Review: The Lost Apothecary

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Synopsis

A forgotten history. A secret network of women. A legacy of poison and revenge. Welcome to the Lost Apothecary…

Hidden in the depths of eighteenth-century London, a secret apothecary shop caters to an unusual kind of clientele. Women across the city whisper of a mysterious figure named Nella who sells well-disguised poisons to use against the oppressive men in their lives. But the apothecary’s fate is jeopardized when her newest patron, a precocious twelve-year-old, makes a fatal mistake, sparking a string of consequences that echo through the centuries.

Meanwhile, in present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, running from her own demons. When she stumbles upon a clue to the unsolved apothecary murders that haunted London two hundred years ago, her life collides with the apothecary’s in a stunning twist of fate – and not everyone will survive.

With crackling suspense, unforgettable characters and searing insight, The Lost Apothecary is a subversive and intoxicating debut novel of secrets, vengeance and the remarkable ways women can save each other despite the barrier of time.

Review

Read: April 2021

Rating: 3.75 stars out of 5

That I read The Lost Apothecary at all testifies to the advertising prowess of social media. Historical fiction is not a favorite genre of mine, although I sometimes do find exceptions. I spent my Audible credit (yes, this was before I switched to Libro) for the month on this book because I kept seeing it in my Goodreads feeds – in followed accounts’ posts, in ads, et cetera. It popped up on the radio or in one of the newspapers I subscribe to, I’m pretty sure. Eventually I just gave in because I wanted to know what everyone was buzzing about – and whether it was worthy of that buzz.

Nella is a dealer of protection and revenge, both via poisons. Her clientele consists solely of women – either women who have been wronged by men or women seeking assistance on behalf of women who have been wronged by men. Enter Eliza, a twelve-year-old whose mistress dispatches her to procure a poison against her own husband because he is preying on girls, including Eliza. Fortunately or unfortunately, Eliza quickly develops an enthusiastic, unrelenting curiosity in Nella’s work. Two hundred twenty years from then, Caroline Parcewell is grappling with what a piece of shit her husband James actually is. She’s contemplating whether her marriage will survive when she heads to London. In a move that revives the dreams James crushed, she begins investigating Nella’s business and the murders connected to it.

The relatively small cast is nonetheless populated with complex, interesting characters. Nella didn’t just up and decide one day to abet murders across London just for the hell of it: let’s just say she began her line of work as a way to bite back in a world where women’s power is limited. Eliza is persistent, sometimes to a fault, and very bright – the kind of bright that, when tempered with a bit of patience and/or schooling, really takes people places. Although readers only witness Nella and Eliza’s mother-daughter relationship over the course of – a few days? Weeks? It’s been a while since I read this – their friendship is nonetheless precious. The brevity of the time span depicted in the book does not diminish their friendship. While all of the women experience strong, substantial character arcs, Caroline emerges as the star of the show: In her resurfacing from the confines of a claustrophobic marriage to an emotionally manipulative man, she rediscovers herself, all while solving an ultra-cold case murder and dealing with her husband’s shit. Caroline, in a synthesis of both Eliza’s and Nella’s best traits, is a determined detective with an eye for detail who brooks no shit from anyone – including Jackass James.

There are two sticking points I have with this book. First, I am not as impressed with the plot as I hoped I’d be. I expected it to be more… suspenseful. I mean, it is – it just isn’t sufficiently suspenseful. So what would you do to add suspense? you ask. I don’t know. Maybe the suspense level is fine, and I just wasn’t in the right mindset to enjoy the story to its fullest when I was reading. Maybe I anticipated an even darker story than I received. My biggest issue with the plot stems from how so much of it is predicated on bad sex ed. Yes, Nella and Eliza’s story occurs in the late eighteenth century and sex ed was even worse than it currently is in many US states, but that fact does little to mollify me. It’s frustrating to watch a newly menorrheic twelve-year-old believe that her vagina (if she even understands what her vagina is) is haunted by the ghost of the man that she killed using one of Nella’s poisons, even though she is in regular contact with a female apothecary who could actually explain periods to her. The other problem I have is with the magic. If you’re a regular reader of my reviews, you’ve probably noticed that I love me some magic rules and some worldbuilding when it comes to fantasy. In The Lost Apothecary, the magic isn’t even discussed until the latter half of the book, and then only briefly before being used as a Hail Mary at the end of the novel. For the gravity of the situations magic is utilized in, the scant focus on magic makes its use feel more like a cop-out than a viable, feasible solution to the problem.

Although historical fiction isn’t typically to my taste, The Lost Apothecary still was an interesting read, even when it fell short in the suspense department. In spite of the clumsy use of magic, readers will find an appealing plot and truly compelling character arcs render this novel a sturdy debut.

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Review: Libertie

Image from BarnesandNoble.com

Synopsis

The critically acclaimed and Whiting Award–winning author of We Love You, Charlie Freemanreturns with Libertie, an unforgettable story about one young Black girl’s attempt to find a place where she can be fully, and only, herself.

Coming of age in a free Black community in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Libertie Sampson is all too aware that her purposeful mother, a practicing physician, has a vision for their future together: Libertie is to go to medical school and practice alongside her. But Libertie, drawn more to music than science, feels stifled by her mother’s choices and is hungry for something else—is there really only one way to have an autonomous life? And she is constantly reminded that, unlike her light-skinned mother, Libertie will not be able to pass for white. When a young man from Haiti proposes to Libertie and promises she will be his equal on the island, she accepts, only to discover that she is still subordinate to him and all men. As she tries to parse what freedom actually means for a Black woman, Libertie struggles with where she might find it—for herself and for generations to come.

Inspired by the life of one of the first Black female doctors in the United States and rich with historical detail, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s new and immersive novel will resonate with readers eager to understand our present through a deep, moving, and lyrical dive into our past.

Barnes and Noble

Review

Read: June 2021

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Spoiler warning!

Over the last few months, I’ve been on a journey to diversify my shelves, so I sought out some recommendations from lists on the web. Libertie was suggested to me by Taiwo Balogun’s article in Marie Claire about new books from Black authors this year. The themes of colorism, racism, and feminism appealed to me – plus, that cover is beautiful.

It’s not that there are no good things about this book. Greenidge has a truly entrancing writing style. Her prose flows and illustrates in a way that hooks readers and transports them into Libertie’s world. Considering that Libertie is supposed to have a penchant for the arts, this writing style completely fits with Libertie’s character. Greenidge also offers some insightful commentary on colorism, colonialism, gender, and racism through the eyes of a Black woman. The discrimination Libertie endures differs starkly from that faced by her mother Catherine, because Catherine possesses a light skin tone. While her mother’s light skin allowed her to slip into a prestigious academic program and establish herself as a gifted pupil before the racist assholes who ran the school discovered she was Black, Libertie’s dark skin earns her nicknames (sometimes meant endearingly, sometimes not), expressions of disappointment (“It’s too bad she inherited her father’s color”), and admonishments (very often from other Black people). After her marriage, Libertie finds that her Christian, wealthy, Black American in-laws harbor deep prejudices against the Black, pagan, and considerably darker-skinned people of Haiti – beliefs that eventually strain Libertie’s marriage itself. Libertie’s experiences remind readers that even though White people certainly bear responsibility for systemic racism and historically were/are the worst perpetrators of colonialism, racial, cultural, and color-based discrimination against people of color is not limited solely to White people. After treating survivors of the New York City draft and race riot of 1863, Libertie finds that she cannot reconcile Catherine’s post-war service of White patients, and that she is – understandably – outraged with the horrible way White patients treat her because of her skin color; lighter-skinned Catherine, while still treated as unequal by her White patients, is more accepted. Following her marriage, Libertie finds that her Christian, wealthy, Black American in-laws harbor deep prejudices against the Black, pagan, and considerably darker-skinned people of Haiti – beliefs that eventually strain Libertie’s marriage itself. Libertie’s experiences remind readers that even though White people certainly bear responsibility for systemic racism and historically were/are the worst perpetrators of colonialism, racial, cultural, and color-based discrimination against people of color is not limited solely to White people.

For all of those terrible and fascinating insights, I felt like this book dragged on longer than necessary. Although I liked Libertie’s character in the beginning of the novel, she began to truly irritate me about halfway through. I understand how the prejudices she has suffered have shaped her life and have forced her into difficult or ridiculous decisions, but sometimes Libertie is just flat-out foolish. Her choice to marry Emmanuel and buzz off to Haiti rather than confess her academic failure to her mother is immature and extremely frustrating. Perhaps my annoyance stems from ignorance of the experiences of a Black woman in the Reconstruction era – something I will never truly be able to completely understand, no matter how many books I read or documentaries I watch. The solutions seemed so very obvious to me sometimes, but then again, I am a White woman living a hundred fifty years after the events of the book with many more options and privileges than Libertie ever would have had in her time period. It would be much more difficult for a woman to leave her husband in 1870 than it is now, and I don’t have to consider my skin color when seeking out transportation or work – all things Libertie has to worry about.

Still, I think Greenidge would have done better to have narrated through multiple viewpoint characters rather than just focusing the story on Libertie. Catherine briefly is a viewpoint narrator of sorts, but only through her letters. Louisa, Experience, Ella, and Ti Me never have viewpoint chapters. All of these women have different knowledges of the Black experience, and all that they added to the story as Greenidge wrote it could have been amplified and expanded by making at least some of them viewpoint characters. Narration from the viewpoint of Louisa or Experience would have painted a more vivid picture of what it meant to be a queer Black woman during that time period. Ella’s viewpoint would have highlighted the suffering her brother and father inflicted upon her by convincing her that she saw nothing of the sexual assault(s) her father committed. Ti Me, too, would have been better and more poignantly able to explain what it was like to be nurse to kids less than ten years her juniors. And of course, Catherine would have had much to share about her unique position as a Black woman physician. On its own, Libertie’s story tends to meander and lag, to take too long to reach its points.

I don’t know. Maybe my problem is that historical fiction isn’t usually my thing. If historical fiction is your thing, please don’t be discouraged from reading Libertie. This book has a lot to offer, even if it isn’t quite for me.

June 2021 Update

Hello again, and thanks for visiting!

Sooo last month I’d planned to post more often, but my final paper got in the way. The good news: That paper is out of the way now.

And the even better news:

I FINISHED MY DEGREE. I’M GRADUATING!

I’m both excited and anxious to begin my searches for jobs and remote master’s programs, but honestly, after the last year of school, one thing I’ve been very much anticipating is reading whatever the fuck I want. I’ve been doing just that, and you will be hearing about those books here on this blog.

Blog Announcements

As I announced in last month’s update, I am planning to renovate this blog – give it a little facelift. Now that I have more time on my hands, those renovations are getting underway. Again, you will see some changes on the Book Hawk, but bear with me while I straighten everything out.

For books that I thoroughly enjoy and therefore want more people to read, I’ve been trying to keep my reviews light on spoilers. Limiting spoilers, however, can curtail the material that I can discuss; it leaves me feeling constrained. Hence, I’ve settled on a compromise: For select books, I will post two versions of my review – one light on spoilers and one loaded with them. That way, you, my reader, can take your pick of how much you want divulged about a book, and I can cover the topics that I think need to be addressed. Please note that I will be incorporating the spoiler-light review into the spoiler review. (I’m not going to write a whole new review for the same book.)

Upcoming Reviews

Priority Content

  • Rule of Wolves (spoiler-light version): I promised you guys this one last month.
  • Libertie: I just finished the audiobook.
  • The Burning Blue: This nonfiction account of the Challenger disaster of 1986 was my first physical ARC won from a Goodreads giveaway.
  • Truthwitch: In preparation for the release of the next book in one of my favorite series ever, I am rereading Truthwitch, Windwitch, and Bloodwitch.

Tentative Additional Content (or The Stuff I’ll Get To If I Have the Time)

  • Rule of Wolves (spoiler version): I already have this review in the works.
  • A Climate for Death: I really wanted to love this Great Lakes-based thriller/mystery, but I can’t say I’m terribly impressed.
  • Windwitch and Bloodwitch: Whether or not these are reviewed this month will depend on how fast I read.
  • The Lost Apothecary: C’mon. I finished this two months ago.

And now, without further ado, I present to you my review of Rule of Wolves.