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!
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