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.
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.
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.