The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

choirAdd this to the list of my favorite WWII, set in England, historical fiction novels. This was marvelous. I felt like it started off with me thinking it was going to be a sweet story about women coming together in their village during the war, combined with gossipy town stories. And while it was that, I felt it really grew into something more.

The story is told through journal entries, occasional notices, and letters. The characters include a widow whose son is off fighting, the manor house family with snotty rich older daughter who toys with men, the younger sister who wants to be more grown up, the lovely new choirmistress and some other standard fare village characters. But throw in the completely unethical blackmailing midwife and suddenly everything got more complicated-bribes, spies, secret identities, etc. I really enjoyed how this story had plenty of that “plucky women get stuff done during the war” that I like so much, but what I especially liked was that none of the women saw that ability in themselves and it was a pleasure to see them come to recognize their strengths.
While it seemed, at first, that this would be mostly light, there was plenty of realistic sorrow. I also thought all the parts about the women singing were woven in very beautifully.

I loved this and could so easily visualize everything. Absolutely charming, winning, historical fiction.

The After-Room by Maile Meloy

afterroomI wasn’t expecting a follow up to The Apothecary and The Apprentices, so it was a real delight to see that there was this. Although I didn’t remember too much about Janie and Benjamin’s adventures in the last book, I remembered the important stuff-the avian elixir that allows them to become birds and that they are trying to stop the use of nuclear warfare. In this conclusion Janie and Benjamin meet someone new who also has unusual powers and wind up in Rome. Benjamin, who is grieving for his father, discovers that due to the powder they had drunk before he died are able to connect in an “after-room”-a sort of waiting area for the dead. Of course this has issues of its own, and added to that they are trying to assist Jin Lo, who is in China searching for a nuclear warhead.  I thought the focus on the afterlife and those who have died and our communications with them was a wonderful part of this story.  And, as I felt with the other two books, I really liked this whole concept and time period, which I think is a bit unusual in kids’ stories. A great conclusion to a unique story.

All the Stars in Heaven by Adriana Trigiani

starsThis was such an interesting story. I really wasn’t sure which elements were 100% true, and what was completely made up. The author’s note tells us to read it as straight up fiction about some real people, but I had a hard time not just believing it all as 100% real.
The story is about Loretta Young and Clark Gable and their love affair. It’s also about the movie industry in the 1930s and Loretta’s acting career. Such a neat inside look at what movie productions were like then. My favorite part of the whole thing was when Clark and Loretta were filling together in snowy, remote Washington state. All the actors and crew together, eating and living together in a lodge, Clark pitching in chopping wood. It was hard to imagine movie stars of today ever acting like that.
I really enjoyed this as a love story, historical fiction, and nice long saga over time.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

nightingaleThis was one of my top ten favorite books of 2015. This was a heartbreaking, sad, emotional, and intense read. I knew all that going in because I knew it was about a woman in France in WWII whose husband goes off to the war and the Nazis come to her village. Nazis, French Resistance, concentration camps–I just knew characters were going to die, there would be horrible actions, and it would make me question humanity. Because that’s what any WWII book does to me. But I keep reading them and with every one there is something new I learn, some new viewpoint or facet to the war that I hadn’t thought/learned about. In this case it was the French village and what it was like when it became occupied.

I thought this was a wonderful story. Yes, very sad, but warm moments of hope too. In fact, the structure of the book-beginning with a contemporary situation-lets you know that clearly not everyone is going to die. I actually didn’t think this structure added much and was slightly distracting to me.
So much to think about and talk about, it’s no wonder this was so popular last year and a popular book discussion book.

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

25163300I loved this so much. At first, the cover alone was so beautiful, so go right ahead and judge this book by the cover. Janet is bright but does not have a bright future. She lives with a father and brothers who are cruel and treat her terribly.  Any hope of furthering her education is shot down quickly by her father. She longs for something better and somehow finds the courage to set out and make it to Baltimore.  The wages she’s seen advertised for a hired girl seem outrageously high and she knows she is a good harder worker, so that’s what she sets her sights on.  Janet is fortunate to encounter quite a lot of good luck, but she’s also super plucky.  I loved  the fascinating historical stuff and details about being a hired girl. Janet is a devout Catholic and she land with a Jewish family. Each is practically unknown to the other and this was a wonderful aspect of the story.  As I read along I realized that this book reminded me so much of Anne of Green Gables. Not the same story, no, but Janet is so much like Anne. She’s smart and thirsts for knowledge, she forgets herself when she is excited and passionate and talks out of turn and forgets her station, she has exasperating adventures, she warms the hearts of a cranky old person, and she is crazy for romantic tales and feelings. Like Anne, Janet writes in a flowery way, and I can see that while I thought this book was fantastic it may have a specific audience rather than just flat out widespread YA appeal.

The Doomsday Book By Connie Willis

doomsdayThis was a re-read for me,and one that was a long time coming. I probably first read this back in college and have been fondly remembering and referring to it ever since! I love time travel stories, and especially enjoy Willis’s version of time travel-set in Oxford, it’s for academics and historians.As usual with Willis the history in this story is impeccably researched and lavishly detailed. It’s easy to imagine her sitting in the Bodleian Library poring over prime sources and ancient original documents, to make sure that everything-village names, distances between villages, geography, speech patterns, etc.-are authentic and accurate.
Kivrin is an eager historian at the University ready to take her first trip to the Middle Ages, a trip her informal mentor thinks is ill-advised and dangerous. She’s confident that since her destination is before the plague is known to have arrived she’ll be fine. Once she goes through, though, things go wrong in both times and you find yourself quite caught up in the mysteries and race against time. The parallel plague stories are heartbreakingly similar, something I either didn’t remember or possibly didn’t even notice the first time I read this?
I was pleased to find that it had been so long since I read this that I didn’t remember the ending! There were bits and pieces that did come back to me as I read though. (One detail my mom and I never forgot is that they wanted to cauterize Kivrin’s nostrils, or inside I guess, thinking the odor of the Middle Ages would be too intense for a modern person.)This was every bit as wonderful as I remembered and I shall continue to recommend it and think well of it for another twenty years!

Queen of Hearts by Rhys Bowen

spynessThis might be one of my favorite Royal Spyness books (and it came out last year, so shame on me for not even knowing about it, but what a happy surprise to just see it on the shelf.)
It was refreshing to see America, not just its 1934 Hollywood glamour, but also through Georgie’s eyes. I also enjoyed the variety of settings. At first it seemed like it was going to be a bottle episode, but then we had not just a ship crossing, but also a train trip, stay at the famed Beverly Hills Hotel, and more. It was fabulous and I loved all the details. I also enjoyed the notable absence of Queenie for much of the book. I do find her a bit trying.