Review: Small Country: A Novel by Gael Faye



My Interest

While not set in Malawi, my Peace Corps country, it is set close enough on the continent of Africa to interest me. Plus, a coming of age story that does not focus on sex, sexual orientation or traditional “African” sexual initiation rites, intrigued me. That it also covers the years leading up to and immediately after the horrific Rwandan genocide made it more interesting, but did add trepidation to my thoughts.


Burundi, Rwanda

The Story


“I’ve been very busy recently, trying to stay a child.”

Gaby is a young boy of mixed race and parentage–Rwandan mother (who has lived many years in Burundi) and French father. His life is part wealthy ex-pat (i.e. International School, expatriate gated neighborhood, servants, etc.) and part local boy. He and his sister are living with their father after their mother has left. She is in and out of their lives. Like any boy anywhere, Gaby has neighborhood friends and they run free and call an old VW Bus [“Combi”] their hideout.

“Thanks to my reading, I had broken free from the limits of our street and was able to breathe again; the world seemed bigger now, extending beyond the fences that encouraged us to turn in on ourselves huddled up with our fears.”

Meanwhile, an expatriate lady with a huge library enters Gaby’s life and changes his world in other ways. [Note: I had so hoped for this sort of relationship during my Peace Corps stint. It is way harder to find than I imagined].

“And I felt sorry for them and also for myself, for the purity that is ruined by the all-consuming fear, which transforms everything into wickedness, hared, and death. Into lava.”

But the gang of boys’ days of beer and stolen cigarettes or wanding the neighborhood stealing mangoes are about to end. Real gangs–gangs allied with the political situation and the words “Tutsi” and “Hutu” soon take over.

“We’re alive. They’re dead.”

“I didn’t leave my country, I fled it.”

“Politics” in spite of his father’s best attempts to shield his children, soon take over the family–robbing them of more than could have been imagined.

My Thoughts

I loved this book. I admired the father for trying to shelter the children from the evils of their world, but even when he ultimately failed, it was the mother I both loathed and loved. [No spoilers]. Her world, her life–both were impossible. Gaby was a delight, but totally real. Their world was so odd, but it was one I could feel, smell, and enter. Their life, after all, was one I had contemplated while in Malawi–that is staying on and marrying. This book deserves bigger awards than it has already won or for which it has already been nominated or long-listed.

Highly Recommended.

My Verdict

4.5 Stars

Note: I almost never give 5 stars, so this is huge praise.

Small Country: A Novel by Gael Faye, on sale today, Cyber Monday, for $1.99 on Kindle

Review: Sting-Ray Afternoons: A Memoir by Steve Rushin


My Interest

The cover grabbed me the minute I saw it. That could be my brother, or any of the boys in our school or neighborhood, on that Sting-Ray bike. I was born in 1962, graduated from high school the year after Steve Rushin’s oldest brother (albeit in a different school–even a different state). My Dad grew up in similar circumstances but in Indianapolis, not Ft. Wayne, Indiana–until after World War II. Had Steve’s Dad stayed at Purdue, he’d have been a student there at the same time as my parents and my uncle and future aunt, too.

As a child of the late ’60s and ’70s living in the same socioeconomic bracket, my brother and I shared many similarities in our upbringing with the Rushin kids. My Dad (and my Uncle) was a salesman for a major company and we moved to a new subdivision in a new town regularly until I was 10 and we got to stay put. Finally, I now live outside Cincinnati, Ohio, where his mother grew up.

The Story

Steve Rushin, the middle of 5 kids in an upwardly mobile suburban Catholic family, fondly remembers his upbringing by loving parents first in the suburbs of Chicago and then in the Minneapolis suburb, Bloomington–once the home of the Vikings, Twins, and North Stars. His childhood was marred only by odd, vivid dreams that sent him sleepwalking and, occasionally, peeing in odd places during his walks. With four brothers and one sister, Steve’s life was viewed from a big wood-sided station wagon. He played the usual boy sports to be expected of the son and brother of 3 college athletes. His first job was at the Met–the stadium in Bloomington where sports and concerts occurred in the era of the Purple People Eaters and Fran Tarkington.

What I Loved

Well, I loved it all! I loved the way pop-culture–especially t.v. commercials and tv/movies and popular music were woven seamlessly into the narrative. I related to Steve and his fascination for knowledge, reading, and books–as well as for the hours spent playing games against the garage door (side of the house for me–our garage door had windows) or basketball in the driveway. Loved the backyard sports rules we all used–“Pitcher’s Hand Out.” I nodded at each shared rule, tradition or quirk–the “schedule” (it was the TV Guide in my house) that lived beside Dad’s “Archie Bunker chair,” Dad manning the Webber Kettle grill, everyone eating at the table together and having to ask to be “excused.” Childhood.

I enjoyed his rites of passage–not the usual tawdry loss of his you-know-what but celebrating a brother finally old enough to go to an NHL game with Dad,  of getting to see a first grown-up movie, or each brother starting his first job at the stadium concession stand. I relived all those hours of rough-housing with my big brother, ending only when I said “Uncle” or one of us got hurt–just like Steve and his 3 brothers. I screamed with his sister in one incident and laughed until I cried over the Frankenstein Walk and the butt-washer! Childhood in suburbia.

I especially loved that a Catholic family had no tale of altar boy sons being abused. The worst we heard of a priest in this book was that the new one did not listen when they talked of their mother so the priest could write his eulogy. I loved that his Dad, like, mine made a conscious effort to give his family a different life than he’d grown up with and that his children gave him aftershave and tennis balls for every holiday. (We gave aftershave, pipe tobacco, and handkerchiefs). Steve’s parents loved each other, loved their children, guided their kids, encouraged them,  knew when to protect them, and when to let them get hurt, but expected the right amount of everything from them. Like mine, there were a family in which it was never necessary or “done,” to say “I love you.” (I, too, first heard those words at the end of a parent’s life).  The Rushin parents raised two college athletes, one doctor, a writer for Sports Illustrated who married a WNBA star, all 5 grew up to be successful and reasonably happy.

My Verdict


One of my favorite memoirs in years.

Highly Recommended

Sting-Ray Afternoons: A Memoir by Steve Rushin

Good News! Steve’s second volume of memoirs, Nights in White Castle, is now out!


Review: Ribbons of Scarlet: A Novel of The French Revolution



“Those who aim at great deeds must also suffer greatly.”

Plutarch, quoted in Ribbons of Scarlet


My Interest

A novel written by a committee? Wow! I was intrigued. It turns out that is not how this book was done. Each character’s story was written by an individual author. I know too little about French history, especially Royal French history beyond that famous sound byte “Let them eat cake” and that women went all fangirl around the young Marquis de Lafayette–the hero of the American Revolution. In short, this book went straight to the top of my TBR. And I’m so glad it did.

The Story

The Philosopher, the Revolutionary, the Princess, the Politician, the Assasin, and the Beauty were all women ahead of their time. The valued the rights of women, liberation for women from home and hearth and, especially, from the whims of husband and government. Each woman is brought to life by a different author though the stories intermingle the women in the natural course of the story. It is a novel–not a collection of short stories and it works beautifully.

My Thoughts

First, do not skip Alison Pataki’s excellent Foreward. It seems others share my pet peeve of characters having views too far ahead of their time. Pataki explains the historical fact of the women and their attitudes having lead to some of the most significant changes in the revolution being led by such women.

Time and again as I listened to the audiobook version I was reminded of today–#metoo is here over and over again. So, too, is a glass ceiling, unequal parenting, unequal education, and unequal societal expectations. It’s all in this majestic novel.

As to the women themselves, I was most taken by the first–the philosopher with the Princess has my runer-up. I loved the audacity of Sophie de Grouchy who negotiated her own marriage on her own terms and then found love. I’m well-known on this blog to be a sucker for a sincere older man–younger woman romance and this one was wonderful. Princess Elizabeth, the King’s sister, showed the humanity of the royal family. In spite of singling these two out, all six women were absolutely real and absolutely fascinating to me.

This may be the best historical novel of the year. I cannot wait to see what the authors all get up to next!

Ribbons of Scarlet: A Novel of The French Revolution

Review: Sourdough: A Novel by Robin Sloan


My Interest

I LOVED Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, so when I discovered this book in a desperate search for an available audiobook from my TBR. I had originally learned of this book from the blogger Modern Mrs. Darcy.

The Story

Techie Lois leaves a dull job in Michigan for a fabulous opportunity in San Francisco developing code for robotic arms. Dead tired one evening she orders take-out from a flier for a neighborhood place. Their “double-spicy” meal becomes her go-to take-out meal. It comes with amazing bread–freshly baked sourdough bread. It’s San Francisco after all! Then one evening, the worst thing possible happens–they guys who make this amazing meal are giving it all up! Lois is despondent. Finally one of the brothers brings her a crock of their amazing sourdough starter and it is the ultimate game-changer for Lois.

My Thoughts

Like Mr. Penumbra, or like Sarah Addison Allen’s books, Sourdough is a blend of “sounds real” and  “Wait, did you just stick fantasy in here?” It’s a fun mix that makes for a fast-paced story without any big-evil-Oprah-Book-Club-books stuff. In short–a very enjoyable read. I especially enjoyed the ladies of the Lois Club–I wish they’d had a bigger role. That was simply brilliant. The rest of the book was good, but it was not as engaging as Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Book Store though I appreciate how hard it would be to top that one. I look forward to more books from Robin Sloan.

My Verdict

3 Stars

I listened to the audio version


Sourdough: A Novel by Robin Sloan. For once I like the paperback cover WAY, WAY better than the dead-boring blue thing the book was saddled with on release. The paperback cover coveys much more of the fun and excitement of the book.


What is Sourdough? How do you make a Starter?

For those who may be curious, here is how to make a sourdough starter from, who else? The folks at King Arthur Flour (read the book and you’ll understand this reference!) Click the link below to read all about it!

Sourdough Starter


Review: The Other Windsor Girl: A Novel by Georgie Blalock


My Interest

If you read this blog, you know I’m a royal fan! Princess Margaret was both the Diana and the Harry of her day, so this re-telling of her story piqued my interest. That I happened to listen to the book on the birthday of David Armstrong-Jones, 2nd Earl of Snowden and son of Princess Margaret was just extra fun.

The Story

When her cousin brings her to an event Princess Margaret is attending, the Hon. Vera Strathmore [interesting choice of name–Margaret’s maternal grandfather was the Earl of Strathmore] hits it off with the 19-year-old second daughter of King George VI.  When Margaret is advised that Vera is the real name of novelist Rose Lavish the Princess takes her into her so-called “Margaret set” [think Harry’s Glossy Posse] as one of Her Royal Highness’s Ladies in Waiting–a role that combines nanny, friend, confidant, social secretary, and protocol chief all in one.

As the years go on and Margaret rejects any thought of marriage to the eligible future Dukes, Marquesses or Earl in her set, Vera, too, has to push aside ideas of marriage. Her future and her status as Lady in Waiting are too intertwined. Her life mirrors that of the Princess who cannot give up everything, as she had thought she could, to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend.

When photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones hits the scene Vera sees the future all too clearly.

My Thoughts

The story is well-told. Happily, the author did not try to create personalities for the entire royal family. She kept her narrative tightly focused on the small ensemble of Margaret, Vera, Charmaine Douglas (daughter of the American Ambassador) and a few others. Her characterization of Princess Margaret was very believable. At times, I had to remind myself I was reading about “Margot” and not her errant great-nephew Prince Harry and his wife. The Windsors have had many rebels. All seem to want what they can never be: to be “ordinary” in that they are ignored by the press. None ever wants to do without the deference, money, lavish lifestyle or the rest of it. Just the press “be gone”!

My Verdict on the Story

Four Stars


The Problems

If you are going to write about the Aristocracy and Royals GET THE TITLES RIGHT. Yes, it is fiction, so you can have your characters say whatever you want them to say, but….

Ms. Blalock’s inability to master titles, forms of address and even, in one scene, the basic assignments of servants, detracts from a story that was very well told.  Of course, many readers won’t know or care–but many others will. Fact-checking seems to have vanished from all forms of publishing today. This is the sort of thing an intern could have fact-checked by grabbing a copy or online free trial to Debrett’s!

And do your homework on slang!  Buckingham Palace is known as BUCK HOUSE! Not “Buck Place.” Since this was the single most overused phrase in the entire book, I have to point it out. It is fine to refer to it as “the Palace” and leave it at that.

Titles and Forms of Address Mistakes

The King and Queen are “Their Majesties,” not “Their Royal Highnesses”

The Queen and her consort, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh are “Her Majesty and His Royal Highness” as a male consort does not become a “King Consort” [though Denmark’s Prince Henrik died trying for it].

Prince Philip was always a royal and a royal Duke in the time of the story’s setting. No ROYAL Duke is ever “His Grace”. [Philip is a descendant of Queen Victoria and of Christian IX of Denmark just like the Queen and Margaret. He became “Philip Mountbatten” for political reasons].

The Earl of Somewhere is “Lord Somewhere,” not “Lord First-Name Last-Name” which is a designation only for the younger sons of Dukes and Marquesses.

A Duke would only ever have been “Lord Whoever Posh-Person” if he was born a second or lower son. He would never be referred to in that manner after becoming a Duke.

“Lady Imogene Spencer-Churchill” [in the book] cannot be referred to as “Lady Spencer Churchill” only as “Lady Imogene.” Geesh, watch Downton Abbey! Lady Rosilind explains it to Sir Richard way back in Season 1. “Lady Spencer Churchill” would be the wife of an Earl Spencer Churchill or a Viscount Spencer Churchill or a Baron Spencer Churchill or a Sir Chinless Spencer Churchill (but he would be Sir Chinless, never Lord/Sir Spencer Churchill).

“Sir Lascelles”???? NO!! Sir Alan! (i.e., Sir Alan “Tommy” Lascelles). Even “Sir Tommy”–that was his nickname, but never, ever, Sir Lascelles unless Lascelles was his first name and he was “Sir Lascelles Anstruther-Chinless-Scott” or someone. His wife would be Lady Lascelles.

Patrick Plunkett though WAS correctly called Lord Plunkett because he was Baron Plunkett.

“Group Captain” and “Captain” are not interchangeable. Peter Townsend would have been addressed as “Group Captain” (like “Sergent Major”) and never as “Captain”.

Other Mistakes

The Duke of Marlborough was Winston Churchill’s cousin, not brother, so the title “Uncle Winston” was simply a family custom. He was not the uncle of the Duke’s children. This only caught my notice due to all the other title mangling.

Ruby MacDonald would have DIED before she’d have said “the Queen Mum”!! She’d have said “Queen Elizabeth” for Margaret’s mother. Princess Margaret’s sister would be called “Her Majesty” or “The Queen” in conversation. Ruby was with Margaret until she [Ruby] died–was with her from childhood as her “dresser,” i.e. her ladies maid and had a very fraught relationship with Lord Snowdon (as Tony became).

Anthony Charles Robert Armstrong-Jones was educated at Sandroyd and Eton and then went to Cambridge where he coxed a winning boat race crew. He was the step-son (and later the half-brother ) of an Earl and would never call Margaret “Your Highness” for he would KNOW that was a different, LESSER rank! [It last used in the British Royal family by two granddaughters of Edward VII (daughters of his daughter).]

A footman would NEVER be sent to pack a lady’s clothing! Maids looked after female guests–they did not just scrub floors.

Reader Mistakes: I listened to the audio version

It is “Ma’am as in ham, not ‘marm’ as in farm”

Lady Anne Coke’s name is pronounced “Cook” in spite of the spelling. Thank God  “Cholmondeley” wasn’t used anywhere.


The Other Windsor Girl: A Novel of Princess Margaret, Royal Rebel by Georgie Blalock


For More on Princess Margaret see:




99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown

Review: The Dry: A Novel by Jane Harper


My Interest

This book started the chain in the book meme Six Degrees of Separation a few months back and I thought then that it sounded interesting. I also have a friend who lives in a rural community in the Australian state in which the story is set and that is affected in turns by draught and truly town-wrecking floods. So when I was going through my TBR looking for available audiobooks a few weeks back, I requested this one. I’m so glad I did!



The Story

A grizzly murder brings up old secrets forcing local boy-turned-federal-agent Aaron Falk to return home to investigate. Oh, and that old murder? Falk was suspect for a while! You know how small towns work–no one has forgotten. Was the husband jealous? Did he come home to something unexpected? Was it the girl’s father? Was she being abused? This story moves at the speed of whitewater rapids! Is a gun more dangerous than a cigarette lighter? So many who-what-where-why’s in this one!

My Thoughts

My first thought was the sheer amazement that this multi-layered story was being told superbly by a debut author! With a rolling style of storytelling reminiscent to me of the flow of Gosford Park or Downton Abbey (i.e. Julian Fellowes), the story’s pace never slows, which occasionally gave me trouble as I was driving and listening to the audio version.

I especially liked the moments when Aaron was looking back at his teenage self and circle of friends. Hindsight may not make 20/20 vision, but it helps. His thought that “what if Ellie was abused–why didn’t I see it then,” shows as much about the self-centered nature of the teenage years as it does about the maturity of middle life. I also was really “got” by him putting down the shotgun, unable to kill rabbits (which are a menace in Australia and must be culled).  This is a man who has learned a few lessons. Then there was the fact that he made mistakes. Those make the story much more interesting anytime. For what it’s worth, I had a giggle at the small town cop doing a firearms inspection and telling the man he was “letting him off” even though when there was clearly no violation–so small town!

Overall I was left breathless from the pace and wanting to move directly on to a second Aaron Falk book. Thrillers are not my typical reading. Chief Inspector Gamach, Anne Perry’s William Monk, and even the Ladies of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency are my “breaks” throughout my commuting year. I’m happy to have a new author to go to when I need a break.

Now to quit giggling over “Pokies” for online poker players and “fireys” for firemen.

The Dry: A Novel by Jane Harper, was recently made into a movie.


Review: Dominicana: A Novel by Angie Cruz


My Interest

Dominicana is one of my top picks from the new Fall 2019 book releases. Immigrant stories are always fascinating to me–whether real or fictional.  I also enjoy the idea of “Reading the World–” reading books from as many different countries as possible as the author of this blog A Year of Reading the World did (though not necessarily the same books). Finally, coming-of-age stories and older man/younger woman stories are always interesting. This book offers all of that.

Recently, I reviewed a book dealing with Castro’s take-over of Cuba, When We Left Cuba. Dominicana is set in the Dominican Republic at the time of the insurrection into which President Johnson, in the midst of ramping up American involvement in Vietnam, sent in U.S. Marines to “restore the peace,” i.e. secure American interests.


The Story

Ana is married off to an older man who gets her in the United States. The deal is two-fold for her family in the D.R.: money from a land sale and an anchor for immigration to the USA and, hopefully, a better life. During the insurrection, her husband, Juan, returns to the D.R. to see to business matters. He leaves a younger man to look after pregnant Ana who then discovers a new freedom and joy in life that clashes with the values of her upbringing and her dreams of reuniting her family in the USA.

My Thoughts

The older man–younger woman [girl–she was 15] aspect was portrayed with a careful hand. Juan was typical of his time and place in that he had one set of standards for his wife and one for himself, but Ana does not seem surprised by anything, which was good.

Ana was very young, trying to make sense of her marriage to a controlling, older man while living in a very different world to the one in which she’d grown up. I thought she handled it all quite well.  As a coming-of-age and an immigrant story, the book works very well. Ana’s efforts to grow and educate herself rang true, as did her homesickness and longing for her siblings and parents.

I felt Juan, the husband, was not well developed–he seemed a caricature of a type of man, more than a believable person. I really did not see the need, though, to set the book right at the Audubon Ball Room. Yes, it was a very volatile time in the USA and in New York but Malcolm X’s was assassination as part of Ana’s “entry” to America seemed unnecessary. I thought the Marines entering D.R. was much more meaningful to the story.

I look forward to reading more from this author as well as reading her backlist. She is a great find.

My Verdict


Dominicana: A Novel by Angie Cruz

Review: When We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton


My Interest

In addition to having read Next Year in Havana, the first book of the Perez family’s story, I studied the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missle Crisis multiple times in my long-ago Bachelor’s degree program.  I knew I’d read this one from the get-go.

The Story

Beatriz Perez’s life has been forever altered by her family’s hasty departure from Cuba at the start of the Castro regime. Now settled in Palm Beach and trying to regain as much of their lost social standing and wealth as possible, the Perez sisters are making the rounds of charity balls, society parties and the like on their mother’s orders to find a wealthy, well-connected husband to help rescue the family from oblivion. Except Beatrice has other plans, plans to help take back her beloved Cuba. Even she could not imagine the men who would enter her life, both in the shadows, both powerful.

Just as Betty Friedan gave voice to the ennui of her generation, Chanel Cleeton, through Beatriz, clearly shows how limited the women of the 1950s were in their choices. Beatriz seeks liberation for herself though she expresses it as liberation for her beloved country. The choices she makes, the risks she takes, are ones only offered to women during a war. The Cold War gives her the freedom to do unexpected things and to play an unexpected role.

My Thoughts

Next Year in Havanna was lovely, but slower, more in the speed of old-time Cuba. This book was electric! The life Beatriz creates is exciting. She is doing something few people can even imagine being asked to do, let alone managing to do it very well. Her drive and ambition mirror that of her father, but she is a daughter. The emotions generated by this conflict, by her choice of men, by the unease of the Cold War for American and of the continuing Castro regime for the Cuban exile community, makes this a fast-paced book.

My Verdict



I can’t wait for Chanel Cleeton’s next book!



Review: What the Lady Wants: A Novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded Age by Renee Rosen


My Interest

I was born in “Chicagoland” and shopping to my family meant going to Marshall Field. All of my dollhouse purchases and our Matchbox car purchases came from the toy department. My father, grandfather and uncle’s suits, white shirts, and ties all came from the men’s department. My mother, aunt, and grandmother once all innocently purchased the same dress in the ladies’ department! (And three more different women you could not find in one family).  Best of all, Marshall Field’s was where Santa came. Happily, in 2003, my cousin and I took her two younger daughters (who were being VERY, VERY good sports at their age) and my two children to see the decorations and to talk to Santa just before the State Street store and the rest of the chain became….ugh…Macy’s.

So, when I learned from The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog of this book, I knew I had to read it. I love older man–younger woman true romances and love historical fiction, so ….


Delia Spencer Caton source and Marshall Field source

The Story

On the night of the Great Chicago Fire [remember–Mrs. O’Leary’s cow??] Delia Spencer [another gaggle of famous Spencer girls!] meets the love of her life, 40-year-old, married, Marshall Field, later to become synonymous with the great department store bearing his name (among other things).  As changes happen in Chicago, and “Marsh” becomes even more powerful, Delia is there for him. Married herself to another Chicago society man, Del, Arthur (her husband), and Marsh lead a life together always complicated by the overbearing Nannie, aka Mrs. Marshall Field.

My Thoughts

I don’t usually post unmarried couples as great cross-generational romances, but this one was just shy of Mr. Rochester’s crazy wife in the attic, so I let Marsh and Dell have their day. I loved them but didn’t always like them. God doesn’t send a lady someone else’s husband, after all. Not while that other lady is still alive.

The book itself was well-paced, the writing very good. Marsh and Del were fairly well fleshed-out. The author did get too heavy on the newspaper or couturier catalog description of rooms or clothing though. In fact, that got to be a drag in places.

I didn’t find either Marsh or Delia to be that likable, except when they were alone together. Delia did lovingly care for her own husband at one point which redeemed her some.  While I found Nannie to be beyond unlikeable, she also had reason to be!

Marshall was Marshall–a man completely obsessed with his work, his legacy, his own world. Power is a quite an attraction for many women. Marsh, unless the author skipped this part, did not openly play the field. I suppose that redeemed him some, too.

You can read more about the real Delia Spencer Caton here in

The Second Mrs. Field: The Fabulous Delia Caton

My Verdict

Aside from the flaws mentioned above, and a few silly mistakes like calling Marhsall’s children “teenagers” before the word was coined, and pontificating conversation such as “he’s changing the face of State Street,” I still found this to be a good read although I acutally listened to the audiobook.


An Unexpected Employee


Harry Selfridge source

This book was published in 2014, right when the drama Mr. Selfridge was all over PBS. Harry Selfridge got his start with who? Marshall Field, of course!

One interesting, unexpected relationship

Marshall’s daughter, Ethel, was mother to British socialite Ronnie Tree (from her first marriage) and was the wife of World War I’s Admiral David Beatty by whom she had two more sons. Marsh regarded Beatty as “a sailor.” He was 30 years her senior.


Ethel Field source, Lady Beatty, her husband Admiral Lord Beatty, source, and their eldest son, David, later Lord Beatty source.


Delia, later in life. Source

Review: A Single Thread: A Novel by Tracy Chevalier


My Interest

Tracy Chevalier is a “must-read” author for me. I love her writing. This book sounded like one I’d truly love as well.


Winchester Cathedra (source)

The Story

“…I want to rebel meaningfully…not unconsciously.”

Violet Speedwell in A Single Thread

Violet is one of the many “surplus women”–those left by World War I without a husband. Tired of living with her overbearing mother, Violet takes a job transfer to Winchester to live on her own–a very daring thing in 1932. Her job as a typist barely lets her life, but she finds solace doing embroidery with a group at Winchester Cathedral (yes, the one in the annoying 1960’s song).  She makes friends with a few women in the group and begins to make a life for herself.  She also meets Arthur–an older man, not a rake, but a decent family man. He is a bellringer (big church bells, not handbells). They develop a relationship as well.

My Thoughts

Overall, I truly liked the story. I liked the very real emotions Violet experienced in striving for independence. I liked that fish paste or cress sandwiches were endurable if she could go to the cinema! That was real and I could relate to it so much.  She was pragmatic in meeting her needs, too, which was something I admired. Society may have said X, but she still did Y because she needed to.

I did find it predictable that two of the women were lesbians and thought the author was VERY heavy-handed in making us feel how unjust the discrimination against homosexuals was back then. I agree–it was. After all in Britain, until the late ’60s or early 1970s, at least men could be arrested and sent to prison! But the tone of the story was almost, dare I say, preachy? Like being lectured on how wrong all of the past was and how fabulously woke we must all become. That sort of tone. That I felt all of this was also a tribute to her tremendous skills as a writer and storyteller. (We had a smaller taste of this tone whenever Violet’s boss was in the story).

By contrast, though, a later event in Violet’s life [no spoilers] did not get anything like this level of emotion. That was odd to me. Like one was a tragedy of epic proportions and the other was “walk it off, already” level of pain though both were of an approximate level of emotion at least [sorry, I can’t say it more clearly without spoilers].

Having done some embroidery years ago, I found the discussion of the work to be interesting. (I also wished I could remember something about Winchester Cathedral from visiting it at age 15). I did not find the bell pulling activity quite as interesting as the author apparently did, however. I admit it did give me a much better picture of the activity than I’d gleaned years ago from Tristan in All Creatures Great and Small, but generous cuts could have been made to that part of the book.

Finally, I liked the way she portrayed her landlady and her family in their acceptance (or their ignoring) of certain people in the story.

My Verdict


A Single Thread: A Novel by Tracy Chevalier

The Real Embroidery of Winchester Cathedral


Image from Needleprint of a Winchester Cathedral embroidered kneeler cushion.

Here is a blog post from Needleprint about the Cathedral’s kneeler pads and other embroideries with several more photos.  Click here to see more photos.


Model for the embroidery by Louisa Pesel. Credit for the image


Author’s Interview With NPR

click here


British cover