Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Review: Miss Austen

Title: Miss Austen
Author: Gill Hornby
Publisher: 23rd January 2020 by Random House UK, Cornerstone
Pages: 288 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction
My Rating: 3 cups

Synopsis:

A wonderfully original, emotionally complex novel that delves into why Cassandra burned a treasure trove of letters written by her sister, Jane Austen – an act of destruction that has troubled academics for centuries.
1840: twenty three years after the death of her famous sister Jane, Cassandra Austen returns to the village of Kintbury, and the home of her family’s friends, the Fowles.
She knows that, in some dusty corner of the sprawling vicarage, there is a cache of family letters which hold secrets she is desperate should not be revealed.
As Cassandra recalls her youth and her relationship with her brilliant yet complex sister, she pieces together buried truths about Jane’s history, and her own. And she faces a stark choice: should she act to protect Jane’s reputation? Or leave the contents of the letters to go unguarded into posterity …
Based on a literary mystery that has long puzzled biographers and academics, Miss Austen is a wonderfully original and emotionally complex novel about the loves and lives of Cassandra and Jane Austen.
My Thoughts

‘Her purpose in coming to Kintbury had been to remove all that might reflect badly upon Jane or the legacy: that was the brief she had given herself.’

I love all things Austen. So it was with great interest that a story has been written about her sister, Cassandra. With the spotlight always on the talented Jane, it was refreshing to come across a tale from a differing perspective. There was always much controversy as to why Cassandra in her later years, destroyed all letters and correspondence concerning her famous sister. So here the author, Gill Hornby, has imagined how and why Cassandra undertook such a task. 

The novel alternates between the time Cassandra was actually collecting the letters, and with them in her hands to read and reflect, to another time, back on the actual events that gave rise to them. All these snippets of information that have been lost to history, are now imagined (by the author) through both the reasoning of Cassandra and musings on the actual events that saw them come to pass. 

I found the time period of Cassandra retrieving and destroying the letters are struggle. Not a lot goes on. She is determined to protect everything concerning her sister and there is a small side story to accompany that. Even the flashbacks to the imagined conversations of when Jane was alive - although seemingly commendable in capturing the voice of the time - still lacks that full engagement. This is not a complex tale at all. It meanders gently through the years, with often sad outcomes for the reasoning behind well known events. 

If you are looking for something new and riveting, then this is not the book for you. What you do read is the story of a sister and her family, the struggles and personal (possible) reasoning behind this most famous family’s correspondence. Jane Austen devotees are sure to appreciate this new interpretation. Personally, I struggled with the slowness. Initially intrigued as to why Cassandra would deny the world a window into Jane’s thinking, I felt this promising premise fell short. 

What I do feel warrants a mention is the definite social commentary on the plight of unmarried women and being a spinster in this time. The author has completed valid research and it really is rather sad how women struggled when not, through choice or otherwise, in a position to be married.

‘... thinking that this was the thing by which she would be defined from here on. She would have no other opportunity. Her future was to be denied her. She would have no marriage to succeed in, no vicarage to run, no children to raise. This was to be the test of Miss–forever, eternally Miss–Cassandra Austen.’




This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Review: The Secret Messenger

Title: The Secret Messenger
Author: Mandy Robotham
Publisher: 12th December 2019 by Avon Books UK
Pages: 420 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction
My Rating: 5 cups

Synopsis:

From the author of the bestselling The German Midwife comes another unputdownable tale of the bravery of everyday women in the darkest corners of WWII, set between German-occupied 1940s Venice and modern-day London.
Venice, 1943
The world is at war, and Stella Jilani is leading a double life. By day she works in the lion’s den as a typist for the Reich office; by night, she risks her life as a messenger for the Italian resistance. Against all odds, Stella must impart Nazi secrets, smuggle essential supplies across the city, and produce an underground newspaper on her beloved typewriter.
But when German commander, General Breugal, becomes suspicious, it seems he will stop at nothing to find the mole, and Stella knows she faces an uncertain future…
London, 2017
Years later, grieving Luisa Belmont finds a mysterious old typewriter in her attic. Determined to find out who it belonged to, Luisa delves into the past, and uncovers a story of fierce love, unimaginable sacrifice, and, ultimately, the worst kind of betrayal…
My Thoughts

Historical fiction is a firm favourite of mine and this book ticks all the boxes with an absolute winning combination. Told in a dual time narrative of present day and WWII, it is the historical story that shines with real strength. I feel that Luisa’s modern tale is more a tool to direct occurrences from the war time in Italy. All up this is a fantastic mix of intrigue and romance against the backdrop of Nazi occupied Venice.

‘I reflect on the past twenty hours–as different as day and night for me. For eight hours I could be accused of helping the German Third Reich to consolidate control of our beautiful city and country–yes, our country–and for the last four or five of aiming to knock holes in their plans to ride roughshod over Italian heritage and pride. I feel like a female Jekyll and Hyde.’

This story is mainly set in Italy during WWII and I totally enjoyed a look at Italian resistance as a change from the usual French focus. Even narrowing it down to Venice during the Nazi occupation and how the Venetians resisted was enthralling reading. There is a great deal of worthwhile research that has gone into this tale - the Venetian resistance, Venice itself (past and present) and an absorbing romance between Stella and the two men in her life at that time. There are some sensational twists that had me ‘oohing’ and ‘aahhing’ and rapidly turning the pages as what I thought to be a predictable conclusion was anything but. 

‘I’ve often mused after a drop that, despite the hardware of guns and machinery, this is an intensely human war–heavily reliant on faith in the good nature of people, whatever their origins. Kindness and softness, and not the cold metal edge of artillery, are what will win this war.’

If you at all like WWII stories, then this is a must read! You will rally alongside ordinary Venetians as they come together with their small acts of resistance chipping away until liberation and the ultimate victory over the Nazis was gained. So many of the characters are skilfully portrayed in their struggle and although fiction, undoubtedly has its roots in the sacrifices of the many women and men who fought for justice. Stella was a wonderful lead and with a clever plot, had me enthralled until the very end, right beside her granddaughter Luisa, in an attempt to unearth the truth about the roles played in this poignant tale from history. Much like Stella, I was fooled by masterful writing:

‘I see him for the shell he is–no lover of Venice or Italians after all. No heart to be beguiled by literature or the play of words. It was all an elaborate act. And I was fooled.’

I cannot recommend highly enough this wonderful piece of historical fiction. I particularly enjoyed the nod to the shared love of literature, particularly Jane Austen references. All up a most absorbing read and wonderful escapism.

He’s smiling once more and I see he’s looking directly at the volume of Jane Austen clutched in my hand. ‘Oh, this? This isn’t a fairy story,’ I come back, striding ahead to avoid any awkward conversation. ‘It’s literature.’ 
‘I agree,’ he says. ‘It’s very good literature. But equally, it’s not real life, is it?’ 
‘All the better in this day and age,’ I snipe, though not meaning to do so quite so sharply.‘Everyone deserves a place of fantasy and safety.’





This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Review: The Last Paradise

Title: The Last Paradise
Author: Di Morrissey
Publisher: 24th October 2019 by Macmillan Australia
Pages: 341 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: contemporary, women's fiction
My Rating: 4 cups

Synopsis:
Grace has the perfect life: a job she loves, a beautiful daughter and a rich, successful husband. But one night, when their world falls apart in a shocking disaster, Grace suddenly sees what she couldn't admit - her marriage and her husband are a fraud.
With the life she knew in tatters, she takes an assignment promoting the launch of a unique luxury hotel, hidden in a stunning, untouched oasis in the heart of tourist-crazed Bali.
Here, in this last paradise, Grace gathers the strength to take charge of her world. And, inspired by a woman's story from long ago, she discovers a path to a future she'd never dared to imagine.
My Thoughts

I was excited to finally sample one of  Australia’s most successful novelists, Di Morrissey. Her latest, The Last Paradise, is set mostly in Bali - and captures the great fascination Australia has with Bali (Australians account for more than a quarter of tourists in Bali). There is absolutely loads of information and it’s well worth the read. 

Yet there are more threads to this tale apart from a love of all things Bali. Di examines tourism over the years in Bali, investigates the breakdown of a marriage for the lead character and also recounts the history of K’tut Tantri from the 1930s - who left her life in the U.S to forge  new one in the tropical paradise of Bali.

‘... as she stepped back from the embrace and saw the emotionless look on her husband’s face she wondered, had she traded genuine unconditional love for security? Was it too late to do something about it?’

Out of these three threads, I enjoyed learning about all about Bali - past and present - the most. At times there were a few too many information dumps for my liking, however, it was interesting to learn of the steps in developing a luxury hotel in Kuta. The main character, Grace and her journey of independence from her controlling husband, swung from naivety to empowering with a sprinkle of repetitiveness. Still, it was worthwhile to take the journey with her as she stood up to the challenge and regained her independence. Interspersed throughout were excerpts of the life of K’Tut and her experiences especially during Japanese occupation during the War. This is tied in with Grace’s story in terms of being strong in difficult circumstances. 

‘I’m not sure what it is about it that’s got me so intrigued–K’tut herself, or the times, or how different old Bali was from the one we know today.’

The Last Paradise is a dedicated tribute to Bali - past, present and future. If you are at all interested in this exotic location, then this is a definite must read. With a spotlight on tourism woven around the tale of one woman’s journey to regain and remould her life’s destiny. 

‘The whole place is like a movie set, a dream job in a location you can’t imagine. I feel as if I’m in the last paradise on the planet.’




This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Review: Dreamland

Title: Dreamland
Author: Nancy Bilyeau
Publisher: 16th January 2020 by Endeavour Media
Pages: 386 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction, mystery
My Rating: 4.5 crowns

Synopsis:
The year is 1911 when twenty-year-old heiress Peggy Batternberg is invited to spend the summer in America’s Playground.
The invitation to Coney Island is unwelcome. Despite hailing from one of America’s richest families, Peggy would much rather spend the summer working at the Moonrise Bookstore than keeping up appearances with New York City socialites and her snobbish, controlling family.
But soon it transpires that the hedonism of Coney Island affords Peggy the freedom she has been yearning for, and it’s not long before she finds herself in love with a troubled pier-side artist of humble means, whom the Batternberg patriarchs would surely disapprove of.
Disapprove they may, but hidden behind their pomposity lurks a web of deceit, betrayal, and deadly secrets. And as bodies begin to mount up amidst the sweltering clamor of Coney Island, it seems the powerful Batternbergs can get away with anything… even murder.
Extravagant, intoxicating, and thumping with suspense, bestselling Nancy Bilyeau’s magnificent Dreamland is a story of corruption, class, and dangerous obsession.
My Thoughts

“Four miles long and a half a mile wide – and anything your heart could desire here on Coney Island, America’s Playground!”

Having read other books by Nancy Bilyeau that focus on Tudor period historical thrillers, I was interested to see what a move in time and place would bring. What she has produced is another stunning historical mystery but this time set in America’s playground, Coney Island. Some inspiration is drawn from the life of Peggy Guggenheim and Dreamland was one of the amusement parks that operated from 1904-1911.

“You keep saying I am needed. They don’t need me. I need to have a purpose. You can’t take that away from me.”

This is a fabulous mystery/thriller with a serial murderer on the loose. There is  some romance but the focus was more on the growth of the fabulous leading lady, Peggy - her longing for freedom away from her controlling rich family. Once again I have nothing but praise for Nancy’s writing as she sweeps you away to the heatwave of Coney Island in the summer of 1911. Her writing is rich in detail and cleverly scripted to immerse you in a classic ‘whodunnit’. Nancy maintains a good level of intrigue throughout and builds the suspense to a satisfying conclusion. There are many characters, each having important roles to play and all are complex and engaging. 

I felt a twinge of fear, that this wasn’t a web of happy coincidences linking us all, but from the start it was an iron chain, dragging us to something dangerous.

Yet there is so much more to this novel: social status - life of the rich and famous versus the working class; gender status and the role of women as Peggy seeks to break those bonds; and, the attitude towards immigrants with the unfolding events in Europe at the time.  Interwoven are rich characters from both sides of the social spectrum and some interesting situations concerning the criminal justice system and corruption. This really makes for a holistic and sophisticated story. 

If you love historical fiction this is a must read on many levels. Personally, I think this is Nancy's best novel yet. The writing is rich and although with the mystery you may have strong suspicions, it is the overall variety in themes that make this a real winner and definite page turner. 

“Everything is real on Coney Island–and nothing is real.”


 

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Review: The Child of Auschwitz

Title: The Child of Auschwitz
Author: Lily Graham
Publisher: 8th November 2019 by Bookouture
Pages: 255 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction, WWII
My Rating: 4.5 cups

Synopsis:
It is 1942 and Eva Adami has boarded a train to Auschwitz. Barely able to breathe due to the press of bodies and exhausted from standing up for two days, she can think only of her longed-for reunion with her husband Michal, who was sent there six months earlier.
But when Eva arrives at Auschwitz, there is no sign of Michal and the stark reality of the camp comes crashing down upon her. As she lies heartbroken and shivering on a thin mattress, her head shaved by rough hands, she hears a whisper. Her bunkmate, Sofie, is reaching out her hand...
As the days pass, the two women learn each other’s hopes and dreams – Eva’s is that she will find Michal alive in this terrible place, and Sofie’s is that she will be reunited with her son Tomas, over the border in an orphanage in Austria. Sofie sees the chance to engineer one last meeting between Eva and Michal and knows she must take it even if means befriending the enemy…
But when Eva realises she is pregnant she fears she has endangered both their lives. The women promise to protect each other’s children, should the worst occur. For they are determined to hold on to the last flower of hope in the shadows and degradation: their precious children, who they pray will live to tell their story when they no longer can.
A heart-breaking story of survival, where life or death relies on the smallest chance and happiness can be found in the darkest times. Fans of The Choice and The Tattooist of Auschwitz will fall in love with this beautiful novel.
My Thoughts

I have read other Lily Graham books and I like her writing. That combined with an interesting story - could a baby be born in Auschwitz and survive? - was enough of an enticement to pick up this book. Given the sorrowful theme, it is brightening to see there is still an uplifting feel to think that when many did not survive, a small human being could defy the odds. 

This is a wonderful story on many levels. Foremost is the female perspective of surviving the Holocaust - the strength these women exhibited to live and survive through dire situations and push through holding onto hope and each other. Add to that, banding together to try and preserve and nurture a new life is really quite something. 

Although this story delves into flashbacks of the Nazi invasion of Prague, it really is a character driven tale. This is all about friendships and the courage needed to work together as one in the hope of living through such trauma. There are of course circumstances where spur of the moment reactions of timing or bad luck arise and for some there would sadly be no escape. 

Sofie shrugged. ‘Because the smallest thing here can make a big difference. Which line you’re in, what train you end up on. The fly that sees that the window is open by a crack lives, Kritzelei. The one that doesn’t just beats itself to death against the glass.’

This book was inspired by a true story of one such woman who gave birth in a bunk of  at Auschwitz-Birkenau in December 1944. Overall, I found this to be a compelling read  of survival and the sense of hope shines through strongly in spite of the sadness and tragedy.  A beautifully written tale of friendship, hope and love. 




This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Review: The Girl In The Painting

Title: The Girl In The Painting
Author: Tea Cooper
Publisher: 16th December 2019 by Harlequin Australia, HQ & MIRA
Pages: 352 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction, mystery
My Rating: 4.5 cups

Synopsis:
For readers of The True Story of Maddie Bright, The Woman in the Green Dress and The Birdman's Wife comes this atmospheric and richly detailed Australian historical mystery from a bestselling Australian author. Maitland 1913 Miss Elizabeth Quinn is something of an institution in Maitland Town. For longer than anyone could remember she and her brother, businessman Michael, have lived in the impressive two-storey stone house next to the church. When she is discovered cowering in the corner of the exhibition gallery at the Technical College the entire town knows something strange has come to pass.
Was it the prehistoric remains or perhaps the taxidermy exhibition that had reduced the whale-boned encased pillar of society to a quivering mess? Or is there something odd about a striking painting on loan from the National Gallery?
Mathematical savant Jane Piper is determined to find out. Deposited on the doorstep of the local orphanage as a baby, she owes her life and education to the Quinns' philanthropic ventures and Elizabeth has no one else to turn to.
As the past and the present converge, Elizabeth's grip on reality loosens. Can Jane, with her logical brain and penchant for puzzles, unravel Elizabeth's story before it is too late?
Ranging from the gritty reality of the Australian goldfields to the grand institutions of Sydney, the bucolic English countryside to the charm of Maitland Town, this compelling historical mystery in the company of an eccentric and original heroine is rich with atmosphere and detail.
My Thoughts

The Girl In The Painting is another fabulous read from Tea! Here she has successfully given her readers the perfect historical mystery in a dual time narrative only separated by 50 years. Centreing around a young brother and sister’s immigration to Australia in the 1860s and then years later where they are firmly established in society. 

There are a number of narrators throughout both timelines but there is never any confusion, in fact, it assists in understanding and engaging thoroughly with each of the main players. Weaved throughout, Tea once again clearly demonstrates time and place with a sprinkling of historical details. This is wondrous Australian fiction! Tea is always so good and adding that extra dimension to her stories and on this occasion her mystery and intrigue will keep readers turning pages until the very end. 

‘I noticed there’s always a girl somewhere in each of your paintings, sometimes hardly visible, indistinct, yet always there.’
 ‘The paintings do tell a story. My story.’ 
Marigold’s gentle tone made Jane feel as though she was about to be led down a secret pathway. ‘So the girl is you?’ 

Tea is to be congratulated for presenting such an engaging and comprehensive tale. The settings both in England and Australia are authentic, particularly with the incorporation of real life events such as the orphanage fire in Liverpool and later the attempted assassination of Prince Alfred. Yet it’s the everyday cultural feel, from the streets of Sydney, to life on the goldfields that effortlessly include the reader so seamlessly. 

I thoroughly enjoyed The Girl In The Painting with the combination of historical detail and well thought out intrigue. I highly encourage all historical fiction fans to take a trip back in time and immerse yourself for a while in the lives of Elizabeth and Michael. If you haven’t read any of Tea’s books then you are missing out. 

‘Let me make a cup of tea. Tea fixes everything.’






This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Review: The Paris Girl

Title: The Paris Girl
Author: Natalie Meg Evans
Publisher: 31st October 2019 by Bookouture
Pages: 461 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction, romance
My Rating: 2.5 cups

Synopsis:
In 1920s Paris, a young woman will lose everything… and finally discover what truly matters most.
Tatiana Vytenis has worked hard to leave her past behind. Once a ruined Russian princess in hiding, she is now a sought-after model and engaged to Gérard de Sainte-Vierge – a handsome, if occasionally overbearing, aristocrat. With the Sainte-Vierge heirloom ruby sparkling on her finger, Tatiana feels as though she should be happy. Not long ago she was penniless and now she’s about to become a marquise.
But fate still has a final hand to play. One night in a bohemian café in Montparnasse, Tatiana discovers she’s been the unknowing plaything of the Sainte-Vierge family. Hidden beneath their genteel exteriors, Gerard and his brother have a secret darker side, and her darling fiancé will gladly ruin Tatiana’s life to save his own reputation.
As Tatiana’s situation becomes ever more desperate, she crosses paths with an unlikely guardian angel. Regan Dortmeyer is an American in Paris – a war photographer running from his own hard knocks in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. He’s no fancy French nobleman, but Regan has seen the lengths to which a wicked man like Gerard will go. As the consequences of her disastrous engagement threaten to swallow Tatiana up, he might be the only one who can save her now…
My Thoughts

I was greatly intrigued by the synopsis for this book - a Russian Princess now model, French noblemen (if a somewhat shady Marquis), the classic ‘American (photographer) in Paris .... it looked to have the right ingredients - all set to the backdrop of Paris 1920s - what could go wrong?

There were some interesting aspects to this tale. The definite positives are the rich descriptions of place and time; the modelling scene and accompanying photography is lavish. In fact, I wish there were more of it. I did enjoy the drama, particularly surrounding the remaining two sisters and Katya’s journey. Even photojournalists from WW1 turning to shooting Parisian fashion was a worthy topic. The premise, as stated, is a worthy one, that being, when a person loses everything going from riches to rags and losing your home and family, to what extremes would you go to never feel threatened again? Would you marry a man that absolutely everyone (including me) vehemently state you shouldn’t?

‘Are you sure you want to marry into the family?’

Sadly, however, I did not like the main characters. As stated above, Katya was the exception and a few others having secondary roles. The leading man, Regan, is okay within himself, but with Tatiana being so hard to like, what on earth did he see in her?  His back story and why he was in Paris was interesting. Yet this book is all about Tatiana in one sense and she is a difficult character to come to terms with even given her childhood experiences. Spoiled, unappreciative and just plain annoying - it became very difficult to feel sorry for her.

All up this is a real saga of its age, rich in style and detail. With the aftermath of the war and the evolution of a range of characters, The Paris Girl will try to sweep you away along a journey of much drama and heartache. 

‘Why do you love him?’ When she gave no answer, Benjy supplied his own. ‘He’s hypnotised you with his own sense of self-worth. The answer, of course, is that you don’t love him. Not truly. You need him.’




This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.