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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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

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The Editor, by Steven Rowley (Review)


The Editor
by Steven Rowley

Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction

Length: 320 Pages

Release date: April 2, 2019

Publisher: Putnam

Synopsis: 

From the bestselling author of Lily and the Octopus comes a novel about a struggling writer who gets his big break, with a little help from the most famous woman in America.

After years of trying to make it as a writer in 1990s New York City, James Smale finally sells his novel to an editor at a major publishing house: none other than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Jackie–or Mrs. Onassis, as she’s known in the office–has fallen in love with James’s candidly autobiographical novel, one that exposes his own dysfunctional family. But when the book’s forthcoming publication threatens to unravel already fragile relationships, both within his family and with his partner, James finds that he can’t bring himself to finish the manuscript.

Jackie and James develop an unexpected friendship, and she pushes him to write an authentic ending, encouraging him to head home to confront the truth about his relationship with his mother. Then a long-held family secret is revealed, and he realizes his editor may have had a larger plan that goes beyond the page…

From the bestselling author of Lily and the Octopus comes a funny, poignant, and highly original novel about an author whose relationship with his very famous book editor will change him forever–both as a writer and a son.

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The Editor is Steven Rowley’s second novel, the first being Lily and the Octopus. Lily was a cute and sweet book, but a bit… odd, and I do have to say that The Editor feels like a big step up for Rowley as an author.

Imagine entering into a working relationship with an unknown person only to encounter an absolute cultural icon like Jackie Kennedy. The Editor is in part about the slow shift that occurs between viewing someone like that as a concept and coming to know them as a human being. The protagonist, James Smale, is initially starstruck by Jackie, but throughout the course of working on his semi-biographical novel with her, necessarily bears his soul, and a sense of mutual affection grows between the two. It had me thinking of the slow shift between Monique and Evelyn in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, so if that appealed to you as a reader, you’ll definitely find something to love in this book.

The novel James is working through with Jackie is inspired by events of his childhood. To work out all the kinks in the story, he needs to reframe his thinking and work through some unresolved personal issues, primarily involving his mother. The Editor, despite the potentially show-stealing presence of Jackie Kennedy, is at its heart a family drama. Unresolved conflicts and a little nudging from Jackie eventually lead James back to his childhood home to confront his demons…. or his family, as it were.

Rowley writes with such a sense of sincerity balanced with lighthearted humor. Jackie challenges James to address the truth behind his fiction and the result is emotionally raw and eventually heartwarming. The Editor is a story about the emotional vulnerability that is necessary for healing and the underlying humanity of those who seem larger than life. Rowley has definitely improved since his first novel, and The Editor is an absolute gem. I can’t wait to see what he writes next!

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Question of the day: If you were working on a novel and could have the help of any historical figure, who would you choose? Let me know in the comments!

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Lost Roses, by Martha Hall Kelly (Review)

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Lost Roses
by Martha Hall Kelly

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 448 Pages

Release date: April 9, 2019

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Synopsis: 

The runaway bestseller Lilac Girls introduced the real-life heroine Caroline Ferriday. This sweeping new novel, set a generation earlier and also inspired by true events, features Caroline’s mother, Eliza, and follows three equally indomitable women from St. Petersburg to Paris under the shadow of World War I.

It is 1914 and the world has been on the brink of war so many times, many New Yorker’s treat the subject with only passing interest. Eliza Ferriday is thrilled to be traveling to St. Petersburg with Sofya Streshnayva, a cousin of the Romanov’s. The two met years ago one summer in Paris and became close confidantes. Now Eliza embarks on the trip of a lifetime, home with Sofya to see the splendors of Russia. But when Austria declares war on Serbia and Russia’s Imperial dynasty begins to fall, Eliza escapes back to America, while Sofya and her family flee to their country estate. In need of domestic help, they hire the local fortuneteller’s daughter, Varinka, unknowingly bringing intense danger into their household. On the other side of the Atlantic, Eliza is doing her part to help the White Russian families find safety as they escape the revolution. But when Sofya’s letters suddenly stop coming she fears the worst for her best friend.

From the turbulent streets of St. Petersburg to the avenues of Paris and the society of fallen Russian emigre’s who live there, the lives of Eliza, Sofya, and Varinka will intersect in profound ways, taking readers on a breathtaking ride through a momentous time in history.

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My thanks to Ballantine Books 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. 

Lost Roses is a prequel to Lilac Girls, and both books feature Caroline Ferriday, although Lost Roses focuses more on Caroline’s mother, Eliza, than on Caroline herself. the two books can definitely be read in either order and I don’t think it would impact how much you would enjoy either one. Lost Roses follows the interconnected stories of three principal point of view characters:

Eliza – an American socialite who is passionate about charity work

Sofya – a wealthy Russian woman and dear friend of Eliza

Varinka – a teenage girl employed as a servant in Sofya’s home in Russia

Lost Roses feels a bit slow in the beginning. Your mileage may vary, but it took me longer than most books to become invested in this one. I read small bits and pieces of the first half while finding myself sidetracked by other books, then flew through the second half. I think part of the issue was the number of point of view characters and the degree of separation of each of their stories, despite each of the POV characters knowing at least one of the others. I think this format made it take a bit longer to get to know each of these women well enough to become invested in their stories. To a lesser extent, I had the same issue with Lilac Girls, which is set up the same way, but both books feel well worth that time investment by the time they are done.

One of the best things about this novel is the way Martha Hall Kelly brings interesting, morally grey characters to life. Varinka was particularly interesting to me; I don’t want to get into spoilers, but the hardships of her life certainly play a part in some horrible decisions she makes and her total lack of empathy for certain people. She is pitted against Sofya by events which are outside of either woman’s control. Sofya, conversely, seems totally blind to the strife in her home country until it begins to impact her personally. Most members of the Russian aristocracy definitely give off a bit of a Marie Antoinette vibe at times, far more concerned with the luxuries of their daily lives than the fact that the common people are starving.

It’s clear that Martha Hall Kelly did a lot of research to get the time period right. Depending on your taste, you may feel this adds a lot of texture to the story or it may feel overly detailed. As a big history enthusiast, a loved the detail and thought it helped the reader to get to know the characters better by giving a very full sense of their environment, particularly the anxieties brought on by the political chaos of the time.

All in all, despite the slow start, I definitely recommend Lost Roses. Fans of Lilac Girls will absolutely want to grab a copy of Martha Hall Kelly’s latest work.

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The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag (Review)


The Wolf and the Watchman
by Niklas Natt och Dag

Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: March 5, 2019

Publisher: Atria Books

Synopsis: 

In this breathtakingly bold, intricately constructed novel set in 18th century Stockholm, a dying man searches among the city’s teeming streets, dark corners, and intriguing inhabitants to unmask a ruthless murderer—perfect for fans of Perfume and The Alienist.

It is 1793. Four years after the storming of the Bastille in France and more than a year after the death of King Gustav III of Sweden, paranoia and whispered conspiracies are Stockholm’s daily bread. A promise of violence crackles in the air as ordinary citizens feel increasingly vulnerable to the whims of those in power.

When Mickel Cardell, a crippled ex-solider and former night watchman, finds a mutilated body floating in the city’s malodorous lake, he feels compelled to give the unidentifiable man a proper burial. For Cecil Winge, a brilliant lawyer turned consulting detective to the Stockholm police, a body with no arms, legs, or eyes is a formidable puzzle and one last chance to set things right before he loses his battle to consumption. Together, Winge and Cardell scour Stockholm to discover the body’s identity, encountering the sordid underbelly of the city’s elite. Meanwhile, Kristofer Blix—the handsome son of a farmer—leaves rural life for the alluring charms of the capital and ambitions of becoming a doctor. His letters to his sister chronicle his wild good times and terrible misfortunes, which lead him down a treacherous path.

In another corner of the city, a young woman—Anna-Stina—is consigned to the workhouse after she upsets her parish priest. Her unlikely escape plan takes on new urgency when a sadistic guard marks her as his next victim.

Over the course of the novel, these extraordinary characters cross paths and collide in shocking and unforgettable ways. Niklas Natt och Dag paints a deliciously dark portrait of late 18th century Stockholm, and the frightful yet fascinating reality lurking behind the powdered and painted veneer of the era.

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

The Wolf and the Watchman is a slow burn mystery set in 1790’s Stockholm and it is dark and gritty, to stay the least. The story opens with the discovery of a body which has been badly mutilated over what seems to be a long period of time, then dumped unceremoniously in a river. The mystery at the heart of the novel is intriguing: what could possibly lead a person to commit such a heinous crime? This was thought out and unspeakably brutal, the exact opposite of a crime of passion.

18th century Stockholm is brought to life in the pages of The Wolf and the Watchman, but the portrayal is overwhelmingly dark and dreary. Niklas natt Och Dag seems fascinated with the dark side of human nature, and the story explores the myriad of ways that people exert power of one another: for personal gain, for revenge, out of fear, or for the simple gratification of the act itself. Despite the presence of characters investigating the murder in the hopes of bringing justice, the overall impression is quite morose. (As of this writing, this novel has a 3.95 average on GoodReads, so I think it’s worth noting my rating is a little below the average. This may be less due to quality than it is to personal taste; I found the book a tad too dark.)

The major characters were very well developed, and I was particularly intrigued by Kristofer Blix, a young man who worked as an apprentice surgeon during the war. His role in the mystery is not immediately clear, Kristofer’s sections are told in the form of letters to his sister detailing his downward spiral culminating in his connection to the larger story.

The Wolf and the Watchman is a great choice for fans of dark and gritty historical fiction and slow burn mystery novels.

Content warnings for graphic violence and sexual violence. 

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American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt, by Stephanie Marie Thornton (Review)

“I can do one of two things. I can be President of the United States or I can control Alice Roosevelt. I cannot possibly do both.” -Theodore Roosevelt
American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt
by Stephanie Marie Thornton

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 448 Pages

Release date: March 12, 2019

Publisher: Berkley Books

Synopsis: 

A sweeping novel from renowned author Stephanie Marie Thornton…

Alice may be the president’s daughter, but she’s nobody’s darling. As bold as her signature color Alice Blue, the gum-chewing, cigarette-smoking, poker-playing First Daughter discovers that the only way for a woman to stand out in Washington is to make waves–oceans of them. With the canny sophistication of the savviest politician on the Hill, Alice uses her celebrity to her advantage, testing the limits of her power and the seductive thrill of political entanglements.

But Washington, DC is rife with heartaches and betrayals, and when Alice falls hard for a smooth-talking congressman it will take everything this rebel has to emerge triumphant and claim her place as an American icon. As Alice soldiers through the devastation of two world wars and brazens out a cutting feud with her famous Roosevelt cousins, it’s no wonder everyone in the capital refers to her as the Other Washington Monument–and Alice intends to outlast them all.

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

What better time to read this novel than now, during Women’s History Month? I’m a big historical fiction enthusiast, and I was so excited when I saw there was a novel about Alice Roosevelt, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt coming out. Teddy Roosevelt once infamously said “I can do one of two things. I can be President of the United States or I can control Alice Roosevelt. I cannot possibly do both.”

Alice Roosevelt Longworth
A Young Alice Roosevelt; Getty Images

Alice was Theodore’s eldest child and his only child from his first wife, who died shortly after Alice’s birth. Grief-stricken, he sent Alice, whose face reminded him too much of her mother’s, away to live with an aunt for a few years. American Princess follows Alice from this tough beginning to the end of her long life. Thornton explains in the author’s note that she has tried to draw from sources such as Alice’s journal entries as much as possible, and I think she has done remarkable job of bringing Alice to life on the page.

Alice was a magnet for scandal but an absolute delight to read about. She bristled at the constraints placed on her due to her status in society as well as her gender, and felt no qualms about scandalizing high society ladies by whipping out a cigarette or cutting her wedding cake with a sword from a nearby military aide. (True story.) But beneath all the swagger there is a vulnerable interior, which Thornton teases out in this novel. While they were close at the time of his death, Alice and her father struggled for years with a stilted, uncomfortable relationship. Thornton explores some of the romances of Alice’s life, but it was watching her come to terms with the alienation from her father at a young age and develop and loving relationship with him that was truly the highlight of the novel.

When writing about a real figure’s life, it can be a struggle to make the story fit a nice narrative flow, but I felt that Thornton managed it very well here. American Princess is a must-read for avid fans of historical fiction featuring interesting and strong female characters!

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The Huntress, by Kate Quinn (Review)


The Huntress
by Kate Quinn

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 560 Pages

Release date: February 26, 2019

Publisher: William Morrow

Synopsis: 

From the author of the New York Times and USA Today bestselling novel, The Alice Network, comes another fascinating historical novel about a battle-haunted English journalist and a Russian female bomber pilot who join forces to track the Huntress, a Nazi war criminal gone to ground in America.

In the aftermath of war, the hunter becomes the hunted…

Bold, reckless Nina Markova grows up on the icy edge of Soviet Russia, dreaming of flight and fearing nothing. When the tide of war sweeps over her homeland, she gambles everything to join the infamous Night Witches, an all-female night bomber regiment wreaking havoc on Hitler’s eastern front. But when she is downed behind enemy lines and thrown across the path of a lethal Nazi murderess known as the Huntress, Nina must use all her wits to survive.

British war correspondent Ian Graham has witnessed the horrors of war from Omaha Beach to the Nuremberg Trials. He abandons journalism after the war to become a Nazi hunter, yet one target eludes him: the Huntress. Fierce, disciplined Ian must join forces with brazen, cocksure Nina, the only witness to escape the Huntress alive. But a shared secret could derail their mission, unless Ian and Nina force themselves to confront it.

Seventeen-year-old Jordan McBride grows up in post WWII Boston, determined despite family opposition to become a photographer. At first delighted when her long-widowed father brings home a fiancée, Jordan grows increasingly disquieted by the soft-spoken German widow who seems to be hiding something. Armed only with her camera and her wits, Jordan delves into her new stepmother’s past and slowly realizes there are mysteries buried deep in her family. But Jordan’s search for the truth may threaten all she holds dear.

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My thanks to William Morrow for sending me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Kate Quinn has such a remarkable gift when it comes to creating seriously captivating characters. It’s been almost a week since I finished reading and I keep finding myself thinking about Nina, a ruthless, Nazi-killing hellcat who probably really needs a hug. I love Nina to death, and her adoration for real-life Night Witch Marina Raskova had me wanting to learn more about these women. (If anyone knows any good documentaries, drop a link in the comments and I’ll love you forever.)

At 560 pages, The Huntress is a somewhat lengthy read, and I found myself annoyed every time I had to put it down. Despite the backdrop of war and violence, the story isn’t super action packed or fast-paced. It’s a bit of a slow burn and very character driven.

I (obviously) found Nina to be the most compelling character, but the story is told through three separate point of view characters. Nina’s perspective takes place during the war, whereas Jordan and Ian’s perspectives take place after, during Ian’s hunt for the infamous Nazi known as The Huntress. Nina exists in both timelines, as she teams up with Ian, but her direct perspective is limited to her life leading up to the war through the first day she meets Ian. Nina comes from a remarkably dysfunctional family, with a drunken and abusive father and siblings she describes as more or less feral. She is damaged in a lot of ways, but her hardships also prepared her for the harshness of war.

Ian also made for a really compelling character. No spoilers here, but he has a personal vendetta that fuels a lot of his desire to take down The Huntress. He has a background as a war correspondent, and gives off a distinct air of survivor’s guilt. He saw a lot of atrocities during his reporting on the war, and I think Quinn really nailed down the psychology of what that can do to a person. Ian, like a lot of people who has endured trauma, has internalized this idea that he hasn’t fully “earned” his emotional disturbances. Soldiers fought and died on the front lines; he wrote articles about it. In the aftermath of trauma, it’s sadly so common to see people downplay what happened to them, to dismiss their rights to their own feelings on the basis that someone else had it worse. Ian exemplifies this mindset and I really appreciated seeing an author portray a character like this in a way that seems to validate that struggle.

Jordan, the final POV character, is a normal young girl living in America who has her life turned upside-down by The Huntress and those who are searching for her. She has suspicions about her new step-mother early on, which she buries to keep her father happy. A lot of her story line, however, has little to do with the rest of the book. She is a budding young photographer who wants to create a career for herself in a time when women were largely expected to get married and be housewives. She sees nearly every scene as if she’s looking through her camera, constantly mentally framing shots even when she doesn’t have her camera with her.

I absolutely enjoyed every page of this story. Quinn’s last novel, The Alice Network, was a ridiculously tough act to follow, but The Huntress did not disappoint in the slightest. This novel is an excellent choice for fans of The Lost Girls of Paris, Lilac Girls. and of course, Kate Quinn’s past work.

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