The Lost Vintage

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ann Mah
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Jun. 2018 (read Apr. 2021)

The Lost Vintage has been on my TBR for years and I finally read it! It first came on my radar when I read an interview with the author that talked about the historical violence that has been perpetuated against women during war time. There is a plethora of literature out there about WWII (honestly I think there’s too much – I’d really like to see more about non-western countries and other time periods), but a lot of what is published about WWII focuses either on the holocaust or interesting historical stories (ie, a nurse during the blitz, a secret resistance worker, a pilot behind enemy lines, etc). The Lost Vintage focuses on German-occupied France, a topic that I’ve definitely read more than one book about, but I was immediately intrigued to explore the hidden (and not so hidden) violence against women.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely other books out there on this topic. Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale is the first that comes to mind, but even books like Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants series explore how in Germany’s defeat, an overwhelming number of women were raped by Russian soldiers as their spoils of war. But what I have been particularly interested in, and the main reason I wanted to read this book, is how ‘collaborators’ were treated in the liberation. I’m sorry to say, that before a few years ago, it wasn’t something I had given that much thought to. 

A couple of years ago I read Mark Sullivan’s book, Beneath a Scarlet Sky. I strongly disliked the writing in the book, but it was based on a true story and as much as I disliked a lot of the book, there’s one scene at the end of the book that I constantly think of. This book took place in Milan and at the end of the war, the people of Italy basically mobbed the entire country, hanging Mussolini in the street and shaming, abusing, and killing tons of women that were seen as collaborators. Though Europe is filled with people who ‘collaborated’ during the war, the benefit of time is that it has allowed us to examine those whose collaboration was inexcusable (people who sold out their neighbours for personal gain) and those whose collaboration was more a victim of circumstance (accepting food to feed your family in exchange for personal favours to a German official). “Horizontal Collaboration” was strongly condemned after the war, despite the fact that many women were in fact victims of German occupation and power.

What’s so enraging about this is the fact that after the war, European citizens (of several countries) essentially enacted mob and vigilante justice on both real and perceived collaborators. I definitely believe in war tribunals and prosecuting those who are responsible for war crimes – but much of this justice was enacted without trial or evidence. In a mob-like fever, people we’re dragged from their homes and citizen justice was performed in the streets. What’s so enraging about it now, and what Ann Mah touches on briefly in her book, is that many of the people directing this justice were actually male collaborators themselves (point the finger first lest it be pointed at you instead), and that most of the ‘justice’ was perpetrated against women, particularly women who were perceived to have slept with the enemy. It ignores the fact that many women were taken advantage of and raped, and in the case of this book, required absolutely no evidence. 

So this is obviously a topic I’m pretty passionate about, but what about this book? This is basically just an extended background rant about what inspired me to pick up The Lost Vintage. The Lost Vintage does grapple with questions of collaboration, and interestly, heritage. Everyone wants to believe that if they had lived through WWII they would have been on the side of the resistance. That they would have been empathetic to the plight of Jews and fought against tyranny. But war and poverty make us do desperate things and when we discover that our family history might be more than a little embarrassing, what do we do about that? 

So The Lost Vintage raised a lot of interesting topics and questions for me, but I credit it to my own interest rather than what the author actually delivered because unfortunately, this book left a lot to be desired. It had a lot of potential, but there were two core storylines taking place and the one the author devotes most of her time to is the wine storyline.

The Lost Vintage is a about a wine expert, Kate, who is trying to pass the ultimate exam in the world of sommeliers – the Master of Wine certificate. In order to prepare for her final exam, she travels to her mother’s childhood home in Burgundy, a wine estate that has been passed down through her family for generations. While in Burgundy, she discovers a number of relics in the family cellar, including a cache of expensive wines from the war. She begins to search both for information on her family heritage, as well as the missing bottles of a very expensive, lost vintage.

This was the author’s debut novel and while it shows a lot of promise, it had a lot of the trappings of a debut novel. The writing is not engaging and the format and pacing of the book just didn’t work for me. It has a very slow start and I was more than halfway through the book before I finally got into it. The author dedicates a lot of time to Kate and her wine exam. It’s clear the author knows a lot about wine and this might be interesting to those ensconced in the wine world, but for me (and my entire book club), we wanted to know more about Kate’s family history and the diaries of her great-aunt Helene. 

Mah does deliver on the plot points relating to female collaboration, and I did enjoy the thought exercise of reflecting on what it means to discover collaborators in your family tree, but I don’t think Mah did the topic justice. First of all, I thought that Kate’s reaction to discovering a collaborator in her history was an over-reaction. I feel like there must be a lot of people in France with similar histories and given the benefit of time, we now understand that the accusation of ‘collaborator’ from mob justice really didn’t mean a whole lot. I was able to forgive Heather’s reaction because she was Jewish, but overall I thought the entire family over-reacted and didn’t show a whole lot of maturity by just refusing to speak of Helene for 80 years.

Besides that, the book had a lot of flaws. I feel like the author had the core idea for her book and didn’t know what to do beyond that. She tried some things to increase the suspense, but none of it worked with the rest of the narrative. Characters like Walker and Louise were absolutely pointless and I found the trajectory of the love story jarring and thought the characters had no chemistry. There was so much potential that was just wasted. I wanted to see a more equal split between Kate and Helene’s story (the focus is disproportionately on Kate) and I wanted to see a better exploration of what I thought were going to be the key themes. I felt the author knew everything there was to know about wine, but was just lazy in the rest of the writing. 

But I still gave this book 3 stars so what gives? I do think this was a good story – it was just a good story, poorly told. Similar to Mark Sullivan’s, Beneath a Scarlet Sky, I still wanted to read the story, I just wanted to experience it from a more experienced author. 

A 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 Dangerous Collaboration

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Genres: Mystery, Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2019 (read Mar. 2021)
Series: Veronica Speedwell #4

The first book in this series is excellent, but I found books 2 and 3 were not quite as strong as the first book. We get great characterization of our heroes, Veronica and Stoker, but the mysteries were quite slow paced and I felt like I had to trod through the first half of the books before things really picked up.

A Dangerous Collaboration falls into some of the same traps as the last two, but I did find this one so much more compelling! I think it was a really good call to get the characters out of London for a change. Veronica and Stoker are meant to roam and I was getting as frustrated as they were by being London-bound for so long. I loved the inclusion of Stoker’s brother in this book as I think the series does rely heavily on Veronica and Stoker and could use a few more recurring minor characters.

I liked the mystery element in this book – book 2 is probably my least favourite because Veronica and Stoker act more as consulting detectives. They were less connected to the mystery than they were in book 3, but Raybourn really upped the ante on their relationship in this book, which is what made it so compelling for me.

It’s a rough start, with Veronica and Stoker fighting, I really missed their constant banter. But they finally start to reflect more on their feelings and what they mean to one another, plus Stoker starts playing some mind games – I loved everything about it! It was frustrating, but oh so intriguing! The first book was the perfect blend of historical fiction, mystery, and romance, but I felt the romance element has been somewhat missing from books 2 and 3, so it was everything to finally get some drama in this book!

The ending leads right into the next book, so I hope to jump into that one soon!

A Treacherous Curse


Rating:
⭐⭐⭐
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Genres: Historical fiction, Mystery
Pub. Date: Jan. 2018 (read Feb. 2021)
Series: Veronica Speedwell #3

Okay, so I’m really on the fence about this one. I liked the content and series development in this book more than the last book (A Perilous Undertaking seemed a bit like a side mystery to me and didn’t really advance the series plot that much), but I struggled to get into it at the beginning.

A Treacherous Curse has a compelling enough mystery, but it starts off so slow. After Veronica and Stoker start investigating, the first half of the book is basically just them interviewing people with very little action. If you like getting into the details of trying to get the mystery, you might enjoy it, but I just found it slow and kind of boring. But then in the second half the book really picks up and I ended up enjoying it more than the last book. There’s a lot of action and I thought the actual mystery was super clever.

What I did really like about this book though was the character development. We finally get some of Stoker’s backstory!! The first book is all about Veronica and the second book feels like a bit of a dead weight in terms of character development, but we learn all about Stoker’s history in this book, which I found a lot more engaging. It was the main factor that propelled me through the first half of the book cause I was so enthralled with what happened with Caroline.

But damnit Raybourn, I need some more romance in this series please! I mean, it’s totally clever to draw out the tension between your characters, but I’m a little obsessed with Veronica and Stoker and I need to see a bit more action here!

So overall, 4 star character development, 3 star pacing. Was on the fence if I would continue the series, but I’ve been convinced and just ordered the next two!

A Perilous Undertaking


Rating:
⭐⭐⭐
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Pub. Date: Jan. 2017 (read Jan. 2021)
Series: Veronica Speedwell #2

I don’t have too much to say about this sequel, but I want to write a short review.

It’s impossible to deny that A Perilous Undertaking didn’t have quite the same charm as A Curious Beginning. Everything about the first book is just so delicious – the blending of genres and our quirky, progressive, mystery solving heroine are so fun and unique. I laughed a lot and thoroughly enjoyed reading about the hi-jinx Veronica and Stoker got up to.

A Perilous Undertaking definitely kept me laughing. This is basically a mystery novel set in the late 1800’s about a secret aristocratic sex club. Like wow! Raybourn definitely knows humour! So while I was along for the ride, this book didn’t spend as much time on the personal history of our characters, which I lamented. In A Curious Beginning, Veronica is right in the thick of the mystery and it was a shocking one. Her connection to this mystery was a lot looser and this was more of a “Veronica and Stoker as consulting detectives” scenario.

I still liked it, I laughed, I’ve since read the next book, but it didn’t have quite the same magic as the first book. However, if you love mysteries, you’ll probably still really enjoy these. I tend to read more historical fiction and lit. fiction over mysteries, which may be why I wasn’t as enthralled with this one. Either way, still a great series!