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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

'Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World' by Michelle Scott Tucker


From the BLURB:

In 1788 a young gentlewoman raised in the vicarage of an English village married a handsome, haughty and penniless army officer. In any Austen novel that would be the end of the story, but for the real-life woman who became an Australian farming entrepreneur, it was just the beginning. 

John Macarthur took credit for establishing the Australian wool industry and would feature on the two-dollar note, but it was practical Elizabeth who managed their holdings—while dealing with the results of John’s manias: duels, quarrels, court cases, a military coup, long absences overseas, grandiose construction projects and, finally, his descent into certified insanity. 

Michelle Scott Tucker shines a light on an often-overlooked aspect of Australia’s history in this fascinating story of a remarkable woman.

So - full disclosure! - Michelle Scott Tucker is one of Jacinta di Mase's authors, and I work as youth-literature agent for Jacinta. 

Honestly though, I do not read much non-fiction, let alone historical-biographies. I just don't. So if I wasn't interested in this I just wouldn't have read it, and wouldn't say boo about it. The fact of the matter is, Michelle is a Jacinta di Mase client AND I genuinely thoroughly enjoyed this book. The two are exclusive :-) 

But I picked this one up (despite aforementioned minimal interest in the genre) because: 

1) - Even though it feels like we studied 'The First Fleet' and colonisation of Australia every freakin' year in primary school, I had no clue who Elizabeth Macarthur was. I really had zero knowledge of Australia's female founders generally. 

and 2) - the blurb had me so thoroughly intrigued: "In 1788 a young gentlewoman raised in the vicarage of an English village married a handsome, haughty and penniless army officer. In any Austen novel that would be the end of the story, but for the real-life woman who became an Australian farming entrepreneur, it was just the beginning." 

You throw Jane Austen out there, and I'm going to pick it up! 

And I've gotta say - 'A Life at the Edge of the World' 100% delivered for me, and I was so happy that I read outside my usual comforts and gave this a go. I truly found it to be such a nourishing, fascinating, and eye-opening read. Not to mention - it was just damn enjoyable, and easily one of my favourite books of 2018 so far. 

So, probably my last encounter with historical biography was my attempt at reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow because of my HAMILTON the Musical and Lin-Manuel Miranda obsession. I got about 100 pages into that 818-page tome though, and had to throw in the towel. It was interesting but mired in minutiae I just couldn't pretend to care about. I will say though, that Chernow had a lot of documents and correspondence and just general first-hand pieces of information to wade through in building a picture of a man who did indeed; "Write day and night like you’re running out of time?" 

Michelle Scott Tucker has a slightly bigger obstacle in her way, in that her biography is largely built around Elizabeth's diary - documenting her marriage and voyage to Australia, and years in the established colony, and also her correspondence home. And as Tucker says early on in the book, much of Elizabeth's writing is tempered by her knowledge of an audience. She kept her diary, knowing full well it was an artefact she'd be passing onto her children so they'd have a keepsake of their life in this new land. Likewise, her letters home are slightly coloured by a wish to convince her friends and family (and put them at ease) that she and her husband John are doing fine and flourishing. 

But this biography, and indeed Michelle Scott Tucker's true talent - is in filling in the blanks, both logically and emotionally so. And you get this sense from her at the very beginning, when she goes over the fact that Elizabeth had a miscarriage during her voyage to Australia; 

Convict ship Scarborough was no place for a gentleman's daughter. Elizabeth Macarthur was cold, pregnant, and bone-weary. The Southern Ocean pummelled the ship with storm after storm and her soldier husband and infant son were both grievously ill. Elizabeth prayed. 
Somewhere on that roaring sea, exhausted by her nursing duties, and constantly pitched and tumbled, Elizabeth was 'thrown into premature labour, & delivered of a little Girl who lived but for an hour.' There was no one on Scarborough to help. No other women were on board, and the ship's surgeon was unlikely to have been sober, let alone skilled. We only know of the nameless baby's existence from a single line in a letter Elizabeth wrote to her mother, many months later. There is no record of a shipboard funeral, no record of where the small bundle wrapped in weighted canvas was delivered to the sea, and no record of Elizabeth's grief. All we have - all Elizabeth had - is that single tragic hour. 

Chills. And I knew I would be in good hands from the moment of that premise - and indeed, I was. 

Scott Tucker's empathy, interest and respect for Elizabeth Macarthur is so apparent throughout the book - it makes her story sing. I was actually surprised at the suspense created within the pages, but Scott Tucker masterfully leaves each chapter on a note of suspension and intrigue, and I did find myself rushing back to read. 

Scott Tucker also doesn't shy away from the inherent discomfort of writing about a 'founding family' of Australia, when ours is a nation of First Peoples and rightful owners. She navigates this aspect with the utmost respect and tenderness, and I was appreciative of the education she also gave me about our Indigenous historical figures - like Bennelong and Pemulwuy. As well as the (oft unheard of, because there were so few) positive interactions between colonists and First Peoples, particularly by those British who went to great lengths to learn from and about Indigenous populations - like William Dawes, who was an astronomer, engineer, botanist, surveyor, explorer, abolitionist and first person to record Aboriginal languages when he befriended a young woman called Patyegarang, who became his language teacher. And, yes, William Dawes sounds like a total spunk, his relationship with Patyegarang completely fascinating and sweet (but never improper - though one recorded phrase she taught him was; "Putuwá: to warm ones hand by the fire & then to squeeze gently the fingers of another person" and yes I SWOON!) 

I also loved that Michelle Scott Tucker doesn't try to impose a modern sensibility on Elizabeth Macarthur (who had really interesting relations with local Indigenous populations, but could still refer to them with the distressing disposition of a British invader) ... BUT, Scott Tucker does wonder if we can also judge Elizabeth by the company she kept - and funnily enough, William Dawes was a dear friend of hers, who taught her the stars. So there's that.

I rollicked through 'Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World' in a way I was never going to with Chernow's Alexander Hamilton biography. BUT - I think there is something of the Hamilton's to the Macarthur story, and certainly Michelle Scott Tucker's spirited writing of history is something I think even Lin-Manuel Miranda would applaud. I mean - the events of 'Hamilton The Musical' are going on while Australia is *just* being colonised. There's no comparison to story and narrative ... except that Elizabeth's husband (who was a bit of a moron, but whose heart seemed to sometimes be in the right place?) did LOVE a duel. And I genuinely think Elizabeth Macarthur and Eliza Hamilton would have got along like a house on fire as they commiserated over their brilliant but inept husbands who left the telling of history to the ladies and whose stories were, often, even more compelling than their famous husband's. Just sayin'! 

I really can't do justice to this book or Elizabeth Macarthur's extraordinary life! I can't even begin to tell you the ways Michelle Scott Tucker further elucidated on my abysmal early Australian history education, or the ways she bought this time and place to life for me. I love, love, loved this book and even if you *think* that historical biography isn't for you, you're guaranteed to love it too.


5/5 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

'Third Son's a Charm' The Survivors, #1 by Shana Galen


From the BLURB:

Ewan Mostyn thinks a job as a duke's daughter's bodyguard will be easy—but Lady Lorraine has a few tricks up her sleeve that spark an undeniable passion.

Fiercely loyal to his friends and comrades, Ewan Mostyn is the toughest in a group of younger sons of nobility who met as soldiers and are now trying desperately to settle back into peaceful Society. Ewan trusts his brawn more than his brains, but when he's offered a job watching the Duke of Ridlington's stubbornly independent daughter, he finds both are challenged.

Lady Lorraine wants none of her father's high-handed ways, and she'll do everything in her power to avoid her distressingly attractive bodyguard—until she lands herself in real trouble. Lorraine begins to see Ewan's protectiveness in a new light, and she can only hope that her stoic guardian will do for her what he's always done—fight for what he wants.

‘Third Son's a Charm’ is the first book in a new historical romance series called ‘The Survivors’ by Shana Galen.

So I heard about this book because Kirkus gave it, and the second book a star-review. Admittedly, Kirkus is not exactly a leader in the romance book review stakes, but I really responded to their positivity for the series and when my local independent bookshop had BOTH copies in-stock, I saw it as a sign.

It took me about 24-hours to read the first book, and I absolutely LOVED it.

In short, the entire series is about this band of soldiers who fought together in an elite and unique military unit during the Napoleonic wars – unique, because they were all seen as “expendable” men of nobility (third sons, illegitimate heirs etc.). Originally there were some 30 odd soldiers in the unit, but only 12 survived – and are now notorious for their heroics and epic feats of survival. But now the men are living in ‘peace time’ and each in their own ways, are struggling to adjust to the real world.

Ewan Mostyn was nicknamed ‘the protector’ of the group – for his tough warrior-like focus and bullishness when it came to protecting his friends and comrades. Now that Ewan is out of the army though, he’s back to feeling like a failure. The rejected third son of his father, the Earl of Pembroke, because of Ewan’s various academic and life failures. You see, Ewan has a learning disability – he presents as dyslexic, but in 1816 is just labelled a ‘lackwit’ and an ‘idiot’. A brute who’s only good for knocking heads together.

That is until the Duke of Ridlington makes Ewan a proposal he can’t refuse. To guard the Duke’s wayward daughter, Lady Lorraine, who has her heart set on eloping with a young noble who’s merely after her dowry. A young noble who happens to also be Ewan’s conniving cousin – and childhood tormentor, who first made Ewan feel insecure and unwanted for his learning disabilities. So Ewan readily accepts the job of bodyguard … but he didn’t expect Lady Lorraine to be so spirited, curious and loving. Or that he’d find himself feeling safe and wanted for the first time in his life when he comes into her orbit.

I cannot recommend this book – and the entire series concept – enough! I love, love, loved it. Not least because it’s an example of progressive historical romance in so may ways. It’s very much indicative of the conversations that the romance genre has been having for a while now – around ‘hot consent’ and simply acknowledging that it’s a genre that has to appeal to modern women. As such – Lady Lorraine is a sex-positive and curious heroine, who challenges the double-standard between men and women in society when it comes to sex and experimentation outside of marriage. Ewan’s learning disability is handled with tenderness and understanding. And the overall series concept of military men trying to assimilate to peace-time is a complex and thoughtful one that I very much look forward to seeing play out over the course of the series.

Also – it’s hot! Ewan and Lorraine’s journey from mutual respect to friendship and then attraction is a beautifully paced build-up, and Lorraine’s vocal curiosity about her carnal desires means it’s a very equal coupling and coming together.

I would say Shana Galen’s ‘The Survivors’ is essential reading for anyone who is curious about, or considers themselves to be an aficionado of the historical romance genre. It’s bloody marvellous!

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5/5  




Tuesday, May 1, 2018

'The Prince and the Dressmaker' by Jen Wang


From the BLURB:

Paris, at the dawn of the modern age:

Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride—or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia—the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances—one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend? Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family. A fairy tale for any age, The Prince and the Dressmaker will steal your heart.

‘The Prince and the Dressmaker’ is a YA graphic novel released in February 2018, written and illustrated by Jen Wang.

Prince Sebastian is 16 and feeling the weight of a soon-to-be Kingdom on his shoulders. Frances is also 16 and a seamstress with dreams of wild dress designs to grace fashion runways and stages.

One day Frances designs a wildly inappropriate and fabulous dress for a socialite that lands her on the gossip pages – and out of a job. But Sebastian is enamoured of her design and has a proposition for her – to become his private dressmaker. Because Sebastian has two sides … one is a dutiful Prince, currently appeasing his parents by meeting eligible princesses to potentially marry. The other side of him, however, craves luxurious fabrics and fabulous outfits that transform Sebastian into the flame-haired Lady Crystallia. Nobody knows his secret, except private secretary Emile – and now Frances. Who agrees to become his very private designer and dressmaker, and together they’ll be the talk of the town.

‘The Prince and the Dressmaker’ is a subversive fable – a gender fluid celebration encouraging an embracing of ones true selves. I love that this YA graphic novel exists, and is telling such a complex but necessary story. That there’s also a romance in here between Sebastian and Frances, a gentle and yet bracingly uncomplicated unfolding, is also something to truly admire.


And I did really enjoy reading this, but I didn’t love it the way I wanted to. One aspect that I wanted amplified was the dress styles portrayed – a lot of them looked like somewhat ho-hum Disney Princess styling’s, and I was more hoping for Disney-meets-Lady-Gaga with the volume turned up to 150.

The other aspect I thought was just a little too gentle was Sebastian’s secret reveal. The fallout didn’t feel big enough for the pacing, like it wasn’t enough of a ‘Sebastian at his lowest point’ to properly meld with the dramatic finale.


At the back of the book, Jen Wang reveals that her original idea for the story had Frances and Sebastian as adults, before she changed her mind and thought telling this for a teen audience would be more powerful. I agree – I absolutely think this graphic novel being YA is impacting and meaningful for a readership that needs more nuance in all diverse tales. But seeing the rough sketches of the characters as adults, and the barest hint of something more tantalisingly sexual and lustful … I think that could have amped the story up even more, and would have benefited from it. And I’ve no doubt I also think this because I have recently discovered the joys of adult comic book publisher, Iron Circus Comics – via the very romantic and erotic, 'Letters For Lucardo' by Noora Heikkilä.

So, yes – I enjoyed this graphic novel. But I would have loved everything to be more drama and just amped up a little. From the dresses to the fallout, I’d have loved just … MORE!

3/5