Saturday, May 12, 2018

THE SECRETS OF HEAVENLY by Teresa Robison

The Secrets of Heavenly tells the story of main character, Willa, as a slave until almost a decade prior to the civil war, through hers and other characters' points of view. The story takes place from 1842 to 1852 and hints to the impending end of slavery as newer generations blur the lines between master and friend and slowly turn against it. I imagine this is how abolitionism in the south might have evolved.

The story is good and seems to realistically depict slavery, as much as I can imagine of course. There were several typos and punctuation errors in the book, but since the story was so good, I wasn't distracted to the point of annoyance. The book starts out with a present-day woman reading Marianne's journal, one of the character's in the main story. The inclusion of Marianne's diary was interesting, but I don't think that layer was necessary (of the beginning character receiving and reading the diary), but maybe the author felt she needed a way to introduce the diary.

The story built to a good climax and became faster paced as the end approached. There were several "Oh, no!" moments where I felt truly bad for Willa, but it wasn't unexpected given the subject matter. Plus, you know that when you're only halfway through a book and it looks like something wonderful is going to happen that something is probably going to go awry. The point is that I cared about Willa and hated to see bad things happen to her. There are themes of true love, accepting or not accepting the circumstances dictating life, finding positivity in the direst circumstances, and the human will to live no matter what.

Overall, this was a good story with an acceptable ending, all things considered. It's a nice historical depiction of life leading up to the civil war. I read this book in just short of two 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 an eight.

Source: Robison, Teresa. (2013.) The Secrets of Heavenly. Writing Out Loud Publishing.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

BEFORE WE WERE YOURS by Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours is another title that came to me via my fellow-historical-fiction-loving aunt. It's a multi-period novel involving main characters Avery Stafford in the present and May/Rill around 1939. The mystery of the story is how they (and other characters) are related.

This book started off strong and pulled me right in. The Rill/May character seemed to me to have a more unique voice, but since hers was a child viewpoint, this might be expected. Avery's sections seemed a bit too Nicolas Sparksesque, romance novely for my taste, and that part of the story was predictable.

For a two-character point-of-view story to keep me reading each one, they both need to be compelling, and they were. I was a bit disappointed when one character's chapter ended, but it was okay because I was left on such a cliffhanger at the end of the other character's chapter, so I was glad to know what happened. In this case, having the two characters did add some mystery to the story and allowed the author to weave in more subplots, but I did find Rill/May's story more compelling.

Instead of saying, "present day," I think it would've been better for the author to name a year, such as 2002 or whenever she wrote it because the cell phone and communication descriptions seem archaic for 2017 (the year it was published).

The story in this novel is fiction based on real stories of survivors and victims of the Memphis Tennessee Children's Home Society that stole children or obtained them via other illegal or unethical methods, passed them off as orphans, and essentially sold them to the wealthy.

The theme covered how where we come from and where we grow up affects our lives and something that happens in one person's life can forever alter ensuring generations. It is also about truth and how it should come out no matter what (at least the author seems to think so) as well as being your true self and not just what others expect of you.

I read this book in six 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: Wingate, Lisa. (2017.) Before We Were Yours. Ballantine Books.

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 (mwcqc.org) 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

THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH by Robert Hicks

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.