Tag: Nonfiction

Middle Grades Book Review: Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring by Enigma Alberti

Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring
: Spy on History #2
Enigma Alberti
Tony Cliff

Published: April 2, 2019
96 Pages

Reviewed By: Cristina

Book Description:

Your Mission: Find Mary’s secret diary using spycraft stools to uncover hidden codes!

It’s a true story of bravery: Mary Bowser was an African American spy for the Union who worked as a maid in the mansion of Confederate Jefferson Davis. From hair-raising close calls when she almost gets caught to how she uses her photographic memory to “steal” top secret documents. Mary’s story reads like a gripping novel.

It’s a mystery to solve: There are clues embedded in the story’s text and illustrations, and Spycraft materials—including a replica Civil War cipher wheel—come in an envelope at the beginning of the book. Use both to discover what happened to Mary Bowser’s secret diary.

Cristina’s Review:

What would you do if you had the opportunity to be a spy where it would really matter? Your skills: a photographic memory, ability to read, and blending into the background. If you succeed, your people have a chance at freedom. If you fail, you’ll be hung. Are you in?

This book is a historical fiction with a fun interactive spy riddle to solve as well. A reader can just enjoy the story, or they can try to solve the case that’s embedded in the real story. Mary Bowser was a real person. She was a free African-American, but went undercover as a maid in Jefferson Davis’s mansion to spy for the Union. Because no person of color was expected to be able to read at that time in the South, Mary was able to read many valuable documents in Davis’s office while she dusted or polished lamps. She had to pretend to be illiterate and a little slow to avoid suspicion. It was a job filled with danger, but Mary proved to be invaluable to the Union. She was able to get critical information to the Union army and it helped save lives and win battles.

This book is written in a very engaging style. Lots of action, a few narrow misses that have you holding your breath, and insights into what the Civil War was like for the non-soldiers who still wanted to help fight for freedom and the Union. The interactive riddle–a search for Mary’s secret diary–is engaging as well. There is help at the back of the book if the reader gets too frustrated, but it’s fun to try and find the diary without any assistance. Spy on History is a series, so if historical fiction sounds appealing, come to the library to choose your spy adventure!

Purchase Links:
Amazon US
Amazon UK

Audiobook Review: The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton

The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life, Freedom, and Justice on Death Row
Author: Anthony Ray Hinton

Narrator: Kevin R Free
Published: March 27, 2018
Audiobook: 9 hours 11 minutes

Reviewed By: Jessica
Dates Listened To: January 20-25, 2023
Jessica’s Rating: 5 stars

Book Description:

A powerful, revealing story of hope, love, justice, and the power of reading by a man who spent thirty years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.

In 1985, Anthony Ray Hinton was arrested and charged with two counts of capital murder in Alabama. Stunned, confused, and only twenty-nine years old, Hinton knew that it was a case of mistaken identity and believed that the truth would prove his innocence and ultimately set him free.

But with no money and a different system of justice for a poor black man in the South, Hinton was sentenced to death by electrocution. He spent his first three years on Death Row at Holman State Prison in agonizing silence—full of despair and anger toward all those who had sent an innocent man to his death. But as Hinton realized and accepted his fate, he resolved not only to survive, but find a way to live on Death Row. For the next twenty-seven years he was a beacon—transforming not only his own spirit, but those of his fellow inmates, fifty-four of whom were executed mere feet from his cell. With the help of civil rights attorney and bestselling author of Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, Hinton won his release in 2015.

With a foreword by Stevenson, The Sun Does Shine is an extraordinary testament to the power of hope sustained through the darkest times. Destined to be a classic memoir of wrongful imprisonment and freedom won, Hinton’s memoir tells his dramatic thirty-year journey and shows how you can take away a man’s freedom, but you can’t take away his imagination, humor, or joy.

Jessica’s Review:

It’s hard to believe that this story is true!  This memoir telling Anthony Ray Hinton’s story is a shocking true story of injustice. In Alabama the mid-1980s he was found guilty of multiple murders and a jury sentenced him to life in prison.  The judge changed his sentence to death. I had no idea that judges could do that! What’s even worse is that Anthony Ray Hinton was 1000% innocent and evidence even showed that.  Even more of a travesty was that he spent almost 30 years of his life on Death Row!

Yes, Hinton did have a little bit of a criminal past, but nothing even close to murder! The state of Alabama even knew that he was innocent but still wanted to execute him.  It did not matter that the real killer was out there. The evidence even showed he was innocent: He was at work on the night of one particular murder and he worked 20 minutes away from where the crime happened! His mother’s gun had not been shot in 25 years, and he even passed a polygraph which unfortunately not admissible in court. Mr. Hinton was a young black man in Alabama.  And he did not have money.  Most people on death row are poor. Yes, most are guilty, but the injustice that Mr. Hinton suffered over the 30 years just leaves a poor taste in your mouth in regards to our justice system. 

We do get to see what life on Death Row was like for Hinton and the others.  He tells us everything. He spent his first three years silent.  Over time he saw many men executed and he tells the readers what the inmates did when another was in the process of being executed. Over the course of his thirty years the death penalty changed from electrocution to lethal injection.  At one point in his time inside the inmates were to form a book club and talked books! That brought joy to this book lover’s heart.  They were able to pass books around to each other and talk books.

Over time we see the losses that Mr. Hinton deals with, and what could bring anger, hatred, and more to an innocent person spending all that time inside. The reader gets to experience Mr. Hinton’s mental ‘escapes’ and meeting the queen of England and ‘marrying’ several famous actresses.  I hope he was actually able to meet at least one of these women in real life! I listened to the audiobook version and once he was finally released on April 3, 2015, I raised my hand in victory! The travesty of the injustice he experienced just angered this listener.  The narrator was Kevin R Free and he brought the perfect voice to Hinton in narrating this tragic real-life story.  Hinton’s life story is one everyone must read or listen to. I would love to hear him tell his story in person one day.

Here are some quotes from the memoir:

“He was a poor man in a criminal justice system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.”

“My mama always told me that you get more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

“No one can understand what freedom means until they don’t have it.”

Hinton’s story just makes you think about the innocent ones on death row who have been executed and who are currently there now.  Our justice system really needs to be looked at. For me it is far worse for someone innocent to be imprisoned than a guilty person walking free. What happens if someone is found innocent and they spend all that time in prison. 

This is a memoir that stays with you and leaves you thinking.

Purchase Links:
Amazon US
Amazon UK



Audible Original: I Choose Darkness: A Holiday Essay by Jenny Lawson

I Choose Darkness: A Holiday Essay
Author: Jenny Lawson

Narrator: Jenny Lawson
Published: September 29, 2022
Audiobook: 38 minutes

Reviewed By: Jessica
Date Listened To: October 22, 2022
Jessica’s Rating: 5 stars     

Book Description:

From cheap costumes to creepy dolls to questionable candy, number one New York Times bestselling author Jenny Lawson weaves a hauntingly hilarious account of her ongoing—sometimes outrageous—Halloween life.

The holly-jolly holidays aren’t for everyone, least of all when you look back on that one Christmas when there were two definitely haunted dolls waiting for you and your sister under the tree. You have to assume that’s where it all started.

And so it was for Jenny Lawson. Now, she lives in the land of eternal Halloween, as evidenced by her interior decor and general state of darkness. (Although, if you ask her, her taxidermy zoo is less dark, more delightful. But not everyone has taste, so what are you going to do?)

This essay takes Jenny back to where it all started, from her humble beginnings as a trick-or-treater in the 1980s, on high alert for (logistically improbable) candy laced with razor blades and the (allegedly) ever-present threat of satanists on the loose. From there, she has risen from the candy-wrapper ashes of her childhood to claim her rightful lifestyle as the queen of Halloween.

Jessica’s Review:

This very short self-described essay popped up for free on my Audible, so I got it. I had no idea who Jenny Lawson is, so I didn’t know what I was in for but was very pleasantly surprised! Halloween is Jenny’s favorite holiday of the year and she reminisces and her childhood Halloween’s.  And we must be close to the same age, babies of the 1980’s, because I have so many similar memories as her! From the hideous costumes offered to the fear of razor blades being put in candy: and yes, I remember my parents taking my sister and I to the hospital and our candy being x-rayed!  I had a plastic orange pumpkin container that my candy was in.  It was most likely done at the hospital that my mom worked at.

I really enjoyed this essay of Jenny’s Halloween memories and she even narrated! She tells it like it is, foul language and all! I am going to have to look up some of her other books she has written and even listen to the audio if she narrates those! She definitely seems to have a new fan to look at her blog!

Purchase Links:
Amazon US
Amazon UK