Thursday, November 12, 2015

SEEKING SIGNS by Staci Angelina Mercado

I bought Seeking Signs at the first annual (I hope) Clinton Book Festival on August 29, 2015. I was there promoting my book, Taming the Twisted, so was drawn to this book that has a similar idea - a novel based on a local historical event. Seeking Signs tells the story from Elsie Seamer's point of view. After Elsie's sister, Minnie, is found hanging in the barn on June 20, 1913, Elsie becomes amateur investigator seeking to debunk the coroner's ruling of her sister's death as a suicide.

The story builds as Elsie delves deeper into solving the mystery until a terrible event beyond her control brings the final understanding of truth. As Elsie's story is told, so is her sister's weaved through passages from newspaper articles appearing at the time and Minnie's diary, and her family's, dealing with a grave illness.

The story follows the "formula" of a mystery novel, with the amateur detective being "called" to solve the crime, reaching a point of no return, and enlisting the aid of a partner. But, perhaps because the mystery is based on an actual historical event in a real place at a real time, it didn't feel like it was following any sort of formula or recipe. It's simply a face-paced, suspenseful story. The fact that it's based on a real event makes it all that much more fascinating.

I got so engrossed in this book that won the Midwest Book Gold Award for historical fiction in 2013 from the Midwest Independent Publishers' Association, that I didn't even take notes as I read. The book was easy-to-follow, pleasant to read, and pulled me through to the end. 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: Mercado, Staci Angelina. (2013). Seeking Signs. Four Feathers Press.

Monday, October 12, 2015

SHELL GAMES by Jeffrey S. Copeland

Shell Games is non-fiction, classified as true crime/biography/history, but it reads like a novel with well-developed characters, action, drama, and suspense.

The book tells the story of Pearl McGill who was involved in the initial establishment of a union and protection of workers' rights in the button industry in Muscatine, Iowa, around 1910. I bought the book because my next novel will take place around the same time period and will involve the clamming part of the button industry. The working of the clammers and button makers was well-researched and weaved well throughout the story. I felt like I got to learn about every aspect of the life of a button, from the mussels being plucked out of the Mississippi River to the buttons being sewn on cards and packed for shipping. The book also gave me a good sense of what Muscatine looked, felt, and smelled like in that time period.

I noticed some typos and confusing moments, but they didn't detract terribly from my reading. For example, when Pearl was kidnapped, I was surprised that she wasn't more afraid for her roommate when she gave her kidnappers her address. At one point, the book mentions how Pearl stopped by to get a library book she'd put on hold; I found it odd that she would've been spending much time reading leisurely with so much turmoil in her life (it didn't mention that the book was related to strikes or workers' rights). I was also surprised that Pearl wasn't concerned about her boss finding out about her involvement with the union when she agreed to such a high-profile role; she didn't seem to consider it until she saw her boss at a meeting. Finally, I was confused about the timeline. The story starts with Pearl's arrival in Muscatine on July 9, 1910, and the story seems to take place all during the summer months, with no mention of winter, but the epilogue states that the agreement Pearl helped to work out occurred in May, 1911.

Shell Games is overall a good book, appropriate for those who enjoy historical novels or biographies. It would also appeal to those who like to read about by-gone industries or are interested in union formation history. It did take me a little longer than normal 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 and a half.

Source: Copeland, J. 2012. Shell Games: The Life and Times of Pearl McGill, Industrial Spy and Pioneer Labor Activist. Paragon House: St. Paul, Minnesota.

Monday, September 14, 2015

CATTLE KATE by Jana Bommersbach

Cattle Kate is a novel based on the legend of the lynching of Cattle Kate as a cattle rustler on July 20, 1889, in Wyoming Territory. In reality, the woman lynched never heard the name Cattle Kate; she was never referred to by that name until she was dead.

The book puts the reader in Ella's (later known as Cattle Kate's) shoes to set the record straight, telling her story in her words. It reads like an autobiography because Ella's story begins when she was a child in Canada. It follows her family's travels to Kansas and finally, her own travel to Wyoming Territory. Ella's voice comes across like she is writing a letter to the reader, which fits in the "this is the real story" theme. The dialogue is true to life, at least it's how I imagine those in the West spoke in the 1880s. There were a few typos but nothing too distracting and they didn't significantly pull me out of the story.

Part I of Cattle Kate is told in first person from Ella Watson's point of view; there isn't really a traditionally character/story arc, but it is interesting and kept me reading. If you enjoy reading autobiographies or biographies, you will enjoy Part I, which ends violently and graphically. Part II is told in the third person and Part III contains notes pertaining to each chapter, which I enjoyed greatly. My own historical research has been based in the Midwest so I'd never heard of the Cattle Kate legend. I liked reading Ella's story in her own words, the story of how the myth came to be, and where all of the facts the author used to pull it all together came from.

Cattle Kate is part fictional story and part history lesson. It did take me a little longer than normal 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: Bommersbach, Jana. Cattle Kate: A Novel. Poisoned Pen Press: Scottsdale, AZ.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

FROG MUSIC by Emma Donoghue

Frog Music is historical fiction based on a murder that occurred in the sweltering summer of 1876 in San Francisco, California. I found it on Amazon with a keyword search involving American historical fiction and murder while doing a comparison for marketing my own historical fiction book, Taming the Twisted.

The story is told in the present tense from the third person limited point of view; the main character is Blanche. The book grabbed me violently in the first few pages with its description of the brutal murder which immediately sets ups the mystery I wanted to keep reading to solve. It goes back and forth in time with essentially two chronological starting points. It starts at the murder and also a few weeks prior when Blanche meets the murdered person, Jenny. The story switches back and forth between these two times, though they are both moving forward until, toward the end of the book, when the first story line (the meeting) catches up with the beginning of the later story line (the murder). I found this way of storytelling interesting and both kept me engaged. I had not trouble orienting myself in the story's time.

Given the main character's profession, the number of sex scenes shouldn't come as a surprise, and they are told as tastefully as can be. And uncliched, with which I find many authors tend to struggle.

As mentioned, Frog Music is based on a real murder and the real witnesses who testified at the inquest about the murder. The characters are authentically human with both good and undesirable qualities. I found it difficult to completely love or completely hate any of them which testifies to their dynamics. Ultimately, Frog Music is a story of love between a mother and her child and how it overtakes the mother, even if at first she doesn't want it to.

The book was obviously well-researched and I liked the Afterword that talked about the real people and the way San Francisco appeared in 1876.

I read this book within a little less than a week. 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 half.

Sunday, July 12, 2015


I found Dream Chasers of the West: A Homestead Family of Glacier Park at a souvenir shop during my trip to Glacier National Park last month. I was intrigued by the back of the book description about Clara Miller who left Minnesota at thirty and unmarried in 1913 to homestead in Montana. The fact that it was a true story intrigued me more.

I've long time been a fan of the history of people and things - more of the development through time rather than politics. Clara Miller Smiley's story was no different. Though it's a biography, Clara's story (and her family's) is told like fiction. It's full of dialogue, description, and showing rather than telling. There are occasional paragraphs where the author writes an aside or wonders about what Clara may have been thinking at the time; though these asides weren't necessary, they were brief and didn't detract from my reading.

In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I will just say that Clara experienced joy in her life but also incredible hardship. She lived through the depression and worked in the new tourism industry, all while trying to find her true self and follow her passion. Clara, always a storyteller, dreamed of being a writer and publisher; maybe she didn't achieve literary fame but I'm certain she entertained dozens of people with her stories, usually a writer's goal anyway.

I read most of this book while still in Montana, finishing the last few chapters after I returned home. It was a fascinating story and interesting to try to find the places in real life that were written about. 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.

If you have been to Glacier National Park or are just interested in pioneering stories, you will enjoy this book.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


I ordered The Annotated Biography of Pioneer Girl in December, 2014, but because of a sell out, I didn't receive it until into the second half of March, 2015. I was surprised by its volume because I hadn't looked at the page count; I'm such a huge Laura Ingalls Wilder (LIW) fan, I knew I wanted it regardless.

Pioneer Girl is like a textbook on LIW and the Little House books as well as a treatise on how LIW became a writer and the Little House books were written. The main part of Pioneer Girl consists of the original autobiography LIW wrote upon which the Little House books were eventually based. It also includes parts only intended for Rose Wilder Lane, her daughter who was editing the manuscript, and notes about two revisions it went through with different potential publishers.

This book is as much of a historical text as it is about LIW. After nearly ever other sentence, the reader is directed to the annotations which provide more information about the people, places, items, and events mentioned in the main text. I've heard some people have referred to the book as boring; however, if you love LIW or are fascinated by the pioneer times in United States history, you will absolutely love it like I did. It is the most comprehensive account of LIW that I've seen.

As an author, I did wonder if LIW was so skilled that she made the deliberate choices Pioneer Girl's editors' analyzed in the annotations or if she made those authorial choices by intuition so that the intensive studies conclude things that LIW didn't consciously make. LIW didn't have an MFA or any formal novel writing training; she just knew how she wanted the stories to read and what sounded good to her ears. I believe, in general, authors make more intuitive than conscious choices when writing, and it is simply readers' fascination with them that makes them more lordly than they are. At least that's what I like to believe. It gives me hope.

This book was a little different in my compulsive reading motivation. I was not so much compelled to keep turning pages by any twists, turns, suspense, or mystery, but because of my passion for this era of time and my love for LIW. 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 nine.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A WALK WITH ESTHER by Deb Bowen with Cassie Bowen

I obtained A Walk with Esther as a trade when meeting with the author, Deb Bowen. I'd seen a story on the local news about Deb and her book on the recent Holocaust anniversary. When I looked at her website, I learned about the A BOOK by ME project where Deb partners children with Holocaust survivors or World War II Veterans and adult mentors to write books telling the survivors' or Veterans' stories. I loved this idea so I emailed Deb and we had a wonderful visit about our respective writing and projects. I traded Missing Emily: Croatian Life Letters for A Walk with Esther.

A Walk with Esther not only tells the stories of these three Holocaust survivors named Esther, but also Deb's journey with them. The book is also a memoir of how A BOOK by ME was created and affected Deb's and her daughter's, Cassie's, lives. It's also more than walks with Esthers, but also with other Holocaust survivors and those touched by World War II.

I was pulled into the stories; I would look up from reading them and realize an hour had passed. I liked Cassie's perspectives, too; they added even more to the gap-bridging aspect of the book. I read the book as part sales pitch, like an extra long sales letter to get the reader to support the worthy cause. But even though this thread of asking for support was weaved through the stories, they were so interesting I didn't mind. Plus, they were effective - they made me want to support the effort.

Along with the stories about the Holocaust survivors or Veterans themselves, the book also presents photos of the authors and illustrators who created the A BOOK by ME products and photos of the books' covers. Other photos and facts related to the stories, World War II, and the Holocaust are also included, which I found very interesting and added value to the book.

Be aware, after your read this book, you will be touched by the stories and will want to do something to promote the A BOOK by ME project. However, you will also feel Deb's gratitude by simply purchasing the book. The proceeds from A Walk with Esther go back to Deb's A BOOK by ME project, so you'll know you've helped to fund something important. More than just financially, however, you know you are helping these stories stay alive, doing your part to help prevent the past from repeating. And you get to learn something, too.

I loved this book and reading all of the stories; I found myself coming back to it as quickly as I could. 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 half.

A Walk with Esther along with all of the A BOOK by ME books published to date are available to purchase on The website also offers a wealth of information about the project, including how you can help.

Thursday, March 12, 2015


A couple of weeks ago, I attended a National History Day showcase at my son's school. As we browsed the talented students' projects, I came across an exhibit one articulate young lady prepared about Nellie Bly. She told us that Nellie Bly was a reporter who got herself committed to an insane asylum in the 1880s to write a story about it. I went home, found the e-book on Amazon, and purchased it for 99 cents (I found it later for free here).

Ten Days in a Madhouse was written in 1887; it's easy to read and filled with humor, despite the horrible conditions Nellie Bly endured. At the time, it was easy to get committed; an internet search for  insane asylum commitment reasons will show you an array of what could be viewed as typical problems today. All Nellie had to do was pretend she didn't know where she came from; otherwise, she behaved totally sane. Even she seemed surprised at how easy it was and that she wasn't discovered.

The story itself tells a story of mistreatment and cover-up; any patient who tried to tell anyone otherwise was judged as providing proof of her insanity. The book talked about beatings, rope lines, cold inedible meals, and frigid baths taken in the same water as all of the other patients. It was all covered up by the nurses who enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle with fresh fruits who teased and tortured the patients (some of who were sane).

After Nellie's expose', the conditions at Blackwell Island in New York City changed for the better, at least on paper. Though I have to wonder after reading what Nellie witnessed if I can trust that things actually improved.

The website contains a wealth of information about Nellie Bly, the pen name for her real name of Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, along with a link to the free electronic book. Nellie pioneered investigative reporting and is also known for reports she did about working conditions and travelling around the world. 

I don't know if the students at my son's school learned anything at the showcase, but I did and I think some of what Nellie witnessed may end up in my next novel...

Thursday, February 12, 2015

THE HOUSE GIRL by Tara Conklin

My aunt, knowing that I like historical fiction, loaned me her copy of The House Girl. I'm glad she did; the only thing better than reading a great book is reading a great book for free.

The House Girl has several major characters; the main characters are Lina in 2004 and Josephine in 1852, each with a unique voice. Being a historical novel fan, hooking me with Josephine's story first got me into the story. For me, there is always a risk I will lose interest when the second chapter switches to a story told from a different character's point-of-view. But, Lina's story of preparing a reparations lawsuit was almost as compelling as Josephine's, a slave, so that was no problem in this book.

Lina, in 2004, is an attorney working for a large law firm in New York City. I was a paralegal in a large (for Iowa) law firm for nearly nine years. The descriptions compared to the law firm where I worked - from the assistants, to the attorneys' offices, to living live in six-minute increments - were so uncannily similar to where I worked, I briefly wondered if the author had worked for the same firm. (According to her bio, she's seemed to have lived her entire life in New England.)

As sometimes happens when I read novels, the author included some material of which I wondered about the purpose. On pages 73 through 75, she includes a list of names which was too lengthy and too tedious to read. Later, she also included some charts and tables I might expect to find in a textbook or case study. These took me out of the story and, since I skipped them and don't feel like I missed anything, didn't add anything for me.

After that, there was nothing else that startled me or that I skipped. I loved the connection between the present and past demonstrated in this book. Part of it is Josephine's story told from her own and Lina's perspectives. Part of it is told through two other major characters through letters. Josephine's story is the vein running throughout the book, but the other three major characters also have stories to tell with their own problems and character arcs. Tara Conklin pulled these stories together beautifully.

I also enjoyed the fact that though the book focuses mostly on these four major characters, only one of them is living. And even though there is no time travel involved, they are all connected through time. It made me think about the past, lineage, heritage, and legacy - about the web of our connections as human beings. 

There were several twists, turns, and surprises which kept me engaged in the book and reading through to the end. 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: Conklin, Tara. 2013. The House Girl. William Morrow and Harper Collins: Canada.

Friday, January 30, 2015

THE MIDA by Lyle Ernst and Kimberly Sigafus

The Mida by Lyle Ernst and Kimberly Sigafus, according the the back-of-book blurb, takes place in 1952. However, it's not historical per se. Other than the subtle absence of cell phones and computers, the story would fit into most any time period.

The book tells the story of a time-traveling circus headed up by an Ojibwa woman and the trouble it faces in the current, as-of-the-story, time and through time itself. There are numerous characters and the story is written in the third person omniscient point-of-view. The main characters seem to be Mesa, the carnival owner, and Tony. But it's hard to tell if that was the authors' intent as many of the characters are central to the story.

It took me awhile to catch on to who-was-who, but I was able to do so as the tangled mysteries unfolded. (To help, the authors might consider a free character guide download.) These mysteries involve murder, the carnival's existence, romance, and family ties. It has something for just about everyone: twists, betrayal, loss, violence, superheroes, and witches. I can't pigeon-hole it into just one genre - it's part fantasy, part murder-mystery, part romance. But once I was able to get over the hump of learning the characters, I found myself hooked in the story and wondering how it would turn out. I can't say the ending was a complete surprise - but only because I had no suspicions about "who done it." There's really no more I can say without the risk of giving away spoilers...

I enjoyed Lyle's and Kimberly's writing. The book contained lots of good dialogue, interesting phrases, subtle humor, and fresh ways of describing scenes.

The Mida is a good read. 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 we hours, I give it a seven and a half.

(P.S. I've received insider information that a sequel is in the works and I'm looking forward to seeing what trouble these characters get themselves into next.)

Source: Ernst, Lyle & Sigafus, Kimberly. (2014). The Mida. McIver Publishing: Freeport, Illinois.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

THE TIME TRAVEL TRAILER by Karen Musser Nortman

Karen Musser Nortman is a fellow Iowa Author I met while at a publishing event in West Liberty, Iowa, in November, 2014. Because there were so many books I wanted to buy written by several talented authors, I could only purchase one of Karen's. The Time Travel Trailer sounded the most intriguing to my historical-fiction tastes. I finally got a chance to read it at my in-laws over the Christmas holiday, after I'd finished my MBA.

The Time Travel Trailer provides a glimpse of life during several different time periods. The first thing I noticed was the realness of the writing. Life with the teen daughter, especially during the earlier part, is totally accurate. There is also plenty of humor with distinctive character voices. I especially enjoyed the mother's, Lynne's, slightly sarcastic voice.

Nortman's historical facts are weaved beautifully throughout the story and ground it in time - we get information about happenings, court cases, and events we've likely heard about before. The story is told through short, easily digestible chapters; you can pick it up, read a few chapters, quickly do what you have to do, and jump right back in without having to thumb through to see how many pages the next chapter has so you can decide if you have time to start reading. As I read, I was continuously curious about what Lynne and Dinah would find and in what year they would find themselves placed.

The story is told through Lynne's and Dinah's point of view (Lynne's in first person and Dinah's in third) in no-particular-order alternating chapters or chapter groups. After the first few chapters from Dinah's point of view, I wasn't sure of the purpose of the alternating viewpoints and wondered if it would add to the story. As the story unfolded, however, I learned how Dinah's unique perspective fit in and I can't think of a way the author could've handled it differently.

The Time Travel Trailer, in addition to providing an interesting history lesson, develops into a double mystery - what happens along the way and what happened with the trailer's original owner. As mentioned above, during the first approximate one-third of the book, I wondered where the story was going, but then the suspense picked up, keeping me turning the pages and reading "just one more chapter" before putting it down for the night. Nortman doesn't disappoint in her mystery writing ability, either; the end provides a satisfying conclusion.

The Time Travel Trailer was a great read. It had good suspense that pulled me through the story, 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 half.

This book would be great for those who
enjoy camping, time-travel stories, mysteries, or history. It's enjoyable on many levels.

Source: Nortman, Karen Musser. 2014. The Time Travel Trailer.