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

The Boy GeneralsThe 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Publisher

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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Phase Six by Jim Shepard

I saw Phase Six in the “New Fiction” section of the library and was intrigued.  But the first time, I wasn’t sure how badly I wanted to read a book about a pandemic, albeit mostly written before COVID-19, during an actual pandemic. But I changed my mind and went ahead and read it.

Publisher

In a tiny settlement on the west coast of Greenland, 11-year-old Aleq and his best friend, frequent trespassers at a mining site exposed to mountains of long-buried and thawing permafrost, carry what they pick up back into their village, and from there Shepard’s harrowing and deeply moving story follows Aleq, one of the few survivors of the initial outbreak, through his identification and radical isolation as the likely index patient. While he shoulders both a crushing guilt for what he may have done and the hopes of a world looking for answers, we also meet two Epidemic Intelligence Service investigators dispatched from the CDC–Jeannine, an epidemiologist and daughter of Algerian immigrants, and Danice, an M.D. and lab wonk. As they attempt to head off the cataclysm, Jeannine–moving from the Greeland hospital overwhelmed with the first patients to a Level 4 high-security facility in the Rocky Mountains–does what she can to sustain Aleq. Both a chamber piece of multiple intimate perspectives and a more omniscient glimpse into the megastructures (political, cultural, and biological) that inform such a disaster, the novel reminds us of the crucial bonds that form in the midst of catastrophe, as a child and several hypereducated adults learn what it means to provide adequate support for those they love. In the process, they celebrate the precious worlds they might lose, and help to shape others that may survive.

My Take

It turned out to be both tender and frightening with an, at times, odd mix of science and relationships.

The pandemic aspect is all too realistic and unsettling in the era of COVID. The tender part deals with the relationships of those looking to solve the science behind the pandemic; particularly two CDC researchers. It was spare and episodic with little vignettes highlighting the challenges of maintaining relationships as a doctor, researcher, etc. with the added push-pull of the pandemic. I enjoyed it but wasn’t wowed by it.

In many ways the emotional heart of the story is about female relationships, despite the male author. I think what threw me a bit was that the book starts almost like a thriller (SPOILER ALERT: mysterious pathogen leading to the deaths of almost an entire village) and then switches to a focus on relationships and interior lives. Plus, for me, too much science talk, even if it made sense given the characters, gave it an odd feel too.

Interesting and well written but not quite my cup of tea. But if you are looking for a fictional account of those on the front lines, to use a cliche, of fighting a pandemic this is the book.

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