#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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#BookReview #Ad The Girl from Simon’s Bay by Barbara Mutch

The Girl From Simon's BayAbout the Book

1937. Louise Ahrendts, daughter of a shipbuilder, is at home in Simon’s Town, a vibrant community in the Union of South Africa, with a Royal Navy port at its heart. Louise dreams of becoming a nurse and in a world of unwritten, unspoken rules about colour, she has the strength to make it a reality.

The outbreak of the Second World War brings a man into Louise’s world who she is determined to be with – despite all the obstacles life and conflict throw in their way. But when a new troubled moment of history dawns, can they find their way back to each other?

Format: Paperback (416 pages)              Publisher: Allison & Busby
Publication date: 21st September 2017  Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

Although her family are not well-off, Louise has an idyllic childhood growing up in sight of the sea where she swims most days or watches her friend, Piet, dive for shells. Located on the shores of False Bay in the shadow of the Simonsberg mountains, Simon’s Town is a fishing community and the location of a Royal Navy port that provides employment for many of the townspeople, including Louise’s father.  On the surface Simon’s Town is a multi-racial community with people of different colours and heritage living peacefully together. However, at a national level, the issue of race is never far away.

Louise’s parents see her future as finding a nice local boy and settling down to a life as wife and mother. However, Louise dreams of becoming a nurse: she wants to ‘fix’ people.  Her ambition seems doomed to failure from the beginning, not because of her educational achievements or her commitment but because she is ‘coloured’. As the Matron of False Bay Hospital to which she applies writes, ‘I must caution you that no coloured applicant from a Simon’s Town school has ever been accepted’.  However, Louise is not one to give up and eventually her persistence is rewarded. ‘Slowly, one person at a time, False Bay Hospital was learning to value my ability rather than scorning my background.’ Louise comes to believe that through the recognition of her nursing skills she has overcome the barriers of race, but as her mother cautions, ‘War has no time for a colour bar… The old ways will return in peacetime mark my words.’

Louise’s proficiency results in a secondment to the Royal Naval Hospital looking after men injured in the war, often critically. ‘This was no civilian establishment with a routine quota of tonsils and broken legs. This was nursing on the edge.’ It’s here that Louise meets Lieutenant David Horrocks with whom she instantly forms a bond as a result of their shared love of the sea and the landscape of the Cape peninsular.

Fraternisation between nurse and patient is frowned upon by the hospital establishment; a relationship between a white officer and a coloured woman is unthinkable.  As their relationship develops, Louise and David are forced to meet in secret. But fear of disclosure or the danger David faces whenever his ship goes to sea is not the only obstacle facing them, as Louise will discover. It will mean an agonising decision, the consequences of which will determine the future path of their lives, and of others too.

Two thirds of the way through the story moves to thirty years later and shifts from being predominantly a wartime romance to one about the impact of apartheid on families like Louise’s with previously mixed communities being dispersed and segregated according to colour. This was something I knew about vaguely but the author really brings to life the realities for individuals and communities. It means Louise is separated from the seascape she loves so much and which has been the backdrop to her life.  And the effective purging of non-white South Africans from official records, along with a reluctance by many to revisit events of the past, risks a connection being severed forever.

The Girl from Simon’s Bay is a moving love story set against the backdrop of war and social upheaval.

I received a review copy courtesy of Allison & Busby.

In three words: Tender, romantic, absorbing

Try something similar: Think of Me by Frances Liardet

Barbara MutchAbout the Author

Barbara was born and brought up in South Africa, the granddaughter of Irish immigrants. Before embarking on a writing career, she launched and managed a number of businesses both in South Africa and the UK. She is married and has two sons.

For most of the year the family lives in Surrey but spends time whenever possible at their home in the Cape. When not writing, Barbara is a pianist, a keen enthusiast of the Cape’s birds and landscape or fynbos.

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