Riot: A 1960’s Love Story by Charles S. Isaacs

Published: 8th September 2015 Goodreads badge
Harpers Ferry Press
Pages: 458
Format: ebook
Genre: Historical fiction
★   ★  – 2 Stars

It’s September 1967. As the Vietnam War and a militant Antiwar Movement hurtle toward explosive confrontation, Steve Harris – white, idealistic, and naïve — begins his freshman year. During that year, he will fight to end the war, fall in love, confront painful truths about his family, and be jailed and beaten by police. Through this crucible, he emerges with a transformed consciousness, of the world and of himself.

The change begins with a rousing antiwar speech delivered by Emma Gold, a Depression-era radical. When Emma introduces him to young Cat Crawford — inter-racial, brilliant and exotically beautiful – his bewitching is complete. The two students’ instant friendship blossoms before long into a passionate love affair. Their bond is tested, though, by the mounting demands of the Antiwar and Black Power Movements, and by their own deep-seated psychological issues.

1968 is marked by campus unrest, urban rebellion, assassinations, and political violence that leads the two into clashes with the Chicago Police and the National Guard. The story builds to a heartrending climax during the street battles surrounding the Democratic National Convention.

This is a complex, fast-paced journey on an emotional roller coaster, punctuated by flashes of self-discovery, and bursting with political and sexual passions. 

Note: I was provided with a copy of this book by the author for review.

I have mixed feelings about this story. The content was interesting; I learnt a few things and felt I was reading through history, but at the same time I didn’t really connect with the characters or their story. I am fully prepared to accept it may have been me so don’t let that deter you, there is no denying the effort and creativity Isaacs has gone to to bring this story to life and pack it with so much history.

Described as a 1960s love story there is a blossoming love but romance isn’t the sole focus of the novel. Steve is a college student who finds love and friendship during a critical time in late 1960s America; the Vietnam War has begun and the civil rights movement is underway. These important moments of history get embroiled with his life and Isaacs tells a story about the life of students and regular Americans who are trying to stop a war no one wanted and survive the tensions between black and white America.

After being fairly oblivious and uninterested in politics and racial conflicts, Steve has his eyes opened when he befriends bookshop owner Emma and fellow student Cat and soon he discovers the world of anti-war protests, boycotts, and the civil rights movement. In doing so you see Steve find his feet and a sense of purpose, he jumps at the chance to become involved.

Steve, Emma, and Cat are the three central characters, detailed and complicated enough which makes them well rounded. Steve is naive but willing to learn, and his eagerness to contribute is admirable. When he meets Emma and Cat you begin to see him grow and become more aware, which in turn affects other aspects of his life and the decisions he makes. Emma is a fiery, strong willed woman who is passionate and willing to fight for what she believes in, she goes out of her way to help people and her generosity and good nature compliments her fierceness really well. Cat is similar in her own way, though her past holds her back and she wavers between fighting for what’s right and holding back. Throughout the story you see the stress of fighting a war affect everyone, especially Steve and Cat, and the strain adds drama to their relationship.

Isaacs mentions at the end that only a very small part of the book is fiction, many names, events, books, and songs mentioned are real and historically accurate, something which helps to bring the late 1960s to life. As you read you recognise key moments in history like protest marches, Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, flowers in rifles, and the fight for civil rights. If you love history then this would probably be a fascinating account of American history to dive into. At almost 500 pages there is a lot of detail and Isaacs paces it accordingly. Things follow at a realistic pace, day by day almost rather than large jumps and in doing so it shows how much actually happened in such a short period of time and the ongoing effort people did behind the scenes before grand demonstrations. This does make it a slow read when nothing seems to happen for a long time, but this  is where the romance and personal relationship elements balance with historical events.

There are a lot of positives about this book, the research is incredible, the detailed exploration of key historical moments, and the subject is interesting, but despite that I found that I couldn’t get into the story. It wasn’t the length, being an ebook I didn’t actually notice it until much later, I just found I wasn’t connecting with the characters or their lives and the writing style was hard to get into. I say this of course contrasted with the fact that it was interesting to read about all the protests and the effort students and people went to show their disapproval of the war, and the campaigns they ran to boycott products. I did enjoy reading about the civil rights, the reactions to King’s speech and the fight for equality. But aside from recognising these moments and learning the details I still couldn’t connect.

There are surprises and a few unexpected moments that add emotion and drama as Isaacs links history with the romance and the fiction, and seeing the everyday person react and interact with history offers great insight away from it being simply a past event. I’m disappointed I didn’t love this book more, but there is no denying that it was an interesting read.

You can purchase Riot via the following


Amazon Aust

Where Freedom Rings: A Tale of the Underground Railroad by Steven Donahue

Published: 28th January 2015Goodreads badge
 Self Published
Pages: 192
Format: ebook
Genre: Historical fiction
★   ★   ★   ★ – 4 Stars

The thrilling story of four slaves who try to escape to the northern area of the United States along the Underground Railroad in 1853.

Kelsa Colver leads her husband and two young sons on the dangerous trek after a fellow slave is murdered by a vindictive slave owner. Along the way, the Colvers are assisted by various abolitionists, including a neighboring farmer, a progressive priest, a sympathetic lawman, and notable figures Harriet Tubman and William Still. However, their efforts are impeded by a dark family secret, and the interventions of a corrupt clergyman, vicious outlaws and greedy slave hunters.

Note: I was provided a copy of this book for review.

The story Donahue has written about Kelsa and her family is a captivating tale and one that depicts the hardships people had to endure and the risks people like the Colvers took in order to have a better life. The life the Colver family on the plantation is hard and the tension is evident, each of them ever fearful of something happening to them. This fear is made worse by hearing stories from other slaves and knowing little mistakes can have major consequences.

While the Colvers personal experiences were not as horrific as those around them, the fear of their daily lives is enough to push Kelsa and her family into escaping and join up with the Underground Railroad in an effort to secure their freedom. There is a lot of danger surrounding the Colvers during their escape and Donahue makes it clear the ongoing jeopardy the family is in. The fact that they are being helped by a network of people doesn’t mean their journey is any less perilous and that their covers may be blown at any time.

Only knowing a small amount of information about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad it was really interesting to see how it worked and the secrecy of those involved. Operating by travelling through various means with the help of white people, as well as freed slaves, and reading about the effort they went through to ensure the survival and freedom of those in their care is pretty astounding.

The narrative manages to capture the tension and the immense pressure that is on the family as well as the abolitionists which adds wonderful drama to the story, never knowing what will happen. The fear Kelsa has about their journey is evident and Donahue expresses her worry in a realistic and very maternal manner. The harrowing journey from the south is filled with intolerance, vagabonds and thieves, as well as disasters that foil the best-laid plans. Quick thinking helps Kelsa navigate her family through the danger but the desire to survive is strong and sometimes self-defence is the only solution.

Kelsa is a wonderful character, she is strong willed and determined to give her family a better life, and she stands up for what is right, though ever wary of her circumstance. Everything she does is for the good of her family and she teaches her boys maths and how to read in order to give them a better chance at life. Her family is occasionally the reason they get in trouble but Kelsa handles it well, reprimanding them when needed and protecting them from others.

Donahue manages to express some of the reasons as well as the many risks slaves and abolitionists took in fighting against the law. The story demonstrates the dangers that faced those escaping and it shows that the journey to freedom was one fraught with danger and one that many took at risk to their own lives. Donahue never makes the lives of slaves or their escape seem simple, nor does he make it seem safe. The goal is always the north but the message is clear that crossing those borders is not always going to mean salvation or security and there may never be an end to the running.

One thing I liked about this story is while the story deals with slavery and living on a plantation, Donahue limits the graphic details about life for slaves without taking away its importance or the brutality. The experiences Kelsa and her family have are harsh but not explicitly shown, and many of the more gruesome and horror stories are told to them by people they meet or mentioned in passing, meaning the realities of their life and others are not ignored, but the details are kept brief and not too graphic.

Being based in a real part of history makes this story quite profound in a way. It demonstrates the hardships of life for slaves and Donahue approaches it with respect and understanding, never trying to make light of America’s past. The journey Kelsa takes with her family is a touching story that brings to life a fictionalised account of a journey that many real people took in hopes for a better life and is a reminder of the goodness of humanity but also the darkness.

You can purchase Where Freedom Rings via the following


Amazon Aust

Amazon UK