Swimming Back to Trout River

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Linda Rui Feng
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: May 2021 (read May 2021)

I haven’t been seeing that much buzz about this book, so I have no idea how it got on my radar, but I found the name super compelling. Then when I read the plot and saw it was blurbed by Jean Kwok, I was super interested in reading it. 

What an understated book. It’s a simple plot with simple storytelling, but I really enjoyed it. I really like Linda Rui Feng’s style of writing and thought it was really lyrical storytelling about a family that becomes separated by time and circumstance. From the synopsis, this is the story of two parents who immigrate to America and leave their daughter with their parents in law, promising to come back for her on her 12th birthday. But the daughter, Junie, loves her life in Trout River and doesn’t know that her parents have become estranged in their new country.

The story delivered on this plot, but it’s really only a small part of what this book covers. I expected the book to mostly be about Junie, but it’s actually primarily about her parents and their connections to music. It’s not so much a multi generational story as a story of her parents growing up, their journey together, and then their journey apart. Her father, Momo, grows up in Trout River and is one of the first people to succeed and get out of the village, leaving to get a university education. There he meets Dawn, a budding violinist who teaches him to play ahead of China’s cultural revolution. Finally, he eventually meets his wife, Cassia, a nurse who has experienced her own loss through the revolution. 

Like I said, it’s an understated novel about growing up and subtly addresses the impact the cultural revolution had on many of its citizens, without being a heavy novel solely about the revolution. It’s about family, the ones we make and the ones we choose, and who we might be if events in our lives had gone differently. It’s not a long book and made for a really enjoyable read. 

The only part I didn’t really like was the ending. I found it very abrupt and would have preferred to spend a bit more time getting to know Junie rather than just her parents. That said, I loved Dawn’s character and even though she wasn’t a part of the main family, she was my favourite part of the book! Check it out if you’re looking for something a little different.

Brooklyn

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Colm Toibin
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Apr. 2009 (read Apr. 2021)

I have so many thoughts on this book. I’m not a big movie goer, but I saw Brooklyn in theatres when it came out at the recommendation of a friend and fell in love with the movie. I didn’t even realize it was a book until several years later – but it didn’t have the best reviews on Goodreads, so I decided to give it a pass. About a month ago I stumbled across a copy in a second hand bookstore and decided to revisit the story and give the book a try.

The movie stays very close to the book, so it’s hard to separate one from the other. As reviews suggest, the writing is good, but not great. The author has a very ‘matter of fact’ way of telling the story that can seem a little bland next to some other books. That said, I enjoyed the book a lot more than I thought I would – Toibin is still a good writer, it’s just not the kind of moving writing that you give 5 stars too. Even so, I found the story just as compelling as the movie and flew through it in just 2 days.

In some ways I preferred the book and enjoyed getting Eilis’ internal monologue, but in other ways I thought the movie was stronger. Eilis has an indifference to Tony in the book that doesn’t quite sell this as a love story as strongly as the movie does. The most notable difference for me was the last part of the book when Eilis returns to Ireland. The first three quarters of the movie follow the book almost verbatim, but the story diverges slightly in the last quarter. The ending of the book is almost jarring in its suddenness, but that may be because I was expecting it to continue based on the movie. 

But before I get into the spoiler part of the review, I just want to talk about why I love this story. It may not be 5 star writing, but in my opinion, it’s definitely a 5 star story. Brooklyn is set following WWII, we’re not told the exact year, but based on the setting, others have dated it to the early 1950’s. Eilis grew up in a small town outside Dublin and has spent her whole life in Ireland. She studies book keeping, but as a young adult, she struggles to find meaningful work. Her sister, Rose, makes contact with an Irish priest in New York who offers to sponsor Eilis to America. He arranges her papers and finds her work in a department store and accommodations in a boarding house.

Eilis is overwhelmed with the pace at which the decision is made for her to go to New York and feels she has no other choice. She’s not looking forward to leaving Rose and her mother, but she acknowledges there’s very little for her in Ireland. So she boards a boat to America and settles in an Irish community in Brooklyn. It’s very difficult for her at first and she becomes homesick, but eventually she settles in and starts to build a life for herself. She attends Brooklyn College for book keeping and meets an Italian named Tony who starts to make her feel at home.

I love this story because it is such an accurate portrayal of how it feels to leave home and make your life elsewhere. Even though the story is set in the 1950’s, its a story so many can relate to. I grew up in a small city that has also been heavily influenced by Irish culture and while I wasn’t personally forced to leave to find work, many of my family members and to an extent, my husband, were forced to seek opportunity elsewhere. While my motivation for leaving was different from Eilis, I could relate with so much of what she went through. Toibin captures so well the heartbreak of leaving your home behind and the challenge of feeling you can longer share a part of yourself with anyone. Eilis goes through many struggles, but she doesn’t want to burden her mother and sister with her pain, so she keeps it to herself. She feels she has no one that she can share her true self with until she meets Tony.

I don’t want to go too much further and potentially spoil the story for someone, so I’ll just say that I think this a story anyone can enjoy and would highly recommend to anyone who has left one home behind for another. It’s definitely a white immigration story – the struggles Eilis faces are almost laughable to what today’s immigrants experience, so definitely read those immigration stories too.

But now let’s get into more of the SPOILER part of the review.
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Like I said above, the book doesn’t sell this as a love story quite as strongly as the movie does. That’s fine because I think the love story is secondary to Eilis’ personal experience, but it is a little disappointing to read. Eilis is lukewarm to Tony throughout most of the book, but slowly grows to love him. I definitely love Tony, but he is somewhat problematic and I wasn’t totally sold on how Toibin portrays Eilis’ feelings towards Tony. Eilis really did need Tony – she needed someone to share herself with. She keeps to herself a lot and struggles to fit in with the women she boards with, so when she connects with Tony, he is very much a lifeline to her. She’s reluctant in love, but I think it’s more a part of her character than her feelings about Tony. It just takes her a while to really warm up to him. Overall I was impressed with how Toibin communicates Eilis’ story, but there were definitely a few instances where Eilis’ internal thoughts didn’t jive with me. It was only a handful of times, but I did find myself thinking, “this is a man writing how HE thinks a young woman would think, rather than how I think Eilis would actually think” (if that makes sense).

Tony pressures Eilis into marrying him because he’s afraid she won’t come back from Ireland otherwise. It’s definitely a legitimate fear, but sad for both of them that they don’t trust their love enough to really test it. More disappointing of course is Eilis’ relationship with Jim when she returns to Ireland. This relationship is absolutely essential to the story, but Eilis’ indifference to Tony in the book as compared to the movie was a little upsetting to me. I didn’t remember her actually kissing Jim in the movie (or at least not more than once), whereas in the book she pretty much has a full on relationship with him and reflects that she regrets marrying Tony. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love how this dilemma is presented to Eilis. Suddenly everything she ever wanted is available to her in Ireland. She reflects on why life couldn’t have been like this for her 2 years ago before she was forced to go to America, but she also has to acknowledge that America helped her to grow in so many ways and is largely responsible for the success she’s now able to have in Ireland. But in my opinion the movie better presents the dilemma in having to choose between these two lives. Because in the book Eilis openly regrets her marriage to Tony, it’s a little disappointing to then see her return to that life anyways. With both the book and the movie ultimately having the same ending, I definitely prefer the movie. One of my favourite scenes from the movie is when Eilis boards the boat back to America and mentors the new Irish girl about her lived experience. It’s so moving and more cathartic than how Toibin opts to end the book. Maybe the book is more accurate in the heartbreak of her decision, but the movie definitely provides the catharsis.

I did still like Eilis’ reflections on her life in Brooklyn in the book though. She describes how it seems like a hazy dream to her now that’s returned to Ireland. I thought it was so accurate how when surrounded by people you used to know, the experiences you lived without them almost seem to disappear. Her mother and friends thought she was glamorous upon her return, but they had little interest in what actually happened to her in Brooklyn. This is accurate to my own experiences.

I’ve been away from home for a lot longer than Eilis, but aside from my parents, I generally find my friends don’t have a whole lot of interest in my life in BC. It’s not that they don’t care, I think it’s just that it’s no longer a shared experience between us, so it’s easier for them to talk about their own lives because those lives exist in a setting we can at least both relate to. It’s also a struggle because despite how much you grow, you often remain in stasis for those friends (as they do for you as well). Because of the distance it’s hard for you to grow together now and so you become stuck as former versions of yourself.

As much as I love the movie ending over the book ending. I did love the last thought that Eilis has on her way back to America. How the fact that “she has gone back to Brooklyn” is something that Jim will be upset about for awhile, but how over time it will become something that means less and less to him, while it will become everything to her. The movie ends with the line “and you realize, that this is where your life is”, which is also accurate. Despite the heartbreak of repeatedly saying goodbye to your friends and family every time you see them, the truth is that you have built a life somewhere else, and that’s okay.

Lovely War

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Julie Berry
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2019 (read Apr. 2021 on Audible)

Lovely War is another book that I found on Booktube. Hailey from Hailey in Bookland recommended it and I was really intrigued after I read the synopsis. I know Greek re-tellings are all the rage right now, but personally they’ve never really been my thing, but the idea of the Greek Gods narrating a human love story set in WW1 is somehow way more compelling to me. I was expecting something similar to the Book Thief, so I was pretty amped.

I did enjoy this book, but I would probably rate it more like 3.5 stars than 4 stars because it just wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be. The premise of the story is that when Hephaestus catches his wife Aphrodite having an affair with Ares, she convinces him to let her explain herself through the telling of a great human love affair (more or less – to be honest I thought the reasoning for her telling the whole story was somewhat weak). So she launches into a story about 2 couples during World War 1.

I think the key reason I wasn’t 100% sold on this book is because, even though I was invested in these 2 loves stories, at the end of the day, they just weren’t quite moving enough for me to be like “yeah, I understand why the God of Love was so moved by them”. I mean what would be epic enough for Aphrodite to take notice? I honestly have no idea, but I’ve definitely felt more moved by other stories.

I do wonder if I might have enjoyed this better as a paperback. I read it as an audiobook and I didn’t think the dialogue quite passed the audio test. I find audiobooks to be particularly good at exposing sub-par writing and dialogue. I didn’t think the writing was sub-par, but I can’t deny the dialogue definitely came across as a bit cheesy, which I think overall took away from the story. It’s hard to think of a couple as having a great love story when you’re rolling your eyes at some of their conversations.

So that was my biggest flaw with the book, but I do want to talk about what I liked, because there was still lots to like in this book! Namely, Aubrey Edwards. Hazel and James, in my opinion, are just another run of the mill love story, I know things go awry for them in the way things always do in war stories, but there was nothing in their relationship that I thought really made them special. Likewise, I did think parts of Aubrey and Collette’s love story were somewhat disappointing as I didn’t really feel their personal chemistry, but I was super enthralled with Aubrey’s story because it is really what sets this book apart from other WW1 books.

Because Aubrey is a Black American from the 15th New York infantry. Maybe I’m not reading the right books, but I can’t think of any popular WW books that focus on Black people. I thought this was such a great addition to the story because BIPOC are so often left out of this era of history. There’s a ton of literature focusing on slavery and the civil rights movement, but we tend to think of the world wars as a part of white history. But in the same way that Black Americans have been present for every part of America’s history (since European contact), they are often left out of the narrative. Did many Black divisions serve in the World Wars? No, but it’s as much a part of Black history as it is the history of white Americans, so I really liked seeing Aubrey’s experience represented. Plus, his experience offered something totally new. Rather than just another war romance, his was a perspective that forced me to consider something new.

Aubrey comes to Europe wanting to fight, the same as any shiny-eyed soldier. But even with the nightmare that trench warfare is, Black soldiers still weren’t considered good enough for it. Let the glory go to the White troops, Black troops were good for manual labour. Building roads and digging the trenches, all the while making sure to keep themselves separate from the White soldiers. The biggest threat Aubrey’s Regiment faces is that they’ll get on the wrong side of a trumped up White soldier who wants to make sure Black Americans remember their place in the world.  The irony being that you could go all the way to France to fight Hitler and be killed by your own compatriot. 

So Aubrey’s story was both eye-opening, but not overly surprising. It’s inspiring the optimism his Regiment carried around with them, that serving in the war would serve to elevate the position of African Americans. I also really liked how music tied in so closely with the theme and that we got exposure to the birth of the jazz age. To be honest I was more interested in the links between war and music, rather than the central theme about war and love. 

In conclusion, it’s hard to rate the book because while I was less enamoured with some parts, there were other parts I loved. Most disappointing was that overall, I just didn’t think that having the Greek Gods narrate the story actually added that much to  it. It makes the framing of your key themes a lot easier, but you could still explore the same themes without the Gods. But it’s by no means a bad book and I still really enjoyed it – I would have just liked to flip the narrative and have Aubrey as the focal character rather than Hazel. Would still recommend!

The Lost Vintage

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ann Mah
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Jun. 2018 (read Apr. 2021)

The Lost Vintage has been on my TBR for years and I finally read it! It first came on my radar when I read an interview with the author that talked about the historical violence that has been perpetuated against women during war time. There is a plethora of literature out there about WWII (honestly I think there’s too much – I’d really like to see more about non-western countries and other time periods), but a lot of what is published about WWII focuses either on the holocaust or interesting historical stories (ie, a nurse during the blitz, a secret resistance worker, a pilot behind enemy lines, etc). The Lost Vintage focuses on German-occupied France, a topic that I’ve definitely read more than one book about, but I was immediately intrigued to explore the hidden (and not so hidden) violence against women.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely other books out there on this topic. Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale is the first that comes to mind, but even books like Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants series explore how in Germany’s defeat, an overwhelming number of women were raped by Russian soldiers as their spoils of war. But what I have been particularly interested in, and the main reason I wanted to read this book, is how ‘collaborators’ were treated in the liberation. I’m sorry to say, that before a few years ago, it wasn’t something I had given that much thought to. 

A couple of years ago I read Mark Sullivan’s book, Beneath a Scarlet Sky. I strongly disliked the writing in the book, but it was based on a true story and as much as I disliked a lot of the book, there’s one scene at the end of the book that I constantly think of. This book took place in Milan and at the end of the war, the people of Italy basically mobbed the entire country, hanging Mussolini in the street and shaming, abusing, and killing tons of women that were seen as collaborators. Though Europe is filled with people who ‘collaborated’ during the war, the benefit of time is that it has allowed us to examine those whose collaboration was inexcusable (people who sold out their neighbours for personal gain) and those whose collaboration was more a victim of circumstance (accepting food to feed your family in exchange for personal favours to a German official). “Horizontal Collaboration” was strongly condemned after the war, despite the fact that many women were in fact victims of German occupation and power.

What’s so enraging about this is the fact that after the war, European citizens (of several countries) essentially enacted mob and vigilante justice on both real and perceived collaborators. I definitely believe in war tribunals and prosecuting those who are responsible for war crimes – but much of this justice was enacted without trial or evidence. In a mob-like fever, people we’re dragged from their homes and citizen justice was performed in the streets. What’s so enraging about it now, and what Ann Mah touches on briefly in her book, is that many of the people directing this justice were actually male collaborators themselves (point the finger first lest it be pointed at you instead), and that most of the ‘justice’ was perpetrated against women, particularly women who were perceived to have slept with the enemy. It ignores the fact that many women were taken advantage of and raped, and in the case of this book, required absolutely no evidence. 

So this is obviously a topic I’m pretty passionate about, but what about this book? This is basically just an extended background rant about what inspired me to pick up The Lost Vintage. The Lost Vintage does grapple with questions of collaboration, and interestly, heritage. Everyone wants to believe that if they had lived through WWII they would have been on the side of the resistance. That they would have been empathetic to the plight of Jews and fought against tyranny. But war and poverty make us do desperate things and when we discover that our family history might be more than a little embarrassing, what do we do about that? 

So The Lost Vintage raised a lot of interesting topics and questions for me, but I credit it to my own interest rather than what the author actually delivered because unfortunately, this book left a lot to be desired. It had a lot of potential, but there were two core storylines taking place and the one the author devotes most of her time to is the wine storyline.

The Lost Vintage is a about a wine expert, Kate, who is trying to pass the ultimate exam in the world of sommeliers – the Master of Wine certificate. In order to prepare for her final exam, she travels to her mother’s childhood home in Burgundy, a wine estate that has been passed down through her family for generations. While in Burgundy, she discovers a number of relics in the family cellar, including a cache of expensive wines from the war. She begins to search both for information on her family heritage, as well as the missing bottles of a very expensive, lost vintage.

This was the author’s debut novel and while it shows a lot of promise, it had a lot of the trappings of a debut novel. The writing is not engaging and the format and pacing of the book just didn’t work for me. It has a very slow start and I was more than halfway through the book before I finally got into it. The author dedicates a lot of time to Kate and her wine exam. It’s clear the author knows a lot about wine and this might be interesting to those ensconced in the wine world, but for me (and my entire book club), we wanted to know more about Kate’s family history and the diaries of her great-aunt Helene. 

Mah does deliver on the plot points relating to female collaboration, and I did enjoy the thought exercise of reflecting on what it means to discover collaborators in your family tree, but I don’t think Mah did the topic justice. First of all, I thought that Kate’s reaction to discovering a collaborator in her history was an over-reaction. I feel like there must be a lot of people in France with similar histories and given the benefit of time, we now understand that the accusation of ‘collaborator’ from mob justice really didn’t mean a whole lot. I was able to forgive Heather’s reaction because she was Jewish, but overall I thought the entire family over-reacted and didn’t show a whole lot of maturity by just refusing to speak of Helene for 80 years.

Besides that, the book had a lot of flaws. I feel like the author had the core idea for her book and didn’t know what to do beyond that. She tried some things to increase the suspense, but none of it worked with the rest of the narrative. Characters like Walker and Louise were absolutely pointless and I found the trajectory of the love story jarring and thought the characters had no chemistry. There was so much potential that was just wasted. I wanted to see a more equal split between Kate and Helene’s story (the focus is disproportionately on Kate) and I wanted to see a better exploration of what I thought were going to be the key themes. I felt the author knew everything there was to know about wine, but was just lazy in the rest of the writing. 

But I still gave this book 3 stars so what gives? I do think this was a good story – it was just a good story, poorly told. Similar to Mark Sullivan’s, Beneath a Scarlet Sky, I still wanted to read the story, I just wanted to experience it from a more experienced author. 

A Curious Beginning

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Genres: Historical fiction, Mystery
Pub. Date: Sep. 2015 (read Jan. 2021)
Series: Veronica Speedwell #1

Okay I need to write my review for this because I’m already halfway through the sequel and I don’t want to get the two books mixed up!

I found this book for cheap on book outlet a few years ago and bought the first two books in the series. They’ve sat on my shelf ever since and I never felt inspired enough to pick them up, even though I’d heard good things about them. However, after reading Nice Try, Jane Sinner for the second time, I really wanted to continue the humour, so I poked around my shelves for something funny to read and landed on these.

I’m so glad I finally did because I had SO much reading this book! A Curious Beginning is the first book in a series that currently has 5 books published with a 6th coming out later this year. I’m not sure I’ll read them all, but if they’re all as smart and funny as this one you definitely can’t go wrong!

It’s 1887 and 25 year old Veronica Speedwell’s aunt has just passed away. Veronica was adopted as a foundling by her two aunts and raised all over England. Though she grew up in the 1800’s and was expected to develop important feminine skills like painting, needlework, and the pianoforte, she instead has cultivated her skills as a lepidopterist and travels the world in search of rare specimens of butterfly to sell to her wealthy clients under the assumed male moniker of V. Speedwell. With the death of her only remaining guardian, she sees this as the perfect time to break with her old life and seek adventure elsewhere. However, when her cottage is burglarized during her Aunt’s funeral, she is catapulted on an entirely different adventure.

What makes this book a winner is Raybourn’s effortless blending of genres and the witty dialogue and humour she infuses into the story. Veronica refuses to conform to society’s ideal of a lady and sees no reason why she should be excluded from the fun. When she is thrown together with the enigmatic Stoker, total adventure and hilarity ensue.

This book really has a little bit of everything. It’s historical, it has a mystery, it has romantic elements, and it will make you laugh out loud. From the start, it appears to be a heavily plot driven novel, but as the mystery unravels, we learn much about Veronica and her past. Stoker is still a character very much shrouded in mystery, but I’m optimistic his past will slowly be revealed to us throughout the subsequent novels.

Stoker and Veronica compliment each other well and I loved reading about them and got caught up in their banter. I wouldn’t say they have the most character development over the course of the novel, but they definitely have chemistry. The book is full of tropes, but somehow it all just works. I think it’s because the novel never takes itself too seriously. I could see the potential for Veronica to become a bit of a caricature in the future if the author doesn’t reign in her character, but as a series debut, I thought everything about this worked. My only minor criticism was that things seems to resolve themselves a little too easily and neatly at the end of the novel.

But all in all, I had great fun reading this and immediately jumped right into the sequel! 4.5 stars, definitely recommend!