#BookReview #Ad The New Life by Tom Crewe @ChattoBooks

The New LifeAbout the Book

Two Victorian marriages, two dangerous love affairs, one extraordinary partnership . . .

After a lifetime spent navigating his desires, John Addington, a married man, has met Frank, a working-class printer. Meanwhile Henry Ellis’s wife Edith has fallen in love with a woman – who wants Edith all to herself.

When in 1894 John and Henry decide to write a revolutionary book together, intended to challenge convention and the law, they are both caught in relationships stalked by guilt and shame.

Yet they share a vision of a better world, one that will expand possibilities for men and women everywhere. Their daring book threatens to throw John and Henry, and all those around them, into danger.

How far should they go to win personal freedoms? And how high a price are they willing to pay for a new way of living?’

Format: eARC (384 pages)                Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Publication date: 12th January 2023 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

The ‘New Life’ which John Addington and Henry Ellis are in search of is one of social, personal and sexual freedom where, in particular, homosexuality (referred to as ‘sexual inversion’) is no longer illegal but accepted as a natural variant of human sexuality. They begin writing a book together intended to demonstrate their case through a combination of scientific evidence and personal case studies. This collaboration takes place mostly via correspondence with the two men hardly ever meeting.

Their motivations for writing the book are different. For Henry, it’s more an intellectual pursuit in line with his beliefs in the need for a more open society in which less conventional relationships – like his marriage to Edith, which is unconsummated – can flourish.  For John it’s deeply personal as his life has been one of hiding his homosexual desires behind the facade of a conventional marriage. He feels he has got to the point where he can do that no longer.

What the two men have in common is the existence of a third party in their marriages. John has taken as his lover a young working class man called Frank, eventually installing him in the family home under the guise of him being his secretary. It doesn’t fool anyone, not least John’s wife, Catherine. Henry’s wife, Edith, has a close friend named Angelica with whom she spends much time since Edith and Henry live apart.

Given homosexuality is a criminal offence, both men are taking a great risk in publishing their book. This becomes even greater when, shortly before publication, Oscar Wilde is arrested, tried and convicted of gross indecency with men and sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour.  John and Henry are presented with a dilemma. Should they go ahead and publish because they believe in the principles they are espousing or should considerations of safety for themselves and their families prevail?  John is determined to press ahead with publication regardless of the consequences, even if it means the end of his marriage and public disclosure of his homosexuality with everything that might follow from that.

I found Henry quite a tragic figure. Painfully shy, he is touchingly devoted to his wife and believes fervently in the principles of personal freedom. John, on the other hand, although clearly deeply unhappy, seemed to me to be thoroughly self-absorbed. I could understand his desire to be true to himself but he just seemed so oblivious to the impact of his crusade on other people, including Frank, the man he professes to love, who also risks imprisonment if the nature of their relationship is revealed.

More than anything my sympathies were with John’s wife, Catherine. Having silently tolerated her husband’s homosexuality whilst bringing up their three daughters, she has to put up with him bringing his lover into their household and now faces the prospect of the family’s public disgrace. I definitely couldn’t blame her for coming to the conclusion that enough is enough. ‘I am too tired. I have spent so long in fear for you. Fearing with you, or so it once seemed. I have dreaded your disgrace, your being made to suffer – I have ached with the dread of it. It has made me old. But you are not frightened now. You wish to take greater and greater risks. That is your business. You may do it on your own.’

I think the author is particularly good at depicting the erotic charge between John and Frank, and the release John feels at finally being able to express freely his sexual desires. Much of the writing is in keeping with the style of the period in which the book is set but there are occasional flashes of more unrestrained descriptive prose. ‘They walked, fitting in the cracks and gaps that opened between the men and women on the streets. Beneath buildings black as slate, unblemished stone showing like rubbings of chalk. With the traffic, that surged and stalled, slipped and rushed; that strained and rolled and chanted and drummed, that clapped and dashed its rhythms on the road.’

The New Life is an intricate, detailed and thought-provoking exploration of the search for sexual freedom and equality in Victorian Britain.  It’s quite an intense read, a little slow to get going and does contain some sexually explicit scenes (not least the bravura opening chapter) but is clearly the work of a talented author.

My thanks to Chatto & Windus for my review copy via NetGalley.

In three words: Thought-provoking, intense, assured


Tom CreweAbout the Author

Tom Crewe was born in Middlesbrough in 1989. He has a PhD in nineteenth century British history from the University of Cambridge. Since 2015, he has been an editor at the London Review of Books, to which he contributes essays on politics, art, history and fiction.

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#BookReview #Ad The Lace Weaver by Lauren Chater @AllisonandBusby

The Lace WeaverAbout the Book

1941, Estonia. As Stalin’s brutal Red Army crushes everything in its path, Katarina and her family survive only because their precious farm produce is needed to feed the occupying forces.

Fiercely partisan, Katarina battles to protect her grandmother’s precious legacy – the weaving of gossamer lace shawls stitched with intricate patterns that tell the stories passed down through generations.

While Katarina struggles to survive the daily oppression, another young woman is suffocating in her prison of privilege in Moscow. Yearning for freedom and to discover her beloved mother’s Baltic heritage, Lydia escapes to Estonia.

Facing the threat of invasion by Hitler’s encroaching Third Reich, Katarina and Lydia and two idealistic young soldiers, insurgents in the battle for their homeland, find themselves in a fight for life, liberty and love.

Format: eARC (352 pages)                           Publisher: Allison & Busby
Publication date: 19th January 2023 [2018] Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance

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My Review

Being an avid reader of historical fiction set during World War Two, I was attracted to The Lace Weaver by the fact it is set in Estonia. Although I’ve visited Tallinn, I knew very little about Estonia’s history and certainly not about the period covered by the book during which the country was occupied by the Soviet Union and then by the Nazis with Germany initially being looked upon as Estonia’s saviour. As we learn, it didn’t work out like that.

First published in 2018, I doubt if Lauren Chater could have imagined at the time how the situation facing Estonia described in the novel – a small country threatened by a much more powerful neighbour whose stated aim is to bring it within its orbit – would have such similarities with the situation facing Ukraine today.  Indeed, if applied to Ukraine, President Putin might well agree with Russian officer Lieutenant Lubov when he insists, ‘The Baltics have always belonged to Russia. She has just welcomed them back to the fold’.

Ostensibly Katarina and Lydia represent different sides of the conflict. Katarina, born and brought up in Estonia, is determined to ensure her country’s culture, such as the making of traditional lace shawls, survives for the day when Estonia is restored to independence. It also acts as a silent form of resistance when more active resistance brings only death.  Lydia seemingly represents everything Estonia is fighting against, innocently absorbing the propaganda that Estonia is prospering under Soviet rule when, as we witness, the opposite is the case. Much of the population are starving having been robbed of their property as part of Stalin’s policy of collectivisation.  Lydia has her own personal link to Estonia through her mother and her own reasons for wanting to flee Russia when she discovers the truth about her parentage. However, being a Russian in Estonia at that time brings its risks.

The author brings us moments of high drama as the worst excesses of both the Soviet and German occupations of Estonia play out. It starts with confiscation of property, travel restrictions and attempts to destroy the culture of the country, such as outlawing its language, and progresses to forced deportation, the persecution of Jews and other minorities, and eventually to mass murder and the horror of the concentration camps. There are scenes of brutality and cruelty that are hard to stomach, even more so because they are based on historical fact.

In time of war, it’s perhaps understandable that people will snatch at any chance of happiness.  After all, who knows what tomorrow will bring or even if there will be a tomorrow? Katarina and Lydia both become involved in romantic relationships. I found Katarina’s more believable given that it developed from a childhood friendship into something more. Lydia’s was less credible being the product of a convenient chance encounter.

The book’s title is a bit of a misnomer as Estonian shawls of the kind featured in the book are knitted from wool not woven. Indeed, Kati and the other women themselves refer to their gatherings as ‘knitting circles’. Maybe ‘The Lace Knitter’ didn’t sound as good as a title? I found it difficult to visualise the lace patterns mentioned, which also form the chapter headings. It would have been helpful to have illustrations of them and while I’m at it perhaps a map of Estonia and a glossary too? This might have helped me appreciate the extent of the forest in which those displaced took shelter and which acted as the base for the Estonian partisans known as the Forest Brothers.

The Lace Weaver shines a light on events in a little known theatre of war. Those who like to be immersed in actual historical events will find much to appreciate in the book. And those who love an element of romance in their historical fiction won’t be disappointed either.

My thanks to Allison & Busby for my review copy received via NetGalley.

In three words: Romantic, powerful, moving

Try something similar: Daughters of War by Dinah Jeffries


Lauren ChaterAbout the Author

After working in the media sector for many years, Lauren Chater turned her passion for reading and research into a professional pursuit. The Lace Weaver was her debut, and her most recent novel is The Winter Dress. She is currently completing her Masters of Cultural Heritage through Deakin University in Victoria, Australia. (Photo: Twitter profile)

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