history

Review of ‘Dunkirk: Retreat from the Brink of Destruction’

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For most students of World War II, when Dunkirk is mentioned, the image that comes to mind is the heroic rescue of the beleaguered British Expeditionary Force. Missing from most narratives is the story of the harrowing two months when the BEF, inadequately-equipped and outmanned by the German forces, bore the brunt of the first Wermacht attack against Allied forces.

In Dunkirk: Retreat from the Brink of Destruction, originally published in 1950 as Keep the Memory Green, Ewan Butler and J. Selby Bradford, junior British army officers in France from late 1939 to May 1940, tell the story of the men caught up in the middle of the action. The ground troops, facing German panzer tanks with inadequate weapons, RAF pilots and crews, vastly outnumbered by the Luftwaffe, and navy forces who evacuated troops from Dunkirk under withering German fire. The authors bring the voices of the dead to life, with humor, honor, and a bit of pathos, showing the reader what war is like up close and personal.

This book was meant as a tribute to the forgotten men of the BEF, but it is also a good reminder of the horrors of war. If you like history, this one’s for you.

I give this one five stars.

Review of ‘The Women Who Changed the Course of History’

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In most traditional history courses that American students are exposed to, the contributions and roles of women and minorities are often overlooked, or at best, only given cursory mention. Dominique Atkinson’s groundbreaking book, The Women Who Changed the Course of History, changes that in a fundamental way.

From Eve, the so-called Mother of Mankind, to 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Atkinson explores the pivotal role a few remarkable women played, and continue to play, in the world’s affairs.

From Eve’s ‘fall from grace,’ she discusses the origins of the misogynistic male mindset regarding women and their role in society from its beginnings. Eve, who was tempted by the serpent to taste the fruit from the ‘tree of knowledge,’ is characterized as the reason for humanities suffering and the expulsion from Eden. My only complaint about this offering is that the author failed to mention that since Eve was the first to acquire ‘knowledge,’ women had a head start on men in the intelligence department, a fact that is reinforced by the different reactions of Eve and her mate, Adam, to their dilemma. Even as written, however, it goes a long way to making sense of the male reactions to women who broke out of the expected mold over the centuries.

Atkinson offers detailed portraits of several women who, throughout our history, have refused to allow themselves to be pigeon-holed and treated as ‘less than fully human.’ Women like Cleopatra, Marie Curie, Benazir Bhutto, and Hillary Clinton, who, rather than allowing themselves to be defined by men, defined themselves, and in so doing, initiated changes that reverberate long after they’ve gone from the scene.

For anyone who wants an alternative look at the history we’ve been spoon-fed most of our lives, I can think of no better book to begin the process.

I give this thoroughly engrossing book five stars.

Review of ‘The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius’

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The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, translated by George Long, is a series of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD. This compilation of private notes to himself and his ruminations on Stoic philosophy gives a kaleidoscopic view of the Roman Empire during his reign. A hard slog unless you’re a history buff, Long’s use of archaic English (using language reminiscent of the King James version of the Bible) can cause the reader to pause to make sure of his or her understanding of a passage, can challenge many modern readers. Nevertheless, this is an interesting look at a time long past, and is worth the effort it takes to read it through.

I give it a solid four stars.

Review of ‘Aphrodite: Desperate Mission’

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In 1944 German V-1 and V-2 rockets were raining death and destruction upon London and other English cities. Allied intelligence received information indicating that the Nazis were developing a more powerful rocket, capable of destroying a city block and even possibly reaching New York City. This news inspired a desperate mission; a secret project that involved flying drone B-17 bombers into hardened German sites near the coast of France to destroy the new menace. Volunteer pilots were to get the drone planes aloft and then parachute out over friendly territory. The drones would then be guided to their targets by operators in ‘mother’ planes using a guidance system that had been developed for smaller rockets.

Though ultimately unsuccessful, and designed for a target that did not in fact exist, this highly secret project set the stage for the kind of guided munitions that featured so significantly in wars of this century. But, the cost was high, including the untimely death of Joe Kennedy, Jr., elder brother of John F. Kennedy.

Aphrodite: Desperate Mission by Jack Olsen is a riveting account of the men and the mission. Based upon previously classified Defense Department documents, it reads like fiction, but is an historical account of a heretofore unknown operation in the late stages of World War II. The author cites documents obtained from military archives, and while the conversations are recreations, they have a ring of authenticity and truth, and paint a grittily realistic picture of the horrors of war.

For fans of books about this era, this is a must-read. It gives another look at historical figures, such as James Rand, a major during the war, who later founded Rand Corporation, and James Doolittle, an acclaimed flyer.

This is a book that is just waiting to be made into a movie

Four stars, only because of the unfortunate number of typos in the e-book edition.

Review of ‘SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome’

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From an insignificant village on the banks of the Tiber, by 53 BCE Rome had grown to a sprawling city of over a million inhabitants and controlled an empire. In SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard explores the growth of Rome through a study of documents and historical records, and explains how it changed from a rudimentary collection of huts, narrow alleyways, filth, disease, and death, to a military empire that not only controlled most of Europe and North Africa, but left a lasting legacy that still shapes how we in the Western world understand and view ourselves.

Beard debunks many of the myths we have about ancient Rome, in a style that is neither condemning nor fawning. She examines and discusses documents and relics, as she describes Rome beginning in 53 BCE and how the rivalry between Cicero, a philosopher/poet, and Catiline, a populist/rebel, shaped the Rome that went on to conquer most of the world known to Europeans. She tries to show as many sides of the story as possible from the known records, and makes an effort at objective analysis.

Her description of Roman politics of the era have an eerie resemblance to modern politics, which, when one considers that much of our political terminology comes from ancient Rome, should come as no surprise. A carefully written and thoroughly researched book, it will thrill history buffs, and maybe—just maybe—develop a love of history in those who have yet to discover it.

I received this book as a gift, and have actually read it twice before attempting to review it.

I give it five stars.

Review of ‘American Diplomacy: 1900-1950’

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Two years ago, I did a series of lectures at a local university on ‘the History of American Diplomacy.’ Over two semesters, I consistently infuriated about half of each class with my thesis that, despite some significant successes over the centuries, American diplomacy is, for a host of historical reasons, rather dysfunctional. My students, from a conservative region, were offended that I would criticize ‘their’ country—ignoring the fact that I’d served for over 30 years as an American diplomat, was an avid student of history, and sort of knew what I was talking about.

The late George F. Kennan, architect of America’s Soviet Containment Policy, and a veteran American diplomat himself, in his book American Diplomacy: 1900-1950, which reproduces a series of lectures he gave at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, agrees with me. While he is less blunt about it (in my lectures I described American diplomats as sometimes being ‘sheep in wolves clothing,’ a blunt terminology the staid Kennan would never use), he does not hesitate to describe the hubris of the US Government as it pursues its foreign policy around the globe, excoriating other countries for behavior that we ourselves are often guilty of, and demanding countries take actions that we refuse to take.

Kennan focuses on the period 1900 to 1950, from the Spanish American War, and America’s brief flirtation with colonization, to the outbreak of the Korean War, and describes in detail the forces that shape the country’s foreign policy, and often significantly impact the methods we employ to pursue that policy. While he is circumspect in his criticism, he leaves no doubt that American diplomacy is a product of a domestic system that focuses on short-term goals, does not make actions conform to ideals, and often takes no lessons from the past.

As we prepare to witness what might be the most historic political transition in American history, one that will have a far-ranging impact (whether negative or positive, it’s too early to say) on our international relations. It behooves us as citizens, then, to understand the factors that, though distant, can impact our lives significantly.

American Diplomacy is a good starting point for understanding how the world really works.

I received this book as a gift. I give it five stars.

Review of ‘Spreading the American Dream’

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Historian Emily S. Rosenberg’s Spreading the American Dream, traces America’s global expansionism during the first half of the twentieth century. Written in a somewhat dry, textbook style, without footnotes or references, this book looks at the country’s economic and cultural expansion from 1890 to 1945 as it changed from a primarily private endeavor led by American business to one dominated by government.

An interesting book in many ways, but the author gives an unbalanced view, with a bias to the economic aspects and only touching lightly on the cultural. In the introduction the author states that she wants readers to consider if America, in its expansionist mood, fell victim to the same sins as other expansionist powers, but except for slight references to the many contradictions in the American message to the world, she doesn’t offer much to enable a reader to come to any logical conclusion.

For example, when she talks about the great Chicago Exposition of the late 1800s, she points out that America’s prowess in manufacturing agricultural implements was showcased while the over production, land misuse, and crushing debt faced by American family farms was ignored. Nowhere in the book, for example, does she address the stark contradiction between the American cultural message about its exceptionalism and the way it treated women (who make up half the population) or minorities (blacks and Native Americans). While selling the American dream to other countries, it was withholding that dream from a significant percentage of its own citizens. She does point out many of the contradictions in the economic sphere—America pushing for free and open trade while fiercely protecting its own industries—a case of do as I say, not as I do.

Despite these deficiencies, the book is useful to anyone who wants to understand the beginning of American global hegemony. It only needs other material to fill in all the blanks.

I received this book as a gift. For months, I let is gather dust on my book shelf, until the 2016 election and the question of America’s place in the world began to occupy my thoughts more and more. While I was not wildly impressed by it, I’m glad that I read it nonetheless. It gives me a point of departure for further reading and study. I give this book three and a half stars.

Review of ‘Morning in South Africa’

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Despite a history of discrimination and racism and a current government that is lackluster at best, and mired in corruption, South Africa, according to John Campbell, an American diplomat who served in the U.S. Embassy from 1993 to 1996, during the transition from apartheid to a black-led government, believes that the country’s well-established rule of law will enable it to weather its current crises. In Morning in South Africa Campbell discusses the history of the country, its hot button issues of land reform, health care, education reform, and the economic inequality that persists more than 20 years post-apartheid.

Campbell believes that a closer relationship can be forged between the U.S. and South Africa, to the benefit of both countries, but it must wait for a new government to replace that of current president Jacob Zuma, who as president has made many of the country’s problems worse.

Written from the perspective of someone who represented U.S. interests in the country, but at the same time got to know the culture and society well, this Council on Foreign Relations volume should be required reading for every member of the incoming American administration, but in particular, the new political occupants at the Department of State, not just for what it can teach them about South Africa, but for what they can learn about how American diplomats work to support and defend the Constitution, and on behalf of all Americans, regardless of who occupies the White House. It should also be required reading for all Americans; a primer on foreign relations through the lens of relations with one country.

I received this book as a gift.

I give Campbell five stars for this excellent study.

Review of ‘Hidden Figures’

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I thought I knew a lot about the history of America’s race against the Soviet Union to dominate the realm of space. Like many of my generation, I followed our forays into the heavens with as avidly as many of my friends tracked sports statistics. After reading Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, though, I realize that I only knew a part of that story.

With men away fighting the Axis during World War II, American women suddenly found themselves able to work in occupations formerly closed to them. One of the places that opened its doors to women was the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics (NACA), forerunner of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The most compelling part of that story, and one that I was completely ignorant of, was the fact that among the women who were allowed to pass through doors was a group of black women, outstanding mathematicians, who had been teachers in segregated schools. Women like Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, ChristineDarden, and Kathaleen Land, who worked as human ‘computers’ in NACA’s segregated West Computer Section at Langley Field in southeastern Virginia.

Hired beginning in 1943 to do manual computations for the program to ensure American flight supremacy in World War II, and working with the nascent space program after the Soviet launch of Sputnik, these women endured segregated working conditions, and discrimination based on both their race and gender, making critical contributions to every element of our eventual victory in the space race, from John Glenn’s first orbital flight to the lunar landing.

Shetterly, a native of the Hampton area of Virginia, offers a straight forward, but compelling, picture of these women and their struggles to prove that they were as capable as any man, in some cases, even more capable, as they encountered and overcome the social and legal barriers placed in their paths.

This is a piece of American history that should be mandatory reading for every American, black or white, male or female. Not only does it bring to light an important part of our history that has remained relatively unseen for decades, but it is a compelling story of the strength of the human will that is a beacon of hope in our current age of political divisiveness and discord.

I received this book as a gift, and it’s one that I will share with my grandchildren. Not just to show them what the past was like, but as a guide to their future.

I give this fascinating book five stars.

Review of ‘Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates’

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Less than 50 years after it gained its independence from Britain, the new American nation faced a crisis. The Barbary states of North Africa preyed upon shipping, taking crews captive and demanding ransom payments and tribute that threatened the infant American economy.

Unsuccessful in its efforts to deal with the pirates through diplomacy, and unable to make the demands for even higher tributes and ransom, Thomas Jefferson, soon after gaining the presidency, chose to demonstrate the new country’s might, and convinced congress to authorize raising a navy and employing it to demonstrate that Americans would fight for the right to trade freely around the world.

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates by Brian Killmeade and Don Yaeger is the story of America’s first war after independence, focusing as much on the unnamed men who fought it at sea and on the ground as on the figures well known in American history. The war against the Barbary pirates is a chapter in American history that gets little notice in history courses, and is largely unknown to most Americans. It is instructive, though, in that it was the first test of the new nation’s prowess, and many aspects of our modern foreign policy grew out of the experiences of this forgotten period of American history.

It reads like a historical thriller, with accounts of those who fought, gleaned from historical documents and journals of people history has largely ignored. A well-constructed book, my only complaint is that the authors display their own lack of full understanding of American diplomatic history in some parts; for instance, John Adams is referred to as the ambassador to Great Britain, when, in fact, the U.S. didn’t post its first ambassador abroad until 1893. A small error that can be forgiven, in view of the fact that most Americans are ignorant of the nuance and detail of American history, but one that the authors or editors should have caught (Adams is correctly identified as minister to Britain in the photo of him inserted in the book. I also took issue with the authors contention that the depredations of the Barbary pirates was based on religion—that they were Muslims was incidental to the fact that they were greedy and like most pirates of that day down to the present were motivated by the desire to profit from preying on those perceived as weak.

These minor irritants aside, this is still an instructive book. It shows the evolution of America’s overseas policy, and the importance of effective leadership, both political and military, in achieving national security and prosperity, and the contributions to our nation that have been made by people whose bravery and innovation in the face of adversity prevails.

I received this book as a gift. I give it four stars.

Review of ‘In Search of Robinson Crusoe’

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Since the time the sun never set on the British Empire, and despite having a rather gray and lackluster cuisine, Brits have excelled as travel writers. Tim Severin’s In Search of Robinson Crusoe is but another example of that excellence. An intrepid explorer and excellent scribe, Severin traveled the lands described in Daniel Defoe’s books to see if he could discover the identity of the real life castaway upon whom Defoe based his book, or if it was based upon the voluntary castaway, Alexander Selkirk, as many believe.

Moving back and forth in time, with summaries of the past interspersed with descriptions of his own often hazardous, sometimes hilarious, journeys, Severn effectively debunks the myths, and comes to the conclusion that Defoe based his character upon an entirely different castaway. I won’t spoil the book for you by identifying that worthy. I’ll just suggest you get the book and find out for yourself.

Severn writes in a vivid style, complete with self-deprecating wit that will make this  perhaps one of the best travelogues, historical narratives, adventure books you’ll read in a while. I give it five stars!

Review of ‘Fairchild’

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Sophy Prescott, living with her mother in a small English village, is the village bastard. When her mother dies, her ‘father,’ Lord William Rushford of Fairchild, has her relocated to his home in Cordell Hall, where he finds it hard to relate to her as a daughter.

Fairchild by Jaima Fixsen tells Sophy’s story as she struggles to find love and a place to belong, in a society that puts a premium on pedigree rather than true character.

The author does an excellent job of describing English society of the era, and the characters of all classes that inhabited it. While in some respects a romance, Fairchild is also a bit of historical fiction, with its descriptions of English society. Fixsen has created, in Sophy, a character the reader can easily identify with and root for.. I give it four stars.

Review of ‘#Houston68 – Apollo 8: the Longest Journey’

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I’ve been a fan of Philip Gibson’s Hashtag History series since reading the first. He’s hit another homerun, in my view, with #Houston68 – Apollo 8: The Longest Journey. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my review.

In #Houston68 Gibson takes us inside the Apollo 8 mission during those six tense days in December 1968 when NASA conducted the first manned Lunar mission through the medium of social media, to wit, Twitter. Through a series of ‘live’ tweets, beginning on May 25, 1961 when John F. Kennedy said, “We undertake these endeavors, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

All of those involved in the program, from astronauts to flight engineers and mission control on the inside, to Walter Cronkite and other notables on the outside, are shown through actual historical quotes, only as if they were reacting in real time to events. In addition, Gibson puts this mission into the historical perspective of the Cold War by weaving in the Pueblo Incident—the case of the U.S. spy ship crew taken captive by the North Koreans and held for an extended period, who were finally released during this period.

If, like many students, you were bored during high school history classes—and, trust me, you didn’t miss much—you can make up what you missed during those class time naps by reading the Hashtag History series. Another of Gibson’s five-star offerings.

Review of ‘The Settler’

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The Settler by Orit Arfa is billed as a historical Middle Eastern romance, but it’s much more than that. It’s the story of how one woman, Sara Dakar, a resident of the Jewish settlement of Gush Katif, deals with life after she and her fellow settlers are expelled and the settlement destroyed. Even more, it’s a story of modern Israel, and the question of whether it’s a democratic country or a nascent religious dictatorship.

Arfa takes us through the broad sweep of Middle Eastern politics vis a vis Israel, and a down and dirty tour through present day Israel as it copes with the contradictions and inconsistencies in a society that has seen more than its share of death and sadness as its people seek love and fun.

This is not a weekend read, unless you have a long holiday weekend with no other distractions. It’s hard to put down, but it’s also doubtful that you can get through it in one sitting; it’s just too intense.

Regardless of where you stand on the Arab-Israeli issue or the problem of Israeli settlements, you will enjoy reading this book. In fact, if you want to understand the dilemma that’s the Israeli problem better, I recommend this be one of the texts that you consult. Four stars to Arfa for an interesting read.

Review of ‘Murder Bay’

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Murder Bay, a posthumous historical mystery by David R. Horowitz follows DC police officer Ben Carey after he’s assigned to head a new unit in the 1950s Metropolitan Police Department, based in an old residence due for demolition. While he’s dealing with a deteriorating relationship with his wife, he gets caught up in a murder that took place in Washington during the Civil War.

The first in a series of manuscripts the author wrote before his untimely demise, this is a fine blend of mystery, history, and the supernatural that will keep you reading as the author switches back and forth between 1862 and 1957. Carey finds himself doubting his sanity when he sees ghosts in the old building to which his new department has been consigned. As he digs deeper into the mystery, he finds himself on the trail of a killer long dead, and a case that is nearly a century old—a truly cold case.

The characters, ghosts included, are nicely done, and the description of the nation’s capital during the two different periods display an excellent ear and eye for history on the author’s part.

I understand there might be plans to publish more in this series, and I await them with eager anticipation. I give this book five stars.

Review of ‘#Berlin45’

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Berlin fell to advancing Soviet forces in May 1945. In the final 20 days of Hitler’s Third Reich, key figures involved in the global struggle called World War II, were on edge, waiting for the final fall.

Philip Gibson’s #Berlin 45 is another in the Hashtag History series that gives the reader an inside view of momentous events in history through the medium of social media postings. In this volume, Gibson covers the final days of Hitler through Twitter postings that take the actual words of those immersed in the events of the day. What comes through clearly here is how Hitler, in the final days, was completely disconnected from reality, and how those around him coped with the fates that awaited them. Tweets from the Allied side, including the aftermath of FDR’s death and Harry Truman’s ascent to the presidency, are brought to life in a way that readers of the current generation can relate to.

In #Berlin 45, the reader can see how the more practical Germans tried desperately to make peace with the western Allies (American and British) to avoid falling under the Soviet sway, and the competition among the Soviet generals for pride of being the ‘first’ in Berlin.

In a short book, readers can see the horror of war and political foolishness in a way that is impossible in wordier historical accounts. Gibson brings the war to life and helps young people in the 21st century better understand a time in history that, though, many decades in our past, still impacts our lives today. I received a free review copy of this book in exchange for this review. I give this Hashtag history five stars.

Review of #Houston 69: Apollo 11 – When Men Walked on the Moon

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“What if there had been social media during the first mission to land a man on the Moon in 1969?” With these words, author Philip Gibson introduces #Houston 69: Apollo 11 – When Man Walked on the Moon, an account of the Apollo Moon landing told via social media postings, primarily tweets.

Gibson, a UK author who was 19 when American astronauts first set foot on the lunar surface, is an accomplished historical writer who makes historical events come alive in a most unique way. His ‘created’ social media posts put us into the minds of the principals to these events in a way that mainstream history books, and even most historical fiction, simply cannot do. From the straight-forward comments by noted newsman Walter Cronkite to the poetic waxings of Eric Severaid, he sets up the pre-launch period, a time when the success of the mission was only a dream. Postings from launch control, the White House, media, and most importantly, the astronauts themselves, show the tension of events, large and small as Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 set off on a mission that could have very well been one-way.

From pre-launch until splashdown, you’ll be on the edge of your seat as postings describe events – mundane and momentous – of one of mankind’s most historic undertakings. In the process, thanks to the brief bio information that Gibson provides, you’ll learn things about the history of the period that I can assure you, you never knew before.

Five stars to Gibson for another ‘out of the park’ home run!

Review of ‘The Red Hill’

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Thomas Berrington is an Englishman in the service of the sultan who controls much of Moorish Spain. Known as qassad, the butcher, Berrington is a physician and a warrior, and the sultan trusts him as no other. When the sultan asks him to investigate a series of strange murders in the harem, though, Berrington finds his loyalty put to the test. With the aid of the young eunuch, Jorge, he must contend with the intrigues within the royal palace of Alhambra, or die trying. The first victims are mere servants, but when one of the sultan’s pregnant wives is slain, the stakes soar.

The Red Hill by David Penny is a novel set in Moorish Spain during the period when Europeans are striving to expel their Moorish masters – a battle between Christianity and Islam, and between personal loyalty and loyalty to a higher cause. The more Berrington learns about the murders, the higher the stakes for him personally.

Penny is a master of devious plotting with a cultural twist, while at the same time making the story relevant to modern readers. I received a free copy of this book for review, and wasn’t disappointed. This is a great weekend read – a book that you’ll not want to put down until you’ve reached the stunning conclusion.

The easiest five-star review I’ve given this year.

Review of ‘Superior Peril: Murder on 123’

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Jack Handler is a retired Chicago police detective who lives on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When the father of his nephew’s friend turns up missing on Lake Superior with nine other people when they were out searching for the wreckage of a Minoan ship that supposedly sank around 1200 BC, Jack and his NYPD detective daughter Kate find themselves up to their necks in danger and intrigue. Author Michael Carrier’s Superior Peril: Murder on 123 is a well-woven tale in the manner of James Patterson.

I particularly like the way Carrier weaves the story of the Minoan ship far in the past with the derring-do and dastardly deeds of the present. Crisp dialogue and well-developed characters will keep you reading to the end, and gasping for more.

A very easy four-star story.

Review of ‘Touched With Fire’

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Ellen Craft was a real person. A slave, the daughter of her owner, she was given to her half-sister as a wedding present. After she married a fellow slave, William Craft, the two of them cooked up a plan to escape to freedom. Christopher Datta, in his first novel, offers a fictionalized version of Craft’s life in Touched With Fire.

Datta’s account, though fiction, is based in large part on the true story of this couple and their intense desire, not only for freedom, but for the chance to live their lives as they see fit. A compelling story, it takes the reader into the emotions of a tortured period in American history in ways that a mere recitation of facts could never accomplish. Datta gets into the minds and hearts of his characters, through credible dialogue and detailed descriptions that make the history come alive. Not only do you come away from this book with a better understanding of the corrosive effects of slavery on society and people, but an appreciation of the power of love and faith.

But, Datta doesn’t stop there. The middle part of the book, an account of Ellen Craft’s adventure masquerading as a man and enlisting in the Union Army, contains battle scenes that not only portray the details of war in rich color, but gets into the minds of those who fought those battles.

If you like historical fiction, this is a book that you must read. If you’re a first-time reader, it is even more important that you read it – to see how history can be made to come alive.

Four Stars to Datta for this first book, and I look forward to his next effort.

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