Tag Archives: historical fiction

Book Review: Elizabeth & Elizabeth by Sue Williams

I’ve been on a bit of a Elizabeth Macarthur odyssey ever since I read Michelle Scott Tucker’s book Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world. (See my earlier review https://sckarakaltsas.com/2020/05/22/book-review-elizabeth-macarthur-a-life-at-the-edge-of-the-world-by-michelle-scott-tucker/ ). When I heard about Elizabeth & Elizabeth, a fictional story about Elizabeth’s friendship with Elizabeth Macquarie, I had to buy the book.

Too many Elizabeth’s can be a bit confusing so I’ll use surnames. A young Mrs Macquarie was married to Lachlan Macquarie who came to Australia as the Governor of the new colony. He was a man of vision, providing the name of Australia and introducing social reforms to emancipate convicts despite strong opposition from the elite including Mr Macarthur. Williams imagines Mrs Macquarie to be a strong and assertive influence on Lachlan and credits her with imaginative ideas of architecture, garden landscaping as well as social welfare for young women.

Meanwhile Mrs Macarthur married to the troublesome, duel challenging at the drop of a hat, Mr Macarthur is much older and wiser not given to airs and graces while she’s grappling with a couple of sheep on the farm she’s managing because Mr Macarthur is in England sorting out the scraps he’s had with the previous Governor.

When she first arrives, Mrs Macquarie is portrayed as a wide-eyed and naïve young woman and I wondered if it might have been further from the truth given that she was thirty-one not twenty-one. But her character grows as she quickly adapts to the realities of the harshness of colonial life. She holds the much older Mrs Macarthur in high esteem. The relationship while brittle at first grows over the years as the challenges to the Macquarie’s post grows more difficult.

Of course, Mr Macarthur is as troublesome as history has portrayed. I’d always imagined that the relationship between Mr and Mrs Macarthur to be a difficult one with little love. Yet the author paints a loving and caring relationship between them. From what I’d read so far, I really doubted the woman could have done anything other than be relieved when he went to London for several years leaving her to make her mark on the colony with her sheep breeding ideas.

In reality, history being written by men provides us with little knowledge of the relationship between the two women but Williams reads between the lines to give us a delicious account of what these strong and intelligent women brought to society and to the foundations of the colony giving them credit when there’d been little before. No doubt there would have been few women from their class and they would have little choice than to fraternise despite their husbands opposing views of each other. I really liked the idea that women could come together to support each other enough to make the colony a better place. I can’t imagine how horrific it must have been to be a woman where childbirth and child raising was fraught with disease and death.   

The other great insight is just how entrenched the class system was adopted and continued on from England. It’s hardly surprising that the governing bodies, serving their own self-interests were mean-spirited about the people in the colony. But wait, what’s changed today with our present government? Perhaps not a lot when you consider the refugees who came here by boat.

This novel is rich in history, well-written and researched. If you’re after a bit of history about upper-class women of influence then check this one out.

Book Review: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

Short listed for the Booker Prize in 2020, this is a fascinating and insightful epic about the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

It opens with Hirut, an older Ethiopian woman travelling on a bus in 1974 through a troubled Addis Ababa. She’s on her way to take a box of photos to Ettore, a man who’d once been her jailer after her capture by Mussolini’s army.

The story takes us back to just before the Italian invasion when as an orphan, Hirut is taken in as a reluctant servant to Kidane and his wife Aster. When Kidane, an officer in the army mobilises troupes to fight, strong-willed Aster galvanises all the women in the district to help and Hirut transforms from servant to fierce warrior.

 The Emperor, Haile Selassie flees the country and when all hope appears lost, Hirut suggests disguising a peasant as the emperor to fool the Italians and inspire the Ethiopian army to continue the fight. Hirut is eventually captured and embroiled in her own personal war against her captors, one of which is Ettore.

It’s an incredibly written and lyrical novel on a brutal and horrific subject. Mengiste’s descriptions are poetic and I’d suggest you ignore the absence of some punctuation and enjoy the writing.

“She is close enough to see him racing across the spine of the mountain, his heels flying, that chest a swell of bony ribs and heavy air. In the ebbing night, he comes first as sound: the snap of a branch, a scrape of foot on stone. A hiss curving against the soft orange light. He is a fleeting mirage speeding over rough hills, shallow gasps stalling in thick breeze.”

The history is rich giving us insight into both sides of this little-known war of which I was totally ignorant. The author explores the bravery and sheer persistence by the Ethiopians in particular the power of their female soldiers. Mostly told from Hirut’s point of view, we are also given insight into other characters such as Ettore and Selassie who are rich and complex. The themes are numerous: trauma, survival, forced marriage, and colonisation to name some. Interestingly, Mengiste’s own great-grandmother had been a soldier and presumably provided her inspiration.

It’s a wonderfully enlightening and moving account of war fought by strong courageous women. Check it out.

Book Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Intricately researched, this novel explores the making of the Oxford Dictionary. It’s an epic story taking in the years between 1886 and 1928 which is how long it took Professor John Murray and his team of editors, lexicographers and assistants to laboriously put it together via the help of thousands of people around the world who sent in words for inclusion.

The story revolves around Esme Owen who as a five-year-old, sits under the desk while her father and others work on the dictionary compiling, collating and making decisions about words on slips of paper and their definitions. One day, a slip with the word bondmaid, falls to the floor and little Esme scrambles to collect it and instead of giving it up, she stores it away like treasure. From that point, she observes the workers, collecting discarded slips with words which were deemed not to be worthy of inclusion. As she grows up, her secret collection of words grows and she begins to question and wonder why so many discarded words happened to be used by women.

“there is no capacity for the Dictionary to contain words that have no textural source. Every word must have been written down, and you are right to assume they largely come from books written by men.”

Esme is passionate about words and begins her research at local markets searching for words used by everyday women. Her best friend is Lizzie, a maid for the Murray family and she harbours Esme’s secret treasure supporting her friends’ quest but also questions some of her actions.

 The writer skilfully weaves in key historical events such as the women’s movement for the right to vote, class distinction, and World War One. Esme’s life is fictional yet some of the supporting characters are real and reimagined by the author to give us a sympathetic taste of what they might have been like.

I love the idea of language shifting and changing and the recognition that a dictionary can never be static as new words are constantly evolving every day. And what a challenge that must be to keep up to date.

“I spend my days trying to understand how words were used by men long dead, in order to draft a meaning that will suffice not just for our times but for the future.”

It’s a long, slow read at first and action is driven by Esme’s love for words and her observations and at times I wondered if my interest could be retained. It’s as a grown woman that things take a turn with Esme and not always for the better. It was easy to be swept up by the events some scandalous and other deeply moving.  I did find myself wanting to know more about Esme’s hopes and wishes for herself but it moved little beyond her work on the dictionary. I also loved Lizzie and her down to earth nature yet I earned to learn more of her hopes and dreams. However, the real main character must surely be the dictionary itself with a glimpse into the lives of the characters it affected.

I enjoyed this book perhaps even more so because I’d seen the movie entitled The Professor and the Madman based on the book The Surgeon of Crowthorne and I was already in awe of how the dictionary came about. The Dictionary of Lost Words took on a whole new perspective which I appreciated enormously. The research was meticulous, the writing beautiful, and methodical. Check this one out.

Book Review: The Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

This book is a fascinating look at history spanning fifty years of Victor Dalmau’s life. He was a young doctor in the Spanish Civil War who fled to a concentration camp in France. Together with Roser his brother’s pregnant wife, they take a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda and sail to Chile where they settle.

Although fiction, it is written in a non-fictional style and is rich in true historical events surrounding the main characters of Victor and Roser. The horror of the Spanish Civil War is played out from Victor’s point of view from the brutal conditions of the war zone to the struggle for survival and escape. I knew little of this war and was fascinated to learn more.

‘Hundreds of thousands of terrified refugees were escaping to France, where a campaign of fear and hatred awaited them. Nobody wanted these foreigners – Reds, filthy, deserters, delinquents, as the French press labeled them… No-one imagined that within a few days there would be almost half a million Spaniards, in the last stages of confusion, terror and misery, clamouring for the border.”

The skill of Allende is that she is able to transport us through history, teaching and enlightening us about Spain, Chile and also Venezuela, putting us into the lives of the characters so that we know their fear, their pain and their anxiety. Yet despite the tragedies, there is love. And the love which grows between Victor and Roser is beautifully done.

Other characters such as the Del Solar family reflect the class divide between rich and poor in Chile, a legacy still felt today in this troubled country. Characters such as Ofelia Del Solar who tries to escape her domineering father, Victor’s friend Aitor who helps Roser, Victor’s mother Carme, Juana the nanny; each have their own stories weaved throughout the narrative of Victor and Roser’s life.

Some might be put off by the expositional style of writing but it didn’t bother me in the slightest. It’s easy to read, highly enlightening and sweeps you along. Give it a go.

Book Review: The Paris Time Capsule by Ella Carey

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Cat Jordan inherits an apartment in Paris from someone she doesn’t know. She leaves New York to find out why. When she arrives and visits the apartment, she’s shocked to find it has been untouched since 1940. What happened to the owner, who is the person who left her the apartment? And so, the novel uncovers the mystery of what happened and why?

Complicating things is a handsome Frenchman, Loic who has a possible claim to the apartment and Cat’s controlling merchant banker fiancé, Christian who wants her to come home to New York for her engagement party. The inheritance forces Cat to review what she wants for herself rather than what others want for her.

This is an intriguing story and was inspired by the real-life story of a woman who fled her apartment as the Nazi’s marched into Paris. She never returned. It wasn’t until her death in 2010 that the untouched apartment was discovered.

What a wonderful premise for a story and I was very quickly hooked, impatient to find out why Cat had inherited the apartment and the owners history. I was drawn into the French countryside and the history of Paris in the 1930’s which was fascinating and well described.

However, there were times where the story slowed down, when Cat was distracted by Loic and his family or by a bit of sightseeing or her fiancé who was not particularly likeable. Cat was bewildered and Loic was – well he’s a Frenchman – what more can I say. The twists and turns in the story made me so impatient for answers I read this one very quickly.

It’s an easy read and despite my impatience, I was very satisfied with the end. Give this one a go for a light, holiday read.

A Perfect Stone: Anniversary Special

It’s been two years since I launched my last book, A Perfect Stone and I’ve been very humbled by all the great feedback. To celebrate, and for those who love eBooks, A Perfect Stone has been heavily discounted until the end of the month at $ 0.99c at Amazon

Overview:
Living alone, eighty-year-old Jim Philips potters in his garden feeding his magpies. He doesn’t think much of his nosy neighbours or telemarketers. All he wants to do is live in peace.

Cleaning out a box belonging to his late wife, he finds something which triggers the memories of a childhood he’s hidden, not just from his overprotective middle-aged daughter, Helen, but from himself. When Jim has a stroke and begins speaking another language, Helen is shocked to find out her father is not who she thinks he is.

Jim’s suppressed memories surface in the most unimaginable way when he finally confronts what happened when, as a ten-year-old, he was forced at gunpoint to leave his family and trek barefoot through the mountains to escape the Greek Civil War in 1948.

A Perfect Stone is a sweeping tale of survival, loss and love.

Praise From Readers
***** “It is a story of loss and survival interspersed with the history of a war I knew little about. Highly recommended.”
***** “This is a fictional story but based on actual events, and the author wastes not a word in evoking sympathy for those most vulnerable members of society, without ever becoming maudlin.”
***** “A Perfect Stone is a moving story of childhood and old age set against the traumatic experiences of child refugees during the Greek Civil War.”
***** “I liked the switch in timelines and really enjoyed the writing. I was thoroughly immersed and couldn’t put it down. Highly recommended.”

Short listed for Book of the Month by Discovering Diamonds

Purchase Links

Amazon


Book Review: A Room Full of Leaves by Kate Grenville

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Oh, what a story Kate Grenville has put together.

I’d read about Elizabeth Macarthur in the incredible non-fiction work by Michelle Scott Tucker (see my earlier review https://sckarakaltsas.com/2020/05/22/book-review-elizabeth-macarthur-a-life-at-the-edge-of-the-world-by-michelle-scott-tucker/ ) where she brought Elizabeth out from behind her famous husband John Macarthur. And it was a glimpse behind the façade of a woman who perhaps should have been given more credit for Australia riding on the back of sheep instead of her notorious husband.

In this book, we are asked to imagine that Elizabeth has kept a secret memoir from her time before she comes to Australia on the second fleet. It conveys her inner most thoughts and feelings and Kate Grenville brings us a story of what might have really been going on in this famous marriage. It’s fascinating.

Grenville as always, beautifully captured the colonial settlement, the struggles and deprivations from Elizabeth’s point of view. Importantly it also gave a voice to how women had to carefully navigate their lives around who they should marry. One wrong decision meant the difference between happiness and sadness, poverty or respectability. In Elizabeth’s case she made the wrong choice in marrying a man like John yet the conclusion that she would have made the best of it is entirely believable.

It’s an easy read and beautifully written and I couldn’t get enough of it. Then the last few pages drew her story to an abrupt close and I wondered why the rest of her life couldn’t have been explored like I wanted it to. It would have made for a huge volume of pages, that’s true, but perhaps the author felt that she had explored the more important parts of her life. We don’t get to see how Elizabeth managed the farm and brought about prosperity for her and her family. After the birth of her third child, the rest of her pregnancies are summed up in barely a sentence. Perhaps had I not read the comprehensive work of Tucker I may not felt a little cheated. Or perhaps I’m just greedy for more.

Highly entertaining and if you read this book then I’d suggest following it up with Michelle Scott Tucker’s work.