Posts Tagged historical fiction

book review: A Piece of the World

piece-of-the-world

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.

alligator-candy

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.

llucy pear

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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book review: Lady Cop Makes Trouble

lady copyLady Cop Makes Trouble by Amy Stewart. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt| September 2016| 320 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 978-0-544-40994-1

RATING: ***/5*

This was an overall fun and enjoyable read. I didn’t read the debut Kopp Sisters novel Girl Waits with Gun so maybe it wasn’t a good idea to read the second book. I do think that even in a series each book should be a stand-alone that anyone can pick up to read and figure out what’s going on. Despite not knowing the case from the first novel which did carry over to this novel–at least in consequences for Constance Kopp and her position as deputy sheriff—I could mostly piece together what I needed. The youngest sister Fleurette confused me at first and I didn’t know if she was a daughter or niece. I absolutely admire and appreciate that Amy Stewart found clips in which to base this case and that Constance Kopp was a real person. Stewart explained, “I’m lucky enough to have a huge treasure trove of newspaper clippings covering 1914 and 1915. Constance was in the paper all the time. This book covers one particular incident that made headlines nationwide: the pursuit of a convicted criminal.” This is a delightful description of Constance’s duties for the New Jersey sheriff’s department: “I wasn’t just a chaperone for wayward girls. I carried a gun and handcuffs. I could make an arrest, just like any deputy. I earned a man’s salary. People did find it shocking and I didn’t mind that one bit.” Constance stands as a strong, determined female working in the male-dominated field of law enforcement. She doesn’t seem deterred when men don’t know how to speak with her or how to react to her as she carries out her varied responsibilities. She lives with her sisters, Fleurette and Norma, in the countryside in New Jersey. Norma seems content to raise homing pigeons and not venture far from home. Fleurette dreams of the stage and for now acts in a local production. The sisters look out for one another and serve as sounding boards for each other. Not having sisters it seems a wonderful thing. This case didn’t quite enthrall me enough for a mystery/thriller, fortunately the strong female lead makes up for my lack of interest and sometimes confusion in the case. I rooted for Constance and her sisters to fight the system and to fight sexism.

–review by Amy Steele

 FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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book review: The Muse

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The Muse by Jessie Burton. Ecco| July 26, 2016| 416 pages | $27.99| ISBN: 9780062409928

RATING: ****/5*

Sometime I might want to read (or perhaps write) a novel from one viewpoint in one time period. Historical fiction does draw me in particularly with vivid descriptions, an established sense of place and depth of character. The Muse intrigued me by its lovely black cover, the title and the settings: 1960s London and 1930s Spain. A muse generally refers to someone who influences one’s art. Author Jessie Burton created two independent-spirited and determined women despite their circumstances and the time periods. But who’s kidding anyone? Women still have it tough in 2016. In this novel I didn’t think a muse existed. Although without giving anything away there might be an unexpected muse. Flip the expectations for a muse. This is Burton’s second art-focused historical fiction novel. The Minaturist came out in 2014. I wanted to adore it but just couldn’t. It was quite well-written but a bit too melodramatic. The Muse fares much better mainly because the characters pursue their own artistic goals.

“Ever since I could pick up a pen, other people’s pleasure was how I’d garnered attention and defined success. When I began receiving public acknowledgement for a private act, something was essentially lost. My writing became the axis upon which all my identity and happiness hinged. It was now outward-looking, a self-conscious performance.”

An exclusive London art gallery hires Odelle Bastien, a well-educated immigrant from Trinidadian, as a secretary. Her interesting manager Marjorie Quick quite likes the young woman and they commence a friendship of sorts. Odelle aspires to be a published writer. At a wedding she meets the dashing, sophisticated Lawrie Scott who brings a painting to the gallery for appraisal. The painting causes quite a stir. The narrative turns to 1930s Spain where Olive Schloss lives with her family in the small town of Arazuelo. Her father, a Jewish art dealer, fled Vienna in advance of Nazi persecution. A talented painter, Olive Schloss earned acceptance to the Slade School of Art but her father doesn’t think highly of female painters. Olive never tells her father. Burton describes how Olive feels after finishing a painting: “She had made, for the first time, a picture of such movement and excess and fecundity that she felt almost shocked. It was a stubborn ideal; a paradise on earth, and the irony was it had come from a place to which her parents had dragged her.” Half siblings Teresa and Isaac Robles become ensconced in the Schloss family. Isaac Robles paints as well as carries out revolutionary missions in Spain. For Olive who becomes involved with both there’s deceit, betrayal and secrets galore. Burton connects the two women through this one mysterious painting and its back-story.

As often happens I preferred one time period and character arc (the 1960s story-line) to the other. The chapters involving Odelle definitely captivated me the most. She’s from Trinidad, a country under British rule during the 1940s when she was a child. She’s dating a white guy. Burton’s writing in Odelle’s voice –the Trinidad speaking-style with her friend as well as focusing on how others react to Odelle, how the young woman feels and how she finds her place enhances this novel. Burton writes: “I hadn’t scrapped with the boys to gain a first-class English Literature degree from the University of the West Indies for nothing.” I’d have preferred an entire novel about Odelle. I understand the need for this intrigue or a desire to examine several time periods but Olive’s story-line became a bit trite and dull. Odelle stays true to herself at all times while Olive falls for Isaac and allows her art to become influenced and overshadowed by him. A definitely strong summer read, pack this one on your next long weekend getaway.

–review by Amy Steele

 

<em>FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Ecco. </em>

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best books of 2016 so far

Best Books of 2016 so far. I read a lot of historical fiction and memoir so not surprisingly that’s mostly what makes my list. These are listed more or less in the order read.

the other woman

The Other Woman by Therese Bohman [Other Press]

–from my review: 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.

alligator candy

Alligator Candy: a memoir by David Kushner [Simon & Schuster]

Through compelling prose and devastating emotion this memoir potently addresses murder and its effect on the family. review.

rare objects

Rare Objects by Kathleen Tessaro [Harper]

–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. Rare Objects is a page-turner about class, friendship and the things and people we value most. full review.

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Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone [Harper]

–Set in post-Civil War Philadelphia, this historical novel beautifully explores race, class, gender and family. complete review.

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The Vegetarian by Kang Han [Hogarth]

The Man Booker International Prize 2016 Winner It’s dark and suspenseful. Entirely original and engrossing. I’ve been a vegan for nearly 10 years and am not too thin.  I stopped eating red meat at 12 and everything but fish at 18. So the being deprived and malnourished because she’s not eating meat is bothering me a tad.

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Modern Girls by Jennifer Brown

Clear your schedule and make a big pitcher of iced tea. Once you start this wonderful, detailed novel you’ll want to read straight through. review.

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We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge

We Love You, Charlie Freeman stands out as 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. complete review.

heat and light

Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh [Ecco]

At turns fascinating, sad, infuriating, provocative and authentic, Heat & Light pulls in the reader from the jump. This well-researched, impressive novel exposes many angles of fracking. In order to capture this present day dilemma, Haigh effectively dips into the past with the Three Mile Island disaster as well as coaling. The novel generously addresses an important hot-button topic with sharp prose and a stellar cast of characters as well as an intriguing story-line. complete review.

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An Abbreviated Life: a memoir by Ariel Leve [Harper]

–stunning memoir about an adult daughter coming to terms with her childhood and relationship [or lack of] with her mother..

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The Sun in Your Eyes by Deborah Shapiro [William Morrow]

–from my review: Shapiro delves into the women’s college friendship and its connection to the present. She offers insight, detail and vivid descriptions that allow the reader to understand each woman, their bond and reliance upon one another. Women’s bonds often become broken due to relationships with men (or marriage and families). To this many women (and likely men) will relate. Vivian’s relationship and later marriage to Andy created a rift between the friends. The road trip allows the women to examine their friendship and determine whether or not they should rekindle their friendship, however tumultuous it may have been at times. Jealousy and differing goals certainly pushed and pulled at its core.

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book review: Lazaretto

lazaretto

Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone. Harper| April 2016| 352 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 9780062126962

RATING: *****/5*

“Sylvia flinched when Nevada said she was pleasing to the eye. She thought her smarts and her sincerity her best qualities, not her looks. She was oak-toned of complexion with a pouty mouth and polite nose and slender build. She had a wide smile that opened her lean face and rounded the severity of her cheekbones. She was often complimented on her smile. Still, she thought her appearance average; certainly didn’t think herself pretty like Nevada was pretty in a way that grabbed men by the collar and said keep your eyes peel on me Mister Sir.”

Set in post-Civil War Philadelphia, this historical fiction novel beautifully explores race, class, gender and family. At the novel’s start, a teen-aged Sylvia assists a young black woman named Meda give birth to a child fathered by her wealthy white employer. The man plans to take the infant away and forces Sylvia to lie to Meda that her newborn died. The event affects both women for the rest of their lives. Sylvia becomes consumed by her medical career while Meda takes care of two orphaned white boys as if they were her own. When the boys grow up and leave the area they maintain a strong bond with each other and with Meda.

Author Diane McKinney-Whetstone creates layered, intriguing characters with flaws, aspirations and strength. She expertly weaves the stories of several families throughout the novel. Sylvia’s friend Nevada isn’t as educated as Sylvia and lives in a rougher neighborhood fueled by booze and gambling. This allows for a stunning contrast with vivid scenes. These descriptions allow readers to understand characters and their temperament and attitude. Sylvia proves to be a dedicated nurse– “She’d get a rush at times when she’d conjure up a cure, often absent the doctor. She thought that marriage, keeping house, would hinder her ability to work; might curtail it completely.” –as well as a loyal friend. Sylvia absorbs her surroundings and effectively adapts as needed: “She called on her innate sense about people as she watched the mostly white people coming and going. They glanced at her as if they were glancing at a barrel, a cart, a post, some inanimate thing that did not breathe or think or feel.”

Sylvia decides to take a position at Philadelphia’s immigrant processing and quarantine station, Lazaretto. Of the new opportunity: “She thought the position beneath her abilities, she was a fully trained nurse after all, but the possibilities inherent in the position enthralled her. Since every ship hoping to enter the Port of Philadelphia had to be cleared through the Lazaretto during the summer months, she might see firsthand the exotic diseases she’d only read about. She would live there for months at a time. She especially welcomed that. The Lazaretto might prove an escape hatch from a conventional life.” When two staff members plan to marry on the compound, a discriminatory attack disrupts the weekend. People discover themselves confronting long-ignored truths, secrets and their place in the world with Lazaretto on lock-down. A superb read and one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

–review by Amy Steele

 FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

purchase at Amazon: Lazaretto: A Novel

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book review: Modern Girls

modern girls

Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown. New American Library| April 5, 2016| 366 pages | $15.00| ISBN: 978-0-451-47712-5

RATING: *****/5*

It’s 1935. America’s coming out of the depression and Europe’s heading for WWII. Years before, Rose immigrated from Russia, met her husband Ben and they raised a large family—four sons and one daughter in the Jewish tenements on the East Side of Manhattan. She’s particularly close with her bright 19-year-old daughter Dottie who works as a bookkeeper at an insurance company and just earned a promotion. Dottie excels at math and her mom’s been saving money so that she can attend college. Rose notes: “In my dreams, Dottala went to a fancy college, a place where she could spend her entire day learning, immersing herself in books.” The delight with these characters is that they’re progressive and believe in women’s equality as much as possible in the 30s. Committed to the socialist party for years, Rose wants to return to activism since her children don’t need as much attention. She’s concerned about her brother trapped in Poland as Jewish persecution escalates. She needs to assist in the impending war as much as she possibly can. There’s also a Women’s Conference against the High Cost of Living with which she wishes to be involved. Rose also embraces her Jewish heritage and religion and keeps up with traditions like Shabbat dinner.

While Dottie dreams of marrying her strictly religious boyfriend Abe, she also plans to continue working. She thinks: “I knew I would have to take on the same tasks when Abe and I married, but I didn’t relish the idea. In my dreams, I kept working—either at his store, or perhaps, now, at the insurance office—and hired a girl to take care of the house. But those were fantasies.” Dottie’s new thinking might not mix that well with Abe’s old-school attitudes. When her mother tells her that she’s saved up money for her to attend college and study accounting the idea thrills her as she adores math and the increasing responsibilities in her work. Dottie explains: “How wonderful would it be to sit in a classroom, surrounded by numbers. Were there new numbers to learn? New worlds of calculations to discover?” A woman focused on gaining an education and concentrating on a career makes Dottie an intriguing character. She enjoys earning her own money. She helps her family and likes to keep up with the latest fashion and make-up.

Unfortunately, when both women become pregnant their future plans may suffer. The women must contemplate what’s important to them and make complicated decisions. At first Rose thinks that she might be going through menopause even though she’s only 42. Dottie realizes that her pregnancy resulted from a one night liaison with a wealthy and rather womanizing young man at a Jewish camp in upstate New York. She and her boyfriend of three years have yet to have sex. Abe remains religious, studying Judaism constantly, and intends to wait until marriage to have sex with Dottie. However Abe and Dottie have dated for three years and Abe doesn’t seem all that interested in marrying anytime soon. As Dottie just earned a promotion and isn’t pregnant with her boyfriend’s child, wants to attend college, her mother decides to take some of her savings to pay for an abortion.

Revisiting the past often connects us with the present in unexpected ways. In this debut novel, author Jennifer S. Brown, developed layered and complex characters. We learn the women’s personalities through present and past events. Brown makes Dottie and Rose women you could imagine getting together with for a cup of tea and a blend of conversation. Being younger and born in America, Dottie enjoys a bit of pop culture and trends but she’s also focused on a career. Rose remains partly in the old world while remaining active in her new environment. She’s making the best home and best life possible.

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.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from New American Library.

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purchase at Amazon: Modern Girls

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