Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan
Nell Stillman, a minor character in other novels by Sullivan, gets to shine here. This is Nell’s life story, from early married life to old age, all set in the small town of Harvester, Minnesota. After her husband dies suddenly, leaving her with young son Hillyard, Nell is relieved to be offered a job as third-grade teacher. However, teachers in the late 19th century and early 20th century were held to very high standards. Small town gossip can be harsh, and often anonymous. Nell brings a young cousin, Elvira, to live with Nell and Hilly in their apartment over Rabel’s Meat Market. A few years later, she leaves town in disgrace, and Nell is blamed. Nell’s main comfort in life, besides her loyal friends, is reading and re-reading the light, humorous novels of P.G. Wodehouse. My only complaint about this absorbing, character driven novel is that a book about the value of light humorous fiction shouldn’t be quite so serious and often melancholy in tone. I enjoyed reading about the changes in Harvester and in Nell’s apartment over the years including the building of a library, but two world wars and the depression do not make for light reading, especially as Hilly comes home from war shell-shocked. Nell does find love later in life, but a book that covers many decades inevitably includes several deaths. To cheer up I might read one of P.G. Wodehouse’s books (our library owns thirty, and they are quite funny, if now somewhat dated), but I plan to read more of Sullivan’s work, starting with The Cape Ann.
Historical fiction readers may enjoy this two-volume novel that won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. I read it five years ago, and enjoyed rereading it almost as much. Three time-traveling historians visit Great Britain during World War II from Oxford in the 2060s. Eileen is in a country house, observing children evacuated from London during the Blitz, and has her hands full with anxious Theodore and mischievous siblings Alf and Binnie Hodbin. A measles epidemic keeps her from returning to Oxford as scheduled. In London, Polly is assigned to observe Londoners during daily life and in shelters during air raids by finding a job at a department store. When she tries to report back to Oxford, nothing happens. Mike Davies, with an American accent, is supposed to be a reporter in Dover covering the evacuation of soldiers from Dunkirk. He arrives in a small town down the coast and has great difficulty getting to Dover. Unexpectedly, Mike gets caught up in the action and helps save the life of a soldier who goes on to rescue hundreds more. He also suffers an injury that would be easily treated in his own time. Eileen and Mike make their way to London to find Polly, and the trio is concerned that their actions might have affected the war’s outcome or that something has happened in future Oxford to prevent their returning home. Two other historians are working hard to retrieve them, with unexpected consequences. The pacing is fast and the tension level is high, but there are plenty of lighter moments. The real highlight of this novel is the spotlight on daily life on the home front in Great Britain during World War II. Long, but definitely worthwhile, with characters I really cared about.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
A highly imaginative, page-turning first novel, set mostly in Victorian London and partly in imperial Japan. Former pianist Thaniel Steepleton helps support his widowed sister by working as a telegraph operator for the Home Office. A bomb threat is received, and Thaniel finds that his flat was broken into. Nothing was taken, but a pocket watch was left. After an alarm on the watch saves his life during an explosion, Thaniel seeks out the watchmaker, the mysterious Keita Mori. Mori is a Japanese nobleman who is a genius with clockwork, and who can sometimes “remember” the future. He even has a clockwork pet, an octopus. Scotland Yard suspects Mori of making a bomb, and Grace Carrow thinks he is probably guilty. Grace is a physics student who needs to marry in order to inherit her aunt’s house, where she can set up a lab. Victorian London is vividly described, including a diplomatic party, a Gilbert and Sullivan performance, and a Japanese exhibition village in Knightsbridge. With plenty of suspense and intrigue along with an unpredictable plot, this is an impressive, original debut.
The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant
Addie Baum, born in 1900, is looking back at her life as her granddaughter interviews her. The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Addie is happiest at school. Her mother talks about how life would be better if the family had never left Russia, while Addie’s older sisters Betty and Celia strongly disagree, even though they live in a one-room apartment. Celia is timid and delicate, but steps in so that Addie can attend high school for a year and participate in the Saturday Club at a Boston settlement house. A trip to the seaside Rockport Lodge introduces her to girls who will stay her friends for many years. Celia marries a widower, modern Betty works at a department store, and Addie’s father spends most of his time at the synagogue. Addie becomes a secretary at her brother-in-law’s shirt factory, while attending the occasional night class and keeping up with her Saturday Club. The influenza epidemic causes more suffering and Addie struggles to find happiness, moving to a boarding house, trying to become a newspaper reporter and not having luck with men. Life becomes much better after sister Betty marries, and then Addie finally meets a nice man. Addie’s resilience, rebellious streak, and sense of humor make her an appealing narrator in this novel about working-class Boston girls and immigrant life.
Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig
Imagine being an eleven-year-old boy in 1951, setting off halfway across the country on a Greyhound bus, alone. Donal Cameron has an amazing summer of adventure, both good and very bad. It was bittersweet to read Ivan Doig’s last novel; I’m glad it was so enjoyable. Life on the bus, a quarrelsome great aunt who insists on teaching him canasta, close calls with the police, excitement at a rodeo, meeting hobos, and life on a ranch at haying time enliven a memorable story. Other memorable books by Doig include The Whistling Season and The Bartender’s Tale.
Euphoria by Lily King
Inspired by Margaret Mead’s time in New Guinea, this novel is not strictly biographical. Three young anthropologists in the early 1930s are studying isolated tribes in New Guinea. Nell has published a controversial bestseller about her work in Samoa, and Fen is clearly jealous. Nell is recovering from a broken ankle, probably has malaria, and is missing her glasses when she first meets depressed British anthropologist Bankson, who is working along the Sepik River. Nell and Fen have just left the violent Mumbanyo tribe at Nell’s insistence, and Bankson helps them find a more welcoming settlement further down the Sepik River. Nell studies the women and children, making copious notes, while Fen seems to want to be one of the guys and observe daily life and rituals without making any notes or sharing his observations. Bankson is clearly attracted to and protective of Nell, but is dependent on Fen when he falls ill. This is a fast read, but a confusing one. I may need to read this book again to reach a conclusion about what I think happened before the trio meets, and what happens after they leave New Guinea. Most biographical novels I’ve read stay pretty true to the real life of the main character; this book was intriguing because the author didn’t and had more freedom to develop the plot and change the relationships.
A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear
The award-winning Maisie Dobbs mystery series jumps ahead four years, summarizing Maisie’s recent past in only twenty pages. It’s been an eventful period, one that many readers would like to hear more about. After visiting India, Maisie is not quite ready to return home to England, and leaves her ship in Gibraltar. In 1937, the Spanish Civil War is just across the border. Maisie takes a room at Mrs. Bishop’s boarding house, and frequents a café nearby. Out for a walk, she stumbles across the body of Jewish photographer Sebastian Babayoff, and later finds one of his cameras. Since the police aren’t interested in investigating, Maisie, who thought she’d left detective work, takes up the case, mainly for the sake of his two sisters. She finds that she’s being followed, possibly by two men. Her family and friends plead with her to return home soon. Instead, Maisie visits Sebastian’s sister Miriam and asks for help in developing Sebastian’s last photographs. The photographs lead to a trip to war-torn Spain, which raises more questions, but also provides an idea for Maisie’s next project. I missed the presence of Maisie’s assistant, Billy Beale, but enjoyed being immersed in the atmosphere of 1930s Gibraltar. Maisie really shows her vulnerability in this book, which makes her seem more real. The first book in this excellent series is Maisie Dobbs.