Monday, March 12, 2018

QUEEN OF AMERICA by Luis Alberto Urrea

When Luis Alberto Urrea was appearing as a keynote speaker at a conference for an organization I volunteer with ( in June of 2017, I read his The Humminbird's Daughter. I enjoyed it so read the sequel, Queen of America.

Since it had been several months since I read the first book in the series, I greatly appreciated the Prologue which reminded me of what happened in the first book and brought me up-to-date in a natural way.

The story starts in 1900, picking up where the previous book left off and following the rest of Teresita's life in America. It's one answer to the question, what if a person could perform miracles but they were still a human being with faults, desires, and tendencies impacted by the culture in the place where she lives? How might that person's life evolve?

My favorite parts of this book were the detailed, poetic descriptions. The story is presented from an omniscient point of view of those closest to Teresita. It shows the joys and sorrows of aging from many different characters' perspectives.

It took me a while to get into the story, starting off slow much in the same way that The Hummingbird's Daugther did for me. I read it in just under two months, so on a can't-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn't even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it a four.

Source: Urrea, Luis Alberto. (2012). Queen of America. Back Bay Books.

Friday, January 12, 2018

SOME LUCK by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley is a fellow Iowan and I'd always meant to read her books but hadn't had the chance. While browsing cheap books at the online book outlet store, I stumbled across Some Luck and ordered it.

Right away I could tell Some Luck was going to be different from other books I'd read as early in the book, Smiley includes a chapter told from an infant's point of view. The book is also different in that each chapter is one year; I wondered if this may have signified there would be more telling than showing, but it didn't. The book still tells an engaging story, even if it is in one-year chunks.

Some Luck is about a family and their lives from 1920 through 1953; it is told through several characters' points of view, including those that span the whole book and some who just show up for one or two scenes (mimicking life). The main character, however, seems to be the patriarch (or who eventually becomes the patriarch), Walter Langdon. The book gives a good picture of how farming evolved during the second quarter of the twentieth century, taking the reader through the Great Depression and World War II, among other historic events, along with life in Iowa and the Midwest. I recognized most of the places mentioned, which always adds a little enjoyment to my reading. As it does in living life, the historical events occurred as a backdrop and didn't take center stage, which I believe is how most people experience these events.

To me, the book's theme was life and going through its different stages - infanthood, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and being grandparents; the whole circle of life. Smiley does a good job of letting the reader into the characters' heads, witnessing their innermost thoughts and intimate moments. There is not really a plot in this book that I could discern, per se - there's nothing that the main character overtly "wants" and is prevented from getting - there's just the ebbs and flows and ups and downs of life in rural Iowa from 1920 to 1953.

Some Luck is classic historical fiction written in an original and literary way. I read it in one month and three weeks, so on a can't-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn't even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it a six and a half.

Source: Smiley, Jane. (2015 Reprint). Some Luck. Anchor.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline

This is another book that came to me courtesy of my fellow historical-fiction-loving aunt. She read it, and thinking I would enjoy it, loaned it to me. She was correct.

Orphan Train is one of several books written about the practice of transporting orphaned children from New York City to the Midwest for adoption. Though the book was characterized as literary fiction, it read more like a young adult book to me. That isn't saying anything against the story, however.

There is a strong element of mystery throughout the story as I wondered how Niamh went from being an orphan to owning a store to being a rich, old lady. The story is told in two different time periods - the late 1920s and the early 2000s - and it's about two orphans in similar, but not exactly the same, situation who find each other and weave their lives together. One theme seems to be that things aren't always what they seem, with the "moral" being to not assume that someone has always had it easy. Also, things that seem random will make sense one day and feel like they were meant to be.

Orphan Train is also very much a story of survival - how two different people in two different, but similar situations, in two different time periods survived. Other than the obvious differences because of the time periods, the way Niamh and Molly became orphans are different. The similarities are mostly in how they both bounced from family to family until they found one that fits.

This book gave me a good insight into a world about which I know very little. The way orphans were handled in 1929 and today is not so different; kids get placed with people who may not treat them right and can be turned out on a whim. They can't strive for more because they feel like they're lucky just to have a roof, so they grow up feeling undervalued. Unfortunately, based on what I've seen and heard, the foster care system of today doesn't seem much different in this respect than the orphan trains.

Another theme that runs throughout the story is baggage; what people bring with them and what they leave behind as they journey throughout their lives. Most of the time, baggage consists of more than physical things, or it can be just a few things, but it's always there.

Historical fiction readers and readers who like the melding of two time periods will enjoy this book. It was a good story, well written, that made me think. I read this book in four days, so on a can't-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn't even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it a nine.

Source: Kline, Christina Baker. (2013). Orphan Train. William Morrow.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

THE SHELL SEEKERS by Rosamunde Pilcher

I usually don't purchase fiction books at mass retailers, but since I'm researching the Mississippi River mussel shell button industry in the early 1900s, the word, "shell," caught my eye. Of course, the story has little to do with shells themselves, but the back of the book description intrigued me, so I bought it.

The Shell Seekers is about three generations of one family, but it is mostly told from Penelope Kelling's point-of-view and tells the story of her relationship with the other generations. It is essentially Penelope's life story, flipping back and forth between the present (1984) and her childhood, growing up. It shows how she was shaped by her famous artist father and relatively progressive mother and how that impacted her relationships with her three children.

The story reminded me that parents can have lives children don't know about and that children can be selfish. It is a story about friendship, love, lost chances, and choices. The historical facts were subtly woven through the book, giving a good sense of what life was like in World War II London (as far as I know, anyway). It showed the strange dynamics present in all families, how they have different values, attitudes, and ways of doing things.

Readers who enjoy stories involving art, generations, and families will enjoy this book. It was a good story, well written, that made me think. I read this book in two days less than a month, so on a can't-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn't even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it a seven and a half.

Source: Pilcher, Rosamunde. (2015). The Shell Seekers. St. Martin's Griffin; Reissue edition.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


My aunt, who shares my love of historical fiction, loaned me The Widow of the South because she thought I would enjoy it. I did.

To me, this novel is essentially a clean romance with a twist. It basically tells the story of Carrie McGavock's emotional love affair with Zachariah Cashwell, a soldier recovering from injuries he sustained in Carrie's house, which was turned into a hospital, during a civil war battle. Carrie, married and suffering from the losses of her children, finds solace in Cashwell. They essentially find themselves soul mates who teach each other how to live again. It's also about how Carrie, who has lost so much, finds her purpose in life and becomes a comfort for others.

The story is based on real events during the civil war and the battle at Franklin, Tennessee. It is told from the point-of-view of multiple characters, including a sort of omniscient narrator, but mostly Carrie and Zachariah. All the characters had distinct voices.

On the issue of slavery, the story addresses what is not normally taught in history classes (or at least I don't recall it during my history classes). The issue of slavery was not so black and white (pun not intended) with slaves choosing to stay with their master families out of loyalty and a feeling of being a part of the family but also because they had nowhere else to go after being freed. Some of them felt trapped and it was simply what they were used to. The story showed how some slave owners failed to see their slaves as human beings, not just in the way you'd expect (as property), but sometimes when they made a mistake and fell from some sort of pedestal.

This book was different from the other civil war era books I read, which is one of the main reasons why I liked it. It took me a little less than three weeks to read it, so on a can't-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn't even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it a seven.

Source: Hicks, Robert. (2006). The Widow of the South. Grand Central Publishing.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell

I never saw the movie other than the "don't give a damn" moment, so this is not so much a review as it is some musings I encountered while reading Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. After all, we know it's "good" considering it won a Pulitzer Prize. If you don't know the premise of the book, it's widely available so I won't rehash it here.

I found the language relatively more modern and easier to read than I expected for a book written in the 1930s. I bought the book to read on vacation since I'd never read it before, always wanted to, and I knew it would last me the whole time, so I only had to carry one book. I read the first few sentences of the book at the book store because I wondered if it would be archaic, but immediately thought, "I can read this." So I bought it.

I thought it was a bit odd that a large chunk of the book's beginning didn't mention Scarlett's son. There were servants to care for him, for sure, but I wondered about nursing and why he wasn't mentioned. But then I thought this might have been intentional - make the reader forget him like Scarlett seemed to do.

There are incidents of omniscience and head-hopping, but the vast majority is from Scarlett's point of view and it becomes obvious immediately that she is the main character. Scarlett is not an especially likable character, so I was trying to determine her "save the cat" moment per Blake Snyder's screenwriting book of the same name. The only thing I could come up with was that modern women (at the time) might've related to or admired her spirit and independence, which makes sense to me since it was written not too long after women got the right to vote.

The theme of the book seems to be how it's human nature to want something you don't or can't have. It explores several purposes for marriage: love, lust, convenience, security, and loyalty. The character arc for Scarlett is subtle. She didn't change much. She'd thought she had changed and had a big revelation toward the end, but then she reverts back to her old ways, digging in her heels and willfully pursuing what she thinks she wants. She does this despite realizing that when she got what she wanted in the past, it wasn't really what she'd wanted.

I hope these observations didn't contain too many spoilers. I now want to watch the movie so I can see how they adapted this massive story to the screen. Despite its nearly 1,500 pages, it only took me a month to read it, so on a can't-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn't even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it an eight and a quarter.

Source: Mitchell, Margaret. (1936). Gone with the Wind. Macmillan Publishing Company.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017


Luis Alberto Urrea is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the Midwest Writing Center's David R. Collins Writer's Conference on June 22, 2017, so I decided I should read at least one of his books. I was happy to discover he wrote historical fiction, so I chose The Hummingbird's Daughter.

The story takes place in the late 1880s in Mexico and essentially presents the life story of Teresita from before birth through death. It is beautifully written with vivid imagery and Spanish words sprinkled in to give it Mexican flavor. It is full of the supernatural and spiritual, intertwining them beautifully.

If there was one different choice I may have made as an author, it would've been to begin the story later. Showing Teresita's mother and fate before Teresita was a little girl reminded me a little of backstory dumping or the author forcing in facts. The extra material at the beginning delayed my getting engaged with the story.

Once I did, though, when Teresita hit her pre-teen years, I was hooked. There are a lot of characters in the story and the author trades point-of-view among them, but there is a "family" tree at the beginning of the book and it didn't take me long to get a handle on who was who. The writing seemed authentic and painted a vivid picture of life in pre-civil-war Mexico. And I loved that it was based on family lore substantiated by discovered articles. Though I don't know for sure, of course, there doesn't seem to be a lot of historical fiction based in Mexico, so this provided a refreshing new period and place to explore.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Mexican history, the supernatural, spirituality, and coming-of-age stories. I enjoyed it, so much his other historical fiction book is on its way to me. Just because of the slow start, on a can't-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn't even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it a six and a half.

Source: Urrea, Luis Alberto. (2005). The Hummingbird's Daughter. Back Bay Books.