Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Gods of Howl Mountain by Taylor Brown

Secrets are Held Closely in the Mountains

Click on cover to go to Taylor Brown’s website, where you can purchase this book and his others.

Granny May Docherty lost her daughter Bonni to Dix Hill 30 years ago when nightriders killed her boyfriend, the mill owner’s son Conner, silencing her voice. Her grandson Rory lost his leg to Korea, limiting his employment opportunities on his return home, leaving him little choice but to become a whiskey runner for Eustace Uptree, his best friend’s uncle and Granny May’s lover. Brown takes readers through the rabbit hole away from Mad Men and the American dream of a white picket fence to the colorful and dangerous world of Appalachia, where reigned illegal whiskey and wannabe drivers for the newly founded NASCAR.

A middle-aged wood witch and former prostitute, Granny May longs to know who hurt her girl, but fear of consequences prevents her from pursuing it with Rory. Brown’s subtle backstory of Bonni and Conner’s romance contrasts with the rawness and graphic depiction of mountain life in the 50s. Flooding of mountain valleys for “progress” disrupted Appalachian culture and forced a reluctant relationship with those living in towns and cities. Amy Greene’s “Long Man” shows the resistance of one woman against such flooding by the government. In Brown’s story, the event is long-reaching, since the main road literally heads straight into the man-made lake. As in Amy Greene’s debut novel “Bloodroot,” a body part is used as symbolism of a South yet alive with Pagan ways while tightly holding its secrets.

Taylor Brown digs out niches in his historical fiction—last vestiges of whiskey runners and nascent NASCAR, river kings, the lawlessness at the end of the civil war—getting down to the nitty-gritty of hard-living, developing complex characters who maintain their integrity in impossible situations. He gets a bit too “real” sometimes; for instance, there’s a lot of spitting in this book, some of it from Granny May—so much spitting. In one scene, Eustace flicks his nephew in the nuts. Graphic details can overwhelm the reader, such as when Rory’s rival purposely hits a deer and Brown describes the specifics of the deer’s physical suffering. Having said that, the reader leaves the novel with a sense of having learned history not found in textbooks, such as exactly what someone who drives illegal booze through the mountains does to his car to outrun the revenuers. It’s a definite must-read.

Memories of My Future by Ammar Habib and Anil Sinha

Surgeon Avinash Singh loses a child during surgery to heart failure caused by a new virus. Having accepted always being the best at everything he does, this harsh reality devastates him. His nurse Martha, a second mother in his adopted country, tells him to find a way to deal with it and get back to work. He seeks resolution in the journal of his ancestry given to him by his grandfather. He reads of Khau, the Lion of Bihar, a 13th-century warrior ancestor, who must find a way to save Bihar from the Mongols. Those barbarians destroy everything in their path, because they are unbeatable archers on horseback. Khau determines their weakness and defeats them. The inspirational story motivates Avinash to develop a cure. From this breakthrough, Avinash receives two offers: a position at a coveted medical center in NYC and a chance to offer his skills to a humanitarian effort. He returns to the journal to learn about Veeresh, the leader of his people who did not break under torture by the East India Company’s best “negotiator.” From this lesson, Avi knows he must follow his heart. On this path, he finds true love and faces a challenge that calls out to his warrior blood.

This historical fiction carries more than one lesson within it’s dual timeline. It reads like folklore with a moral to the story. Told alternately through the contemporary life of a brilliant surgeon and a journal of his ancestry, it weaves from one to the other seamlessly. The authors repeatedly mention the diversity of religions in the stories of Avi and his ancestors, and they use the different religious lingo interchangeably to emphasize tolerance. The main takeaway seems to be, however, that you should be yourself and keep moving forward in service to others, using your god-given talents without fear.

I received a digital copy of this wonderful story from one of the authors.

Hour Glass by Michelle Rene

The pa of the Glass children, Jimmy and Flower, dies of smallpox in a pestilent tent hospital in Deadwood, South Dakota. They had pulled him into town from their shack on his gold claim, proving their mettle. Madame Dora DuFran takes charge, and Calamity Jane, who’d followed Wild Bill Hickok to Deadwood, works in the pest tent, caring for their pa, watching him slowly fade. Jimmy and Flower, who goes by Hour, sleep in DuFran’s storage room, which previously housed Jane, who prefers to sleep off her routine drunks outside under the stars, anyway. Hour’s mom, a Lakota, visits Jimmy in his dreams to offer wisdom as he confronts challenges (one of which is first love) in their few weeks at DuFran’s brothel, until their pa passes. Jane holds a fundraiser for her “daughter” Hour’s education, receiving enough to send both children to a convent school, giving them a good start in life. Jimmy channels Jane in a life of constant travel, but Hour marries and raises a family in Kansas City. While working as a storyteller in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, Jane meets up with Jimmy and they catch each other up on their lives. Jimmy sees her only once more, in a small town where she was put off the train, at a hotel on her deathbed. The happily ever after comes to Jimmy when his first love finally leaves prostitution for marriage.

This is an interesting view of Calamity Jane’s life, from the perspective of a child she and Dora DuFran rescued. Rene kept the integrity of a pre-teen boy’s point of view, while filling the cast of characters with real life colleagues of Jane: Wild Bill, Dora DuFran, Charlie Utter, and a passing reference to Buffalo Bill. A fictionalized account of Calamity Jane is likely more appropriate than a biography, as her tall tales live on. Rene gave a noble account of the fundraiser given for Jane’s “daughter,” interspersed her best tall tales throughout the story, and followed the chronology of Jane’s life that is accepted as true, or the truest. It’s a raucous story, such as Jane’s own life.

I was fortunate to receive a digital copy through NetGalley.

White Houses by Amy Bloom

The times were not conducive for a lesbian love affair. In this fictional version of Eleanor Roosevelt’s lifelong love affair with journalist Lorena Hickok, President Roosevelt is “in on the joke” and takes advantage with his blatant womanizing. Told from the perspective of Hickok, it’s a softly rendered portrait of Eleanor, all the loveliness of her and the imperfections softened. Readers also get a peek into Bloom’s perspective of the Roosevelt clan, with snarky remarks on cousins from Hickok, Eleanor, and FDR. Throughout the story, Hickok announces character flaws and strengths of the powerful people surrounding her, ever aware of her precarious position. Readers follow her career choices, through various relationships and friendships, and her ins and outs with Eleanor, who always chooses her as an add-on to her public, political life, even after her husband’s death.

This is a nicely written story of a highly speculative affair of a First Lady, politically powerful for her time, representing her with dignity and compassion, while displaying her passions, political and personal. With satirical leanings, it’s an interesting place to start an exploration of Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as learning about her “other half,” Lorena Hickok. Telling the story from the lesser known partner brilliantly brings her to life. It’s a little history lesson in a big love story.

I was fortunate to receive a digital copy through NetGalley.

The Secret Life of Mrs. London

Charmian London took care of Jack London, typing as he dictated, editing his work, catering to his need for constant attention from “the crowd,” and picking up the pieces of his alcoholic binges. Products of their time, the Londons settled into a routine where Charmian sacrificed her life to Jack’s success, much as her friend Bessie Houdini did for her husband. Although Jack’s dalliances are often referenced, Charmian and Houdini’s affair is only hinted at throughout the story, before being stated outright only after Jack’s death.

Small contradictions in this book had me going back for clarity so many times that I stopped keeping track of them, accepting them as a minor annoyance of the writing. The story begins well after the London’s greatest adventures, a shame, since they’re referred to so much that I really wanted to read about them. I know this is considered historical fiction, but I researched as I read, and everything I found agreed with Rosenberg’s version, including Bessie’s condition, which prevented her having children.

The writing didn’t flow well for me, as I was more interested in things other than all the titillating details of adultery. Near the end, two events stood out that distracted me from the story. When Houdini tends to Charmian after she’s drenched in the rain, he “lifts” her magically from the bed. We all know the floating woman is a trick, so this seemed superfluously silly in this scene. Later, after Bessie acknowledges the affair of her husband and best friend, grants her acceptance of it to Charmian, and shows her friend her secret room of dolls, she passes out and stops breathing. Charmian brings her back to life by calling her name and touching her face. Although the book was nearly over, I almost stopped reading here.

I received this book through NetGalley for an honest review. I enjoyed reading about Charmian London, but the secret life of her affair with Houdini was more melodramatic than intriguing. Still, it was interesting to learn more about the Londons and the Houdinis in general, and it sparked my interest enough to do a bit more research as I read.

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin—pub date January 16, 2018

Mary Pickford and Frances Marion helped build the foundation of the movie industry, or Hollywood, as referred to today. Melanie Benjamin explores their friendship and intertwining careers in this lush historical fiction, speculating on each women’s hidden agenda, demonstrating their jealousies and joys. Mary Pickford was the darling of silent movies and Frances Marion a lauded screenwriter of the era, navigating a perilous pathway through a man’s world. By alternating viewpoints of these icons, Benjamin has provided insight into their characters and woven a wonderfully complex vision of their complicated friendship. Pickford feels she must maintain her veneer of innocent waif, and Marion carefully balances her relationship with Pickford with the need to advance her own career. As the two evolve away from each other professionally, they remind themselves of obligations bestowed upon them by the other’s influence and talent. Benjamin leads the reader through Mary’s agonizing decision to leave her husband for her “true love,” and along with Frances into the Great War, where she meets her fourth and last husband. There’s a softness to the portrayal of Mary’s descent into alcoholism, and the ending displays the inherent kindness of her lifelong friend.

This fictionalized version of the friendship of two of Hollywood’s most influential women offers much more than salacious speculation and name dropping—many famous individuals are mentioned based on their relevance to the story. Rather, it depicts the nuances, unspoken feelings, and misunderstandings of the relationship between two strong, independent women who are very different individuals with a similar goal of making it in an industry run by men.

I’m grateful to have received an advanced digital copy of this wonderful story from NetGalley.

Carmen Baca—family / cultural historian, author, teacher, mother, New Mexican

I met Carmen Baca in the Facebook group Fiction Writing. She’s friendly, helpful, and interesting. Because she quietly soaks up information online the way I do, we didn’t have much interaction for some time. However, she definitely has a presence that stands out, and when I read her short stories, I loved her unique writing style and culturally influenced tales. She believes all writers should support each other, and she shares how another writer encouraged and assisted her in her short story submissions. Sometimes you meet someone who makes you feel as though you’ve found a treasure. Carmen makes me feel that way, so I wanted to share her story and her work.

Tell me about your writing style.

“My daily routine (when I don’t have meetings or major chores planned) is to check my social media platforms to see if I need to respond to any commenters, which usually takes about an hour. Then I write for the next 4 to 6 hours and finish in time for cooking supper. I have a study all to myself, but I’ve taken over a breakfast nook in one corner of our dining room due to the many windows. I can take a break from looking at the keyboard and look up and out to see the very places I describe in my works. The towering pines, the morada across the fields of alfalfa and clover, the mountains where my father and his cousins played in my book and where I used to play with my own cousins are all visible from my little spot, which makes it easy to portray in my writing.

For some reason, I start my long manuscripts in print, and when I’ve written sufficiently to have a couple of pages on my iPad, I revert to keyboarding since I can type (keyboard) so much faster than I write. My short pieces I do completely on my iPad before submission.”

“El Hermano” Facebook page

Goodreads Author page

Amazon Author page

Hometown Reads “El Hermano” page

What strategies do you use if you’re stalled?

“This happened to me for the first time a few months after my debut novel released. In the three months after my launch, I had a book tour, so I spent the time promoting on social media, being interviewed for a magazine and a live radio show, and making myself available for dedications to libraries, that sort of thing. When that was behind me, I suffered a bit of inactivity, a lack of inspiration. I have another book already started, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to proceed with that or work on a sequel when I realized my debut novel was turning out to be successful. One day a sudden inspiration arose from my book: I missed working on the initial story—the characters, the locations, etc. because they were my parents, the elders from my childhood, and the location, which is right where I live. So I started writing short stories based on them. Steven Carr, a member of Fiction Writing, is a prolific short story author, having produced and published over 100 this past year. I asked him about short story submissions and he provided a resource. I am having so much fun with my short stories, and I have published 7 in the last 4 months, thanks to Steven’s assistance. What I realized is that the majority of them are turning into a serial, as they’re all connected to one another and to my novel. I plan to publish them as a collection this year.”

“Behind the brotherhood: Author Carmen Baca on the Penitentes ” article by Casy Sanchez for Pasatiempo

Author interview by Henry Gonzales Raíces for KUNM radio

Author interview on Dr. Paul Reeves’ Family Talk Radio podcast

Describe incorporating your culture into your writing.

“It was a locked wooden box which inspired my first book. My father (like his own father and grandfather before him) was inducted into and rose to become leader of a fraternity of brothers whose goal was to provide religious services and community service to the remote village where they lived and where I live now. These men are known to this day as Los Hermanos de la Fraternidad de Nuestro Jesús Nazareno (the Brothers of the Fraternity of Our Jesus of Nazarene).Throughout my childhood, I was allowed to join my mother and the community women in acting as their helpmates; called Las Verónicas, we cleaned and prepared the church and their prayer house for their ceremonies, especially during the Lenten season.

After my father passed, we cleaned out the morada, the prayer house, and since I was the only one living in our little valley, the community members (all way older than I at the time) elected me to house the religious artifacts left behind from the brotherhood, as all the brothers had passed by that time. There was a wooden box I remembered had been in the morada throughout my childhood, but since it was always locked I never knew what was inside. One element of los Hermanos’ practices, which is sensationalized in the websites and in other literary works, is their devotion to Christ, which includes self-flagellation. My father never once disclosed whether he did this or not, and my only clue that he did was once when I was with him at a doctor visit. When the doctor exclaimed, “What happened to your back,” I knew.

So when we opened that box and I saw the handmade horsehair scourges, pieces of glass, and small bits of gravel, the blood-stained trousers, and the biggest confirmation of it all—their rulebook, which guided their membership all the way back to 1850, I knew that my father and those before him were the most devout men I would ever meet in my life. Their very existence and their humility and their piousness was something I wanted to share with the world. I had to tell my father’s story to dispel those other sources which focus on their self-harm instead of their altruism. My book was born of my father’s death.

Now my stories and future books will have the ability to educate, to inform, and to entertain those who know nothing about the New Mexico Hispanic culture which can be traced back to the 1300s. They will keep our cultural traditions, customs, superstitions, etc., alive for generations who will never have the opportunity to experience how wonderful it was to grow up among Los Hermanos in the 1920s to the 1980s.”

Carmen Baca website

Purchase “El Hermano” at Amazon here!

How does writing influence your life?

“Now that I’ve got my novel and several short pieces published, writing has given me a purpose, a new career as a story teller in my twilight years. All those decades I spent teaching the classics—short stories, poetry, novels, etc., by my own favorite authors—I am free to create my own literary works which other teachers can use in their own classes. That floors me! To know that my own literature will be taught in English, Spanish, Chicano Studies, and history courses in the same way I used to teach literature just amazes me.

My husband, sons, and many cousins are all thrilled for me. My husband and sons especially know what this means to me—that a manuscript I wrote 25 years ago is now a book and has made my lifelong dream come true. When I received the proofs in the mail and opened that package to reveal my book, my very own book, in my hands was the best feeling I’ve had in a long time. I burst into tears and made my husband blink away tears of his own. One of my sons followed in my footsteps and became a teacher; every teacher and student at his school knows every step of my publishing journey because of him, and I’m pretty sure most either received my book from him or bought their own. My other son, a computer whiz, manages my website, takes me to my readings and videotapes/photographs everything, and prints everything I need for such events. My husband, who works part time, leaves me to my writing for most of the day. Every time there’s a new news article or a short story gone live, they’re all just as giddy as I.

I have no siblings, my parents’ siblings are all gone, so all I have left of extended family are a multitude of cousins. Yes, several have contacted me out of the blue, since we either never met or met as children so long ago. But get this—one cousin is the coordinator for a national book club, so she immediately began promoting my book months before its release and has a place ready for me to go speak to her club in Denver whenever I wish. Another actually came from Denver to my book launch, and she also began promoting my book, since she works for a university up there.

My former colleagues, many of whom are my dearest and oldest friends, and my former students are some of my biggest fans. When I created my Facebook author page and invited everyone, I started with 290. Over the course of last year, my following grew to nearly 600 as more colleagues and students realized what I’d done and began supporting me as an author. I imagine at least half of my books are in the hands of former students, friends, and relatives, most of whom follow my page and read my short works. At least several hundred of these wonderful people knew I’d written a book, so when I finally published it, they were among the first to pre-order a copy directly from me. At first, I feared they might not like it, they might find it boring, they might throw it down without reading to the end; so when great reviews and comments on my page started appearing, I cried like a baby again. To think that I was capable of touching them so profoundly that they laughed and cried and remembered their own ancestors, or in some cases remembered elements of their own pasts they’d forgotten was something I didn’t know I’d accomplished until they told me. Now that’s the part of this publishing journey which always amazes me: the words my own readers use to convey to me how my book made them feel is both indescribable and still unbelievable.”

Tell me about your literary support system.

“I enjoy helping others in the writing groups I found after I published. My only regret is I wish I’d found them before I published, since so many are more experienced than I and offer great advice. I also have a blog where I post chapters of my WIPs for feedback, but unfortunately, not many people see them, which is why I began making them into short stories and publishing some in online literary magazines and two women’s blogs thus far.

I don’t use beta readers; my son, the one who manages my website and assists when I do readings, is my only proofreader. I sometimes run ideas through him, and he’s always got great advice to help move my plots along. He’s my only critique partner.”

You write articles, essays, novels, and short stories. Talk about this diversity in your work.

“When a prolific short story author began communicating with me and offered a few places where I could try my own hand at publishing my shorter pieces, I jumped at the opportunity to get my name out there even more, to establish more publishing credentials, and most importantly, to get my works read by others. Now, remember, I wrote my debut novel twenty-five years ago, and I hadn’t written anything of substance (other than literary analytical essays I used to write when I assigned them to my students) since. So when I decided to write short stories, which quickly became a serial, I tried my hand at third person omniscient. And I loved it! All the short stories, which are either based on folk tales or traditions/customs/superstitions from my culture, are written in that point of view. Part of my impetus for writing my stories is because so many of our traditions are dying out; I want to keep them alive, even if only in literature.

The non-fiction pieces I’ve written are essays based on my teaching experiences and how I learned to communicate effectively with adolescents. They’re written kind of like my short stories, since they’re comprised of anecdotes I put together. For example, my first essay called “Word Play” is based on several instances where puns and innuendos create embarrassing, humorous, awkward, and memorable moments. How we adults choose to deal with them affects the teacher/student relationships.

One other non-fiction essay highlights how I used my culture in creating the romance in my first novel.

There are three more on one of my blogs which I’m determined to rewrite and publish in a writer-type of resource, such as “Authors Talk About It” or others which accept manuscripts on the writing, publishing, or marketing process.”

“Word Play” essay in Prodigal’s Chair

“Baile de Diablo” story in Across the Margin

“Using Nuestra Cultura in Romance” essay as guest blogger on tartsweet.com

“El Serpiente del Cañón” story in LatinoLA

“La Lunática” story in Across the Margin

“Learning to Let Go” essay in The Same

“The Christmas Story” on Wattpad

“La Muerte” story in Boned

The more I connect with Carmen, the more fascinated I am by her story, which is so different from my own. She is authentic and grounded in her culture. Follow her progress on her Goodreads Author page, “El Hermano” Facebook page, Amazon Author page, and Carmen Baca website.

Purchase “El Hermano” at Amazon here! Look for her collection of stories coming soon!

One Hundred Years of Marriage by Louise Farmer Smith

Patricia sacrifices her social life and romance to care for her mother, whom everyone assumes is going through “the change.” Patty knows better, but doesn’t know how to help her mother find herself after accommodating her husband their entire marriage. As she and her siblings come of age, they move on and away from their parents, becoming distinctly different individuals who come together in the end for Patty’s wedding. Told in short story form, going back generations, the women in Patty’s ancestry lay a foundation of accommodation and depression that she is determined to escape. The women in these stories are strong, but historical convention keeps them in check, and they don’t have the tools to continually fight social mores of gender expectations. The writing flows so well that the stories lead right into each other, though they can, and have (and won prizes), stand alone. Together, they show the pattern repeated by each generation of women in choosing partners to “save” them from their families, judging poorly based on immediate escape. That they stay with their ill choices is more a matter of their time in history, as shown by Patty’s mother being unable to get a driver’s license without her husband’s or father’s permission.

The tales in this book depict would-be heroines succumbing the constraints of patriarchal society, straining to be free. That Patty’s father has a “heart attack” when her mother announces that she is leaving him will be familiar to many women. Thus she stays out of obligation, a heart-rending decision.

White Chrysanthemums (pub date January 30, 2018 G.P. Putnam’s Sons) by Mary Lynn Bracht

16-year-old Hana dives with her mother as Jeju’s female sea divers “haenyeo” during the Japanese occupation of Korea. One day, she is taken by a Japanese soldier, sacrificing herself to protect her little sister, and ends up as a “comfort woman” for Japanese soldiers in Manchuria. Paralleling her story is her younger sister’s story as a grandma, recounting her life after Hana’s kidnapping, always expecting a reunion with her sister one day.

Bracht’s matter of fact description of the treatment of Korean girls comes across as the brutality it had to be, and it’s a hard, but necessary, read. I had heard of comfort women, but she brings the concept down to an individual level for better understanding. History is woven into the story seamlessly, and characters remain true to themselves while becoming part of that history. Hana is left stronger in a situation that prevents her from returning home, but Bracht gives her a bittersweet ending without romanticizing it (maybe a little bit).

Readers who appreciate historical fiction that paints a less pretty and more realistic portrait of atrocities perpetrated on the most vulnerable of society will like this story that brings it down to a personal level for clarity and emotional response. If you love complex characters in impossible situations, read this story.

I was fortunate to receive this ARC through a Goodreads giveaway.

The Stolen Marriage (2017 St. Martin’s Press) by Diane Chamberlain

Tess DeMello abruptly leaves Baltimore’s LIttle Italy and expectations of wedded bliss with a man she grew to love throughout her childhood to marry a man from a small southern town, cutting off the future of his expected marriage to a local girl. She has trapped herself in a loveless marriage, alienated by her husband’s family, their friends, and the townfolk. She slowly learns about the enigmatic man she married as she attempts to find her way back to herself against all obstacles, including him. A polio epidemic changes the town, all hearts and minds focused on treating its victims, and Tess DeMello Kraft becomes a highly respected nurse.

Diane Chamberlain has upped the ante with her historical fiction, weaving her imaginative tale throughout a real event in Hickory, NC, where a polio hospital was built and staffed over two days. Tess becomes a nurse against her wealthy husband’s wishes, and ends up working in this hospital with a doctor who is her childhood true love. I love when an author sets fictional characters into fascinating historical events, so that history comes alive, and I remember details and dates, which often elude me. Chamberlain throws the reader through loop-de-loops and draws everything credibly toward a credible, heartening end.

Readers who love historical fiction based on real events, not necessarily historical figures, will appreciate this novel, with its complicated race relations and laws of the times, and its complex characters true to themselves and to the time. If you fall in love with timeless, relatable characters, read Diane Chamberlain.