If you could read a book and get a glimpse into another society, would you? By reading fiction books, I will often find a topic that intrigues me that will then push me to read a nonfiction book about the same topic. It’s an enjoyable cycle! Historical fiction is one of the biggest genres that leads me to nonfiction books. I love fact-checking the fiction book to see how closely the author wrote to what happened in real life. Historical fiction that focuses on remarkable women is one of my favorites. Stephanie Barron’s latest works falls under this category.
That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron chronicles the life of one of history’s most remarkable, controversial, and influential women: Winston Churchill’s scandalous American mother, Jennie Jerome. Jennie was born in Brooklyn to a prosperous American financier father and a mother with high social ambitions for both herself and her daughters. Eventually ending up in Europe with her mother and siblings after a scandal rocked her parents, Jennie realizes that she is responsible for securing her own destiny. Jennie is wealthy, privileged, and raised by her father to be fiercely independent. The moment she landed in Victorian England, Jennie and her family took the area by storm.
Jennie runs into Lord Randolph Churchill at a party and decides she wants to marry him when she is just nineteen years old. The shocker? They have only known each other for three days when Jennie decides to marry him. Once they are married, she is instantly swept into a crazy whirlwind of British politics and the social climbers that surround Bertie, Prince of Wales. Jennie is now the new Lady Randolph Churchill, a brash American woman who thinks for herself and is careless of English society rules. She becomes a London sensation, traveling without her husband to Marlborough House and gathering admirers and critics along the way. Since Jennie knows about politics and is also a gifted piano player, she uses her talents to begin shaping her husband’s rise in Parliament. Jennie is also widely known as the mother of Winston Churchill. She uses her talents to help navigate Winston’s journey into manhood. He had a difficult childhood, but Jennie made sure to be at his side.
As the Churchill family becomes more influential, scandal and tragedy begin to strike them. Jennie has had lovers besides her husband, but none mean as much to her as Count Charles Kinsky. Kinsky is a man who loves horses like she does and passionately loves Jennie the way her husband can’t. Once Bertie, Prince of Wales, catches wind of their affair, Jennie is forced to rethink their love as she quickly realizes just how much her every move is judged in public. She must decide how to balance duty and desire, a choice which has consequences that ripple across the Atlantic. Jennie’s decision takes her to a new level of scandal as her children’s lives and all of those around her are greatly affected. This novel is a loving portrait of a woman who helped shape the Churchill era. Jennie’s legacy may be of a difficult and scandalous woman, but the balancing act she works out between obligation, desire, duty, love, and freedom is a testament to the soul of a woman who through sheer force of will was able to alter the course of history.
B.A. Paris has yet to disappoint me with her novels. Since her first was published in 2016, I’ve been a devoted reader. I know when I pick up her books that I will be transported to a dark, twisty world where I’ll be gripped by thrilling escapades of all characters presented. Her latest, Bring Me Back, drops readers right in the middle of a mystery and doesn’t solve it until the very end.
Bring Me Back by B.A. Paris tells the tale of a complicated and mysterious love. Finn and Layla are madly in love and on vacation. On their way back, Finn stops at a rest stop to go to the bathroom. Layla stays in the car, wanting to wait to use the restroom until they stop at a well lit service station instead. When Finn returns to the car, Layla is nowhere in sight. Not thinking much of it, Finn pulls the car closer to the restrooms waiting for Layla to come out. She never does. She’s disappeared without a trace. The above is the story that Finn told the police, but it’s not the whole story.
Flash forward twelve years. Layla is still missing. Finn has moved on. He’s now in a relationship with Layla’s sister, Ellen. In fact, they’re now engaged! This relationship has garnered them negative attention in the media, but thankfully most of it seems to have died down. Bonded over their shared grief over Layla’s disappearance, both Ellen and Finn have settled into a routine in a place where they are no longer seen as relatives of the missing woman. Everything is working out.
No it’s not. That’s not the whole truth either. Not long before Finn and Ellen are to be married, the policeman who worked Layla’s disappearance phones Finn with some startling news: their old neighbor swears he saw Layla standing outside their old house, but she ran away before he could check for sure. Chalking that sighting up to the witness’s old age and diminished eyesight, Finn moves on with his life. Other strange things keep happening though that seemed designed to test Finn and Ellen’s relationship and maybe tear them apart. Emails from strangers who know intimate details of Finn and Layla’s life together. Lost items from Ellen and Layla’s past suddenly appearing out of nowhere. Messages sent through the mail, strange gifts showing up around town, and clues to Layla’s disappearance keep popping up. Finn finds himself wondering if Layla is back. Is she behind these strange happenings? What does she know? What does she want? How far is she willing to go to get back what she believes is hers? I found myself constantly guessing about the strange person behind the gifts and their motive for harassing a seemingly normal couple. Readers will be questioning everything and everyone they thought they knew throughout this novel.
This book is also available in the following formats:
Now, while I don’t normally listen to books on CD or audio, I truly enjoyed listening to Calypso by David Sedaris, read by the author himself. And I must say that it was a lovely, riveting, and a hilarious ride….ride I say….. in that I only listened to the book on CD while I was riding around town or making my entire family listen to it when we took a short road trip over the Labor Day holiday weekend….and believe it or not, they actually listened, although they did let me know at times that the language was not appropriate for teenage ears….but whatever is all I have to say about that! As the video games I have seen them play are way worse than anything that could have ever been written in this novel. Sedaris’ prose is almost autobiographical writing mixed with what seems to be comedy bits that could have been written by his comedic actor sister Amy Sedaris. Calypso will keep the reader and/or listener engaged, entertained and especially amused in the comical sense and laughing in a very familial relatable scenes with parents, adolescence, and aging. Check out Calypso David Sedaris’ latest book and you won’t be disappointed….instead it will leave you crying with laughter…at times.
How is your month of Edwardian reading going? Have you found something that has grabbed your interest? If you’re still looking, maybe a movie would be the ticket – there are some gorgeous films set during this time period. Here are a few to consider:
A Room With a View – From the famous production team of Merchant and Ivory, this gorgeous film of love and romance stars Helen Bonham-Carter and Daniel Day-Lewis and is set in the idyllic Italian countryside.
Howard’s End – Another beautiful Merchant and Ivory production, starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, brings the rigid rules of Edwardian society into sharp focus.
Edwardian Farm – Find out how the other half lives when two archaeologists and a historian recreate farm life for a full year using practices from 1906 England. Fascinating!
The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady – So beautiful! Filmed on location in England and Scotland, this drama follows artist Edith Holden through the changing seasons.
Murdoch Mysteries – Follow Detective William Murdoch as he solves murder mysteries in Edwardian Toronto using the latest scientific methods.
Parade’s End – From the end of the Edwardian era through World War I, this epic story of romance and betrayal stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall.
Mary Poppins – For something much lighter and happier, you can’t go wrong with Mary Poppins. It’s magical and fun and surprisingly thoughtful. Don’t miss it.
Miss Potter – The charming story of Beatrix Potter’s efforts to publish her first books and gain some measure of independence as a single woman in Edwardian England. Lovely and heartbreaking. Starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.
The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett is a book lover’s dream, a celebration of the preservation of knowledge, a reverence for the past, an appreciation of tradition and loyalty. It’s also a cracking good story!
Arthur Prescott is very content with his life, thank you very much. True, he’s not thrilled with his job at the boring, modern Barchester University, but working here means he has access to the library at the Barchester Cathedral. Here he can indulge in his greatest love, the search for the Holy Grail, comfortably surrounded by the modest collection of medieval manuscripts. Founded by St Ewolda in 560 A.D., Arthur is convinced that the key to finding the Grail is hidden somewhere in the cathedral.
Into this idyllic, tech-free world waltzes a young American, Bethany Davis, who has come to digitize the ancient books at Barchester Cathedral. Digitize! Arthur is properly scandalized and horrified and deeply concerned that Ms Davis will discover his secret passion for the Grail. When he learns that Bethany is also an avid fan of the Grail and the search for it, things begin to change and when the future of the Cathedral and its library are threatened, this odd couple team finds a way to work together. Arthur begins to appreciate some of the advantages of technology, learns how to email, opens himself to new adventures and makes many discoveries, some profound and some personal.
This would be a great choice for anyone who was a fan of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code but without the murderous psychopath chasing them. The beginning of each chapter has a brief flashback to what was happening to Barchester in the past, from it’s earliest years to the Reformation to World War II, then back to the present – the contrasts are intriguing and it’s fun to watch how the actions of the past are interpreted today. Arthur and Bethany and the supporting characters are thoughtful and interesting and there is quite a bit of (dry, British) humor. And the ending is incredibly satisfying. Highly recommended.
Darkest Hour follows Winston Churchill’s early days as England’s Prime Minister, as he battles doubts (his own, those of the politicians and even the King) and leads England into it’s great trial yet.
Europe has fallen to the Nazi invasion, nearly the entirety of the British Army is trapped at Dunkirk and America remains neutral. England stands alone. Should Churchill sue for peace and try to come to terms with Hitler, or fight what seems an impossible war? The politicians around him want to negotiate, feeling that they are in a better position now than if England falls. To fight German will come at great cost – is Churchill willing to shoulder that burden?
Gary Oldman, as Churchill, is masterful. He delivers some of Churchill’s best lines (“We will fight on the beaches. We will fight on the landing grounds….We shall never surrender.” and “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”) with assurance and drama that matches the serious situations. Physically, Oldman does not particularly look like Churchilll, but he captures his quirks, gestures, mannerisms and voice unerringly.
The film does take a few liberties, and fudges a couple of dates, but the overall atmosphere – of England united against a great evil – feels very real. A great choice for fans of World War II history.
Hello Fellow Readers!
How did the month of February treat you reading-wise? Did you discover something great to read (or watch)? I had another good month, reading The Midwife by Jennifer Worth which I loved.
The Midwife is about young Jenny Worth’s experiences as a midwife in one of the poorest areas of London. The time is the early to mid 1950s and the setting is the East End of London, an area that is still feeling the effects of being heavily damaged in WWII.There is a lot of sadness and suffering in these stories, but there is also joy and laughter, community and life.
Jenny’s comfortable upbringing doesn’t prepare her for the hardships she encounters in the slums, but her compassion and understanding grows quickly. Some of the stories are very funny and some are heartbreaking. As you would expect from a book set in England, there are many eccentric characters and lots of “stiff-upper-lip”. I choose this book because it was about nursing and although I never entertained the idea of pursuing that career myself, my Mom was a nurse in the 1940s (she retired after serving in the US Army during World War II to become a farm wife and raise her family). Although The Midwife takes place 5-10 years after she practiced, I gained a lot of insight into medicine and health practices similar to what my Mom worked under and found it fascinating.
Now, some untangling of the title of this book. It was originally published with the title The Midwife: a Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times which is actually the first of three books (the other two are Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End). The BBC created what became a very popular tv series based on these books, using the title Call the Midwife and the books have been republished with the new name. The beloved series is running on PBS here in the United States with DVDs available of the earlier seasons.
Now it’s your turn – what did you read for this month of the Online Reading Challenge?
Ruth Ware is quickly becoming one of my go-to, will-never-disappoint authors. I know I will enjoy whatever she writes because her books always pull me in and wrap me up in their suspenseful psychological messes. Bonus: the narrator for both of her books that I listened to was thoroughly engaging.
The Lying Game tells the twisted, complicated story of four young girls who met at Salten, a boarding school near the cliffs of the English Channel. Fatima, Thea, Isabel, and Kate helped each other navigate the murky waters of this boarding school during their teenage years. Their friendship was so strong that no matter what happened, they each knew that the other three girls would have their back. These girls became inseparable and solidified their reputations as untouchable and the ‘bad girls’ with the invention of the lying game. The lying game may have started out harmless, but quickly grew out of control as the girls’ abilities to keep their lies and truths straight deteriorated. The number one rule of the lying game: don’t lie to the other players. That rule became more and more difficult to follow the longer the game went on, something that had the possibility to destroy all of their lives.
After leaving abruptly in the middle of the school year, all four friends find themselves thrust back into the regular world without a clue what to do. Fatima, Thea, Kate, and Isabel have woven a complicated, messy relationship that none of them can escape. Each will still drop whatever they are doing to come to the rescue of the other, even though many years have passed.
One morning in June, the four friends’ lives begin to unravel. Human remains are discovered near Salten by a woman walking her dog next to a tidal estuary. The discovery of the body shocks this peaceful town out of its idyllic reverie. Fatima, Thea, and Isabel soon find themselves thrust back into Salten life when they receive a distressing text from Kate saying that she needs them. Arriving back into town, the four’s shared past bursts to the surface and their realities come crashing down. A shared secret has the ability to destroy their current lives as well as drastically change their pasts.
This book is also available in the following formats:
This is the Queen Victoria that most of us are probably familiar with – elderly, dour, overweight, always dressed in black. She is mostly a figurehead now with the ruling of the country handled by the Prime Minister and her councilors. She has outlived most of her contemporaries, despises her children (especially Edward, the heir apparent), is in poor health and has few interests. And then, into this dull and tedious existence steps an unexpected bright spot – Abdul.
Victoria and Abdul is the story of the unusual (but true) friendship between the Queen of the most powerful country in the world, and a commoner from India. Sent to England to present the Queen with a coin created in honor of her Golden Jubilee (he was chosen because he was tall), Abdul looks past the trappings of the Crown and sees the person. He is optimistic, cheerful and respectful and, when she asks questions about his country and his life, he answers her easily, weaving colorful, poetic pictures of a life very different from her own. Victoria emerges from her shell, delighting in new interests.
However, not everyone is happy about the friendship between Victoria and Abdul. There is a lot of racism against Indians in England (there is a great deal of unrest in colonial India resulting in several battles during this time; India did not become independent from England until 1947) and there is a concerted effort to remove Abdul from Victoria’s circle, testing the bonds of loyalty.
This is a lovely movie, beautifully acted by Judy Dench and Ali Fazal with gorgeous imagery and costumes. It is also somewhat melancholy; Victoria doesn’t have much to live for at this point in her life – she still misses Albert, who died nearly 40 years before, and everyone around her is basically waiting for her to die. That the one bright spot in her life, Abdul, is discouraged and kept away is very sad. If you’ve been watching Victoria on PBS (which is excellent), it’s also a bit of a shock, the contrast between the young, vibrant and very active young Victoria and the elderly woman she becomes.
guest post by Laura
Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series readers have patience. He released the Pillars of the Earth in 1989, World Without End in 2010, and A Column of Fire in 2017. They’re not sequels in the traditional manner. They take place in the same location hundreds of years apart and have some loosely, genealogically connected characters.
I was excited to see A Column of Fire came out in the fall of 2017. There’s quite a long waiting list to read it, so you may have time to catch up on the previous two if you’re a fan of historical fiction after you’ve gotten on the list. Just as in the previous two novels, this is a sweeping tale of romance with plenty of intrigue and this one even includes a few pirates. In contrast to the other books, A Column of Fire expands into international politics and crosses borders, reflecting the importance of interstate commerce and increased modes and routes of global travel.
It was fun to discover who the real historical figures and who the fictional characters were at the end, although one could guess. If you’re well-versed in European history during the 1500s, you will be spoiled. I had only a general knowledge so I was in suspense much of the time. Like his other novels, he includes the major historical occurrences of the time, focusing on the religious turmoil between Catholics and Protestants.
I grew somewhat tired of the predictability of the fates of some of his fictional characters. There is definitely a pattern in his writing. Real life isn’t so just and predictable and I felt cheated that he thought I wouldn’t be satisfied with a divergence from his typical ending. I’m guessing most of his loyal fans may not agree with me on that, however. Overall, I enjoyed the book and am happy I was able to read all three over the span of a couple of decades.