Shelf Control #285: The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows

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

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

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

Title: The Truth According to Us
Author: Annie Barrows
Published: 2015
Length: 486 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In the summer of 1938, Layla Beck’s father, a United States senator, cuts off her allowance and demands that she find employment on the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal jobs program. Within days, Layla finds herself far from her accustomed social whirl, assigned to cover the history of the remote mill town of Macedonia, West Virginia, and destined, in her opinion, to go completely mad with boredom. But once she secures a room in the home of the unconventional Romeyn family, she is drawn into their complex world and soon discovers that the truth of the town is entangled in the thorny past of the Romeyn dynasty.

At the Romeyn house, twelve-year-old Willa is desperate to learn everything in her quest to acquire her favorite virtues of ferocity and devotion—a search that leads her into a thicket of mysteries, including the questionable business that occupies her charismatic father and the reason her adored aunt Jottie remains unmarried. Layla’s arrival strikes a match to the family veneer, bringing to light buried secrets that will tell a new tale about the Romeyns. As Willa peels back the layers of her family’s past, and Layla delves deeper into town legend, everyone involved is transformed—and their personal histories completely rewritten.

How and when I got it:

I picked up a paperback edition several years ago, most likely at our annual library sale.

Why I want to read it:

I don’t think I even read the synopsis of this book until just now as I started writing my Shelf Control post! The main reason I picked up a copy is that Annie Barrows is one of the authors of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which I really enjoyed.

I’m a fan of historical fiction, but I’ve realized that I haven’t read much set during the 1930s with a focus on New Deal projects, rather than focusing on the build-up to World War II. I do think this sounds really different and interesting — plus, a book group friend spoke highly of this book, and I tend to take her word for it when she recommends a book!

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!

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Shelf Control #284: The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

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

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

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

A programming note: Due to travel plans, I will not be posting a Shelf Control post next week, 9/8/2021. Shelf Control at Bookshelf Fantasies will return 9/15/2021! Meanwhile, if you do a Shelf Control post, please share your link!

Title: The Birchbark House
Author: Louise Erdrich
Published: 1999
Length: 256 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Nineteenth-century American pioneer life was introduced to thousands of young readers by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved Little House books. With The Birchbark House, award-winning author Louise Erdrich’s first novel for young readers, this same slice of history is seen through the eyes of the spirited, 7-year-old Ojibwa girl Omakayas, or Little Frog, so named because her first step was a hop. The sole survivor of a smallpox epidemic on Spirit Island, Omakayas, then only a baby girl, was rescued by a fearless woman named Tallow and welcomed into an Ojibwa family on Lake Superior’s Madeline Island, the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker. We follow Omakayas and her adopted family through a cycle of four seasons in 1847, including the winter, when a historically documented outbreak of smallpox overtook the island.

Readers will be riveted by the daily life of this Native American family, in which tanning moose hides, picking berries, and scaring crows from the cornfield are as commonplace as encounters with bear cubs and fireside ghost stories. Erdrich–a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa–spoke to Ojibwa elders about the spirit and significance of Madeline Island, read letters from travelers, and even spent time with her own children on the island, observing their reactions to woods, stones, crayfish, bear, and deer. The author’s softly hewn pencil drawings infuse life and authenticity to her poetic, exquisitely wrought narrative. Omakayas is an intense, strong, likable character to whom young readers will fully relate–from her mixed emotions about her siblings, to her discovery of her unique talents, to her devotion to her pet crow Andeg, to her budding understanding of death, life, and her role in the natural world. We look forward to reading more about this brave, intuitive girl–and wholeheartedly welcome Erdrich’s future series to the canon of children’s classics. 

How and when I got it:

I picked up a paperback edition many years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I grew up on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, and years later, read the series all over again with my daughter. And while these books will always hold a special place in my heart, as an adult I came to understand so much more about the problematic aspects of these books — especially in terms of how the Little House books portray Native Americans and the casual disregard for their rights to the land in the face of expanding white settlement.

Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House books were originally introduced to the world as a Native counterpoint to the Little House books. While the Little House books are not explicitly referenced in these books, The Birchbark House is set in about the same era and presents a different take on the land and the people who reside there.

The Birchbark House is the first in a series of five books focused on young Ojibwa characters and their lives. The books are aimed at a middle grade audience, yet they sounds like they’d make a fascinating read for adults as well.

I really don’t remember exactly when I bought this book, but I know I’ve been intending to read it for a long time now. I think it’s about time that I gave it a chance! Plus, having read a few of Louise Erdrich’s adult novels, I’m confident that the writing in The Birchbark House must be wonderful.

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.
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  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Shelf Control #283: As Close To Us As Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner

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

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

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

Title: As Close To Us As Breathing
Author: Elizabeth Poliner
Published: 2016
Length: 369 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

A multigenerational family saga about the long-lasting reverberations of one tragic summer by “a wonderful talent [who] should be read widely” (Edward P. Jones).

In 1948, a small stretch of the Woodmont, Connecticut shoreline, affectionately named “Bagel Beach,” has long been a summer destination for Jewish families. Here sisters Ada, Vivie, and Bec assemble at their beloved family cottage, with children in tow and weekend-only husbands who arrive each Friday in time for the Sabbath meal.

During the weekdays, freedom reigns. Ada, the family beauty, relaxes and grows more playful, unimpeded by her rule-driven, religious husband. Vivie, once terribly wronged by her sister, is now the family diplomat and an increasingly inventive chef. Unmarried Bec finds herself forced to choose between the family-centric life she’s always known and a passion-filled life with the married man with whom she’s had a secret years-long affair.

But when a terrible accident occurs on the sisters’ watch, a summer of hope and self-discovery transforms into a lifetime of atonement and loss for members of this close-knit clan. Seen through the eyes of Molly, who was twelve years old when she witnessed the accident, this is the story of a tragedy and its aftermath, of expanding lives painfully collapsed. Can Molly, decades after the event, draw from her aunt Bec’s hard-won wisdom and free herself from the burden that destroyed so many others?

Elizabeth Poliner is a masterful storyteller, a brilliant observer of human nature, and in As Close to Us as Breathing she has created an unforgettable meditation on grief, guilt, and the boundaries of identity and love.

How and when I got it:

I bought the Kindle edition in 2016, several months after the book was first released.

Why I want to read it:

I probably grabbed this book to take advantage of a Kindle price drop, but I know it had already made its way onto my TBR list by then.

Basically, seeing both “Jewish” and “Connecticut” in the synopsis is probably reason enough for me to want to read this book — but there’s more! I love good historical fiction, and I also love family dramas with secrets coming to the surface and complicated relationships between sisters.

I’m intrigued by the description, and now that the book has come back to my attention, I really want to know what the accident was that they all witnessed, and what happened to change all their lives.

On a more superficial level, I also find myself drawn to this book simply because one of the women on the cover (the one in the pink scarf) reminds me so much of a 1950s-era photo of my own mother!

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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Have fun!

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Book Review: Yours Cheerfully by AJ Pearce

Title: Yours Cheerfully
Author: AJ Pearce
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: August 10, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

London, November 1941. Following the departure of the formidable Henrietta Bird from Woman’s Friend magazine, things are looking up for Emmeline Lake as she takes on the challenge of becoming a young wartime advice columnist. Her relationship with boyfriend Charles (now stationed back in the UK) is blossoming, while Emmy’s best friend Bunty, still reeling from the very worst of the Blitz, is bravely looking to the future. Together, the friends are determined to Make a Go of It.

When the Ministry of Information calls on Britain’s women’s magazines to help recruit desperately needed female workers to the war effort, Emmy is thrilled to be asked to step up and help. But when she and Bunty meet a young woman who shows them the very real challenges that women war workers face, Emmy must tackle a life-changing dilemma between doing her duty and standing by her friends.

In this follow-up to Dear Mrs. Bird, the story of Emmy Lake continues — although Yours Cheerfully works perfectly well as a stand-alone. Emmy is a young woman who’s just learning the journalism ropes at Woman’s Friend magazine, while also juggling her wartime volunteer work as part of the fire watch, spending time with her best friend Bunty, and squeezing in precious visits with her boyfriend Charles whenever he can get leave. It’s 1941, and the war dominates every aspect of life in London.

As the story opens, the British Ministry of Information convenes a briefing for representatives of women’s magazines, urging them to do their patriotic duty by promoting recruitment of women workers to support the war effort. For Emmy, this represents a chance to advance in her journalism career, but as she visits a munitions factory as part of her research, she learns that there’s a darker side to women’s factory work: For those with small children, childcare can be difficult to impossible to find, and women who sneak their children into the factories so they can watch them face immediate firing.

Emmy learns as well that some of these women are war widows or have husbands missing in action, so that the factory work is not only patriotic, but is essential to their families’ financial survival.

Despite the magazine needing to keep up the positive portrayal of woman’s war work, Emmy can’t help feeling that she’s letting their readers down by not advocating for more attention to the needs of the workers — especially since there are supposed to be government-funded nurseries, but only if the factory owners make the effort to make the arrangements, and apparently, many of them don’t bother.

The story of the factory workers with whom Emmy becomes friends becomes a main thread of the plot of Yours Cheerfully. Interspersed with this is Emmy’s friendship with Bunty, recovering from injury and terrible loss after events in Dear Mrs. Bird, and the story of Emmy’s romance with Charles. There are sweet romantic moments, as well as a depiction of the challenges of everyday life during war and the fragility of every moment of happiness, knowing sorrow could be just around the corner.

I enjoyed Yours Cheerfully, although it starts very slowly. My interest was slow to engage, but eventually I was drawn in by the story of the factory workers, whom we come to know as individuals, each with their own backstory, and by the ups and downs faced by Emmy and Charles as they try to juggle courtship and engagement with the realization that Charles is likely to be sent overseas at any moment.

Yours Cheerfully is a quiet book — even the moments of greater action, such as a march to promote nurseries for the munitions workers, are fairly mild affairs. The characters are all lovely, but the book doesn’t build a great sense of drama or urgency. It’s a very nice read, but I can’t say I ever felt compelled by the plot or totally engrossed.

Overall, Yours Cheerfully provides a thoughtful look at women on the homefront during war, depicting the bravery embodied in carrying on during a time of heightened tragedy and crisis, and the power of friendship and joy to see the characters through the worst of times.

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Shelf Control #281: The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

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

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

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

Title: The Henna Artist
Author: Alka Joshi
Published: 2020
Length: 384 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Vivid and compelling in its portrait of one woman’s struggle for fulfillment in a society pivoting between the traditional and the modern, The Henna Artist opens a door into a world that is at once lush and fascinating, stark and cruel.

Escaping from an abusive marriage, seventeen-year-old Lakshmi makes her way alone to the vibrant 1950s pink city of Jaipur. There she becomes the most highly requested henna artist—and confidante—to the wealthy women of the upper class. But trusted with the secrets of the wealthy, she can never reveal her own…

Known for her original designs and sage advice, Lakshmi must tread carefully to avoid the jealous gossips who could ruin her reputation and her livelihood. As she pursues her dream of an independent life, she is startled one day when she is confronted by her husband, who has tracked her down these many years later with a high-spirited young girl in tow—a sister Lakshmi never knew she had. Suddenly the caution that she has carefully cultivated as protection is threatened. Still she perseveres, applying her talents and lifting up those that surround her as she does. 

How and when I got it:

I bought the Kindle edition last year.

Why I want to read it:

I always keep an eye on Reese Witherspoon’s book club selections — this was the May 2020 pick. I don’t read every single one of the Hello Sunshine books, but it’s a good bet that the books will at least be worth considering!

I’m always up for a book about a time and place that I haven’t read much about before. I love the sound of this historical novel, both in terms of the era and the setting in India. Plus, I always love reading about women’s struggles to set their own course and find independence in a time when such things just didn’t happen or weren’t socially acceptable.

I share my Kindle library with my husband and daughter, and so far, my family members have read and loved this book, even though I haven’t touched it yet!

A sequel was just released in June 2021, so I have even more incentive to dive 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.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Through affiliate programs, I may earn commissions from purchases made when you click through these links, at no cost to you.

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Shelf Control #279: The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning

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

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

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

Title: The Widow’s War
Author: Sally Gunning
Published: 2006
Length: 336 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

The Red Tent meets The Scarlett Letter in this haunting historical novel set in a colonial New England whaling village.

“When was it that the sense of trouble grew to fear, the fear to certainty? When she sat down to another solitary supper of bread and beer and picked cucumber? When she heard the second sounding of the geese? Or had she known that morning when she stepped outside and felt the wind? Might as well say she knew it when Edward took his first whaling trip to the Canada River, or when they married, or when, as a young girl, she stood on the beach and watched Edward bring about his father’s boat in the Point of Rock Channel. Whatever its begetting, when Edward’s cousin Shubael Hopkins and his wife Betsey came through the door, they brought her no new grief, but an old acquaintance.”

When Lyddie Berry’s husband is lost in a storm at sea, she finds that her status as a widow is vastly changed from that of respectable married woman. Now she is the “dependent” of her nearest male relative—her son-in-law. Refusing to bow to societal pressure that demands she cede everything that she and her husband worked for, Lyddie becomes an outcast from family, friends, and neighbors—yet ultimately discovers a deeper sense of self and, unexpectedly, love.

Evocative and stunningly assured, The Widow’s War is an unforgettable work of literary magic, a spellbinding tale from a gifted talent.

How and when I got it:

I bought the Kindle edition 10 years ago. (!!)

Why I want to read it:

I got my first Kindle in 2011, and immediately began filling it up with books I found on sale or offered free. I don’t know which category this book fell in, but I do know that — according to the dates in my Kindle library — this was among the first 10 or so books I acquired.

I actually didn’t even remember that I had this until just now! But I can see from the description that this is a book that would have caught my attention. I do love a good historical novel, and I’m always on the lookout for historical fiction that either introduces me to a period I don’t know enough about or to a perspective I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Colonial-era historical fiction always appeals to me, and there’s something about The Widow’s War that catches my eye. I’m always interested in hearing the voices of women from different historical eras, particularly from times when a woman’s voice would have been silenced or subservient to the men around her. Reading the synopsis makes me want to know more about Lyddie, who she is as a person, and how her struggle for independence turns out.

I’m so glad I rediscovered this on my e-book list!

What do you think? Would you read this book? And can you recommend any other Colonial-era historical novels?

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!

Through affiliate programs, I may earn commissions from purchases made when you click through these links, at no cost to you.

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Book Review: A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

Title: A Single Thread
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: September 17, 2019
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

1932. After the Great War took both her beloved brother and her fiancé, Violet Speedwell has become a “surplus woman,” one of a generation doomed to a life of spinsterhood after the war killed so many young men. Yet Violet cannot reconcile herself to a life spent caring for her grieving, embittered mother. After countless meals of boiled eggs and dry toast, she saves enough to move out of her mother’s place and into the town of Winchester, home to one of England’s grandest cathedrals. There, Violet is drawn into a society of broderers–women who embroider kneelers for the Cathedral, carrying on a centuries-long tradition of bringing comfort to worshippers.

Violet finds support and community in the group, fulfillment in the work they create, and even a growing friendship with the vivacious Gilda. But when forces threaten her new independence and another war appears on the horizon, Violet must fight to put down roots in a place where women aren’t expected to grow. Told in Chevalier’s glorious prose, A Single Thread is a timeless story of friendship, love, and a woman crafting her own life.

A Single Thread is a quiet, low-key historical novel that I probably never would have picked up on my own, so I’m glad my book group picked it for our June read.

Set in 1932, Violet Speedwell’s story unfolds as she settles into her new independent life in Winchester. At age 38, Violet is a spinster, one of the many women left alone after losing a loved one during the Great War. Still grieving her lost brother and fiance, Violet felt crushed by the demands of living with her embittered mother, and moved to Winchester to create distance and find a new path for herself.

In Winchester, she works as a typist at an insurance office, and happens by chance to discover the society of “broderers” — the embroidery group who create beautiful cushions and kneelers for the cathedral. Although Violet has never embroidered, she’s fascinated by the group’s work, and longs to create something of beauty of her own, as a way to leave her own mark on the world.

Joining the broderers, she not only becomes absorbed by her new craft, but also finds friendship and a sense of belonging and purpose. She also meets Arthur, one of the cathedral’s bell-ringers, a kind older man who cares for his fragile wife, yet seems to share a mutual attraction with Violet.

Over the course of the novel, we see Violet emerge from her loneliness and grief and start to make a life for herself, finding new hope and meaning in the community she’s chosen.

Violet’s story is lovely in its own quiet way. An action-packed plot this is not — and if this weren’t a book group book, I’m not sure I would have made it past the early chapters, with all their details on cathedrals and embroidery. I’m glad I stuck with it. A Single Thread is a gently, lovely read, and while the ending was perhaps a little too rosy to be entirely believable, I found it overall to be a thoughtful, graceful experience.

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Buy now at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

Shelf Control #271: Restless by William Boyd

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

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

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

Title: Restless
Author: William Boyd
Published: 2006
Length: 336 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

“I am Eva Delectorskaya,” Sally Gilmartin announces, and so on a warm summer afternoon in 1976 her daughter, Ruth, learns that everything she ever knew about her mother was a carefully constructed lie. Sally Gilmartin is a respectable English widow living in picturesque Cotswold village; Eva Delectorskaya was a rigorously trained World War II spy, a woman who carried fake passports and retreated to secret safe houses, a woman taught to lie and deceive, and above all, to never trust anyone.

Three decades later the secrets of Sally’s past still haunt her. Someone is trying to kill her and at last she has decided to trust Ruth with her story. Ruth, meanwhile, is struggling to make sense of her own life as a young single mother with an unfinished graduate degree and escalating dependence on alcohol. She is drawn deeper and deeper into the astonishing events of her mother’s past—the mysterious death of Eva’s beloved brother, her work in New York City manipulating the press in order to shift public sentiment toward American involvement in the war, and her dangerous romantic entanglement. Now Sally wants to find the man who recruited her for the secret service, and she needs Ruth’s help.

Restless is a brilliant espionage book and a vivid portrait of the life of a female spy. Full of tension and drama, and based on a remarkable chapter of Anglo-American history, this is fiction at its finest.

How and when I got it:

I’m not sure! But I think I picked it up either at a used book store or a library sale several years ago.

Why I want to read it:

Someone — and I don’t remember who! — recommended this book to me. Strongly. I believe it was one of my book group friends, because I pretty much always take their recommendations to heart — they all have excellent taste!

Restless sounds intriguing. I love stories about hidden identities and multi-generational family secrets. The WWII setting and the focus on a female spy make this book sound like something I’d really enjoy.

I’ve previously read one book by this author, Brazzaville Beach, and even though it was many years ago, it’s a book that was disturbing and fascinating and has stayed with me ever since.

What do you think? Would you read this book? Have you read any other books by William Boyd that you’d recommend?

Please share your thoughts!

Stay tuned!


__________________________________

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!

Through affiliate programs, I may earn commissions from purchases made when you click through these links, at no cost to you.

Buy now: Amazon – Book Depository – Bookshop.org

Shelf Control #267: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

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 Familiars
Author: Stacey Halls
Published: 2019
Length: 344 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a noblewoman, is with child again. None of her previous pregnancies have borne fruit, and her husband, Richard, is anxious for an heir. Then Fleetwood discovers a hidden doctor’s letter that carries a dire prediction: she will not survive another birth. By chance she meets a midwife named Alice Grey, who promises to help her deliver a healthy baby. But Alice soon stands accused of witchcraft.

Is there more to Alice than meets the eye? Fleetwood must risk everything to prove her innocence. As the two women’s lives become intertwined, the Witch Trials of 1612 loom. Time is running out; both their lives are at stake. Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.

Rich and compelling, set against the frenzy of the real Pendle Hill Witch Trials, this novel explores the rights of 17th-century women and raises the question: Was witch-hunting really women-hunting? Fleetwood Shuttleworth, Alice Grey and the other characters are actual historical figures. King James I was obsessed with asserting power over the lawless countryside (even woodland creatures, or “familiars,” were suspected of dark magic) by capturing “witches”—in reality mostly poor and illiterate women. 

How and when I got it:

I bought the e-book sometime in late 2019.

Why I want to read it:

They had me at “witch trials”! I just read another book about accusations of witchcraft in the 1600s (although set in Boston in the Colonies, not in England), and the topic is just so fascinating. I love that this one is focused on real people from the period, and that it delves into the issue of witch-hunting being a facade for systemic misogyny.

I picked up a copy of The Familiars after seeing a few glowing reviews from book bloggers whose tastes tend to be in sync with my own. I’m glad I “rediscovered” this book on my dusty old virtual bookshelf — bumping it up to must-read status!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

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Book Review: The Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian

Title: The Hour of the Witch
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Publication date: April 20, 2021
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A young Puritan woman–faithful, resourceful, but afraid of the demons that dog her soul–plots her escape from a violent marriage in this riveting and propulsive historical thriller from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Flight Attendant.

Boston, 1662. Mary Deerfield is twenty-four-years-old. Her skin is porcelain, her eyes delft blue, and in England she might have had many suitors. But here in the New World, amid this community of saints, Mary is the second wife of Thomas Deerfield, a man as cruel as he is powerful. When Thomas, prone to drunken rage, drives a three-tined fork into the back of Mary’s hand, she resolves that she must divorce him to save her life. But in a world where every neighbor is watching for signs of the devil, a woman like Mary–a woman who harbors secret desires and finds it difficult to tolerate the brazen hypocrisy of so many men in the colony–soon finds herself the object of suspicion and rumor. When tainted objects are discovered buried in Mary’s garden, when a boy she has treated with herbs and simples dies, and when their servant girl runs screaming in fright from her home, Mary must fight to not only escape her marriage, but also the gallows. A twisting, tightly plotted thriller from one of our greatest storytellers, Hour of the Witch is a timely and terrifying novel of socially sanctioned brutality and the original American witch hunt.

I have read quite a few books by Chris Bohjalian by now, and without fail, they’re always interesting, unusual, and thought-provoking. And while most of the books I’ve read by him have been contemporary fiction, I’ve also read two terrific historical novels (The Sandcastle Girls and The Light in the Ruins), both of which shed light on important and disturbing historical periods and show these periods through the eyes of ordinary people.

In The Hour of the Witch, the author goes several centuries into the past to bring us a story set in the Puritan settlement of Boston in the 1600s. If you’ve read stories of the early Colonial days, then the moral code and rhythm of the community’s life may feel familiar.

Mary Deerfield, at age 24, is married to a truly awful man, Thomas Deerfield, a miller. Thomas often comes home “drink-drunk” and berates her, intimidates her, and beats her. His violence escalates over time, as does his verbal cruelty — but apparently no one sees his abhorrent behavior but Mary. Their servant girl Catherine appears to be enamored of Thomas, and Mary feels such shame about her marriage that she hides her bruises and keeps the violence a deep, dark secret.

On top of the misery of this abusive behavior, Mary has not conceived, despite five years of marriage. Her “barren” state subjects her to even more abuse from Thomas, not to mention public scorn and mistrust. If she’s barren, it must be God’s will — and could that be because she’s in league with the Devil?

“Women who are barren often act strangely. It would be like an owl that couldn’t fly: it would be antithetical to our Lord’s purpose, and the animal would, by necessity, go mad.”

Mary’s troubles grow further when she innocently accepts a gift from her father, a successful importer — a set of silver forks. But in the Puritan view, these are “the Devil’s tines”, since a three-pronged implement resembles a pitchfork, and those who use the Devil’s tines must therefore be suspect of inviting in evil.

When Mary finds a pair of forks buried in her garden, she suspects that someone is trying to curse her, and when Catherine observes her in the garden with the forks, Catherine immediately suspects that Mary herself is in league with the Devil.

Thomas’s violence eventually causes severe injury and Mary flees to her parents, taking the unprecedented and dangerous step of petitioning the elders for divorce. In the book’s two sections, we see two different trials, each giving us a horrifying view of what passes for justice at that time. The magistrates follow their own set of rules, accept as evidence hearsay and superstitious signs, and have no respect for women — especially not a barren woman like Mary, who, by their logic, must be guilty of something bad in order to be deemed unworthy of bearing children.

If it sounds like a no-win situation for Mary, as well as any woman who’s unusual and perhaps not quite meek enough, that’s because it is. You can see where Mary’s situation is headed, even when she doesn’t quite believe it, and we readers know early on that Mary’s legal case as well as her domestic situation will go from bad to worse.

The Hour of the Witch presents a fascinating view of Puritan life, although it doesn’t exactly feel new or different to me. I’ve read enough history books and articles about the period to have a pretty decent sense of what a woman’s life would have been like at the time, and the notion of an outspoken woman being accused of witchcraft isn’t exactly startling.

The Puritan phrasing makes the dialogue feel slow and heavy throughout the book, with characters exclaiming such things as “Thou canst not believe that!” and “Do what thou likest” and “I thank thee”. Maybe that’s supposed to be authentic speech, but it feels awkward, especially when a character later in the book says “I feel bad that she has been dragged into this”, which could be something said in a 21st century heart-to-heart.

I did really like Mary as a character, although she makes some unwise choices along the way — but for the most part, these just illustrate how very little control a woman of the time would have had over her own life, and how even the slightest step out of line could lead to life-threatening consequences.

The Hour of the Witch feels a little simple in comparison to some of the more twisty-turvy plots I’ve read by this author, but I still enjoyed reading it. Despite the sometimes slow pace, I was invested in the outcome and had to know Mary’s fate.

If you’re interested in this era in US history, then I’d definitely recommend checking out The Hour of the Witch!

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