The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende
Elderly Alma Belasco is a woman of mystery, and grandson Seth asks her part-time secretary Irina to help him discover Alma’s secrets. As a girl, Alma is sent by her parents from Poland in 1939 to her aunt and uncle in San Francisco, while her parents remain behind. The Belasco family mansion in San Francisco is only sketchily described, except for the gardens. Alma is befriended by her cousin Nathaniel, whom she later marries, and by Ichimei, the Japanese gardener’s son. In the present, Nathaniel has died and Alma is living at Lark House for seniors, having shed all of her social responsibilities. Lark House and its quirky occupants are lovingly described, along with their activities. I would have liked more scenes with Ichimei, who was sent to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah, with his family. Some of his letters to Alma are included.
Irina, a young immigrant from Eastern Europe, has her own secrets, which don’t seem to fit with the rest of the story. Some chapters of textile artist Alma’s colorful life are rushed, and the author tells rather than shows what happened, as if filling in an outline of events. Other passages are beautifully written, leaving me uncertain how to rate this book. In the end I wanted to know more about Alma, the enigmatic Ichimei, and the residents and staff of Lark House.
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 Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay
The gorgeous scenery on the cover is echoed in this beautiful, melancholy novel set in Thirroul, New South Wales, Australia. It’s 1948, and a doctor and a poet are finally home from the war, trying to find their way back to normal life. Anikka Lachlan and her husband Mac are happily raising their 10-year-old daughter, Bella, when railwayman Mac is killed in an accident. Ani and Bella struggle through their grief, helped by neighbors. Ani is given a job at the railway library, where she encounters Ray, the poet with writer’s block, and Frank, the doctor who has little patience for the villagers’ minor health complaints. Mac remains part of the whole book, with scenes from the beginning of their marriage, and as Ani learns new stories about Mac. Thirroul, south of Sydney, is picturesque, with surfers, fishermen, tropical flowers, and dolphins. The author commissioned a poem for the novel, and the novelist and poet both won the Colin Roderick award. Leisurely paced and memorable, a story of loss and love.
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.
The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian
Cristina Rosati is 18 in 1943 when the war comes to Villa Chimera in the Tuscan hills south of Florence. Her brother Vittore works in Florence, trying to keep Italian antiquities safe and out of Germany. Brother Marco is an engineer with the Italian army in Sicily while his wife Francesca and their two children live with Cristina and her parents at the villa, where she swims, rides horseback, and plays with the children. After the Germans learn that there is an Etruscan tomb at Villa Chimera, they start visiting, and she meets a handsome German lieutenant. Also 18, orphaned Serafina is working with the Italian Resistance and is injured in an explosion. She has a connection to Villa Chimera that she’s forgotten, and is now a detective in 1955 Florence, where a murderer has begun stalking the Rosati women. The Rosatis had no easy choices to make during the war, and they didn’t all survive. Cristina and Serafina don’t know what secrets from the past may be haunting the Rosatis now. The most interesting part of the book for me was descriptions of life in Italy in 1943 and 1944. Some of the characters were more developed than others, such as Cristina’s father and brother Marco. The pace of the story intensifies, as the killer gets closer and the reader learns more of the events of 1944 at Villa Chimera. Beautiful settings, some appealing characters, with a story that kept my interest, but darker in tone and more gruesome than I expected.
Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan
Nell Stillman, a minor character in other novels by Sullivan, gets to shine here. This is Nell’s life story, from early married life to old age, all set in the small town of Harvester, Minnesota. After her husband dies suddenly, leaving her with young son Hillyard, Nell is relieved to be offered a job as third-grade teacher. However, teachers in the late 19th century and early 20th century were held to very high standards. Small town gossip can be harsh, and often anonymous. Nell brings a young cousin, Elvira, to live with Nell and Hilly in their apartment over Rabel’s Meat Market. A few years later, she leaves town in disgrace, and Nell is blamed. Nell’s main comfort in life, besides her loyal friends, is reading and re-reading the light, humorous novels of P.G. Wodehouse. My only complaint about this absorbing, character driven novel is that a book about the value of light humorous fiction shouldn’t be quite so serious and often melancholy in tone. I enjoyed reading about the changes in Harvester and in Nell’s apartment over the years including the building of a library, but two world wars and the depression do not make for light reading, especially as Hilly comes home from war shell-shocked. Nell does find love later in life, but a book that covers many decades inevitably includes several deaths. To cheer up I might read one of P.G. Wodehouse’s books (our library owns thirty, and they are quite funny, if now somewhat dated), but I plan to read more of Sullivan’s work, starting with The Cape Ann.
Historical fiction readers may enjoy this two-volume novel that won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. I read it five years ago, and enjoyed rereading it almost as much. Three time-traveling historians visit Great Britain during World War II from Oxford in the 2060s. Eileen is in a country house, observing children evacuated from London during the Blitz, and has her hands full with anxious Theodore and mischievous siblings Alf and Binnie Hodbin. A measles epidemic keeps her from returning to Oxford as scheduled. In London, Polly is assigned to observe Londoners during daily life and in shelters during air raids by finding a job at a department store. When she tries to report back to Oxford, nothing happens. Mike Davies, with an American accent, is supposed to be a reporter in Dover covering the evacuation of soldiers from Dunkirk. He arrives in a small town down the coast and has great difficulty getting to Dover. Unexpectedly, Mike gets caught up in the action and helps save the life of a soldier who goes on to rescue hundreds more. He also suffers an injury that would be easily treated in his own time. Eileen and Mike make their way to London to find Polly, and the trio is concerned that their actions might have affected the war’s outcome or that something has happened in future Oxford to prevent their returning home. Two other historians are working hard to retrieve them, with unexpected consequences. The pacing is fast and the tension level is high, but there are plenty of lighter moments. The real highlight of this novel is the spotlight on daily life on the home front in Great Britain during World War II. Long, but definitely worthwhile, with characters I really cared about.