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review 2019-01-16 02:06
Josephine Baker's Last Dance - Sherry Jones

Josephine Baker is someone I had known about since my elementary school days in the mid-1970s, when I first saw her profile in a calendar celebrating what was then Black History Month. I was fascinated to learn that she had gone to Paris in 1925 and made herself into a superstar in France and across the world. 

"JOSEPHINE BAKER'S LAST DANCE" was given to me last month as a Christmas gift. The essence of the novel has as a centerpiece, what was Josephine Baker's last great stage performance in Paris in April 1975. The author uses it as a springboard to take the reader back to Josephine's early years in St. Louis, where she was born in poverty in 1906. I very much enjoyed seeing Josephine as she grew and matured. Hers was not an easy life. There is much in the novel that conveys the struggles and abuse that she endured. America was then an unwelcoming and at times, brutal and dispiriting place for its black citizens. Baker gets into vaudeville as a dancer in her mid-teens and eventually, the gateway to stardom opens and Josephine arrives in Paris with La Revue Nègre . 

The only part of the novel I found fault was its description of Josephine Baker's service in World War II as an intelligence agent and member of the French Resistance. The time sequences which covered the early war years seemed at times nebulous and compressed. If the reader had little or no knowledge of how the French defeat to Nazi Germany impacted the country in June 1940, he/she would be led to think that the resistance movement to the Germans developed overnight. That was not true at all. There was, initially disillusionment and fear when the Germans entered Paris - which had been declared an open city by the French government - on June 14, 1940 - and compelled the French to sign an armistice 8 days later. It would be several months to a year before an incipient resistance movement began to take shape in France as the Germans solidified their power and authority there. 

There was also a mention in the novel which indicated that Josephine Baker made the acquaintance of the courageous British spy Krystna Skarbek, a Pole (aka 'Christine Granville') during the early days of the German Occupation. That is simply untrue. (I read a book in 2015 about Krystyna Skabek's wartime service --- 'Christine: SOE Agent & Churchill's Favourite Spy'. Krystyna Shabek did not get to France until the summer of 1944. Earlier, she had been engaged in espionage work since late 1939 in German-occupied Poland, the Balkans, and Egypt.) That is why I am taking away 1 star and giving "JOSEPHINE BAKER'S LAST DANCE" 3 stars.  Outside of that glaring, historical inaccuracy, it is a very good novel which brought out the real Josephine Baker in so many interesting ways.

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review 2018-11-11 22:15
The Glorious Dead - Tim Atkinson

Before reading this novel, I had never given a thought as to what went into the establishment of the World War I Allied military cemeteries in Belgium and France in the immediate post-World War I era.


"THE GLORIOUS DEAD" is centered around a small group of British (and Empire) soldiers who are tasked from 1918 (several weeks after the Armistice) to 1921 with uncovering bodies of dead comrades in Flanders Fields and helping to set up the first British (and Empire) military cemeteries. The reader is given a real sense of what each character is like, their motivations, feelings, as well as how the civilians in the war-torn areas are struggling to re-establish their lives and livelihoods. There is love, despair, hope, as well as something surprising about one of the main characters that I'll leave to the reader of this review to discover for him/herself.


I'm glad I finished reading this novel today on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. As a grandson of a World War I U.S. Army veteran and mindful of what the World War I generation gave between 1914 and 1918 in terms of toil and sacrifice, I am thankful to Tim Atkinson for having written such a thought-provoking, well-written novel on an aspect of the war that is little recognized or appreciated by most people living today.

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review 2018-08-09 02:02
Sally Hemings: A Novel - Barbara Chase-Riboud

As a general rule, I rarely do re-reads. That's because I have plenty of other books on my TBR List, clamoring for my attention.

But a few weeks ago, the Barbara Chase-Riboud historical novel, "SALLY HEMINGS" came to mind and rooted itself there. I had previously read it almost 40 years ago when I was in high school. While idly checking through Amazon.com, I saw that an updated edition of "SALLY HEMINGS" had been published. I thought that maybe by reading it, I would learn something more about this African American woman and her connection to Thomas Jefferson that had been dismissed by most Jeffersonian scholars and American historians as untrue when the novel was first published in 1979. 
And thus, I set myself to re-reading "SALLY HEMINGS." 

Reading the novel was a rediscovery for me. Most of its details had been lost to me over time. So, I felt very much like I was reading it for the first time. Reacquainting myself with Sally Hemings' life - from her meeting with a census taker in her cabin on the Monticello estate in Albemarle County, Virginia, in 1831 to her journey to Paris as a 14 year old in 1787 with one of Thomas Jefferson's daughters (Maria - who also happened to be Sally Hemings' niece because Jefferson's dead wife was also Hemings' half-sister!; Jefferson in 1787 was the U.S. Minister to France), who was in Hemings' charge --- was a wholly absorbing and fascinating experience. 

In the hands of an inept writer less knowledgeable on the subject of slavery and its place as a deeply entrenched fixture in the life, culture, and economy of early America, this novel could have ended up as an overworked melodrama. Chase-Riboud takes the reader on a wide-ranging journey through Sally Hemings' life and the lives of the slaves on Jefferson's estates, as well as many of her family members -- both black and white. She also provides an in depth look at Thomas Jefferson in terms of his relationships with his family and slaves that also reinforce what is known of the historical Thomas Jefferson from people who knew him (e.g. John & Abigail Adams, their son John Quincy Adams, the painter John Trumbull, and Aaron Burr). I especially liked learning something about the lives of the children Thomas Jefferson had with Sally Hemings. This is a novel I recommend to anyone who not only enjoys a good, engaging story - but also is open to learning a more complete history of the impact that slavery and racism had in the lives of several of the 'Founding Fathers' from the very inception of the United States as a democratic republic in 1789.

One more thing worthy of mention: There is also an Afterword in which Chase-Riboud goes into some detail about the struggles she experienced in writing "SALLY HEMINGS" and trying to get it published in 1979. She also enlightens the reader about the efforts of many of America's Jeffersonian scholars and historians of the early Republic years to discredit Chase-Riboud, her novel, and the possibility that an intimate and longstanding relationship existed between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. (Since January 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation has accepted the findings of a DNA study, "combined with multiple strands of currently available documentary and statistical evidence that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, and that he most likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemings's children appearing in Jefferson's records.")

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review 2018-05-17 04:21
Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité - LIVING IN REVOLUTIONARY FRANCE
Where the Light Falls: A Novel of the French Revolution - Allison Pataki,Owen Pataki

"WHERE THE LIGHT FALLS: A Novel of the French Revolution" very much lives up to its billing. Upon turning the page, the reader quickly finds him/herself in Paris during the winter of 1792. The deposed King and Queen of France are imprisoned, awaiting trial for treason. The city is in tumult as men with radical ideas and a penchant for dispensing violent, retributive 'justice' have taken control of the national government. Along the streets in a horseborne tumbril are several condemned persons being taken to the Place de la Revolution. Despite the bitter cold, thousands of people eagerly await the spectacle soon to take place before their very eyes. "They sound impatient, shrill with the heady prospect of fresh blood to wet the newly sharpened guillotine blade." The spectacle then takes shape as - one by one - each condemned person is prompted to walk up onto the stage where 'le guillotine' awaits. The condemned person's head is placed within the guillotine's clutches. The audience views the scene with bated breath and fevered anticipation. A blade forming the top part of the guillotine set above the condemned person's head is released and with a swish, swiftly severs the condemned person's head, sending it into a basket set close by. Charles Dickens could have taken some lessons from the 2 writers of this novel, in terms of conveying a real, tangible sense of the early stages of what came to be known as 'The Terror', the darkest period of the French Revolution. 

The novel then goes on to relate the stories of Jean-Luc St. Clair, a lawyer from Marseille who moved with his young family to Paris, where he works in an office handling claims involving deposed nobles; Andre Valiere, a young army officer of the ancien régime who has forsworn his noble heritage to join the Army of the French Republic; and Sophie de Vincennes, a young widow living under the close eye of a vindictive uncle who has powerful connections within the government. Her fate would later become entwined with Andre's. 

The reader is carried from the depths of The Terror to the steady rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, who first made a name for himself as a military commander without equal, leading French armies to resounding victories against the Austrians in Italy and later in Malta and Egypt. All the while, France is in turmoil with the demand for justice breeding more paranoia and instability. "Jean-Luc, Andre, and Sophie find themselves bound together in a world where survival seems increasingly less likely - for themselves..." 

This novel has all the hallmarks of a Class A thriller. It'll leave the reader breathless, a little dizzy, and glad to have read it.

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review 2018-03-21 01:40
Our Man In Washington - Roy Hoopes

"OUR MAN IN WASHINGTON" is one of those novels that blends reality with fiction so well that the reader won't be altogether sure of up from down, much less left from right. 

The story begins in Baltimore, Maryland during the spring of 1923. James M. Cain, a journalist and aspiring writer (who had done some work for the Baltimore Sun on labor issues), makes the acquaintance of the famous journalist, satirist, and cultural critic H.L. Mencken. Cain is hoping to get a job working for Mencken, who is rumored to be at work in creating a national journal that would bring together several of the nation's finest writers to contribute stories emblematic of the country's cultural values and lifestyles. Both men decide to collaborate on a book that would lay bare the rumors of scandal and corruption in the Harding Administration (i.e. graft, bootlegging, sex, and murder). 

In the process, Cain and Mencken spend the whole of the spring and most of the summer of 1923 investigating leads both in Washington and Baltimore, as well as becoming acquainted with some of the principal characters in, near or out of government who would later go down in infamy as the truth began to emerge about some of the scandals associated with the Harding White House. Both men also are able to have arranged for them separate off-the-record interviews with both President Harding and his wife (aka 'The Duchess'). 

There is a lot more to "OUR MAN IN WASHINGTON" than being both a thriller and a mystery novel. There is passion, subterfuge, and in Gaston B. Means, a real-life shady private-eye/fraudster/thief/confidence man who made this book even more compelling. And I must admit that the book's cover art captures perfectly the spirit and essence of early 1920s America with images of Warren G. Harding, Mencken, Nan Britton (President Harding's mistress who is said to have borne his daughter), Teapot Dome, and the presidential seal --- with the front page of the Sunday, May 7, 1922 issue of The Washington Post serving as backdrop. Anyone who enjoys a political thriller with the elements of a mystery novel will enjoy reading this book.

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