A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

 I’ve enjoyed all of Tracy Chevalier‘s books that I’ve read so far, so it was no surprise to me. to find that I loved her latest book, A Single Thread

A single thread

This is historical fiction, a mix of fact and fiction, set mainly in Winchester in the 1930s. It is a a simple straightforward story, beautifully written, with the emphasis on everyday life. The main character is Violet Speedwell, a single woman of 38, regarded by society as a ‘surplus woman’ unlikely to marry  because her fiancé, Laurence was killed in the First World War. The 1921 census revealed that there were 1.75 million more women than men in the UK.  Surplus women were patronised and were expected to stay at home looking after their elderly relatives, but at the age of 38 in 1932 Violet decides to leave her overbearing mother and move on her own to Winchester. There is a lot of information about embroidering cushions and kneelers for the the Choir stalls and Presbytery seats in the Cathedral and about bell-ringing, both of which formed integral parts of the book.

Violet knew nobody in Winchester, but whilst looking round the Cathedral she came across a group of women, calling themselves the Winchester Cathedral Broderers, dedicated to embroidering hassocks and cushions for the seats and benches. She joins the group, led by Miss Louisa Pesel (a real person) and the stern Mrs Biggins and as well as learning to embroider, she makes new friends. One of these friends is Gilda, who introduces her to two of the bell-ringers, Arthur, a older married man and a younger, unmarried man, called Keith.

She is determined to be independent, not relying on her mother or her brother to support her. So she finds a job as a typist and takes a room in house shared with two other women and her landlady, Mrs Harvey, who discourages male visitors other than family. The difficulties of being independent are brought home to Violet as she struggles on her wages to pay for her lodgings, laundry and coal, let alone feed herself. And then her mother is admitted to hospital and she has to decide whether to return home to look after her.

The characters are drawn with fine detail and the descriptions of the settings, particularly in the Cathedral are so clear that I could easily visualise both the building and its interior. I particularly liked the details about the embroidery and the stitches used. As the Nazi Party and Hitler rise to power in Germany, the use of fylfots in the embroidery designs are mistaken for swastikas which are ancient symbols of light and life and good fortune.

The book gives an detailed look at life between the two World Wars. It has a slow gentle pace following Violet’s new life, but there is a sense of change on the horizon as her relationship with Arthur develops.  It gives a lively picture of the difficulties of life for unmarried women, including Gilda and Dorothy’s unconventional relationship that they have to keep secret to avoid the prejudice this would attract. And there is an indication of the sense of unease in society as the threat of another war loomed. 

It is obvious throughout the book that Tracy Chevalier has meticulously carried out her research and in the acknowledgements she lists a number of the many resources she has used, including details of Louisa Pesel’s embroidery work as well as the history of Winchester Cathedral, bell-ringing, 1930s women and life in Britain in the 1930s .

My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my copy of this book for review.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1382 KB
  • Print Length: 353 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0008153817
  • Publisher: The Borough Press (5 Sept. 2019)
  • Source: Review copy from the publishers via NetGalley
  • My Rating: 4*

My Friday Post: The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

Book Beginnings Button

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

Agony & Ecstasy

 

My old, tatty copy of The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone has been sitting on my desk for months now, whilst I’ve been wondering about reading it. I bought for 50p more 20 years ago (no idea exactly when or where I bought it). It was old when I first bought it and it’s falling to pieces now, the pages are brown and the font is so small, which is why I’m not reading it. So I think I’ll have to get a new edition.

It’s a biographical novel of Michelangelo.

 

He sat before the mirror of the second-floor bedroom sketching his lean cheeks with their high bone ridges, the flat broad forehead, and ears too far back on the head, the dark hair curling forward in thatches, the amber-coloured eyes wide set but heavy-lidded.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

30879-friday2b56These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

Michelangelo went into the yard and sat in the baking sun with his chin resting on his chest. He had made a nuisance of himself.

Have read this book? What did you think about it? And if you haven’t, would you keep on reading?

Six Degrees of Separation: from Three Women to …

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

Three Women

 

This month the chain begins with Three Women by Lisa Taddeo – a book I haven’t read, or even heard of before. It’s described on Goodreads as Desire as we’ve never seen it before: a riveting true story about the sex lives of three real American women, based on nearly a decade of reporting. I have no desire to read it.

My first link is to one of the books I’m currently reading – a biography of D H Lawrence, a man who believed himself to be an outsider in angry revolt against his class, culture and country, and who was engaged in a furious commitment to his writing and a passionate struggle to live according to his beliefs. He also struggled all his life with his relationships with women, particularly about those with his mother and his wife, Frieda.

Leading on from Lawrence’s biography my second link is to his book, Women in Love,  a book I first read as a teenager. It’s about the relationships of two sisters, Ursula and Gudrun. Ursula falls in love with Birkin (a self portrait of Lawrence) and Gudrun has an affair with Gerald, the son of the local colliery owner. Later on I watched the film version with Glenda Jackson as Gudrun, Oliver Reed as Gerald, Alan Bates as Birkin and Jennie Linden as Ursula. Lawrence considered this book to be his best and the one that clearly showed his ideas of society at the time (1922).

Moving on from a book about sisters, my third link is to a book about brothers. It’s The Lost Man by Jane Harper, set in an isolated part of Australia hundreds of miles from anywhere and revolving around the death of Cameron Bright. There are three Bright brothers – Nathan the oldest, then Cameron and the youngest brother, Bub. They have a vast cattle ranch in the Queensland outback. The book begins with the discovery of Cameron’s body lying at the the base of the headstone of the stockman’s grave – a headstone standing alone, a metre high, facing west, towards the desert, in a land of mirages.

My fourth link is to another book set in Australia – Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville, a love story set in 19th century Australia, where the convicts, transported or ‘sent out‘ are  now called ‘old colonists‘. A story about prejudice – some people, those who had ‘come free‘,  thought being ‘sent out‘ meant you were tainted for all time, but for others having money and land overcame their distaste. And then there is the prejudice about the ‘blacks’. When Sarah, the daughter of William Thornhill, an ‘old colonist’ and now a landowner on the Hawkesbury River, falls in love with Jack Langland, whose mother was a native woman, racial prejudice and hatred rear their ugly heads.

Prejudice and racial tension is also uppermost in The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies, set in Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) in 1913. It was a time of unrest, with political and racial tension between the Sinhalese and Tamil workers and the British plantation owners. After a whirlwind romance, Gwendolyn Hooper marries a tea planter, Laurence, an older man, and a widower. But this is not the idyllic life she expected – there are secrets, locked doors and a caste system and culture that is alien to her. There is a mystery, too, surrounding the death of Caroline, Laurence’s first wife.

And so to the last link, which is to another book about the death of a wife. It’s The Evidence Against You by Gillian McAllister – Gabe English has been released from prison on parole, having served seventeen years for the murder of his wife, Alexandra. But nobody really knew exactly what had happened the night Alexandra was killed – she simply went missing and then her body was found – she’d been strangled. Gabe’s daughter Izzy thought that her father could never have harmed anybody, let alone her mother. Now, he swears that he is innocent and wants to tell his side of it. He asks her to consider the evidence for herself. But is he really guilty – can she trust her father?

My chain is link by books about women, sisters and brothers, prejudice and racial tension, books set in Australia and about the deaths of wives. It passes from America to Great Britain,  and Sri Lanka, via books of crime fiction, historical fiction and non-fiction.

Next month (November 2, 2019), we’ll begin with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – a book I have read and loved.

The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis

Vanished Bride

Hodder & Stoughton|12 September 2019|352 pages|e-book|Review copy|5*

From the Sunday Times-bestselling author of The Memory Book, Rowan Coleman, comes a special new series featuring the Brontë sisters, written under the name Bella Ellis

Yorkshire, 1845

A young woman has gone missing from her home, Chester Grange, leaving no trace, save a large pool of blood in her bedroom and a slew of dark rumours about her marriage. A few miles away across the moors, the daughters of a humble parson, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë are horrified, yet intrigued.

Desperate to find out more, the sisters visit Chester Grange, where they notice several unsettling details about the crime scene: not least the absence of an investigation. Together, the young women realise that their resourcefulness, energy and boundless imaginations could help solve the mystery – and that if they don’t attempt to find out what happened to Elizabeth Chester, no one else will.

The path to the truth is not an easy one, especially in a society which believes a woman’s place to be in the home, not wandering the countryside looking for clues. But nothing will stop the sisters from discovering what happened to the vanished bride, even as they find their own lives are in great peril…

My thoughts:

When I first came across this book I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to read it, as I’m never very keen on books about famous authors solving crimes. However, the Brontë sisters books have been amongst my favourites for years and I was curious find out what this book was all about. So, I was delighted to find that I thoroughly enjoyed The Vanished Brideand that it is not all a flight of fancy, although of course the story of how they became ‘detectors’, or amateur sleuths, is pure imagination.

‘Bella Ellis’ is the Brontë inspired pen name for the author Rowan Coleman, who has been a Brontë devotee for most of her life. I haven’t read any of her other books but I’ll be looking out for them now. The Vanished Bride is historical fiction that brings the period (1845) and the setting vividly to life, Charlotte, Emily and Anne and their brother, Branwell becoming real people before my eyes in their home in the Parsonage at Howarth.

I think it helps that is not all pure fiction – in the Author’s Note she explains that it is based on biological facts or inspired by them. The book begins with a short passage in 1851 when Charlotte is alone in the Parsonage her sisters, brother and father had all died and she looks back to the year 1845 when they were all together. That is fact – and in the following September they began to consider writing for their living.

The mystery whilst it is well plotted is not to difficult to solve and I had predicted the basics of it quite early on in the book, although  I didn’t guess the full detail until much later on. But the real joy of the book is in the historical detail and the depiction of the characters and the insights given to their personalities through their conversation. The story is told through each of the sisters eyes, each one clearly distinctive, whilst Emily is the standout character. All three are clearly individuals, women caught in a society dominated by men and each wanting to lead independent lives. 

The book ends as a letter arrives for the sisters presenting a new case for them to investigate. Their curiosity is immediately ‘taking flight’ – and so is mine!

My thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for an e-book review copy via NetGalley

First Chapter First Paragraph: The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis

Every Tuesday First Chapter, First Paragraph/Intros is hosted by Vicky of I’d Rather Be at the Beach sharing the first paragraph or two of a book she’s reading or plans to read soon.

This week I’m featuring The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis, one of the books I’m currently reading.

Vanished Bride

Haworth Parsonage, December 1851

Drawing her shawl a little closer around her, Charlotte adjusted her writing slope once more and dipped the nib of her pen into the ink, her head bent low, nose just above the paper. Yet, just as so many times before, her hand hovered over the blank page, and it seemed impossible to put pen to paper in a house so empty of anything but the ghosts of those she loved.

Blurb 

A young woman has gone missing from her home, Chester Grange, leaving no trace, save a large pool of blood in her bedroom and a slew of dark rumours about her marriage. A few miles away across the moors, the daughters of a humble parson, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë are horrified, yet intrigued.

Desperate to find out more, the sisters visit Chester Grange, where they notice several unsettling details about the crime scene: not least the absence of an investigation. Together, the young women realise that their resourcefulness, energy and boundless imaginations could help solve the mystery – and that if they don’t attempt to find out what happened to Elizabeth Chester, no one else will.

The path to the truth is not an easy one, especially in a society which believes a woman’s place to be in the home, not wandering the countryside looking for clues. But nothing will stop the sisters from discovering what happened to the vanished bride, even as they find their own lives are in great peril…

~~~

I’ve read nearly half the book so far and I’m really enjoying it. And it is making keen to get back to reading Juliet Barker’s biography, The Brontës, which I began reading last year!

What do you think – does The Vanished Bride appeal to you too?

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life 1

Transworld Digital|March 2013|Print length 477 pages| e-book|5*

I am delighted to say that I loved Life After Life. I wasn’t at all sure that I would as I began reading it soon after I bought it (in 2013) and didn’t get very far before I decided to put it to one side for a while. A ‘while’ became years – and then at the end of 2016 I read A God in Ruins about Ursula’s brother Teddy, and loved it and decided to try Life After Life again. But, even so it has taken me until this September to get round to reading it. I can’t imagine what my problem with it was in 2013, because this time round once I’d started it I just knew I had to read it and I was immediately engrossed in the story.

Ursula Todd was born on 11 February 1910 at Fox Corner during a wild snowstorm. In the first version she was born before the doctor and the midwife arrived and she died, strangled by the umbilical cord around her neck. But in the second version the doctor had got there in time and saved her life, using a pair of small surgical scissors to snip the cord

During the book Ursula dies many deaths and there are several different versions that her life takes over the course of the twentieth century – through both World Wars and beyond. Each time as she approaches death she experiences a vague unease, before the darkness falls. As she grows older she experiences different outcomes to the events that lead up to that feeling of unease, and finds that sometimes she can prevent the darkness from falling. By the end of the book I had a complete picture of a life lived to the full. I loved the way she experiences the same circumstances but because one little thing is changed it completely changes the whole sequence of events.

There is a constant thread throughout the book – the Todd family, Ursula’s mother, Sylvie, her father, Hugh, her aunt, Izzie, and her brothers and sisters, plus the family servants and friends. They all play more or less significant roles throughout Ursula’s life. It’s a large cast of characters but I had no difficulty in distinguishing them – they all felt ‘real’, partly I think because Atkinson is so good at depicting family life and relationships.

I would love to know more about several of the characters – Izzie, for one – Hugh’s wild bohemian sister, who Sylvie called a ‘cuckoo’ and Mrs Glover described as a ‘Flibbertigibbet’. Then there is Sylvie herself, who I found quite a mysterious character – in particular one of the chapters describing Ursula’s birth very near the end of the book set my imagination working overtime- what had Sylvie known and how? There is more about Ursula’s youngest brother, Teddy in A God In Ruins and I think I’ll have to re-read it soon to see what further light it throws on all the characters.

In some ways it is a tragic book – particularly the parts set during the war years. They are brilliantly written bringing the full of horror of war into focus; some of the standout scenes  are those in London during the Blitz. And it’s interesting to speculate how different the history of the twentieth century could have been if Hitler had been assassinated in 1930. The whole book is full of ‘what ifs’ – what if this character had behaved differently, what if that had not happened, what if you’d made a different choice of subject to study or a different career, or married a different person?  

In fact I think the whole book is excellent, well researched and with such a different structure so well done that it kept me glued to the pages. I wish I’d read it earlier – but it obviously wasn’t the right time for me to read it then.

Reading challenges: Mount TBR

Six Degrees of Separation: from A Gentleman in Moscow to …

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

A Gentleman in Moscow

This month the chain begins with A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – a book I haven’t read, or even heard of before. It looks interesting from the description on Amazon:

On 21 June 1922, Count Alexander Rostov – recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt – is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol.

Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely. But instead of his usual suite, he must now live in an attic room while Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval.

Can a life without luxury be the richest of all?

My first link is to another book set in Moscow Mrs Harris goes to Moscow by Paul Gallico This is a lovely little book. Mrs Harris is a London char lady who wins a trip to Moscow, where she wants to find her employer’s long-lost love. Mayhem ensues when she is thought to be Lady Char (the Russians not understanding what a ‘char lady’ is had converted it to ‘Lady Char’) and also a spy.

My second link is to a book about another visitor to Moscow: Archangel by Robert Harris. Set in present day Russia, it tells the story of Fluke Kelso, a former Oxford historian who is in Moscow for a conference on the newly opened Soviet archives. He learns of the existence of a secret notebook belonging to Josef Stalin and his search takes him to the vast forests near the White Sea port of Archangel.

Moving away from Moscow, but still in Russia my third link is Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett. It begins in 1911 in pre-revolutionary Russia with Inna Feldman travelling by train to St Petersburg to escape the pogroms in Kiev. I liked the way Inna’s personal story is intermingled with the historical characters of the time, including Father Grigory (Rasputin), Prince Youssoupoff and Lenin.

The next book that came into my mind is another book set in St Petersburg and featuring Rasputin – Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore. It begins in 1916 in St Petersburg. Sashenka’s mother parties with Rasputin whilst Sashenka is involved with conspiracy. It then moves forward to 1939 in Moscow under Stalin and ends in the 1990s when a young historian researches her life and discovers her fate. I haven’t read this book yet, even though I’ve had it for a long time.

My fifth link is a book I did read a long time ago, also set in Russia during the Russian Revolution – Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. At this distance in time my memories of it are a bit vague, but I remember more about the film of the book starring Julie Christie and Omar Sharif amongst others. I’d love to read it again sometime …

And so to the last link. It really should be to another book set in Russia to complete the chain with just one common theme. I wondered about a few – Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, or War and Peace, but eventually settled on a non fiction book, A People’s Tragedy: the Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes,  Unlike the other books in my chain I haven’t read this book, and it is not one of my TBRs – but it is now. It’s been described as the most vivid, moving and comprehensive history of the Russian Revolution available today. It’s long – 960 pages – and has won several awards.

 

My chain has one link throughout – Russia – passing from Moscow to St Petersburg and covering the modern day and the Russian Revolutionary period. Apart from the last book they are all fiction, beginning with the rather twee novel about Mrs Harris in Moscow. And for once I haven’t included any crime fiction!

Next month (October 5, 2019), we’ll begin with Three Women by Lisa Taddeo.