Prize Women by Caroline Lea

Caroline Lea chooses such interesting subjects and settings for her novels. Her first, The Glass Woman, was a Gothic novel set in 17th century Iceland, and her second, The Metal Heart, explored the building of a chapel in the Orkney Islands by Italian prisoners of war. In her latest novel, Prize Women, she takes us to Canada in the early 20th century and introduces us to two women who are taking part in a very unusual contest: the Great Stork Derby.

When Canadian millionaire Charles Vance Millar dies in 1926, he leaves behind a very controversial will. He bequeaths shares in a brewery to a group of teetotal ministers, a house in Jamaica to three men who hate each other, jockey club stocks to anti-horse racing campaigners – and in the strangest bequest of all, he leaves a large sum of money to the Toronto woman who gives birth to the most children in a ten year period.

Lily di Marco is trapped in an unhappy marriage so when her town is hit by an earthquake, she sees a chance to escape and flees to Toronto with her young son. Arriving in the city tired and homeless, Lily meets Mae Thebault, the wife of a wealthy factory owner, who agrees to let Lily stay with them in return for helping to take care of the Thebaults’ five children. Despite their differences in background and social status, Lily and Mae quickly become close friends – but then comes the Wall Street Crash and the start of the Great Depression.

By this point Lily already has several babies who will count towards the Great Stork Derby and decides to enter the contest in the hope of winning the money and improving the lives of herself and her children. But the Thebaults’ financial situation has also changed and Mae finds herself in desperate need of money too. Soon the former best friends are competing against each other, but with the outcome due to be decided by a jury, which of the women – if either – will be declared the winner?

Lily’s story is very moving and often heartbreaking. It’s so sad to see the way she is treated by her violent, alcoholic husband, the racism and discrimination she faces due to her Italian background, the squalid, impoverished surroundings she lives in and the impact all of this has on the health and wellbeing of her children. I was in tears several times, so be prepared – this is not exactly a cheerful, uplifting read! Mae also has obstacles to overcome and suffers some personal traumas, but her story didn’t affect me the way Lily’s did and the way she behaved during the later stages of the contest annoyed me, even while I understood her reasons. Maybe because the two women end up in direct competition with each other, it makes it difficult to side with both of them at the same time.

The Great Stork Derby itself – something that really happened, by the way – is a cruel and irresponsible concept in many ways, but even more cruel were the modifications made to the will by the courts, stating that children who were stillborn or born outside of wedlock wouldn’t count. Also, there was no consideration given to the effect on women’s bodies of so many pregnancies in a short space of time, or how poor families would afford to feed so many children if they didn’t win the prize money. Naturally, the contest received a lot of media attention at the time and also caused a lot of debate around contraception and women’s rights.

I enjoyed this book, despite the sadness, and I enjoyed getting to know Lily and Mae. However, there was one aspect of their storyline that I found unconvincing and slightly contrived; it wasn’t enough to spoil the book for me, but it was the only thing I didn’t like in this otherwise excellent novel.

Thanks to Michael Joseph for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 14/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Lodger by Helen Scarlett

It’s 1919 and Grace Armstrong, like many other young women, is mourning the loss of her fiancé and brother in the Great War. She has done her best to move on – having served as a VAD nurse during the war, she is now pursuing a career as a journalist with the London periodical Nursing World – but she is still haunted by the thought that her fiancé Robert, reported missing in action at the Somme, could still be alive. Meanwhile her mother, struggling to cope with the death of Grace’s brother Edward, is under sedation in a nursing home. It’s a difficult time for the Armstrong family – and is about to get worse when their lodger, Elizabeth Smith, is found drowned in the River Thames.

Elizabeth had lodged with the family for eight years and she and Grace had become good friends. Unable to accept the verdict from the police that Elizabeth had committed suicide, Grace is determined to find out what really happened. The only person who is prepared to help her is Tom Monaghan, who fought with Edward in France, but as they begin to investigate Elizabeth’s death, they make some shocking discoveries about Grace’s friend.

This is Helen Scarlett’s second novel; I haven’t read her first, The Deception of Harriet Fleet, but both are standalones so that didn’t matter at all. I will probably look for that earlier book now, as I did enjoy this one. It’s a slow-paced novel, but I still found it quite gripping, mainly because of the vivid portrayal of a world emerging from war, with people attempting to move forward while still struggling with the trauma of the recent past. Nobody in the novel has come out of the war unscathed; we meet men left damaged both physically and mentally by the horrors of the trenches, families grieving for the deaths of loved ones – and perhaps worst of all, people like Grace who are unable to grieve properly without knowing whether their loved one is dead or alive. Grace sees Robert everywhere – in the street, on the bus, in her dreams – and feels that she’ll never be able to rebuild her life until she knows the truth.

I found the mystery element of the book less successful. The story of Elizabeth’s past seemed too far-fetched to be very convincing and as more and more of her secrets were uncovered I felt that the plot was in danger of becoming much too complicated. There’s also a romance for Grace which was predictable but satisfying, although I would have liked to have seen her spend more time with her love interest; that would have helped me to become more invested in their relationship.

Despite the few negative points I’ve mentioned, The Lodger is an atmospheric and moving novel and the image it evokes of a London in the aftermath of war is one that will stay with me.

Thanks to Quercus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 9/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Weyward by Emilia Hart

Witchcraft is a subject I always find interesting to read about, so I was curious to see how Emilia Hart would approach it in Weyward, her debut novel published in the UK earlier this month. It’s a book set in three different time periods, something which doesn’t always work for me, but in this case the three storylines are so closely linked I found the structure very effective.

In Shakespeare’s First Folio, the three witches in Macbeth are referred to as the ‘weyward sisters’, a term which evolved into ‘weird sisters’ in later versions – and just like Macbeth, Emilia Hart’s novel features three ‘weyward’ women.

In 2019, we meet Kate, a young woman trapped in an abusive relationship. Finally making the decision to leave, she flees London for Crows Beck, a village in Cumbria where she has inherited a cottage from her great-aunt, Violet. Settling into the house, known as Weyward Cottage, Kate begins to uncover some family secrets that help her to understand the great-aunt she barely knew. A second thread of the novel is set in 1942 and introduces us to Violet as a girl of sixteen living at Orton Hall with her father. She longs to know more about her mother, who died when she was a small child, but her father refuses to talk about her, except to say that Violet resembles her – and not in a good way. As Violet’s story unfolds, we find out how she came to leave Orton Hall and build a new life at Weyward Cottage.

The third of the weyward women in the novel is Altha Weyward who lives in Crows Beck in the early 17th century. Altha, who has a knowledge of healing and herbs passed down to her by her mother, is on trial for witchcraft, having been accused of killing a local man. As Altha waits to hear whether she will be found guilty, we learn more about her life in the village and the truth behind the man’s death.

The three women are linked not just by a family connection, but also through a shared love of nature. In fact, it’s more than just a love – it’s an affinity so strong that they are able to draw power from the natural environment and find comfort in surrounding themselves with plants and animals even at the most difficult of times. I could have done without so many detailed descriptions of insects and spiders, but on the other hand the affection these women have for even the least pleasant of creatures is what makes them unusual and different. None of them conform to society’s expectations and for Violet and Altha at least, this can lead to suspicion and distrust.

The male characters don’t come out of this book very well; from Kate’s violent, manipulative ex-partner and Violet’s cold, strict father to the men who hold Altha’s fate in their hands, they are very much the villains of the book. However, I did like Violet’s brother Graham and the little we learn of Kate’s father, so not all of the men are shown in a bad light. As for the three female protagonists, I liked all of them, although Violet was the one I felt the closest connection with. The three narratives are written in different styles using different combinations of first and third person and past and present tense, so I never felt confused as to whose story I was reading. Parts of Kate’s story towards the end were quite predictable, but otherwise all three storylines were gripping, staying with one character for just the right length of time before switching to the next, and with plenty of cliffhanger chapter endings to keep things moving forward.

I enjoyed Weyward, although there wasn’t as much focus on witchcraft as I expected – it’s more a book about the magic of nature and the obstacles faced by women over the centuries. It wasn’t always comfortable to read as all three of the main characters go through some very traumatic experiences, but I found it an interesting and unusual novel and will look out for more from Emilia Hart.

Thanks to HarperCollins UK/The Borough Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 6/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk (tr. Ekin Oklap)

This is the first book I’ve read by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006. It sounded fascinating – a murder mystery set on a fictional Mediterranean island during an outbreak of plague at the turn of the 20th century. However, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting!

It would be easy to assume that this was a book written in response to the Covid pandemic (I certainly did), but it seems that Pamuk actually started work on Nights of Plague in 2016. Obviously now that we’ve all had experience of living through a pandemic, that element of the novel has taken on new relevance, but it’s made clear that the illness described in the book is a form of bubonic plague rather than a respiratory virus like Covid, so the causes, symptoms, methods of transmission and outcomes are very different. On the other hand, there are also lots of parallels – in 1901, just like in 2020, with no vaccine available the only way to really tackle the progress of the disease is through quarantine and isolation. People protest against the restrictions, members of government break their own rules, and while the crisis brings some communities together it creates division in others.

The fictional island at the heart of all of this is Mingheria, an outpost of the Ottoman Empire with a population made up of both Turkish Muslims and Greek Christians. The governor, Sami Pasha, is doing his best to implement quarantine measures on the island but they are having little effect and he is being held back by having to wait for official orders from the Sultan in Istanbul. As the novel opens, a ship is on its way to Mingheria from Istanbul carrying the Sultan’s niece Princess Pakize, her husband Doctor Nuri, and the Royal Chemist, Bonkowski Pasha. Bonkowski’s job is to investigate the outbreak of plague, but before he is able to draw any conclusions he is murdered.

With Bonkowski Pasha dead, it’s now up to Doctor Nuri to give advice on quarantine arrangements, while also looking into the circumstances of the chemist’s murder. The Sultan, who has become a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, sends instructions that he must use ‘the methods of Sherlock Holmes’. There’s the basis of an exciting story here – yet the mystery element is virtually abandoned until much later in the novel and even when we return to it, it turns out not to be all that exciting after all. Much more time is spent describing the plague and the attempts to get the outbreak under control. With Covid in mind, I found this quite interesting to read about, but the book is written in such a factual and impersonal style it might as well have been non-fiction. There’s a reason for the dry style – we are told at the beginning that the whole book is supposed to be a history of Mingheria compiled by a modern day historian based on letters sent by Princess Pakize to her sister – but it means the book isn’t much fun to read, there’s not a lot of dialogue and there are pages and pages of exposition.

I felt that what Orhan Pamuk was really trying to do was tell the story of the final years of the Ottoman Empire through the lens of Mingheria’s plague response and the political change that follows on the island as a result. He has a lot to say about national identity, the reclaiming of the Mingherian language (almost forgotten as those who once spoke it grow old and die), the challenges of breaking away from rule by a larger power and the tensions between different religious groups who share the same small island.

So, lots of interesting ideas and themes in this book, but I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed reading it. It was far too long and slow and needed some editing, in my opinion. Ekin Oklap’s translation seemed fine – I think my problems were due to the overall style and pace of the book. I did become quite immersed in it after a while, but I was pleased to reach the end and I think a non-fiction book about the fall of the Ottoman Empire might have been a better use of my time! I don’t know whether this novel is typical of Orhan Pamuk’s work but I’m not really tempted to read any more just yet.

Thanks to Faber and Faber Ltd for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book #62 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Trial of Lotta Rae by Siobhan MacGowan

Sometimes the books that are the most difficult to read are also the most compelling. This was one of those books; although I was horrified by what I was reading, I was so engrossed in the story I didn’t want to put it down.

Charlotte Rae – known to her family and friends as Lotta – is an ordinary young woman working in the office of a London brewery in the early 1900s. After an argument with her boyfriend at the brewery Halloween party, Lotta wanders outside for some fresh air, where she is approached by an older man, Henry Allen Griffiths. Pretending that he has come to comfort her, Griffiths takes her arm, leads her down a secluded street and then rapes her. With the support of her parents, who report the crime to the police, Lotta decides to testify against her attacker in court. She has faith in the justice system and is sure her lawyer, William Linden, will do his best to defend her.

Once the trial is over and a verdict has been reached, Lotta tries to move on with her life, joining the Suffragette movement and working towards fairness and equality for women. Then she makes the unpleasant discovery that William Linden had betrayed her during the trial and her world falls apart again. Unable to forgive William for what he has done, Lotta begins to search for a way to take her revenge.

Although Lotta Rae, as far as I can tell, is a fictitious character, the description of her trial seemed so real I was convinced it must have been a true story! I have rarely felt so angry and frustrated when reading a novel as I did here; all the odds are stacked against Lotta from the beginning and some of the developments in court are disgusting and shocking to read about, even if not entirely surprising. During and after the trial things go from bad to worse for poor Lotta and her story is truly heartbreaking.

I found the second half of the book slightly weaker than the first, which is understandable after such a powerful opening. It does provide some fascinating insights into the suffragette movement, particularly as we see this partly through the involvement of William Linden’s son, Raff, one of a group of men actively campaigning for women’s suffrage. Lotta’s feelings for Raff are complicated because she loves him for the person he is, but hates the fact that he is the son of her corrupt lawyer, and this adds another interesting angle to the story.

There’s a supernatural element that feels a bit out of place and I wished the story could have ended in a different way, but otherwise I loved this book, despite it being so sad and infuriating! I wasn’t aware until after I’d finished the book that Siobhan MacGowan is the sister of Shane MacGowan from The Pogues, as well as a successful journalist and musician in her own right. This is her first novel and I hope she’ll be writing more.

This is book 32/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Still Life by Sarah Winman

I picked up Sarah Winman’s new novel, Still Life, with vague memories of enjoying one of her earlier books, When God Was a Rabbit. That was ten years ago and although she has had two other books published since then, I never got round to reading either of them. The pretty cover of Still Life caught my eye and the Italian setting sounded appealing, so I thought I would give this one a try.

The novel opens in wartime Tuscany in 1944 with a chance meeting between two very different people: Evelyn Skinner, almost sixty-four years old, is an art historian who has come to Italy to try to salvage important works of art; Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, formerly a globe-maker from London. As the Allies advance across Italy, a brief friendship forms between Evelyn and Ulysses before they are parted and return to their separate lives.

For most of the novel, we follow Ulysses and his friends, first back at home in London and later in Florence, where some of them decide to relocate after the war. There’s Ulysses’ ex-wife, the talented but troubled Peg and her young daughter, Alys; Col who runs the Stoat and Parrot pub and Pete the pianist; Old Cress, who talks to trees and has visions which have a habit of coming true; and a Shakespeare-quoting blue parrot called Claude. It took me a while to warm to these characters, but eventually I became quite fond of some of them, particularly Cress and Alys. None of them are perfect – they all have their flaws and all make mistakes – but they feel like real and believable human beings.

Evelyn, though, appears only occasionally after that opening scene and we have to wait almost until the end of the novel to hear her story – by which time I found I’d lost interest in her and would have preferred to continue reading about Ulysses and the others. Evelyn’s story, which should have been fascinating as it involved a meeting with EM Forster and a pre-war romance with an Italian maid, felt as if it had been squeezed into the end of the book as an afterthought and in my opinion would have worked better if it had unfolded gradually alongside the other storylines.

The novel is beautifully written, there are some lovely descriptions of Florence and the influence of Forster’s A Room With a View can be seen in several different ways throughout the story. With a timespan of several decades, Winman also writes about various historical events that take place during that period; for example, there’s a memorable section set during the devastating flood of the Arno river in 1966. Unfortunately, there was one thing I really disliked about Winman’s writing in this book – and that was the lack of speech marks. I’m never sure what authors are trying to achieve in leaving out basic punctuation. A more ‘literary’ style? A stream of consciousness feel? Whatever it is, it never works for me and I end up just finding it distracting and annoying.

Still Life wasn’t completely successful with me, then, but I did enjoy getting to know the characters and spending some time in Italy in virtual form, which is the closest I will get to a holiday abroad this year!

Thanks to 4th Estate for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 28/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 1/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau

I loved this! I have read all of Nancy Bilyeau’s previous novels – The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, set in Tudor England, and The Blue, about an 18th century porcelain painter – and enjoyed them all, but I think Dreamland, her new historical thriller, is her best yet.

It’s the summer of 1911 and twenty-year-old Peggy Batternberg, one of America’s wealthiest heiresses, has just started an unpaid job at New York’s Moonrise Bookstore. Her family disapprove, but Peggy has been feeling uncomfortable with her sheltered, privileged lifestyle and is enjoying the experience of doing something useful for a change and getting to know people from different backgrounds. However, she has hardly had time to settle into her new job when she is ordered to join the rest of her family at the Oriental Hotel near Coney Island to spend the summer there at the invitation of her sister’s fiancé, Henry Taul.

Peggy is disappointed and angry. She resents having to leave her position at the Moonrise and she dislikes Henry, so it is with a lot of reluctance that she agrees to change her plans. Shortly after her arrival at the hotel, she slips away from her Batternberg relatives and ventures through the gates of Dreamland, the newest and most impressive of Coney Island’s three huge amusement parks. It is here that she meets and falls in love with Stefan, a Serbian artist who sells hot dogs from a cart – definitely not the sort of man considered suitable company for a Batternberg heiress! Her family would be even more shocked if they knew that she had become mixed up in a murder investigation, but that’s exactly what happens when the body of a young woman is found on the beach near the hotel…

There was so much to enjoy about this book. First, the setting. I have never been to Coney Island but Nancy Bilyeau describes it all so well – the luxurious hotels, the beach and, most importantly, the rides, shows and other attractions of Dreamland itself – that I could form a clear picture of everything in my mind. In reality, the events that take place towards the end of the novel happened in May 1911, but Bilyeau plays around slightly with the dates so that the story unfolds during the summer heatwave instead, adding even more atmosphere to the novel.

Although Peggy is a fictional character, she is loosely based on the real American heiress and art collector, Peggy Guggenheim. It was interesting to follow her personal development over the course of that summer at Coney Island as she becomes increasingly aware of the disparity between the world in which she has grown up and the world populated by those who are less advantaged. Her visits to Dreamland open her eyes to a whole different way of life and her relationship with Stefan shows her the difficulties faced by immigrants in a society where they are viewed with suspicion and distrust.

I think the mystery aspect of the novel was actually my least favourite part of the book. There were only a few suspects and the eventual solution didn’t surprise me. What interested me more was the prejudiced way in which the investigation was handled by the police and the assumptions they made about various people based on factors such as name, nationality, gender and level of wealth.

The way Dreamland ended seemed to leave things open for another book about these characters; I would love to read a sequel, but if there’s not going to be one then I’m sure Nancy Bilyeau will find another equally fascinating setting and time period to write about next!

Thanks to Endeavour Quill for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.