Moloka’i, by Alan Brennert (Review)


Moloka’i
by Alan Brennert

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 405 Pages

Release date: October 21, 2003

Synopsis: 

This richly imagined novel, set in Hawai’i more than a century ago, is an extraordinary epic of a little-known time and place—and a deeply moving testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.

Rachel Kalama, a spirited seven-year-old Hawaiian girl, dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman. Then one day a rose-colored mark appears on her skin, and those dreams are stolen from her. Taken from her home and family, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka’i. Here her life is supposed to end—but instead she discovers it is only just beginning.

rating

four

“Fear is good. In the right degree it prevents us from making fools of ourselves. But in the wrong measure it prevents us from fully living. Fear is our boon companion but never our master.” 

I was very late to the party when it comes to this novel. I had heard of it and was only vaguely aware of what it was about until recently, when I received an ARC of the sequel from the publisher, prompting me to pick it up in order to better understand the continuation.

Moloka’i follows the life story of Rachel, a young Hawaiian girl who contracts leprosy in the 1890’s and so is forcibly taken away from her family to live in a settlement with others with the disease. This somewhat drastic means of stopping the spread of the infection is, of course, taken from actual historical events, and Rachel’s life is a reflection of the very real suffering that many Hawaiians endured. Rachel is only 7 when she is ripped away from her family and lives in a girls’ home on her new island until she is of age.

Often we would think of a moment like this is the beginning of the end of a life, but Brennert challenges us to think differently about what can constitute a fulfilling life. Without ever diminishing the severity of what Rachel endures, Brennert creates a portrait of a woman who has carved out a life the best way she is able. She grows up, has hobbies and passions, develops intimate friendships, and falls in love.

Moloka’i is a richly imagined life story about overcoming hardship and the importance of found family. Rachel provides an interesting perspective as a character who was essentially removed from society at large and experiences sweeping historical changes from the sidelines. This novel is an excellent choice for fans of novels such as Pachinko and other historical fiction.

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Review – Daisy Jones & The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid


Daisy Jones and The Six
by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 256 Pages

Release date: March 5, 2019

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Synopsis: 

In 1979, Daisy Jones and The Six split up. Together, they had redefined the 70’s music scene, creating an iconic sound that rocked the world. Apart, they baffled a world that had hung on their every verse.

This book is an attempt to piece together a clear portrait of the band’s rise to fame and their abrupt and infamous split. The following oral history is a compilation of interviews, emails, transcripts, and lyrics, all pertaining to the personal and professional lives of the members of the band The Six and singer Daisy Jones.

While I have aimed for a comprehensive and exhaustive approach, I must acknowledge that full and complete accounts from all parties involved has proved impossible. Some people were easier to track down than others, some were more willing to talk than others, and some, unfortunately, have passed on.

All of which is to say that while this is the first and only authorised account from all represented perspectives, it should be noted that, in matters both big and small, reasonable people disagree.

The truth often lies, unclaimed, in the middle.

rating

four

My thanks to NetGalley, BookSparks, and Ballantine 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. 

“We love broken, beautiful people. And it doesn’t get much more obviously broken and more classically beautiful than Daisy Jones.”

Daisy Jones and The Six is the story of the rise and fall of a fictional rock band from the 1970’s. For fans of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Daisy Jones will feel somewhat familiar as a protagonist. An absolute icon in the entertainment world, gorgeous, and stubborn, she is haunted by an all-consuming vice and forbidden love. For Evelyn Hugo, her love of money and her inability to be open about her sexual orientation stood between her and the love of her life. Daisy Jones struggles similarly with drug addiction and an obsession with someone who is emotionally unavailable to her.

In terms of the actual storytelling, however, these novels are quite different. Daisy Jones and The Six is told entirely in the format of an interview with members of the band and others who were close to them professionally or personally. The reader is made to feel as if they are watching a documentary about the band. While this was interesting in concept, it made for rather dry storytelling after a while, and I think this was the main thing that kept me from being able to rate this as five stars. Perhaps this is down to personal taste and your experience may differ greatly, but I felt I would have enjoyed the story a lot more if the interview format was only a portion of the book and was used to break up chapters in a more traditional narrative style.

Billy: Karen was just a great musician. That was all there was to it. I always say I don’t care if you’re a man, woman, white, black, gay, straight, or anything in between – if you play well, you play well. Music is a great equalizer in that way.
Karen: Men often think they deserve a sticker for treating women like people.

Gender played a really interesting role in this novel, particularly in terms of respect and power struggles. Daisy Jones struggles to be taken seriously when she is starting out as a solo artist. She clashes intensely with Billy’s authoritarian style of running The Six when she begins to integrate into their band. Her ultra-feminine style and revealing clothing also get under the skin of bandmate Karen, who has adopted somewhat of a tomboy persona in an attempt to make the men around her take her seriously.

One thing really love about Reid’s work is her ability to write realistically flawed characters while still allowing the reader to feel like it’s worth rooting for them. Daisy Jones is stubborn, selfish, impulsive, and narcissistic. However, we have the benefit of understanding her upbringing (or lack thereof) and the interview format of the book also allows us to see the story through the eyes of an older Daisy, who seems to understand these flaws and to have put work into overcoming them.

Taylor Jenkins Reid had truly brought these characters and the era in which they were famous to life. While this isn’t my favorite of her books (if you’re new to her work, I highly recommend The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo as a starting point), I do highly recommend it. It’s a fun read and will have you wishing for a soundtrack to go with it. And since Reese Witherspoon is producing a TV adaptation, it sounds like we might get just that.

Daisy: I had absolutely no interest in being somebody else’s muse.
I am not a muse.
I am the somebody.
End of fucking story.

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The Lost Girls of Paris, by Pam Jenoff (Review)


The Lost Girls of Paris
by Pam Jenoff

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: January 29, 2019

Publisher: Park Row

Synopsis: 

From the author of the runaway bestseller The Orphan’s Tale comes a remarkable story of friendship and courage centered around three women and a ring of female spies during World War II.

1946, Manhattan

Grace Healey is rebuilding her life after losing her husband during the war. One morning while passing through Grand Central Terminal on her way to work, she finds an abandoned suitcase tucked beneath a bench. Unable to resist her own curiosity, Grace opens the suitcase, where she discovers a dozen photographs—each of a different woman. In a moment of impulse, Grace takes the photographs and quickly leaves the station.

Grace soon learns that the suitcase belonged to a woman named Eleanor Trigg, leader of a ring of female secret agents who were deployed out of London during the war. Twelve of these women were sent to Occupied Europe as couriers and radio operators to aid the resistance, but they never returned home, their fates a mystery. Setting out to learn the truth behind the women in the photographs, Grace finds herself drawn to a young mother turned agent named Marie, whose daring mission overseas reveals a remarkable story of friendship, valor and betrayal.

Vividly rendered and inspired by true events, New York Times bestselling author Pam Jenoff shines a light on the incredible heroics of the brave women of the war, and weaves a mesmerizing tale of courage, sisterhood and the great strength of women to survive in the hardest of circumstances.

rating

five

I received a free copy of The Lost Girls of Paris from Booktrib with no obligation for a review. All opinions are my own. 

The Lost Girls of Paris is a beautifully told tale in three alternating perspectives: Eleanor Trigg – SOE recruiter responsible for the division of women being trained to serve as spies and saboteurs.
Marie – One of Eleanor’s recruits, valued for impeccable French and thus her ability to seamlessly blend in in Paris.
Grace – With her story taking place in a slightly later timeline after the war, she is dealing with the loss of her husband when she becomes swept up in the mystery of what became of Eleanor’s girls.

Marie’s perspective became my favorite as the story went on, and while she is a great character, she is decidedly not a great spy. She is not great at working under pressure and makes more than one questionable decision. For some reviewers who did not enjoy the book as much as I did, this seemed to be the major source of frustration.

Personally, I was not bothered and I felt it demonstrated the kind of pressure the department was operating under at the time. The decision to include women as operatives wasn’t something that had been in the works for a long time; it was a decision made quickly in the midst of a horrific war and through pure necessity. Male operatives would stand out too much amidst the dearth of fighting age men left in civilian roles in Paris.

Were all of the female spies in this story totally incompetent? No, and that would have made for a horrible reading experience. On the contrary, one of my favorite things about Marie’s story was seeing how she compared herself to some of the other girls who had trained with her. She feels woefully inadequate in comparison, and above all else, scared. She represents a relatively average woman thrown into exceptional circumstances because desperate times call for desperate measures. She didn’t train for years for this and so was realistically out of her depth.

Eleanor was similarly intriguing in a totally different way: she held this peculiar status of being somewhat of an outsider as a foreigner and so not fully expected while simultaneously holding a position of power. While she has male superiors who look down on her for her origins as well as her gender, she is in charge of selecting, training, and deploying all of their female operatives. Aside from helping to win the war, Eleanor clearly really wants to prove herself.

Grace’s chapters were the least interesting to me from a character standpoint, with her personal issues holding less intrigue than the stories of the other point of view characters, but her obsession with untangling the mystery of the fate of Eleanor’s spies provides a stand-in for the reader’s own intrigue. Marie and Eleanor were in a spy drama; Grace is in a mystery novel.

The Lost Girls of Paris is inspired by true events and is an excellent selection for fans of books like The Alice Network and Lilac Girls. 

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The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo (Review)


The Night Tiger
by Yangsze Choo

Genre: Historical Fiction, Magical Realism

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: February 12, 2019

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Synopsis: 

A sweeping historical novel about a dancehall girl and an orphan boy whose fates entangle over an old Chinese superstition about men who turn into tigers.

When 11-year-old Ren’s master dies, he makes one last request of his Chinese houseboy: that Ren find his severed finger, lost years ago in an accident, and reunite it with his body. Ren has 49 days, or else his master’s soul will roam the earth, unable to rest in peace.

Ji Lin always wanted to be a doctor, but as a girl in 1930s Malaysia, apprentice dressmaker is a more suitable occupation. Secretly, though, Ji Lin also moonlights as a dancehall girl to help pay off her beloved mother’s Mahjong debts. One night, Ji Lin’s dance partner leaves her with a gruesome souvenir: a severed finger. Convinced the finger is bad luck, Ji Lin enlists the help of her erstwhile stepbrother to return it to its rightful owner.

As the 49 days tick down, and a prowling tiger wreaks havoc on the town, Ji Lin and Ren’s lives intertwine in ways they could never have imagined. Propulsive and lushly written, The Night Tiger explores colonialism and independence, ancient superstition and modern ambition, sibling rivalry and first love. Braided through with Chinese folklore and a tantalizing mystery, this novel is a page-turner of the highest order.

rating

four

My thanks to BookSparks for sending me a free copy of this book for my role as an official Winter Reading Challenge Ambassador. All opinions are my own. 

“We were a chocolate-box family, I thought. Brightly wrapped on the outside and oozing sticky darkness within.”

The Night Tiger is such a rich and magical story, full of bits of Chinese culture and thoroughly developed, interesting characters. The story alternates between 11-year-old houseboy Ren’s perspectives and that of a young woman named Ji Lin. Their stories are woven together, oddly enough, by the severed and preserved finger of Ren’s deceased master, which has inadvertently fallen into Ji Lin’s possession before Ren could reunite it with the rest of the body in its grave. Chinese folklore says that the body must be made whole in death or the departed cannot rest.

Ren’s story is dominated by a desperate need to locate the finger, while Ji Lin is enmeshed in a family drama propelled by a violent stepfather, a secretive mother, and a forbidden romance. (A side note and minor spoiler here: the romance aspect of this book was by far my least favorite; Ji Lin is in love with her step brother, and they’ve lived together since they were small children. No, they are not blood relatives, but they grew up together as family and I had trouble viewing them as anything other than siblings. End of spoilers.

The magical realism in the novel was really beautifully done, mainly woven into dreams, vague senses, and whispered-about folklore which may or may not be true. There are rumors of men who can turn into tigers, though we never see one, and a sense that those who have departed can still tip the scales in events of the living world in small ways. The end result is a magical, dreamy story that still feels anchored in the real world.

If I have any complaint about this book it’s that it did take me a while to become invested in the story and characters. The pacing early on feels a bit slow compared to the whirlwind of events at the end of the story. However, the overall story felt well worth the time investment by the end. The Night Tiger may be a great choice for fans of The Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker, or The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern.

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Review – The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris


The Tattooist of Auschwitz
by Heather Morris

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 262 Pages

Release date: September 4, 2018

Synopsis: 

In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tätowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners.

Imprisoned for more than two and a half years, Lale witnesses horrific atrocities and barbarism—but also incredible acts of bravery and compassion. Risking his own life, he uses his privileged position to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive.

One day in July 1942, Lale, prisoner 32407, comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to have the number 34902 tattooed onto her arm. Her name is Gita, and in that first encounter, Lale vows to somehow survive the camp and marry her.

A vivid, harrowing, and ultimately hopeful re-creation of Lale Sokolov’s experiences as the man who tattooed the arms of thousands of prisoners with what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is also a testament to the endurance of love and humanity under the darkest possible conditions.

rating

two

I adore historical fiction and read more about WWII than any other historical time period, so it pains me to give this a negative review. I seem to be in the minority opinion on this book, judging by the 4.32 Goodreads average rating, but to say that the author’s style didn’t work for me would be an understatement.

Let me start with the story itself. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on a true story, and Lale’s story is definitely one that deserved to be told. Taken into the most infamous of Nazi concentration camps and forced into a kind of complicity in order to survive, Lale is sympathetic while being morally complicated. He struggles with the moral implications of his actions throughout the book, wondering if the extra rations he’s able to obtain and share with those who most need them can truly justify his cooperation with the Nazi guards by tattooing his fellow prisoners. He has a comparatively easy job and a position of relative safety in the camp, and this comes with it a sense of responsibility to those around him.

The love story (also based on Lale’s real life) should have been a highlight of the story for me, but I was never able to get invested. There’s something beautiful and bittersweet about finding a source of happiness and light in one of the darkest situations one can possibly encounter. However, the writing in this regard fell very flat for me; Lale falls in love with Gita more or less at first sight. For a young and romantic-minded man looking for any sense of comfort in Auschwitz, this is understandable, but Morris never fleshes out Gita’s character enough for this romance to be sustainable. We learn very little about her as a person, and so it became difficult to understand Lale’s continued infatuation with her as the story continued.

Finally, the main drawback of the book seemed to be the author’s personal writing style, and the issues I had with this became much more clear to me when I read this from the author’s Goodreads profile: “I originally wrote Lale’s story as a screenplay – which ranked high in international competitions – before reshaping it into my debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz.” It feels like there are a lot of echoes of the screenplay left over in the final product, as if Morris edited the original document rather than re-imagining it from scratch to better suit an entirely different medium. The end result is detached and mechanical in a lot of passages, reading more like stage directions than novels at times. (I’ve lost the exact place, so I cannot quote the passage, but one in particular stuck out like a sore thumb, describing someone standing up from a desk, taking off the hat they were wearing, and placing it in a specific spot on a desk in such unnecessary detail.)

Overall, I thought this novel had a lot of promise, but it unfortunately fell flat due to the author’s lack of experience in writing novels as opposed to screenplays. There is definitely a beautiful story somewhere under all the rough writing; there’s still a possibility of this being adapted into a movie, which I would love to see, despite my lackluster experience with the book.

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Review – Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver


Unsheltered
by Barbara Kingsolver

Genre: Literary Fiction

Length: 464 Pages

Release date: October 16, 2018

Publisher:

The New York Times bestselling author of Flight Behavior, The Lacuna, and The Poisonwood Bible and recipient of numerous literary awards—including the National Humanities Medal, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the Orange Prize—returns with a timely novel that interweaves past and present to explore the human capacity for resiliency and compassion in times of great upheaval.

Willa Knox has always prided herself on being the embodiment of responsibility for her family. Which is why it’s so unnerving that she’s arrived at middle age with nothing to show for her hard work and dedication but a stack of unpaid bills and an inherited brick home in Vineland, New Jersey, that is literally falling apart. The magazine where she worked has folded, and the college where her husband had tenure has closed. The dilapidated house is also home to her ailing and cantankerous Greek father-in-law and her two grown children: her stubborn, free-spirited daughter, Tig, and her dutiful debt-ridden, ivy educated son, Zeke, who has arrived with his unplanned baby in the wake of a life-shattering development.

In an act of desperation, Willa begins to investigate the history of her home, hoping that the local historical preservation society might take an interest and provide funding for its direly needed repairs. Through her research into Vineland’s past and its creation as a Utopian community, she discovers a kindred spirit from the 1880s, Thatcher Greenwood.

A science teacher with a lifelong passion for honest investigation, Thatcher finds himself under siege in his community for telling the truth: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting new theory recently published by Charles Darwin. Thatcher’s friendships with a brilliant woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor draw him into a vendetta with the town’s most powerful men. At home, his new wife and status-conscious mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his financial worries and the news that their elegant house is structurally unsound.

Brilliantly executed and compulsively readable, Unsheltered is the story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum, as they navigate the challenges of surviving a world in the throes of major cultural shifts. In this mesmerizing story told in alternating chapters, Willa and Thatcher come to realize that though the future is uncertain, even unnerving, shelter can be found in the bonds of kindred—whether family or friends—and in the strength of the human spirit.

rating

four

Unsheltered is definitely one of those “you’ll love it or you’ll hate it” kind of books; it’s polarizing to the extreme. As of this writing, the two top rated Goodreads reviews of this book are a five star review… and a one star review.

Personally, I found myself enjoying it, but I do understand why it doesn’t work for a lot of people. The pacing is somewhat slow, making it feel overly long at times. It’s very wrapped up in political musings and borders on being preachy, to say the least. If you go to fiction for escapism, this book will be torture for you.

That being said, I found myself drawn into both timelines of the story. It took me longer to get invested in the historical timeline than the modern timeline, but it eventually became my favorite. This was in large part because this novel introduced me to Mary Treat, actual historical figure, correspondent of Charles Darwin, and scientist in her own right. Kingsolver’s portrayal of her is eccentric but intensely likable. Mary was a huge highlight of the novel for me, and I’m dying to read more about her life and work now that I’m done.

Kingsolver’s treatment of social issues may come across somewhat heavy-handed, particularly because it relies heavily on dialog and outright debates between character. (Not simply arguments, by the way; at one point in the earlier timeline, there is an actual formal debate on the subject of creationism vs. evolution.) If you enjoy debates as much as I do, this won’t be a detriment at all, but judging by some of the negative reviews, I may be a minority opinion in that regard.

Unsheltered is structurally interesting, with the closing of each chapter leading into the themes of the following one as Kingsolver swaps timelines. Despite the difference between the two stories in the specifics, there were a lot of thematic similarities which I thought were handled really well. Both sets of characters are living in times of social upheaval in very different ways. In the modern timeline, Willa’s family struggles with issues that will feel familiar to most readers: cost of medical care, political polarization, and the seemingly vanishing middle class. Thatcher Greenwood struggles to be taken seriously in a small and somewhat backwards town as an early supporter of Darwin’s theory of evolution. In both timelines, the decaying house looms large as a source of anxiety.

Unsheltered may not be for every reader. It’s somewhat long and meandering, and seems to be trying to do a lot by thoroughly exploring both the person and political in not one but two separate timelines. However, I found myself intensely invested in many of the characters as well as the broader social issues Kingsolver has woven into the narrative. Fans of Kingsolver’s past work should definitely give this book a chance.

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Review – The Only Woman in the Room, by Marie Benedict

46680914_298444814335039_1337786028127158272_n.jpg
The Only Woman in the Room
by Marie Benedict

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 272 Pages

Release date: January 8, 2019

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Synopsis: 

She was beautiful. She was a genius. Could the world handle both? A powerful, illuminating novel about Hedy Lamarr. 

Hedy Kiesler is lucky. Her beauty leads to a starring role in a controversial film and marriage to a powerful Austrian arms dealer, allowing her to evade Nazi persecution despite her Jewish heritage. But Hedy is also intelligent. At lavish Vienna dinner parties, she overhears the Third Reich’s plans. One night in 1937, desperate to escape her controlling husband and the rise of the Nazis, she disguises herself and flees her husband’s castle.

She lands in Hollywood, where she becomes Hedy Lamarr, screen star. But Hedy is keeping a secret even more shocking than her Jewish heritage: she is a scientist. She has an idea that might help the country and that might ease her guilt for escaping alone — if anyone will listen to her. A powerful novel based on the incredible true story of the glamour icon and scientist whose groundbreaking invention revolutionized modern communication, The Only Woman in the Room is a masterpiece.

rating

four

My thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark, Booktrib, and The Girly Book Club 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. 

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
-Hedy Lamarr

The Only Woman in the Room is infinitely engaging, but woefully brief, coming in under 300 pages. Hedy Lamarr, a Jewish woman who married and Austrian arms dealer and eventually fled Europe during Hitler’s rise to power, found fame and fortune as an actress in America. What she wanted more than anything, however, was for the world to see beyond her pretty face and for her intellectual efforts to be taken seriously.

While this novel is historical fiction, the woman it portrays was quite real. As much as I enjoyed the reading experience, I can’t help but feel that, in the interest of brevity, hugely formative periods of her life which involved rapid change were glossed over rather quickly. Hedy Lamarr has been the subject of nonfiction books, a documentary (Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, which is available on Netflix) and there was a memoir published under her name but written by ghost-writers (Ecstasy and Me: My Life As a Woman). Those who are already quite familiar with Lamarr may not find anything particularly enlightening in this novel. If you are like me, however, familiar with Lamarr only through a vague awareness of her as an actress and inventor, this may be a great place to start. The documentary is a great follow-up to this novel, as it delves into Lamarr’s later life, which The Only Woman in the Room does not.

The Hedy Lamarr portrayed in Benedict’s novel is deeply introspective; her attempts to help with the war effort are fueled in part by a sense of survivor’s guilt. Her first husband, a man she agreed to marry mainly because she thought he would protect her, became quite abusive and aligned himself with Nazi interests when it became clear Austria could not stand against Hitler. When Hedy flees Europe, she initially throws herself into Hollywood without reservation. Benedict does an excellent job of portraying the slowly rising sense of guilt and anxiety which compels Hedy to alter the world as we know it, albeit not in the way she ever envisioned.

Hedy Lamarr’s development of what she termed “Spread Spectrum Technology” is addressed briefly in terms of ramifications for today’s technology in the author’s note at the end of the novel. In short, her patent formed the backbone which allowed later inventors to develop all sorts of wireless technology, such as cell phones, fax machines, wifi, and more. Our daily lives are impacted today by her work, which was largely forgotten in favor of her silver screen accomplishments for most of her life. Benedict’s novel attempts to draw the focus back onto Lamarr’s intellectual excellence as opposed to the image of the ornamental damsel many may think of when they hear her name. The Only Woman in the Room is artfully written and imbued with a sense of respect for its subject.

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