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

++++++

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.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia

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

++++++

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.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Indiebound

Also by Anita Abriel reviewed at Book’d Out

Review: Charlotte by Helen Moffett

Title: Charlotte

Author: Helen Moffett

Published: 14th May 2020, Manila Press

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

I have to confess that Pride and Prejudice was always one of my least favourite Jane Austen novels, until that is I watched the 2005 movie adaptation, which I adore. Since then I’ve read only a few of what must be hundreds of retellings/sequels/reimaginings/modern adaptions of the novels, of which Charlotte is one.

Helen Moffett takes a unique approach to the canon by placing Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth Darcy’s (née Bennett) friend, at the heart of her own story. It begins several years after Charlotte’s marriage to the Bennett’s cousin, Reverend Collins, with the tragic death of their third child and only son, Thomas. His death, and a visit to Pemberley, results in Charlotte contemplating the decision she made to marry Mr Collins, and the vulnerability of her own two young daughters to a fate decided by men.

In many respects, the Charlotte Moffett portrays is just as I imagined she might be, a kind and capable woman with the respect of her community, a loyal wife, and a wonderful mother. Marrying Mr Collins my have been a compromise, but she has made peace with the decision, and has created a life she generally finds satisfying., until the death of her son disturbs her equilibrium.

A months long visit to Pemberley with her girls, to stay with Elizabeth at the behest of a worried Mr Darcy in his absence, gives Charlotte time to mourn. Moffett also uses this opportunity to introduce a new character, an Austrian musician and piano tuner, Jacob Rosenstein, who prompts Charlotte to imagine a different fate for herself.

As in Austen’s novels, there is a strong feminist element at play, exploring the lack of agency women experience, their futures determined at the whim of their fathers, brothers, and husbands. While Charlotte acknowledges a semblance of luck in marrying Mr Collins, whose faults do not extend to excessive drinking or violence, she still resents that she had no real alternative, and doesn’t want her daughters to suffer similarly.

Readers familiar with Jane Austen’s oeuvre will appreciate Moffett’s references to other works, as well as glimpses of an imagined fate for many of the characters from Pride and Prejudice, none more surprising perhaps than of Anne De Bourgh. Purists may be upset by some of the liberties Moffett takes, but I happily embraced them all.

I found the writing to be lovely, in keeping with Austen’s own prose, though not quite as stiff. There is a lot of emotion in this story which I think Moffett communicates beautifully from Charlotte’s journey through grief, to her discovery of passion.

Moving, bright, and charming, I was captivated by Charlotte, and happily recommend it.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I HiveUK

Review: The Last Truehart by Darry Fraser

Title: The Last Truehart

Author: Darry Fraser

Published: 2nd December 2020, Mira Au

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Harlequin Au

“A woman alone and a charismatic private detective are caught up in a dangerous quest to discover her true identity in this thrilling historical adventure romance set in 19th century Victoria, from a bestselling Australian author.

1898, Geelong, Victoria. Stella Truehart is all alone in the world. Her good-for-nothing husband has died violently at the hands of an unknown assailant. Her mother is dead, her father deserted them before she was born, and now her kindly Truehart grandparents are also in their graves.

Private detective Bendigo Barrett has been tasked with finding Stella. He believes his client’s intentions are good, but it is evident that someone with darker motives is also seeking her. For her own part Stella is fiercely independent, but as danger mounts she agrees to work with Bendigo and before long they travel together to Sydney to meet his mysterious client where they discover more questions than answers.

What role do a stolen precious jewel and a long-ago US Civil War ship play in Stella’s story? Will sudden bloodshed prevent the resolution of the mystery and stand in the way of her feelings for Bendigo? It is time, at last, for the truth to be revealed..”

++++++

My Thoughts:

Captivating adventure romance set in 19th century Australia! Full review to come…

++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia at HarperCollins

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia

Review: Dark Tides by Philippa Gregory

Title: Dark Tides {Fairmile #2}

Author: Philippa Gregory

Published: 24th November 2020, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Simon & Schuster

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My Thoughts:

Dark Tides is the second book in Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction series, The Fairmile, and begins twenty one years after Tidelands ends.

Alinor Reekie and her daughter, Alys, have long left Sealsea Island behind and now reside on the banks of the Thames River, operating a small warehouse that services unlading ships. Alinor, who has has never regained full health after the near drowning she endured, supplements the family’s income with herbal preparations, while Alys’s children, twins Johnnie and Sarah, contribute what they can from their wages as apprentices. They live simply, honestly, and quietly, but unexpected visitors suddenly throw the family into turmoil.

The first of their visitors is James Avery aka James Summers, the man who deserted Alinor at her most vulnerable, leaving her heartbroken and pregnant. Having recovered his title and family fortune, and recently widowed, he is seeking the child he assumes Alinor birthed, desperately desiring an heir.

The second visitor brings tragic news, calling herself Nobildonna Livia da Ricci, with a babe in her arms, she claims to be the widow of Rob, Alinor’s son. Tearfully she tells the family Rob, who was practicing as a doctor in Venice, drowned in a boating accident and now she has come to England to raise their son as an Englishman.

To be honest I’m as disappointed by this sequel as I was surprised by Tidelands. Alinor is reduced to a minor character, I never much cared for Alys, and care for her even less here. Avery is still a fool, Livia and her machinations are entirely transparent, and Sarah’s potential is squandered.

I could have forgiven a lot if the plot hadn’t turned out to be almost wholly predictable, it’s immediately clear that Livia can’t be trusted and the story pivots around her obvious deceptions.

Additionally the story itself largely lacks the atmospheric appeal of Tidelines, Gregory uses not more than broad strokes to describe the life along the Thames, and I felt she gave Venice short shrift.

There is a second storyline that runs through the book which features Ned, Alinor’s brother, who fled to the New World (America) when Cromwell was unseated and a new King retook the throne. While I had some interest in Ned’s experience, there was very little action, and though the theme’s echoed that of his sister’s story, the storyline as a whole was superfluous.

I realise my assessment here is quite harsh, but I am struggling to find anything particularly positive to say. I did finish it, so it wasn’t unreadable, but I don’t think it was any more than barely okay, though I’m sure others will disagree.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I HiveUK I Indiebound

Also by Philippa Gregory reviewed at Book’d Out

Review: The Champagne War by Fiona McIntosh

Title: The Champagne War

Author: Fiona McIntosh

Published: November 2020, Michael Joseph

Status: Read November 2020 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

Set in France during World War I, The Champagne War by Fiona McIntosh is a grand tale of romance, resilience, courage and champagne.

It is love at first sight between Sophie Delancré, a fifth generation champenoise, and vigneron Jerome Méa, but they have mere weeks together following their wedding in 1914 before Jerome must leave his bride to do his duty in defence of France. Determined that the production of the Delancré House will not falter despite the war, Sophie throws herself into her dual role of tending the vines and making her champagne while she waits for the return of her new husband. When the news that Jerome is missing, lost in action when his position in Ypres was attacked during the first deployment of Chlorine gas by the Germans, reaches her a year later, Sophie is devastated, but without a body, refuses to relinquish the hope that he is alive somewhere. As the war drags on and the fighting creeps closer, Sophie and those left behind in the villages of Épernay and Reims, nevertheless continue to nurture the vineyards and ensure the production of their champagne, though to do so risks placing Sophie in the debt of her odious brother-in-law, Louis.

Sophie is a wonderful character, she is a smart, strong, passionate, and independent woman, but her loyalty to her family’s legacy is near all-consuming. With Jerome missing, presumed dead, and the privations of war worsening affecting her ability to produce champagne, Sophie becomes vulnerable to Louis’s manipulation. It’s the fortuitous arrival of injured British Army Captain and former chemist, Charlie Nash, that provides Sophie with an alternative, not only to her grief and loneliness, but also her desperate need for sugar.

Charlie is the only member of his company to survive a fierce battle on the outskirts of Reim, having been badly injured he is invited to convalesce at Sophie’s home in Épernay along with a dozen or so other soldiers. He is an appealing character, revealing himself to be a principled man despite the compromises demanded by war. Charlie is immediately infatuated with Sophie, who is surprised to find she returns his interest, even though she can’t let go of the hope that Jerome still lives.

Though romance is an essential element of The Champagne War, the story is much more than just that. As always, McIntosh masterfully weaves historical fact into her tale of fiction. The story is meticulously researched in terms of location, period and the specifics of the champagne industry. The horrors of war, particularly as experienced by Jerome and Charlie, are portrayed with authenticity, and though I personally dislike the taste of champagne, I still found learning about its complex production and makeup to be interesting. For those that enjoy a drop or two, Fiona has thoughtfully provided a bonus, recipe’s for Sabayon and Champagne Truffles.

The Champagne War is a sparkling, elegant, and effervescent, novel, to be savoured.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia

Also by Fiona McIntosh reviewed at Book’d Out

Review: Searching for Charlotte by Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell

Title: Searching for Charlotte

Author: Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell

Published: 1st November 2020, National Library of Australia

Status: Read November 2020 courtesy Quikmark Media

++++++

My Thoughts:

“We come from a family of marvellous storytellers….Our lives were enriched by their stories…”

In 1841, the first Australian children’s book titled ‘A Mother’s Offering To Her Children’ was published, its author, ‘A Lady Long Resident in NSW’. It wasn’t until 1980 that the book was correctly attributed to Charlotte Waring Atkinson (Barton), the great-great-great-great grandmother of bestselling authors Kate Forsyth, and her sister, Belinda Murrell.

For Kate and Belinda, who grew up listening to the stories of their ancestors adventures, both before and after their arrival in Australia, Charlotte was already a figure of fascination. To discover she was Australia’s first children’s author only increased their admiration for her, and inspired the sisters two year search for the truth of the life she lived.

Searching for Charlotte is a hybrid narrative, a historical biography but one that is inextricably blended with the folklore of the sisters family history, and their own journey of discovery. Only so many questions can be answered definitively with what remains of the past…records, letters, diary entries, all of which Kate and Belinda draw on, but to fill in the gaps the sisters take some liberties, some of which comes from the stories passed down through generations, some from the informed speculation of the two women.

I enjoyed the process of learning of Charlotte’s life, and her legacy, which includes a daughter who earned the distinction of being the first Australian born woman to have a novel published. It’s unsurprising then that Kate and Belinda take such pride in their relationship to Charlotte, who seems to have been an intelligent, spirited, and courageous woman who faced many challenges, particularly in the latter half of her life as the wife, and then widow, of James Atkinson in the NSW colony.

A narrative that reveals adventure, tragedy and triumph, country and culture, folklore and family, I found Searching For Charlotte to be an engaging and enlightening read.

++++++

Available from NLA Publishing

Or your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia

Also by Kate Forsyth reviewed at Book’d Out

Review: The Lady Brewer of London by Karen Brooks

Title: The Lady Brewer of London

Author: Karen Brooks

Published: 10th November 2020, William Morrow

Status: Read November 2020 courtesy William Morrow/Edelweiss

++++++

My Thoughts:

When Anneke Sheldrake’s father is lost at sea she is horrified to learn that she and her younger siblings have been left with nothing. Desperate to keep what remains of her family together, she strikes a bold bargain with her father’s employer and, armed with her late mother’s family recipes, daringly chooses to go into business as a brewer of ale. Despite being ostracised by most of her family and friends, and repeatedly harassed and intimidated by the local Abbot and his cronies whose monopoly of the ale trade is threatened, Anneke’s brew steadily wins favour amongst the community. Just as success seems within her reach, Anneke is targeted in a malicious attack that razes nearly everything she holds dear. Forced to flee for her life, Anneke is nevertheless determined to begin again and finds an unlikely ally in a London brothel owner. With courage and hard work, Anneke, taking the name Anna de Winter, slowly rebuilds her life and business, until the horrors of her past once again threaten to destroy her.

A saga of betrayal, love, tragedy, courage and triumph, The Lady Brewer Of London is an ambitious historical drama by author, Karen Brooks.

Anneke is strong protagonist, with spirit and convictions uncommon for her time. Despite harrowing personal tragedy she finds the strength to rise above it and carry on, refusing to be cowed by her persecutors. Her courage, loyalty and determination are admirable qualities and ensure the reader is firmly on her side, willing her to triumph.

Anneke’s loyal cast including her sweet sister, Betje, the brash Alyson, and the dashing hero, Lord Leander Rainford, are eminently appealing. The villains, including Anneke’s spiteful cousin, a raft of spiritually corrupt monks, and her inescapable enemy are infuriating and often terrifying.

Though set in medieval England, the story begins in ‘The year of Our Lord 1405 in the sixth year of the reign of Henry IV’, I didn’t get a true sense of the period. It seemed not that much different from Georgian or Victorian times, though to be fair it mattered little as the details were consistent and the setting well grounded. I was surprised at how interested I was in the history of the brewery industry, and I finally discovered the difference between beer and ale. (I don’t drink either so had never thought about it before)

The writing is articulate and the first person perspective works well. The pacing was reasonable but I did feel the story, at well over 500 pages, was too long overall. I was tempted to skim at times, particularly as the plot was, though well thought out, generally predictable, with the second half of the story essentially mirroring the events of the first.

Nevertheless, The Lady Brewer of London was a satisfying read and I’d recommend it to readers who enjoy the drama and romance of sweeping historical fiction driven by a strong heroine.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins US

Or your preferred retailer via Indiebound I Book Depository I Booko

* Published in Australia as The Brewer’s Tale *


Also by Karen Brooks reviewed at Book’d Out

Review: Letters From Berlin by Tania Blanchard

Title: Letters From Berlin

Author: Tania Blanchard

Published: 7th October 2020, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read October 2020 courtesy Simon & Schuster

++++++

My Thoughts:

Inspired by the author’s family history, Letters From Berlin by Tania Blanchard is a heartfelt story of love, courage, betrayal and survival during World War Two.

As the Third Reich escalates its purge of the Jewish people from Germany in 1943, eighteen-year-old Susanna Göttmann’s fears grow for the safety of her beloved godparents who have raised her since childhood. While both she and her Onkel Georg are Aryan, Tante Elya is a Russian Jew, and their son, Leo, is classified a ‘mischlinge’, a halfbreed. The ability of the family estate, Gut Birkenhof, on the outskirts of Berlin, to provide goods and materials for the Nazi’s has allowed Georg to keep his wife and son safe, but as the Party rhetoric intensifies, their situation grows increasingly precarious.

Letters From Berlin unfolds from Susanna’s perspective as a reasonably wealthy, educated Aryan in Berlin who loves her country but is appalled by the actions of the Nazi Party, and their treatment of the Jewish people. Her primary concern is naturally for her Aunt Elya, and Leo, with whom she has been in love since she was a child, and to help protect them she makes some naive, brave, and dangerous choices. I liked the character of Susanna, and felt for all she endured, especially when circumstances separated her from Leo, and resulted in the loss of her child.

The plot of Letters from Berlin doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises, but the story is nevertheless engaging. There are some tense and dramatic moments and the themes of war, prejudice, injustice, family and love are inherently emotive. That it’s loosely based on real experiences adds a layer of poignancy, and I was glad Blanchard offered an epilogue of sorts.

Blanchard’s portrayal of life in Berlin during the war is interesting. In mid 1943, when the story starts, there seems to be little change in the day to day life of the wealthier of Aryan citizens, but as the country’s enemies close in, and the activities of the resistance take their toll, the privations grow. Blanchard merges fact with fiction as she writes of the forced labor camps, the failed conspiracy to kill Hitler, the bombings that set zoo animals loose in the streets, and the chaos post ‘liberation’.

A touching historical fiction novel, Letters From Berlin is a satisfying read.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Review: Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman


Title: Magic Lessons

Author: Alice Hoffman

Published: 7th October 2020, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status Read October 2020 courtesy Simon & Schuster

++++++

My Thoughts:

“Do as you will, but harm no one. What you give will be returned to you threefold. Fall in love whenever you can.”

Magic Lessons is the enchanting origin story for the curse that plagues the Owens sisters in Practical Magic from Alice Hoffman.

It begins in 1664 when Hannah Owens, a practitioner of the Nameless Arts, finds an infant wrapped in a blue blanket with her name, Maria, carefully stitched along the border with silk thread abandoned in the snow. Recognising that the child is gifted with bloodline magic, Hannah teaches Maria how to help and heal as women from the surrounding villages find their way to the Owens home deep in the forest. When Maria is ten a finely dressed, red haired witch arrives asking that Hannah break a powerful love spell she had foolishly cast upon herself. The woman is Maria’s mother, Rebecca, who stays barely a night, but invites tragedy in her wake, and alters Maria’s fate.

“Love could ruin your life or set you free; it could happen by chance or be a well-planned decision.”

From England, to Curaçao, to Massachusetts and New York, Maria’s fate twists and turns driven by love, betrayal, fear and vengeance. An unwise romance blesses her with a daughter, Faith, but also places her on the gallows in Salem, and a curse spoken in anger becomes a legacy that will affect the Owens women for generations.

The characters are well-drawn, and believable, marked by joy and tragedy. Maria and her daughter are complex and appealing – bright, headstrong, and courageous, but they each make mistakes.

Hoffman weaves interesting historical detail into her story, including connecting her characters with the Salem witch trials, and one of its most prominent actors. She explores the lack of agency women had over their lives in the period, and the way women like Hannah, Maria and Faith were equally revered, and feared.

The writing is lyrical yet not pretentious, with a mesmerising cadence. Descriptions of people and places are evocative, with spell recipes a charming addition.

It’s not necessary to be familiar with Practical Magic, or The Rules of Magic to enjoy this novel, a spellbinding story, Magic Lessons is a captivating read in its own right.

“These are the lessons to be learned. Drink chamomile tea to calm the spirit. Feed a cold and starve a fever. Read as many books as you can. Always choose courage. Never watch another woman burn. Know that love is the only answer.”

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Indiebound I HiveUK

Also by Alice Hoffman reviewed at Book’d Out

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