Book Review: The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

I picked up the ARC to The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi at the OLA Super Conference. What draw me to the novel was the appealing cover and when I read the blurb, I saw it was an historical novel set in India that described a woman’s journey to independence. As I enjoy stories describing a woman’s journey to independence, I brought it home with me.

Genre: Women’s Fiction, Historical Fiction

Blurb:

Lakshmi Shastri has spent years carving out a life for herself as a henna artist after fleeing her abusive husband and backward rural village for the Rajasthan capital. Well-versed in apothecary and the miraculous properties of herbs, her services (the effects of which are far more than just aesthetic) are highly sought after by upper-caste women, and Lakshmi’s success brings her within inches from her, and her country’s, ultimate goal: total independence. That is, until the past she has so desperately tried to run from comes knocking at her door…

My thoughts:

I enjoyed this diverse read which shows a culture so different to mine. There were many unknown terms within the story but that was not a problem to my understanding of the setting because I was able to consult the glossary at the back of the novel. Soon I was able to read the story without needing to turn to the back of the book.

The story shows us the life and struggles of a woman living in India in the 1950s. One cannot help but admire her courage and spirit. Lakshmi has the strength and wit to pull herself out of poverty and an abusive relationship. The story shows how she does this – and how she copes with the sudden appearance of a sister she did not even know she had.

The Henna Artist is a story of a strong, independent woman who finally finds the place she belongs. It is a story that shines a light on the empowerment of women – and is also a reminder to the modern woman that those who came before us did not have it easy. Joshi adroitly describes to us the life of a woman struggling to be independent in the caste system in India with sensitivity and realism. I enjoyed the novel and would recommend it to anyone looking for a diverse read that embraces the history of Indian culture.

I give this novel ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 4 stars

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2020

(This novel was the 28th novel in my book pledge for 2020)

Book Review: A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

At the OLA Super Conference this year, I snatched up a copy of A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier when I saw it had been placed on the shelves. I have enjoyed her books in the past and could not wait to read her latest.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Blurb:

1932. After the Great War took both her beloved brother and her fiancé, Violet Speedwell has become a “surplus woman,” one of a generation doomed to a life of spinsterhood after the war killed so many young men. Yet Violet cannot reconcile herself to a life spent caring for her grieving, embittered mother. After countless meals of boiled eggs and dry toast, she saves enough to move out of her mother’s place and into the town of Winchester, home to one of England’s grandest cathedrals. There, Violet is drawn into a society of broderers–women who embroider kneelers for the Cathedral, carrying on a centuries-long tradition of bringing comfort to worshippers.

Violet finds support and community in the group, fulfillment in the work they create, and even a growing friendship with the vivacious Gilda. But when forces threaten her new independence and another war appears on the horizon, Violet must fight to put down roots in a place where women aren’t expected to grow. Told in Chevalier’s glorious prose, A Single Thread is a timeless story of friendship, love, and a woman crafting her own life.

My thoughts:

A Single Thread is a beautifully written story that shines a realistic light on the life of a woman after the First World War. Chevalier pulls no punches in describing the experience of Violet and the obstacles she experienced. We read of her battles to be independent, and of the criticisms (spoken and unspoken) directed towards her.

In the novel we read of single women, unmarried women, and women who fall in love with other women. Chevalier describes a time that seems unusual to us as modern women who are used to being independent. While reading the novel, I could not help but be grateful to these women who were the forerunners of our way of life.

If you enjoy reading historical fiction, you will enjoy A Single Thread. Not only does the writer remind us of the fallout of WWI, but she also takes us into the world of the women who created kneelers with their fine embroidery; kneelers that are found in the Winchester Cathedral. The story embraces women’s camaraderie; the help and companionship that they give and receive from one another. Chevalier did not disappoint me with her latest novel and I would recommend it wholeheartedly.

I give this novel ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 5 stars

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2020

(This novel was the 24th novel in my book pledge for 2020)

Currently Reading: The Henna Artist

My family and I are in our second week of social distancing. It has not been easy but we are doing it for the greater good of our community and to flatten the curve of the Covoid-19 spread.

This morning while I enjoyed my bowl of fruit, I opened The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi. Reading has been one of my pleasures during this time period and I look forward to embracing the story of seventeen year old Lakshmi who escapes from an arranged and abusive marriage. She becomes a henna artist – and confidante – to the wealthy women of the upper class. As she pursues her dream of an independent life, she is confronted one day by her husband who has tracked her down.

This novel contains so much of what I look for in a good read: the description of a culture different to mine, a story set in a different time period, the pursuit of women’s empowerment. I look forward to immersing myself in the unfolding story.

What do you look for in a good read?

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2020

Teaser Tuesday: The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman

During December I read The Home For Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman – a novel of historical fiction that really opened my eyes to an atrocity that had been committed in Quebec, Canada. In order to receive more funding from the government, orphanages were transformed into mental hospitals and the orphans themselves were abused and neglected.

The extract I am sharing with you today describes the first hint of the change that Elodie, the young child in the orphanage, experiences:

“The next morning, three important things happen, all of which give Elodie an anxious feeling of terrible things to come. The first is the banging that wakes her up much earlier than usual. When she looks outside, she sees workers removing all the shutters from the windows and replacing them with black iron bars.

Next, when she goes downstairs to breakfast, she notices that all the sisters are wearing white habits instead of their usual black.” (p107, Harper Collins Books, 2018)

The story continues with heartbreaking intensity and is one I will not forget quickly.

Would this novel interest you?

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2020

Book Review: The Home For Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman

I have had The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman for a while now – it has been buried underneath the books I had piled on top of it. I decided to liberate the novel as my first read for December.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Blurb:

In 1950s Quebec, French and English tolerate each other with precarious civility—much like Maggie Hughes’ parents. Maggie’s English-speaking father has ambitions for his daughter that don’t include marriage to the poor French boy on the next farm over. But Maggie’s heart is captured by Gabriel Phénix. When she becomes pregnant at fifteen, her parents force her to give baby Elodie up for adoption and get her life ‘back on track’.

Elodie is raised in Quebec’s impoverished orphanage system. It’s a precarious enough existence that takes a tragic turn when Elodie, along with thousands of other orphans in Quebec, is declared mentally ill as the result of a new law that provides more funding to psychiatric hospitals than to orphanages. Bright and determined, Elodie withstands abysmal treatment at the nuns’ hands, finally earning her freedom at seventeen, when she is thrust into an alien, often unnerving world.

Maggie, married to a businessman eager to start a family, cannot forget the daughter she was forced to abandon, and a chance reconnection with Gabriel spurs a wrenching choice. As time passes, the stories of Maggie and Elodie intertwine but never touch, until Maggie realizes she must take what she wants from life and go in search of her long-lost daughter, finally reclaiming the truth that has been denied them both.

My thoughts:

The first half of the novel was heartbreaking as it deals with the experience of an orphan in Quebec in the 1950s. Goodman highlights an unknown part of history and does it with emotional sensitivity. Her words encouraged me to feel anger at what had been done to the young children as well as empathy for her characters Elodie and Maggie. The subject matter does make the first half of the book difficult to read and it meant that there were times when I set it aside for a little while. I could not stop reading, however, as Goodman’s words had helped me feel a connection to both the child Elodie and her mother Maggie.

Not only did I feel empathy for Elodie and her experience in the system as an orphan, I also felt a connection to Maggie – a teenage girl who falls pregnant and who is forced to give up her baby. The Home for Unwanted Girls is told from the perspective of both characters and it is interesting to see how both of them never give up on reuniting. There are many moments in the novel which are emotional to read despite the thread of hope; moments which had me wishing desperately for a positive end to the story.

If you enjoy historical fiction, The Home for Unwanted Girls is a must-read. Not only does the novel highlight a little-known piece of history, but it is done with sensitivity and thought-provoking skill. The novel pulls at your heartstrings and satisfies a reader who enjoys reading stories of hope.

I give this novel ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 4 stars

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2019

(This novel was the 110th in my book pledge for 2019)

Book Review: The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton

My contact at Harper Collins Canada sent me an ARC of The Last Train To London by Meg Waite Clayton to read and review. I love reading historical fiction and this one centres on a little known story of the era pre-dating World War II.

Genre: Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction

Publication date: 10 September 2019

Blurb:

In 1936, the Nazi are little more than loud, brutish bores to fifteen-year old Stephan Neuman, the son of a wealthy and influential Jewish family and budding playwright whose playground extends from Vienna’s streets to its intricate underground tunnels. Stephan’s best friend and companion is the brilliant Žofie-Helene, a Christian girl whose mother edits a progressive, anti-Nazi newspaper. But the two adolescents’ carefree innocence is shattered when the Nazis’ take control.

There is hope in the darkness, though. Truus Wijsmuller, a member of the Dutch resistance, risks her life smuggling Jewish children out of Nazi Germany to the nations that will take them. It is a mission that becomes even more dangerous after the Anschluss—Hitler’s annexation of Austria—as, across Europe, countries close their borders to the growing number of refugees desperate to escape.

Tante Truus, as she is known, is determined to save as many children as she can. After Britain passes a measure to take in at-risk child refugees from the German Reich, she dares to approach Adolf Eichmann, the man who would later help devise the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” in a race against time to bring children like Stephan, his young brother Walter, and Žofie-Helene on a perilous journey to an uncertain future abroad. 

My thoughts:

I absolutely LOVED this novel! I could not stop turning the pages and became so invested in the story and the characters that feature in it. Stephan’s story had me biting my nails; and Truus’ bravery left me astounded. As I read the descriptions of the way the Nazi treated the Jewish children, my heart burned with anger. Clayton’s writing encouraged me to feel a range of emotions: astonishment, anger, hope, surprise, disgust, and even gratitude.

The best thing about the novel The Last Train To London is that Clayton showcases the story of Geertruida Wijsmuller (known as Tante Truus), a woman in the Dutch Resistance who was among those involved in the kindertransport effort. This effort moved some ten thousand children (three quarters of whom were Jewish) through the Netherlands to London before the outbreak of the Second World War. The story of these men and women was unknown to me and I was stunned at the bravery and risks that these people took for these children who were in danger.

Clayton describes the danger that the children did experience – a danger that insidiously crept into Austria; a danger that many did not expect to experience. Her descriptions allow us to almost experience the dangers themselves, the fears, and the hopes of her characters. Reading this historical novel was not at all like reading dry history books. Instead, the pages are alive with the events of the past. Even though the characters of the children are fictional, the reader can imagine the experience of the children who did in fact live through this event.

I could not put this novel down and read it in two days. Yes, I was on vacation but I stopped all other activities in order to immerse myself in the story. If you enjoy historical fiction, this is one novel you need to read this year!

I give this novel ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 5 stars

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2019

(This novel was the 84th in my book pledge for 2019)

Book Review: The Yankee Widow by Linda Lael Miller

I received an ARC of The Yankee Widow by Linda Lael Miller from Harper Collins Canada. I was looking forward to reading the novel as I enjoy reading historical fiction. This particular novel attracted my attention as it is based on the period of the American Civil War, a time period that I do not know much about.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance, Women’s Fiction

Blurb:

A richly layered, emotional novel about one woman’s courage and the choices she must make in the face of a dangerous war.

Caroline is the young wife of Jacob, who together live on a farm raising their daughter just outside of Gettysburg. When Jacob joins the Northern army, no one anticipates he will not return. Then Caroline gets word that her husband is wounded, and she must find her way alone to Washington City and search among the thousands of casualties to find him.

When Jacob succumbs to his injuries, she brings his body home on the eve of the deadliest battle of the war. With troops and looters roaming the countryside, it is impossible to know who is friend and who is foe. Caroline fights to protect those she holds most dear while remaining compassionate to the neediest around her, including two strangers from opposite sides of the fight. Each is wounded… Each is drawn to her beauty, her kindness. Both offer comfort, but only one secretly captures her heart. Still, she must resist exposing her vulnerability in these uncertain times when so much is at risk.

In The Yankee Widow, gifted storyteller Linda Lael Miller explores the complexities and heartbreak that women experienced as their men took up arms to preserve the nation and defend their way of life. 

My thoughts:

Reading The Yankee Widow was interesting for me as I had not yet read a novel describing the viewpoint of a Yankee woman during the American Civil War. The strength the widow (Caroline) had to find within herself was described in the story as well as the many of the obstacles she encountered. Even though the reader is told of the difficulties she faces, we do not see inside her head and truly feel the emotion that she feels.

As with some historical novels, I was unsure of the history behind the story so I found myself looking up some facts on the skirmish in Gettysburg. Don’t you love it when you learn something when you read a novel? The descriptions of the fighting are not too graphic and Miller focuses on the experience of the characters in her novel. She adroitly links the soldiers she has focused on in the battles to the main female character in her story.

Other parts of the history are referred to in the story: slaves who have been freed, slaves who have run away, slaves who have been abused by their owners on Southern plantations. Miller refers to these facts while spinning her tale; but does not dwell on them. I craved for more of this part of history in the story but realised that it was not the focus of the novel.

Instead the story centres on the life of a young widow who works on surviving the war. There were times when I wanted Miller to focus more on the hardship and the struggles Caroline would have experienced – the author seems to have glossed over what would have been difficult time period for a woman living on her own away on a farm far from the town. Having said that, the struggles described are authentic and believable to the reader.

The character, Caroline, finds within herself a strength she did not know she had. She travels, unchaperoned, to find her husband in the city. And, once back home, learns to figure out what needs to be done to save the family farm. She is a woman who realises what type of man she married, and how she worked on fulfilling the expectations of both her husband and society. I love that she grows as a character during the novel. She is faced with a choice of how to continue with her life after the war – and it is a testament to her growth as a person that she is able to choose the path that she does.

The Yankee Widow is an enjoyable read for those who enjoy reading historical fiction. Be warned, though, it may leave you wanting to read more of the time period.

I give this novel ⭐️⭐️⭐️ 3 stars

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2019

(This novel was the 58th in my book pledge for 2019)

Book Review: The Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning

I was in the mood for a little history so I picked up the Advanced Reading Copy of The Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning that had been sent to me by Harper Collins Canada.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Blurb:

In 2016, fleeing London with a broken heart, Alexandra returns to Australia to be with her grandparents, Romy and Wilhelm, when her grandfather is dying. With only weeks left together, her grandparents begin to reveal the family mysteries they have kept secret for more than half a century. 

In 1939, two young girls meet in Shanghai, the ‘Paris of the East’: beautiful local Li and Viennese refugee Romy form a fierce friendship. But the deepening shadows of World War Two fall over the women as Li and Romy slip between the city’s glamorous French Concession and the desperate Shanghai Ghetto. Eventually, they are forced separate ways as Romy doubts Li’s loyalties.

After Wilhelm dies, Alexandra flies to Shanghai, determined to trace her grandparents’ past. As she peels back the layers of their hidden lives, she begins to question everything she knows about her family – and herself. 

A compelling and gorgeously told tale of female friendship, the price of love, and the power of hardship and courage to shape us all.

My thoughts:

Historical fiction is a genre that I enjoy and my interest in the history of China was captured many years ago. Manning’s novel reflects a part of Chinese history that is unknown to me so I was interested in reading about something new.

The something new was what interested me in this novel was the following: Jewish refugees in China; the different quarters in Shanghai showing an interesting snapshot into life at that time; the domination and oppression of the Japanese during this period in China. My husband (who is of Chinese descent) speaks often about the oppression of the Japanese over the Chinese. It was in this novel that I came across a piece of that history.

The modern story that is woven within the fabric of the history is written with compassion and understanding. Alexandra is determined to find out the past of her grandparents as she believes it will make her whole. With each uncovering of her family’s history, however, not only does she find out about the past and find out who her true parents were, but she also discovers a bit about who she is as a person. I enjoyed reading that both women in the two storylines described (Romy and Alexandra) are people that grow from their experience. Both these women are strong women even though their life experience is different.

My favourite character in this novel is Romy. From a young age at the start of the Second World War in Europe, she had to grow up fast. In her lifetime she adapted to two countries, learning new languages and customs. In addition, she learned quickly to behave as an adult even though she was still a child. Romy experiences so much pain and heartache in her life; yet she never loses her faith in others and her courage to move forward.

The Song of the Jade Lily is a perfect example of what historical fiction should be. A snippet of history is made available to us through a well-written story that includes both life experiences and some romance. I loved reading this book and if you are a fan of historical fiction, then you will too.

I give this novel ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 5 stars

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2019

(This novel was the 49th in my book pledge for 2019)

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)

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)