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.    

A Murderous Relation

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Genres: Mystery, Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2020 (read Apr. 2021)

I’ve been having so much fun reading a Veronica Speedwell book each month. This was book number 5. I don’t think I liked it quite as much as book 4, but a solid follow-up for sure! Since we’re so far into the series, I’m not going to bother blurbing this one and it will contain SPOILERS, so if you’re thinking of reading this series, check out my review of the first book, A Curious Beginning, instead.
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I really liked A Dangerous Collaboration because we finally got some movement on the Veronica/Stoker front, which continues (slowly of course) into A Murderous Relation. I think it’s a wise choice on Raybourn’s behalf because romantic relationships are so much of what makes a series like this compelling and if you plan to continue on with the series for an extended period of time, you need to keep the drama! 

So I liked that there was progress in this book. As usual, Veronica and Stoker are up to some wild antics when they infiltrate a sex club to steal a diamond. Raybourn always has the most devilishly intriguing and risqué plots, but it’s part of what makes the series so fun. I liked that this book had a lot of action in it. Some of the other books are a bit slow to get started, but I didn’t find that to be the case with this one. The only thing that I didn’t like was that it was more or less a repeat of the plot of the first book. Obviously there are some changes and I really liked Eddy’s character, but overall a little disappointing not to see the author come up with something different. 

Again, I guess that’s one of the challenges with so long of a series. I did kind of feel like book 5 would actually make a good ending point for the series. We get really good closure at the end of this book and I wonder how much further Raybourn will really be able to take this series and still have it be meaningful. I really respect authors when they know the right time to walk away from a series.

So I haven’t decided if I will read the next book or not. There’s only 1 more that’s been released and since it’s only available in hardback (my collection is all paperback), I was thinking I might wait a year and read it once it’s released in paperback, if I still feel like continuing the series. Part of me definitely wants to continue because the characters are so much fun, but I also feel really satisfied with how far I’ve made it in the series, so I guess we’ll have to wait and see!

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!

Jane Eyre

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Charlotte Bronte
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. Date: 1847 (read Mar. 2021)

This was a re-read for me. I first read Jane Eyre about 10 years ago and I didn’t love it – I think I gave it 3 stars – but I remember expecting to really like it because it’s a lot of people’s favourite classic, and then just not being into it at all.

I’ve had a lot of success with classics lately. I finished reading all of Jane Austen’s books over Christmas and was a huge fan, and I read Wuthering Heights a few years ago and absolutely LOVED it! So I thought it might be time to re-visit Jane Eyre and see if I would finally jump on the bandwagon.

I can’t talk about the book without revealing spoilers, so if you still haven’t read this one – SPOILER ALERT AHEAD.

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Reader, I definitely liked this better the second time around. I really enjoyed the first quarter of the book about Jane’s childhood and the definite highlight of the book for me was when Jane makes the decision to leave Mr. Rochester and basically destitute herself on principal (like come on, she could have still left him and taken a bit of money with her, there’s morality and then there’s just insanity). I had forgotten a lot of the plot points of the book, so after re-reading it… I get it. I understand why this is beloved by so many people. Jane really is a true heroine and so far ahead of her time. Despite a very difficult childhood, she grows into a very well adjusted young woman who is both loving and kind. She is quiet and timid, but she is not meek. She has developed a very acute sense of self and ideals of morality. In short, she is very high in character.

Like the many readers that have come before me, I did admire her for her grit. She has finally found what she most desires in the world, love and a home, and she walks away from all of that so as not to diminish herself or live in a way that she feels is not right. She faces more hardships only to again rise from the ashes of her former life to build a new one for herself. It’s really hard to believe this book is from the 1840’s because it really is filled with so many modern ideals and I admire Charlotte Bronte for penning this in her time!

So why I am not as enamoured with this book as everyone else seems to be? It’s definitely a dense book – I listened to it on audio and there are multiple HOUR LONG monologues by some of the characters. I do think it was a good choice to rely heavily on dialogue for these and even though they were long, they did still hold my attention, but like, good riddance on all the philosophical conversations.

Honestly, what I think it comes down to for me is a bit of the ick factor. Like, I know there are women out there in love with Mr. Rochester and I find it so creepy. He’s so large and old and menacing – I just couldn’t move beyond a 40 year old man preying on a 19 year old girl. I know Jane Austen’s books are filled with age gaps too and I love those, so I shouldn’t judge because it was 1847, but the whole power dynamic and Mr. Rochester’s temper were just too much. Then the fact that he tries to wed Jane while already secretly married and the whole F-ed up idea of shutting someone up in the attic for literal years and THEN JUSTIFYING IT. And the reader is actually expected to empathize with Mr. Rochester’s plight when poor Bertha’s been suffering away up there?! So I think it’s a bit ahead of its time in some ways and other ways definitely right in its time period.

Personally I got more of a kick out of the whole ordeal with St. John. I found this escapade a bit more light hearted and loved Jane using sarcasm against his faith near the end of the novel. I did think the book had a good blend of religion and morality. Sometime classics can be a bit heavy on the religion, which to an extent this was, but I liked that even though Jane did believe in God, I felt that she had developed a strong sense of personal morals outside of religion. St. John started to manipulate his religion at the end to get Jane to marry him because he felt it was ordained by God, but Jane very firmly held her own ground and recognized that thinking something might be good for your ministry doesn’t necessarily mean it will be good for you.

So how to rate this? I’m on the fence because Jane really is a first rate heroine, but I felt so uncomfortable reading about the romance. It’s funny to me that I adore Wuthering Heights, which honestly has zero likeable characters, yet I struggle with Jane Eyre, which has a truly lovable protagonist. I’m probably at a 3.5 stars, but I will round up to 4 stars because the second read through did allow me to recognize the value in this book and I understand now why it has survived the test of time. I’d just take Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy over Jane and Mr. Rochester every day of the week folks! So in conclusion, a worthy classic, but not my favourite.

Side note, why do so many people hate Wuthering Heights? I think it’s like the pinnacle of classic literature and I love everything about it, but so many people really dislike it. Give those unlikable characters a chance readers and see what you can learn from them! Also, the audiobook I read was narrated by Thandie Newton, who did a GREAT job! But she pronounces St. John like SinJin and it was really confusing for me at first.

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!

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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.