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March 23, 2024

The Underground Library by Jennifer Ryan ~ a Review

by Donna Huber

When new deputy librarian, Juliet Lansdown, finds that Bethnal Green Library isn't the bustling hub she's expecting, she becomes determined to breathe life back into it. But can she show the men in charge that a woman is up to the task of running it, especially when a confrontation with her past threatens to derail her?

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

book cover of historical fiction novel The Underground Library by Jennifer Ryan
March 2024;  Ballantine Books; 978-0593500385
audio, ebook, print (368 pages); historical fiction

In recent years, there have been several WWII stories about librarians, libraries/bookstores, and books. Many of them have been about protecting books from Nazi book burnings. Jennifer Ryan's newest book The Underground Library is about a library in Bethnal Green that moved into the tube station after its building was damaged during the London Blitz.

It was my first time hearing about this library (though I recently discovered another book about it). I looked it up wondering how much of The Underground Library was accurate. There is a historical note at the end where Ryan shares some of things she changed and modified to fit the story. The book focuses heavily on women. That makes sense given that many men were away at the front. None of the characters appear to be real people. When I looked up a news article about the Bethnal Green Library it looks like two men were actually in charge of the library during the war. 

The story is told from the point of view of three female characters:
  • Juliet Lansdown - she has come to Bethnal Green to be the deputy library (this is the number 2 leadership spot). She has a lot of ideas but the man in charge doesn't want to hear any of them. When the library is bombed he is hoping to take a position in the country, not open a library in the subway tunnel. But Juliet and many of the other women see the need to keep the library open.
  • Katie Upwood - she is working at the library before heading to the university. With so many men away at the front, there are more openings at universities for women. This is her chance to become more than just a housewife. She has a finance in the war. To her family reputation is everything.
  • Sophie Baumann - she is a young Jewish woman living in Berlin with her older sister and father. She is the only one in her family to secure a work visa to England. It's almost too late though and her journey out of Germany is dangerous. Though she comes from privilege, she must now be a maid to survive. Unfortunately, the man who she works for is cruel and makes sure Sophie knows that he holds all the power.

Through these three women and the people they encounter, we learn about life in London during WWII. In Bethnal Green the tube shelter became the heartbeat of the place. In addition to the library, there was canteen, a medical center, concerts were held and more. This is where the people in the city found community during a terrifying time. 

Though all the characters are fictional, they felt like real people. Their stories were definitely real and representative of the attitudes and events of the time. 

If you enjoyed Ryan's The Kitchen Front, then you will want to add The Underground Library to your reading list. The historical information paired with heartfelt stories makes this the perfect book for fans of historical fiction.

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.

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  1. It sounds interesting, but I think I'm just going to order a sample for now (Kindle), so that I can catch up reading the many books I've already ordered through this blog-hop. I don't regret imy purchases. I'm excited to squeeze more reading time into my nights.

    1. My reading list has expanded too thanks to this challenge. Thankfully many are available through my library but have a waitlist so I will get to spread them out a bit.