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review 2018-07-16 02:19
Book 2 in the Re-Read
Fever Season - Barbara Hambly

I am re-reading this series this summer.  Fever Season is the second volume of the January Mysteries.    In New Orleans, many people have fled the city because of the epidemic.  January hasn’t, though he might wish he had. 


                Hambly’s series succeeds because she mixes history in with a smidge of gothic and compelling characters that confronted racial issues, not only in adjusting to how the Americans have changed New Orleans, but also with an institution that denies Ben his ability to practice medicine and forces him to earn money with his skills as musicians.


                In this book as well, we are introduced to Rose, a mixed-race woman, who struggles to be a science teacher to those mixed-race girls who are destined to be concubines to the rich white men who control New Orleans society, much the same way Ben’s youngest sister is, as was his mother.


                Livia, Ben’s mother, is perhaps one of the greatest things about this series.  She was a field hand until she, and her two children, were sold and her new master freed her.  She became his concubine, and this former master paid for Ben’s education and is the father of Dominque.  Livia’s determination to ensure her family’s survival has alienated her eldest daughter, who has established herself in the free black community as a voodoo priestess.  But Livia is a fascinating character because she knows and works the structure that is forced on her.  She is far more aware of what is at stake than Ben is in many cases, and she appears unfeeling, uncaring, and driven only by money.  But one wonders.


                To review the plot of the novel would be to offer a major spoiler, but the plot does involve Ben trying to discover what has happened to a missing young escaped slave as well as who is trying to destroy his reputation.   The fictional plot is interwoven with real history and New Orleans lore in a realistic and compelling way.

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review 2018-05-25 20:28
Part of Summer Reading Goals
A Free Man of Color - Barbara Hambly
I first discovered Hambly by reading her fantasy. In fact, the book was Dragonsbane. But, I think her real love is historical fiction because her historical fiction is better. This was the first her historical fiction I read. It is the start of the Ben January series. 

Ben is a free man of color in recently US brought New Orleans. His mother was a field slave until a white man took an interest in her and brought and freed both her and her two children. The same man paid for Ben's education, both in New Orleans and Paris. Ben is both a skilled surgeon and a skilled piano player. When he returns to New Orleans after a long spell in Paris, he has to readjust to the various codes that he needs to live by. His mother and youngest sister are both prominent in planter society - his sister, Minou, is a mistress to a white planter. His other sister (full sister) is a voodoo priestess, a wife, and a mother. Needless to say, there is some family drama, in particular Ben's feeling that his mother loves her third child (the daughter of the white man who freed her) best.

The first book finds Ben in the midst of a murder mystery where is life is on the line, for better to accuses a black man of murder of a black woman than an white man or woman from society. He also interacts with one of the new American lawman, who somewhat to everyone surprise can read. 

In a later edition of the book or installment in the series, Hambly corrects what historical erros she made here. (Hambly has a degree in and has taught history). What is of note here is Hambly's use of code switching by the characters, the use of color to determine social standing (including shades of black, something that is not always dealt with) as well as women having to deal with a society that constructs them. And of course, the question of race and slavery. It is to Hambly's credit that she never goes the route of the trophe of good master, and even "good" masters are dismissed by Ben as not being moral because of owning another person or treating black people as less than human. 

Ben and his friend Hannibal might, might, be a bit too ahead of their time in being open minded, but both men's back stories do take this into account. Neither man is perfect, and in fact, Ben does wrestle somewhat with one or two reveals in the story. 

Personallly, I find Livia, Ben's mother, to be the most interesting character of all.



(This is part of my summer reading goals, which include re-reading and reading the whole series).

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review 2016-10-03 18:27
American Gothic: The Story of America's Legendary Theatrical Family-Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth - Gene Smith

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley, courtesy of Open Road Media.


                Gene Smith’s American Gothic is supposedly a biography of the Booth family.  In some ways, it is this.  Chronicling the founding of the family and the demise of its last major member.  Most of the book, however, is taken up with the infamous John Wilkes Booth and the events surrounding the assassination of Lincoln. 


                Additionally, most of the book focuses on the men of the family, understandably so considering that the women marry into and out of the family.  Yet, I found myself wishing to know about Asia in addition to the fact that her marriage was bad and that she was close John Wilkes Booth.  He also repeats the same stories about the marriage of the Lincolns without really adding or examining anything.  In fact, all women in the history get little attention, not surprising considering the event and the era, but some more about the women would have made the book stand out a bit more.


                Those criticisms aside, the book is written and sourced well.  Smith does offer quite a bit about the other Booth men, and the most touching part of the book has to do with the effect on the acting prospects of the rest of the family.  The is a beautiful passage about the burning John Wilkes Booth’s costumes by Edwin.

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review 2016-09-19 15:53
The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel - Colson Whitehead

Shout out to Obsidian Black Death whose review convinced me to buy this book sooner than I otherwise would have.


                In the spring, I watched the WGN tv series Underground, which quite frankly should have been nominated for more Emmys than it was.  The first season chronicled the escape attempt of a group of slaves.  Additionally, the story focuses on a slave hunter and his son as well as a white couple who join the Underground Railroad.  While some sequences are a bit much (there is rescue by Native Americans that doesn’t quite work) and some historically inaccuracy, the series is well written, well-acted and gripping.  If you haven’t checked it out, you should.  The best episode is the one told though the viewpoint of children. 


                A student watched the show as well because she was interested in the history of the Underground Railroad.  She didn’t know much about however, and had confused Sally Hemmings with something connected to Washington.


                I’m angry at society not at the student because it should be in an English Composition 101 Class that students find out about Sally Hemmings, the impact of slavery.  Something is wrong somewhere.  In part because people either try to white wash out - Bill O’Reilly’s comment about the slaves building the White House or we focus on a very narrow view – only the big plantations but nothing about free blacks for instance.


                In many ways, Whitehead’s book does redress some of this.  In Whitehead’s book, the Underground Railroad is, in fact, an Underground Railroad.  As Sallie May of Ask a Slave would say, a road under the ground.   The story is mainly about Cora and her journey to freedom.  Cora is pursued by a slave hunter who failed to recapture her mother.  It’s a matter of pride at this time, for him.  Cora is divided about her mother, for her mother left her behind when her mother ran.


                Whitehead’s novel succeeds in part because it is so stark.  The horror isn’t the actions; it is the fact that the actions are accepted as everyday actions as nothing out of the ordinary.  Usually in many narratives there is a precipitating event.  For instance, in the series Underground Rosalie runs because of a violent attempted rape.   Cora’s desire to flee doesn’t seem to come from that “straw”, it is harder to put into words, and perhaps is more powerful because of that.  There are two incidents that immediately precede her flight but neither one seems to be a full tipping off point.  She was given the chance, she seized it.


                Along with Cora, the reader than goes on a journey over the pre-Civil War south.  While Whitehead has played a little with historical placement, all that which Cora encounters has historical source.  Valentine Farmer’s has real forerunners, and the various laws about African-American as well, there is even a reference to the sterilization of minorities.


                At times, Whitehead leaves Cora and gives the reader glimpses into other people, answering in part some questions.  He shows that a slave hunter can include a black man, that an underground railroad supporter can have less pure reasons for doing what she does.  He shows humanity.


                The book is stark, but a powerful read.

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review 2016-05-24 18:02
Open Road Kindle Release of a Classic
The Slave Dancer - Paula Fox,Christopher Paul Curtis

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley and Open Road Media.

The best new television show for the 2015-2016 year is Underground. Shown on the WGN network, the series is about a group of slaves in the 1850s trying to escape. At times the show, as most television shows do, stretch the bounds of believability (how is one slave such a good shot despite never using a gun before, would those two people really be brothers, and how is that geography working for you?), yet the show is one that everyone should watch. It really does confront the evils of slavery head, including the white slave owner allowing the whipping of his mixed race child while the young woman’s mother looks on (this series also handles rape extremely well). Some of the criticism that show has garnered as also been on the lines of why you are bringing this up now.

Sometimes, I can’t deal with stupid (or worse) people.

The reason why I bring this up is that Open Road Media has re-issued Paula Fox’s Slave Dancer in kindle format.

Slave Dancer tells the story of a young boy, Jessie, who is shanghaied onto a slave ship. This ship transports slaves, illegally. Jessie’s job is to get the slaves to dance by playing music. This isn’t because the captain wants the slaves to be happy, but because he wants the slave to arrive looking fit or at least worth playing.

Perhaps the kidnapping aspect is a bit contrived and its use to make Jessie, who lives in New Orleans, a more sympathetic character than he otherwise, would be. Perhaps, but despite this, the story itself is still powerful. Fox does not pull her punches. Jessie’s trip is horrifying. In many ways, Fox follows in Twain’s tradition footsteps. If Huck Finn is about a boy raised in the slave holding South who learns to see a slave as a man, as a de facto father, then Fox‘s book is about a boy’s discovering of a conscious. The trip destroys as opposed to answer’s Jessie’s obsession with slavery trading, something that he was pushed away from as a child in New Orleans. His journey to objecting about slavery, something he only had curiosity about before, also seems to mirror that of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

And this is why this children’s book is important - we need to know the past and comfort it. But we need to know it in its true form (or as true as we can get). To simply say slave or enslaved doesn’t capture what happened. And this book is a work of fiction, true. But fiction, in some ways, has the power to show truth in a way that non-fiction doesn’t.

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