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Oh Look, Another Dual Timeline Historical Fiction Book: The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner Review

Portions of this review do contain spoilers but there will be warnings ahead of those sections if you want to skip them.

Despite how the title might make it sound, I’m a sucker for dual timeline historical fiction books. I enjoy the mystery and intrigue that revolves around the story that plays out in the past because of something another character has found in the present. They’re usually quick reads and I’ll probably continue to pick them up even with the issues that I do tend to have with them.

I find when it comes to these dual timeline books that the main character in the present day timeline is used to give some sort of conclusion to the character(s) from the past. The present day character tends to use this investigation into the past as some sort of distraction from events that are taking place in their own life. I don’t necessarily mind this but at times it can be jarring to be thrown from one perspective to another, especially because it also involves a time jump. When it comes to historical fiction I usually prefer books that take place entirely in the past without needing to time jump in order to learn the fate of the characters.

I wrote a review back in 2019 about the book A Fire Sparkling by Julianne Maclean which is written in a similar way and has more of my thoughts on books like this. Now let’s jump into the review for The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner.

First off, this cover is GORGEOUS which was a big reason as to why I picked it up. Definitely an impulse buy but the synopsis was intriguing too.

A female apothecary secretly dispenses poisons to liberate women from the men who have wronged them—setting three lives across centuries on a dangerous collision course. Rule #1: The poison must never be used to harm another woman.
Rule #2: The names of the murderer and her victim must be recorded in the apothecary’s register.

One cold February evening in 1791, at the back of a dark London alley in a hidden apothecary shop, Nella awaits her newest customer. Once a respected healer, Nella now uses her knowledge for a darker purpose—selling well-disguised poisons to desperate women who would kill to be free of the men in their lives. But when her new patron turns out to be a precocious twelve-year-old named Eliza Fanning, an unexpected friendship sets in motion a string of events that jeopardizes Nella’s world and threatens to expose the many women whose names are written in her register.

In present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, reeling from the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. When she finds an old apothecary vial near the river Thames, she can’t resist investigating, only to realize she’s found a link to the unsolved “apothecary murders” that haunted London over two centuries ago. As she deepens her search, Caroline’s life collides with Nella’s and Eliza’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.

Besides the murder aspect of this I would also like to add trigger warnings for miscarriage, suicide, sexual assault, vomiting, and blood.

The Lost Apothecary, while containing darker themes, was a light read so as expected I flew through it. Another reason to this was the fact that I didn’t really enjoy the present day chapters that followed Caroline so I kept reading in order to get back to the chapters that followed Eliza and Nella in the past. I’m not a fan of plot lines that center around infidelity and while I understood why the author chose this to be part of Caroline’s story I didn’t enjoy it. I felt like Caroline was an awkward character in the way she was written and I don’t think she was as dynamic as Eliza and Nella were. Though I will admit that I didn’t particularly find any of them to be truly dynamic or unique characters. Nella had such a fascinating backstory and yet she was given a hardened personality that seemed to leave her unable to share her inner thoughts with even herself. I also found myself wanting so much more from Eliza because while I loved her determination she would go back and forth between being so obviously “young” to all of a sudden behaving in a way that contradicted this.

Just a heads up there will be spoilers in this next paragraph so if you’d like to continue with my spoiler free thoughts feel free to skip it!

The more I thought about Eliza the more I wondered how the story may have been written if she was aged up slightly, even just to 15 (she is 12 when the book begins). An aspect of this book was that Eliza gets her first period after her employer’s husband is poisoned and subsequently dies. She thinks that she has been possessed by his ghost and this is why she’s bleeding. It takes a majority of the book before she ever gets an explanation and while it broke my heart to see how scared she was I also felt that this was an odd plot line considering she otherwise acted so much older than she was. It didn’t even seem like just a difference of the times, Eliza was just oddly written. It was as if she needed to be a heroic character who could still be naive and romanticize the world since Nella was such a pessimist.

Despite not loving the present day chapters, the past chapters were really intriguing and I think the fact that the author is a historian played into the enjoyment that I felt when reading those portions of the book. At the end there is a section from the author about the historical aspects of the story. She gave context to some of the choices she made and I really enjoyed this! Whenever I read a historical fiction I tend to enjoy it even more when authors include resources or context because it allows people who are passionate about history to have a starting place to look into the real world inspiration for the book.

In terms of the plot, again I was intrigued from the moment I read the synopsis. However this was a shorter book and I thought that the balance of events was off. Both storylines took forever to develop to some sort of climax and then the ending felt rushed. It was as if the author had been planning on writing a book that was longer but had to fit it into a specific page count and instead of editing the beginning portion, she just cut chunks out of the ending in order to get to the conclusion in time. And as I had mentioned at the beginning of this post the ending of Nella and Eliza’s story completely hinged on what Caroline could discover in her own quest. I don’t want to completely talk down on this because I do find enjoyment out of reading books like this but it often just feels like a way to avoid writing a book that entirely takes place in the past.

The next paragraph contains spoilers for Caroline’s storyline so if you want to continue a spoiler free review skip to the next section!

As I’d mentioned earlier when discussing Caroline as a character I thought she was awkwardly written and I didn’t really enjoy her story. It focused heavily on infidelity and wanting children as well as regrets over life choices. I feel bad for talking down about these types of stories because I know that there’s an audience for them but it’s just not for me. And the more I think about the way her storyline ended the more I realize how weird the timing was. Her husband ingests an essential oil and ends up in the ICU during which time Caroline is accused of trying to murder him because her notes about Nella were discovered. The entire situation felt poorly handled by all parties and in the end Caroline’s husband who was just in the ICU is casually just going to hop on an international flight and leave. SIR???? IS THAT ACTUALLY A GOOD IDEA??? By the end of this whole ordeal Caroline also reveals that she is going to grad school in order to begin to live for herself again. I was just really confused by the timing because as someone who is also going back to school (granted not abroad and I’m just going to be finishing my undergrad) everything seemed so definite and in the end it was. It just felt like no matter what decision Caroline made she wasn’t going to fail in order to give her some sort of happy ending.

Alrighty, now that I’m done with that mini rant I will say that I did overall enjoy The Lost Apothecary. If you’re looking for a quick dual timeline historical fiction book I would definitely recommend giving this a go. However, if you’re not a fan of historical books that do have a larger focus on the life drama of characters instead of the actual historical context and events I would probably pass this book. This is Sarah Penner’s debut novel and I have to say that despite the issues that I did have with her work I will most likely pick up any future books she writes because I’d love to see what else she might come up with.

If you’re interested in picking up The Lost Apothecary you can find it at the following links:

Barnes & Noble // Indie Bound (for local indie stores) // Bookshop // Target

And with that, I hope you all have a great day and I’ll talk to you in my next post.

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Books Reviews

Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

As I have spent many months starting and not finishing books I finally picked one up that I read all the way through. Ever since I read A Fire Sparkling last year I have been super intrigued by spy stories. So when I was perusing the book section at Target a while back and I found The Alice Network by Kate Quinn I was so excited to read a story involving female spies once again.

The Alice Network

Synopsis:

In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.
1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.
1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, code name Alice, the “queen of spies”, who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.
Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth…no matter where it leads.

I ended up rating this 2/5 stars and I have to say that I feel quite bamboozled after reading this. I definitely went into the book expecting a great historical fiction but ended up leaving it feeling like I had read a women’s fiction novel that was masquerading as historical fiction. If I wasn’t so picky when it comes to historical fiction there’s a good chance that I would have enjoyed this more but it really did not live up to expectations.

I will say that I am definitely in the minority with my rating though. Overall it seems like people really enjoy this book and I can understand why. It’s emotional and does flow and keep the reader engaged and for people who don’t want heavy deeply rooted historical novels I would recommend.

Overall the plot is what kept me intrigued enough to keep reading. There was enough there that I wanted to learn about that I continued on even after I found myself disliking the characters. I wanted to see what the outcome was to Charlie’s cousin Rose and I wanted to see how the two stories from the two wars tied together. The story itself was quite repetitive and I felt like there were many chapters that didn’t add anything to the overall plot. I feel like it could have been tied up nicely with 100-200 fewer pages.

The thing that really kept me from enjoying this book more was the characters themselves. I really think you could have taken these two women from this story and put them into any other story with a similar plot and you could have gotten the same outcome. Of the two, I think that Eve was the stronger character. Unfortunately that’s really not saying much. It was unique to read about how she used her stutter to her advantage while working as a spy but I felt like this was a trait that was just handed to her to make her seem unique solely because of the way that Charlie was written. Had this story only been told from Eve’s point of view I might think differently.

When it came to Charlie as a character I couldn’t stand her. She was annoying and used her thinking as a “math major” as her only way to voicing her inner thoughts. Now the math major this was interesting but it could have been mentioned and never brought about again but it was constantly brought up. And all her inner thoughts were framed as equations. It was incredibly annoying and I felt like it did nothing for the plot nor Charlie as a character other than give her a way to stand apart from Eve. This is why I felt like the stutter was just given to Eve because other than those I really felt like the way the characters were written was indistinguishable. I knew who was talking in each section because of the plot but they themselves did not stand out to me. I felt like most of the other characters also were just thrown in to fit specific roles and were pretty flat.

I really don’t care to speak on how Charlie went about speaking about and handling her “Little Problem” as she dubbed her pregnancy but from the very beginning it outraged me how every other sentence she was calling herself a “whore” or “slut” because of the predicament that she had ended up in. No, the times were not kind to young, unmarried pregnant girls but there was no justification for the harshness and repetitiveness of this.

Overall the story tied up nicely and while I wasn’t a fan of the romance, it wasn’t necessarily forced but it played into a “pretty” ending so I understand why the author included it. This is another reason why I felt like it was a women’s fiction novel masquerading as historical fiction. The romance came out of left field (in my opinion) and I couldn’t help but sigh every time it progressed. It never felt quite right but in order to get some sort of happy ending I guess there had to be some romance, right?

I was really hoping for an intense and beautifully intertwined story about lost family and spies and in turn I got a boring romance with some spy subplot thrown in to line the edges. If you’re a fan of historical fiction, probably wouldn’t recommend this.

Now I am definitely interested to pick up The Huntress by the same author to see if I end up seeing the same things happen in that book because I know a few people that I have similar reading tastes to really enjoyed that one so I’m intrigued!

If you’ve read this book what did you think of it? And if you know of any books about female spies during World War II please send those recommendations my way!

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Books Reviews Uncategorized

Review: A Fire Sparkling by Julianne MacLean

I am a sucker for a good World War II historical novel. I love learning about any part of history but I’ve always found my biggest interests in WWII. So when I saw a new WWII based novel on NetGalley, I requested an ARC right away and they graciously provided me with one. Unfortunately I wasn’t in a huge historical fiction mood when I got it so I only just now got around to reading it (shame on me 😦 ).

But once I did sit down to read A Fire Sparkling by Julianne MacLean I ended up completing it in two sittings (probably would’ve been one if I hadn’t had to train someone at work). I think my favorite thing about historical fiction books are when they do capture your attention to the point of not wanting to put the book down. Many historical fiction books are dense and poetic and not that easy to get into at first but gradually pick up speed and intensity as it goes on.

Most of this review is going to contain spoilers because I don’t feel like I can adequately discuss my thoughts without spoiling the book… So I’ll do a quick nonspoiler review now before I dive further into my thoughts on this book.

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Here’s a quick summary:

A Fire Sparkling follow dual timelines during “present day” 2011 and Europe in World War II. Gillian returns home after heartbreak to spend time with her father and grandmother and discovers that her grandmother has been hiding a huge secret from her family for most of her life.

That’s a really bad summary but that’s essentially all the story is.

This book was a very easy read, it was not full of complicated prose or very poetic at all. So if you are new to the historical fiction genre, I would recommend this. If you are a fan of the trope where an old person reveals a huge life secret in their old age, I would recommend this. If you want a very (in my opinion) light historical fiction novel that is full of twists and turns, I recommend this.

If you have extensive knowledge of World War II and are well versed in historical fiction and want a really deep and realistic story… Don’t pick this up. This story just seemed so unrealistic and the twists and turns that the plot took made me dizzy. The characters all felt pretty flat to me as well and I wasn’t a fan of Gillian whatsoever and I rated the book 3/5 stars.

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You are about to enter a spoiler zone, leave now if you don’t want to get spoiled!!!

Y’all… I have no idea what to think of this book. It felt like the author had like a checklist of historical fiction World War novels and just checked off every item as she added them to the plot. Spies, lost loves, resistance infiltrating enemy forces, an old person revealing their entire lives in their old age… It was exhausting. There were so many twists that this book took that it straight up gave me whiplash!!

Now, I saw it coming that the Nazi was Gillian’s true grandfather. The author literally said that the earl that was the supposed grandfather had dark hair and eyes while Edward had blond hair and blue eyes (and look I know it was possible, but was highly unlikely, I do understand basic biology) and I just figured that Vivian had had another miscarriage and April gave up the baby due to one situation or another. I definitely didn’t see the twist coming that Vivian was April but in the end, okay, super dramatic but it works.

In terms of the actual historical story in this. It was decent, that was the part of the book that I actually liked. It gave me whiplash but it kept me interested and in the end, that’s what mattered. For the most part, it just felt very generic and typical of a World War II historical fiction novel. Pretty much all of the characters were flat and I wasn’t particularly attached to any of them. I would have loved more development with Jack especially considering he was the “great love” the grandmother’s life.

The “present day” timeline was annoying. I hated Gillian as a character. She clearly was supposed to have some big healing story arc by accepting her mother’s death from a decade before but I felt like she was an entirely pointless character and her story was atrocious? Like, okay, let’s have a character heal from a past trauma… But was it really necessary to this book? NOPE! Her story could have easily just been “oh, I’ve been through a breakup (or even been single this whole time) and just decided to come home and visit” and then BAM there’s grandma’s story. Her story with the cheating just added to the plot soup. Literally so many storylines and none of them were 100% developed. This could have been 3-4 books with the amount of stuff that was going on. Like I said earlier, I wasn’t attached to any of the characters and I felt absolutely no sympathy or empathy for Gillian which to me, clearly shows that these characters weren’t well written.

One little gripe before I get to my last point… OMG the amount of times the author described an emotion being felt in the belly. I should’ve kept a tally. It was like once a chapter. Drove me crazy. Use other descriptors, please and thank you.

There was one thing that really made me mad, like steaming mad, and that was the ending. I’m sorry but making the Nazi a part of the resistance? No. Just honestly why? That’s a total copout to make the guy look “good”. Sorry, no, I don’t care that he was part of the resistance. You don’t get that high up in the ranks without doing atrocious things. It’s unforgiving. The author really tried to redeem this guy and I absolutely hated that. I could probably rant for a good hour about how frustrated this made me feel but I’m just going to say that this was a poor choice and I would have preferred for it to have ended differently.

I went with 3 stars for my rating because while it was plot soup and had a bad ending and not so great writing, I did enjoy it overall. And maybe I could hyper analyze and change my rating but there’s not really a point. I think this would be a fine book for people who want to read historical fiction but can’t handle the super dense and heavy books that usually flood this genre.

Now, if you’ve stuck around this far, thanks for reading and I hope you all have a great weekend!

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Books

Review: Lilac Girls

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is the harrowing tale of three women during World War II and their interweaving stories that take place over the course of more than a decade. It is based off of real people, real stories, though the dialogue has been fabricated by the author. The women in this story are Caroline, a New York socialite, Kasia, a Polish teenager, and Herta, a young German doctor. Caroline Ferriday and Herta Oberheuser were real people while Kasia (and her sister Zuzanna) were created by and based off of women who had been imprisoned in Ravensbruck, like Kasia and Zuzanna.

I devoured this book in about two days when I finally sat down to actually read it. I bought it last year and on multiple occasions I was tempted to just declutter it and now that I’ve read it I am so glad that I didn’t.

The period of time that this book is based off of, World War II, is one of my favorite parts of history to learn about. And although I am so passionate about learning about it, reading of the atrocities that occurred to so many people just never gets easier. This story was no exception. It was heart wrenching and painful and beautiful all at once, I found myself experiencing every emotion as I turned the pages, I truly couldn’t read this fast enough.

From here onwards contains spoilers… But, before you go (if you don’t want to see the spoilers) if you haven’t gotten a copy of this book, I urge you to pick one up and read it. It’s a stunning story that I won’t soon forget and I will be recommending it to absolutely everyone from here on out. If you’re interested in picking up a copy of your own, here are some links:

Amazon Affiliate Link // Barnes & Noble // Book Depository

Caroline, from the beginning, was a striking heroine. She is headstrong and passionate and oh boy do I wish I could have met her in real life. As a side note, the second book that Kelly wrote is a prequel about Caroline’s mother called Lose Roses and I am so excited to get my hands on this book soon! And though I found her storyline with Paul to be somewhat interesting, I couldn’t help but just want to go back to hearing more about the work she was doing. I really loved how the romance aspects of this book didn’t overpower the other messages. It was incredibly realistically written.

Herta was a complicated character. I wanted to hate her, I really did but I couldn’t help but find bits of sympathy hidden in my disgust for her actions. She was so disillusioned to the horrible work she was doing, so passionate to be doing the work of the Reich and Hitler. It gives me chills just thinking about how people could believe that these murders and experiments were just. The small parts of her inner turmoil that were shown, with the cutting, helped to humanize her and I felt empathy in those moments, she felt like she was doing her job and yet felt not right. Her suicide attempt was one part of the book that I had to skip but I saw it coming from a mile away. She knew she was in the wrong and I think deep down she realized that she could’ve backed out when she first had to administer the lethal injections. She chose to keep working even after feeling initial disgust and for that I feel no sympathy.

And finally, Kasia. She was such a painful character to read. So young and naive to be caught up in such turmoil and disaster. Her mindset so stuck in her ways that it was obvious that despite her older self saying that she wasn’t damaged, she was truly hurt psychologically by Ravensbruck. Her inability to let things go and to want to change and fix things, it just broke my heart. Seeing her fall apart slowly despite so many things going right was incredibly difficult to read and I just wanted to reach into the book and grab her, shake her, and take her to a therapist. I think that seeing what she was going through after being liberated was something that needed to be seen. Recovery from any sort of traumatic event is difficult and the fact that Kasia was trying to just return to a normal life is absolutely evidence that sometimes you really can’t do that. Everyone suffers and recovers in their own way but everyone needs help and everyone should try and accept help.

The ending was pretty open and I didn’t mind that. Not every story needs to be wrapped up with a pretty bow and this was definitely one of those stories. Though I would have appreciated knowing what the hell Paul wrote in his letters, Caroline. But that’s beside the point.

I truly could not recommend this book enough. And I’m totally on that post reading a great book high and just want to shout from the rooftops about this book but I was truly wowed by this book.

So please, please, please, buy this book and read it and learn these stories. There are few things I push more than learning about our past, learning about the bad that happened in this world because how else are we supposed to prevent ourselves from doing something this bad again.

PS… This post contains affiliate links!