Book Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

The ARC for The Familiars by Stacey Halls is amongst those that I picked up at the OLA Super Conference in February this year. The subject of the witch hunt in the 1600s has always intrigued me so I looked forward to this read.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Blurb:

Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a noblewoman, is with child again. None of her previous pregnancies have borne fruit, and her husband, Richard, is anxious for an heir. Then Fleetwood discovers a hidden doctor’s letter that carries a dire prediction: she will not survive another birth. By chance she meets a midwife named Alice Grey, who promises to help her deliver a healthy baby. But Alice soon stands accused of witchcraft.

Is there more to Alice than meets the eye? Fleetwood must risk everything to prove her innocence. As the two women’s lives become intertwined, the Witch Trials of 1612 loom. Time is running out; both their lives are at stake. Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.

Rich and compelling, set against the frenzy of the real Pendle Hill Witch Trials, this novel explores the rights of 17th-century women and raises the question: Was witch-hunting really women-hunting? Fleetwood Shuttleworth, Alice Grey and the other characters are actual historical figures. King James I was obsessed with asserting power over the lawless countryside (even woodland creatures, or “familiars,” were suspected of dark magic) by capturing “witches”—in reality mostly poor and illiterate women.

My thoughts:

For some reason, when I opened this book I thought it would be a fantasy fiction about witches (the beautiful cover maybe?). Soon into the novel, however, I realised my error but continued reading as I enjoy historical fiction and am interested in the period in which women were tried as witches.

The novel centres on an occurrence that so many women go through – pregnancy and giving birth. Modern medicine has made this a relatively safe event but in the 1600s it was fraught with danger. Unbelievably the women known as the wise women in this time period were seen as witches and many were, for a time, put on trial as witches.

The Familiars is told from the point of view of a woman who is pregnant. We read of her belief in her midwife, as well as her frustration with her inability to save the woman she believes in. How disheartening it must have been for thinking women during that time period to achieve anything! The novel clearly describes the main character’s powerlessness in the face of a powerful man who disregards the opinion of women.

While reading Halls’ novel, I wished for the point of view of Alice, the midwife. Knowing more about what she was feeling – her fear, her frustration, her anger – would have made the novel even more effective. While reading the story as it is now, it does seem a little incomplete as only one side is told. In addition, I would have liked to read a bit more about the trials themselves (maybe through the point of view of Alice). Adding Alice’s story would have made the story more heartbreaking and, for me, more compelling.

However, I enjoyed reading this book with its very brief view of the Pendle witch trials and its story told from the point of view of a wealthy woman who has the time to attempt to save the life of her midwife. For readers who enjoy historical fiction, this novel should be considered as it follows the path of hope.

I give this novel ⭐️⭐️⭐️ 3 stars.

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2019

(This novel was the 32nd in my book pledge for 2019)

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Book Review: The Huntress by Kate Quinn

I enjoy reading historical fiction as not only are you introduced to wonderful characters, but you are introduced to a segment of history. I had not read any books by Kate Quinn and was eager to read the ARC of The Huntress sent to me by Harper Collins Canada.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Blurb: 

A fascinating historical novel about a battle-haunted English journalist and a Russian female bomber pilot who join forces to track the Huntress, a Nazi war criminal gone to ground in America.

Bold, reckless Nina Markova grows up on the icy edge of Soviet Russia, dreaming of flight and fearing nothing. When the tide of war sweeps over her homeland, she gambles everything to join the infamous Night Witches, an all-female night bomber regiment wreaking havoc on Hitler’s eastern front. But when she is downed behind enemy lines and thrown across the path of a lethal Nazi murderess known as the Huntress, Nina must use all her wits to survive.

British war correspondent Ian Graham has witnessed the horrors of war from Omaha Beach to the Nuremberg Trials. He abandons journalism after the war to become a Nazi hunter, yet one target eludes him: the Huntress. Fierce, disciplined Ian must join forces with brazen, cocksure Nina, the only witness to escape the Huntress alive. But a shared secret could derail their mission, unless Ian and Nina force themselves to confront it.

Seventeen-year-old Jordan McBride grows up in post WWII Boston, determined despite family opposition to become a photographer. At first delighted when her long-widowed father brings home a fiancée, Jordan grows increasingly disquieted by the soft-spoken German widow who seems to be hiding something. Armed only with her camera and her wits, Jordan delves into her new stepmother’s past and slowly realizes there are mysteries buried deep in her family. But Jordan’s search for the truth may threaten all she holds dear.

My thoughts: 

The novel is told from three points of view: Nina, Ian, and Jordan. Their experiences and thoughts are expertly woven to create a story that I enjoyed and raced through. An added bonus of the story is that the two women (Nina and Jordan) are both shown as being courageous: Nina fearlessly flies a night bomber during the war; and Jordan begins to believe in her own courage and perception.

Even though I learned a little snippet of history in this novel, I was not bored. Instead, the history is a necessary part of the novel that sets the scene for bravery, romance, and heartache. I loved that there was a little romance in the story; and that unexpected happiness could be found in spite of the War. Quinn realistically describes her characters and their experiences and, with the descriptions given, I was able to see in my mind the scenes that she had set. I could not help but turn the pages avidly to discover the next step in the characters’ experiences.

The Huntress was an excellent read. I have enjoyed the story so much I am convinced I need to pick up Quinn’s previous novel, The Alice Network (which is still on the bestseller list). If you enjoy historical fiction, this novel needs to be added to your TBR list.

I give this novel ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 stars

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2019

(This novel was the 9th in my book pledge for 2019)

Book Review: The Gown by Jennifer Robson

I enjoy reading historical fiction and when my request for the ARC of The Gown by Jennifer Robson was approved by Harper Collins Canada, I was ecstatic. I opened the novel eagerly and settled in to learn a little more about the period in which the novel was written.

Publication Date: 1 January 2019

Genre: Historical Fiction

Blurb: 

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.

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.

My thoughts: 

There was so much to love about this novel. Robson expertly takes us to London after the Second World War and to the time when Queen Elizabeth was set to marry. We learn of the difficulties people were experiencing at that time after the war, and yet they were eagerly anticipating the royal wedding. I loved how Robson’s story weaved adroitly between the past and the present; between the hardships after the war, and the lifestyle of a modern woman who is easily able to cross the seas from Toronto to London.

I found The Gown to be an interesting read. Not only is the royal wedding referred to, but also the choices young women had after the Second World War. The experiences of Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin are explored with sensitivity and a sense of realism. I enjoyed how Heather Mackenzie’s curiosity about her grandmother brings Ann Hughes alive not only for her, but also for the readers. The novel shows us how the friendship between the two women in the past grew – a friendship that supported each woman in their time of need.

Jennifer Robson’s novel was captivating. I savoured every page and was proud of the portrait of the women portrayed – a portrait which shows how resilient a woman can be when faced with difficult choices. If you enjoy historical fiction, this novel is definitely for you. It portrays friendship and the strength of women in the face of difficulty. In addition, it gives the reader a snapshot of the life of a London embroiderer after the second world war.

I give this novel ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 stars.

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2018

(This novel was the 88th in my 50 book pledge for 2018)

Book Review: The Lost Queen by Signe Pike

I had read a lot of buzz of Signe Pike’s debut novel The Lost Queen. I love historical fiction and anything on the Queens of the past and so decided to read this description of a long forgotten Scottish queen.

Genre: Historical fiction

Blurb: 

Intelligent, passionate, rebellious, and brave, Languoreth is the unforgettable heroine of The Lost Queen, a tale of conflicted loves and survival set against the cinematic backdrop of ancient Scotland, a magical land of myths and superstition inspired by the beauty of the natural world. One of the most powerful early medieval queens in British history, Languoreth ruled at a time of enormous disruption and bloodshed, when the burgeoning forces of Christianity threatened to obliterate the ancient pagan beliefs and change her way of life forever.

Together with her twin brother Lailoken, a warrior and druid known to history as Merlin, Languoreth is catapulted into a world of danger and violence. When a war brings the hero Emrys Pendragon, to their door, Languoreth collides with the handsome warrior Maelgwn. Their passionate connection is forged by enchantment, but Languoreth is promised in marriage to Rhydderch, son of the High King who is sympathetic to the followers of Christianity. As Rhydderch’s wife, Languoreth must assume her duty to fight for the preservation of the Old Way, her kingdom, and all she holds dear.

My thoughts: 

The thought of learning a little more about the Merlin legend intrigued me; as did reading about a Scottish queen. As I was reading, I referred frequently to the illustration of sixth century Scotland placed at the beginning of the book. The history interested me even more as I came to learn of the differences when comparing the country of the past to what it is now. In my mind I had to compare the two so that I could understand the history of such a long time ago.

The history of the past is woven within the story told to us of a person who lived such a long time ago. My interest peaked as I read of the options available for young girls of noble birth during this time period. Theirr options were limited and they were expected to take a certain path. I could feel Languoreth’s frustration with this as I read the moments described in this forst volume. I felt an empathy for her and eagerly continued reading to see what she would do that made her the queen which encouraged Signe Pike to tell her story.

It was easy for me to immerse myself in this tale. The history interested me. The characters intrigued me. Some scenes described were brutal – but this is what you would expect in a history of the sixth century. Refinement is interspersed with brutality. And all with a realistic lens. I enjoyed Pike’s writing as she encouraged me to invest my time in her story.

If you enjoy historical fiction and love to read of kings and queens of decades past, you will enjoy The Lost Queen. Pike’s superb writing makes the time period come alive and encourages the reader to feel a connection with Languoreth, a queen that has almost been written out of the history books completely. I look forward to reading the second novel in this series.

I give this novel ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐  5 stars.

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2018

(This novel was the 67th in my 50 book pledge for 2018)

Book Review: The Room On Rue Amelie by Kristen Harmel

The reason I picked The Room on Rue Amelie by Kristen Harmel off of the self in the bookstore because of the photo of Paris on the cover. I had been to that beautiful city and, at that time, was planning on visiting again. Reading the blurb on the back convinced me that this was the book for me as I enjoy historical fiction.

Genre: Historical fiction, romance

Blurb: 

This is a novel of fate, resistance and family. It tells the tale of an American woman (Ruby Henderson Benoit), a British RAF pilot (Thomas Clarke), and a young Jewish teenager (Charlotte Dacher) whose lives intersect in occupied Paris during the tumultuous days of World War II.

When newlywed Ruby Henderson Benoit arrives in Paris in 1939 with her French husband Marcel, she imagines strolling arm in arm along the grand boulevards, awash in the golden afternoon light. But war is looming on the horizon, and as France falls to the Nazis, her marriage begins to splinter, too.

Charlotte Dacher is eleven when the Germans roll into the French capital, their sinister swastika flags snapping in the breeze. After the Jewish restrictions take effect and Jews are ordered to wear the yellow star, Charlotte can’t imagine things getting much worse. But then the mass deportations begin, and her life is ripped forever apart.

Thomas Clarke joins the British Royal Air Force to protect his country, but when his beloved mother dies in a German bombing during the waning days of the Blitz, he wonders if he’s really making a difference. Then he finds himself in Paris, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, and he discovers a new reason to keep fighting—and an unexpected road home.

My Thoughts: 

From the first chapter, this emotional story drew me in (I warn you to have a tissue nearby). Historical detail is intricately woven into the fabric of the story. In my mind, I am able to imagine Paris during the German occupation, as well as sense the stress the inhabitants may have felt. Harmel does not give too much historical detail. Instead the history is merely a backdrop to the lives and experiences of her characters; historical detail is referred to in their activities and in their dialogue. I loved this book. The story swept me away into a different world in a different era. I closed the last well-written page of the book with a sense of sadness; and a feeling of gratitude that I live in a city free of military occupation.

I give this novel ⭐⭐⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 5 stars.

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2018

(This novel was the 58th in my 50 book pledge for 2018)

Book Review: Sofie and Cecilia by Katherine Ashenburg

I picked up the ARC for Sofie and Cecilia by Katherine Ashenburg at the OLA Super Conference. The blurb on the back of the book intrigued me as it promised to introduce me to the lives of celebrated Swedish artists Carl Larsson and Anders Zorn. What interested me even more was that the author chose to focus on the rich stories of the wives of these well-known men: the restlessly creative Sofie Olsson and the fiercely private curator Cecilia Vogt.

The book gives detail about art, design, European history, sexual politics, country life, and the salons of Sweden. In addition, Ashenburg weaves within her story a rich tapestry of female friendship that unfolds in unexpected ways over a lifetime.

While reading the novel – especially the first half during the description of Sofie’s life – I learned at lot about how women artists were regarded in Europe in the 1800s. Women were expected to give up their art once married. In addition, they were expected to focus on the more ‘genteel’ subjects (which did not include painting/drawing the human form). While reading the novel, I could not help by think of my daughter who plans to be an artist.

The novel is beautifully written. The description of the women’s lives is told with clarity. This read is not a fast-paced one and is instead a literary type of book that causes the reader to reflect a little on the role of women in society during the time period described. It took me a while to become invested in the story but my interest was maintained due to the subject matter and the author’s indirect comment on women artists during this time period.

This historical novel is the perfect story for those who enjoy reading a little about a time period far from our current one. It is a slow read but one that is worth investing in.

I give this novel ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 4 stars

Do you enjoy reading historical novels depicting artists?

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2018

(This novel was the 35th in my 50 book pledge for 2018)

Book Review: The Dutch Wife by Ellen Keith

After the fast-paced detective story I had completed (9 Dragons by Michael Connelly), I was ready for a more serious novel and picked up my signed copy of The Dutch Wife by debut author Ellen Keith. The story interested me as I have some Dutch background and had heard my family tell a few stories of the second world war as well as the Dutch Resistance against Nazi Germany.

The Dutch Wife begins its story in Amsterdam, May 1943, with the arrest of Marijke de Graaf and her husband, both members of the Dutch Resistance. They are deported to separate concentration camps in Germany. once there, Marijke is faced with a terrible choice: to accept a slow and certain death in the labour camp, or to join a camp brothel for a chance of survival.

The reader is also introduced to Karl Muller, an SS officer who arrives at the camp hoping to live up to his father’s expectations of war time glory. Faced with the brutal routine of overseeing punishments and executions, he longs for an escape. When he meets the newly arrived Marijke, the meeting changes both of their lives forever.

The narrative set in an SS labour camp is interwoven with that of Luciano Wagner and his 1977 experience during the Argentine Dirty War. In his struggle to endure military captivity, he searches for ways to resist from a prison cell that he may never leave.

The Dutch Wife is a novel about love, resistance, the blurred lines between right and wrong, as well as the capacity of ordinary people to persevere and do unthinkable things in extraordinary circumstances. It is a novel that is more than just an historical retelling of two of the most oppressive reigns of terror in history. Instead, it is a story that captures the heart of humanity – its demonic side as well as its inexplicable capacity to fight for survival against all odds.

I loved this well written novel. The words captured my interest and held me enthralled. Keith made me feel the emotions of her characters: their pain, their suffering, their desires. She describes with empathy the choices they are faced with; and encourages us to understand the choices that they eventually make. The author does not hold back, and does not sugarcoat any of the events she describes in her story. She must have experienced some dark moments in the writing of this tale.

The Dutch Wife is an historical novel which I would highly recommend. There is a reason why it was listed as #1 on the Globe and Mail Bestseller list.

I gave this novel ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 stars on Goodreads. If I could, I would give it more stars!

Do you enjoy reading historical novels?

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2018

(This novel was the 30th in my 50 book pledge for 2018)

A Teaser on Toinette

Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow (Marie Antoinette, #2)I have found it – the second novel in the series Juliet Grey has written on the life of Marie Antoinette. (If you missed my review on Becoming Marie Antoinette, you can find it here). I look forward to reading her experiences from the beginning of her reign with Louis XVI. Yesterday I read the following words which may suggest one of the reasons for her behaviour while she was Queen:

“I am terrified of being bored,” I admitted during my lever the following day to Papillon de la Ferté. “And so I intend to banish the tedium. It is time that France’s queen is seen in public and sets the tone.” (p39, Days of Splendour, Days of Sorrow by Juliet Grey).

What book are you reading today? Share a teaser with us.

(This post was inspired by MizB’s Teaser Tuesdays in which you share a two sentences from your current read.)

Book Review: Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey

Becoming Marie Antoinette French history has always fascinated me and it was for this reason that I picked up Juliet Grey’s Becoming Marie Antoinette. I had learned of France’s last queen when I studied the French Revolution.  Before picking up the book, I knew she was the last queen married to Louis XVI, that she had married young, and that many attributed the phrase “let them eat cake” to her.

This novel is the first of a series of three. In this volume, we read of Marie Antoinette’s early life: her childhood in Austria; the changes she had to go through in order to be deemed an acceptable dauphine by the French; her wedding to Louis Auguste; the early experiences of her life in the French court at Versailles. Reading the pages describing the early events in her life, a sense is given of the lifestyle she led – and of the expectations so many had of her: her mother, the many people who tutored her for her future life, the French who who were expected to treat her as their future queen. Grey describes with authenticity what this girl’s life would have been like surrounded by these expectations and having to forgo her childhood.

The story begins when Marie Antoinette is 10 years old, continues through the time when she is groomed to be the dauphine, leads through her experience of marrying the future king of France, and takes us to the time at Versailles where she leads a life surrounded by sniping and bored aristocrats married to a husband who has difficulty consummating their marriage. The book describes her experience at the French court, the errors she makes, and the decisions she follows through. The last chapter ends with her and Louis XVI leaving Versailles for a period of mourning after the death of Loius XV, “le bien aimé”, who had lost favour with the French people.

Woven within the historical facts, one is able to get a sense of what these historical characters would have felt. Told from the viewpoint of Marie Antoinette, we get a sense of what her fears were, her boredoms, and her hopes. As we read the words written on the pages, we sense the subtle changes in her character, and how she changed from a naive young girl to one that became more adept at dealing with the back-stabbing culture of the French court at that time. The difficulties the young boy, Louis Auguste had are also hinted at, though not expanded upon as he is not the focus of this novel.

I enjoyed reading this novel and was drawn into the life of this fascinating woman. The historical facts have been written as a story with dialogue and descriptions you would find in any fiction novel. Written in the first person, we become one with Marie Antoinette as we read. We hear her thoughts, feel her emotions, and feel a little closer to this person that was born so long ago. If one expects a list of dry facts, stating arguments for and against the reasons for Marie Antoinette’s actions then this novel is not for you. If, however, you are looking for a book that describes the life of France’s last queen while giving you a personal insight into the reason for actions, then you will enjoy what Juliet Grey wrote. This is a treatment of a well-known personage given with  a sense of dignity and honesty.

Do you enjoy reading novels based on French history?

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2013

Book Review: Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

Fall of Giants: Book One of the Century Trilogy, by Ken Follett, Dutton, 985 pages, $40I love savouring sagas: those stories that seem to go on forever; stories that encourage you to believe that you know the characters intimately; stories that you find difficult to put down. I enjoy reading of the characters’ experiences as they span decades; and I anxiously turn the page to see if they will overcome the obstacles that they face.

Fall of Giants is one such saga. From the first page when I was introduced to Billy, a 13 year old Welsh boy preparing for his first day of work in the coal mines, I was drawn into a tale that begins before the First World War. Billy is one of the characters the reader follows through his experiences in the mine, to his experiences as a soldier during the “war to end all wars”, to his experiences in the post war society of England. Not only is the reader shown Billy’s world, but also that of his sister, Ethel, and his parents.

The Williams family from Wales are not the only family that drive this saga. We read of an upper class family, the Fitzherberts, who come into contact with both Ethel and her brother Billy. We learn of how the war affects the Earl and the priviledged society he was brought up in. We read too of his wife’s family and how the Bolsheveik Revolution affected their wealth and status in Russia. A reading of the Bolshevik Revolution would be bare if we were not intrigued by the involvement of the Russian worker – and the experiences that led to the worker to stand against the traditional rule of Russia. We are shown this through the eyes of the Peshov family, in particular Grigori. When he is disappointed, we understand his disappointment; when he is angry, we empathise and give our support to him.

A foray into World War 1 would not be the same without the viewpoint of the Germans. The German experience is shown to us mainly through the character of Walter von Ulrich, a young man who falls in love with an English woman – a relationship which is rife with complications once the War begins. We read of his hopes and dreams; as well as the lifestyle he experiences once the war is over. And while we read of his troubles, we feel empathy for him and for the one he loves.

And just as the Americans made an appearance in the Great War, so does an American make an appearance in Follett’s work. Gus Dewar is first introduced to us in England; but we see him too in Russia, and in his hometown in America. We read of his patriotism, and his desire to serve his president. We read of his disappointments, and his realisation of what he loves at home. When he fights in the war, we turn the pages quickly to see whether he survives or not.

The Fall of Giants was a page turner – and I made use of every spare minute I had to read about the characters’ lives. The novel encompasses 985 pages and describes the disappearance of a way of life. Yet I did not feel that the story was long. The action that takes place is absorbing; and the lives of all the characters are intertwined in an interesting and believable fashion. I recommend reading this saga. I know that I am looking forward to the next volume in Century Trilogy, Winter of the World.

Some background posts I have written:

Do you enjoy reading sagas? Which saga have you recently read?