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.

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 Rec: Carrying the Flag by Gordon Rhea

25 11 2013

Rhea has written a series of books about the hard fought battles in “The Wilderness” of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War.  This book specifically touts the deeds of Charles Wilden, a 40 year old, epileptic passed over for service several times, but now serving as a flag bearer for the 1st South Carolina.

Rhea makes this battle personal in many ways throughout this abbreviated summary of that awful time in 1864, showing how one man’s courage can make a difference.

Read my full review on Goodreads.

Book Review: The Photographer’s Boy by Stephen Bates

7 07 2013

Title: The Photographer’s Boy

Author:  Stephen Bates17986012

Genre: Historical Fiction/Contemporary

Publisher: Premier

Available: July 22, 2013

My Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary: Gene and Izzie Hofsettler are an upscale NY couple who buy a rural home in Massachusetts after the 9/11, to get away from the madness from the city. While renovating the home to transform it to a Bed and Breakfast, they come across a trunk of old photographers plates from what appears to be the Civil War. The author then brings the reader back in time to the Civil War era and also the 1930s to discover who the photographer was in his youth and in his old age.  There are real stories of these characters buried in the action of the various time frames – stories of mistakes and heartaches, and yet of honor.

Review: This is a very different book for a lot of reasons.  It’s hard to decide who the main character is, as in the various pieces of the story, the main emphasis is not on the same character.  The pieces of the story fit together in an odd way.  The reader is pulled into a commentary on how our culture has shifted in the 150 years since the Civil War. In fact, in many ways, the Civil War has been marginalized and left to a group of reinactors, who (according to the story), may or may not represent it in a positive way. We see that the youth of today’s culture do not understand it at all.

The part that I most enjoyed was the story of how Albert came to be “The Photographer’s Boy”- and the details shared about Matthew Brady and his group of photographer’s assistants.  It discussed his famous gallery and portrait studio and the thinking behind the creation of these post battle shots. These men were the paparazzi of their day – following the army and waiting for the battle to end so they could record it. They were another kind of pioneer in the era as well.  There was no established code of conduct for this type of thing and they made it up as they went along.  The author uses actual Civil War photos from the era and weaves their creation into the story.

I enjoyed the book, but ultimately it is a sorrowful tale – talking of cultures past and the present that refuses to see it.  Although the contemporary storyline carries the plot, it is the detail of the past that will draw the reader into the action.   It’s a very timely book, coming around as we celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

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

Book Reveiw: The Other Side of the River by Robert D. Halpert

24 03 2013

Title: The Other Side of the River

Author: Robert D. Halpert MD_225_350_Book.814.cover

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: WestBow Press

Available: NOW

Rating: 3.5 of 5 Stars

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is a legend for his strategic military approaches during the Civil War.  Little is mentioned of his faith and how it shaped his decisions.  The book, told in a journal type form, looks at Jackson through the lens of faith, following him during his final year in the field but also reflecting on the life events that drove him.

I’ll admit that I’m a Civil War buff.  My children and I spent the better part of a month delving into the war and it’s various components.  This book is a well thought-out reflection of a great soldier and a man of faith.  We follow Jackson through some of his most difficult trials and see how his trust in God propelled him forward.  Even in his final days and hours, Jackson found his peace and comfort.  There is also information on what the day to day life of the General would have been like and the climate of the Southern camp.  The author even attributes the “Bible Belt” as springing from the revival-like atmosphere created by Jackson during winter camp in 1862-63.

While we tend to see a ruthless man when we view Jackson, the soldier, in this book we get a different perspective, and understand that the nickname “Stonewall” applied to more than just his soldiering.  This books also provoked my emotions more than a strait biography would.  Jackson seems human in many ways, not just the ghostly general who seemed to be unbeatable.   We see the fear and courage of the soldiers who fight this war and understand the terrible misunderstanding on the night Jackson is shot.

Potential readers should understand that it reads more like a novel than a narrative and that the author flashes back and forth between the action of the war and details that shaped Jackson’s faith in his early life – scenes from childhood and the Mexican War.

Recommend for: Those who enjoy Civil War biographies and historical fiction.

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