book review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a powerful book in that, though it is fictional, depicts horrific situations that many real slaves had to endure.  Whitehead’s story follows a slave named Cora from her life on a plantation, her mother’s abandonment, her decision to escape, and the people she encounters during her journey.

Whitehead portrayed many aspects of African American history through Cora’s journey.  In one instance, she saw white people depicting blacks, using their racist stereotypical beliefs as motivation.  In reality, this happened quite often in film, with white people dictating how blacks should look and behave on screen.  In another instance, she saw white people gathered to watch the hanging of a runaway slave as an afternoon amusement.  Historical documents show that this, too, happened.  In another instance, Cora learned about a hospital for blacks that were actually conducting experiments on them for syphilis (read “Bad Blood” about the Tuskegee experiments).  There were descriptions of how the KKK burned houses.  From what I know or have learned about slavery, the things that happened to Cora or that she saw actually did happen to slaves and blacks in the United States.

Not only were the depictions accurate, the characters were realistic.  What I mean by that is that none of them were perfect – they all had their flaws and they seemed like real people with their own personalities.  The author did a great job of revealing enough of their traits to tell the reader who they were.

I was enjoying this book (actually, enjoying is probably the wrong word because there were many gruesome things described, but I liked the writing style and the book was engaging) until I got to the bit where Cora ran away on a real underground railroad.  I had to do a double take when the author described a real railroad.  Huh?  I had always heard that the underground railroad was a metaphor for the network of people that housed runaway slaves.  I know that this book is fiction, but this part of it really annoyed me.  Mostly, I didn’t understand the reason for changing the metaphor into a real railroad.  Everything else in the book seemed historically accurate – sometimes the years may have been off, but the events themselves were accurate.

I would still recommend this book, but I hope that people will understand that it is fictional and won’t think that there was a real underground railroad that runaway slaves used.

Book review: Oil and Marble

Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey is about Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti and how their rivalry may have spurred them on to create great works of art in order to out-do each other (in this case, the Mona Lisa and David).  The book is historical fiction so although the characters are real and they both lived in Florence at the time this story took place, the story itself is fictional.

The author did a nice job of capturing the personalities of Leonardo and Michelangelo – Leonardo, at this time in his life, was well-known and used to the comforts that his works and reputation brought him while Michelangelo was intense and somewhat of an idealist.  There were also tidbits about the family life of the two artists.  I know that Michelangelo’s family was against his being a sculptor, but I don’t know if much more than that was true.

This book is a great way to get an introduction to two of the great Renaissance artists.

If you liked this book, I would also recommend The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone.  The book by Irving Stone focuses on Michelangelo’s life and goes more in depth with his struggles as an artist.

Disclosure: I received an Advanced Reader Copy of this book.

Warriors of the Storm is the 9th book in The Last Kingdom series.  The main character is Uhtred, who understands the difference between being a monarch and being a leader.  The series deals with the wars that took place before the formation of England.  The series is loosely based on actual events – Uhtred existed, but there are disagreements about which Uhtred the fictional book series is based upon.

If you have read the other books in the series, this one is similar.  To simplify the plot, a conflict arises, Uhtred comes to save the day.  Another conflict arises, Uhtred doesn’t listen Æthelflæd and saves the day once again.  Uhtred is honorable, understands how to make people follow him, is ruthless when called for (cuts the arms off of enemies), but shows mercy when possible.

My biggest complaint about this book is that Æthelflæd appears to be an idiot.  She is so concerned with promoting Christianity that she can’t see past ruses, despite Uhtred’s warnings.  He is only able to save her from herself by openly defying her.

I would recommend this book because Uhtred is a likeable character and, despite my oversimplified summary of the plot, reading about how Uhtred solves problems and confronts conflicts was interesting.

Disclaimer: I received an advanced review copy of this book