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14 Oct
2014
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Book Review: “The Burning of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Carl Waters

The Burning of Uncle Tom's Cabin

Reviewed by Bev Scott

The title Burning of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a metaphorical message of the author’s intent to destroy the negative and stereotypical portrayals of black people in the original Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Carl Waters points out in the Introduction, that although Beecher was less racist than many of her contemporaries in that she believe that black people had souls and that slavery was wrong, she believed in the superiority of white people and the inferiority of black people.  For readers of Stowe today, this view is distorted and damaging.

Waters presents his own take on the original story, expanding the role of a minor character, George Harris, who refuses to accept that he is inferior or that he must remain a slave.   The story is told from the point of view of George and his wife Eliza who are admirable and courageous characters.  They take risks almost unimaginable for the sake of their love for each other and their son.  The cruelty of George’s slave owner, Frank Harris, and viciousness of the slave catchers are vivid in Water’s descriptions bringing the reader in terrifying propinquity to the horror of slavery.

The story quickly drew me in and I journeyed beside both George and Eliza as they attempt to escape to Canada.  At no point did the pace of their story lag nor did I lose interest in supporting their journey.  At times the suspense was so high for me that I needed a break; but then I am considered a soft touch.  At times the naiveté and trust of Eliza seemed unrealistic; however, since it probably comes from her protected and sheltered life as a “house slave”, it is more believable.

Burning Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the first of a four book series.  Waters has met his goal of creating black characters of depth and confidence while exposing the inhumanity of the institution of slavery.  He has also created a book with suspense, a compelling story and descriptions that give the reader a vivid experience of the journey George and Eliza traveled.  In the end, Waters leaves the reader eager for his next book.

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10 Sep
2014
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Book Review: “Finding Billy Battles” by Ron Yates

Finding Billy BattlesReviewed by Bev Scott

Billy Battles tells such an engaging story that it is easy to forget it is fiction written by someone else.  The author includes real people such as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Doc Holliday and events like the gun battle at the OK Corral, which contribute to the “reality” of the story.

There are actually three story tellers.   The author Ron Yates introduces us to Ted Sayles, the great grandson of William Fitzroy Raghlan Battles.  Sayles’ grandmother takes Ted to meet his great grandfather at the old soldier’s home in Kansas when he is 12.  Ted Sayles describes his reluctant meeting of the ninety-eight year old veteran of the Spanish American War and how he came to receive a trunk of journals written in “vivid prose” describing his great grandfather’s life as an itinerant journalist.  Sayles, himself a journalist, did not open the trunk and read the journals for thirty eight years after his great grandfather died.  After reviewing the contents of the trunk, Sayles sees as his task blending the journals, letters, photos and recordings with an unfinished autobiography into a compelling narrative of Billy Battles told in his own voice, the third story teller.

This book is the first of a trilogy in which Billy Battles begins by telling us in first person of his young adult life and how it took an unexpected turn, leading him through a series of unforeseen life-threatening events.  Despite these challenges, Billy becomes an established journalist in Denver where he marries and starts a family.  Unfortunately, calamity strikes and the anguish and heartache lead Billy to abandon his responsibilities.

Author Yates acknowledges that he uses the colloquial language he remembers from his own Kansas childhood in an effort to remain true to the vernacular of the time.  This is an admirable effort but it is overwhelming for today’s reader who did not grow up in Kansas.  Words and phrases which add color to the story also detract by being overwhelming to the reader in trying to figure out what is meant by “shin out”, “hog leg”, “sticky rope”, “has the sand to jerk his dewey at the law”, “inside of a hoosegow” and many others.   In addition, some of the big “fifty cent” words Yates uses such as francoteradores or insalubrious seem out of place in this story.

Interspersed with the lively vernacular are brilliant descriptions that carry the reader to the scene or provide vivid images of characters in the story such as this description of Doc Holliday:  “Doc was a strange one.  He had eyes that would chill a side of beef.  They were piercing slate gray and set deep in an ashen face.  The skin was pulled so tight over his high cheekbones that you though a bone might poke through anytime.”

The author very cleverly sets up the reader to go deeper and deeper into the story with hints about what will happen in the future such as, “Had my life not taken a regrettable turn a few weeks later, we might have developed a more romantic liaison” Or, “that kind of legal problem was nothing compared to an incident that was a few weeks away and that would have a momentous impact on both our lives.”  Or simply, “But things were about to change.”

I was hooked as Yates the author and Billy Battles the story teller graphically depict life in the last half of the 19th Century as the West is tamed and Battles wrestles with the unexpected and startling events that change his life.  I didn’t want this book to end.  I am still hooked and ready to read the next book in the trilogy.  I want to know the next surprising turn in Billy Battles life.

Author website: www.ronaldyates.com

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17 Jul
2014
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Book Review: “The Shadow Queen” by Sandra Gulland

The Shadow QueenReviewed by Bev Scott

Again, Sandra Gulland plunges us into the rich history of France, this time in the 17th Century.  Based on the true story of Claudette, a young woman who wanders the French countryside with her family’s acting troupe, Gulland introduces us to the socially outcast life of the theatre.  Claudette is a responsible caretaker who dutifully cares for her developmentally disabled brother and supports her widowed mother who rises to stardom in the theatre.  By chance, she is offered the opportunity to become the personal assistant to Athenaiis, mistress of the King with the allure of respectability, money and glittering gowns and jewels.  But, it means that she must risk leaving her brother and mother who depend on her both emotionally and physically.

Claudette loyally supports Athenaiis and dutifully carries out her demands including servicing the King and procuring remedies and potions to ensure Athenaiis’s position  as the shadow queen. The story becomes even more compelling as Claudette becomes disillusioned with the spying, power struggles, and the use of black magic.

The pace of the book is energetic and I was never bored, although occasionally the jumps in time or place left me feeling I had missed a transition.  The title is a bit misleading as the protagonist is really Claudette not Athenaiis who is the Shadow Queen.  However, The Shadow Queen is a magnificent story, with realistic characters of  depth and nuance and Gulland’s historical mastery takes you on a journey to an intriguing past.

Author website: www.sandragulland.com

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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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