Shelf Control #232: The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove

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Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

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Title: The Guns of the South
Author: Harry Turtledove
Published: 1992
Length: 528 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

January 1864 –General Robert E. Lee faces defeat. The Army of Northern Virginia is ragged and ill-equipped. Gettysburg has broken the back of the Confederacy and decimated its manpower.

Then, Andries Rhoodie, a strange man with an unplaceable accent, approaches Lee with an extraordinary offer. Rhoodie demonstrates an amazing rifle: Its rate of fire is incredible, its lethal efficiency breathtaking–and Rhoodie guarantees unlimited quantitites to the Confederates.

The name of the weapon is the AK-47….

“It is absolutely unique–without question the most fascinating Civil War novel I have ever read.” –Professor James M. McPherson – Pultizer Prize winning Battle Cry of Freedom

How and when I got it:

I picked up a copy at a library sale, probably about 5 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

If you’re thinking this is an odd choice for me, you’re absolutely correct. I’m not a fan of weaponry or reading about battle strategies. So why would I have this book on my shelves?

It’s a personal story.

My father, age 88, has been living in a nursing home for the past several years. In his earlier retirement, after a lifetime of rarely reading, he suddenly became a voracious reader, picking up historical novels, personal stories, crime thrillers, and more. But, more recently, his eyesight and his cognitive skills have both been on the decline, and he’s no longer able to read.

The Guns of the South is a book that he read at least 10 years ago, and I remember how excited he was to tell me about it at the time. Now, when I visit him (only remotely these days), he still brings up this book every so often. He doesn’t read at this point, but whenever the topic gets around to books, he gets really enthusiastic about telling me about The Guns of the South and what a great read it was. Sure, each time he thinks he’s telling me about it for the first time, but that’s okay. I’m always impressed by how much of the plot and details he’s retained.

Do I want to read this book? If it were just a question of my own tastes in fiction, then I’d probably skip it. But knowing how much this book fired up my dad’s imagination, I want to read it after all. Even if it doesn’t mean much to him at this point, I think it’ll make me happy to know we’ve shared this experience.

What do you think? Would you read a book that might not appeal to you on its own, but has special meaning to a loved one? 

Please share your thoughts!


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  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
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Have fun!

Book Review: Today We Go Home by Kelli Estes

Seattle, Washington
Larkin Bennett has always known her place, whether it’s surrounded by her loving family in the lush greenery of the Pacific Northwest or conducting a dusty patrol in Afghanistan. But all of that changed the day tragedy struck her unit and took away everything she held dear. Soon after, Larkin discovers an unexpected treasure—the diary of Emily Wilson, a young woman who disguised herself as a man to fight for the Union in the Civil War. As Larkin struggles to heal, she finds herself drawn deeply into Emily’s life and the secrets she kept.

Indiana, 1861
The only thing more dangerous to Emily Wilson than a rebel soldier is the risk of her own comrades in the Union Army discovering her secret. But in the minds of her fellow soldiers, if it dresses like a man, swears like a man, and shoots like a man, it must be a man. As the war marches on and takes its terrible toll, Emily begins to question everything she thought she was fighting for.

Today We Go Home took my breath away.

In this dual timeline novel, we follow two separate but interwoven and related threads. The main character in the contemporary timeline is Larkin Bennett, a US Army veteran who receives a medical discharge after being wounded in action in Afghanistan, now suffering from PTSD and the tremendous guilt she feels over the death of her best friend. And as Larkin explores her friends’ personal effects, she finds a family treasure — the diary of Emily Wilson, who fought as a man in the Civil War. Through these two remarkable women, we see devotion to duty and family, as well as the toll that war takes on a person’s soul.

Larkin’s story is moving and tragic. She was never happier than in service to her country, and felt a calling to the military. Her best moments were when she and her friend Sarah were side by side, whether in college, in training, or in Kandahar. But Larkin, when we meet her, is emotionally destroyed by her experiences, turning to alcohol to numb herself and drown out the memories that haunt her every moment.

Larkin’s family is supportive (can I mention how much I love her grandmother and cousins?), and they do what they can to help, but there’s just so much that Larkin has to process on her own, and she resists reaching out for professional help. Her growing obsession with Emily’s diary gives her a purpose, and the more she reads, the more determined she becomes to both tell the stories of military women and to find out more about the real Emily Wilson.

Meanwhile, Emily’s story is equally powerful. After her father and oldest brother ride off to join the Indiana regiment heading to support the Union cause, Emily is left behind on the farm with her younger brother Ben, expected to just wait at home and be content with “women’s work”. When their father is killed and their brother takes ill, they set off to go take care of their brother, and from there, they decide to enlist. Emily is both called to serve and determined to protect Ben at all costs, and together, they join their late father’s regiment and learn to become soldiers.

Emily takes the name Jesse and poses as Ben’s brother, knowing that she must keep her gender a secret. She finds that she’s actually good at soldiering, and starts to love the freedom that comes from being seen as male — the freedom to work, to speak her mind, to not hide her skills, to pursue what she wants.

She would never again settle for a life where her every action, even her thoughts, were controlled by someone else. From now on, no matter where life took her, she would live on her own terms.

The threat of discovery is always present, and the true meaning of going to war doesn’t really sink in until the regiment enters its first battle and Emily gets a close-up view of shooting at the enemy and being shot at.

The general shook his head. “I will not send you back to the field. You can no longer impersonate a soldier, do you understand me?”

Emily had to look away from his accusing glare. She had not been impersonating a soldier. She had been a soldier. “Yes, sir.”

The author does an amazing job of weaving together these two stories. Some dual timeline books feel forced, or as if one only exists as a frame for the other. Not so here. You know it’s a well-done approach when both halves of the story feel so compelling that you hate to leave each one to switch to the other. When an Emily section would end, I’d want more… but then I’d get re-involved in Larkin’s story, and couldn’t imagine wanting to read anything else but her story.

Kelli Estes has clearly done a tremendous amount of research into both women serving in the Civil War and into the plight of today’s veterans, especially the staggering rate of PTSD and suicide among women veterans. She provides a list of reference materials as well as information on support for veterans at the end of the book, and is definitely doing a great service herself by calling attention to the issues confronting today’s combat veterans.

She set the diary aside, thinking about Emily’s struggles. They were timeless. Even now, over a hundred and fifty years later, female veterans faced many of the same challenges that Emily did: being seen as inferior because of her gender, not being able to find work after being discharged from the military, earning less than men, becoming homeless.

Some of the social commentary is really spot-on, such as Larkin’s anger over the general lack of interest and awareness she encounters once back in the US. To Larkin, she was serving in Afghanistan to protect the United States, yet most Americans seem indifferent or unaware of what’s going on there and the sacrifices being made by American service men and women. Likewise, she is understandably infuriated when a clueless man, who spots her wearing an Army t-shirt, asks her whether it’s her father or her brothers who served, failing to recognize the very real service of hundreds of thousands of women.

Today We Go Home is beautifully written and is so very powerful. I tore through this book probably faster than I should have, because I just couldn’t get enough of either Emily or Larkin and had to know how their stories would turn out. The emotional impact is strong and real. By the end, I felt such sorrow for their experiences, and yet hopeful and uplifted as well. And while Emily’s story is set in the past, Larkin’s story has an urgency to it, knowing that brave men and women are still facing the unbelievable struggles that come with serving in war settings and then coming back home afterward.

Don’t miss this amazing book. This goes on my list of top books for 2019.

Other reading resources:

For more on women in the Civil War, I highly recommend two excellent novels:

  • I Shall Be Near To You by Erin Lindsay McCabe (review)
  • Sisters of Shiloh by Kathy & Becky Hepinstall (review)

I don’t think I’ve read any other novels recently about contemporary women serving in the military, but I’d love some suggestions!


The details:

Title: Today We Go Home
Author: Kelli Estes
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: September 3, 2019
Length: 401 pages
Genre: Contemporary/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Guest Review: I Shall Be Near To You by Erin Lindsay McCabe

Please join me in welcoming my wonderful friend Mary, who consistently recommends superb books to me. Mary is the one who first encouraged me to read I Shall Be Near To You, and so I thought it only fitting to invite her to write a review.

***Guest Review: I Shall Be Near To You by Erin Lindsay McCabe***

***Reviewed by Mary***


“His arms pull me tight against his chest and I bury my face in his shoulder. He shakes and it is dark enough I can still say I ain’t ever seen him cry. My heart goes to cracking wide open, but at least I am alive to feel it. I am a different kind of woman now, a wife who knows what this war really is. At least I am part of this war, part of the things Jeremiah’s done here, things that will always be hiding somewhere in his heart.”

New York, 1862. Rosetta marries her childhood sweetheart just before he leaves to enlist with the Union Army. Jeremiah is naive and optimistic about the war, thinking he’ll be gone a short while and return with money enough for them to buy their own farm. Even so, Rosetta doesn’t want him to go. Without Jeremiah, she has to play the role of wife, cooking, mending, making soap, when she’d rather be outside tending the animals or helping with the harvest. Rosetta is stubborn and spirited, and it isn’t long before she hacks off her braid, dresses in Jeremiah’s old clothes and follows her husband to war.

Rosetta is a force, a fighting wife, a woman brave enough to follow her husband into hell. Their love is both fierce and tender, and their connection to one another endures long stretches of boredom, constant hunger, and short bursts of battle-born terror. Neither of them truly understood what war would be, and the author, with well-placed poetic imagery and necessary grit, conveys the realities of a soldier’s life.


“I aim careful in the dying light and fire two rounds…the first don’t hit a thing, but the second shot makes a space in the line advancing. Something heavy settles in my belly when the stain blooms on that soldier’s chest, the hole in the line, the tear in the fabric of some other family.”

Rosetta’s voice is strong and straightforward; her struggles and fears are authentic and entirely relatable. The supporting characters are well-drawn, compelling, easy to get attached to. There is just the right amount of historic detail to capture the essence of the time period without inundating the reader with “research.” The way the story is told, the structure and pacing, seems effortless (though I am sure it wasn’t), and thankfully, there is no epilogue to stitch up every last detail. In short, this is as close to perfect as it can get. If you love historical fiction – if you love great fiction – read this book. But read it slowly. Savour your time with these unforgettable characters and their heart-wrenching story. 

And…when you read the last page, close the book and still find yourself unable to let go of the story, read these interesting links:

The title of the book was inspired by a real letter from Union soldier Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah. Read it here.

The author’s playlist. Music can strike an emotional chord with me, and I love that the author included the songs she listened to while writing. These echo the mood of the book so well. Make sure you listen to “My Father’s Father” when you have finished the book. So, so moving.

An interview with the author. I love hearing about the process of getting this book revised and published. It was obviously a labor of love.

The original photo from the cover.Were you, like me, curious about the soldier pictured on the front of the novel? I wanted to see his (her?) whole face, and I was surprised to discover that the soldier was actually a Confederate.

A Savage Day in American History. A little more information about the Battle of Antietam.

About the reviewer:

MaryMary is a life-long reader and self-professed book-nerd. She carries a book with her wherever she goes, and if she isn’t reading, she’s either sleeping or dead.

Want to read more of Mary’s reviews? You can find her here on Goodreads — just tell her Bookshelf Fantasies sent you!

Stay tuned:

I Shall Be Near To You is my spotlight book this week, and there are more related blog posts to come!