The Librarian Spy by Madeline Martin

This historical novel is a little off-brand for my adult reading, but I’d been reading a lot of historical YA, especially WW II stories, and I saw this at the store and it sounded good, so in my basket it went. But I liked the story so I decided to share it with you all.

This World War II story is told from the perspective of two youngish women: Ava, an American who works for the Library of Congress and has experience with some of the mid-century tech used in libraries (microfiche etc.), and Elaine, a married Frenchwoman living in German-occupied Lyon.

Ava gets tapped to go to Europe and help with document/news collection and processing in Portugal, a neutral country in the war. Meanwhile, Elaine’s husband goes missing and she gets involved with the French Resistance, first delivering supplies and eventually helping to publish one of the underground newspapers. 

The book description made it sound like these two would be in contact, but it actually takes a while for that to happen. So basically, it’s two completely disparate stories. Elaine is in much more danger than Ava and I found her story more compelling, but Ava was an admirable person and tried to do good in the face of apathy on the part of the Americans in Portugal. As we know, people didn’t really believe what was happening to the Jews and others—they chalked it up to “war rumors” because it seemed so unbelievable. Eventually Ava is able to do more, and she rises to the occasion, which I liked.

But Elaine’s story has way more tension because she’s in constant danger. She has a different identity, lives in various different locations, has different roles in the Resistance, and she has to fight to join the Resistance at all. But she is one of those heroic people who truly risked everything in order to fight the Germans in the only way they could. 

Eventually, there is a connection between Ava and Elaine, and that storyline is riveting and does go on for a while. It’s really the one positive thing that happens in the book, which is absolutely realistic. Even when they end well, war stories are always depressing to read for me (it does make you wonder why I enjoy reading them, but I do…).

There is virtually no romance in this book, so don’t read it if you are looking for that, but it is the story of two brave wartime women trying to do the right things. If you enjoy WW II fiction, you should like this one. 

Let Us Dream by Alyssa Cole

Let Us Dream book coverLet Us Dream is another slim but packed novel like Cole’s Let It Shine—and it’s equally good. This one’s set 50 years earlier, in 1917 Harlem. The heroine is Bertha Hines, a cabaret owner who has a secret that keeps her constantly nervous and a past that keeps her fairly buttoned-up. Amir Chowdhury is a Muslim Indian in the U.S. illegally, trying to make his way.

Bertha isn’t satisfied with the status quo at all and is trying to participate in the suffragette movement, but the white women who run it aren’t welcoming to a black woman cabaret owner (ostensibly because of her career choice, but probably really because of her race). So instead she educates her employees on politics and encourages them to advocate for the vote for women among their male clientele.

Amir is an experienced cook, but his options are limited because of his status, so he ends up washing dishes at Bertha’s establishment. They butt heads early on. However, they find they each have something the other needs—Bertha can teach him about American politics and he can teach her how to dance more authentically (she does an Indian-inspired dance for the club). Working closely together brings their simmering attraction to the forefront. And when Amir and Bertha help one of Bertha’s employees give birth, they bond over the moment and realize there really is something between them.

But it’s not easy. Bertha’s got the police wanting to shut her down and Amir’s illegal—and they’re not even the same race. That last point was an interesting one for me—could they even marry (or were the laws written solely to protect the “purity “—ugh—of whites?)? Because nowadays, they could marry and Amir could come in legally (I mean, it would take some work, but could be done). But I wasn’t sure how it would work back then. Cole doesn’t even go there, but it didn’t stop me from wondering.

There are some fairly heartbreaking moments, like when Amir sees a white man outside the club and instinctively calls him “sir.”

He cringed at how the honorific slipped out. Why should he call some White man lounging in an alley like an urchin “sir”? The only power that the man held over him was the color of his skin, but that was all that was necessary in America, it seemed. Back home, too, now.

Overall, this is a nice book. Not too steamy but full of interesting historical details in another period you don’t see much (especially in romance). If you liked Let It Shine, definitely check this one out, or if you’re just curious about a different time.

Let It Shine by Alyssa Cole

Let It Shine book coverLet It Shine is a slim book, coming in at a little over 100 pages, but it doesn’t feel short. I mean that in the good way—it’s complex and substantive and I really enjoyed it.

Sofronia Wallis—Sofie for short—is a young black college student in Virginia during the heart of the Civil Rights movement in 1961. Cole does a fantastic job of painting a realistic and detailed picture of the movement with just a few spare details. She makes it personal. Sofie’s a good church-going girl who always does what she’s supposed to do. But she’s finding this role stifling: “…when people described her, they used words like nice and quiet and docile as if they spoke of the cows on Harris Withers’ farm instead of a young woman.” But that’s all about to change as she finds herself in the cause.

Ivan Friedman’s family escaped Europe just before WWII, although many of his extended family members did not survive the Holocaust. He’s in an odd position. The U.S. is still anti-Semitic in a lot of ways (though the book doesn’t go much into that), but he’s still white, which puts him in a better position than Sofie. In fact, when they were young, Sofie’s mother worked for his mother and he and Sofie were good friends who played together. That came to an abrupt end when the kids were twelve because Sofie’s mother suddenly died (of an aneurysm) while trying to save Ivan from some bullies.

They haven’t seen each other in the six years since then when they run into each other at a protestor’s organizing meeting (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, SNCC). When they meet, it’s clear that what used to be a childhood friendship has turned into a very adult attraction. But it’s not as if they can just start dating or even hanging out, as at at time such a relationship was not only socially frowned upon, it was actually illegal in the South until 1967 (there’s even an ugly word for it that I want to pretend I never learned).

However, this is a romance so you know they’re going to figure out a way. But it sure isn’t going to be easy, and neither will be the individual paths they choose. All of which makes for a very engaging read.

If you want a good book with a few bites of heat set in a period you rarely see in romance novels, this one’s definitely for you.

A Night to Surrender (Spindle Cove #1) by Tessa Dare

A Night to Surrender book coverI’m pretty sure this is the first regency romance I’ve read (excepting Jane Austen) since I usually stick to contemporaries. This book reminded me of why that is—the men in that time were pretty horrible. Even the “good” ones. Also, corsets. Why do people think those are romantic? You can’t breathe in them. Breathing is important. It keeps you from passing out and stuff.

Anyway, Dare still does a good job with the story, even if it isn’t really for me.

Susanna Finch is pretty awesome. She’s clever and highly accomplished in a range of pursuits and very respected in the village (Spindle Cove) near the estate she lives on with her father. Her father is a well-known inventor, especially for his gun which is used extensively by English troops. And Susanna has grown up trying to please him, for example by learning to shoot, even though she can barely get his attention.

Enter Victor Bramwell. He’s an oversized officer with an injured leg who’s humoring Susanna’s father in an effort to get his command back. The man wants Bram to gather a militia in order to help him get back to the war. The problem? There aren’t too many men in Spindle Cove, as it’s basically a resort town catering to unusual or sickly ladies, thanks to Susanna’s efforts.

Susanna and Bram clash early on in this enemies-to-lovers story. She has no real interest in men, who failed to impress her during her one season in London. She’d much rather reign over the town as the helpful Miss Finch, solving any and all problems. Bram finds her irresistible but keeps telling himself that he’d better stay away from her since angering her father could endanger his career. Still, they keep running into each other and Susanna finds that she too is powerfully drawn to him.

As I’ve mentioned, I really liked Susanna, even if she was a little naïve in a way that didn’t quite fit her character in the beginning of the book. But Bram was another story. He wasn’t the worst kind of man for his times, as he liked the fact that Susanna was smart and capable. But he was still always wanting to possess her in a way that annoyed me. And he took liberties he shouldn’t have, such as when they first met, when he tackles her (for acceptable reasons) and kisses her (for fun). And he was always saying things like, Go over there and sit with the women, where you belong. She calls him a beast when he does stuff like that but basically laughs it off. Still, Bram grew on me a little and bugged me less in the second half of the book. The story itself gets more fun in the second half, too, when the women of the town get involved in helping the militia come to be.

Despite my reservations with Bram, Dare is a talented writer, creating a good story with witty dialogue and interesting secondary characters. And something happens with Susanna’s father that I wasn’t expecting, and I appreciated the surprise. The world-building is great, as I was definitely taken back to 1813. There are several laugh-out-loud moments, too. Perhaps more importantly, this is a steamy book and Susanna and Bram get creative when necessary.

If you’re like me and don’t enjoy being reminded of how horrible things used to be for women, this book probably isn’t for you. However, I can easily recommend it to fans of spicy regencies with believably strong heroines.

Night Song by Beverley Jenkins

Night Song book coverThis is Jenkins’ first novel, the one that the publishing world didn’t know what to do with and amazed everyone. A story about post-Civil War black people? What? Who’d want to read that.

Apparently loads of people.

It was also my first Jenkins novel, even though I’ve been hearing about her for a while. And when I was at RT, she came into the hotel restaurant while I was having breakfast and stood about 10 feet from me, which was kind of cool.

Specifically, the book is set in 1882. But the prologue occurs 18 years earlier, when 9-year-old Cara Lee Henson watches her free grandfather killed by Union soldiers who beat him to death for not pointing them to a master he didn’t have. Apparently that happened some back then. The Civil War was clearly more complicated than Good vs. Evil. I’d say it was more Kinda-Okay-Sometimes vs. Evil.

Jenkins infuses the novel with history. And actually, the bulk of the book takes place during (or on the cusp of, depending on the historian you choose) what’s considered the nadir of post-Civil War race relations in the U.S. So there is a lot of interesting history that most Americans aren’t familiar with to convey. Some reviews I’ve seen complain about the amount of historical information included in the book, but I enjoyed it. Jenkins has really done her research and it’s interesting to learn more about the post-Civil War period all while reading a good story.

Cara is a 27-year-old Oberlin-trained schoolteacher working in a small town in Kansas. Two years before the story starts, she had a run in with an arrogant—but highly attractive—soldier named Chase Jefferson in Topeka. So she’s shocked to see him leading the procession of the arrival of the Tenth Cavalry, a famous all-black Army unit. She hadn’t known he was that high in rank and certainly never expected to see him again, despite the fact that she hadn’t stopped thinking about him.

Chase, for his part, hasn’t been able to stop thinking about Cara, either. Things proceed from there, with a lot of back and forth between them until Cara finally caves. But it’s not all roses after that (it wouldn’t be a romance if it were).

For me, the historical nature bugs me like historicals always do. The guy’s a womanizer until he meets this wonderful and feisty virginal woman, who totally changes his habits and mindset. She suffers from the strict moral expectations everyone around her forces her to meet (or try to meet), while he cavorts however he wants. And when he marries her, he owns her and she’s okay with that. And there’s loads of prostitution that’s more or less acceptable. I know this is historically accurate, but reading about it stresses me out a little. However, if you’re a fan of historicals, you’re used to it.

One other little thing that I should mention is that Jenkins is a head-hopping writer (we get into multiple characters’ heads in the same scene, in this case just Cara and Chase). Nora Roberts does this, too, so obviously this is an acceptable thing to millions of readers. I always find it jarring.

Still, Night Song is an interesting novel focusing on the late 19th century, a period a lot of historical romance readers might not have been exposed to. So it’s probably worth giving it a read. Plus, it’s by a legend of the genre and if you’re a romance reader, you should have read Jenkins.

Dreaming of You (Gamblers #2) by Lisa Kleypas

Dreaming of You book cover

I know it’s probably a little weird to review a book this old (originally published in 1994), but two things: 1. I own weird; 2. I’m just reviewing what I read, basically. And I’m catching up on the genre. I’m sort of embarrassed to admit that I’ve only been reading romance for about two years, having previously been one of those horrible snobs about the genre. And even then I called myself a feminist… sigh. <guilt>

So, I don’t normally read historical fiction because I find it either anachronistic or sexist (and often racist, too), which annoys me. A feminist friend of mine who reads it has told me that usually good authors compromise a bit on both to make it work reasonably well. I just hadn’t encountered this kind, I guess. At one of the sessions I went to at RT this year (one about creating strong heroines), they mentioned Derek Craven as the most appealing hero in all of romance. The entire panel sighed together over him, so I figured I’d check the book out.

And I did like it. The premise is that a successful novelist named Sara Fielding is writing a new book set partially in a gambling club and she goes to London to do research. There she stumbles across a scuffle in the street which turns out to be Derek Craven, the legendary gambling club owner, getting his faced slashed for spurning one of his many women. Sara shoots one of the assailants and she and Derek abscond to his club, where he gets patched up. Derek himself wants to keep her out, but one of his top employees, Mr. Worthy, takes a (reasonably innocent) shine to her and allows her to hang out at the club during the day to mingle with the staff for her research. All the staff—and that includes the club’s prostitutes, of course—adore her and admire her work, even if there is some humorous confusion about her most well-known protagonist, Mathilda.

Derek has no patience for Sara because he feels an unfamiliar pull toward her and he doesn’t see the need for her to be in her club all the time. So he forbids her from going there. But Sara’s a bit of a stubborn mule and finds a way to continue her research. They encounter each other again and finally Derek does effectively ban her from the club, and she goes back to her village and her near-fiancé. But she’s a changed woman and things don’t go swimmingly. Eventually she and Derek run into each other again after a meddling friend of his arranges it, and sparks fly.

There are the requisite Derek-saves-Sara scenes (two of them). But then there are also a couple scenes where Sara does the rescuing—one of Derek and one of herself. Those two are a little sloppy on her part, but I think it makes it more believable, and I bought in. I do find Derek himself a little more problematic, though. I could believe that he was a very troubled guy, based on his very rough beginnings. He was born to—and abandoned by—a prostitute and then raised by others “in the rookery.” I had to look this up—slums, basically. Anyway, Derek. He’s troubled and of course he’s a real guy, so he’s got a long line of women he’s slept with. In his case, he prefers married upper class women. You’d think this would get him in trouble with the husbands, but it’s one of the women who causes him the most difficulties. But when he meets Sara, he starts falling in love for the first time and he resists powerfully. I can buy this, and I can buy his finally yielding to it and being willing to change to a certain degree to be with her. The issue I have is one I have with most formerly-philandering alphas—I have a hard time believing he’s not going to step out on her eventually, even if he continues to love her.

But I guess that’s just my cynicism coming through. If it weren’t for that specific reservation, I’d have none with the book. I did enjoy it and I will likely try another one of Kleypas’s books.