#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 My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor

My Father's HouseAbout the Book

September 1943: German forces occupy Rome. Gestapo boss Obersturmbannführer Paul Hauptmann rules with terror. Hunger is widespread. Rumours fester. The war’s outcome is far from certain.

Diplomats, refugees, and escaped Allied prisoners flee for protection into Vatican City, at one fifth of a square mile the world’s smallest state, a neutral, independent country within Rome. A small band of unlikely friends led by a courageous Irish priest is drawn into deadly danger as they seek to help those seeking refuge.

Format: Hardback (288 pages)          Publisher: Vintage
Publication date: 26th January 2023 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

My only previous experience of Joseph O’Connor’s work is his novel Shadowplay, a fictionalized account of the life of Bram Stoker which was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Fiction 2020. That book utilised a number of structural techniques including diary entries, letters and transcripts of conversations as well as more traditional third person narration, and the same is true of this latest novel. My Father’s House is set in Rome, more precisely in the Vatican, during the Nazi occupation and is described by the publishers as a ‘WWII-era “great escape” novel’.  The book is based on the true story of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty who, along with others, risked his life to smuggle thousands of Jews and escaped Allied prisoners out of Italy. The cover for the operations is a choir, with musical or literary terms used as code words.

Although Hugh O’Flaherty is the key character I loved the way the author brought to life the other members of the group. They recount their experiences by means of transcripts of interviews recorded twenty years after the events in question allowing the reader to hear the distinctive voices the author has created for them. For example, the acerbic wit and Irish lilt of displomat’s wife, Delia Kiernan – ‘Some little jack-in-office of a penpusher thinks he’ll lord it over yours truly? Take the back of my arse and boil it’. Or the Italian-American slang of Enzo Angeluccio or the Cockney accent and sardonic asides of John May. Describing his first encounter with his future employer and fellow member of the choir, Sir D’Arcy Osborne, in a Soho nightclub frequented by gay men: ‘So Sir D’Arcy’s in one midnight with a couple of his old school muckers and they’re larking about with the drag boys. It’s coming on a bit fairyland and hark-at-her, Gladys, and they’re calling Sir D’Arcy ‘Francesca’, just good clean fun…’

There are also brilliant little details about life in neutral Vatican City such as the fact it was necessary for residents to apply for a haircut pass the leave its boundaries.

A thriller wouldn’t be thrilling if there wasn’t a formidable opponent. In this case it’s the utterly ruthless Gestapo boss Obersturmbannführer Paul Hauptmann.  One of the standout parts of the book for me was a section entitled ‘The Hunstman’ in which the author gives us a chilling insight into Hauptmann’s domestic life in his heavily fortified home in a former museum that is almost like a prison, and to the motivation for his vile actions. Driven by a deluded patriotism, he dreams of delivering to Hitler a conquest that will strengthen his career and bring prosperity to his family. ‘An example to the whole Fatherland. The Hauptmanns.’

All the while the members of the choir are working on the plans for forthcoming missions they are mindful of the risks they are running. ‘What was being rehearsed would have got us tortured to death by Hauptmann.’ Judging by what we learn about him, he’d have enjoyed that.

The description of My Father’s House as a ‘literary’ thriller is spot on because, alongside the gripping story, the narrative has some brilliant stylistic flourishes. I loved the way the author includes passages made up of short, sharp bursts of descriptive prose that are almost like poetry.  ‘On the fourth floor, breathless, he unlocks the scriptorium and enters. The vast shutters of his workplace half-closed. Bowed bookshelves. Onyx inkwells. Stacks of mouldering files. Mousegnawed dissertations on Christology. Quills and their sharpeners. Letter-openers. Ledgers. Spiderwebbed portraits of virginal martyrs. A knot of tangled scapulars dangling from a doorknob, near a trinity of rickety candlesticks. Relics and rat traps. A skull doing duty as memento mori. Tomes. Bones. Combed texts of encyclicals. Leaded windows left unwashed for a long as anyone can remember.’

My Father’s House is a thrilling story of heroism, intrigue and ingenuity told with great panache.

In three words: Compelling, atmospheric, stylish


Joseph O'ConnorAbout the Author

Joseph O’Connor was born in Dublin. His books include Cowboys and IndiansInishowenStar of the Sea (American Library Association Award, Irish Post Award for Fiction, France’s Prix Millepages, Italy’s Premio Acerbi, Prix Madeleine Zepter for European novel of the year), Redemption FallsGhost Light (Dublin One City One Book Novel 2011) and Shadowplay (Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year, Costa Novel of the Year shortlist). His fiction has been translated into forty languages.

He received the 2012 Irish PEN Award for Outstanding Contribution to Literature and in 2014 he was appointed Frank McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. (Photo/bio: Publisher author page)

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