Kate Quinn’s latest novel is a World War II story with current relevance: it is about Mila Pavlichenko, a young woman from Kyiv, Ukraine, who gives up her quiet life as a mother, librarian, and grad student writing a dissertation on the history of Ukraine to help protect her homeland against brutal invaders. She becomes such a proficient sniper—with 309 official kills to her name and many more unrecorded—that she becomes a national hero known as Lady Death.
Mila is sent on a goodwill tour to the United States, where she develops an unlikely friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt (which really happened) and gets involved unwittingly in a plot to assassinate FDR (a fictional device with enough historical precedent to be plausible).
This is one of my favorite novels by Quinn. Instead of the multiple perspectives / time lines she has employed so often, this novel sticks with Mila throughout, and I thought the laser focus was well suited to a story about a sniper who had a legendary “diamond eye” with a rifle sight.
I also enjoyed the journey Mila takes from a frustrated, somewhat helpless young woman, unable to stand up against her domineering and thoughtless older husband, to a military officer who knows her abilities and is able to win the respect of the men under her command.
The detail about the sniper’s craft and the descriptions of the settings also serve to make this a riveting tale.
For the most part, I’m weary of all the historical novels set during the world wars, but once in a while, the premise of one will intrigue me enough to give it a chance. Paris Never Leaves You is such a novel. The story is told with the popular device of dual timelines—New York publishing during the 1950s and World War II in Paris—but it feels less disjointed than many such novels because one main character anchors both periods.
In the WWII storyline, Charlotte, a French war widow with a very young daughter, runs a bookstore with a friend during the German occupation of Paris. When the friend is arrested, Charlotte must survive on her own. She reluctantly forms a relationship with a German officer—a frequent bookshop customer—who can provide much-needed food for her child, but it is relationship riddled with danger for both of them.
During the later storyline, Charlotte is trying to live a low-key life in New York, doing her work as an editor and raising her teenage daughter Vivi. However, Charlotte faces an unexpected challenge when Vivi, who knows that in the last days of the war, she and her mother were imprisoned in a camp for French Jews, develops a sudden interest in exploring her Jewish heritage despite her mother’s agnosticism.
I’m reluctant to say more because the novel contains some surprise revelations—portrayals of survival strategies I haven’t seen in other novels set in this time period. Suffice it to say that it deals with the short-term and long-term costs of making moral compromises to stay alive.
For me, the book is a solid 4-star read. Not all of the relationships ring completely true to me, but they were plausible enough to keep reading and enjoy other aspects of the story.
I really enjoy well-written Indian novels. The country is so vast with an ancient history and a wide diversity of regions and peoples. A few years ago, I read and loved Alka Joshi’s first novel, The Henna Artist, the story of Lakshmi, a determined woman who fled a bad marriage and found a way to use her knowledge of herbal remedies and the art of henna painting to support herself, a servant boy named Malik, and the sister who showed up unexpectedly on her doorstep. (The premise grabbed my interest right away because when I was in my late twenties, I attended the wedding of a beloved Afghan friend and got to experience having my hand painted with henna before the ceremony.)
This week, I read The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, which is a sequel to the first novel. Set 12 years after The Henna Artist, it focuses on Lakshmi and most especially Malik. The novel grabs the reader’s attention right away; 20-year-old Malik is in Jaipur learning the construction business from the renowned Singh-Sharma Construction Company, which has been building a world-class cinema for the Maharani Latika of Jaipur. At the grand opening, a disaster occurs when the balcony collapses, killing several people.
The novel then backtracks two months to allow readers both to catch their breath and to catch up with what’s happened to Malik, Lakshmi, and her sister Radha in the intervening years. Malik is now in love with a young woman who is every bit as strong, self-sufficient, and determined as Lakshmi. She’s also a recent widow who comes from a tribe of nomadic hill people, and she has two young children. Lakshmi is not at all sure this is the right partner for her protegé.
Then there is the mystery of why the building collapses. Inquisitive, streetwise Malik is the only person who doubts the official explanation, and he may be the only one who can save family friend Manu Agarwal from unjustly taking the blame for shoddy workmanship.
I recommend the book highly, as I do its prequel. It isn’t absolutely necessary to read the two in order, although the second book does contain some spoilers for the first. (P.S. Isn’t the cover absolutely gorgeous?)
Stalin’s Door by John St. Clair is the story of a family nearly destroyed by Stalin’s Great Terror, the purge by which the dictator imprisoned or executed not only his enemies but also anyone who, in his growing paranoia, he thought might become enemies. Zhenya, the daughter of the family, is the single thread running through the tale. Her father was a rising official awarded an apartment in the House on The Embankment in Moscow, a place where the Soviet elite lived in luxury that was unimaginable to most citizens. However, life there came with the terrible price of greater scrutiny by the secret police. Historically, a very high proportion of residents were dragged off, charged with treason, tortured, and killed or imprisoned. The author has created an almost surreally Kafkaesque scenario to explain why so many residents were disappeared—to borrow a term from Argentina’s dirty war. (I did search to see if the method of spying St. Clair describes was real but without success.) The novel follows Zhenya through the arrest of her parents and down the unexpected path she takes to and through the horrific Gulag system.
This project was an ambitious undertaking for a debut novel, and to a large extent, St. Clair pulls it off. The horrors inflicted by Stalin’s regime are vividly portrayed without gratuitous descriptions of brutality. The five main characters caught up in the story are sympathetic and distinctive. The themes of the novel remind me of The Lives of Others, the brilliant 2006 German film about the Stasi. There is also a touch of magical realism used effectively to enhance the story rather than distract from it.
I have two minor quibbles. I was hoping for an author’s note to explain what was real and what was fictional invention. If St. Clair ever issues a second edition, I think he should consider adding one. The second quibble is that the language was a bit stilted for my personal taste. I suspect this was intentional to evoke both the past and the foreignness of Russian culture. I’d have preferred a lighter hand with that technique, but it wasn’t enough of an issue to slow my reading.
Readers’ Favorite Gives The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte the Gold Medal!
You have reached the author website of Ruth Hull Chatlien, author of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, based on the true story of Betsy Bonaparte, and Blood Moon: A Captive’s Tale, based on the tale of Sarah Wakefield, taken captive during an Indian war.
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