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.
Paul Gunn, a 41-year-old pilot working in Manila when Pearl Harbor was attacked, will do whatever it takes to help win the air war in the Pacific and get back to Manila to rescue his family. “Pappy” Gunn works to the point of exhaustion, even in ill health, to modify and improve planes sent to the Pacific, train pilots, lead low altitude bombing runs, and even threaten quartermasters at gunpoint to get the supplies his crews need. Back in Manila, his wife Polly and their four children stay with friends until they are forced to move to the internment camp at Santo Tomas, a former university. Polly eventually toughens up and helps her family by deceiving the camp’s Japanese officers, and persistently demands that her children receive the medical care and housing they need, even if it’s not at Santo Tomas. The Gunn children help guard the family’s possessions, steal and smuggle food, spy, and keep secret a hidden radio. Set in the Philippines, New Guinea, and Australia, the remarkable Gunn family’s adventures will keep the reader in suspense to find out what happens. Indestructible is a readalike for Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff, and 81 Days Below Zero, by Brian Murphy.
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.