder if an uneducated slave would tell her story in a diary.  Despite the questions I have raised, Jasmine’s story as well as the opening story of Abby and Nathan kept me engaged with a quick pace and vivid descriptions in a realistic historical context.

Author website: www.marilynholdsworth.com

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8 May
2013
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Book Review: “Redemption” by Joe Prentis

RedemptionReviewed by Bev Scott

Based at the end of the Civil War, a time of turmoil, suspicion and great uncertainty, Sargent Oakley and Private McCade, who have been loyal Union soldiers fighting for and as aids to General McClellan, find themselves under the suspicion of participation in an assassination plot of high level government officials.   The author does a masterful job of describing the environment, the historical context, the politics and the personal qualities of his characters.  I felt I was there.  As a reader, I was drawn in immediately and the plot development kept me engaged to the end.    At times, I was a little confused regarding who might be part of the plot and who was not.  In a way that reinforces the story and the political chaos and complexity of the historical times.   I liked the redemption of Sargent Oakley, although I was disappointed in what seemed like a story brought too quickly to an end.

Author website: www.joeprentiswebsite.com

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