Category Archives: Historical (70s)

Review: All the Best People by Sonja Yoerg

Title: All the Best People by Sonja Yoerg
Publisher: Berkley
Genre: Historical (70s), Women’s Fiction
Length: 368 pages
Book Rating: C+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

An intricately crafted story of madness, magic and misfortune across three generations from the author of The Middle of Somewhere and House Broken

Vermont, 1972. Carole LaPorte has a satisfying, ordinary life. She cares for her children, balances the books for the family’s auto shop and laughs when her husband slow dances her across the kitchen floor. Her tragic childhood might have happened to someone else.

But now her mind is playing tricks on her. The accounts won’t reconcile and the murmuring she hears isn’t the television. She ought to seek help, but she’s terrified of being locked away in a mental hospital like her mother, Solange. So Carole hides her symptoms, withdraws from her family and unwittingly sets her eleven-year-old daughter Alison on a desperate search for meaning and power: in Tarot cards, in omens from a nearby river and in a mysterious blue glass box belonging to her grandmother.

An exploration of the power of courage and love to overcome a damning legacy, All the Best People celebrates the search for identity and grace in the most ordinary lives.

CONVERSATION GUIDE INCLUDED

Review:

Written from four distinct perspectives and weaving back and forth in time, All the Best People by Sonja Yoerg is an engaging novel about mental illness and to a lesser extent, social injustice between the wealthy and poor.

In 1972, Carole Gifford La Porte is a mother of three who works with her husband Walt in the family’s car repair business. When she begins forgetting things and hearing voices, she is quick to assume her recent insomnia is responsible for her mind playing tricks on her. However, she cannot ignore her family’s history of mental illness since her own mother, Solange, has been a permanent resident of the Underhill State Hospital ever since her father had her committed thirty-four years earlier. As Carole’s condition worsens, she continues hiding her symptoms from her family and she begins growing paranoid and fearful of those around her.

Carole and Walt’s eleven year old daughter Alison is becoming increasingly frustrated by her mother’s bizarre behavior. She is also quite upset by her mom’s refusal to help with the normal preparations for the upcoming school year. When her attempts to bring her mom’s strange actions to her father’s attention do not yield results, Alison tries casting spells and other supernatural phenomena to try to help her mother.

Thirty four year old Janine is nothing like her older sister Carole. Her birth is the catalyst for their father to commit their mother to the state hospital and Carole is the only maternal figure in her life. Janine is incredibly self-absorbed and she will go to any lengths to try to get her way.& Her actions throughout the story are extremely self centered and her final efforts to snag a husband go horribly wrong.

The middle part of the story centers on Solange and her marriage. Solange meets and marries her wealthy husband back in the 1920s and at first the differences in their family’s socioeconomic status makes no difference in their lives. Solange is initially content to view the world through her husband’s eyes but as she witnesses her poverty stricken family struggle to survive during the Depression, she begins forming her own opinions on the division between the classes. Her once happy marriage begins to flounder and in a moment of anger, Solange makes an ill-fated choice that will reverberate for generations.

The premise of All the Best People is quite unique and the historical elements are fascinating. However, Carole’s worsening mental health symptoms become repetitive and somewhat annoying. While it is initially plausible that she successfully conceals her symptoms from her immediate family, there comes point when it is impossible to believe that Walt and their sons do not become more concerned about her increasingly strange behavior.

All the Best People is a well-researched novel that touches on some very relevant social issues. The portions of the storyline which focus on the Solange’s history and Carole’s attempts to hide her symptoms from her family are gripping but Janine’s ridiculous attempts to snare a husband are, for the most part, an unnecessary distraction. Sonja Yoerg does an outstanding job educating readers on classism and the horrifying mental health practices that are thankfully no longer used. Overall, it is an interesting read that is quite informative.

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Filed under All the Best People, Berkley, Historical, Historical (70s), Rated C+, Review, Sonja Yoerg

Review: Among the Lesser Gods by Margo Catts

Title: Among the Lesser Gods by Margo Catts
Publisher: Arcade Publishing
Genre: Historical (70s), Women’s Fiction
Length: 336 pages
Book Rating: A

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss

Summary:

For fans of authors like Barbara Kingsolver and Leif Enger, a stunning new voice in contemporary literary fiction.

“Tragedy and blessing. Leave them alone long enough, and it gets real hard to tell them apart.”

Elena Alvarez is living a cursed life. From the deadly fire she accidentally set as a child, to her mother’s abandonment, and now to an unwanted pregnancy, she knows better than most that small actions can have terrible consequences. Driven to the high mountains surrounding Leadville, Colorado by her latest bad decision, she’s intent on putting off the future. Perhaps there she can just hide in her grandmother’s isolated cabin and wait for something—anything—to make her next choice for her.

Instead, she is confronted by reflections of her own troubles wherever she turns—the recent widower and his two children adrift in a changed world, Elena’s own mysterious family history, and the interwoven lives within the town itself. Bit by bit, Elena begins to question her understanding of cause and effect, reexamining the tragedies she’s held on to and the wounds she’s refused to let heal.

But when the children go missing, Elena’s fragile new peace is shattered. It’s only at the prospect of fresh loss and blame that she will discover the truth of the terrible burdens we take upon ourselves, the way tragedy and redemption are inevitably intertwined—and how curses can sometimes lead to blessings, however disguised.

Review:

Among the Lesser Gods by Margo Catts is an emotional novel of self-discovery, self forgiveness and redemption.

Twenty-two year old Elena Alvarez is no stranger to making mistakes that culminate with life-altering consequences. On the brink of graduating from college, she is unsure what comes next for her when her beloved grandmother offers her a safe refuge in Leadville, CO. Trying to outrun her past while planning for her future, Elena wonders if she is the best person to take care of two grieving children while their father is out on the road. Unexpectedly connecting with her charges, eleven year old Kevin and five year old Sarah, Elena’s attempts to help them heal from their loss have a surprising effect on the wounds she carries from her own somewhat tragic past.

Having never been given the opportunity to deal with the defining moment of her life, Elena self-sabotages herself at every juncture. Always trying to outrun her missteps without examining the reason she makes such ill-fated decisions, Elena’s latest error in judgment results in an unexpected pregnancy. She is only planning to remain in CO temporarily as she tries to decide whether or not she wants to keep her baby or give it up for adoption. While neither option feels quite right, Elena does not think she has what it takes to raise a child but will she change her mind by summer’s end?

Elena is initially out of her element as she begins caring for Kevin and Sarah.  Armed with advice from her grandmother, she manages to make surprisingly sound decisions about how she and the kids spend their days. However, she feels like she is well of her depth when it comes to the messy emotions and small dramas that crop up with the children. As Elena offers helpful advice to Kevin and Sarah, she is quite shocked to discover these life lessons also apply to her. These shifts in her perception and the meaningful discussions with her grandmother are rather eye opening and prove to be quite healing. With this newfound awareness, Elena arrives at startling conclusions about some of the motivation for the choices she has made throughout her life. Armed with a fresh outlook and finally forgiving herself for the mistakes of her past, will Elena decide to keep her baby? Will she remain in Leadville?

Among the Lesser Gods is a poignant yet heartwarming novel that is quite captivating. The storyline is well-written and quite thought-provoking. The characters are richly developed and multi-faceted with relatable strengths and weaknesses. Elena is easy to relate to and it is an absolute joy watching her forgive herself for past mistakes and begin making plans for her future. The setting is absolutely perfect and Margo Catts brings both the town and its residents vibrantly to life. An utterly marvelous debut that is deeply affecting and will linger in readers’ hearts and minds long after the last page is turned.

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Filed under Among the Lesser Gods, Arcade Publishing, Historical, Historical (70s), Margo Catts, Rated A, Review

Review: Setting Free the Kites by Alex George

Title: Setting Free the Kites by Alex George
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Genre: Historical (70s), Fiction
Length: 334 pages
Book Rating: B+

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

Summary:

From the author of the “lyrical and compelling” (USA Today) novel A Good American comes a powerful story of two friends and the unintended consequences of friendship, loss, and hope.

For Robert Carter, life in his coastal Maine hometown is comfortably predictable. But in 1976, on his first day of eighth grade, he meets Nathan Tilly, who changes everything. Nathan is confident, fearless, impetuous—and fascinated by kites and flying. Robert and Nathan’s budding friendship is forged in the crucible of two family tragedies, and as the boys struggle to come to terms with loss, they take summer jobs at the local rundown amusement park. It’s there that Nathan’s boundless capacity for optimism threatens to overwhelm them both, and where they learn some harsh truths about family, desire, and revenge.

Unforgettable and heart-breaking, Setting Free the Kites is a poignant and moving exploration of the pain, joy, and glories of young friendship.

Review:

Setting Free the Kites by Alex George is a nostalgic yet poignant coming of age novel which takes place on the coast of Maine during the mid seventies.

In 2016, the demolition of a long vacant paper mill is the catalyst for Robert Carter’s recollections of his long ago friendship with Nathan Tilly.  The two boys meet in 1976 after Nathan’s family relocates to Haverford from Texas.  Thirteen year old Robert notices Nathan right away, but he is more concerned about bully Hollis Calhoun than making new friends. Just as Hollis is visiting a new torture on his poor, beleaguered victim, bold and brash Nathan steps in to rescue Robert.  Nathan’s adventurous spirit and indomitable zest for life is the perfect foil for Robert’s more cautious approach to life and the two boys enjoy many fun-filled exploits over the course of their friendship.

The youngest of the Carter sons, Robert is often eclipsed by his older brother Liam who suffers from Duchenne muscular dystrophy.  Their parents dote on Liam while his health deteriorate as his disease worsens.  Robert adores Liam yet he is ever mindful of the very different relationships the two boys have with their parents.  Not one to rock the boat (or break the rules), Robert tries to keep out of trouble and the limelight since his parents have enough to worry about with Liam’s illness.

Robert’s unexpected friendship with Nathan is one escapade after another as the two boys run free and embark on fun-filled days out of the sight of their parents.  Nathan’s unbridled optimism is a stark contrast to Robert’s fears and concerns yet Robert is always quick to overcome his doubts about whatever exploit Nathan proposes.  Even in the midst of heartbreaking losses, they manage to find a way to step outside their grief and find happiness in each other’s company.  Not even the mundane jobs they undertake at Robert’s family amusement park can put a damper on their exploits but even the strongest bonds can be tested when one of the boys discovers his first love.

While the overall story is incredibly heartfelt and enjoyable, there are a few things that occur toward the end of the novel that need mentioning.  Without giving away any spoilers, here are a few observations about the most notable revelations and plot twists.  Late in the story, one of the characters does something that is so out of character that is impossible to believe.  Heavy foreshadowing from the first chapter hints at one of the events that occurs so it should not come as a surprise to readers once it finally happens.  And the final plot twist is an absolute delight and explains an awful lot about one of the secondary characters.

Setting Free the Kites is a very moving novel of friendship that is quite compelling. The coastal setting is harsh yet beautiful Alex George brings it vibrantly to life. Robert and Nathan are wonderfully developed characters that are multi-dimensional and so life-like it is difficult to believe they are fictional.  The storyline is engaging and although each family experiences devastating losses, the boys’ adventures and natural resiliency prevent the novel from becoming bogged down in grief.  Readers will appreciate the touching epilogue that completely wraps up any loose ends.  An extremely heartwarming and engaging story that will appeal to readers of all ages.

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Filed under Alex George, Fiction, GP Putnams Sons, Historical, Historical (70s), Rated B+, Review, Setting Free the Kites

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: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

Title: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Genre: Historical (70s, 80s), Fiction
Length: 353 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

A beautiful and provocative love story between two unlikely people and the hard-won relationship that elevates them above the Midwestern meth lab backdrop of their lives.

As the daughter of a drug dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. It’s safer to keep her mouth shut and stay out of sight. Struggling to raise her little brother, Donal, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible adult around. Obsessed with the constellations, she finds peace in the starry night sky above the fields behind her house, until one night her star gazing causes an accident. After witnessing his motorcycle wreck, she forms an unusual friendship with one of her father’s thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold.

By the time Wavy is a teenager, her relationship with Kellen is the only tender thing in a brutal world of addicts and debauchery. When tragedy rips Wavy’s family apart, a well-meaning aunt steps in, and what is beautiful to Wavy looks ugly under the scrutiny of the outside world. A powerful novel you won’t soon forget, Bryn Greenwood’s All the Ugly and Wonderful Things challenges all we know and believe about love.

Review:

Set against a bleak and desolate landscape of dysfunction, abuse and neglect, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is nevertheless a captivating, albeit occasionally uncomfortable, novel that culminates in forbidden love.  Although this story may not appeal to all readers, it is a testament to Bryn Greenwood’s incredible skill as an author that she manages to turn  a relationship  that is considered unpalatable and unacceptable into a powerful and riveting love story.

Wavonna “Wavy” Quinn is the daughter of a meth cooker and a drug addicted mom suffering from mental illness who have both spent time in jail.  During her mother Val’s incarceration when Wavy is five years old, she experiences a “normal” life for the first time, but unfortunately, as soon as Val is paroled, she regains custody of her daughter and her baby son, Donal.  While life with Val is much improved as she adheres to her treatment plan, when Wavy’s father Liam re-enters the picture, the family moves to the isolated farm where Liam runs his drug lab. Life continues to go downhill for Wavy as she cares for baby Donal while her mom gives into her addiction and continues to experience the highs, lows and delusional thoughts from her untreated mental illness(es). Liam uses his good looks to charm the women who work for him and although he is spends little time with his family, when he is around, he is both physically and emotionally abusive to both Val and Wavy. Life becomes more bearable for Wavy when she is eight years old and she meets much older Jesse Joe Kellen. The bond between them is unshakable and by the time she enters her early teen years, their feelings for one another have begun to cross into romantic territory.

Forced to grow up entirely way too fast, Wavy is heartbreakingly sympathetic character who takes her mother’s wild rants to heart.  With a host of inexplicable habits that horrify and confound the people around her, she says little and puts up with abuse and neglect that no one, let alone a child, should ever have to endure.  Therefore, it is not at all surprising when she becomes completely enamored by Kellen.  Although Kellen is an ex-con and a low-level criminal, he is the only person in Wavy’s life to show  any kindness, care or concern for her well-being.  In the midst of chaos, Kellen is a stabilizing force who ensures Wavy continues her education and provides many of the basics she needs in order to care for herself and her brother.  Entirely enrapt with the one person who provides her unconditional love and comfort , Wavy’s innocent affection  for Kellen gradually blossoms into love as she enters her early teen years.

Kellen’s past is almost as tragic as Wavy’s yet he remains kind-hearted and caring despite his abusive childhood and his criminal background.  He is immediately drawn to Wavy and his interest in her is completely innocent and above reproach for the first several years of their relationship.  Although he is a high school dropout, he is a skilled mechanic who easily recognizes Wavy’s above average intelligence. Taking her under his wing, Kellen takes his role as her protector seriously as he makes sure she attends school and steps in to assist her wherever she needs his help.

Spanning fifteen years, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is written from multiple points of view, including Wavy’s and Kellen’s.  While it seems impossible to believe, the evolution of Wavy and Kellen’s relationship into a taboo romance is natural and believable, albeit somewhat disturbing to outsiders looking in (and readers).  Although somewhat uncomfortable once the story moves into sexual territory, the scenes between Wavy and Kellen are non-gratuitous and tastefully written.  Wavy is rather precocious and since her world is full of inappropriate relationships, she sees absolutely no reason she should not love or desire Kellen.  Older yet damaged and emotionally stunted, Kellen is taken off guard by his shifting emotions for Wavy and in his defense, he does try hard to keep their relationship platonic.  Just as his plan for their future begins to come together, Wavy’s parents careen toward a disastrous end that threatens to tear Kellen and Wavy apart permanently.

Raw, gritty and dark, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is one of those novels that grabs a reader by the heart and never lets go. Bryn Greenwood is a phenomenally gifted storyteller who does not hesitate to delve into controversial or difficult subject matter.  An amazingly gusty risk that I am so glad she decided to take because Wavy and Kellen’s story is an incredible journey that is heartrending yet unexpectedly uplifting.  An enthralling novel that might be considered taboo, but ultimately speaks to power of love.

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Filed under All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Bryn Greenwood, Fiction, Historical, Historical (70s), Historical (80s), Rated B+, Review, Thomas Dunne Books

Review: Age of Consent by Marti Leimbach

Title: Age of Consent by Marti Leimbach
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Genre: Contemporary, Historical (70s), Fiction
Length: 336 pages
Book Rating: C

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

From the author of Daniel Isn’t Talking and Dying Young comes a shattering new novel, a page-turner about a sexual relationship between a grown man and a newly teenaged girl.

June was a young widow with a hopeless crush on Craig Kirtz, a disc jockey at a local rock station. To her surprise, the two struck up a friendship that seemed headed for something more. But it was June’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Bobbie, whom Craig had wanted all along. Bobbie thought her secret life—the sex, the drugs, the illicit relationship itself—could remain safely buried in the past. But thirty years later, when Bobbie discovers Craig’s attentions to her had been repeated with any number of girls, she returns home with one purpose in mind: to bring Craig to trial.

Her decision is greeted with mixed feelings. Some people think that bringing charges against someone for a crime committed so many years ago is unjustified. She’s called a “middle-aged woman with a vendetta.” She’s accused of waging war against her own family. But the past has a way of revealing itself, and some relationships lie dormant through the years, ready to stir to life at the
slightest provocation.

June remembers things differently from the way Bobbie does. Craig insists he has done nothing wrong. As their traumatic history is relived in the courtroom, Bobbie and June must come to terms with the choices they made and face the truth they have long refused to acknowledge. Told with warmth and compassion, this is a moving, deeply absorbing story of a family in crisis.

Review:

Age of Consent by Marti Leimbach is an unflinchingly honest novel about a woman who was sexually abused when she was a teenager who finally tries to get justice thirty years later.  The subject matter is dark and disturbing yet the rambling, disjointed narrative does not do the topic justice.

In the late 70s, Bobbie became the victim of a sexual predator whom her mom later married.  In 2008, Bobbie brings charges against him for the long ago crime.  What should be a compelling court case in the present becomes muddled by extraneous details and a meandering storyline that flashes back and forth between past and present.  The present day narrative is concise yet contains a few troubling coincidences that diminish the impact of the court case.  There is evidence that could corroborate key facts in the case, yet somehow the prosecutor fails to see it.  The courtroom scenes fall flat and the lack of clear resolution is a bit of a disappointment when taking into consideration the fact that a key witness has an epiphany that could turn the entire case around.

The flashbacks contain horrifying details of fifteen year old Bobbie’s abuse at the hands of twenty-eight year old disc jockey Craig Kirtz yet these details are often lost in tedious passages that do little to explain why Bobbie was drawn to a man with absolutely no charm or redeeming qualities.  Bobbie’s scenes with Craig are harrowing and her fear and disgust are palpable.  The fact she kept the relationship a secret from her mother is easy to understand since teenagers often remain silent in these types of situations.  Bobbie’s shame later in life is realistic as is her underlying belief she is somehow responsible for what happened to her as a teenager.  Bobbie’s explanation for the series of event that led up to her involvement with Craig occurs so late in the story that it almost feels like an afterthought.

However, what is most perplexing is why Bobbie’s mother, June, was so thoroughly enthralled with Craig in the first place.  Yes, his job as a disc jockey made him a “celebrity” of sorts, but his behavior is so appalling that is impossible to understand what she found so appealing about him.  And the fact that June was able to overlook and explain away certain details that should have been major red flags is mindboggling.

Age of Consent by Marti Leimbach does manage to end on positive note but overall, the novel is a bit of a disappointing read.  While some parts of the story are unsatisfying, it is a gritty and realistic portrayal of how sexual predators groom their victims and coerce them into keeping silent about the inappropriate relationship.

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Filed under Contemporary, Fiction, Historical, Historical (70s), Rated C, Review