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.
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.
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 Warwas 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 no 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.