The Library Thief by Kuchenga Shenjé

Posted 11 May, 2024 by Heather in Audiobook, Blog, Blog Tour, Book Excerpt, Book Review, Heather, Heather Book Review / 0 Comments

I received this book for free from the Publisher, Spotify Premium in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

The Library Thief by Kuchenga Shenje
Published by Hanover Square Press on April 9, 2024
Genres: Fiction / Historical / General
Pages: 400
Format: Audiobook, eBook
Source: Publisher, Spotify Premium
Buy on Amazon
4 Stars

The library is under lock and key. But its secrets can't be contained.

A strikingly original and absorbing mystery about a white-passing bookbinder in Victorian England and the secrets lurking on the estate where she works, for fans of Fingersmith and The Confessions of Frannie Langton

1896. After he brought her home from Jamaica as a baby, Florence's father had her hair hot-combed to make her look like the other girls. But as a young woman, Florence is not so easy to tame—and when she brings scandal to his door, the bookbinder throws her onto the streets of Manchester.Intercepting her father's latest commission, Florence talks her way into the remote, forbidding Rose Hall to restore its collection of rare books. Lord Francis Belfield's library is old and full of secrets—but none so intriguing as the whispers about his late wife.Then one night, the library is broken into. Strangely, all the priceless tomes remain untouched. Florence is puzzled, until she discovers a half-burned book in the fireplace. She realizes with horror that someone has found and set fire to the secret diary of Lord Belfield's wife–which may hold the clue to her fate…Evocative, arresting and tightly plotted, The Library Thief is at once a propulsive Gothic mystery and a striking exploration of race, gender and self-discovery in Victorian England.

Welcome to HTP Books’ Summer 2024 Blog Tours. I’m starting this season with a fascinating historical novel by Kuchenga Shenjé. THE LIBRARY THIEF is her debut novel set in the late 1800s. It features old books, mystery, intrigue, and scandals—what more could a reader ask for?

The story starts with a scandal that I thought would end my life. Fortunately, my scandal didn’t kill anyone. In fact, it pales in comparison with what I went on to discover at Rose Hall.

Thus far, the way I see it, in any good life you need to die several times to really lead a life worth living. There are little deaths and there are big deaths. My tale has both—and the real tragedy would be if this story were to die with me.

I was lying when I swore I would take this secret to my grave. I had no right to promise that.


Granger’s Bookbinders,

143 Long Millgate,


                                                                                                                                                  Rose Hall,


                                                                                                                                November 20, 1896

Dear Mr. Granger,

I trust this note finds you in good health and that business is as steady as when last we met some years ago.

I write to you with an unusual commission. I will not trouble you here with the details of my current circumstances. Since the untimely death of my beloved wife, Lady Persephone, it seems the fates are in conspiracy against me. Suffice it to say that I find myself now in need of your excellent services and on a far grander scale than before.

The library at Rose Hall is, as you are aware, extensive. I am proud of the rarity and quality of the books it now houses, a collection that I have painstakingly curated over many years. I now find myself in the unhappy position of seeking a buyer for my collection. Many of the books, due to their age and mishandling by less cautious owners, are badly in need of restoration. There are perhaps some two hundred such artifacts. The nature of my circumstances make it necessary that this work be carried out to the highest quality and with the greatest rapidity. Since no bookbinder in the North West possesses skills equal to yours, I thought of you at once.

Please inform me as soon as you are able whether it is within your means to accept such a commission.

Your obliged and affectionate friend,

Lord F. Belfield



I fell in love with the feel of the cotton before I fell in love with the books. Leather felt too masculine and reptilian. Cloth was so much warmer and didn’t slip out of my hands as easily. As a child I played underneath the tables and made toy families from the scraps that fell at my father’s boots.

He would never talk to me about where the cloth we used came from, nor the contents of the books we worked on. There were a lot of things my father wouldn’t tell me, and rather than keeping me ignorant, his silence made me more curious. And fortunately, I was surrounded by the means to nourish that curiosity.

Most of the time we spent together as I grew up was in silence, folding, beveling and smoothing. I sometimes wished my fingers could be as thick as his; he didn’t grimace when schooling leather and cloth into precise lines under his digital tutelage. I tried to be like my father, but all the books he left lying around gave me opinions.

* * *

I arrived at the front door of Rose Hall looking more ragged than I would have liked. My breath was far from fresh, and the hair pins and clips I had used to imprison the frizzier strands had been loosened by the bumps of the rickety carriage. I had been dropped at the top of a tree-lined drive that was at least a quarter mile long, if not more. The December mists obscured my vision, and I could only just make out the shape of a grand house, the likes of which I had only really seen on biscuit tins in the windows of Manchester’s new department store, though I had imagined them as I read Brontë, Austen and Radcliffe. Even with the curls of mist in the air, I could tell this was a very English dwelling. As I approached it my feet slipped and shifted on the gravel, unused to navigating such terrain after only walking on cobbled streets and across wooden floors.

Lord Francis Belfield of Rose Hall had been my father’s long-standing customer. He was the only man I’d ever seen look luxurious without any air of pomposity. The men of Manchester were not known for wearing velvet, so the sheen of his jackets always marked him out as distinguished. It felt completely fitting that Rose Hall was an ode to symmetry and a more tasteful example of the grandiosity of the mid-eighteenth century. It was an early Georgian home of Lancashire sandstone. Even though my father hadn’t mentioned it, the period of the building’s erection and the mercantile success of Lord Francis Belfield were all I needed to know to deduce that the building and its grounds had been purchased with plantation wealth.

I knocked on the forest-green door and left my suitcases on the ground, hoping that looked more elegant than being strained down by the weight of my clothes, books and binding tools. In my pocket, my fingers found the folds of Lord Belfield’s letter. I inhaled, recalling once more the story I had so carefully rehearsed.

The door opened and a pair of prominent blue eyes glared at me through the crack. “Well?”

“Miss Florence Granger for Lord Francis Belfield, please.”

I took in the lines, too many for the face of someone who was still clearly a young man. The hand holding the door open was rough and calloused.

“He is expecting me,” I added.

“No ’e is not.”

I blinked, having not expected resistance this soon.

“I assure you I arrive here at the request of Lord Belfield himself. I am from Granger’s of Manchester.”

The door widened and there stood a long-limbed boy of no more than twenty. His movements were almost feline. The way he handled the door without effort despite its apparent heaviness was quite a marvel.

“We are bookbinders. I’ve been sent to care for your master’s collection.” I retrieved the letter from the pocket of my coat and held it out.

He made no move to take it, but instead chewed his bottom lip, realizing there was truth to my words but clearly unconvinced by me. A female tradesperson at the door to Rose Hall was probably not a common occurrence.

“Young man, I excuse you of your impertinence, but I have been traveling for some hours and would like to rest,” I told him, trying a sterner approach. “Please fetch your master.”

“’E don’t rise before midday most days anymore. You can wait in the kitchens, if you like.”

Now it was my turn to falter. I had no way of assessing how appropriate this was. Should I be seated in the parlor? If I allowed myself to be taken to the kitchens, was I aligning myself with the downstairs staff? I was an artisan, not a servant. But a sharp ripple through my stomach made the decision for me.

“Very well, so long as your offer comes with a cup of tea.” I sighed and crouched down to pick up my suitcases.

“No, m’lady. I’ll tek those.”

He ushered me into the reception hall, lifting my bags up to his sides as if they weighed nothing at all. The door chuffed itself closed behind us with a low groan. The darkness of the perimeter indicated that there was no draft coming through, nor a single sliver of light. A curtain hung to the right of it and the man gave it a sharp tug. It concealed the entrance entirely once pulled across, an odd choice. It gave the sense of being sealed into the house somehow—not being able to see where one could escape.

Stepping into the hall, I was compelled to look up. It was a huge atrium, with dark green textured walls and candles placed at regular intervals which gave the illusion of a warm, close space. He led me over a black-tiled floor, underneath a vast yet delicate brass chandelier aglow with coppery bulbs. At the back of the hall, under the bifurcated staircase, he opened a hidden door which led down to the kitchen. Before I had reached the bottom the herbaceous and deeply woody smells of the kitchen came wafting up to greet me. It was divine. But when we reached the flagstoned room I saw there was nothing on the stove; I could only imagine that months of cooking in a room with such small windows had baked the scent into the walls.

I was seated at a wooden table facing an array of copper pans and white jugs with the high windows behind me. It was clearly a kitchen intended for many staff, but there was none of the expected bustle. Where was everyone? I shifted uncomfortably as I cast about for something to say, before realizing that I didn’t know the young man’s name.

“What is your name?”


“Wesley what?”

He gave me a strange look. “Bacchus. Wesley Bacchus. I’m the footman.”

He was telling me that as a footman, his surname did notmatter. Of course there was no reason that I, as a craftswoman, should know the intricacies of these hierarchies, but I sat in silence, not wanting to betray myself further by speaking again.

I was grateful when the cook came in some minutes later—from a pantry, I imagined—but she barely looked in my direction, merely banging a pan of water onto the stove. My stomach growled something fierce when she entered, almost as if my belly knew that I was meeting the person in charge of feeding the house.

I waited for her to acknowledge me, while Wesley continued to look on with a smile playing about his lips. But she only retrieved a mug and a caddy, before placing a steaming tea in front of me with a snort. My shoulders slumped. I hadn’t expected to be treated as a lady, but had hoped for at least some respect. Would my father have received such a poor greeting? I sipped the tea, grateful for its sweetness and warmth as the cook clattered about with her back to me. As I finished, she returned to the table with a thick slice of ham sandwiched between two slices of bread. There was also a large apple on the plate and in her other hand was a pewter cup of water. She’d clearly heard my stomach. But her face showed no compassion as she laid the blessed offering on the table.

With one last assessing glance at me, Wesley left, and the cook returned to the stove, making it clear she had no intention of speaking to me. I decided I could forget my manners just as she had hers, and devoured the most delicious meal I’d had in weeks. Salty ham on pillowy bread, with a delightfully sour apple and water that tasted like it came from the purest spring to cleanse my palate. After greedily wiping the crumbs off the plate with one of my fingers, I took out A Christmas Carol from my coat pocket and started reading until the words on the page began to blur. The beast of a carriage I had traveled in overnight had creaked with the strain of being drawn up even the slightest incline. Combined with the cold that jolted me from slumber, I had only been able to sleep in fits and bursts.

I awoke, suddenly, with my head on my crossed arms in front of me and my wrist soaking wet from my dribble. The plate and pewter cup had been taken away and Wesley was standing above me, a mocking smile about his thickish lips.

“I’m sorry to wake you, Miss. Lord Belfield says he’ll see you now.”

Wesley led me back upstairs, and down a corridor. As we passed a tall, gilded mirror, I stopped, horrified by my reflection. My hair, after only days left to its own devices, was now once again completely untamed. My eyes were bloodshot with fatigue and my skin was pale, making my freckles stand out. Hastily, I tried to force my frizzed hair back beneath its pins as Wesley stopped too. He watched me with amusement until I had done the best I could, and we continued on our way.

I thought back to the last time I had seen Lord Francis Belfield. His best features were his long fingers, which were always encased in tight kid gloves that he never took off. Oh, and the smell of him! Rich pepper with a botanical soapy undertone, which always impressed me. Not in a way that would make me swoon. He’s not the kind of man a girl like me is meant to fall in love with. No, what I felt was awe. A man of his fortune had surely seen more of the world than most. He’d have tales of Saint Petersburg, Constantinople and Siam. If only I could ask him. The need to convince him of my employability made doing so inappropriate.

The door opened onto the parlor, and immediately I could see that the man I remembered from our shop was very different from the man who sat in front of me. He was wearing a turmeric-colored silk waistcoat embroidered with indigo plants, paired with dark trousers. He had clearly dressed hastily, and a thread toward the bottom of his trousers was loose and trailing on the floor by his feet. I inhaled deeply but could not catch thespiced vegetal scent that usually accompanied his presence. He was much thinner than when I had last seen him, and his eyes drooped as if he had suffered many a sleepless night. He stood up from his seat to shake my hand but returned to it quickly as if he couldn’t bear to hold himself up for too long.

“My name is Florence Granger, sir,” I began, but he waved a hand.

“Yes, yes, I remember you. But why has your father sent you all this way without an escort? It must have been a frightful journey.”

“Oh, no, Lord Belfield. The journey was fine.” I cleared my throat to make space for the bigger lie. “My father sent me to complete the work on your collection that you requested.”

He looked at me aggrieved. Offended, even. The way his forehead crumpled made me more aware of the thinning hair at his temples. Even disheveled, he was no less handsome. However, I pondered whether he might feel a sense of loss for the way he used to look. On my previous viewings of him, he looked like someone who was used to being seen and spoken of as a very handsome “young” man. Although he wasn’t superbly weathered, he now had the face of a man who had endured. A sad wisdom brought the tops of his eyelids a little lower. His jawline was a bit less tenderly set because his teeth were more used to being gritted together from stress. I supposed it was grief. He had lost his wife less than a year before, after all, leaving him with only his son.

“Why on earth would he do that? This hasn’t even been discussed. Had he accepted the commission, I would have had the books sent to Manchester.”

Ah. This I had not considered. I remembered the words onthe letter. I was sure that it was an invitation to stay and restore the library. My mouth was dry as I prepared my next lie.

Excerpted from THE LIBRARY THIEF by Kuchenga Shenjé. Copyright © 2024 by Kuchenga Shenjé. Published by Hanover Square Press, an imprint of HarperCollins.


My Thoughts:

It’s been a while since I’ve read historical fiction, and The Library Thief was easy to get into while not bogged down with life’s mundane life back in the late 1800s. Florence is a brilliant, ambitious, and well-mannered woman who has just found herself alone for the first time. She’s unknowingly the product of an English father and a Jamaican mother, but other than the hair that has to be straightened, she passes for white easily. Now that she has to support herself, she steals a customer from her Bookbinder father, showing up at the fabulous Rose Hall to restore around 200 old and rare books so Lord Francis Belfield can sell his library.

Florence talks her way into the job, and as she earns the trust of the Lord and the staff, she is finally starting to find herself and make some fast friends. Lord Francis’ wife passed away unexpectedly, and as Florence digs into Persephone’s life, danger comes her way. Rose Hall is full of secrets, intrigue, mystery, and danger. Florence is a very forward-thinking woman who sees everyone for what’s on their insides, not their outsides.

I give THE LIBRARY THIEF a four out of five. I listened to the audiobook through my Spotify premium account, and the narrator was superb. Kuchenga Shenjé’s narrative style was easy to listen to and I just fell into the time and setting effortlessly. The historical England setting, with its atmospheric charm, was a character in itself. There are several darker subjects touched on in this book, especially themes that no one in the late 1900s would ever speak of out loud. I really enjoyed listening to Florence find out who she is and discover her heritage.



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About Kuchenga Shenjé

KUCHENGA SHENJÉ is a writer, journalist, and speaker with work on many media platforms, including gal-dem, British Vogue and Netflix. She has contributed short stories and essays to several anthologies, most notably It’s Not OK to Feel Blue (and Other Lies), Who’s Loving You and Loud Black Girls. Owing to a lifelong obsession with books and the written word, Kuchenga studied creative writing at the Open University. Her work is focused on the perils of loving, being loved and women living out loud throughout the ages. The Library Thief is the ultimate marriage of her passions for history, mystery and rebels. She currently resides in Manchester, where she is determined to continue living a life worth writing about.

Find Kuchenga Shenjé

Website | Twitter | Instagram | Goodreads


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I'm a PhD chemist who loves sarcasm, music, and books-paranormal, mystery, thriller, suspense, horror, and romance. Most of my free time is spent at the martial arts studio these days--whether practicing Combat Hapkido or reading books while watching my son's Taekwondo classes, or even working up a sweat with Kickboxing for fun. Goodreads

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