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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 2016-09-19 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 2016-04-05 20:22
The Sage of Waterloo: A Tale - Leona Francombe

The riffs on religion, life, and choice were interesting, but the character of William didn't really seem rabbity too me. It is a magic fable more than anything like a novel. Still some lovely writing and thought provoking passages.


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review 2016-03-26 15:26
Good sweeping historical fiction
City of Darkness, City of Light: A Novel - Marge Piercy


Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley


                Perhaps the most common thing every nation in the world shares is its ability to leave people behind when progressive change occurs.  Abigail Adams reminded her husband to not forget women when America was being founded, and of course, he did.  Women helped in World War I and they still didn’t even have the vote.  There are still debates about whether African-American women should put men’s rights before all

rights.  In fact, that is not doubt true for any minority culture or ethnicity in any country.


                So it is should be of no surprise that the French Revolution, which included the famous picture of a bare-breasted victory (and let’s really think about why she is always half nude), neglected the women who were a large part of that revolution.


                Piercy’s book chronicles the lives of Paris citizens as they struggle in the days leading up to the Revolution and the days after it.   While the majority of the characters she follows are women, there are more than a few men.  The book is a rather cynical and somewhat hopeful look at revolution and change.  Piercy’s book is worth reading because she covers all walks of life.  There is Pauline, a young woman in Paris who has her own small business, a chocolate shop.  This isn’t Chocolat, so the emphasis isn’t on the wonderful food and treats that she produces.  It is on the politics and how Pauline gets caught up in.  Is Revolutionary Paris, revolutionary enough?


                And that really is the question. 


                Most often grand sweeping historical novels that are suppose to focus on the little person, really do not.   They might start out that way, but plot and readership interest, always cause said little person to become part of a coterie of upper echelons.  It is to Piercy’s credit that while some of her characters cross over, not all of them do.  In many ways, it makes her historical fiction far more believable and compelling.  While she does focus on the movers and shakers to a degree – both Danton and Robespierre have a role or two – the focus is kept on the smaller players.  The everyday people that many readers of such books would have been.   It really does feel like the stews of Paris at some points.

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review 2015-12-23 19:01
The Giant, O'Brien: A Novel - Hilary Mantel

The idea of creation in the novel is interesting, but I found the story dull for some reason.

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