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Linda Rae Blair
on Feb. 20, 2012 :
A compelling rewrite of history. Suppose Lincoln had not lived to emancipate the slaves; imagine slavery continuing in a seceded American South for which generations of Jefferson Davis's led a nation with no industry but a geographically gas-rich nation without a market. Then add the Nazis, anxiously looking for a fire-retardant fuel for their currently hydrogen-powered air ships. A great story. The character of Christopher Pole was interesting, but not terribly authentic as he was very well-spoken and, although I didn't find it unbelievable that a slave might--with encouragement--have developed skills far exceeding those of his peers, he didn't speak as one who had been kept in slavery. David was more believable, as he maintained a certain naivety that his upbringing would have manifested. As for the Jewish bride to a former slave--I cannot conceive of any changes in the Northern States that would have allowed, let alone encouraged the union, especially in the 1920s.
Despite these issues, the story is extremely interesting and had plot issues that far outweighed these character problems. It's a really good read and a very interesting premise. I was completely willing to take the leaps of faith to find out where the author took his story and was not disappointed.
I look forward to reading more of Mr. Ashton's work, especially his Holmes & Watson novellas which I know from experience to be excellent projects!
(reviewed within a week of purchase)
on June 02, 2011 :
The story's “what-if” premise of the the Southern States peacefully seceding from the Union in the 1860s and forming a separate nation called the Confederate States of America (CSA) and then some decades later forming an alliance with Nazi Germany is an interesting twist on history. However, the reader will have to take a leap from “what-if” to a suspension of disbelief if you are to enjoy “Beneath Gray Skies” by author Hugh Ashton. For example, you will have to believe that a nominally-educated male CSA “Negro” slave is freed as a result of a stereotypical racist incident and then – with no vetting or prior intelligence experience – is embraced by the British intelligence service as an instant colleague. In addition, you will have to believe that this former slave and a beautiful, white, Jewish female, a member of the American intelligence community, have an instant chemistry on first-sight and fall in love, resulting in the former slave marrying the woman and being warmly welcomed into the woman's socially- and politically-prominent and quite wealthy family and social circle.
Next, you will have to believe that a character named “David” – a private in what is described as the uneducated “white trash” Confederate Army – is discovered to have extraordinary aptitude for the game of chess – a game that he had never played before – said skill causing him to gain the notice of his superiors who, in turn, determine David also has extraordinary skills in calligraphy, the ability to read well, and even do “some calculating with figures,” all of which lead David to an eventual rank of Sergeant and a key role with a group of Germans building a Zeppelin airdrome on Confederate Georgia soil.
Next is the enigmatic English hero, Brian, who darts in and out of the narrative with exploits of daring, deception, and spying in an effort to disrupt the CSA-Nazi alliance. Toss in a bunch of nasty Nazis and an equally nasty CSA President, a “save-the-world” United Kingdom intelligence service and its operative named “Dowling” (the former slave's original mentor), a plot to kill the bad guys, and it turns out that all's well that ends well.
The writing is adequate; however, with the exception of some British dialogue, the dialogue of most of the other characters too often lacked the ring of authenticity because what should have been dialects and idioms unique to those characters was lacking. Said another way, the drawl of the South and the unique syntax of German-to-English was missing.
Finally, I felt that the author also had a subtle and personal political and social agenda woven into the story – an agenda that can be explained best by reading both the author's preface to the first edition and his preface to the second edition.
(reviewed within a week of purchase)
on April 08, 2011 :
First, let me say, I think the premise of "Beneath Gray Skies" is the basis for a first rate novel. My problem is that I hold 'dialog' in high esteem when reading literature. The author, while telling a good story, failed (for me) at this level. His conversations were, in my mind, unrealistic, if not contrived. His understanding (or lack thereof) of people and their interactions (of the time) led me to (unfortunately) set the book down less than half way through. If somewhat shaky dialog is not a problem for you, then, you may find "Beneath Gray Skies" a comfortable read.
(reviewed within a month of purchase)