Posts Tagged Kate Alcott

STEELE PICKS: BEST FICTION of 2015

To provide a bit of background, I read 150 books in 2015. I wrote 52 reviews for 2015 releases on this site. I gave very few books 5/5*. I am currently reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara so since I started it in 2015, I reserve the right to include it in my best of 2015 list.

Here are my picks for best fiction:

Outline by Rachel Cusk [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
–gorgeous writing. purchase at Amazon: Outline: A Novel

outline

Where Women are Kings by Christie Watson [Other Press]
–from my review: Simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. Stunning. Entwines race, foster families, adoption, mental illness and cultural differences with exquisite descriptions and phrasing. purchase at Amazon: Where Women Are Kings

where women are kings

The Green Road by Anne Enright [W. W. Norton & Company]
–from my review: A perfect novel with imperfect characters that spans decades and continents. purchase at Amazon: The Green Road: A Novel

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The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro [Algonquin]
–from my review: When you think every WWII story has been told, an original narrative comes along and you realize there’s a plethora of war stories remaining to be explored and shared. Abstract expressionist art, French refugees and the WPA collide in this riveting historical fiction novel that focuses on the sudden disappearance of young Jewish-American artist Alizée Benoit. purchase at Amazon: The Muralist: A Novel

muralist

Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson [Other Press]
–from my review: Rather haunting and definitely unusual. It’s tough to describe except to say it’s part mystery and part personal exploration. A strange story –in a good way– with gorgeous writing and an intriguing story-line. purchase at Amazon: Katherine Carlyle

katherine carlyle

The Last September by Nina de Gramont [Algonquin]
–from my review: excellent characters and a dazzling story-line involving mental illness, family, infidelity, relationships, love and murder. purchase at Amazon: The Last September

last september

Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht [Harper Perennial]
–engrossing, beautiful and creative novel about a group of 30-somethings finding their place in the world. purchase at Amazon: Migratory Animals: A Novel (P.S.)

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Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman [Scribner]
–from my review: Brilliant concept and exquisitely written. This short story collection focuses on intriguing, bold and remarkable women from history. It’s edgy historical fiction. These women lived life as they chose to live it which likely made them misfits and outliers during their lifetimes. purchase at Amazon: Almost Famous Women: Stories by Mayhew Bergman, Megan (2015) Hardcover

almost famous women

The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat [Other Press]
from my review: Touching, creative, lovely novel. It tells the story of a child of the Holocaust in a unique manner. purchase at Amazon: The Travels of Daniel Ascher

ascher

Music for Wartime: stories by Rebecca Makkai [Viking]
–from my review: an exceptional, stunning and creative short-story collection. purchase at Amazon: Music for Wartime: Stories

music for wartime

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North [Blue Rider Press]
–from my review: a fascinating novel about creativity, artists, fitting in and being satisfied with success, fame and how we perceive ourselves and how we want others to understand us. Sophie Stark, who changed her name to suit her persona, is a renowned and elusive filmmaker. She makes enigmatic and often strikingly sad, honest films that strip bare the characters and dig into their psyches. purchase at Amazon: The Life and Death of Sophie Stark

life and death of sophie stark

Aquarium by David Vann [Atlantic Monthly Press]
–from my review: This is Vann’s first novel centered on a female protagonist. Twelve-year-old Caitlin lives in Seattle with her dockworker single mother. Older now, Caitlin looks back on this time with the wisdom one gains through age and experience. There’s a lighter tone than previous works until events draw to a boiling point for Caitlin and her mother. Every day after school Caitlin visits the aquarium to study the fish while waiting for her mom to finish work and retrieve her. She finds the various fish and sea life fascinating and allows herself contemplation and solitude. purchase at Amazon: Aquarium

aquarium

Tightrope by Simon Mawer [Other Press]
-Feminist character Marian Sutro returns from WWII determined to find her place. from my review: 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. 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. purchase at Amazon: Tightrope

tightrope

A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott [Doubleday]
–from my review: Kate Alcott writes spectacularly strong feminist female characters in historical fiction. Women who want to have careers and love. Women who juggle and manage both. Or learn from their decisions. They’re smart protagonists and Alcott has quickly become a must-read favorite author for me. She intermingles her fictional characters in real-life historical settings and it works. purchase at Amazon: A Touch of Stardust: A Novel

touch of stardust

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book review: A Touch of Stardust

touch of stardust

A Touch of Stardust By Kate Alcott.
Doubleday|February 2015.|296 pages|$25.00|ISBN: 978-0-385-53904-3

Rating: *****/5*

Kate Alcott writes spectacularly strong feminist female characters in historical fiction. Women who want to have careers and love. Women who juggle and manage both. Or learn from their decisions. They’re smart protagonists and Alcott has quickly become a must-read favorite author for me. She intermingles her fictional characters in real-life historical settings and it works.

Last year Alcott’s The Daring Ladies of Lowell – a superb story about the Lowell mill girls based on actual events–made my 12 Best Fiction Books of 2014 list. A Touch of Stardust finds Midwesterner Julie Crawford on the set of Gone with the Wind. It’s 1938 and the young woman dreams of being a screenwriter like Frances Marion who wrote scripts for the legendary Mary Pickwick. Crawford works in the publicity office of producer David O. Selznick like her rooming house mate Rose, who dreams of being an actress like many young women who venture to Los Angeles.

This is the perfect historical fiction novel to dip into before the Academy Awards. It’s an ideal way to spend a winter weekend day. Hollywood. Old glamour. Vintage dreams. The era when stars and screenwriters contracted with specific studios. Alcott writes about the filming of Gone with the Wind and its many difficulties as well as the romance between leading man Clark Gable [Rhett Butler] and free-spirited Carole Lombard, known for her slapstick comedies. At the beginning it’s scandalous because Gable’s still married and Lombard doesn’t keep the relationship a secret. She’s bold and delightful. You’ll want to read much more about this short-lived romance and marriage. Meticulously researched, Alcott includes wonderful details about the Gone with the Wind set and filming as well as the relationship between Lombard and Gable

Alcott describes the film set: “Each morning, she pulled herself from bed and joined the cleaning ladies and plumbers and other sleepy travelers on the 5:00 a.m. bus to get to the studio early. That way, she could step onto the back lot alone and be in the old South and feel the magical world of Gone with the Wind come to life. In front of Tara, the trees that had been fashioned over telephone poles looked real, and if she hadn’t known the dogwood blossoms were made of white paper, the illusion would have been complete.”

Plucky, determined Julie Crawford bumps into Lombard on set and the Smith College graduate impresses Lombard who asks her to work as her personal assistant. Crawford soon becomes part of Lombard and Gable’s rather glamorous lifestyle. Through a few introductions, she works her way to screenwriting. Lombard becomes a dear friend, confidant, older sister and advisor. By year’s end she’s rewriting scripts and quite content in her new profession and new city. In the meantime she becomes involved with an older associate producer, Andy Weinstein. They start slow but soon fall for each other. Complications arise due to the age difference, his being Jewish and their varied careers. As WWII intensifies Weinstein, who has family in Germany and France, feels compelled to enlist in the American Red Cross. Until then he’s working diligently on Gone with the Wind and supports his new girlfriend’s screenwriting endeavors.

Kate Alcott’s father-in-law Herman Mankiewicz won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay with Orson Welles for Citizen Kane. He also wrote Cleopatra and All About Eve. This is one area in which she has some insider insight. And it’s fantastic.

–review by Amy Steele

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

purchase at Amazon: A Touch of Stardust: A Novel

Gone with the Wind

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STEELE PICKS: 12 BEST FICTION BOOKS of 2014

boy snow bird

1. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi [Riverhead]

clever, stunningly gorgeous novel about race.

daring ladies of lowell

2. The Daring Ladies of Lowell by Kate Alcott [Doubleday]

If you grew up in Massachusetts like me, you likely went on a Lowell Mill tour at some point during an elementary school or junior high field trip. I went twice because when my Aunt and cousins visited from Texas they wanted to go. While you rode on a boat along the Merrimack River listening to a guide speak about girls and young women leaving their families from all over New England to work at the Lowell mills it was easy enough to disassociate from it yet dreadful to think about the harsh conditions these women faced back in the 19th century.

Like the Salem witch trials the industrial revolution and bitter working conditions for Lowell mill girls happened essentially in my backyard and I feel particularly close to the plight of the mill girls depicted in this novel. It’s only the second five-star rating I’ve given to any book this year. Kate Alcott vibrantly brings the stories of the Lowell mill girls to the page as she creates strong, outspoken female characters enduring adverse situations that dare imagine and dispute better working and living situations.

complete review

everything i never

3. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng [Penguin Press]

Anything I write will never be enough to convey the power and magnificence of this debut novel.

complete review

fallout

4. Fallout by Sadie Jones [Harper]

Fallout revolves around Luke Kanowski, a young man with a mother living in a mental institution and a a former Polish POW father who remained in England after the war. Both parents rely tremendously on Luke. Living in a rustic northern town, Luke escapes the familial strain and dead-end choices through a passion for theatre. He reads everything and remains updated on all theatrical goings on. One night he meets aspiring producer Paul Driscoll and theater student Leigh Radley who will influence his future in myriad ways

complete review

visible city

5. Visible City by Tova Mirvis [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]

Author Tova Mirvis writes with a melancholy gorgeousness about connectivity and disparity. When we imagine others’ lives we never expect what we eventually discover to be true. Perfection masks insecurities. Contentment hides dissatisfaction. What is happiness? Our ideal is never another’s ideal. How something looks from afar rarely looks as virtuous once you start to delve into the grit and imperfections.

complete review

pioneer girl

6. Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen [Viking]

Author Bich Minh Nguyen writes about a Vietnamese-American family and its connection to the beloved American Ingalls-Wilder family as seen through the eyes of a savvy, inquisitive young woman. Almost everyone remembers reading the Little House on the Prairie books about Laura Ingalls and watching the television show.

complete review

love me back

7. Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce [Doubleday]

One of the best novels in a while about finding your way and developing a sense-of-self in your twenties.

review

garden of letters

8. The Garden of Letters by Alyson Richman [Berkley Trade]

When I’m thinking about a novel for some time after reading it, I know it’s remarkable. Think you’ve heard all the stories about WWII. Think again. The Garden of Letters by Alyson Richman focuses on the Italian Resistance. Elodie, a young student and cello player, becomes involved in the Italian Resistance when artists and teachers at her school become targets for Mussolini’s Fascist regime.

interview with Alyson Richman

dept of speculation

9. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill [Vintage]

impressively creative.

all days are night

10. All Days are Night by Peter Stamm [Other Press]

A popular television news reporter wakes up severely disfigured by a car accident. The novel beautifully traverses past and present. Stamm writes in an effectively laconic and melancholy style. He’s exploring appearances from various angles. It’s a gripping read about art and connection.

review

life drawing

11. Life Drawing by Robin Black [Random House]

stunning writing. brilliantly explores marriage in all its nuances.

boston girl

12. The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant [Scribner]

This is the story of the education of Addie Baum. Jewish daughter to immigrant parents Addie grew up during the mid-1900s in a one-room tenement house in Boston. In telling Addie’s story, author Anita Diamant covers a lot of history: prohibition; 1920s flappers and artists; WWI; The Great Depression; illegal abortions, birth control and Margaret Sanger; the Spanish Flu; women’s education; women’s careers; journalism; civil rights. Like The Red Tent, Diamant depicts history through a feminist eye. Intelligent, resourceful and intellectually-curious Addie is a wonderful feminist character. I probably truly fell in love with this novel when Diamant mentioned Simmons College, my women’s college alma mater in Boston. At one point, Addie discusses her goal to attend college but that she fears many won’t accept her because she’s Jewish. [“There’s Simmons College,” I said. “They even accept the Irish if you can imagine.”]

complete review

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IN THE REALM: BEST BOOKS of 2014 [SO FAR]

daring ladies of lowell

The Daring Ladies of Lowell by Kate Alcott
–Lowell mill girls. a murder. riveting historical fiction.

everything i never

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
–heartbreaking exploration on race and identity in the 1970s.

JoannaSmithRakoff.jacket

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
–Rakoff makes her memoir about a year working at a literary agency in New York heartwarming, relatable and intriguing through exquisite writing.

fallout

Fallout by Sadie Jones
–fell in love with this book about a group of 20-somethings entangled with the theatre and each other’s lives in 1970s London.

boy snow bird

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
–stunning re-telling of a fairytale and examination of race.

visible city

Visible City by Tova Mirvis
–cool writing, intriguing premise. reflection on connectivity, relationships and urban dwelling.

pioneer girl

Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen
–another wonderful novel about race. this time a young woman’s connection to Laura Ingalls Wilder via Vietnam.

Cured

Cured by Nathalia Holt
–Berlin patients. painstakingly researched and explained.

fallen beauty

Fallen Beauty by Erika Robuck
–Robuck imagines the connection between poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and a seamstress in her small town. Robuck conducted impeccable research and allowed Millay’s vibrant spirit, sensuality and creative force to come forth on the page.

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book review: The Daring Ladies of Lowell

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The Daring Ladies of Lowell by Kate Alcott. Publisher: Doubleday (February 2014). Historical fiction. Hardcover. 287 pages. ISBN 978-0-385-53649-3.

“Her head was pounding, her ears ringing. It was bothering her more today than usual. The endless motion of the machines reverberated through her body—not just in her ears but in her stomach and down in her burning, aching feet. She would soak them tonight, try some of those salts Lovey always used. Alice wiped the perspiration from her brow and looked around. This was home now, strange as that seemed.”

If you grew up in Massachusetts like me, you likely went on a Lowell Mill tour at some point during an elementary school or junior high field trip. I went twice because when my Aunt and cousins visited from Texas they wanted to go. While you rode on a boat along the Merrimack River listening to a guide speak about girls and young women leaving their families from all over New England to work at the Lowell mills it was easy enough to disassociate from it yet dreadful to think about the harsh conditions these women faced back in the 19th century.

Like the Salem witch trials the industrial revolution and bitter working conditions for Lowell mill girls happened essentially in my backyard and I feel particularly close to the plight of the mill girls depicted in this novel. It’s only the second five-star rating I’ve given to any book this year. Kate Alcott vibrantly brings the stories of the Lowell mill girls to the page as she creates strong, outspoken female characters enduring adverse situations that dare imagine and dispute better working and living situations.

“She needed to find her place here, to know when to keep her head down, when to seize opportunity. She would not dwell on it; it would rob her of the thrill of having pushed her way out of a narrow life.”

New Hampshire farm girl Alice Barrow arrives to the Lowell mills in 1832 seeking an independent life from her father. She hopes to save money and makes prodigious plans for her future. Alice never imagined she’d encounter such horrific working conditions. She witnesses a housemate coughing up a bloody cotton ball the size of a golf ball [the fibers they weave get into their lungs]; a girl almost killed when her hair gets caught in machinery; 15 hour shifts; machinery so loud it caused tinnitus; and a 9-year-old bobbin girl who must hide from the mill owners for fear her mother will lose her job. When someone murders her closest friend and confidant, Lovey, it divides the town and pits the mill owners against the workers and places Lovey’s reputation on trial. A young woman like Lovey gets pilloried for having a personal life and many suitors/ paramours/ boyfriends. [Okay, it still happens when a woman gets raped but not as magnified as back in the 19th century when hardly anyone would testify on the dead woman’s behalf.] A roving evangelist gets blamed yet he has supporters in force. Alice takes a stand for justice even if she might lose the man she loves.

Alcott based The Daring Ladies of Lowell on a real case in which someone murdered a Lowell mill girl. I appreciate her meticulous research and attention to detail. It’s both a fascinating portrait and a riveting mystery.

RATING: *****/5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Random House.

The Daring Ladies of Lowell: A Novel

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