Ribbons of Scarlet – Review


Ribbons of Scarlet
A Novel of the French Revolution’s Women

by:
Kate Quinn
Sophie Perinot
Laura Kamoie
Stephanie Dray
E. Knight
Heather Webb

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 560 Pages

Release date: October 1, 2019

Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks

Synopsis: 

Six bestselling and award-winning authors bring to life a breathtaking epic novel illuminating the hopes, desires, and destinies of princesses and peasants, harlots and wives, fanatics and philosophers—six unforgettable women whose paths cross during one of the most tumultuous and transformative events in history: the French Revolution.

Ribbons of Scarlet is a timely story of the power of women to start a revolution—and change the world.

In late eighteenth-century France, women do not have a place in politics. But as the tide of revolution rises, women from gilded salons to the streets of Paris decide otherwise—upending a world order that has long oppressed them.

Blue-blooded Sophie de Grouchy believes in democracy, education, and equal rights for women, and marries the only man in Paris who agrees. Emboldened to fight the injustices of King Louis XVI, Sophie aims to prove that an educated populace can govern itself–but one of her students, fruit-seller Louise Audu, is hungrier for bread and vengeance than learning. When the Bastille falls and Louise leads a women’s march to Versailles, the monarchy is forced to bend, but not without a fight. The king’s pious sister Princess Elisabeth takes a stand to defend her brother, spirit her family to safety, and restore the old order, even at the risk of her head.

But when fanatics use the newspapers to twist the revolution’s ideals into a new tyranny, even the women who toppled the monarchy are threatened by the guillotine. Putting her faith in the pen, brilliant political wife Manon Roland tries to write a way out of France’s blood-soaked Reign of Terror while pike-bearing Pauline Leon and steely Charlotte Corday embrace violence as the only way to save the nation. With justice corrupted by revenge, all the women must make impossible choices to survive–unless unlikely heroine and courtesan’s daughter Emilie de Sainte-Amaranthe can sway the man who controls France’s fate: the fearsome Robespierre.

ratingfive

My thanks to NetGalley and William Morrow 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. 

“Beautiful, terrible humanity. Capable of the most inspiring and creative genius and the greatest and most unimaginable abominations.”

I’ve had a bit of an ongoing effort to read more historical fiction that isn’t set during World War II, and this novel was an easy choice because, hello, Kate Quinn. If you’ve never read any of her work, I (obviously) recommend this book, but also The Alice Network and The HuntressRibbons of Scarlet is set during the French Revolution and focuses on women’s role in these events.

The format of this novel worked very well. I’ve seen a lot of misunderstanding about this book online. Because of the number of authors listed, a lot of people have assumed it is a collection of short stories set during the same time period, and this is not the case. The novel follows a single linear narrative following the course of the revolution, but each section introduces a new point of view character. This is different from most novels with multiple POV characters in that, for the most part, we do not return to a character once we move on from her singular section. We get one peek into each woman’s perspective and then she is lost to us. I worried that this would feel disjointed overall, but this was absolutely not the case, and it provided an excellent opportunity to look at some of the same events through different eyes.

Despite what must have been a very difficult process, the six authors meshed very well together. Even while jumping from one one woman’s perspective to another relatively unrelated woman’s section, there is a strong sense of a central narrative following the course of the revolution. Each woman has a wildly different perspective on the historical moment they are inhabiting, and each perspective seems fully fleshed out and genuine.

It was refreshing to see a war novel which focuses exclusively on women’s experiences, as these are often overlooked. French women played a significant role in the revolution and women of different social classes were impacted in very different ways. It was particularly interesting to me to spend time in the mind of a female members of the aristocracy, who, while they did enjoy the benefits of wealth leading up to the revolution, often had little to no power of their own. In the end, they bore the consequences of the actions of their husbands and fathers alongside them.

Ribbons of Scarlet is an illuminating novel about a fascinating piece of French history. Seamlessly told and heartbreaking, this book is a jewel.

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Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys (Review)

Salt to the Sea
Salt to the Sea
by Ruta Sepetys

Genre: YA, Historical Fiction

Length: 416 Pages

Release date: August 1, 2017

Publisher: Penguin Books

Synopsis: 

While the Titanic and Lusitania are both well-documented disasters, the single greatest tragedy in maritime history is the little-known January 30, 1945 sinking in the Baltic Sea by a Soviet submarine of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise liner that was supposed to ferry wartime personnel and refugees to safety from the advancing Red Army. The ship was overcrowded with more than 10,500 passengers — the intended capacity was approximately 1,800 — and more than 9,000 people, including 5,000 children, lost their lives.

Sepetys (writer of ‘Between Shades of Gray’) crafts four fictionalized but historically accurate voices to convey the real-life tragedy. Joana, a Lithuanian with nursing experience; Florian, a Prussian soldier fleeing the Nazis with stolen treasure; and Emilia, a Polish girl close to the end of her pregnancy, converge on their escape journeys as Russian troops advance; each will eventually meet Albert, a Nazi peon with delusions of grandeur, assigned to the Gustloff decks.

ratingthree

“I became good at pretending. I became so good that after a while the lines blurred between my truth and fiction. And sometimes, when I did a really good job of pretending, I even fooled myself.”

What’s happening, bookworms? I’m back with another Minority Opinion Post™. This book has so many positively glowing reviews and came highly recommended by some friends of mine (shout out to my book club ladies… please don’t hate me). I went into it with high expectations and had a really lukewarm experience with this book.

Let me start with the positive. Sepetys has plenty of quotable passages and the writing is really stylistically lovely overall. There were some passages I loved that really packed a punch, like this one: “His smugness was annoying. This was the type of man who looked at a picture on the wall and instead of admiring the photo, looked at his own reflection in the glass.”

The story is technically a continuation of Between Shades of Gray (also published as Ashes in the Snow) but can be read without that background information without any confusion. There is a small overlap, but the story line and cast of characters is largely separate. That being said,  I do recommend reading Between Shades of Gray before Salt to the Sea. While it’s not necessary to follow the story, certain passages which call back to the first book will inevitably have more emotional impact if the books are read in order. I love this kind of flexibility in storytelling, when readers can jump in at either book but fans get that reward of a spark of recognition that won’t be there for all readers.

That being said, let’s get into my issues with this book. The chapters are extremely short, which would not be a problem in and of itself were it not for the fact that we are hopping from one point of view character to the next with these chapters transitions. The end result was that the reading felt very choppy and somewhat shallow; I had a hard time getting invested in characters when I was only spending a few pages at a time with each of them, and they ended up feeling very flat.

Albert, the Hitler fanatic, was the most compelling of the point of view characters. Sepetys seems to have a particular skill for writing a character the reader will despise without turning them off of the book. I sped through Albert’s chapters, with a mixture of horror and barely restrained glee as I waited for what was sure to be his inevitable fate.

Despite my somewhat lukewarm response to this book as a whole, I do love that the author chose to write about this topic. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff had a death toll of around 9,000, compared to the Titanic’s death toll of just over 1,500, yet it has all but disappeared from the public consciousness. I was not familiar with these events prior to picking up this book, and one of my favorite things about historical fiction is that it can introduce us to times and events we would not have otherwise encountered, inspiring further research and learning. Sepetys handled this event with the sensitivity and respect for the real-life victims that was deserved. 

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Thank you for reading! What’s an overlooked historical event that you’d like to see explored more in fiction? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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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.
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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.

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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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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.

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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!

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Next Year in Havana, by Chanel Cleeton (Review)

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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.

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