The Winemaker’s Wife, by Kristin Harmel (Review)


The Winemaker’s Wife
by Kristin Harmel

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 400 Pages

Release date: August 13, 2019

Publisher: Gallery Books

Synopsis: 

Champagne, 1940: Inès has just married Michel, the owner of storied champagne house Maison Chauveau, when the Germans invade. As the danger mounts, Michel turns his back on his marriage to begin hiding munitions for the Résistance. Inès fears they’ll be exposed, but for Céline, half-Jewish wife of Chauveau’s chef de cave, the risk is even greater—rumors abound of Jews being shipped east to an unspeakable fate.

When Céline recklessly follows her heart in one desperate bid for happiness, and Inès makes a dangerous mistake with a Nazi collaborator, they risk the lives of those they love—and the champagne house that ties them together.

New York, 2019: Liv Kent has just lost everything when her eccentric French grandmother shows up unannounced, insisting on a trip to France. But the older woman has an ulterior motive—and a tragic, decades-old story to share. When past and present finally collide, Liv finds herself on a road to salvation that leads right to the caves of the Maison Chauveau.

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My thanks to NetGalley and Gallery Books for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Okay. Minority opinion alert. This book currently has a very respectable 4.14 average on Goodreads, so if the synopsis sounds like something you’ll love, by all means, don’t like my review turn you off of it. But my honest reaction to this novel was mainly disappointment.

To start with, the synopsis gave me an impression of a plot that was firmly rooted in the resistance movement in France. Unfortunately, this all felt very secondary in the novel, and the main thrust of the historical portion of the plot hinges around marital affairs and discord. In and of itself, this could have been a decent focus for a story (despite not being what I was expecting) had the characters involved been a bit more developed. All that being said, there were high stakes for this part of the book and good cause to be emotionally invested in the outcome.

The modern portion of the plot, by contrast, felt tacked-on and lifeless. Liv, much like the characters in the earlier timeline, feel quite underdeveloped, and she was without the benefit of the tension in the HF portion to push the story along. Liv is recently divorced and sad about it. A very obvious romantic interest figure pops into the story when Liv’s grandmother, Edith takes her to France, and their romance is delayed to a positively ridiculous degree by a misunderstanding and multiple characters’ failure to communicate very basic facts.

Harmel has quite a few novels under her belt, but this one unfortunately read like a debut, in my opinion. The characters were all very shallow, and were often unsympathetic when I believe the author did not intend for them to be. The plot sometimes strained the limits of incredulity, and the more interesting aspects of the story routinely took a back seat to things like wine making and affairs. The rating is comparable to her prior books, however, so I think it’s safe to say that fans of her existing work will not be disappointed in this book as I was.

All that being said, I was still prepared to rate this around three stars rather than two until I got to a particular scene that cast the entirety of the book in a bad light for me. I will try to be as vague as possible to avoid giving away huge plot points, but some spoilers are ahead.

In a moment of distress, a character (I’ll call her person A) confides in a person whom she knows to be a Nazi collaborator. The secrets she gives away lead to the arrest of several people, who then end up in a concentration camp. Years later, one of the characters who has managed to survive the camp (I’ll call her person B) makes quite a point of saying that she doesn’t blame the person who gave her up to the Nazis. Her reasoning is essentially that Person A was careless but not cruel. Again, I’d like to emphasize that Person A was well aware that her confidant was a Nazi collaborator.

I’m all for victims finding forgiveness for those who have harmed them if it helps them find peace, but Person B is not a real person with autonomy; she is a character being fed lines by an author. Forgiveness can be healing, but there’s something about the narrative that seems to frame this as the “correct” choice, and that didn’t sit well with me. Perhaps I’m entirely misreading the author’s intentions, but this was the impression I left the book with, and it was enough to turn me off of a book I already had a rather lukewarm experience reading.

Again, many readers thoroughly enjoyed this book. If you are a fan of Harmel’s work, please do give it a chance. Unfortunately, this was my first impression of her work and I don’t think I’ll be reading another of her books.
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We Are All Good People Here, by Susan Rebecca White (Review)

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We Are All Good People Here 
by Susan Rebecca White

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 304 Pages

Release date: August 6, 2019

Publisher: Atria Books

Synopsis: 

Eve Whalen, privileged child of an old-money Atlanta family, meets Daniella Gold in the fall of 1962, on their first day at Belmont College. Paired as roommates, the two become fast friends. Daniella, raised in Georgetown by a Jewish father and a Methodist mother, has always felt caught between two worlds. But at Belmont, her bond with Eve allows her to finally experience a sense of belonging. That is, until the girls’ expanding awareness of the South’s systematic injustice forces them to question everything they thought they knew about the world and their places in it.

Eve veers toward radicalism—a choice pragmatic Daniella cannot fathom. After a tragedy, Eve returns to Daniella for help in beginning anew, hoping to shed her past. But the past isn’t so easily buried, as Daniella and Eve discover when their daughters are endangered by secrets meant to stay hidden.

Spanning more than thirty years of American history, from the twilight of Kennedy’s Camelot to the beginning of Bill Clinton’s presidency, We Are All Good People Here is “a captivating…meaningful, resonant story” (Emily Giffin, author of All We Ever Wanted) about two flawed but well-meaning women clinging to a lifelong friendship that is tested by the rushing waters of history and their own good intentions.

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My thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

We Are All Good People Here is trying to do a lot of things, but at the forefront is an exploration of radicalization. At the beginning of the book when Daniella and Eve first meet, Daniella seems the more likely of the two to fall into a radical protest movement. She is a young Jewish woman who experiences discrimination during a formative part of her life, and she’s passionate about fighting injustice against others. However, Eve, privileged, wealthy, and sheltered, has a difficult time navigating her early years away and college and all the drastic changes that come with it. She ends up being a more appealing and susceptible target for radical groups.

Eve was endlessly frustrating to me, not just as a person, but in the way she is written. She took a long time to make sense to me as a character, as her viewpoints swing from one extreme to the next and then back again. By the end of the book, I came to understand her as a person who defines herself by those who surround her and support her at any given time. She will become a mirror and reflect their own beliefs right back at them, and it becomes difficult to fathom what, if anything, is beneath that shiny surface.

While there was a lot of meat to this story and a lot of potential, my reading experience with it was just okay. The pacing sometimes felt a bit off and the story seemed to drag at time. But a big part of the problem is that I think the author was trying to do a little too much. Some books have loads of hot-button issues within them and they make it work. More often, it feels like the author is throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks; it does not feel organic.

While this book fell a little flat for me, I don’t regret reading it. I would recommend it to fans of books like The Help.

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Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, by Donna Freitas (Review)

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Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention
by Donna Freitas

Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir

Length: 336 Pages

Release date: August 13, 2019

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Synopsis: 

Donna Freitas has lived two lives. In one life, she is a well-published author and respected scholar who has traveled around the country speaking about Title IX, consent, religion, and sex on college campuses. In the other, she is a victim, a woman who suffered and suffers still because she was stalked by her graduate professor for more than two years.

As a doctoral candidate, Freitas loved asking big questions, challenging established theories and sinking her teeth into sacred texts. She felt at home in the library, and safe in the book-lined offices of scholars whom she admired. But during her first year, one particular scholar became obsessed with Freitas’ academic enthusiasm. He filled her student mailbox with letters and articles. He lurked on the sidewalk outside her apartment. He called daily and left nagging voicemails. He befriended her mother, and made himself comfortable in her family’s home. He wouldn’t go away. While his attraction was not overtly sexual, it was undeniably inappropriate, and most importantly–unwanted.

In Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, Donna Freitas delivers a forensic examination of the years she spent stalked by her professor, and uses her nightmarish experience to examine the ways in which we stigmatize, debate, and attempt to understand consent today.

rating

four

My thanks to Little, Brown and Company for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Consent was a difficult read in some respects; it was difficult to see the author recount her trauma, but more than that, it was difficult to think about the excuses she internally made for her stalker before things escalated out of control. Most women have been there, with varying degrees of severity. (Maybe he doesn’t realize he’s being inappropriate? Maybe I’m being overly sensitive and he’s not actually being inappropriate at all? Maybe I said/did/wore something that made him think this behavior would be welcome?)

This memoir is a an engrossing exploration of blurry lines of consent and the harassers who rely on plausible deniability to get away with their behavior. Donna Freitas was an enthusiastic student who loved getting to know her professors. This is probably part of why it took her a while to see that her abuser’s intentions were less than innocent. But a large part of this was probably also due to the professor’s intentionally chipping away at boundaries slowly, so as to acclimate his target to his attentions. By the time things escalated to the point that Freitas felt the need to get outside help, she’d already been in over her head for quite some time. The memoir does an excellent job of illuminating the process abusers of all sorts often use on those they target; things start small and often escalate slowly, all while the victim is questioning whether they’re crazy to feel uncomfortable at every step.

While this was at times an emotionally taxing read, I definitely recommend it to fans of memoirs and feminist works. The author’s exploration of consent, gaslighting, trauma, and institutions that shield powerful men from consequences are all important and timely.

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The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware (Review)

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The Turn of the Key
by Ruth Ware

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: August 6, 2019

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Synopsis: 

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unravelling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant.

It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

ratingfour

My thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

The Turn of the Key is Ruth Ware’s fifth novel, and I won’t lie… her work has been a little hit and miss for me. I was so looking forward to her prior book, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, and ended up finding a bit predictable and boring. The Turn of the Key is Ware at her very best; I couldn’t put this book down! The basic plot points (not to mention the title) suggest that the book takes heavy inspiration from The Turn of the Screw, but the story has been thoroughly modernized, and knowing the ending of the classic novella won’t give away the ending of this one. Ware will keep you guessing.

The book takes place mainly in the ancient house owned by the family that hires the protagonist, Rowan, as a nanny. The environment has the Gothic vibe typical for a Ware novel, but there’s an interesting dynamic introduced by all the upgrades the owners have made to the home, converting the old house into a smart home, with lights, cameras, and everything down to the coffee maker controlled by an app.

The contrast between the old fashioned home and all the tech creates a kind of dissonance that’s off-putting for Rowan and creates a sense of tension. It also introduces some ambiguity to the creepy situations that follow; are the flickering lights being controlled by spirits who want Rowan to leave, someone with access to the app intentionally messing with her, or just a glitch in the system?

The story itself is told in the form of a letter which Rowan writes to a solicitor from a jail cell, asking for his help. We don’t find out until late in the story what exactly has led to her arrest, but she insists on her innocence. This was the perfect format to tel this story, because it leaves the possibility of an unreliable narrator wide open. Rowan obviously has a huge vested interest in how this story was told, and I spent a lot of the book wondering how much of Rowan’s story to believe.

My main quibble with the book was probably the hint of romance in it, but I’m personally a hard sell when it comes to romances. Nothing about the story line felt particularly awful, but it just felt a bit unnecessary and shoe-horned into the book.

Overall, this was definitely one of Ware’s strongest novels. After Mrs. Westaway, I was a little hesitant about picking it up, and I’m so glad I gave it a shot!

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After the End, by Clare Mackintosh (Review)


After the End
by Clare Mackintosh

Genre: Fiction, Contemporary

Length: 400 Pages

Release date: June 25, 2019

Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Synopsis: 

Max and Pip are the strongest couple you know. They’re best friends, lovers—unshakable. But then their son gets sick and the doctors put the question of his survival into their hands. For the first time, Max and Pip can’t agree. They each want a different future for their son.

What if they could have both?

A gripping and propulsive exploration of love, marriage, parenthood, and the road not taken, After the End brings one unforgettable family from unimaginable loss to a surprising, satisfying, and redemptive ending and the life they are fated to find. With the emotional power of Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, Mackintosh helps us to see that sometimes the end is just another beginning.

ratingfour

My thanks to G.P. Putnam’s Sons for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

“In a few moments, the doors will open, and the next act of Dylan’s story will begin. No matter what the judge’s ruling, Max’s and Pip’s lives will be irreversibly changed today, and Leila knows they will forever question the choices they made in the weeks leading up to the hearing. But when you stand at a crossroad you cannot see each destination, only the beginnings of the paths that will lead you there. All you can do is choose one, and walk, and hope that someone will walk with you.”

After the End is not my usual choice for a book. I was asked to review it by the publisher and was a little hesitant about accepting; parenthood is central to the story, and I worried that, as someone with no kids, I would struggle to connect with the two main characters. I found myself pleasantly surprised; Mackintosh has brought Max and Pip to life in these pages, and I found my heart aching for them as they struggled with their son’s illness.

The novel alternates perspectives between Max and Pip, and it is basically divided into two sections. The first half of the book explores one cohesive story: Max and Pip have been dealing with Dylan’s illness for quite some time when the novel begins. Things have been starting to improve, but he takes a sudden turn for the worse, he suffers brain damage, and the chance of recovery drops to essentially zero. Max and Pip are asked to decide how to handle Dylan’s care given this development: continue treatment to try to extend his life or offer palliative care only? For the first time in Dylan’s life, Max and Pip cannot find a way to agree on what’s best for him. Because there is no parental consensus, Dylan’s case ends up in court.

This leads to the second half of the novel, and Mackintosh made an interesting choice to allow the plot to diverge here. The second half is telling two separate stories: one exploring the aftermath of the court ordering that Dylan be allowed to continue treatment, and one where Dylan was given hospice care. Both parents are forced to doubt their choices, as anyone would in such a situation. There was something really powerful in seeing each character struggle with all the “what ifs” while seeing those “what ifs” play out in a parallel story.

One of the central messages of After the End is that often there are no easy answers or right decisions. Max and Pip both wrestle with immense regrets no matter how they choose to care for Dylan. The struggle within their marriage was also portrayed beautifully. They love one another fiercely, and they seem to know that they both want what’s best for Dylan, despite disagreeing vehemently about what that means in practice.

After the End is thoughtful and poignant. It asks us to think about a lot of difficult moral questions without pointing us towards any particular answer, and I feel this is something a lot of the best books should do. It’s a heartbreaking but somewhat cathartic read for anyone who has struggled with the loss of a family member after a prolonged illness.

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The Flight Girls, by Noelle Salazar (Review)


The Flight Girls
by Noelle Salazar

Genre: Historical Fiction (WWII)

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: July 2, 2019

Publisher: MIRA

Synopsis: 

A stunning story about the Women Airforce Service Pilots whose courage during World War II turned ordinary women into extraordinary heroes

1941. Audrey Coltrane has always wanted to fly. It’s why she implored her father to teach her at the little airfield back home in Texas. It’s why she signed up to train military pilots in Hawaii when the war in Europe began. And it’s why she insists she is not interested in any dream-derailing romantic involvements, even with the disarming Lieutenant James Hart, who fast becomes a friend as treasured as the women she flies with. Then one fateful day, she gets caught in the air over Pearl Harbor just as the bombs begin to fall, and suddenly, nowhere feels safe.

To make everything she’s lost count for something, Audrey joins the Women Airforce Service Pilots program. The bonds she forms with her fellow pilots reignite a spark of hope in the face war, and—when James goes missing in action—give Audrey the strength to cross the front lines and fight not only for her country, but for the love she holds so dear.

Shining a light on a little-known piece of history, The Flight Girls is a sweeping portrayal of women’s fearlessness, love, and the power of friendship to make us soar.

ratingthree

My thanks to NetGalley and MIRA for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

I’ll start this out by freely admitting that I seem to be in the minority opinion on this one. I read a lot of rave reviews and went in with super high hopes, ready for a WWII story with a lot of substance and a strong, interesting female protagonist. What I got felt more… fluffy romance set against a dark backdrop.

The book definitely plays lip service to the idea of a strong female lead, but it doesn’t really feel like it goes beyond that. Audrey is not like other girls because she likes to fly planes and doesn’t want to get married and have babies. The only reason she doesn’t want to get married and have babies, by the way, seems to be because it’d be nearly impossible to find a husband who would “allow” her to keep flying. I think this really gets at the heart of my issue with Audrey: that her love of flight really felt like her singular defining character trait. She never starting feeling like a person to me. I love that she had an unconventional passion for a woman of the time, but that’s not enough on its own to make her an interesting character.

Another reviewer on Goodreads also pointed out some anachronisms in the novel. This truly isn’t something that bothers me as a reader (barring something ridiculous like if Audrey were to suddenly pull out a flip phone) but for readers who are super into the accuracy of their history, it’s bound to ruffle some feathers.

The romance, while it took up a bigger part of the story than I would have liked, was fine. I liked that Audrey found someone who shared her passion and there seemed to be a huge amount of respect between the two of them, especially considering the normal power dynamics of a relationship in the time period. This felt healthy and sweet, if a bit predictable (although what romance isn’t?) My only real qualm with the romance aspect of the book was that I’m not a huge fan of the basic concept of the story, which was: “girl who adamantly never wants to get married discovers she just hasn’t met the right man yet!” I think The Flight Girls will appeal to romance fans far more than historical fiction fans, which seems odd given the premise and marketing of the book.

The Flight Girls is a story with a lot of potential that, while it missed the mark for me personally, seems to be a huge hit with a lot of readers. Pick this up if you’re in the mood a light read, but don’t expect hard-hitting historical fiction that makes you think. This is Noelle Salazar’s debut novel, and I do think she has tons of potential. I’m excited to see what she writes next!

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Whisper Network, by Chandler Baker (Review)


Whisper Network
by Chandler Baker

Genre: Fiction, Mystery

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: July 2, 2019

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Synopsis: 

Four women learn their boss (a man who’s always been surrounded by rumors about how he treats women) is next in line to be CEO—what will happen when they decide enough is enough?

Sloane, Ardie, Grace, and Rosalita are four women who have worked at Truviv, Inc., for years. The sudden death of Truviv’s CEO means their boss, Ames, will likely take over the entire company. Ames is a complicated man, a man they’ve all known for a long time, a man who’s always been surrounded by…whispers. Whispers that have always been ignored by those in charge. But the world has changed, and the women are watching Ames’s latest promotion differently. This time, they’ve decided enough is enough.

Sloane and her colleagues set in motion a catastrophic shift within every floor and department of the Truviv offices. All four women’s lives—as women, colleagues, mothers, wives, friends, even adversaries—will change dramatically as a result.

“If only you had listened to us,” they tell us on page one, “none of this would have happened.”

ratingfour

My thanks to Flatiron Books for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

When I saw Whisper Network described as essentially a mystery novel for the #metoo era, I was super intrigued but also a little wary. I think with books that seem very timely, there’s always the risk that they’ll come across opportunistic and insincere. Not so with Whisper Network, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise of a novel.

An undercurrent of whispers in the corporate world comes to a head when the sudden death of Truviv’s CEO leaves one infamously badly behaved higher up in the company poised to take over. The story takes place mainly in one timeline as tension is mounting, with hints at the disaster to come shown in the form of police interviews after the fact. (Think Big Little Lies style snippets, giving you tiny bits of information at at a time.)

Of the four main characters mentioned in the synopsis, Sloane and Roselita seemed to be the best developed. I think the sheer number of POV characters is part of what kept this from hitting a full five stars for me. I understand why the author made the choices she did, as she was trying to weave together a lot of secrets and personal histories, so this may be down to my own personal taste, as I generally like spending more time in a novel with one or two characters in order to really understand them. I would have liked a bit more focus on Sloane and Roselita, but your mileage may vary.

As a woman in a professional setting, there was something kind of cathartic about this novel, particularly certain sections which were written somewhat aside from the main narrative, and read almost like a plea directly to the reader, such as the following passage:

So when we said that we would prefer not to have to asked to smile on top of working, we meant that: we would like to do our jobs, please. When we said that we would like not to hear a comment about the length of our skirt, we meant that: we would like to of our jobs, please. When we said that we would like not to have someone try to touch us in our office, we meant that: we would like to do our jobs. Please.

Every woman with a job, particularly those of us with already relatively high-stress jobs, can feel this in her bones. The frustration of having so much to deal with at work… and then having someone else’s inappropriate behavior thrown on top of it like the cherry on top of the sundae is just too real.

Baker has written several books prior to Whisper Network, but appears to have focused on the young adult genre. I think she’s starting to find her groove with her latest novel and I hope she comes out with more adult fiction in the future!

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