Shelf Control #335: The Book of Speculation by Erica Swyler

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 Book of Speculation
Author: Erika Swyler
Published: 2015
Length: 339 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone in a house that is slowly crumbling toward the Long Island Sound. His parents are long dead. His mother, a circus mermaid who made her living by holding her breath, drowned in the very water his house overlooks. His younger sister, Enola, ran off six years ago and now reads tarot cards for a traveling carnival.

One June day, an old book arrives on Simon’s doorstep, sent by an antiquarian bookseller who purchased it on speculation. Fragile and water damaged, the book is a log from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, who reports strange and magical things, including the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Since then, generations of “mermaids” in Simon’s family have drowned–always on July 24, which is only weeks away.

As his friend Alice looks on with alarm, Simon becomes increasingly worried about his sister. Could there be a curse on Simon’s family? What does it have to do with the book, and can he get to the heart of the mystery in time to save Enola?

In the tradition of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, The Book of Speculation–with two-color illustrations by the author–is Erika Swyler’s moving debut novel about the power of books, family, and magic.

How and when I got it:

I picked up a paperback in 2016, and it’s been on my shelf ever since.

Why I want to read it:

As I’m writing this post, it occurs to me that perhaps I never even read the synopsis before today! The plot sounds kind of bonkers, in a really good way, but doesn’t seem in the slightest bit familiar. So, I’m thinking I may have grabbed this book at a library sale based solely on the cover. I mean, can’t go wrong with a book with books on the cover, right?

Now that I’ve read what it’s about, I’m much more interested in finally giving the book a try. Generations of circus mermaids? A mystery curse? Count me in!

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.
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Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Title: Hamnet
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Tinder Press
Publication date: March 31, 2020
Length: 372 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Drawing on Maggie O’Farrell’s long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play, Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

New York Times Notable Book (2020), Best Book of 2020: GuardianFinancial TimesLiterary Hub, and NPR.

Hamnet is a powerful, emotional, beautifully written story about grief, mourning, and sorrow. Also, Shakespeare.

In Hamnet, the main point-of-view character is Agnes, although we do get passages from the perspectives of Agnes’s children and husband too. Agnes is gifted with sight and special powers. A talented healer, she can also see people’s futures simply by touching them. About herself, she has one clear vision: She will be the mother of two children.

When Agnes meets her husband, the son of a disreputable glovemaker and Latin tutor to her stepbrothers, they’re immediately drawn to one another, and eventually marry. Agnes can see her husband’s unhappiness casting a shadow over their lives. He lacks purpose, a means of fulfilling his own pursuits — so she sends him off to London, ostensibly to further his father’s business interests there. They plan for him to get settled, then send for Agnes and their children.

But all does not go as intended. Already the parents of a healthy girl, Agnes soon delivers not the 2nd child she expects, but a 2nd and 3rd. The twins are a girl and a boy, the girl born so weak and fragile that she was not expected to survive. She names the babies Hamnet and Judith, and they are inseparable. It soon becomes clear that moving to London will never be an option for Agnes and her children — Judith’s health is too delicate to allow her to live in a crowded, dirty city. And so Agnes and her husband live apart, with him returning for visits when he can, although he’s achieving success as a playwright and creating a separate life for himself in the world of theater.

But Agnes can never quite forget her own vision, of herself as the mother of two children.

She fears her foresight; she does. She remembers with ice-cold clarity the image she had of two figures at the foot of the bed where she will meet her end. She now knows that it’s possible, more than possible, that one of her children will die, because children do, all the time. But she will not have it. She will not. She will fill this child, these children, with life. She will place herself between them and the door leading out, and she will stand there, teeth bared, blocking the way. She will defend her three babes against all that lies beyond this world. She will not rest, not sleep, until she knows they are safe. She will push back, fight against, undo the foresight she has always had, about having two children. She will. She knows she can.

When “pestilence” — the Black Death — reaches the family’s home in Stratford, it’s Judith who is stricken. But Hamnet will not abide the idea of losing his twin, and eventually, he is lost while Judith survives. Agnes and the family are plunged into the horrors of loss, the devastating death of a child punching a hole through the fabric of their lives.

In Hamnet, Shakespeare himself is never named (he’s always the husband or the father or the son), but we know who we’re reading about. It feels appropriate for him to be presented in this way — if the story were about him, his life and career would overshadow all the rest. Here, though, it’s a story about a family, and especially about a mother, trying to find a way to live in the shadow of unbearable grief. The father’s way of dealing with the loss, through the power of his words, is just one aspect of what the family experiences.

The writing in Hamnet is absolutely gorgeous. I’m not usually a fan of “literary” fiction, but this novel is an exception for me. The carefully constructed characters, the lyrical descriptions of their world and their lives, and even the passages describing the transmission of the plague are all presented in a way that’s beautiful and haunting and powerful.

Hamnet is a special book, and I’m so glad my book group chose it for this month’s discussion. Once again, thanks to the group, I’ve read an excellent book I might otherwise have missed!

Very highly recommended.

To read more about Hamnet:

New York Times review (written by Geraldine Brooks)
NPR review
Washington Post review

Shelf Control #329: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

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: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Published: 2016
Length: 221 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

While the Titanic and Lusitania are both well-documented disasters, the single greatest tragedy in maritime history is the little-known January 30, 1945 sinking in the Baltic Sea by a Soviet submarine of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise liner that was supposed to ferry wartime personnel and refugees to safety from the advancing Red Army. The ship was overcrowded with more than 10,500 passengers — the intended capacity was approximately 1,800 — and more than 9,000 people, including 5,000 children, lost their lives.

Sepetys (writer of ‘Between Shades of Gray’) crafts four fictionalized but historically accurate voices to convey the real-life tragedy. Joana, a Lithuanian with nursing experience; Florian, a Prussian soldier fleeing the Nazis with stolen treasure; and Emilia, a Polish girl close to the end of her pregnancy, converge on their escape journeys as Russian troops advance; each will eventually meet Albert, a Nazi peon with delusions of grandeur, assigned to the Gustloff decks.

How and when I got it:

I have a paperback edition on my shelf, which I think I bought at a used book store at least 3 or 4 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

This book had so many great reviews when it came out! I remember reading newspaper reviews (all positive) at the time, plus so many bloggers talked about how powerful it is.

I’ve read one book by Ruta Sepetys before — Out of the Easy — set in 1950s New Orleans. I liked it, but not as much as I’d expected to, and while I’ve heard good things about other books by this author, I haven’t gotten around to exploring any other of her works.

I’m drawn to Salt to the Sea based on the premise — because yes, while I’m quite familiar with the Titanic and the Lusitania, before picking up this book, I’d never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff. There’s something so awful about ships sinking — the idea of it is absolutely terrifying to me, and the scale of this particular tragedy is so huge that it’s hard to comprehend.

I’m glad I stumbled across my copy of Salt to the Sea while thinking about what book to feature this week! It sounds like an emotional read, and I’m interested in the historical aspects as well as the stories of the individual characters.

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!

Book Review: The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer Ryan

Title: The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle
Author: Jennifer Ryan
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: May 31, 2022
Print length: 432 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Three plucky women lift the spirits of home-front brides in wartime Britain, where clothes rationing leaves little opportunity for pomp or celebration–even at weddings–in this heartwarming novel based on true events, from the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.

After renowned fashion designer Cressida Westcott loses both her home and her design house in the London Blitz, she has nowhere to go but the family manor house she fled decades ago. Praying that her niece and nephew will be more hospitable than her brother had been, she arrives with nothing but the clothes she stands in, at a loss as to how to rebuild her business while staying in a quaint country village.

Her niece, Violet Westcott, is thrilled that her famous aunt is coming to stay–the village has been interminably dull with all the men off fighting. But just as Cressida arrives, so does Violet’s conscription letter. It couldn’t have come at a worse time; how will she ever find a suitably aristocratic husband if she has to spend her days wearing a frumpy uniform and doing war work?

Meanwhile, the local vicar’s daughter, Grace Carlisle, is trying in vain to repair her mother’s gown, her only chance of a white wedding. When Cressida Westcott appears at the local Sewing Circle meeting, Grace asks for her help–but Cressida has much more to teach the ladies than just simple sewing skills.

Before long, Cressida’s spirit and ambition galvanizes the village group into action, and they find themselves mending wedding dresses not only for local brides, but for brides across the country. And as the women dedicate themselves to helping others celebrate love, they might even manage to find it for themselves.

The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle is now the 4th book I’ve read by Jennifer Ryan, and like her earlier books, it presents a warm-hearted look at the homefront challenges and triumphs of women during wartime.

The year is 1942, London is being terrorized by air raids, and in the countryside, families are making do with less and less. Even clothing is rationed — materials are prioritized for the benefit of the war effort, so the local sewing circles are forced to become skilled at repairing and reworking the clothing that they do have.

In the village of Aldhurst, the vicar’s 24-year-old daughter is soon to be married. Grace and her widowed father find her mother’s wedding dress stored away, but the years have not been kind to the once-beautiful gown. Grace is looking forward to her marriage to a young curate, although she’s mostly motivated by duty and a need to be useful to the parish rather than by sentiments of true love.

But when Cressida, a famous designer whose home and business are both destroyed in a night-time bombing raid, returns to her family’s manor in Aldhurst, life in the village starts to change. Cressida lends her skills to the local sewing circle, encourages Grace to think bigger and explore her own talents, and even manages to get her niece Violet to see that there’s more to life than being the pretty little wife of an aristocrat.

As the women spend time together, they become tightly bonded, and manage to find creative inspiration in their sewing projects, eventually coming up with the idea of organizing what’s essentially a wedding dress lending library. Soon, women from all across Britain are donating their wedding dresses, and eager brides are now able to have the beautiful weddings they’ve dreamed of, rather than getting married in uniforms or practical clothing.

The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle focuses on friendship and finding purpose. The women at the heart of the book all, in their own ways, reevaluate the assumptions they’ve made about their lives and find different, more meaningful paths for themselves. Through Cressida’s example, they learn to think differently, challenge expectations, and pursue careers and lives that are more fulfilling than what they’d thought they should want or expect.

I enjoyed getting to know the main characters and seeing each of them blossom in different ways. Each has a love story as well, none of which run particularly smoothly — but never fear, there are plenty of happy endings to go around.

As in her other books, Jennifer Ryan uses village life and characters to portray the effects of war on ordinary people. Her characters aren’t out risking their lives on battlefields or engaging in high-stakes espionage; these are the everyday women and men who must do the best they can in the face of shortages and hardships, holding on to their homes, their friends, and their communities the best they can. The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle is a portrait of a generous community, whose individuals come together to not just make do, but make better.

This is a gentle read, with drama on the more intimate and personal side. While the opening scenes of Cressida’s experiences in the air raid are very frightening and dramatic, and while there’s another incident later on of an air raid on a neighboring village that’s also quite scary and intense, the rest of the book is quieter and more restrained. The focus is on day to day life and the people of the village — the war is the constant backdrop, but it’s filtered through the experiences of the women and families on the homefront.

I enjoyed The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle very much. In fact, my only slight complaint is that it seems to echo the author’s other books in certain ways, so that the overall story feels less fresh this time around. In three of the four books of hers that I’ve now read, the main story is about plucky women in a small town who come together to make it through the war years — in one book, it’s about a choir, in another, a cooking competition, and here, a sewing group. The plots arcs and characters here feel familiar, not because we’ve seen them before, but because the overall tone is so similar to those of her previous novels.

That said, I did think it was an engaging, often moving read, and I enjoyed seeing the characters grow and change over the course of the story. Jennifer Ryan has a gift for bringing out the beauty in simple lives, and I always enjoy her light touch when it comes to dialogue and banter.

If you enjoy historical fiction, especially historical fiction focused on women’s lives, don’t miss The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle!

Book Review: A Rip Through Time by Kelley Armstrong

Title: A Rip Through Time
Author: Kelley Armstrong
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication date: May 31, 2022
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/mystery
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In this series debut from New York Times bestselling author Kelley Armstrong, a modern-day homicide detective finds herself in Victorian Scotland—in an unfamiliar body—with a killer on the loose.

May 20, 2019: Homicide detective Mallory is in Edinburgh to be with her dying grandmother. While out on a jog one evening, Mallory hears a woman in distress. She’s drawn to an alley, where she is attacked and loses consciousness.

May 20, 1869: Housemaid Catriona Mitchell had been enjoying a half-day off, only to be discovered that night in a lane, where she’d been strangled and left for dead . . . exactly one-hundred-and-fifty years before Mallory was strangled in the same spot.

When Mallory wakes up in Catriona’s body in 1869, she must put aside her shock and adjust quickly to the reality: life as a housemaid to an undertaker in Victorian Scotland. She soon discovers that her boss, Dr. Gray, also moonlights as a medical examiner and has just taken on an intriguing case, the strangulation of a young man, similar to the attack on herself. Her only hope is that catching the murderer can lead her back to her modern life . . . before it’s too late.

Outlander meets The Alienist in Kelley Armstrong’s A Rip Through Time, the first book in this utterly compelling series, mixing romance, mystery, and fantasy with thrilling results. 

In this engrossing start to a new series, Canadian detective Mallory is visiting her dying grandmother in Edinburgh when she stops to investigate a woman’s cries down a dark alley. As Mallory is attacked, she sees a strange optical illusion, but quickly passes out as the unknown assailant strangles her.

When she wakes up, she’s in a strange house, in strange clothing, including — of all things — a corset. Weirdly true despite being hard to believe, it would appear that Mallory has been transported into the body of a housemaid named Catriona, who was attacked and strangled in the same alley as Mallory — but 150 years earlier.

Quick-thinking Mallory figures out the truth of her situation fairly quickly, and uses her head injury as an explanation for her severe memory loss and marked change in personality. The housemaid who’d claimed illiteracy previously can suddenly read and write, and what’s more, takes an interest in her master’s forensic work that’s decidedly new and different.

As Mallory spends more time as Catriona, she realizes that while she doesn’t have an obvious way back to her own life, she can make a contribution where she is by applying her knowledge of 21st century police procedures to help solve the case of a potential serial killer haunting Edinburgh. Unfortunately for Mallory, she also discovers that Catriona was not a sweet, innocent 19-year-old, but a young woman with a gift for thievery, deceit, and no moral compass. As Mallory struggles to make sense of her new life, she also is confronted by the mistrust and dislike earned by the person who’s body she inhabits.

Can’t say I’ve ever read a plot like this one before!

A Rip Through Time is fascinating and utterly immersive, exploring a fish-out-of-water situation through the eyes of a strong, accomplished woman forced into a life where she has none of the “womanly” qualities deemed necessary to fit in. Mallory is a terrific character, confronting her bizarre circumstances with intelligence and determination, applying her years of experience as a detective to both help her employer solve the mysteries he sees in his line of work as well as to solve the huge unknowns about her own case.

Not only is Mallory in the wrong century in the wrong body, but she’s been targeted at least once by a killer, and as her time in Edinburgh of the 1860s continues, she learns that she/Catriona is still in danger. There’s a mystery to solve and a killer to catch, and the action is fast-paced and totally fun to unpack and follow along.

This may all sound like an unbelievable set-up for a story, and I suppose in a less-skilled writer’s hands, that might make it unreadable — but here, Kelley Armstrong confidently weaves a story about crime, women’s roles, time travel, connections, independence, and family, and makes it all work.

It’s really fun to see Mallory’s takes on her life in this new time and place:

If I had to cast him in a period drama, it’d be somewhere between “mad scientist” and “brooding lord with his wife locked in the attic”.

I love how she compares everything she encounters to the way the era is portrayed in film and fiction:

I’m trying to pass back through time by returning to the place where I crossed over. My brain says that makes logical sense, but I am well aware that it only makes sense because I’ve seen it in movies and read it in books. […] I am basing my entire theory on the imagination of fiction writers. Not scientists, because there is no science. People can’t travel through time. Therefore, writers don’t need to worry about “getting it right.” They make up whatever they want.

{…]

If so many writers used that particular trope, maybe there was a kernel of truth to it. It’s like meeting a vampire while holding a vial of holy water and not throwing it at him.”

The writing throughout is fresh and fun, and while there is plenty of danger and some more serious moments, Mallory’s 21st-century voice keeps the story from feeling like a stodgy historical piece.

I was a little bit hesitant at first when I learned that A Rip Through Time is the first in a series, rather than a stand-alone. However, now that I’ve finished, I’m delighted that there will be more! I can’t say much about the ending or what I might expect from book #2 without entering spoiler territory… but let’s just say that I found the ending of this book very satisfying, and yet with plenty more to explore in future books. I can’t wait to see what’s next!

Book Review: The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian

Title: The Lioness
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Publication date: May 10, 2022
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A luxurious African safari turns deadly for a Hollywood starlet and her entourage in this riveting historical thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of The Flight Attendant

Tanzania, 1964. When Katie Barstow, A-list actress, and her new husband, David Hill, decide to bring their Hollywood friends to the Serengeti for their honeymoon, they envision giraffes gently eating leaves from the tall acacia trees, great swarms of wildebeests crossing the Mara River, and herds of zebra storming the sandy plains. Their glamorous guests—including Katie’s best friend, Carmen Tedesco, and Terrance Dutton, the celebrated Black actor who stars alongside Katie in the highly controversial film “Tender Madness”—will spend their days taking photos, and their evenings drinking chilled gin and tonics back at camp, as the local Tanzanian guides warm water for their baths. The wealthy Americans expect civilized adventure: Fresh ice from the kerosene-powered ice maker, dinners of cooked gazelle meat, and plenty of stories to tell over lunch back on Rodeo Drive.

What Katie and her glittering entourage do not expect is this: A kidnapping gone wrong, their guides bleeding out in the dirt, and a team of Russian mercenaries herding them into Land Rovers, guns to their heads. As the powerful sun gives way to night, the gunmen shove them into abandoned huts and Katie Barstow, Hollywood royalty, prays for a simple thing: To see the sun rise one more time. A blistering story of fame, race, love, and death set in a world on the cusp of great change, The Lioness is a vibrant masterpiece from one of our finest storytellers.

Chris Bohjalian proves once again that he can tell a story with any subject, in any genre, and make it unputdownable. The only reason I didn’t read The Lioness straight through was the pesky issue of needing to sleep. (And even once I stopped for the night, did I dream about kidnappings and safaris? You bet I did.)

From his devastating, engrossing novel about a Puritan woman accused of witchcraft in 1660s Boston (The Hour of the Witch), the author shifts tone and subject matter completely with The Lioness, bringing us a tale of Hollywood glamor, deadly Cold War proxy wars, and the terror of being utterly defenseless in a place that has far too many ways to kill a human.

Katie Barstow is the biggest movie star of 1964 when, at age 30, she marries art gallery owner David Hill, then brings their closest friends and family with them on a luxury African safari. Led by renowned “great white hunter” Charlie Patton, they’ll travel through the Serengeti viewing wildlife and taking photographs, “roughing it” with canvas bathtubs filled by porters and living in tents, while protected by rangers and having their every need catered to. For Katie, a warm-hearted friend and sister who truly cares about the people with her, it’s the adventure and experience of a lifetime.

But within a few days, things go very, very wrong. The expedition’s camp is attacked by armed men — white men with Russian accents and over-the-top firepower — who kill several of the group’s guides ruthlessly before taking the Americans hostage. As the group is divided in two, they’re left at the mercy of their kidnappers, who don’t hesitate to use violence. The deeper they’re taken into the Serengeti, the worse their odds of survival look: Even if they do manage to escape their captors, then what? Unarmed, without provisions, alone in the wild, how long could they survive the leopards, hyenas, and other predatory animals who stalk their every movement?

In chapters that shift perspective amongst the nine members of Katie’s entourage, we follow the events of the kidnapping as they unfold, but also see each character’s thoughts and memories of their lives before the trip and the events leading up to this point. We come to understand their inner lives, their early struggles, and the individualized fears they carry with them into this moment of extreme crisis.

I won’t say too much more about the plot. It’s complex and includes twists and red herrings, but we’re always fully present in the moment with the characters. We experience the terror of these events alongside the characters, never knowing from moment to moment what might be happening to the others, what the kidnappers’ plans are, or whether what’s coming might be even worse than what’s happening at that very moment. The characters must react and choose what to do based on very limited information, always weighing the odds of survival — is it better to attack their kidnappers, or to wait and hope for rescue or ransom? Which way offers the best chance of living for one more hour, one more day?

I did find myself lacking some key information about the state of affairs in East Africa in the mid-1960s, and relied on many quick Wikipedia searches to shore up my historical knowledge enough to get better context for the plot developments. The plot is so character-driven that the historical details are really more background than essential, but it helped me a lot to have quick access to the information I needed, and helped round out the stakes, the players, and the settings of the Cold War machinations that drive the story from behind the scenes.

The Lioness is a totally engrossing read, I was low-key anxious and/or terrified throughout my reading experience. We know right from the prologue that most of the characters will not survive — but it’s not clear who survives or how events wind up until the very end. Meanwhile, we get to know each of them as individuals, and while not all are people I’d want to actually hang out with, it’s still tragic and terrible to see how, one by one, those who die meet their ends.

I rarely give 5-star ratings — I think of 5-star books as being those where I wouldn’t change a thing. And with that in mind, I couldn’t give The Lioness any less than 5 stars. I was immediately captivated, and then couldn’t look away. My emotions and my brain were engaged right from the start.

This isn’t an easy read — the subject matter is very tough to take — but the book itself is impossible to put down once you start. I’m a big fan of Chris Bohjalian’s books, and The Lioness doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. (In fact, despite having an e-ARC, I think I’m going to need a hard copy for my shelves as well).

Don’t miss The Lioness. I have a feeling it’s destined to end up on many of the “best of” lists for 2022.

Book Review: The Book Woman’s Daughter by Kim Michele Richardson

Title: The Book Woman’s Daughter
Author: Kim Michele Richardson
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Bestselling historical fiction author Kim Michele Richardson is back with the perfect book club read following Honey Lovett, the daughter of the beloved Troublesome book woman, who must fight for her own independence with the help of the women who guide her and the books that set her free.

In the ruggedness of the beautiful Kentucky mountains, Honey Lovett has always known that the old ways can make a hard life harder. As the daughter of the famed blue-skinned, Troublesome Creek packhorse librarian, Honey and her family have been hiding from the law all her life. But when her mother and father are imprisoned, Honey realizes she must fight to stay free, or risk being sent away for good.

Picking up her mother’s old packhorse library route, Honey begins to deliver books to the remote hollers of Appalachia. Honey is looking to prove that she doesn’t need anyone telling her how to survive. But the route can be treacherous, and some folks aren’t as keen to let a woman pave her own way.

If Honey wants to bring the freedom books provide to the families who need it most, she’s going to have to fight for her place, and along the way, learn that the extraordinary women who run the hills and hollers can make all the difference in the world.

I loved the 2019 novel The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, and was excited to hear that a sequel would be released this year. Sadly, The Book Woman’s Daughter doesn’t quite live up to the first book.

The story picks up about 15 years after the end of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. The first book’s main character, Cussy Mary Lovett, and her husband Jackson are raising their adopted daughter Honey in the backcountry hills — but the people of Kentucky have a long memory, and, it seems clears, a long-lasting capacity for hatred.

Cussy Mary is a Blue, one of the clan of Kentucky Appalachian dwellers with a genetic condition that gives them blue skin. The Blues are despised by white Kentuckians and are viewed as “colored” — and because Cussy is married to a white man, the two are accused of miscegenation. Although they live in isolation in the back woods, the law still catches up with them. As The Book Woman’s Daughter opens, Honey’s parents are arrested, treated violently, and soon thereafter sentenced to two years each in prison.

The law isn’t done with the family, though. Honey, at age 16, is a minor. The county has issued an order for Honey to be taken into custody and sent to a reform institution, where she can be held until age 21, doing hard labor and essentially a prisoner of the state. Honey makes a last-minute escape from the sheriff and social worker who come to seize her, and from there, must depend on the kindness and support of the mountain folk who loved her parents, including an old woman who assumes guardianship of Honey and a moonshiner whose family offers her shelter.

Things don’t go well for Honey, and she’s repeatedly forced to find new ways to survive and support herself, eventually taking up her mother’s former profession as a pack horse librarian. As the area’s new Book Woman, Honey travels the trails and mountains on her mule, but encounters trouble even there as she becomes embroiled in the struggles of a woman suffering abuse at her husband’s hands.

The book follows Honey’s efforts to find a place for herself, protect herself, and ultimately seek emancipation in order to keep herself out of the clutches of the state that wants to lock her up. Her journey involves some terrible experiences and danger, but she also finds new friends along the way and gains a better understanding of the plight of women in that time and place.

The Book Woman’s Daughter introduces us to the world of Appalachia in the mid-1950s, clearly not a welcoming world for women, especially those who don’t fit the traditional mold. It’s a place of economic woes, with children starving in the backcountry and men (and the occasional women) sacrificing their health to the coal mines — the only option for those seeking work and wages.

Honey is an endearing character, and I appreciated her determination, her commitment to her parents and her love of family, and her sense of right and wrong.

I did feel that the book lacks in terms of bringing the setting to life. I suppose there’s an assumption on the part of the author that readers will have read the first book, but even as someone who had read it, I would have liked this book to spend a little more time describing the way of life, the landscape, and the overall sense of the time and place. Instead, we’re dropped into a setting that doesn’t get fleshed out enough, and I always felts something was missing.

My other quibble with this book is a certain flatness. The events move along, and some are moving or frightening, but overall, I couldn’t quite get emotionally engaged. Honey’s parents are almost entirely off the page, which is a shame — they’re the connection to the first book, but they’re rarely seen, and this second book doesn’t create enough of a link back to their story.

I’m still glad to have read The Book Woman’s Daughter, but it didn’t capture my feelings or imagination the way The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek did. Still, for those who read the first book, it’s worth reading this follow-up to see what happens next for the family.

Book Review: The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer

Title: The Black Moth
Author: Georgette Heyer
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: 1921
Length: 355 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A disgraced lord, a notorious highwayman

Jack Carstares, the disgraced Earl of Wyndam, left England seven long years ago, sacrificing his honor for that of his brother when he was accused of cheating at cards. Now Jack is back, roaming his beloved South Country in the disguise of a highwayman.

And the beauty who would steal his heart

Not long after Jack’s return, he encounters his old adversary, the libertine Duke of Andover, attempting the abduction of the beautiful Diana Beauleigh. At the point of Jack’s sword, the duke is vanquished, but foiled once, the “Black Moth” has no intention of failing again.

This is Georgette Heyer’s first novel, a favorite of readers and a stirring tale to be enjoyed again and again.

The Black Moth was Georgette Heyer’s first novel, published when she was just 19 years old. The author went on to publish over 60 novels and became known as the queen of Regency romances. Apparently (according to Wikipedia and other online articles), she wrote The Black Moth in serial installments as a way to entertain her ailing, bedridden younger brother, and her father thought the story was so good that he encouraged her to publish it. And the rest, as they say, is history!

The Black Moth is quite the adventurous, swash-buckling tale, full of men behaving badly and women steeling their spines and standing up for themselves (with a little swooning thrown in too). Set during the Georgian era, the plot revolves around aristocratic men bound by family loyalty and what would now be considered out-of-proportion concern for honor and reputation.

Jack Castares, the elder son of the Earl of Wyncham, has been living in exiled disgrace for years as of the opening of the book, ever since he was caught cheating at cards — a fatal blow to a gentleman’s reputation. He spends his days as a highwayman, raiding carriages and terrorizing travelers — although he’s actually a highwayman with a heart of gold, more often than not helping the helpless or “donating” his ill-gotten gains to those in need.

But Jack’s younger brother Richard knows the truth. Richard was, in fact, the one who’d been cheating, but Jack took the blame rather than see his brother shamed and disgraced, which would have resulted in him losing the woman he loved.

Richard’s wife Lavinia’s oldest brother, Tracy Belmanoir, the Duke of Andover, was the one who “caught” the cheating. A man nicknamed “Devil”, the Duke is cold, decadent, and deadly when provoked. When he attempts to abduct a young woman who’s caught his eye, Jack intervenes, at risk to his own life. Family secrets, love, and honor become intertwined, until a final showdown involving yet another abduction, a duel, and (naturally) a happy ending.

The Black Moth is highly entertaining, but clearly a product of its time. I had to leave my feminist sensibilities firmly tucked away on a shelf while reading this book, or the paternalism and disrespect toward women would have driven me crazy — although to be fair, there are two lead women characters who are strong-willed, determined, and capable, and I love their portrayals.

On the negative side, however, is the plot climax that includes threat of a forced marriage — or, if the woman will not consent, the implied threat of a rape and marriage anyway. These fates are avoided by the hero’s arrival and success in a duel, but the fact remains that the evildoer goes unpunished and the incident is largely resolved through a gentlemen’s agreement that everyone will be better off keeping this a private affair.

Daring adventure and danger is the name of the game in The Black Moth, and the scenes that include either action sequences or social manners and maneuvers are the most enjoyable. I was less enthralled by the gambling and settling of debts and manly men being manly in their men’s clubs… but there was enough good stuff in the mix to outweigh these bits.

I ended up reading The Black Moth for the Classics Club Spin challenge, and I’m so glad I did! This book has been on my shelf for several years, and I’m happy that I finally had an incentive to pick it up and read it. I started The Black Moth via the Serial Reader app, thinking I’d read it over the course of a month in daily installments, but this approach ended up not working for me. The small bites didn’t give me enough immersion in the story and made it hard to keep the characters straight — I was much happier once I picked up my paperback edition and read straight through to the end.

This is, I believe, my 7th Georgette Heyer book, and I have a stack of unread books by her still sitting on my bookshelf. Overall, The Black Moth was a great pick for a light and easy classic read, and I’m glad to have gone back to this author. And now that I have, I’m feeling motivated to squeeze in at least one or two more this year!

If you’ve read any Georgette Heyer books, please let me know — which are your favorites? I’d appreciate any and all recommendations!

Book Review: To Marry and To Meddle by Martha Waters

Title: To Marry and To Meddle (The Regency Vows, #3)
Author: Martha Waters
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: April 5, 2022
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The “sweet, sexy, and utterly fun” (Emily Henry, author of The People We Meet on Vacation) Regency Vows series continues with a witty, charming, and joyful novel following a seasoned debutante and a rakish theater owner as they navigate a complicated marriage of convenience.

Lady Emily Turner has been a debutante for six seasons now and should have long settled into a suitable marriage. However, due to her father’s large debts, her only suitor is the persistent and odious owner of her father’s favorite gambling house. Meanwhile, Lord Julian Belfry, the second son of a marquess, has scandalized society as an actor and owner of a theater—the kind of establishment where men take their mistresses, but not their wives. When their lives intersect at a house party, Lord Julian hatches a plan to benefit them both.

With a marriage of convenience, Emily will use her society connections to promote the theater to a more respectable clientele and Julian will take her out from under the shadows of her father’s unsavory associates. But they soon realize they have very different plans for their marriage—Julian wants Emily to remain a society wife, while Emily discovers an interest in the theater. But when a fleeing actress, murderous kitten, and meddlesome friends enter the fray, Emily and Julian will have to confront the fact that their marriage of convenience comes with rather inconvenient feelings.

The Regency Vows series is a fun, fresh look at love and friendship in (obviously) the Regency era. The books focus on a trio of friends, Violet (lead character of the first book, To Have and To Hoax), Diana (starring in To Love and To Loathe), and Emily, the main character of this 3rd book, To Marry and To Meddle.

Lady Emily Turner is the perfectly mannered daughter of a respectable society family. At age 23, she is unmarried, largely because her parents have promised her to an awful man to whom the family is ruinously in debt. She’s desperately unhappy, but would never dream of disobeying her parents… until Julian comes along.

Lord Julian Belfry is the younger son of a titled family. No one expects much of a younger son, but they certainly don’t expect and can’t tolerate his ownership of a (gasp!) theater — especially a theater that has the reputation of being a place for gentleman to spend a night out with their mistresses.

In Emily, Julian sees a way to attain respectability for his theater. In Julian, Emily sees a path to freedom. At a country party (the setting of much of the previous book), Julian comes up with a plan that might solve both of their problems: He proposed marriage. With Emily’s good social standing, he hopes to repair the theater’s reputation and draw in the right crowd. And with Julian’s money, Emily’s family can be freed from their debts, saving Emily from being forced into a terrible marriage.

The arrangement would clearly be a win-win situation, and the fact that they enjoy one another’s company is an added bonus. Emily accepts, and the two are married right away. Emily soon learns that there’s one more unexpected benefit to the marriage — she and Julian are very compatible, and they enjoy a steamy start to their married life (interrupted only by the appearance of a homeless kitten, whom Julian christens Cecil Lucifer Beelzebub).

While quite enjoyable, I found TM&TM a little… flat. There just isn’t much dramatic conflict in the plot. The key tension is around whether Emily spends her time wooing society ladies by paying calls, when what she really wants is to spend more time with Julian and participate in running the theater. Julian’s conflict has to do with running the theater in a way that will prove it’s respectable, when what he really and truly wants is his own father’s approval. And, as expected, they each must reluctantly face the fact that they’ve fallen in love — how to admit to one’s spouse that a mutually beneficial arrangement now involves one’s feelings?

Because of course she loved him — how could she not? But, more importantly, how could she ensure that he did not know, did not ever discover her secret? Because, after all, in a marriage of convenience, love would the most inconvenient surprise of all.

It’s all very pleasant and often quite funny, but there just isn’t much there there when it comes to the plot. The stakes are fairly low, after all, when it comes to the plotlines related to the theater. The book is at its best when it focuses on relationships, and it was touching to see how both Emily and Julian stand up to their families and repair their damaged connections.

To Marry and To Meddle has the fun, light tone of the previous books, and as Emily continues her close friendship with Violet and Diana, we get to spend more time with these entertaining characters, which is lovely. One of the things I really appreciate about these books is how the women’s friendship is so central to the stories. Even though each book focuses on a different romantic relationship, the time spent with the trio of women is what connects them all, and their support and affection for one another feels very special.

The dialogue and overall writing can be a real hoot:

Predictably, she blushed. Perversely, he was delighted.

Julian clearly know the way to a woman’s heart:

[…] After Julian had rung for tea and crossed to the sideboard to busy himself with the decanter stored there, he said, almost casually, “You must buy any books you wish to add to our collection.”

Something within Emily warmed at these words. She’d always been faintly envious of Violet’s library at the house she shared with Lord James, and felt a small thrill run through her at the thought that she, too, could have a room full of books to call her own.

Amidst the funnier moments…

“You’re not…” Violet trailed off, a look of dawning horror on her face. “Sick of tea?” She uttered the words in a hushed whisper, as though afraid to speak them into truth.

… there are also scenes of coming into one’s own power and strength:

Here, a woman could take up space, speak loudly, draw the eyes of a crowd — or, alternatively, could slip into a role behind the scenes, quietly doing her work just as well as the men who surrounded her — and Emily found both prospects not shocking but… exhilarating.

I do recommend this book, but suggest starting at the beginning of the series, or you’ll miss the backstories of the characters and their social circle. I don’t know if there will be a 4th book, but I can guess which side character might get her own book next, and I hope my prediction comes true!