Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford
Bookended by 1909 and 1962 world fairs in Seattle, biracial Chinese American Ernest Young tells the story of his coming of age in Seattle with his two friends, Fahn and Maisie. Ernest’s wife has been having memory issues, which may be improving. The trick is that we don’t know whether he married Fahn or Maisie, as his wife is called Gracie. Ernest’s mother was desperately poor, and arranged for him to take a freighter to America. After time at an orphanage and a boarding school, Ernest is to be raffled off at the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in Seattle. Unexpectedly, he becomes the houseboy and later chauffer to Madame Flora, who runs an upscale house in Seattle’s red light district, where he meets her daughter Maisie and kitchen maid Fahn. I really enjoyed Ford’s first book, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, but I didn’t like this story or setting as well, even though the writing and characterization are excellent. Ernest is a very appealing character, more so than either Maisie or Fahn. The 1909 fair is more vividly described than the Century 21 Expo in 1962. I think Ford is an excellent writer, but I hope he picks a happier setting for his next book.
The Lightkeeper’s Daughters, by Jean Pendziwol
Foster teen Morgan gets caught spray painting graffiti, and is assigned community service at a retirement home. Scraping away her work and painting a fence, she is befriended by blind resident Elizabeth Livingstone. Elizabeth has just been given the journals kept by her father Andrew, a lighthouse keeper in the 1920s and 1930s. Elizabeth and her twin sister Emily, a mute but talented artist, grew up on an island on the Canadian side of Lake Superior, with their two older brothers. War, influenza, isolation, and the challenging duty of keeping the light and fog horn working make for a unique upbringing. Morgan reads the journals to Elizabeth, and learns that her grandfather knew Elizabeth. Elizabeth is hoping to find answers to old family secrets, including the mysterious grave of another baby with her name. The plot is melodramatic, with numerous twists and turns, but I found Morgan and Elizabeth to be very good company, and enjoyed their interactions. Readalikes include: The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman, and Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline.
Jackie’s Girl: My Life with the Kennedy Family by Kathy McKeon
In 1964, Kathy Smith leaves a miserable job to become Jackie Kennedy’s personal assistant and substitute nanny. Kathy grew up in a large family in a three room cottage in rural Ireland, sharing a coat with her sister Briege. While money was short and the children started doing chores on the farm quite young, there was also time for fun and weekend dances. Her uncle Pat’s family sent hand-me-downs and food from New York, and bought tickets for Kathy and Briege to come to America, where Irish girls could easily find work. Kathy’s interview with “Madam” was basically meeting little John and watching his dog do tricks. Generous and very kind, Jackie Kennedy was also a demanding employer, wanting Kathy to help fill the lonely evenings after young Caroline and John were asleep, and often coming up with just one more errand at the end of the day. Well trained by the previous assistant, Kathy took care of Jackie’s wardrobe, especially packing and unpacking for her many trips, and spent lots of time with the family on Cape Cod, New Jersey, and elsewhere. Still a teenager, Kathy became lifelong friends with John, and was clearly devoted to the Kennedy family, mourning along with them when Bobby died. Full of humorous anecdotes, a wonderfully readable memoir of life with the Kennedys in good times and bad.
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.
On March 21 at 10 a.m., the Tuesday Morning Book Group will discuss the historical novel Dollbaby, by Laura Lane McNeal. Ibby Bell travels to New Orleans to stay with her eccentric grandmother, and grows up during the 1960s. Here is my earlier review.
The Tuesday Evening Book Group will meet at 7 p.m. on March 28 to discuss The Empire of Deception, by Dean Jobb. This is the true story of a brilliant con man, Leo Koretz, whose wealthy lifestyle, lavish parties, and generosity beguile his family, friends, and acquaintances into giving him millions of dollars to invest, much of it in non-existent oil wells in Bayano, Panama. Eventually his Ponzi scheme falls apart after investors visit Panama, but by then Leo is in disguise, still living extravagantly, in Nova Scotia.
The Crime Readers will meet at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 15 to discuss Broken Harbor, by Tana French, a Dublin murder squad mystery. Crime Readers are co-sponsored by the Indian Prairie Public Library. Optional dinner is at 6 p.m.
Copies of the books are available at the Adult & Teen Services Reference Desk.
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.
The Cold Eye by Laura Anne Gilman
A fantasy novel set in an alternate version of the American West, this sequel to Silver on the Road lives up to the promise of the first book. Teen Isobel and her mentor Gabriel, along with two horses and a mule, are traveling through the Territory, as Isobel learns the land, the people, and her new role as Left Hand for the Master of the Territory. Alone temporarily, Isobel comes upon a field of slaughtered bison, and promises to remember them. Small animals and birds are strangely absent, and it’s as if the land is poisoned. Gabriel can sense water, but neither can sense the main road for a while, and then the earthquakes begin. Something is very wrong, and it’s Isobel’s charge to investigate. They find a Marshall who’s arrested two scouts from east of the Mississippi, probably sent by President Jefferson. They are accused of encouraging a group of magicians to work together to trap a spirit. Isobel and Gabriel, with the remaining magicians, join the Marshall in a journey to a small, warded town for a trial. Although Isobel seems more mature than most 16-year-olds, it’s fascinating seeing the Territory through her eyes. The writing is compelling, the characters fully realized, and I kept turning the pages to find out what happens next, while dreading what they might encounter. Clearly, Isobel and Gabriel are living in an unsettled and unpredictable time, and there are likely several more adventures ahead for them. Here’s my review of Silver on the Road, which I suggest reading first.