Shelf Control #271: Restless by William Boyd

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: 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:

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Shelf Control #267: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

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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 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?

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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Have fun!

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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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Buy The Hour of the Witch at Amazon

Shelf Control #263: Where the Lost Wander by Amy Harmon

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: Where the Lost Wander
Author: Amy Harmon
Published: 2020
Length: 343 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In this epic and haunting love story set on the Oregon Trail, a family and their unlikely protector find their way through peril, uncertainty, and loss.

The Overland Trail, 1853: Naomi May never expected to be widowed at twenty. Eager to leave her grief behind, she sets off with her family for a life out West. On the trail, she forms an instant connection with John Lowry, a half-Pawnee man straddling two worlds and a stranger in both.

But life in a wagon train is fraught with hardship, fear, and death. Even as John and Naomi are drawn to each other, the trials of the journey and their disparate pasts work to keep them apart. John’s heritage gains them safe passage through hostile territory only to come between them as they seek to build a life together.

When a horrific tragedy strikes, decimating Naomi’s family and separating her from John, the promises they made are all they have left. Ripped apart, they can’t turn back, they can’t go on, and they can’t let go. Both will have to make terrible sacrifices to find each other, save each other, and eventually…make peace with who they are.

How and when I got it:

I received an ARC through NetGalley when the book was released last year.

Why I want to read it:

I do love historical fiction, and I love discovering books that present a piece of history that I haven’t read in fictional form before. Like every other American schoolchild, I learned about the Oregon Trail, but honestly, the first thing that comes to mind for me is the computer game, not actual history.

The synopsis of Where the Lost Wander makes it sound like a personal story of love and family set during an important historical period. I’m just as interested in the story now as I was when I first requested the ARC — the only reason I haven’t read it yet is that I’m (as always) too swamped by my towering to-be-read stack of books.

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: To Love and To Loathe by Martha Waters

Title: To Love and To Loathe (The Regency Vows, #2)
Author: Martha Waters
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: April 6, 2021
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The widowed Diana, Lady Templeton and Jeremy, Marquess of Willingham are infamous among English high society as much for their sharp-tongued bickering as their flirtation. One evening, an argument at a ball turns into a serious wager: Jeremy will marry within the year or Diana will forfeit one hundred pounds. So shortly after, just before a fortnight-long house party at Elderwild, Jeremy’s country estate, Diana is shocked when Jeremy appears at her home with a very different kind of proposition.

After his latest mistress unfavorably criticized his skills in the bedroom, Jeremy is looking for reassurance, so he has gone to the only woman he trusts to be totally truthful. He suggests that they embark on a brief affair while at the house party—Jeremy can receive an honest critique of his bedroom skills and widowed Diana can use the gossip to signal to other gentlemen that she is interested in taking a lover.

Diana thinks taking him up on his counter-proposal can only help her win her wager. With her in the bedroom and Jeremy’s marriage-minded grandmother, the formidable Dowager Marchioness of Willingham, helping to find suitable matches among the eligible ladies at Elderwild, Diana is confident her victory is assured. But while they’re focused on winning wagers, they stand to lose their own hearts.

To Love and To Loathe is author Martha Waters’s follow up to last year’s To Have and To Hoax, and I’m happy to report that the fun is back!

In TH&TH (sorry, I just can’t handle typing the titles over and over again), the story focused on a married couple Violet and James, and their love-match-turned-hate-match… and what came next. As part of the story, we also met the closest friends of the estranged couple, and here in TL&TL, two of their friends take center stage.

Lady Diana, in her mid-twenties, is a wealthy widow who has no need for a husband in order to live well. Six years earlier, in her first social season, she was desperate to marry, having been raised on the charity of an aunt and uncle. Diana was forced to be decidedly mercenary in her approach to the marriage market, much to the amusement of Jeremy, Lord Willingham, who couldn’t see beyond the surface to understand Diana’s true circumstances.

Years later, Jeremy has a confirmed reputation as a rake, seducing a steady stream of willing married women, enjoying sexual flings and remaining completely unavailable emotionally. But now that Jeremy, a second son, has inherited the family title that should have gone to his late brother, the family expects him to settle down and live up to his responsibilities. Jeremy is one of Diana’s brother’s closest friends, and Jeremy and Diana have bantered and bickered their entire lives.

But now, as adults with more at stake, there’s the potential that they could help each other out. Jeremy’s darling masculine ego has been dealt a blow by his most recent mistress, and Diana is thinking of expanding her social engagements to possibly include a lover. They agree to liaise at Jeremy’s upcoming country house party, where there will be time and opportunity for late-night dalliances.

I don’t think it’s at all a spoiler to say that Jeremy and Diana quickly discover that there’s more to their connection than friendship and banter. Their sexual spark is connected to emotions that bubble up as they spend time together, and they each must face the fact that there’s more on the line than just their bedroom connection.

Of course, there are complications, including another single young woman introduced as a possible future bride for Jeremy, but who harbors her own set of surprises. Violet and James are in attendance at the party, as is Emily, the 3rd member of Violet and Diana’s close friendship circle. I’d guess that if there’s a book #3 (and I hope there will be!), we’ll finally focus on Emily’s sad romantic situation and see her find true love too.

To Love and To Loathe is a fun, clever historical romance, and while some of the complications seemed a little more drawn-out than strictly needed, it’s quite an entertaining read. I really enjoyed the characters’ banter, as well as the witty/snarky/innuendo-laden moments.

With Willingham, at the moment, it seemed that little effort would have to be expended in the seduction. He was directing his charm at her so forcefully that she was surprised her legs hadn’t fallen open of their own accord.

“Do remove yourself from my settee, Willingham,” she said briskly, proceeding to rearrange her skirts with such gusto that the man had no choice but to retreat to an armchair to avoid the risk of suffocation by muslin.

And a favorite:

For heaven’s sake, it was breakfast time. She hadn’t known that thoughts this inappropriate were possible this early in the day.

If you’re looking for a light, romantic escape with charming characters, definitely check out To Have and To Hoax AND To Love and To Loathe. (TL&TL works just fine on its own, but might as well read them both!)

Book Review: The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers

Title: The Ladies of the Secret Circus
Author: Constance Sayers
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: March 23, 2021
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Paris, 1925: To enter the Secret Circus is to enter a world of wonder-a world where women tame magnificent beasts, carousels take you back in time, and trapeze artists float across the sky. But each daring feat has a cost. Bound to her family’s strange and magical circus, it’s the only world Cecile Cabot knows-until she meets a charismatic young painter and embarks on a passionate love affair that could cost her everything.

Virginia, 2005: Lara Barnes is on top of the world-until her fiancé disappears on their wedding day. Desperate, her search for answers unexpectedly leads to her great-grandmother’s journals and sweeps her into the story of a dark circus and a generational curse that has been claiming payment from the women in her family for generations.

The Ladies of the Secret Circus is a tale of family secrets and a dark heritage — but it doesn’t quite live up to the mysterious air promised by the cover and synopsis.

Lara is eagerly awaiting her wedding to Todd, the man she’s loved since her teens. But her joy turns to heartache when she’s left waiting at the altar on her wedding day. Did he jilt her? Did something happen to him? His abandoned car seems to provide a link to a similar disappearance that occurred 30 years earlier. Dark forces seem to be at play. Could this be related to Lara and her mother Audrey’s talent for magic? Or the fact that their small town in Virginia hasn’t had a single murder case in decades? Or Lara’s strange memories of being visited as a child by an unusual man who made incredible things happen?

In the months that follow, Todd’s fate remains a mystery and Lara starts to rebuild her life, but a gift from her mother sends her on a strange journey. The gift is a small painting that’s been hanging in Audrey’s house for as long as Lara can remember — a portrait of her great-grandmother Cecile as a young circus performer.

When Lara takes the painting to be reframed, the art expert who handles it is astonished to realize that this may be one of the rumored missing paintings by the great Jazz Age artist Emile Giroux. He supposedly painted his masterpiece, a series of three paintings called The Ladies of the Secret Circus, before his death, but no one has ever seen the paintings. If Lara’s painting is authentic, then its value is in the millions, and its discovery will rock the art world.

But as Lara investigates, the connection to ancient magics is revealed, especially once she begins to read Cecile’s long-lost diaries. The diaries tell a story of a mysterious, otherworldly circus that only appears to those who truly seek it, and the strange, damned performers who populate the circus and seemingly can never leave. There’s a connection to Lara’s family, but it’s beyond anything Lara could have expected, and carries huge dangers for her and everyone around her.

While the set-up is promising, the book itself didn’t meet my expectations. Some of this may be me — I seem to have issues with magical circus settings, since apparently I’m the only person in the world who didn’t love The Night Circus. The big revelations in this book about the Secret Circus struck me as too out-there to accept. I have problems with books where the use of magic makes anything and everything possible — at some point, it stops feeling like any rules apply at all.

The connections to Lara’s family are confusing, and the origin of the connection is just kind of dumped on the reader earlier on. The how’s and why’s of it all just didn’t work for me. So many of the more fantastical elements are stated as fact, but without a sense of build-up or setting to make these aspects feel at all plausible. The identities of some of the circus performers are supposed to ground the circus in our own world, but without giving anything away, I’ll just say that these pieces struck me as absurd and funny, rather than dramatic.

I enjoyed the diary entries, with their 1920s Paris setting, but again, the constant name-dropping of artists and authors like Hemingway, Chagall, and Man Ray made me feel distracted and as if the author were trying too hard to make the story real. It just didn’t work for me — somehow the use of real artists in this fictional tale felt out of place and at odds with the story the author was trying to tell.

Sad to say, overall this was a disappointing read for me. I loved the author’s previous book, A Witch in Time, and such high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, The Ladies of the Secret Circus started slowly and never fully pulled me in.

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

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The princess watched us in bemusement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shelf Control #258: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

Shelves final

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

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

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

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

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

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

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

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

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

How and when I got it:

I bought a paperback about two years ago.

Why I want to read it:

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

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

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

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

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

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

Have fun!

Book Review: The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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