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. 

Infinite Country

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Patricia Engel
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read Apr. 2021 on Audible)

I decided to read Infinite Country because I’ve been seeing a lot of good reviews and the narrator in the audiobook sample sounded excellent! I’m so glad I picked it up because I ended up really liking it. I found it mildly confusing to keep track of the characters at the beginning, but this was a really moving story about how it feels to be divorced from your homeland and the struggles mixed-status families face in staying connected to one another.

Infinite Country is split between Colombia and America and tells the story of a family who move to America and overstay their visas. Elena and Mauro never intended to stay in America, but the uncertainty of returning to Colombia and the fact that some of their children are now American-born, they decide to stay. Eventually they become separated – with half the family returning to Colombia and the other half living undocumented in the States. 

Like the book, I’m going to keep my review short. The story had some interesting plot points – especially with the part of the family living in Colombia – but at the end of the day it’s a simple story about the trauma many families experience in trying to immigrate to America. Nothing in this story really surprised me (except for the bad thing Talia does), it’s a story I feel like I’ve heard many times before. Families that seek a better life and are forced to live in poverty and taken advantage of because of their fear of deportation. But I loved this book because it is deeply humanizing. We get to spend time with each family member and experience each of their longings and struggles. I really connected with each of the characters, especially Mauro, and I was moved by their tenacity.

Immigration forces everyone to make tough choices and I really appreciated this in-depth look at its impact on one family. At less than 200 pages, I read this in two sittings and definitely recommend it for everyone! 

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!

Betty

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Tiffany McDaniel
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug 2020 (read Dec. 2020 on Audible)

I’ve been dying to read Betty ever since I laid eyes on the beautiful cover art and read that it was a fictional recount of her mother’s experience growing up in a large family with a white mother and Cherokee father. It’s a long book and I decided to listen to the audiobook.

I was expecting a sad story and I read there were some hard to read scenes in the book, but I wasn’t expecting just how difficult a read this would be – by which I mean difficult content, not the writing. Betty is a coming of age story about the family’s third youngest child, Betty, the author’s mother, but it really focuses on the family as a whole and I loved that the author cast such a wide scope in her story telling.

The book starts with how Betty’s parents met and then tells the story of their 8 children. It seems like a big cast at first with so many siblings, but we spend a lot of time with this family and we grow to know each of the characters deeply.

This was a hard book to read because Betty’s family experiences hardship after hardship. They lose 2 of their children at early ages (I can’t remember now when exactly either passed away, but they’re not featured in the story beyond mention), and the rest of the children suffer varying levels of trauma. Even their parents have faced a great deal of trauma and the book really showcases the cycle of violence and suffering. 

I read a few interviews with the author after finishing the book and while this is her second book, apparently she’s been trying to publish it for years and struggled to find a publishing house that would work with the manuscript she had. She was told that the story contained too much suffering, that it wasn’t believable that one person or family would suffer so much, and worse of all, that people wouldn’t relate to Betty as a young girl. That will give you an idea of the kind of story that you’re in for, but I’m glad the author opted not to change her story because while it was upsetting to read, I had no trouble believing it. 

Indigenous Peoples have been wronged by both Americans and Canadians and our governments for centuries. Betty’s dad, Landon, was Cherokee and tries his best to honour his heritage and impart his ancestral wisdom on to his children. But he has also been mistreated and wronged as a Cherokee man and we catch glimpses of this throughout the story. While most of the children take after their mother (read: white) in appearance, Betty takes most after her father, and as a result, she is the most bullied of the children outside of the home. But in her home, she is also her father’s favourite and puts the most stock and importance into his traditional wisdom.

The hardest scene for me to read in the book was when Betty’s mother describes to her the abuse she experienced at the hands of her parents. It’s a traumatizing story on it’s own, but the way her mother chooses to share it is it’s own kind of horror and deeply emblematic of the way abuse cycles down through generations. This book has everything from violence, rape, incest, animal abuse, death, self harm, and suicide. But it also has some really beautiful scenes as well.

Landon Carpenter was for sure the highlight of the story for me. It’s hard to say whether Betty’s parents were really good parents or not – they certainly had their faults and a very laid back approach to parenting, but Landon’s love for his children was so evident throughout the course of the novel that I was able to forgive some of his other misgivings. He tried to be a good dad – to provide for his children and pass on traditional knowledge. I found a lot of faults with Betty’s mom and siblings, but I think Landon really did try his best. When I read the trigger warnings about this book, I was bracing myself for a horrible father figure, so it was really nice to find a caring and empathic one instead.

This isn’t a book I think I could ever pick up again, but I’m really glad I read it and I think it is a story that will stick with me for a long time. I’m so glad the author was able to finally share it.

Where the Forest Meets the Stars

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Glendy Vanderah
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2019 (read Dec. 2020 on Audible)

This was an impulse buy on Audible because I liked the narrator and the cover art is really pretty. The book started so strong and I was immediately pulled into the story! The premise of the novel is that while doing her field research on buntings in a small town in rural America, Jo stumbles upon a young girl, Ursa, who claims to be an alien. Jo, of course, doesn’t believe her and tries to reunite the girl with her family. But the girl has resolved that she will stay with Jo and together they befriend their neighbour, Gabe, who runs a homestead next door and sells eggs to the locals. 

Jo and Gabe are both struggling with their own issues and the presence of Ursa is a distracting, but healing influence in their lives. However as time passes and no one comes looking for Ursa, they start to wonder how she ended up with them and what her real story might be. 

Like I said, the story starts really strong. It’s impossible not to love Ursa – she’s a vibrant character who’s full of life. She claims she’s decided to stay on earth until she “witnesses 5 miracles” and it’s hard not to be impressed with her zest for life. The author also adds more depth to Jo and Gabe, one of whom is a cancer survivor and the other who is battling depression. I really liked that the author added this complexity to the story and I was convinced I had stumbled upon something that was going to be truly magical.

Unfortunately, the further the story progresses, the more it starts to fall apart. The elements that I was impressed with early in the book start to become problematic, leaving me scratching my head about why the author chose to include them at all. The last third of the book went in a totally different direction than what I was anticipating and I found it to be both jarring how quickly the plot seemed to diverge, and disappointing how the author seemed to abandon the ideas presented at the start of the book.

I’d like to dive a bit more deeply into these issues, so the rest of my review will have spoilers and I suggest you quit here if you’re planning to read this book.
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I loved that Jo was a breast cancer survivor and I was impressed with the creation of a character who had already come to terms with her double mastectomy and the loss of her ability to bear children. She was able to look back on those decisions with no regrets, which I thought was such a great message. Similarly, Gabe was suffering from depression and I was really into the inclusion and intersection of these emotional struggles.

Beyond that, I found the author’s portrayal of depression problematic. Jo had almost no regard for his depression; she clearly didn’t understand it and continually pushed Gabe outside of his boundaries as if that was all he needed to be healed. He told her he had extreme social anxiety and had never kissed anyone before and her first instinct is to make a move on him without even asking his consent first. I thought it was so insulting and that it would have driven Gabe away from her or made him extremely uncomfortable.

But that wasn’t all, she kept badgering Gabe about his family and inserting herself where I felt she didn’t belong. Forcing Gabe to have conversations and interactions he didn’t want to have and then the author passing her off as so amazing for helping Gabe to confront his demons and grow. Personally, I thought she was a bit of an asshole and I would have been so mad at her for constantly meddling if I had been Gabe. Plus, I don’t care how much a person complains about a member of their family, you never get to insult them. They are always allowed to vent, but the way Jo bitched and complained about Gabe’s sister was so rude. 

As for the ending, I don’t fault the author for the direction she took the story, I just was really hoping for something more poignant. I wanted magic from this story. I wanted Ursa to actually be an alien. I thought her presence would be healing for Jo and Gabe and that we would witness something magical for the final miracle as a result of her presence. I was looking for more magical realism from this story and what I got instead was a hard dose of realism.

The story quickly changes track with a shootout on Jo’s property and from there a magical introspective story turns into some kind of crime drama. It was just such a change from the first half of the story that I felt like I had whiplash. The writing lost its magic and became repetitive and whiny.

The other problem I had was with Ursa’s behaviour. Suddenly our quirky little alien turns into an out of control, scheming, dangerous child. Did I believe a child could behave like this? Sure, but it was so worrying! Ursa knew exactly how to manipulate those around her to get whatever she wanted, which I found extremely frightening, not endearing like I suspect was the author’s intention. Did I want Jo and Ursa to be together? Of course, but to me, Ursa’s behaviour indicated that she would be impossible to discipline and I’d be extremely concerned about how manipulative she will be as she grows. I know she went through something extremely traumatic, but I think this girl needs a lot of therapy. It was cute when she was an alien, but as an orphaned girl, she’s a compulsive liar who will threaten those around her and throw tantrums until she gets what she wants. It was concerning. Plus I still don’t think Jo would have ever been granted the right to be her foster mom, nor did I think she deserved it.

So overall, this book had so much potential, but really flopped in the execution. I can’t fault the author for the direction she took the story, it’s her book, but it just wasn’t what I was hoping for and I can’t look past all the problematic elements.