Chanel’s Riviera by Anne De Courcy

chanels riviera.jpgTitle: Chanel’s Riviera

Author: Anne de Courcy

Genre: History, Non-Fiction

Publisher: Hachette/Weidenfeld and Nicholson

Published: 11th June 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 291

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: Bestselling social historian Anne de Courcy reveals the glamour and grit of the Second World War on the French Riviera

Far from worrying about the onset of war, in the spring of 1938 the burning question on the French Riviera was whether one should curtsey to the Duchess of Windsor. Few of those who had settled there thought much about what was going on in the rest of Europe. It was a golden, glamorous life, far removed from politics or conflict.

Featuring a sparkling cast of artists, writers and historical figures including Winston Churchill, Daisy Fellowes, Salvador Dali, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Eileen Gray and Edith Wharton, with the enigmatic Coco Chanel at its heart, CHANEL’S RIVIERA is a captivating account of a period that saw some of the deepest extremes of luxury and terror in the whole of the twentieth century.

From Chanel’s first summer at her Roquebrune villa La Pausa (in the later years with her German lover) amid the glamour of the pre-war parties and casinos in Antibes, Nice and Cannes to the horrors of evacuation and the displacement of thousands of families during the Second World War, CHANEL’S RIVIERA explores the fascinating world of the Cote d’Azur elite in the 1930s and 1940s. Enriched with much original research, it is social history that brings the experiences of both rich and poor, protected and persecuted, to vivid life.

~*~

1938 Europe was awash with the rise of Nazism, the threat of war, and the unsettled nature of the European continent. Yet at the same time, there was a section of society living along the Riviera in France – for a time, untouched by Nazism, where the biggest concern was whether to curtsey for the wife of the Duke of Windsor, who had abdicated two years earlier to marry her. This latter world was that of Coco Chanel, and a wide, and varied cast of artists, people involved in fashion, an d many others for whom, until the German occupation of France, and Vichy’s increasing anti-Semitic laws in the 1940s, war was not a reality. Until the worlds of luxury and terror clashed, nobody thought much of the threat facing people in other parts of France or Europe. Chanel was focussed on her fashion designing, and fashion house. She did not appear to care that rights were being cut down for Jews, despite employing them and claiming to have Jewish friends, there was evidence to suggest she was anti-Semitic and later in the war, she was spied on under suspicion of collusion with the German side. Yet evidence for this is inconclusive and could never been proven by French and English spies and investigators.

For Chanel, the interruption of war was an economic inconvenience for her fashion house and empire, rather than the completely traumatic upheaval it was for the rest of society. She was put out by the fact that she had to shut her business down and move out of her apartments at the Ritz, which, when she returned later, she found overrun by Germans and this led to the suspicions that she was working with them. One possibility – based on her view that she was merely economically inconvenienced in my reading – was that her meeting with Churchill towards the end of the war was motivated by her desire to simply get back into business. That does not exclude any other motivations or her collaboration with the Nazis as a spy. Economy is one possibility for why she did what she did – but it should not be a reason to excuse her views either. However, as De Courcy mentions, it may never be known what her true motivations were, even if there is proof of her anti-Semitism and Nazi connections, which aren’t really touched on in this book too much, as it is more of a history of the Riviera during the 1930s and 1940s  than a biography of Chanel herself. Still, it is important to remember that she was an anti-Semite and she was a Nazi supporter and spy. Looking further into Chanel herself will reveal more about this for those interested.

This is not just about Coco Chanel though, nut she appears throughout and not in the most flattering light, given she was a Nazi supporter and spy.  It is more about the social fabric that made the Riviera the place it was before and during World War Two, the people who lived on the Cotê d’Azur, and the elite world they lived in – far removed from the realities of what most people were dealing with. But as the threat of war and war itself progressed, these people found themselves at threat, running and hiding until the war was over, keeping their art and literature away from the Nazis. In some cases, those with Jewish heritage did what they could to hide that heritage, often at great cost or pain to themselves and their families. But the fear and knowledge of what could happen made people desperate.

It was a dark time in European history, and a time filled with contradictions, where the French under the German rule found subtle, subversive ways to rebel against the rules imposed upon them. If they could not wear the French standard as it was, they found ways to wear all three colours together, so that each looked innocuous but really, they were making a point – and nothing could be done. Overall, it is quite a complex book, with many individuals and events creating the environment that went dead for the duration of the war but was lively again following liberation and the end of the war. It shows a society that was at first so far removed from war, they didn’t think about what might happen until it affected them. In a lavishly rich society, these people were cushioned and protected to some extent by their belief that France wouldn’t fall, that war would not touch them. History certainly tells a different story, and the idyllic Riviera would be changed for a time, and those who lived there altered as well.

Blog Tour Part One – Review: The French Photographer by Natasha Lester

the french photographerTitle: The French Photographer – Blog Tour

Author: Natasha Lester

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 26th March, 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 440

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: Inspired by the incredible true story of Lee Miller, Vogue model turned one of the first female war photojournalists, the new novel by the bestselling author of The Paris Seamstress

Manhattan, Paris, 1942: When Jessica May’s successful modelling career is abruptly cut short, she is assigned to the war in Europe as a photojournalist for Vogue. But when she arrives the army men make her life as difficult as possible. Three friendships change that: journalist Martha Gellhorn encourages Jess to bend the rules, paratrooper Dan Hallworth takes her to places to shoot pictures and write stories that matter, and a little girl, Victorine, who has grown up in a field hospital, shows her love. But success comes at a price.

France, 2005: Australian curator D’Arcy Hallworth arrives at a beautiful chateau to manage a famous collection of photographs. What begins as just another job becomes far more disquieting as D’Arcy uncovers the true identity of the mysterious photographer – and realises that she is connected to D’Arcy’s own mother, Victorine.

Crossing a war-torn Europe from Italy to France, The French Photographer is a story of courage, family and forgiveness, by the bestselling author of The Paris Seamstress and A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald.

~*~

I was approached by Hachette to take part in a blog tour for this book and accompanying this review there will be an interview with the author. Both are appearing on the blog today, the tenth of April, in separate posts.

The French Photographer is an exquisitely written book, and though it is only April, has been one of the best books I have read so far this year. Inspired by the true story of Lee Miller, Natasha Lester has created a story that spans the decades between World War Two and 2004, exploring the lives of Victorine, Dan, D’Arcy, and Jess May – her main character – at various stages of their lives and the war.

2019 BadgeJess May starts out as a model for Vogue in New York, when her career takes a tumble, and she finds herself looking for a way to fix her modelling career. World War Two is ramping up around the world, and magazines like Vogue need photo journalists and war correspondents – to report on the war back home, and to raise morale and support for the troops. After much persuasion and fighting, she is attached to a battalion led by Dan Hallworth, who becomes a good friend and confidant, backing her up when Warren Stone and her ex, Emile, try to make trouble for her. Here, we see how one man can ruin a woman’s reputation and career out of jealousy, and how another will do whatever he can to make life incredibly hard for her, whilst a third will back her all the way, and stand up for her whenever he can. Jess rises above it all, and forges her own path, and is a character who shows that she will let nothing, not even prejudice, stop her from achieving her goals.

Amidst the field hospital and camp where Dan and Jess meet, a young girl named Victorine appears, and works her way into Jess’ heart. As the story goes on, Jess and Dan’s relationship evolves, and they become important to Victorine – they become her family. This is a story that explores love, family and friendship in equal measure across the European theatre of war in Italy and France, and how it affected those who lived through it.

I first came to Natasha Lester’s books with The Paris Seamstress, published in 2018, and was hooked. When I read this one, I was pleased to see a little link back to The Paris Seamstress, bringing a smile to my face as I read. Jess May is a character who is brave and bold. She is modern and enthusiastic, and doesn’t allow anything to stop her, but at the same time, acknowledges the challenges she must face in achieving her goal. While men like Emile and Warren Stone make it difficult for her, people like Dan Hallworth, Martha Gellhorn, and Victorine encourage her in different ways, and support her. They show her a family and love in a world of violence and tragedy. Victorine and Jess, and Dan quickly became my favourite characters, especially Victorine. She is adorable, and seemingly innocent but what she has seen shapes her and her world. At the same time, she is still a child and has a sense of innocence about her that is endearing and also, heartbreaking.

Through Victorine, we see war through the eyes of a child, and through Jess, we see how war affects women in various ways – from camps, to war correspondents and everything in between. And finally, through Dan, war through the eyes of a soldier. Combined, these make for a story that is equally as powerful as Dan and Jess’s relationship.

What I liked about Jess and Dan, is that their relationship starts out with respect and friendship – it doesn’t force their love. I liked how they let that evolve naturally, because it felt very realistic and seeing a friendship between a man and a woman in fiction was beautiful to read. Of course, there are meddling characters like Amelia, and seedy characters like Warren Stone who I hated, but they were so well written as well – and this made them excellent characters.

There were many scenes that sucked the breath from my lungs, but I think the liberation of an unnamed camp that held Jews, women and political prisoners, and how this affected Dan, Jess and those with them, is one of the most powerful, alongside their capture of Hitler’s Berlin residence. It gives the story gravitas, and a distinct darker side that shows just how awful the war was and how far reaching its affects were physically and emotionally.

The complexity and diversity of characters ensured this wasn’t a simple story – there were layers upon layers that had to be peeled back and revealed slowly to discover the secrets and lead us to what eventually happened with Dan and Jess. The ending was bittersweet, yet realistic, and I feel fitted in well with the rest of the story.

Filled with moments of joy, heartache, and horror, The French Photographer has much more to offer than just a love story, and to me, that is the best part: the complex characters, how they deal with war and life, and everything in between. This gives the story its true power and is definitely one I want to revisit.

The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer

the things we cannot say.jpgTitle: The Things We Cannot Say

Author: Kelly Rimmer

Genre: Historical Fiction/Literary Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 26th February 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 420

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: A searing page-turner of family secrets and the legacy of war by the Top 10 bestselling Australian author of BEFORE I LET YOU GO
2019 
Life changed beyond recognition for Alice when her son, Eddie, was born with autism spectrum disorder. She must do everything to support him, but at what cost to her family? When her cherished grandmother is hospitalised, a hidden box of mementoes reveals a tattered photo of a young man, a tiny leather shoe and a letter. Her grandmother begs Alice to return to Poland to see what became of those she held dearest.

WWII Alina and Tomasz are childhood sweethearts. The night before he leaves for college, Tomasz proposes marriage. But when their village falls to the Nazis, Alina doesn’t know if Tomasz is alive or dead.

2019 In Poland, separated from her family, Alice begins to uncover the story her grandmother is so desperate to tell, and discovers a love that bloomed in the winter of 1942. As a painful family history comes to light, will the struggles of the past and present finally reach a heartbreaking resolution?

Inspired by the author’s own family history, The Things We Cannot Say unearths a tragic love story and a family secret whose far-reaching effects will alter lives forever.

~*~

There is always something powerful about novels set in times of war or tragedy – they reveal something about who we really are, and the lengths people will go to so they can protect those they love, their family, their friends, and in Poland during the war, those they might not even know. The Things We Cannot Say is a dual storyline, told from the perspective of two generations – Alina, in the early 1940s, and her granddaughter, Alice, in 2019.

2019 Badge

We meet Alina and Tomasz first, at a wedding in the Soviet Union, and then we slip into 2019, where Alice is with her son Eddie, who has autism, and is doing all she can to support him and her family when her beloved babcia,her grandmother, Hanna, becomes ill and is rushed to hospital. From here, Alice’s journey begins as her routine with Eddie is suddenly her routine is thrown into jeopardy, but when she discovers the app she uses to communicate with Eddie works for Hanna, and is sent on a quest to Poland to uncover Hanna’s past, and the secrets of a family she never knew.

In 1941, Alina and her family watch as the German invasion of Poland, which started in 1939, slowly round up Jews, take over farm houses and turn Polish families out, and send Polish citizens off to work for the Reich in camps. From her farmyards, she can see the black smoke billowing from what he learns later is Auschwitz-Birkenau, the smell unlike any other. She helps her friend, Tomasz, after his father is killed, and her family helps him further, until it becomes too dangerous, and Alina must leave Poland – and never look back.

Alice and Alina alternate on average, one to three chapters at a time, depending on what aspects of the story need attention, and in each perspective, family plays a large role: Alina and her family, and their attempts to defy the Nazis will sacrifice so much for the freedom and safety of some. Whilst in 2019, Alice is grappling with helping Eddie, and being there for her daughter and husband as well. When herbabcia sends her off to Poland, she can only hope that her family won’t implode while she is gone.

Woven throughout, is the love story of Tomasz and Alina, which at first, didn’t feel as obvious as some, and i liked this – I liked that it wasn’t the focus and developed and some things just happened spontaneously. In the time of war for Alina, her family and Tomasz, there are words that cannot be spoken, because of fear, and in the future for Hanna and Eddie, words that cannot physically be spoken – which makes the title very fitting, and shows the different ways that people find to communicate when they cannot physically speak – whatever the reason.

Much World War Two literature focuses on the Holocaust – in this one, it is present, and has an impact on the reader and characters, but it is the story of how one Catholic family is willing to sacrifice everything to help those being discriminated against by people who are brutal and will go at any lengths to achieve their own means as well.

Kelly Rimmer created a very realistic world – I could smell the burning bodies, see the woods, and even though I haven’t been, imagine a post-war and wartime Poland, a country that after the war, was under Soviet Control until 1991, and having visited another country that had been in the Communist Bloc, the Czech Republic, I could imagine the contrast of older buildings, versus the Communist buildings and the more modern ones – a mixture of various times in history and a contrast of the bleak Communist era, and the old, historical buildings, as well as hints of modernity creeping in. I imagine it is similar in Poland.

The power of this story is in the characters, and what they do to protect and care for their families, and because it was inspired by the author’s own family history, it is a very meaningful and personal story – the characters are alive and vibrant, and the world that they inhabit is one that history will never forget, that these people and their families will never forget. There are many events in history we need to remember, many things that should never be forgotten. That is why novels like this are powerful and needed: so we don’t forget the human cost is more than just numbers on a page.

Booktopia

Eleanor’s Secret by Caroline Beecham

eleanor's secret.jpgTitle: Eleanor’s Secret

Author: Caroline Beecham

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 1st May 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 432

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: An engrossing wartime mystery of past deceptions, family secrets and long-lasting love…

London, 1942
When art school graduate, Eleanor Roy, is recruited by the War Artists Advisory Committee, she comes one step closer to realising her dream of becoming one of the few female war artists. But breaking into the art establishment proves difficult until Eleanor meets painter, Jack Valante, only to be separated by his sudden posting overseas.

Melbourne 2010
Although reluctant to leave her family at home, Kathryn can’t refuse her grandmother Eleanor’s request to travel to London to help her return a precious painting to its artist. But when the search uncovers a long-held family secret, Kathryn has to make a choice to return home or risk her family’s future, as Eleanor shows her that safeguarding the future is sometimes worth more than protecting the past.

Kathryn’s journey takes her back to Eleanor’s life as a young woman as she uncovers Jack’s missing war diaries and uses new technology to try and solve the puzzle of the missing artist, confronted by Jack’s record of war compared to the depiction of terrors of the present day.

But when it becomes evident that Jack’s nephew is trying to stop her finding him, and her concern for Christopher’s care of Oliver deepens, she has to decide whether to return home or risk the dangers to carry on.

Eleanor’s Secret is at once a surprising mystery and compelling love story.

~*~

Having just graduated art school Eleanor Roy is recruited to the WAAC – the War Artists Advisory Committee – to do her part for the war effort during the 1940s. To her, this is a stepping stone to becoming a female war artist, in a time when women were often relegated to domestic jobs or working at home. For Eleanor though, breaking through tradition into a world her parents and family didn’t want her to go into, this is her chance.  Seconded to a series of administrative meetings for the council, Eleanor encounters Jack Valante, a war artist, and SOE officer, whose friendship encourages her to paint her war, and to try and submit them to the WAAC, and other exhibitions. But she is a woman, and Jack comes up with a plan to get her art shown, and a relationship forms – and then falls away as he is sent overseas to serve. Almost seventy years later in 2010, Eleanor’s granddaughter, Kathryn, has returned to England to help her grandmother uncover the secret of a painting and where Jack is. She takes it as a welcome break from the family problems that plague her back home with her husband, Chris, though being apart from son Oliver, is testing. But what Kathryn will discover is more than a missing painting – she will discover a secret that Eleanor has been holding onto for many years.

AWW-2018-badge-roseLately, I have been reading a lot of World War Two based historical fiction, covering the Holocaust, the ghettos and the home front in England. Each story is a mere drop in the ocean of the experiences of these six years, on all sides, and for all those affected. There are still many stories to discover and be told. One of my favourite themes has been the role of women in the war on the home front, and their stories. So, I was quite delighted to receive Eleanor’s Secret by Caroline Beecham, having previously read Maggie’s Kitchen two years ago. Like in Maggie’s Kitchen, the protagonist inEleanor’s Secret is also seeking to do something for the war effort and break out of the confines of what is expected of her gender. Instead, she strives to become an artist in her own right, and tries to gain the attention of a colleague, Aubrey, whom she hopes will help her exhibit her paintings. Through Eleanor, the home front of destroyed buildings in London and the East End is shown, though nobody wishes to accept them as hers, though she tries to make them see she is just as capable. Caroline Beecham’s characters – especially the female ones – find a way to step out of the norm whilst maintaining a facade in public that allows them to find a way to go against what is expected of them.

The impacts of the war that Eleanor captured in the novel – destroyed homes, families with nothing, picking through the ruins for something to hold onto, to sell for food, and the orphans, with nobody but the people running the orphanage and Eleanor’s art lessons to lift their spirits – are not the images of war that the WAAC wanted. It was Eleanor’s determination to capture these scenes that I found the most powerful, because it was her world, the world she lived in and passed by every day, rather than the battle fields of Europe that felt so distant to many, and though those events still affected people back home, what those left behind experienced also needed to be captured in paints.

_J1_7213-Edit.jpgThe love story between Jack and Eleanor is woven in nicely, and I enjoyed that they each grew as characters and developed in their own way, with their own secrets that were woven throughout and took time to come out, ensuring that the mysteries of art and Jack, and Eleanor’s own secrets were not so easily revealed. Going back and forth between 1942 and 2010 was effective – it allowed for the mystery to develop, and for the reader to discover what was happening at the same time as Kathryn. Family and friends were also important in this novel, and the effects of what Jack and Eleanor did and had to do came through. Eleanor’s sister Cecily, a nurse, was an important character – acting as Eleanor’s confidant and secret keeper. This was an important relationship too as it showed that sibling and familial love during times of war was just as important, if not more so, to get people through hard times and challenges that came their way, that they needed help to face.

Overall, a good novel, with a fascinating historical backdrop. Prior to reading this novel, I did not know much about the WAAC or war artists, and I found it really interesting, and the way that reporting and creation of art was done back then, sometimes months after a battle, compared to today when images appear instantly, or within hours or days of something happening in current conflicts. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, reading it in about three sittings. The mystery of the paintings, the art and Eleanor’s determination to become more than an assistant were what caught my attention the most, and the love story with Jack was a nice bonus.

Booktopia

The Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning

the jade lily.jpgTitle: The Jade Lily

Author: Kirsty Manning

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 24th April 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 456

Price: $29.99

Synopsis:The Jade Lily is a sweeping story of friendship, loyalty, love and identity from the popular author of The Midsummer Garden.

Praise for The Midsummer Garden

‘This is a rich, sensual, and evocative novel, fragrant with the smell of crushed herbs and flowers, and haunted by the high cost that women must sometimes pay to find both love and their vocation.’ Kate Forsyth

‘…compelling, passionate and admirable.’ Australian Women’s Weekly

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 gorgeously told tale of female friendship, the price of love, and the power of hardship and courage to shape us all.

~*~

Thirty-five-year-old Alexandra Laird has fled London, and returned home to Melbourne, to farewell her grandfather, who is dying. Together with her grandmother, Romy, Alexandra prepares herself for a life without him, and a new life in Shanghai, where she is being sent as a commodities trader for work. But there is a family secret that has plagued Alexandra and her family for decades, and she wants to piece it together. Her grandmother, and grandmother’s best friend, Nina, grapple with the ghosts of their past – first as Jewish refugees from Vienna, running to the only place – Shanghai – that would take them, and the years of war that tested them and that destroyed their families, and sent their lives spiralling into uncertainty, until they reached safe haven in Australia – but were still not free from the secrets they kept.

In 1938, Romy, and her parents, Mutti and Papa, are forced to flee VIenna in the aftermath of Anschluss and Kristallnacht in November. Setting off on an uncertain journey, they land in Shanghai, where they are first living in the French section of the city, and when the Japanese take over China and bring atrocities that spark memories of Kristallnacht to the forefront of Romy’s mind, into the Shanghai Ghetto. For a few years, Romy lives a fairly good life, with her friend, Li Ho, but the events following Pearl Harbour rip them apart, and have Romy doubting what she knew about her friend, and eventually, what the future holds in Australia, and with her new life with Wilhelm Cohen.

AWW-2018-badge-roseAnother World War Two historical fiction for me – but this time, set in the Asian region, where the Second Sino-Japanese War was happening around the same time as the outbreak of World War Two, and where the ghosts of what happened in Europe follow Romy and her new friends into Shanghai. It is a part of 1930s and 1940s, and World War Two history that I hadn’t heard about – where Jewish refugees could escape to Shanghai where other countries refused to take them. It is a book that deals with the heavy issues of what pushes humanity to the point they have to kill others for being who they are, for being what they cannot control, or for daring to speak out – where atrocities are displayed as a warning to others, and where secrets are an unspoken currency. Secrets, it seems, that span three generations, where they are kept protecting some people, but eventually need to come out – as Romy’s did for Alexandra, with the help of diaries and letters, and a new friend from Hong Kong, Zhang.

Reading about little known history is always interesting – it allows the reader to immerse themselves in a time and place they may not know much about, whilst letting them know what happened in an accessible way, especially when the author has done exceptional research to write the book. Kirsty Manning has done an exceptional job, researching and writing about a war that I had not known had taken place, and events that were shocking to read about. They are the kind of events that one cannot fathom ever happening, but they did, and they shouldn’t have happened, and nor should they happen again. If reading all these books about humanitarian atrocities has taught me, it is that we shouldn’t be letting these things happen still, or ever again.

The dual timeline is an effective device to tell the story, as it allowed for each key character to show what their lives were like at the time – and it helped make sense of the secret, slowly, and uncertainly revealed across the story, where hints of tragedy are woven in and out of each chapter, and where each character has been deeply affected by tragic events in varying ways. It allowed for a feminine strength and voice to be revealed at a time in history where they might not always be heard, and where they might have had cultural or familial restraints and expectations placed upon them.

The power that these stories have is to show what has happened in the past, and to hopefully, send the message to never let it happen again. I enjoyed this story for its strength of female characters, and the love of friendship, and of one’s child that can force someone into a decision and a secret that they might never be able to reveal to anyone, or at least, a secret that is sheltered and kept for so many years that revealing it is a struggle.

Booktopia

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The-Tattooist_FCR_Final.jpgTitle: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Author: Heather Morris

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Echo/Bonnier

Published: 1st February 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 278

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: The incredible story of the Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist and the woman he loved. 

Lale Sokolov is well-dressed, a charmer, a ladies’ man. He is also a Jew. On the first transport from Slovakia to Auschwitz in 1942, Lale immediately stands out to his fellow prisoners. In the camp, he is looked up to, looked out for, and put to work in the privileged position of tätowierer – the tattooist – to mark his fellow prisoners, forever. One of them is a young woman, Gita, who steals his heart at first glance.

His life given new purpose, Lale does his best through the struggle and suffering to use his position for good.

This story, full of beauty and hope, is based on years of interviews author Heather Morris conducted with real-life Holocaust survivor and Auschwitz- Birkenau tattooist Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov. It is heart-wrenching, illuminating, and unforgettable.

~*~

AWW-2018-badge-roseIn 1942, Slovakia is slowly falling into the grip of the Nazis as they march across Europe during war time, invading towns and countries, and rounding up Jews, and other groups seen as undesirable in their quest for German victory. Lale Solokov, born Ludwig Eisenberg, volunteers himself at 24 for what they are told is a work detail, to save his family. Lale prepares for a life away from his family, with clothes and books, though none of them know what lies ahead for Lale, or what the future holds in store for any of them as the Nazis continue their rampage. Instead of the promised job, Lale finds himself dumped at Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the most infamous Nazi concentration camps. Here, he will have everything taken from him, his head shaved, and a number inked into his skin, marking him for life as 32407, stripped of any other identity for three years. In Auschwitz, he is given the job of Tätowierer – and must tattoo numbers onto each new arrival – the ones not immediately sent to the gas chambers. It is here he will meet the woman he falls in love with – Gita – and soon finds himself find ways to get contraband to her and spend time with her, all at risk to his own life as well as hers.

In a moving fictionalised account of Lale’s life, Heather Morris, who spent three years interviewing Lale, has recreated the atmosphere of the camp, a dank, smothering atmosphere where the air is thick with ash and the screams of the dying that Lale and other prisoners are forced to listen to as they work in fields, in administration, as Lale tattoos new prisoners every day. Some events Heather imagined, to fill in the gaps, such as a scene where Lale and Gita were together when the American planes flew over Auschwitz, but most of it is true, based on Lale’s recollections.

It is a dark story, because the Holocaust was one of the darkest times in world history. But it is one of those events, and there are many – that we should never forget, never let happen again. Through the dark, colourless life of Auschwitz, and the torturous conditions Lale and Gita had to live in, their love endured, and they never gave up hope of finding each other when the camp finally closed down and the prisoners were sent on death marches or simply ran away, with the hope of finding people who could help them. The shadows that Lale and Gita fought were real, and this is a story that everyone should read, another Holocaust story that reminds us what complacency and allowing evil to manipulate an entire nation can result in.

The language is simple and accessible, yet it deals with the complexities of life, of love and the Holocaust in a way that shocks the reader but at the same time, gives them hope that Lale and Gita will find a way out of the camp. Through the darkness of war and death, it is their love for each other, and determination to live, that brought this story to life so that people reading it now will never forget what happened.

A moving, dark story that must be read, and learnt from so that something like this stays where it should: in the shadows and smoke of history, never to be repeated but to serve as a reminder of what humans are capable of at their very worst.

Booktopia

The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester

9780733640001Title: The Paris Seamstress

Author: Natasha Lester

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 27th March 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 435

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: How much will a young Parisian seamstress sacrifice to make her mark in the male-dominated world of 1940s New York fashion? From the bestselling author of A KISS FROM MR FITZGERALD and HER MOTHER’S SECRET.

How much will a young Parisian seamstress sacrifice to make her mark in the male-dominated world of 1940s New York fashion? From the bestselling author of A KISS FROM MR FITZGERALD and HER MOTHER’S SECRET.

  1. Parisian seamstress Estella Bissetteis forced to flee France as the Germans advance. She is bound for Manhattan with a few francs, one suitcase, her sewing machine and a dream: to have her own atelier.
  1. Australian curator Fabienne Bissettejourneys to the annual Met Gala for an exhibition of her beloved grandmother’s work – one of the world’s leading designers of ready-to-wear clothing. But as Fabienne learns more about her grandmother’s past, she uncovers a story of tragedy, heartbreak and secrets – and the sacrifices made for love.

Crossing generations, society’s boundaries and international turmoil, THE PARIS SEAMSTRESS is the beguiling, transporting story of the special relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter as they attempt to heal the heartache of the past.

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Estella Bissette’s quiet life in Paris with her mother working as an atelier and making copies of patterns in 1940 is under threat. A chance encounter with MI0 Agent, Alex Montrose, and what Estella sees as a case of mistaken identity, pulls her into a world of danger and espionage, and as the Germans march further towards France, and her beloved Paris, Estella’s mother ensures her safe passage to America, on American papers – revealing that the stories she had told Estella about her father were not true. Escaping with her sewing machine and one suitcase, Estella is sustained on the trip by a dream to become a fashion designer, and the friends she makes on the journey from Paris to New York. Once in New York, Estella will encounter a variety of people in the fashion industry and who are working as spies and will soon be drawn into a world of fashion and secrets.

In 2015, Estella’s granddaughter, Fabienne, is in New York to see an exhibition of Stela Designs, the ready to wear clothing line that Estella created during the turbulent years of war. Fabienne is close to her grandmother, and in New York, away from work and her mother, she begins to uncover the secrets of her family – secrets surrounded by tragedy, espionage and heartbreak that shaped Estella, and the decisions she made, and why she made them. As Fabienne uncovers these family secrets, she encounters Will, who works in one of the top jobs at Tiffany’s, and his sister. As they work through their lives together, and the struggles they face, their friendship grows, and evolves. In the face of personal tragedy, Fabienne must uncover the answers to her family’s past.

AWW-2018-badge-roseThis was the first Natasha Lester novel I have read, and I really enjoyed it. I loved Estella’s passion, and her desire to create something unique in an unknown world during a time when there was so much uncertainty. Safe in America as Hitler and the Nazis take Paris, Estella finds herself in and out of work as a sketcher, working towards her own goal of creating her own line. Her passion for this, which is ignited further by her friends Sam, and Janie, who are amazingly fun characters as well, and in a time of war and feeling alone, welcome Estella easily into their lives as a friend.

Estella’s world is peopled by figures who existed at the time – Lena Thaw, Alexander Montrose, and others connected to them, and the mystery surrounding these characters and their links to Estella are slowly revealed as the novel moved between the early 1940s and 2015, where Estella’s story revealed itself as Fabienne spoke to her grandmother and went through diaries. Estella’s bravery drives the narrative, and it is her strength that I adored, her ability to find what she loved and make something of it. When she discovers Lena, a woman who looks just like her, something stirs in her, and this is where the mystery of what links them starts to come out, slowly, with many questions along the way from Estella in 1940, and Fabienne in 2015.

It is the slow yet well-paced pacing of the secrets and their unfolding that I enjoyed, alongside the history of World War Two in France and Paris, and the moment America is drawn into the war, and the reactions that Estella experiences from people to whom the war is a mere inconvenience for them getting their fashion from Paris, and the feelings of betrayal Estella felt throughout when she found out the secrets people had kept, and the burden of these secrets that she was able to let go of and help Fabienne discover her family history.

I found this to be a delectable book, where the history of the war, and a family of secrets and mysteries were the forefront against a backdrop of fashion, and a world where grandmother and granddaughter found solace, It crosses three continents: Europe, America and Australia, and encompasses the love of a mother and daughter, the love of friends, family, a sister, and sacrifices made to keep secrets. It is a well-written novel, where the romance is realistic, and not over-powering but still there, existing in a perfect balance with the other elements that kept me more engaged. I liked that Estella and Fabienne found love, but it was their family mystery and secrets that kept me reading late into the night to find out what Estella had been hiding for so many years.

An excellent historical fiction that takes female voices, in a time and place where their lives are dictated by those around them and expectations of society, and where in a male dominated world, Stella Designs made a mark in the fashion world of Natasha’s novel, and where these strong women didn’t allow their lives to be dictated by convention. Instead, they were spies, and mothers, seamstresses and friends, people who sacrificed so much for those they loved, and whose lives were complex and interesting. I always enjoy novels with a heroine who finds a way to fit into the world she lives in yet at the same time, question the conventions and finds a way to make her own mark on the world, and show that women could do what they set their minds to, even in a time of war like Estella.

Much like Kate Forsyth’s historical fiction, this had similar elements of mystery and intrigue that drew me in, and I hope to read more of Natasha’s novels soon.

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