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The Fateful Lightning

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The Fateful Lightning by Jeff Shaara

The last novel in Shaara’s four novel series on the Western Theater of the U.S. Civil War, started as a surprise.  I thought for sure Shaara would open this novel with Sherman’s taking, and subsequent burning of Atlanta.  But that was not to be.  Shaara felt that was not the story that needed to be told.  Instead, he focused on what happened after Atlanta – General Sherman’s march to the sea, and the ultimate end of the Civil War.

As usual with Shaara’s novels, there is a lot of fascinating information packed into these pages.  He presents General Sherman as pragmatic, but not barbarous.  In spite of his army laying waste to the city of Atlanta, he shows how magnanimous Sherman was to the City of Savannah, and how the burning of Columbia could be laid at the feet of Wade Hampton’s Confederate  Calvary.

I enjoyed the perspective of some of the lesser officers, and also of a black aide de camp, Franklin, picked up along Sherman’s march through Georgia.  The fact that Shaara collects these stories through the memoirs and journals of these real life Civil War veterans, makes his books even more memorable.  I like the fact that the stories of these men are now told, and made available to a wide audience.

Another wonderful novel from a master of wartime fiction.

5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2015
640 pages

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When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka

This little novel is the story of a Japanese-American family who suffers forced internment during World War II.

Otsuka does a wonderful job of helping the reader understand what it was like for these people, who felt so torn between love for their adopted homeland and their heritage.  I especially liked the different perspectives of parents and children.

Can you imagine feeling the need to deny your heritage?  Being asked “what kind of ‘ese’ are you?” and saying “Chinese” because you don’t want to be looked down upon.  Can you imagine being forced to leave your home and your possessions, knowing full well, that all will not be as you left it when you returned?  If you returned?  Can you imagine, after the war, after you’ve shown America that you were loyal, only to have your neighbors deny you work and tell you to leave town?

This quiet, little unassuming book really packs a big punch.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2002
144 pages

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Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

Birdsong is a novel of the First World War, including the Battle of the Somme in France.

The novel opens just prior to the war, where a young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford is staying at the home of a French businessman, while learning business methods from him.  He falls head over heels for Mr. Azaire’s wife, Isabel, and a sordid affair is borne – the couple eventually running off together.  After a few happy months, Isabel abruptly leaves him, with no explanation.  This part of the novel was just “meh” for me.  I wasn’t drawn to these characters and rather than feel any sort of sympathy, their actions turned me off.

During the war, Stephen is sent to France and endures some of the more brutal and mentally troubling war scenes I have encountered about World War I.  They say that this war was so much more terrible for the combatants than other wars (although all wars are hell).  This book helps the reader to understand why.  Despite the author’s semi-detachment to his characters, those scenes make you really feel for all the soldiers, not just the main character.  Perhaps the detached writing style was necessary in order to help the reader stomach the war scenes.

By the end of the novel, I found myself hoping Stephen would live and likewise, hoping he would die, thus ending his misery.  I’m glad to finally read a World War I novel that helped me to understand exactly what it was like for the boys in the trenches.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1993
483 pages

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Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

I am rounding out my 52 books around the USA Book Challenge with this collection of short stories by Stephen King.  The first story, 1922, is set in Nebraska – just the state I was looking for!

I read a lot of Stephen King in my younger years, and always found his writing entertaining, if not creepy.  After all, that is what King is good at.  Full Dark, No Stars is no exception.  The author claims he likes to take ordinary people, put them in extraordinary situations, and see what happens.  Some of those extraordinary situations are hard to stomach.  Like the story, Big Driver, which has a middle aged woman (the main character) beaten, raped and left for dead.  Because you get into her head, it’s rather difficult to read.

My favorite story was A Good Marriage, in which a woman discovers that her husband is a serial killer.  I remember a story in the news some years back about a man who was discovered to be just that.  He had been happily married for 20 years.  I felt bad for his wife, wondering if she’d had any clue to his errant nature.

Nothing in this book is as outstanding as some of King’s masterpieces, like The Stand or 11/22/63, but still and entertaining read.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2010
560 pages

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Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish

Little Heathens

Set in Iowa in the 1930’s, Little Heathens is a memoir of the author’s childhood, raised by her grandparents and mother on a farm in Iowa during the Great Depression.

Sprinkled throughout the book are many fun stories of what it was like to live in those days.  Hard work, yes, but also the close knit family and community really come alive in this chronicle.  The book does seem disjointed at times, but is written with each chapter as a different subject, as if you were sitting down with “Millie” and asking her about “school” or “cooking” during her youth.

The reviews of this book on Goodreads are all over the place.  Frankly, I loved this book, but I love hearing about stories like these, and often peppered my elderly relatives with questions about the “old days.”  Kalish inserts a myriad of recipes into the book, which I loved and want to try.  Others thought the book could have done without them.  But in my opinion, like the stories, the recipes deserved a place in the book because they should be saved for posterity.  If not here, then surely they would be lost.  So, I will recommend this book to anyone who likes learning about the past, particularly farm life during the early 20th century.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2008
304 pages

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The Smoke At Dawn by Jeff Shaara

The Smoke At Dawn

This is the third novel in the Civil War Trilogy of the Western Theater, by Jeff Shaara.  The focus in on Chattanooga, and more specifically the battle of Mission Ridge.  It is definitely one of Shaara’s best.

From the outset, Shaara illustrates the tension on both sides, showing the difficulties with certain commanders.  In the north, Lincoln solves the problem by placing General Ulysses S. Grant in command of the Union forces in the West.  Jefferson Davis opts to continue with General Braxton Bragg in command, despite a petition signed by twelve of his senior generals demanding Bragg be relieved of duty.  It would prove to be a mistake.

Like the previous two novels, Shaara uses not only the generals, but lower officers and the guy with the musket, Private Fritz Bauer, to tell the story of this pivotal battle.  Unlike the last novel, The Chain of Thunder, this one gripped me from the first few pages, and held me all the way to the end.

5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2014
495 pages

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