Shelf Control #147: The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

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!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

Title: The Women in the Castle
Author: Jessica Shattuck
Published: 2017
Length: 356 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Set at the end of World War II, in a crumbling Bavarian castle that once played host to all of German high society, a powerful and propulsive story of three widows whose lives and fates become intertwined in an affecting, shocking, and ultimately redemptive novel from the author of the New York Times Notable Book The Hazards of Good Breeding.

Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once-grand castle of her husband s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war. The widow of a resister murdered in the failed July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.

First Marianne rescues six-year-old Martin, the son of her dearest childhood friend, from a Nazi reeducation home. Together, they make their way across the smoldering wreckage of their homeland to Berlin, where Martin s mother, the beautiful and naive Benita, has fallen into the hands of occupying Red Army soldiers. Then she locates Ania, another resister s wife, and her two boys, now refugees languishing in one of the many camps that house the millions displaced by the war.

As Marianne assembles this makeshift family from the ruins of her husband s resistance movement, she is certain their shared pain and circumstances will hold them together. But she quickly discovers that the black-and-white, highly principled world of her privileged past has become infinitely more complicated, filled with secrets and dark passions that threaten to tear them apart. Eventually, all three women must come to terms with the choices that have defined their lives before, during, and after the war each with their own unique share of challenges.

Written with the devastating emotional power of The Nightingale, Sarah’s Key, and The Light Between Oceans, Jessica Shattuck’s evocative and utterly enthralling novel offers a fresh perspective on one of the most tumultuous periods in history. Combining piercing social insight and vivid historical atmosphere, The Women in the Castle is a dramatic yet nuanced portrait of war and its repercussions that explores what it means to survive, love, and, ultimately, to forgive in the wake of unimaginable hardship.

How and when I got it:

I won it in a Goodreads giveaway.

Why I want to read it:

Talk about guilt! I was so excited when I won this book — and somehow, it seems to always fall behind the nightstand or slip off the TBR stack (metaphorically speaking), and I’ve just never gotten to it. My husband read it soon after I first received it, and he thought it was incredibly powerful. I really have no excuse, and it makes me seem horribly ungrateful not to have read a giveaway book already. The subject matter sounds fascinating, and I know (from hubby as well as others) that it’s well worth reading. Note to self: Let’s make this a priority for 2019!

__________________________________

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!

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Book Review: Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce

 

A charming, irresistible debut novel set in London during World War II about an adventurous young woman who becomes a secret advice columnist—a warm, funny, and enormously moving story for fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Lilac Girls.

London 1940, bombs are falling. Emmy Lake is Doing Her Bit for the war effort, volunteering as a telephone operator with the Auxiliary Fire Services. When Emmy sees an advertisement for a job at the London Evening Chronicle, her dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent seem suddenly achievable. But the job turns out to be typist to the fierce and renowned advice columnist, Henrietta Bird. Emmy is disappointed, but gamely bucks up and buckles down.

Mrs Bird is very clear: Any letters containing Unpleasantness—must go straight in the bin. But when Emmy reads poignant letters from women who are lonely, may have Gone Too Far with the wrong men and found themselves in trouble, or who can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she is unable to resist responding. As the German planes make their nightly raids, and London picks up the smoldering pieces each morning, Emmy secretly begins to write letters back to the women of all ages who have spilled out their troubles.

Prepare to fall head over heels with Emmy and her best friend, Bunty, who are spirited and gutsy, even in the face of events that bring a terrible blow. As the bombs continue to fall, the irrepressible Emmy keeps writing, and readers are transformed by AJ Pearce’s hilarious, heartwarming, and enormously moving tale of friendship, the kindness of strangers, and ordinary people in extraordinary times.

Dear Mrs. Bird is the story of plucky heroine Emmaline Lake, who dreams of becoming a war correspondent but mistakenly ends up with a job as a typist for a women’s magazine — a magazine which tends to feature pieces on cooking, sewing, and romantic fiction. Part of Emmy’s job is to sort the incoming letters addressed to Mrs. Bird, the fiercely old-fashioned “editress” who won’t tolerate letters on forbidden topics (such as love, marriage, or intimacy), and whose main advice to readers seems to be to buck up and stop feeling sorry for oneself.

Emmy feels compassion for the writers of these ignored letters, and despite being young and inexperienced herself, decides that these women clearly need someone to respond and encourage them. She begins secretly corresponding with the letter writers, sending them letters back offering warmth and practical guidance, and even dares to sneak a few of the Unpleasant letters and her responses into the printed magazine, knowing that Mrs. Bird never reads the finished product.

Meanwhile, Emmy works as a volunteer for the fire service, answering the desperate phone calls that come in reporting fires during each air raid, and is determined that she must make a meaningful contribution to the war effort. Despite the horror of the bombings, Emmy manages to enjoy life as well, living with her best friend Bunty, celebrating Bunty’s engagement, and even meeting a charming young man of her own.

Things go wrong, of course. Emmy’s life is thrown completely off course by one particularly horrific air raid… and as expected, her secret life as an advice columnist can’t stay secret forever.

I really enjoyed Dear Mrs. Bird for its breezy, “keep calm and carry on”, chin-up tone, blending a sense of fun with the knowledge that the war is ever-present and ready to steal away one’s home and friends and family. Emmy is an engaging main character, a little naive but always well-intentioned. She doesn’t always make the best choices, but her heart is in the right place, and she’s completely devoted to her friends and to her country. It’s lovely to see Emmy’s compassion for the sad, worried letter-writers — she understands that they write to “Mrs. Bird” because they have no place else to turn, and she takes it upon herself to make sure that they’re heard and given some measure of practical guidance and hope.

The bombing of the Café de Paris, a key turning point in the story, is a true event, and that makes it even more powerful in the context of the book. It’s but one horrific incident in the London Blitz, but it serves to illuminate the personal tragedies and the immediacy of the destruction experienced by the people of London during that awful time. In Dear Mrs. Bird, the author shows the uncertainty of living daily life, going to work and going out with friends, knowing that on any night when the skies are clear, the world may come crashing down around you.

I did wish for a little more at the end of the book. I would have liked to know what happened next, and how the remainder of the war years went for Emmy, Bunty, and their circle of friends. Likewise, while there’s a resolution for the plot about Emmy’s secret letter writing, I wanted more — how did it work out? What happened next? I guess that’s a pretty good sign that the book captured my interest!

The other element I wished for a bit more of was the letters themselves. There are several featured throughout the book, but I think the storyline and Emmy’s input would have benefited from even more — more letters, more of Emmy’s responses. The author’s note at the end of the book is fascinating, as she discusses being inspired by the advice columns from women’s magazines of the era. It’s hard to imagine, sitting here in our relatively peaceful times, that columns such as “Dear Abby” would be filled with letters not just about romance and dating, but about the difficulty of falling in love and raising children while bombs are falling and one’s loved ones are off on the front lines.

Dear Mrs. Bird strikes a balance between plucky optimism and can-do spirit and the sorrow and worry of life on the homefront while a war rages on. It’s a tough tone to maintain, but author AJ Pearce pulls it off beautifully. I was engaged by the plot and the characters, and thoroughly enjoyed my time with Emmy. It’s a quick read, and highly recommended!

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Dear Mrs. Bird
Author: AJ Pearce
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: July 3, 2018
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

**Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Novella Review: Time Was by Ian McDonald

 

A love story stitched across time and war, shaped by the power of books, and ultimately destroyed by it.

In the heart of World War II, Tom and Ben became lovers. Brought together by a secret project designed to hide British targets from German radar, the two founded a love that could not be revealed. When the project went wrong, Tom and Ben vanished into nothingness, presumed dead. Their bodies were never found.

Now the two are lost in time, hunting each other across decades, leaving clues in books of poetry and trying to make their desperate timelines overlap.

Time Was is a haunting, lovely story of love and loss, war and suffering. It’s also a bookish mystery of sorts, all served up in a compact 176 pages.

The framing of the device revolves around a man named Emmett, a book dealer who surrounds himself with stacks of archaic volumes and keeps himself housed and fed through his EBay sales. When he’s sorting through the book-filled dumpster outside yet another failed rare book store, he comes across what he thinks may be a valuable find — an odd little book of poetry, with an “inclusion” — a letter tucked inside. Both are clearly old, and could be worth quite a lot to a collector.

But as Emmett reads the letter, he realizes there’s more to the story. The letter is between two WWII soldiers, Tom and Ben, and it’s clearly a love letter. But there’s something strange about it too, and Emmett decides to try to find out more. He tracks down another person with artifacts related to Tom and Ben, but these are from World War I. And photos show young men who don’t appear to have aged. Are they some sort of immortals? Is it all a joke? How can this be?

Emmett becomes obsessed with finding out more about Tom and Ben, and meanwhile, we see bits and pieces narrated by them as well, as we learn of their meeting during World War II and the top-secret experiment that Ben is involved in. As Emmett discovers, it would appear that something — something inexplicable — happened, and the two have become unmoored in time, using notes tucked into copies of this unusual poetry book, to find one another again and again and again.

At first, it’s hard to see how it all fits together, and yet it works. The writing builds a sense of wonder, informed by a deep, passionate love that keeps Tom and Ben forever seeking and sometimes finding one another, no matter where in time they end up. It’s lovely and mysterious, and unlike anything I’ve read lately. I do love a good time travel story, when done well, and Time Was is done very well indeed.

The best types of time travel books make me feel like starting over again once I’ve reached the last page, so I can go back and see the chronological displacements and events out of order for what they truly are, catching the hints and clues I missed the first time around. Time Was is one of those books.

Highly recommended. It’s a fast, absorbing, and deeply touching story. I only wish we could have spent more time with Tom and Ben. There’s a tragic undertone to every moment they’re together, and I’d like to think they had plenty of happiness along the way as well. If you measure the success of a story by how much the reader comes to care about the characters, then I’d say this one is absolutely a success.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Time Was
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: November 5, 2017
Length: 176 pages
Genre: Time travel/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

**Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Audiobook Review: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

 

 
The village of Chilbury in Kent is about to ring in some changes.

This is a delightful novel of wartime gumption and village spirit that will make your heart sing out.

Kent, 1940.

In the idyllic village of Chilbury change is afoot. Hearts are breaking as sons and husbands leave to fight, and when the Vicar decides to close the choir until the men return, all seems lost.

But coming together in song is just what the women of Chilbury need in these dark hours, and they are ready to sing. With a little fighting spirit and the arrival of a new musical resident, the charismatic Miss Primrose Trent, the choir is reborn.

Some see the choir as a chance to forget their troubles, others the chance to shine. Though for one villager, the choir is the perfect cover to destroy Chilbury’s new-found harmony.

Uplifting and profoundly moving, THE CHILBURY LADIES’ CHOIR explores how a village can endure the onslaught of war, how monumental history affects small lives and how survival is as much about friendship as it is about courage.

What an uplifting, engaging, utterly delightful read (and listen)!

The Chilbury Ladies Choir is set in the small English village of Chilbury in 1940, as the ladies of the town try to find purpose and solace while the men are at war. When the official church choir is closed down due to a lack of men, spirits sink even further, until the women decide to sing on their own. Stemming from there, relationships are strengthened as the women find a new source of courage. By standing up together, they realize they can make a difference, and each, in her own way, starts to move beyond the boundaries of her former life and take a chance on something new.

Told through journal entries, newspaper clippings, and letters, we get to know the main characters through their own voices, which is a wonderful touch. Young Kitty Winthrop, age 13 (almost 14! as she likes to point out) is an aspiring singer with a childish crush on an older boy, which she allows to dominate her romantic dreams. Kitty’s sister Venetia, age 18, is the town beauty who likes nothing better than flirting and toying with attractive men, making them fall in love with her and then pushing them aside once they do. However, when Venetia meets the mysterious Mr. Sleator, an artist who moves to Chilbury along with many other evacuees, she sense something more in him than merely this week’s fling. For Mrs. Tilling, a woman widowed years earlier whose only son is now fighting in the war, the ladies’ choir offers a chance to create beauty and harmony, and helps her come out of her shy shell and become a leading force in the community. And then there’s Mrs. Paltrey, a midwife with a heart of stone, who schemes to make it rich no matter what, and no matter whose lives may be shattered along the way.

It’s moving and fascinating to see how these and other characters grow and change over the course of the book. Venetia in particular is an absorbing character. Shallow and self-centered when we first meet her, she grows into a woman of substance over the months we know her, as she falls in love, suffers great loss, and emerges as a hero at a time of devastation. Likewise, Kitty, while still a young woman, learns to appreciate those around her and see people more realistically, while also realizing that even someone of her young age can make a difference.

These characters’ stories, as well as those of other women of the village, weave together to create a portrait of community and courage. We don’t go to war; we stay behind and see how this small village is affected by the war, and how all are changed by it, for good or for ill.

I loved the audiobook version, which features a cast of voice actors to represent the main narrative voices of the story. Hearing the women’s stories told in their own words, each with a voice that felt specific to that character’s true self, was a really special way to appreciate the story. In this particular case, I highly encourage giving the audio a try — it’s a wonderful experience. As an added bonus, in key points in the story, we hear choral music in the background which ties in with what the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is singing in that moment. It’s not overdone, certainly not enough to interrupt the flow or get annoying. Instead, at crucial moments, when a song is particularly meaningful in relation to the events being portrayed, we hear a lovely women’s choir providing an added bit of atmostphere.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir was a book group pick, and yet another one that I might have skipped over if not for the group. When it was first selected I was skeptical: The title made me think that it would be a very church-y sort of book, perhaps a little saccharine and cloying. Well, once again I’m glad to not have judged a book by its title! The choir itself is the framework of the story, but really, the book is about so much more. It’s a portrait of the courage and strength a community can find by supporting one another through the worst of times, and shows how each woman emerges as a better version of herself when given the opportunity to step forward and stand up.

Highly recommended!

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir
Author: Jennifer Ryan
Narrated by:  Gabrielle Glaister, Laura Kirman, Imogen Wilde, Adjoa Andoh, Tom Clegg, Mike Grady
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: February 14, 2017
Length (print): 384 pages
Length (audio): 11 hours, 34 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased**Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Shelf Control #72: City of Thieves

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! Fore 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!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

My Shelf Control pick this week is:

city-of-thievesTitle: City of Thieves
Author: David Benioff
Published: 2008
Length: 258 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

During the Nazis’ brutal siege of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and thrown into the same cell as a handsome deserter named Kolya. Instead of being executed, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful Soviet colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and behind enemy lines to find the impossible.

By turns insightful and funny, thrilling and terrifying, City of Thieves is a gripping, cinematic World War II adventure and an intimate coming-of-age story with an utterly contemporary feel for how boys become men.

How I got it:

I don’t even remember. I picked it up used, somehow, somewhere.

When I got it:

At least 5 or 6 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

This book made it onto my “must check out sometime” list as soon as I read the very positive reviews when the book was first released. I always intented to get around to it… eventually. Realizing later on that the author is the same David Benioff as the Game of Thrones David Benioff gives me even higher hopes that I’ll end up really enjoying this book.

__________________________________

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!

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save