Book Review: An Unexpected Peril (Veronica Speedwell, #6) by Deanna Raybourn

Title: An Unexpected Peril (Veronica Speedwell, #6)
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: March 2, 2021
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A princess is missing, and a peace treaty is on the verge of collapse in this new Veronica Speedwell adventure from the New York Times bestselling and Edgar Award-nominated author Deanna Raybourn.

January 1889. As the newest member of the Curiosity Club—an elite society of brilliant, intrepid women—Veronica Speedwell is excited to put her many skills to good use. As she assembles a memorial exhibition for pioneering mountain climber Alice Baker-Greene, Veronica discovers evidence that the recent death was not a tragic climbing accident but murder. Veronica and her natural historian beau, Stoker, tell the patron of the exhibit, Princess Gisela of Alpenwald, of their findings. With Europe on the verge of war, Gisela’s chancellor, Count von Rechstein, does not want to make waves—and before Veronica and Stoker can figure out their next move, the princess disappears.

Having noted Veronica’s resemblance to the princess, von Rechstein begs her to pose as Gisela for the sake of the peace treaty that brought the princess to England. Veronica reluctantly agrees to the scheme. She and Stoker must work together to keep the treaty intact while navigating unwelcome advances, assassination attempts, and Veronica’s own family—the royalty who has never claimed her.

Six books in, the Veronica Speedwell series shows no hint of getting stale or slowing down. In An Unexpected Peril, our intrepid lepidopterist finds herself once again embroiled in a murder investigation, putting her own life at risk as well as that of her hot, devoted, decidedly dangerous lover Stoker.

Veronica is Victorian-era spunk and determination personified. She’s a fearless explorer, a scientist passionately devoted to pursuit of rare butterfly species and the works of Darwin, a devoted sensualist, and a woman who does not back down. So when she and Stoker are commissioned to put together an exhibit dedicated to Alice Baker-Greene, a pioneering mountain climber who died tragically while attempting to summit an alp in the small (and fictional) country of Alpenwald, she finds herself unable to look past evidence that the death was murder.

Meanwhile, Veronica’s noted physical similarity to the princess of Alpenwald comes in handy when the princess disappears and the country’s diplomatic entourage to England recruits Veronica to act as a public stand-in. Naturally, nothing goes quite according to plan, and before long, Veronica and Stoker find themselves — yet again — in mortal danger as they pursue the truth.

The princess watched us in bemusement.

“Do you always take your own attempted murder in your stride?”

I considered this. “The first time is unnerving,” I admitted.

“But when it gets to be habit,” Stoker added, “one must adapt a rational attitude and make certain to eat to keep up one’s strength.”

An Unexpected Peril is a fun romp of a book, with royal glamour, risky adventures, misleading clues, and the deliciously passionate relationship between Veronica and Stoker. Their banter is always funny and outrageous, and their connection and relationship remain unconventional yet deeply loving.

The through-story of the series, related to Veronica’s background and her connection to the British royal family, remains simmering in the background, and I’m sure will be explored further as the series continues. (Book 7 should be released in 2022, and I hope there will be many, many more to come!)

This series is worth starting at the beginning. Veronica is a delightful character, and her adventures never fail to entertain. Start at the beginning (A Curious Beginning), and keep going!

Shelf Control #258: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

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: The Alice Network
Author: Kate Quinn
Published: 2017
Length: 503 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.

1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, code name Alice, the “queen of spies”, who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth…no matter where it leads.

How and when I got it:

I bought a paperback about two years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I think I’m the only person who hasn’t read The Alice Network! I know it’s been incredibly popular with book groups and book bloggers. I’m a fan of historical fiction, and of course there are so many excellent novels set against the backdrop of the World Wars. I love seeing strong female characters taking on unusual roles, and the synopsis makes this story of a women’s spy ring sound thrilling.

I’ve been seeing a lot of buzz for Kate Quinn’s upcoming new release, The Rose Code, and feel like I should read The Alice Network (finally!) before trying to score a copy of her new book.

What do you think? Have you read The Alice Network? And if not, would you want to?

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 Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan

Title: The Kitchen Front
Author: Jennifer Ryan
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: February 23, 2021
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In a new World War II-set story from the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, four women compete for a spot hosting a wartime cookery program called The Kitchen Front – based on the actual BBC program of the same name – as well as a chance to better their lives.

Two years into WW2, Britain is feeling her losses; the Nazis have won battles, the Blitz has destroyed cities, and U-boats have cut off the supply of food. In an effort to help housewives with food rationing, a BBC radio program called The Kitchen Front is putting on a cooking contest–and the grand prize is a job as the program’s first-ever female co-host. For four very different women, winning the contest presents a crucial chance to change their lives.

For a young widow, it’s a chance to pay off her husband’s debts and keep a roof over her children’s heads. For a kitchen maid, it’s a chance to leave servitude and find freedom. For the lady of the manor, it’s a chance to escape her wealthy husband’s increasingly hostile behavior. And for a trained chef, it’s a chance to challenge the men at the top of her profession.

These four women are giving the competition their all–even if that sometimes means bending the rules. But with so much at stake, will the contest that aims to bring the community together serve only to break it apart?

The Kitchen Front is a fascinating look at World War II’s impact on the women and children back on the home front, who face not battlefield danger but the perils of bombing raids and food shortages.

Set in 1942, the story centers on a competition hosted by the (historically real) BBC radio program The Kitchen Front. The purpose of the program is to promote the creative use of wartime rations, aimed at British housewives struggling to feed their families when so many basics just aren’t to be had. The competition is open to professional cooks, and the prize is a co-hosting role on the radio program.

In the small town of Fenley Village, located not far from London, life is bleak for many of the town’s residents. While rare food items can still be had through the black market, most families get by on their rations and what they can grow in their own gardens. Everything can and must be repurposed, and the creativity required to actually make edible and nutritious food is remarkable.

The four main characters of the story are all very different, and each has her own reason for wanting — or needing — to win the competition. For Audrey, a grieving war widow deeply in debt trying to keep her three sons housed and fed, it’s a chance to finally get back on her feet financially. For her sister Gwendolyn, it’s a way to boost her bullying, wealthy husband’s prestige and keep his anger at bay. For Nell, a kitchen maid who’s finally learning to stand on her own two feet, it’s a dream of a life outside of service. And for Zelda, a Cordon Bleu chef facing sexism in the world of haute cuisine, it’s a means of staking a claim on the professional respect and opportunities that continually elude her.

As the four compete, they form bonds as well, and as secrets are revealed, they come together to form a new family and envision a future that benefits them all.

The book is divided into three sections, corresponding with the three rounds of the competition — starters, main courses, and desserts. In each, we learn more about the four women, and also see the different processes each uses as she invents and creates her dish for the competition. The book includes recipes for all the meals discussed, and it’s truly amazing to learn about the substitutions needed to get by on wartime rations. Who knew that the British government promoted whale meat as an alternative to beef?

I found the aspects of the book related to how the women on the home front used their wits and resources to feed their families really fascinating, and I enjoyed the picture of village life during war, the bonds of the four main characters, and the sense of sisterhood that ultimately makes all of them stronger.

Somehow, though, the overarching plotlines felt a little predictable and bland to me. I liked each of the characters well enough, but they often felt more like types than fully-fleshed out people. Maybe because the focus was split between the four, it didn’t give any one of them the opportunity to fully blossom as a main character.

Still, I enjoyed this book very much. As with her previous novels, especially the wonderful The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, author Jennifer Ryan uses her meticulous research to bring out the feel of the era, and in this case, to bring out the flavors of family life in wartime England. The story is heartwarming, and gave me a sense of peering behind the headlines of war to see the impact on the people left behind to carry on. A recommended read!

Book Review: The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

Title: The Four Winds
Author: Kristin Hannah
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: February 2, 2021
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Nightingale and The Great Alone comes an epic novel of love and heroism and hope, set against the backdrop of one of America’s most defining eras—the Great Depression.

Texas, 1934. Millions are out of work and a drought has broken the Great Plains. Farmers are fighting to keep their land and their livelihoods as the crops are failing, the water is drying up, and dust threatens to bury them all. One of the darkest periods of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl era, has arrived with a vengeance.

In this uncertain and dangerous time, Elsa Martinelli—like so many of her neighbors—must make an agonizing choice: fight for the land she loves or go west, to California, in search of a better life. The Four Winds is an indelible portrait of America and the American Dream, as seen through the eyes of one indomitable woman whose courage and sacrifice will come to define a generation.

The Four Winds is a powerful, dramatic, and heart-breaking book set during the Great Depression, with an incredibly strong and memorable woman as its lead character and emotional core.

Elsa is the oldest daughter of a wealthy Texas family when we first meet her in 1921. At age 25, she’s considered a spinster. For reasons that are impossible to fathom, her parents have treated her as someone unworthy of love all her life. Their scorn and dismissal have led to Elsa’s internalization of their cruelty — she sees her self as unattractive and uninteresting. Despite her love of reading and interest in education, her parents won’t even consider her request to attend college.

Elsa is doomed to a solitary life, until one day, a rebellious moment leads her to venture out in a pretty dress to go to a speakeasy, and she meets a young man, Rafe, whose interest will change her life. When Elsa’s parents realize that she’s pregnant, they force her to pack a suitcase and drive her to Rafe’s parents’ farm, where they drop her on their doorstep and never look back.

Against all odds, it’s here that Elsa truly finds love and purpose in life — not with her unexpected husband, but in his family’s home. Suddenly, Elsa has family and a place, and learns to embrace the farm, the household, the culture, and the people. Her devotion to her new family only grows once she gives birth to her daughter Loreda. She’s determined to raise her children with love and with a connection to the land, their heritage.

Tragically, the happiness on the farm is not to last. The Dust Bowl years descend, with their punishing drought and horrific dust storms, and Elsa and the Martinellis, like all of their neighbors, are helpless and powerless in the face of this disaster. Over the years, they watch their crops fail, their lands dry up, their livestock starve and die. Many pack up and leave, lured by the promise of opportunity and jobs in California. The Martinellis vow never to leave, but this changes once the children’s health is threatened by the lack of food and the damage caused by constantly breathing in dirt and dust.

Ultimately, Elsa has no choice but to take her children and head west in pursuit of a new, healthier life. At first glance, it looks like they’ve found the promised land. As they drive into California, they see field after field of crops growing, green and healthy. But the dream is elusive for migrants. Overwhelmed by the flood of displaced people from the Dust Bowl states, California wants to shut its borders to “Okies”, and treats the newcomers as little more than vermin.

Elsa and her children learn that they’ve left one type of hell for another. There’s no place to live except in squatters’ camps, amid mud and filth, and no work available except toiling in the fields for minimal pay in terrible conditions. There are more workers than work, so they quickly learn to keep quiet and accept whatever comes their way, because the alternative is to starve.

The cruelty of the treatment of migrants is horrible to read about. Hospitals won’t treat them, even in life-threatening emergencies. They’re not wanted in schools, and are told to keep to their own kind. State relief is only available after living in the state for a year, but even then, the big farmers put pressure on the state to cut off relief to anyone who’s able to “pick” — if they can work, they should be in the fields.

When Elsa gets a lucky break and is able to move her family into a cabin on a growers’ land, it’s finally a roof over their heads, but with strings. To keep the cabin, they have to stay put, but there’s no work until the cotton is ready to pick. If they leave to pick elsewhere, they give up their home and have to go back to squatting. To stay, they get credit at the company store for rent, supplies, and food. The only way to pay back the credit is through picking — even when relief payments come through and Elsa has cash in hand, she can’t use it to get out of debt, since the company store doesn’t allow payment in cash.

Over the years, we witness Elsa’s determination to protect her children and provide for them. Midway through the book, as Loreda enters her teens, she also becomes a point-of-view character, and we have the opportunity to see Elsa through her daughter’s eyes. The mother-daughter relationship isn’t easy, but the love between them is always real and palpable.

Reading The Four Winds repeatedly brought me to tears. Through her evocative writing, Kristin Hannah makes us feel the sorrow and hopelessness of the characters, the desperation to provide a better life for their children, the despair each time a new degradation is revealed. The pain of the Martinelli family is visceral, as they face trauma after trauma.

Still, it’s impossible not to admire Elsa’s courage. She doesn’t give up, because she can’t. Her purpose is to keep her children alive and healthy, and to make sure that some day, they’ll have better opportunities. Eventually, her devotion to her children leads her into the world of social activism and the fight for workers’ rights, but it’s her love of family that drives her into acts of defiance and bravery.

The Four Winds is a beautiful and tragic book about a time in American history that’s not as distant as it might seem. Sadly, the attitudes and prejudices toward the migrant families are all too familiar — it’s the haves versus the have-nots, the consolidation of power by denying others, the lack of recognition of basic human dignity, and a complete lack of compassion for those less fortunate.

I highly recommend The Four Winds. This is a book that kept me awake each night, because I couldn’t get the images and situations out of my mind. Ultimately, the characters (especially Elsa) make the biggest impression, but overall, the story is moving, disturbing, memorable, and important. Don’t miss it.

******************

A final note: Two songs kept coming up for me in relation to The Four Winds. The first is Sixteen Tons, which is about coal miners, but some lines really resonate: “You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt” and “St. Peter don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go – I owe my soul to the company store.” The song was originally written by Merle Travis, and has been recorded by lots of artists over the years. Here’s a version by LeAnn Rimes:

The other song which was in my head throughout my entire reading of this powerful book is These Troubled Fields by Nancy Griffith. It’s a beautiful song that I’ve loved for years, and it’s only as I was reading The Four Winds that I realized that her song directly references the Dust Bowl era. Check it out.

Book Review: We Came Here To Shine by Susie Orman Schnall

Title: We Came Here To Shine
Author: Susie Orman Schnal
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: June 16, 2020
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

At the iconic 1939 New York World’s Fair, two ambitious young women—a down-on-her-luck actress and an aspiring journalist—form an unlikely friendship as they navigate a world of possibility and find out what they are truly made of during a glorious summer of spectacle and potential…

Gorgeous Vivi is about to begin filming her first starring role in a Hollywood picture when the studio head ships her off to New York as a favor to a friend. She’s assigned the leading role in the heralded Aquacade synchronized swimming spectacular at the World’s Fair, a fate she believes will destroy her film career. If she performs well, she’ll have another chance at stardom, but with everything working against her, will her summer lead to opportunity or failure?

Plucky Max dreams of becoming a serious journalist, but when her job at the New York Times doesn’t pan out, she finds herself begrudgingly working for the daily paper of the World’s Fair. As her ideas are continually overlooked by her male counterparts and her career prospects are put in jeopardy, Max must risk everything to change the course of her life.

When Max and Vivi’s worlds collide, they forge an enduring friendship. One that teaches them to go after what matters most during the most meaningful summer of their lives.

We Came Here To Shine takes place at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, bringing the spectacle to life through the experiences of Max and Vivi, two very different women who find themselves drawn together as they each battle sexism and misogyny.

Max is a journalism student at NYU, whose dream is to become a star reporter for the New York Times. As part of the coursework, each member of the class is assigned to a summer internship with a New York publication. Max is crushed when she loses out on her first choice with the Times, and is instead assigned to Today At The Fair, the daily paper produced at the World’s Fair to highlight the days’ events and generate buzz and excitement.

It gets even worse when she and her classmate Charlie show up to work on the first day, only to be told that Charlie will write all the articles, and Max will be responsible for the daily event listings. When she protests, she’s told that women aren’t suited for reporting, and are much better at doing detail work like lists and calendars. Max is furious, especially because she and her classmates are competing for a scholarship that will be awarded based on submission of articles written during the internship. Without the scholarship, Max doesn’t see a way that she can afford the next year’s tuition.

Meanwhile, Vivi is on track as a rising starlet in the Hollywood studio system. After supporting roles in a few films, Vivi is about to start filming a starring role in a new movie — until the studio chief informs her that she’s being replaced, and is instead being loaned out to Billy Rose, the producer of the Aquacade swimming show at the World’s Fair. The Aquacade’s star (in the role of Aquabelle Number One) has been injured, and they need someone to replace her and draw in the crowds. Vivi isn’t a movie star yet, but the producers all agree that the Hollywood cachet will boost ticket sales.

Vivi is dismayed and hurt, but has no choice. She’s under contract to the studio, which means they can do as they want with her. They also dangle a promise that after the summer, they have another starring role all lined up for. Do what they want, and she’ll get that chance. Don’t do it, and the studio will be done with her, ending her Hollywood dreams for good.

There’s a lot to like about We Came Here To Shine, but it fell flat for me in several ways.

First, what I liked:

  • Being introduced to the wonders of the Fair, which at that time would have been mind-boggling. New technologies, glorious buildings and gardens, international pavillions, glamorous restaurants, and the Aquacade — the book does a great job of conveying the awe of experiencing the Fair for the first time.
  • I liked Max and Vivi’s friendship and how they supported one another through their lowpoints, helping each other figure out how to get out of terrible situations and take control of their own paths.
  • The sense of the impact of the Depression, as shown by Max’s family life as well as by some of the negative reactions to the Fair around the ticket prices making it beyond the reach of many families.
  • The photos and historical notes included in the book, which really helped me appreciate different attractions mentioned in the story, as well as explaining which of the issues and people are real and which are created by the author.
  • The inclusion of the National Women’s Party (a real organization) as an inspiration for both Max and Vivi.

The bits that didn’t really work for me:

  • For someone who’s described as being top of her class in journalism, the tastes we get of Max’s writing just aren’t impressive. In fact, the pieces she submits for the scholarship competition are sensational without including sources or diving beyond the surface.
  • It doesn’t actually make sense that Vivi would be chosen to take on the high-profile starring role in the Aquacade. She was on her high school swim team, but has never done choreography or synchronized swimming, and is initially given just four days to rehearse before her first performance.
  • Vivi’s family drama, which drove her to Hollywood in the first place, isn’t explained well enough. We know the basics of what happened, but (see below), the presentation left me feeling that I was reading about stock characters, rather than unique people and dynamics.
  • SPOILER: Vivi, with Max’s help, finds a way to get out of her contract and leave the Aquacade and Hollywood in her past. It’s clear that she’s been mistreated, cheated, and controlled by the various powerful men who run the industry and have absolute power over her career, but I couldn’t quite accept that Vivi’s need to take back her life would include giving up her career and switching aspirations quite so suddenly. It reads as if she never really wanted to become an actress in the first place, but that’s not the impression I had at the start of the book.

The biggest issue I had with the book is the writing. The writing style makes the story feel bland, even when there’s something dramatic happening. In fact, this is probably what bothered me the most: Even as certain events unfolded, I felt like I was being told about what happened, rather than actually seeing them happen. Again and again, I felt like I was reading a summary of the big moments — some key parts felt too short or glossed over, and I never got the sense that I was there.

Still, I did enjoy enough aspects of We Came Here To Shine to make me glad I read it. I’ve now spend some time browsing images and videos to get a sense of what being at the Fair was like. To learn more about the Fair, check out https://www.1939nyworldsfair.com/index.htm. Also, here’s a short video highlighting the Aquacade (silent, but still fun to watch.)

We Came Here To Shine is my book group’s pick for January — yet another book that I likely would not have come across otherwise. Despite the problems mentioned above, it’s worth reading to experience the time and place of such a unique and exciting event.

Shelf Control #252: The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

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: The Stranger’s Child
Author: Alan Hollinghurst
Published: 2012
Length: 564 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In the late summer of 1913, George Sawle brings his Cambridge friend Cecil Valance, a charismatic young poet, to visit his family home. Filled with intimacies and confusions, the weekend will link the families for ever, but its deepest impact will be on George’s sixteen-year-old sister Daphne.

As the decades pass, Daphne and those around her endure startling changes in fortune and circumstance, reputations rise and fall, secrets are revealed and hidden and the events of that long-ago summer become part of a legendary story, told and interpreted in different ways by successive generations.

Powerful, absorbing and richly comic, ‘The Stranger’s Child’ is a masterly exploration of English culture, taste and attitudes over a century of change. 

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy on a whim, at least 6 or 7 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

This was a total impulse buy! On a weekend trip with my daughter, we happened to find a really great bookstore, and this book was prominently displayed on their front rack. I loved the look of the cover, and while I didn’t feel like the back copy gave me a whole lot of information, I just needed to buy it!

I think the main reason I haven’t actually read the book yet is its length. It’s a big book! I do still want to get to it eventually, which is why it hasn’t ended up in my library donation piles just yet.

Have you read this book? Does it sound like something you’d want to read?

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!

Audiobook Review: The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Title: The Giver of Stars
Author: Jojo Moyes
Narrator:  Julia Whelan
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: October 8, 2019
Print length: 388 pages
Audio length: 13 hours 52 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From the author of Me Before You, set in Depression-era America, a breathtaking story of five extraordinary women and their remarkable journey through the mountains of Kentucky and beyond.

Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.

The leader, and soon Alice’s greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who’s never asked a man’s permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky.

What happens to them–and to the men they love–becomes an unforgettable drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. These heroic women refuse to be cowed by men or by convention. And though they face all kinds of dangers in a landscape that is at times breathtakingly beautiful, at others brutal, they’re committed to their job: bringing books to people who have never had any, arming them with facts that will change their lives.

Based on a true story rooted in America’s past, The Giver of Stars is unparalleled in its scope and epic in its storytelling. Funny, heartbreaking, enthralling, it is destined to become a modern classic–a richly rewarding novel of women’s friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond.

Over a year ago, I wrote a post questioning whether we really needed another book about the Depression-era Kentucky pack hours librarians, after having read the excellent The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. A variety of sources had identified concerns about he similarities of this book and The Giver of Stars, which was published later in the same year.

At the time, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read another book on the same historical subject, particularly given some of the questions raised. However, I finally got around to The Giver of Stars after all, and I have to admit, it’s really good.

In The Giver of Stars, we’re introduced to the small town of Baileyville, Kentucky through the eyes of Alice Van Cleve, a young Englishwoman recently married to Bennett Van Cleve, the son of one of the wealthiest and most influential local men. Alice’s starry-eyed approach to marriage is shattered by the absolute lack of affection from Bennett and his constant deferral to his father, in whose house they live and who controls every aspect of their lives.

At a town meeting, a local woman introduces the idea of starting up a pack horse library as part of a WPA project spearheaded by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. While many townsfolk (mostly men) are scandalized, Alice is quick to volunteer, needing to find a purpose and an occupation to take her away from her domestic unhappiness.

The librarians, led by outspoken Margery O’Hare, ride up into the mountains on their mules and horses to deliver books and magazines to the families living there. The job is strenuous and difficult, but rewarding. The women of the library are clearly changing lives with each contact and each delivery.

Alice’s father-in-law is not one to tolerate disobedience, and he takes a particular dislike to Margery’s flouting of traditional feminine roles, painting her as an evil influence to anyone who’ll listen. Mr. Van Cleve owns the local mine that employs much of the adult male population of the area, and he has his own doubtful interests to protect, especially once he suspects Margery of promoting pro-union activism and helping the mountain folk to find ways to thwart his intended mine expansion. His anger becomes more and more dangerous to Alice, Margery, and the existence of the library itself.

The Giver of Stars is an absorbing read, with unique characters we come to care about a great deal, and a nice mix of focus on their personal lives with the bigger picture drama of life in Baileyville and its gossip, natural and man-made dangers, and good-old-boy politics.

The audiobook is lovely, with narration by the talented Julia Whelan, who brings the characters to life, but also beautifully narrates the more descriptive passages about the Kentucky landscapes and the quality of life in the hills.

So, I hereby take back my skepticism about this book! While there are some similarities to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek (apart the most obvious, the choice of general subject matter), there was nothing that particularly jumped out at me while I was listening the The Giver of Stars enough to be disturbing or distracting.

Yes, I guess we really did need two books about pack horse librarians! Both are terrific. My main recommendation would be to read them with some time in between, so each can be appreciated on its own merits. I’m glad I finally gave The Giver of Stars a try!

Audiobook Review: The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline

Title: The Exiles
Author: Christina Baker Kline
Narrator:  Caroline Lee
Publisher: Custom House
Publication date: August 24, 2020
Print length: 370 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 17 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Orphan Train returns with an ambitious, emotionally resonant novel that captures the hardship, oppression, opportunity and hope of a trio of women’s lives in nineteenth-century Australia.

Seduced by her employer’s son, Evangeline, a naïve young governess in early nineteenth-century London, is discharged when her pregnancy is discovered and sent to the notorious Newgate Prison. After months in the fetid, overcrowded jail, she learns she is sentenced to “the land beyond the seas,” Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony in Australia. Though uncertain of what awaits, Evangeline knows one thing: the child she carries will be born on the months-long voyage to this distant land.

During the journey on a repurposed slave ship, the Medea, Evangeline strikes up a friendship with Hazel, a girl little older than her former pupils who was sentenced to seven years transport for stealing a silver spoon. Canny where Evangeline is guileless, Hazel — a skilled midwife and herbalist – is soon offering home remedies to both prisoners and sailors in return for a variety of favors.

Though Australia has been home to Aboriginal people for more than 50,000 years, the British government in the 1840s considers its fledgling colony uninhabited and unsettled, and views the natives as an unpleasant nuisance. By the time the Medea arrives, many of them have been forcibly relocated, their land seized by white colonists. One of these relocated people is Mathinna, the orphaned daughter of the Chief of the Lowreenne tribe, who has been adopted by the new governor of Van Diemen’s Land.

In this gorgeous novel, Christina Baker Kline brilliantly recreates the beginnings of a new society in a beautiful and challenging land, telling the story of Australia from a fresh perspective, through the experiences of Evangeline, Hazel, and Mathinna. While life in Australia is punishing and often brutally unfair, it is also, for some, an opportunity: for redemption, for a new way of life, for unimagined freedom. Told in exquisite detail and incisive prose, The Exiles is a story of grace born from hardship, the unbreakable bonds of female friendships, and the unfettering of legacy.

It’s been a few days since I finished listening to this fascinating, moving, and well-written story, and I feel like I’m still catching my breath.

In The Exiles, author Christina Baker Kline tells a powerful story of women displaced by the rules of others, struggling to survive and to find a place to call home. While the story is uplifting, it’s often so heartbreaking that it made me want to stop and sit quietly for a while to regroup and get my emotions under control.

The book starts by focusing on two very different characters: First, we meet Mathinna. At the opening of the story, she’s eight years old, already living in a sort of exile along with her tribe, who’ve been removed from their lands and forced to relocate to the harsher landscape of Flinders Island. Even there, their lives aren’t peaceful. They’re ruled by British governors, forced to adopt English speech and dress, and limited in their abilities to live as their people always have. When young Mathinna catches the visiting governor’s wife’s attention during a schoolchildren’s performance, Mrs. Franklin decides that Mathinna will be her next experiment. With no consent needed, Governor and Mrs. Franklin leave instruction for Mathinna to be brought to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), to be raised in their home as a test subject — to see if “savages” can be civilized enough to fit into proper society.

At the same time, back in London, we meet Evangeline Stokes, the inexperienced, orphaned daughter of a vicar, who seeks work as a governess with a wealthy family in order to survive after her father’s death. Evangeline is seduced and impregnated by the elder son of the family which employs her, and after she’s found with his ring in her possession, she’s arrested and imprisoned. (He, of course, is such a cad that he never lifts a finger to help her.)

Evangeline is sentenced to transportation, and begins the harrowing four-month sea voyage from England to Australia. To survive, she forges friendships with some of the other women convicts, but the voyage itself is dangerous, as are some of the crewmen onboard the ship.

During the voyage, the character Hazel is introduced as well — a teen girl convicted of robbery, after her alcoholic mother sent her out to pickpocket for their survival. Hazel is a trained and gifted midwife, and her skills become invaluable to Evangeline and the other women on the ship, as well as providing Hazel with a way to improve her own life once she arrives in Van Diemen’s land.

The relationships among the women are complex and important. While their backgrounds vary widely, all find themselves at the mercy of an unfair justice system that deprives them of their voices and their freedoms. As becomes very clear, poor and powerless women have no one to defend them, and no ability to contest or avoid the judgments handed down against them. And as one woman points out to Evangeline, it’s not just about punishment — as British colonizes the Australian territory, they need more women to build a society with, so why not solve two problems at once?

The story alternates in sections between the experiences of Evangeline, Hazel, and the other convicts, and the strange and awful half-life Mathinna is forced into. Again, here is a young woman with no voice and no power, treated as an object of curiosity and a plaything, but all too easily cast aside when her novelty wears off.

All of these women truly are exiles, removed from their homes and families, given no choice about where they’ll go or how they’ll live, forced to give up everything they’ve known and start over in a foreign land. In Mathinna’s case, of course, it’s not just the story of a personal tragedy but the tragedy of a people, as British colonization decimates the lives of the native people of Australia.

The Exiles is a beautiful and powerful read. I don’t want to talk too much about the individual characters and what becomes of them, because the specific storylines are best discovered by reading the book. Overall, this is a tragic and lovely story, and it left me wanting to learn more about the actual history of Australian settlement.

Book Review: The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict

Title: The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
Author: Marie Benedict
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: December 29, 2020
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Marie Benedict, the beloved New York Times bestselling author of The Only Woman in the Room, uncovers the untold story of Agatha Christie’s mysterious eleven day disappearance.

In December 1926, Agatha Christie goes missing. Investigators find her empty car on the edge of a deep, gloomy pond, the only clues some tire tracks nearby and a fur coat left in the car—strange for a frigid night. Her husband and daughter have no knowledge of her whereabouts, and England unleashes an unprecedented manhunt to find the up-and-coming mystery author. Eleven days later, she reappears, just as mysteriously as she disappeared, claiming amnesia and providing no explanations for her time away.

The puzzle of those missing eleven days has persisted. With her trademark exploration into the shadows of history, acclaimed author Marie Benedict brings us into the world of Agatha Christie, imagining why such a brilliant woman would find herself at the center of such a murky story.

What is real, and what is mystery? What role did her unfaithful husband play, and what was he not telling investigators?

A master storyteller whose clever mind may never be matched, Agatha Christie’s untold history offers perhaps her greatest mystery of all. 

In this fascinating new release, author Marie Benedict creates an Agatha Christie-worthy mystery out of a real-life mystery from Christie’s own life.

Agatha Christie really did disappear for eleven days in 1926, and when she was located, her missing days were attributed to amnesia. That was it — a rather vague and unsatisfying resolution to a headline-making missing person story. (Read more about the actual events, here.)

But what really happened? Is there more to the story than meets the eye? In The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, we get a tantalizing view of a possible (and highly entertaining) answer.

The novel follows two narrative streams in alternating chapters: Agatha’s courtship and marriage to Archie Christie, told from Agatha’s perspective starting in 1912, and Agatha’s disappearance in 1926, told from Archie’s point of view. As the two weave together, we come to understand Agatha’s brilliance, and just how much of herself she sacrificed in order to please her moody, controlling husband.

I laughed at his rare joke, a mad cackle that I knew was a mistake the moment it escaped my lips. It sounded brash and overreactive, and Archie wouldn’t like it. It smacked of disorderly emotions.

I really don’t want to give too much away, so I won’t talk about outcomes at all. What I will highlight is the shock and dismay I felt reading Agatha’s narration of how she devoted herself to her husband, pushing down her own successes, her natural vivacity, and even her love for her daughter in order to cater to a man who demanded to be constantly at the center of his wife’s attention. It’s heartbreaking.

On those nights when I longed to hold my baby in my arms, even sleep with her in my bed, I told myself that this distance was necessary practice. How else could I ensure that Archie maintained his position at the center of my affections?

Even after her beloved mother dies, Agatha is made to feel responsible for neglecting Archie and causing his infidelity:

It was likely my fault that he’d become fascinated with Nancy. Hadn’t Mummy always warned me never to leave my husband alone for too long? And hadn’t I emotionally and physically abandoned him this summer in my grief? Even when he was in Spain, he knew my heart and mind weren’t with him but lost to my sorrow over Mummy.

Argh. It’s just so upsetting to see this amazing woman tie herself in knots as a result of her husband’s passive-aggressive, emotionally manipulative and abusive behavior. He even manages to suck the joy out of Agatha’s early writing successes, making her feel unsupportive of her husband if she became too happy about her publishing contracts and the beginnings of her fame.

I mostly write because I adore creating worlds and puzzles, and I want to succeed at it wildly. But ambition is a dirty word when it’s used by women; it’s decidedly unladylike, in fact.

The author weaves together the historical facts to create a police procedural crime investigation in the chapters set in 1926. If it starts to feel like we’re in an Agatha Christie novel, well, kudos to Marie Benedict! She employs Agatha’s wittiness and intelligence to create a puzzle out of Agatha’s own life. According to The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, Agatha first started writing her stories as a result of a dare from her sister, who just didn’t believe that Agatha could create an unsolvable puzzle for readers — so naturally, she had to prove her sister wrong. As in an Agatha Christie mystery, this book delivers clever plotting and intriguing twists that manage to surprise and delight.

I was a little hesitant about reading The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, as I’ve only read one Agatha Christie novel (And Then There Were None), although I’ve seen adaptations of several others. I needn’t have worried. The Mystery of Mrs. Christie is perfectly accessible for a Christie novice like myself, and I imagine that it’ll be very enjoyable for the great lady’s more ardent fans too.

And now, of course, I need to read more Agatha Christie books! Do you have any favorites? Where should I start? I’m also definitely going to want to read more by Marie Benedict! So far, I’ve only listened to an audiobook novella written by her, Agent 355, and I loved it.

For anyone who’s a Christie fan, or for those who just enjoy a good literary puzzle with a strong, smart woman at its center, I highly recommend The Mystery of Mrs. Christie.

Book Review: Dear Miss Kopp by Amy Stewart

Title: Dear Miss Kopp (Kopp Sisters, #6)
Author: Amy Stewart
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: January 12, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher and author
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The indomitable Kopp sisters are tested at home and abroad in this warm and witty tale of wartime courage and camaraderie.

The U.S. has finally entered World War I and Constance is chasing down suspected German saboteurs and spies for the Bureau of Investigation while Fleurette is traveling across the country entertaining troops with song and dance. Meanwhile, at an undisclosed location in France, Norma is overseeing her thwarted pigeon project for the Army Signal Corps. When Aggie, a nurse at the American field hospital, is accused of stealing essential medical supplies, the intrepid Norma is on the case to find the true culprit.

The far-flung sisters—separated for the first time in their lives—correspond with news of their days. The world has irrevocably changed—will the sisters be content to return to the New Jersey farm when the war is over?

Told through letters, Dear Miss Kopp weaves the stories of real life women into a rich fiction brimming with the historical detail and humor that are hallmarks of the series, proving once again that “any novel that features the Kopp Sisters is going to be a riotous, unforgettable adventure” (Bustle).

The Kopp Sisters are back! In Dear Miss Kopp, we follow the sisters into war, as each of the characters has her own mission to follow, each serving the country in her own way during the years of World War I.

The sixth book in the series, Dear Miss Kopp is the first to be told exclusively through letters, which makes sense: Constance, Norma, and Fleurette find themselves on very separate paths, far from one another geographically, and they must rely on their letters to keep in touch and to continue to support each other as they always have, even from a distance.

Constance has started her work with the Bureau of Investigation (the early FBI), one of the only women serving as an agent. She uses her unique talents to chase down and apprehend saboteurs, and her adventures in this book illustrate the threats faced domestically during the war years.

Norma is in the thick of things in France, where she applies her prickly, stubborn ways to making sure her messenger pigeons are able to serve the US armed forces. Norma being Norma, she manages to rub just about everyone the wrong way, but is ultimately instrumental in solving a spy mystery in the small French village where she’s stationed.

And lovely youngest sister Fleurette is on the go, touring the country with a vaudeville act, entertaining soldiers at army bases all across the US. Fleurette too has her share of challenges, and she always adds a bit of levity to any situation.

As always, a Kopp Sisters book is an utter delight. I love seeing the sisters’ dynamics, and also getting to see them each in action, deploying their varied talents and fighting for the chance to make a difference in a man’s world. At this point in the series, I feel that we readers know the characters so well, and it’s a treat to see them in these new settings, standing up for what they believe in and making unique contributions to the war effort.

Through the sisters’ adventures in Dear Miss Kopp, we also get an inside look as aspects of World War I that don’t necessarily get a lot of attention, including the support efforts abroad, away from the front lines, the devastating war injuries suffered by the soldiers, and the intense work at home to combat sabotage aimed at impeding the war efforts.

As a whole, the Kopp Sisters books are wonderful, and I loved this new installment. Can’t wait for more!

_________________________________

The series so far:
Girl Waits With Gun
Lady Cop Makes Trouble
Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions
Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit
Kopp Sisters on the March