The Sewing Machine – Natalie Fergie

The Sewing Machine – Natalie Fergie

Amazon suggested that I might like to read this one (it might even have been a kindle daily or monthly deal).

Here’s the blurb …

It is 1911, and Jean is about to join the mass strike at the Singer factory. For her, nothing will be the same again.

Decades later, in Edinburgh, Connie sews coded moments of her life into a notebook, as her mother did before her.

More than 100 years after his grandmother’s sewing machine was made, Fred discovers a treasure trove of documents. His family history is laid out before him in a patchwork of unfamiliar handwriting and colourful seams. 

He starts to unpick the secrets of four generations, one stitch at a time.

I really enjoyed this novel – particularly Fred’s section. It was entertaining and informative (and had stuff about sewing and sewing machines).

Another review.

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The Gown – Jennifer Robson

The Gown – Jennifer Robson

I saw this on Facebook or Instagram posted by one of the many embroiderers I follow. A story about the embroiderers working on Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown? Of course I had to read it.

Here’s the blurb …

From the internationally bestselling author of Somewhere in France comes an enthralling historical novel about one of the most famous wedding dresses of the twentieth century—Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown—and the fascinating women who made it.

“Millions will welcome this joyous event as a flash of color on the long road we have to travel.”—Sir Winston Churchill on the news of Princess Elizabeth’s forthcoming wedding

London, 1947: Besieged by the harshest winter in living memory, burdened by onerous shortages and rationing, the people of postwar Britain are enduring lives of quiet desperation despite their nation’s recent victory. Among them are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Together they forge an unlikely friendship, but their nascent hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime honor: taking part in the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown.

Toronto, 2016: More than half a century later, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers, a legacy from her late grandmother. How did her beloved Nan, a woman who never spoke of her old life in Britain, come to possess the priceless embroideries that so closely resemble the motifs on the stunning gown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding almost seventy years before? And what was her Nan’s connection to the celebrated textile artist and holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?

With The Gown, Jennifer Robson takes us inside the workrooms where one of the most famous wedding gowns in history was created. Balancing behind-the-scenes details with a sweeping portrait of a society left reeling by the calamitous costs of victory, she introduces readers to three unforgettable heroines, their points of view alternating and intersecting throughout its pages, whose lives are woven together by the pain of survival, the bonds of friendship, and the redemptive power of love. 

I enjoyed the sections about embroidery and living in post World War 2 England (but still with rationing). I wasn’t so taken with the plot. It reminded me of The Paris Seamstress. This just means that I don’t like ‘romantic drama’.

Another review.

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The Chaperone – Laura Moriarty

Cover of the novel - 'The Chaperone' by Laura Moriarty
The Chaperone – Laura Moriarty

I was keen to read this before seeing the movie (not that I have managed to see it). It was not what I expected and I am not sure if I liked it or not. I think I wanted something a bit lighter? Like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

Here’s the blurb …


The Chaperone is  a captivating novel about the woman who chaperoned an irreverent Louise Brooks to New York City in 1922 and the summer that would change them both.
 
Only a few years before becoming a famous silent-film star and an icon of her generation, a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita, Kansas, to study with the prestigious Denishawn School of Dancing in New York. Much to her annoyance, she is accompanied by a thirty-six-year-old chaperone, who is neither mother nor friend. Cora Carlisle, a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip, has no idea what she’s in for. Young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous black bob with blunt bangs, is known for her arrogance and her lack of respect for convention. Ultimately, the five weeks they spend together will transform their lives forever.
 
For Cora, the city holds the promise of discovery that might answer the question at the core of her being, and even as she does her best to watch over Louise in this strange and bustling place she embarks on a mission of her own. And while what she finds isn’t what she anticipated, she is liberated in a way she could not have imagined. Over the course of Cora’s relationship with Louise, her eyes are opened to the promise of the twentieth century and a new understanding of the possibilities for being fully alive.
 
Drawing on the rich history of the 1920s,’30s, and beyond—from the orphan trains to Prohibition, flappers,  and the onset of the Great Depression to the burgeoning movement for equal rights and new opportunities for women—Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone illustrates how rapidly everything, from fashion and hemlines to values and attitudes, was changing at this time and what a vast difference it all made for Louise Brooks, Cora Carlisle, and others like them. 

I enjoyed the setting and the social history – finding out about Louise Brooks was fascinating.

Another review.

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Now We Shall Be Entirely Free – Andrew Miller

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free – Andrew Miller

I saw Andrew speak at the Perth Writers Festival (I selected his session based solely on the book cover). I borrowed the book from the library, but it wasn’t available until after his talk. His talk only made me want to read it more – it has been shortlisted for the Sir Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

Here is the blurb …


By the Costa Award-winning author of PURE, a stunning historical novel with the grip of a thriller, written in richly evocative, luminous prose.

One rain-swept February night in 1809, an unconscious man is carried into a house in Somerset. He is Captain John Lacroix, home from Britain’s disastrous campaign against Napoleon’s forces in Spain.

Gradually Lacroix recovers his health, but not his peace of mind – he cannot talk about the war or face the memory of what happened in a village on the gruelling retreat to Corunna. After the command comes to return to his regiment, he sets out instead for the Hebrides, with the vague intent of reviving his musical interests and collecting local folksongs.

Lacroix sails north incognito, unaware that he has far worse to fear than being dragged back to the army: a vicious English corporal and a Spanish officer are on his trail, with orders to kill. The haven he finds on a remote island with a family of free-thinkers and the sister he falls for are not safe, at all

I really enjoyed this novel – it was beautifully written (obviously well-researched, but it all felt very natural. No beating me over the head with obvious historical facts).

If you enjoy historical fiction, then you will love this novel.

Another review and another one.

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Heart: A History – Sandeep Jauhar

Heart A History – Sandeep Jauhar

A friend lent me this book said I would like it, but I wasn’t convinced. However, I was pleasantly surprised. I did like it – very much (apart from some of the experiments – sharing a vascular system with a dog?) and I learnt interesting things.

Here’s the blurb …


The spark of life, fount of emotion, house of the soul – the heart lies at the centre of every facet of our existence. It’s so bound up in our deepest feelings that it can even suffer such distress from emotional trauma as to physically change shape.

Practising cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar beautifully weaves his own experiences with the defining discoveries of the past to tell the story of our most vital organ. We see Daniel Hale Williams perform the first open heart surgery and Wilson Greatbatch invent the pacemaker – by accident. Amid gripping scenes from the operating theatre, Jauhar tells the moving tale of his family’s own history of heart problems and, looking to the future, he outlines why the way we choose to live will be more important than any device we invent.

Definitely worth reading if you like social history and have a bit of an interest in science.

Another review and another.

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The Art of Persuasion – Susan Midalia

The Art of Persuasion – Susan Midalia

I found this book in the book exchange at Floreat Forum. As I knew Susan lives in W.A, I had to grab it.

Here’s the blurb …


If Jane Austen was twenty-five today would she be a greenie or a member of the Young Liberals? Probably neither. But for twenty-five-year-old Hazel, reading the classics starting with A is a way to pass the time while jobless and plotless.A chance encounter with an irresistible older man provides a much needed distraction. When Hazel is partnered with him on a political campaign, her attraction is deepened by the strength of his convictions. Adam seems to be attracted to her too – but why can’t she persuade him to embark upon romance? And what does Jane Austen have to teach a young woman about life, love and literature in the 21st century anyway?

I loved reading all of the Western Australian references; catching the train, the Rose Garden, shopping at Claremont Quarter, etc.

For me the middle third of the novel dragged – too much political talk? Too much self pity? But then the story picked up again and I enjoyed the last section. Being a teacher myself, I enjoyed the classroom pieces; particularly the struggle to engage the students and not stray too far from the curriculum.

I think if you live in Perth (particularly the Western Suburbs) and like a bit of romance, then you would enjoy this novel.

Another review and an interview with Susan Midalia.

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Black Rock White City – A.S Patric

Cover of Black Rock White City by A S Patric
Black Rock White City – A.S Patric

I bought this book way back in 2016 and it has been languishing in my digital pile – I feel slightly ill when I think about that digital pile.

Here’s the blurb …


Black Rock White City is a novel about the damages of war, the limits of choice, and the hope of love.

During a hot Melbourne summer Jovan’s cleaning work at a bayside hospital is disrupted by acts of graffiti and violence becoming increasingly malevolent. For Jovan the mysterious words that must be cleaned away dislodge the poetry of the past. He and his wife Suzana were forced to flee Sarajevo and the death of their children. 

Intensely human, yet majestic in its moral vision, Black Rock White City is an essential story of Australia’s suburbs now, of displacement and immediate threat, and the unexpected responses of two refugees as they try to reclaim their dreams. It is a breathtaking roar of energy that explores the immigrant experience with ferocity, beauty and humour

I am not sure why this one languished so long I think I thought it was going to be political. It is about the immigrant experience in Australia – no one can say your name, no one is particularly interested in your past, your qualifications aren’t recognized, etc.

I thought this was beautifully written. It has two points of view – Jovan and Suzana. Jovan works in a hospital as a cleaner (his hospital has a series of malicious graffiti/damage) and seems content with his new (simpler) Australian life. Suzana (also a cleaner but domestically) is angrier. She is writing a novel and is fascinated by the English language (why does knife and knickers have a k, but not nine?)

The story unfolds gently as we follow their ordinary days – more graffiti, an affair, friends, an escape to an hotel. It’s about starting in a new place after terrible things have happened – finding peace and possibly happiness.

Another review and another.

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Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney

Conversation with Friends – Sally Rooney

I got this from the library and probably too soon after Normal People– they are very similar.

Here’s the blurb …


WINNER OF THE SUNDAY TIMES / PFD YOUNG WRITER OF THE YEAR
SHORTLISTED FOR THE KERRY GROUP IRISH NOVEL OF THE YEAR 2018
SHORTLISTED FOR THE DESMOND ELLIOT PRIZE 2018
SHORTLISTED FOR THE RATHBONES FOLIO PRIZE 2018
SUNDAY TIMESOBSERVER AND TELEGRAPH BOOK OF THE YEAR

Frances is twenty-one years old, cool-headed and observant. A student in Dublin and an aspiring writer, at night she performs spoken word with her best friend Bobbi, who used to be her girlfriend. When they are interviewed and then befriended by Melissa, a well-known journalist who is married to Nick, an actor, they enter a world of beautiful houses, raucous dinner parties and holidays in Provence, beginning a complex menage-a-quatre. But when Frances and Nick get unexpectedly closer, the sharply witty and emotion-averse Frances is forced to honestly confront her own vulnerabilities for the first time. 

Look at all of those prizes and short lists.

This is beautifully written and contains an exploration of class in Dublin society. I don’t want to be disparaging, but I also found it to be a lot of twenty-something angst. I suspect I feel this way because I read this and Normal People within a few months of each other.

Another review and another.

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The Queen’s Embroiderer – Joan DeJean

The Queen’s Embroiderer – Joan DeJean

I saw this in Dymocks and bought it based on the title (the cover is good too).

Here is the blurb …


From the author of How Paris Became Paris, a sweeping history of high finance, the origins of high fashion, and a pair of star-crossed lovers in 18th-century France.

Paris, 1719. The stock market is surging and the world’s first millionaires are buying everything in sight. Against this backdrop, two families, the Magoulets and the Chevrots, rose to prominence only to plummet in the first stock market crash. One family built its name on the burgeoning financial industry, the other as master embroiderers for Queen Marie-Therese and her husband, King Louis XIV. Both patriarchs were ruthless money-mongers, determined to strike it rich by arranging marriages for their children.

But in a Shakespearean twist, two of their children fell in love. To remain together, Louise Magoulet and Louis Chevrot fought their fathers’ rage and abuse. A real-life heroine, Louise took on Magoulet, Chevrot, the police, an army regiment, and the French Indies Company to stay with the man she loved.

Following these families from 1600 until the Revolution of 1789, Joan DeJean recreates the larger-than-life personalities of Versailles, where displaying wealth was a power game; the sordid cells of the Bastille; the Louisiana territory, where Frenchwomen were forcibly sent to marry colonists; and the legendary “Wall Street of Paris,” Rue Quincampoix, a world of high finance uncannily similar to what we know now. The Queen’s Embroiderer is both a star-crossed love story in the most beautiful city in the world and a cautionary tale of greed and the dangerous dream of windfall profits. And every bit of it is true

I thought it would be about embroidery and embroiderers (probably should have read the blurb). I expected sumptuous materials and social detail about the lives of embroiderers. I did not get what I expected – it is about the machinations of the Chevrot and Magoulet families. Having said that, I wasn’t disappointed. It is an incredibly fascinating story with an enormous amount of information life in Paris in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was easy to read and by that I mean despite the obvious historical research there is no jargon and it has a nice narrative flow.

Here’s another review

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Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

I am reading this one because I am going to see Esi Edugyan at the Writers Festival.

Here’s the blurb …


ESCAPE IS ONLY THE BEGINNING…

A stunning new novel of slavery and freedom by the author of the Man Booker and Orange Prize shortlisted Half Blood Blues

When two English brothers take the helm of a Barbados sugar plantation, Washington Black – an eleven year-old field slave – finds himself selected as personal servant to one of these men. The eccentric Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde is a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor and abolitionist, whose single-minded pursuit of the perfect aerial machine mystifies all around him. 

Titch’s idealistic plans are soon shattered and Washington finds himself in mortal danger. They escape the island together, but then then Titch disappears and Washington must make his way alone, following the promise of freedom further than he ever dreamed possible.

From the blistering cane fields of Barbados to the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic, from the mud-drowned streets of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black teems with all the strangeness and mystery of life. Inspired by a true story, Washington Black is the extraordinary tale of a world destroyed and made whole again

I knew nothing about this novel I just downloaded the kindle version – I didn’t even read the blurb. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have read it as I don’t like slavery novels (I find them too brutal), but that would have been a mistake as this is a well-written coming of age/tale of adventure. Don’t mistake me their is brutality and violence but it is more than that. The ‘world creation’ is fabulous – Barbados, the arctic regions of Canada, Newfoundland, England and Morocco.

Wash starts of a young slave – with no control of anything and ends his own man in charge of his destiny. On the way there is action and adventure (almost swashbuckling adventure) and an eccentric cast of characters.

Another review and another.

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