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!

The Four Winds


Rating:
⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kristin Hannah
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Feb. 2021 (read Feb. 2021)

I know Kristin Hannah has over 20 books, but she’s become really popular with her last few publications, and for good reason. My book club read and loved the Nightingale and then I became absolutely obsessed with her last book, The Great Alone. So I was very excited to read another historical novel, this time about the dust-bowl era and mass migration to California.

While I knew about the great depression, I’m a little embarrassed to say I knew very little about the dust-bowl era of the early 1930’s. As a Canadian I won’t be overly shamed about this, but one of my biggest takeaways is that I really should read the Grapes of Wrath, which sounds like it is more or less the same plot as The Four Winds. I don’t mean that as a slight, it just seems like most people cover this period of history in their learnings by reading John Steinbeck’s classic, so I’m definitely anxious to read that book as well now.

The Four Winds opens in Texas prior to the great depression. Our heroine Elsa has been cast out by her wealthy family and marries into an Italian farming family. Though she struggles to satisfy her husband, she finds great happiness on the farm and takes joy in a hard day’s work and in raising her two children, Loreda and Ant. However, when drought strikes Texas the family falls on tough times and Elsa must make the decision whether to head west with her family in search of work and better days.

The Dust-bowl era coincides with the Great Depression and is a period of history in which many southern states experienced severe drought and dust storms. Agriculture crashed and many developed dust pneumonia as a result of the storms. This resulted in mass migration to California where migrants faced even more hardship – cast out and vilified by the locals, aid was denied to many and the only work to be found was hard labour at a pitiful wage.

It is this hardship that Elsa and her children experience. I found the plot really interesting in that I knew very little about the dust-bowl era and didn’t realize there had been a mass migration in America in the 1930’s. What’s most striking is the way that history has a tendency to repeat itself and that no matter the individual, America does a great job at othering “outsiders” and vilifying the poor.

Before southerners migrated to California, Mexicans would cross the border to work in the cotton and fruit farms as pickers, earning minimal wages, then leaving at the end of each season to return to their families. Eventually the government cracked down on this immigration and suddenly the California growers found themselves with no cheap labour to pick their goods. Until farmers from the south started flooding across the border looking for any work to feed their families. The growers took advantage of this labour and the sheer number of people allowed them to pay even lower wages, maximizing their profit because there was always someone desperate enough to pick for any wage.

This echo’s the world we still live in. Capitalism is built on cheap labour and immigrants are often still forced to work for any wage to survive. I find it hard to understand how the American Dream is even still a thing because class difference in America is so divided and there are so many people living in poverty. People with privilege rise up on what they pretend are their own merits, while a multitude of people struggle to survive every single day – many of whom are taken advantage of by their employers. The only real difference in The Four Winds is that the workers are white American born citizens. While they are absolutely justified in wanting to be treated humanely and earn a living wage, I couldn’t help but notice their indignation at being treated, for lack of another word, like immigrants. They feel that as American citizens, Californians should empathize with their plight – but it just goes to show how ingrained feelings of nationalism and state pride go and how threatened people will always feel by “others”. Heaven forbid an “outsider” receive state aid or take advantage of state services paid for by “their” tax money.

In some ways though, the migrants were just as proud as many of the Californians in that they felt they should be able to provide for themselves and should not need to take relief or government assistance. They honestly just wanted to be paid a living wage so that they wouldn’t need the relief. I’m sure many would be happy to pay taxes and contribute to services, but their poverty and the lack of work made this impossible. It’s just scary that this is a mindset that still exists today. That somehow poor people aren’t worthy of basic access to services like welfare and healthcare. That giving someone a helping hand will make them reliant on support. No one wants to be on welfare. And the fact that we still have to debate, in a pandemic, that people deserve a living wage and that the government should step up and provide financial relief, is frankly embarrassing.

I’m sure it didn’t come as a surprise to those who are more well informed than me, but what I found most shocking about this book was the Welty Farm. The sheer brilliance and evil of allowing people to run themselves into debt on your farm, all to secure their labour throughout picking season. In some ways the families that found themselves with a cabin on Welty Farms were very lucky. It put an actual roof over their heads and allowed them some modicum of comfort over living in the shanties. But the model of forcing poor migrants to buy everything on credit from the company store at triple the price and never paying them in cash is really so evil. And not allowing them to seek work elsewhere in the off season to ensure that every cent they earn during cotton picking will go into paying off their debt, ensuring they’ll have to stay around another year and survive again on credit, is just plain evil. It’s hard to believe someone can look in the face of such poverty and deny someone a living wage. But this is the world we live in – where people like Jeff Bezos make billions in a pandemic yet refuse to pay their workers a living wage. Really, what has changed since 1930?

But I should probably spend less time ranting and actually talk about the book. You’re probably wondering why I gave this 3 stars when it sounds like I was really into it. As a history book, I did really like this. Hannah showcases every aspect of this era and I liked that we got to experience how awful the dust storms were, what it was like to migrate across the country, and how in many ways, California was worse than what they experienced in Texas. So I did really like the history covered in this book and felt it was fairly comprehensive. But as far as this goes as a novel, I did think it was a little lacking.

Hannah is definitely a good writer. I fell in love with her writing in The Great Alone and the way she wrote about Alaska and her characters. I felt they all had such heart despite the hardships they faced. I love that Hannah focuses on the mother-daughter relationship in her novels and it’s what compels me to pick up each of her books. But unlike The Great Alone, in The Four Winds the land and everything around it is dying. While Elsa is undeniably a strong and inspiring character, I couldn’t help but feel this book was lacking in heart.

First of all, I thought it was too long. A lot happens in this book, but we just got a bit too much of everything. I felt like we were suffering the same thing over and over again. I know this is the reality of this kind of a life, but oh my goodness, in the beginning the dust storms seem to go on and on! I don’t think the novel was exaggerated, but we easily could have dropped a hundred pages. I repeatedly got bored throughout this book and at times felt it hard to pick it up again because it was just more and more of the same.

But like I said, as much as I liked Elsa, I just didn’t connect with her in the same way that I have with some of Hannah’s other characters. I’ll admit Hannah is somewhat emotionally manipulative in all her books, including The Great Alone, as much as I love it. She creates these grand heartbreaking situations near the end of her books, but in this one, I felt like Hannah was smashing my face into the sidewalk trying to force me to feel something I didn’t. I loved the inclusion of the wage campaigners and “communists” and seeing the migrants stand up and fight for their rights, but I struggled to buy into the romance (didn’t see the draw of the characters or any chemistry between them). I didn’t see why Elsa’s story was any more inspiring than any other migrant. The climax just felt really forced to me and it took away from the story in my opinion.

From there I thought it just went downhill altogether. I don’t want to post any spoilers, but I didn’t like how easy everything became after the climax. This is a family that has struggled and will continue to struggle. Unfortunately there is never an easy way out of these kinds of struggles. Migrants will continue to be taken advantage of. When the drought ends, yes many will likely return to where they came from, but the sad reality is that this will not be an option for many of the migrants. One, because they will literally not gave the money to return, and second, because many of them have nothing to return to. The farms they abandoned were taken over by the bank, it’s not as simple as returning to your land because the rains have returned, in many cases families will have no land to return to. It’s a really sad way to end a book, but unfortunately sometimes the bad guys win.

I’ll have to do some research about what did happen at the end of the great depression and how people were able to raise themselves back up, but I didn’t like that it wasn’t covered in this book. I assume at some point things did improve, likely some of the migrants left, enabling those that stayed behind to demand better pay. Or that job access improved with the end of the depression, but we don’t really see any of that in this book. It’s just misery straight to the end. I read some reviews that complained that the book has very few high points and too much suffering. I see the point, but I actually disagree – a lot of times the there is truth in so much suffering, but I do still want there to be a purpose for me reading the book. Yes, I learned a lot about a historical period I knew little of, but otherwise I’m not sure what my takeaways were. Yes, I know that Elsa was good and strong and that she learned to be proud of herself, but what of her relationship with Loreda? In most cases their relationship felt forced to me and I felt it was resolved with “telling” rather than “showing”. I guess overall I felt the writing too manipulative towards the end and I struggled to enjoy it.

Anyways, this turned into a pretty lengthy review. The book definitely has its strong points, but other areas that could use some work. Don’t get me wrong, I did still like it, but not Hannah’s strongest work in my opinion. That said, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this book since I finished and I am anxious to go out and read more material about this era, so I do thank Hannah for the intro. Still recommend her books and I know a lot of readers liked this more than I did, so don’t be deterred by my review!

The Mermaid from Jeju


Rating:
⭐⭐⭐
Author: Sumi Hahn
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Dec. 2020 (read Feb. 2021)

I don’t know how I stumbled across this book, I haven’t really seen any hype about it, but as soon as I saw the title and cover I immediately went and bought myself a copy. I read Lisa See’s latest book when it came out, The Island of Sea Women, and became totally enthralled in the history of Jeju Island. It’s an island off the south coast of South Korea that has a very turbulent and interesting history.

My knowledge of island culture is still very limited after reading both books, but it seems that inhabitants of the island have very much carved out their own unique culture and customs, connected, but still separate from the rest of South Korea. In a way it reminds me of Newfoundland in that it is part of Canada, but still maintains a very distinct sense of self.

A large part of Jeju is centered around a matriarchal society, with the Haenyeo (female divers) being seen as the primary family providers and earners. The Island of Sea Women was centered entirely on the Haenyeo, so when reading that book, I did see the Haenyeo as central to Jeju culture. However upon reading The Mermaid from Jeju, I learned that Mount Hallasan also plays a large role in Jeju culture. It’s a huge mountain that supports a whole different ecosystem and plays a large role in island religion.

I’m going to leave it there because I don’t have enough knowledge to expand further, but The Mermaid from Jeju also features a Haenyeo as the main character, so I was immediately drawn to it. Between the two books, I definitely preferred Lisa See’s book, but I did like that Sumi Hahn gives a more well rounded perspective of life all over the island. Both books cover a similar time period and highlight the impact on the people of Jeju from the transition between rule by the Japanese and then the Americans. The situation further deteriorates with the introduction of communism and America’s attempts to remove the threat.

The Mermaid from Jeju is about a young Haenyeo, Junja, and how she and her family are impacted by the arrival of the Americans. Junja has her entire life before her. She is a proud Haenyeo, diving with both her mother and grandmother, and meets a boy on the mountain, Suwol, with whom she becomes fast friends. But as violence spreads across the island, her family is torn apart and she must make difficult decisions.

While I did enjoy this book, I really struggled with the plot. I don’t need to have a well defined plot to enjoy a book – often some of the best books have meandering plots, but I felt like in this book I struggled with not having enough information. There’s a lot going on with Suwol and Junja’s grandmother and I found it really difficult to follow what was going on. I had some background from reading Lisa See’s book, but I think some readers may struggle with keeping track of the history of what is actually happening here. The plot jumps around a lot with little context.

Then in the second half of the book the structure makes a big shift. I understand why the author did this and I eventually did get into this new story, but I found the shift very jarring and it really disrupted the flow of the storytelling for me. It’s difficult to be at a high point in a book and then to have to very quickly shift gears to a low stakes storyline, before returning again to the original story. It just really didn’t work for me, nor did the ambiguous storytelling with the reader not being entirely sure who the new narrator is.

What I did find really interesting was the theme of ghosts. It features more heavily in the second half of the novel and I didn’t give it too much thought until I read the author’s note. The author is Korean, but grew up in America. I don’t think her family is from Jeju, but apparently she has been haunted by ghosts herself and it was these experiences that inspired the story. She visited Jeju and conducted several years of research before publishing this book.

So overall I was intrigued with the story, but it was also evident to me that this was a debut novel. I think the author had a lot of ideas, and good ones, but the story was lacking in focus and execution. I just felt the whole thing needed a little more direction, like the author had too many ideas and just didn’t know how to pull them all together, or cut ideas where they didn’t fit. I needed a bit more context than was provided and the first and second parts of the book just read like different novels. The time I spent investing in the characters and plot of the first half just ended up feeling wasted.

That said, I won’t be deterred from reading more from this author in the future, but I’d recommend picking up The Island Sea Women first over this one.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Carol Rifka Brunt
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: June 2012 (read Dec. 2020)

This book has been on my TBR for a long time and I’m so proud of myself for finally picking it up and making the time to read it! I’ve been reading less in the pandemic, so my book buying habit has gone down and I’ve been finding myself looking through my shelves and trying to knock off some of the books that have been sitting on my TBR for a while.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home reminded me a lot of Rebecca Makkai’s, The Great Believers, but for teenagers instead of adults. They’re the only two books I can recall reading that are set during the aids crisis of the 1980’s and amazingly art features heavily in both books! Is there some connection I’m unaware of between the crisis and great works of art? Because I found it intriguing that both stories were so heavily focused on art and paintings. Maybe just a weird coincidence, but intriguing nonetheless.

Anyways, the similarities between the two novels pretty much ends there. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a coming-of-age story about 14 year old June Elbus and the relationships she has with both her Uncle and her sister. Her Uncle Finn is a world renown painter who has given up on sharing his artwork with the world, but he and June (and her mother) are still both enamoured by all works of art and as her Godfather, they develop a close relationship. June spends many of her weekends with Finn, but when he passes away from aids, she is heartbroken.

After his death, Finn leaves behind all his earthly possessions to his boyfriend, Toby, who is shunned by the family and blamed for Finn’s death, save for a single painting he did of June and her sister Greta, which he of course, wills to the girls. The girls have mixed feelings about the painting, which neither is sure quite captures their likeness. As June struggles with her grief, both Greta and Toby try to strike up a friendship with her – but June can’t make sense of sister, who seems to both love and hate her – and she is confused by Toby, who changes the way she remembers Finn and their relationship.

It’s a slow build story, but I absolutely loved the development between June and each of the other characters. I had no idea there would be such a strong sister element to this story and I was completely intrigued with June and Greta. Greta never had the same relationship with Finn as June, but she is struggling with her own feelings. She is on the verge of an adulthood she feels unprepared for and as a result, acts out like a child. She’s always been the star child, but this only leaves her feeling misunderstood and she is hurt by June’s close relationship with Finn. You can tell these two sisters want to be there for each other, but there’s such a chasm to overcome between their hurts.

I expected June’s relationship with Toby to be the focus of the story, but its really just one piece of the puzzle. We’re these two ever meant to be friends? I’m not sure they were, but they find each other in a time that they both need one another and it was nice that they were able to help heal one another.

Also unexpected was June’s relationship with her mom. I wish this one had been developed a little more, but it was still really intriguing the history behind her mom and her uncle and how her mother’s selfish choices had a lasting impact on the people she loved most. It was a good reminder of the constraints of the time period, but also a reminder that our jealousy and selfishness can get the better of us.

Finally, I loved the side story between Greta and June (and to an extent their mom) and the painting. Every time anyone went down to the bank I’d get so stressed out, but really this was about 3 different women all trying to be seen and understood for who they were. It’s about 2 sisters who miss the ease of their childhood friendship and have forgotten how to grow and support one another. It’s about family and grief and loss and moving on. It’s a slow burn, but I will always understand the girls yearning for sisterhood.