Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans
Life on the home front in London during World War II is challenging for young Noel Bostock, an orphan. He lives with his elderly godmother Mattie, a former suffragette, on the edge of Hampstead Heath. The park-like setting feels more rural than urban, and Mattie ignores the danger of the Blitz. Eventually Noel is evacuated, first to sort-of-cousins, then all of 25 miles away from London to St. Albans. When she learns that Noel comes with a government stipend, young widow Vee Sedge takes him in. Vee lives with her elderly mother and lazy son Donald, who has a heart murmur, and can’t always be bothered to work his night watchman job that pays their rent. Clever Noel is fascinated when he learns that Vee is a small-time con artist, collecting for fake charities. Noel, who conveniently has a limp, becomes Vee’s partner in crime. None of the characters sound appealing on the surface, but the author soon has the reader rooting for Vee’s and Noel’s next scheme, hoping it will bring in some money. In the end, the well-matched pair have a big idea that is “legally wrong but morally right”. The author is working on a prequel about Mattie, and plans to continue Noel’s story. I’m looking forward to those books, and the American release of her earlier World War II novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half. Sometimes sad, often darkly funny, with clever dialogue; I really enjoyed this novel and spending time with Vee and Noel.
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald
Sara Lindqvist arrives in Hope, Iowa for a long visit with her pen pal, Amy. Amy never shows up to drive her to Broken Wheel, and Sara arrives at her home just in time for Amy’s wake. Oddly, the residents of the tiny town in Southern Iowa want her to stay in Amy’s house, eat up all the casseroles, and get driven wherever she wants to go by lonely George. She is invited to the local bar to meet the town’s only eligible bachelor, Tom. No one will let her pay for her meals, drinks, or groceries. Once she gets to know Amy’s friends, Sara wants to give back to the town, and opens a small bookstore in a vacant storefront, stocking it mostly with Amy’s large collection of books. Sara generally prefers books to people, having worked in a bookstore in Sweden for years, but that could change. When a newsletter promotes the bookstore, the shop and the local bar fill up with tourists from Hope. The residents of Broken Wheel hope that maybe Sara will stay. Charming, quirky, and endearing, this is already popular with staff here at the library. I listened to the audiobook, with Sara’s part read by Fiona Hardingham, and the Iowans given a southern accent by Lorelei King, which only added to my reading enjoyment. This is a first novel by a Swedish writer who had only visited Iowa in books before this book was published.
Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear
In her 12th mystery, Maisie Dobbs is back in fine form after the somewhat disappointing and melancholy A Dangerous Place. Staying with Priscilla’s family in London in 1938, Maisie is approached by the Secret Service for a short assignment in Munich, Germany. An industrialist and inventor, Leon Donat, is to be released from Dachau after two years, but only to a family member. His daughter is ill, and Maisie is asked to impersonate her. Nothing is ever simple and straightforward in Maisie’s world, and she is also asked to look for Elaine Otterburn, a young woman she has cause to dislike. The tension in this book is ever-present, the storyline is detailed, and the writing is compelling. But what fans of Maisie want to know (and after reading the first book, Maisie Dobbs, many mystery and history lovers become fans) is how is Maisie? As she’s thinking of reopening her practice as a private investigator and psychologist, touching base with Sandra and briefly with Billy, and spending more time with friends and family, be assured that Maisie is as good company as we’d like. I just wish the book was longer.
Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar
I thought that a book about 33 men trapped in a Chilean mine for months sounded claustrophobic and dark. Instead I found the story gripping, moving, and even inspiring. I remember seeing stories in 2010 about the accident, the excitement when contact was made after weeks when no one knew they were alive, and the jubilation when they were finally rescued. The author, a prize-winning journalist, was contacted by the miners to write their authorized story, and spent months talking with the miners, their families, and those involved in their rescue before writing a vivid, compelling account of what life was like in the mine. The men formed a community to stay alive, subsisting on a tiny amount of food and dirty water, and managing conflicts with each other. The reader learns about the miners’ varied backgrounds from different parts of Chile and meets the families camped above the mine, waiting for first contact and any information they can get from the officials. Finally comes the dramatic rescue of the miners, and their difficulties integrating back into a society that views them as heroes while they’re still recovering from their ordeal. Great reading for anyone who enjoys real life adventure stories.
Because of Miss Bridgerton by Julia Quinn
Julia Quinn is back in fine form, after the somewhat disappointing The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy. Billie Bridgerton is the aunt of the main characters in the Bridgerton series, and her story takes place in the Georgian period rather than the Regency. Billie always expects to marry one of the neighboring Rokesby brothers, although she’d really rather help her father’s steward run the family estate. When she needs help after falling out of a tree onto a roof while trying to rescue a cat, the brother who comes along is George, who is much too serious for her. Very entertaining, and the Georgian setting is enjoyable. If you’re new to the author, try one of her Regency-era romances, beginning with The Duke and I.
Wild by Nature by Sarah Marquis
A short but stunning memoir of the ultimate real life adventure. Sarah Marquis, a National Geographic explorer, spent two years planning a three-year journey trekking across east Asia and Australia, mostly from north to south. She starts in Mongolia, then China, back up to Siberia, then through Laos and Thailand before taking a cargo ship to Darwin, on the north coast of Australia and walking to the south coast. She hikes alone, often disguised as a man, carrying a 40 pound backpack and pushing a 110 pound cart, carrying two weeks worth of food and water. There is a detour for a medical emergency, but she is returned to the evacuation point. Sarah communicates with her expedition leader occasionally by satellite phone, has a contact in each country, and shops for food in tiny villages. Mongolian horsemen harass her by riding around and around her tent at night, but women in the villages help her even when they have no shared language. The weather extremes are often a challenge. She clearly loves being close to nature, and even relishes her time in the deserts. The Swiss explorer is in demand as a motivational speaker, but clearly prefers to be on the move. Learn more and watch her speak on her website.
At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier
I was looking forward to reading this book because my book groups have discussed two of Chevalier’s historical novels, The Last Runaway and Remarkable Creatures. Also, a family-run apple orchard sounded like a pleasant setting. Surprisingly, the orchard, on the edge of the Black Swamp in mid-19th century Ohio, is a dark and violent place. James Goodenough and his wife Sadie moved from Connecticut, where no land was available. To prove their homestead claim in Ohio, they need to raise 50 apple trees. They have several children, but life is hard, with bone-shaking fevers (malaria) every year. Growing apple trees on the edge of the swamp is challenging, especially with harsh winter weather. James loves the sweet apples from his grafted trees, but Sadie prefers the natural “spitters”, apples for hard cider and the applejack John Chapman introduces her to. Unfortunately, Sadie is a mean drunk, and the family suffers. Youngest son Robert, who’s fascinated by the trees, leaves and ends up in California during the gold rush. A grove of giant sequoias fascinates him and leads to a job. Robert’s sister Martha eventually joins him, and he learns the sad history of the family he left behind. The California setting is quite appealing and the novel is compelling reading, but this wasn’t the book I was hoping to read.