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.

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

THE HUMMINGBIRD'S DAUGHTER by Luis Alberto Urrea

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.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

THE SELECTED LETTERS OF LAURA INGALLS WILDER edited by William Anderson

The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder was another title I picked up while visiting the Rocky Ridge Farm Laura Ingalls Wilder site. I debated whether I should even write this review since I've read and reviewed so many LIW-related titles lately, so I thought I'd make it a sort of "bonus review."

The letters themselves aren't of any particular literary quality or great writing in-and-of themselves. I skipped reading the larger-fonted headlines between a lot of the letters, but I did very much appreciate the editor's transitional sections and background/contextual information.

I found that the value in this book, like in many of the about-LIW books, is the insight it provides into this human being's life. Even if you're not a LIW/Little House fan or a writer, it's interesting to be able to study someone's life so intimately. And when you add what's written about Rose into the mix, you get insight into a mother-daughter relationship carried out in a particular time period. I find that fascinating. There have been few people (if any) who have been written about more than the Ingalls/Wilders, so the information just isn't available about most people.

So...I would recommend this book to all the bonnet-heads, of course, but also anyone interested in psychology and sociology-type topics as well.

Thanks for reading. Now back to your regularly scheduled historical book review blog post.

Friday, May 12, 2017

GRAND CENTRAL: ORIGINAL STORIES OF POSTWAR LOVE AND REUNION by Various Authors

I purchased Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion after reading Diy MFA by Gabriela Pereira because she suggests reading short stories in your genre. Though the subtitle states the stories are about postwar love and reunion, don't expect all mushy, happy-ending stories. In many cases, the stories are heart breaking and don't involve the typical reunion of separated lovers as you might expect. Sometimes the reunion is with something or someone entirely different. 

The stories in Grand Central take place after World War II. As you might expect, Grand Central Terminal in New York is the setting for at least part of each story. All of the stories are connected as the characters encounter each other unknowingly in their own stories. It took me a few to catch on, but when I did, it was fun to look for the connections, and I just thought it was really cool.

The stories include characters related to WWII in numerous ways, so in that way, the idea of the war affecting real lives and real human beings is enforced. And sometimes the character's mate returning from the war wasn't a happy occasion. Lives went on as the war did, and people were changed,

It's hard to find the words to adequately describe these stories. I was moved by them all. The stories are made more special in that their authors are all women, bringing the female perspective (if imagined) to a war from which mainly male perspectives have been told.

As a writer, I should go back and read the stories again as more of the study tool for which I originally purchased the book, because I got so engrossed as I read them. Obviously they are good stories then and should be studied, right?

Each of the stories can be read within about a half an hour, so for each story individually, 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 them a nine. For the book as a whole, I give it a seven and three-quarters.

Source: Benjamin, Melanie, et al. (2014). Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion. Berkley Books: New York.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

LINES by Geralyn Hesslau Macgrady

Geralyn Heslau Macgrady, winner of the Soon to Be Famous (TM) Illinois Author Project, was a co-panelist with me and some other authors/publishers at the Galena (IL) Lit Fest in January 2016. Due to my love of historical fiction and Chicago, I purchased Geralyn's novel, Lines, set in 1871 prior, during, and after the great fire.

Lines is a story of love, loss, and how humans often are required to surrender to unforeseen circumstances, particularly in the last quarter of the 19th century, where family obligations were different, especially the tradition of marrying your brother's widow. The main character, Livia Haa, whose family works in the tobacco business, tries to find her own way and place in the world but is forced to choose a path she hadn't foreseen because of the great fire tragedy. A sinister con man with misplaced vengeful urges, suspense, and diverging loyalties also play a part in the plot.

I enjoyed the story and was able to feel for Livia and those for whom she cared. It was an easy read and put me in Chicago in 1871. I read this book quickly, 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: Magrady, Geralyn Hesslu. (2015). Lines.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

THE GHOST IN THE LITTLE HOUSE by William Holtz

I purchased The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane by William Holtz during my visit to Laura Ingalls Wilder's Rocky Ridge Farm homesite in Mansfield, Missouri. Of course, I knew that Rose was Laura's only surviving child, was an author on her own, and more well-known at the time her mother started writing, but most of what I've read about her was through the lens of her mother's eyes, so I was interested in a book that focused on her as her own person.

The Ghost in the Little House is a detailed chronical of Rose Wilder Lane's life from essentially her birth until past her death, created from the author's obvious extensive study of her papers, travels, and everything she left behind as well as her mother. I was fascinated by this book. Being a fan of psychology and getting into people's heads to a degree, I loved the light the book shed on this mother-daughter relationship. Each, mother and daughter, was her own person who outshined her husband and father, respectively, to the point that there is less in the world about him than almost anyone in the family, besides what Laura herself provided to the world, of course.

In addition to giving me a different perspective on one of my favorite and most influential authors, Laura Ingalls Wilder, this book also provided an interesting theory of the travel-writing industry. In Rose's day, an author could make money by traveling the world and sending her thoughts and observations back for publication in the states, even make a living. People couldn't travel as easily as they can today, and today, if you want to see what a location looks like, you simply log on to Google Earth or search a vast collection of images on the web. Another thing I learned was about the evolution of freelance writing - it was a much more lucrative endeavor to write as a freelancer for magazines then compared to now.

This book won't be loved by everyone (skimming the Amazon reviews will tell you that), but if you are interested in an in-depth analysis of relationships or people, you will definitely like it. You might also enjoy it if you are a big Laura fan and/or if you enjoy history. It did take me a while to read this one, just due to its length and other obligations, 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: Holtz, William. (1993). The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane. University of Missouri Press.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

HAMMON FAlls by Dave Hoing and Roger Hileman

Dave and Roger were co-presenters at an author event I attended in early November 2016, at the West Liberty, Iowa, public library. I traded my book, Taming the Twisted, for their title, Hammon Falls.

Hammon Falls follows three generations through the years 1893 through 2008. The characters include Will; his grandmother, Margaret; his grandfather, Orville/Luka; his father, George; and his mother, Cora. Though there was a learning curve to get the characters straight in my head, it was short. I loved how these characters' stories were intertwined, going between them and back and forth in time. Generally, I don't like stories that switch points-of-view but it worked well for me in Hammon Falls. The story shows how our families' lives are tangled, for better for worse, and sheds a light on how family members relate to each other and how choices affect one another. There are no "good" or "bad" guys/gals; they all have different perspectives and experiences that give them redemption and faults. In other words, they are human.

By the end of the book, I was satisfied that all of the questions and loose ends were tied up, except for one. I never learned how Will met his wife or what happened to her. Perhaps there's a sequel coming? I also enjoyed the local connection of the story's setting; though Hammon Falls and Waterton are fictional towns, they are similar to two real towns in Iowa.

Though fiction, I think Hammon Falls depicts how a family could have evolved through history. I read this one quickly, 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.

Source: Hileman, Roger & Hoing, Dave. (2010). Hammon Falls. All Thins That Matter Press.

UPDATE: Apparently how Will met his wife and what happened to her is mentioned the book and I obviously missed it. I still wonder if there might be a story there, though, that could be sequel fodder... :)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

CLOUDS OVER BISHOP HILL by Mary Davidsaver

Full disclosure: This book was published by MWC Press, with which I'm affiliated as president of the board of directors of Midwest Writing Center. This is, however, an honest review (i.e. I really did like it.)

Clouds Over Bishop Hill is not historical fiction in the strictest sense (it takes place in 2008); however, the story revolves around a historical item, specifically a 1915 painting by Bishop Hill, Illinois, artist Olaf Krans. Bishop Hill is a former Swedish communal society in approximately north central Illinois. It is a real place with museums and interesting spots anyone can visit. Olaf Krans was a real artist who lived there and painted portraits of Bishop Hill's early residents. Clouds Over Bishop Hill centers on one such fictional painting (or rather, the apparent absence of it).

The story starts with feet running with a murder college graduate, Shelley Anderson, stumbles upon on her way home to Bishop Hill for the summer. In addition to the murder mystery, there's also a mystery around where and how a particular Olaf Krans painting came to be based on the foggy dreams of one of the town's elders. It is a fast-paced story with the characters encountering greed, deception, murder, and some romance, too. The main character, Shelley Anderson, embarks on a character arc that leaves her changed and more grateful for her hometown.

Clouds Over Bishop Hill will appeal especially to those familiar with Olaf Krans paintings and/or Bishop Hill, Illinois, but it is also a good cozy mystery read in general. There are murder and suspense, but nothing gory or gross. The ending is satisfying but leaves room for a sequel. I read this book relatively quickly, so on the 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: Davidsaver, Mary. (2016) Clouds Over Bishop Hill. MWC Press: Davenport, Iowa.