Sunday, March 19, 2023

March Read: The Librarian of Burned Books by Brianna Labuskes


Have you ever heard of the Armed Services Editions? They were paperbacks of novels that were shipped overseas to U.S. troops during World War 2. Many novels we consider classics were part of this giant effort to combat Nazi book burning and censorship. The books also provided soldiers with reading material to give them some relief from the constant stress of battle. 

Author Brianna Labuskes uses the ASE as a large part of her novel. Vivian Childs is living in New York City in 1944. Her husband has been killed in battle, and while mourning his loss, she's been working as the publicity director for the Council on Books in Wartime. She's working hard to keep books flowing into the hands of soldiers overseas, but has one Senator who is using his personal dislike of President Roosevelt to cripple the program. Senator Taft wants to censor the books, and if the amendment goes through, it means thousands of books will be banned from the program. 

The plot of the story also involves two women: Althea James and Hannah Brecht. Althea is a young American author who has been invited by Joseph Goebbels to Germany in a cultural exchange program in 1933. It's a thinly disguised attempt for the growing Nazi power to influence American minds. Althea is pretty naive and is excited to leave her small town in Maine. She's living in Berlin, is escorted around by a handsome young man, and has been exposed to Nazi idealism. 

Hannah Brecht is a Jewish woman living in Paris in 1936. The Nazis have not yet invaded France, but it's expected they will. Hannah has fled from Germany after a devastating event, and now works at a library that collects copies of the banned books students gleefully burned one night in May, 1933. She's haunted by the events of 1933 that left her feeling betrayed by those closest to her. 

All three stories connect together in New York, 1944 as Viv works to create a last ditch effort to bring awareness to Senator Taft's amendment.  The novel switches back and forth between 1933, 1936, and 1944. I didn't have any trouble following along, and each of the women were strong characters. I can't say I liked any one of them better than the other two. It was interesting to read about the same war from three different places and eleven years apart. I was especially interested in the ASE history and what it did to boost morale for soldiers. 

It took me a bit to get into this novel. Part of that was, as always, my reluctance to read about the rise of Nazi power and all of the horrible, horrible things that happened. What was interesting is the idea of book banning and censorship occurring here, in the U.S.  In light of what is currently going on in our schools and public libraries, this really hit home and because of that, this was a powerful, timely read for me. 

As someone who has worked their entire adult life selling books, talking about books, recommending books, reviewing books, selecting books for a library--I find censorship horrific. Banning books? Hell no. I speak from personal experience as a young reader who had books taken away from me because my mom didn't think they were appropriate. Over 40 years later, I remember every book and every time they were taken away from me. I remember being so angry about that, and telling myself I would never, ever do that to my future children. I still, deep down, carry that resentment. I am one of those kids who wasn't allowed to read what they wanted. It didn't stop me, instead it fired me up. Read with your child! Talk to them about why they're interested in reading a particular book. Don't ban a book because you don't like it. Don't keep your children from reading something that interests them.  As Hannah says in this novel

    I can tell you that banning books, burning books, blocking books is often used as a way to erase a people, a belief system, a culture. To say those voices don't belong here even when those writers represent the very best of a country.

Okay. I'll get off my soapbox. 

This novel has some interesting historical background, and if you're interested in learning more about the American Service Edition program, read  When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning. 

This would be a great book club selection with plenty to discuss. 

Rating: 4/6 for a novel about love, betrayal, censorship, apathy, and friendship. Historical fiction fans will be intrigued by the ASE program and the events of May, 1933 in Berlin. 

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

March Read: Weyward by Emilia Hart


I first saw the cover of this book months ago, and immediately knew it would be a novel I had to read as soon as it was published. I can't tell you how much I love this cover. Absolutely stunning. 

I'm happy to say the novel was just as good as the cover promised. Women becoming empowered, to be strong and fearless in the face of adversity always resonates with me. 

This novel is told in three voices: Altha, Violet, and Kate. Three generations of women from the Weyward family; each with a powerful connection to nature, particularly crows. Altha's story takes place in 1619, Violet in the 1940's, and Kate in present day England. 

Kate is married to Simon, an abusive man who has cut her off from everyone she knows. He locks her in their posh apartment, monitors her phone, and has complete control over her. He wants a child, and Kate is terrified of getting pregnant. When she discovers she is pregnant, she is forced to act on her carefully laid plains to flee and disappear from her life with Simon. 

Kate runs away to the small village of Crows Beck, where her Great Aunt Violet has left Kate her cottage. Named Weyward Cottage, Kate arrives to discover a squat little place full of Violet's things, and a wild garden. And crows. Lots of crows. Kate is fearful of the cottage and the surrounding woods, which seem to be full of bees, birds, insects, and wild flowers. Yet she can't help but be aware of a strange buzzing in her chest; and a heightened sense of hearing that connects her to nature. 

Violet's story takes place near Weyward Cottage in 1942. Living in Orton Hall with her overbearing father and her younger brother Graham, she is a teenager who has not been allowed to leave the grounds of the estate her entire life. She's completely naive to the world and longs to leave. Her father is an ogre who refuses to speak of their mother and believes Violet is just like her. When cousin Frederick visits on leave from the War, Violet's life takes an unexpected, violent turn. 

Altha lives in Weyward Cottage in 1619, and is the ancestor of Violet and Kate. She's been accused of witchcraft and the murder of a local man, who early one morning was trampled to death by his cows. She is positive she will be found guilty and hung as a witch. Her trial drags on while Altha recalls her life with her mother, also a healing woman who tried to stay under the radar of watchful eyes. 

All three women are connected not only by blood, but by their gifts, handed down each generation to another Weyward female. Each woman's journey to embracing her gifts and using them to empower themselves is the center of this novel. 

I absolutely loved reading each women's story. All three women have compelling lives; I found Violet's to be the most fascinating. The descriptions of nature, flowers, gardens, insects, and the woods resonated with me mostly because of the upcoming Spring months. I thought a lot about flowers blooming, the earth waking up again,  and growing my garden. It was a great reminder of how everything works in sync, and that we are a part of the natural world. To put down the phone and to take a walk and inhale fresh air. 

The novel reads quickly, but I found myself lingering. I didn't want it to end! 

Anyone who is a fan of Alice Hoffman, or Sarah Addison Allen will want to read this novel. I certainly hope Emilia Hart writes more; I will definitely read whatever she writes. 

Rating: 5/6 for a novel about three women from the Weyward female line who learn  to appreciate and embrace their gifts and use them to live their true lives. Is it witchcraft or just a powerful connection to the natural world? 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Thursday, March 9, 2023

March Read: The London Seance Society by Sarah Penner

 I've been excitedly anticipating the release of this novel for months. I reviewed her first novel, The Lost Apothecary, in March of 2021. 

Sarah returns to 19th century London in her second novel, and the atmosphere definitely lends itself to seances and things that creep in the dark. Vaudeline D'Allaire is a famous spiritualist living in Paris after leaving London under mysterious circumstances. Lenna Wickes has traveled to Paris to work as an understudy to Vaudeline and learn everything there is to know about conducting a seance. 

The Victorian age saw an explosion of spiritualism, as people became increasingly interested in contacting the dead. It also brought along a lot of charlatans that preyed on grieving families and widows. 

Lenna has an agenda-to discover what happened to her sister Evie, found murdered on All Hallow's Eve the year before. Lenna and Evie were close, but held very different beliefs in the afterlife. Lenna was the logic-based sister, while Evie dove headfirst into spiritualism and started working with Vaudeline to master the art of the seance. Now Lenna has had to set aside her skepticism in order to work with Vaudeline. 

Vaudeline's approach to the occult is very different-she contacts spirits in order to solve crimes-mostly murder. She uses her skills as a tool to speak directly to victims to uncover the killer and name names. She's famous and accurate. 

Vaudeline is called back to London to secretly work with the London Seance Society, a famous spiritual society exclusively run by men. The founder, Mr. Volckman, was found murdered the same night at Evie-All Hallow's Eve. His second in command, Mr. Morley, has written Vaudeline and asked her to return to conduct a seance to reveal the killer. 

Back and forth we see the story from Lenna's point of view, as well as Mr. Morley's. And it's the story from Mr. Morley that slowly fills in pieces of Evie's life before her murder. There is definitely a connection between Lenna, Evie, and the London Seance Society. 

I'll say I liked The Lost Apothecary better out of the two books. However, I did enjoy this novel. It was a bit slow to start, and there is a lot of discussion about the occult and spiritualism practices of the Victorian Era. I definitely felt myself in the setting--atmosphere is spot-on! The plot speeds up once the night of the seance begins, and the last 100 pages are where the story grabbed me and I couldn't put it down. You may feel compelled to light a few candles and lock the door...

Themes include LGBTQ, violence against women, and science vs. belief in the afterlife. The novel also explores the guilt and grief of a sister who didn't get to say goodbye.

Rating: 4/6 for an atmospheric novel about the rise of spiritualism in Victorian England. The tension builds slowly, and there are a few surprises. Strong female characters who take on unsavory men. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Saturday, March 4, 2023

March Read: A Dangerous Business by Jane Smiley


This was a quick read (just over 200 pages) and I loved it. It's a bit of a murder mystery but it's also historical fiction that has a lot to say about women in the Wild West. 

The Wild West in this case is Monterey, California in 1851. Eliza Ripple is a very young woman who has recently been widowed after her ass of a husband, Peter, is shot at a bar. Best thing ever for Eliza. Peter was her much older husband, and treated Eliza like his personal servant. Both had recently arrived in Monterey from Michigan, where Eliza's strict religious parents had fallen for Peter's seemingly mild mannered and sincere actions. Once married, the truth comes out and Eliza is trapped. 

Peter is killed, and wow, Eliza is free! All alone in a bustling gold rush town, she needs a way to make a living. The kindly Mrs. Parker offers her a solution, and Eliza becomes a prostitute. Seems like a good way to make a living and save up some cash. Eliza has a few clients every day, then retires to her room at a boarding house. Eliza learns a whole lot about men, and decides they aren't all like Peter-in fact, there are some pretty good men around. She's quite content to be independent and loves living in Monterey.

Eliza and her friend Jean discover a dead body while out on a carriage ride. The sheriff and the coroner don't seem too disturbed by it, but Eliza and Jean are-mostly because it's a young woman, and she was murdered and tossed aside like garbage. With a recent interest in reading Edgar Allen Poe's stories, the two women decide to investigate the murder 'Poe style'. And sure enough, this young woman is only the first of the women who are disappearing around Monterey. 

Eliza and Jean are absolutely delightful characters. I was immediately taken by the matter-of-factness of Eliza. This is no helpless female. She looks around, assesses, and makes her choices. Jean is equally delightful. She's a prostitute who caters to female clients. As Jean says, most of these clients just want someone to talk to, or to give them a hug. Women who are married and feel alone. 

Both women have freedom most other women do not. They have no husbands or children, make their own income, and are able to walk about (properly and demurely dressed, of course) with no worries. Eliza spends her time with clients quickly doing the deed, but then talking to them about where they live, what they do, and questions them about the latest political news. Slavery and the railroad are big topics. The Civil War is only a few years away. Eliza never once feels like a victim and sees what she does as a way to make a living and be independent. 

Nature plays a big part in this novel. The nature of Monterey, the ocean, the twisty trees and the fog; the different journeys of the men Eliza crosses paths with; the very nature of a swiftly changing country and political climate. 

It seems that every client or man Eliza meets may very well be the murderer; it's very near the end that the mystery is solved. I thought it was clever. I especially love the final few paragraphs; satisfied with Eliza and Jean's futures that will take them wherever the wind blows. And that's just how they like it. 

Rating: 5/6 for a short mystery that isn't your typical murder mystery. The setting and especially  the characters created a fast read that I enjoyed. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.