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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Book Review: Dear Miss Kopp by Amy Stewart

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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shelf Control #193: Witchmark by C. J. Polk

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!

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Title: Witchmark
Author: C. L. Polk
Published: 2018
Length: 318 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.

Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.

When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.
 

How and when I got it:

I picked up a copy last summer on a visit to a beloved neighborhood bookstore.

Why I want to read it:

I’ve heard such good things about this book! I love the sound of the witchcraft elements mixed with the historical setting. And now seems like a good time to read Witchmark, as the sequel will be out in February.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

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

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

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Aubiobook Review: Kopp Sisters on the March by Amy Stewart

 

In the fifth installment of Amy Stewart’s clever and original Kopp Sisters series, the sisters learn some military discipline—whether they’re ready or not—as the U.S. prepares to enter World War I.

It’s the spring of 1917 and change is in the air. American women have done something remarkable: they’ve banded together to create military-style training camps for women who want to serve. These so-called National Service Schools prove irresistible to the Kopp sisters, who leave their farm in New Jersey to join up.

When an accident befalls the matron, Constance reluctantly agrees to oversee the camp—much to the alarm of the Kopps’ tent-mate, the real-life Beulah Binford, who is seeking refuge from her own scandalous past under the cover of a false identity. Will she be denied a second chance? And after notoriety, can a woman’s life ever be her own again?

In Kopp Sisters on the March, the women of Camp Chevy Chase face down the skepticism of the War Department, the double standards of a scornful public, and the very real perils of war. Once again, Amy Stewart has brilliantly brought a little-known moment in history to light with her fearless and funny Kopp sisters novels.

My Thoughts:

Long live the Kopp sisters! This brilliant series continues strong, as fearless Constance Kopp and her sisters Norma and Fleurette leave behind their New Jersey farm to attend a women’s training camp. The US is on the verge of joining the war in Europe. Young women, mostly of privileged families, sign up to attend a National Service School to learn military bed-making, bandage-rolling, and some basics about marching in formation and understanding signalling.

For most of these women, it’s not particularly serious. Most will go back home to mommy and daddy afterward — but for some, it’s a stepping stone to sailing for France, where they hope to join the war effort in whatever way they can. And for one woman in Kopp Sisters on the March, the camp and France represent an escape from her intolerable, scandal-ridden life.

When the Kopp sisters arrive at camp, it’s the year after Constance has lost her job as a sheriff’s deputy, after the election of a new sheriff who has no interest in or tolerance for women in law enforcement. Constance is adrift and rather hopeless, until she ends up being put in charge of the camp after the camp matron is injured. Under Constance’s direction, the camp takes on a more disciplined and focused feel, and she even introduces secret hand-to-hand combat and shooting lessons for the small group of women who are determined to be taken seriously and prepare themselves for the war.

The narrative is split between Constance and her sisters and the historical figure Beulah Binford. As the author explains in her notes, there’s no record of the real-life Beulah attending such a camp, but it seems like a great fit for her to place her in this story. Beulah was the “other woman” in a highly publicized murder case, and while she was never charged with a crime, she was dragged through the papers and became one of the most notorious women of the time, forcing her to live under assumed identities and live in hiding. I didn’t realize until I got to the end of the book and read the notes that Beulah was a real person — this made her parts of the story all the more fascinating and tragic, seeing how an uneducated, resourceless woman could end up having her life so thoroughly ruined.

It’s a bit jarring to have the action in a Kopp sisters book move away from law enforcement and local police work to a military setting, but it tracks with the timeline of the real Kopp sisters, and seems like a natural choice for them in the context of the US’s war preparations. As always, Constance is a strong character who doesn’t back down and who is determined to improve the lives of the women around her. I’m less fond of her sisters — Fleurette is flighty as always, and Norma and her pigeon-obsession are a bit much to take — but their family dynamics are always fun.

As with the previous four books, I listened to the audiobook version, becuase the narrator is so gifted when it comes to portraying the sisters and the various other characters. As I mentioned in my reviews of the other audiobooks, she makes each character come alive, and as a listener, I really got the essence of each character’s personality through Chrsitina Moore’s presentation.

The author’s notes at the end of the book are essential reading (as they are in all of the Kopp Sisters books). Amy Stewart provides the historical context, explains her research, and makes clear which parts of her story are from the record and which are her invention. It’s fascinating to see how she so skillfully weaves together fact and fiction, and really remarkable to learn just how much of these women’s lives actually happened.

And as I’ve said in each review I’ve written for the books in this series:

If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the Kopp Sisters books yet, start with Girl Waits With Gun, and then keep going!

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The details:

Title: Kopp Sisters on the March
Author: Amy Stewart
Narrator: Christina Moore
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: September 17, 2019
Audiobook length: 10 hours, 26 minutes
Printed book length: 355 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Audible download (purchased); ARC from the author

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Shelf Control #142: The Foreshadowing by Marcus Sedgwick

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!

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Title: The Foreshadowing
Author: Marcus Sedgwick
Published: 2005
Length: 304 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

It is 1915 and the First World War has only just begun.

17 year old Sasha is a well-to-do, sheltered-English girl. Just as her brother Thomas longs to be a doctor, she wants to nurse, yet girls of her class don’t do that kind of work. But as the war begins and the hospitals fill with young soldiers, she gets a chance to help. But working in the hospital confirms what Sasha has suspected–she can see when someone is going to die. Her premonitions show her the brutal horrors on the battlefields of the Somme, and the faces of the soldiers who will die. And one of them is her brother Thomas.

Pretending to be a real nurse, Sasha goes behind the front lines searching for Thomas, risking her own life as she races to find him, and somehow prevent his death.

How and when I got it:

I bought this book several years ago from an online resale site.

Why I want to read it:

After reading Midwinterblood, I just had to read more by this author. I’ve read a few of his books now, and to be honest, I haven’t loved any nearly as  much as I loved Midwinterblood — but I keep trying! The synopsis of The Foreshadowing definitely caught my attention. World War I books are always harrowing, and I like the sound of the supernatural element combined with the war story.

__________________________________

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

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Take A Peek Book Review: In Falling Snow by Mary-Rose MacColl

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

In Falling Snow

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Iris Crane’s tranquil life is shattered when a letter summons memories from her bittersweet past: her first love, her best friend, and the tragedy that changed everything. Iris, a young Australian nurse, travels to France during World War I to bring home her fifteen-year-old brother, who ran away to enlist. But in Paris she meets the charismatic Dr. Frances Ivens, who convinces Iris to help establish a field hospital in the old abbey at Royaumont, staffed entirely by women—a decision that will change her life. Seamlessly interwoven is the story of Grace, Iris’s granddaughter in 1970s Australia. Together their narratives paint a portrait of the changing role of women in medicine and the powerful legacy of love.

My Thoughts:

In Falling Snow was my book club’s pick for March, and chances are it would never have crossed my radar otherwise. Written by an Australian author, In Falling Snow creates a fictional portrait of life at Royaumont, a real-life field hospital run by a completely female staff during World War I. I found the historical elements of this book the most compelling, witnessing the amazing bravery of the women doctors, nurses, orderlies, and drivers who refused to be pushed aside or belittled, who didn’t accept that women weren’t skilled or tough enough to perform surgery and treat wounded soldiers. The fact that this hospital really existed as described is so inspiring, and I was thrilled to read the author’s afterword with citations of her non-fiction sources.

The fictional characters and the structure of the novel are only middling successful, in my opinion. The storyline shifts between Iris as an old woman and her granddaughter Grace, an Australian obstetrician, and Iris’s memories of her war-time experiences at Royaumont. We’re meant to focus on Iris’s friendship with a fellow hospital staffer named Violet; Iris abruptly cut ties with all of her friends from that time immediately after the war, and it’s around Violet that her thoughts circle, but I didn’t feel the chapters on life at the hospital ever really convinced me that their friendship was so exceptionally special.

Iris is tormented by guilt over her younger brother Tom, and learning his fate and what it meant for Iris is one of the more compelling parts of the story. Early on, I was much more interested in Grace and her family, but her story comes and goes throughout the book and loses steam somehow, even though all the pieces come together by the end.

Overall, I’d say this historical novel is quite interesting in parts, but lacks momentum until about the last third of the book, making big pieces of it feel like a slog. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but there’s an odd detachment in long sections of the book. The events of Iris’s experience are described, but I couldn’t get any sense of feeling from them. On the positive side, the elements of the war experiences taken from the historical record are fascinating and horrifying, especially reading about the senseless deaths and terrible experiences of the young men who suffered so horribly in the trenches and battlefields. By the end, the revelation of the secrets that Iris carries throughout her life is a good one, and helps make sense of certain pieces of the novel that seemed random or disconnected.

In Falling Snow takes a bit of patience in parts, but ultimately, I’m glad to have read it. I recommend In Falling Snow for anyone interested in women’s roles in medicine and in reading about World War I- era history.

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The details:

Title: In Falling Snow
Author: Mary-Rose MacColl
Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: 2012
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased