Posts Tagged historical fiction

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


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.


Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone [Harper]

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


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.

modern girls

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.


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.


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..

sun in your eyes

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 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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book review: Terrible Virtue

terrible virtue

Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman. Harper| March 22, 2016| 272 pages | $25.99| ISBN: ISBN: 9780062407559

RATING: ****/5*

“It wasn’t enough to teach a handful of desperate women specific methods. I needed to overthrow archaic laws, reshape public opinion, and enlighten, or at least outsmart, the men in power who were determined to keep us in chains. But how? Should I break the laws in order to win judgments in the courts or lobby legislators to write new laws? Should the issue be free speech or women’s rights or public health, which was just beginning to garner attention?”

How infuriating that there’s no Equal Rights Amendment and abortion and women’s health remains under attack almost as much now as in the early 1900s! Terrible Virtue is the perfect novel to read for Women’s History Month. Written like an autobiography in first-person and then commentary/testimonials from various people in her life—her husband, lawyer, sister, son—at first jarring but by one-third of the way through the novel it worked. This is one engrossing novel.

A sign of quality historical fiction for me is when I want to know more. I want to read Margaret Sanger’s autobiography. I learned many things in this fictionalization but I have many questions. A historical fiction novel’s author must choose which aspects of the person’s life to focus on. If it veers in too many directions, it’s confusing. Author Ellen Feldman succeeds with Terrible Virtue by providing a colorful and detailed characterization of women’s rights and women’s health activist Margaret Sanger. She’s bold. She’s unapologetic. She’s a trailblazer. She’s an independent spirit.

Sanger was one of 11 children. Her mother died at age 50 from tuberculosis after 18 pregnancies in 22 years. Her alcoholic free-thinking father did not believe in birth control. Her upbringing led her to want more and to want to change the status quo for women. She chose to assist impoverished women in avoiding pregnancy. It became her mission. Although she and her sisters declared they’d never marry, Sanger married artist Bill Sanger. Together they join the socialist party. Of marriage to Bill she said: “Perhaps that was another reason I married Bill, to break silly rules and defy foolish prejudices. My marital status would have no effect on my nursing ability.” At the time Sanger is in nursing school. She gets pregnant and cannot complete the program however becomes a birth control advocate traveling the world to research various birth control methods. She started clinics where poor women could be treated. She and Bill had two children (one dies) but Margaret was accused of neglecting her children to focus on her career.

After a brief stint in the suburbs, the couple moved back to New York. “We told people we wanted to be at the heart of the radical movement and the world of art. That was true. Ideas and isms raced through the city faster than the flames that had whipped through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. On street corners, labor leaders and anarchists and socialists climbed up on soapboxes and made the ground tremble beneath their feet.”
Sanger insisted on an open marriage, perhaps more so than her husband. Many gossiped about her numerous affairs but as long as it didn’t interfere with her goals she just didn’t care. “Ours would be a different kind of union, a melding of two equals based on love, mutual respect, and total freedom. We were committed to sexual equality.”

She began talks for women about birth control and the connection between their bodies and minds. “I merely explained the facts of life. It’s shocking how few women are acquainted with them. They know about demanding husbands and agonizing deliveries and painful menstruation, but they understand little of the connection among those things.” Soon Anita Block of the Socialist Party asks Sanger to write a series of articles for the Call, the New York socialist daily which leads to her publication of a magazine. The Society for the Suppression of Vice began to monitor and censor Margaret. Her Captain Ahab was a man named Anthony Comstock, described as “a big brutal bully with a dirty little mind.” Sanger was arrested in 1914 for distributing a pro-contraception magazine, The Woman Rebel, through the mail. Then in 1916 she was arrested for running a clinic to disseminate the information. She’s arrested many more times. Sanger escapes to Europe but does serve some jail time once back in the states. She also finds ways around the regulations. A superb read!

–review by Amy Steele

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

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book review: Tightrope


Tightrope by Simon Mawer. Other Press| November 2015| 512 pages | $15.95| ISBN: 978-1-59051-723-9

RATING: 4.5/5*

In Tightrope, author Simon Mawer focuses once again on Marian Sutro, the central figure in 2011’s Trapeze which details Marian’s experiences during WWII. It’s a novel I recall fondly—a magnificent story that tracks Marian’s training and challenges working in espionage during the war.

Bilingual [French mother and English father] and well-educated Marian Sutro worked in Special Operations for Britain in WWII. After her release she returns to her parents’ home in Great Britain and begins to forge a post-war existence for herself. As many returning from a war, she finds herself distant from her family and unsure about her place in the world. She wants independence but isn’t sure about her identity at times. Is she a war hero—she has the awards to prove it—or is she just another woman chasing contentment? She finds work for a peace-keeping organization.

While I adored Trapeze it came out three years ago and I don’t remember minute details so I’m not sure how this can qualify. Is it a sequel? The novel stands alone so I’m not sure I’d call it that. However, it’s the second novel about the same character so by definition, it’s a sequel. When I tweeted about this I got a response from the author himself so it should be considered sequel. I got slightly confused by the narrator at times, a man who knew Marian when she was a teenager. He’d always had a crush on her. I’m not sure why the novel needed this narrator. At one point I forgot who he was and had to turn back to the novel’s beginning for a reminder. But then I decided I’d not let it bother me and just appreciate Marian Sutro and this novel. Mawer writes exquisitely and Tightrope draws you in to Marian’s life, the consequences of her actions during WWII and how she copes in the present.

Why is Marian Sutro a superb literary character worth revisiting? Mawer writes: “Try to see yourself as this lot see you. A stunning woman, dressed like a film star, who has done things no one here would dream of. Parachuted into occupied territory, lived a secret life, been captured and I don’t know, tortured probably.” She’s an independent spirit. She’s a feminist. She has lavish style and intensity. You want to be her or be friends with her. She exudes a magnetic charm and fierceness. Her military experience forces her into a gray zone. Whose side is she on? She was a spy and POW in WWII. She has sex with whomever she wants. She married a man who intensely pursued her, not particularly for love but perhaps for companionship. It doesn’t keep her from affairs with other men during her travels. On the cover, Marian looks like she’s in a Tamara de Lempicka painting. She’d be an ideal subject for the bold artist.

Mawer includes cold war fears, atomic bombs, a gay scientist (Marian’s brother) as well as Marian’s love affair with a Russian Jew. On this relationship, Mawer writes: “In Absolon’s presence she no longer thought of Benoit, or Clement, or Veronique or Alan. They all seemed irrelevant. And she no longer contemplated death and betrayal but speculated instead on the possibility of staying with this man, Absolon, for the rest of her life, in Canada maybe, under an assumed name. Absurd, of course, but she had these thoughts.” Marian’s brother is one of the scientists working on weapons and, more importantly, bombs. He’s gay during a particularly dangerous time to be gay in England. Marian scoffs at his choice of lover: “Her brother queer, the lover of some skinny, common youth.”

Plenty of elements keep you intrigued. It’s not the confusing John Le Carre-type espionage plot which I could never follow. This novel remains character-driven with lovely descriptive passages and a riveting narrative.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.


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