Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir (Book Review)

Title: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir
Author: Jennifer Ryan
Publication: Crown hardcover, 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: When all the men in the town of Chilbury leave to fight in World War II, the vicar tries to cancel the village choir. But when the ladies muster a little gumption, they realize they can have a choir by themselves, perform well on their own, and enjoy themselves! Chilbury is full of intrigue and drama, providing a female perspective of war in letters and diary entries. The story follows several members of the choir: timid but beloved Mrs. Tilling; sisters Venetia and Kitty, both looking for love, daughters of an unpleasant retired Brigadier; Hattie Lovell, a newlywed expecting her first child; and Edwina Paltry, the villainous midwife. When the Brigadier asks Miss Paltry to make sure his wife delivers a boy, so his estate will not pass out of the family, he sets in motion a plot that will impact two families. Unfortunately, he is one of the few men left in Chilbury. Others include the seemingly gruff military officer with a soft heart, billeted with Mrs. Tilling; a mysterious artist, whose heart Venetia is determined to capture; as well as several young men who reappear on leave or when wounded.

The English cover reminds me of K.M. Peyton
Audience: Fans of historical fiction, especially books set during WWII and covering activity on the home front. While it is not as charming as D.E. Stevenson’s novels, I think those fans would enjoy it.
My Impressions: This was a fun read, albeit somewhat predictable. I liked the descriptions of daily life in the village and how the characters dealt with shortages and the challenges of the war. I enjoyed seeing Mrs. Tilling gain in self confidence, and smiled at the contrast between boy crazy Venetia, beautiful enough to attract any man she wants, and her younger sister Kitty who suffers from unrequited love – and occasionally the spitefulness of Lady Edith Crawley.

Quibble: Although the author is ostensibly from London, the book read more as if an American had written it. There were many “likes” when I thought the author should have used “as” and this irritated me. I also suspected that, in this more modest era, the characters would not have used the word “pregnant” so casually, especially 13 year old Kitty.
Source: This book came from my old library in Watertown, MA. Another WWII book appeared on my library reserve list soon afterwards, The Women in the Castle, which I am also enjoying, although it is a much darker story.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Alice Network (Book Review)

Title: The Alice Network
Author: Kate Quinn
Publication: William Morrow paperback, 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: In a fast-paced new historical novel from bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the based-on-real-life Alice Network in World War I France and a rebellious American college student searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a compelling story of courage and redemption.

1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American teen Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the “Queen of Spies”, who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth…no matter where it leads.

Audience: Fans of historical fiction, especially that set during World War II, will enjoy this book. I am thinking of some of my favorites: While Still We Live by Helen MacInnes, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (of which Quinn is also a fan), The Light Heart and This Was Tomorrow by Elswyth Thane, Where Memories Lie by Deborah Crombie (partly set in the present). Recent titles set during WWII which became bestsellers include The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
 
My Impressions: I can’t wait to recommend this book to friends! It combines a number of my favorite things: historical fiction, women passionate about doing their ‘bit’ for the war effort, World Wars I and II, espionage, multiple time lines, and a compelling story. I had always meant to read Kate Quinn’s Rome saga (must have missed the fact that she wrote several set during the Renaissance, so those will be something to look forward to) so was eager to try this one, and it did not disappoint. The book is full of memorable characters, beginning with Charlie, a math major at Bennington (I guess I was wrong in thinking it was mostly a finishing school in the 40s), whose sense of loss about her brother’s suicide sends her into a promiscuous frolic among the Ivy League men who seem to have nothing better to do than drive to Vermont on weekends. Then, instead of going obediently to Switzerland for a discreet abortion, she decides to keep the baby and look for her missing cousin. It is in London that she meets Eve Gardiner and Eve’s mysterious chauffeur. Eve is an embittered veteran of the first World War, where her espionage resulted in grievous injury and lasting regret.

Other readers found a lot of humor in the writing but I found courage and loneliness in the personal journeys experienced by each character, which is why their unlikely friendship is such an appealing part of the story. One thing that I found very interesting was that Eve’s and Charlie’s differing attitudes toward their virginity: Eve recognizes that keeping her job at Le Lethe is essential so decides she has to sacrifice herself for the cause, whereas Charlie uses sex to dull the pain of her brother’s loss and almost as a way of defying her parents’ expectations. Patriotism is more honorable than depression as a motivation but Ms. Quinn admitted her other motivation for Charlie’s situation was that she wanted her to be pregnant as a vehicle to get her away from her family but not brokenhearted, as there is a Scot (and a Lagonda) in her future.

I didn’t like Eve and Charlie and Finn the way one sometimes has to like characters to enjoy a book – Eve too harsh, Charlie too brash, and Finn too much a foil to the women, and their alliance very improbable – but I couldn’t put down the book until I knew what would happen to them! Quinn skillfully weaves her narrative between the past and the present. I was more interested in the past but it is always good to see the bad guys get their comeuppance, even if it takes 30+ years.

About the Author: Kate Quinn attended Boston University, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in classical voice. A lifelong history buff, she has written four novels in the Empress of Rome Saga and two books set in the Italian Renaissance detailing the early years of the infamous Borgia clan. She and her husband now live in Maryland.

Source: I was provided a pre-publication copy of this book by the publisher for review purposes.
 

Please join Kate Quinn, author of The Alice Network as she tours the blogosphere with TLC Book Tours:

Tuesday, June 6th: Tina Says…
Wednesday, June 7th: Jathan & Heather
Thursday, June 8th: Laura’s Reviews
Monday, June 12th: A Chick Who Reads
Tuesday, June 13th: Caryn, The Book Whisperer
Wednesday, June 14th: Black ‘n Gold Girl’s Book Spot
Thursday, June 15th: A Bookish Affair
Thursday, June 15th: Girl Who Reads
Friday, June 16th: BookNAround
Monday, June 19th: Savvy Verse & Wit
Tuesday, June 20th: The Cactus Chronicles
Wednesday, June 21th: Unabridged Chick
Thursday, June 22nd: Bibliotica
Friday, June 23rd: Leah DeCesare
Monday, June 26th: Book by Book
Tuesday, June 27th: Just One More Chapter
Wednesday, June 28th: Kritters Ramblings
Thursday, June 29th: Kahakai Kitchen
Friday, June 30th: Literary Quicksand

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Black Cabinet (Book Review)

Title: The Black Cabinet
Author: Patricia Wentworth
Publication: Trade Paperback, 2016, Dean Street Press; originally published in 1925 by Hodder & Stoughton
Genre: Golden Age of Mystery
Plot: Poor but honest, not to mention lovely, Chloe Dane works for a dressmaker and tries to avoid the affluent friends from the world she was born in; she knows she can’t afford their amusements and won’t accept charity. However, when a distant relative summons her for a visit and shares a dangerous secret before dying, Chloe is plunged into a world of blackmail and strangers who pretend to be friends now that she is an heiress. Only Michael Foster, also down on his luck and forced to drive a car for a living, displays the steadfastness, humor, and honor that make him a worthy Wentworth hero, and he assists Chloe in escaping her ill-wishers.

The Black Cabinet is where Chloe’s unpleasant relative Mitchell Dane kept his blackmail materials. When he tells Chloe the combination to its lock and makes her his heir, he sets in motion a series of events that put his victims at risk – and Chloe - from men eager to profit from his nefarious activities.
Audience: Readers of English drawing room mysteries where, despite genuinely frightening moments, the villains exist to be outwitted and the heroines are plucky and usually do not wait to be rescued by a man -- although there usually is a man and a happy ending.

Mrs. Rowse looked severely at Chloe for a moment, and added, “If you was plain, it’ud be a lot easier.” 
“I should so hate to be plain,” said Chloe with a beaming smile. “Dear Mrs. Rowse, do think of something. You see if I don’t get a job, I can’t pay you after this week – and I know you are much too kind-hearted to turn me out into the street.” 
 Mrs. Rowse snorted again. “You ought to go back to your friends, you ought,” she said. “I don’t hold with young gels running away and hiding. And what’s the use of your saying you’re not a young lady, when anyone can see the length of Hatchelbury Road in the dark that you are? If you was really a plain ordinary gel, why I suppose there’s a job you could have tomorrow. But you’re not, and you couldn’t do it.” 
Chloe slipped off the table. “Mrs. Rowse, how frightfully exciting! What is it? Tell me at once. It’s no use saying I couldn’t do it because I’d do anything.”
My Impressions: This is one of the older Wentworth mysteries that were not available in paperback and few copies survived in the U.S., although as I read there were oddly familiar moments. I am thrilled that it is now available from Dean Street Press, and while it may not be one of her absolute best, it was an enjoyable read with some very funny moments, most supplied by Michael Foster.

Source: I asked the Boston Public Library to order several of the reprinted Wentworths and I am grateful to the librarian who ordered this and more.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

H is for Hawk (Book Review)

Title: H is for Hawk
Author: Helen Macdonald
Publication: Grove Press, 2014, Hardcover
Genre: Memoir/Nature
Plot: When Helen Macdonald unexpectedly loses her father, the only way she can endure her grief is to take on the challenge of training a goshawk, using a little known book by the author of The Once and Future King as her guide and retreating from friends and colleagues to an isolated cottage, where she can immerse herself in falconry – and where she becomes as feral as the creature she is trying to tame.

Audience: As this book was a bestseller in England and America, the audience must consist of more than just hawking aficionados. I have no doubt that the striking cover helped attract attention initially but the reviews were fairly rhapsodic.

My Impressions: My friend Maria chose this book for our book group last month. Given that at least three of us had recently lost our fathers, I thought it was timely, and like any history major I had always had an appreciation for a good hawk. However, it was much more raw and miserable than I was expecting. There were really three different stories within the story: 1) Helen’s sense of incredible loss at the unexpected death of her father; 2) Helen’s irrational belief that training a goshawk is the logical way to overcome her terrible grief; and 3) a depiction of author T. H. White, best known for his book, The Once and Future King, which inspired the musical Camelot, who also trained a hawk and (reluctantly) published a memoir about his efforts. Helen is obsessed with White’s book although he was not disciplined enough to follow the rules about hawk training so was doomed to failure; thus, is not a good role model.
Author with Mabel
Helen admired her father, a photographer capable of infinite patience to get the image he sought, and who was a self-taught historian with quirky interests such as photographing every bridge on the Thames in his spare time. One gets the sense that he encouraged her childhood obsession with hawks while her mother merely put up with it (others in my book group felt she had a bad relationship with her mother, but it could have been that she was just much closer to her father). Her belief that training a goshawk is the only way for her to recover from losing him disrupts her career and friendships as she becomes completely obsessed and anti-social, to say the least. As a child, she had read every book about hawking she could find, including White’s own book, The Goshawk (she describes vividly the upper class British falconers who glorified falconry in their 19th century tomes she absorbed that way other English children read Swallows and Amazons). She also read The Sword in the Stone, which my mother read aloud to me and my sister. I vaguely remember a chapter where Merlin turns Wart into a hawk but it did not make the impression on me that it did on Helen.
Helen imagines the life of T. H. White, a prep school teacher who is even more lonely and dysfunctional than Helen herself, as he tries to train his own hawk, several generations earlier. These depictions of his life interrupt her own efforts to train her hawk, Mabel. Her description of his isolation and the unhappy obsession with his own goshawk are convincing but not very appealing. I was actually happier not knowing about his horrific parents and how wretched a human being he was. While I found the concept of the book interesting, a couple chapters would have sufficed, as parts seemed repetitive. While Helen conveys that mastering her hawk is what restored her sanity, it also appeared that interacting with her father’s colleagues at his memorial service helped her regain her ability to interact with humans unrelated to hawking.
Author T. H. White
Source: I got a copy of this book from the Boston Public Library

Thanks for the use of copyrighted images, including the photo of Helen Macdonald from The Independent

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Death at St. Vedast (Book Review)

Title: Death at St. Vedast: Bianca Goddard Mystery #3
Author: Mary Lawrence
Publication: Kensington, Trade Paperback, 2017
Genre: Historical Mystery
Plot: Bianca Goddard is the daughter of a notorious alchemist and was once accused of murder herself in intolerant Tudor England, but does not allow her humble station to prevent her from expressing herself. Recently married to John Grunt, a silversmith’s apprentice who does not appreciate his wife’s outspoken ways, Bianca has moved to a new neighborhood of London with John to advance his career, temporarily putting aside her skill concocting cures and medicines. John and Bianca are welcomed to London by his patron Boisvert, the master silversmith, and Boisvert’s fiancée, Odile Farendon. However, when tragedy strikes, Bianca refuses to keep a low profile and boldly investigates several mysteries that all seem to lead back to their church, St. Vedast.

Audience: Fans of historical mysteries by authors like Fiona Buckley, Ariana Franklin, Kate Sedley

My Impressions: I enjoyed this mystery vividly set in a London that is as full of politics as the nearby court of Henry VIII, although it is not the machinations of Thomas Cromwell at issue but the artisans whose industry fuels a less elegant but equally important role in society. After a slow beginning and despite some difficulty keeping track of the characters initially, the story came together and built to a dramatic climax. I appreciated the way Bianca interacts with minor and major characters, extracting information to solve the mysterious poisonings that have disrupted the community.  Lawrence's portrayal of 1543 London is colorful and provides an interesting contrast to the more frequently depicted scenes of Tudor nobility.

Historical fiction is a tricky undertaking and easy to criticize: if there is too much history, the story can become didactic and dull. Similarly, if the language is too authentic (forsooth!), a modern reader would become impatient. Then you have me, with my former editor eye and my 16th century History and Literature concentration, very critical of anachronisms which I consider a lack of care or failure to properly research one’s historical period. However, Mary Lawrence’s research appeared impeccable to me and reflects hard work, and my only critique is that a woman in Bianca’s position – both as a lowly apprentice’s wife and her apparent notoriety from an earlier book/previous accusation of murder, not to mention her gender – make it very unlikely she could gain the needed entré to conduct the type of investigation necessary to solve this mystery. Still, sometimes a murder mystery requires some suspension of disbelief and despite the above quibbles, I thought Lawrence did a good job of creating a logical path for her sleuth to untangle the mystery but could do without Bianca’s predilection for rats.
Henry VIII is only referred to in this book but I have had a weakness for him since childhood
Source: I obtained a copy of this book from the Minuteman Library System. It is against my usual rule to start a series in the middle but it was not an impediment to enjoying this book although I could not figure out what she sees in her whiny husband.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Slow Burn Cowboy (Book Review and Giveaway)

Title: Slow Burn Cowboy, a Copper Ridge Novel
Author: Maisey Yates
Publication: Harlequin paperback, April 2017
Genre: Contemporary Romance

Description: Lane Jensen left her affluent East Coast upbringing behind as a teen and found a home, career, and even a best friend in Copper Ridge, Oregon. She runs a gourmet food store, owns a cozy house, and can call her friend Finn Donnelly whenever there’s an emergency like a mouse or blown fuse. Finn runs the Laughing Irish ranch and has the dark moods and taciturn personality of a romance hero, and has hid his attraction to Lane because of the difference in their ages and the fact that she is his friend’s younger sister. All of this changes when Finn’s grandfather bequeaths the ranch to Finn and his three brothers. All of Finn’s churning emotions finally emerge, forcing him and Lane to face their feelings and determine whether to turn back for safe friendship or test a new and more exciting relationship.

Audience: Fans of contemporary romance series who enjoys authors such as Kristan Higgins, Jill Shalvis, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

Giveway: Enter for a chance to win a copy!   I think this is U.S. only.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

My Impression: I think Fiona Marsden recommended Maisey Yates to me, so I was eager to try the series. This is the second Copper Ridge story I have read and I enjoyed it much more than the first, although had some of the same issues. I liked the fact that Lane and Finn have a long standing best-friend relationship that evolves into romance, and they both care about and understand the other: he listens and empathizes over the secret that has shaped who she is while she is supportive of his reluctant acceptance of his brothers’ arrival. However, in both Slow Burn Cowboy and One Night Charmer, it seemed to be the arrogant male hero who dictates the terms of the romance and I found this annoying. Perhaps I have outgrown these alpha male control freaks and prefer someone more considerate, even in my escapist fiction. When Finn decides he wants to have a sexual relationship with Lane, despite knowing she would want a long term commitment he is unwilling to provide, he puts his feelings first and tries to guilt her into acquiescing. This not the behavior of a best friend, although in romance-world it turns out well. I did enjoy the other inhabitants of Copper Ridge, however, and will probably read subsequent books in this series about Finn’s brothers.

Source: I was provided a pre-publication copy of this book by the publisher for review purposes. Please visit TLC Book Tour’s Slow Burn Cowboy blog tour for more:

Tuesday, April 25th: Reading Reality
Wednesday, April 26th: Ms. Nose in a Book
Thursday, April 27th: From the TBR Pile
Friday, April 28th: Back Porchervations
Wednesday, May 3rd: Stranded in Chaos
Thursday, May 4th: Books and Spoons
Thursday, May 4th: Written Love Reviews
Friday, May 5th: What I’m Reading
Monday, May 8th: Moonlight Rendezvous
Tuesday, May 9th: Books a la Mode – excerpt
Wednesday, May 10th: A Chick Who Reads
Friday, May 12th: Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers
Tuesday, May 16th: The Romance Dish
Wednesday, May 17th: Becca the Bibliophile
Friday, May 19th: The Sassy Bookster
Monday, May 22nd: A Splendid Messy Life

Monday, April 17, 2017

All-of-a-Kind Family (book review)

Title: All-of-a-Kind Family
Author: Sydney Taylor
Publication: Dell paperback, originally published in 1951. I was inspired to reread this for the 1951 Club.
Genre: Juvenile fiction, series
Plot: The All-of-a-Kind Family lives on New York’s Lower East Side not long before the outbreak of World War I. Papa is a peddler and Mama manages the home and five daughters as frugally as possible, while promoting their Jewish faith. Ella is the oldest, Henny the boldest, Sarah the thoughtful future writer, and Charlotte and Gertie are the youngest and eat penny candy in bed. The girls share adventures and due to loving parents and a spirit of adventure do not dwell on their poverty or the challenges of living in a crowded tenement. Their enjoyment of activities together and their ability to find fun out of simple tasks such as dusting, shopping, visiting the synagogue on festival days, or even suffering from Scarlet Fever at the same time, is what makes this book and the whole series exceptional, charming, and memorable.

Quiz: Which All-of-a-Kind-Family Sibling are you?

You got: Sarah
There’s no place you’d rather be than the library, except maybe onstage accepting the history prize. Maybe you’ll grow up to write a book about your family history! Sydney Taylor would be proud.

Audience: Children 6-10, as well as fans of historical fiction and series books such as Betsy-Tacy; those interested in Historic Manhattan and/or Jewish family life at the turn of the 20th century. This book has many fans of all ages and religions and was “voted” #55 on Betsy Bird’s top 100 Children’s Novels.

My Impressions: I loved this series growing up and especially identified with Henny, the outspoken daughter who (in a later book) gets into difficulty when she borrows her sister’s best dress without permission. This book begins with Sarah’s lost library book, another memorable incident, because of the girls’ enjoyment of the library and fear that they will lose access because Sarah lent to book to a friend. Miss Allen, the librarian, recognizes that payment for the book would create hardship but also knows the girls’ parents would not accept charity, so she allows Sarah to pay for the book over time. As a child who did not get an allowance, I was fascinated by the girls’ daily penny allowance and the mileage they got out of their pennies – particularly the feast of chocolate babies and broken crackers. Growing up in a Boston neighborhood that was primarily Jewish, I also enjoyed learning about Passover, Purim, and other festivals so meaningful to this family. Taylor makes the point that celebrating the Fourth of July is also important to the All-of-a-Kind family, their parents and friends, and that Papa is friendly with men from other faiths (Italian and Polish peddlers). Taylor also makes it clear that this family is relatively privileged: they have a four room apartment which occupies an entire floor in a two-storied private home.

About 15 or so years ago, the Greater NY Chapter of the Betsy-Tacy Society (which meets regularly), all fans of AoKF, went on a tour of the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, which I highly recommend (I was annoyed that the tour guide did not know about these books, and I thought they should have been for sale in the museum shop.   The first book is now available on their website).  A number of my Jewish friends loved these books because there were few books featuring Jewish children; however, I am Catholic and enjoyed them just as much as they did due to Taylor's incredible storytelling.

About the Author: Sydney Taylor based these books on her childhood and the Sarah character on herself. She was a camp counselor in Long Island (where my dear friend Rachel Rose and her sisters were campers) and probably honed the stories there before turning them into books. After her death, her husband established The Sydney Taylor Book Award which is now awarded annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.  
Source: I read the first three books repeatedly growing up. The first two were oversized Follett hardcovers in my grade school library, shabby from the grasp of many hands. The others were in the Newton library, although Ella was not published early enough for many rereads. I own all five now. Much of my knowledge about Judaism came from Sydney Taylor and Gladys Malvern’s Old Testament historical fiction. If you have never read this series, you have a treat in store! Thank you to Lizzie Skurnick for her efforts to keep these books in print and for the quiz above.

• All-of-a-Kind Family (1951), illustrated by Helen John
• More All-Of-A-Kind Family (1954), illustrated by Mary Stevens
• All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown (1958), illustrated by Mary Stevens
• All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown (1972), illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush
• Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family (1978), illustrated by Gail Owens

images above are copyright to the publisher