Book Review: Ellie and the Harpmaker by Hazel Prior


A rich, heartwarming and completely charming debut that reminds us that sometimes, you don’t find love–love finds you.

Dan Hollis lives a happy, solitary life carving exquisite Celtic harps in his barn in the countryside of the English moors. Here, he can be himself, away from social situations that he doesn’t always get right or completely understand.

Ellie Jacobs is a lonely housewife, her days filled with walks and poetry she writes in secret.

One day, she comes across Dan’s barn and is enchanted by his collection. Dan gives her a harp made of cherry wood to match her cherry socks. He stores it for her, ready for whenever she’d like to take lessons.

Ellie begins visiting Dan almost daily, drifting deeper into his world. But when she accidentally discovers a secret, she must make a choice: keep it from him and risk their friendship, or change the course of their lives forever

Ellie and the Harpmaker is a sweet, lovely debut novel that crept up on me and then completely entranced me! Such a magical and deceptively simple tale.

Told through alternating chapters, we get to see the world through Dan and Ellie’s eyes. Dan is unusual, to say the least. He loves his solitude, the peace of Exmoor, the woods and streams and pebbles all around him, and most of all, the hand-carved harps that are his passion and his livelihood. He view the world and understands interactions completely literally — he’s presented here as someone who appears to be somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, although this is never actually stated. He functions well, but lacks the ability to interpret many of the social constructs and behaviors that others take for granted.

A woman came to the barn today. Her hair was the color of walnut wood. Her eyes were the color of bracken in October. Her socks were the color of cherries, which was noticeable because the rest of her clothes were sad colors.

Ellie is an unfulfilled housewife in her 30s, a woman whose father’s death has prompted her to make a list of things to do before she’s 40 — and one of these is to learn to play music. When she happens upon the Harp Barn, she’s astonished by Dan’s workmanship and the beauty of his harps, and is intrigued by Dan himself. Dan insists on gifting her with a harp, but Ellie’s husband Clive forces her to return it, believing that she misunderstands Dan’s intentions. But Dan then insists that the harp is and always will be Ellie’s, and tells her he’ll keep it for her, for her to play whenever she wants.

It was her harp, and always would be. I never took back a gift. The harp would sit here in my barn and wait for her. It would sit and wait until all the cows had come home. This did not sound like a very long time, so I made it longer. The harp would wait, I told her, until the sea dried up (which someday it would if you gave it long enough) and the stars dropped out of the sky (which someday they would if you gave them long enough), but nevertheless this harp would never, ever belong to anyone else.

Thus begins a warm and unusual friendship between two people whose paths would likely have never crossed. Each adds to the other’s life. As Ellie gets to know Dan better, she digs into his world and his assumptions about the people in it, opening his eyes to new and different aspects of his life that he’d never realized before.

(Being vague here… no spoilers!)

Although the book started slowly for me, I was soon swept away by the lovely writing and the wonderful characters. At first, I was afraid that Ellie and the Harpmaker would feel too much like a clone of The Rosie Project and other recent reads about people who present with social difficulties and/or on the spectrum. Not so. Very quickly Ellie and the Harpmaker won my heart in its own way, erasing thoughts of comparisons to other books from my mind.

Sometimes the ifs work for you and sometimes they work against you. Sometimes you think they are working for you whereas in fact they are working against you, and sometimes you think they are working against you whereas in fact they are working for you. It is only when you look back that you realize, and you don’t always realize even then.

I grew to love Dan and Ellie, and felt all the feels as I read about their journeys, alone and together. Ellie’s marriage is frustrating to read about and I wanted to give her a good shake, but she becomes more self-aware as the book progresses, and I was proud of her for the realizations she finds along the way. Dan is simply lovely — a giving, creative, uncomplicated person who only knows how to be good. He’s really marvelous, and someone I won’t soon forget.

Please do yourself a favor and read this book! Ellie and the Harpmaker is a delicious read that left me hungry for beautiful music and a forest to wander through.

The details:

Title: Ellie and the Harpmaker
Author: Hazel Prior
Publisher: Berkley Publishing
Publication date: August 6, 2019
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan

From the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir comes a thrilling new WWII story about a village busybody—the mighty Mrs. Braithwaite—who resolves to find, and then rescue, her missing daughter

Mrs. Braithwaite, self-appointed queen of her English village, finds herself dethroned, despised, and dismissed following her husband’s selfish divorce petition. Never deterred, the threat of a family secret being revealed sets her hot-foot to London to find the only person she has left—her clever daughter Betty, who took work there at the first rumbles of war.

But when she arrives, Betty’s landlord, the timid Mr. Norris, informs her that Betty hasn’t been home in days–with the chaos of the bombs, there’s no telling what might have befallen her. Aghast, Mrs. Braithwaite sets her bullish determination to the task of finding her only daughter.

Storming into the London Blitz, Mrs. Braithwaite drags the reluctant Mr. Norris along as an unwitting sidekick as they piece together Betty’s unexpectedly chaotic life. As she is thrown into the midst of danger and death, Mrs. Braithwaite is forced to rethink her old-fashioned notions of status, class, and reputation, and to reconsider the question that’s been puzzling her since her world overturned: How do you measure the success of your life?

Readers will be charmed by the unforgettable Mrs. Braithwaite and her plucky, ruthless optimism, and find in The Spies of Shilling Lane a novel with surprising twists and turns, quiet humor, and a poignant examination of mothers and daughters and the secrets we keep. 

Jennifer Ryan is the author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, one of my favorite reads of the past couple of years — and she strikes gold yet again with her newest novel, The Spies of Shilling Lane. Here, we meet the intimidating Mrs. Braithwaite, pushed out of her leadership position with her village women’s volunteer corps after one too many criticisms and commands aimed at the other women. Feeling utterly rejected, Mrs. Braithwaite decides to go visit her 21-year-old daughter Betty, who left the village to take up a clerical position in London, seeking excitement and a sense of purpose during wartime.

However, when Mrs. Braithwaite arrives at Betty’s lodging house, she finds out that no one has seen her daughter in at least four days, and while no one else seems particularly panicked, Mrs. Braithwaite is sure that Betty must need rescuing. And nobody stands between Mrs. Braithwaite and her daughter! She sets out to find her daughter, coercing poor Mr. Norris to help her out, and uses her cyclone energy to push, demand, and bully people into giving her information.

It turns out that her motherly instincts were indeed correct and Betty is in trouble, of a sort that Mrs. Braithwaite could not have anticipated. And despite the tumultuous, strained relationship between mother and daughter, Mrs. Braithwaite charges into action to save Betty, only to end up needing saving in return.

What follows is a rollicking adventure, full of can-do spirit as well as intrigue and double-crossing. Mrs. Braithwaite is an absolute delight as a main character. How many books do we get to read that feature a 50-something-year-old proper Englishwoman as an action hero? She is just a force of nature, and will not let anyone stand in the way of her taking care of her daughter. Of course, Betty is far from helpless, as Mrs. Braithwaite learns, and between the two of them, we see a pair of strong women whose courage makes a difference in the British war effort.

The Spies of Shilling Lane has a light-hearted feel at times, as the action sequences aren’t simply smooth Jame Bond maneuvers, but rather are full of errors and accidents and fumbling about. Mrs. Braithwaite and Mr. Norris are such an unlikely pair of secret agents, tracking down clues, picking locks, and befriending the local criminal element, all in pursuit of a rather nasty bunch of evil-doers. At the same time, the reflections on the mother-daughter relationship, the pressures of societal expectations, and the damage that can be done by overbearing family members are all well described and add resonance to the characters’ feelings and reactions.

It’s also incredibly harrowing and moving to see the air raids and the devastation that results, and I first found myself really loving Mrs. Braithwaite because of her interactions with an injured young woman whom she discovers as she’s searching for Betty.

All in all, I’d say that The Spies of Shilling Lane is an excellent look at remarkable women during wartime. There are plenty of moments that made me smile, as well as scenes of tension and suspense. Mrs. Braithwaite is so delightful — I’d love to read about more of her adventures!

If you enjoy women-centered historical fiction, definitely check this one out!


The details:

Title: The Spies of Shilling Lane
Author: Jennifer Ryan
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: June 4, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Shelf Control #130: Sorcery & Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot

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!


Title: Sorcery & Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot
Author: Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer
Published: 1988
Length: 326 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Two girls contend with sorcery in England’s Regency age.

Since they were children, cousins Kate and Cecelia have been inseparable. But in 1817, as they approach adulthood, their families force them to spend a summer apart. As Cecelia fights boredom in her small country town, Kate visits London to mingle with the brightest lights of English society.

At the initiation of a powerful magician into the Royal College of Wizards, Kate finds herself alone with a mysterious witch who offers her a sip from a chocolate pot. When Kate refuses the drink, the chocolate burns through her dress and the witch disappears. It seems that strange forces are convening to destroy a beloved wizard, and only Kate and Cecelia can stop the plot. But for two girls who have to contend with the pressures of choosing dresses and beaux for their debuts, deadly magic is only one of their concerns.

How and when I got it:

I ordered myself a copy several years ago after reading a recommendation from one of my favorite authors…

Why I want to read it:

This book first came to my attention thanks to Gail Carriger — and when she recommends a book, I listen! Meanwhile, since picking up Sorcery & Cecelia, I’ve read two other series by Patricia C. Wrede (Frontier Magic and Enchanted Forest Chronicles), and I think she’s just so clever and creative. And hey, a sorcery story set in Regency England — how could it not be fun?


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!














Audiobook Review: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan


The village of Chilbury in Kent is about to ring in some changes.

This is a delightful novel of wartime gumption and village spirit that will make your heart sing out.

Kent, 1940.

In the idyllic village of Chilbury change is afoot. Hearts are breaking as sons and husbands leave to fight, and when the Vicar decides to close the choir until the men return, all seems lost.

But coming together in song is just what the women of Chilbury need in these dark hours, and they are ready to sing. With a little fighting spirit and the arrival of a new musical resident, the charismatic Miss Primrose Trent, the choir is reborn.

Some see the choir as a chance to forget their troubles, others the chance to shine. Though for one villager, the choir is the perfect cover to destroy Chilbury’s new-found harmony.

Uplifting and profoundly moving, THE CHILBURY LADIES’ CHOIR explores how a village can endure the onslaught of war, how monumental history affects small lives and how survival is as much about friendship as it is about courage.

What an uplifting, engaging, utterly delightful read (and listen)!

The Chilbury Ladies Choir is set in the small English village of Chilbury in 1940, as the ladies of the town try to find purpose and solace while the men are at war. When the official church choir is closed down due to a lack of men, spirits sink even further, until the women decide to sing on their own. Stemming from there, relationships are strengthened as the women find a new source of courage. By standing up together, they realize they can make a difference, and each, in her own way, starts to move beyond the boundaries of her former life and take a chance on something new.

Told through journal entries, newspaper clippings, and letters, we get to know the main characters through their own voices, which is a wonderful touch. Young Kitty Winthrop, age 13 (almost 14! as she likes to point out) is an aspiring singer with a childish crush on an older boy, which she allows to dominate her romantic dreams. Kitty’s sister Venetia, age 18, is the town beauty who likes nothing better than flirting and toying with attractive men, making them fall in love with her and then pushing them aside once they do. However, when Venetia meets the mysterious Mr. Sleator, an artist who moves to Chilbury along with many other evacuees, she sense something more in him than merely this week’s fling. For Mrs. Tilling, a woman widowed years earlier whose only son is now fighting in the war, the ladies’ choir offers a chance to create beauty and harmony, and helps her come out of her shy shell and become a leading force in the community. And then there’s Mrs. Paltrey, a midwife with a heart of stone, who schemes to make it rich no matter what, and no matter whose lives may be shattered along the way.

It’s moving and fascinating to see how these and other characters grow and change over the course of the book. Venetia in particular is an absorbing character. Shallow and self-centered when we first meet her, she grows into a woman of substance over the months we know her, as she falls in love, suffers great loss, and emerges as a hero at a time of devastation. Likewise, Kitty, while still a young woman, learns to appreciate those around her and see people more realistically, while also realizing that even someone of her young age can make a difference.

These characters’ stories, as well as those of other women of the village, weave together to create a portrait of community and courage. We don’t go to war; we stay behind and see how this small village is affected by the war, and how all are changed by it, for good or for ill.

I loved the audiobook version, which features a cast of voice actors to represent the main narrative voices of the story. Hearing the women’s stories told in their own words, each with a voice that felt specific to that character’s true self, was a really special way to appreciate the story. In this particular case, I highly encourage giving the audio a try — it’s a wonderful experience. As an added bonus, in key points in the story, we hear choral music in the background which ties in with what the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is singing in that moment. It’s not overdone, certainly not enough to interrupt the flow or get annoying. Instead, at crucial moments, when a song is particularly meaningful in relation to the events being portrayed, we hear a lovely women’s choir providing an added bit of atmostphere.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir was a book group pick, and yet another one that I might have skipped over if not for the group. When it was first selected I was skeptical: The title made me think that it would be a very church-y sort of book, perhaps a little saccharine and cloying. Well, once again I’m glad to not have judged a book by its title! The choir itself is the framework of the story, but really, the book is about so much more. It’s a portrait of the courage and strength a community can find by supporting one another through the worst of times, and shows how each woman emerges as a better version of herself when given the opportunity to step forward and stand up.

Highly recommended!


The details:

Title: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir
Author: Jennifer Ryan
Narrated by:  Gabrielle Glaister, Laura Kirman, Imogen Wilde, Adjoa Andoh, Tom Clegg, Mike Grady
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: February 14, 2017
Length (print): 384 pages
Length (audio): 11 hours, 34 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased**Save







Thursday Quotables: The Uncommon Reader


Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

NEW! Thursday Quotables is now using a Linky tool! Be sure to add your link if you have a Thursday Quotables post to share.

Uncommon Reader

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
(published 2007 )

This slim novella is such a delight for a bookworm like me! What would happen if the Queen of England suddenly become an avid reader? In this fictional account of the Queen’s love of books, it’s all-consuming, highly inspirational (to her), and highly annoying (to everyone else). Here are a few snippets that I found so amusing:

1 – From a conversation with a servant about the Queen’s first book borrowed from the bookmobile near the palace grounds:

“How far did your Majesty get?”

“Oh, to the end. Once I start a book I finish it. That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato — one finishes what’s on one’s plate. That’s always been my philosophy.”

2 – On why she’s so hooked:

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something undeferring about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. […] … and this took her back to the beginning of her life. As a girl, one of her greatest thrills had been on VE night when she and her sister had slipped out of the gates and mingled unrecognised with the crowds. There was something of that, she felt, to reading. It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who had led a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognised.

3 – On how irritating her Majesty’s reading is to her usual companions:

This dislike of the Queen’s reading was not confined to the household. Whereas in the past walkies had meant a noisy and restrained romp in the grounds, these days, once she was out of sight of her house, Her Majesty sank onto the nearest seat and took out her book. Occasionally she threw a bored biscuit in the direction of the dogs, but there was none of that ball-throwing, stick-fetching and orchestrated frenzy that used to enliven their perambulations. Indulged and bad-tempered though they were, the dogs were not unintelligent, so it was not surprising that in a short space of time they came to hate books as the spoilsports they were (and always have been).

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (, if you’d be so kind!
  • Click on the linky button (look for the cute froggie face) below to add your link.
  • After you link up, I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

Book Review: The Uninvited Guests

Book Review: The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones

To say that The Uninvited Guests was not what I expected is an understatement. Based on the cover (gorgeous, right?) and the four pages of blurbs at the front of the books, six of which compare the book to Downton Abbey, I thought I’d be reading a comedy of manners or a genteel but gently critical view of the Upstairs, Downstairs dynamics of early 20th century classism. Instead, what I experienced was a bizarre tale of a wealthy family on the brink of financial disaster that — BOOM — suddenly became a ghost story full of decay, mad hauntings and vengeful spirits, and a house that literally falls to pieces overnight.

At the heart of The Uninvited Guests is the Torrington family, about to celebrate daughter Emerald’s 20th birthday. (Think of Emerald as the Mary Crawley of the piece, if you will). Mother Charlotte is remarried to the reliable, loving Edward Swift, who in turn is resented by Emerald and her brother Clovis. Alas, the manor house bought decades earlier by their late father Horace is on the verge of financial collapse, and so Edward travels away from home for a night in a last-ditch effort to save the family estate by securing a loan from an unpleasant business acquaintance.

Invited guests — a wealthy neighbor and some dear friends — come to Sterne for the birthday celebration, but unfortunately, so do quite a few uninvited guests, victims of a train derailment somewhere nearby, now stranded and in need of shelter until the railroad can make other arrangements. As the family attempts to carry on with the birthday feast, they neglect their unwanted guests until guilt and unanticipated chaos further disrupt the evening. As events spiral out of control, baser, crueler natures emerge. As the night turns wilder and wilder, the house itself is slowly destroyed from the inside, as filth, rot, rain, and mud overtake it inch by inch, and the family must come together to defeat the elements, both natural and supernatural.

I suppose you could read The Uninvited Guests as an allegory for the rot at the heart of the class system, or an indictment of the type of stiff-upper-lip social demands that keep children at arm’s length from parents and demand propriety at the expense of feeling. I see all that in this book, and yet it just doesn’t work for me. The characters are not sympathetic or even particularly well-defined, the events veer all over the place, and the supernatural elements come and go in ways that feel forced and out place. The weirdly cheerful and sunshine-filled ending was quite dissonant with the rest of the story, and I didn’t feel like this awkward, cold family earned the easy resolution that came their way.

The Uninvited Guests is full of interesting language choices and passages of quite lovely writing. Still, I found the whole to be disjointed and rather unsatisfying.

Ending thoughts: I will acknowledge that perhaps it’s me, not the book. The endless blurbs for this book are completely glowing, and my city’s public library system has chosen The Uninvited Guests as its city-wide read this month. Perhaps I missed something that everyone else saw in it. In any case, all I can offer is my own opinion: While I was never bored, and was even intrigued by certain developments, on the whole, this book just did not work for me.