Shelf Control #344: The Book of V. by Anna Solomon

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

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.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

***Question for Shelf Control participants: I currently go ahead and add the links for participants’ posts as they’re shared in the comments or via pingbacks. Does this work for you, or would you prefer a system where you add your own links (such as via InLinkz or similar)? Please let me know!**

Title: The Book of V.
Author: Anna Solomon
Published: 2020
Length: 320 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Anna Solomon’s kaleidoscopic novel intertwines the lives of a Brooklyn mother in 2016, a senator’s wife in 1970s Washington, D.C., and the Bible’s Queen Esther, whose stories of sex, power and desire overlap and ultimately converge—showing how women’s roles have and have not changed over thousands of years.

Lily is a mother and a daughter. And a second wife. And a writer, maybe? Or she was going to be, before she had children. Now, in her rented Brooklyn apartment, she’s grappling with her sexual and intellectual desires while also trying to manage her roles as a mother and a wife.

Vivian Barr seems to be the perfect political wife, dedicated to helping her charismatic and ambitious husband find success in Watergate-era Washington D.C. But one night he demands a humiliating favor, and her refusal to obey changes the course of her life—along with the lives of others.

Esther is a fiercely independent young woman in ancient Persia, where she and her uncle’s tribe live a tenuous existence outside the palace walls. When an innocent mistake results in devastating consequences for her people, she is offered up as a sacrifice to please the king, in the hopes that she will save them all.

Following in the tradition of The Hours and The Red TentThe Book of V. is a bold and contemporary investigation into the enduring expectations and restraints placed on women’s lives.

How and when I got it:

I bought the Kindle edition of this book late in 2020.

Why I want to read it:

This is my second week in a row with a historical fiction pick for Shelf Control! So why this particular book?

Dual timeline narratives seem to be everywhere when it comes to historical fiction, particularly novels that focus on women’s lives and societal roles. I can’t say I’ve ever come across a split timeline combining modern women’s lives with Queen Esther before now!

I’ve always loved the story of Queen Esther — as a child, we learned the simplistic version about a good and beautiful queen saving her people. We never did give much thought to the previous queen, Vashti, except to consider her the “bad” queen who came before Esther. Of course, as an adult, I’ve enjoyed more nuanced views of the tale, and especially learning about Vashti as a feminist icon!

The idea of Esther/Vashti as ancient counterparts to contemporary women’s experiences sounds… weird??? But also potentially fascinating. On the surface, it seems like a stretch to me — but I remain interested in seeing how the author balances and contrasts the two stories, and wonder whether it works well or feels forced.

I do think I’ll read this one — maybe I’ll time it just right and read it in time for the holiday of Purim!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate

Title: The Book of Lost Friends
Author: Lisa Wingate
Publisher: Ballantine
Publication date: April 7, 2020
Print length: 388 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A new novel inspired by historical events: a story of three young women on a journey in search of family amidst the destruction of the post-Civil War South, and of a modern-day teacher who rediscovers their story and its connection to her own students’ lives.

Lisa Wingate brings to life stories from actual “Lost Friends” advertisements that appeared in Southern newspapers after the Civil War, as freed slaves desperately searched for loved ones who had been sold off.

Louisiana, 1875 In the tumultuous aftermath of Reconstruction, three young women set off as unwilling companions on a perilous quest: Lavinia, the pampered heir to a now-destitute plantation; Juneau Jane, her illegitimate free-born Creole half-sister; and Hannie, Lavinia’s former slave. Each carries private wounds and powerful secrets as they head for Texas, following dangerous roads rife with ruthless vigilantes and soldiers still fighting a war lost a decade before. For Lavinia and Juneau Jane, the journey is one of inheritance and financial desperation, but for Hannie, torn from her mother and eight siblings before slavery’s end, the pilgrimage westward reignites an agonizing question: Could her long-lost family still be out there? Beyond the swamps lie the seemingly limitless frontiers of Texas and, improbably, hope.

Louisiana, 1987 For first-year teacher Benedetta Silva, a subsidized job at a poor rural school seems like the ticket to canceling her hefty student debt–until she lands in a tiny, out-of-step Mississippi River town. Augustine, Louisiana, seems suspicious of new ideas and new people, and Benny can scarcely comprehend the lives of her poverty-stricken students. But amid the gnarled oaks and run-down plantation homes lies the century-old history of three young women, a long-ago journey, and a hidden book that could change everything.

After reading and enjoying this author’s previous novel (Before We Were Yours), I was excited to get an ARC of The Book of Lost Friends… and yet I left it unread until now, somehow never quite feeling in the mood to get started. So, I was glad when my book group chose The Book of Lost Friends as our July 2022 Book of the Month — finally, a commitment to get me motivated!

Unfortunately, while I finished the book, I can’t say that I loved it. In fact, I’ve been wavering between rating this one 2.5 or 3 stars.

The narrative alternates between a historical timeline set in 1875 and a more modern timeline set in 1987. Both stories are situated in Augustine, Louisiana, and in both timelines, the Gossett family is at the center of the community.

In 1875, the Gossett plantation has been transformed post-war into sharecropper properties, still dominated by the plantation’s former mistress, who seems determined to undermine and cheat the formerly enslaved people now working to secure their own land. Her husband has disappeared to Texas in search of his wayward son, and the future of the land and its people is very much up in the air. The main character, Hannie, ends up accompanying the former master’s two daughters (one white and legitimate, the other biracial and illegitimate) on a dangerous journey to find their father and find the missing documents needed to secure their inheritance. Hannie’s own goal is more personal: To find the missing members of her family, all of whom were sold off while enslaved and stolen by an unscrupulous relative of the plantation owners.

In 1987, the main character is Benny (Benedetta) Silva, a young teacher who accepts a rural posting in exchange for student loan forgiveness. Benny is ill-prepared to teach in a school where there are inadequate resources, apathetic staff, and students who lack the most rudimentary skills or interest needed to pursue an education. Benny is determined to find a way to connect with her students, and begins a research project that puts her at odds with powerful town leaders.

I don’t want to go too far down the road of discussing the dual plots, so I’ll stick to some key concerns and takeaways.

In both timelines, the plot is often confusing and muddled. We alternate chapters between the two timelines, and yet as we pick up a storyline after a chapter away from it, there’s often a gap in the action from where we left off. Intervening events do get explained, but the initial impression is always that something has been missed or that the pieces don’t quite connect.

The family chronologies and connections are not well explained, and neither is the make-up of the town itself or its history. There’s a lot of detail thrown around in the book, but often through exposition rather than incorporation into the plot. The details often felt muddy to me, leading to my feelings of disengagement.

Benny’s role, in my opinion, is problematic. Her character really smacks of white saviorism. She arrives in town as an outsider, and immediate becomes the catalyst for changing the lives of the poor children and disempowered community members of Augustine. Why did it take Benny’s arrival to make this happen? Why was it Benny and the (white) descendants of the Gossett slaveowners who enable the discovery of the town’s history and the revelations that ensue?

I did appreciate learning about the Lost Friends advertisements, which were a real historical phenomenon used by formerly enslaved people to try to track down and reunite with family members. The inclusion of real Lost Friends ads is touching and powerful.

However, overall, the plot didn’t build in a way that connected the dots, and the action sequences and outcomes felt disjointed. I did not feel emotionally involved with the characters, and while certain moments elicit sympathy or sorrow or horror, these responses related more to the general circumstances described rather than being connected to actual care or concern for the specific characters.

I was also turned off by a weirdness to the ending, in which a big revelation about a character’s backstory is shared literally on the last two pages of the book. Why?? It felt awkward and unnecessary — perhaps it was intended to provide an “aha!” moment about the character, but really, it just felt tacked-on and beside the point.

Overall, this was not a great reading experience, and if not for my book group commitment, I probably would not have finished. The “Lost Friends” element is interesting from a historical perspective, but the fictional storylines built up around this element just never made me feel connected or invested.

Final note: I will add that many of my book group friends enjoyed this book more than I did, and one person who is herself an educator commented that she found Benny’s work with the students and the challenges she faced very relatable and well done. In other words… while I didn’t particularly enjoy this book, your mileage may vary!

Audiobook Review: The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary

Title: The Road Trip
Author: Beth O’Leary
Narrators: Josh Dylan, Eleanor Tomlinson
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 1, 2021
Print length: 398 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 15 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Two exes reach a new level of awkward when forced to take a road trip together in this endearing and humorous novel by the author of the international bestseller The Flatshare.

What if the end of the road is just the beginning?

Four years ago, Dylan and Addie fell in love under the Provence sun. Wealthy Oxford student Dylan was staying at his friend Cherry’s enormous French villa; wild child Addie was spending her summer as the on-site caretaker. Two years ago, their relationship officially ended. They haven’t spoken since.

Today, Dylan’s and Addie’s lives collide again. It’s the day before Cherry’s wedding, and Addie and Dylan crash cars at the start of the journey there. The car Dylan was driving is wrecked, and the wedding is in rural Scotland–he’ll never get there on time by public transport.

So, along with Dylan’s best friend, Addie’s sister, and a random guy on Facebook who needed a ride, they squeeze into a space-challenged Mini and set off across Britain. Cramped into the same space, Dylan and Addie are forced to confront the choices they made that tore them apart–and ask themselves whether that final decision was the right one after all.

In The Road Trip, exes Dylan and Addie are forced into spending time together on a road trip from hell. In sections alternating between “Now” and “Then”, we see the awful hours spent in the car as well as flashbacks to their first days of romance — and most importantly, learn how they went from swooningly in love to completely estranged over the last few years.

Addie and Dylan first meet in the most romantic of settings, a huge villa in the south of France where Dylan is vacationing and Addie is the summer caretaker. There’s an immediate attraction, and within days they’re spending every waking moment together (as well as every night in bed together). Even when they’re joined by a swarm of Dylan’s buddies (including his posh but toxic best friend Marcus), Dylan and Addie are inseparable.

When the holidays are over, they pick up their relationship back in England, but not without hiccups. Addie is a teacher in training, and Dylan is still trying to find himself. He’s a poet, and wants to pursue a graduate English degree, but his domineering, emotionally abusive father wants him to either join the family business or be cut off entirely. On top of this, Marcus wants Dylan by his side constantly and resents Addie’s presence, and does what he can to pry the two apart.

Meanwhile, in the “now” portions of the story, the cramped Mini and its passengers encounter hazards and accidents and a variety of unfortunate escapades they make them later and later to the wedding. The upside of the crowded car and the endless hours on the road is that Dylan and Addie are literally thrown together, and are finally forced to confront the circumstances that drove them apart. Emotions run high, truths are shared, and ultimately, the couple have an opportunity to face the problems that came between them and to admit to the deep love that still exists.

The Road Trip is not nearly as light and fluffy as I’d expected it to be, but it works remarkably well. The “now” side of things is mostly light-hearted and comical — there’s spilled breast milk and a random trucker and an ill-timed pee break and a musty motel room without enough beds… not to mention a mad dash to save the bride from a stalker and getting lost in a faux castle. It can be quite silly, but the more we get to know the characters, the more endearing it all is.

In the “then” parts of the story, Addie and Dylan go through tremendous ups and downs, and these sections are much more wrenching than the “now”. The author gives a sensitive portrayal of two young adults with enormous chemistry and a deep love between them, yet shows that other people and other problems can derail even the most devoted of couples. A love story that starts in a summer villa has the feel of a perfect fantasy romance, but when it has to survive in the real world of jobs and family and unreliable friends, the fantasy elements fall away and the couple’s love faces its hardest tests.

I listened to the audiobook, and it was wonderful. There are different narrators for the Addie and Dylan sections, and can I just take a minute to fangirl over the fact that Eleanor Tomlinson narrates Addie??? Eleanor Tomlinson is the actress who played Demelza in the BBC series Poldark, and she’s wonderful. Her narration gives so much character and expressiveness to Addie. I’m not sure whether I’d have enjoyed it nearly as much in print — the narration is that good!

Overall, The Road Trip is often touching, sometimes very sad, quite a bit silly, and frequently very romantic. There’s a nice mix of serious and fun moments, and the framing of a hellish road trip works very well as a contrast to the sweetness and then sorrow of the earlier days of Addie and Dylan’s relationship.

The characters are all well-drawn and nicely detailed, from leads Addie and Dylan, to an array of supporting characters including sad-sack Rodney, unsteady and mostly unlikeable Marcus, Addie’s wild sister Deb, and the very over-the-top bride Cherry. Their banter and arguments and lighter moments feel very in tune with how they’ve been depicted, and I really enjoyed the time spent with them.

The Road Trip is a great summer read, and I especially recommend the audiobook edition. Enjoy!

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Book Review: Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Title: Plain Bad Heroines
Author: Emily M. Danforth
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: October 20, 2020
Length: 608 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The award-winning author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post makes her adult debut with this highly imaginative and original horror-comedy centered around a cursed New England boarding school for girls—a wickedly whimsical celebration of the art of storytelling, sapphic love, and the rebellious female spirit.

Our story begins in 1902, at The Brookhants School for Girls. Flo and Clara, two impressionable students, are obsessed with each other and with a daring young writer named Mary MacLane, the author of a scandalous bestselling memoir. To show their devotion to Mary, the girls establish their own private club and call it The Plain Bad Heroine Society. They meet in secret in a nearby apple orchard, the setting of their wildest happiness and, ultimately, of their macabre deaths. This is where their bodies are later discovered with a copy of Mary’s book splayed beside them, the victims of a swarm of stinging, angry yellow jackets. Less than five years later, The Brookhants School for Girls closes its doors forever—but not before three more people mysteriously die on the property, each in a most troubling way.

Over a century later, the now abandoned and crumbling Brookhants is back in the news when wunderkind writer, Merritt Emmons, publishes a breakout book celebrating the queer, feminist history surrounding the “haunted and cursed” Gilded-Age institution. Her bestselling book inspires a controversial horror film adaptation starring celebrity actor and lesbian it girl Harper Harper playing the ill-fated heroine Flo, opposite B-list actress and former child star Audrey Wells as Clara. But as Brookhants opens its gates once again, and our three modern heroines arrive on set to begin filming, past and present become grimly entangled—or perhaps just grimly exploited—and soon it’s impossible to tell where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins.

A story within a story within a story and featuring black-and-white period illustrations, Plain Bad Heroines is a devilishly haunting, modern masterwork of metafiction that manages to combine the ghostly sensibility of Sarah Waters with the dark imagination of Marisha Pessl and the sharp humor and incisive social commentary of Curtis Sittenfeld into one laugh-out-loud funny, spellbinding, and wonderfully luxuriant read.

This 600+ page book almost defies description, but I’ll give it a shot!

“I wish some one would write a book about a plan bad heroine so that I might feel in real sympathy with her.” – Mary MacLane

Plain Bad Heroines is a story-within-a-story book, with interlocking characters and motifs that center on the (supposedly) cursed and/or haunted grounds of the Brookhants School for Girls — an early 20th century institution for the education of society girls, located on a wooded estate in upper-crust Rhode Island.

Mary MacLane

In 1902, students Clara and Flo are inspired by the writings of (real-life) Mary MacLane and form a secret society, the Plain Bad Heroines, to celebrate her work and her life. Clara and Flo are in love, but after a disastrous trip home and a ride back to school with her judgmental cousin, Clara storms off into the woods to meet up with Flo, only for both girls to meet a ghastly end by being attacked by swarms of yellow jackets.

In our own timeline, the events from 1902 gain new notoriety after Merritt Emmons publishes The Happenings at Brookhants at the age of sixteen. Now years later, the book is being made into a film by an edgy director, with superstar “celesbian” Harper Harper committed to star as Flo. Merritt is on board as a producer, and she’s not pleased when Audrey Wood, a B-list actor who bombed her audition in a major way, is cast as Clara.

As the production cast and crew settle in to film on location at Brookhants, weird things start to happen, and there’s much more going on than can be easily explained. Is the place truly haunted? Or is this Hollywood manipulation at its most devious?

The plot weaves backward and forward in time, cutting between the modern-day movie storyline and the complicated relationships between Harper, Merritt, and Audrey, and the timeline that includes the aftermath of Clara and Flo’s deaths and the impact on Libbie, the school headmistress, and her lover, Alex (Alexandra).

There’s so much more to both pieces of the story than is readily apparent, and the author carefully layers on more and more hints and explanations, constantly deepening the story and shifting its direction and meaning.

Plain Bad Heroines is proudly, unabashedly queer, and its (plain, bad) heroines make no attempts to follow anyone’s rules but their own. They love as they please, and take inspiration from Mary MacLane’s own bold pronouncements when they need courage. The relationships are intricate and shifting, in both timelines, and the character refuse to be cookie-cutter types — author Emily M. Danforth does an amazing job of managing such a large cast and making sure each individual character has a life and personality of her own.

This book is BIG, and it takes concentration, but I could not stop reading once I started. The writing style is clever and filled with footnotes and commentary that are snarky and funny and informative. There are also dire and tragic happenings — and this IS a horror story too, with plenty of creepy, spine-tingling moments.

Black and white illustrations throughout the book add to the overall mood and make reading this book feel like an experience.

Yellow jackets are scary anyway, but now, having read Plain Bad Heroines, I’m pretty sure I’m terrified of them. Read the book — you’ll see what I mean.

I really only have two complaints about Plain Bad Heroines, and the first is not with the story itself but with the layout. Whoever picked the typeface for this book should have paid more attention to the asterisks that lead to the footnotes — I almost never saw them (they’re tiny), and had to constantly go back and search the page to see where the footnotes connect to.

My second complaint is a larger one, which is that I wasn’t completely satisfied with the ending. It leaves a bunch of unanswered questions, and I’m a little frustrated that certain elements didn’t get more clarity and resolution.

Still, this is overall a marvelous and unique book, and I laughed and shivered my way through it. The final scene takes place at the Cannes Festival premiere of The Happenings at Brookhants, and all I could think was, damn! I wish this was a real movie, because it would be fascinating to see how it all worked out.

Plain Bad Heroines is a terrific read. Don’t miss it!

To learn more about the real Mary MacLane, visit The Mary MacLane Project.

Shelf Control #236: The Gown by Jennifer Robson

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

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.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Gown
Author: Jennifer Robson
Published: 2018
Length: 371 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

“Millions will welcome this joyous event as a flash of color on the long road we have to travel.”—Sir Winston Churchill on the news of Princess Elizabeth’s forthcoming wedding

London, 1947: Besieged by the harshest winter in living memory, burdened by onerous shortages and rationing, the people of postwar Britain are enduring lives of quiet desperation despite their nation’s recent victory. Among them are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Together they forge an unlikely friendship, but their nascent hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime honor: taking part in the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown.

Toronto, 2016: More than half a century later, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers, a legacy from her late grandmother. How did her beloved Nan, a woman who never spoke of her old life in Britain, come to possess the priceless embroideries that so closely resemble the motifs on the stunning gown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding almost seventy years before? And what was her Nan’s connection to the celebrated textile artist and holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?

With The Gown, Jennifer Robson takes us inside the workrooms where one of the most famous wedding gowns in history was created. Balancing behind-the-scenes details with a sweeping portrait of a society left reeling by the calamitous costs of victory, she introduces readers to three unforgettable heroines, their points of view alternating and intersecting throughout its pages, whose lives are woven together by the pain of survival, the bonds of friendship, and the redemptive power of love.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy in January 2019.

Why I want to read it:

I read so many stellar reviews when this book first came out. I don’t always love dual timeline historical fiction, but the synopsis for this book really intrigued me. After watching seasons 1 and 2 of The Crown, I’m very interested in learning more about Queen Elizabeth’s royal wedding. This novel’s focus on the people behind the scenes of the wedding preparations makes this sound like a really special read.

Plus, this is a good reminder for me to get caught up on The Crown season 3 before season 4 is released in November!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Shelf Control #197: The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

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.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

Title: The Girl Who Wrote in Silk
Author: Kelli Estes
Published: 2015
Length: 391 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Inara Erickson is exploring her deceased aunt’s island estate when she finds an elaborately stitched piece of fabric hidden in the house. As she peels back layer upon layer of the secrets it holds, Inara’s life becomes interwoven with that of Mei Lein, a young Chinese girl mysteriously driven from her home a century before. Through the stories Mei Lein tells in silk, Inara uncovers a tragic truth that will shake her family to its core — and force her to make an impossible choice.

Inspired by true events, Kelli Estes’s brilliant and atmospheric debut serves as a poignant tale of two women determined to do the right thing, and the power of our own stories.

How and when I got it:

I bought the e-book a year ago, when my book group selected this as an upcoming read.

Why I want to read it:

This is me being a bad book group member! The Girl Who Wrote in Silk was our group read for January 2019, and I had the best of intentions… and then time just slipped away, and I never got around to reading the book or participating in the discussion. A couple of months ago, I read the author’s newest book, Today We Go Home, and I absolutely loved it. It was a beautiful, moving story, and it made me very eager to finally go back and read the book I’d missed!

Plus, the plot does sound like something I’d enjoy. When well done, I love a dual timeline story, and between the secrets of the silk and the Pacific Northwest setting, this book sounds like it’ll be powerful and atmospheric.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

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!

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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

Shelf Control #143: Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

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.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Secrets of the Sea House
Author: Elisabeth Gifford
Published: 2013
Length: 303 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In 1860, Alexander Ferguson, a newly ordained vicar and amateur evolutionary scientist, takes up his new parish, a poor, isolated patch on the remote Scottish island of Harris. He hopes to uncover the truth behind the legend of the selkies—mermaids or seal people who have been sighted off the north of Scotland for centuries. He has a more personal motive, too; family legend states that Alexander is descended from seal men. As he struggles to be the good pastor he was called to be, his maid Moira faces the terrible eviction of her family by Lord Marstone, whose family owns the island. Their time on the island will irrevocably change the course of both their lives, but the white house on the edge of the dunes keeps its silence long after they are gone.

It will be more than a century before the Sea House reluctantly gives up its secrets. Ruth and Michael buy the grand but dilapidated building and begin to turn it into a home for the family they hope to have. Their dreams are marred by a shocking discovery. The tiny bones of a baby are buried beneath the house; the child’s fragile legs are fused together—a mermaid child. Who buried the bones? And why? To heal her own demons, Ruth feels she must discover the secrets of her new home—but the answers to her questions may lie in her own traumatic past. The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford is a sweeping tale of hope and redemption and a study of how we heal ourselves by discovering our histories.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy several years ago, after hearing recommendations from book group friends.

Why I want to read it:

Okay, a) Scotland! But b) it just sounds like a good story, with a dual timeline, the myth of the selkies, and family secrets. I’ve heard really good things about this author, but haven’t read any of her work. Have you?

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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