The Ship of Brides by Jojo Moyes
Imagine a ship full of 650 war brides, on board for the six week journey from Sydney, Australia to Plymouth, England. It’s 1946, and the ship is the Victoria, an old aircraft carrier, not the cruise ship the brides expected. The young women are on their way to new lives and families in England, with husbands they met in Australia during the war. Four brides sharing a cabin are featured. Lively teenager Jean, social climber Avice, pregnant farm girl Margaret, who has smuggled her dog on board, and secretive nurse Frances gradually reveal their stories of their lives during the war. Marine Nichol, who guards their cabin at night, and Captain Highfield, on his last navy voyage along with the Victoria, also have their secrets. The women are, by turns, full of anxiety, hope, and excitement. Friendships are formed, but rumors and gossip, from the crew as well as the women, have lasting effects. There’s even a sweet love story. Most of the characters are appealing and I was eager to learn their stories. Not all of the women have happy stories to tell, and some even get the dreaded telegram from England: not wanted, don’t come. I would have liked less drama, but Moyes is a compelling writer and excellent storyteller. This was a part of Australian history I hadn’t heard about, and she made the adventurous voyage, complete with a Miss Victoria contest, come to life.
The Season by Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer
College student Megan would rather play soccer than be a debutante, but her mother wants nothing else, so Megan and her twin sister make their debut in Dallas. It doesn’t help that Megan shows up at the first dance with a black eye, and that a couple of the carefully vetted escorts needed another background check. Funny, vibrant, and entertaining, I enjoyed watching Megan learn how to get her priorities straight. This would make a good romantic comedy film.
The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller
Livvy Rawlings, a Boston pastry chef, has her life go up in flames when she drops a huge baked alaska. Retreating to her friend Hannah in small-town Guthrie, Vermont, she gets a chance to bake at the Sugar Maple Inn, where owner Margaret is known for her award-winning apple pies. Livvy has a history of making bad decisions, about men, hair color, working and drinking too much; but what she really wants is a family. She finds one on an apple orchard/Christmas tree farm with the McCrackens, from frail Henry to his welcoming wife and handsome son Martin, who invites Livvy (who improbably plays banjo) to join a local band. I didn’t really understand why she spends so much time with the McCracken family when pregnant Hannah really needs her, but I think the author wanted to show how flawed and real Livvy is. Livvy briefly returns to Boston, but is no longer a city girl, and returns to Guthrie to bake a wedding cake, and more pies. A pleasant vacation read that was good but not great. Small-town life with its quirky residents, well-drawn descriptions of food and music add to this first novel’s appeal, along with Livvy’s huge dog, Salty.
The Last One by Alexandra Oliva
Twelve reality show contestants walk into the woods and up a mountain to face solo and group challenges. They all have nicknames, including Tracker, Biologist, Airforce, Carpenter Chick, and Zoo. The challenges are probably familiar to watchers of any wilderness survival show, but some of the contestants are totally unprepared to survive in the wilderness, which is unusual. Caffeine withdrawal, insufficient clothing, and inability to read a map or compass are unexpected. An expert, along with Tracker, shows the contestants some of the skills they need, but no one will be prepared for the real challenge they face: a fast-moving epidemic. One morning Zoo wakes up alone, without a cameraman in sight. Zoo is married, and wanted one last adventure before starting a family. Following her blue markers, she doesn’t see anyone for many days, although some gruesome dummies are unsettling. After a coyote encounter leaves her with broken glasses, her blurry vision makes it hard to tell reality from the game. She is joined by a young teenage boy, who tries to tell her about the epidemic. They head out on a final quest, and the result is completely unpredictable. Fast-paced, very suspenseful, and moving, this first novel is sure to be a hit this summer.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Hope is a Norwegian American from Minnesota, daughter of a community college science teacher, who was expected to major in English at the University of Minnesota, but found her calling instead in science. She has been a scientist for over 20 years, and along with her lab manager Bill, has built and run laboratories in Georgia, Maryland, and Hawaii, as well as done fieldwork in Ireland, Norway, and many other places. Her field is geobiology, which seems to be a blend of geology, botany, and the environment. Her passion is for plants and trees, and her story is framed with descriptions of the life cycle of different kinds of plants. The themes of her story are cold, night, silence, sleeplessness, the joy of discovery, and the rewards of persistence and asking questions. Bill is a delightfully quirky, sarcastic character, and I’m glad to know they still work together. Hope struggles as a young woman in a sexist environment, and as one with a bipolar disorder. There is actually plenty of humor here, along with the evident joy she feels in a scientific life of research, discovery, and teaching. Her difficult journey to motherhood is also shared. I was fascinated by Hope’s well-publicized memoir, and found it a very quick and satisfying read.
I enjoy re-reading books occasionally, and sometimes I find books I haven’t read by favorite authors. All of these books were published between 1951 and 1960.
One of my favorite books to re-read is Trustee from the Toolroom, by Nevil Shute. Keith Stewart is an ordinary man in Ealing, England, who becomes trustee of his young niece along with his wife, and tries to find a way to get to the South Pacific to recover her inheritance. He is an engineer who makes mechanical models, and writes about them for The Miniature Mechanic, along with answering dozens of letters from readers working on the models. These readers later help him get to Tahiti and back home again, via the Pacific Northwest.
I also read The Far Country, by Nevil Shute, set mainly in Australia. Post World War II conditions in England were still bad, with some rationing still in place until 1954. Jennifer Morton gets an unexpected gift from her late grandmother, and visits her cousin’s ranch in Victoria, Australia, where she meets a Czech doctor working as a lumberjack. Beautiful scenery, appealing characters, and a good look at the differences between life in England and in northeast Australia around 1950. Nevil Shute’s novels are known for their excellent storytelling, with mostly appealing characters, usually ordinary people in extraordinary situations or settings. These aren’t necessarily gentle reads, as he is best known for the post-apocalyptic On the Beach, and the World War II novel, A Town Like Alice.
I listened to two Regency romance novels by Georgette Heyer: Venetia, and The Quiet Gentleman. Her books are known for mild romance and witty dialogue, along with some humor. They are also excellent as audiobooks. Since they’re set in the early 1800s, they don’t feel at all dated. The library has a large collection of both authors’ books, as they are frequently reprinted. If you’re looking for a change of pace for your summer reading, browse and enjoy.
The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy
This novel shifts back and forth in time, from a contemporary couple struggling with infertility who move into an old house in a small suburb of Washington, D.C., to 1859 and the Civil War years, featuring Sarah Brown, one of abolitionist John Brown’s daughters. The house connects the two stories, along with a doll and the Underground Railroad. I thought the part of the book about Sarah was a much stronger story, although she lived through some tragic times. Sarah had a fascinating life, well-researched by the author. The modern-day couple, Eden and Jack, aren’t as appealing, although their quirky neighbors and scenes of small-town life are enjoyable. Recommended for anyone who enjoys Civil War era fiction.