Category Archives: HF Book Review

CLOUDS OVER BISHOP HILL by Mary Davidsaver

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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.

LAURA WILDER OF MANSFIELD by William Anderson

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I purchased several books in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Family Series while visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri, in early June, 2016. Laura Wilder of Mansfield is the third in the series and the third one I read.

The book chronicles Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life after she came to Manfield, Missouri. It talked about their arrival, time living in town, and years building the Rocky Ridge Farm as well as Laura’s writing career and her relationship with her daughter, Rose, as well as her writing career. Also included are brief stories about Laura’s travels outside of Mansfield and visits she and Almanzo enjoyed from others. To the average reader, Laura Wilder of Mansfield may be a bit boring, reading like a textbook. To huge LIW fans like me and self-proclaimed “bonnet heads,” it will be fascinating.

The book definitely has a specific target reader, of which I belong. It is a short book, so due to that and my interest, 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: Anderson, William. (1974). Laura Wilder of Mansfield.

THE STORY OF THE INGALLS FAMILY by William Anderson

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I purchased several books in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Family Series while visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri, in early June, 2016. The Story of the Ingalls Family is the first in the series and the second one I read.

The book essentially discusses Laura’s ancestors, parents, and siblings, including her immediate family’s travels, the subject of most of her Little House books. It was particularly interesting to read about how May, Pa, Carrie, Mary, and Grace lived subsequent to the time period covered in the books. It also talks about Laura’s life as an author and includes several interesting appendices, including Grace Ingalls’ diary, family tree information, and family letters. To the average reader, The Story of the Ingalls Family may be a bit boring, reading like a textbook. To huge LIW fans like me and self-proclaimed “bonnet heads,” it will be fascinating.

The book definitely has a specific target reader, of which I belong. It is a short book, so due to that and my interest, 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: Anderson, William. (1973). The Story of the Ingalls Family.

THE STORY OF THE WILDERS by William Anderson

I purchased several books in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Family Series while visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri, in early June, 2016.The Story of the Wilders, the second in the series, was the first one I read.

Almanzo Wilder was the subject of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novel Farmer Boy and also her husband. The book describes the lives of the actual Wilders from when they lived in Malone, New York, through their travels west. In addition to containing information about Almanzo, it also talks about his life outside of Farmer Boy, his siblings, and his parents. To the average reader, The Story of the Wilders may be a bit boring, reading like a textbook. To huge LIW fans like me and self-proclaimed “bonnet heads,” it will be fascinating.

The book definitely has a specific target reader, of which I belong. It is a short book, so due to that and my interest, 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: Anderson, William. (1973). The Story of the Wilders.

THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH by Ken Follett

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I purchased The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett as recommended by two men in the Veteran’s writing workshop I led. It is not the usual type of historical fiction I read, but they said it was good and they recommended it as instructive for setting up detailed scenes as well as working in historical facts.

Compared to other novels I usually read, I consider The Pillars of the Earth an epic, taking place from 1123 through 1174 in England over 983 pages. I did think it was very well written; it drew me in and was full of romance, suspense, and action as well as historical detail. As the group members indicated, the author did an excellent job of creating twelfth century England; I easily imagined the landscape, towns, and different places. I also enjoyed learning about the evolution of church and cathedral architecture.

The story is told from the point of view of several characters and it’s not clear until well into the book that the main characters are Aliena and Jack. The length of the book allowed me to get to know all of the characters intimately as well as care for them and want to find out what happened to them. However, it also took me a long time to really get into the story, though obviously it was interesting enough and grabbed me enough to motivate me to keep reading. I generally enjoy stories told from just one character’s point of view and I’ve been known to skip sections told from a character’s point-of-view about which I don’t care, but I found myself caring about all of the characters enough in this book to read all of the sections.

Though this isn’t the type of book I normally read, I am glad I did. It was a fascinating tale about characters I came to know and care about. And I did learn one way to weave historical facts through a story. It took me over two months to read this book, partly because of the length and partly because it took me some time to get hooked enough to keep going back to 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 the first half to two-thirds a six and the last half to one-third a seven and a half.

Source: Follett, Ken. (1989). The Pillars of the Earth. Signet: New York City.

THREADS OF THE WAR by Jeremy Strozer

I obtained Volume I of Threads of the War: Personal Truth Inspired Flash-Fiction of The 20th Century’s War from the author after he contacted me via the contact form on my website asking about opportunities to promote his work. I told him I didn’t do that at this time, but that I did maintain a historical book review blog, so he sent me the electronic copy of his book. I also interviewed him for the Author Spotlight section of my author services website, which you can read here.

Jeremy Strozer’s Threads of the War Volume I contains numerous entertaining, easily digestible, and quick-to-read short stories based on real war-related historical events. Some of them are suspenseful and some are humorous, but all are engaging and interesting. I also enjoyed the parts that told the “real” stories behind his stories as well as the factual information and photographs included.

Threads of the War Volume I put me into these moments in history, and I greatly appreciated that they were moments, because they provided so much detail and intimacy that gets glossed over in public school history classes. These stories also reminded me that war involves people, and they allowed me to step into history as a breathing, feeling human being.

Volume II of Threads of the War was released in March, 2016. I have no reason to doubt that it, like Volume I, would appeal to all history buffs as well as anyone who enjoys stories based on fact. I read these stories 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: Strozer, Jeremy. (2015). Threads of the War: Personal Truth Inspired Flash-Fiction of The 20th Century’s War. The Good Enough Empire, LLC.

THE WAR CAME HOME WITH HIM: A DAUGHTER’S MEMOIR by Catherine Madison

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I came across The War Came Home with Him while shopping on Amazon. Other than being a historical account and involving Veterans, who I find have fascinating stories to tell, I also have something in common with the author. Technically, it’s actually my father who has it in common with her. My grandfather, my father’s father, was also a POW in Korea. It also changed him and he didn’t talk about it. My father has been researching my grandfather’s captivity, so I thought it might be instructive.

The War Came Home with Him has alternating chapters starting with Alexander Boyson prior to his capture and trading places back and forth with his daughter, Catherine’s, story starting when she was a little girl. It beautifully tells the story of both of their lives, his before and after the time he was a prisoner, and hers of her life with him. It’s heartbreaking how being a POW negatively impacted the author’s life, but it’s also hopeful in that it’s clear the author has forgiven him, understands him to some degree, and has made peace. This memoir doesn’t glorify war or gloss it over; it is what it is, through the author’s eyes and the father’s. The author’s perspective is based on her memories and her father’s based on her research and writings her father left behind, making it believable and, as far as I know, highly accurate. I also liked how the author arranged the chapters, subtly tying what her father went through as a Korean War POW to her own memories of how he was as a father, and how he brought that part of the war home with him.

The War Came Home with Him is interesting, tells a good story, and provides deep insight into the author’s and her father’s life. And I also believe it’s an important book. I read it pretty quickly even with the holidays, 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: Madison, Catherine. (2015). The War Came Home with Him. University of Minnesota Press.

OUT OF THIS WORLD by Mary Swander

I also bought Out of this World at the first annual Clinton Book Festival on August 29, 2015 while I was there promoting my book, Taming the Twisted. I’ve met Mary Swander before, enjoyed her poetry, and like books telling the history of where I live in Iowa.

Out of This World is a memoir broken into four parts about Mary Swander’s adult life living in the middle of an Amish community in east central Iowa. Living in an Amish community, however, is just one of the “out of this world” themes in the book. It’s also about learning to live in her own body, which doesn’t tolerate food and chemicals the same as most other people in the world, sort of like her body rejecting our modern way of life. Mary had the unique opportunity of finding the detailed story of the previous owner of one of the homes in which she lived, thereby living essentially in someone else’s world. She also lived in a converted schoolhouse, also unusual. Though lots of people live in pastoral settings, including Iowa, in a sense, that’s also a way of living “out of this world.”

The picture Mary creates of the Amish part of Iowa was interesting; though I live near there, I’ve never had the chance to be immersed in the community as she has. For the setting, Mary also creates a beautiful and accurate picture of Iowa. I’m here and am familiar with the landscape, but if I wasn’t, I think I’d know what it looks, sounds, smells, and feels like. She also weaves in interesting bits of history, facts, and philosophy. Reading Out of This World made me wonder about my own attraction to solitude and about how a lot of people say they would or want to choose clean, simple living and eating, but we don’t. In Mary’s case, she was essentially forced to live clean if she wanted to live at all.

Out of This World interestingly portrays one person’s experience in one setting during a particular time in her life, which is I suppose what makes it a memoir. If you’ve never been to Iowa and want one perspective about how it is to live here (contrary to some beliefs, we are NOT all the same, just as nobody nowhere is the same), you’ll enjoy Mary Swander’s book. It did take me a bit of time to read it with the holidays and other commitments, 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: Swander, Mary. (1995). Out of This World. Penguin Books.

SEEKING SIGNS by Staci Angelina Mercado

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I bought Seeking Signs at the first annual 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.

SHELL GAMES by Jeffrey S. Copeland

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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 six 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.