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  • The Quartet: Orchestrating The Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 by Joseph J. Ellis
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North And South by John Jakes

North And South

Back in 1985, I was one of millions who swooned over the southern charm of Patrick Swayze’s character, Orry Main, in the television adaption of John Jakes’ novel North and South.  I still have a soft spot for the story, and thought it was high time I read the book.

Once I started reading I was immediately immersed in the world of the Hazards and the Mains.  The story, in case you don’t know it, involves two young men who meet at West Point as cadets and become lifelong friends.  Orry Main is a southerner, and George Hazard, a Yankee.  The years leading up to the Civil War bring up issues that further divide the United States, and place a strain on their friendship.  At the end of this book, the war breaks out, with our protagonists on opposite sides.

This is only the first of three lengthy novels in Jakes North and South trilogy. I think it stands up fairly well since it was first written in 1982.  The dialogue could have been better (however, it is actually worse in the miniseries!), but the story still endears itself to me.  I found most interesting the areas where the television series differed from the book. Some parts, like how Orry and Madeline’s relationship was hurried along in the screen version, made much more sense in the slowed down book version.  But one could certainly understand the need to cut back due to time constraints.  I believe the movie version eliminated Orry’s older brother altogether, although he makes an appearance in the television adaption for Book III. I think I’m going to have to read the other two books and then watch all three television series.  It’s nice to have goals.  And to be charmed by Patrick Swayze again.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1982
812 pages

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Pompeii by Robert Harris

Pompeii

I was curious how Robert Harris would write a novel about the day Mt. Vesuvius erupted and buried the city of Pompeii.  Could he make it interesting?  How would he go about it?

I’m a sucker for apocalyptic movies.  I discovered within the first few pages that Harris used a couple of tried a true methods that are used in those movies.  First, we all know what’s going to happen, so he starts with a countdown, beginning two days before the eruption. Next, each chapter is prefaced with an interesting fact about volcanoes and the havoc they wreak.  Many of these facts are physical clues that serve as early warnings of the horror that is about to happen.

In this book, almost immediately all the valuable fish in a holding pond mysteriously die.  This sets off an investigation by a young engineer in charge of the aqueducts, Marcus Attilus Primus.  Clue after clue, Attilus eventually discovers the terrible truth, but is he too late to save himself and the girl he loves?  You’ll have to read the book to find out.  It’s a fun read.  Trust me, you’ll enjoy it!

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2005
304 pages

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Waking Up In Eden by Lucinda Fleeson

Waking Up In Eden

I read this book as part of a Goodreads Challenge which required a book set in Hawaii. I’ve read a few such books, but quite honestly, there aren’t many set in Hawaii which also got great reviews, so I did a bit of digging and came up with Waking Up in Eden.  As it turned out, it was a great choice.

In this memoir, Lucinda Fleeson has found herself without a job and the owner of charming New England garden cottage in suburban Pennsylvania.  She’s forty-something, unmarried, and going through a mid-life crisis.  Out of the blue, a job offer comes to assist with fundraising work for the National Botanical Garden in Kauai, Hawaii. She sells the cottage, puts her stuff in storage, and heads for adventure in the Pacific.

This book has a bit of everything.  Her story of moving to Hawaii was interesting, including her first night in a falling down plantation cottage with brown water and rodents.  I enjoyed hearing about the lifestyle on the island, it’s history and it’s people. And even more surprisingly, I was fascinated reading about the gardens, the science of botany and why we should care about it.  Because before reading this book, I didn’t really care all that much.  For an author to present a subject I had little interest in and change my opinion of it is quite a feat.  Kudos to Lucinda Fleeson!

In spite of her foray into the science behind her work, I was never bored by this book. Quite the opposite, in fact.  It was well-written, interesting, funny at times, and gave me real sense of place. Sitting outside on warm sunny day, reading this book, I could just picture myself in Kauai. And isn’t that just what you’d want out of a travel memoir?

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2009
320 pages

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The Truth According To Us by Annie Barrows

The Truth According To Us

Set in West Virginia during the Great Depression, The Truth According To Us is one of those novels that sneaks up on you.  You know, the kind that has you going along, in all pleasantness, and then you realize that you’ve fallen in love with it.

Layla Beck, a privileged young woman, is sent to work on a writing project hired by the WPA, as punishment because she refused to marry a man her father (a Senator) approved of.  She’s sent to the small town of Macedonia, West Virginia, to write it’s history; and in interviewing residents, she discovers the hidden truths about this community.

Even though Layla Beck is a major character, it’s the family she boards with (and 12 year old Willa Romeyn in particular), that really make this book what it is.  Annie Barrows uses Willa’s voice, much like Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, to help the reader plainly see what everyone else is blinded to.

I loved this book.  It was well written, had marvelous, well-developed characters, and a story that you’ll remember long after you put the book down.  It’s a book that will make you smile.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2015
486 pages

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Washington’s Spies by Alexander Rose

Washington's Spies

What makes a good movie or book even better?  Knowing that it actually happened.  The AMC series TURN is a fantastic bingeworthy show about the Culper Ring –  a spy ring out of Setauket, NY that helped turn the tide of the American Revolutionary war in Washington’s favor.  The book, Washington’s Spies is the book that launched this great television series.

As is typical with books, you often find out much more history than is included in it’s filmed counterpart.  Such is the case with Washington’s Spies.  From the beginning stories of Nathan Hale, to the author’s expounded writings on the evolution of spy tactics, this book is fascinating.  You’ll also find out exactly what, in the AMC series, is fact and what is fiction.

The book doesn’t flow as well as the series, but that’s to be expected – especially since there is only little written records about these people.  Some of them went to their deathbed never breathing a word about their wartime activities.  And that is understandable, given the fact that many of their neighbors were loyalists or tried to be neutral.  Still, it’s worth reading and discovering a little more about this part of American history.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2007
369 pages

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The Visual Miscellaneum by David McCandless

The Visual Miscellaneum

The Visual Miscellaneum: A Colorful Guide To The World’s Most Consequential Trivia is a pretty cool book. It would make a good gift. A classic table-top-book. One you can pick up and pick a random page. It’s visually appealing and the graphics are very interesting.

That said the book isn’t very deep. Most of the information comes from Wikipedia or Google searches. Some of these charts are confusing and don’t illustrate the concepts very well. I would say as a source of information it leaves a lot to be desired. As a text book on illustrating complex concepts you’d be better off with one of Edward R. Tufte‘s books.

McCandless has a bad habit of emphasizing design over: clarity, meaning, and accuracy. The type is very small, so it’s often hard to see what each chart is trying to show, and even harder to see where this data comes from. Often the sources are disappointingly incomplete. My favorite chart is on page 160, “Articles of War: Most edited Wikipedia pages”, which was nothing but text. It could have been a table sorted by edit count. But instead it was a random jumble with the titles resized by the count number. Not exactly useful.
The entire book is interesting.. but disappointing.

C
256 pages

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