Category Archives: Historical Fiction

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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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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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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Miss Buncle Married – D.E. Stevenson

Cover image of 'Miss Buncle Married' by D E Stevenson
Miss Buncle Married – D.E. Stevenson

This has been in my pile for quite sometime and I am not even sure why. I enjoyed Miss Buncle’s Book – too many good things to read.

Here is the blurb …


In this charming follow-up to Miss Buncle’s Book, readers will follow Barbara Buncle’s journey into married life in a new town filled with fascinating neighbors…who may become the subjects of Barbara’s next novel! Miss Buncle may have settled down, but she’s already discovered that married life has done nothing to prevent her from getting into humorous mix-ups and hilarious hijinx. Readers will continue to fall in love with Barbara as she hilariously navigates an exciting new beginning

When I read a book from this era I always think I should read more. This is a witty, gentle, clever story that still highlights the follies, foibles and selfishness of human nature.

Here is the Persephone page – I read the Persephone edition, but loved the image above so much I had to use that one instead of the (beautiful) Persephone grey cover.

Another review and another one.

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The Paris Seamstress – Natasha Lester

The Paris Seamstress – Natasha Lester

This novel was on sale, and it had a pretty cover, and it was about fashion, so clearly I had to have it.

Here’s the blurb …

How much will a young Parisian seamstress sacrifice to make her mark in the male-dominated world of 1940s New York fashion? From the bestselling author of A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald and Her Mother’s Secret.

1940. Parisian seamstress Estella Bissette is forced to flee France as the Germans advance. She is bound for Manhattan with a few francs, one suitcase, her sewing machine, and a dream: to have her own atelier.

2015. Australian curator Fabienne Bissette journeys to the annual Met Gala for an exhibition of her beloved grandmother’s work – one of the world’s leading designers of ready-to-wear. But as Fabienne learns more about her grandmother’s past, she uncovers a story of tragedy, heartbreak and secrets – and the sacrifices made for love.

Crossing generations, society’s boundaries and international turmoil, The Paris Seamstress is the beguiling, transporting story of the special relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter as they attempt to heal the heartache of the past.

I went to a session at the Perth writers  festival where Natasha Lester and Amy Stewart were speaking. I must admit to judging Ms Lester’s novels before reading them – it’s the covers (beautiful as they are they do imply a particular type of novel). This novel was well-researched and I found much to admire and enjoy. It is a plot driven romance, which is not my reading cup of tea, but I know it will appeal to a large number of people. So if you like romance, intrigue and beautiful clothes then this is the novel for you.

Another review

http://www.kateforsyth.com.au/kates-blog/book-review-the-paris-seamstress-by-natasha-lester

 

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Circe – Madeline Miller

Circe – Madeline Miller

This was one of those super popular books available (at a discounted price) at Target. Usually I avoid those books, but this one was recommended by a friend.

Here’s the blurb …

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity, and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft.

When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, wrathful Zeus banishes her to the remote island of Aiaia. There she learns to harness her occult craft, drawing strength from nature. But she will not always be alone; many are destined to pass through Circe’s place of exile, entwining their fates with hers. The messenger god, Hermes. The craftsman, Daedalus. A ship bearing a golden fleece. And wily Odysseus, on his epic voyage home.

There is danger for a solitary woman in this world, and Circe’s independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike. To protect what she holds dear, Circe must decide whether she belongs with the deities she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

I have to say I knew nothing about Circe, Helios, etc – I knew their names, but not much else.

I found this compelling – quite the page turner – and now I want to read The Song of Achilles and Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey .

It is beautifully written and gives female characters silenced by male writers a voice.

More reviews …

https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/the-original-nasty-woman-is-a-goddess-for-our-times/2018/04/09/742c54d0-3b88-11e8-974f-aacd97698cef_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.1da987779d23

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/21/circe-by-madeline-miller-review

 

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Gigi – Colette

Gigi – Colette

This was the latest novel in my year of classic french literature.

Here’s the blurb …

Gigi is being educated in the skills of the Courtesan: to choose cigars, to eat lobster, to enter a world where a woman’s chief weapon is her body. However, when it comes to the question of Gaston Lachaille, very rich and very bored, Gigi does not want to obey the rules.

I have read the Claudine novels and find Colette’s life fascinating (I read this biography), but I wasn’t overly taken with this novel. A 15 year old is being trained by her family to be a courtesan, she acts simple, but is actually quite clever and gets the man to marry her in the end. I find it terribly creepy that an older man finds her young school girls ways attractive. And that her aunt, grand mother (and to some extent her mother) are grooming her to be a prostitute (hopefully well-paid and well-looked after but a prostitute none-the-less.)

Here is the wikipedia entry on Gigi

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gigi

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Bel Ami – Guy de Maupassant

Bel Ami – Guy de Maupassant

This is my third in my classic french literature reading – I have read Dangerous Liaisons and Madame Bovary. Once again, I was surprised by its modern feel.

Here is the blurb …

Guy de Maupassant’s scandalous tale of an opportunistic young man corrupted by the allure of power, “Bel-Ami” is translated with an introduction by Douglas Parmee in “Penguin Classics”. Young, attractive and very ambitious, George Duroy, known to his admirers as Bel-Ami, is offered a job as a journalist on La Vie francaise and soon makes a great success of his new career. But he also comes face to face with the realities of the corrupt society in which he lives – the sleazy colleagues, the manipulative mistresses and wily financiers – and swiftly learns to become an arch-seducer, blackmailer and social climber in a world where love is only a means to an end. Written when Maupassant was at the height of his powers, “Bel-Ami” is a novel of great frankness and cynicism, but it is also infused with the sheer joy of life – depicting the scenes and characters of Paris in the belle epoque with wit, sensitivity and humanity. Douglas Parmee’s translation captures all the vigour and vitality of Maupassant’s novel. His introduction explores the similarities between Bel-Ami and Maupassant himself and demonstrates the skill with which the author depicts his large cast of characters and the French society of the Third Republic.

This is an interesting novel as the main character – Georges Duroy – is vile; selfish and self-centred, he uses others (but mostly women) to improve his social and financial position. This is interesting as it is unusual (at that time – first published in 1885) to have such an unsympathetic character at the heart of a novel (the hero so to speak). What does de Maupassant mean bu it? At this time most novels (English at least) had a didactic purpose – to make us (the readers) better people. Is he showing us the world as it is (or was)?

This novel also highlights how linked (and therefore biased) journalism and politics were – and the manipulation of policy to enrich a few men.

One aspect of this novel that I love is the contemporary social detail – the metro is being built, France has soldiers in Algeria, etc.

If you are interested in 19th century France (or Paris), then I highly recommend this novel. It’s gritty (and a bit grubby) and shows are darker side of life.

Here is another review …

http://insidebooks.blogspot.com/2010/03/book-review-bel-ami-guy-de-maupassant.html

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Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

This was the second French classic for my historical fiction group and once again I was surprised by how easy it was to read – much easier than an equivalent piece of English literature.

Madame Bovary is the debut novel of French writer Gustave Flaubert, published in 1856. The character lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life.

When the novel was first serialized in La Revue de Paris between 1 October 1856 and 15 December 1856, public prosecutors attacked the novel for obscenity. The resulting trial in January 1857 made the story notorious. After Flaubert’s acquittal on 7 February 1857, Madame Bovary became a bestseller in April 1857 when it was published in two volumes. A seminal work of literary realism, the novel is now considered Flaubert’s masterpiece, and one of the most influential literary works in history.

It was incredibly modern – concerned about consumerism and the role of women. I must admit that I didn’t find Emma at all sympathetic – melodramatic, selfish and self-centred, but she was stuck in a small rural community with no friends, married to a man with whom she had nothing in common. Her life lacked purpose, interest and romance, so of course she had to create drama and excitement.

Here is an article from the NY Times…

and here is the First Tuesday book club talking about Madame Bovary

http://www.abc.net.au/tv/firsttuesday/s3165716.htm

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At the Edge of the Orchard

At the Edge of the Orchard – Tracy Chevalier

I like Tracy Chevalier novels – my favourite is the The Lady and the Unicorn. This one was selected by another book club member – we also read Remarkable Creatures last year.

Here’s the blurb …

From internationally bestselling author Tracy Chevalier, a riveting drama of a pioneer family on the American frontier

1838: James and Sadie Goodenough have settled where their wagon got stuck – in the muddy, stagnant swamps of northwest Ohio. They and their five children work relentlessly to tame their patch of land, buying saplings from a local tree man known as John Appleseed so they can cultivate the fifty apple trees required to stake their claim on the property. But the orchard they plant sows the seeds of a long battle. James loves the apples, reminders of an easier life back in Connecticut; while Sadie prefers the applejack they make, an alcoholic refuge from brutal frontier life.

1853: Their youngest child Robert is wandering through Gold Rush California. Restless and haunted by the broken family he left behind, he has made his way alone across the country. In the redwood and giant sequoia groves he finds some solace, collecting seeds for a naturalist who sells plants from the new world to the gardeners of England. But you can run only so far, even in America, and when Robert’s past makes an unexpected appearance he must decide whether to strike out again or stake his own claim to a home at last.

Chevalier tells a fierce, beautifully crafted story in At the Edge of the Orchard, her most graceful and richly imagined work yet.

As always, the level of historical detail in this novel is extraordinary – I do like to learn while being entertained at the same time. This one is about trees – apples (spitters and eaters) and the huge trees – redwoods and sequoias – in California.  I loved all of the detail about planting, grafting and tending the trees, about collecting specimens and transporting them over oceans to try to grow in a new continent (apples to the americas and the redwoods back to England).

I had little to no sympathy for any of the characters – violent, drunks (sometimes both) and damaged. I am sure it was a sign of the times – living was hard, etc. but it makes for unpleasant reading.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/06/at-the-edge-of-the-orchard-tracy-chevalier-review-stephanie-merritt

https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/at-the-edge-of-the-orchard-review-tracy-chevaliers-engrossing-family-drama-20160331-gnv0c8.html

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