Cover Image: Factory Girls

Factory Girls

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Factory Girls, by Michelle Gallen, takes ages to get moving — the beginning is bleak, swear-heavy poverty p0rn. This is the textbook answer in case someone ever asks you, what does gritty mean on a book blurb? Too many characters are introduced at once, which felt realistic but also limited getting to know the characters. It took ages for Maeve’s friends to separate into two different people, not just Friend and Posh Friend. Once it gets moving, the story is unfolds in a web of flashbacks, slow descriptions of daily life, and huge shocks.

In the beginning of Factory Girls, Maeve’s just finished school and is waiting for her exam results to come back and tell her whether she’s placed into university in the fall. Worrying about exam results and waiting to move on and start a new life is such a key part of coming-of-age stories. But the book’s tension isn’t from wondering if she’ll get out of town, it’s about who she’s going to become when she gets out. Is she going to hide her background or not? Is she going to succeed or is the gap too wide? This summer in the factory is meant to be just marking time and trying to save up some cash before her real life starts. There are some really engaging coming-of-age realizations here, both for Maeve and her friends.

Maeve convinces her two best friends to get factory jobs with her over the summer, and then convinces her friend Caroline to rent an apartment with her. The factory is mixed which means she and her Catholic friends have to interact with Protestants without anyone blowing up the other side. Aoife, the posh friend, agrees to work with them for the experience, but she doesn’t go in with them on the apartment, because her home life is already much nicer and because her parents have already taught her that rent is throwing money away. Meanwhile, there’s one telling line about how Maeve doesn’t have any useful career connections because no one in her family actually has a job.

There’s a small scene when Aoife and James, her brother, cook spaghetti and bolognese sauce, and although Maeve likes it, she also realizes that her usual spag bol packet made with vodka instead of red wine isn’t really how that’s supposed to taste. (It’s not a gritty novel if the characters aren’t constantly eating the most unappetizing foods, is it?) Spaghetti night is ruined for her, because now she knows the better kind exists.

The overall mood of this novel is just… dreary and depressing. Some of this is intentional, the descriptions of generational poverty and constant violence between Catholics and Protestants should be depressing. But for me, even when the plot turns very dramatic towards the end, the overall feeling is a downer. Even if some characters make it out, the Troubles are still overwhelming the town.

I thought it took ages for the main story to go anywhere, and I was also frustrated when some of the tantalizing hints about minor characters and subplots were never really explored. As a I read, I had a strange feeling that I was reading the unfinished notes to a truly moving novel, with a coming-of-age story, secrets in the factory and wider implications for the time of the Irish Troubles. But it wasn’t quite there.

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Summary: A moving glimpse into a small, struggling town full of hilarious and fierce women in Northern Ireland in 1994.

During the summer after their senior year of high school, Maeve and her two best friends await exam results that will determine whether they get into college - their one chance to escape their small town, wracked with violence and poverty in the midst of The Troubles. The girls get summer jobs at a local shirt factory run by a wealthy Englishman. Maeve finds their boss at once finds smarmy, swindling and oddly sexy.
The book is a time capsule of the mid-nineties in County Donegal. It explores the basic tribal instincts that animate both Protestants and Catholics, the poverty and violence that permeate the town. It also examines the dynamics of workplace sexual harassment in a disturbingly honest way.

Rye humor and sarcasm animate every page. But the themes are dark, and Gallen does not shy away from a starkly honest portrayal of life as a young woman in a conflict zone. Much moreso than Gallen’s prior work, Big Girl, Small Town (set shortly after the end of The Troubles), Factory Girls is overt in its portrayal of conflict, fear and hate. Several scenes are built around violent events.

It can take a minute to get used to the local Irish dialect in which the book is written. But once you do, the overall plot and character development sing, the jokes are killer and the ending is superb.

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First published in Great Britain in 2022; published by Algonquin Books on November 29, 2022

Factory Girls takes place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The background of religious and political division balances the novel’s humor. The story is also infused with biting commentary on the role of gender and class in the UK. While those serious themes evolve until they give weight to a simple story, the bright and opinionated protagonist assures the reader of a serious laugh on nearly every page.

Maeve Murray is a Catholic who grew up with the Troubles. She isn’t as affected by bombings and deaths as members of her parents’ generation; they seem a normal part of her life. But when news reports exaggerate the harm caused by an IRA bomb that a local had dismantled before the bomb squad arrived to set it off, Maeve decides to become a journalist. She’s tired of slanted media coverage and wants to bring a perspective of truth to the news — not that she expects to be assigned to serious news coverage, given her gender.

Maeve has taken her A-levels and has been accepted into University College in London if the results meet the university’s standards. She won’t know until mid-August. To earn some money and pass the time, she spends the summer working at the local shirt factory with her two best friends, Caroline and Aoife. Her job is to iron shirts.

Initially, the plot follows Maeve as she drinks with her friends after work and lusts after the few attractive men in her life. She writes off most of the men she sees in the pub because they have entered their thirties and are “fat and filthy.” Although she despises the man, she feels a pleasant physical response whenever she sees the factory owner, Andy Strawbridge. Andy drives a Jag and has a reputation for giving lifts home to factory girls so he can “park up some lonely lane” and get blown by his girl of choice.

Strawbridge has taken a development grant after promising to employ both Protestants and Catholics. His factory is non-union and his pay is predictably substandard, for which he blames cheap labor in less developed countries. Some of the factory workers, including Maeve, decide to investigate Strawbridge’s business operation. They don’t like what they find.

Maeve is also suspicious of the factory’s ability to unify a divided city. By the novel’s end, Maeve is disgusted with attempts to bring unity that are nothing but showmanship. Catholics and Protestants on the same quiz team need to be driven to the quiz by armed British escorts. Armed guards also transport a choir that sings songs of peace. Maeve comes to believe that covering the divisions with pretty wallpaper won’t end the bombings. She wants to get religion out of schools, to integrate schools and neighborhoods and the police, but effective solutions are more difficult than singing “Imagine” to students who have been raised to hate practitioners of a religion they do not share.

Maeve’s suspicion that Strawbridge is not to be trusted underlies the plot. Most of the story, however, is devoted to Maeve’s observations of life and interactions with her two friends. Aoife’s parents are more affluent than the other families Maeve knows, and Aoife is grateful that Maeve doesn’t hold her social class against her. Caroline is nearly as bright as Maeve and Aoife but less ambitious. She doesn’t know whether she wants to leave a hometown that will only prove to be a dead end if she stays.

Maeve has been reading Dale Carnegie to learn how to get along with co-workers but being artificial isn’t in her nature. Her feisty personality accounts for most of the novel’s humor. Maeve’s Northern Irish voice is wonderful. Here she describes a recently opened coffee shop: “McHugh’s Brews was bunged with wee women murmuring over an iced bun and tearing the arse out of a pot of tea.” On Aoife’s innocence: “If Aoife fell into a barrel of cocks she’d come out sucking her own thumb.” On generational differences: “Her mam’s generation had been mad for civil rights and the marching before the TV mast had boosted its signal and the improved reception settled their heads.”

Maeve is astonished to discover that the religious differences between Catholics and Protestants are slight (a couple of words in a prayer, slightly different church rituals) yet the differences lead to segregation, unequal opportunities, and violence. Maeve marvels that Protestant and Catholic women alike are treated as insignificant servants by the men who make all the decisions, even when all their decisions are wrong. She wonders at the national condemnation of abortion when everyone knows that women who can raise the money go to England and return relieved of their pregnancies while the men who knocked them up pretend that nothing ever happened.

The ending resolves the main plot threads and offers some clues as to what the future might hold for the three girls. Of course, the Troubles won’t be (partially) resolved for a few more years, while the cultural issues that depress Maeve will not likely be resolved in her generation. The novel’s ending is nevertheless as happy as it can be while remaining honest. If Michelle Gallen decides to check in on Maeve ten years from now, I’d stand in line to pick up the book.


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"You can talk sh*te about your Irish blood but ah'll tell ye for free, you're sure as f*ck not Irish."


Maeve, Aoife and Caroline are three Catholic friends living the summer between high school and college in a small town in Northern Ireland in the 1990's. They go for a job at the local shirt factory where the workers are both Protestants and Catholics and learn what really goes on in the lives of the adults around them. Quickly they see how the factory exploits the poor, working them to the bone. The manager of the place is a bit of a lech making Maeve feel uncomfortable right from the get go. The girls begin learn that their differences aren't as stark as their similarities and that there may be even bigger, more sinsiter forces at work behind it all.

I really enjoyed living with Maeve, she is a teen on the cusp of adulthood realizing just how much she doesn't know about the world. Her viewpoints on the Troubles and the impact the violence and separatism had on her was so visceral. The ideas that were pervasive in that time separated logical and kind people so deeply that the chasm between them was almost impossible to cross. Maeve and her friends learn some lessons and teach us some as well. The writing is definitely a little gritty and at first it's a bit uncomfortable, so if that's not for you, I encourage you to stick with it. I'm glad I did.

Thanks to Algonquin Books for the gifted copy. All opinions above are my own.

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A very thought provoking novel! I enjoyed the plot development and the direction that the characters took. I'm looking forward to reading more books by Michelle.

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4 stars
arc copy review

historical fiction, Irish, historical literature, Ireland, friendship, humor, factory worker, college-bound, strong female characters

I really enjoyed this story as it gave us a view of the lives of women who are working to get some extra income at a time when their country is experiencing turmoil and the future looks bleak if college exam scores are not great. The bonds of sisterhood were as funny as they were endearing because they had to stick together.

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An intriguing book set in 90s North Ireland during the Troubles. Maeve is 18 years old and is working in a shirt factory to save money for college while waiting for her GSCE results. An insightful look into class, religious difference and gender as Maeve deals with issues of working in a mixed factory and dealing with people trying to prevent her from succeeding in life. Characters are well written and the narrative keeps you interested in finding out what happens to them and if they make it through the tumultuous times.

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I’ve been looking to find something to fill the Derry Girls hole in my life and Factory Girls is out at the perfect time!

Maeve Murray is waiting for her final exam results to finally get out of the small Northern Irish town she has grown up in during the Troubles. She’s also dealing with the death of her sister and she’s trying to get in through life without her. While she’s waiting, Maeve and a few friends get jobs working at the local shirt factory ironing shirts. It’s hot and hard labor, but it affords Maeve enough to move out of her Mam’s house. The factory is an interesting place as Catholics and Protestants work along side each other; just trying to make their daily quotas. Maeve is wary of her boss who seems too slick and just as she’s trying to keep her head down, things gain tension at her factory when the British soldiers march around the factory. Can Maeve stay quiet? Or will she need to stand up for what she believes in?

I loved this book! It is a little hard to read without saying the words out loud in an Irish accent, but I really think that added to the charm of the novel. I’ve always been fascinated by the Troubles and this novel definitely helped explain a lot of what was going on. I loved that Maeve just wanted to be a normal girl going to college for journalism, but ended up with first hand experience. I also loved Maeve’s giant family and their bickering felt very real. The 90s time period was also wonderful with lots of pop culture references to music and movies.

Thank you to @algonquinbooks and @michellegallenauthor for my gifted copy.

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A Fierce Feminist Take on the Troubles in Factory Girls
Author: Amy Reardon |
Posted In Book Reviews, Fiction

Factory Girls
Michelle Gallen
Algonquin | November 29, 2022

War stories have a long tradition of centering the experiences of men. Take last year’s major film release, Belfast, a Troubles story told in the classic fashion: men and violence to the front; women to the back, please, to support the men and suffer in silence.

In Factory Girls, however, Michelle Gallen breathes new life into Troubles literature, presenting a fresh, modern view of 1994 revolutionary Ireland. Gallen, who grew up in near the border of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, grapples with local violence but also sexism, abortion, desire, body image, mental health, and generational trauma, following three young women who take summer jobs in a shirt factory before they head off to university. In doing so, she weaves a story of small-town Northern Ireland that stretches far beyond its borders.

The story’s narrator comes alive in the opening line: “Maeve Murray was just eighteen years old when she first met Andy Strawbridge but she knew he was a fucker the minute she laid eyes on him.” To save for college, Maeve and her two best friends, Aoife and Caroline, decide to get jobs at the local shirt factory, the only employer in their Northern Ireland town.

But the boss has a reputation. “She’d heard stories about him taking his pick of the factory girls, offering them lifts home where he’d park his Jag up some lonely lane so he could get a blowjob from whoever was belted into the front passenger seat.” Things get complicated when Maeve is asked to the boss’s office for an interview. “Andy didn’t touch her CV. Instead, he sat licking her with his eyes.”

The novel’s timeline is set to a ticking clock, building tension as each new workday brings the friends one day closer to the exam results that will confirm their college admissions. “When they come out in August, I’m getting the frig out of this place.” If their exam results are poor, however, they could be stuck in their hometown forever.

In the meantime, Maeve learns to iron one hundred shirts a day. She grows strong from physical labor. Gallen’s descriptions of life in the factory are fascinating, ranging from wage disputes to the way high-quality fabric runs like butter under an iron. “Her body and factory time disappeared as she went into autopilot. She didn’t have to think about the frigging factory or who was working in it when she became a part of it.”

Harassment and conflict are rampant in the factory. One day the boss shows up at Maeve’s ironing board, slips two fingers under her arms and makes “a gentle circular motion that ticked her ribs…she whirled around to face him. Then she realized that her bra was undone.” Here’s what makes Maeve such a credible narrator: in addition to her deliciously sharp tongue, she is full of contradictions: “The sound of the leather chair creaking under his arse did something funny to Maeve’s lady garden.”

While the three young women sew, iron, and drink vodka with orange soda through their last summer together, their cultural critique of 1994 is spot-on. Maeve’s family, we learn, took Coke’s side “in the Coke vs Pepsi war.” Aoife observes one night, “You know, I always think it’s kind of strange…that we live here, in this town, where going to the pub is taking your life in your hands, and yet we’re supposed to care about what size our bums are.”

Finally, in the book’s most intense and deeply moving scene, Maeve and her sister are victims of a school bombing during a dress rehearsal of The Wizard of Oz, a remarkable prelude, perhaps, to the school shootings that have become commonplace in America.

Factory Girls enriches the Troubles narrative with a fierce cast of young women determined to reject the violence of their youth. Even in this deeply divided town, Maeve’s arc bends toward a future that accepts humanity in all its forms. When the Factory Girls leave their little flat overlooking the shirt factory, calling out, “Och, have a lovely evening, dotes,” one really believes they might.

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Eighteen year old Maeve Murray has her future planned out. Waiting for her A-level results to be published, she decides to take a summer job in a shirt factory with her closest friends Aoife and Caroline to earn some money before she moves to London to pursue higher education with the intention of embarking on a career in journalism. She can’t wait to get out of her Northern Ireland town and start a new life. Her first step towards independence is getting a summer job (despite the fact that she has to deal with an unpleasant boss whose treatment of his female employees is disrespectful to say the least) and renting a flat with her friend Caroline near her (temporary) workplace. Over the next few months, we follow Maeve as she adjusts to life as a factory worker, meets new people and makes new friends all the while hoping for a better future.

Michelle Gallen’s Factory Girls is an entertaining novel. Maeve is spirited (a bit brash at times) and resourceful. She observes and learns from her experiences, not all of which might be pleasant. Set in the summer of 1994, in a small town in Northern Ireland during the last years of the Troubles, this novel gives us a vivid picture of the social and political landscapes during those turbulent years. The author touches upon themes of divisiveness between the factions (more political than religious), sectarianism, bias, conflict, sexism and economic hardship, through an engaging narrative and a protagonist you keep rooting for. The narrative is shared from Maeve’s perspectives and we get to know more about her from her memories, which are presented to us through flashbacks. Maeve’s experiences in the factory in a mixed group of people which she considers to be a learning experience that will help her when she moves to London. A likeable protagonist, a cast of interesting characters, a good dose of humor and wit, and the historical context is what works for this novel. However, it took a bit of time to get into the story and felt that the initial fifty percent of the novel suffers from minor repetitiveness. It also took a while to get used to the dialect. Despite some minor flaws, I did enjoy Michelle Galen’s Factory Girls. I can’t help wonder if we will get more stories from the author featuring Maeve, as she embarks on a new life.

Many thanks to Michelle Gallen, Algonquin Books and NetGalley for the advance copy of this novel. All opinions expressed in this review are my own. This novel is due to be released in the USA on November 29, 2022.

My Rating : 3.5⭐️


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Factory Girls by Michelle Gallen had great promise, but I couldn't get into it. The book follows Maeve, a recent high school graduate in Northern Ireland in the mid-90s. She and her 2 best friends get a job in a local factory to save money to leave town. They're Catholic and work alongside Protestants, creating a supposedly contentious situation, but seemingly not really that contentious? I thought the story would be full of young-person shenanigans and navigating the violence in their community. Unfortunately, I gave up 70% of the way through the book when nothing significant had happened.

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The summer after high school graduation, waiting for the test scores that determine if she will to London for university and escape her small Irish town, Maeve takes a job in a factory. Her best friends also get jobs there. It’s 1994, and as good Catholic girls, the friends have spent their lives separated from the Proddies. Now, they will be working with them in the factory.

The factory boss Andy Strawbridge is gorgeous and rich, and uses his allure to his advantage. The girls are warned about him. Maeve is wise and contrary and verbally spars with Andy, very aware of his attractiveness. He seems to favor her.

The novel is well grounded in its time period and place, giving the reader a full sense of the political and religious contentions of the time. Growing up in The Troubles, self protection is second nature. The girls hang at the bar–sure to find seats away from windows where bombs may be thrown in. They know innocent people who have died.

The factory worker’s daily lives at work and in leisure, from the impoverished to the well off, make the bulk of the novel. Maeve and her friends rent an apartment. They go out drinking, learn their jobs, dream about the future.

Maeve and her friends become suspicious that the factory’s finances don’t align. And when paychecks don’t arrive, there is an uprising.

I enjoyed how the novel took me into the reality of Irish life. The threat of violence is always there. There is humor, too, and Maeve is a plucky and spirited gal. I was glad to be reading on my Kindle so I could quickly look up the Irish slang and lingo. It’s an entertaining read.

I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.

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3.75 stars

This gritty Irish coming of age novel is set in the mid 90s during the Troubles. Smart and mouthy Maeve and her two friends are working a stint in a local clothing factory before heading off to London for college.

Maeve has a lot to contend with. She sometimes masks her intelligence behind a caustic wit and in your face attitude. She and her family are still coping with the death by suicide of her sister Deidre. She is being pulled in a lot of different directions -- she is 18 years old and shot through with sexual and intellectual and political confusion. Her friends have different stresses of their own. Her roommate has fallen in love and that threatens to de-rail any plans of leaving. And her friend Aiofe is more of an upper class young woman with the accompanying expectations and stratification.

Maeve's insights on her family, the class system, and the Irish Troubles are keen. In particular she well describes being a Catholic in Northern Ireland and not feeling like she belongs either in the Free State (Republic of Ireland) or in Northern Ireland. And her matter of fact but shattering narratives about bombings, shootings, the marching season and the great divide between Protestants and Catholics are piercing and darkly humorous at the same time.

Thanks to the publisher and to Net Galley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my honest review.

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As an American of Irish descent in the 1990’s I was concerned about “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. I did what little I could; I wrote President Clinton (in the snail mail of the time) and sent letters to the editor of Irish America magazine urging a peaceful solution. Living in Los Angeles, what did I really know? I knew people were fighting each other and people were dying in the land my great grandparents came from. Obviously, you cannot really know what is going on unless you live the life.

In “Factory Girls” Michelle Gallen brings us right back to those streets. In a small Northern Irish town Maeve Murray and her friends are awaiting the results of their academic exams, Maeve hoping to escape to study journalism in London. While waiting, she and her friends find work in a shirt factory for the summer. Being Catholic, she has rarely encountered Protestants and the factory is split between the two groups. There are rumors a peace treaty is imminent and the area is tense as the two sides are stepping up activity in order to be in a better position when and if hostilities are halted.

Maeve is outrageously funny, passionate and sharp and not about to take “gruff” from anyone. Her “posh” friend Aoife comes from an upper-middle class background and sees the world from a different point of view. Another friend, Caroline, is a little less ambitious and does not seem as restless. Looming large is the memory of Deirdre, Maeve’s troubled sister who was unable to cope with their world and resorted to suicide.

I loved the characters in this book and the sense of how hard and dangerous life was like for these people. I understand Michelle Gallen’s previous book “Big Girl, Small Town” is excellent and left some reviewers disappointed in this one. I can only say I look forward to checking out that earlier work, having enjoyed” Factory Girls.”

Thank you to Algonquin Books and NetGalley for providing an advance reader copy in exchange for an honest review. #Factory Girls #NetGalley

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This reads like a darker (but still bitingly funny) version of Derry Girls with a slightly older protagonist. Set during The Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1994, we follow Maeve as she nervously awaits her GCSE results. Her cynicism and bitterness from living in a place that’s been bombed, experienced violence resulting in death, and religious persecution comes through in how she relates to the world, but there’s a healthy dose of humor in her interactions with her fellow factory workers and her friends. It’s a good time, and the characters have plenty of depth in addition to their getting rip-roaringly drunk and flirting and enjoying themselves.

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This was an interesting read set in the 90s in Northern Ireland about girls working at a factory. But tensions between Protestants and Catholics hit the boiling point. Even though this was fiction I got a look at a part of Irish history I didn't know about. I assumed like most Americans that most of the troubles were over after 70s this book showed that they continued into my life time.

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I did not know what to expect when I started this book and I'm so glad I didn't -- it allowed me to fully be submersed in this world immediately. This felt so raw, so real and also completely irreverent. It is honest, tragic, and also hopeful. I really believe everyone should read this book -- it will make you think of the world in a new way and, particularly, Northern Ireland in a way you probably didn't imagine.

This book blew my mind, and I give it my highest recommendation. Factory Girls comes out next week on November 29, 2022, you can purchase HERE, and I hope you consider reading this one!

She didn't want the reunification of Ireland -- anyone with a glimmer of wit knew that the Free State didn't want them: they'd fucked off after Partition, leaving the north in the shit. And she'd no desire to bend over and accept Britain as her lord and master -- centuries of British rule had taught her she could trust the Brits as far as she could throw them. But she wished they'd cop themselves to say, 'Fuck them, fuck the whole lot of them,' before throwing the guns, Semtex, timers and rocket launchers in a pile and pouring the incendiary liquid of their bad memories over the whole frigging lot and setting fire to it. It broke Maeve's heart to imagine being left to themselves -- free of the Brits, relieved of the Free Staters, unencumbered by bosses - to grow up and grow old.

But she'd learned to keep a lid on feelings like that. On most feelings. So she dried her eyes and kept them of the prize: getting the fuck out of the town.

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Big Girl, Small Town was one of my favorite books I read in 2021, so I was so grateful to read Michelle Gallen's newest book in advance.

Coming out on November 29, Factory Girls follows Maeve Murray, who hopes to leave her Northern Irish hometown to study journalism in London. The plot is set among the days Maeve and her friends spend waiting for their A-level results to come out, while also navigating the complexities of 1990s Ireland. When Maeve and her best friends take jobs at the local shirt factory, hoping to save some money for their futures, they are pushed to confront not only local conflicts but also the weight of both the past and the future. Michelle Gallen writes incredibly captivating and realistic female narrators, that are inherently relatable despite the dramatic circumstances of their times.

I loved this book, as I knew I would, and I'm so excited to follow Michelle Gallen's work as she progresses in her career.

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Thanks to NetGalley, author Michelle Gallen, and Algonquin Books for providing me with a free ARC in exchange for my honest review!

Factory Girls was a much more serious read than I was expecting and didn't quite live up to my personal taste. I expected it to be a fun and hilarious book about 3 girls working in a factory during the summer, which in parts it was, but with much of the storyline revolving around unfair working conditions, the conflict in Northern Ireland, and the suicide of Maeve's sister, it can be a decently heavy read. I realized reading this book that I don't know much about Ireland's history, and this book made me want to educate myself more. I thought the characters were all interesting and familiar to me being someone who grew up in a small town, but I did want to see more of Caroline and Aoife. The book focused primarily on Maeve and utilized the other two girls as side characters, sometimes even not delving more into them than other various side characters. For my personal taste, I also did not enjoy the book being written phonetically to "sound" Irish; it was difficult to read at times due to having to sound of the spelling in my head, but I also do applaud the author for making it sound much more authentic! Overall, there were parts of this book I enjoyed and parts that I didn't; this was a mediocre read for my personal taste, but I do think that this book will capture the attention and adoration of other readers.

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The cover is beautiful! The story is as well. It’s also really refreshing to not read a story set in the United States.

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