The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan
This is not the cozy tale of home front life in an English village that I expected, but instead a grittier, more memorable story of life in southeast England in 1940. Told in letters and diaries, we experience the points of view of several women and one girl in Chilbury. 13-year-old Kitty Winthrop befriends a young Czech evacuee and uncovers disturbing secrets, while her 18-year-old sister Venetia falls hard for a visiting artist. Widowed Mrs. Tilling, who has sent her only son off to war, resents giving his room to Colonel Mallard. Also featured is a conniving midwife who values money over morals. Newcomer Miss Prim starts a ladies only choir, over the objections of traditionalist Mrs. B, and the women gradually learn the power of music to entertain, comfort, and inspire. I would have liked to learn more about Miss Prim and about the backstories of other characters, but found this to be an absorbing, enjoyable pageturner. Readers learn how far a father will go to have an heir, what happens to the survivors when a house is bombed, and how the women of Chilbury struggle to adapt to their new roles during a time of constant change. Readalikes include The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and though it’s set decades earlier, The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson. A first novel by an editor of non-fiction books, the author was inspired by her grandmother’s stories of life in WWII, and by the many memoirs of life in WWII England that she read, especially those of evacuees.
Odds Against, by Dick Francis
Former jockey Sid Halley has spent the last two years at a London detective agency, but is assigned only routine cases. After fourteen years as a steeplechase jockey, he’s restless and unhappy. On a simple assignment, he is shot in the gut and can’t eat solid food for a while. While he recovers, his father-in-law, Charles Roland, invites him for a visit, even though Sid and his wife Jenny are separated. Charles has borrowed an expensive gem and mineral collection and wants Sid to help him impress and investigate another guest, Howard Kraye. Kraye may be connected to a string of bad luck at nearby Seabury Racecourse. Sid learns that a developer wants to buy out Seabury’s shareholders and build houses on the land. At a visit to a stockbroker, Sid encounters secretary Zanna Martin, who hides an injury from the world, just as Sid does with his damaged hand. Thefts and explosions add to the suspense of this intricately plotted mystery, published in 1966. During an exciting pursuit behind the scenes at Seabury, Sid’s injured again, and his future at the detective agency is uncertain. I enjoyed the fast pace, well-developed characters, and some witty dialogue. Sid appears again in three more mysteries, and this book was made into a television series, The Racing Game.
The Whole Town’s Talking, by Fannie Flagg
In 1889, Swedish immigrant Lordor Nordstrom founds a small town in Missouri. Nordstrom is a dairy farmer and Elmwood Spring’s first mayor. In this appealing tale, the town ladies encourage Nordstrom to find a Swedish-American mail order bride, and they send her notes along with his letters. Over the decades the town grows and changes, with the progress overseen fondly by the residents of Still Meadows, the cemetery on a hill. Much to their surprise, the folks at Still Meadows can talk freely with each other, and even (silently) enjoy visits from their relatives. Quirky small town charm and plenty of nostalgia make for a quick, pleasant read.
Remnants of Trust, by Elizabeth Bonesteel
I really enjoyed the first Central Corps book, The Cold Between, so I was eager to read the sequel. This is quite good, but I didn’t enjoy it quite as much, as much of the plot centers around sabotage and possible betrayal, and there’s no romance, just military science fiction. Elena Shaw and Captain Greg Foster return, but their friendship is still strained. When starship Exeter is attacked and her crew are transferred to other ships, tensions rise. I really liked the scenes on the PSI ship, Orunmila, which is full of families and a very pregnant captain. There will definitely be a sequel, and I’m interested to see where the author takes the storyline and the complex characters.
I was looking at my lists of upcoming releases, and thought I’d share the science fiction books on my to-be-read list, including two books published in 2016. I may not read all of them this year, but I’m looking forward to some very enjoyable reading. Brenda
Anders, Charlie. All the Birds in the Sky. 2016
Chambers, Becky. A Closed and Common Orbit. March
Cherryh, C.J. Convergence. April
Corey, James S.A. Babylon’s Ashes. 2016
Huff, Tanya. A Peace Divided. June
Moon, Elizabeth. Cold Welcome. April
Robinson, Kim Stanley. New York 2140. March
Scalzi, John. The Collapsing Empire. March
Stephenson, Neal and Nicole Galland. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. June
Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
Margot discovered that her home town of Hampton, Virginia, was also home to many African American women mathematicians who worked for NACA, later NASA, in the 1940s and beyond. The college educated women, many of them teachers, were recruited as human computers during World War II, running calculations for aerospace engineers. These jobs paid much better than teaching, and many of the women stayed on as they began to raise children, and as NACA transitioned to NASA. Virginia was defiantly a southern state, resisting integrating schools in the 1950s and 1960s, and the women worked in the all black West Computers section at first, with a white section head. The cafeteria tables and bathrooms were also segregated, but the pioneering women proved their importance, getting reassigned to other sections, sometimes getting promoted to mathematician and rarely to engineer. In the 1940s and 1950s, the goal was to produce new faster and safer airplanes, and later they worked on projects developing rockets, calculating spacecraft trajectories, and programming early computers. Several of these pioneering women are highlighted, and the stories of their careers and personal lives are fascinating and surprising. I haven’t yet seen the popular movie based on the book, but I look forward to it, and to learning more about the human side of NACA and NASA during the Civil Rights Movement. The author’s thorough researching of the people, place, and time make for a compelling and memorable read.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Step back in time, to the grand Metropol Hotel in Moscow. Count Alexander Rostov, 30, is living in a suite, full of family antiques, enjoying mingling with international guests and fine dining every night. Unfortunately, a revolutionary poem he’s authored becomes too popular, and a Bolshevik tribunal in 1922 sentences him to house arrest at the Metropol, for life. Stuck in an attic room, how shall he live? Fortunately, Rostov is wealthy, charming, and resourceful. Young hotel guest Nina has acquired a master key and explores the hotel with Rostov. While he is removed from the outside world, the staff and guests share their experiences with Stalinist Russia and later World War II with him, especially after he becomes the head waiter of the hotel’s restaurant. He can plan seating charts with ease, has perfect manners, and has a fine palate for wine and gourmet food. Daily meetings with the maître d’ and the chef lead to friendship, as well as some excellent bouillabaisse. Beautiful actress Anna Urbanova makes regular visits, and a young girl, Sofia, comes to stay and captures Rostov’s heart. This is a rich, layered novel to savor, with lyrical writing, marvelous characters, and both humorous and poignant moments. This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in the past year, and I enjoyed it even more than his first novel, Rules of Civility.
Dollbaby, by Laura Lane McNeal
An absorbing coming-of-age story set in 1960s New Orleans, this first novel is moving and compelling. Ibby Bell, almost 12, travels to New Orleans to live with her grandmother after her father dies. Ibby learns to wear dresses, eat Southern food, and attends her first church service. Fannie is an eccentric, wealthy woman who likes to bet on sports. Queenie is her longtime cook, Queenie’s daughter Dollbaby takes care of the house, makes dresses for Ibby, and is slightly involved in the Civil Rights movement. Dollbaby’s daughter Birdelia shows Ibby around New Orleans, although they draw stares in segregated New Orleans. Queenie and Dollbaby teach Ibby the rules to living with Fannie: don’t talk about the past, don’t ask about the locked bedrooms, and don’t ask too many questions. The big house has its secrets, which Ibby gradually learns, along with her family history. A strong sense of place and appealing, complex characters add to this book’s considerable appeal.