Review: Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland

Title: Florence Adler Swims Forever

Author: Rachel Beanland

Published: 3rd February 2021, Simon & Schuster

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia

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My Thoughts:

Rachel Beanland draws on her family history in Florence Adler Swims Forever, a tender, character-driven debut novel.

On a sunny morning in the summer of 1934, as Esther and Joseph Adler stroll along the Atlantic City Boardwalk and their granddaughter Gussie, and houseguest Anna wade in the shallows, their daughter, Florence dons her bright red bathing cap and heads into the ocean. A champion swimmer, twenty-year-old Florence is training to swim the English Channel in just a few weeks, so no one expects that an hour later, her lifeless body will be dragged from the water.

Florence Adler Swims Forever unfolds from multiple perspectives exploring the decisions made, and the changes wrought, in the wake of Florence’s untimely death. Esther and Joseph are devastated by the loss of their youngest daughter, but Esther in particular is worried about how the news will affect their oldest, and makes the decision that she not be told. Fannie, Gussie’s mother, is in hospital on bed rest waiting the birth of her third child, her second having been born too prematurely to survive, and is growing increasingly annoyed that her sister hasn’t visited. Freed from the daily care of his wife and daughter, and taking advantage of his distracted in-laws, Fannie’s husband Isaac grows more distant, chasing a foolish dream. Seven year old Gussie, sweet and precocious, has an innocent’s clear-eyed view of the changes in her world, but is bewildered by its nuances. Anna, a young German Jewish woman whom Joseph has sponsored to study in America on the strength of a long ago association with her mother, is somewhat uncomfortable to find herself in the midst of this family tragedy, especially when her own threatens. Stuart Williams is the outlier- a Gentile, a handsome lifeguard, swim coach, and reluctant heir to a Boardwalk hotelier. He thought himself in love with Florence, and in the aftermath of her death strikes up a friendship with Anna.

The novel examines several themes, including those of grief, love and family, but most significantly, the sacrifices parents will make to protect their children. Esther forgoes some of the traditional rituals of mourning of the Jewish faith, and attempts to represses her own devastating sense of loss to safeguard the health of her remaining daughter, as does Joseph. Joseph also willingly compromises his financial resources to protect Fannie from her husband’s weakness. Fannie meanwhile spends three months confined to her hospital bed in the hope that the child she carries will be born healthy. Anna’s parents, concerned by the political climate in Germany as Hitler ascends to power, insist she travel to America, and pull whatever strings they can to see her safely out of the country. Issac, in complete contrast, selfishly abandons Gussie in pursuit of his own dreams, and betrays the support offered by his own father. Stuart’s relationship with his father is a little more nuanced, though the man definitely has his faults, he does care about his son’s future.

Beanland grounds her story well in time and place, with vivid descriptions of the beach and boardwalk of Atlantic City, and the Adler’s baking empire. Fannie is obsessed with the Dionne quintuplets born earlier that year and battling for survival, in part because her late son, Hyram, spent some time in an incubator on display at the Boardwalk, just as they did. The author also touches on the anti-semitism rife not just in Europe as the Nazi party began to gain a foothold, but also in America.

With a measured pace, Florence Adler Swims Forever is a meditative, poignant, and engaging read, suited to a languid summer afternoon. Be sure to read the Author’s Note at the end of the book.

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Review: The Cold Millions by Jess Walter


Title: The Cold Millions

Author: Jess Walter

Published: 18th February 2021, Viking

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

“All people, except this rich cream, living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with no chance in this world.”

The Cold Millions is a sweeping historical novel set at the beginning of the labor union movement in Spokane, Washington, focusing on two brothers, Gregory and Ryan Dolan. At 21, Gig is a charming, surprisingly articulate young man, Rye, only 16, is his brother’s shadow. Orphaned, they have joined the mass of itinerant workers, tramps riding the freight trains in search of work where they can find it. While Rye’s one wish is simple – a job, a home, a family; Gig gets wrapped up in the energy and chaos of the Free Speech Riots as The Industrial Workers of the World, aka Wobblies, fight for change. When the brothers are arrested during a riot, their paths diverge. While Gig endures a brutal incarceration, Rye is quickly released and is determined to free his brother. Soon he too is bound up in the cause, and is courted by a man set on stopping it.

Told with acumen, compassion, wit, and a hint of nostalgia, this story is ambitious in scope. Walter explores a dramatic period of social change and its issues – wealth vs poverty, ownership vs labour, rights vs responsibilities, nationalists vs immigrants, arguments that have still not been resolved in the US a century later. Yet this is also a coming-of-age story, an intimate tale of brotherhood, love, friendship, loyalty and betrayal, and even a murder mystery.

While Rye is the story’s anchor, there is a large cast of characters. Walter draws real historical figures into the novel including Police Chief John T. Sullivan who was a strict enforcer of law, and a vigorous defender of Spokane against the Wobblies, and their activities; the ‘redoubtable, estimable, formidable’ Elizabeth Gurley Flynn a young activist and orator, and takes inspiration from others to create a distinct, colourful cast. Brief vignettes from the perspectives of people who cross paths with the brothers interrupt the linear narrative, but also enrich it.

I feel Walters has been influenced by several classic American novels, particularly those by John Steinbeck, and perhaps Mark Twain and others, with similarities found in themes and characters.

While I don’t feel the connection with the history in the way an American might, The Cold Millions is an entertaining, fascinating, and unexpectedly timely novel.

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Available from Penguin Australia

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Review: The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

 



Title: The Shape of Darkness

Author: Laura Purcell

Published: February 2nd 2021, Raven Books

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Bloomsbury/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

Set in Bath in 1854, The Shape of Darkness is a atmospheric historical novel from Laura Purcell.

Agnes Darken supports her ailing mother and orphaned nephew with her work as a silhouette artist, but with the growing popularity of the daguerreotypes, she’s finding it harder to attract clients. She is shocked when the local Sergeant calls on her to ask questions about a recent sitter who was brutally murdered shortly after their appointment, and worried that notoriety might attach to her business. Her physician and brother in law, Simon, is quick to assure her that all is fine, but when a second and then third client dies, Agnes fears she may somehow be connected to their deaths. Desperate for answers to both the current circumstances and a past tragedy, Agnes reaches out to a mesmerist Myrtle West and her young half sister, Pearl, known as ‘The White Sylph’ who is said to communicate with the dead.

The Shape of Darkness embraces all the elements of a Victorian gothic tale – a physically and emotionally frail heroine, high emotion, a bleak, wintry setting, murder, and the supernatural. Purcell deftly builds suspense and dread as she develops the plot, revealing dark secrets and making good use of misdirect to ensure the final twist is a surprise.

Fragile and high strung, Agnes has an nervous energy that plays into the narrative. Her suspicions about the connection between the dead and her silhouettes seems fanciful, but her panic is almost contagious as she becomes more certain she, and her family are in danger from an unknown foe. With hints of a tragic background, involving a doomed romance, and a grievous accident, she is exactly what you’d expect as a gothic heroine, except for perhaps her age.

Pearl is a desperately sympathetic character, used terribly by her her half sister, Myrtle. Blamed for her mother’s death during her birth, her father now lays dying gruesomely, a victim of phosphorus poisoning. An albino, eleven year old Pearl is easily envisioned as a medium, but there is an ambiguity to her ability that Purcell exploits, so that you’re never quite sure where the line between this world and the next lies.

Though overall I found it a touch melodramatic for my taste, The Shape of Darkness is evocative, haunting and enthralling.

+++++++

Available from Bloomsbury

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Review: The Women and the Girls by Laura Bloom

Title: The Women and the Girls

Author: Laura Bloom

Published: 19th January 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Set in Australia in the late 1970’s, The Women and the Girls is a thoughtful and engaging novel about self discovery and friendship from Laura Bloom.

No longer able to withstand her domineering husband, recent British immigrant Carol finds an unexpected ally in Anna when she makes the decision to leave him. Anna, who has just made the decision to leave her own husband, offers Carol refuge with her at an investment property she owns and then Libby, desperate for a change in the status quo of her marriage, impulsively decides to join them.

Told with heart and humour, Bloom shares the journey of these three women as they attempt to forge a new life for themselves, and their children. I thought the characterisation of each woman was well-rounded, exploring their strengths and flaws in a nuanced manner. While they each have different reasons for leaving their husbands, Carol, Anna and Libby are all essentially on a similar quest of self discovery, and are fortunate to have found an ally in each other.

Bloom’s portrayal of female friendships in this novel is quite wonderful, the women are really little more than acquaintances when they first begin living together but they are effortlessly supportive of one another. Even if they don’t always agree, the consideration and respect of their relationships contrasts sharply with Carol and Libby’s experience in their respective marriages in a time when women were just beginning to realise that being a wife and mother didn’t negate their autonomy.

Though I was only a young child in the 1970’s (I was born in 1973) I feel like Bloom captured the era well with her descriptions of hair and fashion, the affection for ABBA, the velvet couches, and fondue. Bloom also explores the dichotomy that characterised the period, for though the decade saw rapid social progress for womens’ rights in Australia, casual, and pointed, misogyny remained rife. The introduction of ‘no fault’ laws in 1976 saw the divorce rate triple (reaching a record high that still stands), yet in 1977 married women could not open a bank account without their husband’s permission.

The Women and the Girls is a well-written, entertaining and thought-provoking read, that should have cross generational appeal.

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Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: Elizabeth & Elizabeth by Sue Williams

Title: Elizabeth & Elizabeth

Author: Sue Williams

Published: 5th January 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Based on the lives of Elizabeth ‘Betsey’ Macquarie, the wife of Australian colonel governor Lachlan Macquarie, and Elizabeth Macarthur, the wife of a prosperous colonial woolgrower, Sue Williams blends fact with fiction to present an interesting story of adversity, courage, love, and friendship in Elizabeth & Elizabeth.

Thirty one year old Betsey Macquarie arrived in Sydneytown with her new husband, Lachlan, who was to replace Captain Bligh as governor, in December of 1809. Viewing the appointment as an adventure, with her keen interest in architecture, landscaping and social welfare, Betsey had hopes of working alongside her husband to grow the colony.

At the time of Betsey’s arrival in New South Wales, Elizabeth Macarthur, had been living in the colony for twenty years. Her husband John, a Corps officer and successful grazier had been called to England to answer charges of sedition for his role in unseating Captain Bligh, leaving Elizabeth to manage their home farm, three daughters, and Camden Park estate, where they raised their valuable flock of merino sheep.

In this novel Williams conjures a friendship between the two women that overlooks the political enmity of their husbands. Both intelligent, strong, and practical women, Elizabeth and Elizabeth grow to respect and admire one another despite their differences, and become confidantes. The friendship is delightfully rendered by Williams, and permits her to present a well-rounded picture of the ‘Elizabeth’s’ lives, disabusing history’s notion they were simply no more than extensions of their husbands.

History favours the role of men in the building of our nation, but Elizabeth & Elizabeth gives these two women credit for contributions to the betterment of the colony. Williams suggests Betsey was the driving force behind the design and construction of several of Sydneytown’s public buildings, including The Courthouse and St James Church, the ‘Rum’ Hospital, and The Female Factory in Parramatta, and the development of what is now known as The Royal Botanic Gardens. Her support of her husband was also crucial to his many accomplishments as governor, despite the opposition he faced from ‘exclusivists’. Elizabeth Macarthur’s role in developing the family’s wool export business is better recognised today, though her husband continues to garner the lions share of credit. In her husband’s long absence from the colony however, she ably managed their extensive holdings, and oversaw the improvement of the merino flock that solidified their fortune.

Well-written, rich in historical detail and engaging, Elizabeth & Elizabeth is a lovely novel and recommended reading especially for those interested in Australia’s past.

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Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: Lana’s War by Anita Abriel

Title: Lana’s War

Author: Anita Abriel

Published: 2nd December 2020, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster

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My Thoughts:

Lana’s War is Anita Abriel’s second historical fiction novel set during World War II.

Discovering she is pregnant, Lana Hartmann (née Antanova) hurries through the streets of occupied Paris, anxious to share the happy news with her husband, a music teacher. She is horrified when she finds her husband being questioned by the gestapo and devastated when she witnesses his callous execution while trying to protect a young Jewish girl. Miscarrying their child that same day, Lana staves off despair by volunteering at a convent where she is offered an opportunity to join the resistance. Eager to honour her husband’s sacrifice and save Jews from the Gestapo, Lana accepts and is sent to the Riviera region of France. There Lana is asked to trade on her Russian heritage and, as Countess Lana Antanova, help Swiss resistance member, Guy Pascal, with his efforts to smuggle Jews out of the country.

I like that Abriel has chosen a setting for her novel in an area of France usually overlooked in WWII historical fiction, which tends to favour Paris or the French countryside. Nice, and its neighbours including Cannes, St. Tropez, and Monaco, are part of the French Riviera, on the south east coast of France. Just 30km from the Italian border, Nice was occupied first by the Italians, and then the Germans before being liberated in 1944.

When Lana arrives in November, 1943, she is surprised that the city seems largely unaffected by the war. Unlike in Paris, stores are open and well stocked, and the casino’s, hotels and cafe’s are well patronised, though the place is overrun with German soldiers. Abriel ties the plot of her novel in with the escalation against Jews in the area, where Lana is tasked to learn the timing of upcoming raids, giving them an opportunity to evade being sent to Drancy Internment Camp. I liked the premise which promised adventure, tension and romance, unfortunately the execution fell short for me.

I liked Lana well enough but I didn’t find her to be a particularly consistent or convincing character. While her motivation for her choice to work with resistance is strong, and she’s obviously intelligent, given her education, she doesn’t seem wise enough to be so adept at espionage. It’s also a bit of a stretch that within days of her arrival she has four men essentially in love with her. I did like the romantic attachment Lana formed, but I wasn’t keen on how it played out. Lana’s relationship with Odette, a young Jewish girl, however was lovely.

Unfortunately, despite finding the broad strokes of the the story to be engaging, I thought the prose itself was rather flat, and a touch repetitive. Though I dislike the phrase, I also thought there was far more ‘telling than showing’ and as such, tension rarely eventuated, or fizzled out.

A story of war, vengeance, courage and love, Lana’s War was a quick read, but for me, not a particularly satisfying one.

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Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Also by Anita Abriel reviewed at Book’d Out

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