REVIEW: The Librarian Spy by Madeline Martin

In brief: Ava is a librarian sent to Lisbon during World War II to gather foreign publications to help the U.S. war effort. She notices a code in a French Resistance newspaper, set by Elaine who is doing all she can for France and her friends.

The good: Interesting to read about Portugal, who was neutral during the war.

The not-so-good: The link between Ava and Elaine is not clear for a decent chunk of the novel – be patient!

Why I chose it: Loved The Last Bookshop in London. Thank you to Harlequin for the copy.

Year: 2022

Pages: 298

Publisher: HQ Fiction (Harlequin)

Setting: Lisbon, Portugal and Lyon, France

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Madeline Martin writes historical fiction bringing to light little-known aspects of war. In The Librarian Spy, she shares the role of U.S. librarians working to gather publications in neutral Portugal to assist the war effort. It’s an interesting story, as Lisbon was a melting pot of many different nationalities, including refugees under the watch of the Portuguese secret police. There is also a concurrent plot of the French Resistance printing an underground newspaper in Lyon not only to share information, but to seek help.

Ava works at the U.S. Library of Congress and is recommended for the role in Lisbon to collect foreign publications due to her language skills. She’s reluctant at first, but goes to help the war effort. Once there, she enters an unexpected world. Not only is there no rationing in Lisbon, but it is a place where many foreigners combine. The British are there, collecting similar documents but so are the Germans. There are also many refugees from all parts of Europe, desperate to get visas to other countries and then a boat out of the country. Over all of them hangs the threat of the secret police. It takes Ava a little while to understand how everything works, but she makes friends with newsagents and James, who works for the British. She also volunteers with refugee organisations, where she makes friends and contacts, but wants to do more. Meanwhile, Elaine has had to change her name after her husband is arrested. She turns to work for the Resistance, working on delivering and later helping write and print an underground newspaper in Lyon. When a mother and son appear at the warehouse one night, Elaine does everything in her power to make sure that they can escape France for a new life in America. This includes writing a code in the newspaper, which Ava detects, and decodes with the help of British enigma James. But can they get Sarah and Noah out of France, then to America before time runs out?

I found The Librarian Spy a refreshing addition to World War II historical fiction. While I knew a bit about the French Resistance, Elaine’s experiences added a lot more detail. As for Ava and Lisbon, I really wasn’t aware of the role Portugal played in housing refugees and being a neutral site for information gathering. The story is rich in historical detail, as well as Portuguese life (think bica and custard tarts). Told in alternate chapters from Ava’s then Elaine’s point of view, I found I was never left wanting as each chapter ended. (Nor did I forget what was going on, which can sometimes happen when the two plot threads are separate, as they are here). Although it takes a while for the link between Ava and Elaine to become clear, the two women’s stories still feel connected. Perhaps this is because of the strong characterisation – each character has unique traits no matter whether they are major or minor characters. There is also never a dull moment or a part that drags. It’s all fascinating, necessary and eye opening. Overall, you can’t go past Madeline Martin’s historical fiction to shine a light on little known parts of history.

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