REVIEW – The Secret Stealers by Jane Healey

2021 is turning out to be “the year where I read a ton of historical fiction” – luckily, each book in the genre i’ve read so far has been pretty decent. The Secret Stealers is no exception. When Anna Cavanaugh takes a job working for family friend Major General William Donovan (WWII buffs probably recognize this name – yes, he was real, and yes, he was kind of a badass. For those of you who aren’t familiar with WWII-era US history, i’ll give you this: founding father of the CIA).

Anna quickly becomes close with other women in the organization, and the bits and pieces we get of their friendship are some of my favorite parts of the book. Anna and a few of her friends are eventually sent overseas (to different countries) and she becomes a spy in France (very interesting, VERY dangerous).

In terms of historical fiction, this is a little bit lighter. Yes, there are some incredibly sad parts, and Healey doesn’t shy away from the horrors and aftermath of war, but compared to other books in the genre i’ve read, it’s a bit tame (this isn’t a criticism, I would highly recommend this book to readers who are wanting to dip their toe in the WWII fiction world, or those who are a bit more sensitive when it comes to the tougher topics).

Thank you Get Red PR for the finished copy of The Secret Stealers!

REVIEW – The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

“You cannot feel time grind against you. Time is nothing but everything, not the seconds, minutes, hours, days, years. Yet this substanceless substance, this bending and shaping, this warping, this is the way we understand our world.”

At its heart, The Night Watchman is about a community fighting for their right to exist on the land that’s rightfully theirs. It’s a historical moment that I haven’t heard a lot about (oh, surprise surprise, American history tries to cover up its less savory bits…)

“We don’t want to leave our homes. We are poor, but even poor people can love their land. You do not need money to love your home.”

At times the story can be a little disjointed and I felt that some plotlines meandered and ended up nowhere. I would still definitely recommend this book – it’s long (clocking in at more than 400 pages) but it reads fast. Each chapter is relatively brief, and it almost feels like a collection of shorter stories that feed a larger overarching narrative. I do wish we would have gotten more of Thomas and less of Pixie/Patrice (especially after the waterjack storyline was so short-lived) but you won’t forget these characters and their journeys.

However, Erdrich’s writing is impeccable. I have a ton of passages bookmarked and I often went back and read certain paragraphs and sentences over and over again before moving on.

“He hated their approval just as much as he hated their condescension. And yet this truth was buried so deep inside him that its expression only emerged, in their presence, as a friendly smile.”

“Dread of the situation, ungraspable in its magnitude. Loneliness. The forces he was up against were implacable and distant. But from their distance they could reach out and sweep away an entire people.”

Thank you Harper Perennial for sending me a copy of this book!

COZY MYSTERY REVIEW – Murder at the Mena House by Erica Ruth Neubauer

Even though I love historical fiction and I love cozy mysteries, for some reason i’ve struggled in the past to read historical cozies…well, that streak finally ended with Murder at the Mena House! I absolutely loved the first book in this new series – Jane is a fun main character, Aunt Millie is mysterious and precocious and intriguing, and the dashing Mr. Redvers might be my absolute favorite.

Set in Egypt, young widow Jane is spending time abroad with her Aunt Millie at the Mena House Hotel. They meet some interesting characters right from the jump, and when sassy socialite Anna Stainton is found murdered, it’s a race to find the culprit before another body turns up. I had such vivid imagery of this in my mind while reading! It felt like going on vacation. Murder at the Mena House has Clue (yes, the board game) and Agatha Christie vibes, and i’m so excited to pick up the next book in the series!

Thank you Kensington Books for sending me a copy of this book!

REVIEW – The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

Okay, I officially want to dive into Kate Quinn’s backlist. The Rose Code was an incredibly immersive, emotional, charming piece of historical fiction. Focusing on the codebreakers of Bletchley Park, The Rose Code features three main characters – Osla, Mab and Beth – who have incredibly different personalities but become fast friends.

Throughout the course of the war, we follow the three women as they endure long shifts, battle sexist attitudes, fall in (and out) of love, and experience unimaginable loss.

The book bounces between two timelines – WWII (beginning in 1940 and moving along at an even pace) and post-war 1947, mere days before the wedding of Princess (now Queen!) Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

Quinn is an incredible storyteller – I felt like I was transported into 1940s England, sitting in the room watching these amazing women work on breaking codes that ultimately could save the lives of hundreds (or thousands). The way Quinn weaves together fiction with real-life “characters” and events is remarkable, and you can tell she has done her research. The Rose Code will entertain you but it will also educate you.

Thank you to Bibliolifestyle and William Morrow for the finished copy!

REVIEW – Deacon King Kong by James McBride

“He was a peaceful man beloved by all. So what happened?”

I didn’t really know what to expect when I picked up Deacon King Kong, but I was definitely surprised. Tihs book is so much funnier and lighthearted than I anticipated (but I wouldn’t say it’s a “lighthearted book”). You might not fall in love with Sportcoat right away, but you’ll realize just how much you enjoy his character by the end of the book.

I would say this is definitely more character-driven vs. plot-driven, which isn’t usually my cup of tea (or bottle of King Kong, in this instance) but I really loved this book. I don’t think the 1969 setting is incredibly consequential here, but it does make some parts of the story more plausible.

There’s so much heart in this book – each chapter almost feels like its own story, and it all contributes to the overall narrative. Everyone and everything is connected in some way, and McBride’s writing is so clever and vibrant, you can’t help but want to know who you’re going to meet next.

The shorter version? Jesus cheese. It’s all about the Jesus cheese.

REVIEW – The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

“Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux. – After the darkness of war, the light of books.”

The Paris Library is historical fiction for book lovers. Using dual timelines (WWII-era Paris and 1980s Montana), Janet Skeslien Charles weaves a beautiful, emotional story that focuses on friendship, love, family and forgiveness.

I had no choice but to give this five stars – the writing is absolutely beautiful. The characters! THE LIBRARY. Just stunning – you’ll fall in love with (almost) everyone and find yourself wanting to spend forever amongst the shelves.

Odile and Lily are truly the stars of this book, and their journey is lovely and sad and hopeful. Get ready to feel all of the feelings.

Thank you Atria Books for the ARC!

REVIEW – The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

I have some questions for Kristin Hannah. Does she enjoy making readers cry? Does she enjoy crying? Does she cry when she writes her books? Because this is NOT the first time she’s made me cry, and i’m sure it won’t be the last.

The Four Winds is just stunning. Even if you’re not typically into historical fiction, i’d highly recommend this book. In an industry that’s oversaturated with WWII stories (but hey, I love those too!) it’s so nice to read historical fiction set during a different time. The Four Winds starts in the early 1920s, where we meet Elsa. Elsa suffered an illness as a teen, and her family has treated her like glass ever since (and boy, are they RUDE AF to her! It’s so frustrating).

We spend a brief amount of time there before moving forward into 1934. Elsa lives on her in-laws’ farm with her small family. She has changed a LOT and definitely for the better. She’s strong and capable, but she’s also dealing with some pre-teen drama from her daughter and a prolonged drought that’s proving to be catastrophic for the farm (and the farm animals…oh, my heart). On top of that, we’re also right in the middle of the Great Depression which is, well, upsetting to say the least.

After a series of unfortunate events (SERIOUSLY) Elsa packs up her kids and heads west to California, where things are supposed to be better. But…they’re not. I’m sure you could figure that out for yourself. What happens from there is brutally, dismally sad. This book will break your heart. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Also, read the Author’s Note at the end – it’s amazing.

Thank you St. Martin’s Press for the NetGalley ARC.

REVIEW – Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet was one of my most anticipated books of 2020, but somehow I failed to pick it up until the very beginning of 2021. This is incredibly well written, and although it’s a slower story, O’Farrell’s writing moves the reader along swiftly and easily.

“She grows up with the awareness that she is merely tolerated, an irritant, useless, that she does not deserve love, that she will need to change herself substantially, crush herself down if she is to be married..”

Although named after Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet is really a story about Agnes – Shakespeare’s wife and Hamnet’s mother. She’s a fascinating character with a complex back story, a strong woman who is bound by the expectations and customs of her time. Her heartbreak is front and center after Hamnet’s death, and O’Farrell handles Agnes’ grief beautifully.

“He glances over his shoulder at the tunnel of dark beside the door. The blackness is depthless, soft, absolute. Turn away, he says to Death. Close your eyes. Just for a moment.”

The writing in Hamnet is stellar, and places it firmly in the literary fiction category (historical yes, but it doesn’t have the same vibe that most mainstream historical fiction seems to have). You don’t need to know much of anything about Shakespeare to understand and appreciate this book. In fact, Shakespeare himself is never actually mentioned by name.

REVIEW – The Last Tiara by MJ Rose

I’m always excited to put a historical fiction novel onto my tbr, especially if it deals with an era or region that i’m not really familiar with. The Last Tiara is told in dual timelines – Isobelle is living in 1940s NYC and looking for answers after her mother’s death one year prior. She finds a tiara (minus the jewels) hidden in the wall of her mother’s bedroom and works to uncover the history of piece. We also get Sofiya’s perspective from Russia in 1915 – she begins working as a nurse and through a series of events (and after a period of years) ends up fleeing Bolshevik Russia.

This is my second MJ Rose book and she does a great job of setting up strong, independent female characters. If you’re a historical fiction fan, you’ll want to add this to your tbr!

Thank you Get Red PR for the NetGalley ARC.

REVIEW – The Duke and I (Bridgerton) by Julia Quinn

Let’s get this out of the way first: Lady Whistledown is 100% Regency-era Gossip Girl. If that alone appeals to you, give this book a shot. You’re probably already interested in reading this anyway because the Netflix adaptation is pretty much the only thing anyone can talk about right now.

However, there are some great and not-so-great things about The Duke and I…

The good: The relationships at the heart of this book are lovely. The Bridgerton family is adorable and hilarious, and they’re honestly even better in the Netflix show. Lady Danbury is one of my favorite characters – she’s feisty, tough and funny. Simon (uhh SWOON) is arrogant and lovable and YES i’m aware of the spoon scene in the show.

The bad: There’s a controversial scene that many readers have already discussed. It’s icky and out of character, and honestly feels out of place in the overall story (and the tone of novel takes such a shift in the second half). If Quinn wanted to create conflict, she could have taken one of practically a million different avenues.

However, I am willing to continue in the series because I was really loving this book up until that point and assume it does get a bit better as the books go on.