The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

I’m conflicted about this book — on the one hand a good, engrossing story with an array of interesting characters; but on the other hand I found it utterly depressing (in the last third of the book) and developed a real dislike for the main character (which I don’t think was the author’s goal!).

The story primarily takes place in Paris just before and during the Nazi occupation, with occasional interleaving chapters 40 years later in a small, Montana town. Odile is the young, naive, book loving girl in Paris who gets her dream job at the American Library in Paris with the formidable Miss Reeder. The library is full of wonderful characters — many of them real figures of history (such as Miss Reeder and Boris, the head librarian, in Paris having fled the Russian revolution).

Paris declares itself a “Quiet City” so that the Nazis are allowed to occupy without bloodshed. And as they occupy they plunder libraries (trying to “eradicate the cultures of certain countries, in a methodical confiscation of their works of science, literature, and philosophy”), arrest people for being enemy aliens (e.g. British), and begin the persecution of local Jews. It’s the same old story but this time the Parisians cooperate with the nasty “crow letters” — voluntary letters denouncing their neighbors for rule breaking — all of which the local constabulary is obligated to investigate. Shades of the French revolution, this made me feel sick.

In the Montana timeline, a young girl who loses her mother befriends an older Odile who is able to help Lily not make the same mistakes we slowly find out she made back in Paris. Structurally, the book is well-paced and there are good messages that come out of the story, but it took me (the emotional sponge that I am) a full day to get over feeling utterly depressed by the whole thing.

I will say that I appreciated that the book was not melodramatic — the times were full of drama and the story itself was dramatic enough without embellishment. I thought the book was well-written, and I did like the well-drawn characters — I just don’t feel the need to be this depressed about something I’ve already spent enough time being depressed about.

A few good quotes:
“Of course he knew something was wrong, he was a librarian — part psychologist, bartender, bouncer, and detective.”

“After three months of no rest, Eleanor yawned constantly, no longer a perky parakeet, but a plump pigeon that waddled from the crib to the rocking chair.”

“Books the fresh air breathed in to keep the heart beating, to keep the brain imagining, to keep hope alive.”

“The French language was a nasal bog that she had to wade through in the shops, the hairdressers, and the bakery.”

“The best thing about Paris? It’s a city of readers,” our neighbor said.

Switchboard Soldiers by Jennifer Chiaverini (Fictionalized History)

I absolutely loved this book — one of the best pieces of fictionalized history I’ve read in a long time. The subject is the recruitment of female Telephone Operators to manage the switchboards in France during WWI as part of the Signal Corps.

Few people alive today can remember a time when every single call made using a telephone had to go through an actual person to be connected. And physical lines had to be in place for any call to be connected. Now picture the war torn fields of France during WWI — physical lines had to be laid and relaid to remote and exposed pieces of war terrain, and operators had to be in place in multiple locations to connect calls to send out new orders, to get reports, to contact other units and allies. It is estimated that during the two years the 223 bilingual women were in place, they connected over 26 million calls.

In this book, the history IS the story, not the backdrop for a romance or a mystery, and the story is rich and full of historical, technical, and personal detail. Characters — both real and fictional — are true to the time as they reflect on their roles, worries, and hopes. We get all the details of their lives: training, required uniforms, wildly varying accommodations, gas mask training, the conditions of the locals, the camaraderie they develop, and the respect and appreciation they slowly earn from the initially skeptical men. Also, the strong patriotism each of them feels — true to the time, patriotism is not the dirty word it appears to have become today. This book is well researched (an excellent and long bibliography available at the back) and does not sink into melodrama — there are no broken hearts, gratuitous sobbing, or overwhelming romances. These women were competent, had an important purpose, and thrived in an environment of hard work, pressure, and real need. It wasn’t all rosy — after the war they were treated as volunteers and were discharged without proper veterans benefits. This was not rectified until 1977 when only 50 of the women were still alive.

The narrative follows three women (one real, two fictional) as they go through the process from recruitment shortly after the U.S. enters the war through the Versailles Peace Talks: Grace Banker of New Jersey (who later received the Distinguished Service Medal), Marie Miossec (a Frenchwoman and aspiring opera singer), and Belgian born Valerie DeSmedt (whose widowed mother ran a boarding house in Los Angeles).

Highly recommended.

Thank you to William Morrow and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 19th, 2022.

The Librarian Spy by Madeline Martin (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 2.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5
The story of two brave women during WWII — Ava Harper, a Library of Congress rare book librarian, recruited to spy in Lisbon, and Helene Belanger, a determined member of the French Resistance in Lyon — conspire to make at least one happy ending in a world that is utterly falling apart.

There were some very interesting aspects of this book: I’m a sucker for stories about books, librarians, and the printed word — and these all figured prominently. The author included a lot of accurate details about the processes (think bureaucracy and visas), technologies (Roneo machines!), and cultural practices of the time and place. The focus on both the French Resistance and “neutral” Portugal covered aspects of WWII that I haven’t read much about previously and were interesting, accurate, and detailed.

On the other hand, this book is really perfect for the kind of person who loves drama and appreciates how well the horror of war is depicted in the suffering of individuals — and I am not that person! The characters definitely draw you in, and I found myself crying frequently throughout because it would be impossible not to. But in truth, I found this book to be overwrought, consistently cliched, and far more melodramatic than I like which is disappointing because I very much liked Martin’s previous novel The Last Bookshop in London. It’s almost as though it were written by another writer.

Some of the writing actually made me cringe — “The Nazis had hovered over Lyon since the occupation, but now their breath whispered hot and fetid at the neck of the Resistance network.” And Ava’s behavior — while exemplary — did not in any way earn the incredible accolades that were awarded to her, giving the book more of an unrealistic Romance kind of feel, rather than historical fiction with a serious theme.

Still — plenty of action and drama, and I’m sure there are those for whom it will be a good reading experience. Bring plenty of Kleenex, and park your sunny disposition in the closet. It won’t be needed.

Thank you to Harlequin Trade Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on July 26th, 2022.

Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence by R F Kuang (speculative / historical fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5

An alternate / speculative history version of the British Empire in the 1830s where the wheels of commerce are driven by magic, imbued to bars of silver through the machinations of Translators. Robin Swift is plucked from Canton in the midst of a cholera epidemic by a Professor at the Royal Institute of Translation in Oxford. Robin’s gift of languages has made him valuable to the empire, and he goes from an impoverished childhood to one of plenty: plenty of material goods and plenty of work. I absolutely loved the first part of the book which built a world based on the impossibility of accurate and precise translation and the extractable magic embedded in the difference. The author is Oxford and Yale educated, specializing in Contemporary Chinese Studies and East Asian Languages, and I thoroughly enjoyed the linguistic forays and the consistency of the model she built.

From there — unfortunately from my perspective — the story veered into the politics of oppression, injustice, and racism. Robin and a group of (also foreign and dark skinned) classmates become enraged at the impending war Parliament is likely to launch on the Chinese who have declared Britain’s Opium contraband and burned the lot. Embracing violence — with all the complications that entails — comprises the plot of the rest of the book (in case you missed it, the subtitle is “On the necessity of violence.”) I didn’t like this part and was not convinced (at all) by the argument.

The story is very well-written, the characters have depth, and the history is accurate. While I said it was an “alternate” or “speculative” history, that only applied to the “magical” components — the rest followed real history accurately until the very end. I enjoyed the philosophical discussions of morality, ethical behavior, and fairness, though I wish she had not made the representatives of empire so absolutely nasty and clearly wrong (I always think there is more subtlety to any individual than is apportioned to novelistic portrayals).

Not surprisingly, I learned a few new words:

  • synecdoche — a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa.
  • discursive — digressing from subject to subject (too many people write and talk this way!)
  • rhotic — of, relating to, or denoting a dialect or variety of English

Some quotes:

“That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say.”

“English did not just borrow words from other languages; it was stuffed to the brim with foreign influences, a Frankenstein vernacular.”

“Their minds, enriched with new sounds and words, were like sleek muscles waiting to be stretched.”

“The poet runs untrammeled across the meadow. The translator dances in shackles.”

“It was like tunneling into the crevasses of his own mind, peeling things apart to see how they worked, and it both intrigued and unsettled him.”

“What was a word? What was the smallest possible unit of meaning, and why was that different from a word? Was a word different from a character? In what ways was Chinese speech different from Chinese writing?”

“Every language is complex in its own way. Latin just happens to work its complexity into the shape of the word. Its morphological richness is an asset, no an obstacle.”

“London had accumulated the lion’s share of both the world’s silver ore and the world’s languages, and the result was a city that was bigger, heavier, faster, and brighter than nature allowed.”

“Robin saw immediately that London was, like Canton, a city of contradictions and multitudes, as was any city that acted as a mouth to the world.”

Thank you to Avon and Harper Voyager and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 23rd, 2022.

The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara Ackerman (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5


Very engaging story about Isabel Cooper — a crack codebreaker serving in Hawaii during WWII. While the plot is a little clunky, the writing draws you in, the characters are wonderful, and the descriptions of Hawaii, code breakers, and smart women playing chess were well done and lots of fun. I thought the author did a decent job of portraying intelligent, working women at the time: no heavy handed agenda — just women getting along as well as they could (and that was pretty well!) given their situation. Decent male characters as well. Romance and an a multi-generational mystery thrown in. Very Enjoyable.

Thank you to Harlequin Trade Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 2nd, 2022.

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer (Historical fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5

How have I never read this book? This will definitely be one of my top reads of 2022. Historical fiction immersed in the drive to commercialize the production of penicillin for the troops. Here’s a shocking statistic — over 50% of the deaths in the Civil War were from infection; over 30% in the “Great War.”

The story opens with Claire Shipley — photojournalist for Life magazine — covering the story of early trials on penicillin for humans. 1941 — just days after Pearl Harbor — a man makes an almost miraculous recovery from near death by the injection of penicillin — only to die days later when researchers literally run out of the drug: it is that difficult to produce. Together the U.S. Government, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (a real place — look it up), and reluctantly drafted pharmaceutical companies race to find a process to produce enough of the miracle drug to save the men on the front.

Part love story, part murder mystery, part home front war story, and part industry story, the author does an incredible job of making war-time New York City come to life. New York is a great setting for historical fiction as it is and always has been teeming with people, innovation, and secrets. While the main characters are fictional, the historical characters (e.g. Vannevar Bush, Henry Luce, Claire Booth Luce, Margaret Bourke-White, Margaret Sanger, Jack Reed) are presented realistically (without any fictionalized access to their inner thoughts). Beautiful writing — I highlighted a lot of quotes in the (physical) book but I was too lazy to transcribe them 😦

In addition to the description of the historical setting, what I loved about the book were the characters. Each had his or her own passion, and the author explored the depth of their work, their attraction to it, and the kind of personalities and background that made them so suited to it. The descriptions of Claire and her photos were completely absorbing and beautifully described; Dr. James Staunton leading the research at the Rockefeller Institute; his sister Tia the mycologist, exploring dirt samples from around the world to find other antibacterial “cousins” to penicillin; and Edward Rutherford, one of the very earliest venture capitalists, describing the process of making money from opportunity.

Completely captivating. This was her second novel, published in 2010. Novels 1,3, and 4 are all excellent as well!

Ashton Hall by Lauren Belfer (Literary and Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 5/5

A fabulous book full of all the literary things that I love.

Hannah Larson and her neurodiverse son, Nicky, move to a historic manor house outside of Cambridge to care for a beloved, elderly relative. Hannah uses the opportunity to take up her abandoned dissertation while simultaneously escaping a recent and devastating betrayal. While there, Nicky, through his “oddities” discovers a skeleton (dated ~late 1850s) in a bricked up room.

It’s a rich, multi-layered novel delving into both the mystery of the female skeleton, the historical context of her life, and the historical research process by which Hannah uncovers the story. In the current day story, Hannah faces a pretty major problem in her marriage and some real difficulties in raising her son who appears to be on the autism spectrum though is never officially labeled as such. He is finding a place — and friends and interests — in the new world he inhabits while continuing to have “incidents” that she is not able to control. In the past, our skeleton inhabits a world rife with religious conflict, plague, and famine. A strong theme running through both time frames is the choices women have made and the options they were given over the centuries. Interesting parallels and the author never slips into anti-man territory (thank you — so sick of that).

The author does a brilliant job at bringing to life both the world of the1800s for our bricked in skeleton and the current world of an American on leave from her “real” life in a place that opens her eyes to new possibilities. While each of these “worlds” is a context, it is a context experienced by people with different wants, desires, personalities, and situations. I love a book filled with individuals who not only don’t fall into the stereotypes of their culture, but actively question their decisions and roles!

Great for fans of Julia Kelly and Carol Goodman.

Quotes:

“The talents possessed by women had been overlooked, denigrated, dismissed, and suppressed for centuries. The diseases they might have cured. The technological advanced they might have made, the cruelties righted, works of art created, buildings designed — all denied. The tragedy and failure of it affected not only individuals but communities and societies. The women who’d found meaning by devoting themselves to their families had also been silenced by history, erased, the importance of their household labor unrecognized.”

“Even as I said this, I knew that one of the biggest roadblocks to understanding history was the false notion that the individuals of the past were more or less like us, thought like us, and would only do things we would do. I realized that I’d been thinking about Isabella this way all along. I had to stop seeing her through the filter of myself.”

“Her reign is referred to as theGolden Age, but it was a flowering of culture against a backdrop of religious suppression, torture, disease, and waves of starvation.”

“The first year of nothing, 1593, was the year when Catholics were required to have a license to travel more than five miles from their homes. It was also the year when a bill was introduced in Parliament calling for the removal of children from Catholic families, so they could be raised in Protestant homes. The bill was withdrawn, but the point had been made, brutally.”

“Such energy expended, to arrive at this restrained intimacy.”

“Four hundred years from now, was this how Anne Frank’s attic would be viewed? After enough time had passed and the trauma had faded, would the attic evolve into something fun for kids to see because it was gruesome in a shivery, Halloween sort of way, the horrifying truth rewritten to make the site more visitor-friendly? I prayed we’d never reach a day when kids could tour Anne Frank’s hiding place and after ward receive smiley-face stickers for their shirts”

“Bringing starvation and war into this discussion was like saying is was okay to cheat on an exam because the exam was insignificant compared to the atomic bomb. Individuals as well as societies needed moral standards.”

“Ah, yes, 1545 to 1610. Years of traumatic religious upheaval, played out against crop failures, famine, smallpox, sweating sickness, plague. Also, a flowering of culture, of poetry, music, and drama.”

“I wished I could view the world as Christopher did , a place where the most mundane errands were part of an adventure story.”

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 7th, 2022.

The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer Ryan (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5
Another upbeat, can-do, WWII based piece of historical fiction from Jennifer Ryan, author of The Kitchen Home Front and The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. Three women in Aldhurst Village help transmute the local sewing circle into a shining example of community spirit during the deprivations of war — launching a wedding dress sewing circle, transforming old, often moth-eaten wedding dresses into modern beauties available for loan to brides in need. Grace Carlisle — the dutiful vicar’s daughter, soon to marry her father’s curate; Cressida Westcott, renowned fashion designer, returning to the village manor house (from which she was evicted decades before due to non obedience) when her home and business in London are reduced to rubble; and her spoiled niece Violet Westcott, who wants nothing but to marry a title and live the luxurious life to which she is entitled.

There was romance and it is handled well, but the real treats for me were the friendships, the awakening of awareness of opportunities and alternate lifestyles for each of the women, and the well-researched details of life on the home front. Ryan’s tidbits about wartime clothing were fascinating: The rationing (40 coupons per year — about enough for a a couple of dresses), the government Make Do and Mend program, the restriction on bathing to 5 inches of bathwater twice per week to save on fuel, the “paint on stockings” made from gravy — useful if there are no dogs around! — and most interesting, the challenges for designers who had to make do with “less fabric, more synthetic materials, and absolutely no metal fastenings or elastic.” It was just technical enough on the design and sewing aspects to be interesting but not overwhelmingly confusing to a sewing ignormus like myself.

As always, Ryan captures the real community spirit of wartime in Britain — ordinary people “joining forces to overcome the difficulties of war.” While not avoiding the terror and depression of the time, the book manages to focus on the positive and uplifting aspects of people coming together to do what needs to be done.

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 31st, 2022.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (historical / speculative fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 (well written but I don’t like them) Plot: 3.5/5

An alternate history — what would Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life be like if she hadn’t married Bill Clinton. It certainly had its interesting points, but overall I was not a fan. If you ever had a positive thought about Clinton (Bill) before, you won’t after reading this (remember it’s fictional!) book. In this book, Bill is charismatic, intelligent, but ultimately unprincipled and an egotistical sexual predator full stop. Lots of sex scenes in the first part of the book — I guess to explain why / how Hillary fell in love with him to begin with — but the white powerful all-bad male trope pervaded the pages. While Bill’s womanizing would not be something I would enjoy in a husband, the real Hillary got to make her own decisions, frame her own life and choose to stay with her husband (who very much supported her career throughout his own). The fact that many women (Sittenfeld obviously included) decided she was wrong to do this — what business is it of theirs? This (obviously) irked me.

Lots of political strategy and maneuvering which isn’t my thing (but if it’s your thing you might enjoy this!). The best part for me was a very realistic reminder of what life was like for strong, smart women who were born just fifteen years before I was. I had it so much better, and my daughter lives in what feels like a completely different world. The book also served as a sad (to me) reminder of what the population seems to value in a candidate — charisma, good looks, etc. The high school popularity contest continues unabated…

The Last Dance of the Debutante By Julia Kelly

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5
A description of the London debutante season during the last year at which debs were presented to Queen Elizabeth (March 1958). Told from the perspective of Lily — a young woman who would much prefer furthering her studies in literature but nevertheless obliges her mother and grandmother by being the best deb she can be. While there are plenty of descriptions of gowns, parties, and balls (as one would expect), what I liked was the perspective of someone for whom the daily activities were — while pleasurable at times — more chore than treat. Utterly exhausting at times, in fact. The Season had a purpose and it was to be pursued with brutal focus: meet the “right” people and find an eligible man with whom to start the “right” kind of life. Lily has principles and gains a greater understanding of what those principles are and how to handle the conflicts that arise when her principles meet her family’s goals. We gain access to a variety of characters through an unusual take on the lives of “quality” women during this time period. Some secrets are unearthed, some surprising events occur, and the story is engaging from start to finish. The author describes her interviews with various debutantes of the time — very well put together!