Category Archives: Algonquin Books

Review: Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

Title: Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Genre: Historical (60s, 70s), Fiction
Length: 369 pages
Book Rating: B

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley


Caroline Leavitt is at her mesmerizing best in this haunting, nuanced portrait of love, sisters, and the impossible legacy of family.

It’s 1969, and sixteen-year-old Lucy is about to run away with a much older man to live off the grid in rural Pennsylvania, a rash act that will have vicious repercussions for both her and her older sister, Charlotte. As Lucy’s default caretaker for most of their lives, Charlotte’s youth has been marked by the burden of responsibility, but never more so than when Lucy’s dream of a rural paradise turns into a nightmare.

Cruel Beautiful World examines the intricate, infinitesimal distance between seduction and love, loyalty and duty, and explores what happens when you’re responsible for things you cannot make right.


Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam  War, free love and the Manson murders, Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt is a bittersweet novel about two sisters who discover that life very rarely lives up the their dreams.

After their parents’ death when they were young, Charlotte and Lucy moved in with their much older, distant relative Iris.  At one time extremely close, the sisters began drifting apart as teens and by the time Lucy disappears, Charlotte has no idea what is going on her sister’s life.  At the urging of Iris, she goes to college as planned but she is soon struggling to keep up academically with her fellow students.  Meanwhile, Lucy’s life with her thirty year old teacher boyfriend William Lallo is slowly falling apart as she grows increasingly unhappy at their remote home in rural Pennsylvania.  Iris is trying to come to terms with her empty nest while at the same time dealing with the realities of growing older. After Lucy’s life with William completely unravels, Charlotte tries to make sense of what happened to her sister in the year since she and Iris last saw her.

Oldest sister Charlotte is rather shy and serious but she is fiercely protective of Lucy.  Determined to get into a good college, she is focused on getting stellar grades and acing her SAT. Completely consumed by thoughts of her future, Charlotte does not even notice when she and Lucy begin to drift apart. After Lucy runs away, she realizes she knows absolutely nothing about her sister’s life in the months leading up to her disappearance but this does not stop her from trying to find Lucy. After her hard work in school leads to an academic scholarship to a prestigious college, Iris insists she follow her dream instead of remaining at home with her.  Charlotte is stunned by the reality of life on campus as her hopes of finally fitting in are quickly shattered and worse, she is struggling in all of her classes.  An out of the blue phone call from Lucy resurrects old resentments, but Charlotte puts aside her feelings to try to rescue her sister.

Lucy is a bit of free spirit who struggles to live up to her teacher’s expectations.  When popular teacher William Lallo takes a special interest in her, she is excited and thrilled to finally have a class she excels in.  When their relationship takes a romantic turn, Lucy sees nothing wrong with a thirty year old man loving her but she knows society will not turn a blind eye to their romance.  As the school year draws to a close, she eagerly looks forward to them leaving and starting a new life together in Pennsylvania.  Dismayed to find herself living in isolation with no friends and plenty of empty hours to fill while William is at work, Lucy soon falls out of love but with no money or job skills, she feels trapped by her impetuous decision.  Trying to find some measure of independence from William, she begins roaming the countryside where she befriends the owner of vegetable stand, Patrick.  Convincing him to let her work for him, Lucy’s yearning to escape William continues to grow but will she find a way to escape her controlling boyfriend?

Taking place during the tumultuous late 60s and early 70s, Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt is a compelling character driven novel that is beautifully written.  While heavy foreshadowing leaves little doubt how Lucy’s story will end, Charlotte’s story arc is less defined but just as intriguing. The storyline is somewhat poignant yet ultimately uplifting as it wends its way to a satisfying conclusion.

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Filed under Algonquin Books, Caroline Leavitt, Cruel Beautiful World, Fiction, Historical, Historical (60s), Historical (70s), Rated B, Review

Review: Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Ed Tarkington

only loveTitle: Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Ed Tarkington
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Genre: Historical (70s & 80s), Literary Fiction, Mystery/Suspense
Length: 320 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley


“Love can make people do terrible things.”

Welcome to Spencerville, Virginia, 1977. Eight-year-old Rocky worships his older brother, Paul. Sixteen and full of rebel cool, Paul spends his days cruising in his Chevy Nova blasting Neil Young, cigarette dangling from his lips, arm slung around his beautiful, troubled girlfriend. Paul is happy to have his younger brother as his sidekick. Then one day, in an act of vengeance against their father, Paul picks up Rocky from school and nearly abandons him in the woods. Afterward, Paul disappears.

Seven years later, Rocky is a teenager himself. He hasn’t forgotten being abandoned by his boyhood hero, but he’s getting over it, with the help of the wealthy neighbors’ daughter, ten years his senior, who has taken him as her lover. Unbeknownst to both of them, their affair will set in motion a course of events that rains catastrophe on both their families. After a mysterious double murder brings terror and suspicion to their small town, Rocky and his family must reckon with the past and find out how much forgiveness their hearts can hold.


Utilizing an array of classic rock music as a backdrop, Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Ed Tarkington is a captivating coming of age novel set in the ’70s & ’80s.

Richard “Rocky” Askew adores and idolizes his much older half-brother Paul. Viewed as the small town’s resident bad boy, Paul has earned his reputation with his devil may care attitude and his penchant for smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. Despite the age gap between the brothers, they are close and many of their conversations and exploits take place while listening to Neil Young and other artists of the time period. The defining moment of Rocky’s young life occurs when Paul “kidnaps” him then briefly abandons him in the woods before taking him home then leaving town with his girlfriend, Leigh Bowman. Leigh eventually returns to town while Paul’s whereabouts remain a mystery for several years.

Rocky’s childhood is privileged and rather idyllic despite Paul’s disappearance. His father, aka “the Old Man”, is much older than Rocky’s mother and while a bit gruff, he is a good father. Paul’s rebellion is a source of contention between his parents and in an effort to ensure Rocky does not follow in his rebellious footsteps, Rocky’s ultra religious mom keeps him on a fairly tight leash. As a teenager, he manages to escape from her watchful eye after he convinces their neighbor’s older daughter, Patricia Culver, to hire him as a stable boy/groundskeeper. Patricia also introduces him to pleasures of a more earthly type when they begin an illicit affair.

Unbeknownst to Rocky, Paul’s ex-girlfriend Leigh also has an unexpected tie to the Culver family; she is engaged to their much older son, Charles. Despite her upcoming marriage, Leigh’s life has not gone smoothly since her return to town. Rumors swirl around the small town about her fragile mental state and her time “resting” in a local mental hospital. Their reunion is uneasy and fraught with tension and Rocky is somewhat taken aback when she decides to reveal what happened after she and Paul left together years earlier. Stunned by her revelations, Rocky is unsure if her account is true and he is left with even more doubts after the events that occur during her wedding.

After the Old Man suffers a debilitating stroke, the mystery of Paul’s disappearance is cleared up once and for all. This also marks the beginning of a downward spiral for the Askew family after they discover the Old Man’s business venture with the Culvers led to the loss of their fortune after the Black Monday stock market crash.  Although still neighbors, they ignore one another until a shocking double murder thrusts both families (and Leigh) back into the spotlight.

An absolutely stunning debut novel , Only Love Can Break Your Heart is an engrossing and nostalgic story set in rural Virginia. Brilliantly developed, multifaceted and intriguing characters bring this tale vibrantly to life while the riveting storyline completely ensnares readers from beginning to end. Ed Tarkington neatly wraps up all of the loose ends with a heartwarming and rather poignant conclusion. A phenomenal novel that I greatly enjoyed and highly recommend.

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Filed under Algonquin Books, Ed Tarkington, Historical, Historical (70s), Historical (80s), Literary Fiction, Mystery, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, Rated B+, Review