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review 2018-05-17 18:22
Roundheads, Cavaliers, and a Italian
The Black Madonna (Roundheads & Cavaliers Book 1) - Stella Riley

'You believe it’s the King’s right to command Parliament; I don’t. You’ll fight to preserve His Majesty’s prerogative; I won’t. And we could argue till kingdom come without it making a blind bit of difference.’
‘You want His Majesty turned into a puppet?’
‘No. I want Parliament turned into something more than a cipher,’ came the swift reply. And then, ‘A balance has to be struck. The King stands for stability and tradition – and no one wants to see him safely back on his throne more than I do. But Parliament represents the people and must be allowed to act in their interests without fear of being dissolved on a royal whim.’
‘’Tis to preserve His Majesty that we against him fight,’ sang Francis.
 


For quotes and comments as I read - Buddy Read The Black Madonna

Historical Fiction with a romance element, if you enjoy Donna Thorland's books, you want to put this on your list.

This follows the Maxwell family (Roundheads), the daughter Kate is highlighted, the Langley family (Cavaliers), small glimpses of the Cliffords, Luciano del Santi, and the English Civil War. There is a lot of history in here, you get a good look at the players, circumstances, and events that lead to the war and then how it affects the family and friendships. Luciano and Kate are the romantic element but they do spend more time apart than together. Luciano is on a revenge/justice mission to find out who orchestrated his father's death. This worked to keep Luciano away from Kate and some added angst, but for me, it felt unnecessary and clogged up the story, we have a whole Civil War lead up and beginning to deal with.

The author does an amazing job with her characters, their relationships, and development of story with historical persons and events weaved in. The last thirty percent was tension filled with a focus on the Basing House siege and Luciano finally meeting his enemy. I was totally sucked into these characters and their stories, there is a wide cast with even secondary characters stealing your attention. Since Luciano really doesn't have a side in the war, besides the mentioned Basing House and some Powick Bridge, direct contact with battles, blood, and death isn't focused on. The feel of the war is through Kate's father Richard (you'll fall in love with him and his wife Dorothy and their relationship) and the political dealings he navigates in the parliament, the emotional dividing it causes for our characters, and nightly news feeling updates. 

The beginning was a little difficult to navigate as a lot is thrown at you, the middle you grow to love the characters, and the ending was a crescendo of the building tension. Kate and Luciano have biting banter and oodles of chemistry when they manage to get together but like I said, the whole little Civil War thing and Luciano's search for justice, keep them apart more than not. Definitely sticking with the series as there are many characters I need to know what happens to.

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review 2018-04-26 12:17
A book for those who are not afraid to ask uncomfortable questions and are willing to challenge the status quo.
Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War: History, Fiction, Photography - Sebastiaan Faber

Thanks to Edelweiss and to the publishers (Vanderbilt University Press) for providing me a copy of the book that I freely chose to review.

I was drawn to this book because although I was born and grew up in Spain, I have spent the last 25 years of my life in the UK, and between the time invested in education and work, I know I have missed some of the big debates about the past that have taken place in the country. From personal experience, I know that living abroad gives you a different perspective, usually wider, on a country’s history and society, and I was interested to learn the opinions of a foreign Hispanist on the controversial topic of the book.

This book was illuminating for me. I’ve discovered that I need to catch up and read books, watch documentaries, and explore the memory movement in Spain. I know some details thanks to my mother’s family, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the many initiatives and projects that have been implemented. I learned about laws (helpful and, mostly, unhelpful), about controversy and debates, about the origin of well-known photographs and documents (including the fact that photographers shared cameras and subjects during the Spanish Civil War, and no matter what their intent, those photographs also had, even at the time, a commercial value), about the uneasy relationship between Culture, cultural objects, and History. Is fiction less valuable when it comes to documenting the reception and the collective memory of a historical event? Or more?

Although I am not an expert in History, I have read some History books over the years and one of the things I found more refreshing about this volume, which collects a variety of essays on topics that fit in well together, is the fact that rather than offering an authoritative version of events or pontificating about the right or wrong way of looking at a particular period in history, it asks questions. On relevancy: how can an academic book written in English discussing events and recent debates about Spanish history and politics reach a wider audience? Are academics simply talking to themselves without ever reaching the general public (unless given an “official” status)? On the approach and the position historians should take when researching and writing their findings: Can historical essays and books ever be “neutral”? And should they be “neutral”? Isn’t it better to be open about one’s point of view and allegiances? (As the author observes, WWII historians are clearly positioned when writing about the war, but in Spain, this is frowned upon). On comparative studies and the risks of conflating similar events in different countries and eras, thereby missing the most interesting and fruitful aspects for analysis: Is it legitimate to apply international models (like those developed through the Holocaust studies) to the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist repression?  On the position of the intellectuals and how politics and affiliations affect even those who try hardest to be rigorous. How can those intellectuals who were heavily invested in the Transition open up to other opinions and not consider them a personal criticism? On the memory movement, the hurdles faced by those trying to find out more about relatives or friends, and about the resistance of historians to see any value in memory narratives. Is forgetting the past the best option, or do the unhealed wounds and traumas that have been festering, no matter how long for, always find a way to resurface? About the boom in historical fiction novels about the Civil War and what they tell us about society and popular opinion. Although the author’s opinions are clearly stated, the questions hang there and readers can take them up and find their own answers.

As I said, I cannot claim to any expertise on the topic, and I suspect experts will have much to take issue with in this book, but for me, it helps provide the tools to answer some of the questions that inform the author’s work and that are the same that a large part of the Spanish population are asking. Quoting from the book:

How have history, fiction, and photography shaped Spanish memory? How has democratic Spain dealt with the legacy of the Civil War, the Franco dictatorship, and the Transition? And how have academics, writers, filmmakers, photographers, and journalists in Spain and elsewhere engaged with a collective process that is central to the country’s future as a unified, functioning democracy?

In view of recent events, these questions are more pressing and relevant than ever, and I hope this book reaches as wide an audience as possible. I recommend it to anybody who is open to fresh perspectives on the subject and is up for a challenging — but ultimately rewarding— read.

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review 2018-04-17 08:36
CONCRETE PLANET by Robert Courland
Concrete Planet: The Strange and Fascinating Story of the World's Most Common Man-Made Material - Robert Courland

TITLE:  Concrete Planet:  The Strange and Fascinating Story

             of the World's Most Common Man-Made Material

 

AUTHOR:  Robert Courland

 

DATE PUBLISHED:  2011

 

FORMAT:  ebook

 

ISBN-13:  978-1-61614-482-1

_______________________________________

 

From the blurb:

"Concrete: We use it for our buildings, bridges, dams, and roads. We walk on it, drive on it, and many of us live and work within its walls. But very few of us know what it is. We take for granted this ubiquitous substance, which both literally and figuratively comprises much of modern civilization’s constructed environment; yet the story of its creation and development features a cast of fascinating characters and remarkable historical episodes. This book delves into this history, opening readers’ eyes at every turn.

In a lively narrative peppered with intriguing details, author Robert Corland describes how some of the most famous personalities of history became involved in the development and use of concrete—including King Herod the Great of Judea, the Roman emperor Hadrian, Thomas Edison (who once owned the largest concrete cement plant in the world), and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Courland points to recent archaeological evidence suggesting that the discovery of concrete directly led to the Neolithic Revolution and the rise of the earliest civilizations. Much later, the Romans reached extraordinarily high standards for concrete production, showcasing their achievement in iconic buildings like the Coliseum and the Pantheon. Amazingly, with the fall of the Roman Empire, the secrets of concrete manufacturing were lost for over a millennium.

The author explains that when concrete was rediscovered in the late eighteenth century it was initially viewed as an interesting novelty or, at best, a specialized building material suitable only for a narrow range of applications. It was only toward the end of the nineteenth century that the use of concrete exploded. During this rapid expansion, industry lobbyists tried to disguise the fact that modern concrete had certain defects and critical shortcomings. It is now recognized that modern concrete, unlike its Roman predecessor, gradually disintegrates with age. Compounding this problem is another distressing fact: the manufacture of concrete cement is a major contributor to global warming.

Concrete Planet is filled with incredible stories, fascinating characters, surprising facts, and an array of intriguing insights into the building material that forms the basis of the infrastructure on which we depend."

 

There isn't much to say about this book that hasn't already been mentioned in the blurb.  The book is a well-written, accessible and enjoyable history of concrete and some of the structures built with it.  I did feel the history of concrete in the 20th century dealt more with the people involved than what the concrete was actually used for.   It would also have been nice if the author had inserted chemical equations etc - at least as an appendix - but otherwise it's an informative book about the subject matter.

 

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review 2018-04-11 10:31
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Days Without End - Sebastian Barry

Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars—against the Sioux and the Yurok—and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in. Moving from the plains of Wyoming to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. An intensely poignant story of two men and the makeshift family they create with a young Sioux girl, Winona, Days Without End is a fresh and haunting portrait of the most fateful years in American history and is a novel never to be forgotten.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Just after his 17th birthday, Thomas McNulty and his friend, John Cole, decide to enlist in the US Army as a way to escape their bleak home lives. This decision takes them through service during the Indian and Civil Wars. While they may have anticipated great adventures, they had no way of knowing the horrors of war that awaited them. 

 

The first half of the novel focuses on the Indian War years, as the boys not only learn basic soldiering, but also how to survive all the different types of weather and terrain as they march or ride across the country. Mother Nature brings them battles of her own in the form of vicious heat over the flatlands, freezing winters in camps with beyond meager supplies, fever epidemics, and food shortages (even the horses are starving to death). 

 

Racism of the day is another strong theme in this work. Though not written as one of the novel's racist characters himself, Thomas points out to the reader various examples he sees throughout the course of his life. For one, an Army acquaintance of Thomas and John's falls in love with an Ogalala Sioux woman, fathers a son with her. Thomas's response to the news: "I guess love laughs at history a little." Then there's John himself, who is part Native American... apparently that "part" is visible enough in his appearance for him to get a dose of hate speech directed his way.

 

We were two wood shavings of humanity in a rough world.. (Thomas re: him and John)... You had to love John Cole for what he chose never to say. He said plenty of the useful stuff

 

 

There's also the matter of Thomas and his friends working at a theater between tours of duty, a job that occasionally has them doing minstrel shows in blackface. I'd also mention that there is a description near the end of the book where the men remember coming upon 30 black people who had recently been hanged together. I warn you, this description is mildly graphic.

 

In truth, there's a strong dose of graphic material throughout the whole novel. Chapter 2 is mostly about hunting, killing, and cutting up buffalo. Chapter 3 focuses on massacring Indians. The gritty, graphic nature of the writing only increases as you approach the closing chapters of the story. 

 

Chapter 12 starts the Civil War experiences, sending Thomas and John to Boston, Massachusetts for training. There Thomas meets a fellow Irish immigrant. They swap stories of their "coming over" experience on the boats, giving the reader a grim look at the reality of what families risked to get here for the chance at a new life. It is through this meeting that Thomas ponders on the realization of just how often Irish men were treated like total scum... until the Army needed soldiers for their causes. 

 

The story is told in Thomas's first person perspective, but as an older man now retired and living in Tennessee, looking back on his wild youth. Said youth starts in Ireland, but (after he loses his entire family) soon brings him to the US as a teenage immigrant, eventually deciding to settle in Missouri. If you struggle with reading stories written in dialects, I warn you that this one is written in a kind of "country boy" voice that only gets stronger as your reading progresses. There's also a healthy dose of cursing -- some used just as a matter of speech, some as actual intended profanity in the situation. 

 

Thomas also describes what it was like being a gay man -- his lover being his friend John -- in this era, with a penchant for cross dressing. Every so often we also get a glimpse of his sassiness, such as his thoughts on his short stature: "I'm a little man right enough but maybe the best dagger is a short one sometimes." (Meanwhile, John is 6'3.)

 

The plot didn't keep my attention all that well. There is something to Barry's writing that I could appreciate. The verbiage itself is solid enough, Thomas gives the reader a good laugh here and there, there are lots of pretty lines -- such as "our breath is flowing out like lonesome flowers that die on the air" --  but something was still lacking. I just didn't find myself emotionally committing to these characters, as far as their life stories go. What I do give points for are the themes / topics Barry leaves you to ponder on, such as racism of the era, the topic of immigration, or my favorite, the dichotomy that extends to exist within the Irish spirit. The sweetness vs. the hellfire. There's a whole passage on this that really rang true with me and had me nodding in recognition! 

 

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review 2018-04-11 05:24
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
TransAtlantic - Colum McCann

Newfoundland, 1919. Two aviators—Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown—set course for Ireland as they attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, placing their trust in a modified bomber to heal the wounds of the Great War. Dublin, 1845 and ’46. On an international lecture tour in support of his subversive autobiography, Frederick Douglass finds the Irish people sympathetic to the abolitionist cause—despite the fact that, as famine ravages the countryside, the poor suffer from hardships that are astonishing even to an American slave. New York, 1998. Leaving behind a young wife and newborn child, Senator George Mitchell departs for Belfast, where it has fallen to him, the son of an Irish-American father and a Lebanese mother, to shepherd Northern Ireland’s notoriously bitter and volatile peace talks to an uncertain conclusion. These three iconic crossings are connected by a series of remarkable women whose personal stories are caught up in the swells of history. Beginning with Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who crosses paths with Frederick Douglass, the novel follows her daughter and granddaughter, Emily and Lottie, and culminates in the present-day story of Hannah Carson, in whom all the hopes and failures of previous generations live on. From the loughs of Ireland to the flatlands of Missouri and the windswept coast of Newfoundland, their journeys mirror the progress and shape of history. They each learn that even the most unassuming moments of grace have a way of rippling through time, space, and memory.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

This novel open in 2012 but before the final page ends up spanning two continents and three centuries. Though considered a complete novel, TransAtlantic ends up having more the feel of interconnected short stories, the first being of two former WW1 pilots, Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown, in Newfoundland in 1919, who are attempting the first nonstop transatlantic flight after modifying an old bomber plane.

 

Days of welding, soldering, sanding, stitching. The bomb bays were replaced by extra petrol tanks. That's what pleased Brown the most. They were using the bomber in a brand-new way: taking the war out of the plane, stripping the whole thing of its penchant for carnage. 

 

 

Their destination: Ireland. The project is riddled with setbacks. Just the attempt to fly from London -- when they're SO close to the finish line! --  to Clifden, Ireland causes the plane to basically crumble apart at times, nearly killing them more than once! 

 

From there, the story stays in Ireland but jumps back to the year 1845. Former slave / abolitionist Frederick Douglass is visiting Dublin while on a European tour to promote his memoirs (and thereby his abolitionist message). It is during this time that author Colum McCann paints a picture of what the era of the potato famine might have looked like to someone who had likewise known extreme hardships such as Douglass. 

 

Douglass writes to wife Anna about his impressions of Ireland and its people, initially noting that he finds himself quite at ease, as the people are incredibly friendly and respectful, not an n-word hurled at him once. That, the reader will find, is short-lived. Douglass starts doing joint speaking engagements with "The Great Liberator" Daniel O'Connell. People start calling Douglass "the black O'Connell". As the tour continues, Douglass starts to notice his own publisher (international, that is), Webb, treats him more and more like a specimen or a roadshow attraction. Webb becomes noticeably more stingy with covering Douglass' travel expenses. That slur usage Douglass thought was absent in Ireland ends up rearing its head in Cork as Douglass is simply walking down a street one day. It is during this time that author McCann also works in the storyline of Douglass making plans on how to officially negotiate his freedom while in England. 

 

Douglass (at least McCann's portrayal of him) does describe a moment of PTSD while being fitted for a suit while overseas, a moment in the experience throwing him back to his days as a slave. 

 

The reader is also given a more modern story, comparatively, involving Irish-American senator George Mitchell, based in NYC, who heads to Belfast in 1998 to try to help promote peace talks in Northern Ireland. (Colum McCann himself, per his author blurb, was born in Dublin but now lives in NYC). When it came to this portion of the book, the bits about the senator being so in love with his wife were very sweet but overall I found myself a bit bored by his storyline.

 

Have I mentioned how much this book jumps back and forth between all these different eras? Yeah, if you like your fiction strictly chronological, TransAtlantic might prove to be a challenge for you. Comfortable in that 1990s setting? Too bad! McCann will slingshot you over to Civil War era and back again. A heads up regarding that, if you are a sensitive reader: much of this book is pretty tame (low violence factor), but the Civil War portions do contain some crude, graphic descriptions that may possibly turn your stomach. 

 

Part of what kept me reading was trying to figure out how all these characters were connected ... I assumed there must be at least some link, even a thin one... it wasn't always immediately evident what those connections were. But in the case of Douglass's story, there was a character there that comes back around years later and links stuff up for the reader in Part 2. This character's story, with her connection to Douglass... in a way it saddened me, but there was something there that leaves a feeling of optimism for the future. 

 

In general, the plots going on within the various storylines were mildly interesting, but nothing really deeply hooked me as a reader. Also, the jumping around seemed to lack finesse, instead giving me a bit of a headache trying to keep up and make sense of all the details being tossed about. 

 

_____

 

EXTRAS

 

* In his acknowledgements section, Colum McCann gives a shout-out to Irish actor Gabriel Byrne as part of the "TransAtlantic Crew"... makes me wonder if a movie adaptation was ever in the works? I can't find evidence of this anywhere online... later on he also gives nods to fellow writers Michael Ondaatje (of The English Patient fame) and Wendell Berry.

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