The Lost Apothecary

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Sarah Penner
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read May 2021)

Sadly, this was one of my most disappointing reads so far this year. Not that it was a particularly bad book or anything, I just thought the plot held so much promise and it was one of most anticipated books. So when it didn’t live up to my expectations, it was definitely disappointing. 

The Lost Apothecary is set in the late 1700’s and tells the story of an apothecary, Nella, who dispenses both remedies and poisons to her solely female clientele. The goal of her apothecary has always been to help women, but after the death of her mother, Nella decides to branch out to offer women a different kind of help, that of murder. Her one rule is that her poisons are never to be used against women, only against men. 

At the same time, we have a modern day story of Caroline Parcewell, a young housewife who has just discovered an upsetting secret about her husband and decides to travel to London on their 10 year anniversary, alone. While there, she discovers about the existence of the old apothecary and sets out to learn more about it.

The plot sounds intriguing right? So why didn’t I like it? Honestly… I didn’t see the point. I thought I was going to get a nuanced story about women in tight places who seek help to improve their difficult situations. I wanted a morally ambiguous story about women and sisterhood, but instead I got a lightweight drama about a blackmail scenario that I struggled to believe wouldn’t have already happened to Nella at some point during her career as a dispenser of poisons.

There is one interesting story in the beginning when we are introduced to Eliza, but after that, I felt the author didn’t do anything new or interesting with the plot. I struggled to relate with any of the characters because I don’t think any of them were given the depth they deserved. We’re given a surface level story about Nella that I think is intended to be shocking and sad, but Penner never manages to quite connect you with her characters in a meaningful way. It’s a debut novel and she falls into the classic trap of “show don’t tell”.

I feel like I make this complaint about a lot of books, yet authors keep making the same mistake. Penner had a great idea for the book, but the execution and character development just weren’t enough to really give this story wings. It’s a great idea, but I don’t really know what Penner was trying to say, what was the point? I felt like I was getting so many conflicting messages. One of Nella’s key motivations is that she wants to keep her register alive to give voices to women instead of silencing them, but if that puts the women at risk of DEATH, then that is the strongest way of ensuring you do actually silence them. Then Caroline further silences women by keeping what she discovers about Eliza at the end a secret as well. The messages were contradictory and it really made me question what point the author was trying to make.

So let’s talk about Caroline. Why do so many historical fiction books insist on having the modern day timeline. No one cares about it! People are almost always more interested in the historical timeline as learning about the past is generally what inspires someone to pick up historical fiction in the first place, so why do so many books have modern day timelines. I was initially intrigued with how the apothecary was going to link to Caroline, but it ended up just being a fluke and I thought the scenario of events that occurred in her timeline were so outlandish and unlikely that it was hard to take her story seriously at all. 

Anyways, at the end of the day, it wasn’t a totally bad book, but it also wasn’t a great book. I’m somewhere between 2.5 and 3 stars. I read it with my book club and we were all disappointed, so despite the intriguing-sounding plot, I wouldn’t recommend this one.    

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. 

His & Hers

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Alice Feeney
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. Date: Jul. 2020 (read Jan. 2021)

Alice Feeney’s debut, Sometimes I Lie, was a big hit with my book club when it came out. So I was excited to read His & Hers as our book club pick for February. I don’t think it’s as strong as Sometimes I Lie, but it is a quick, edge-of-your-seat thriller that I devoured in just a few hours.

I don’t want to get too much into the synopsis because it’s always better to go into these kind of books blind, but as the name suggests, the narrative bounces between two central characters, divorced couple Jack and Anna. Jack is a detective and Anna a news reporter. When a woman is murdered in the small English village of Blackdown, both Jack and Anna find themselves covering the story, but they are both also secretly connected to the victim.

Like I said, this is a quick paced thriller that takes you on a winding path. If you’re looking for a quick read that you don’t have to think about too much, this is it. The writing is good in that we really have no idea where the story is going. The author constantly toys with your train of thought, giving you some answer throughout, but always more questions. Overall it was a fun read, but there were a few things I didn’t like about it.

Before I get into the spoiler part of my review, I’ll just say that I thought the story had quite a few plotholes and while the author does always keep you guessing, I didn’t love the writing style. I found the writing a bit disjointed and confusing at times. I think that it was intentional not to give too much away, but I often felt like I just had no information. It’s hard to describe, but I felt like the fun of guessing who did it was removed from the story because the order of information was intentionally confusing I didn’t even bother.

I also found the content disturbing – I know murder mysteries are bound to be a bit disturbing, so it’s not a critique, just a note that it made me uncomfortable and that some people might like a trigger warning for rape. I also hate the use of children as a plot device in murder mysteries. Lots of mysteries center around children and trauma and that is fine, in a way this book does, but the author also leaves several children orphaned and generally I just thought it unnecessary. I felt more like they were used to make the reader feel bad rather than for any important plot reason.

Finally, this is a criticism of the title of the book more than anything. But “His & Hers” implies to me an exploration of two different sides of the same story. Yes this story had two protagonists, but to me it was really no different than any other dually narrated story. I didn’t think the book really explored his and her perspectives of an event. It really was just a simple shared narrative. A minor criticism as it doesn’t affect the enjoyment of the story, but hey, I’m a reader, I care about word choice.

Anyways, those are my critiques. Overall it was a standard 3 star mystery thriller. I liked it, but didn’t love it.

Okay now for the spoiler part of my review. I found quite a few plot holes and I want to document it while it’s still fresh in my mind because it’s bound to come up at my book club discussion!

.

.

.

Plot holes:
– Why did Anna go into Zoe’s house on the day of her murder? The end confirmed she didn’t do it, so what was she doing?
– Why did the killer tip Anna off after they murdered Helen Wang? I assumed originally it was to throw suspicion on her, but wouldn’t the killer want to avoid any suspicion on Anna?
– Why was Priya always talking to Anna’s mom? The author alludes that we should be concerned about this – I figured originally it was because of her mom’s dementia and the body in the backyard. But in light of the final revelation, I’m not sure why we should be concerned about this. Do we think Priya suspects the real killer?
– Not a plot hole, but overall I just thought both Priya and Richard were weak red herrings. Catherine was the obvious suspect, so I did like the little plot twist with Cat Jones.
– Why was Jack absolved of all suspicion? They make reference to the discovery of Catherine’s diaries, but they wouldn’t have found any murder plans within them… I know Priya witnessed Cat attack Anna’s mom as well, but again, not proof she was the murderer. Her children had been kidnapped, surely hysteria would be expected, or did the police not figure this out. They would have had to know now that both the kids parents were dead.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Cho Nam-Joo
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Oct. 2016 (read Sep. 2020)

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a small book that packs a punch. I think this has only recently been translated to English (although I’m not totally sure), but I’m so glad it was because it’s such an interesting read about the lives of Korean women and how relatable sexism is all over the world.

As the name suggests, this book is a short recount of Kim Jiyoung’s life, from her childhood, school years, early career, and eventually motherhood. At every stage of her life Jiyoung recognizes how she is treated differently. How her brother was prioritized above her as a child, how she was misunderstood in middle school, how hard she had to struggle to find a job and how little her employer valued her compared to her male colleagues when she finally did start working. Then it covers the challenges of becoming a mother and the different expectations that are placed on women and how their desires and dreams are always de-prioritized.

There’s nothing shocking in this book. I was in no way surprised by the way society de-valued women or the hardships Jiyoung was up against. But I think seeing these inequalities and microaggressions spread out over the course of one person’s life really does push home the unfairness of it all. When you take into account each incident on it’s own, it’s easy to dismiss, but seeing the collective impact is really frustrating and exhausting.

It’s also easy to ignore the inequalities of those in other countries. “oh but we live in a developed country, it’s much better here”, but the fact was that even though this book takes place in Korea, everything was just so damn relatable! The mentality of boys will be boys as a child just perpetuates society’s reluctance to ever hold men accountable for their actions. Prioritizing your son’s needs feeds into a culture of valuing and rewarding men’s contributions more than women’s. And preparing only your daughters for parenthood and marriage creates a generation of men that have no domestic skills and leave women to assume all the roles of unpaid labour.

It’s a simple book and a quick read, but a meaningful one. I love what the author did with the ending and thought it was so genius. It’s easy to identify the ways in which society has failed, but how can we possibly change it when there’s so little understanding or desire from men to see any change. It’s a system that has always benefited men, so even though they might empathize with women like Jiyoung, ultimately it makes no difference to them. The system benefits them and therefore there’s no incentive to change it. I think this is one of the greatest challenges feminism faces and no matter where women are from, we can all relate.

American Dirt

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jeanine Cummins
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Jan. 2020 (read Apr. 2020)

So I know this book has had its fair share of good and bad reviews. We threw this one on our book club list right after it came out because the synopsis sounded so compelling and it wasn’t until later that I heard about some of the criticisms surrounding the book. Between then and now I forgot completely everything I’d read about the book and ended up going into it completely blind. For some reason I thought this was a book about adjusting to life in America after immigration – that is clearly not the case.

American Dirt tells the story of mother and son, Lydia and Luca, as they are forced to flee across their home country of Mexico to escape the violence of the big drug cartel in Acapulco, Los Jardinos. They end up joining the many migrants who make the epic journey across Central America in the hopes of finding sanctuary on the other side of the American border.

I can see why the book is popular – it’s been compared to a modern day Grapes of Wrath and deals with a topic close to the heart of all Americans – not just those in the United States who’ve taken ownership over the term. The catch is that the book is written by a white American woman with no first hand experience of what it means to be a migrant.

Honestly, I think that even 5 years ago few people would have raised a flag about the author. Unfortunately most mass consumed literature is written by white people, but I think there has been a real shift in recent years to highlight other authors and other stories – that representation matters and that’s there’s so much value to be gained from Own Voices writers. Obviously there’s a whole genre of historical fiction where this is largely impossible and I don’t think that we shouldn’t write about that which interests and inspires us. But it’s definitely a sensitive topic and I understand why the book has been criticized for this fact.

I’d like to try and explore both sides of this issue in my review. I cannot deny that I loved this book. I am the exact intended audience. A white woman that cares about social justice but is woefully ill-informed about the migration crises south of the American border. Whether the author correctly captured the migrant experience or not, I found this book incredibly eye-opening and though it describes something I knew was happening, it really drove home the plight of migrants. I think it will likely draw attention to this injustice and hopefully inspire people to become better informed and take action on it.

That said, as a reader, I still have a responsibility to acknowledge where this account may have its shortcomings. For this I look largely to the internet, from people who have had first hand experience of migrating to America. American Dirt has a very dark plot and I found the characters had almost no positive experiences. I’m sure this is largely the case for a lot of migrants, but I also wonder if in an effort to shock and engage – Cummins took every traumatic experience she’d ever heard of and combined it all in to one book. I did worry that she was stealing from the migrant experience to create an edge of your seat social justice thriller. While this trauma is likely all based in reality, its not meant for entertainment. I thought Cummins did maintain a good hold on this balance for most of the novel, but veered a bit to the extreme towards the end. Lydia’s interaction with Javier at the end of the book and what happened to Beto really pushed it over the edge for me into the use of someone else’s trauma for the sake of a dramatic climax.

The other area where I questioned Cummins authenticity on the subject was in her portrayal of America. I read in other reviews that her rudimentary use of Spanish in the novel is belittling and that she was ignorant to large parts of Mexican culture. I’ve seen it criticized that Lydia seemed way too shocked about the things that happened in her own country, things that any other Mexican would not find shocking but be well aware of. What I did note was the consistent portrayal of America as the ultimate salvation. It took on a bit of a mythos among the characters, though I think we all know America is still hugely flawed. Cummins did capture this somewhat better towards the end with the introduction of Marisol and other deportees. but I think there needs to be some sense of reality that even people fleeing to America recognize its shortcomings.

So the book is not without flaws. To further educate myself, I did some research on other existing literature about the experiences presented in this book that are actually based on first hand knowledge. I decided to add the following books to my TBR to hopefully get a broader and more accurate perspective of the issue: The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande, Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, and the Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez, which was actually already on my TBR.

Moving on to what I liked about the book. I can’t deny I liked the writing. I connected with these characters. Not because I pitied them, but because they had such rich and emotive back stories. I liked the depth that Cummins brought to Lydia’s character and her relationship with Javier, Rebeca’s depiction of her mystical village in the cloud forest, Soledad’s quiet and reverent love for her sister and father, and the relationship that developed between Lydia and Luca, born of the grief they shared. I liked the exploration of how the immediate need to survive can overpower trauma and the fear that arises out of having no one you can trust – when anyone could be a potential informant. How violence can make you doubt even the authenticity of a 10 year old boy and how even in periods of extreme stress, people are still willing to sacrifice anything to help someone else in need.

Once I started this book, I struggled to put it down. I was on edge the entire time I was reading it and even though this will never make the reader understand how it feels to be in the characters situation first hand, I really felt the sense of urgency, the fear, and the unknown plaguing these characters throughout the course of the book. I don’t regret reading it, in fact I am definitely glad that I did. I lament that Latinx writers are not getting the same exposure as Cummins did, but I am glad to have been exposed to this story. I will try and do my best to pick up some other books on the subject with authors more closely connected to their subject matter. Looking forward to discussing this one at book club!