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. 

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: V.E. Schwab
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. Date: Oct 2020 (read Nov. 2020)

Addie LaRue was my book club’s pick for December. Despite having already read a lot of V.E. Schwab’s work and having liked most of it, I wasn’t super enthused to pick this one up for some reason. It’s probably related to my ongoing fatigue with fantasy, but mostly I just wasn’t that into the premise of a 300 year long love affair with the devil.

I heard a lot of good things about this book though and I ended up eating my words as I was completely sucked into the narrative almost immediately. Addie is born in the late 1600’s and yearns for the opportunity to travel and really experience life. She’s disenfranchised by the expectations of her sex and wants to marry for love rather than duty. So on the eve of her wedding, she strikes a deal with the devil to allow her to escape her obligations and be granted the time to live her life. The catch, she becomes invisible. She can still interact with people, but the second she is out of their sight, they immediately forget her – nor can she tell them her name – giving her a long life, but one where she is unable to develop relationships or leave a mark on the world.

If this sounds like a nightmare to you, it is to Addie as well. The first few years of her life are dedicated to just surviving in 1700’s Paris. It was horrifying to read about, but Addie is still determined to make the most of her life and does her best with the gift of time she has been given.

Like I said. I was sucked into the story pretty quickly. Addie was ahead of her time and her determination and stubbornness are endearing. The devil continually tries to break her, but it only spurs Addie on and she becomes more determined in her quest to leave her mark on the world. She discovers that while she cannot be remembered herself, she can inspire ideas and dedicates the rest of her life to seeking out artists and musicians for whom she can be a muse. Until 2014 when she walks into a bookstore in New York and suddenly everything changes.

While this is a compelling story, it’s also a long one. The story jumps back and forth between the past and modern day. Initially I was more intrigued in Addie’s early days trying to make sense of her curse, while after Henry enters the story, I wanted to spend more time in the modern day. The story is both entertaining and made me think a lot, but I also thought it could have been about 100 pages shorter. The length and scope of storytelling definitely made me feel like I was reading an epic, but I think the author could have shortened a few parts of the book. After a while the past did start to feel a bit repetitive and I wanted to spend more time in the present since at least something new was happening there. 

I also felt there were a few plot holes with how Addie’s curse actually worked, but I can let it go because it doesn’t take away from what the author is trying to evoke. It’s both enthralling and horrifying to think of what it would be like to have all the time in the world but to be forgettable. I really enjoyed the relationship that developed between Addie and Luc over the years and despite the length, I did really enjoy reading this one. Can’t decide where it sits in my repertoire of Schwab books though… certainly better than her monsters duology, but on par with Vicious and Darker Shade of Magic. 

Code Name Verity

Rating: .5
Author: Elizabeth E. Wein
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: Feb. 2012 (read Dec. 2018)

I have mixed feelings about Code Name Verity. I’ve heard so many great things about this book and I really expected to love it, but I was really surprised when I actually started reading it.

This book is SLOW. I don’t mind slow books and I often really like slow burn dramas, but I’m not sure this worked for me and I’m surprised that it worked for so many other people. I’m kind of wondering if there’s something wrong with me or if people are just rating this so high based on emotional response to the ending of the book versus the book as a whole.

Code Name Verity tells the story of two friends during World War 2. Maddie is a pilot and got her license before the war started. At the start of the war she is forced off to the sidelines in favour of male pilots and works as a radio operator, where she meets her best friend. I don’t want to name her friend because she takes several names throughout the course of the novel and I don’t want to give away any spoilers. But the book opens with Maddie’s friend having been caught by the Germans in France as an English spy. She is imprisoned by the Germans and tortured for information. She agrees to pass information to them and starts writing her account of the war and her exposure to the British air forces.

I think it’s best to go into this book blind. All you really need to know is that this is a story about two friends and the lesser known roles that some women played in world war 2. The author initially set out to write a story about female pilots in WW2, because she is a pilot herself, and it developed into this book.

I have to give the author props, the book is clever. We view the story from two points of view, with the second half of the book essentially giving us an entirely new viewpoint on the first half. I really liked the narrator in that she was funny and clever even while being interrogated by the Nazi’s. Her personality really shines through, as does her love for her friend. What I liked most about this book was definitely the friendship and the way Wein played around with perspective. From the start of the book it seems like this is ultimately going to be a story about Maddie. Maddie is the focus of the intel that our narrator provides to the Nazi’s and they are particularly interested in Maddie because she is a pilot. But in the second half of the book it becomes very obvious that the story is not just about Maddie. It is about both friends and how each woman is the hero of the other’s story. They both made considerable contributions to the war effort and neither is more important than the other. It’s ultimately a story about friendship and I did think Wein created a very authentic and beautiful friendship.

So I can definitely understand why people love this book, I’m just surprised it has been as widely and well received as it has been. It is well loved among the YA community and I can’t help but wonder if that might have something to do with it’s success. I’ve never seen this one on the historical fiction circuit. I’ve only ever seen this book on the YA circuit and I really don’t want to be a snob about it, but as someone who’s read a lot of historical fiction, I kind of wonder if maybe this was many reader’s first, or only, foray into the genre. It was a very educational book and I definitely appreciate that it exists, but I just can’t get beyond the fact that for about 70% of this book, I was bored. I was interested in the interrogation and prison aspect because when we talk about WW2, we tend to get the camp perspective and this was definitely different than that. But most of the book was about aviation and after a while, it just got really boring and repetitive.

I am struggling to write this review because objectively, I do believe this is an important novel and it did make me think a lot, but it just never captivated me. And you know what, that’s okay. It’s obviously a beloved book to many people and it offers a perspective of WW2 that I haven’t seen before. The ending is heartbreaking. I knew this was going to be a sad book, so I was well prepared, but the ending definitely caught me off guard. Overall, I enjoyed the second half of the book better than the first. I understand now why the first half of the book was written the way it was, but I still think it was a bit overdone. I did love the ending though. I thought it was just the perfect amount of trauma – it was heartbreaking, but meaningful and not done for the sake of emotionally manipulating your readers.

So overall I think I will give this a 3.5 stars. I doubt I’ll be picking this book again, but overall, it was memorable and I don’t regret having read it. It just read a little bit more like history than historical fiction.

The Alice Network

 

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐ 
Author: Kate Quinn
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: Oct. 2017 on audiobook

 

I listened to The Alice Network on audiobook, so I’ve slowly been making my way through this one for ages. It’s a historical tale set in France in both 1916 and 1947 and tells two stories simultaneously. In 1916, Evelyn Gardner was a British spy who operated in the french town of Lille, posing as a waitress and collecting information the German officers would spill over their meal. In 1947, Charlie St. Clair is searching for her cousin Rose who disappeared during the war. It turns out that Rose and Eve had a shared connection in that they both spied and worked under the same man in 2 different wars and Charlie pairs up with Eve to try and find her cousin.

I really liked Eve’s story. She was a part of the Alice Network, which was a real network of female spies in WWI, lead by Louise de Bettignies, alias Alice Dubois, or as she’s known to Eve, Lily. Louise was a real person and I found Eve’s story of spying on the German officers and how she would pass information fascinating. I don’t know how much of Lily’s character was fabricated, but hopefully not very much because she was an inspiring woman with her eternal optimism, humour, and spirit.

I didn’t love Charlie’s story. She was pretty annoying at the beginning of the novel (although I did feel for her and her predicament) and I found her story much slower moving. It only got interesting during the end and while I understand why Quinn decided to run their stories parallel, I felt that Charlie added very little to the story for most of the novel. I was disappointed at the end of each of Eve’s chapters when I knew I had to read a whole chapter about Charlie and I felt that little happened in her chapters to advance the plot. They went from town to town aimlessly and her story didn’t become engaging until the point when Eve started telling Charlie her story and they starting syncing up as Eve revealed more and more information to Charlie about her experience during WWI.

Definitely an interesting read though. I’ve read a lot of WWII books set in France so sometimes I get a bit fatigued with the “next big WWII book”, but I’ve read substantially less on WWI, which was another reason why I liked Eve’s story. That said, this was a well written book and I did enjoy it!