Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Review: Sisters of Freedom

Title: Sisters of Freedom
Author: Mary-Anne O'Connor

Publisher: 7th April 2021 by Harlequin Australia, HQ & MIRA

Pages: 384 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: historical fiction, women’s fiction, romance

My Rating: 4 cups


A passionate tale of three sisters as they strive for freedom and independence and follow their hearts to unexpected places, from a master storyteller. For readers of Fiona McIntosh, Nicole Alexander and Natasha Lester.

Sydney, Christmas, 1901. Federation has been achieved but Australian women are yet to gain the right to vote in their new nation's elections and have a say in the laws that govern them.

Bolshy, boisterous Frankie Merriweather is a fervent advocate for women's rights, determined to dedicate herself to the cause, never marrying or becoming a mother. She can't understand her artistic sister Ivy, who wants a life of ease and beauty with her soon-to-be fiance, law student Patrick Earle.

Meanwhile, their married sister Aggie volunteers in an orphanage, decrying the inequality of Australia's social classes ... and longing to hold a baby in her arms.

When an accident takes Ivy, wounded and ill, into the violent and lawless zone of the Hawkesbury River, a year of change begins. Ivy's burgeoning friendship with her saviour Riley Logan, a smuggler, and his sister, the poverty-stricken but valiant Fiona, will alter the lives of all three women forever.

My Thoughts

Sisters of Freedom is a highly engaging story of three very different sisters, yet all fighting for the same cause - equality for women and the right to vote at the turn of last century. Mary-Anne has once more created a memorable tale of early Australia to lose yourself in - filled with courage and strength, these sisters each have a story to tell. 

‘... sisterly love was a powerful thing and it was holding them all in its grip now as sibling loyalty made prisoners of them all...’

With an overall focus on women's suffrage and independence, there are also subplots involving domestic violence, childless marriage and the willingness to marry for love. All of this Mary-Anne deftly interweaves through each of the sisters' tales. Quiet Aggie and her longing for a child of her own, outspoken and determined Frankie fighting for a cause and Ivy with her life changing experience. My  heart went out to Aggie and her quiet fortitude, Ivy’s heartfelt and sincere qualities shone through but it was the forthright Frankie that brought a smile to my face. 

‘I’m telling you, Albert, they need to hurry up and give us women the vote so we can make laws to protect each other. It’s about time.’  

When the story moved to the small communities living along the Hawkesbury River, I was entranced - as were the sisters - to this impoverished and harsh way of life. The time spent in both the physical environment and Fiona’s world was enlightening. The contrast between this life and that of the Merriweather sisters could not be more stark yet finding themselves imbued with the experience was authentic. 

‘It held secrets, this river, and so did the people who lived along it.’

This is a well told story with engaging characters regaled at a critical stage of this country’s development. Yes, there is the requisite romance (with a twist) but Mary-Anne makes it work within the context of the theme. Read the story of the Merriweather sisters, their strength and determination with their ability to rise to challenges will be time well spent. 

‘We can and we will,’ Harriet predicted. ‘We can achieve anything our hearts desire if we have enough passion and determination, and you all have that in droves,’ she said, nodding at them with pride. ‘What a wonderful day to be a woman, girls. A wonderful day indeed.’  


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

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Review: The Barbizon

Title: The Barbizon
Author: Paulina Bren

Publisher: 3rd March 2021 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 290 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: nonfiction, history, feminism, New York, biography

My Rating: 4 cups


From award-winning author Paulina Bren comes the first history of New York’s most famous residential hotel—The Barbizon—and the remarkable women who lived there.

The Barbizon tells the story of New York’s most glamorous women-only hotel, and the women—both famous and ordinary—who passed through its doors. World War I had liberated women from home and hearth, setting them on the path to political enfranchisement and gainful employment. Arriving in New York to work in the dazzling new skyscrapers, they did not want to stay in uncomfortable boarding houses; they wanted what men already had—exclusive residential hotels that catered to their needs, with daily maid service, cultural programs, workout rooms, and private dining.

The Barbizon would become the most famous residential hotel of them all, welcoming everyone from aspiring actresses, dancers, and fashion models to seamstresses, secretaries, and nurses. The Barbizon’s residents read like a who’s who: Titanic survivor Molly Brown; actresses Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedron, Liza Minelli, Ali McGraw, Jaclyn Smith, and Phylicia Rashad; writers Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Diane Johnson, Gael Greene, and Meg Wolitzer; and so many more. But before they were household names, they were among the young women arriving at the Barbizon with a suitcase, and hope.

Beautifully written and impeccably researched, The Barbizon weaves together a tale that has, until now, never been told. It is an epic story of women’s ambition in the 20th century. The Barbizon Hotel offered its residents a room of their own and air to breathe, unfettered from family obligations and expectations. It gave women a chance to remake themselves however they pleased. No place had existed like it before, or has since.

My Thoughts

‘The Barbizon tells the story of New York’s most famous women’s hotel from its construction in 1927 to its eventual conversion into multimillion-dollar condominiums in 2007. It is at once a history of the singular women who passed through its doors, a history of Manhattan through the twentieth century, and a forgotten story of women’s ambition.’

The appeal of this book for anyone interested in women's history is strong - and it delivers. With the freedom women gained through WWI and then the strong movement of the 1920s, many flocked to NYC to follow their dreams - but where could they safely stay? The Barbizon Hotel was built to fill this void and over its many years, housed quite the array of in/famous women. The author does a wonderful job in researching to highlight not only the history of this legendary hotel but also important milestones that occurred in women’s history. 

‘Women did not come to the Barbizon to network, but that’s what they did anyway. They

helped each other find work, they talked over problems with one another, they applauded each other’s successes and gave solace to those with disappointment and heartbreak. They felt empowered just by being at the Barbizon.’

This was, for the most part, a fascinating read into women’s history - the birth of a ‘women only’ hotel at a time when they needed support to try and reach their dreams outside of the expected marriage only life. This book truly captures the double standards for men and women and how society treated them and the expectations attached to being a woman during this period.

‘Every time a woman walked down the street dressed for work ... she was a reminder of “compromised manhood.” By 1932, twenty-six states had made it illegal for married women to hold a job, and in the states where it was not mandatory to quit work upon marriage, it was still mandatory to disclose one’s impending married status because it was considered outrageous for a woman to be taking a job away from a “real” breadwinner. The Barbizon provided shelter from such denouncements. It was not just a residential hotel anymore; it was a safe harbor.’

Chapters were sequenced chronologically and also highlighted both the monetary/society status and colour issue - you were nearly always white and rich.  Highlights were also brought to famous women who stayed such as  Joan Didion, Grace Kelly and Sylvia Plath. Such an interesting look at society and culture of the 20th century, as well as the dynamic changes for women over this period. 

‘The Barbizon dollhouse might well have been full of young, beguiling beauties, but there was much more behind their attractive facades. Even if many of these young women would indeed

end up as wives and mothers back in the towns from which they had come, their goals while in New York were ... ambitious.’

The author went to great efforts through the use of interviews, letters, and books to bring to light the lifestyle of these young women - from their frustrations to achievements, from their success stories to their failures.  This book could have been boring but was deftly turned into a fascinating portrayal of the now famous building and the women who stayed there. The Barbizon provided  women with the independence they desired, a place where they could hope to discover their true selves away from societal demands. 

‘ ... a place where women went to reimagine themselves: and in the twentieth century, that was not about to go out of style.’

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

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Review: The Essential Oils Menopause Solution

Title: The Essential Oils Menopause Solution
Author: Mariza Snyder

Publisher: 20th April 2021 by Rodale Books

Pages: 416 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: health, mind, body

My Rating: 4 cups


What if menopause didn’t have to be a struggle?

Your body is always changing—necessarily and beautifully—throughout life. During menopause, however, declining ovarian function and fluctuating hormones often clash with environmental toxins, stress, and digestive distress, leading to the symptoms we have been told we should expect: hot flashes, weight gain, brain fog, low libido, and irritability. But as women’s hormonal health expert and bestselling author Dr. Mariza Snyder explains, you can and deserve to experience a good night’s sleep, clear thinking, stable moods, an energized metabolism, and pain-free sex. The solution is not to medicate the changes, but instead get to the root cause of what’s really going on in the body. In The Essential Oils Menopause Solution, Dr. Mariza offers a cutting-edge, comprehensive plan to do just that, including:

• a clear explanation of what’s happening in your body before, during, and after “the change,” and how certain lifestyle triggers exacerbate hormonal imbalance.

• the latest science behind the benefits of essential oils as safe, effective solutions for perimenopause and menopause symptoms.

• more than 75 recipes and protocols designed to provide solutions for deep, restful sleep, anxiousness, mood swings, fatigue, hot flashes, low libido, brain fog, vaginal dryness, digestive distress, and much more.

• a proven 21-day hormone-balancing program complete with meal plans, exercise recommendations, supplementation, and herbal therapies designed to reverse the myriad of symptoms affecting millions of women today.

• easy self-care rituals to support every system of your body—from digestion and vaginal health to mitochondrial and liver function—throughout the perimenopausal and menopausal transition.

You always deserve a body that works for you, and if you are feeling less than your best, you deserve solutions that promote actual healing. In as little as twenty-one days, The Essential Oils Menopause Solution will help you reclaim vibrant, optimal, and long-lasting health.

My Thoughts

‘This is it - the time to redefine your midlife and embrace your future with grace and joy.’

I’m not sure of other’s experiences when it comes to the latter stages of a woman’s life, however personally speaking, it is not something conversed about often or indeed, at all. Therefore I read what I can to educate myself about this new phase of life I, and indeed all women, will enter into at some stage. 

‘Those hormonal imbalances are driving the mood swings, migraines, disrupted sleep, fatigue, and other symptoms hastily misunderstood and tagged as “menopause.”

Whilst there is an assortment of books on the topic to read, I look for one’s that might provide a key factor that could go some way to making the experience more positive. The complete ‘makeover’ on offer in this book is not something I would necessarily subscribe to, however, I did find a few useful ideas to experiment with. I subscribe to the science behind essential oils and therefore found some of the blends suggested here to be valuable.

‘Essential oils aren’t the solution here - they are the support. Use them as tools to get you to the end game: healthy hormonal balance. But they won’t get you there if you neglect lifestyle choices that establish the foundation for your good health.’

You will learn what hormones are, what their roles are in your body and what may be the cause of them becoming unbalanced. There is a lot of useful information provided by the author as she covers a wide range of variables from essential oils to nutrition that might assist women to better understand and work with their bodies during this change of life. The tone of the book is friendly and compassionate, structured in such a way to make it easy to come back to if particular chapters are pertinent to the reader. 

Therefore I do recommend this book as a type of manual or reference for women wishing to learn more about the perimenopause or menopause as it provides a wealth of medical information. There are then chapters on various symptoms from sleep issues, to brain fog, to low energy. The author then provides a 21 Day Makeover plan. I did put into practice some of the suggestions for the essential oil recipes (there are over seventy five) for diffusers, rollerballs or sprays. All up, an excellent guide with a range of valuable suggestions to assist women during this challenging time of their life. 

‘The heart of this 21-Day Makeover is establishing a series of moments in your day that shift the priority back to you. It’s about integrating foods, self-care rituals, movement, essential oils, and supplement protocols that address your unique combination of symptoms to help you reclaim your energy and joy at midlife.’

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

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Review: The Ripping Tree

Title: The Ripping Tree
Author: Nikki Gemmell

Publisher: 7th April 2021 by HarperCollins Australia

Pages: 304 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: historical fiction

My Rating: 4 cups


An illustrious family. A beautiful home. A shipwrecked young woman left on its doorstep. Don’t think they’re going to save her ....

Early 1800s. Thomasina Trelora is on her way to the colonies. Her fate: to be married to a clergyman she's never met. As the Australian coastline comes into view a storm wrecks the ship and leaves her lying on the rocks, near death. She's saved by an Aboriginal man who carries her to the door of a grand European house, Willowbrae.

Tom is now free to be whoever she wants to be and a whole new life opens up to her. But as she's drawn deeper into the intriguing life of this grand estate, she discovers that things aren't quite as they seem. She stumbles across a horrifying secret at the heart of this world of colonial decorum - and realises she may have exchanged one kind of prison for another.

The Ripping Tree is an intense, sharp shiver of a novel, which brings to mind such diverse influences as The Turn of the Screw, Rebecca and the film Get Out as much as it evokes The Secret River. A powerful and gripping tale of survival written in Nikki Gemmell's signature lyrical and evocative prose, it examines the darkness at the heart of early colonisation. Unsettling, audacious, thrilling and unputdownable.

My Thoughts

‘What’s going on here ... it feels like there are layers and layers of things going on here and I want to peel away at Willowbrae’s secrets like the bark on the Ripping Tree until a bare core of truth and honesty is exposed, and nothing else is left.’

This book came as a big surprise - not the book I initially thought it would be. The writing style is unique and clever but the story .... hmmm ... at first I was not convinced, however, by the end I was a convert. With short, sharp chapters, this is an engaging and confronting tale of a strong willed young girl caught up in a horrifying family secret from Australia’s disturbing colonial past. 

Nikki’s historical novel featuring the early settlement of Australia, certainly delves into a dark time in our history. There is so much to ‘The Ripping Tree’, with nothing as what it would seem and fueled by writing that is both unique and strangely captivating. 

"Pa once taught me an old Celtic phrase - ‘the thin places’ -to describe those little pockets of the natural world that feel closer to the mysterious energy that drives all the earth. He said the thin places arrest you with their strange power, and the Ripping Tree glade, despite all the trauma it’s seen, feels like one of them. I want to be stilled by it, healed, and learn more about it.’

The main theme pertains to the absolute horrific disregard and treatment of Australia’s Indigenous culture in the early 1800s. There are recounts and scenes that readers must be warned are both distressing and disturbing. However, as a student of history myself, I know these stories to be an accurate portrayal from my own previous reading. Credit to Nikki for presenting these details and not shying away from them.

The other strong emphasis relates to the treatment of women during this time period. With the main character being strong and determined, refusing to conform to societal expectations, she was quick to be labelled as difficult and at times hysterical with proposals to institutionalise her. 

‘ .. once again -just as before ... men have imagined a life for me that completely disregards the life I’ve imagined for myself .’

So although this book takes a little to get into and has strong confronting themes, the intense yet cleverly crafted writing of Nikki’s is sure to both unsettle yet entice her readers to learn the story behind, ‘The Ripping Tree’

‘Let’s just say my little tale is a history of a great colonial house that was burdened by a situation that was never resolved, and I fear all over this land will never be resolved. It is our great wound that needs suturing and it hasn’t been yet and I fear, perhaps, it never will be, for we’re not comfortable, still, with acknowledging it ... We’re not comfortable with exposing stories like this to the air and the sun and salt. And I cannot give you the native side of this tragedy, my loves, because I don’t begin to know it, or them; I can’t speak for them. But I respect them and acknowledge them and love them for the riches they bring to all of us, and I know we are remiss.’    

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

Friday, April 9, 2021

Review: Half Life

Title: Half Life
Author: Jillian Cantor

Publisher: 7th April 2021 by Simon & Schuster Australia

Pages: 416 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: historical fiction

My Rating: 4 cups


The USA Today bestselling author of In Another Time reimagines the pioneering, passionate life of Marie Curie using a parallel structure to create two alternative timelines, one that mirrors her real life, one that explores the consequences for Marie and for science if she’d made a different choice.

In Poland in 1891, Marie Curie (then Marya Sklodowska) was engaged to a budding mathematician, Kazimierz Zorawski. But when his mother insisted she was too poor and not good enough, he broke off the engagement. A heartbroken Marya left Poland for Paris, where she would attend the Sorbonne to study chemistry and physics. Eventually Marie Curie would go on to change the course of science forever and be the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.

But what if she had made a different choice?

What if she had stayed in Poland, married Kazimierz at the age of twenty-four, and never attended the Sorbonne or discovered radium? What if she had chosen a life of domesticity with a constant hunger for knowledge in Russian Poland where education for women was restricted, instead of studying science in Paris and meeting Pierre Curie?

Entwining Marie Curie’s real story with Marya Zorawska’s fictional one, Half Life explores loves lost and destinies unfulfilled—and probes issues of loyalty and identity, gender and class, motherhood and sisterhood, fame and anonymity, scholarship and knowledge. Through parallel contrasting versions of Marya’s life, Jillian Cantor’s unique historical novel asks what would have happened if a great scientific mind was denied opportunity and access to education. It examines how the lives of one remarkable woman and the people she loved – as well as the world at large and course of science and history—might have been irrevocably changed in ways both great and small.

My Thoughts

‘I wanted to go to Paris, wanted to continue my studies, but I wanted to be with the man I loved, too. And then I made a choice.’

What a fascinating twist on historical fiction: what if Marie Curie had married Kazimierz ┼╗orawski, her first love, rather than going to the Sorbonne in Paris. 

“They are enamored of you,” Pierre says with a chuckle, as if it tickles him. “The first woman to win a Nobel Prize.”

Not really knowing that much about this famous historical figure, it proved to be a very interesting read. With a ‘Sliding Doors’ approach, it is like two books in one with alternating chapters between Marie’s real life and a fictionalised alternative had she not studied in Paris. There is the Marie Curie we know - her life, love, work. Then there is the fictionalised Marya Sklodowska who did not get on the train that day and instead married her first love and stayed in Poland to become a wife and mother. 

“... It is hard for me to understand a life where having children would force a woman to give up on her own work.” “She can’t do both?”

Both stories were well written, with the parallels being cleverly replicated and/or imagined. It was good to learn of the real Marie Curie and the life she led with husband Pierre. The imagined life of Marya was likewise engaging, however, the goal here I imagine was to demonstrate the frustrations this highly intelligent woman faced in Russian controlled Poland with restrictive educational opportunities for women. Written in such a way, it invites the reader to consider how some decisions can be life changing. There are many challenges and sorrows in this read.

‘Could I have accomplished all that Hela had by now? And if I had, would I feel happier, be more fulfilled?’

This tale - both real and imagined - would be for those interested in the status of women at this period of history.

‘There was a choice. There was always a choice. Had I made the wrong one?’

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

Monday, April 5, 2021

Review: The Zookeeper of Belfast

Title: The Zookeeper of Belfast
Author: S. Kirk Walsh

Publisher: 30th March 2021 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 336 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: historical fiction, world war II, Ireland, animals

My Rating: 4 cups


As the bombs rain down on the city, Belfast's first ever female zookeeper must fight to save the baby elephant in her charge in this gripping, uplifting tale based on a true story.

1941. With the men away fighting, animal-lover Hettie Quin is made Belfast Zoo's first ever female zookeeper. She is put in charge of Violet, a three-year-old Indian elephant, and they soon form a special bond. With Violet at her side, Hettie can almost escape the grim reality of her life: the father who has abandoned her family; the sister who recently died; the war that's raging hundreds of miles away.

But the devastation of war is closer than she thought. When the bombs begin to rain down on the city, Hettie must gather all her courage to protect those she loves the most. Can she save Violet - and get through unscathed herself?

Based on a true story, The Zookeeper of Belfast is a gripping and uplifting tribute to what one woman's courage and tenacity can achieve in the most dire of circumstances - perfect for fans of Heather Morris, Natasha Lester, Kate Furnivall, Mandy Robotham and Fiona Valpy.

My Thoughts

 “I’ve heard about you and Violet,” Samuel said. “That you spend all your waking hours with this elephant. That you’re becoming one of those freak people who can only get along with animals. That you haven't been right in the head since your sister.”

Here is another book with a cover that draws me in being the elephant lover that I am. With all my WWII reading, I had never really encountered much with regards to the bombing of Belfast. Little did I know that this would be just the beginning of much I was  to discover from this well researched and written tale. 

Beginning in October, 1940 the reader is introduced to Hettie who is working hard to be taken seriously as a full-time zookeeper in a world where these positions are normally taken by men. Longing to care for the newly acquired elephant, Violet, she begins to form a special bond as the relationship fills a void in the many sad occurrences Hettie has had to deal with of recent times. The main theme is therefore one of coming of age for Hettie and one cannot help but sympathise for this young girl and all she endures - love, loss, grief and resilience.

 ‘He didn’t care about her. He was never going to complete her. Perhaps the truth was that no one was ever going to complete her, no one would ever be able to fill the gully of loneliness and sadness that seemed to be deepening inside her ...’

There is, however, a strong selection of subplots throughout this story that really add to the depth of engagement for the reader. Life in Ireland at this time is fraught with tension due to the war and, being set in Belfast there is of course, IRA tensions with some residents willing to support Hitler should it see the removal of the British. Add to that the ever present tension between Protestants and Catholics to add to an already volatile scene. 

‘I have no choice but to follow the directive of the Ministry of Public Security. We all know another attack by the Germans is imminent. Next time, the animals could run free and endanger the lives of Belfast’s citizens..’

Then there are the stories pertinent to running a zoo in war time - rationing, for example, if the humans were rationing then so too would it affect the animals. Would they be allowed to starve? What happens also when structural damage to the zoo occurs due to the bombing and the possibility of animals escaping is both a high possibility not to mention frightening one. How would that be dealt with? There are chapters and scenes that, readers must be warned, are absolutely heartbreaking. 

‘The calls of the animals soared into a vortex of cries and screams while the Germans continued to bomb Belfast. All of it was breaking upon Hettie  - the horror, the sadness, the loss - at once.’

This is truly a touching and well written story. The relationship between Hettie and Violet is heartfelt - all the more so because it is based on real events. To become immersed in a young girls life as she faces, not only the usual coming of age issues, but also the utter devastation of WWII and the IRA is truly tragic. I learnt so much and recommend this read should some of the facts presented be new to you too. 

 ‘Now she had Violet, and the elephant seemed to set the world on its right axis and align things in such a way that nothing else mattered ... Hettie was doing better than ever, thanks to Violet and her other charges at the zoo. Didn’t Josephine agree that animals had this power? The ability to enchant and delight during the toughest of times.’

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