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


The Winemaker’s Wife
by Kristin Harmel

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 400 Pages

Release date: August 13, 2019

Publisher: Gallery Books

Synopsis: 

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

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

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

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

Okay. Minority opinion alert. This book currently has a very respectable 4.14 average on Goodreads, so if the synopsis sounds like something you’ll love, by all means, don’t 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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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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Review – The Atomic City Girls, by Janet Beard


The Atomic City Girls
by Janet Beard

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 353 Pages

Release date: February 6, 2018

Synopsis: 

In the bestselling tradition of Hidden Figures and The Wives of Los Alamos, comes a riveting novel of the everyday women who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II

“What you see here, what you hear here, what you do here, let it stay here.”

In November 1944, eighteen-year-old June Walker boards an unmarked bus, destined for a city that doesn’t officially exist. Oak Ridge, Tennessee has sprung up in a matter of months—a town of trailers and segregated houses, 24-hour cafeterias, and constant security checks. There, June joins hundreds of other young girls operating massive machines whose purpose is never explained. They know they are helping to win the war, but must ask no questions and reveal nothing to outsiders.

The girls spend their evenings socializing and flirting with soldiers, scientists, and workmen at dances and movies, bowling alleys and canteens. June longs to know more about their top-secret assignment and begins an affair with Sam Cantor, the young Jewish physicist from New York who oversees the lab where she works and understands the end goal only too well, while her beautiful roommate Cici is on her own mission: to find a wealthy husband and escape her sharecropper roots. Across town, African-American construction worker Joe Brewer knows nothing of the government’s plans, only that his new job pays enough to make it worth leaving his family behind, at least for now. But a breach in security will intertwine his fate with June’s search for answers.

When the bombing of Hiroshima brings the truth about Oak Ridge into devastating focus, June must confront her ideals about loyalty, patriotism, and war itself.

rating

two

I adore historical fiction and WWII is definitely my go-to time period when it comes to this genre. Reading the blurb, I had high hopes for Atomic City Girls, but rereading it now after finishing the book really brings into focus how much of a false impression of the book it gives.

First and foremost, the romance storyline felt like it took up more of the novel than was justified. All of the major characters are working on developing a nuclear bomb. Some of them know what they’re working to develop and some of them do not. The political and moral implications of their work and the fact that some of them have been roped into working on it essentially blind felt like something that warranted more development and focus than an unhealthy romance that starts with a 30-year-old scientist taking home a drunk 18-year-old girl. (Yeah, that happens.)

Don’t get me wrong; June’s relationship with Sam Cantor isn’t overly romanticized, and I did appreciate that the morally dodgy nature of their relationship wasn’t sugarcoated. I do have a few feelings about the fact that the only Jewish character in this WWII historical fiction novel is an alcoholic man who takes advantage of a younger girl, though. (I’m not saying that this was necessarily done with any intent, but I do wonder if it ever occurred to the author that, given the rampant antisemitism of the era, making the only Jewish character kind of an awful person might not be a value-free narrative choice.)

The book was trying to do a lot; themes about the moral implications of their work (while underdeveloped, in my opinion) were present, and multiple POV characters allow us to explore the story from varying levels of privilege. (Race, gender, age, and level of education all come into play.) Most of the characters felt underdeveloped, however, and that really hindered the author’s ability to explore this in any real depth. Joe Brewer (the African American man mentioned in the blurb whose fate is going to be “intertwined with” June’s) in particular felt like a missed opportunity. First of all, his relevance to June’s storyline feels severely overstated in the blurb. But beyond that, feels very one-dimensional. It would have been interesting to have a bit more depth to a character who is treated like a second class citizen in a country he’s working to serve.

The pacing also felt a tad slow to me, and the writing style was pretty simple. Not once while reading did any particular passage or quote jump out to me as memorable.

Overall, I feel like I liked the idea of this novel a lot more than the novel itself. The subject matter was really ripe for exploring complex moral themes, but Beard uses cardboard cutout characters and the more interesting aspects of the plot are relegated to the background while Beard tells a story of a doomed romance and a rivalry between roommates. Atomic City Girls brings up a lot of interesting themes, but only ever superficially and fleetingly, leaving the reader thinking, “Okay, and???”

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Thank you for reading! Have you read this novel? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments! What’s your favorite novel that takes place during WWII? Let’s discuss! Capture2

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