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.
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.
Plaid & Plagiarism by Molly MacRae
This book is an appealing beginning to a new cozy mystery series set in the Scottish Highlands. Librarian Janet, her daughter Tallie, and two of their friends buy a bookshop in Inversgail with plans to open a tearoom next door and a B & B upstairs. Making a quick visit to Janet’s house to see why her move has been delayed, Christine finds the kitchen full of trash while Summer, a reporter, finds a dead body in the garden shed. Later they find a biscuit tin full of threatening letters at the bookshop, which were probably written by the victim, advice columnist Una Graham. I found the four women a bit difficult to tell apart at first, but it was interesting having four amateur sleuths working together on the same case. There are plenty of descriptions of learning to run a bookshop, remodel a tearoom, and plenty of local colour, although sadly no scone recipes. A good start to the Highland Bookshop series, with some room for improvement.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Ove, a newly retired railway worker in Sweden, can fix many things, but not his heart. He is grumpy yet loveable, and doesn’t see the point in living without his wife Sonja or his job. Gradually Ove finds out that he is needed: first to back up a trailer, then to fix a radiator and a ceiling fan, to rescue a cat, drive neighbors to the hospital, and even to give driving lessons. His new neighbors, Parvaneh and Patrick, along with their two young daughters, help Ove break out of his shell. Gradually the reader sees that there’s more to Ove than complaining about rule-breakers and government bureaucrats, and learns about his childhood and his unlikely marriage to always late Sonja, as well as regular feuds with neighbor Rune, who prefers Volvos to Saabs. It took me quite a while to warm up to this book of mixed sadness, warmth, and humor, but I’m very glad I kept reading until I did. A movie, hugely popular in Sweden, may be coming to this country soon, and Ove is sure to gain more fans when it does. Readalikes include The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald
Sara Lindqvist arrives in Hope, Iowa for a long visit with her pen pal, Amy. Amy never shows up to drive her to Broken Wheel, and Sara arrives at her home just in time for Amy’s wake. Oddly, the residents of the tiny town in Southern Iowa want her to stay in Amy’s house, eat up all the casseroles, and get driven wherever she wants to go by lonely George. She is invited to the local bar to meet the town’s only eligible bachelor, Tom. No one will let her pay for her meals, drinks, or groceries. Once she gets to know Amy’s friends, Sara wants to give back to the town, and opens a small bookstore in a vacant storefront, stocking it mostly with Amy’s large collection of books. Sara generally prefers books to people, having worked in a bookstore in Sweden for years, but that could change. When a newsletter promotes the bookstore, the shop and the local bar fill up with tourists from Hope. The residents of Broken Wheel hope that maybe Sara will stay. Charming, quirky, and endearing, this is already popular with staff here at the library. I listened to the audiobook, with Sara’s part read by Fiona Hardingham, and the Iowans given a southern accent by Lorelei King, which only added to my reading enjoyment. This is a first novel by a Swedish writer who had only visited Iowa in books before this book was published.
The Sparrow Sisters by Ellen Herrick
An unusual first novel, an excellent readalike for Sarah Addison Allen fans. Set in a seaside town on Cape Cod, the three Sparrow Sisters run a plant nursery, and youngest sister Patience makes herbal remedies for the town. When doctor Henry Carlyle moves to Granite Point, he is skeptical of Patience’s talents. Neither Nettie nor Sorrel has ever married, and the three sisters live in the house they grew up in. When tragedy strikes, Patience’s remedies come under suspicion, and many of the men in Granite Point turn against the sisters. Magical realism is strong but never stated in this book, as Patience’s moods seem to affect the whole town, just like her ancestor Eliza Howard. In spite of the turmoil, one sister falls in love and another gains an admirer. The tone of the book changes, which makes for an unsettling reading experience. I’m expecting small town charm, quite a bit about plants, some romance and magic, and that’s what the first half of the book is like. Then it turns darker, melancholy and suspenseful, with the ending rather uncertain. But that makes for a memorable book, with more depth than a typical cozy mystery or romance.
The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg
After marrying off her three daughters, Sookie Poole longs for some peace and quiet. But she can’t keep blue jays from emptying her bird feeders, and her demanding, eccentric mother Lenore lives down the street in Point Clear, Alabama. When Sookie learns that she was adopted in Texas, is actually 60 instead of 59, and that her birth mother was from the Polish town of Pulaski, Wisconsin, her world is turned upside down. Sookie pretends to have the flu to keep her mother away while she learns more about her fascinating birth family, supported by her kind husband Earle. Fritzi Jurdabralinski’s father opens a filling station in the 1930s, and builds an air strip nearby. Fritzi learns to fly a plane and does some wing walking, before she and her three sisters are needed to run the filling station. Three of the sisters, along with their brother, end up as pilots during World War II; much of their experiences are told in letters. Sookie doesn’t feel like she’s accomplished much with her life, but learning about her birth family inspires her. I think Lenore was a bit too eccentric to be believable, but this was a very enjoyable, heartwarming book.