Category Archives: Historical (60s)

Review: Love, Alice by Barbara Davis

Title: Love, Alice by Barbara Davis
Publisher: Berkley
Genre: Contemporary, Historical (60s), Women’s Fiction, Romance
Length: 428 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

From the author of Summer at Hideaway Key comes a sweeping new Southern women’s fiction novel about forgiving the past one letter at a time…

The truth lies between the lines…

A year ago, Dovie Larkin’s life was shattered when her fiancé committed suicide just weeks before their wedding. Now, plagued by guilt, she has become a fixture at the cemetery where William is buried, visiting his grave daily, waiting for answers she knows will never come.

Then one day, she sees an old woman whose grief mirrors her own. Fascinated, she watches the woman leave a letter on a nearby grave. Dovie ignores her conscience and reads the letter—a mother’s plea for forgiveness to her dead daughter—and immediately needs to know the rest of the story.

As she delves deeper, a collection of letters from the cemetery’s lost and found  begins to unravel a decades-old mystery involving one of Charleston’s wealthiest families. But even as Dovie seeks to answer questions about another woman’s past—questions filled with deception, betrayal, and heartbreaking loss—she starts to discover the keys to love, forgiveness, and finally embracing the future…

Review:

Love, Alice is a heart wrenching story of loss and grief that is ultimately uplifting. With the secondary story arc that takes place during the 1960s, Barbara Davis brings much needed attention to the abhorrent “Magdalene Laundries” where unwed mothers were forced to give up their babies and endure horrific living conditions.  The present day storyline is equally affecting as a grief-stricken young woman searches for answers about her fiancé’s inexplicable suicide a year earlier.

On the one year anniversary of her fiancé William Prescott’s death, Dovie Larkin is no closer to understanding why he took his own life and she still remains mired in grief as she visits his grave daily.  With her family, boss and friends running out of patience with her inability to move past her tragedy, she is already in danger of losing her job when she becomes obsessed with a series of letters that were written by Alice Tandy during the 1960s. Trying to help Alice’s elderly mom, Dora, find a measure of peace for forcing her unwed daughter give her baby up for adoption, Dovie puts her career in jeopardy when her search for answers leads to the Tate family, who just happen to have recently made a huge donation to the museum where she works.   Working closely with Austin Tate on a fundraiser, Dovie tries to respect his request that she stay away from his grieving mother, Gemma,  but she quickly realizes that Gemma quite possibly holds the key to finding out what happened to Alice.  Will uncovering the truth about what happened to Alice and the baby she gave up for adoption help heal Dora’s wounds?  Can understanding Dora’s grief provide a way for Dovie to move past her own grief?

Dovie’s need for answers about William’s suicide is completely understandable but it is very frustrating watching her push away her friends and family in the process.  It is also somewhat maddening that even though she KNOWS her job is in jeopardy, she continues to make reckless decisions that puts her career on the line.  It is not until she meets  Austin that she is forced to take a hard look at her relationship with William and face the truth that has been staring her in face all along.  Dovie is also very dismayed by her unnerving attraction to the handsome Tate heir, but Austin has his own demons to make peace with before their relationship can move forward.

The storyline about Alice’s time at the  Blackhurst Asylum for Unwed Mothers  is incredibly poignant and utterly heartrending.  The stigma of unwed pregnancy is the driving force behind Dora’s decision to force her daughter to give up her child for adoption.  Through a series of letters written over the years to her beloved baby, the  truth about Alice’s time at Blackhurst and her subsequent search for her child emerges in heartbreaking  detail.

From the first gut wrenching and emotional letter to the final deeply moving missive,  Love, Alice is an absolutely riveting story that is impossible to put down. The plot is a bit predictable but this does not lessen the impact of this touching story. The characters are beautifully developed and although deeply flawed, they are sympathetic and easy to root for.  Barbara Davis’s decision to include the “Magdalene Laundries” in the novel adds an incredible amount of depth and substance to the storyline. The addition of a slight romantic element lightens the story but it also forces Dovie and Austin to deal with the unresolved issues from their previous relationships. I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend beautiful novel of healing and redemption.

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Filed under Barbara Davis, Berkley, Contemporary, Historical, Historical (60s), Love Alice, Rated B+, Review, Romance, Women's Fiction

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

Summary:

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.

Review:

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: The Girls by Emma Cline

Title: The Girls by Emma Cline
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Historical (1969), Mystery, Literary Fiction
Length: 370 pages
Book Rating: B

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

An indelible portrait of girls, the women they become, and that moment in life when everything can go horribly wrong—this stunning first novel is perfect for readers of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence.

Emma Cline’s remarkable debut novel is gorgeously written and spellbinding, with razor-sharp precision and startling psychological insight. The Girls is a brilliant work of fiction.

Review:

Loosely based on Charles Manson and his followers, The Girls by Emma Cline follows fourteen year old Evie Boyd and her involvement with a cult that commits a shocking mass murder.

The summer of 1969 is a tumultuous period in Evie’s life. Her parents are newly divorced and she is often left unsupervised as her mom tries to “find” herself and re-enters the dating scene.  Her only friendship hits a rocky patch so Evie eagerly seizes the opportunity to impress Suzanne, a young woman she has admired from afar. Thoroughly captivated by Suzanne, Evie is soon spending all of her time at the derelict ranch where her new friend lives with Russell and his followers. 

Despite her initial uneasiness, Evie enthusiastically embraces the ideology of the group and her days are spent in a drug and alcohol induced haze. Although slightly uncomfortable with Russell’s sexual attention, she is honored to be chosen by the charismatic leader. However Evie is less than enthused to be selected to “entertain” Mitch Lewis, the musician who is supposed to broker a record deal for Russell. Her night with Mitch marks the beginning of the end for Evie, who is confused by Suzanne’s indifference after their night with the musician. At the same time, Russell and his followers are in the beginning of a downward spiral that culminates in an act of horrific violence that haunts Evie for the rest of her life.

Although unhappy with her life at this point in time, Evie is not rebelling against society like the other people living on the rundown ranch. She is, however, in the throes of an adolescent crush on Suzanne and she will do anything to gain her attention and approval. Less than thrilled with the changes at home, Evie is easily seduced by the atmosphere on the ranch and the illusion of freedom. Already slightly disillusioned with her friend after their night with Mitch, she begins to see Suzanne’s darker side yet she cannot shake her fascination for the older girl. Of course, it is not long until Evie’s rose-colored glasses are rather violently ripped away yet even as an adult, her adulation for Suzanne still remains.

The Girls is a somewhat slow-moving story yet the novel is still incredibly fascinating. Emma Cline is a gifted storyteller whose descriptive prose brings the time period, characters and setting vividly to life.  The characters are brilliantly developed and surprisingly sympathetic despite their heinous act of violence. A reflective yet highly intriguing depiction of how easily someone who feels disenfranchised, unloved and lonely can be drawn into a cult.

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Filed under Emma Cline, Historical, Historical (60s), Literary Fiction, Mystery, Random House, Rated B, Review, The Girls

Review: Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase

Title: Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Genre: Contemporary, Historical (60s), Suspense, Women’s Fiction
Length: 384 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Penguin’s First to Read Program

Summary:

For fans of Kate Morton and Sarah Waters, here’s a magnetic debut novel of wrenching family secrets, forbidden love, and heartbreaking loss housed within the grand gothic manor of Black Rabbit Hall.

Ghosts are everywhere, not just the ghost of Momma in the woods, but ghosts of us too, what we used to be like in those long summers . . .

Amber Alton knows that the hours pass differently at Black Rabbit Hall, her London family’s country estate, where no two clocks read the same. Summers there are perfect, timeless. Not much ever happens. Until, of course, it does.

More than three decades later, Lorna is determined to be married within the grand, ivy-covered walls of Pencraw Hall, known as Black Rabbit Hall among the locals. But as she’s drawn deeper into the overgrown grounds, half-buried memories of her mother begin to surface and Lorna soon finds herself ensnared within the manor’s labyrinthine history, overcome with an insatiable need for answers about her own past and that of the once-happy family whose memory still haunts the estate.

Stunning and atmospheric, this debut novel is a thrilling spiral into the hearts of two women separated by decades but inescapably linked by the dark and tangled secrets of Black Rabbit Hall.

Review:

From the deliciously mysterious prologue until the last page is turned, Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase is a riveting novel that is impossible to put down. The dark and sorrowful events from 1969 continue to reverberate three decades later when bride-to-be Lorna Dunaway’s search for a wedding venue takes her to a dilapidated country estate in Cornwall.

In 1968, the Alton family is deliriously happy when they depart from London to their country estate which they affectionately refer to as Black Rabbit Hall. Hugo and Alton are deeply in love and this happiness is reflected in their four children: teenage twins Amber and Toby and the much younger Barney and Kitty. Vacations at Black Rabbit Hall are idyllic and rather magical as the kids run wild exploring the estate and lazing around the beach. But their happy days come to an abrupt end when their mother dies in a tragic accident and their father Hugo’s ex-girlfriend Caroline Shawcross and her teenage son Lucian enter their lives a short time later.

Lorna is immediately entranced with the ramshackle estate and over her fiancé Jon’s strenuous objections, she accepts the homeowner’s invitation to spend the weekend in the mansion. She feels a strong kinship to the property and after discovering a puzzling carving on a tree that dates back to 1969, her curiosity is piqued. Hoping to uncover the truth about the long ago tragedy, Lorna gently quizzes the owner and her employee, but she is frustrated by their reluctance to talk about the past. Instead, she finds tantalizing clues in photo albums but she soon hits a dead end. After discovering information that is inexplicably linked to her own past, Lorna is ready to return to London when the elderly homeowner finally agrees to reveal the secrets from that unsettled time in 1969.

The heartbreaking events from 1968-1969 are told in a series of flashbacks from teenager Amber’s point of view. Happy and well-adjusted before her mother’s death, Amber is forced to act as a surrogate parent for Kitty and Barney. Kitty manages to emerge from the tragedy relatively unscathed but young Barney remains traumatized by the incident. Twin brother Toby is sent back to boarding school only to be expelled when his anger spills over into violence. The increasingly tense situation takes a dark turn when Hugo insists the family return to Black Rabbit Hall for Christmas later that year where he introduces the children to Caroline and Lucian. Amber is somewhat entranced by Lucian but Toby deeply resents his and his mother’s intrusion on their holiday. This animosity intensifies after Hugo and Caroline marry soon after the one year anniversary of their mother’s death and Amber is torn between her loyalty to Toby and her growing (and forbidden) attraction to Lucian.

With startling plot twists and jaw dropping revelations, Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase is a captivating novel that is quite suspenseful. While not a traditional mystery, this intriguing story is quite atmospheric and vaguely reminiscent of old-fashioned Gothic stories. A fast-paced and compelling read that I absolutely loved and highly recommend!

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Filed under Black Rabbit Hall, Contemporary, Eve Chase, GP Putnams Sons, Historical, Historical (60s), Rated B+, Review, Suspense, Women's Fiction

Review: A Place We Knew Well by Susan Carol McCarthy

place wellTitle: A Place We Knew Well by Susan Carol McCarthy
Publisher: Bantam
Genre: Historical (60s), Literary Fiction
Length: 272 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

Late October, 1962. Wes Avery, a one-time Air Force tail-gunner, is living his version of the American Dream as loving husband to Sarah, doting father to seventeen-year-old Charlotte, and owner of a successful Texaco station along central Florida’s busiest highway. But after President Kennedy announces that the Soviets have nuclear missiles in Cuba, Army convoys clog the highways and the sky fills with fighter planes. Within days, Wes’s carefully constructed life begins to unravel.

Sarah, nervous and watchful, spends more and more time in the family’s bomb shelter, slipping away into childhood memories and the dreams she once held for the future. Charlotte is wary but caught up in the excitement of high school—her nomination to homecoming court, the upcoming dance, and the thrill of first love. Wes, remembering his wartime experience, tries to keep his family’s days as normal as possible, hoping to restore a sense of calm. But as the panic over the Missile Crisis rises, a long-buried secret threatens to push the Averys over the edge.

With heartbreaking clarity and compassion, Susan Carol McCarthy captures the shock and innocence, anxiety and fear, in those thirteen historic days, and brings vividly to life one ordinary family trying to hold center while the world around them falls apart.

Review:

In A Place We Knew Well, Susan Carol McCarthy whisks readers back to a tense (and somewhat forgotten) time in American history. The Cuban missile crisis takes center stage in this drama featuring the Avery family and it is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction that is quite riveting.

Gas station owner Wes Avery has a comfortable life in south Florida but once he notices unusual activity at McCoy Air Force Base, he is struck with a feeling of foreboding. A trip out to the air base coupled with some pretty reliable rumors confirms his worst suspicious: something big is happening. That something turns out to be the Cuban Missile Crisis and this tense situation plays out during an equally anxious and difficult time for his family and their rather idyllic life comes to a stunning end when the crisis is over.

Wes settled in Orlanda, FL with his wife Sarah after World War II. Having seen the horrific aftermath of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima firsthand, Wes knows better than anyone just how devastating the effects of nuclear war can be. He is understandably concerned about the increasingly frightening situation and he has surprising insight into how events might be playing out behind the scenes. Glued to the TV and the newspapers, Wes’s attention is soon divided between the national crisis and the events occurring at home with Sarah and their teenage daughter, Charlotte.

Sarah is already stressed before the crisis begins and over the next two weeks, she is stretched to the breaking point. Emotionally fragile and prone to bouts of depression, she is increasingly overwhelmed as a hurricane heads their way just as she is preparing for an upcoming Civil Defense presentation. Although thrilled with Charlotte’s nomination to the homecoming court, it also dredges up long ago memories of a dark period in her family’s life.  This downward spiral is further complicated by a commonly prescribed cocktail of drugs and ends in a shocking revelation.

The series of events leading up the homecoming dance is a bittersweet period in Charlotte’s life. At the same time she is falling in love for the first time, her childhood innocence is lost when faced with the looming threat of nuclear attack. Her trust is further shaken when a long held family secret is revealed and she is forced grow up fast when Sarah’s condition deteriorates. In the aftermath, Charlotte re-evaluates her plans for the future, and her life is forever altered and somewhat defined by the events of this two week period.

With A Place We Knew Well, Susan Carol McCarthy brilliantly weaves fact and fiction into an extraordinarily mesmerizing story that is thought-provoking, enlightening and emotionally compelling. The historical aspect of the storyline is well researched and presented in such a way that readers cannot help but experience the fear and emotions of the various characters during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Avery family drama is equally gripping and it is impossible not become invested in the final outcome of the events that transpire alongside the national emergency.  An incredibly well-written novel that I highly recommend.

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Filed under A Place We Knew Well, Bantam, Historical (60s), Literary Fiction, Rated B+, Review, Susan Carol McCarthy

Review: Two Across by Jeff Bartsch

two acrossTitle: Two Across by Jeff Bartsch
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Genre: Historical (60s & 70s), Literary Fiction, Romance
Length: 304 pages
Book Rating: C+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

Highly awkward teenager Stanley Owens meets his match in beautiful, brainy Vera Baxter when they tie for first place in the annual National Spelling Bee-and the two form a bond that will change both of their lives.

Though their mothers have big plans for them-Stanley will become a senator, Vera a mathematics professor-neither wants to follow these pre-determined paths. So Stanley hatches a scheme to marry Vera in a sham wedding for the cash gifts, hoping they will enable him to pursue his one true love: crossword puzzle construction. In enlisting Vera to marry him, though, he neglects one variable: she’s secretly in love with him, which makes their counterfeit ceremony an exercise in misery for her.

Realizing the truth only after she’s moved away and cut him out of her life, Stanley tries to atone for his mistakes and win her back. But he’s unable to find her, until one day he comes across a puzzle whose clues make him think it could only have been created by Vera. Intrigued, he plays along, communicating back to her via his own gridded clues. But will they connect again before it’s all too late?

Review:

Two Across by Jeff Bartsch is a quirky yet clever romance between two slightly awkward and geeky protagonists. Spanning about fourteen years from their initial introduction, a love of crossword puzzles helps Stanley Owens and Vera Baxter reconnect time and again only to have their relationship falter under the weight of dishonesty.

Meeting as fifteen year olds at the National Spelling Bee, Vera and Stanley’s long distance friendship culminates in a faux marriage before beginning college. Stanley comes up with the harebrained scheme as a way to gain his freedom from his mother and keep her in the dark about the fact that he is not attending college. Vera goes along with his plan because she is secretly in love with him. As the years pass, Stanley and Vera create crossword puzzles with clues to facilitate their reunions but their relationship implodes time and again when Stanley’s schemes are uncovered and Vera runs away instead of facing their issues.

Stanley is the only child of an agoraphobic mother who has his future all mapped out for him. He is super intelligent but his only career goal is creating crossword puzzles. He dreams up some very elaborate yet ingenious schemes to convince his mom he has been accepted at Harvard and he uses the money from his sham marriage to Vera to keep up the facade. Stanley is content to make just enough money to maintain a simple lifestyle while he creates and submits various crossword puzzles over the years. Stanley’s lackadaisical attitude spills over into his private life with Vera and he is content to just coast along without truly committing to her or putting much effort into taking nurturing their relationship.

Vera is also crazy smart but unlike Stanley, she has clear goals and dreams that she works hard to achieve. She, too, is less than honest about her marriage, but unlike Stanley, she wants a real relationship. However, due to her fear of rejection, Vera keeps quiet about her feelings for him and their romance falls apart time and again when the truth about Stanley’s shenanigans or their relationship is discovered. Finally deciding enough is enough, Vera finally comes clean about their marriage and leaves Stanley behind while she completes her education and focuses on her career.

The premise of Two Across is quite unique but the story quickly gets bogged down in the on again/off again romance between Vera and Stanley. Stanley’s lack of honesty with his mother becomes tiresome as he continually falls back on schemes and lies instead of admitting the truth about what he wants in life. Vera is the more likable of the two but her propensity to run away when trouble strikes is frustrating as is her failure to take a risk and admit her feelings to Stanley. The crossword puzzles are quite fun and the manner in which Jeff Bartsch incorporates them into the plot is rather ingenious. Overall, an inventive romance with a bittersweet conclusion that readers of literary fiction will enjoy.

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Filed under Grand Central Publishing, Historical (60s), Historical (70s), Jeff Bartsch, Literary Fiction, Rated C+, Review, Romance, Two Across