Review: The Gown - Jennifer Robson

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My Rating: ★★★★★

Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Adult Fiction

Reading Challenge: 10 out of 35

Goodreads Synopsis —

From the internationally bestselling author of Somewhere in France comes an enthralling historical novel about one of the most famous wedding dresses of the twentieth century—Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown—and the fascinating women who made it.

“Millions will welcome this joyous event as a flash of color on the long road we have to travel.”—Sir Winston Churchill on the news of Princess Elizabeth’s forthcoming wedding

London, 1947: Besieged by the harshest winter in living memory, burdened by onerous shortages and rationing, the people of postwar Britain are enduring lives of quiet desperation despite their nation’s recent victory. Among them are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Together they forge an unlikely friendship, but their nascent hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime honor: taking part in the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown.

Toronto, 2016: More than half a century later, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers, a legacy from her late grandmother. How did her beloved Nan, a woman who never spoke of her old life in Britain, come to possess the priceless embroideries that so closely resemble the motifs on the stunning gown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding almost seventy years before? And what was her Nan’s connection to the celebrated textile artist and holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?

With The Gown, Jennifer Robson takes us inside the workrooms where one of the most famous wedding gowns in history was created. Balancing behind-the-scenes details with a sweeping portrait of a society left reeling by the calamitous costs of victory, she introduces readers to three unforgettable heroines, their points of view alternating and intersecting throughout its pages, whose lives are woven together by the pain of survival, the bonds of friendship, and the redemptive power of love.

My Thoughts —

I do genuinely love me a good historical fiction. Lately, as in the past six months, I’ve been reading a ton of WWII books. I don’t think I ever set out to specifically find WWII books, but they sort of always end up in my lap and I always devour them. I’m not sure what our fascination with wartime stories is, though I did read once someone said that it’s us trying to suffer vicariously through somebody else’s pain which I don’t think is it at all. If I had to guess, I’d say we enjoy reading wartime stories because we like to hear stories of resilience, courage, and love. Yes, there’s heartache, but that’s the reality of life. Seeing the bravery of those who fought in the war, even in fictional form, is inspiring.

Anyway, The Gown is a WWII story but in an inconspicuous way, in that it’s set a few years into the post-war era and the war isn’t the premise nor backdrop of the story. The title gives away the plot of the novel, in fact. It’s about a bridal gown, Queen Elizabeth II’s to be exact (although, back then, she was just a princess). But the novel is just so much more than just the embroidery on a dress. It’s about the friendship among women, the bond between family, grief, loss, heartbreak, betrayal, and the difficulties many people faced in the post-war years.

I thought this book was all around perfect. I enjoyed the storyline and I liked hearing about the lives of these three women, how their lives both paralleled and completely opposed one another, even across different generations. If you read my review on The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, you may remember me mentioning how I wasn’t a fan of the use of dual-narratives in that book. In this case, however, I actually thought it was really well done! And Jennifer Robson actually wrote three different storylines/narratives in this book… Triple-narrative??? I don’t know, haha. But anyway, it was very, very good!!

However, don’t expect there to be anything about royalty in this novel. There’s really nothing about the royals except for a) the fact that the dresses are made for them and b) a chapter or two where they discuss the royal wedding, but from the perspectives of the characters who in no way shape or form come into contact with any royal. So, if you were hoping for some Queenie action, sorry! This might disappoint you lol.

TW (spoilers ahead!!) — there is a scene which depicts rape. Please be cautious of this if/when you decide to read this book!!

Are you into WWII novels? If so, why?

Felicia x

Review: Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

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I think I should preface this by saying that not only am I a huge history buff, but that Mary Queen of Scots is my favourite monarch in history. Is it weird to have a favourite royal? I don’t think so. Who knows, might just be a history nerd thing. I was first introduced to Mary’s story years ago through the CW teen drama, Reign, which I still binge-watch at least once every six months. However, it isn’t exactly… ahem… a historically accurate source haha. Not to say that it isn’t good! It’s very enjoyable and I highly recommend watching it, so long as you look elsewhere for your facts. Anyway, it set me off on a years-long search to gather as much info about the tragic Scottish Queen as I could.

For those not familiar with the history, lemme break it down real quick. Henry VIII had 3 children: Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. The way succession worked in 16th century England, if Henry VIII had not had any kids, the line of succession would’ve been passed onto his oldest sister, Margaret Tudor. The same, however, went if his children did not have children. Which they didn’t. Long story short, Elizabeth I not having a kid meant that the Scottish Queen, Mary, was the next in line (this was due to her paternal grandmother and father being dead by the time she was a baby). This caused a lot of anxiety for Queen Elizabeth I, who worried that Mary would come along and try to take the throne from her, as her own grandfather did to King Richard III in the 1400s. This was especially problematic as a lot of people were against Elizabeth as she was a Protestant, and Mary was a Catholic. See how this could be an issue?

Okay, let’s get into things.

You can imagine that when I heard there would be a film adaptation about her life, I was pretty bloody ecstatic. My mum (also a MQoS fan) and I meant to see the film in theatres last December, but with my exam schedule it just didn’t work out. Luckily, it’s out on dvd and I finally got to see it! And I thought, what better way to revisit my love of Mary than through a film review on my blog.

Disclaimer: these are just the opinions of a 20-year-old history fan who makes no claim to be a professional historian or film critic. I just love me a good period piece and love a good rant even more!

Caution - major spoilers ahead!!

First off, the cast. When I heard that Queen Elizabeth I was to be played by Margot Robbie, my reaction looked a lot like this:

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All I could picture was yet another Cate Blanchett depiction of a very polished version of the English Queen. However, my worries were completely unfounded as Margot Robbie pulled off a fantastic Queen Elizabeth I. They even showed off her facial scarring that she got from smallpox. I was pleasantly surprised. Saoirse Ronan wasn’t exactly who I’d have imagined playing Mary, but I think she pulled it off quite well. There were also some great actors in this film such as Brendan Coyle, Joe Alwyn, and David Tennant (more on him in a sec).

The film was heavily based on John Guy’s biography of Mary Queen of Scots, which you can tell because Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie’s faces are plastered on the book’s cover in every book store right now. If you’re interested in getting a more in-depth factual look at Mary’s life, I definitely recommend reading his biography which is the one in the picture at the top of the review. It’s highly acclaimed and a reliable source. Just make sure to not buy the movie tie-in version!

Let’s start off with the good things/things I liked.

This was the most historically accurate depiction of Mary’s story I’ve seen. Not to say that it’s entirely historically accurate, as there was a bit of artistic license used in order to move the plot ahead or make it more dramatic. But it was a far-cry from Reign lol. As for the two Queens, I’ve obviously pointed out how on-point Elizabeth’s appearance was (even her nose was spot-on!). Mary was given red hair, which was a plus, however it was a bit lighter/more orange than portraits made it out to be.

My FAVOURITE part of this movie was whenever Saoirse Ronan spoke French!! She spoke it often, too!! By George, I think they’ve finally got it. It’s the most overlooked part of her life in the film and TV universe. Mary would have spoken French. A woman who spent her formative years in France, who married the French king, would have spoken the country’s native language. It’s just facts. Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.

Moving on lol. David Tennant (see, told you we’d get to him!) was phenomenal in this film. I didn’t even initially recognize him when he came on the screen. It took me, however, 0.05 seconds to realize he was John Knox, the Protestant leader of the Scottish Reformation and overall woman-hater. In one sentence, he attacked the Pope and the female rulers of two kingdoms, so I was like aha that’s him. He did a great job at playing the villainous Scot and also reminded me why I hate Knox so much.

Onto the bad - as every movie, especially the period pieces, has its downfalls.

The omission of Mary’s early life made me sad. Yes, her time in Scotland is more “interesting,” but her time in France was equally as important. Her years there were relegated to a short blurb in conversation, whereas it was a huge part of her life. She spent a whopping 13 years in France, where as she spent a combined total of 11 in Scotland (5 of which she was a baby/toddler). None of her early years in French Court or her reign as Queen consort of France were depicted. And my poor heart couldn’t take that the only mention of her late husband, King Francis II was her offhandedly mentioning he was bad at sex. She loved him most of all!! How could they!! Toby Regbo did not die (twice) for this.

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The highly inaccurate face-to-face meeting of Mary and Elizabeth gave me major eye-rolls as well. Okay, so I know they included it because it’s anticlimactic to show two Queens writing letters to one another. But still. Especially that it was them meeting in a room of hanging sheets. The melodrama!! It was just not for me.

And her execution. Sigh. I thought that Adelaide Kane’s Mary execution in Reign was the most dramatized and fabricated version, because of how they gave her a grand total of maybe 5 grey hairs, propped her boobs up in a corset and hoped to God we’d believe her to be an ailing, malnourished 44-year-old woman. However, Saoirse Ronan didn’t even get that treatment. They just pulled her hair back. And then stripped her of her outer-garments to reveal crimson red underclothes, which was an over-exaggerated nod to the real Mary’s crimson sleeves representing martyrdom. There seems to be a trend in these adaptations of amplifying the execution scenes to make them seem far more dramatic and intense than they really were. The real Mary just stepped up to the block, forgave the executioner, and made a joke about stripping down in front of strange men. Classic.

All in all, it was a good film. It was (mostly) historically accurate, and the cast did a really good job. However, for me, there is only one Mary.

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Have you seen Mary Queen of Scots? What did you think of it?

Felicia x

Review: The Alice Network - Kate Quinn

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Title: The Alice Network

Author: Kate Quinn

Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks

Release Date: June 6th 2017

Pages: 503

My Rating: ★★★★ (4/5)

Goodreads | Amazon


“What did it matter if something scared you, when it simply had to be done?”

The Alice Network is all about a young - and pregnant - American socialite who enlists the help of an ex-spy and a Scotsman with violent tendencies to assist her in finding her cousin, Rose, who went missing during World War II.

I’m truly a sucker for books set during the World Wars. The first half of the 20th century is one of my favourite eras of history to study and the historical-fiction set in that time period always has me hooked. But at first, I wasn’t sure that I’d like this one. I was finding it sort of difficult to get myself totally immersed in the story. Although I do love me a good dual-narrative, I was finding each chapter pretty short so it felt a bit like whiplash going from one woman’s story to the other’s. But I got into the flow of it just after the first thirty or so pages. Considering the length of this book, it ain’t no thang.

I have to say, out of the two stories, I preferred the 1915 one over the 1947. I think that Eve was a total bad-ass and she went through some crazy stuff in her lifetime. From the moment her character was introduced, I wrapped up in her story. I wanted to know all about what made her the cold woman that she was in her old age. Charlie, on the other hand, came into the story “fresh”, so-to-speak. Aside from being pregnant out of wedlock, she didn’t have much of a backstory to get me invested in her story. The way that I saw the novel was that it was Eve’s story and Charlie was there to help the plot move along.

Oh, and Kate Quinn knows her shit, you guys. She’s a graduate of Boston University with a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in Classical Voice, so you can bet that this book is full of details.

The one thing that really irked me about this book - and I do mean really irked me - was that there were a handful of words that were repeated throughout the novel that I found so cringe-y. Like, they were constantly used, over and over. For example, Eve calling Charlie a “Yank” or Charlie referring to her unborn child as the “Little Problem” or, worse, “L.P.” *shudder* I don’t know why, but it just drove me crazy. Don’t get me wrong! It didn’t make me dislike the book. It just made me cringe a bit whenever I came across one of the words.

I loved this book. And if you’re looking for an incredible, fast-paced novel about bad-ass women during the second World War, you’ll love it too. The women in this novel are seriously inspiring and the female friendships are so important. It’s also worth noting that the 1915 story is actually based on real-life events! The Alice Network was very real and it was led by Louise de Bettignies, aka Lili. Kate Quinn actually explains the inspiration for the novel at the end of the book so if you’re curious about that, make sure to look out for it!

The Alice Network is a remarkable story, about unsung heroes and I just adored it. Also, Reese Witherspoon included this in her book club a while back! How cool is that? If you’re curious to know what Reese had to say about this book, you can view her online book club site here.

(Somewhat Spoiler: I should mention that there is mention of a particularly gruesome abortion, as well as some rape and assault mentions. Keep that in mind before/while you read!).

Have you read The Alice Network? Did you like it as much as I did?!

Goodreads Challenge: 16 out of 50

Felicia x

Nashville + Tupelo

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Good evening all! I am finally back to writing for this blog, after what seems like forever of being away. I have been so incredibly busy these last few months with moving house, settling in, hosting numerous dinner parties and getting in as much time with my friends and boyfriend as I could before leaving for the summer. But now, I am in Florida and you can expect a huge flood of posts this summer for sure, as I plan to keep very busy with things I'd love to share with all of you! Recently, I was lucky enough to get to visit two of the places I have been dying to visit for a very long time, those places being Nashville, Tennessee and Tupelo, Mississippi. If you've been following this blog for awhile, you may already know that I am a huge fan of Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Thus, when we passed through the southern United States on our drive to Florida, we just had to stop at the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville and Elvis Presley's Birthplace in Tupelo.

Our first stop of the two was the Johnny Cash Museum. Immediately, when we arrived in the city, I was head over heels in love with Nashville. It is a beautiful city and I wish I could have seen more of it, but sadly we were quickly passing through just to visit the museum and head straight onto Tupelo. Around mid-morning, we went from our hotel just outside the city in Goodlettsville to the museum. IMG_0756IMG_0779IMG_0788

I was particularly excited about the display they had on the film Walk The Line, which showed a couple of the costumes that Joaquin Pheonix and Reese Witherspoon wore as Johnny Cash and June Carter. Walk The Line is one of my all-time favourite films so I was in heaven seeing their costumes right before me.

 

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Another really cool artifact in the museum was this chair, which was featured in Johnny Cash's unbelievably moving music video for his cover of "Hurt". It was just so crazy to be up close to such important pieces of musical history.

After finishing up at the museum and buying a few cool things from the gift shop (a t-shirt, a pin, and a leash for my dog - yup, you read that right), we made the three-and-a-half hour drive to Tupelo, Mississippi. Finally, after what seemed like a hundred hours on the Natchez Trace Parkway (look it up, it's nuts), we arrived at Elvis Presley's Birthplace.

You always hear about how poor Elvis' family lived when he was growing up, before his big break at Sun Records. But until you stand in front of his house, you really don't understand how hard his life and the lives of his parents really must have been.

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The white, small house has only a plain porch to its exterior, with a swinging chair hanging from the front. In person, the house is even shorter in length than pictures make it out to be. IMG_0833IMG_0834

The house is made up of two rooms: the bedroom and the kitchen. The bedroom is home to an average-sized bed, a dresser, a fireplace, and some chairs. The guide informed us that it doubled as a bedroom and sitting area/living room, and that Elvis and his stillborn twin brother were born in that very room. IMG_0839IMG_0836

The second room, the kitchen, was just as small as the first. As the pictures show, it really doesn't fit more than kitchen appliances and a small dining table with four seats. And that is all. Just two rooms that this family of three lived in. It truly puts so much into perspective to see it up close.

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Another interesting site in the nearby area was the church that Elvis attended as a child. It wasn't originally located where it sits now - a few years ago, the whole building was actually transported from down the street to its current location, to be better accessible for guests visiting Elvis' birthplace. We went in just before closing and were treated to our very own showing of a film which gave a reenactment of a typical service that Elvis himself would have attended. It gave a really good idea to how the music he heard at church would later influence his own personal music style.

In a split second, I would go back to visit both Nashville and Tupelo. Southern USA is so beautiful and lush, it really is so heavenly, and the history of some of my favourite artists is so present there. I can't wait to go back someday.