Chancellorsville's Forgotten Front by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White

The Battle of Chancellorsville has been described as both General Lee’s greatest triumph (total domination of the Union forces) and lowest point in the Civil War prior to surrender (loss of General Thomas Jackson).  Although much has been written about the battle around Chancellorsville, not much attention has been given to the clashes around and in Fredericksburg and Salem Church. However, a much-needed book by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White, Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front: The Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, May 3, 1863, has brought new light to these two battles.

Here is a synopsis of the book from the publisher Savas Beatie:

Layout 1By May of 1863, the Stone Wall at the base of Marye’s Heights above Fredericksburg loomed large over the Army of the Potomac, haunting its men with memories of slaughter from their crushing defeat there the previous December. They would assault it again with a very different result the following spring when General Joe Hooker, bogged down in bloody battle with the Army of Northern Virginia around the crossroads of Chancellorsville, ordered John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps to assault the heights and move to his assistance. This time the Union troops wrested the wall and high ground from the Confederates and drove west into the enemy’s rear. The inland drive stalled in heavy fighting at Salem Church. Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front: The Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, May 3, 1863 is the first book-length study of these overlooked engagements and the central roles they played in the final Southern victory.

Once Hooker opened the campaign with a brilliant march around General Lee’s left flank, the Confederate commander violated military principles by dividing his under-strength army in the face of superior numbers. He shuttled most of his men west from around Fredericksburg under Stonewall Jackson to meet Hooker in the tangles of the Wilderness, leaving behind a small portion to watch Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps. Jackson’s devastating attack against Hooker’s exposed right flank on May 2, however, convinced the Union army commander to order Sedgwick’s large, unused corps to break through and march against Lee’s rear. From that point on, Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front tightens the lens for a thorough examination of the decision-making, movements, and fighting that led to the breakthrough, inland thrust, and ultimate bloody stalemate at Salem Church.

As with all of the books that I have read from Savas Beatie, this book is an example of great research and wonderful writing. The authors do justice to the soldiers and leaders of both sides. They discuss the aggressiveness of the Union forces to take the hills above Fredericksburg and the equally aggressive defense/offense of the Confederates at Salem Church.

The authors have a perfect balance between discussing strategy and tactics. They explain General Hooker’s overall goal of trying to flank General Lee, but describe how General Sedgwick’s troops tried to succeed in that task.

I particularly like the brief biographies, including photographs, of the leaders in the battles from both sides. These biographies help you understand why the leaders did what they did in the battle based on their history. The authors also include an extensive amount of maps to allow you to see the movements of the troops as you read the text. As I have said in the past, not many authors include enough maps to help the reader understand what is going on.

One final note, I want to encourage people to read the book’s Prologue. The authors describe how some parts of the battlefields of second Fredericksburg and Salem Church have disappeared due to development. Much of the ground described in the Battle of Salem Church cannot be seen today because of the construction of such things as a gas station or a parking lot. It can never be stressed enough that Civil War battlefields are our heritage that must be protected.

This book is a must-read for any person wanting to fully understand how the Confederates were able to dominate the Union at Chancellorsville.

Three non-fiction books I'm looking forward to reading

Photo credit: Read It Forward

 

Despite my love-hate relationship with non-fiction, I constantly coming across books I want to read. In an attempt to impose some discipline on my reading I thought I would publicly commit and comment on the next couple of books in the queue.

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin

At over five hundred pages, this book is a little larger than I normally take on but it is so fascinating and potentially useful that I had to dive in.  I have just started reading but am going to try to tackle this in bigger chunks so I can 1) finish it and 2) get more out of it.

The System Has a Soul: Essays on Christianity, Liberty, and Political Life by Hunter Baker

This collection of essays by my friend Hunter Baker tackle an important subject and one with great relevance today.  I always enjoy reading Hunter’s take on meaty subject so I can’t wait to be able to finish this collection. Thankfully it is much shorter than the first book in this list!

Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln by Richard Brookhiser

Last, but certainly not least, comes the latest from Richard Brookhiser. I have a simple rule: Brookhiser writes a book, I read it.  He is a master of popular, engaging and insightful history; razor sharp biographies that flush out impact and meaning not just a collection of dates and facts.  This is a must read.

So there you have it, cognitive science and self-help, political philosophy and cultural engagement; and historical biography top my TBR list.

What books are you looking forward to?

My love-hate relationship with non-fiction

The perhaps quintessential book blogger complaint? Too many books, not enough time. Right? This has always been a challenge for me but it has only grown with time and overall life complexity.  My kids are getting older and that brings with it school, sports and activities. My career has added its own set of responsibilities and stresses that sometimes make reading, my normal source of stress relief, a challenge.  I am also teaching a Sunday School class that requires preparation, reading, and thought.  Throw in football season and free time for reading and reviewing seems a pretty narrow slot.

This connundrum is elevated when it comes to non-fiction.  I love to read history, theology, and biography not to mention books on cognitive science, time management and strategic planning. I love to expand my knowledge, challenge my way of thinking, and explore ideas.  I have a tendency to think of these books as the key to making my life deeper, more organized, and more effective. This is sometimes true but can also be a naive belief that mere knowledge, or a particular insight, will lead to happiness; or to more discipline, focus or skill.

Regardless of its particular motivation or psychology, I view myself as a person who wants to and can read a decent amount of non-fiction.  So when I see books at the library, at the bookstore, or in emails from publishers and publicists I have a hard time not checking them out, buying them, or requesting review copies.

My TBR pile is starting to look like this ...
My TBR pile is starting to look like this …

As you are probably guessing, the problem lies in blocking out time to read said books and then to review them.  But a busy life makes more serious reading difficult.  Many of these books are not necessarily best experienced in a few minutes at the end of the day before I fall asleep. And the busier, the more stressed, and more mentally challenged I am at work the less likely I am to want to read non-fiction to relax.

Lastly, as I think I have mentioned before, I find writing reviews of non-fiction more challenging; a pressure to offer something more than “I enjoyed it” or “I didn’t”. So then I not only don’t read as many non-fiction books as I would like but I don’t reward the author/publisher/publicists/reader with a review.

You know that phrase about your eyes being bigger than your stomach? It captures that sense of wanting to eat everything but then once you put it on your plate you can’t finish it.  I have this with non-fiction books. Always seeking out more and more to read, always distracted by the next shiny object that is dangled in front of me yet never making much of a dent in reading, comprehending, and reviewing the pile of books I own or borrow.  There should be a term for this.

All of that said, my resolve to continue to read non-fiction continues.  Can I be more realistic about what and how much I can read? Sure. Can I prioritise and organize the books I do read? Yes. Can I do a better job of posting reviews, even short and high level, of non-fiction? You betcha. But I am not going to give up on non-fiction just yet …

My love-hate relationship with non-fiction

The perhaps quintessential book blogger complaint? Too many books, not enough time. Right? This has always been a challenge for me but it has only grown with time and overall life complexity.  My kids are getting older and that brings with it school, sports and activities. My career has added its own set of responsibilities and stresses that sometimes make reading, my normal source of stress relief, a challenge.  I am also teaching a Sunday School class that requires preparation, reading, and thought.  Throw in football season and free time for reading and reviewing seems a pretty narrow slot.

This connundrum is elevated when it comes to non-fiction.  I love to read history, theology, and biography not to mention books on cognitive science, time management and strategic planning. I love to expand my knowledge, challenge my way of thinking, and explore ideas.  I have a tendency to think of these books as the key to making my life deeper, more organized, and more effective. This is sometimes true but can also be a naive belief that mere knowledge, or a particular insight, will lead to happiness; or to more discipline, focus or skill.

Regardless of its particular motivation or psychology, I view myself as a person who wants to and can read a decent amount of non-fiction.  So when I see books at the library, at the bookstore, or in emails from publishers and publicists I have a hard time not checking them out, buying them, or requesting review copies.

My TBR pile is starting to look like this ...
My TBR pile is starting to look like this …

As you are probably guessing, the problem lies in blocking out time to read said books and then to review them.  But a busy life makes more serious reading difficult.  Many of these books are not necessarily best experienced in a few minutes at the end of the day before I fall asleep. And the busier, the more stressed, and more mentally challenged I am at work the less likely I am to want to read non-fiction to relax.

Lastly, as I think I have mentioned before, I find writing reviews of non-fiction more challenging; a pressure to offer something more than “I enjoyed it” or “I didn’t”. So then I not only don’t read as many non-fiction books as I would like but I don’t reward the author/publisher/publicists/reader with a review.

You know that phrase about your eyes being bigger than your stomach? It captures that sense of wanting to eat everything but then once you put it on your plate you can’t finish it.  I have this with non-fiction books. Always seeking out more and more to read, always distracted by the next shiny object that is dangled in front of me yet never making much of a dent in reading, comprehending, and reviewing the pile of books I own or borrow.  There should be a term for this.

All of that said, my resolve to continue to read non-fiction continues.  Can I be more realistic about what and how much I can read? Sure. Can I prioritise and organize the books I do read? Yes. Can I do a better job of posting reviews, even short and high level, of non-fiction? You betcha. But I am not going to give up on non-fiction just yet …

The Gospel of Jesus by Daniel L. Johnson (editor); Garrison Keillor (narrator)

Trolling the local library looking for audio books for my daily commute, I stumble on The Gospel of Jesus:

The Gospel of JesusGarrison Keillor and Dan Johnson both grew up in the bosom of fundamentalism. Their shared love of the Bible and its stories led to this collaboration, which blends details from all the gospels into a single book-length story. Keillor narrates the biography of this amazing man, Jesus, from the slum of Nazareth in the province of Galilee, who confounded dignitaries, healed the sick, and taught those who would listen. He claimed to be God, and that through his death God would graciously forgive the offenses of all who accept this. His story is the foundation from which Christianity has developed, stumbled, and evolved. Centuries ago, early Christians listened as the Bible was read to them. This new recording continues that tradition with a conversational translation performed by America’s favorite storyteller.

I was intrigued by both Keillor as narrator and by Johnson’s harmonization.  And I have to say I really enjoyed listening to this on my daily commute. Not surprisingly given its oral background, the Gospels really come to life in this audio format.  Also not surprisingly depending on your tastes, Garrison Keillor’s famous voice also works well.

In the audio you get the sense both of the narrative arc and the itinerant nature of Jesus’ life and message. You can see the story’s threads as they form, come together, and intertwine but also the necessary and normal repetition involved in teaching to crowds while crisscrossing the country.

The parables, his clash with the religious rulers, his calling of, and teaching of, the disciples, and his explanation of what is happening as the story comes to a climax will be familiar if you have grown up reading the Bible. But they also can sound fresh and be better heard within their context in the way Daniel Johnson has structured this harmonized version.

One could quibble with the translation (Tyndale House’s New Living Translation) but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment in any serious way.

Publisher’s Weekly captures it well:

Keillor’s instantly recognizable baritone glides its way through the familiar life of Jesus, from humble beginnings in Bethlehem to an exultantly rendered resurrection in Jerusalem. Johnson’s “harmonization” creates a single narrative from all four Gospel strands, blending Mark’s immediacy, Matthew’s concerns for law and tradition, Luke’s passion for the poor, and John’s mysticism into a coherent story that is rich in pathos and meaning.

An enjoyable way to either hear the Gospels for the first time or to reacquaint yourself with their power. Highly recommended.

Girl on a Wire by Gwenda Bond

Photo Source: Berkshire Museum

When I reviewed Gwenda Bond’s first novel, Blackwood, in 2012 I began with my standard “I try to read books written by people I know even we just interact online” spiel. Today, I feel like I know Gwenda a bit better having recently read another of her books (The Woken Gods), have continued to interact with her on social media, and even met her in “real life” at a book reading.

So I was excited when her third book, Girl On A Wire, was announced.  And I was even more excited when it was a Kindle First choice which meant I got to read it on my Kindle a couple of weeks early.

Girl On A WireSixteen-year-old Jules Maroni’s dream is to follow in her father’s footsteps as a high-wire walker. When her family is offered a prestigious role in the new Cirque American, it seems that Jules and the Amazing Maronis will finally get the spotlight they deserve. But the presence of the Flying Garcias may derail her plans. For decades, the two rival families have avoided each other as sworn enemies.

Jules ignores the drama and focuses on the wire, skyrocketing to fame as the girl in a red tutu who dances across the wire at death-defying heights. But when she discovers a peacock feather—an infamous object of bad luck—planted on her costume, Jules nearly loses her footing. She has no choice but to seek help from the unlikeliest of people: Remy Garcia, son of the Garcia clan matriarch and the best trapeze artist in the Cirque.

As more mysterious talismans believed to possess unlucky magic appear, Jules and Remy unite to find the culprit. And if they don’t figure out what’s going on soon, Jules may be the first Maroni to do the unthinkable: fall.

And in many ways like Blackwood, I enjoyed it despite not really being in the target audience. Most of my YA reading is from the fantasy adventure world whereas GOAW is a blend of mystery and romance (albeit light).

Gwenda Bond
Gwenda Bond

As is typical of Gwenda, the central character, in this case Jules, is once again the strength of the story.  Gwenda really takes you inside the circus world and inside a particular family from that world, the Maroni’s.  Jules unique perspective (how she sees the world, how she views herself and her family, what she likes and dislikes, her style and personality, what and who she wants to be, etc.) shine and make for a strong character. A girl with ambition and verve but also with doubts and struggles as she seeks to navigate relationships and challenges.

The circus and its history is also a character of sorts. The entertainers and their suspicions, superstitions, habits, culture and traditions provide a great backdrop for a classic tale of family rivalries, forbidden love, revenge and the threat of violence that can lurk behind them.

I also really enjoyed the hint of the supernatural that is an undercurrent in the story. Gwenda lets the characters tell the story and we see the talismans and events of the past through their eyes. Is there magic involved, dark magic, or is it simply someone out for revenge using magic as a cover?  Does the coin have real power or is it the owner’s fierce belief in the luck that powers events?  These questions never really are definitively answered but rather lurk in the background as the events play out.

The budding romance between Jules and Remy (AKA Romeo and Juliet for those who might have missed the allusion) is well done. Again, I am not a romance reader but I appreciated the way that element was handled. It was not overdone or overly sentimental. The emotions and perspectives surrounding the relationship seemed authentic and natural; and kind of sweet at times.

If there is a weakness it is that the farther you move away from Jules the less defined and filled in the characters become.  Jules and her family are well done and developed as is the relationship with Remy. The secondary characters are less well-developed and so pack less punch when they are brought into a scene.

But all in all, it was a well done and enjoyable story with a unique setting and background. The mystery builds its tension nicely and there are a couple of plot twists to add excitement.  Jules is a strong female protagonist with personality and character. And the circus is a unique enough setting to make it that much more enjoyable.

If you enjoy YA literature and are looking for a fun, unique and well done female lead character definitely check out Girl On A Wire.