All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Cold Coast by Robyn Mundy

Cold Coast
Robyn Mundy
Ultimo Press
2021, 272p
Read via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: In 1932, Wanny Woldstad, a young widow, travels to Svalbard, daring to enter the Norwegian trappers’ fiercely guarded male domain. She must prove to Anders Sæterdal, her trapping partner who makes no secret of his disdain, that a woman is fit for the task. Over the course of a Svalbard winter, Wanny and Sæterdal will confront polar bears, traverse glaciers, withstand blizzards and the dangers of sea ice, and hike miles to trap Arctic fox, all in the frigid darkness of the four-month polar night. For Wanny, the darkness hides her own deceptions that, if exposed, speak to the untenable sacrifice of a 1930s woman longing to fulfil a dream.

Alongside the raw, confronting nature of the trappers’ work, is the story of a young blue Arctic fox, itself a hunter, who must eke out a living and navigate the trappers’ world if it is to survive its first Arctic winter.

As soon as I saw a description of this book, I knew I had to read it. Anyone who knows even just the smallest thing about what I can’t resist – settings that are either of the Poles! Whether it be Antarctica or somewhere up in the Arctic Circle, it’s an automatic read for me. This book mostly takes place in Svalbard in northern Norway and is a fictionalised account of a real life pioneer, Ivana (Wanny) Woldstad, the first female trapper.

Wanny, a widow, convinces trapper Anders Sæterdal to take her as his partner on his trapping expedition. It’s a year long job in very remote territory, covering a specified parcel of land that Anders has a right to, trapping mostly bears and foxes but also collecting other animals. If something goes wrong, they’re out of luck as there’s no way to contact help or exit the area until the ship returns for them. They harpoon seals for bait and food and look, if you’re a vegan or a very militant animal rights person, this is not easy reading. This is a long-ago time, it’s brutal and harsh and very descriptive. I’m not vegan or vegetarian but I do not enjoy animals being killed for their pelts and clubbing baby seals and the like is abhorrent to me.

Wanny is such an interesting character – ahead of her time in more ways than one. When she meets Anders, she is driving a taxi, the first woman in Tromso to do so. When she convinces Anders to accept her as a trapping partner, she also changes the game of women being accepted into this world. Although Anders mentions of knowing men who have taken women with them, they are bedwarmers, not partners. Wanny works as hard as any man and grudgingly earns Anders’ respect and admiration as they build themselves into a team.

As well as gaining perspective of the humans intruding into this environment, we meet a fox that Anders and Wanny come to name Little Blue, for the colour of her coat. The book is interspersed with chapters from Little Blue’s perspective, first as a young kit playing rough and tumble with her siblings and learning from their parents how to survive and then later, Little Blue on her own carving out territory, hunting for herself and learning to avoid the traps Anders has set. As well as Little Blue, there are insights into the other animals as well, chapters about a family of polar bears as well as plenty of information about the birds that inhabit this area. Little Blue becomes a beloved character – in order to preserve their pelts, foxes are trapped in a specific way so neither Anders nor Wanny will shoot her, even as she lurks around. Foxes are pests here, introduced by the British and they cause havoc on the native animal population but I have to admit, the Arctic Foxes are quite beautiful. I found myself quite hoping that Little Blue would make it through the season of Anders and Wanny, living to produce her own litters and teach them much as her own mother had taught her and her siblings.

A few times Anders tells Wanny she’s too soft to be a trapper, when she sometimes laments the loss of life. But I didn’t particularly find Wanny “soft” at all. I found her incredibly brave – what a life that would’ve been, far away from medical assistance if required, the difficult conditions. For me here in Australia, I very much find a polar winter impossible to imagine and I definitely don’t want to live through one and work outside during it! I did enjoy the slow emergence of a friendship for Anders and Wanny. It is a tough life, one that requires a certain amount of sacrifice, and we find out just how much Wanny has sacrificed to do this, throughout the story. Wanny’s determination is admirable, her ability to adapt to this environment and in some ways, actually thrive, is incredible. And Anders, despite his gruff exterior and often snap judgements, is a good teacher.

I really enjoyed this. Such an excellent portrayal of this stark, isolated environment and those who populated it. Must read something else by Robyn Mundy, who really does seem to have lived the most fascinating life!

8/10

Book #228 of 2021

Book #95 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

It also qualifies for my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and is book #37

Leave a comment »

Review: The Swift And The Harrier by Minette Walters

The Swift And The Harrier
Minette Walters
Allen & Unwin
2021, 493p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Dorset, 1642. England is on the cusp of civil war.

Jayne Swift, a daughter of the Dorset gentry, has resisted all offers of marriage and instead trained as a physician, using her skills to tend to her Royalist father’s tenants and the local population. When civil war sweeps England she vows to remain neutral and aid the injured whether they be Royalist or Parliamentarian.

William Harrier is first introduced to Jayne as footman to Lacy Alice, a Dorchester parliamentarian, but every time she encounters him, he seems to be in a different guise, and it’s not always clear which side of the war he’s fighting for.

As the battles continue to rage, bringing pain and suffering to both sides, Jayne never wavers in her vow of neutrality. Throughout it all, from the terrifying siege of Lyme Regis, to the execution of the King, she always seems to find herself drawn back to William. But what does she really know of him? His past is a mystery, and his future seems uncertain.

The Swift and the Harrier is a sweeping tale of adventure and loss, sacrifice and love with a unique and unforgettable heroine at its heart.

This was incredible.

I always say how my historical knowledge is pretty bad – I didn’t do a lot of history at school and what we did do was woefully focused on Australian history post 1788. There’s so much more out there and until I picked up this book, I didn’t even really know that there had been an English civil war, which took place between 1642 and 1651 and encompassed three wars. It was a war between the Royalists, who supported the King’s Godly decree of absolute power with a Church that still answered to the King and the Parliamentarians, who were mostly Puritans who were against this absolute rule and favoured a constitutional monarchy arrangement.

Jayne Swift is the daughter of a wealthy Dorset landowner and trained physician, although due to being female she cannot actually refer to herself as such. She has earned a reputation through hard work and the ability to help those unwell with straightforward medical techniques, rather than methods that rely on more religious backgrounds. During an attempt to reach her cousin in order to treat her cousin’s young son she is caught up in a mob watching the execution of a Catholic priest. Stepping into a doorway in order to escape the crowd, she finds that it’s the home of Lady Alice Strickland, who has heard of Jayne after Jayne treated her brother. She introduces Jayne to her footman William, saying he will accompany her to her cousin Ruth’s home. William Harrier is not at all what he seems and each time Jayne crosses his path from then on, he appears to be something different. She has her suspicions about this but keeps them quiet.

Jayne’s father is for the King but Jayne herself remains neutral, determined to treat any who might require it regardless of their allegiance. It’s an admirable trait albeit one that often leads people to regard her warily as they do not believe that one could be entirely neutral in such matters. As a physician, Jayne tires of the fighting and pointless death. When caught in Lyme during a seige from Prince Maurice, the King’s cousin, she implements strict hospital routines and her methods are able to save the lives of many as the war rages around them. She favours salt water and lots of it, clean bandages and a spotless working environment with no possibility of vermin or plague to enter the camp. She’s constantly writing to her tutor, discussing cases and patients, methods and treatments, always learning. Jayne is such an incredibly interesting character, definitely far ahead of her time. She’s almost thirty with no interest in marrying and is often seen travelling unaccompanied to visit her various patients. It can be a dangerous occupation but for the most part, Jayne is unperturbed. Her priorities are always the people that need her.

The amount of research that must’ve been undertaken for this book would be incredible and I honestly felt like the time period came across so vividly. Despite having no background knowledge of this war going in and not googling it or reading any further until I finished the book, I never felt like I didn’t know what was going on and could easily discern who the key players were and what the different sides were about. What I did like was that often the conflict meant that people’s perceptions shifted and changed and that sometimes, families had different members supporting different sides. The human emotions were quite often a focus during this war, not just the battles themselves. Actually given that we are mostly with Jayne, the battles are almost never the focus but there are enough violent descriptions (particularly during the beginning of the book, with the execution scene) that give the reader a showcase of how mob mentality can come into play and how people lose their ability to reason in times of conflict like this. Everything becomes about them being ‘right’ and the other being ‘wrong’ and rarely ever are things that simple.

I also loved the interactions between Jayne and William, who evolved so much as a character throughout the story. Their growing affection for each other is only ever very subtle and the romance plays an incredibly understated role in the story. In fact to use the term romance would almost be inaccurate. But this plays out in the most enjoyable of ways – Jayne and William cross paths often and it really gives them time to know each other and learn about each other. Jayne had refused her father’s every attempt to get her to marry because it would be a rare man whom she could both care for and who would support her in her continued role as a physician.

I loved this – I’m more familiar with Minette Walters as a crime author but I’ve been told she has other historical fiction so I’m definitely adding those to my TBR.

9/10

Book #212 of 2021

This is book #36 of my participation in the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Leave a comment »

Review: Devotion by Hannah Kent

Devotion
Hannah Kent
Picador
2021, 432p
Copy courtesy Pan Macmillan AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Prussia, 1836

Hanne Nussbaum is a child of nature – she would rather run wild in the forest than conform to the limitations of womanhood. In her village of Kay, Hanne is friendless and considered an oddity…until she meets Thea.

Ocean, 1838

The Nussbaums are Old Lutherans, bound by God’s law and at odds with their King’s order for reform. Forced to flee religious persecution the families of Kay board a crowded, disease-riddled ship bound for the new colony of South Australia. In the face of brutal hardship, the beauty of whale song enters Hanne’s heart, along with the miracle of her love for Thea. Theirs is a bond that nothing can break.

The whale passed. The music faded.

South Australia, 1838

A new start in an old land. God, society and nature itself decree Hanne and Thea cannot be together. But within the impossible…is devotion.

This long-awaited novel demonstrates Hannah Kent’s sublime ability with language that creates an immersive, transformative experience for the reader. Devotion is a book to savour.

What a book this was.

I have only read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent but it was sublime and when I heard about this, I knew I had to read it. It’s exactly the sort of historical fiction I’m loving at the moment and I knew the writing would be incredible – which it absolutely was.

It begins in Prussia in 1836, a small group of people who live in a village where they’ve had their religion taken away from them. Their church is chained and locked, the leader having fled somewhere else where he’ll be safe. The people still conduct their ceremonies but they do them at night now, quietly. Hanne lives with her parents and twin brother and she’s…different from the rest of them. Different to the girls who are her age and she’s ostracised, has no friends. Her mother wants her to marry soon but Hanne isn’t interested in that. She’s interested in nature and the things she hears whilst in it. When she meets Thea, part of a new family in the village, they become friends with a deep, deep bond. But Thea’s mother is a Wend (Slavic) and some of the more pious families distrust her deeply. When the whole village decides to emigrate to a far away land, Hanne is determined to never be separated from Thea.

This book went in a direction that I did not expect. At all. In fact there’s one thing that happens that is actually the complete opposite of what I was expecting but I loved that the book surprised me and took me to these unexpected places. The writing is so evocative, I really felt the experiences of the characters: the small village, the snow, the frustration Hanne felt at not living up to the expectations or wishes her mother had for her or wished she would be. And then when they are on the ship to South Australia, a journey that would take 6 months – the misery was palpable. It actually leapt off the page. The descriptions of the cramped quarters, the seasickness, the smells (maybe don’t read that bit whilst eating). And the illness and sadness that not everyone who boarded this ship would make it to their destination and would be buried at sea.

There’s a lot of beauty in this story. It’s a bit of a slow, often meandering story but it perfectly showcases its setting and the way of life of its characters. Hanne is brilliantly rendered, this somewhat awkward girl who knows she isn’t like those around her but I think if left to just be, would be perfectly happy the way she is. It’s the disappointment she perceives from her mother that bothers her. She’s happiest in nature, listening, being. I really liked the sibling bond she had with her twin. It was somewhat sad that some of that was forced to change as they grew older but this is a community that seems quite strictly religious and very concerned with what others are doing and how they might be doing something different or wrong. They view outsiders warily, which is obvious when Thea’s family arrives. Her father is German but her mother is not, and even though some stoutly say that she’s married a German, which makes her one, it’s clear that others don’t agree and watch everything she does with suspicion, seemingly just waiting for her to do something they can disapprove or or denounce. But for Hanne, the arrival of Thea and her family is a gift. She’s shown a family that act in a completely different way than hers with open love and affection, unlike her rather distant and stoic parents. And for Thea, Hanne experiences deeper feelings, the likes of which I suspect would never be understood by their community.

I basically read this in a single sitting after only intending to read about 100 pages. I found that once I settled into the story, probably after the 40-50p mark, I could not put it down. I got so caught up in the journey of the whole community and how they would find the trip to Australia and their new life and more than that, the story of Hanne and Thea. And then once the book took the unexpected direction I was so caught up in the range of emotions that Kent portrayed that I needed to see where it went and how. This is honestly just such an incredibly well written book and such an engaging story. One of my favourites of the year probably.

9/10

Book #207 of 2021

This is book #89 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

And book #33 of the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

1 Comment »

Double Review: The Silence Of The Girls & The Women Of Troy by Pat Barker

The Silence Of The Girls (The Women Of Troy #1)
Pat Barker
Penguin Books UK
2019, 325p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Queen Briseis has been stolen from her conquered homeland and given as a concubine to a foreign warrior. The warrior is Achilles: famed hero, loathed enemy, ruthless butcher, darkly troubled spirit. Briseis’s fate is now indivisibly entwined with his.

No one knows it yet, but there are just ten weeks to go until the Fall of Troy, the end of this long and bitter war. This is the start of The Iliad: the most famous war story ever told. The next ten weeks will be a story of male power, male ego, male violence. But what of the women? The thousands of female slaves in the soldiers’ camp – in the laundry, at the loom, laying out the dead? Briseis is one of their number – and she will be our witness to history.

My husband is a really difficult person to buy presents for. He will always say ‘nothing’ and never give any suggestions, there’s never anything he wants and he’s not really into any hobbies or anything where you can use those. One thing that always goes down well, are books though (there’s a reason he’s my husband!) and I know he loves Pat Barker. He raved about a trilogy of hers he read and when The Women of Troy was published, I started seeing these two books everywhere so I decided to buy them as part of his birthday present. I’ve never read her before but the more I saw of these, the more I thought I’d definitely like them. I read faster than him, so yes, I did steal them to read before he can.

I’ve read a couple of books lately that have referenced mythology or are retellings and I’ve read The Song of Achilles and know enough of The Iliad to have a bit of an idea of this – but I’ll readily admit, I’m not that knowledgable. The Song of Achilles, and probably most other retellings and reimaginings are more from the male and fighters’ points of view and this one is primarily focused on the women, most notably, Briseis. A Queen, she watches as her city is sacked by Achilles and his fighters, sees her brothers cut down. Then she’s given to Achilles as a reward, expected to serve him when he requires, knowing he murdered members of her family.

This is a stark showcasing of the lack of agency these women have – they are traded like cattle, raped by their captors, expected to work as servants, often starved or kept in appalling conditions. Their situation depends on how high their ‘owner’ is ranked, their own place within that person’s household and how kind their owner/captor might be. When a city is sacked, all the males are killed, right down to toddlers and babies. Pregnant women are killed, just in case the baby they carry might turn out to be a boy. The women are taken as slaves, given out to the men as rewards and can sometimes even be passed around.

For Briseis, she’s somewhat ‘lucky’ as Achilles doesn’t particularly abuse her nor treat her unkindly. He almost seems barely aware she even exists although Briseis ends up a pawn in a game between Agamemnon and Achilles as they each jostle for power. But Barker portrays her as a keen observer who sees all that goes on around the camp, especially in regards to women and their plight in these times of war. She’s also a leader, although at times it feels reluctantly. As Achilles’ concubine, she is afforded a level of status that other women do not enjoy and although there are women that would no doubt exploit this, Briseis is not one of them. She uses her position to help others when she can, or make things easier for them. When she was given to Achilles, she was treated kindly by Patroclus’ concubine and it’s something that she remembers and pays forward every time.

I found this so compelling, this is a brutal story in so many ways with the war and destruction and fighting and politics. It was so interesting to read it from a woman’s perspective, slightly on the outside. They don’t go to fight, they wait to see who comes home and who wins decides their future. They’re very much these passive bystanders really, in their own lives. But they get small wins sometimes, moments where they achieve.

8/10

Book #208 of 2021

The Women Of Troy (Women Of Troy #2)
Pat Barker
Penguin Books UK
2021, 320p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Troy has fallen. The Greeks have won their bitter war. They can return home as victors – all they need is a good wind to lift their sails. But the wind has vanished, the seas becalmed by vengeful gods, and so the warriors remain in limbo – camped in the shadow of the city they destroyed, kept company by the women they stole from it.

The women of Troy.

Helen – poor Helen. All that beauty, all that grace – and she was just a mouldy old bone for feral dogs to fight over.

Cassandra, who has learned not to be too attached to her own prophecies. They have only ever been believed when she can get a man to deliver them.

Stubborn Amina, with her gaze still fixed on the ruined towers of Troy, determined to avenge the slaughter of her king.

Hecuba, howling and clawing her cheeks on the silent shore, as if she could make her cries heard in the gloomy halls of Hades. As if she could wake the dead.

And Briseis, carrying her future in her womb: the unborn child of the dead hero Achilles. Once again caught up in the disputes of violent men. Once again faced with the chance to shape history.

This picks up pretty much where the first book left off but also contains some scenes from other points of view that show what was happening when the Greeks hid inside the horse given to the Trojans. I think if people know anything about this story, they know the Trojan horse, given as a gift and then in the dead of night, when the Troy citizens were sleeping, the Greeks poured out of the belly of the horse and slaughtered them all, finally taking Troy. All the women are taken back to the camp – Priam’s widow, Hector’s widow, some of Priam’s daughters and of course, the infamous Helen who was married to Melenaus but eloped with or was abducted by, Paris. The face that launched a thousand ships and started a war. I actually didn’t realise that the horse isn’t included in The Iliad and mostly dates to the Aeinid by Virgil.

I enjoyed this book as well but perhaps because I read it right after the previous, it felt a little repetitive in places, like it felt the need to rehash things that had happened in the previous book. I might’ve needed that if it’d been some time since I read the first book but because I read them one after the other it definitely felt very noticeable.

Achilles is dead but before he perished, he gave Briseis in marriage to one of his most trusted men, Acimus. Briseis is also pregnant with Achilles’ child, which if those with such gifts are to be believed, it will be a boy. This marriage has protected Briseis, she is firmly secured by it and her pregnancy, treated with respect by most and allowed to move around quite freely. She takes it upon herself to help the women of Troy, showing them kindness and compassion, helping them prepare themselves for when they are summoned by their new ‘owners’ or negotiate tricky situations, diffuse spats. Briseis however, is drawn into a dangerous place when a woman instructed to be her companion as she moves around the camp, blatantly disobeys an order given by Achilles’ son Pyrrhus. It was actually the one time when I thought Briseis displayed terrible judgment, even though she was trying to help. It was obvious Amira wasn’t going to stop and Briseis telling her to and then following her only led to both of them being caught doing something that was definitely forbidden. That was an interesting look at morals and doing what’s right, versus self-preservation. Some would do anything to stay alive, others….well, what is even the point of staying alive for some of these women? They have no freedom, some of them are starved and horrifically abused, they’ve seen everyone they love just about, murdered in vicious fashion, including babies and children who are male. Mothers of sons, like Andromache…..what reason does she have, to go on? Especially when given to Pyrrhus.

I really enjoyed the portrayal of Helen here as well, I think she’s such an interesting figure and can be seen in many ways. Is she an orchestrator, a manipulator of men who always seemed to come out unscathed or was she a victim too? I’m not really sure and I’m not sure Briseis knows either. At times she admires Helen, at others she seems to find her deeply frustrating. Although Briseis visits her, she doesn’t seem to form the bond with her that she does with some of the other women like Hecuba and seems to realise that with Helen, perhaps you can’t trust what you’re being presented with. In a way I liked that Helen was very much relegated to the background – she’s a well known, very visible character in this story and many of the other women, who provide a focus in this book, are not so well known generally.

I thought both of these were wonderful – and now I have to raid my husband’s collection of Pat Barker books because I definitely need to read more by her.

8/10

Book #209 of 2021

The Silence Of The Girls and The Women Of Troy both count towards my participation in the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. They are books 34 & 35 so far.

1 Comment »

Review: Echoes Of War by Tania Blanchard

Echoes Of War
Tania Blanchard
Simon & Schuster AUS
2021, 457p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Set in Mussolini’s Italy amid great upheaval, this is the story of one woman’s determination to find her place in a world that men are threatening to tear apart. Another heart-rending novel inspired by a true story from the bestselling author of The Girl from Munich. 

Calabria, Italy, 1936

In a remote farming village nestled in the mountains that descend into the sparkling Ionian Sea, young and spirited Giulia Tallariti longs for something more. While she loves her home and her lively family, she would much rather follow in her nonna’s footsteps and pursue her dream of becoming a healer.

But as Mussolini’s focus shifts to the war in Europe, civil unrest looms. Whispers of war are at every corner and her beloved village, once safe from the fascist agenda of the North, is now in very real danger.

Caught between her desire to forge her own path and her duty to her family, Giulia must draw on the passion in her heart and the strength of her conviction. Can she find a way to fulfill her dreams or will the echoes of war drown out her voice?

This is the second Tania Blanchard novel I have read and I have enjoyed both of them enormously. She is definitely becoming one of my favourite historical fiction authors and I appreciated this somewhat unique perspective of World War II.

Giulia is a young girl living in Calabria, right at the “toe” of Italy. Her family has a small farm that provides for their livelihood but Italy is going through a time of upheaval with division between the north and south and the ambitions of Mussolini, who wants to create an empire, increase Italy’s territory and provide more land to farmers. There’s also the brewing situation in Europe with the rise of Hitler and Mussolini’s treaty with him, which seems almost certain to drag them into more wars.

Giulia is sixteen and has already shown that she has some gift as a healer, like her maternal grandmother. Her father though, is very against this and wants her married off and settled, against Giulia’s will. He’s very much a “I am your father and my word is law and you will obey” type of figure, which causes a lot of problems between him and Giulia. She wants to learn her craft and be apprenticed with her grandmother – she’s not interested in marriage and babies and keeping a home. It’s arranged that she will go to a monastery and study with a healer there but her father will think she is having some instruction on manners and behaving herself.

I’m old enough to be Giulia’s mother but reading this sent me right back to being this indignant teenager and wanting to defy my parent’s every command. Of course they didn’t want to marry me off to some random guy their age, unlike Giulia’s father but it was the same vibes. I felt for Giulia because she had so much that she wanted to achieve and her ambition was stifled so often by her father. And he’s very much a product of his time and location, the authoritarian Italian father whose job it is to see his daughters are taken care of but he was so focused on this one thing, because unfortunately in this time, girls had no protection without being married. They get to sixteen or so and they leave their father’s homes and go straight to their husband’s homes and start producing babies. Looking back now, it’s a bleak life, especially in times of hardship when feeding big families becomes difficult. Her father believes a lot of what her grandmother does is “witchcraft” and he’s not really willing to listen to reason.

I haven’t read a lot set in Italy during WWII – most of what I end up reading is very much focused on German/French/British settings and I was surprised tor read just how much damage retreating German troops did in parts of Italy after Italy “flipped”sides and declared war on Germany. Italy was a country that had overstretched itself before the beginning of this war, with conflicts in Africa from pacifying Liberia and invading Abyssinia/Ethiopia and also sending troops to assist in the Spanish Civil War. I think Italy hoped that Britain would be convinced to sue for peace early on, preventing a long and drawn out battle but the way events went didn’t go that way and the country suffered heavy losses, particularly in the invasion attempt of Russia. In the book, both Giulia’s brother (and his friends) as well as their father are conscripted to join WWII forces, even though her father is in his 40s. A younger brother also seeks to avoid conscription towards the end of the book, by hiding in the surrounding mountains, along with others of a similar mindset who also wish to rout out the Germans.

There’s a lot that gets included in this – it’s really a coming of age story of Giulia as she gains confidence in herself and her abilities as a healer and although I’m not at all religious, I enjoyed her various times at the monastery and the friends she made there. I loved her spirit and her standing up for herself against a future she didn’t want at a time when she was very much powerless in controlling her own destiny. She somehow persisted and made it work. Her and her siblings also had really good bonds as well and that was nice to see. They supported each other. And there is a love story in this as well, which is very sweet.

I still have one book by Tania Blanchard on my TBR pile and another book by her unread and I really have to try and prioritise them! The two I have read are so much my type of thing, I’m sure I’ll love the ones that are unread also. I highly recommend this.

8/10

Book #206 of 2021

This is book #88 of my participation in The Australian Women Writers Challenge of 2021

It’s also book #32 of my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Leave a comment »

Review: Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

Ariadne
Jennifer Saint
Wildfire
2021, 386p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: As Princesses of Crete and daughters of the fearsome King Minos, Ariadne and her sister Phaedra grow up hearing the hoofbeats and bellows of the Minotaur echo from the Labyrinth beneath the palace. The Minotaur – Minos’s greatest shame and Ariadne’s brother – demands blood every year.

When Theseus, Prince of Athens, arrives in Crete as a sacrifice to the beast, Ariadne falls in love with him. But helping Theseus kill the monster means betraying her family and country, and Ariadne knows only too well that in a world ruled by mercurial gods – drawing their attention can cost you everything.

In a world where women are nothing more than the pawns of powerful men, will Ariadne’s decision to betray Crete for Theseus ensure her happy ending? Or will she find herself sacrificed for her lover’s ambition?

ARIADNE gives a voice to the forgotten women of one of the most famous Greek myths, and speaks to their strength in the face of angry, petulant Gods. Beautifully written and completely immersive, this is an exceptional debut novel.

Bought this book solely because of the cover. It’s stunning.

I also really liked The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller and thought I’d like to read some more books that were quite similar. I don’t know much about Ancient Greek mythology – just the basics really. Zeus, Hera, Hercules, stuff like that. So while I know the story of the Minotaur, I didn’t know much about Ariadne but I’m not really sure that’s a bad thing. I had no preconceived ideas about what might happen in this story, and so therefore, everything that did happen, was unexpected.

Ariadne is a Crete Princess, daughter of a feared ruler. In order to punish Minos, her father, it is her mother who suffers and bears a monstrous offspring which is half human, half bull. Despite the fact that her brother is hideous, Ariadne loves him and cares for him as a baby, until he grows too big and dangerous. Now he roams a labyrinth beneath the palace and as part of a deal Minos made with a rebellious Athens, they must send a slew of their young men and women every year, who are placed into the labyrinth as food to the Minotaur.

Desperate to escape the fate her father has chosen for her, marriage to a much older and loathsome man, it’s no surprise that Ariadne is drawn to the handsome Theseus, Prince of Athens and volunteer to be one of the sacrifices. But Theseus plans to defeat the Minotaur, something that has never been accomplished before. Sweet talked by Theseus, Ariadne gives him the information he needs and escapes with him, believing she’ll be his wife. Instead, Ariadne finds herself abandoned on an island to die, a victim in Theseus’s plot.

Ariadne recognises very early on that is women who pay for the sins of men. She sees her mother suffer, humiliated not for anything that she personally has done, but in retaliation for something her father did. Her mother becomes a shell of a human, broken by the experience. Ariadne expresses her reluctance to be married off to her father’s choice and is ignored. Her wishes aren’t relevant – she’s a Princess of Crete and her value to her father is what he can get in return for promising his young, pretty daughter to the highest bidder. It’s not a surprise really, when she’s taken in by the charming, handsome and young Theseus who seems so valiant and honourable. And when she’s betrayed by him, she realises that again, she’s paid for the sins of her father. He’ll spare her no mercy, she knows that, even if she can escape her island, which doesn’t seem likely.

As well as Ariadne’s point of view, this book also contains the point of view of Ariadne’s younger sister Phaedra, who is another victim in political manoeuvring. Her fate wasn’t known to me either (I did a lot of googling after I finished this book). I felt like Phaedra’s story highlights something quite interesting – she’s married off in the same way as Princesses are, in a political deal that is supposed to ensure peace. Her feelings are complex, give she knows the person she’s being married off to betrayed her and probably her sister too (although the extent to which he did this isn’t known to her until later). When she has children in this marriage, for some women that would be solace. Not so for Phaedra, who doesn’t relate to her children or really, the role of motherhood. Phaedra’s story is a sad one, as portrayed in this book, her search for love and inability to see that she’s looked in very much the wrong place. And how it ends…

Although Ariadne has awareness of the way women suffer, to be honest, it doesn’t really change the circumstances for her. She is still a pawn in the games of men, and in this version, it still decides her fate. In some ways, Ariadne’s one decision for herself, still means that she ends up with very little agency. If you know the myth then you know her marriage and the fact that it’s a prolific one with many offspring and whilst it at first seems quite happy, Ariadne ends up very worried about the direction her husband has taken and ultimately, that direction sweeps her along with it. All her awareness doesn’t end up helping her, nor does the fate of Phaedra.

I’m not sure this is as overtly feminist a telling as the promotion for it seems to suggest. I still really enjoyed it, probably because I had very little knowledge about this prior to reading it. Scholars or those who are well versed with it might not feel the same way, but this will always be the way with retellings I think. I thought the writing was good and the story kept me engaged, but I found the ending disappointing.

8/10

Book #198 of 2021

This is book #31 of the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Leave a comment »

Review: Daughter Of The Hunter Valley by Paula J. Beavan

Daughter Of The Hunter Valley
Paula J. Beavan
Harlequin MIRA AUS
2021, 356p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Alone. Near destitute. But brave and determined. Can Maddy beat the odds to create a new home in the Hunter Valley? An exciting Australian historical debut, perfect for readers of Darry Fraser.

1831, New South Wales

Reeling from her mother’s death, Madeleine Barker-Trent arrives in the newly colonised Hunter River to find her father’s promises are nothing more than a halcyon dream. A day later, after a dubious accident, she becomes the sole owner of a thousand acres of bushland, with only three convicts and handsome overseer Daniel Coulter for company.

Determined to fulfil her family’s aspirations, Maddy refuses to return to England and braves everything the beautiful but wild Australian country can throw at her – violence, danger, the forces of nature and loneliness. But when a scandalous secret and a new arrival threaten to destroy all she’s worked for, her future looks bleak … Can Maddy persevere or should she simply admit defeat?

A captivating historical tale of one young woman’s grit and determination to carve out her place on the riverbank. 

I really enjoyed this.

Maddy is a young woman who has been waiting with her unwell mother in England while her father builds a farm and home in New South Wales. Her mother’s frail health means she doesn’t survive to make the trip and then no one is waiting for her so Maddy must make the journey alone to the Hunter River, where her father is. Once there, she finds not a beautiful stone house like his letters promised, but a shack. And he hasn’t received her letters so he neither knew she was coming, nor does he know about her mother. And shortly after her arrival, Maddy finds herself an orphan.

She becomes determined to stay and turn the property into her father’s dream for it, to see it through to the end, which takes bravery and hard work. The conditions are very basic, although they have been blessed with good workers, mostly convicts assigned by the government that landowners can apply for. She also has overseer Daniel Coulter, a good worker and good man, who Maddy finds herself drawn to.

Not everyone in the area is as willing as Maddy to work hard and she finds herself the subject of gossip, for her desire to stay and turn the property into something wonderful and prosperous. She’s also a very eligible woman now and her appearance in the valley means that for the mothers with unmarried daughters, she is competition. Despite being viewed this way by some, Maddy does make some friends and people she can trust to go to for advice regarding things on the property and issues with her workers when they arise.

I felt like the author did a really wonderful job showcasing what it would be like for a young woman to come from England to somewhere that has a completely different climate. Maddy arrives in summer and each chapter lists the date as well as the weather. When Maddy arrives she has to acclimatise to the heat, the humidity and the often powerful summer storms. It’s very different to what she’d be used to and the living conditions probably don’t help. Her determination however, is very high and not the remoteness, nor the weather nor the day-to-day hard work can deter her. There are multiple dangers that she must watch out for, both as a woman considered to be vulnerable (the area has bushrangers) and as someone who is not particularly familiar with the surroundings and the locals (like snakes). Maddy finds a hard worker when she visits the Parramatta Women’s Factory to secure a companion maid to both be a help on the farm and also to avoid the impropriety of being alone on the property with only the male workers, many of whom are technically convicted criminals. Maddy chooses well in Jane who proves to be more than up to the task and takes to most things with relish.

Maddy faces many challenges, including the reluctant guardianship of a young child, whose connection to her she finds that she doesn’t want to investigate too closely. But despite people giving her advice to move the child on, she finds that she cannot and she’s determined to do what she believes to be the right thing, no matter how much it sets local tongues wagging. Maddy really doesn’t ever allow that to impact on her decisions which I found very admirable about her, at a time when there would’ve probably been quite a lot of pressure for women to look and act a certain way and definitely there’d be things that a lady would just never do and the differences between Maddy and some of the other nearby women are highlighted during the planning of a social event, when it’s quite clear that there are two very different agendas.

My only real issue with this book is that I felt it actually ended a bit abruptly. There’s one thing that you know needs to be resolved for the book to finish and when it does, it’s basically on the last page and I really felt like the book could’ve done with just a little more time to deal with this and make it so that it didn’t feel quite so rushed. It’s quite a small thing but I felt like there’d been some build up and then some conflict and it would’ve flowed a little better if there’d been just a little more time spent on resolving it and showing the way forward for Maddy. But apart from that which really is a very small quibble, I thought this was an enjoyable read with great characters and a setting that I haven’t read too much in stories set during this time.

8/10

Book #182 of 2021

This is book #80 of my Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

It also counts towards my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and is book #29 completed towards that!

Leave a comment »

Review: The Unworthy Duke by Charlotte Anne

The Unworthy Duke
Charlotte Anne
Harlequin MIRA AUS
2021, 323p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: She’s running from her past; he’s hiding from his.

Miss Ellen Burney doesn’t have a penny to her name. Determined to escape scandal, she flees to London and becomes Miss Smith: spinster and lady’s companion. London offers security in anonymity. So long as Ellen can rein in her overactive imagination and become the perfect picture of propriety.

Calum Callaghan spent ten years in the Royal Navy fighting Napoleon and has the scars to prove it. Now he’s a duke, but all of London thinks he murdered his brother. Heartbroken and battle weary, he’s locked himself away for four long years, a prisoner in his own townhouse.

That is, until Cal’s grandmother comes to stay with him for the London Season, her new lady’s companion in tow. A lady’s companion with a passion for life and love that can hardly be contained by even the most spinsterish of lace caps. She’s fooling nobody, especially not this grumpy duke.

I really enjoyed this. I thought it was a sweet story with a feisty heroine who broke the mould a little and a grumpy, scarred emotionally stunted reluctant Duke who was dealing with guilt and not at all prepared for the storm that was Ellen to erupt into his reclusive life.

Ellen is in a desperate situation, fleeing her gambler brother who is also abusive. Ellen can take it when it’s just her but when Geoffrey turns his behaviour towards a young innocent, she knows that the time has come to leave. She has secured a position as a lady’s companion to a widow and arrives at a somewhat dilapidated house where it looks that there is no one home. Ellen and Cal’s first meeting is after she’s climbed in his window and it’s full of banter and humour. Cal suffered a terrible trauma four years ago and has pretty much removed himself from society since then so he’s not expecting (or wanting) any visitors. Much to his disgust, Ellen says that she arranged to meet her future employer here and here she will wait until that employer (who turns out to be Cal’s very formidable grandmother, for want of a better term) arrives.

Neither Ellen nor Cal are conventional people for their time – Cal has a complicated background and inherited a Dukedom in tragic circumstances that he doesn’t want or think he deserves. He has kept himself removed from society and everything to do with it, hating the stares and the whispers and the gossip and the undertone that he may’ve gotten where he is today by doing something despicable. Ellen is the daughter of Baron but she’s hiding a big secret that, if Cal and his grandmother were to find out, she’s sure would result in them throwing her out. However when her past tracks her down, Ellen is shocked by the reaction she gets.

Cal and Ellen don’t exactly hit it off because he wants her to leave immediately and she refuses. The arrival of his grandmother to basically batter him into submission sends Cal into retreat mode but when it seems that Ellen is under threat, he definitely wants to protect her and everyone around her that she cares for. He isn’t judgemental (perhaps because he’s had such an unusual upbringing) and it doesn’t change anything except perhaps even make him more determined that he can set in motion the events that will protect her permanently from this threat, despite her reluctance. Ellen really wants to be independent – earning her own money, providing for herself and those around her that she is responsible for. She doesn’t want to be beholden to anyone and doesn’t want to relinquish any rights. It’s why she feels so strongly about Cal’s solution to her problem, and I appreciated that about her because it would’ve been easy to take that offering at first, without worrying about anything else.

As Cal doesn’t judge Ellen on her secrets, she doesn’t judge him on the rumours, the story surrounding his inheritance, nor his physical appearance either. Actually that last one intrigues her more than anything and quite often she feels herself feeling protective of Cal in a similar way – but rather than wanting to keep him safe, like he does with her, she wants to make him feel worthy, which is something that Cal does not feel after everything that has happened to him. Despite his gruff exterior, tendency to bury himself in a bottle and demands everyone leave his home, deep down Cal is a kind and gentle person who deeply cares about people, especially his “grandmother”, who has stood by him because it was the right thing to do, despite all it has cost her. This looks like it might have all the markers of the beginning of a series – there are several things here that I feel are not adequately addressed or dealt with and there’s a character who seems like they could be the focus of a book in the future and I expect that the overall story might get continued.

I hope so actually, because I really did enjoy reading this and I’d like to see what happens next. I thought all of the characters were fun (especially Cal’s grandmother and I’d like to see her get what she wants) and Cal and Ellen complimented each other really well and brought out the best in each other. I felt like both of them really needed someone to love them after what they’d gone through and give them a chance to experience life, not hide themselves away, for different reasons.

7/10

Book #181 of 2021

The Unworthy Duke is book #79 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

And it’s also book #28 of the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Leave a comment »

Review: The Magician by Colm Tóibín

The Magician
Colm Tóibín
Picador
2020, 448p
Copy courtesy Pan Macmillan AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: When the Great War breaks out in 1914 Thomas Mann, like so many of his fellow countrymen, is fired up with patriotism. He imagines the Germany of great literature and music, which had drawn him away from the stifling, conservative town of his childhood, might be a source of pride once again. But his flawed vision will form the beginning of a dark and complex relationship with his homeland, and see the start of great conflict within his own brilliant and troubled family.

Colm Tóibín’s epic novel is the story of a man of intense contradictions. Although Thomas Mann becomes famous and admired, his inner life is hesitant, fearful and secretive. His blindness to impending disaster in the Great War will force him to rethink his relationship with Germany as Hitler comes to power. He has six children with his clever and fascinating wife, Katia, while his own secret desires appear threaded through his writing. He and Katia deal with exile bravely, doing everything possible to keep the family safe, yet they also suffer the terrible ravages of suicide among Thomas’s siblings, and their own children.

In The Magician, Colm Tóibín captures the profound personal conflict of a very public life, and through this life creates an intimate portrait of the twentieth century.

So I have to admit – I didn’t know anything about Thomas Mann before reading this novel. I’ve never really read any 19th or 20th Century German authors, so I’ve never read Goethe either. I’ve heard of one of Mann’s novels though and my knowledge of Goethe comes from the time he’s an answer on Jeopardy but since reading this book, I’ve got several of Mann’s novels in my cart for the next time I do a book order. I really want to learn more after reading this.

This is an imagining of Mann’s life, beginning in 1891 in Lübeck and taking the reader right up until well after the Second World War. It showcases a Germany during a very tumultuous time – unification into “Germany”, connected by a shared language, the defeat in WWI and the struggle that followed, as they were demanded make reparations, which of course gave rise to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, who promised to restore Germany to its former glory. And then of course, the way in which that went, the devastation in WWII, another loss and the division of the country once more.

Mann has often been described as one of the most important voices in Germany and he actually left the country well before WWII started, heading at first to Switzerland and then to America, where he was often called upon to denounce Hitler. He ended up recording speeches to be played by the BBC, against Hitler and the atrocities being committed. Despite finding a home in America and living there for some time, enjoying prestigious positions (including one with the Roosevelt administration) Mann ended up leaving America when scrutiny on his position on communism became too much. He had, as he said, seen this all before. The cracking down on any dissenting views, the pressure to speak out against this or that, what the government wanted. He went back to Switzerland and lived the rest of his life there with his wife.

Mann and his wife had a very interesting life. They had six children, despite Mann’s personal diaries (and his novels) often exploring his homosexual feelings towards young men. His two older children, Erika and Klaus were both outspoken political commentators and often urged their father to do more about speaking out against Hitler. Despite Mann’s success as a writer, essayist and commentator and the comfortable, even luxurious living he made from his work, his family was not without tragedy. Suicide claimed the lives of several members, depression and drug dependency existed in one of his sons, his daughter survived the torpedoing of a boat fleeing Europe for Canada in the Second World War.

This is such a fascinating portrait into a time of the art of literature. Mann is often surrounded by writers, playwrights, composers and poets, they meet in cafes, especially during the war, where information is exchanged. His success means a life of leisure in many ways – summer homes, expensive new houses (although his position means that they lose a lot of their assets when they flee Germany). He’s a Nobel Prize winner and used to a certain level of respect. There’s definitely a portrayal of how different things are in America, especially with the rise against communism and the constant demand on Mann to clarify his position on everything. There’s a subtle similarity in the FBI investigating and keeping a file on Mann and trying to get him to denounce this or that.

The writing in this book is stunning – I’ve read a few of the author’s books before and he has a certain knack for grounding the reader in the setting, no matter what it is. This book takes you through Germany like you’re living it in this time, the literature scene and the politics, the struggle of some people about their “Germanness” as well. I’ve read some books lately which deal with this, particularly from the point of view of German Jewish people, how they reconcile being German with also being Jewish. Mann isn’t Jewish but his wife’s family was (they no longer practice, not that it matters during the time of WWII, Hitler wasn’t overly concerned about how devout they were) so his struggle seems to be more about his idea of Germany, what it should mean in terms of a place of literature, of free thought and intellectual debate, of culture versus what it was becoming under the eye of Hitler.

When I finished this book, I told my husband (who is a big Tóibín fan) how much I wanted to read some of the literature referenced in this novel, not just Mann himself but others too. And he said that’s what a good book is about, it builds connections and sends you on a journey – linking you with other stories and places and times it’s definitely right. This book did exactly that. It makes me want to listen to Wagner and Mahler and read some of the people mentioned, to get more of an idea of this time period. I learned quite a bit about what it must’ve been like in Germany during the two wars, which I think can be ignored sometimes. Mann and his family left well before the rise of the second war but even he remarks very often, that he should’ve seen what was coming better than he did.

This is rich and immersive, it takes focus but it’s very enjoyable.

8/10

Book #176 of 2021

This is book #27 of the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

3 Comments »

Review: The Last Bookshop In London by Madeline Martin

The Last Bookshop In London
Madeline Martin
HQ Fiction
2021, 320p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Inspired by the true World War II history of the few bookshops to survive the Blitz, The Last Bookshop in London is a timeless story of wartime loss, love and the enduring power of literature.

August 1939: London prepares for war as Hitler’s forces sweep across Europe. Grace Bennett has always dreamed of moving to the city, but the bunkers and blackout curtains that she finds on her arrival were not what she expected. And she certainly never imagined she’d wind up working at Primrose Hill, a dusty old bookshop nestled in the heart of London.

Through blackouts and air raids as the Blitz intensifies, Grace discovers the power of storytelling to unite her community in ways she never dreamed—a force that triumphs over even the darkest nights of the war.

This was just so incredibly delightful.

I added it to a huge book buy on a whim, just based on the title. I do like historical fiction and I thought the idea of this revolving around a bookshop sounding interesting.

Grace Bennett comes to London to stay with her mother’s oldest friend, after her mother’s death and the discovery that her uncle now owns the home she lived in. He, his new wife and their children mean there’s no room for Grace now and so she and her best friend Viv leave their small town behind and move to London in order to find work. Grace doesn’t have a letter of recommendation, so her mother’s friend Mrs. Weatherford, kind of bullies a bookshop owner she knows, a Mr Evans, into giving Grace a position. Originally it’s supposed to just be for six months so that Grace can obtain a letter of recommendation from the owner and move on to another position. She’s not really a reader and the shop is a mess – dusty and unorganised. She doesn’t know much about selling books but she does know about keeping a tidy shop from working for her uncle, so she busies herself with that.

This is right on the brink of war and carries into the time of the Blitz, where bombs rained down on London every night. The author does well to capture not just the fear and the terror of such a thing, but also, the day to day exhaustion of it. Always having to run to bomb shelters, nights of disrupted and poor sleep, the routine of going through the blackouts and those that patrol to make sure no light can be seen. The somewhat mind numbing routine is broken up with instances of true devastation and the difficulty of picking up the pieces.

I loved all the characters in this – Grace and the way she comes to love books, the gruff Mr Evans and his reluctance to employ Grace and how their working relationship develops in the most wonderful ways, poor Mrs Weatherford and the horrible grief she experiences and how she picks herself up and keeps going. And Viv with all her good humour and desire to do something more. Although Grace knew Mrs Weatherford from her being friends with her mother, she only saw her sporadically. Mrs Weatherford was happy to open her home to not just the daughter of her oldest friend, but also that daughter’s friend as well. Having lived through the Great War, she is pessimistic about the future and starts gathering supplies well before the rationing is imposed.

It takes a little while for books to establish themselves in Grace’s life but when they do, she’s a devoted convert. She takes one she’s reading to a shelter with her during an air raid and after explaining what it’s about to some of the others in there, they ask her to read. After that, Grace reading becomes a regular thing as all the people in the shelter, which is quite a large one at a tube station, become invested in the story. Grace, always looking for ways in which to improve the bookshop she’s working in, also begins offering a story hour at the shop, where she’ll continue reading.

The way in which Grace and Mr Evans slowly form a friendship, was so beautiful to read. He’s an older man, quite set in his ways and he’s definitely not a big fan of some of her actions at first. His bookshop is away from the more trendy locations, those closer to the publishers and I don’t think Grace thinks too much of it at first. She even takes a little excursion to look at some other shops on the fancier streets and see how she might implement some changes. A chance encounter with a handsome customer leads to him recommending a book to her and although it’s perhaps a chance to share something with him that leads to Grace reading, she takes to it with enthusiasm. There’s a lot of classics referenced here, some of the more popular ones and it’d be quite easy to track down most of the books mentioned if you haven’t already read them, to read what Grace reads, particularly the ones she reads aloud. Eventually though, Mr Evans comes to see how much Grace has done for his shop (and for him) and the trial becomes permanent and they become very close.

This book was just the perfect read at the perfect time. I loved everything about it – the focus on the bookshop as the central location really worked for me and the ways in which businesses had to try and thrive during such a difficult time. Grace could’ve been caught up in ugly competition but she chose to go a different way when that opportunity arose and I really appreciated everything about this. The characters, the relationships, the portrayal of London during this time, it was one of the better books I’ve read that actually gave an impression what it must be like to live through these bombings. There are probably books just as good out there, I just haven’t read a lot that stay in London during this time.

Really loved this!

9/10

Book #160 of 2021

Book #27 of the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Marg @ The Intrepid Reader

2 Comments »