Posts Tagged historical fiction

book review: The Quintland Sisters

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The Quintland Sisters by Shelley Wood. William Morrow| March 5, 2019| 384 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-283909-1

RATING: *****

“Their similarity to one another is eerie, even with nothing but their tiny heads poking out of their blankets. All of them have black hair and long, dark eyelashes, too thick, it seems, for their sunken cheeks. The longer I watched them, the more I could see that each one of them has something distinct, something to tell her apart from her sisters. I took out my scribble book in the hopes of capturing them. The one that came first has one eyelid bigger than the other. The second has a tiny crinkle in the upper cusp of her right ear. The third has the smallest nose, and the fourth has the most hair, which seems to curl in the opposite direction from that of her sisters. The fifth and last—she has nothing that looks markedly different, but she is the only one with any wriggle in her.”

Long before Kate Plus Eight or the Octomom, there were the Dionne Quintuplets, the first quintuplets to survive their infancy. They were born in French-speaking, rural Canada in 1934. Their parents had five other children. They were shamed for it. People also sent money and fan mail. The government took custody of the girls, leading to many disputes over the years. A doctor and his crew of nurses took over care of the girls.

The Quintland Sisters tells the story of the first few years of the quintuplets lives from the perspective of a young woman, Emma Trimpany, who works as a nurse to the girls. Born with a large birthmark on her face, Emma is used to being overlooked and disregarded. “This is something I’ve managed to pull off my whole life, to make myself invisible and unremarkable—no mean task with a crimson stain covering half my face.” Her mother sends her over with the midwife the night that the quints are born, thinking it might be a suitable profession for her disfigured daughter.

Emma gets sent to nursing school so that she’s properly trained to assist in their care. She becomes attached to the girls and friendly with several nurses, particularly Yvonne Leroux (known to everyone as Ivy), who she remains friends with even after she leaves. Emma enjoys drawing and this turns into a side-gig as she sells pictures of the girls to advertisers. Someone suggests she apply to art school and it seems this smart and determined young woman will find contentment. The story unfolds through journal entries, letters and news reports.

“I am the one the girls turn to now. A stubbed toe, a puzzling toy, a masterpiece of finger painting that requires praise and admiration—it’s me they seek out. Nurse Noel is the game master who won’t take no for an answer, Miss Beaulieu is the instructor with strict rules and plastic smile. Nurse Sylvie Dubois is the latest practical nurse they’ve brought in to help with all the record-keeping and measurements—she has not yet earned the girls’ trust, let alone their affection, although she is cheery and pretty. Meanwhile Mme. Dionne has been scarce since the autumn, every since Nurse Nicolette’s departure, and I haven’t seen M. Dionne since that awful moment in the courtroom. How ridiculous, but also wonderful, that I, who have always insisted I was not cut out for motherhood, have ended up as a de facto mother of five.”

It’s fascinating to read about their care. Can you imagine caring for so many infants? It definitely takes a team. No one even believed they’d survive past the first week. It was humorous to read the doctor and some of the nurses commenting on the likelihood of the girls’ survival. They gave one of the girls rum to “stimulate” her heart. Before they received a shipment of breast milk, the girls were fed a mix of corn syrup, cow’s milk and boiled water. They kept records of everything.

The quintuplets generated income from visitors as well as through endorsements. It’s not a new Instagram era thing to earn money this way. There was a court case between several corn syrup companies to determine who would have exclusivity. [“The ridiculous thing is, we don’t even feed the babies corn syrup. Dr. Blatz believes sugar in any form is bad for children. I should tell that to the newspapers.”] Several films were made about them. There was a custom-built playground that allowed for spectators. There were 6,000 daily visitors! Celebrities such as Amelia Earhart visited. They sold souvenirs! It was a real money-making business. Unfortunately, not everyone cared for the girls and their future. Celebrity and money attract deceitful people wanting to take advantage of the situation. Many nefarious incidents occurred over the years.

It’s a meticulously researched novel and why I’m a fan of historical fiction. I love having a fictional character introduce me to real people and actual events. I really want to know what happened to the quintuplets as adults. What were their lives like at that time?I made myself not Google while reading. But I’m intrigued and need to investigate.

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book review: Learning to See and The Eulogist

When it’s done well, historical fiction transports you to a particular time, place and setting through the eyes of its characters. The best historical fiction makes me want to learn more about the period or the characters. I try to refrain from googling while reading a book but if I’m itching to look something up, I know the author succeeded in transporting me to another time. That’s one of my favorite genres. Two compelling novels came out recently which center around independent and unconventional women, one real and one fictional.

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Learning to See focuses on Dorothea Lange and her photography in the 1930s. I’m familiar with Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl photographs but not much else. In this thoroughly researched novel, author Elise Hooper brings readers into Lange’s world. Told from Lange’s point-of-view, the novel follows her burgeoning career as a photographer at a time when women weren’t pursuing careers, they were focusing on raising children. After moving to San Francisco with a friend, Lange finds work at a photography shop. She soon opens her own portrait studio and amasses clients. She’s friends with a group of photographers and artists which includes Ansel Adams. She marries rather volatile artist Maynard Dixon. They travel to Arizona so that Dixon can work on some painting. Lange notes: “Our first few days were spent examining the terrain, so different from everything I’d ever known: wide sweeps of empty desert, soaring sky, endless clouds. It felt timeless, nothing like the city. The simple geometry of the landscape’s lines and bold shouts of color left me awed. During each sunrise and sunset, under a sky bruised with purples and rippling with flames, the desert was reborn. The air thrummed with possibility.” Lange is an independent, strong woman determined to use her skills to benefit others in a deeper manner than merely taking pretty portraits. Navigating her way as a working mother, wife and professional photographer, Lange faces many challenges including her husband’s alcoholism and affairs. When her marriage and the nation’s economy begin to decline, she decides to take a position with the government taking pictures of the country’s disenfranchised, the photographs she’s known for today. She photographs migrant workers and Japanese Americans in camps during World War II. Hooper effectively allows readers the opportunity to see the time period through Lange’s lens.

Learning to See by Elise Hooper. William Morrow| January 22, 2019| 384 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-291035-6

RATING: ****/5*

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This wasn’t on my radar but the title and cover intrigued me so I started reading it one day and became completely absorbed by it. After immigrating to the United States from Ireland, three siblings forge their path in antebellum Cincinnati in The Eulogist. James establishes a successful candle-making business, free spirit Erasmus becomes a traveling preacher and independent, open-minded Olivia challenges a conventional life. These dissimilar siblings function like the id (Erasmus), ego (Olivia) and superego (James). I became completely charmed by Olivia, by her loyalty, curiosity and determination. She attends lectures by feminists and abolitionists and questions women’s expected roles during that time: “That summer of 1829, culture and curiosity came over the city like the quickening of a maiden’s heart. Cincinnati was overrun by fanatics and intellectuals trying to make their case: Caldwell’s discourse on phrenology; Miss Fanny Wright on slavery and marriage; Dr. Alexander Campbell and Robert Owen battling the fundamental relationship between godliness and goodliness.” She’s not particularly interested in marriage [“I have never been one to pine for marriage, nor did motherhood enchant me. As I saw it, marriage was a function of economic dependence, and wrongly, too, since women rarely had money of their own.”] or starting a family. She does end up marrying a doctor who she falls in love with after spending time with him performing autopsies and doing research on corpses. When he dies, Olivia returns with his body to Kentucky to find her brother-in-law heavily involved in slavery. She’s determined to save a young black woman who has been living fairly free in Ohio from being returned as her brother-in-law’s property. She enlists the assistance of both her brothers. Through detailed descriptions and strong character development, I found myself completely engrossed. Taking place in the decades preceding the Civil War, slavery was illegal in Ohio, the first state created from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Ohio was active in the Underground Railroad.  I recently found a family tree my grandmother created which traces several generations in Ohio and I’d like to conduct research someday to see if any of my ancestors had any involvement in the Underground Railroad.

The Eulogist by Terry Gamble. William Morrow| January 22, 2019| 320 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-283991-6

RATING: ****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

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book review: Disoriental

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Disoriental by Negar Djavadi. Europa Editions| April 2018| 352 pages | $18.00| ISBN: 978-1-60945-451-7

RATING: *****/5*

“Our memories select, eliminate, exaggerate, minimize, glorify, denigrate. They create their own versions of events and serve up their own reality. Disparate, but cohesive. Imperfect yet sincere. In any case, my memory is so crammed with stories and lies and languages and illusions, and lives marked by exile and death, death and exile, that I don’t even really know how to untangle the threads anymore.”

“I have become—as I’m sure everyone does who has left his or her country—someone else. Someone who has translated myself into other cultural codes. Firstly in order to survive, and then to go beyond survival and forge a future for myself.”

A gorgeous, exquisite, smart and meditative novel about an Iranian family and its struggles and triumphs. As Kimia Sadr sits in a fertility clinic in Paris she reminisces about family myths and ancestry. She ponders how she got to be where she is at this moment. She recollects her family history as well as Iran’s history and how it’s made her who she is today. Kimia is a lesbian and she’s decided to have a baby with a man that she met during her travels. He’s HIV+ and so they need to use the clinic. Kimia’s been wandering for years in an attempt to figure out where she belongs. It’s perhaps not in her birth country where she spent the first ten years of her life and it’s not in her adopted country to which she and her family exiled. Being in one’s twenties and figuring out our place in the world can be complicated enough but Kimia had her sexual identity and cultural identity to figure out.

“Raised in a culture where the community takes precedence over the individual, I’d never been so tangibly aware of my own existence. I finally felt like I was in control of my own life. I could make decisions that had nothing to do with the past, or the way an immigrant has to act in order to gain legitimacy in their host country.” And “I was putting myself back together again, rediscovering happiness, getting back on my own two feet, as if after a long illness.” It’s fascinating that Eastern society stresses community and Western society focuses on individuals. Kimia faces prejudices in facing stereotypes of Iran and the Middle East: “Then a long silence, during which I could see in my interlocutor’s eyes that their Iran was located somewhere between Saudi Arabia and the Lebanese Hezbollah, an imaginary country full of Muslim fundamentalists of who I suddenly became the representative.”

For those unfamiliar, it’s the ideal primer to Iranian revolutionary history. Abundant information gets beautifully shared throughout this novel in an accessible and manageable manner. It’s definitely a challenging yet completely rewarding read. In reading Disoriental I was reminded of the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi which also focuses on the disdain for education and intellectualism and its impact on the Iranian Revolution. It’s not that different from our current political climate where well-educated people tend to be less likely to blindly follow a leader. You’ll understand and relate to this novel. Disoriental has been nominated for a National Book Award for Translated Literature. I’m rarely disappointed in Europa editions titles and I need to read them more often.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Meredith Jaeger

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Boardwalk Summer is the perfect summer novel and not just because its title includes summer. The novel features two timelines of young women in Santa Cruz. In 1940, Violet Harcourt is crowned Miss California and wants to pursue a film career in Hollywood. In 2007, Marisol Cruz begins working for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History for its Beach Boardwalk Centennial Celebration. While doing research she discovers Violet Harcourt’s obituary and becomes intrigued.

“With her light skin and dazzling green eyes, Lily likely wouldn’t experience the same level of discrimination that Mari had. In fact, most kids at Lily’s preschool thought she was white. Your father is white, Mari had offered to Lily in explanation. Her whole body tensed whenever Lily asked about her dad.”

As the novel unfolds, readers discover the connection between the women. Marisol learns that Violet knew her late grandfather Ricardo who worked as a performer on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Both women face varied obstacles in pursuing their goals. Violet’s possessive husband keeps close ties on her. She’d entered the pageant without his knowledge. The prize included a screen test. Marisol struggles as a Latinx single mother who had to give up her academic aspirations to care for her daughter. She also doesn’t have a relationship with her daughter’s father although they both live in Santa Cruz.

There are plenty of twists and the novel topically delves into domestic violence, sexual assault, immigration and racial discrimination. It’s the perfect novel to sink into at the beach or at a café. Author Meredith Jaeger takes readers to Santa Cruz during two different time periods and effectively links the women. As a graduate of University of California, Santa Cruz, Jaeger is familiar with the setting.  I recently spoke with her about Boardwalk Summer.

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Amy Steele: Where did you get the idea for this novel?

Meredith Jaeger: I got the idea for this novel from a newspaper article in the San Francisco Chronicle titled “Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk’s Lively History Lives on.” It featured a photograph of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk archivist standing in a windowless room full of boxes and memorabilia collected over a century. The archivist was standing in front of a photograph of the first ever Miss California pageant held on the beach in Santa Cruz in 1924. That gave me the idea of Violet being a participant in the pageant. Also, as soon as I saw that windowless room, I had an image of my modern character, Mari, coming into contact with one of the artifacts from the Boardwalk (Violet’s obituary) and unraveling a 70-year-old mystery.

Amy Steele: You went to UC Santa Cruz and grew up in the Bay Area, how did that influence you? Were you drawn to the place and setting and then added the characters or did you come up with the characters first?

Meredith Jaeger: I love to write what I know and I’m influenced by the world around me. Growing up in the Bay Area, I often visited the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. I have fond memories of riding the Giant Dipper rollercoaster and the Looff Carousel as a kid (and eating funnel cake!). It’s the oldest surviving amusement park in California, so any old timer will tell you all about their favorite childhood memories at The Boardwalk. I choose my setting first, and then the characters populate that setting. Because I set my first novel The Dressmaker’s Dowry in San Francisco, I wanted to set my second in Santa Cruz, a breathtakingly beautiful place I was once lucky enough to call home. I like to write dual narrative fiction, so Mari and Violet came into my head as soon as I knew where my story would take place.

Amy Steele: How much do you draw from your own personal experience do you bring in and how much research do you do?

Meredith Jaeger: I wrote two novels that were never published before I sold The Dressmaker’s Dowry. Those novels drew heavily from my personal experience because I think it’s natural to do that when you’re first starting out as a writer. My novels now are influenced by places I’ve lived and issues I’ve read about, but they don’t necessarily feature things that have happened to me in real life. I put a lot of research into my work, involving hours of reading historic newspaper articles which have been scanned into the California Digital Newspaper Collection online, watching YouTube clips of films, advertisements or anything I can find from the era I’m researching, reading library books and poring over old photographs.

Amy Steele: In your notes at the end you say that you weren’t initially interested in Hollywood’s Golden Age until your editor suggested it and then you became intrigued by its “dark underbelly.” Could you explain a bit more how that aspect captivated you and work into Violet’s journey?

Meredith Jaeger: My editor was the one to suggest that Violet should go to Hollywood. Growing up in California and being in close proximity to Hollywood, it never held the sort of magic for me that it might for other people. When I was eighteen, I took a Greyhound bus to West Hollywood with my friends to go to a Halloween party on Sunset Boulevard and I definitely saw the sleazy side of Tinsel town! (I made out with a B-list celebrity that night). I’m drawn to the gritty underbelly of cities in contrast to their glitz and glamour. With my first novel, The Dressmaker’s Dowry, which is set in Victorian Era San Francisco, the photojournalist Jacob Riis and his nineteenth century photographs of impoverished New Yorkers living in tenements inspired me.  With Boardwalk Summer, I took my memories of Sunset Boulevard and then combined them with research from a fabulous book called The Story of Hollywood by Gregory Paul Williams. Everything I describe about Hollywood Boulevard from the scam artist agents to the panhandlers, to the disheveled men wearing advertisements for plays and psychic shops posing as churches came from my research. The second aspect to Hollywood’s dark underbelly comes in the form of powerful men in the industry committing sexual assault. I worked this into Violet’s journey and it was very timely in terms of the #MeToo movement.

Amy Steele: You bring in many topical themes including the immigrant experience, domestic violence, single mothers. Why did you want to write about these issues?

Meredith Jaeger: Social justice is important to me. Though I’m not an immigration lawyer or a social worker, I have the ability to reach readers through my books and to potentially open their eyes to what’s going on in our country.  It can be so painful to watch the atrocities taking place that it’s tempting to look away. But I urge readers to look closely at themselves and how their actions impact the world. I’m the daughter of an immigrant, so the immigrant experience will always be important to me. The link between mass shootings and men with a history of violence against women is something I find very disturbing. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, an estimated 45% of female homicide victims were killed by an intimate partner in 2007. I hope readers will be encouraged to read not only my books (I’m a white cisgender woman fully aware of my privilege), but also books by marginalized authors: people of color, LGBTQ authors and authors with chronic illness and disability. Reading opens your mind.

Amy Steele: Did the story unfold as you wrote it or do your map it out ahead of time?

Meredith Jaeger: I mapped it out ahead of time. I used to be a pantser (as in flying by the seat of my pants!) but because my first two novels never found me an agent and never sold, I have since turned into a plotter! I write out a detailed synopsis and chart out my story on butcher paper so that I can visualize the dramatic action. I use Post-Its for different character arcs and I have different colors for each character. I admire anyone who can successfully allow the story to unfold without plotting.

Amy Steele: I like the 1940/ 2007 connections and POVs. You used first person for Violet and third person for Mari. Why did you decide on that?

Meredith Jaeger: Before I signed with my agent, Jenny Bent, I sent her my dual narrative POV novel The Dressmaker’s Dowry. She suggested I change one of the voices to third person to help differentiate them. Jenny is a fantastic agent and she gives great advice, so it was a tip that I stuck with for Boardwalk Summer!

Amy Steele: What attracts you to writing historical fiction?

Meredith Jaeger: I’m a very nostalgic person. I find myself staring at old houses, or antiques, and wondering about the people who once lived there, who once owned these things, and what their lives were like.  I love how writing historical fiction gives me the opportunity to lose myself in the past. And the fashion! Though I’m grateful we live in an age where I can wear flip-flops and yoga pants to the grocery store, I love researching the incredible fashions of the late 1800s and early 20th century. I go a little nuts on Pinterest.

Amy Steele: What’s your greatest writing challenge?

Meredith Jaeger: Finding the time! I worked full-time for a San Francisco startup when I wrote my first novel, so I was only able to write on weekends. Now I’m the mother of a very feisty almost two-year-old, and that presents its own challenges. I plot so heavily because it means I don’t get writer’s block, and I can make the most of the time I do have, when I get a few hours during my daughter’s nap, or I have a babysitter.

Amy Steele: When and where do you write?

Meredith Jaeger: I write at home, in the library or in a café, and I write whenever I can! I write when I have a babysitter for my daughter, and I write whenever I have an uninterrupted stretch of free time, like getting my car serviced. They have Wi-Fi at the dealership and coffee, so what’s not to love?

Amy Steele: What’s on your summer TBR?

Meredith Jaeger: Something In The Water by Catherine Steadman, The Lost Family by Jenna Blum, The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis, Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras and If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim. (And the other books on my shelf I haven’t gotten to!)

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book review: Tangerine

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Tangerine by Christine Mangan. Ecco| March 20, 2018| 320 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-279213-6

RATING: ****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

“It is in these moments—when the air is thick and hot, threatening—that I can close my eyes and inhale, when I can smell Tangier again. It is the smell of a kiln, of something warm, but not burning, almost like marshmallows, but not as sweet. There is a touch of spice, something vaguely familiar, like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom even, and then something else entirely familiar.”

With another March snowstorm predicted for New England, most of us are more than ready to welcome spring and warm weather. Set in Morocco in 1956, Tangerine is the perfect antidote to winter restlessness. It’s super interesting for Americans to be in this North African country on the brink of its sovereignty. Alice moved to Tangiers with her new husband. She’s still acclimating when her former college friend Lucy makes a surprise visit.

During college something pushed the roommates apart, to such a degree that Alice isn’t happy to see her. They met at Bennington College which in itself provides lots of information for the novel’s characters. Alice is from a wealthy British family while Lucy is a scholarship student from a neighboring town in Vermont. Alice’s mother graduated from Bennington and then moved to England and married a Brit. Apparently the two immediately hit is off with Alice treating Lucy as she would her wealthy peers. Of their friendship, Lucy thinks: “The relationship that Alice and I had formed after only a few short weeks, the partiality that we felt for one another—it went beyond any rational description. Affinity, I decided, was a good enough start.” This sets up a perfect scenario for jealousy and competition and obsession. As open-minded as Alice might be, her circumstances provide her with a level of comfort which Lucy won’t have. It becomes increasingly clear that Lucy feels romantically attracted to Alice, that she’s become possessive of Alice and she becomes upset when Alice doesn’t feel the same.

They bond over their tragic childhoods and become inseparable friends until Alice’s new boyfriend pushes them apart. Lucy grows jealous that Alice spends more time with the boyfriend than she does with her. That boyfriend dies in a car accident. But was it really an accident or something more sinister? Lucy enjoys the perks of her friendship with Alice: “I had shaken my head then, had told myself no, I could not be made to go back, to return to my full little life, a life of obscurity, of mediocrity.

Generally overwhelmed by Tangier, Alice remains in her apartment most days. She warily ventures out once a week to the market. She doesn’t even know what her husband does for work. The couple met and married rather quickly. John seems to be the standard scoundrel, a good-looking manipulative man Of John: “John was bad at money, he had once told me with a grin, and at the time, I had smiled thinking he meant that he didn’t care about it, that it wasn’t a concern for him. What it really meant, I soon learned, was that his family’s fortune was nearly gone, just enough remained to keep him well dressed, so that he could play at pretending to still claim the wealth he once had, that he had been born into and still felt was rightfully his.” At one point, John admits to Lucy: “We need each other, Alice and I. Haven’t you already figured that out? I need her money—well maybe not need, perhaps appreciate would be the better word. And she needs me to keep her out of the looney bin.” Lucy manages to encourage Alice to venture out and explore the city, to drink mint tea at a cafe, to walk around and to even hear music and a nightclub. When John disappears, it forces Alice to delve into that dark incident in the past and question her friend’s motives. “It seemed to hang: thick and humid. Languid. That would be the right word to describe it, I decided.” This novel unfolds in a languid manner. Author Christine Mangan wrote her PhD thesis on gothic literature and her expertise translates to a smart, engrossing read.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Ecco.

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book review: A Piece of the World

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A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline. William Morrow| February 2017| 309 pages | $27.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-235626-0

RATING: 4.5/5*

“Do our natures dictate the choices we make, I wonder, or do we choose to live a certain way because of circumstances beyond our control? Perhaps these questions are impossible to tease apart because, like a tangle of seaweed on a rock, they are connected at the root. I think of those long-ago Hathorns, determined beyond all reason to leave the past behind—and we, their descendants, inheritors of their contrarian tenacity, sticking it out, one generation after the next, until every last one of us ends up in the graveyard at the bottom of the field.”

In the gorgeous and mysterious 1948 masterpiece Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth depicts a woman crouching on a hill looking toward a weathered farm house. Looking at the painting, one might wonder whether the woman is coming or going. She seems far away and in such a twisted, crouching position with her hair blowing a bit in the wind. I never knew that Wyeth painted this on a farm in Maine. Author Christina Baker Kline creates a riveting story of the artist’s muse. Christina Olson lives a rather solitary, quiet and isolated existence in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine on her family’s farm with her brother. Christina lived at a particular time in particular circumstances and suffered an illness as a child which led to increasingly physical debility. At school she develops an affinity for Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Her father insists she quit school after eighth grade to help on the farm. Christina wanted to be a teacher. When young painter Andrew Wyeth asks if he can paint the farm, Christina and her brother welcome the distraction and attention.

This masterful work of historical fiction—told through first-person narrative– allows readers to feel Christina’s pain, disappointment and glimmers of hope throughout. In her youth, Christina dates a young man who summers nearby. But after several years he becomes engaged to another woman. He never intended to foray into a serious relationship with Christina. She’s devastated as she’s looking to be understood and accepted and just seen by somebody. Something many people seek. Readers feel empathy for Christina but not pity. She’s resilient and resourceful. She’s managing her situation.  Writing with exquisite detail, Kline transports us to Maine and effectively moves from 1940 to the early 1900s to reveal the personal history of the woman immortalized by a classic American work of art.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.

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STEELE PICKS: Best Books of 2016

quite delayed on posting my year-end list.

here are the best books of 2016 [not ranked]:

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An Abbreviated Life: a memoir by Ariel Leve [Harper]
–gorgeous writing, sad story. resilience. My parents got divorced when I was around the same age and I only have a few isolated or vague memories.

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Alligator Candy: a memoir by David Kushner [Simon & Schuster]
David Kushner’s older brother Jon disappeared one day on a bike ride to get candy and two men savagely murdered him, sodomized him postmortem and mutilated his body. It’s a horrific event to happen in one’s family. Only four at the time, Kushner didn’t quite understand the full impact. He missed his brother but didn’t know the complete details. Now a journalist, he decided to revisit the case and provide a voice for and memory of his brother. Through compelling prose and devastating emotion this memoir potently addresses murder and its effect on the family. full review

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Future Sex by Emily Witt [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
Future Sex reads as a fascinating sociological study on sexuality that delves into orgasmic mediation, internet porn, webcams, Burning Man and polyamory. Witt combines personal experience with research and reporting in a darkly amusing, honest and real manner. Witt investigates sites I’d barely heard of: Chaturbate; Porn Hub; Kink.com; Fetlife. She attends an orgasmic mediation workshop [looked up on YouTube and there are tutorials] and travels to Burning Man. She interviews tons of people such as polyamorous Google employees, the founder of OKCupid, a 19-year-old webcammer as well as a woman who creates female-centered porn. Witt doesn’t make a spectacle of what may be absurd. Instead she writes analytically, astutely with brevity and a sharp edge. full review.

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Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson [Harper]
A former ballet dancer, Wilson provides intimate details about New York’s ballet scene. While this isn’t solely a novel about the ballet world, girls straddling the line between youth and adulthood provides fascinating reading. The novel flawlessly describes the razor sharp focus on becoming the best, earning a particular status and securing one’s place in this strange world overflowing with beauty and sacrifice. And what happens to all those girls who aren’t’ quite the best? Those girls who do not make the right school or earn a place in a prestigious ballet company? This absorbing, riveting novel does what a wonderful novel can do: it completely transports readers to a specific time and place in such an effective and specific manner that one thinks about the subject and characters well past finishing the last page. full review.

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Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh [Ecco]
Returning to Bakerton, Pennsylvania—the setting for the 2005 best-selling novel Baker Towers—author Jennifer Haigh again focuses on an energy source and its effects on a small community. full review.

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Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
–phenomenal writing. for some reason I waited to read this (maybe because it’s quite long and dense). immediately engulfed in the story of a family coming apart. numerous other elements including being Jewish and Middle East politics. amazing.

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Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone
Set in post-Civil War Philadelphia, this historical fiction novel beautifully explores race, class, gender and family. full review.

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Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon [Viking]
An engrossing and gorgeous work of historical fiction, this novel effectively weaves together issues of class, feminism, wealth, power, mental illness and motherhood. The setting: Cape Ann, Massachusetts, a working class fishing community as well as a lovely coastal summer getaway for Boston’s wealthy. In 1917, the unwed teenage daughter of a wealthy family abandons her newborn daughter under a pear tree outside her uncle’s estate on Cape Ann. A decade later, Beatrice finds herself unexpectedly reunited with the Irish woman raising the determined and spunky Lucy Pear. full review.

modern girls

Modern Girls by Jennifer Brown [NAL]
–The novel focuses on a strong mother-daughter relationship. Brown incorporates historical details which strengthen the plot, setting and characters. For instance in a meeting Rose attends, she urges her comrades to write letters to their Senators to repeal 1924’s Johnson-Reed Act which instituted quotas on the number of Jews that could enter America. While Rose and Dottie don’t share every detail with each other they’ve developed a solid bond and care deeply about each others well-being. Mother and daughter respect and support each other. Despite the decade, the restrictions against women and standard domestic expectations, these women remain strong feminist characters. A sequel set 10 or 15 years on would be greatly welcomed. These characters must be followed up on. Clear your schedule and brew a pot of tea. Once you start this wonderful, detailed novel you’ll want to read straight through. full review.

the other woman

The Other Woman by Therese Bohman [Other Press]
This novel bursts with intellectual prowess. It’s witty, provocative and thoughtful about money, class, what it is to have less and desire more, to be educated and smart but not particularly suited to anything. Swedish author Therese Bohman examines societal expectations of what makes a complete life: a good job; a happy coupling; a nice place. All the things by which we define ourselves but realize the innate superficiality of it all. If we focus on the having and not the feeling and the experiencing then we lack integrity, depth and strength of character. full review.

pull-me

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
Pull Me Under is an exquisitely dark psychological thriller which examines identity and place through its compelling protagonist and story. read my complete review.

rare objects

Rare Objects by Kathleen Tessaro [Harper]
–lovely historical fiction set in Boston. Author Kathleen Tessaro adeptly describes both the immigrant North End and wealthy mansions with vivid detail. Superb writing and research merge to tell this wonderful story. a page-turner about class, friendship and the things and people we value most. full review.

sun in your eyes

The Sun in Your Eyes by Deborah Shapiro [William Morrow]
–There’s that saying that you can’t tell a book by its cover. Book covers visually connect a potential reader to the book. The cover image makes you wonder what the book will be about. A beautiful, cool book cover sets expectations. On the cover of The Sun in Your Eyes is a photo of two women with a definite 70s rocker chic. What’s going on between these two women? It’s a 1974 photograph by William Eggleston and drew me right in. I’d also just seen the photo in the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me which features this photo. The blonde was Alex Chilton’s girlfriend. full review.

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The Vegetarian by Kang Han [Hogarth]
–I’ve been a vegan for about eight years and am not too thin. Due to psychiatric meds I need to lose weight. I stopped eating red meat at 12!/everything but fish at 18 then went vegetarian to vegan. So the being deprived and malnourished because she’s not eating meat is bothering me a tad. Otherwise, the writing is great. It’s dark and suspenseful. Entirely original and engrossing.

Greenidge_WeLoveYouCharlieFreeman_HC_jkt_FINAL_PRNT.indd

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge [Algonquin]
–a thoughtful and provocative novel which effectively and creatively winds together numerous subjects from coming-of-age, first love, adolescence, sisterhood, race, anthropology, history and family dynamics. In 1990, a family relocates from Dorchester, Massachusetts to the Berkshires to teach sign language to a chimpanzee at the Toneybee Institute for Great Ape Research. full review.

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