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on 27 May 2012
I enjoyed this book, its is written in a slightly whimsical way in parts, true to the time period its set in.
Touchng on terrible treatment of slaves, but not too deeply.
It's not meant to be a documentory or a heavy drama but a lighter read.
I still found it iteresting and would recommend it.
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on 30 April 2012
I heard this book being reviewed on the radio and got the impression that it was a five star read. However, I was disappointed in the style of writing. I felt that there was too much detail of scenery but not enough of the feelings of the characters and found myself skimming over passages. The potential is there for a great novel but it turned into a mediocre one.
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on 22 February 2011
Sugar Island is Sandija O'Connell's second book which follows from her first historical version of the sugar trade. Unfortuntely I found this book to be very immature in both content and characterisation in its depiction of plantation life and the lives of the wealthy owners. The story line is extremely predictable....very disappointing read.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 16 February 2016
Inspired by the life of 19th-century actress and writer Fanny Kemble, 'Sugar Island' tells the story of inspirational if reluctant actress Emily Harris, who agrees to go on a tour to the United States with her father's acting troupe, where she meets liberal writer Ely Crawford and his novelist sister Sarah, and charming lawyer Charles Earl Brook. When Emily's father is killed in a carriage accident, Emily finds herself, vulnerable and alone, committing to marrying Charles. Unfortunately, she's not bothered to really find out much about Charles's life, and is horrified to discover that the bulk of his income comes from a Georgia sugar and cotton plantation, manned by slaves - not only this, but Charles must give up life in Boston to run this plantation. In the heat and dust of the plantation, Emily gives birth to a daughter, and struggles to help the slaves, campaigning in her quiet way for abolition, and trying to provide them with education and practical comforts. But in so doing, she severely alienates her husband, a man who believes in 'the old ways'. As the American Civil War looms, and Charles grows more tyrannical, Emily realizes that she is in terrible danger.

I felt this book was a great idea that didn't quite come off. There were some great bits - descriptions of life on the plantation, Emily's friendship with young slave Frank, who she teaches to read, the contrast between Ely's passionate campaigning for abolition and Charles's horrific refusal to see his workers as fully human. There were some fine descriptions both of the theatre world and of the landscape of Georgia, and O'Connell gave a good sense of the horror of approaching war. But I felt the book suffered due to O'Connell's uncertainty whether to stick to Fanny Kemble's story or go off on her own narrative, and due to some rather clumsy writing in the romantic passages. I was uncertain why Emily, an independent woman, married Charles - poverty may have had something to do with it, but with Ely and Sarah to support her, did she really need to accept the offer of a man she wasn't sure about? Charles himself was not a well-realized character - he appeared to have a personality transformation on the road south to Georgia, spent most of the book behaving like an evil control freak, and then suddenly did a total volte-face, claiming that everything he'd done was just because he adored his wife so much (which seemed sentimental and unlikely, particularly bearing in mind his philandering and taunting). Ely seemed to be able to skip up and down from the North to the South with admirable ease in a pre-aeroplane or even pre-fast train era, and it seemed a bit too convenient that Emily always had 'another man' waiting in the wings for if the Charles situation collapsed. Avoiding the complications of Fanny Kemble's divorce meant that Emily's narrative developed just that bit too neatly, and some of the late scenes seemed to 'sort out' issues too tidily. At least by creating the Scottish couple on the neighbouring plantation O'Connell didn't fall into the trap of making all plantation owners pantomime villains. But I did feel some issues were simplified, and the husband and wife scenes teetered towards melodrama, however moving the scenes with Emily and the slaves were.

A promising if not entirely satisfying book though, and I definitely look forward to reading more of O'Connell's books.
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on 10 April 2011
Sugar Island is a fictional story, although it is loosely based on the life of Fanny Kemble, a noted British actress and writer, set around the time of the American Civil War.

Emily Harris arrives in America in 1858 with her father. An actress of note from England, she has come to America on a tour. Early the next year she is just finishing the Christmas Season in New York when she meets Charles Brook. An eloquent, considerate man, they form a friendship. When her father dies leaving Emily alone in America the friendship becomes romance, and the couple marry. They begin their honeymoon in Italy, intending to visit Emily's family in England as a part of their travels, however, a message to Charles means that the trip is cancelled and they rush back to the Southern States where Charles' Plantation is in financial trouble. The true nature of Charles Brook is revealed. He owns 700 slaves. Men, women and children, all living in poverty and suffering systematic abuse from their owner. Her shock turns to horror as she learns how they live, and her own - and her new daughter's - liberty and wellbeing is threatened when she at first befriends, and then sides with some of the slaves. As war threatens Charles' way of life, her actions have harsh, far reaching consequences.

Emily is a naïve and innocent young lady who is totally unprepared for the reality of her new life, but she has a strong sense of justice and a fire in her that Charles cannot extinguish. Charles is a mean spirited, domineering, stubborn man who is used to his way being the only way. This is a story of two plots. The love followed by disillusionment and disgust that Emily feels for Charles, and her fight for the rights of the slaves; the slaves who are raped, beaten, starved and humiliated routinely. The shock and revulsion when she realises that some of the slaves' children are of paler skin and look remarkably like the Plantation owner. The imagery is stark and beautifully executed, the plotline is very believable. Inn so many stories it is hard to imagine a face for a character, but in Sugar Island, I could see the sneer, the greasy hair, the swagger of Charles. I could smell the slaves' village, and hear the sound of the slaves in the fields. The description of the slaves' hospital is enough to bring one to tears - and the sounds and smell are enough to induce queasiness.

This is not a history book, and I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the timeline. However, it is so believable. From the (very non Politically Correct) language to the descriptions of the life of the slaves, I was there.

Don't enter this book expecting action on every page, nor should you expect a beautiful romance. It's a thought provoking and sometimes harrowing tale comparing two very different worlds; that of Emily and Charles - rich and well appointed, and the horror of a life of slavery. A tale of betrayal and inequality.
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on 12 January 2011
Sugar Island tells the story of Emily, a young English actress who, while working in America, falls in love with and marries an American lawyer. Not long after their wedding he is called back to run his family's sugar plantation on St Simon's Island off the coast of Georgia. Emily had no idea that he was anything other than a lawyer and so it is a huge shock to end up living as the wife of a slave owner. She keeps a diary of her life there, detailing the horrific and cruel practices that were common on plantations. As the novel is based on real diaries written at the time - late 1850s - the detail is as harrowing as it is authentic. The beauty of the island provides a stark contrast to the horrors being perpetuated on the plantation. The colours, textures, scents and sounds convey a real sense of place and combine to underline the terrible dichotomy of Emily's life there. Her life is a struggle to come to terms with the fact that the man she loved can be so brutal and she finds that her attempts to improve the slaves' lot actually make it worse. She can't leave the island as she has too much to lose, yet how can she stay and live a life of relative luxury in the midst of such deprivation. This novel is beautifully written and, though harrowing to read, it is ultimately rewarding for its depiction of Emily's struggle and her determination to stay true to her principles.
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on 24 April 2011
This was a book group choice otherwise I would never have purchased a hardback with such a whimsical cover. However, as this book has received many plaudits, and the author is an academic, I entered into the spirit of the "based on a true story" vibe surrounding the novel. I have had to speed read it as the nauseating detail of a country which exists only in the author's imagination, the jagged movement of time (it was a week later....), the ludicrous storyline and the one dimensional characters have left me cold. The condescending use of a supposed vernacular for the "niggers" set my teeth on edge as did the whole Charles bad/Emily good issue. The experience was akin to reading an over-long essay by one of my senior pupils who had been sitting with a thesaurus in order to use a wider vocabulary than she possessed - I was left itching for the blue editor's pencil.
My advice would be to save your money and wait till there is a paperback edition of this thinly disguised Mills and Boon - better still - use the library copy - better yet - don't waste precious hours of your life reading it at all.
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on 2 March 2011
I found Sugar Island a thoughtful and, in many ways, a powerful piece of writing. While I broadly expected the plot to follow the pattern it did, its originality consisted in the way that the story was treated. I waited with trepidation for the denouement; it was handled superbly. Throughout the book much of the interaction of the characters was deftly described with no words wasted and yet whether black or white rendered in their full humanity or lack of it.

I was taken with the scenic descriptions, they were sensitively and knowledgeably woven the background into the story and into the sensitivities of the characters.

The main character, Emily Harris, was obliged in a sense to follow the path of liberal reformers in that kind of situation. But O'Connell blended her original naiveté with a horrific sense of the gradual discovery of the injustices and horrors of Southern slavery, not least the manner in which the blacks were trapped within the system and the plantation owners imprisoned in the cages of their minds.

I read the book quickly which is what one should be able to do with a novel. Its action, and indeed its thinking, moved at a pace that kept the reader's interest going.
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on 5 August 2012
This book is an interesting, if harrowing, read and provides details of a brutal and terrible time in history. The juxtaposition of the mesmerising island with its beautiful plant and animal life and the hell on earth of the life of the slaves makes this a worthwhile, if sometimes difficult read. My issue is with the main character, Emily. For a well educated woman, a published writer no less, and a celebrated acress she is portrayed as excessively naive and annoyingly slow on the uptake of her situation. A slightly more feisty heroine, which the original Fanny Kemble on whom the book is based, undoubtedly was, would have been preferable.
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on 13 April 2011
An absorbing and harrowing fictionalisation of a brutal time in human history, this story details not only the plight of black slaves but also the powerlessness and struggle of women at that time, of all colours.

A claustrophobic and ominous mood is established early on in the story which compels the reader on through the unfolding tragedy. The vivid descriptions of dense vegetation and oppressive heat on the island accompanies Emily's realisation that she is both trapped in her marriage and on the island, but her personal tragedy is always set against the suffering of the abused slave population.

The detail from the author's research lends a verisimilitude to the story and juxtaposes the beauty of the southern states with the horrors of the slave trade. The increasing sense of doom, underlined by the impending war, drives the plot towards the story's dramatic climax, and makes this book a real page-turner.

An emotionally-absorbing story with well constructed characters and an exciting plot. A highly-recommended read.
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