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Book reviews

Unlike Anything that Ever Floated: The Monitor and Virginia and the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862 by Dwight Sturtevant Hughes

Unlike Anything that Ever Floated by Dwight Sturtevant Hughes is an excellent look at a pivotal naval battle during the Civil War.  The ironclads U.S.S. Monitor and C.S.S. Virginia (and other similar ironclads) were the precursors of modern steel naval ships. The book is part of Savas Beatie’s Emerging Civil War Series (simple overviews of the Civil War’s important battles and issues).

Hughes thoroughly chronicles the development of ironclads in the United States and Confederate navies. As a part of the chronology of events surrounding the two ships, Hughes incorporates the development of both ships. He delves into not only the armor, but the armaments and propulsion systems. Many people would find these discussions quiet drab, but Hughes brings a refreshing approach by describing the various personalities involved in the construction of both ships.

Following the discussion on the construction (or rebuilding in the case of the C.S.S. Virginia) of the ships, Hughes analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of each ship. For instance, the C.S.S. Virgina was well-armored, but its engines were poor. The engines were very unreliable and lacked power. These deficiencies played a part in the day’s battle.

The heart of the book – the day of battle between the two ships – is the best and most engaging part. As Hughes recounts, the C.S.S. Virginia utterly destroyed two Union ships and was on the verge of routing the entire naval squadron when the U.S.S. Monitor arrived.  Hughes does not describe the action in a clinical manner, but humanizes it by writing about the bravery and sacrifice of the sailors on both sides. This humanization is often lost in many history books that tell the facts in black and white without recognizing the human factor.

Unlike Anything that Ever Floated is an excellent history of a pivotal moment for not only the U.S. Navy, but the world’s navies as well.

The Boy Generals: George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac by Adolfo Ovies

The story of the Army of the Potomac’s Union cavalry in the Civil War is fascinating. It began the war as a poorly led force that was frequently bested by their Southern counterparts in the Army of Northern Virginia. However, that changed as the war progressed and better leadership rose to the top of the command chain. Adolfo Ovies in The Boy Generals: George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac chronicles this transition. This book is the first in a three book series on Custer and Merritt.

Ovies does not describe every Union cavalry action, but focuses on the ones that Custer and Merritt were involved in. Ovies succinctly describes the conflicting thoughts of those in the cavalry on its use, including Custer and Merritt. Some believed in the saber and shock charges (Custer), but others believed more in the dragoon concept, fighting dismounted (Merritt). Ovies chronicles how the differences in philosophy between Custer and Merritt slowly turned the men from acquaintance to bitter rivals.

Ovies scholarship is excellent. He uses multiple primary sources, including multiple manuscripts and official government documents. He expertly weaves these sources into a compelling story that shows the changing nature of the men’s relationship. It always amazes me how quickly the two men rose in the ranks. They started the war as lieutenants and were brigadier generals by Gettysburg – Ovies touches on the disgruntlement of fellow officers by these meteoric rises.

Ovies’ writing and analysis is generally exceptional with a few awkward places. He thoroughly explains the actions of Custer and Merritt in the various battles. However, his analysis at times is confusing. For example, when describing the starting time of the battle at the East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg, I was a little confused on when he thought the battle started – there is much debate among scholars when the fighting began.

Overall, this is an excellent examination of two of the Union Army’s great cavalry leaders. I look forward to the second book in the series.

Sharpe’s Assassin by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell, without exception, is my favorite historical fiction writer. He has written many historical fiction books and series, including the Richard Sharpe Series. He recently finished the final book in the Series entitled Sharpe’s Assassin.

A great book series is hard to find. It is difficult to keep intriguing story lines and continue to develop characters. Cornwell is a master at both of these in several different series.

Once an author decides to end a series, I always hate to read the last book. You get very familiar with the characters and there is a certain comfort knowing that another book is coming to continue the adventure. This is even more so with the Sharpe Series. I have been reading the books for more than 20 years, many of them twice. I know that Cornwell wrote many of them in order and later filled in some gaps with newer books, but this latest book seems a little more final. It appears that the Richard Sharpe character is finally done.

As with the other books in the Series, the character development is strong and the plot is engaging. Cornwell’s writing sucks the reader in and does not let go. In Sharpe’s Assassins, Cornwell introduces you to Alan Fox (an eccentric British art collector ordered to recover art stolen by Napoleon and who assists Sharpe in a plot to cause chaos with the Allied forces in Paris) and Colonel Lanier (a French officer reportedly helping to lead the chaos). These two men cause headaches for Sharpe. But, Sharpe is joined by the ever-faithful and powerful Sergeant Harper to help him with the latest adventure.

The action scenes are realistic, especially with the storming of a castle and the battle at the end. The plot is very believable. Sharpe and Fox are tasked by Wellington to hunt down and find a group of assassins.

Without revealing the end, I like how Cornwell ends Sharpe’s adventures in the last battle and afterward.

Meade and Lee at Rappahannock Station by Jeffrey William Hunt

I consider myself a fairly well-informed person regarding the Civil War. However, I don’t know much about the interactions between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of Gettysburg and the Confederate’s escape across the Potomac River in 1863. Jeffrey William Hunt’s Meade and Lee at Rappahannock Station: The Army of the Potomac’s First Post-Gettysburg Offensive, From Kelly’s Ford to the Rapidan, October 21 to November 20, 1863 sheds some light on this time period.

Hunt provides a great overview of the situation in the Eastern Theater between the two armies. As part of the overview, Hunt discusses the pressure on Meade from Lincoln and General Henry Halleck (General-in-Chief of Union Armies) to follow-up the victory at Gettysburg  with another defeat of Lee. However, Meade and Lincoln/Halleck cannot agree on a strategy to bring the Army of Northern Virginia to battle. Conversely, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia are anxious to avenge their loss at Gettysburg.

Following the overview, Hunt describes the various strategic options both commanders had at their disposal. He expertly gives the pros and cons for each option. For example, if Lee wanted to defend against a Union attack, he had the option to defend a line behind the Rappahannock River or the Rapidan River. However, the Rappahannock defensive line had several disadvantages, including possibly trapping the Confederate army between the Rappahannock River and the Rapidan.

Meade’s options were just as difficult for different reasons. Meade was hemmed in by the constraints of Lincoln and Halleck.  Lincoln and Halleck wanted Meade to use the Orange and Alexandria Railroad as the axis of advance for the Army of the Potomac. Meade argued against this because the railroad angled away from Richmond, away from his major supply depots in the East, and ran entirely through enemy territory. The latter was no small matter because Meade would have to use thousands of troops to guard the railroad from Confederate raids. Meade preferred shifting to the East and operating from a base on the Potomac River near Fredericksburg. Meade lost the argument.

Hunt masterfully dictates the Union attacks and the Confederate’s counter-measures. Meade took a risk by splitting his forces to attack Confederate-held Kelly’s Ford and Rappahannock Station. Hunt indicates that Lee accurately guessed that Meade would choose this option. The Union’s assault on Kelly’s Ford went as expected – the Union cleared the Confederates from the Ford, but the Confederates then held them in check due to a lack of aggressiveness from the Union commander (General French).

The book’s most intriguing portion centers on Hunt’s discussion and analysis of the Union assault at Rappahannock Station. Meade allocated two corps to take the Confederate outpost on the northern side of the Rappahannock River and continue the assault after the crossing. Although the  Union succeeded, Hunt points out that the assault took too long and accomplished too little due to a lack of aggressiveness at the corps level.  Hunt praises the leadership of lower ranking officers and the men from a few regiments in taking the Confederate position (the Confederate leadership on that side of the river misread the tactical situation).

Hunt concludes the book with Lee’s escape to the Rapidan River. As Hunt notes, this escape was partially due to masterful Confederate tactics and the Union’s lack of aggressiveness. In his analysis, Hunt impartially blames Lee and his commanders for the loss of Rappahannock Station. However, he finds fault with Meade and his commanders for not pursuing the Confederates more aggressively for a more decisive victory.

The book is an excellent review of Union and Confederate actions at Kelly’s Ford and Rappahannock Station.

The Hidden Palace (The Golem and the Jinni #2) by Helene Wecker

Way back in 2013 I reviewed The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and I was a big fan:

A mix of history, romance, fantasy, folklore and psychological/philosophical musings it was both entertaining and thought-provoking. The story starts slowly by introducing us to the main characters and settings (primarily turn-of-the-century Manhattan) but these characters and settings are so engaging that you don’t mind the slow pace, or at least I didn’t, but settle in to enjoy the process and explore this fictional world.

But danger is always lurking for both the Golem and the Jinni and the tension begins to grow, the plot lines start to mingle and tangle and by the end you are feverishly reading to find out what happens. As you do so you find the questions about destiny and free will, about choice and character, intriguing and even challenging.

I am not usually a big fan of historical fiction but in this case the fantasy and folklore elements combined with the history to form a compelling blend.

So when the long awaited follow up, The Hidden Palace, was released last year I added it to the To Be Read list.


Chava is a golem, a woman made of clay, who can hear the thoughts and longings of those around her and feels compelled by her nature to help them. Ahmad is a jinni, a restless creature of fire, once free to roam the desert but now imprisoned in the shape of a man. Fearing they’ll be exposed as monsters, these magical beings hide their true selves and try to pass as human—just two more immigrants in the bustling world of 1900s Manhattan. Brought together under calamitous circumstances, their lives are now entwined—but they’re not yet certain of what they mean to each other.

Both Chava and Ahmad have changed the lives of the people around them. Park Avenue heiress Sophia Winston, whose brief encounter with Ahmad left her with a strange illness that makes her shiver with cold, travels to the Middle East to seek a cure. There she meets Dima, a tempestuous female jinni who’s been banished from her tribe. Back in New York, in a tenement on the Lower East Side, a little girl named Kreindel helps her rabbi father build a golem they name Yossele—not knowing that she’s about to be sent to an orphanage uptown, where the hulking Yossele will become her only friend and protector.

Spanning the tumultuous years from the turn of the twentieth century to the beginning of World War I, The Hidden Palace follows these lives and others as they collide and interleave. Can Chava and Ahmad find their places in the human world while remaining true to each other? Or will their opposing natures and desires eventually tear them apart—especially once they encounter, thrillingly, other beings like themselves?

My Take

As I noted in my review of the first book, I don’t normally read or enjoy much historical fiction. The Golem and Jinni overcame that drawback but I think The Hidden Palace reminded me why I tend not to read a lot of this genre.  It just took a lot for me to get into the story and flow. I can appreciate the details and social interaction but it felt like the plot took a long time to really get moving. There was a lot of set up. But once it really got moving it was enjoyable. I liked it but didn’t love it.

I think this is a book that you have to be in the mood to just enjoy the characters, relationships and settings as the plot slowly develops. If you are happy just to be back in this world again, you can enjoy it for that aspect.  But the sequel just lacks the narrative flow and drive that the first book did.

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