Review: Yours Cheerfully by A.J. Pearce

 

Title: Yours, Cheerfully {The Emmeline Lake Chronicles #2}

Author: A.J.Pearce

Published: 29th June 2021, Picador

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy PanMacmillan Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Yours Cheerfully begins where it’s predecessor, Dear Mrs. Bird, left off, (though it’s not necessary to have read the former to enjoy the latter) as the small staff of Women’s Friend magazine adjust to recent arrivals and departures. Junior journalist, Emmeline (Emmy) Lake is happy to be assisting the new agony aunt, but is excited when editor, Guy Collins, invites her to attend a meeting at the Ministry of Information with him. There, the government asks that women’s magazines actively assist in recruiting for the war effort, and Emmy is delighted when Guy gives her permission to develop a feature on women beginning work at a munitions factory, inspired by a chance meeting on a train.

Set during WWII, Yours Cheerfully is focused on England’s homefront as women are encouraged to enter the workplace, particularly in industrial factory settings, to both fill vacancies left by the men joining the armed forces, and cater for the needed increase in production of essential resources like arms and munitions. In general, women were eager to ‘support the boys’, but as Pearce explores in Yours Cheerfully, little thought was given to the needs of working women with children. This presents Emmy with a dilemma as she can’t honestly report on the problem in her Women’s Friend feature, but she desperately wants to help her new friends, and women like them, resolve the stalemate caused by a lack of available childcare.

It’s not all work for Emmy though, there is romance as her beau, Captain Charles Mayhew continues to visit as often as he can while he is stationed in London, and her best friend and housemate Bunty is as sweet and supportive as ever, even as she continues to recover from injuries incurred in the bombing that killed her fiancé. The characters in Yours Cheerfully are almost universally appealing, including the staff at Women’s Friend and the group of women Emmy becomes involved with at the factory. I really enjoyed the way in which Pearce captured the spirit of camaraderie and friendship that typified wartime Britain..

Charming and warm hearted with just a touch of the era’s poignancy Yours Cheerfully is an engaging historical novel certain to leave you smiling.

+++++++

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Review: The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey

 

Title: The Bombay Prince {Perveen Mistry #3}

Author: Sujata Massey

Published: 1st June 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

The Bombay Prince is the third book by Sujata Massey to feature Perveen Massey, India’s first female solicitor, working alongside her father, a respected lawyer. It’s not strictly necessary to have read the previous novels, A Murder on Malabar Hill and The Satapur Moonstone, to enjoy this though I believe the experience is better for it.

Taking place in November of 1921, Massey sets the story of The Bombay Prince against the unrest in India between British loyalists and those agitating for India’s independence as Edward VIII, Prince of Wales arrives to tour the sub-continent.

Perveen meets with a young university student worried that if she refuses the school principal’s directive to attend the parade welcoming Prince Edward that she could be expelled. Freny Cuttingmaster is anxious that she not disappoint her parents by jeopardising her education but staunchly opposes British Rule and wants Perveen’s assurance that her future will not be compromised by taking a stand. Perveen isn’t able to provide Freny with a definitive answer, suggesting she return with her college handbook, but she doesn’t see the young woman again until, on the day of the parade, Freny’s body is found in the courtyard of the school.

The Bombay Prince offers a well crafted mystery that plays out against the backdrop of protests which divides the city of Bombay along political and religious lines. Perveen is deeply distressed by the young woman’s death, especially when it becomes clear that Freny didn’t simply fall from the gallery as the scene was staged to suggest. Not able to trust that the death will be properly investigated for a number of reasons, including the college’s wish to avoid scandal, general dismissive attitudes towards women, and the escalating violence related to Prince Edward’s visit, Purveen insinuates herself into the case to ensure the killer is brought to justice. The challenge Purveen faces in navigating these issues is fascinating, probably more so than the mystery itself at times, especially when she is noticed by the men looking for collaborators in a plot to assassinate Prince Edward.

Purveen is a complex character, presenting an uneasy mix of progressive and conservative traits. Though she has defied societal expectations by becoming a solicitor, and in separating from her abusive husband, she is very conscious of the need to behave in ways that protect both her and her family’s reputation, and tends to be braver when acting on behalf of her clients than she is in than her defence of herself. This is particularly evident in her interactions with men, which makes her continued connection with Colin Sandringham, who was her government liaison in The Satapur Moonstone, an intriguing element of the story.

Rich in historical detail and cultural interest, offering a discerning mystery and a hint of romance, The Bombay Prince is an engaging novel, and I hope the series will continue.

++++++

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Review: Still by Matt Nable

 

Title: Still

Author: Matt Nable

Published: May 2021, Hachette Australia 

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy Hachette/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

“They killed him because he saw.”

 

Still is an atmospheric noir crime fiction novel from Australian Matt Nable, a former professional rugby league footballer turned film and television broadcaster/actor, and novelist.

Set in Darwin in 1963, Nable exposes a barely civilised, nascent city plagued by racism, violence and corruption. It’s mid summer, the tropical weather alternates between searing and brooding, as oppressive and threatening as the work it takes to survive in the Territory.

When Senior Constable Ned Potter finds the body of a man beaten and shot twice in the marshland of Darwin’s outskirts, he resents being told to stand down by his venal boss, Senior Sergeant Riley, who promptly declares the the death a suicide. Ned is quietly furious but resigned to doing nothing until he stumbles upon the bodies of another two men buried in a shallow grave. They too have been beaten and shot, and yet again Riley, this time backed by the Mayor, presents Ned with a fair accompli. But this time Ned can’t let it go.

Ned is a well-realised, complex character. Nable portrays a man wrestling with conscience, caught between what he knows is right and the risk of consequences, not only to his career, which he expects, but to his wife and newborn daughter. Burning silently at the injustice, he punishes himself for his perceived lack of control and courage, drinks excessively, not sure whether he is trying to forget his principles, or his fear.

Meanwhile, on her way home from visiting her father in his nursing home, Charlotte Clark finds a bleeding, broken man who begs her to hide him. Charlotte sets him up at her father’s empty property, instinctively concealing the man from her firefighter husband, who shares a cosy relationship with Senior Sergeant Riley.

For Charlotte, caring for the badly injured Michael is not only the right thing to do, despite society’s prevailing derogatory view, supported by her husband, of Australian aboriginals, but also provides her with a sense of control in a life where effectively she has none. Charlotte is a women representative of the era, a restless housewife with no practical means of escape from an unhappy marriage. The consequences of being discovered are dire not only for her, given the propensity for violence of her husband, but also for Michael, whose life is at risk.

The stakes are high for just about every character in Still, and with lives, and livelihoods, under threat the tension rarely wavers. While I do think the pacing was perhaps a little slow, my only real complaint with the novel relates to the timeline. There is a lack of immediacy in the resolution, which was necessary for one specific element of the plot, but I feel it didn’t work particularly well overall, and resulted in the conclusion losing some of its impact.

Nevertheless, Still has a lot to recommend it. I found it to be a compelling novel – superbly atmospheric, with nuanced characters and a strong mystery.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia 

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Review: Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss


Title: Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray

Author: Anita Heiss

Published: 5th May 2021, Simon & Schuster

Status: Read May 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

The first Australian novel to be released with a title in Wiradyuri language, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray, which translates to River of Dreams, is a novel of historical fiction based on true events from Anita Heiss.

When the Murrumbidgee River breaks its banks in 1852 it devastates the fledgling town of Gundagai, built too close to the water’s edge despite the warnings of the local Wiradyuri tribe. Only two members of the Bradley family survive and in the wake of the flood, they decide to start again in Wagga Wagga. Wagadhaany (Wog-a-dine), who has been in the service of the Bradley’s for four years, assumes this means she can return to her family, especially when the eldest brother takes a new bride, but instead she is forced to leave her country, and her miyagan to accompany them.

While Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray explores the universal themes of family, loss, love and belonging, it does so from the unique viewpoint of Wagadhaany, a young Wiradyuri woman. With courage and resilience Wagadhaany endures the cruel separation from her family, and her country, and the dehumanising policies of British colonisation towards First Nations people, finding love with a young Aboriginal stockman, but always yearning to return home.

Herself a proud member of the Wiradjuri Nation of central New South Wales, Heiss writes beautifully of Wagadhaany’s connection to country and family, of her respect for tradition and her pride in her people. I appreciated the insight into the traditional way of life for the First Nations people, and I particularly liked being introduced to the Wiradyuri language, which is easily decipherable through context (though there is a glossary in back if needed).

Through the characters of the Bradley family, Heiss illustrates the ignorant and arrogant treatment of the colonialists toward both the land and the aboriginal people. Their folly is laid bare by the floods, and their insistence on shaping the land to fit their needs. Heiss shows how even those who considered themselves well-intentioned, like James Bradley’s Quaker bride, Louise, advocated paternalism rather than genuine self-determinism.

If I’m honest I feel the writing is a little repetitive at times. Though it’s understandable Wagadhaany’s thoughts dwell on what she has lost and her unhappiness, the middle third of the book doesn’t really have much momentum. I found the love story between Wagadhaany and Yindyamarra engaging, and Wagadhaany’s journey home moving and poignant.

Stirring and edifying, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is a book that will speak to the hearts and minds of readers.

+++++++

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Review: Cunning Women by Elizabeth Lee

Title: Cunning Women

Author: Elizabeth Lee

Published: 22nd April 2021, Windmill Books

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Windmill Books/ Netgalley UK

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My Thoughts:

“Observe your womenfolk for wantonness above their usual failing, watch for the meeting of covens without a man to give spiritual strength. You must keep an attentive eye for secret knowledge of herbuse, the mark of the Devil upon the skin, for these are the signs of Wickedness”

Set in Lancashire, England during the 1620’s, Cunning Women is a debut historical fiction novel of love, loss, superstition and fate from Elizabeth Lee.

Sarah Haworth remembers a time before her father was swallowed by the sea, when her mother was looked upon kindly by her neighbours, and sought out for her healing tinctures and potions, but now, each morning, Sarah wakes and frantically searches her younger sister’s body for a sign that the devil has marked her as a witch during the night, as she and her mother are marked by the red stains on their skin. Sarah’s greatest wish is that Annie be spared her own inevitable fate, and one day escape their tiny, derelict home on Plague hill to lead a normal life, like the villagers below who shun them.

During the reign of King James, a cunning woman, one with knowledge of cures and medicines, as well as charms and curses, was condemned as a witch, though in small villages, they were still often secretly called upon for aid. Lee sets her story amongst this climate of fear and superstition, in which Ruth Haworth, left destitute and vulnerable by her husband’s death, attempts to eke out a living for herself and her three children.

When she was twelve, Sarah learnt from her mother that she too is a cunning woman and as such an ordinary life as a wife and a mother is not hers to have. It’s a destiny Sarah does not want, actively rejecting her mother’s lessons, focusing on the wellbeing of Annie, the sister gifted to them by the woods. Sarah is a sympathetic character, barely fourteen her life is one of deprivation and humiliation, yet she clings tightly to a slender thread of hope that things can change.

Lee introduces romance into the story when Sarah encounters the local farmers son. Daniel is inexplicably drawn to Sarah despite the Haworth’s reputation, and the grudge held against her family by his father. I think Lee develops the relationship quite well within the demands of the story. As love blooms between the couple, Sarah begins to imagine that a new life is with her grasp, until tragedy threatens to rip it away.

It takes a little while for the narrative to gain momentum, but suspense is woven into several threads, and when one snaps it increases the tension among the others. There were a few elements in the plot that I didn’t expect, and the ending was somewhat of a surprise too.

I’ve read a few books set in this period with similar themes recently, and I think this story compares well. Cunning Women is a bewitching and atmospheric tale.

++++++

Available from Windmill Books

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Review: The Plague Letters by V.L. Valentine


Title: The Plague Letters

Author: V.L. Valentine

Published: 1st April 2021, Viper

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Viper/Netgalley

+++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

The Plague Letters is a debut historical mystery from V.L. Valentine set in 1665 as the Bubonic Plague sweeps through London.

I came perilously close to DNF-ing The Plague Letters at about the 10% mark, though I can’t really articulate why, however since I make a point of reading at least 100 pages before giving up on a book, I persevered. It’s wasn’t a decision I regretted exactly but in the end I thought the story as a whole was lacking.

The premise of the mystery is strong. Among the victims bought to Reverend Symon Patrick’s churchyard for mass burial as the Plague spreads through his parish, is a young girl whose body is marked by more than the weeping buboes characteristic of the Black Death. Fresh bruises, cuts, inked lines, and strange circular burns mar her skin, while twine is wound tightly around her wrists and ankles. The Reverend notes the horror, but it’s not until more similarly violated body’s are discovered, that something is considered seriously amiss.

Suspicion falls on the members of the Society for the Prevention and Cure of Plague with which the Reverend is associated – physician Dr Alexander Burnett, surgeon Lodowick Mincy, apothecary William Boghurst, and Valentine Greatrakes, a mystic healer. Any of the men seems capable of the crime, every one a buffoon, occasionally a source for horrifying hilarity, they are uniformly arrogant, ambitious, and essentially amoral, all of whom display the casual indifference to human life common to medical men of the 17th century, (except where it may reflect on their status within society). This, however, is where the issue lies with the plot for me, though there are at least five suspects proved capable of committing these crimes, I believe there is an absence of specific clues that suggests a single guilty party. It’s certainly possible I overlooked something, but I experienced no feeling of vindication or surprise when the guilty party was revealed, one or the other of which I personally find necessary for a mystery novel.

Sadly few of the characters did little to engage me either. Symon seems to have very little agency in the novel. He is a weak man, who spends most of his time trying to be invisible, largely ignoring the plague and his parishioners, distracted by daydreams about the attentions of a married woman. Having little inner strength or courage, Symon is easily led, which is just as well for Penelope, who has rather more than you’d expect from a 17th century, young, orphaned, homeless girl.

Penelope is really the catalyst and driving force for the development of the plot. Though she’s rather an improbable character for the times, her remarkable intelligence, determination, and bravery ensures that the dead girls aren’t ignored. She wedges herself into Symon’s life, refusing to allow him to shirk his responsibility, and relentlessly pushes for someone to be held account. With her brazen attitude and surprise gifts, I found Penelope to be the strongest and most appealing character.

Where I think the author excels in The Plague Letters is in their vivid descriptions of London under siege from the plague. The imagery is at times disturbing, though accurate, of victims tormented by the deadly progression of the disease, and the desperate acts of the medical men to stop it, of bodies piled in ‘dead carts’ chased by hungry dogs down the street, of pits dug in churchyards, tended to by young boys, filling with layers of the dead sprinkled with caustic lime as the overburdened ground begins to rise. Between each chapter a map shows the spread of the disease through the city and the mounting death toll. All of this also invites comparisons to the current pandemic, which may be uncomfortable for some.

In the end, I’m not sure the strengths and weaknesses of The Plague Letters quite balance each other out, as historical fiction I might recommend it, as a mystery I’d not, so overall sadly, somewhat disappointing.

++++++

Available from Serpent’s Tail

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Review: The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions by Kerry Greenwood

Title: The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions: The Ultimate Miss Phryne Fisher Collection

Author: Kerry Greenwood

Published: 30th March 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read March courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

If you are not yet familiar with the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher, then this collection of short stories is a wonderful introduction to the elegant, sensual, and sassy lady private detective, while established fans will enjoy the opportunity to again accompany the intrepid investigator on her adventures in 1920’s Melbourne, and occasionally further afield.

In her introduction to The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions, Kerry Greenwood shares a little about how she developed Phryne, and her writing process. Greenwood also reminds readers that there are several significant differences between the world of the book series and that of the television series – Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. That said, anyone familiar with only the show will recognise Phryne’s companions, as well as several settings and scenes.

I was a little disappointed to find that of the seventeen short stories offered in The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions, there are only four new tales, set around the same time as the 21st book in the series, Death in Daylesford which was published earlier this year. The bulk have been published previously in a 2008 collection, A Question of Death, though Greenwood comments that some of these have since been edited to fit better with the chronology of the series.

Regardless, whether Phryne is searching for a missing husband, or a hat, outsmarting a blackmailer, or a cheat, or identifying a murderer, I found all of the story’s in The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions to be engaging. As always, I love Phryne’s dry observations and quick wit, her disinclination for suffering fools and her bent for natural justice.

Clever, entertaining, and charming, I found The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions to be a delight to read,.

+++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: The Last Reunion by Kayte Nunn

 


Title: The Last Reunion

Author: Kayte Nunn

Published: 30th March 2021, Hachette Australia 

Status: Read March 2021, courtesy Hachette

++++++

My Thoughts:

The Last Reunion is a rich and absorbing story about art, war and friendship from internationally bestselling Australian author, Kayte Nunn.

Art dealer intern Olivia Goddard is excited when she’s given the opportunity to evaluate the authenticity of a unique collection of netsuke (small three dimensional carvings traditionally used by Japanese men to secure their kimono sash) including the elusive figure known as the ‘fox-girl’. Arriving at the Wiltshire estate of its owner, Beatrix Pelham, Olivia is focused on assessing the pieces and returning to London but illness and a snow storm results in an enforced stay. Keen to learn more about the netsuke, Olivia is intrigued as Beatrix reveals how the ‘ fox-girl’ first came into her possession as a gift from her first love when they were both serving in Burma during WWII.

Employing a dual timeline, Nunn seamlessly combines historical fact and fiction that centres on the unique role women played in the ‘forgotten war’, in The Last Reunion. Around two hundred and fifty Women’s Auxiliary Service members were posted to Burma during WWII where the ‘Wasbies’, as they were known, ran canteens that catered to the troops engaged in fighting the Japanese.

In 1944, Beatrix, Plum, Bubbles, Lucy and Joy are assigned to a mobile canteen unit where they find themselves working long days, and nights, to supply soldiers with food, drink, sundries and a dance partner. I enjoyed getting to know these authentically portrayed, interesting female characters, admiring the strength and courage they displayed in such physically, and emotionally, challenging circumstances. Nunn’s vivid descriptions of the environment and the ‘Wasbies’ role in Burma is fascinating, and I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about this relatively obscure facet of wartime history.

Events related in the wartime timeline play into the later time period, as in 1999, to sell her precious collection of netsuke, Beatrix needs to prove provenance, and to do so must confront a shocking incident that occurred during her time in Burma. Fortuitously an invitation to a reunion of the women Bea once served with arrives while Olivia is at Bea’s house, and sets the scene for a long overdue reckoning.

Offering intrigue, action, and a touch of romance, the well paced plot of The Last Reunion is enough to hold any reader’s attention, though it’s the Wasbies and their role in WWII that I found most compelling. This is interesting, well crafted historical fiction that I’m happy to recommend.

++++++

Available from Hachette 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

+++++++

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: 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

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