Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce
Emmy Lake, with her fiancé Edmund overseas, wants to do her bit for the war effort. Volunteering at a fire brigade station answering phones helps, but she’d really like to be a journalist, maybe even a war correspondent. But instead of landing a job at a London newspaper, Emmy’s hired as a typist for Henrietta Bird, advice columnist for a women’s magazine. Mrs. Bird won’t tolerate any unpleasantness, and most of the letters are to be shredded. Secretly, Emmy sends advice to some of the women, signing her name as Mrs. Bird, which upsets her friend and roommate Bunty. Emmy is worried that Bunty’s boyfriend Bill is taking unnecessary risks as a firefighter, and then gets an unexpected telegram from her fiancé. Emmy wonders who is supporting the women on the home front, who are expected to send cheerful letters to men in uniform, but are struggling themselves. Life in wartime London in 1940 is vividly described, as Emmy is encouraged to find out what she can do best. I raced through this terrific first novel, which made me laugh, cry, and want to cheer on Emmy and Bunty. This Library Reads pick is a good readalike for The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan
Full of drama and suspense, this novel tells the story of Italian teen Pino Lella and his experiences in northern Italy during World War II. When bombs start to fall on Milan, Pino and his father camp in the hills at night, but soon he is sent to the mountain camp of Father Re, where Pino learns to hike the mountaintop trails, then leads Jewish refugees across the Alps to safety in Switzerland. At 18, he must enlist in the military, and his father thinks he’ll be safer in the German Organisation Todt. Having learned to drive in the mountains with a future racecar driver, Pino becomes the personal driver to Nazi General Leyes. Reporting to his uncle at his store in Milan, Pino is also a spy known only as Observer. Pino soon falls in love with Anna, the maid to Leyes’ mistress Dolly. Leyes confuses Pino, taking food and blankets from the Italians for his troops, but also saving some Jews from being sent to work camps. Beneath the Scarlet Sky is fiction, but is based on the amazing true story of Pino Lella, and is being made into a movie. An epic story full of thrills and heartbreak; suggested for readers of real life adventure stories or World War II fiction.
To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear
In 1940, London psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs and her assistant, Billy Beale, are asked to look for Joe Coombes, a young painter’s apprentice. His parents, Phil and Sally Coombes, own a local pub and are worried they haven’t heard from Joe, who had been complaining of frequent headaches. Maisie and Billy learn that Joe had been applying fire-retardant paint at aerodromes, and wanted to apprentice to a sheep farmer in Hampshire. Billy notices that the Coombes seem to be unusually well off.
Maisie finds a weekly respite at her country home in Kent, visiting with her extended family, including young evacuee Anna, who has the measles. The British Expeditionary Force in France is in retreat, and Maisie’s godson Tim runs off to help with the evacuation at Dunkirk.
I learned that the World War II experiences of the author’s family inspired this story, especially her father’s work as a young painter’s apprentice. This compelling mystery with engaging characters and strong sense of place would be a good place to start reading this series, especially readers who enjoy historical fiction, British mysteries, or strong female protagonists. I especially enjoyed this book because Maisie and her family are happier than in recent books. This book will be published on March 27.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
As a girl, Anna Kerrigan visits Manhattan Beach with her father Eddie, and meets Dexter Styles, who has ties to the Syndicate. The sea calls to the three of them, and to Anna’s sister Lydia. Years later, Eddie is missing, Dexter owns a nightclub, and Anna has a tedious job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Anna competes to be a diver at the Navy Yard, and pursues Dexter for answers about her father. We learn about Eddie’s adventures at sea, and the secrets the characters all have. While there are tender family scenes, the focus is on work, and on coworkers and crewmates. Anna takes risks and craves adventure, wanting to contribute to the war effort, reinventing herself more than once. Plenty of danger and intrigue add to the intensifying pace, leading to a surprisingly satisfying conclusion, with complex, memorable characters. Widely acclaimed, it’s a pleasure to read a book that lives up to high expectations. The first historical novel from award-winning novelist Egan, this is sure to be popular with book discussion groups.
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.
Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
Margot discovered that her home town of Hampton, Virginia, was also home to many African American women mathematicians who worked for NACA, later NASA, in the 1940s and beyond. The college educated women, many of them teachers, were recruited as human computers during World War II, running calculations for aerospace engineers. These jobs paid much better than teaching, and many of the women stayed on as they began to raise children, and as NACA transitioned to NASA. Virginia was defiantly a southern state, resisting integrating schools in the 1950s and 1960s, and the women worked in the all black West Computers section at first, with a white section head. The cafeteria tables and bathrooms were also segregated, but the pioneering women proved their importance, getting reassigned to other sections, sometimes getting promoted to mathematician and rarely to engineer. In the 1940s and 1950s, the goal was to produce new faster and safer airplanes, and later they worked on projects developing rockets, calculating spacecraft trajectories, and programming early computers. Several of these pioneering women are highlighted, and the stories of their careers and personal lives are fascinating and surprising. I haven’t yet seen the popular movie based on the book, but I look forward to it, and to learning more about the human side of NACA and NASA during the Civil Rights Movement. The author’s thorough researching of the people, place, and time make for a compelling and memorable read.
The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake
An elegantly written first novel about ordinary people struggling to find their new normal after the war in 1947 Tokyo. This book is narrated by several people starting over, all connected by two school girls, Aya Shimamura and Fumi Tanaka. Fumi, whose father used to run a small bookshop, misses her older sister Sumiko, and wants Aya’s help in finding her. Sumiko is a dance hall girl, who has been bringing extra food and money home to the family. Aya is Japanese Canadian. She spent the war in a Canadian internment camp, and as her family is no longer welcome in Vancouver, they’ve returned to Japan. Their teacher Kondo moonlights as a letter writer for young Japanese women trying to stay in contact with their American GI boyfriends. Matt Matsumoto, Japanese American, is working with the American Army of Occupation, where he translates letters sent to General MacArthur. Aya and Fumi get lost one night, and Aya’s father asks Kondo to help find them. The author is a Japanese Canadian librarian, and she was inspired by a book of actual letters sent to General MacArthur by the Japanese people. Appealing characters, a truly unique setting, and a poignant, heartwarming plot made me sorry to finish this book.