Monday, May 22, 2023

Review: The Paris Maid

Title: The Paris Maid
Author: Ella Carey

Publisher: 6th April 2023 by Bookouture

Pages: 270 pages

Genre: historical fiction, women’s fiction 

My Rating: 4 cups


London, present day. I open my phone to find a message from my aunt: a black-and-white photograph with the caption “Paris, 1944”. A young woman stares up at me, her head shaved and a swastika painted onto her forehead. As I try to take in what I’m seeing, my heart begins to race. Could this be my beloved grandmother, branded a traitor?

Devastated Nicole Beaumont, a devoted schoolteacher, questions why her adored grandmother never spoke about her life during the war. Her unwavering love and protection taught Nicole lifelong lessons about loyalty and family, so this revelation rocks her very core. About to start a family of her own, Nicole sets out for Paris in search of answers.

But in war, nothing is simple and what Nicole discovers will alter the course of her life forever…

Paris, 1944. When Louise started working as a housemaid at The Ritz Hotel, she never imagined that the most powerful Nazis in France would make it their home. As she changes silk sheets and scrubs sumptuous marble bathtubs, she listens and watches, reporting all she can to the Resistance.

But when a stranger appears in the hotel’s ornate glass doorway, she has never been so scared—the secret she’s been keeping is suddenly in danger of breaking free.

Can Louise fight for freedom whilst keeping those she loves safe? Or will she be cast aside as a traitor by the very same people she is risking her life to protect?

Inspired by true events, fans of Fiona Valpy, The Nightingale and Rhys Bowen will love this heart-shattering historical novel. From top-ten bestseller Ella Carey, The Paris Maid is a totally gripping story about love, betrayal and a shocking family secret hidden for a generation.

My Thoughts

‘Who could be more invisible than a maid?’

I love Ella Carey books. She is one of those authors who you don’t even have to read details about the book because you know you will read anything of hers whatever the topic. The Paris Maid centers on The Ritz hotel in Paris during WWII with a group of resistance fighters operating right under the Nazis who are guests of the hotel.

It is a dual time narrative. Firstly, the past returns to the summer of 1944 with a number of characters: Louise, a maid at The Ritz who assists with The French Resistance, her family and some Allied fighter pilots shot down and forced into hiding. The contemporary timeline tells the tale of Louise’s granddaughter who is trying to research her grandmother's hidden past.

‘… the Ritz is not just any magnificent hotel. The Swiss-owned hotel is officially neutral, but the reality is everyone is tied to one side or the other, sometimes both.’

This was not one of my favourite books from Ella. To my mind, there were too many characters which did not allow me to bond satisfactorily with any one individual or couple. It also meant you had to pay attention to exactly whose point of view was taking place. I also feel that the contemporary timeline fell somewhat flat and was only there to serve the purpose of historical discovery. Whilst there was a great twist and the epilogue filled in all the gaps, I just somehow wished to have dived deeper with some characters and events earlier in the read. 

The Paris Maid is the latest novel from historical fiction author Ella Carey. It’s an emotional exploration of themes such as love, courage, betrayal, family and provides a unique insight into those who worked at the Ritz Hotel in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France.

‘This was a time of history that seems incredible to us now, and yet that is only a whisper of a generation away … the best thing we can do is to understand, and to honor the members of our family who fought so hard for our freedom.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Review: Knowing What We Know

Title: Knowing What We Know
Author: Simon Winchester

Publisher: 3rd May 2023 by HarperCollins Australia

Pages: 380 pages

Genre: Non Fiction (Adult) | History | 

Rating: 4 cups


From the creation of the first encyclopedia to Wikipedia, from ancient museums to modern kindergarten classes—here is award-winning writer Simon Winchester’s brilliant and all-encompassing look at how humans acquire, retain, and pass on information and data, and how technology continues to change our lives and our minds.

With the advent of the internet, any topic we want to know about is instantly available with the touch of a smartphone button. With so much knowledge at our fingertips, what is there left for our brains to do? At a time when we seem to be stripping all value from the idea of knowing things – no need for maths, no need for map reading, no need for memorisation – are we risking our ability to think? As we empty our minds, will we one day be incapable of thoughtfulness?

Addressing these questions, Simon Winchester explores how humans have attained, stored and disseminated knowledge. Examining such disciplines as education, journalism, encyclopedia creation, museum curation, photography and broadcasting, he looks at a whole range of knowledge diffusion – from the cuneiform writings of Babylon to the machine-made genius of artificial intelligence, by way of Gutenberg, Google and Wikipedia to the huge Victorian assemblage of the Mundaneum, the collection of everything ever known, currently stored in a damp basement in northern Belgium.

Studded with strange and fascinating details, Knowing What We Know is a deep dive into learning and the human mind. Throughout this fascinating tour, Winchester forces us to ponder what rational humans are becoming. What good is all this knowledge if it leads to lack of thought? What is information without wisdom? Does RenĂ© Descartes’ ‘Cogito, ergo sum’—'I think, therefore I am’, the foundation for human knowledge widely accepted since the Enlightenment—still hold?

And what will the world be like if no one in it is wise?

My Thoughts

‘What is the likely effect on society of making the acquisition of knowledge generally, so very easy, such that there may well be, eventually, no absolute need to know or retain - retain being the operative word - the knowledge of anything?’

What exactly is the value of knowledge when we live in a society where anything and everything is so easily attained? Does that change its value to society? Think about it ….. with no pressing need to remember things, will this have a long term impact on both our intelligence and thoughtfulness? Our reliance on modern technology - everything from Google, to Maps to phone numbers - has taken away what was previously much of our innate learning and capabilities. When I began to truly consider this, I found this book both informed and raised many valid questions. 

Winchester outlines a lot of research - everything from our surrounding our collective knowledge. From the beginning with civilization's earliest writing on clay tablets to the Internet, and now AI (just think ChatGPT). His writing is informative and entertaining as he brings both his holistic and intimate knowledge to this topic. From small known occurrences or ordinary people to the bigger to bigger events such as the atomic bomb that ended WWII.

Whilst there was much to wade through and consider, the concluding page deemed to throw everything preceding into disarray - hmmmm …. interesting. Do machines diminish our capacity for thought or might the opposite be true? That, in fact, machines might free our mind from the mundane for a higher purpose. I wish more had been dedicated to this line of thinking rather than as an afterthought on the final page. 

Winchester asks readers, “Does an existential intellectual crisis loom?” If machines are taking over more roles and what does that leave the role of humans? In this book Winchester undertakes a thorough investigation of knowledge over history. Everything from its creation to how it has been organised, stored and used. This in depth study looks at how we learn, who we learned from and what we are in danger of losing. 

‘What can and may and will happen next to our mental development if and when we have no further need to know, perhaps no need to think? What if we are then unable to gain true knowledge, enlightenment, or insight-that most precious of human commodities, true wisdom? What then will become of us?’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Review: A Woman's Work

Title: A Woman's Work
Author: Victoria Purman

Publisher: 5th April 2023 by Harlequin Australia, HQ & MIRA

Pages: 368 pages

Genre: historical fiction, women’s fiction 

My Rating: 5 cups


The astonishingly rich prize of the 1956 Australian Women's Weekly cookery competition offers two women the possibility of a new kind of future, in this compassionate look at the extraordinary lives of ordinary women - our mothers and grandmothers - in a beautifully realised post-war Australia.

It's 1956, and while Melbourne is in a frenzy gearing up for the Olympics, the women of Australia are cooking up a storm for their chance to win the equivalent of a year's salary in the extraordinary Australian Women's Weekly cookery contest.

For two women, in particular, the prize could be life-changing. For war widow and single mum Ivy Quinn, a win would mean more time to spend with her twelve-year-old son, Raymond. Mother of five Kathleen O'Grady has no time for cooking competitions, but the prize could offer her a different kind of life for herself and her children, and the chance to control her own future.

As winter turns to spring both women begin to question their lives. For Kathleen, the grinding domesticity of her work as a wife and mother no longer seems enough, while Ivy begins to realise she has the courage to make a difference for other women and tell the truth about the ghosts from her past.

But is it the competition prize that would give them a new way of seeing the world - a chance to free themselves from society's expectation and change their own futures - or is it the creativity and confidence it brings?

My Thoughts

Victoria Purman writes wonderful historical fiction and A Woman’s Work is her latest brilliant addition. On this occasion she takes readers back to 1956 with two women living different lives in the same Melbourne suburb. With themes of courage and strength, Victoria uses a cookery contest as the impetus for change. 

Firstly I loved being immersed in the Melbourne of 1956! Television was coming along with the Olympics and there were still reflections of a world war so recently over. Victoria covers a number of issues and through outstanding research, all are covered with knowledge and heart. From domestic violence and homosexuality, to contraception (the pill just starting to be spoken of) and abortion. Victoria could not have presented a better platform to raise such topical issues. The two contrasting women’s tales - one a single mother, the other a mother of five - was likewise critical and clever in demonstrating the many constraints placed on women of this era.

‘When had her life become an endless, endless cycle of breakfast and lunch and dinner and washing and cleaning and scrubbing and wiping and mopping and scolding and child-holding and disciplining and being a wife?’

Secondly, I just loved the many cultural references of the era. I am a child of the 70s, however, so many things felt homely and familiar (I miss Salvital!) Whether it be the Woman’s Weekly itself (my mother LOVED magazines - still does), the chore of washing clothes, deciding on the standard weekly family menu, the sharing of baths or clothes, the darning when something as simple as catching your stockings on the vinyl edge of a seat, to tales of dripping as opposed to this new product called margarine - so many things that made me smile with familiarity. 

‘You might find that love of cooking again, Kath. It’s something women have to do - day in and day out, week in and week out - so why not put some fun back into it’

I applaud Victoria in her Author’s Note where she expresses her view that ‘to fully tell the truth about the past, it’s important to be honest about it’. I agree 100%! That is why this novel is the perfect depiction of all the many and varied trials and tribulations women endured in the late 1950s. Yet through the often dark days of despair, something as simple as the possibility of winning a cooking competition could shed a new light on life and open the window to new possibilities. Camaraderie, friendship and hope neatly bring balance to this well rounded tale. 

I truly loved A Woman’s Work and highly recommend it. This period of time was not that long ago and Victoria does an incredible job of highlighting the struggles women experienced through laws, societal expectations and personal preferences. It is not only a journey of how far we have come (and still need to go) but also how together, women are stronger. 

‘She had exercised a choice and it had become her secret and her power’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Monday, May 8, 2023

Review: Emboldened

Title: Emboldened
Author: Belinda Alexandra

Publisher: 26th April 2023 by Affirm Press

Pages: 268 pages

Genre: biography, memoir, history

Rating: 4.5 cups


How do you begin your life again when you've lost everything you've worked for and your dreams have been shattered?

That was the question beloved Australian author Belinda Alexandra faced one freezing winter night when she ran from her home in terror, clutching only her wallet, her phone and her latest manuscript on a USB stick.

To pull herself up from rock bottom, Belinda drew strength from the real life women who had inspired her bestselling historical fiction: her mother, Tatiana Morosoff, a White Russian who had fled a home more than once due to wars and revolutions; Virginia Hall, an American who lost her leg in an accident but went on to become one of the most revered Allied agents in World War II France; Carmen Amaya, who despite being born into abject poverty in Barcelona rose to become the greatest Flamenco dancer of all time; Edna Walling, who lost her own dream home in a freak fire but created garden designs that made her one of Australia's most celebrated landscape designers.

They were women who had faced seemingly insurmountable challenges and found ways to forge ahead on their own terms.

In a compelling and exquisite blend of memoir and history, Belinda shows readers that, no matter what challenge they might be facing, there is always the possibility of building a bold life full of meaning again from the ashes.

My Thoughts

Belinda Alexandra has many fans who follow her wonderful historical fiction stories. Emboldened sees Belinda embolden herself, moving into the field of nonfiction, offering a wonderful discourse on finding strength and courage in the face of adversity. Belinda recounts factual tales inclusive of personal recounts, to drawing inspiration from some key female figures from history. 

‘Goals can help us focus and bring us satisfaction when we achieve them, but they don't embolden us the way a true sense of purpose does.’

Emboldened is therefore part family memoir as Belinda tells the tale from her grandparents and mother and how they came to inspire her. She also includes inspiration from the American spy Virginia Hall, Carmen Amaya a famous flamenco dancer and Edna Walling and Australian landscape artist. Belinda looks at these personal life stories through the sectional themes of Reliance, Purpose, Passion and Connection. Personally, I found the recount of her personal family history incredibly engaging with regards to their migration from Russia to Australia via China and an internment camp. 

Belinda alludes to, without going into detail, her own experiences of trauma and how the above stories provided strength, determination and resilience. She uses the stories as a foundation of how to move forward in overcoming great stress and life changing experiences. Emboldened is an uplifting book drawing inspiration from the past on how some have dealt with adversity. It is beautifully written that is sure to inspire and hopefully embolden its readers. 

‘Life is a bumpy ride. The struggles are real and sometimes relentless. But the journey can ultimately be a beautiful and rich one. And overcoming the struggles are what will make it worthwhile. You already have everything inside you that you need to live life courageously and boldly.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the author in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.