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: 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: The Emma Project by Somali Dev

 

Title: The Emma Project {The Rajes #4}

Author: Sonali Dev

Published: 17th May 2022, Avon Books

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Avon Books/Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

 

The Emma Project is the fourth (and last) book in Sonali Dev’s popular Jane Austen inspired rom com series, The Rajes, though if, like me, you haven’t read any of the earlier books it is a successful stand-alone read.

The story’s connections to the original ‘Emma’ are generally quite subtle, but still recognisable. Vansh Raje is the youngest of the Raje’s siblings. Handsome, successful and single, he is effortlessly charming, and somewhat spoilt. Knightlina (Naina) Kohli is the aloof ‘Knightly’ to Vansh’s ‘Emma’, a long term, close friend of the family, who had previously been involved in a fake relationship with Vansh’s older brother, Yash.

I liked both characters, who are portrayed with a complexity I wasn’t expecting from a romcom. Naina and Vansh both have rich back stories that are coherent motivator’s for their attitudes and actions.

The pair’s history is an obvious impediment to their relationship, with Naina having been Yash’s (fake) girlfriend for nearly a decade, both have trouble seeing each other as a potential romantic partner, as does the entire Raje family. Vansh is also twelve years younger than Naina, and her (horrible) father, clearly the root cause of her distrust of love and marriage, in particular is disparaging of the age difference.

Much of the couple’s conflict however stems from Naina being forced to share a multimillion-dollar endowment from Jignesh Mehta, the sixth-richest entrepreneur in the world, to her charitable foundation that supports sustainable economic security for women in remote and neglected regions. Naina has a plan for every dollar, so she is appalled when Mehta insists she share his largess with Vansh on the basis of a cocktail conversation.

I liked the development of their romance, it’s not quite an enemies-to-lovers trope but  fairly close. There are the inevitable misunderstandings and miscommunications, tantrums and tears. I liked the heat level of the romance, but I was a bit surprised to find it here.

A secondary romance plot involves another Raje family member, cousin Esha who has an unusual story of her own, and Sid, a photojournalist. To be honest, I felt this thread was shoehorned in, and elements of it, out of place, though there is a loose parallel to the romance in ‘Emma’ between Jane Fairfax and Churchill.

Dev also touches on a number of surprisingly serious issues including domestic violence, homelessness, dyslexia, and (what I thought was) an odd reference to to the BLM movement.

Others will be better judges than I on how satisfying The Emma Project was as a series finale. I was entertained by the story and its characters, though I don’t feel compelled to read the earlier instalments.

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Review: The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan

 

Title: The Kitchen Front

Author: Jennifer Ryan

Published: 3rd March 2022, Pan Macmillan UK

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Pan Macmillan/Netgalley 

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My Thoughts:

 

Loosely inspired by true events, The Kitchen Front is an enjoyable historical novel from Jennifer Ryan set in England during WWll.

Two years into WWII, food shortages have hit England hard and with rationing imposed, women are urged to make do with what they have when it comes to feeding their families. Advice comes from all quarters, including cooking demonstrations sponsored by the Ministry for Food, and weekly radio shows like the BBC’s ‘The Kitchen Front’, which is hosted by Ambrose Hart, a former travel writer obviously a little out of his depth. To increase their appeal to the housewives of Britain, the BBC asks Hart to hold a wartime cooking contest in his local village of Fenley, on London’s outskirts. Open to ‘professional’ cooks, three rounds over three months-Starter, Main and Dessert- scored out of ten will decide a winner who will become Hart’s cohost on the ‘The Kitchen Front’.

Five women join the competition-estranged sisters Lady Gwendoline Strickland and and war widowed mother of three boys, Audrey Langdon; manor house cook, Mrs Quince and her young assistant Nell Brown; and displaced Cordon Bleu trained chef, Zelda DuPont. All are determined to win, the prize offering each of them something they need.

Predictably, though not disappointingly so, the contest and its reward comes to matter less as the women are pushed together due to a series of circumstances, some convenient, others dramatic. Emphasising the themes of integrity, friendship and community, the women find the goals they hope to achieve through winning the competition-purpose, money, independence, and career ambition-are best met with the support of each other.

Along with the challenges of wartime on the home front, Ryan touches on many issues such as grief, domestic violence, patriotism and corruption. There’s romance for Nell too when she meets a handsome Italian prisoner of war billeted to Fenley Hall. I thought the pace was good and the story elements well balanced.

I found the details about rationing and wartime menus to be fascinating. Recent grocery store shortages and price rises due to CoVid and other disasters have been a struggle to cope with, I can’t imagine their struggle, or that I’d have any luck convincing my family to eat sheep head stew or whale meat pie (recipes for both, and more, are included in the book).

Celebrating women and friendship, The Kitchen Front is a pleasant, heartwarming read.

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Review: Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter by Lizzie Pook

 

Title: Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter

Author: Lizzie Pook

Published: 1st February 2022, Penguin Australia

Status: Read February 2022 courtesy Penguin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter is an atmospheric historical fiction debut from Lizzie Pook.

Set on the northern coast of Western Australia, Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter takes place during 1886. It’s in the fictional town of Bannin Bay that 20 year-old Eliza Brightwell awaits the return of her father and brother aboard their pearling lugger, the White Starling, after nine weeks at sea. When the ship finally sails in near dusk, its flag fluttering at half-mast, Eliza is told her beloved father disappeared overboard sometime during the previous night and is presumed dead. Eliza is devastated, and when the local constabulary immediately places blame upon one of her father’s most loyal divers, Eliza sets out to prove the man’s innocence, and learn the truth about her father’s fate.

With the early history of Australia’s pearling industry as a backdrop, Pook presents a story of mystery and adventure with a touch romance. It’s the disappearance of Charles Brightwell that dominates the plot as Eliza searches for information that will explain it, joined by Axel, a young German dry-sheller who offers Eliza his company. The quest leads the pair into a number of dangerous situations, including a harrowing sea journey on a lugger called Moonlight through shark and crocodile infested waters, providing some tense action and excitement. I’d guessed where the blame would ultimately fall, though not some of the reactions to it.

Eliza’s devotion to her family, despite the many flaws of Charles and Thomas, explains why she refuses to give up. An appealing heroine, it’s a little unlikely Eliza would be quite as capable as she seems to be in a couple of scenes for a young woman of her status during the time period, but her determination and daring is admirable.

It’s not exactly clear why Axel volunteers to accompany Eliza, other than he is a decent young man who seems to have admired Eliza from afar. Pook provides his character with an interesting background, but he felt somewhat underdeveloped.

Where the author excels with her vivid descriptions of the dry Kimberly landscape, the community’s streets and residents, and the changing conditions of the sea, effortlessly evoking harsh heat, salt air and crashing waves. Though I could clearly visualise Eliza’s environment, I would have liked to learn more about the daily operations of a pearling fleet. Pook does provide some general insight into the industry, and thoughtfully acknowledges the appalling treatment of First Nations people by the white settlers of the area.

Though I wasn’t wholly captivated by Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter, it is a solid debut, with a lot to recommend it.

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Review: The Good Son by Jacquelyn Mitchard

 

Title: The Good Son

Author: Jacquelyn Mitchard

Published: 19th January 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Harlequin Australia/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

“I was picking my son up at the prison gates when I spotted the mother of the girl he had murdered.”

 

Nearly three years after being convicted for beating his girlfriend, Belinda McCormack, to death while high on a cocktail of drugs, 20 year old Stefan Christiansen is released from prison. Despite everything, his mother, university professor Thea, is determined to support Stefan and encourage him to rebuild his life. She knows it won’t be easy, though Stefan remembers nothing of the crime he confessed to he is tormented by remorse and self-loathing, and the family is subject to sustained harassment, not only from supporters of a campaign spearheaded by Belinda’s devastated mother, Jill, but also a hooded figure and an anonymous caller.

Unfolding from Thea’s perspective, Jacqueline Mitchard presents a provocative narrative that explores the themes of guilt, redemption and unconditional love in The Good Son.

Thea is an sympathetic character, contemplating myself and my ‘good son’ in such a situation is unnerving. I thought Thea’s inner conflict was well articulated as she struggled to reconcile her love for her son with the crime he committed. While I didn’t always agree with her actions, I felt her character behaved consistently. I liked that Mitchard explored the stigma Thea faced as the mother of a murderer, though I wondered if she went quite far enough.

In the main I felt Mitchard’s portrayal of Stefan’s character was believable, his mercurial attitude in the weeks after his release seemed genuine and appropriate to his age. His struggles to rejoin society were thoughtfully represented, raising issues I’d given little thought to. I found myself torn between sympathy for, and a kind of impatience with, Stefan, a dynamic which I think was skilfully exploited by the author to illustrate the maxim that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.

While I think the premise of the story is powerful, the execution was quite uneven. The pacing was an issue for me, the middle third dragged, and it definitely affected the suspense related to the identity and motivations of the family’s stalker. I’m conflicted with regards to the ending too. I think the novel would have been stronger had Mitchard chosen another, less melodramatic and arguably more authentic, path.

Though not without its flaws, I did find The Good Son to be a thought-provoking read, and I do believe it would be a rewarding choice for a book club, as it explores issues sure to stimulate a lively discussion.

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Review: The Santa Suit by Mary Kay Andrews

Review: The Santa Suit

Author: Mary Kay Andrews

Published: 28th September 2021, St Martin’s Press

Status: Read December 2021

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My Thoughts:

Celebrating second chances, community and love, The Santa Suit by Mary Kay Andrews is exactly what you want from a Christmas novella – short, simple and sweet.

Looking for a fresh start, newly divorced Ivy Perkins buys an old farmhouse, sight unseen, in the tiny town of Tarburton in North Carolina. Full of abandoned furniture and flotsam, The Four Roses farm needs a little more work than the online advertising seemed to suggest, though the handsome real estate broker, Ezra Wheeler, is happy to offer his help. As Ivy begins clearing the house, she finds a finely tailored Santa Claus suit in a box at the top of a wardrobe, in the pocket is a child’s letter asking Santa to bring her father safely home from the war for Christmas. Moved by the wish, Ivy decides to find out what became of the little girl and her family, a search that will forge friendships, families and festive cheer.

I don’t have a lot to say about The Santa Suit. There are a couple of threads that Andrews brings together in a neat and satisfying way. The small town feel is charming, and the characters are appealing, though the brevity of the story doesn’t allow for much more than broad strokes.

Ultimately The Santa Suit was a quick, uplifting Christmas Eve read, combining a little mystery, romance & touch of seasonal magic.

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Review: The Safe Place by L.A. Larkin

 

Title: The Safe Place

Author: L.A. Larkin

Published: 9th November 2021, Bookouture

Status: Read November 2021 courtesy Bookoutre/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

A year after finally gathering the courage to report her boyfriend and boss, hero fire captain Marcus Harstead, for domestic violence, Jessie Lewis is a pariah in her home town of Eagle Falls. Branded an unstable, vindictive liar by her charismatic ex and his supporters, including Sheriff John Cuffy, when first a local family with whom Jessie had a public spat is killed in an arson attack on their home, and then Jessie is linked to the scene of a second fatal fire, she is quickly labeled the prime suspect. With only a retired FBI agent willing to believe her innocent, Jessie realises she has no choice but to expose the arsonist before her life turns to ashes.

The Safe Place by L.A. Larkin is a fast-paced, action packed thriller that involves domestic violence, PTSD, conspiracy, arson and murder. The author has crafted an intriguing and dramatic plot as Jessie, victimised, threatened and hunted, repeatedly finds herself in incredibly tense confrontations in a desperate effort to clear her name. Jessie is certain she knows who is framing her for the arson, and why, but her ex is not the only person in Eagle Falls with secrets they’d kill to keep, and there are some gripping twists as Larkin reveals hidden motives.

However I found Jessie to be a frustrating character. She’s a bit of a mess, understandably so given her past and current situation. I wasn’t unsympathetic, and I was always rooting for her survival, but I really struggled with the way in which she consistently made the worst possible choice in almost every situation.

Nevertheless The Safe Place is a page-turner, a tense and exciting story that had had me enthralled.

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Review: A Women’s Place by Deepi Ahluwalia and Jessica Olah

 

Title: A Woman’s Place: The Inventors, Rumrunners, Lawbreakers, Scientists, and Single Moms Who Changed the World with Food

Author: Deepi Ahluwalia, Jessica Olah

Published: 5th March 2019, Little, Brown and Company

Status: Read November 2021

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My Thoughts:

“If a woman’s place has always been in the kitchen, then why does culinary history read like the guest list of some old boys’ club?”

This is the question that inspired Deepi Ahluwalia and Jessica Olah, who have four decades of experience in the food industry, to author A Woman’s Place aiming to share the stories of more than 80 women who have left a lasting mark on history, and whose contribution to the culinary world is often overlooked.

A Woman’s Place is divided into three sections, headed Innovators, Instigators, and Inventors.  Accompanied by full page illustrations, the biographies of each woman, or group of women, are quite short, no more than a page or two, and highlight their connection to food. Recipes accompany some of the entries.

As I was reading I decided to make a note of the entries that surprised or intrigued me to mention in this review, but the list quickly became very long. Ahluwalia and Olah start with Catherine de’ Medici who introduced both Italian ingredients and the use of the fork to the French in the 1500’s, and ends with the San Antonio Chili Queens who sparked the development of Tex-Mex, a popular and uniquely American cuisine. In between are women from varying countries and cultures, through the ages. It’s a joy that women’s historic contributions are finally being recognised and lauded.

A Woman’s Place can be read in one sitting, or browsed when you have a few spare minutes. It is suitable for a wide range of ages, and should appeal not only to foodies but readers interested in history, culture or feminism.

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#2021ReadNonFic: FOOD

Review: Before & Laughter by Jimmy Carr

 

Title: Before & Laughter: A Life Changing Book

Author: Jimmy Carr

Published: 28th September 2021, Quercus Publishing

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

I ‘discovered’ Irish comedian Jimmy Carr when I stumbled upon the panel show ‘8 Out of 10 Cats’ on YouTube only a year or two ago. The show opened up an entire collection of British comedy programs I promptly binged, and given the incestuous nature of the business, Carr had a role in many of them. Whether acting as a host or  panellist, he often makes me laugh out loud, even if his humour tends to be more on the deliberately offensive, smutty side.

Billed as a memoir and self help book, I was somewhat surprised to find Before & Laughter leans far more into the latter than the former. There are glimpses of Carr here as he touches on his relationship with his parents, shares the story of throwing in his corporate job at Shell to take a chance on comedy, offers a mea culpa for his ‘tax thing’, and speaks of his partner and child, but largely this is a book of advice on how to find your purpose and be true to yourself.

Before & Laughter is funny as expected, with Jimmy sharing plenty of humorous anecdotes, but it’s also surprisingly sensible and insightful. There isn’t anything particularly unique about the essence of Carr’s advice, but his frame of reference – stand up comedy – is something different. Carr has an interesting perspective on life informed by the nature of his work, which involves more intense labour than you would expect. Though I don’t care much for self help blather generally, I think Carr offers some sound advice for anyone looking to enhance or change their life.

Whether you buy into the motivational message or not, Before & Laughter is an entertaining read.

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