The Librarian Spy Review (Audiobook)

Book: The Librarian Spy

Author: Madeline Martin

Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld

BECHDEL TEST: Pass-Both Elaine and Ava talk to named female colleagues about their work.

Content Warnings: War, torture, anti-Semitism, child death, death, genocide, suicide, grief, physical abuse, racism, violence, murder, blood, deportation, panic attacks/disorders, police brutality

As I mentioned in my final review of last year, despite my best intentions to actually keep to some sort of schedule with my reviews last year, I still ended up way behind and with three reviews from 2022 left hanging into 2023. This book I actually finished all the way back in September! Anyway, The Last Bookshop In London was one of my biggest reading surprises of 2021, so naturally, Madeline Martin’s next HF book ended up very high on my radar. I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed this one even more than The Last Bookshop: I loved the characters, Saskia Maarleveld was as always perfection as the narrator and Madeline Martin created such a vivid atmosphere that it really felt like I was in 1940s Lisbon and Lyon along with the characters. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

Ava thought her job as a librarian at the Library of Congress would mean a quiet, routine existence. But an unexpected offer from the US military has brought her to Lisbon with a new mission: posing as a librarian while working undercover as a spy gathering intelligence.

Meanwhile, in occupied France, Elaine has begun an apprenticeship at a printing press run by members of the Resistance. It’s a job usually reserved for men, but in the war, those rules have been forgotten. Yet she knows that the Nazis are searching for the press and its printer in order to silence them.

As the battle in Europe rages, Ava and Elaine find themselves connecting through coded messages and discovering hope in the face of war.

I loved so many things about this book, but I think my favourite was definitely the settings and the atmosphere that Madeline Martin created within those settings. I knew basically nothing about Portugal’s role during WWII, and I’ve never been to the country, but the way Martin described Lisbon really made it feel as if I could be walking the streets with Ava. She also made it sound so lovely that it really made me want to visit there! She also did a really good job in showing the contrast between the two places: neutral Lisbon was sunny and abundant with food, Lyon under the Nazi occupation was cold and dark and everyone was starving, you really got the sense that Elaine and Ava were worlds apart in terms of how they were experiencing the war.

I also really loved both main characters, but especially Elaine. She was so brave and strong and risked so much in order to free her country from the Nazis, I just couldn’t help but admire her. The fact that she was willing to risk her own life by offering her identity card to help a Jewish woman escape from the Nazis at the very start of the book immediately endeared her to me, and she wedged herself further and further into my heart the more I read. I loved Ava too, I loved how empathetic she was and how much she was willing to put on the line in order to help people. I found I could easily connect to both characters and their goals. I did feel that Ava’s story was the slightly weaker of the two which is why I think I ended up loving Elaine slightly more, her story just had the greater emotional impact for me.

I loved the narration, as always with Saskia Maarleveld, I’ve yet to listen to a book narrated by her that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. Her flair for accents was as ever on full display here, I think she did British, French and German throughout the book. I won’t wax lyrical for the millionth time about how much I love her performances, I’ll just say that if you see she’s narrating a book you’re interested in, even if you end up not being a fan of the book, the narration is guaranteed to be fantastic!

I did find that the book felt more like two separate unconnected stories for much of the book. I was expecting Ava and Elaine’s paths to cross MUCH sooner than they did. It meant that the narrative felt a little disjointed, and didn’t flow as well as it could have done, because it felt like we were switching between two separate narratives as opposed to one continuous one, up until the point where the story crossed over. I do wonder if perhaps Martin had two ideas that might have been separate book ideas and decided to combine them into one? I don’t know, it just felt like the two should have had a little bit more overlap, or at least overlapped earlier. I think that disconnect also somewhat contributed to me liking one POV more than the other, because of the way that they felt like two different stories.

It was a little slow paced to start off with, but I did find that the pace picked up around Chapter 8/9 ish and it maintained well throughout the book, so I never found myself bored which is always good! The chapters were generally relatively short which kept things ticking along at a nice pace.

Martin certainly did her research well, the amount of information she managed to pack into a relatively short book (the audio is about 10 1/2 hours) was incredible. I loved that I got to learn about a different aspect of WWII history here, I already knew a little about the French Resistance, but honestly not a huge amount, and hardly anything about the printing presses and the clandestine newspapers. I knew basically nothing about Portugal in WWII, other than the fact that it was neutral, so I learned a huge amount there, especially the role that the country played in being the access point for many refugees to escape to and get to other countries from. One of my favourite things about reading historical fiction is getting to learn new things, and Martin certainly ticked that box for me.

I found the stories of the refugees to Portugal particularly poignant, I knew a little about how difficult it could be for war refugees to get their visas, but Martin really hammered home how brutal the process could be and I couldn’t help drawing some parallels between the situation back then, and the situation that faces many refugees trying to flee conflict zones today. The story of Otto, a refugee from France who was of German heritage, particularly broke me, but I won’t go into exactly why as that would be spoilery!

Speaking of that though, the story certainly had a real emotional impact. I really felt the emotions of the characters and everything they went through, particularly Elaine as she lives in constant fear and danger as a result of her work with the Resistance, and of course she experiences great loss because of the nature of what she does. There’s one particular moment in her story that really stuck with me and touched me, but I can’t elaborate too much on it as it would be very spoilery about a certain character’s fate. There are a lot of quite brutal moments throughout the book, particularly when it comes to descriptions of the effects’ of Nazi torture, but I’m glad that Martin did not shy away from the harsh reality of war.

Martin’s writing is fantastic, she’s so good at conveying emotion through her words and she really captures the brutality, heartbreak and pain but also the fierce hope & determination of the people in this story through her writing. I don’t want you think it’s all doom and gloom, it really isn’t, friendship and hope and pulling together in hard times is also really evident in this book. There’s also some lovely moments of levity, like when Ava first arrives in Lisbon and her boss picks her up from the airport: he offers to take her suitcase which is incredibly heavy. He asks if she’s carrying bricks, and she responds, quick as you like: “No. Books.”. It definitely had this bookworm cackling!

There is a little romance in this book, though it’s by no means the main focus which I liked. The romance is between Ava and a fellow librarian James, who works for the British Embassy. I did initially like them together, and thought they had good chemistry and was rooting for them, however an event that happens later on in the book did slightly sour their romance for me and I ended up slightly in two minds as to whether I wanted a HEA for them or not. I had my suspicions about James but I was surprised when the event which changed my mind about their romance happened.

I was very glad that she didn’t go down the romance route with Elaine and Etienne though, it seemed at the beginning of the book as if she might, but it would definitely have felt wrong after what happened to Elaine’s husband.

The title is actually a little misleading, as neither woman is actually a spy. Ava is a librarian, but I wouldn’t exactly call what she does in Portugal spying: it’s more just gathering information. Elaine’s work obviously requires a lot of secrecy, but again, not spying. There is quite a bit of espionage in the book, but none really from either of the main characters, so it feels like the title should have reflected what the main characters actually do! Also if “The Librarian Spy” is meant to refer to Ava, then the title misses out on Elaine completely, when she’s half the story!

I loved the author’s note at the end detailing Martin’s real life inspirations for the characters of Ava and Elaine, even if you don’t usually read authors’ notes in books, I will always recommend them for historical fiction books as you get to learn more about the author’s research and the history that inspired the novel.

The ending did wrap up everything pretty neatly, but I couldn’t help feeling a little short-changed! I would have liked to have seen slightly more from the events of the epilogue, it all felt a bit rushed from one event to the next and we didn’t really get a chance to sit with anything. I wasn’t left dissatisfied with the outcome of the story, but this is one part where I wish Martin had taken her time a little more.

Overall, this was a really great read, it packed an emotional punch, had characters I could really root for, two vivid and well realised settings and I learned a lot about WWII that I didn’t know before. Madeline Martin is fast becoming one of my new go-to authors and I’m already super excited for her next book to release in September: The Keeper of Hidden Books is going to take us to Warsaw in WWII this time, which should be good, again I can’t say I know a whole lot about Poland in WWII.

My rating: 4/5

My next review will be another of my 2022 catchup reviews, of another of my 2022 favourite reads, Looking For Jane by Heather Marshall. Only two more reviews to go from the backlog and then I will be caught up and ready to go with my 2023 reviews!

Life After Life Review (Audiobook)

Book: Life After Life

Author: Kate Atkinson

Narrator: Fenella Woolgar

BECHDEL TEST: Uncertain, didn’t keep track!

Content Warnings: Medical trauma, murder, forced institutionalisation, vomit, pregnancy, addiction, animal death, anti-Semitism, toxic relationship, rape, abortion, suicide, domestic abuse, violence, death, war, drowning, child death, genocide, gun violence, bombing/explosions, blood, grief, death of a parent, fire/fire injury

Despite all my best intentions, I’m once again super behind on my reviews, this is actually a book that I read over the summer! I’m about three books behind in my reviews, so I’m going to try and get as many done as I can before the end of the year, but there’s a very good chance a couple may spill over into January! Anyway, I watched the BBC TV adaptation of Life After Life back in the Spring, and enjoyed it so I decided to read the book that it was based on over the summer. Sadly I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I enjoyed the TV adaptation: I found the book quite bloated and overly long and the narrative a little stilted. It was a very interesting idea but I’m not sure Atkinson executed it as well as she could have done. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

What if you could live again and again, until you got it right?

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.

Does Ursula’s apparently infinite number of lives give her the power to save the world from its inevitable destiny? And if she can – will she?

As I mentioned at the top of the review, and as is a frequently occurring issue for me with books, my biggest issue here was once again…… yup it’s our good old friend PACING! This is an incredibly slow paced book, not helped by the fact that due to the narrative conceit, we visit events in Ursula’s life several times over. At one point it definitely felt like the book was never going to make it past the Spanish Flu section (I mean I knew it did because I’d watched the show but that section really did feel endless whilst reading it!). It took me forever to really get into the story because it was moving forward at such a slow pace. It was also much longer than it really needed to be: it felt like Atkinson extended it several times beyond what felt like it would have been a natural end point because she just wanted to explore as many lives for Ursula as possible whether or not they really added to the story. As I said before, I watched the TV series first and it was clear from reading the book afterwards that they had cut quite large sections: like the extended bit where Ursula is living with Eva Braun (yes, that Eva Braun) in Germany. To be honest, I found that the sections that were unfamiliar to me from not being in the TV series didn’t really add much to the story, and just served to make it longer. I definitely think Atkinson could have used a little more editing and the book could have done with being a bit more streamlined before going to print!

The length of the overall book wasn’t helped by the fact that the chapters were also incredibly long-there were a couple of chapters that were over three hours long! I definitely find that with longer books, I really prefer them to have shorter chapters as it makes them quicker to get through for me. I would have liked it if some of the longer chapters had been divided into smaller chunks as I just think it would have made for more manageable reading.

The nature of the story obviously means that the book has to be repetitive, but I mainly found this a problem in the beginning, and to some extent in the WWII section, generally the middle section of the book moved along at a fairly good pace and we seemed to keep moving forward quite well with limited repetition of events.

I did find that the story was quite stilted, due to the nature of the concept, it didn’t really feel like a cohesive narrative, more like a series of vignettes of someone’s life loosely joined together. The way that the story jumped around in time, both within Ursula’s lives and from one life to the next didn’t really help with this as it meant that the story felt kind of all over the place and made it a little hard to follow in places as I couldn’t keep track of where we were in the timeline.

I also found that Ursula herself was rather bland as a character. It felt like she had very little agency & that everything was just happening to her, rather than her driving the narrative. She also just had very little personality: I could tell you hardly anything about what she was passionate about, what drove her etc. I was actually kind of surprised by this, because I did enjoy her character in the TV series, it definitely felt like she had passion and fire there. She did get better towards the end of the story where she’s actively trying to change things in her lives, but I still didn’t connect with her in the way I thought I would.

I did like the narrator, I think Fenella Woolgar did a terrific job and I probably would have been less engaged with the book if the narration hadn’t been as good as it was. I would definitely listen to more audiobooks read by her!

Sylvie was the character who seemed the most different from the book to the show for me, she came across as far less likeable in the book than the show, much harsher and less sympathetic, although I do admit I was intrigued by her as it’s clear she was married off very young and I wondered whether she’d had bigger dreams for herself. There were also some hints that she might have had the same ability as Ursula, so I wonder if Atkinson might explore that in a future book maybe?

I did find that there were far too many characters to keep track of: Ursula has a really big family and then there’s a myriad of other characters who come and go throughout her different lives, so it was difficult to keep track of who was who sometimes. I also felt like because there were so many characters, the character development for everyone, even Ursula, the main character suffered and Ursula’s family also felt like they were only very superficially drawn. It might have been beneficial if there had been a smaller cast of characters because then everyone might have been fleshed out a little more.

I did feel like they were all a little hard on Izzie, for all her flaws, she was always there for Ursula when she needed her, with no questions asked and I feel like that wasn’t exactly acknowledged much by anyone in the book, not even Ursula herself!

There’s a rape scene in the book that was quite brutal to read: luckily I was aware of it beforehand because I had watched the TV show, but I always find it difficult to read scenes like that, especially when I’m listening to an audiobook because things just feel a little more real to me when I listen to them vs when I’m reading words on a page, so just a prior warning for anyone who also struggles with that kind of content: it’s about 1.26 into the chapter Like A Fox In A Hole, and last until around 1.29 if you’d prefer to skip through that section.

Atkinson’s writing was fairly engaging, though I did get tired of some of the more repetitive phrases, such as “Darkness fell.” occurring every time Ursula died and got reincarnated, and though the snow falling was an effective image in the TV show, I began to dread its occurrence in the book just because it happened so many times!

I did have some logistical problems with the book, which is probably me overthinking things, but there were a few things I just wish that Atkinson had thought about more. For example, I did wonder if so many details of her life and the lives of those around her would stay the same throughout different lives? It definitely felt like her dying and being reincarnated should have changed more than it actually did, I expected more different outcomes due to the changes she made, but it felt like the same kinds of events would happen over and over again but just with a few tweaks? Like I fully expect that big world events like WWI and the Spanish Flu would happen in multiple lifetimes, but it felt odd that Ursula would end up in the same kind of job, meet the same people, do the same things just with slightly different outcomes in all her lives. It also seemed odd that her dying and being reborn had absolutely no effect on the people around her? Like her sister Pamela always has the same husband? Ursula always has the same siblings in every life? Pamela always has the same kids, both in number and gender (and calls them the same names)? It just felt like this constant cycle of death and rebirth should have had more of an impact on the outcomes for the people surrounding Ursula than it did.

I also would have liked to have known why this happened to Ursula? Like I guess in the grand scheme of things it’s not important, or needed for the plot and it didn’t lessen my experience of the reading the book, but I’m a curious person and would just have liked to have known why she in particular was the one out of her family who was able to do this.

I wish she’d have got hints that she was reliving her lives over and over earlier and started to change things more actively earlier on, I feel like that would have given her more agency in her own story than she ended up having.

Some of Ursula’s lives did feel a little overly grim, particularly in the chapter Like A Fox In A Hole where she basically lives through every tragic and brutal thing that could happen to a person all in the one life. I get the point that the author was trying to make: that because of the rape, many other aspects of her life go downhill and she makes some bad choices as a result of her trauma, but just as a reader, it felt a little too much all at once. This is another reason why I feel like shorter, more divided chapters would have worked better because they would have broken up some of the more traumatic parts of Ursula’s lives into shorter chunks so it seemed a little less brutal all at once.

The ending was so confusing? I think I get that the author was going for something ambiguous, and wanting to show that Ursula would continue her lives in the circular way that she always had, with everything always starting over again, but I feel like the book came to a more natural end after the chapter in 1967, and that the author continued it on past its natural endpoint because she had more ideas she wanted to throw in there! Some people may like more open endings, but I am not one of those people and it felt like the story less ended and more sort of stopped? Anyway, I would have preferred a more definitive end!

Overall, I liked the idea behind Life After Life, but I found the execution lacking. I feel like it would have benefitted from being shorter, more tightly edited and with less characters so that the ones that were there had more room for development. It’s a real shame, because I really enjoyed the TV show and had such high hopes for the book, but alas it was not meant to be for us!

My Rating: 3/5

My next review will be of The Librarian Spy, by Madeline Martin. I’m not sure whether that one will be up before the end of the year or not, as I’ll be taking my usual break from posting over Christmas and it depends how busy I am before I leave Australia as to whether I get to write up more reviews or not (especially as I still have to do notes for that one!).

This is my last post before Christmas, so Merry Christmas to all who celebrate and I hope everyone has a great holiday, however you’re spending it! I will be back next week with my final Top Ten Tuesday of 2022, end of year wrap up posts and potentially some reviews if I find the time to write them.

When Women Were Dragons Review (Audiobook)

Book: When Women Were Dragons

Author: Kelly Barnhill

Narrators: Kimberly Farr & Mark Bramhall

BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Alex and Beatrice talk about prom dresses.

Content Warnings: Infidelity, murder, gaslighting, sexism, misogyny, death of a parent, abandonment, cancer, grief, death, emotional abuse, homophobia, alcoholism, child abuse, toxic relationship, panic attacks, hospital/medical content, body shaming

So you know how I mentioned in my review yesterday that Portrait of A Thief was one of my most disappointing reads of 2022? Well, today we have my actual most disappointing read of 2022. Everything about this book should have been something I loved. Dragons. Feminist rage. Historical setting. Everything about this book really screamed me. But instead of a book packed with dragons and feminist fury, it ended up largely being a coming of age story of a fairly dull main character who didn’t really seem to drive the story forward much and despite being promised dragons, the dragons were actually a fairly small part of the book. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours. But this version of 1950’s America is characterized by a significant event: The Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary wives and mothers sprouted wings, scales and talons, left a trail of fiery destruction in their path, and took to the skies. Seemingly for good. Was it their choice? What will become of those left behind? Why did Alex’s beloved Aunt Marla transform but her mother did not? Alex doesn’t know. It’s taboo to speak of, even more so than her crush on Sonja, her schoolmate.

Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of dragons: a mother more protective than ever; a father growing increasingly distant; the upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and a new “sister” obsessed with dragons far beyond propriety. Through loss, rage, and self-discovery, this story follows Alex’s journey as she deals with the events leading up to and beyond the Mass Dragoning, and her connection with the phenomenon itself.

My biggest issue with this book was….can you guess it? Yup, our old friend pacing is making an appearance again! One of these days I will not complain about slow pacing in books quite as much, but today is not that day. This book was so, so slow to get going, it only really got interesting when the dragons returned and by that point, you’re about 2/3rds of the way through the book and you’ve already invested a lot of your time & energy into a book that’s moving along at a glacial pace. It’s about a 15 hour or so long audiobook anyway, so it’s not exactly short, and the slow pace definitely made it feel a lot longer than it actually was, it took me a good month to finish it, which is not usual for me. We spent ages on Alex’s childhood, which wasn’t all that interesting to me, and yet the bit where the dragons returned was such a small part of the book which I would have loved to see more of!

Which brings me to one of my other big problems: LACK OF DRAGONS IN A BOOK SUPPOSEDLY ABOUT DRAGONS. I don’t know about you, but when I’m promised dragons, I want dragons everywhere. But the dragons hardly have any impact on the story until right at the end, and even then, we only get to see a certain type of dragon: the dragons that chose to return to their families. Why couldn’t we see the dragons that chose to have adventures, that chose to explore the seas and space? I was expecting the dragons to be the main point of this book and they kind of ended up being a side story to Alex and her terrible family life.

I didn’t love the memoir-esque style of the book, it’s written in the style of an older Alex’s memoir about her experiences, which meant that everything felt very passive and the emotional beats of the story felt somewhat lacking, because she wasn’t so much experiencing things, as just telling us what happened to her. That’s not to say that all memoirs are boring, in fact, I’ve been really enjoying memoirs in recent years but when I read fiction, I want to feel that emotional connection to the character and in this case, the memoir style felt like it acted as a barrier to really getting that emotional connection with the character.

I didn’t love either of the narrators, if they had been more engaging, maybe I would have connected with the book more, however both Kimberly Farr and Mark Bramhall had a style of narration that felt both flat and dry, and was honestly a bit of a chore to listen to.

The whole magic knot system just didn’t really make much sense to me, it was kind of confusing and not really properly explained, I didn’t really understand why it was relevant. It seemed as if maybe the knots stopped the girls from dragoning, but the author didn’t go into too much detail about it and I wish that she would have.

Alex was kind of dull as a main character, she seemed to have very little personality. I really couldn’t tell you much about her other than she is “sensible” and “likes maths”. I felt pretty indifferent towards her, which for me is the worst feeling to have towards a character: I’d rather hate a main character than feel indifferent towards them because at least then you have some sort of strong emotion towards to them. Alex’s passivity also seemed to be echoed through the style of the book, with everything being told to you rather than shown, which I guess is maybe good from a characterisation standpoint, but it’s very dull from a reader standpoint! Her sister Beatrice seemed like she would have made a much better main character, she’s obviously very young in the book, but she seemed like quite a firecracker who would have been much more fun to follow.

To be honest, all the characters felt kind of underdeveloped, they really needed more depth and nuance to them, it was like Barnhill had merely traced the outlines of each of the characters and plopped them onto the page without really considering much about them beyond those outlines. My favourite characters have all been ones that have real emotional depth to them, and that just felt very lacking in the characters in this book. The relationships in this book also felt kind of flat because the characters weren’t developed enough: I usually love sisterly relationships in books, but the one here didn’t really ring true because Alex and Bea just weren’t developed enough.

The one point I did feel bad for Alex though was when her father left her in charge of her young sister so that he could go and be with his new family. WHO ABANDONS THEIR DAUGHTERS LIKE THAT? Her dad was definitely THE WORST, leaving a 15 (I think?) year old in charge of her seven year old sister!

Apparently this book was initially meant to be a short story, and after finding that out, my feelings towards the book made so much more sense, because all the way through I just was just thinking “this is so much longer than it needs to be”. It would have been a great short story, but the author expanded it far beyond its limits to be a novel, which meant that it ended up repeating the same points over and over. If it had stayed a short story, I reckon it would have been able to make its point much more effectively, but the point got diluted quite a lot over 15 or so hours!

I was expecting much more anger from a book supposedly about feminist rage, it seemed to put on this front of feminist rage, but never really go to the true depths of it. It also made very little sense that the women supposedly dragoned because they were tired of being exploited for their labour and yet they come back as dragons and are perfectly happy to just slot right back into their old roles? That seemed to go against everything the author had been trying to say up to that point about dragoning being a consequence of female rage. I was honestly expecting something more along the lines of the dragons burning the whole world down and everyone being wiped out, that would probably have been more fun than what we got! It felt like the author wanted to make a point about female anger, but was too scared to fully lean into the depths of it, and I feel like that’s quite common to be honest? Authors say they want to explore female rage, but they’re too afraid to actually show truly angry women.

The writing style was definitely overly flowery to me, it felt like it was trying too hard to be “lyrical” and I definitely had issues with the author using a lot of the same phrases over and over again.

I didn’t feel like Henry Gantz’s academic journal entries really added much to the book, every time one came up it felt kind of jarring, like we were being dragged away from the main story to hear this piece of dragon history that then ended up not being at all relevant? I was glad that his sections got fewer and further between as we went on through the book and honestly, I don’t think the book would have lost anything from them not being there at all.

There was definitely not enough of an intersectional focus in the book, there were no major POC characters, and only passing references to trans people when it came to dragoning-plus it ended up co-opting the civil rights movement for dragons rather than people. HOW ARE YOU DOING A BOOK SET IN THE LATE 1950s/EARLY 1960s AND ROSA PARKS DOESN’T EVEN GET A MENTION? It just seemed like such an oversight that you would set a book in this time period and use imagery from the civil rights movement, and give only a one line or so mention to lunch counter protests and marches? It definitely left me feeling a little icky that the author so clearly borrowed a lot from the civil rights movement and yet had no POC in her book whatsoever as far as I could tell.

With the lack of POC in the book, you also hit another issue with the whole dragoning being caused (in some cases) by rage thing, because if women dragoned when enraged, then surely a lot of major genocides would have been avoided: the slave trade, the genocide of Native Americans, the Holocaust etc. If just a few women had got angry, dragoned and destroyed the people who were trying to kill them, then those tragedies would probably not have happened? I mean I feel like a dragon would have definitely killed Hitler! I felt like Barnhill wanted to do an alternative history, but thought that just meant, history as it was, but just add a few dragons, and didn’t really think about exploring the consequences of what the existence of dragons might have meant for major world events.

This book also fell into one of my least favourite traps when it comes to situations like these: America-centrism. We don’t really get much sense at all as to whether dragoning is something that happens outside America (beyond a few brief mentions in Dr Gantz’s journal entries) and I would have liked to have seen at least a glimpse of what was happening in other countries, if the dragons were a purely American phenomenon (and if so why?) or if women were dragoning all over the world, and how other countries were dealing with that.

There was also a lot around the process of dragoning that was underdeveloped or even contradictory. We get many different explanations for dragoning, first it’s to do with the reproductive system, then it’s not, then it’s to do with rage, then joy, and there was no explanation that really made sense as to why it actually happened. I felt like the author try to handwave away the fact that she hadn’t really thought the whole process of dragoning through, under the guise of “scientific research” and the fact that “science is sometimes wrong”. Whilst both those things are true, in this case it felt like a smokescreen for “author hasn’t really thought about how this would work in practice and so I’ll throw out a few ideas and see what sticks, and if it doesn’t make sense, just fall back on the science can be wrong explanation”. The logistics of how dragons would be able to function in the human world also didn’t really seem to be thought properly through either.

I wish Kelly Barnhill had done more with the fantastical elements, it felt like she had all of these elements that could have been really cool: the dragons, the knot system etc but she didn’t really know what to do with them. It ended up feeling like contemporary coming of age novel with the odd dragon than a book about dragons which is what I thought it would be from the title!

I definitely felt like Alex forgave her aunt far too easily for abandoning her family, she was resistant at first, but seemed to do an about turn fairly quickly for the sake of convenience for the novel. If it had been me, I definitely would have taken longer to forgive my aunt for leaving me with my deadbeat dad who ended up abandoning his daughter and niece!

I also felt a bit iffy about the whole resolution to Marla and Bertha’s argument being Marla getting married and having a child even though she had previously indicated that this was something she didn’t want? It just didn’t feel like a great message to send, and kind of gave vibes of the “if you don’t want children, you’ll change your mind eventually” argument that I hate so much.

Overall, When Women Were Dragons would have had so much potential if it had remained a short story as initially intended. However as a full length novel, it was kind of a mess! It was so slow paced, it didn’t capitalise on the dragons anywhere near as much as it should have, everything about the characters and the world was underdeveloped and the lack of intersectionality, particularly the lack of Black people in the time period mentioned was especially jarring. I really wanted to love this one, but it ended up letting me down so badly. I can’t remember the last time I was this disappointed in a book.

My Rating: 2/5

My next review will be of my most recent read (that I’m reviewing, I read a couple of short non-fiction books that I won’t be writing reviews for as they’re just too short to really warrant the amount of time I spend on reviews!), Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I still need to do the notes for that one, so I don’t think it will be up till the beginning of next week at the earliest.

Portrait of A Thief Review (Audiobook)

Book: Portrait of A Thief

Author: Grace D. Li

Narrators: Eunice Wong and Austin Wu

BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Irene and Alex talk about the heists.

Content Warnings: Colonialism, racism, mention of death of a parent, cultural appropriation, mentions of terminal illness, homophobia, grief, brief mention of police brutality

This was one of my most anticipated releases for 2022, as I’ve been wanting to find more stories about university students for ages (would have been great if I could have found more when I was still in uni, but still) and so when I saw this, university students doing a heist, it sounded so right up my street that I instantly added it to my TBR. Unfortunately, with expectation can come disappointment, and this book has ended up being one of my biggest disappointments of 2022 so far. It just wasn’t quite what I was expecting, I was anticipating a fast-paced fun heist book, and instead, it was basically 11 hours or so of musing on identity and diaspora, with heisting used a backdrop.

Obviously conversations about disapora and identity and colonialism are really important, but when you’re reading a heist book, you do expect there to be more…..well heists! The heists were all kind of blink and you miss it and a lot more time was dedicated to the planning and musing, and well….the boring bits and instead of the fun, fast-paced read that I thought I was getting, I got a slow, musing kind of read, which is fine if that’s the kind of book you like. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of book I like! Here is a short synopsis of the book:

History is told by the conquerors. Across the Western world, museums display the spoils of war, of conquest, of colonialism: priceless pieces of art looted from other countries, kept even now.

Will Chen plans to steal them back.

A senior at Harvard, Will fits comfortably in his carefully curated roles: a perfect student, an art history major and sometimes artist, the eldest son who has always been his parents’ American Dream. But when a mysterious Chinese benefactor reaches out with an impossible—and illegal—job offer, Will finds himself something else as well: the leader of a heist to steal back five priceless Chinese sculptures, looted from Beijing centuries ago.

His crew is every heist archetype one can imag­ine—or at least, the closest he can get. A con artist: Irene Chen, a public policy major at Duke who can talk her way out of anything. A thief: Daniel Liang, a premed student with steady hands just as capable of lock-picking as suturing. A getaway driver: Lily Wu, an engineering major who races cars in her free time. A hacker: Alex Huang, an MIT dropout turned Silicon Valley software engineer. Each member of his crew has their own complicated relationship with China and the identity they’ve cultivated as Chinese Americans, but when Will asks, none of them can turn him down.

Because if they succeed? They earn fifty million dollars—and a chance to make history. But if they fail, it will mean not just the loss of everything they’ve dreamed for themselves but yet another thwarted at­tempt to take back what colonialism has stolen.

One of the biggest issues I had with this book was actually the narrators, which is not a great thing if you’re listening to an audiobook! Both Eunice Wong and Austin Wu had a very flat style of delivery, which prevented me from becoming fully invested in the story as they both sounded kind of bored reading it. I also found that both of them used far too similar voices for all the characters, which meant I had trouble working out who was speaking at what point. Austin in particular was too quiet when speaking, which meant I found it hard working out what he was actually saying and had to turn my volume up way too loud on his chapters, and his voice for Lily in particular was super grating and sounded nothing like Eunice’s voice for her, which made things slightly confusing.

The writing was super repetitive and it felt like Li was trying too hard to be “lyrical”. I got so bored of the weather being described at the beginning of each chapter that I was fully ready to throw my phone across the room by the end if it was mentioned one more time. Li had several phrases that she would fall back on time and time again, and each chapter was structured in such a similar way in terms of the writing that by about halfway through I could predict how everything was going to go: musing on the weather, long rambling thoughts about disapora, some musings on cars/medicine/art/technology, depending on who the narrator was. I’m sure it’s mostly just a debut author thing and Li will probably grow out of it as she writes more books, but I definitely found the repetitive writing very draining here.

As I mentioned up top, for a heist book, there was surprisingly little heisting! At the beginning of the book, you’re expecting there to be five heists, so I was anticipating non-stop heisting action and for the heists to be the major part of the book. Instead, each of the heists were only a couple of pages each, it was definitely blink and you’d miss it kind of stuff and given that the heists were what I picked up the book for, I wasn’t best pleased that we got about five pages of heist action total, and several hundred of musings about identity diaspora. I did initially find the conversations about diaspora and identity interesting, but it was so constant, that after a while I just got bored. I also felt like the characters had such similar feelings about their relationships to China, aside from Lily who was a little bit more uncertain, it would have been nice if we’d been able to explore a wider range of feelings about diaspora within the group.

The way the group planned the heist was completely ridiculous, with the whole using Zoom and Google Docs and encrypted chat rooms that the FBI WOULD NEVER be able to find, if they had done this in real life, I’m sure they would have been caught a whole lot sooner. I don’t really mind the idea that college students wouldn’t necessarily be super smart about being international art thieves, but it felt like Li wanted us to take the group more seriously than the narrative portrayed them to be.

It was a very slow paced story which meant that the book felt a lot longer than it actually was, 11 hours for an audiobook is on the shorter side for me and yet it felt more like a 15 or 16 hour audiobook because everything was just moving SO SLOWLY. The only bright side was that the chapters were relatively short, I think if they’d been any longer, the pace would have been unbearably slow, as it was, it was just annoyingly slow.

The characters all felt kind of flat, it was like the author had decided on their initial archetypes of con artist, thief, getaway driver, hacker and mastermind and didn’t particularly feel like developing them much beyond their archetypes. It didn’t help that their character archetypes were repeated over and over again until you just wanted scream WE GET IT. It’s always difficult when you have such a big cast to develop them all fully, but I would have appreciated it if at least one or two of them had been developed beyond their particular archetype.

The group dynamic was also a bit off: it felt like Li was trying to go for the found family vibes, but just didn’t quite get there. There were pairs within the group that got on well but on the whole it definitely did feel like five strangers (even though there were some in the group who did know each other/were related) thrown together for a job, who didn’t even seem to like each other much, let alone thought of each other as family, so when towards the end of the book, they were throwing that around, I just couldn’t buy it.

Having said this, the one relationship in the book that did feel really well done was the one between Daniel and his father. That whole arc of the two of them finding their way back to each other and reconciling the hurt and distance that had happened over the years was probably the best done arc of the whole book.

The fact that there was a group of five of them and that four of the five pair up and one has unrequited feelings for someone in the group definitely had me eye-rolling quite a bit. Seriously? In a group of five people everyone must have a romantic partner? REALLY? The only platonic friendship between a guy and girl in this was Lily and Daniel, and I guess Alex and Will but they had already dated previously. PLATONIC FRIENDSHIPS BETWEEN PEOPLE OF OPPOSITE GENDERS EXISTS DAMN IT.

I also had kind of mixed feelings about the whole Alex/Irene pairing because Irene was so awful to Alex for ages just for being Will’s ex (when they went on like two dates!), which seemed like a serious overreaction, and then she suddenly does an about turn and really likes Alex? It just didn’t feel particularly well built up and though I wanted to root for them as a couple, I just couldn’t because Irene was so awful in the beginning. I also felt like there was a missed opportunity with Will and Daniel? Will and Lily seemed to be paired up for no other reason than that Lily was the other unattached girl, whereas it certainly seemed like the author was setting up Daniel to have feelings for Will from the small insights we got into their childhood, till she suddenly changed it to Irene instead. I don’t know, I just felt a lot more chemistry between Daniel and Will than Will and Lily!

I was interested in the whole art repatriation thing as I did cover repatriation a little during my History degree, particularly during the module I did on Native American history, and I was hoping it would be explored a bit more, but it did all feel very surface level.

There’s a part of the book where Lily makes a crack about art degrees, I can’t remember exactly what the line was but it was definitely something along the lines of art majors don’t know anything, or don’t understand anything practical, and I just didn’t find it particularly funny. I wish we would stop pitting humanities and STEM degree subjects against each other and arguing that humanities degrees are worthless because it’s just tiring and stupid: both subject areas are useful in different ways and humanities students aren’t lesser because they didn’t do a STEM subject (rant over: I just have got a lot of this over the years as someone who studied humanities subjects and it gets tiring).

I have to admit, I wasn’t thrilled by the pandemic references, I’ve managed to successfully avoid most pandemic related media, and I just don’t think it’s massively necessary? It’s fiction, we can pretend the pandemic didn’t happen in your fictional version of 2021/2022!

I didn’t really understand why China Poly would recruit a bunch of university students to carry out such a high profile job, they have so much money they could easily hire pros, it didn’t make sense that they would choose amateurs to carry out a job that was clearly so important for them.

Li did capture the uncertainty about the future that many uni students feel, especially approaching graduation, very well which I’m assuming is because she still is a student herself! I did wonder why all of the group had to be from top universities though, I’m sure you could find hackers, thieves, con artists and getaway drivers outside of major top US universities.

Overall, Portrait of A Thief ended up being quite disappointing for me. It was one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and it just wasn’t quite what I was expecting it to be. I thought I was getting a fast paced, action packed heist story and it ended up being a story about identity with some heisting in the background. I’m sure Li will greatly improve her characterisation, pacing and writing as she gets more experience, and it wasn’t a terrible debut by any means, it just wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I think this is another case of too high expectations leading to disappointment.

My Rating: 3/5

I’m a little behind on my reviews because we moved house and I misplaced one of my review notebooks (which had the notes for this review in!) and I only just found it, so bear with me whilst I catch up! My next review will be of When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill, which I’ve already read and done my notes for, so that one should be up fairly soon.

The Diamond Eye Review (Audiobook)

Book: The Diamond Eye

Author: Kate Quinn

Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld

BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Mila talks to her friend Vika about her dissertation, and numerous other non-man related topics are discussed by female characters throughout the book.

Content Warnings: War, PTSD, alcoholism, blood & gore, mentions of sexual assault, sexism, emotional abuse, death, grief, violence, mentions of adult/minor relationship, gun violence, murder, medical trauma, stalking, sexual harassment, toxic relationship, sexual assault, child marriage, forced marriage

After loving both The Rose Code, and The Alice Network when I read them last year, Kate Quinn’s latest release The Diamond Eye immediately went to the top of my radar, particularly when I found out it was based on the life of a real woman sniper from WWII. I’m glad to say that I enjoyed The Diamond Eye just as much as I did The Rose Code and The Alice Network, and I’m once again impatiently waiting for Kate Quinn’s next book to come out (I will probably end up reading The Huntress soon to fill the void, as that’s the only one left of her WWII books that I’ve yet to read). Here is a short synopsis of the book:

In the snowbound city of Kiev, wry and bookish history student Mila Pavlichenko organizes her life around her library job and her young son – but Hitler’s invasion of Russia sends her on a different path. Given a rifle and sent to join the fight, Mila must forge herself from studious girl to deadly sniper – a lethal hunter of Nazis known as Lady Death. When news of her 300th kill makes her a national heroine, Mila finds herself torn from the bloody battlefields of the eastern front and sent to America on a goodwill tour.

Still reeling from war wounds and devastated by loss, Mila finds herself isolated and lonely in the glittering world of Washington, DC – until an unexpected friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and an even more unexpected connection with a silent fellow sniper offer the possibility of happiness. But when an old enemy from Mila’s past joins forces with a deadly new foe lurking in the shadows, Lady Death finds herself battling her own demons and enemy bullets in the deadliest duel of her life.

Based on a true story, The Diamond Eye is a haunting novel of heroism born of desperation, of a mother who became a soldier, of a woman who found her place in the world and changed the course of history forever.

As with all of Kate Quinn’s other novels, I loved the narration of this one, I’m so glad that Kate Quinn has Saskia Maarleveld as the narrator for all her books because she just does such a wonderful job. Once again Maarleveld does a myriad of different accents (largely Russian of course for this book) and she does an impeccable job with all of them, and reads in such a engaging way that you can’t help but be drawn into the story. I swear I would listen to anything if Saskia narrated it, she’s that good!

Where both The Rose Code and The Alice Network had multiple main characters, Mila is of course the star of the show in this one and I have to say, I LOVED HER. Her wry sense of humour was immediately endearing to me, and I loved how fierce and determined she was, & how skilled she was at her job. Mila is such a complex, interesting character, she’s fierce and ruthless when she needs to be but she’s also a history nerd with a cracking sense of humour who just wants to make the world a better place for her son, and I think Quinn got the dichotomy between sniper and student just right. I definitely came away from the book wanting to learn more about the real Mila, because Quinn’s version was just so fascinating. It was so weird thinking throughout the book that Mila was the same age at the time as I am now, I definitely could not imagine going through everything that she went through.

Quinn also has a very colourful cast of supporting characters, who in this case were actually largely real people. I really loved Mila’s friend Lena Paily (this is probably spelt wrong, I’m very sorry but I’ve only heard it said and not seen it written down), she was so funny and added a good dash of humour to the story as well as just having a lovely friendship with Mila, I loved seeing how they supported each other in the male dominated world of the military. Quinn always does such a good job of portraying female friendships in her books and this one was no exception.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a particular standout for me also, I loved seeing how her and Mila’s friendship blossomed (and yes, that part is real, they were friends in real life!), their scenes were some of my favourites in the book and the part where they discussed Mila’s fear of failure is one that really stuck out for me. I don’t really know a huge amount about Eleanor Roosevelt (I didn’t do a massive amount of American History in school, and whilst I did do some in Uni, we discussed FDR more than we did Eleanor) but this book definitely had me wanting to know more.

On the flip side, Mila’s first husband, Alexei was the ACTUAL WORST. He’s emotionally abusive to Mila, very heavily implied to be a child groomer (He and Mila married when she was only 15 because he got her pregnant, and throughout the book, he’s mentioned as being attracted to “very young women”) and I just wanted to hit him every time he appeared. When Mila was finally able to stand up to Alexei, I practically cheered!

As with all the other Kate Quinn books I’ve read, this book follows two different timelines, though the “past” and “present” timelines are much closer together in this book than in any of her others: the “past” follows Mila in 1941 and early 1942 during her time fighting on the Eastern Front and the “present” follows her in the summer and autumn of 1942 during her American goodwill tour in DC. I much preferred the war storyline to the one in DC, as it was more action packed and we got to see Mila’s skills as a sniper. The DC storyline was kind of slow to get going, though it did get better towards the end.

The DC storyline also heavily relies on a lot of fictionalisation which I didn’t love. Whilst the storyline following Mila’s war years is largely based in fact, the DC storyline follows a fabricated assassination attempt on President Roosevelt which I just felt was largely unnecessary as it was so clearly made up and honestly Mila’s life was exciting enough without it. There were parts of it I enjoyed towards the end, and I did not see the twist with the “marksman” who follows Mila throughout the book coming (especially that Alexei was the one who was able to work out his identity) but generally it just felt over the top to me and I didn’t feel like the book really needed it. I really didn’t like the marksman either which made his chapters a bit annoying to read, all I could think when listening to them was how much of an idiot he was for underestimating Mila.

Quinn had clearly done her research, I love that so much of the story was pulled directly from Mila’s memoir and that she put so much effort into making sure that the historical detail was right. I appreciated that in her author’s note (which I was so glad was actually included in the audiobook version of this book as it wasn’t in either The Rose Code or The Alice Network) explained where she had pulled from the real history and what bits she had fictionalised, the large majority of it really was taken from Mila’s memoir, which was so cool!

I really enjoyed Quinn’s writing, she created such a vivid setting of the Eastern Front battlefields in WWII and her writing is so engaging, it really pulled me into the story. I didn’t love the repetitive chapter intros though, whilst I appreciate the idea behind the “official/unofficial” memoir, showing what Mila really thought as opposed to the Soviet propaganda version, it got a little dull after a while.

There was lots of action in this book which I liked, Quinn was very good at portraying the horrors of war on the Eastern Front, and I loved seeing Mila in action as a sniper, I know some reviewers said they found the sniping sections overly detailed, but I really loved it, and it made sense to me that Mila would be that detailed about it, as the book is narrated in first person as if Mila is telling you her own story.

As with Quinn’s other books, this one does also have a helping of romance in it, and as expected, it was not my favourite part of the book. Lyonya and Mila have a sweet relationship, and I was crushed for her by what happened to him, but I can’t say I would have massively missed him if he hadn’t been there. Kostia is also really sweet and supportive (and the fact that he typed and bound her dissertation for her definitely had me swooning) but I did roll my eyes slightly that Mila ended up involved with both of them. I guess I can’t be too mad as Quinn did take that detail from her memoir, but it’s just so cliche in a book that a woman with two close male friends in her life would end up having both of them be interested in her. I do kind of wish Kostia and Mila had stayed friends, just because it would have been nice to have them be platonic sniper partners only and to have that intense connection not necessarily be a romantic one, but they did at least have good chemistry so it’s probably more a me just not being that into fictional romances thing than anything else.

The emotions definitely hit hard in this one, Quinn does not shy away from the horrors of war and the trauma that Mila experiences, which I appreciated and thought was really well done. I also appreciated that she did balance the horror with the levity of some humour, with the scene where Mila rips into a male journalist for asking a sexist question at a press conference during her US tour being a particular highlight.

The chapters were generally quite short which I appreciated as it kept me engaged with the story and kept it ticking along nicely.

Quinn hinted at a couple of potential ideas for new books in her author’s note which had me incredibly excited: if she really is going to write a book about Vika, the tank driving ballerina who plays a minor role in this book, I would be THERE FOR IT. Her talking about “British Intelligence, Russian Blood and American Steel” also suggested that there might be a book from her focusing on the American side of the war (as we’ve already had British Intelligence in The Rose Code and now Russian Blood with The Diamond Eye).

Obviously the timing of this book’s release is a little unfortunate given the current war between Russia and Ukraine, though that’s not Quinn’s fault. There are some parallels between the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and it was interesting to hear the conversations about Ukrainian vs Russian identity between Mila and Fartanov, Mila who is staunchly Russian in her identity, despite being Ukrainian by birth as she does not see any difference between Russia and Ukraine, and Fartanov who is staunchly Ukrainian. Those conversations definitely had me wondering how Mila would feel about the current invasion if she was alive today.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Diamond Eye! I loved Mila, I thought she was a fantastic main character and I so want to learn more about the real Mila now, I loved the friendship between Eleanor and Mila, I loved wartime storyline, and as always, the narration was fabulous. I think had it not been for the fictional assassination storyline, this book could easily have been a five-star one, but as it was, it was still a fantastic book which highlighted the contributions of a lesser known historical woman fantastically. I can’t wait for Kate Quinn’s next book, whenever that comes out!

My Rating: 4/5

My next review will be of Portrait of A Thief, by Grace D. Li, which I’ve already finished, so it’s just a case of finding the time to write the review up!

The River of Silver: Tales From The Daevabad Trilogy Review (Audiobook)

Book: The River of Silver

Author: S.A. Chakraborty

Narrator: Soneela Nankani

BECHDEL TEST: Uncertain, didn’t keep track!

Content Warnings: Mentions of past suicide attempts, torture, attempted rape, mentions of war, genocide

SPOILER WARNING: This review may contain spoilers for all three books of the Daevabad trilogy. If you have not read them, and do not wish to be spoiled, stop reading here.

After devouring the entirety of the Daevabad trilogy during the first lockdown in 2020 (well mostly anyway!), I really wasn’t expecting there to be any more content from the Daevabad world. So my surprise and delight when I saw that SA Chakraborty had released a collection of short stories from the Daevabad world this year was naturally very high! I’m always a little wary of short story collections as I’ve found them very hit and miss and there’s always a few stories that tend to fall a little short. This was no exception, there were some really outstanding stories, but there were also a few that I did wonder why they made the collection. Still, it was a great treat to return to the Daevabad world, and I would happily do so again if SA Chakraborty were to decide she wanted to write more stories in this world. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

Bestselling author S.A. Chakraborty’s acclaimed Daevabad Trilogy gets expanded with this new compilation of stories from before, during, and after the events of The City of Brass, The Kingdom of Copper, and The Empire of Gold, all from the perspective of characters both beloved and hated, and even those without a voice in the novels. The River of Silver gathers material both seen and new—including a special coda fans will need to read—making this the perfect complement to those incredible novels.

A prospective new queen joins a court whose lethal history may overwhelm her own political savvy…

An imprisoned royal from a fallen dynasty and a young woman wrenched from her home cross paths in an enchanted garden…

A pair of scouts stumble upon a secret in a cursed winter wood that will turn over their world…

Now together in one place, these stories of Daevabad enrich a world already teeming with magic and wonder. From Manizheh’s first steps towards rebellion to adventures that take place after The Empire of Gold, this is a must-have collection for those who can’t get enough of Nahri, Ali, and Dara and all that unfolded around them. 

As I stated at the top of the review, I had mixed opinions on the different stories, I think that’s only natural, there were about fifteen different stories here and I was more invested in certain characters than others when I read the original books anyway, so I don’t think I would have ever loved all the different stories equally. Some of my favourites were Zaynab’s story which showed in more detail what she did during the battle in Kingdom of Copper, I loved seeing more of Zaynab and wished we could have had even more from her (she only gets one story where she is the main focus, though she does play a role in a second one) whereas Ali and Muntadhir are featured more heavily. I also really loved seeing the early development of Jamshid and Muntadhir’s relationship as it gave me an insight into both of them that you don’t really get in the book.

Other stories I could have done without, the story about the scouts in the wilderness of Daevstana and what they discover there, kind of bored me, I didn’t really care about some random scout, even if the story did give a nod to one of the major reveals of Kingdom of Copper. The story with Dara and Nahri on their way to Daevabad in The City of Brass, whilst funny, also didn’t really add much.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Hatset’s story, we don’t get to see an awful lot of her in the main trilogy, only in the final book, so I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it so much. She’s a very interesting character, and if Chakraborty ever wanted to write more about her, I would definitely read it.

I can understand why she didn’t, but I think it might have been fun to see a story from Ghassan’s POV, we get a glimpse through Hatset of a not so tyrannical man once upon a time, so I just think it might have been interesting to see through the eyes of a younger Ghassan himself. Also I just always love the villain so even a story with him being evil would have been fun.

I really appreciate that Chakraborty signposted the spoilery stories, so you could avoid them if you hadn’t yet read that book. Personally I would recommend reading all three before this one as I think you’ll get much more out of it, though I will admit, having read them almost two years ago, there was a lot I had forgotten!

I was glad Soneela Nankani returned once again as the narrator, I enjoyed her in the original trilogy, so I was glad to see she narrated again here.

Some of the stories were a little longer than I would have liked, there was Jamshid chapter that was almost an hour long and the Alternative Epilogue to the Empire of Gold, fun as it was, was also almost an hour long and I prefer chapters to really be 30 mins or less as a rule, 40 is okay, but once we start getting to 45-50 or longer, it just starts to feel a little tedious to listen to.

I would love a spinoff about Dara, Aqisa and Zaynab after that alternative epilogue, that sounds like it would be a lot of fun and I really hope that Chakraborty wants to expand on that someday!

I did find some of the stories a little hard to follow, like the Jamshid one taking place during the days leading up to and during the final battle in City of Brass and the Ali one that took place between City of Brass and Kingdom of Copper, there was so much jammed into them that I found I lost my place in the story several times whilst listening.

I love the humour in this series, there were so many funny moments across all of the stories.

It was really nice to see Jamshid and Muntadhir in a good place in this (for the most part), there are quite a few fakeouts where either one or both of them nearly die in the trilogy, so it was nice to see the pair of them together and happy for a change in at least some of the stories!

Having some of the gaps filled into what happened in Nahri and Muntadhir’s marriage was also really great, I felt like we lost quite a lot there with the five year time gap between City of Brass and Kingdom of Copper, so it was nice to have a little of that fleshed out here.

I can’t really get too into it without being super spoilery, but that final Nahri story was just *chef’s kiss* such a treat for fans of the trilogy. I won’t say anymore, only that it takes place after The Empire of Gold, and I’m sure you’ll all love it!

There’s not a massive amount more to say about this book without getting into super spoilery territory, so all I can say is: I do think this is worth a read if you liked the Daevabad trilogy. Yes, there were some stories that stood out more than others, and some that I personally would probably have pruned from the collection, but overall, this was a very welcome return to the Daevabad world, and gives some great insight into characters who don’t get the spotlight in the main trilogy, and allows even more of an expansion for some of our old favourites as well.

My Rating: 3/5

My next review will be of The Diamond Eye, Kate Quinn’s latest novel, which I think I will be done with in the next week or two. I’m really enjoying it, definitely one of my favourite reads of the year so far, for sure.

A Marvellous Light Review (Audiobook)

Book: A Marvellous Light (The Last Binding #1)

Author: Freya Marske

Narrator: David Thorpe

Bechdel Test: FAIL-Fails by default as both POV characters are male and no conversations happen without either of them present.

Content Warnings: Graphic sexual content, bullying, violence, emotional abuse, death, torture, murder, homophobia, blood, misogyny, kidnapping, injury/injury detail, classism, fire/fire injury, chronic illness, physical abuse, sexism, child abuse, confinement, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, death of parents, outing, colonisation

I was first attracted to this book by its glorious cover (see above) and thought I just had to read something with a cover that pretty (though ironically I read it on audiobook so don’t actually own said cover!) and then the synopsis confirmed it was definitely something I wanted to read: gay magicians in the Edwardian era? Yes please! Unfortunately, the book didn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations I had from the cover and synopsis: whilst I did love said gay magicians (well one magician and one non-magician shoved into the magical world), the plot was incredibly slow and the romance overtook the actual plot points. It also had super graphic sex scenes that I wasn’t expecting so was a little taken aback by! Here is a short synopsis of the book:

Robin Blyth has more than enough bother in his life. He’s struggling to be a good older brother, a responsible employer, and the harried baronet of a seat gutted by his late parents’ excesses. When an administrative mistake sees him named the civil service liaison to a hidden magical society, he discovers what’s been operating beneath the unextraordinary reality he’s always known.

Now Robin must contend with the beauty and danger of magic, an excruciating deadly curse, and the alarming visions of the future that come with it–not to mention Edwin Courcey, his cold and prickly counterpart in the magical bureaucracy, who clearly wishes Robin were anyone and anywhere else.

Robin’s predecessor has disappeared, and the mystery of what happened to him reveals unsettling truths about the very oldest stories they’ve been told about the land they live on and what binds it. Thrown together and facing unexpected dangers, Robin and Edwin discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles–and a secret that more than one person has already died to keep.

I’ll start with the characters, since they were really what kept me engaged with this book when the pacing wasn’t great. I found both Edwin and Robin loveable, but in different ways. I really felt for Edwin, yes he was prickly and a little cold, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that this is a defence mechanism he has built up to deal with his awful family, and I was charmed quite quickly by his intelligence and the clear softer side that he hides underneath the cold exterior. Also it’s kind of impossible not to love a character who has come up with his own library classification system! Robin is your classic jock himbo, incredibly sweet and loyal and very charming, so naturally I found myself rooting for him quite easily too.

I’ve seen mixed reviews about the narrator, but I actually quite enjoyed David Thorpe’s performance. I did find however, as I have done with many male narrators, that his female voices could have used some improvement and a white guy putting on an Indian accent for the Punjabi characters did seem a little racist.

I did like the magic system, I thought it was really inventive. It’s based around the children’s game, Cat’s Cradle, with different “cradles” used for different spells and I just thought that was a really fun idea and not something that I’d ever seen in fantasy before. The only drawback was obviously because I listened to this on audio, I couldn’t really understand what the cradles were meant to look like. I hope the physical book had illustrations of what the cradles looked like because I definitely felt like I could have used that! I also felt like the magic system could have been expanded on more, we learn the basics but I felt like there was so much more to know, especially since it’s hinted that there is more to magic than what we see the characters do.

I also really appreciated having a main character who was great at theory but not so good at the practical stuff, so often in fantasy books, the MC is always the super powered one, so it was interesting that Marske took a different stance here.

The female characters felt really underserved throughout the book, Marske is clearly trying to make feminist points, but it doesn’t really work when all the female characters are so underdeveloped. I would have especially loved to see more of Ms Morrissey and her sister, they were so much fun! On that point, it seems mad that you can create a whole magical world but still have sexism, racism and homophobia? Okay it’s set in the Edwardian era, but you’ve added magic, you can take out the bad stuff too! I found it so ridiculous that the female magicians weren’t expected to be able to do powerful magic, so they’re never even taught!

I like Edwin and Robin’s romance, I did think they had good chemistry and were well-suited to each other. However, as is so often my problem with romance plots in fantasy, it definitely overtook the main plot for a significant portion of the book. This is fine if you like romance, but I tend to prefer romance in small doses (particularly when the primary genre of the book is not advertised as romance!) and there was a much bigger plot at play, so it frustrated me that we took a detour into Robin and Edwin’s sex lives when the whole magical world was supposedly at stake!

I personally could have done without the lengthy sex scenes, I will admit that this is a personal thing of mine, I just find sex scenes uncomfortable to read, and even more so to listen to. It’s fair enough to have some, I wouldn’t expect all books to never have sex scenes just because I personally don’t like reading them but here they did feel overly long and like a detour from the actual plot of the book. The sex scenes were also much more explicit that I’m used to and I wished I’d been warned of that beforehand! On the upside however, all of the sex scenes were very consent focused, which I really loved. I also really cringed at some of the words the author used for penis, like prick and cock, just call it what is (and I could have definitely done without the graphic descriptions of pre-ejaculate!).

I did like the Edwardian setting, it’s not an era that is seen enough in historical fiction but I do think it could have been developed more, I didn’t really feel like there were many period details.

The writing was nice enough, but a little overly descriptive in some places and there was a weird clash between the prose which was obviously trying to fit with the time period, and the dialogue which felt a lot more modern. I honestly don’t mind if your historical fiction has anachronistic language or the style doesn’t quite fit with the time period, but pick one and stick with it!

And then we come to my biggest problem of the book, yes we’re back to our old friend: PACING. This book is incredibly slow paced, it took ages to get going and then we kind of paused for a while so that Robin and Edwin could have sexy times and then the ending felt somewhat rushed. It was very uneven the whole way through, and it did feel like the author lost focus on her main plot about halfway through. Had the build-up been quicker and we hadn’t taken such a detour into Edwin and Robin’s sexy times, I think the pacing would have been much better. It also felt a lot longer than it was, it’s a less than 400 page book and yet it felt like it could have been 500+ pages. The chapters were also a little overly long for me.

The opening chapter also really added nothing to the story, there was no reason why we needed to see what happened to Reggie Gatling before the characters found out, and it would have made far more sense to be introduced to Robin or Edwin first than a character whose role in the plot is basically over before it even starts.

There’s a real lack of urgency to the story as well, considering that Robin is under a potentially deadly curse for a significant portion of the book, it didn’t feel like they were particularly worried about dealing with it, rather more time was spent focused on playing about on boats and the protagonists’ sexy times! It just felt like the author’s priorities were not where mine were!

The side characters weren’t particularly well fleshed out either, I could hardly differentiate between Edwin’s family & their friends because they all sounded so similar. The main villain in the book, whilst their identity did make sense when it was revealed, I felt it could have all been foreshadowed a lot more. It also just felt like starting in the wrong place, like we’d just been thrown right into the middle of things, it would have made much more sense to start with Robin and to learn about the world as he does.

I found Sutton Cottage really cool, it’s basically like this sentient house and I wish we’d got to spend more time there as it was my favourite setting in the book. I hope we find out more about it in the next one!

Robin and Maud had a really nice sibling bond, it was a shame we didn’t get to see more of them together, I hope that we do in subsequent books.

Marske is kind of terrible at describing her characters as well, I realised about halfway through the book that I really had no idea what anyone looked like. Now granted, I don’t visualise things when I read, so it’s not like I see characters’ faces in my head, but that means it’s even more important that I at least have some written description to go off, if you’re not describing your characters for me, I’m not like other readers who might build their own picture in their heads, I will just think that they are floating faceless blobs!

There’s meant to be a mystery but Markse kind of loses focus on that, so it felt like we really didn’t have many clues to solve as to who the villain was and what they wanted, when I’m reading something that suggests the characters will have a mystery solve, I expect to be given some clues as to who the villain might be, so that I can try and solve it alongside the character.

The representation in the book was okay, our two main characters are gay men, and then we do have a couple of POC side characters, though the world is still ultimately very, very white.

Overall, I thought this book had decent potential as a first in a trilogy, I liked the characters and thought the magic system was interesting. However, everything could have used a lot more development and it felt like the author prioritised the romance over absolutely everything else in the book, which meant that for me personally, it felt like the plot was lacking. The pacing also needed some real work. I liked it enough that I will probably read the sequel, but I’m not going in with as high expectations. I’m also confused that the sequel seems to be focusing on Robin’s sister Maud rather than Robin so I don’t quite understand how the story from this book is going to be continued. This worries me slightly as there were a lot of loose threads left hanging, but I am excited to see the women hopefully get a bit more focus in the next book!

My Rating: 3.5/5

My next review will be of The River Silver: Tales From The Daevabad Trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty, this is a series of short stories from the Daevabad world which I’m currently reading, and really enjoying.

Know My Name Review (Audiobook)

Book: Know My Name

Author: Chanel Miller

Narrator: Chanel Miller

BECHDEL TEST: N/A (memoir)

Content Warnings: Sexual assault, panic attacks/disorders, misogyny, rape, sexual harassment, sexism, medical content, grief, medical trauma, suicidal thoughts, gaslighting, mention of mass shootings and gun violence, suicide, racism, mention of police brutality, vomit, self-harm, mentions of disordered eating, blood, mentions of death, victim blaming, PTSD

Like millions of other people around the world, I read Chanel Miller’s victim impact statement on Buzzfeed, released before we knew her true identity and like millions of other people, I was incensed when her rapist was only sentenced to six months in jail for assaulting her. When she revealed her identity and this book was announced in 2019, I knew it was something that I had to read, even if it would be difficult, I needed to hear Chanel’s story in her own words. I finally got around to it last month, and WOW. This is the most powerful memoir I’ve ever read, Chanel’s story is painful and harrowing and difficult to read at times, but it was also insightful and hopeful and yes, even funny in places. I’m never one to recommend books as something everyone should read, but I think Chanel’s story would definitely come under that category (and unfortunately those who most need to hear what she has to say are the ones least likely to read it). Here’s a short synopsis of the book:

The riveting, powerful memoir of the woman whose statement to Brock Turner gave voice to millions of survivors

She was known to the world as Emily Doe when she stunned millions with a letter. Brock Turner had been sentenced to just six months in county jail after he was found sexually assaulting her on Stanford’s campus. Her victim impact statement was posted on BuzzFeed, where it instantly went viral–viewed by eleven million people within four days, it was translated globally and read on the floor of Congress; it inspired changes in California law and the recall of the judge in the case. Thousands wrote to say that she had given them the courage to share their own experiences of assault for the first time.

Now she reclaims her identity to tell her story of trauma, transcendence, and the power of words. It was the perfect case, in many ways–there were eyewitnesses, Turner ran away, physical evidence was immediately secured. But her struggles with isolation and shame during the aftermath and the trial reveal the oppression victims face in even the best-case scenarios. Her story illuminates a culture biased to protect perpetrators, indicts a criminal justice system designed to fail the most vulnerable, and, ultimately, shines with the courage required to move through suffering and live a full and beautiful life.

I have to start with the narration with this one, because whilst admittedly being biased since I didn’t read the book in physical format, I truly think that audio is the best way to experience this book. Chanel’s narration was incredibly powerful and moving, and I think getting to hear her tell her own story really added to the impact of this book for me. Her victim impact statement is included at the end of the book, and hearing her read that, it was even more gut-wrenching than reading it, the moments where her voice cracked whilst reading and you could tell she was a bit overcome with emotion really hit me. Honestly among all the other things I admire her for, it must have been really difficult to have to say it all out loud again for the audiobook and she does such a great job.

Chanel’s writing really is stunning, obviously I knew she was a great writer from reading her impact statement, but the book is on a whole another level. She really pulls you into her state of mind at the time of the assault and the years following, and her emotion is so palpable through the book, I could feel her pain, anger, frustration, defiance, everything she felt, it felt like I did too. Once I’d finished the book, I really felt like I knew her, like she’d let us glimpse into her soul.

The chapters are a little longer than I would usually like, but to be honest, I really didn’t care here. I was so engrossed in Chanel’s story that it felt like I lost track of time when I was listening.

I’ve (thankfully) never experienced what Chanel has, but in one of the chapters she talks about experiencing sexual harassment on the streets whilst living in Rhode Island, and unfortunately I could relate all too well to that, when she talked about guys yelling out the windows of their cars at her, I was just nodding my head whilst listening, like “yup, been there”. It feels strange given what the book is about that it’s this moment where she talks about her feelings around being harassed on the street that is the one that stuck the most with me, but when she talks about her frustrations about not being able to just go about her daily business without being harassed and why does she need her boyfriend around for other men to respect her space, I felt that so hard (minus the boyfriend!).

Anger feels like such a minimal word to describe how I felt on her behalf for how she was treated by the criminal justice system and how lightly Brock Turner got off for what he did to her. I mean I knew I’d feel that way whilst reading because I was angry when I first heard how little prison time Brock was sentenced to, but hearing everything that Chanel went through, the way her every little action was dissected, how long the process was dragged out, how she was basically living in limbo for over a year, having all the details of the story filled in for you, it’s impossible not to feel angry at the ordeal that she and so many other survivors have had to go through if they decide to report their assaults. I logically knew that this was an issue and a reason why so many rapes go unreported but hearing Chanel lay out all of her experiences like this, it’s a miracle that anyone at all chooses to report their rape.

I had no idea all of the little things that could impact the perception of a survivor, I knew that questions like what were you wearing and how much did you drink were quite common, but I had no idea that whether or not you had a boyfriend could change how a judge or jury saw you and that made me so angry, because the implication of that is awful, if you “belong” to another man then it’s wrong, but if you don’t have a boyfriend then being raped is FINE? UH NO. Obviously none of the stupid, inconsequential questions Chanel got asked by the defence attorney were okay, and it’s maddening that survivors of sexual assault are held to a higher standard than the perpetrators, but the boyfriend question was one that really struck me because I’d no idea that was something that would get asked.

Miller manages to be both highly personal but also delivers some really insightful commentary on issues like rape culture, the criminal justice system, victim blaming etc. I’ve seen some reviews that complain that Miller gets too political, but I’ve never understood this criticism because politics affects people’s lives and the personal is political! I thought she had a really nice balance of personal insights and using those personal insights to examine wider issues.

Her relationship with her sister was something that really struck me too, I have an older sister, so I’m on the other side of the relationship but I found I could relate to a lot of the things that she said about being a sister. Seeing the impact of the trial on her family and friends, particularly her sister and her boyfriend was quite enlightening for me, because I’d only ever really thought about the impact on survivors and never really about the wider impact on their loved ones, and seeing how much her sister especially struggled with all of the delays and postponements, seeing the ripple effects on everyone in her life just further hammered home the issues with the court system when it comes to dealing with these kinds of cases.

I wasn’t expecting her to be so funny, there were moments in this that were really amusing, which surprised me given the topic, but I really appreciated it as it did provide so much needed levity!

The fact that Stanford just left her high and dry like that and offered her no support or assistance was really maddening, and then that they wouldn’t accept her quote for the garden, despite it being a really empowering statement of her reclaiming her identity. I was so glad when I researched it and saw that the quote she suggested was eventually accepted!

Overall, I found this book to be truly amazing (loved felt like the wrong word given the topic). Chanel Miller has a truly powerful voice, and whilst I’m incredibly sad that her first book had to come about like this, I’m so glad that she decided to share her story with the world. I truly do feel like everyone needs to read this to understand what sexual assault survivors go through and how thoroughly let down they are by the criminal justice system. I really do hope that Miller gets to write more in the future, as I would love to see what she does next.

My Rating: 5/5

My next review will be of A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske, my current audiobook read.

Her Hidden Genius Review (Audiobook)

Book: Her Hidden Genius

Author: Marie Benedict

Narrator: Nicola Barber

BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Rosalind and Ursula discuss Rosalind’s research.

Content Warnings: Cancer, misogyny, hospital and medical content, infidelity, sexism, death

I’d never read anything by Marie Benedict before this year, but this book was mentioned on someone’s blog last year as a 2022 ARC that they’d enjoyed, and as I’m always one for books which shine a spotlight on forgotten women of history (and have been indignant about the treatment of Rosalind Franklin ever since we studied DNA in GCSE Biology!), I thought it would be something I’d really love. Sadly, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations, it was quite dry and lacked emotion, and it read more like a biography than a novel? Here is a short synopsis of the book:

Rosalind Franklin has always been an outsider―brilliant, but different. Whether working at the laboratory she adored in Paris or toiling at a university in London, she feels closest to the science, those unchanging laws of physics and chemistry that guide her experiments. When she is assigned to work on DNA, she believes she can unearth its secrets.

Rosalind knows if she just takes one more X-ray picture―one more after thousands―she can unlock the building blocks of life. Never again will she have to listen to her colleagues complain about her, especially Maurice Wilkins who’d rather conspire about genetics with James Watson and Francis Crick than work alongside her.

Then it finally happens―the double helix structure of DNA reveals itself to her with perfect clarity. But what unfolds next, Rosalind could have never predicted.

So as I mentioned at the top of the review, one of my biggest problems with this book was that it’s meant to be historical fiction but it read more like a biography than it did a novel. It’s always tricky when working with real people in historical fiction, because obviously you want to remain true to the facts of their life, but it is possible to do that in a way that works for fiction. I think the big issue here, which made it feel more like a biography than a novel, is the way it was written. Benedict’s writing is very dry and matter of fact, and lacked emotion and I think it’s that emotional connection that was missing for me, that would have made it feel more like a novel and less like a biography. It’s told from Rosalind’s 1st person POV and yet even when she was saying she was stressed or upset or scared, I didn’t feel that from the writing.

The book was also a little slow paced, it only really picked up when Rosalind arrived back in London and started working at Kings, and the real work on DNA began, the whole first half when she was in Paris, whilst I’m sure necessary for the build-up, felt like a prelude to the real story.

I did love the narrator, I’ve listened to a few books narrated by Nicola Barber (the Stalking Jack The Ripper series by Keri Mansicalco) & I found her a very engaging narrator when I listened to those, it was the same here.

The scientific jargon I will admit did go kind of over my head, but I was very impressed with the amount of research that Benedict had clearly done into both Franklin the woman and her research, she clearly knows her stuff!

I did think Benedict captured Franklin very well, she portrays her as a very nuanced person, she’s not afraid to capture her flaws (like her bluntness, perfectionist tendencies, confrontational nature) but also showed her dedication, her loyalty to her friends, her love of nature and her passion for science, so often women are portrayed as either saints or sinners, and I think Benedict did a really good job of capturing Rosalind as a multi-dimensional human being.

The side characters however did not feel as well fleshed out, we meet a lot of people in Rosalind’s laboratories both in Paris and London, and whilst we do get a broad strokes sense of what her colleagues were like, I wish they’d been developed a little more as that would have helped give some of her friendships a bit more depth. I also would have liked it we’d been able to spend a bit more time with her Birkbeck colleagues as her relationships with them didn’t feel massively fleshed out.

Starting the story at the lab in Paris did feel like we were kind of getting dropped in Franklin’s story in the middle, whilst I wouldn’t have expected to be taken from Rosalind’s birth right through to her death (especially since this book largely focused on her scientific work), it would have been nice to have the chance to get to know her a bit more, and maybe starting before she moved to Paris might have given us the chance to do that.

I didn’t feel like Benedict fleshed out the settings as well as she could have, whilst I got a good sense of the atmosphere at both the Paris lab and Kings College, I didn’t feel like I got a good sense of what 1940s Paris and 1950s London looked like, now granted, I don’t really picture things in my head so I don’t need massive amounts of detail, but a few more details would have given me a better idea of how these cities looked in the 40s and 50s.

It’s so infuriating that Franklin’s contribution to DNA was overlooked for so long and that she was basically punished for wanting to be diligent in her research and not wanting to rush into announcing anything before she had the proof. The fact that she was never credited for her work in her own lifetime also makes me really mad, it shouldn’t take women being dead for them to be credited for their work! I knew I’d be mad about the way Watson and Crick stole her research since I already was when I learned about that back in school, but I actually found I was more infuriated with her boss, Randall than Wilkins, Crick or Watson, yes they were all awful, but the way Randall sat by and did nothing to support her was really maddening.

It was really amazing to me how much Rosalind Franklin did before she died, considering she died so young, I only really knew about her DNA work, I had no idea about her work with RNA or her work on the structure of coal. If she’d not got cancer so young, she’d be in her nineties now and it’s tragic to think how much she never got to do and how much more she probably would have contributed to science if she’d lived. It’s also quite amazing to think that the understanding and knowledge that made the mRNA COVID vaccines possible were at least in a small part thanks to the research of Franklin, her colleagues and their successors.

As with many historical fiction novels, this book consists of a largely white, cishet cast of characters, but being set in the past is not an excuse and I’m sure that both London and Paris in the 1940s and 1950s were more diverse than Benedict portrays.

The writing could be a little repetitive in certain details, like the constant mentions of Rosalind’s chic Parisian dresses, her lack of religious beliefs etc. I also didn’t really understand why the author kept bringing up the Franklin family wealth when Rosalind mentioned that they didn’t like flaunting it?

I did feel like her illness was kind of glossed over, I would have liked to have spent a bit more time on that and seeing how it affected her, both physically and emotionally. The third part in general felt a little rushed, almost like the author was racing towards the end.

Overall, I did like this book, but it didn’t quite live up to the expectations I had for it. Rosalind Franklin was a fascinating woman and I enjoyed getting to learn more about her life and work, but for a novel, I felt that this lacked emotion and the dry, matter of fact writing, felt more like a biography. I felt like a lot of it could have done with more fleshing out, and I would have liked to have had more of an emotional connection to the characters. I do love what Benedict has done with wanting to focus her fiction on overlooked women from history though, and I definitely think I’d try other books of hers in the future.

My Rating: 3/5

My next review will be of my last February audiobook, Know My Name by Chanel Miller which I’ll probably have up either over the weekend or at the beginning of next week.

Resistance Women Review (Audiobook)

Book: Resistance Women

Author: Jennifer Chiaverini

Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld

BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Greta, Mildred and Sara talk about their resistance work.

Content Warnings: War, anti-Semitism, genocide, execution, infertility, miscarriage, imprisonment, mention of abortion, pregnancy, infidelity, mentions of concentration camps, Nazism

Resistance Women was recommended to me by Brittany, a friend of mine in the YA Addicted Book Club on Goodreads, and I was really excited for it, because I listened to a podcast episode last year about Mildred Fish-Harnack and I really wanted to learn more about her, and the other members of the Rote Kappelle (Red Orchestra). I also found out that Saskia Maarleveld, one of my favourite audiobook narrators was the narrator for this one, so naturally that made me even more excited. Sadly, I was a little bit underwhelmed, whilst this book was undoubtedly well researched, it was also far too long, and a little dry, I didn’t get all the emotions I would have expected from a book about this time period. Here is a short synopsis of the book:

After Wisconsin graduate student Mildred Fish marries brilliant German economist Arvid Harnack, she accompanies him to his German homeland, where a promising future awaits. In the thriving intellectual culture of 1930s Berlin, the newlyweds create a rich new life filled with love, friendships, and rewarding work—but the rise of a malevolent new political faction inexorably changes their fate.

As Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party wield violence and lies to seize power, Mildred, Arvid, and their friends resolve to resist. Mildred gathers intelligence for her American contacts, including Martha Dodd, the vivacious and very modern daughter of the US ambassador. Her German friends, aspiring author Greta Kuckoff and literature student Sara Weiss, risk their lives to collect information from journalists, military officers, and officials within the highest levels of the Nazi regime.

For years, Mildred’s network stealthily fights to bring down the Third Reich from within. But when Nazi radio operatives detect an errant Russian signal, the Harnack resistance cell is exposed, with fatal consequences.

So my biggest problem, as I mentioned at the top of this review, and which is a reoccurring theme on this blog, was pacing. This is an incredibly long audiobook, at over 20 hours, and it covers a long period of time, from 1929-1946. But for me, things didn’t really pick up until 1933 when Hitler became Chancellor, and I understand why Chiaverini started the story earlier, because she wanted to show how Hitler came to power but for me personally, because I already know quite a lot about Nazi Germany (a combination of being a history nerd and just covering it a lot in school), I didn’t feel like the background was totally necessary. The book as a whole just felt overly long, it’s 17 years of history packed into one book, that’s probably really several books worth of content there! I did appreciate that for the most part, the chapters were relatively short though, it kept things ticking along nicely.

I naturally loved the narration, I’ve listened to several books narrated by Saskia Maarleveld before and she’s definitely one of my favourite narrators, this book was no exception! I still marvel at her ability to slip in and out of different accents, this book is mainly American and German but she does show off a few other accents as well.

Chiaverini has definitely done her research, there is so much historical detail crammed in and though I’ve not done extensive research into the Red Orchestra myself, from what I do know, it’s all very accurate. I would actually say this book trends toward a little too much detail, and I never usually say that for historical fiction as I love history and learning more about the past, but occasionally in this book, there did seem to be slightly more detail than was really needed for the story.

The chapters all cover quite long periods of time, it’s a good three-six months covered in each chapter and I found that made it hard for me to keep track of where I was in the story. I’d be thinking it was January of one year, and all of a sudden, there’d be some mention of summer! It got easier to keep track of the timeline further through the book but I think I would have preferred it if the chapters hadn’t covered such a wide span of time. This again comes back to the book trying to do too much I think, 17 years in one book is just a lot! There’s one chapter at the end, the epilogue, that covers THREE YEARS, that’s just so much, there could have easily been three chapters just for that.

The writing could be a little dry, the author definitely had a tendency of telling you what was going on rather than showing you, and it was all done in a very matter of fact way, so I felt like some of the emotional situations the characters find themselves in lost some of their impact, because the writing was so dry.

I found that this problem extended into the characters’ relationships. We’re told what the characters relationships are to each other, we’re told that Mildred and Greta are old friends, that Arvid and Greta had an academic rivalry, that Mildred was a professor of Sara’s but we’re never really given a chance to see those friendships for ourselves. I didn’t find a lot of the characters’ relationships believable because I was just told what they were to each other, I didn’t feel like Chiaverini showed us through their actions.

I found a lot of the characters themselves quite flat as well, which I wasn’t expecting because all of these people did such awesome things, and I found their actual real life stories so fascinating but somehow Chiaverini’s novelisation of events took a lot of the spark out of these people for me. I was very inspired by Mildred and Greta’s real life actions but found that their book counterparts fell kind of flat.

The only character that I felt a real emotional connection with was the only fictional one, Sara Weitz, the Jewish character in the story. Sara’s emotions and the stark reality of what she faced as a Jewish woman under the Nazis, made her the most engaging narrator of the four. Sadly her story was left kind of unfinished, as she dropped out of the story towards the end. I would have liked it if the author had been able to feature some real Jewish women of the resistance, I understand why she created Sara as she needed someone who would feasibly be able to interact with Mildred and Greta and there were no real life Jewish women from the Rote Kappelle who could fill that role, but I just found it a shame that the only main Jewish character in the story was fictional (not to take anything away from Sara, because I did love her!).

Martha Dodd’s chapters seemed kind of extraneous, I wasn’t really sure what she added as a POV character, and I don’t think she really needed to be, especially as she was only present for one part of the book. I think the events that occurred in her chapters could easily have been covered by Mildred, and that would have slimmed down the book a little.

I was expecting a little more action and intrigue for a book centred around a resistance network! A lot of the book is largely slice of life which is fine, but it’s not really my bag and not what I was expecting, I was expecting a lot more of an in-depth look at the Red Orchestra’s resistance activities, but that actually ended up playing a fairly small role. It did however have me looking up all the Red Orchestra members to see what happened to them, which is always a mark of historical fiction writers doing their jobs right as I always want to come out wanting to know more about the real history when reading historical fiction.

One thing that I found kind of a cool connection is that Adam and Greta Kuckhoff were arrested on my birthday, 12th September, which really has nothing to do with my thoughts on the book at all, I just noticed it whilst I was listening and thought it was interesting, it’s kind of amazing the connections you can have with people who you never met and who died long before you were born!

Given that the story covers almost twenty years, I would have expected more development from the characters as they aged, Mildred, Greta and Sara all felt very much the same in 1929 as they did ten or even fifteen years later!

There were some small editing errors where Martha and Mildred were mixed up and a chapter that was in Martha’s point of view would suddenly switch to being in Mildred’s and vice versa, that probably should have been caught before the book was published.

I did think the author did a really good job of capturing the atmosphere of both pre-war and WWII Berlin, and showing how conditions spiralled downwards for people as the Nazis gained power.

I was really glad the author’s note was included in this audiobook, as they aren’t always, and I love learning more about historical fiction authors’ approaches to researching the real life people that their books centre around or feature.

I did find the ending very emotional, even though I knew what was coming because I had previously listened to a podcast episode about Mildred Fish-Harnack. The story of poor Liane Berkowitz really hit me as well, I’d not heard of her before reading this book, and she was just so young, basically still a child. Even though he was fictional, I also felt a lot for what happened to Sara’s brother Natan, because he, like me, was a journalist and it was just horrible to see the kinds of things that you would face under the Nazis for daring to publish the truth (obviously even more so if you were Jewish).

Overall, I did enjoy this book, but not quite as much as I thought it would. The real life people behind the story are fascinating, but I feel like Chiaverini didn’t get that across as well as she could have? I also really appreciated the research that obviously went into the book, but felt it tipped the line into just a little too much, and that the characters and plot kind of suffered from the author’s need to show the readers just how much she knew about the time period. It was also far longer than it needed to be, whilst also covering too much ground. I actually think if the author had split this into multiple books, it probably would have turned out better, she was trying to do too much in one, and the story ended up suffering for it. Having said all that, I do appreciate Chiaverini highlighting a previously overlooked resistance group, and there were things I did love about this book, like the narration, the character of Sara, and the way the author captured the atmosphere of Berlin under the Nazis, so it wasn’t all a total loss.

My Rating: 3/5

My next review will be of one of my other February audiobook reads, Her Hidden Genius by Marie Benedict, which I will probably have up either tomorrow or over the weekend!