Tag Archives: historical fiction

Book Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I’ve taken a while to get to this one despite the hype. I adored Daisy Jones and the Six by the same author and after reading this one, I will have to hunt for more of this author’s work, because her books are just so damn good.

The novel follows the life of Evelyn Hugo, a glamorous movie star who rose to fame in the 1950s and 1960s. Evelyn, now in her seventies and has decided to give a tell-all interview to an unknown journalist named Monique Grant. As the two women sit down for the interview, Evelyn begins to reveal the secrets of her past, including her seven marriages, her rise to fame, and the tragedies that have shaped her life. You almost believe she’s a real person but of course it is fiction.

It’s an epic journey through each stage of her life from her early days and her rise to fame. As we progress through the story, we discover that her life is not as it may seem. Secrets are kept hidden and lives fabricated into something entirely different in order to feed the publicity machine for the tabloids and fans. The author gives us an insight into the inner workings of Hollywood and the sacrifices made by actors. It reminded me very much of the lives such as Rock Hudson and Judy Garland both stories hidden from the public.

What makes this story so compelling is the character of Evelyn herself. She is not always a likeable character, but you can’t help but feel sorry for her. She is the product of Hollywood and can never be her true self. Her struggle with this makes you cheer her on while understanding the choices she has made. There’s a nice twist towards the end which I guessed.

Overall, it is a beautifully written novel that is both entertaining and thought-provoking, with well drawn characters. It’s a story that stays with you long after you’ve finished.  I was hooked entirely. Try this one which would be especially good as a holiday read.

Book Review: The Lessons by John Purcell

This novel is a compelling story of a forbidden first love, class division and betrayal.

It’s 1961 when sixteen- year- old Daisy comes home from boarding school and meets young farmer, Harry. They fall deeply in love but her mother intervenes deciding that Daisy should be away from his influence and sends her to her Aunt Jane’s house unaware that the young Daisy is pregnant.

Daisy has always been convinced that her mother does not love her, and given that her mother was forced to marry Daisy’s father because she herself was pregnant at a young age gives rise to their fractious relationship.

Interspersed between the 1961’s timeline we meet Aunt Jane in 1983. She is a writer of renown on her way to a literary event in New York where she is interviewed about an earlier work exploring a coming of age novel, said to be drawn from real life.

We are privy to the point of views from Daisy, Harry and Jane which is cleverly handled to propel the story forward as Purcell explores how far a person would go for love, given numerous obstacles thrown their way.

Jane, a bohemian character in a marriage of what seems to be convenience is lost in her own relationships. Harry is a simple man who knows what he wants and that is Daisy. The interference by her mother and Jane creates a tragic outcome for the young lovers who go through life always yearning for one another.

I worried about Purcell’s handling of the female point of view particularly during a troubling event but I thought he handled it sensitively and well. The power of this novel is the characters and Purcell cleverly ensures that the reader quickly engages and cares about each one of them, even the ones who don’t behave all that well.

I really couldn’t put this one down, loved the swinging sixties, filled with lusty scenes, class differences and the final eyebrow raising reveal towards the end. Yes, check this one out.

Book Review: The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell

This story is loosely based on Henry Lawson’s 1892 poem, The Drovers Wife. The author, Leah Purcell has reimagined it and focused on the bleak harshness for women and indigenous people during that time.

Molly Johnson lives in the high country in a shanty with her four children. The oldest, Danny is only twelve. Her husband, Joe never appears in the story as he is away droving. It’s just as well because when he is home, he’s drunk and violent. Molly is pregnant and isolated having only her children around her. Her life although harsh and unforgiving is challenged by the people who visit. The new policeman arrives with his wife and child having survived drowning in a flooded river. Next is Yakuda, an aboriginal man, in shackles who is wanted for allegedly killing a family.

The story plunges the reader into anxiety for Molly, her children and her survival as well as for Yakuda. But you can’t help but admire their gutsy determination for a better life as their relationship grows.

But this is not a story with a happy ending, so prepare yourself. The switch on occasion from third person to first person can be off putting but the story is a powerful one giving the reader a very unromanticised version of early Australia, a place of violence where women and the indigenous are little more than indentured slaves with few rights or voice or place.

The story has been made into a play where it first was brought to life and is now also a movie released in 2021 starring Purcell herself. I must now find it and watch it. And if you can check this one out.

Book Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Oh, what a read this one was. I could not put it down.

Set in the late 1950’s, this novel is a delightful and empowering story exploring the world of science, love, and motherhood. The main character, Elizabeth Zott, is a brilliant and ambitious young chemist who is determined to make a name for herself in the male-dominated field of science. But when she meets and falls in love with her soulmate, Calvin Evans a brilliant, Nobel Prize nominated chemist, she finds herself torn between her career goals and her heart.

The novel highlights the challenges that women faced in the scientific, television and rowing communities, and the struggle to balance personal and professional aspirations when social mores forced women into conformity. When Elizabeth finds herself a single mother, she fails to see the problems that others see and her character is so engaging that I felt for her the whole way, cheering her along as she inspired others on her journey.

And it is an inspiring story of a woman facing calamitous obstacles but who pushes through regardless.

The characters are endearing from her daughter Madeline to the feisty Harriet who builds up the courage to leave her husband. And of course, who could forget the dog, Six-thirty through whose eyes we were given the privilege of seeing a different world.

The author’s writing style is engaging and fluid, making it easy to get lost in the story and the characters.

The chemistry between Elizabeth and Calvin is endearing and heartfelt as they ignore the social mores of the time.  It’s a perfect blend of science and fiction, providing a unique and captivating reading experience.

There are a few twists, many of which I did not see coming. But this one is also full of hope that the world is changing for women now and into the future. Sigh, if only it was that simple.

Book Review: The Good Wife of Bath by Karen Brooks

Geoffrey Chaucer is famous for the collection of stories he wrote known as The Canterbury Tales. One of the stories, The Wife of Bath inspired author Karen Brooks to gleefully and expertly give the character, Eleanor the opportunity to give her side of the story.

Set in 1364, Eleanor is married off to the first of five husbands at the age of twelve. By eighteen she is a widow. The book takes us on a journey through her life, in and out of poverty and love and injustice. Geoffrey Chaucer himself is introduced as a character who plays a major role throughout her life as a distant cousin. She is not a woman who bows to social norms and with the support of her closest friend and ally Alison, she fights to protect her loved ones from the brutalities of those medieval times.

Life for women was particularly difficult. They were considered inferior, health care was scant and a woman’s success was tied to the wealth of the man she married. Even then it didn’t guarantee her a happy and fulfilled life. Indeed men’s attitude towards their wives was at best tolerant and at worst, they were treated like slaves and blamed for everything because of their sex. The author immerses us into a world of a plague uncanny in its comparison to our present day pandemic.

I simply adored this novel. I loved the character of Eleanor and was on her side the entire time, wanting a better life for her and dismayed at the injustices that she faced as a woman. And I wondered what she would think in 2023. Would she be amazed or disgusted that there hasn’t been the progress she might have expected?

The theme running throughout the novel is injustice for women and the following sums it up nicely.

“The older of the men, a Master le Brune, looked me up and down, a sneer forming. “Women weren’t put on this earth to conduct business, madam,’ he said haughtily, ‘but to help men with their work. As the good books say, ‘suffer not a woman to teach, nor to use authority over the man: but to be in silence.”

Eleanor railed against a culture where a woman was not permitted to conduct a business by herself, where her only respectability was as a married woman and her role defined as wife and mother.

I cheered for her successes, mourned her losses and there was a lot, was horrified on one page and laughed at the next of this page-turning novel.

It is a long book so be prepared to invest a lot of time to read it. You’ll be rewarded by not wanting it to ever finish. It’s a meticulously researched book vivid in description, humour, and tragedy with powerful characters. Get this one. You won’t be sorry.

Book Review: Limberlost by Robbie Arnott

Arnott is a Tasmanian author and certainly one to watch. Limberlost is his third novel and the first I’ve read of his work.

This is a coming-of-age novel about fifteen-year-old Ned who lives with his father and sister on their apple orchard in the Tamar Valley. It’s 1943 and his two older brothers away at war, leave a pall of anxiety over the household. Ned keeps himself busy during the summer school holidays with chores and trapping rabbits to sell as skins for hats for the soldiers. Ned is anxious about killing the animals but has a dream to use the money to buy a boat. It’s wartime so he questions his motives and wonders about his selfish dream. With his friend Jackbird, he finds time to fish and swim in the nearby river and lose himself to the imagination of a legendary whale at the mouth of the river. The narrative flips intermittently to Ned as a man who is forever reminded of what happened that summer of ’43.

Firstly, the writing is sublime, and although it’s not a long book (226 pages) each sentence is carefully considered, evoking beauty and feeling for the characters and the landscape. ‘The wind warmed, then died. The sun bit and clawed. Mud hardened into dirt, before falling apart as dust. Sweat crusted onto skin as soon as it leaked free. With no freshness to feed on, the rabbits disappeared.’

Ned is a boy and then a man of few words, lacking confidence to voice what is truly bothering him, always trying to do the right thing hoping for approval from his father, his sister and eventually his absent brothers. ‘He avoided thinking about anything that brought on the sting. The war. The school year that awaited him. The mare. His father. How his father, after he’d read Toby’s letter, had asked Ned if anything had come from Bill. The blank fissure in the old man’s face when Ned had shaken his head.’

Ned is also deeply conflicted by his obsessions and secrets, as his dreams collide with the reality of the failing farm and the absence of his brothers. But it is so beautifully juxtaposed with Ned as an adult bringing joy as he matures to be a caring, loving family man.

This truly is a magical story, beautifully written digging Ned into you, making you care and want the best for him. I predict this one will win a few awards, so go out and buy this new release.

Book Review: Infinite Splendours by Sophie Laguna

This novel is a heart-breaking and difficult one to read given the subject matter.

Set in the fifties, a mother lives alone with her two sons, Lawrence who is ten and Paul, eight. They live in a small Victorian town and Lawrence is a bright young student while Paul is sporty. When their long-lost uncle comes to visit, their mother brightens up and this stranger introduces vitality to their world. However, things change quickly when the uncle sexually abuses young Lawrence, changing his life forever.

Laguna takes us on a journey through Lawrence’s life which becomes crippled and stagnant following the abuse. He develops an horrific stutter and so is prevented from communicating into his adulthood. He is treated as mentally disabled because of the stutter and his withdrawal from his brother and everyone around him, sends no real alarm bells.

The only light for Lawrence is his artwork which becomes his lifeline as an isolated and shunned adult. He lives for it but he again is ostracised by everyone around him except for his brother Paul who is frustrated yet still cares and looks out for him.

Laguna’s writing is wonderful as always and I will always read anything she writes. However this novel is a tough read, uncomfortable and tragic. It’s not for everyone.