Book Review: The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

When at the OLA Super Conference at the beginning of the year, I was excited to see that there were author signings of The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner. I enjoy reading any books featuring Jane Austen and went to stand in the line early on to ensure that I received a copy of the ARC. I was beaming when I walked away with a signed copy of the book.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance

Blurb:

Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists. Now it’s home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen’s legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen’s home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.

My thoughts:

I felt a connection with the characters in this novel as they all enjoy reading the novels by Jane Austen, as do I. The story is set in the place where Austen lived (Chawton) and so that added another connection for me. The story is set in the period after the World War and focuses on a group of people who have all experienced some sort of suffering. Even though the novel references the start of the Jane Austen Society, it is not a work of historical fiction.

Many references are made in the novel to Austen’s work, in particular Pride and Prejudice and Emma. I loved these references and they added another dimension to the story for me. I figuratively rubbed my hands in glee when I caught a reference.

The Jane Austen Society is not a fast-paced novel. Instead it moves at the pace of Austen’s novels as we glimpse into the lives of the characters – characters who experience ordinary lives and come to realisations that ordinary people do. This is a novel that embraces change and quiet strength. This is a novel that embraces ordinary people who get together to create a tribute to someone they admire. This is a novel that embraces healing. This is a novel that I savoured, enjoyed, and will probably re-read. The Jane Austen Society is a must-read for anyone who enjoys Austen’s books and any references to her in novels.

I give this novel ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 5 stars

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2020

(This novel was the 47th novel in my book pledge for 2020)

Book Review: Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

The blurb to Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore intrigued me and I looked forward to reading a novel exploring women’s stories.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Blurb:

An astonishing debut novel that explores the lingering effects of a brutal crime on the women of one small Texas oil town in the 1970s.

Mercy is hard in a place like this . . .
It’s February 1976, and Odessa, Texas, stands on the cusp of the next great oil boom. While the town’s men embrace the coming prosperity, its women intimately know and fear the violence that always seems to follow.

In the early hours of the morning after Valentine’s Day, fourteen-year-old Gloria Ramírez appears on the front porch of Mary Rose Whitehead’s ranch house, broken and barely alive. The teenager had been viciously attacked in a nearby oil field—an act of brutality that is tried in the churches and barrooms of Odessa before it can reach a court of law. When justice is evasive, the stage is set for a showdown with potentially devastating consequences.

Valentine is a haunting exploration of the intersections of violence and race, class and region in a story that plumbs the depths of darkness and fear, yet offers a window into beauty and hope. Told through the alternating points of view of indelible characters who burrow deep in the reader’s heart, this fierce, unflinching, and surprisingly tender novel illuminates women’s strength and vulnerability, and reminds us that it is the stories we tell ourselves that keep us alive. 

My thoughts:

I so much wanted to love this book, but I could not. Reading the pages within the covers was slow-going for me as I did not feel a connection to the author’s writing. The phrases rambled on and I found the text difficult to enjoy. I did not appreciate the repetition, nor the back and forth between time periods within one paragraph. The author meanders between the past, the present and the future.In addition, Wetmore focuses on minute details – which bored me!

I also couldn’t connect with the characters – the author’s writing style may have prevented me from doing so as well as my boredom. The era described is not one I know about either so I did not have that connection to history. Readers are given just a snapshot into the characters’ lives – a snapshot that does not allow us to see their growth. We do, however, see their disappointments and what their lives must have been like.

There is one scene in the book near the end that engaged me and drew me in. It is a scene that lasts a few pages and encourages me to feel some emotion. How I wish the rest of the novel had been written like this!

I did not enjoy this novel at all. Other people have – and have given it many praises. Unfortunately I am not one of them.

I give this novel ⭐️ 1 star

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2020

(This novel was the 37th novel in my book pledge for 2020)

Book Review: Truths I Never Told You by Kelley Rimmer

When Kelly Rimmer visited Toronto Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to obtain a ticket to hear her speak about her upcoming novel Truths I Never Told You.

Genre: Women’s Fiction, Contemporary. Historical Fiction

Blurb:

With her father recently moved to a care facility for his worsening dementia, Beth Walsh volunteers to clear out the family home and is surprised to discover the door to her childhood playroom padlocked. She’s even more shocked at what’s behind it—a hoarder’s mess of her father’s paintings, mounds of discarded papers and miscellaneous junk in the otherwise fastidiously tidy house.

As she picks through the clutter, she finds a loose journal entry in what appears to be her late mother’s handwriting. Beth and her siblings grew up believing their mother died in a car accident when they were little more than toddlers, but this note suggests something much darker. Beth soon pieces together a disturbing portrait of a woman suffering from postpartum depression and a husband who bears little resemblance to the loving father Beth and her siblings know. With a newborn of her own and struggling with motherhood, Beth finds there may be more tying her and her mother together than she ever suspected.

Exploring the expectations society places on women of every generation, Kelly Rimmer explores the profound struggles two women unwittingly share across the decades set within an engrossing family mystery that may unravel everything they believed to be true.

My thoughts:

Truths I Never Told You is a story about postpartum depression and the stigma that is attached to this mental illness. The author takes us through the experience of a woman in the past; and of a woman in modern society: the experience of Beth is juxtaposed with what her mother, Grace, experienced when she was born. As the reader, we are shown the state of mind of these women and how debilitating this mental illness is. Rimmer tells us the story with sensitivity and empathy – I could not help feel a connection with these women as I read of their experience.

Not only are readers exposed to the mental health of women as they suffer from postpartum depression, but we are also shown a snapshot of a woman’s life in the 1950s. Reading of a woman’s experience during this time period is quite an eye-opener: women were expected to stay at home and, once married, struggled to find work. Reading this, I could not help but be grateful for the freedom I now experience as a married woman with children living in modern western society. We have definitely come a long way.

Truths I Never Told You is a heartbreaking story that I could not put down. This is the first novel I have read by Kelly Rimmer and it will not be my last. If you enjoy reading women’s stories as well as historical fiction, this novel should be placed on your To Be Read list.

I give this novel ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 5 stars

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2020

(This novel was the 34th novel in my book pledge for 2020)

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)