After a year and a half of reflecting, dreaming, waiting, a lot of us here at Off the Shelf are shaking up our lives, whether it’s by taking our new pandemic hobbies to the next level, or making moves in new cities. It’s got us all thinking about our dream lifestyles, and it’s nice to know that you can always try on a life or two for size with a book! These reads we’re recommending all let us try out a dream life, from the comfort and safety of our real ones.
Emily’s Pick #1: Can’t say I’ve always wanted to join the circus, but watching The Greatest Showman certainly showed me a new life goal I’d never thought possible—although the singing and dancing probably helped. Now, whenever I start to crave the circus ring, I fight the urge by picking up a book instead. Up next in my circus TBR is THE LADIES OF THE SECRET CIRCUS by Constance Sayers. A comradery of ladies, a secret that we all share, daring trapeze acts? Sign me up! Cecile Cabot is content with her family’s magical circus—filled with time-traveling carousels and literal taming of fantastical beasts—until she falls in love with a painter, and he whisks her away. Cecile’s story is revealed piece by piece as her great-granddaughter discovers her journals and thus uncovers a generational curse that may have doomed her own fiancé. And yes, in addition to this book, I shall also be eagerly awaiting the gorgeous book CIRCUS OF WONDERS by Elizabeth Macneal.
Emily’s Pick #2: I’ve always longed to become a novelist, however, it’s the writing part that’s a bit tricky. And a key component of my wildest authorial daydreams are those fancy writing retreats—ideally filled with no actual writing, but plenty of wine, socializing with other retreaters, and desks with picturesque views. ISABEL’S BED allows me to step into the shoes of ghostwriter Harriet Mahoney, who heads to a retreat in Cape Cod to write the life story of Isabel Krug. But Isabel is a scandalous celebrity whose stories and upbringing are vastly different from Harriet’s own, and whose temperament proves tricky to rein in. This book is quirky and lighthearted, and has all the right ingredients for a writer’s daydream in the form of a book.
When Harriet Mahoney first sees it, Isabel Krug's bed is covered with sheared sheep and littered with celebrity biographies. Unpublished, fortyish, and recently jilted, Harriet has fled Manhattan for Isabel's loudly elegant Cape Cod retreat, where she will ghostwrite The Isabel Krug Story, based on the sexy blond's scandalous tabloid past. Unusually "talented" in the man department ("I give lessons"), Isabel revamps and inspires Harriet as they gear up to tell all, including the tangled history Isabel shares with her odd lodger, Costas. Life according to Isabel is a nonstop soap opera extravaganza, an experience to be swallowed whole -- and the attitude is catching....
Sharon’s Pick #1: I can safely say that Polly Waterford, protagonist of Jenny Colgan’s LITTLE BEACH STREET BAKERY, is living out my cottagecore fantasies. After Polly’s relationship comes to an unfortunate end, she flees to the English seaside town of Cornwall and finds an abandoned shop and a small flat. To keep her mind off her troubles, she pours her energy into baking, and as she bakes loaf after loaf, she soon finds that her weekend hobby is quickly becoming her new passion. A delicious reflection on finding oneself and starting over, LITTLE BEACH STREET BAKERY is equal parts aspirational and inspirational.
Holly’s Pick: Ever since my childhood years of reading Nancy Drew, I dreamed of becoming a sleuthing investigator. One fiery detective extraordinaire I have come to adore is Jess Kidd’s protagonist in her novel THINGS IN JARS. Bridie Divine is a pipe-smoking, no-nonsense Irish woman scouring the streets of Victorian Ireland for the missing daughter of Dr. Berwick. But this investigation is much more complex than one would believe. Christabel Berwick has a complicated array of supernatural water powers that many oddity collectors have set their sights on. Living vicariously through Bridie’s detective journey was an absolute thrill. From glimpses into Bridie’s dark and mysterious past to learning the root of Christabel’s peculiar powers, any investigator-wannabe will devour this enchanting gothic novel.
In this “miraculous and thrilling” (Diane Setterfield, #1 New York Times bestselling author) mystery for fans of The Essex Serpent and The Book of Speculation, Victorian London comes to life as an intrepid female sleuth wades through a murky world of collectors and criminals to recover a remarkable child.
Bridie Devine—flame-haired, pipe-smoking detective extraordinaire—is confronted with the most baffling puzzle yet: the kidnapping of Christabel Berwick, secret daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, and a peculiar child whose reputed supernatural powers have captured the unwanted attention of collectors in this age of discovery.
Winding her way through the sooty streets of Victorian London, Bridie won’t rest until she finds the young girl, even if it means unearthing secrets about her past that she’d rather keep buried. Luckily, her search is aided by an enchanting cast of characters, including a seven-foot-tall housemaid; a melancholic, tattoo-covered ghost; and an avuncular apothecary. But secrets abound in this foggy underworld where nothing is quite what it seems.
Blending darkness and light, Things in Jars is a stunning, “richly woven tapestry of fantasy, folklore, and history” (Booklist, starred review) that explores what it means to be human in inhumane times.
Sharon’s Pick #2: I frequently find myself aspiring to be the characters in dark academia stories; ever curious and resourceful, they’re always in the pursuit of knowledge or attempting to uncover a twisty mystery in the most picturesque locations. Featuring a backdrop of Victorian London and main characters with lofty intellectual and artistic aspirations, THE DOLL FACTORY by Elizabeth Macneal is a must-read for those who love a thrilling, dark academia story.
Iris is an aspiring artist who agrees to model for pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost in exchange for painting lessons. Silas is a curiosity collector, always on the hunt for strange and beautiful things. When the two meet at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, Iris is quick to forget the encounter, but an obsession is sparked in Silas, who will stop at nothing to see Iris again.
The #1 international bestseller and The New York Times Editor’s Choice
“As lush as the novels of Kate Morton and Diane Setterfield, as exciting as The Alienist and Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, this exquisite literary thriller will intrigue book clubs and rivet fans of historical fiction.” —A.J. Finn, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Woman in the Window
“A lush, evocative Gothic.” —The New York Times Book Review
“This terrifically exciting novel will jolt, thrill, and bewitch readers.” —Booklist, starred review
Obsession is an art.
In this “sharp, scary, gorgeously evocative tale of love, art, and obsession” (Paula Hawkins, bestselling author of The Girl on the Train), a beautiful young woman aspires to be an artist, while a man’s dark obsession may destroy her world forever.
Obsession is an art.
In 1850s London, the Great Exhibition is being erected in Hyde Park and, among the crowd watching the dazzling spectacle, two people meet by happenstance. For Iris, an arrestingly attractive aspiring artist, it is a brief and forgettable moment. But for Silas, a curiosity collector enchanted by all things strange and beautiful, the meeting marks a new beginning.
When Iris is asked to model for Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he will also teach her to paint. Suddenly, her world begins to expand beyond her wildest dreams—but she has no idea that evil is waiting in the shadows. Silas has only thought of one thing since that chance meeting, and his obsession is darkening by the day.
“A lush, evocative Gothic” (The New York Times Book Review) that is “a perfect blend of froth and substance” (The Washington Post), The Doll Factory will haunt you long after you finish it and is perfect for fans of The Alienist, Drood, and Fingersmith.
Emily’s Pick #3: I had a stretch of about two years in my teenage days when I yearned to be a spy—my favorite films were the Bourne and Matrix series. Unfortunately, my acting skills have always been subpar and I’m a hopeless introvert so it’s probably for the best that I didn’t go that route. However, I can always live out my dreams in stories. One of the most fun reads I’ve come across recently is THE PRINCESS SPY by Larry Loftis. At the start of World War II, Aline Griffith was just a fresh college graduate when her good looks and quick wit landed her an espionage career. In her new role, she mingled with diplomats and officials in order to uncover secrets about the Nazis. To round out this truly cinematic story, she winds up marrying the Count of Romanones and continues her daring espionage activities among the height of European nobility. I mean, to be a princess and a spy? Two of the most highly coveted dreams—and it’s based on a true story.
INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Seen on Today
What to Read in 2021 —The Washington Post
The international bestselling author of the “exciting, suspenseful, inspirational” (Brad Thor, #1 New York Times bestselling author) Code Name: Lise weaves another exceptional and thrilling hidden history of an ordinary American girl who became one of the OSS’s most daring spies in World War II before marrying into European nobility. Perfect for fans of A Woman of No Importance and Code Girls.
When Aline Griffith was born in a quiet suburban New York hamlet, no one had any idea that she would go on to live “a life of glamour and danger that Ingrid Bergman only played at in Notorious” (Time). As the US enters the Second World War, the young college graduate is desperate to aid in the war effort, but no one is interested in a bright-eyed young woman whose only career experience is modeling clothes.
Aline’s life changes when, at a dinner party, she meets a man named Frank Ryan and reveals how desperately she wants to do her part for her country. Within a few weeks, he helps her join the Office of Strategic Services—forerunner of the CIA. With a code name and expert training under her belt, she is sent to Spain to be a coder, but is soon given the additional assignment of infiltrating the upper echelons of society, mingling with high-ranking officials, diplomats, and titled Europeans, any of whom could be an enemy agent. Against this glamorous backdrop of galas and dinner parties, she recruits sub-agents and engages in deep-cover espionage to counter Nazi tactics in Madrid.
Even after marrying the Count of Romanones, one of the wealthiest men in Spain, Aline secretly continues her covert activities, being given special assignments when abroad that would benefit from her impeccable pedigree and social connections.
Filled with twists, romance, and plenty of white-knuckled adventures fit for a James Bond film, The Princess Spy brings to vivid life the dazzling adventures of a remarkable American woman who risked everything to serve her country.
Molly’s Pick: Evie Starling, the protagonist in Samantha Young’s MUCH ADO ABOUT YOU, feels a little stuck in Chicago. Her career is stagnant, her love life nonexistent, and it feels like all her friends’ lives are moving forward. After being passed over for a promotion in a clear case of sexism, Evie quits her job on the spot. She impulsively books a month-long trip to a small town in northern England where she’ll run the bookshop beneath her rented apartment. The bookshop, Much Ado About Books, is a dream for Evie, a lifelong bibliophile, and she quickly falls in love with the quaint town and its residents. Did I mention her adorable meet-cute with a sexy, burly farmer and his giant, slobbery dog? That checks all the boxes for me, folks! MUCH ADO ABOUT YOU is a sweet and steamy rom-com, but honestly it’s the books for me!
Heather’s Pick: Whenever my mind turns to daydreams about quitting urban life in favor of living off the land (ha, sure), I revisit Kristin Kimball’s memoir, THE DIRTY LIFE or its equally enjoyable sequel, GOOD HUSBANDRY. Before she was a wife, mother, or farmer, Kristin was a freelance writer living in New York City. In a twist of fate, however, a seemingly routine interview with a handsome farmer became a meet-cute with her future husband, Mark. THE DIRTY LIFE allows you to see through Kristin’s eyes as a self-professed city girl adjusts to the demands and rhythms of a working farm in upstate New York. Her story is entertaining as all get out, while also serving to remind me that I’m probably not actually cut out for raising my own food or giving up certain creature comforts. Whatever—it’s still fun to imagine . . .
Kristin Kimball knew nothing about growing vegetables when she abandoned her city life and moved to Lake Champlain to start a new farm with a dynamic young farmer. Her vivid descriptions of landscape, food, cooking, and their eventual marriage are irresistible.
Allie’s Pick: I think every kid dreams about what it would be like to become royal one day, whether it’s discovering that you were secretly royal all along or it’s meeting the person of your dreams (and discovering that they also happen to hold the title of HRH). I know I certainly did. And while recent years have taught us that suddenly becoming royal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, I can't help but wondering “what if?”. Heather Cocks’s THE ROYAL WE was the perfect way to be a princess for a weekend. This novel follows an American woman named Bex, who meets and falls in love with Nick—fellow Oxford student, dorm mate, and heir to the British throne. As Nick and Bex prepare for their big wedding day, Bex learns that being a royal isn’t as simple as she thought.
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