Review: The Manhattan Girls by Gill Paul

 

Title: The Manhattan Girls: A Novel of Dorothy Parker and her Friends

Author: Gill Paul

Published: 16th August 2022, William Morrow Books

Status: Read August 2022 courtesy William Morrow/Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

 

“Four things I am wiser to know: idleness, sorrow, a friend and a foe.” -Dorothy Parker

The Manhattan Girls by Gill Paul is based on four well known women of 1920’s New York City; Dorothy Parker, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, a poet and writer known for her sharp wit; Jane Grant, reporter and cofounder of the The New Yorker magazine; broadway actress Winifred Lenihan; and novelist Peggy Leech; and tells the story of the friendship that sustained them during a particular period of their lives.

When the men of the Algonquin Round Table decide to form a Saturday night poker club, Jane Grant suggests some of the women instead meet for Bridge, inviting Dottie, Peggy and Winnie to join her. The game, hosted round robin style, quickly becomes a lifeline for the four women as they exchange confidences, hopes, failures and hardships, and provide each other with encouragement and support when it’s needed.

From what I’m able to tell, Paul draws heavily on public records and other factual sources that inform the characters personality’s and events in the novel. While the line between fact and fiction is blurred, Gill’s portrayal of these women, and their relationships, feels genuine.

Though this is very much a character driven novel as the friends face challenges in their personal and professional lives, Gill touches on several serious issues that affect the women, including sexism, self-harm, domestic violence, sexual assault, abortion, gambling, and alcoholism.

Gill ably conveys the spirit of the Roaring Twenties in New York City, capturing the hedonism among the ‘arts’ crowd, epitomised by the notorious members of the Algonquin Round Table, and the changes in society brought about by the end of WWI, the introduction of Prohibition, and the increasing opportunities for women.

Well-written, I enjoyed The Manhattan Girls as a story that explores friendship, loyalty and ambition, and as a glimpse into the private lives of four women whose influence on the arts lingers a century later.

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Review: Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby

 

Title: Godmersham Park

Author: Gill Hornby

Published: 23rd June 2022, Century UK

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy Penguin UK/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

The premise of Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby appealed to me in part because of the main character’s connection with Jane Austen. Though little detail is known about their relationship, Anne Sharp and Jane first met during the period that Anne was engaged as a governess at Godmersham Park for Fanny Austen Knight, Jane’s niece, and remained close friends until Jane’s death.

Anne Sharp is 31 years old when she arrives at Godmersham Park, the Kent country estate of Edward and Elizabeth Austen, employed to educate their 12 year old daughter Fanny, the eldest of eight children. Though she has no experience in the position of governess, having until recently been raised in comfort, she is determined to do her best, and serve the Austen family well.

Hornby seamlessly blends history with imagination to tell the story of Anne’s time at Godmersham Park. The people Anne meets, close family and friends of the Austen’s, are real figures, whom the author lists at the beginning of the novel. Many of the events that take place in the story were drawn from Fanny’s preserved childhood diaries or correspondence between family members. The estate itself, said to be the inspiration for Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park, still stands today and is depicted on the 2017 Bank of England £10 note.

A refined and intelligent woman, educating Fanny poses no real difficulties for Anne but finding her place within the household proves to be more of a challenge. Anne is often lonely, and though she becomes friendly with regular houseguests Hariott Bridges, the younger sister of Elizabeth, Henry Austen, Edward’s younger brother with whom Anne forms an unwise attachment, and later Jane Austen herself, there is a distance dictated by her position. A sympathetic character given her circumstances and ill-health, I liked Anne well enough, but I didn’t really grow fond of her.

The story moves at a sedate pace as life unfolds at Godmersham Park. It’s a reasonably busy household with so many children, visiting houseguests, and family events, but not a particularly active one, and I felt the story lacked energy. While there are occasional instances of open conflict, most of the drama centres on Anne’s inner emotional turmoil, which I sometimes found overwrought.

Godmersham Park is a pleasant enough novel but I felt the story sacrificed dynamism for historical accuracy. It’s probably best suited for fans interested in its connections to Jane.

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Review: Madwoman by Louise Treger

 

Title: Madwoman

Author: Louise Treger

Published: 9th June 2022, Bloomsbury Publishing UK

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Bloomsbury/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

“‘Welcome to Blackwell’s island,’ one of them said. he cleared his throat and spat. ‘once you get in here, you’ll never get out.’”

I fairly leapt at the chance to read Louise Treger’s fictionalised narrative of Elizabeth Cochran who wrote under the pseudonym of Nellie Bly, having always been fascinated by her remarkable story.

Credited as being the world’s first female investigative journalist, in 1887, Nellie had her self committed to the insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York City in order to expose the alleged abuses occurring there.

Treger begins her story in 1870 when Elizabeth is a child living a comfortable life in rural Pennsylvania. The daughter of a judge, ‘Pink’ as she was nicknamed by her family, was encouraged to be curious and learn about a range of subjects, including those generally thought to be unsuitable for women at the time. Inspired by her father  Pink plans to eschew marriage and pursue a career in law, but his untimely death when she is fourteen curtails her ambition.

Sux years later, working in service to help support her family, an editorial in the Pittsburgh Dispatch revives her aspirations, and she convinces the paper to publish a series of articles, adopting the nom de plume, Nellie Bly. The articles are popular but attract controversy from advertisers, and when she is relegated to writing about the arts, Nellie decides to move to New York.

The New York newspapers are uninterested in Nellie’s previous success, women journalists are not welcome on Park Row. Nellie however refuses to accept no for an answer and somewhat recklessly promises Colonel Cockerill, managing editor of The World, an insider’s story on life inside the notorious insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

Though I’m quite familiar with Nellie’s stint on Blackwell’s Island, much of Nellie’s past was unknown to me, so I appreciated learning more about her family life and what led her to her career in journalism during a period when women were actively dissuaded from higher education and white collar work. Nellie’s tenacity was admirable, all the more so for the obstacles she faced.

Blackwell’s Island Asylum was a vile institution. While the asylum housed women with genuine mental illnesses, it also served as a convenient way for men to rid themselves of problematic wives, sisters, and mothers.  Once declared insane it was nearly impossible to be declared cured and released. Patients were ill-fed, regularly subjected to torture by the untrained staff, and received very little, if any therapeutic care. Treger ably exposes the cruel treatment and the bleak lives led by the inmates, and the challenges facing Nellie.

Unfortunately, though I find Nellie’s story fascinating and Treger’s details appear accurate, I felt the narrative of Madwoman was simplistic and flat, failing to evoke atmosphere or strong emotion. The third person viewpoint removes the reader from events, I wanted to walk with Nellie, not observing her as a reporter might.

Nellie Bly was a remarkable woman, smart, brave and resourceful, her exposé of Blackwell’s Island Asylum led to important reforms, though the institution was closed seven years later. Madwoman is an avenue to learn more about Nellie Bly and her accomplishments, but lacks Nellie’s passionate spirit.

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Review: Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

 

Title: Bloomsbury Girls (The Jane Austen Society #2)

Author: Natalie Jenner

Published: 17th May 2022, Allison & Busby UK

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Alison & Busby/Netgalley 

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My Thoughts:

Set in a multi-level, century old London bookstore, the charming Bloomsbury Girls features three women, new employee Evelyn Stone (who appeared in The Jane Austen Society), saleswoman Vivien Lowry, and secretary Grace Perkins.

For Evie, a former servant girl and one of the first women to earn a degree from Cambridge, securing a position at Bloomsbury Books is a necessary first step in supporting herself, the second is finding an obscure but valuable title she is sure is languishing somewhere among the stock.

Vivien, still mourning the death of her fiancé in the war, is tired of the manager’s fifty-one rules which dictate how the store is run. and keeps her perpetually subservient to her male colleague, Alec McDonough. An aspiring author, she wants to modernise the store’s rather stale fiction department stock and host regular literary events.

Grace, a mother of two trapped in an unhappy marriage, is supportive of Vivien’s ideas for change, especially as she knows Bloomsbury Books is struggling financially, and she relies on her position to support her family.

There is a strong theme of feminine empowerment through the novel as these three women fight to realise their hopes and ambitions. Chafing at numerous experiences of discrimination and unjust restrictions placed on them simply for being female, they are determined to change things. Vivien is the boldest of the three, sharp and impassioned she openly objects to society’s misogyny. Evie feels just as strongly about being treated unfairly as Vivien, but her rebellion is quieter and more calculated. Grace’s priorities are quite different to those of her single colleagues, but her action to reclaim her agency is arguably the bravest, given the conventions of the time. Each women experiences character growth as the story unfolds and I found all three to be appealing

Despite its strong feminist aspect, romance also has a place in the novel. Evie forms an attachment to Ash Ramaswamy, who manages the store’s science and naturalism floor, which is both awkward and sweet. The relationship that develops between Grace and Bloomsbury Books owner, Jeremy Baskin (the 11th Earl Baskin), is unconventional given the circumstances but also lovely, while Vivien and Alec’s love/hate relationship is quite entertaining.

Jenner touches on other forms of discrimination with incidents relating to class, race, and homosexuality. Ash, for example, is regularly the target of racism which has also affected his career, and the store manager feels the need to hide his long term relationship with the third floor rare book buyer. The author also notes the changing in English society in the wake of WWII.

With Jenner’s descriptive writing, I could easily envision the old-fashioned elegance of Bloomsbury Books. I liked that the chapter headings were drawn from Mr Dutton’s fifty-one store rules. The pace of the novel is quite sedate but the resolution is very satisfying.

I found Bloomsbury Girls to be an engaging historical read, and the cameo’s from noted literary figures such as Daphne Du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Peggy Guggenheim, and Noel Coward, are a delightful bonus for booklovers.

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Review: The Surgeon’s Daughter by Audrey Blake

 

Title: The Surgeons Daughter

Author: Audrey Blake

Published: 10th May 2022, Sourcebooks Landmark

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Sourcebooks/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

The sequel to The Girl in His Shadow, The Surgeon’s Daughter by Audrey Blake (a nom de plume used by the writing team of Regina Sirius and Jaima Fixsen) follows Eleanora Beady’s move to Italy to study medicine at the University of Bologna, having been refused the opportunity in England.

As the only woman in the class, Nora has few allies among her classmates and professors, but is determined to prove herself in an accelerated program and return to England with her medical license so that she can practice alongside her guardian, Dr Horace Croft, and her paramour, Dr Daniel Gibson. Nora is excited when she finds a mentor in Dr. Magdalena Morenco, whose study of caesarean birth procedures dovetails neatly with Nora’s interest in anaesthesia, though her goal is nearly thwarted by a jealous professor.

Though Nora ultimately returns to London triumphant, she discovers Croft and Gibson are under pressure due to the actions of a vindictive colleague, ill-health, and financial stress. With the viability of their Great Queen Street clinic in question, when Nora is asked by a heavily pregnant Lady Woodbine to perform a caesarean, she is all too aware that failure to save both mother and baby could end not only her own fledgling career, and the careers of those she loves, but also the future of women in medicine.

The Surgeon’s Daughter is a reminder of how primitive surgical treatment was in the mid 19th century, with the survival of patients often due more to good luck than good management. Drawing on medical case studies from the era, Blake offers vivid descriptions of injuries and illnesses, and the often barbaric processes used to treat them. It was difficult to read about children suffocating from Diphtheria, and as someone who gave birth via an emergency caesarean section, the thought of enduring the surgery, and recovery, without anaesthetic and pain management is horrifying, and the only alternatives then available to save mother or child (rarely both), no less so.

Naturally, Blake explores the barriers women faced in pursuit of higher learning in a period when their role in society was very narrowly defined by marriage, and motherhood. Only a handful of European institutions would accept women who wanted to study medicine, and even then they were rarely welcome. Nora’s experience of exclusion, sexism and misogyny was common (and barely improved for a century), and England’s first female doctors all gained their licence to practice from overseas institutions, as they were refused entry in England.

I wanted to understand more about Nora’s student experience though, other than just being a target of misogyny, and perhaps see some character change, or growth. I thought the pace of Nora’s narrative was uneven, and some crucial elements, particularly the period where she was under the tutelage of Moreno, felt underdeveloped. Though I was engaged by the action and tension in Croft and Gibson’s chapters, I also felt that it pulled too much focus from Nora’s story.

As a well researched piece of historical fiction, I found The Surgeon’s Daughter to be interesting and enjoyable.

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Review: A Stone’s Throw Away by Karly Lane

 

Title: A Stone’s Throw Away

Author: Karly Lane

Published: 1st May 2022, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read May 2022 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

A Stone’s Throw Away is the latest engaging novel from Australian bestseller Karly Lane.

Still reeling from a vicious assault after breaking the story of a corrupt politician, investigative journalist Phillipa ‘Pip’ Davenport, has retreated to her uncle’s property, Rosehaven, in rural Victoria to write a book about the high profile case. Despite her best intentions, Pip finds it difficult to settle to the task, and in the spirit of procrastination, decides to hire someone to remove the detritus at the bottom of her uncle’s dam, exposed by the ongoing drought. To her shock, and that of the small community of Midgiburra, the skeleton of a young woman is discovered in the rusted remains of an old car, and Pip finds herself caught up in the decades old mystery, even as her own past threatens to catch up with her.

Offering intrigue and romance, this contemporary set novel also touches on Australian history.

There are two elements of suspense in A Stone’s Throw Away, one of which centres around Pip and her safety. Though her assault was likely at the behest of the politician Pip exposed who is now jailed, her attacker was never identified, and concern remains that she is still a target. Pip simply wants to put the incident behind her but, struggling with PTSD, she can’t always suppress episodes of anxiety.

Pip’s wariness also affects her interactions with the two romantic possibilities introduced, local police officer, Erik, and city detective Chris. Though she chooses to drop her guard with one of the men, she soon finds herself wondering if she’s made a deadly mistake.

The other thread of mystery involves the former owner of Rosehaven, 98-year-old Bert Bigsby, a WWII veteran incapacitated and confined to a nursing home after a major stroke, and the fate of his wife, Molly, who disappeared seventy years ago. Despite her reluctance to get involved in the cold case, Pip uncovers the heartbreaking story of deception and betrayal that has haunted Bert, and exposes the truth behind the accusations levied against him by the town.

It’s through Bert’s character that Lane highlights a facet of Australia’s involvement in WWII, adding another layer of interest to the novel. Bert, like many young men, volunteered to serve in the Australian Armed Forces, though he and Molly were essentially newlyweds. Letters from Bert to Molly provide some insight into the experiences of those soldiers who served in Papua New Guinea, particularly those who were captured in the Australian Territory peacetime capital, Rabaul, when it fell to the Japanese.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, though I did feel the touch of supernatural that linked Pip and Molly was an unnecessary addition. With its appealing characters, well crafted setting, and layered storyline, A Stone’s Throw Away is an entertaining read.

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Review: The Nurses’ War by Victoria Purman

 

Title: The Nurses’ War

Author: Victoria Purman

Published: April 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Set in the first Australian Auxiliary Hospital established in Britain for the recuperation and rehabilitation for Australian soldiers during WWI, The Nurses’ War by Victoria Purman is an emotional story of service and sacrifice, based on true events.

In 1915, Nurse Cora Barker arrives from South Australia to staff a sixty-bed Australian convalescent hospital at Harefield Park, a country estate offered by Australian heiress and her husband for military use, on the outskirts of London. At age thirty-one Cora is an experienced nurse, eager to serve her country and provide care for the men injured in battle, but nothing has prepared her for the challenges of wartime nursing.

Within days of its opening on June 1st, the hospital was forced to expand its services for soldiers evacuated from the battlefields of Gallipoli, France and Serbia. By mid month the grounds of Harefield Park were home to more than a dozen hastily erected wards to accommodate 360 patients, barely a year later it housed over thousand, while thousands more had passed through its doors, having been discharged from duty due to injury or disease, or recovered and sent back to rejoin the fighting. With sensitivity and compassion, Purman details the daily operation of the hospital as Cora and her fellow nursing staff spend long shifts caring for men, many with gruesome physical injuries and fragile mental health, while contending with their own exhaustion, home sickness, and emotional distress. The determination of the nurses to do everything they can for ‘their boys’ is inspiring, and I loved learning about the ordinary, and extraordinary, work and achievements of the Number 1 AAH and its staff, thanks to Purman’s meticulous research. Three of my four great grandfathers served in the Australian forces during WWI and may well have passed through the hospital. (I’d be interested to know if a patient list exists, I couldn’t find one with a cursory search.)

It’s easy to feel for Cora as the war that was expected to be ‘over by Christmas’ drags on. Though she has support from her fellow nurses, Leonora, Gertie and Fiona, no one could truly be prepared for what was to come, and Purman explores how the Cora was changed by her experiences. It’s a subtle process as Cora gains a clearer understanding of the human costs of war, and lets go of some of the social strictures she was raised with. I really liked Cora’s unexpected relationship with surgeon Captain William Kent, and the support they were able to offer each other.

Introducing the perspective of Jessie Chester allows Purman to explore the effects of the war on the civilians of Britain. A young local seamstress, Jessie is a sweet character who lives with her widowed mother and palsied brother. I thought the development of her character was very well done, as the establishment of the Harefield Hospital brings an unexpected opportunity for romance, and a change of career.

I did feel the pacing was a little off, a casualty in part of the nearly five year timeline I think, and I felt there was some instances of repetition, however these are very minor quibbles that didn’t detract from my satisfaction with the story overall.

I found The Nurses’ War to be a moving, thoughtful and absorbing tribute to the women who served with courage and compassion.

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Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

 

Title: Lessons in Chemistry

Author: Bonnie Garmus

Published: 5th April 2022, Doubleday

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy Doubleday/Netgalley UK

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My Thoughts:

 

Elizabeth Zott is a brilliant scientist, but as a woman in the mid 20th century she struggles to be taken seriously. Denied the opportunity for a PhD after stabbing her professor with a pencil, she takes a job as a research assistant at the Hastings Research Institute. Refusing to fetch coffee for her colleagues, or flirt with her boss, Elizabeth finds her career stalled, until an unexpected meeting with the institute’s wonder boy, Calvin Evans.

“When it came to equality, 1952 was a real disappointment.”

Shifting between past and present, Lessons in Chemistry is a lively and thought-provoking story of ambition, love, motherhood, and science, featuring a heroine with an empowering message for women, still relevant today.

“Once a research chemist, Elizabeth Zott was a woman with flawless skin and an unmistakable demeanor of someone who was not average and never would be.”

It’s clear, though never confirmed, that Elizabeth is on the autism spectrum, candid and artless, she’s frustrated by the social conventions that attempt to constrain her both personally and professionally. I found it easy to empathise with her, given the struggle for equality in both spheres lingers, and cheered her refusal to capitulate to expectations.

“Cooking is chemistry….And chemistry is life. Your ability to change everything—including yourself—starts here.”

Though repeatedly thwarted in her career ambitions, largely by men determined to either subjugate or exploit her, Elizabeth will not be denied. Accepting the role as a hostess of an afternoon television cooking show is a rare compromise for the sake of practically, but Elizabeth doesn’t have it in her to adhere to convention, much to the dismay and ire of her immediate boss, and his boss. That her unusual approach strikes a chord with her audience of housewives surprises everyone, except Elizabeth.

“Imagine if all men took women seriously.”

Though Garmus explores a range of serious issues that disproportionately affect women such as workplace harassment, sexual assault, domestic violence, and gender discrimination, her wry humour offsets many of the story’s painful moments. It helps too, that few of the men who treat Elizabeth badly remain unpunished.

“Family is far more than biology.”

I loved the found family Elizabeth attracts. Her relationship with Calvin is a charming surprise, a true connection of soulmates. Elizabeth’s daughter, Madeline, is a delight, as is the equally precocious family dog, Six-Thirty. I quickly warmed to Elizabeth’s across-the-way neighbour, Harriet, her obstetrician and fellow rower, Dr Mason, her stressed out show boss, Walter Pine, and even the disillusioned Reverend Wakely.

“Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself.”

Lessons in Chemistry is witty, provocative, poignant and uplifting story of a woman who refuses to be anything other than who she is.

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Review: The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

 

Title: The Diamond Eye

Author: Kate Quinn

Published: 29th March 2022, William Morrow

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy William Morrow /Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

 

Inspired by the remarkable story of World War II Russian sniper known as ‘Lady Death’, The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn is a fascinating novel of historical fiction.

On the same day that the Germans invade Russia, Mila Pavlichenko (Lyudmila Mikhailovna), a 24 year old PhD student working at the Odessa public library as a senior research assistant enlists in the army. Goaded into completing an Advanced Markmanship course several years earlier by her husband, from whom she’s been separated for several years, she feels compelled to contribute to the protection of her young son, Slavka, who remains in the care of his grandparents. Sent to the Russian front, Mila quickly proves skilled with a rifle, and over the course of the next year, earns the nickname ‘Lady Death’ as a sniper credited with 309 ‘official’ kills of Nazi soldiers.

Unfolding over two timelines, much of the story moves between Mila’s experiences on the frontline, and her time in Washington, 18 months later.

Though The Diamond Eye is a fictionalised account of Mila’s life, in her Author’s Note Quinn explains much of the detail is factual – from Mila’s ‘shotgun’ wedding at age fifteen after being seduced by a much older man, to the friendship she formed with (former) First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt during Mila’s tour of the United States. Drawing from Mila’s official memoir, and other records, Quinn has crafted a rich portrait of the woman that exists beyond the legend of ‘Lady Death’.

I think Quinn ably communicated the chaos and stress of the frontline from Mila’s unique perspective, both as a woman and a sniper. I was engrossed by Mila’s experiences, admiring of her bravery and her commitment to her role, one I could never imagine taking on. There is an extra layer of poignancy too that Quinn did not foresee, given the recent outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine.

I enjoyed the development of Mila’s relationship with her sniper partner, Kostia, and with the lieutenant, Lyonya, with whom she had an ill-fated romance on the frontlines.   Though Quinn has taken some liberties, both men are based on real people, as are most of the characters she encounters, their names taken from historical record, including her comrades in arms, and her fellow Soviet delegates.

It was after Mila’s fourth near-fatal injury, that she was sent to Washington DC, representing the Soviet Union at an international student conference hosted by (former) First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, tasked with convincing the President to provide assistance to Russia. Despite her reluctance to participate, Mila proved to be a capable, if somewhat controversial, advocate (footage of the real Mila speaking with the US press can be seen on YouTube). It’s in this timeline that Quinn strays most notably from history, concocting an assassin who stalks Mila, planning to frame her for the murder of FDR. To be honest I’m not sure it was necessary, though it does add another level of drama and tension, and speaks to the political landscape of the time.

The Diamond Eye is a compelling narrative, enriched by the blending of fact and fiction, and a reminder of the human face of war.

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Review: The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs

 

Title: The Language of Food

Author: Annabel Abbs

Published: 2nd March 2022, Simon & Schuster Australia 

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Inspired by the little that is known of the life of poet, and pioneering cookery writer, Eliza Acton, and her assistant, Ann Kirby, The Language of Food (also published under the title Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen) is the third novel from British author, Annabel Abbs.

“But you cannot cook, Eliza. You have never cooked. Besides, ladies do not cook.”

The rejection of Eliza Acton’s second book of poetry by a publisher who suggests she writes a gothic romance or recipe book instead, coincides with her father’s abrupt bankruptcy, leaving she and her mother to take charge of a boardinghouse for wealthy visitors to Tunbridge Wells in order to support themselves. Despite rarely ever having even set foot in a kitchen, and her mother’s objections, Eliza volunteers to take on the role of cook, reasoning it’s an opportunity to save money, and accept the publisher’s commission to write a recipe book.

The sole carer for her mentally ill mother and one legged, alcoholic father, seventeen year old Ann Kirby is both apprehensive and excited when the local Vicar Mr Thorpe arranges a position for her as underhousemaid for Eliza at the boardinghouse. Unused to service, Ann has no idea what to expect but she soon proves herself invaluable to Eliza as she proves to have an instinct for flavours, and they work to develop the cookbook together.

“Why should the culinary arts not include poetry? Why should a recipe book not be a thing of beauty?”

Told through the alternating perspectives of the two women, The Language of Food draws on fact and imagination as Eliza and Ann develop what will eventually be “the greatest British cookbook of all time”, published in 1845 as ‘Modern Cookery, in All Its Branches: Reduced to a System of Easy Practice, for the Use of Private Families’. It’s also a story of female friendship and fortitude, as the women, despite their different stations in life, work side by side, and a story of creativity and cooking as Eliza and Ann combine their talents for poetry and instinct for flavours.

While Abbs incorporates as much accurate information as available about Eliza in The Language of Food, Ann is almost an entirely a fictional construct. I liked Eliza as a somewhat unconventional woman for her time, and it’s pleasing she and her contribution to modern cookery have being remembered and honoured here. Ann is young and naive, and her backstory makes her a very sympathetic character. Abb’s portrayal of the partnership they develop in the kitchen is warming, though their situation precludes a truly equal relationship. I found it interesting that Abbs explained the omission of Ann as a coauthor of the book as a decision made by Ann, and have to wonder if there was any truth to that.

The bulk of the story takes place over a year so, though in reality it took Eliza and Ann ten years, from 1835 to 1845. to write their cookbook. Abbs touches on the social history of the era including the tremendous inequality between social classes, the status of women across the social spectrum, and the treatment of the mentally ill.

“I must coax the flavors from my ingredients, as a poet coaxes mood and meaning from his words. And then there is the writing itself. Like a poem, a recipe should be clear and precise and ordered. Nothing stray.”

Eliza is credited as the pioneer of modern cookery books because she was the first to list ingredients separately from the methodology, and to provide precise quantities of ingredients. She could also be said to have pioneered the genre of ‘food writing’, by combining instruction with description. Foodies should enjoy Eliza’s poetic depictions of scents and tastes, though the fare of the 1800’s, which relied heavily on game and foraged foods, may sound quite unusual. A handful of Eliza’s ‘reciepts’ are printed after the Notes section at the end of the book.

The Language of Food is an engaging historical novel, and I appreciated learning about the beginnings of the modern recipe book.

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