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.

ratingtwo

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 let 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.
buy

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

Thank you for reading. Has a single scene ever ruined a whole book for you? Tell me in the comments!

jennabookish

Other places to follow me…
Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram | GoodReads

 

We Are All Good People Here, by Susan Rebecca White (Review)

42201099
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.

ratingthree

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.

buy

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

jennabookish

Other places to follow me…
Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram | GoodReads

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!

buy

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

jennabookish

Other places to follow me…
Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram | GoodReads

 

The Binding, by Bridget Collins (Review)


The Binding
by Bridget Collins

Genre: Historical Fiction / Fantasy

Length: 437 Pages

Release date: April 16, 2019

Synopsis: 

Imagine you could erase grief.
Imagine you could remove pain.
Imagine you could hide the darkest, most horrifying secret.
Forever.

Young Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a strange letter arrives summoning him away from his family. He is to begin an apprenticeship as a Bookbinder—a vocation that arouses fear, superstition, and prejudice among their small community but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.

For as long as he can recall, Emmett has been drawn to books, even though they are strictly forbidden. Bookbinding is a sacred calling, Seredith informs her new apprentice, and he is a binder born. Under the old woman’s watchful eye, Emmett learns to hand-craft the elegant leather-bound volumes. Within each one they will capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory. If there’s something you want to forget, a binder can help. If there’s something you need to erase, they can assist. Within the pages of the books they create, secrets are concealed and the past is locked away. In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, rows upon rows of books are meticulously stored.

But while Seredith is an artisan, there are others of their kind, avaricious and amoral tradesman who use their talents for dark ends—and just as Emmett begins to settle into his new circumstances, he makes an astonishing discovery: one of the books has his name on it. Soon, everything he thought he understood about his life will be dramatically rewritten.

ratingfour

“Who the hell are you?”
“I’m the witch’s apprentice. Who the hell are you?” 

The reviews for The Binding  seem to be all over the place; either it will totally enchant you or bore you to tears, apparently. I think part of the problem for some readers is that the synopsis and marketing leave one expecting a full-blown fantasy novel. While there are fantasy elements and magic in this book, the overall feel is much more “historical fiction.” If you’re going into The Binding ready for a magical adventure, you may be disappointed.

But there’s a lot to love about this story. We get to watch the characters struggle with thorny ethical questions; what are the ramifications of helping someone to forget that they’ve done something terrible? What about forgetting the terrible things which have been done to them? What about binding good memories in exchange for money? If a person is so desperate for money that they’re willing to sell off their knowledge of, for example, their wedding day, are they really in a position to be capable of consenting to such a thing? Is offering money for something so treasured and irreplaceable inherently predatory?

At the heart of this novel is a love story, complicated by circumstances and drastic power imbalances. It’s messy, high stakes, and gut-wrenchingly genuine. It’s also the rare enemies to lovers story that doesn’t make me cringe. I don’t want to spoil anything, but Emmett has problems processing his feelings towards the love interest, for reasons that are obvious to the reader but not to him. His confusion manifests as hostility, and Collins managed to write the transition from that mindset into the love story very convincingly.

The Binding is slow, intricate, and contemplative. I think it’s somewhat a victim of poor marketing. Do not pick up this book expecting a fairy tale with loads of magic; with the exception of the ability to bind memories to a book, Emmett’s world is basically the real world of a few hundred years ago. Fans of detailed historical fiction or magical realism may want to sink their teeth into this novel.

buy

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

Thank you for reading! What was the last book you read that was completely different from the impression given by the synopsis? Let me know in the comments!

jennabookish

Other places to follow me…
Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram | GoodReads

Next Year in Havana, by Chanel Cleeton (Review)

34374628
Next Year in Havana
by Chanel Cleeton

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 361 Pages

Release date: Feb. 6, 2018

Synopsis: 

After the death of her beloved grandmother, a Cuban-American woman travels to Havana, where she discovers the roots of her identity–and unearths a family secret hidden since the revolution…

Havana, 1958. The daughter of a sugar baron, nineteen-year-old Elisa Perez is part of Cuba’s high society, where she is largely sheltered from the country’s growing political unrest–until she embarks on a clandestine affair with a passionate revolutionary…

Miami, 2017. Freelance writer Marisol Ferrera grew up hearing romantic stories of Cuba from her late grandmother Elisa, who was forced to flee with her family during the revolution. Elisa’s last wish was for Marisol to scatter her ashes in the country of her birth.

Arriving in Havana, Marisol comes face-to-face with the contrast of Cuba’s tropical, timeless beauty and its perilous political climate. When more family history comes to light and Marisol finds herself attracted to a man with secrets of his own, she’ll need the lessons of her grandmother’s past to help her understand the true meaning of courage.

ratingthree

Have you ever finished a historical fiction novel and been left feeling like you’d have been better off reading nonfiction? That was my experience with Next Year in Havana. I love historical fiction, and (as much as I love WWII fiction) I’m always on the lookout for something interesting outside of the over-saturated WWII historical fiction genre. (Other time periods exist!)

So I went into this book with high hopes. I can’t recall ever reading a book that takes place in Cuba, so I was looking forward to a nice change of pace in terms of time period as well as location. The author clearly desperately wanted to write about Cuban history and culture… to the point where the narrative itself and the characters felt like very thinly veiled excuses to do so.

Fiction can of course be great and also heavily steeped in real history and culture (In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez, is an example of a book which I think accomplishes this better), but the narrative needs to be interesting in its own right. The characters need to feel genuine. Next Year in Havana never felt like more than a vehicle to write about Cuban history.

As you can tell from the synopsis, this book is made up of two alternating time lines; one in the modern day told from the point of view Marisol as she returns to Cuba to spread her grandmother’s ashes, and one telling the story of her grandmother’s youth in Cuba. Both of these timelines have a romance sub-plot, and neither feels really justified. This is particularly true in the case of Marisol, who falls madly in love in the span of the maybe two weeks that she spends in Cuba. Both romances feel insta-lovey to an extent.

Overall, I did enjoy delving into a different culture and historical period, and I felt like I learned a good bit about Cuba through this book. Ultimately, though, I can’t help but feel like the time would have been better spent on a documentary on the same topic.

buy

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

jennabookish

Other places to follow me…
Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram | GoodReads

 

How We Disappeared, by Jing-Jing Lee (Review)

IMG_20190507_223105_216.jpg
How We Disappeared
by Jing-Jing Lee

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: May 7, 2019

Publisher: Hanover Square Press

Synopsis: 

Singapore, 1942. As Japanese troops sweep down Malaysia and into Singapore, a village is ransacked, leaving only two survivors and one tiny child.

In a neighboring village, seventeen-year-old Wang Di is strapped into the back of a troop carrier and shipped off to a Japanese military brothel where she is forced into sexual slavery as a “comfort woman.” After sixty years of silence, what she saw and experienced still haunts her.

In the year 2000, twelve-year-old Kevin is sitting beside his ailing grandmother when he overhears a mumbled confession. He sets out to discover the truth, wherever it might lead, setting in motion a chain of events he never could have foreseen.

Weaving together two time lines and two very big secrets, this stunning debut opens a window on a little-known period of history, revealing the strength and bravery shown by numerous women in the face of terrible cruelty. Drawing in part on her family’s experiences, Jing-Jing Lee has crafted a profoundly moving, unforgettable novel about human resilience, the bonds of family and the courage it takes to confront the past.

ratingfour

My thanks to Hanover Square Press and NetGalley 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. 

How We Disappeared is a beautiful, heartbreaking historical fiction novel with an element of mystery. There are several different story lines woven together with different point-of-view characters, but the strongest part of the novel while, also perhaps being the most difficult to read, was Wang Di’s experience. Wang Di is taken from her family during WWII and forced into sexual slavery as an innocuously named “comfort woman.”

Jing-Jing Lee’s writing is beautiful and the character of Wang Di brings a personality to a very real tragedy that could otherwise feel quite distant and abstract in today’s day and age. Despite the plethora of WWII historical fiction, there seem to be comparatively few novels which acknowledge the horrific abuse which “comfort women” suffered, much less the lack of understanding these women would have received from their fellow countrymen after the war. Despite the reality that this was a situation of sexual slavery, Wang Di knows that she cannot expect sympathy, and people will treat her as if she consented and, in doing so, betrayed her country to the Japanese invaders. Lee has portrayed that heartbreak and internalization of shame flawlessly.

While Wang Di’s story was much more dramatic, 12-year-old Kevin definitely won me over as well. His grandmother’s deathbed confession turns his understanding of his family upside-down, and he is determined to solve the mystery without the aid of his father. While his story isn’t exactly lighthearted, it definitely provides a counter balance to Wang Di’s much darker storyline and feels like an adventure.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed How We Disappeared, and definitely recommend it to fans of historical fiction. I’ve seen it recommended to fans of Pachinko several times, and while I understand the comparison, I do think How We Disappeared has much better pacing (and it’s also about 150 pages shorter.) Jing-Jing Lee has brought an under-represented bit of history to life in this novel.

buy

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

Thank you for reading! Have you read How We Disappeared? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

jennabookish

Other places to follow me…
Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram | GoodReads

 

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, by Juliet Grames (Review)

59991986_440841716692738_7209125897943646208_n
The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna 
by Juliet Grames

Genre: Historical Fiction, Cultural

Length: 464 Pages

Release date: May 7, 2019

Publisher: Ecco Press

Synopsis: 

In this stunning debut novel, a young woman tells the story behind two elderly sisters’ estrangement, unraveling family secrets stretching back a century and across the Atlantic to early 20th century Italy

For Stella Fortuna, death has always been a part of life. Stella’s childhood is full of strange, life-threatening incidents—moments where ordinary situations like cooking eggplant or feeding the pigs inexplicably take lethal turns. Even Stella’s own mother is convinced that her daughter is cursed or haunted.

In her rugged Italian village, Stella is considered an oddity—beautiful and smart, insolent and cold. Stella uses her peculiar toughness to protect her slower, plainer baby sister Tina from life’s harshest realities. But she also provokes the ire of her father Antonio: a man who demands subservience from women and whose greatest gift to his family is his absence.

When the Fortunas emigrate to America on the cusp of World War II, Stella and Tina must come of age side-by-side in a hostile new world with strict expectations for each of them. Soon Stella learns that her survival is worthless without the one thing her family will deny her at any cost: her independence.

In present-day Connecticut, one family member tells this heartrending story, determined to understand the persisting rift between the now-elderly Stella and Tina. A richly told debut, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a tale of family transgressions as ancient and twisted as the olive branch that could heal them.

ratingfour

My thanks to Ecco Press 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.


“This is the story of Mariastella Fortuna the Second, called Stella, formerly of Ievoli, a mountain village of Calabria, Italy, and lately of Connecticut, in the United States of America. Her life stretched over more than a century, and during that life she endured much bad luck and hardship. This is the story how she never died.”

This book was an absolute dream. Let me get the negative out of the way first and say that the only thing that’s keeping me from rating it a full five stars is that the pacing sometimes felt a bit slow. That being said, the writing style was phenomenal and Grames really made these characters feel intimately real.

This novel is the life story and family history of Stella Fortuna, with a series of near-death instances providing the backbone of the plot. Stella was born in a rural Italian village about a hundred years ago. Her father is about as useless as can be, but her mother loves her dearly and Stella is fiercely protective of her younger sister, Tina (at least when they are young.) The story follows the family from their origins in Italy to the end of Stella’s life in the US, long after her family emigrates on the cusp of WWII.

This may sound odd, but one of my favorite things about this book was Grames’ choice of narrator; the book is told from the point of view of a descendant of Stella. The narrator’s voice is understated for most of the book, but there are moments when her personality shines through, and I think telling the story from the point of view of one of Stella’s distant family members was a perfect choice. She is distant enough from the events of the story that she doesn’t seem to have a vested interest in skewing her telling, but she is close enough to Stella as a person that there’s a real sense of emotional connection.

Grames explores Stella’s difficult transition in America so convincingly. Dragged across an ocean by a father she never even loved, Stella feels cut off from a vital part of herself. What was supposed to feel like a new beginning simply leaves her feeling unmoored, and it’s not long before her parents are rushing to marry her off. Having grown up witnessing her father’s treatment of her mother, the very last thing Stella wants is a husband.

I spent a lot of time reading this book thinking of how different things would have been for Stella had she been born in another generation or another place. Living in that time period and having the extra pressure as an immigrant to fall in line with what’s considered “acceptable” behavior for a woman, there’s a great tragedy in knowing that in another time, Stella could have lived the life she wanted without scrutiny.

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a lovely novel and an excellent choice for those who enjoy reading historical fiction and family sagas.

Content warnings: rape, sexual abuse of children

buy

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

Thank you so much for reading! Let’s talk in the comments! Tell me about a novel you love that follows the main character’s entire life story.

jennabookish

Other places to follow me…
Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram | GoodReads