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Tagged with " historical fiction"
21 Nov
2018
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Book Review: “Reliance, Illinois” by Mary Volmer

Reliance Illinois, by Mary Volmer

Reviewed by Bev Scott

I purchased this book at a reading by the author, Mary Volmer.

A fascinating story, set in 1874 on the Mississippi River. The protagonist is a teenage girl of thirteen, Madelyn Branch who pretends to be the younger sister of her beautiful mother, Rebecca, when they arrive in Reliance for her mother’s marriage to a never-met “business man” found in the “Matrimonial Times.” Mr. Dryfus is unhappily surprised because he did not expect his new wife to come with a spirited teenager. Maddy has some unique challenges to confront as well as the usual teenage longing to be pretty and loved. Unwanted in her mother’s new relationship, Maddy takes advantage of an opportunity in the household of the eccentric, wealthy Miss Rose becoming both servant and student. As she searches for her own path, she gets involved in social justice issues, radical early “feminist” schemes and faces the realities of romantic love.

The character of Maddy is finely developed. Both she and the secondary characters are drawn with complexity. As the plot unfolds the author reveals yet another secret, keeping the reader fully engaged until the surprising end of the story. With beautiful writing, vivid description and complexity of character and plot, I highly recommend this book.

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13 Nov
2018
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Book Review: “Sweden” by Matthew Turner

Sweden, Book Review

Reviewed by Bev Scott

This book, written as historical fiction, offers a mostly unknown story of deserters from the Vietnam War and their Japanese peace activist guides committed to help them get out of Japan and escape to Sweden. I found the story of their perilous efforts to escape both the Japanese police and the US military fascinating. I was a young adult at the time of the Vietnam War but the true experiences described in this book were unique and totally new to me. The characters were realistic and the descriptions of events in both Japan and the US seemed historically accurate.

My criticism of the book is that it moved too slowly with more description than necessary of the deserters’ experiences in the Japanese culture and environment. I found myself often bored and skipping paragraphs to move the story along. In addition, the introduction of characters at the beginning of the book was confusing to me. Some serious editing to address these issues would make this a compelling and vivid story.

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10 Oct
2018
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Book Review: “Before We Were Yours” by Lisa Wingate

 

Book reviewed by Bev Scott, Author

Before We Were Yours, by Lisa WingateBefore We Were Yours, in the words of the author, was “formed from the dust of imagination and the muddy waters of the Mississippi.” It also recounts experiences similar to those of real children taken from their families during the 1920’s through the 1950’s and who were victims of Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.

Families Torn Apart

Countless children taken from loving families without cause or permission were never seen again by their biological families. Yes, some children were unwanted or rescued from dire situations. Many children, adopted out to families all over the country, were taken off the porch, kidnapped in broad daylight or removed from families using lies and deception. They were not given enough food or proper medical care. They were beaten, tied to beds and chairs and locked in dark closets. Undesirable or problem often children disappeared. Adoptive families were sometimes blackmailed for more money. Paperwork vanished leaving no record of the children’s prior lives. Georgia Tann brutalized these children with the support of the family court system, police and other corrupt officials.

Two Stories

In alternate chapters, Lisa Wingate tells two stories which ultimately come together at the end of the book. Avery Stafford is one of the daughters of Senator Stafford from Aiken, South Carolina. She is a lawyer practicing in Washington, D.C., engaged to her childhood sweetheart and being groomed to take over her father’s Senate seat. At one of her father’s events staged at a nursing home, Avery is confronted by a new resident, May, who has glimmers of recognition in seeing Avery who looks like her grandmother. May claims the dragonfly bracelet from Avery’s arm and appears to know Avery’s grandmother. Avery is intrigued by the mystery of May and begins to investigate the potential relationship with her grandmother fearing there is some scandal involved that would cause damage to the reputation of the Stafford family.

Alternately, we learn of the five children Rill, Camellia, Lark, Fern and Gabion who live on a shanty boat on the river with loving but unconventional parents, Briny and Queenie. The children are left alone when Briny takes Queenie to the hospital for medical care for a difficult delivery of twins. They are “kidnapped” from the boat by the police and taken to the house of horrors managed by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. After weeks of uncertainty and fear yet hoping that Briny will come for them, they discover the brutal truth of their situation. Camellia disappears, perhaps dying from injuries suffered from a beating. Rill, the oldest at twelve, is told that Camellia never existed, that there were “only four of you.” Lark and Gabion are the first to be adopted out followed by Fern and Rill.

Summary

Wingate provides gripping descriptions of horrors the children suffer. Avery’s search for clues to solve the mysterious connection between her grandmother and the enigmatic May is compelling.  Alternating chapters to develop the characters and the plot of the two stories is well done. The character of Avery seems a bit shallow in contrast to the depth of the shanty boat children. Perhaps it is her rationale for her search that is shallow, the reputation of the Stafford family. I couldn’t help believing that Avery had some additional personal motivations.

I recommend this impactful book. For several days, I shuddered thinking about the horrors these fictional, as well as the real children, suffered at the hands of a greedy, manipulative, and unscrupulous woman. Fortunately, for some children, there were “happy endings.”

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History vs. Genealogy vs. Historical Fiction

“History and genealogy…are two radically divergent views on the past.  The first says ‘This matters.’ The second says, ‘This matters to me.'”  John Sedgwick in the New York Times

History, Genealogy, Historical Fiction

Historians such as John Sedgwick tend to scoff at genealogists’ efforts to track down their ancestors by pouring over demographic records and old newspapers, using on-line services to trace family connections or spitting into DNA collection tubes. Historians have a “so what?” attitude. Until, as Sedgwick reports, he learned that an ancestor of his, was involved in a historic event for the Cherokee Nation. Then the civil war which erupted over the issue of the Cherokee Nation’s removal to the Oklahoma Territory became not just something that mattered historically but something that mattered to Sedgwick personally.

Writers of historical fiction see an obligation to present their stories in an accurate historical context and frequently do extensive research to learn the accurate details, scenes and key events of the historical time. Having done this extensive research, writers become engaged and committed to the historical context of their story. This sometimes tempts them to provide several pages of historical description and background which fascinates them but which tends to bore the reader. Historical fiction writers, then must continuously ask the question, “Does this background matter to my story?”

Here is an example of a slice of history that mattered in the pioneer West, mattered in the search for information about my grandfather and mattered in the development of my story.

Mattered to Me

As a lover of history, an amateur genealogist and a writer of historical fiction, I find these questions of “what matters” intriguing. In my genealogical research looking for information about my shadowy grandfather, I was searching for potential reasons why he might have abandoned his wife and family and where he might have gone. I hoped that information might give me clues about where I might find him in the public records. What mattered to me was finding places to look in public records in Texas; information about the “overland outfit” he worked for in the Dodge City area and how he might have ended up in Wyoming to marry my grandmother.

Historic scene, hand loom

Mattered to the Story

Unfortunately, I did not find my grandfather in the public records during a period of thirteen years. I could not find information to help me understand his disappearance nor how he got to Wyoming to marry my grandmother. I decided to write the story as fiction. I would need to creatively develop the story of my grandfather’s disappearance. I had a hypothesis that he joined a cattle drive and headed north from Texas based on clues in a deposition in which he said he “worked cattle.” Using that hypothesis, I researched the social and economic events of the longhorn cattle drives from Texas to Dodge City. What mattered to my story then were the perils of the cattle drive and the lawless character of Dodge City . Yet neither of these events had mattered to me in my genealogy research.

Mattered in History

In the history of the West, the cowboys leading cattle drives north and the lawlessness of Dodge City were infamous for a short period of time. They mattered in the history of settling the West, but they were soon diminished by the impact of the settlers claiming free land, often called “nesters,” cattle quarantines and the civilizing influence of families and women. These events historically had a much larger impact in the settlement of the west and really didn’t matter to me in my genealogy pursuit or in writing my historical novel.

Sedgwick says that as a historian he couldn’t take the story past the facts but as a genealogist he could imagine the feelings and physical encounters expressed in the conflict he describes. In my own experience, both the events of history and the documented facts of births, deaths and census rolls of genealogy are fact based. I found the facts are without the emotions of fear, sadness, frustration and joy or the insight from learning the motivation for abandoning a wife and family. Imagining emotions, motivations and creating dialogue makes a story more engaging to the reader looking for opportunities to understand history and identify with characters who made a difference in their time. It has been both a way to learn more history and to identify and understand my ancestors.

Exploring an example from my novel, Sarah’s Secret shows how history, genealogy and historical fiction are intertwined. I needed to use ideas from all three.

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3 Apr
2018
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Book Review: “The Boleyn King” by Laura Andersen

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

The Boleyn King by Laura Andersen

I love historical novels, and I needed a distraction during a cross country flight. The book The Boleyn King offers creative alternative history by imagining that Anne Boleyn actually gave Henry VIII a son who became king. Within the historical context of a threatening war with the French and Catholic unrest at home, the fictional William trusts only his older sister, Elizabeth; his best friend, Dominic who serves as his counselor; and Minuette, who was raised by his mother, Anne Boleyn and serves as Elizabeth’s Lady in Waiting.

The story moves at a good pace providing intrigue and romance which is only increased with the discovery that both William and Dominic are in love with Minuette. This love triangle kept me reading but, I wondered if the character of Minuette could realistically exist in the royal household. Although the book provided the needed distraction on my flight, the story lacks depth and seems to be written for a younger audience. On the other hand, it is an innovative alternative to history and will easily provide a light distracting read perhaps for your summer vacation.

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31 Jan
2018
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Book Review: “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

 

Book reviewed by Bev Scott

The Sympathizer Book Review by Bev ScottThe Sympathizer tells the first-person story of a communist spy embedded in South Vietnam during the “American War.” He serves as a loyal aide to “the General” of the South Vietnamese army at the same time he shares information with his communist handlers loyal to North Vietnam. He evacuates with the General when the U.S. pulls out of South Vietnam and ends up in California as an immigrant. Continuing his close connection to the General as well as his relationship with his handlers, he ultimately returns to Vietnam in a futile attempt to infiltrate North Vietnam and is captured and held prisoner. Held in isolation for a year, he is required by the “faceless” Commandant to write his confession before he is freed. This confession is the first-person story of the book.

I began reading this book as part of my preparation to travel to Vietnam last December. The author, Viet Thanh Nguyen has won a Pulitzer Prize and several other prizes for this book, but I found it very hard to read. The focus switches from description to dialogue, from one location to another, from one character to another without punctuation or explanation. Despite the gripping, wry and historical nature of the story, and what many consider brilliant writing, I had to force myself to continue to read it.

I did finally finish it and valued the Vietnamese perspective it provided. I gradually adjusted to the writing style. I agree that it skillfully draws the reader into the mysteries of Vietnam’s political intrigue. I also appreciated learning more about the impact of selfless commitment and passion to a political cause. The book raises evocative questions regarding the interplay of morality, power and a strong belief in a greater cause while also revealing multiple views on the subject. I am glad I read it.

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12 Oct
2017
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Book Review: “The Underground River” by Martha Conway

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

The Underground River by Martha ConwayMae Bedloe is the seamstress and all-around support for her more famous cousin Comfort Vertue. In 1838 they are in search of new opportunities in the theatre for Comfort who has booked them on the steamboat Moselle headed to St. Louis. After six days on board the Moselle, it sinks on the Ohio River.

While Comfort is hired to give lectures for an abolitionist, Mae ultimately finds work with a struggling acting troupe that performs on a floating theatre. Mae makes a place for herself with the troupe helping with costumes, ticket sales and other support tasks. As she takes on more assignments, and finds acceptance from members of the troupe, her confidence grows. I enjoyed the character development as Mae moves from a quiet and reserved subordinated cousin to an independent competent young woman taking risks to ferry slave babies to freedom.

The story is engrossing and a “page turner.” What a surprise when Mae boldly steps on stage putting the acting troupe in danger in order to take morally correct but illegal action. I found myself cheering Mae for her boldness and moral commitment at the same time I worried about her survival. The author, Martha Conway provides a well-researched historical context of another divisive time in our history which foreshadows the bitterly fought Civil War a few decades later.

I highly recommend this book.

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25 Sep
2017

A Book Tour Experience…Virtually

 Old BusBook Tour Virtual Blog "Sarah's Secret"

 

Marketing my Own Book

“Where are you going on your book tour?”

Friends and strangers often ask about where I am going on my book tour when they learn about my new historical novel. Those interested but not involved in the publishing business may not be aware that authors are increasingly expected to take responsibility for marketing their books, even those traditionally published. Independently published authors like me have to become our own marketing “firms.”

Book Tour or Virtual Book Tour?

Arranging a book tour to physical book stores is daunting and requires ingenuity, persistence and a lot of work. In the pre-Internet days, an author might work with a publicity agent who would then arrange for broadcast interviews, personal appearances at bookstores, and also pump the local press for feature articles or mentions. The book signing at a book store would be a central event with good marketing and sales opportunities. Travel to locations was part of the grind.

Vintage BaggageAs we know, the world has changed and brick and mortar retail is no longer king. Sales and distribution have largely shifted to e-commerce and online platforms. Thus, to be present to an audience increasingly means, being visible and find-able on the Internet. I am still a fan of the local bookstore as are many other readers and authors; yet marketing only in that space is unrealistic and limiting. Fortunately, there is an easier and simpler option on the Internet – Virtual Book Tours which can provide a platform to get your book in front of hundreds of readers without traveling.

 

How It Works; How I Did It

Of course, you can arrange your own virtual tour by contacting blogs who focus on your genre or topic. But I took the easier option and hired an expert, Amy Bruno who is a long-time member of the blogging community. She has established relationships with fellow bloggers and writers and knew which ones would be a good match with my book. Through her business Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours, she could tailor the tour to my needs. She arranged book reviews, interviews, excerpts, articles and a give-away contest for my book, Sarah’s Secret with fifteen blog sites whose followers have an interest in historical fiction.

Planning the Tour

We began the planning over two months before the tour was scheduled. Once the blog sites were identified and the type of posting requested, I provided complimentary copies of Sarah’s Secret for the bloggers and the give-away contest as well as the requested excerpts, articles or interviews. The actual tour took place over a three-week period with one or two postings each week day. In addition to the visibility which Amy gives each tour from her website and Facebook page, announcements went out from my own Facebook and LinkedIn pages as well.

Upsides and Downsides

Of course, the downside of touring virtually is that I didn’t have an opportunity for face-to-face interaction as is possible in a physical book reading but I was happy with the experience. My positive outcomes include some great reviews, an opportunity to submit my book for review in the UK and an increase in sales! And it was a lot easier than arranging it myself or physically traveling.

If you have done a virtual book tour, I’d love to hear about your experience.

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9 Aug
2017
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Book Review: “Rosette: A Novel of Pioneer Michigan” by Cindy Rinaman Marsch

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

Book Review, Historical Fiction, Rosette by Cindy Rinaman MarschThe book opens in 1888 with Rosette’s reflection on her decision to leave her marriage two years earlier, abandon her children who are mostly grown and take the train from Michigan to Dakota Territory to live with her oldest son. This reflection written by the author, emerges from the fragment of a journal entry where Rosette has crossed out her description of her wedding day and inserts “Unholy and Unhappy bonds of marriage” and describes her feelings as “sincerely DETEST and ABHOR.”

Marsch then takes us back to an earlier life, introducing the journal of Rosette Cordelia Ramsdell in September 1856. Rosette is an amazingly literate woman, school teacher and accomplished seamstress living in rural Michigan. The story follows Rosette through the courtship, marriage and births of her children and introduces us to members of her family. Marsch uses the brief excerpts from Rosette’s journal to provide authenticity to the story.

Marsch presents a story consistent with the journal, which she found and translated, and continues much of the language from it, inventing facts in the story only when necessary. Confessing that she is “fascinated by books that reveal whole persons by unearthing and sometimes embellishing the primary source materials,” she has offered a gift to the memory of Rosette and her family. Other than the journal, she found only scraps of information. Rosette and her husband Otis have disappeared into history.

Although I wished for a little more mystery and drama as I read the story, I admire what Marsch has accomplished and followed the story to the end. Rosette gives us an authentic picture of rural life in Michigan in the last half of the 1800’s. That makes it fascinating for those of us interested in history. Book Website

 

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6 Jul
2017
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Book Review: “Nicola’s Leg” by Natacha Pavlov

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

Book Review by Bev Scott AuthorThis book is the true life story of Nicola, told from the perspective of his leg. Nicola is taken when his parents flee the Russian Revolution to Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. Although his father, Nikita, is captured and presumed shot during their flight, his mother, Natacha continues and ultimately finds refuge at the Russian Orthodox Convent on the famous Mount of Olives. The story follows when Nicola as an adolescent he is encouraged by Natacha to go visit relatives in Eastern Europe; during his military service in Egypt in World War II; to his marriage to Maura and his role as a father to five children. He is imprisoned and tortured during Israel’s Six-Day War. His injuries result in the loss of his legs. It is this tragic loss that is the basis for the unusual title, “Nicola’s Leg.”

The author, Natacha Pavlov, writes a very engaging story about Nicola who is her grandfather. She uses the omnipotent voice to describe the travails and joys of Nicola’s life including his deep religious faith. The omnipotent voice is not as popular a style today as it was in the past and thus is unusual. It took me a few chapters to get used to it. However, Pavlov uses it well and draws the reader into Nicola’s story. I also enjoyed learning from a more personal level the impact of events in the first half of the twentieth century.

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