Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
Four Londoners and an African-American boy face World War II in very different ways, as they try to figure out what it means to be brave in wartime. Wealthy Mary, 18, wants to be a spy, but is assigned to be a teacher, where she meets young Zachary. Later, Mary drives an ambulance with her friend Hilda, who trains as a nurse. A double date with school administrator Tom and art conservator turned army officer Alistair has unexpected consequences. Air raids are danced away to loud music, and entertainers, like Zachary’s father, work all night. Alistair is shipped to Malta, like the author’s grandfather was, and endures a siege. Letters from home are the only thing that can distract him from the war, but some letters go astray. Hilda and Mary’s friendship is strained, and Tom has trouble relating to Alistair. Absorbing and alternately witty and sad, I kept turning the pages in hopes that the memorable characters would make it through to the peace they deserve.
The Tilted World by Tom Franklin & Beth Ann Fennelly
After months of heavy rains, the residents of Hobnob Landing, Mississippi are increasingly uneasy as the river keeps rising in the spring of 1927. Federal revenuers Ham Johnson and Ted Ingersoll are sent to the town by Herbert Hoover to investigate two missing agents, and to search for moonshiners. Friends and WWI veterans, the unbribable pair come across a botched robbery at a country store which left a baby orphaned. An orphan himself, Ingersoll wants to find the baby boy a good home, and is referred to Dixie Clay Holliver, a young woman still mourning her own baby. She takes Willy gladly, but Ingersoll doesn’t know that she’s married to Jesse Holliver, distributor of Black Lightning, bootleg whiskey.
Ingersoll and Johnson pose as engineers, patrolling the sandbagged levee as the Mississippi River levels keeps rising. Charming, lying Jesse has his own plans, and might have been the last one to see the missing federal agents. The pacing and suspense keep increasing as some levees upstream fail. History, suspense, and a little romance bring a new look at the Great Flood of 1927. A surprisingly enjoyable read full of colorful characters.
Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe, by Dawn Tripp
I enjoyed this compelling novel about artist Georgia O’Keeffe almost as much as I’ve enjoyed looking at her art. Georgia and her older husband, photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz, exchanged so many letters that the author had plenty of source material to work with, along with biographies, Georgia’s memoirs, exhibition catalogs, critiques and much more. Fortunately, the author doesn’t let her research get in the way of telling a character-driven, moving, and engaging story about Georgia’s long and adventurous life. The various settings, New York City, the Stieglitz lake house in the Adirondacks, and New Mexico, are detailed and appealing. Georgia and her art change over time, as does her tempestuous relationship with Stieglitz. Recommended for fans of biographical fiction, and especially for readers of Susan Vreeland, Nancy Horan, and Paula McLain.
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 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.
Stars Over Sunset Boulevard by Susan Meissner
Violet, fresh from Louisiana, rents a room in Audrey Duvall’s inherited Hollywood bungalow. The women are secretaries at Selznick Studios during the filming of Gone with the Wind in 1938. Audrey’s friend Bert works in the wardrobe department, and there’s a subplot about one of Scarlett’s hats. Audrey and Violet both have sad secrets in their past. Violet likes her job, and is not ambitious, but Audrey is determined to make it big as an actress. There’s a sort of love triangle, and eventually a secret baby, not unlike Adriana Trigiani’s All the Stars in the Heavens, but this is by far the better book. I could have done with fewer secrets as Audrey and Violet mature, but this is an enjoyable and well-researched look behind the scenes of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
Beatrice Nash arrives in the southeastern English village of Rye to teach Latin. Her sponsors, Agatha and John Kent, are quite welcoming, and their nephews, poet Daniel and surgeon-in-training Hugh, help her secure the position when a last-minute male candidate appears. Much prejudice against class, race, and gender are evident in 1914 Rye, and Beatrice chafes under her late father’s restrictive trust, especially when asked to explain why she bought new underclothes. When Belgian refugees arrive in town, Beatrice agrees to share her half-cottage with lovely Celeste, a professor’s daughter. The professor lodges with the local celebrity, an American author. The war soon comes to the village, as Hugh, Daniel, and Beatrice’s best student, a half-gypsy boy, go off to enlist. Daniel’s lover has broken up with him, and Hugh hopes to marry his mentor’s daughter after the war. The villagers start up new committees and have a parade to help raise funds for the war effort. The book starts out bright and charming, and gains depth and some darkness along with the war. Some minor characters are a bit clichéd, but I really cared about the main characters. I found this to be a very absorbing read and while not fast paced, it was still hard to put down, as was the author’s first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. I also enjoyed the descriptions of the village, including those of Beatrice’s cottage, her classroom full of sweaty young boys, and the professor’s study.