Book Review: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

19 08 2014


Title:  Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War

Author: Karen Abbott

Publisher:  Harper

Genre:  History

Available:  September 2, 2014

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thanks to the publisher for providing me with an advanced readers copy of this book.  I especially enjoy the opportunity to read and review new Civil War offerings!

Karen Abbott follows four significant women (two from the North and two from the South) and their contributions to the conflict through the course of the war.  The Southern bells – Rose Greenhow and Belle Boyd – are very recognized in Civil War history, both having served as spies and lived rather open and flamboyant lives.  Elizabeth Van Lew, a Northern sympathizer living in Richmond, is also very well celebrated – I even saw a photo of her on a billboard for 150th CW celebrations during a recent visit to the former Confederate capitol.  She aided the Union cause in a number of ways, passing messages, helping prisoners escaped, planting spies.  And finally Emma Edmondson, who reinvented herself as a soldier in the 2nd Michigan, Frank Thompson.  Thompson spent two years in the Union army, soldiering, nursing, and even making recon behind enemy lines.

Abbott chronicles the war loosely, linking the women together through the action.  The book itself is more about their activities, with enough background material on the conflict to give value and context to the things going on around them.  It is written with a more novelesque style, the author taking liberties with how the characters may have felt or explaining the details of a scene in a way that could not have been documented.  It does make for a faster read and a more entertaining story, but less scholarly in ways.

The book apparently has a full slate of notations, references and photos, but the advanced readers copy did not have access to complete showing of them.

I think this would make a great read for someone interested in starting a study of women’s roles during the Civil War, but not necessarily military actions.

Note:  I was provided a copy by the publisher.  All opinions expressed are my own.


New Sherman Book Drops on July 1!

10 06 2014

Title:Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman

Author:  Robert L. O’Connell
Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman
My Rating – 4 of 5 stars
Publisher: Random House
Genre:  Biography, History, Civil War

Thanks to NetGalley and Edelweiss and the publisher for allowing me the opportunity to read and review this Advanced Readers Copy of “Fierce Patriot”.

William T. Sherman, one of the great Union commanders of the Civil War, may also be one of the most complex in his thinking and his relationships. The author seeks to explore Sherman’s psyche and character through three of his life roles – as Military Strategist, Leader of his Men or his role as Uncle Billy, and his family relationships. While there is overlap during his lifetime, O’Connell looks at it as Sherman’s own “three ring circus” and addresses each accordingly.

Militarily he looks at Sherman’s admission to West Point, the skills he used and his life experiences in the army. Sherman had unique talents which were ideally suited for the military environment. Though his early career seemed to lack any true block buster successes, each of his opportunities gave him growth and vision that would help him later to achieve great things. We follow Sherman through these seemingly lack luster events – his missing the Mexican revolution because of his stationing in California, his adventures in banking that later dried up, the attempt of his father in law to push him into managing an Ohio salt works and his running of a Louisiana Military School. (Sherman never questioned why the state of Louisiana would want a military school.) Then we hear the standard Civil War stories of Sherman, but with a more in depth look at how the early experiences may have influenced him both positively and negatively. By the time Sherman has marched to the sea, and through the Carolinas, he has restored his reputation to the status of legendary. His subsequent post war army activity – including his part in the transcontinental railroad and the demise of the buffalo on the Great Plains are things often missed in the average history book. Certainly, Sherman continued to affect this country and in essence became a larger than life celebrity during this time.

His relationship with his men is perhaps the most poignant part of the Sherman story. Sherman may have been full of himself, but to his men he was everything. The Army of the Tennessee was a complex animal, a combination of one part Uncle Billy – the persona he became to his men. He rode with them, fought with them and inspired them, while then in turn did the same for him – reaching down inside themselves and pushing to their max. Sherman never lost their love, appearing at many veteran reunions and always bringing joy and laughter to the men. The author goes to the first person level with several soldier stories that represent these relationships, which gave a more realistic telling to that relationship.

Finally, the author tries to relate the complex web of relationships in Sherman’s family – which consisted of not only blood family, but a foster family. His wife Ellen, was in fact his foster sister, which only added more tangles to the web. While Sherman fought his father in law and the family through most of his early life and was later to somewhat overcome it. He struggled his whole marriage with Ellen’s Catholic faith and the influences it brought to their household. There were trials, and suffering. The Shermans did not have a storybook marriage.

The author used a contemporary writing style, using modern language and descriptions to give us a Sherman we can relate to. He also included many footnotes, annotations and a full compliment of sources to keep us in tune with the views of the time. The author notes that “there is plenty of Sherman” to go around. And indeed there is. O’Connell only touched the very tip of the iceberg in this biography.

Fans of Sherman should enjoy the book. While it doesn’t seem that there is any new revelations, it might just present a different way to look at the deeds of an incredible historical figure who has been all but reduced to “the guy who did that march to the sea thing” in the eyes of the average American. It’s peeling off the layers of history.

Recommend also to students of the Civil War and military history.

I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher. All opinions expressed are my own.

Civil War Book Review: Clouds of Glory, Michael Korda’s Biography of Robert E. Lee

10 05 2014

Thanks to Harper Collins for providing me an advanced reader copy of this book for reviews through the Edelweiss Program.  I am thrilled to get a chance to read this one.

Title:  Clouds of Glory

Author:  Michael Korda

Genre:  Historical Biography, Civil War

Available: NOW

My Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Michael Korda (who has also written a biography of U.S. Grant) tries his pen at untangling the life of Robert E. Lee, a man considered both hero and traitor by fellow countrymen.  Korda uses the framework of Lee’s legacies to define his life, showing readers how the deeds of Henry “Lighthorse” Lee (and the misdeeds) along with the connections to George Washington, built a foundation of honor that would later rule Lee’s life.  From the early days of growing up in Virginia, through his West Point years, his service in the U.S. Army and finally as leader of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee carried himself with humility and honor unsurpassed by others of his generation.  Yet his story is also filled with details of courage, fortitude, engineering genius and military prowess.  Korda attempts to tell the entire story in this ambitious one volume book.  (Keeping in mind that Douglas Southall Freeman’s 4 volume Pulitzer Prize winner is the standard for Lee.)

Korda has his work cut out for him, for any student of the Civil War will know that even the story of the 4 years of Lee’s life in the Army of Northern Virginia could encompass an entire volume.  While Korda breathes life into the Lee we have hardly heard of – the youthful Lee, son of Ann Carter and Henry Lee, there is just not enough room in any one volume work to truly do justice in any depth to this part of his life.  Korda covers all the Battles, shares the heartache of some of the side events.  But at the end of the day, the abbreviated version may say enough about Lee in these circumstances, but sometimes does not represent the events to the full depth of understanding.  This might not be a problem for new students of the Civil War, but to those with more than rudimentary knowledge, it may be frustrating.

Korda’s style of writing is a bit different than many of the historical bios that I enjoy.  While his work is full of quotations and details, he does not footnote the work in the usual manner.  Most footnotes in the book are “add on” information – little tidbits that will enhance a reader’s understanding of the topic of discussion (can be helpful for someone who is not well versed).  Yet, the sources for the other information are provided only in a bibliography, except in the instance where Korda quotes the person by name who made comment of Lee in the text.

The book reads differently as well. Korda writes in a more conversational tone, as though he is sitting down and sharing the story personally with readers.  He often jumps ahead of himself in telling the fate of the various individuals in Lee’s life, only to cover it in detail later on in the timeline of the events.   This contributes to “storytelling” feel that is created by the language.  It does make for a very readable account.

The book is not without error.  I found several instances of sloppy fact checking (Jeb Stuart died on May 12, 1864 not May 11.  Douglas Southall Freeman’s bio of Lee is four volumes, not three.)  His perspectives on the war are decidedly not typical – he supports Longstreet at Gettysburg, and defends him vigorously throughout the book.

My overall feeling – I enjoyed the book.  I learned a ton of information on Lee that was previously unknown to me.  The style of writing made it readable.  I would recommend for new students of the Civil War and those who may not have read about Lee previously.

Note:  I was provided a copy of the book by the publisher.  All opinions expressed are my own.


Book Review: Year of No Sugar by Eve O. Schaub

13 03 2014

Book TitleYear of No Sugar

Author:  Eve O. Schaubcover40299-medium

Genre: Health and Nutrition Memoir

Publisher: Sourcebooks

Release Date: April 8, 2014

My Rating: 4 of 5 Stars

After watching a Youtube video, Eve digs into research about the harmful affects of sugar on our bodies and decides she and her family must embark on a year long adventure of limiting sugar in their diets.  Oh, and she is going to blog about it along the way.  This book was born in that year of blogging.  Eve recounts the 12 months in 2011, where her family tried to avoid infusing the fructose that pervaded their diets and lifestyles.  She, her husband and two girls looked at their meals, their snacks, their drinks and especially their desserts to eliminate the added sugar.  Along the way they learned many things about nutrition, food, and how the American culture has elevated foot and eating to an experience rather than a necessity.

Schaub offers up their story with facts, figures and a bit of humor.  She chronicles their frustrations, mistakes, victories and leanings.   She gives readers enough information to pursue the knowledge base that she used to make their decisions, and through their adventures provides tips and tricks, also pointing out traps along the way.  (Agave – so natural, but pure poison.)  Her daughters embrace the experiment to some degree.  Shared excerpts from her oldest’s journal show the social frustrations of the experiment.

While the health consequences of this lifestyle seem to be the focal point, I almost felt the whole thing was a commentary of how America has elevated food to godlike status, with sugar as the leading lady in this drama.  It is our comfort, our babysitter, our reward, our social tool- yet it kills us, poisons us and we don’t even pay attention.  We can’t do anything without eating, and if we are eating, it better be tasty and satisfying.  The author herself ties events in her childhood to the delicious food, social activities and rewards.  No doubt eating is essential.  A good meal can be satisfying.  But we eat to survive, not survive to eat.

I enjoyed Schaub’s humor and writing style, but the book seemed to drag towards the end – with her minute details on food prep, killing chickens, and cooking techniques driving me to skim the last few chapters.  Overall I liked the book, the story, the experiment, but had a hard time identifying with Schaub personally.

Recommend for:  Everyone.  This book is an easy and lighthearted approach to the sugar problem.  But especially recommend for those who have a burning desire to embrace this lifestyle or improve their health through better nutrition.

Extra:  Author’s Tips for Eating Sugar Free

Note:  I was provided a copy by the publisher.  All opinions expressed are my own.


The Story is Told by Those Who Lived It: Love and Loss by Mary Octavia Smith Tabb

3 03 2014

Love and Loss: A Virginia Girl's Civil War DiaryLove and Loss: A Virginia Girl’s Civil War Diary by Mary Octavia Tabb
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mary Octavia Smith kept a diary starting in January of 1863 through November of 1868. While her initial entries are more representative of what a Southern woman’s daily life might be like, in 1864 she gets into the remorse and loss of a young soldier lost during the Battle of Big Bethel. Her pain in quite vivid in these extremely well written and descriptive passage. Later on her diary become a combination of both.

At the end of the diary, there is some research material included. These sections explain the relationships of the people mentioned in the diary to its author – as it is not always apparent from her texts. A number of family trees are provided for the Smiths and other families mentioned.

I will say that for the average reader this book would probably hold little interest. Tavy’s diary is mostly a log of life in the mid-18th century. Students of history will find it more interesting, and be able to link up historical events to some of the entries in the diary. It also represents the consequence of the war – the loss felt by so many women across both the North and South. Tavy struggles to the point of feeling unable to extend her heart to another. Her sorrow doesn’t subside and is compiled by the other losses of friends and a way of life.

Recommend for students of the Civil War.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Runaway Saint by Lisa Samson

12 02 2014

Title: Runaway Saint

Author: Lisa Samson_140_245_Book.1119.cover

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

Genre: Women’s Christian Fiction

Available: February 18, 2014

My Rating: 3 of 5 Stars.

I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher. Thank you Thomas Nelson. All opinions provided are my own.

Like many of Samson’s books, Runaway Saint takes place in Baltimore, MD where Sara and Finn run a print shop/design studio. It is a husband/wife venture, small, stylish and trendy. Sara is an artist of sorts, a designer, a creator. But on her 30th birthday, her hippie mom drops a bomb on Sara. Aunt Bel is back in town, the long lost missionary who disappeared from the US and their lives some 25 years previous. Sara is the only one who has space for her.

Something is not quite right with Aunt Bel, and really the whole family dynamic. As Sara continues forward in the pursuit of growing the business and deciding where she stands on having a family, she struggles with her relationship with her sainted aunt.

I’m a long time lover of Lisa Samson’s books. Since first stumbling across her Embrace Me on a “new releases” stand at the local library, I have made my way through most of the body of her work. (Including the Hollywood Nobody Series which is one of my favorite teen series.) She writes with clear, concise description, weaving the details into the story in ways that draw readers right in. Typically her stories are a little edgy, filled with Christian themes, and characters struggling through their faith. Her devotion to the greater Baltimore area and the way she links books together through characters and settings is charming for her regular readers. For some reason, this offering did not resonate with me like most of her books have.

The characters overlap a little bit on her last book The Sky Beneath My Feet, which is typical Samson. Her stories have become more “young urbanite”, almost Neta Jacksonish, rather that reflective of the characters and situations that Samson has previously tackled. While her writing is still spot on with its descriptive character, the plot line in Runaway Saint, seemed to lose it’s steam in the web of secrets that needed to be unraveled. While I still enjoyed the story in general, I felt like I had a harder time connecting to Sara. Her conflict, although buried in the plot, didn’t seem realistic and the resolution and faith component less relevant.

Still Samson is a force in Christian fiction and this new book is filled with surprise elements, some depth and spectacular descriptions. There is nothing “fluffy” about her approach. This one just seemed to miss the mark for me.

Recommend for: Women’s Fiction Readers who aren’t afraid of a little God in their stories.

Book Review: Going Somewhere by Brian Benson

7 01 2014

Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy of this memoir to read and review.

Title:  Going Somewhere

Author:  Brian Benson

Genre:  Memoir

Publisher:  Plume

Shelly’s Rating: 3 stars

Brian chronicles his cross country bike ride with girlfriend, Rachel sharing their adventures along with his own moments of self discovery.

First of all I’d like to say that I’m probably not the target market for this book. Despite the fact that I grew up about an hour or so from Brian’s hometown (waving from Montreal), I really didn’t connect with this story as much as I thought I would – except for the times that the young lovers were actually making their way through Wisconsin.  That’s probably because Brian is sharing the story of a twenty something young male – in all the glory of single male things – like using the F-word and relating everything back to sex along with sharing (with some discretion) the regular intimate associations that he and his girlfriend share. I, personally, would never suggest that having a microbrew after a long drought of Buds and Millers would bring me to a state of arousal.

That being said, I enjoyed much of the book – the parts that talked about his own self discoveries – and the actual details of the bicycling journey (vs. the journey of discovery he and his girlfriend found in many places along the way). The two of them are semi-clueless at the start – how many times are they going to forget to fill water bottles? Yet, as they progress through the states, they real gain their biking mojo. Even as they face bigger realities about themselves and their relationship, the things they encounter on the trail seem to mold and change them.

Two things I loved about this book.
1) Brian does a great job of sharing the real America with us in his descriptions. Having studied this great country with a little depth – the variations between states and regions – I had a great appreciation for the details that Brian flushed out about the various areas they traveled – noting the differences between the states. His language and perspective really provided excellent mental visuals of these areas.
2) The people that were encountered along the way. These are the parts of the book that will engage the reader. America is not dead. There are still great people out there willing to help other people. And they are not just in one area of the country, they are everywhere. From the shores of Lake Superior to the Mountains of Idaho, the people made the difference for Brian and Rachel.

Things that turned me off.
1) As I mentioned before, some of the language just flat out disgusted me. In part because Brian is a great writer. He can paint these images of mountains, lakes and plains. But sometimes he just blatantly drops the f-bomb in places where it didn’t seem to belong. There was also a roughness or coarseness to his approach that definitely turned me off. Again, I may not be the target audience, but I wanted to share this in case anyone reading this review is at all concerned with language or such.
2) I think in places the story could have been a little tighter. I feel like there were details missing, or that some things were not completely explained at times. While it didn’t have any detriment to the story, it just left me feeling a little in the dark.

I think this is a great effort for a first book. Congratulations to Brian on not only finishing the journey, but also chronicling it. If you’re ever in the Northwoods around the 4th of July, let’s get together for coffee in the Loon Capitol of the World!!!!!

Recommend for: Memoir lovers who enjoy cutting edge stuff.

Note: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for a fair review. All opinions expressed are my own.