Category Archives: HF Book Review

FINDING MANANA: A MEMOIR OF A CUBAN EXODUS by Mirta Ojito

Finding Manana is not fiction, but it is historical, covering the Cuban exodus, specifically 1980 in this piece. If I recall correctly, I picked this book up on the bargain rack at one of my local bookstores. It took me only a few days to read it; however, I did not read the entire book, 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 would give it a three.

This book tells the autobiographical story of the author, Mirta Ojito, starting on May 7, 1980, when her family was finally given the permission and means to leave Cuba as they had been working toward doing for years. It then goes back to previous years, telling the story of why and how her family came to want to leave Cuba. Mirta’s story was fascinating and well-told, but her story didn’t fill the entire book. Instead, the author filled the book with stories about historical events surrounding Cuban politics as well as other stories. These are the parts I skipped.

The first alternative chapters were stories told from political figure perspectives and I just couldn’t get into them. They seemed distant, boring, and devoid of emotion to me; well written and valuable in their own right, but not what I was looking for after I read Mirta’s chapters. Some other chapters, I believe, were told from ordinary citizens’, like Mirta’s, perspective and were likely quite interesting, but I was so engrossed in Mirta’s story and her voice, wanting to find out what happened to her and if she was able to get to the U.S. that skipped those chapters as well.

The switching of points of view jolted me and I don’t think they were appropriate for a memoir, which I assume is a story told from the author’s perspective. How can you get in someone else’s head and witness events where you weren’t present in a memoir or autobiography? I realize that the author likely conducted extensive research and wanted to use the results of those efforts, but I think she could’ve created three separate works: her memoir, a collection of stories of other refugees or ex-Cubans, and a factual non-fiction story about the political events surrounding the Cuban exodus.

Parts of the book I did read, Mirta’s story, were intriguing, tension-filled, and had me turning pages, anxious to see what happened. Most of it was told well from Mirta’s perspective and were consistent, except for a brief passage on page 162 where she put herself in an exchange between her mother and father when she was at school; I attribute this anomaly to editing. I greatly enjoyed Mirta’s story, but because of having to flip pages to find where it picked back up, the pace was off and it reduced the ease of reading. I love the title and the dual of the meaning of Manana meaning tomorrow in Spanish and it being the boat the author took to Florida.

Source: Ojiot, Mirta. 2005. Finding Manana: A Memoir of Cuban Exodus. Penguin Books: New York.

ACROSS FIVE APRILS by Irene Hunt

I found this book on Amazon via a general search for civil war historical fiction. I was especially attracted to the premise because the story centers around the home front in Southern Illinois. Since my books, Taming the Twisted and Taming the Twisted 2 Reconstructing Rain, also take place around the time of the civil war in the Midwest, I wanted to see how Irene Hunt handled the subject. It is a Newberry Honor book suitable for juveniles, and, with the historical information and story structure, would be a good read for them.

Across Five Aprils begins in April of 1861 with Jethro, a nine-year-old boy, and his mother, planting potatoes. Although the story does continue through April of 1865, the bulk of the story takes place in 1861 to 1862, with only the last few chapters covering the final years of the civil war.  Perhaps it was a choice or a coincidence, but I believe this reflects how the war itself seemed to drag on to those at home and, to those outside of active battlefields, perhaps became just a fact of life until the end neared. The book’s climax seems to coincide with the war itself’s as well.

The story was engaging; I read it in approximately a week and a half 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 would give it a five and a half.

At some points, I had the sense of having the benefit of the knowledge of the future rather than the story taking place in that time frame. For example, the author referred to a “cornshuck bed;” to be writing from the perspective of that time period, I think one would have simply written, “bed.” She also mentioned a field of study and clarified with it was “later called physics.” This is not bad and is likely beneficial for the young readers who comprise target audience. It was just something that stood out.

The point of view seems to be third-person omniscient but with the bulk of the story limited to Jethro’s perspective. I’m not sure if this so-called “head hopping” was intentional or not. Jethro is definitely the main character experiencing the character arc. During the story, he goes from being a naive boy excited about the prospect of war to a mature boy knowing first-hand the horrors of war experienced at home. In the end, the readers get a sense that the civil war made or perhaps allowed him to become a man earlier than he otherwise might have been. He is conflicted about his own views of the war; he’s influenced by those around him though he realistically doesn’t ever seem to form a solid opinion.

I enjoyed the plot points of this book. Of course, it contained the usual themes one would expect in a civil war period book: who will survive the war, who will die, who will desert, how hard it is at home, etc. This story’s plot also includes a deadly accident suffered by Jethro’s sister, Mary, prior to the story opening, the romance between his sister and his teacher, and strife between family members.

The author is adept at bringing in her descriptions and appearances subtly and naturally. She also does a good job of conveying the varying views about the civil war within the north, south, and individual households. The scenes about Jethro’s adventures spending the night at his sister’s beau’s home and going to town also adds to the tension and interest of the story.

As I’ve noticed in other books set in the civil war time period, the author sometimes resorts to summary, especially when talking about the battles and politics of the war. This has me questioning the necessity of these battle descriptions. One the one hand, the characters would be concerned with them, but other than what they actually say to each other about them or experience personally, I’m not sure it’s needed. However, if people were obsessed about the war as the characters in this book seem to be, perhaps it is necessary, but, instead of summarizing, I might make it a topic of dialogue more often than Ms. Hunt did. I think this is a personal author-choice that I must resolve in my own work.

Overall, the book was about a family going through a difficult time. I found the writing quality, pace, plot, and characters above average.

Source: Hunt, Irene. 2002. Across Five Aprils. Berkely JAM: New York.

AN IOWA SCHOOLMA’AM Edited by Philip L. Gerber and Charlotte M. Wright


An Iowa Schoolma’am Letters of Elizabeth “Bess” Corey 1904 – 1908 is a research book I found in writing my next novel which takes place in Camanche, Iowa, in 1908. This is sort of a prequel to Bachelor Bess: The Homesteading Letters of Elizabeth Core, 1909 – 1919, which I haven’t read. It is a non-fiction book containing Elizabeth’s letters almost exactly how she’d written them with notes by the editors of enclosures or explanations of certain people, places, or things.

I found the book interesting, though I didn’t get much concrete research material. It did, however, give me a feel of the time period, including how people communicated, traveled, and dealt with the weather.

The book contains letters Elizabeth Corey wrote mostly to her mother while she was either training to be a teacher or teaching students away from home, boarding with a local family. There are gaps, of course, when she was at home and didn’t need to write letters to her mother who kept the correspondence. Once chapter does contain letters Elizabeth wrote at home while taking over there while her mother was in Omaha, Nebraska, having and recovering from a surgery.

I love reading books like this with real artifacts of real people who lived in real times. It makes me a little sad that all of the emails, tweets, and social media posts are so fleeting. I suppose if you really wanted to, you could cull the Internet as nothing is ever really deleted, but there’s nothing to be passed down from generation to generation and discovered in some attic somewhere.

I read this book relatively 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 a six and a half.

Source: Gerber, Philip L. and Wright, Charlotte M., Editors. (2011) An Iowa Schoolma’am Letters of Elizabeth “Bess” Corey, 1904 – 1908. University of Iowa Press.

THESE IS MY WORDS by Nancy E. Turner

I bought These is my Words by Nancy E. Turner at a gift/souvenir shop near Phoenix, Arizona, when I was visiting in February 2017. I pulled it out of my to-read stack because I’ve read several civil war era stories recently and was in the mood for a change.

The book is written as a diary from Sarah Prine’s point of view, starting in 1881 when she was a girl until 1901. This point of view really allows Sarah’s humor, cleverness, and strength to come through and the fact that her writing gets better as she ages made me feel like I was reading an actual diary and not a novel.

Right away, you enter Sarah’s life on her journey from Arizona to Texas, and with so many horrible things that happened to her in those first several pages and so much more of the book left to read, I found myself dreading what obstacles awaited this character who I already liked so much. Even though so many horrific things happen to Sarah, the book seems to give an accurate feel for the time period and how life was for some people, especially in the newer territories with Indians, robbers, and death so common. I wondered if someone could face such things today without going insane; I kind of doubt it.

To me, this is very much a character-driven book because even though there is what I would consider an overarching plot structure with a climax, etc., it’s more to me like a telling of a life story with all of the good things and bad things that happen in life. It felt very real and not contrived to fit a plot structure as a lot of novels seem to do.

I loved how Sarah was so naive at times, like about love and how she tried to be pious (I wanted to tell her she was just fine the way she was), but at the same time, she was also so gutsy.  I did enjoy Sarah’s and Jack’s relationship, but I was bothered by the front cover’s assertion comparing them to Rhett and Scarlett. I didn’t particularly like Rhett or Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, but I did like Jack and Sarah. Plus, Jack and Sarah are so much nicer to each other and more honest. I can definitely see a similarity in their passion for each other, though, so maybe it was to that which USA Today was referring.

This book stuck with me a long time after I read it, which took me just over 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 and a  half.

Source: Turner, Nancy E.. (1998.) These is my Words. Harper Perennial.

THE UNION QUILTERS, historical fiction by Jennifer Chiaverini

I heard historical fiction author Jennifer Chiaverini speak at a luncheon, but not being a quilter or even enjoying the act of pulling thread through fabric, I wasn’t so much interested in her books as I was in her as a successful author. That changed when I stumbled across her The Union Quilters novel on the bargain rack at my local Barnes and Noble because I was working on my first two Taming the Twisted books at the time which take place in a similar time period.

The Union Quilters begins near the beginning of the American Civil War. The main story ends prior to its conclusion with an Epilogue dated 1868. The story was well-told. I read it in a little over a month so on a can’t-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn’t even finish it to five for I was up until the wee morning hours, I would give it a three and a half.

Though its historical fiction, the story provided a good history lesson of the Civil War. I enjoyed the letters that arrived home to the Elm Creek Valley from the enlisted men, although they got a bit long at times. The story contains many characters and it took many pages before I could learn who they were enough to keep them straight. It seemed that Gerda was the main character.

Other than the typical plot lines one would expect to find in a book covering the Civil War of who lived and who died, other plot lines included the missing Joanna and the scandalous alleged love affair between Gerda and Jonathan, this last plotline being most intriguing to me. Gerda also seemed to be the character to experience the greatest character arc, coming to accept her situation by the end of the story and realizing the greatest internal change. The story seemed to divert its focus away from Gerda and her story at times, which disappointed me since I perceived her to be the main character.

I also found myself a bit bored occasionally with all of the battle descriptions, but perhaps that’s because I’ve done so much research on the topic. I found myself wishing the story would’ve just stuck with the home front. There is already so much literature available about Civil War battles, but for the most part, it was interesting.

Overall, the book was well-written and free of typos as one would expect from Dutton. I found the pace, plot development, characters, enjoyability, and insightfulness above average. As a writer, I might have leaned more toward dialogue and scene-building than toward exposition. There was a lot of summary, but, overall, it was an easy read and beneficial to my studies.

Source: Chiaverini, Jennifer. 2011. The Union Quilters: An Elm Creek Quilts Novel. Dutton: New York.