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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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
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.
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 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
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.