The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

9781101906750_p0_v2_s192x300Although Jennifer Ryan’s The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir begins with lovely letters and seemingly benign characters, her story quickly escalates to a baby kidnapping and a testament to the power of women.  With the men of the town off to war, the women of the little town in England form their own women’s choir, their catalyst to independence and determination.

Letters and journal entries move the action, a nod to Britain’s Mass Observation project referenced in Ryan’s Acknowledgments; the social research organization encouraged keeping diaries and journals to document ordinary citizen’s coping with the war.  Members of the choir reveal their thoughts as well as the action of the story through the journal of a precocious twelve year old, Kitty; letters from her older and beautiful sister, Venetia to her friend in London; the menacing letters of Edwina Paltry, the conniving town midwife; the journal of Mrs. Tilling, widow, nurse, town conscience and the short entries of Sylvie, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia hiding a family secret.

The men are heroes and villains – a brutish husband bribing a midwife to switch babies, a handsome dilettante with a mysterious mission, a gruff widowed Colonel with a lot to offer, and assorted swains – some rich, some connected, some just handsome.  Ryan highlights the strength of the women on the home front as each struggles with her own destiny, grows stronger through adversity, and, in the end, lives happily ever after – with the choir as the bonding agent throughout.

With the same charming flavor as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir includes romance, adventure, and mystery with a touch of the horrors of war.

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The Queen’s Accomplice

9780804178723_p0_v1_s192x300  Women with power may be a threat to some but Susan Elia MacNeal uses this timely theme in her latest Maggie Hope murder mystery – The Queen’s Accomplice.  With the same British flavor as her other five books in the series, MacNeal features the young British secret service agent with a flair for logic in the search for a Jack the Ripper clone who has been killing women agents.  Since first meeting Maggie Hope in MacNeal’s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, I’ve enjoyed her feisty attitude and mathematical acumen.  Her forays into romance with fellow agents help too.

The Queen in this book is not the newly popular Victoria nor the young Elizabeth of the new Netflix series “The Crown,” but Elizabeth’s mother, who stood by her husband, King George, during the war.  Although she only has a minor role in the plot, MacNeal confirms the Queen’s influence and wartime support.   As a modern woman of the nineteen forties, Maggie Hope has many of the same issues as women today, and has the support of other women, including the Queen.

MacNeal cleverly connects Maggie’s service in the war to ongoing problems women face in their personal lives and in the workplace.  Although the book is a mystery with a killer to be found, the story offers confirmation of women’s rights in making their own decisions, and in being valuable for their contributions to society.

9780399593802   The book ends with a new adventure about to start, as Maggie waves goodbye to the Queen and boards a plane to Paris.  The Paris Spy will be published this summer – I can’t wait.

Related Reviews:

The Other Side of Silence

9780399177040_p0_v2_s192x300   When I first met W. Somerset Maugham, I was a precocious fourth-grader who had chosen Of Human Bondage for my book report.  As Sister Eugene Marie calmly pointed out, I had understood most of the plot, but completely missed the point of Philip Carey’s struggle.  Since then, I’ve enjoyed Maugham’s other works – Moon and Sixpence is one of my favorites  – but never again read his masterpiece.  Having found him in a different venue in Philip Kerr’s The Other Side of Silence, maybe I’ll try again.

Maugham is the famous writer who supposedly needs a fourth for bridge in Kerr’s eleventh novel starring the fictional Berlin detective Bernie Gunther.  Kerr writes in a fast-paced staccato, and I’ve read  none of his thirty books or the previous ten in the Bernie Gunther series.  When I sought out his recent interview in the Book Review section of the New York Times – By the Book, none of the books on his nightstand appealed to me, but I did note Jean Stein’s West of Eden as a book I might try.  When The Other Side of Silence opened with – “Yesterday, I tried to kill myself,” I almost stopped reading , but knowing Maugham was lurking in the shadows, I kept on.

In The Other Side of Silence Bernie Gunther, the former Berlin policeman and private eye, has relinquished his former exciting life as a German police officer and detective, and is now working with false papers as Walter Wolf, the concierge at the Grand Hôtel on the Riviera, near the lush residence of Maugham.  Kerr uses Maugham’s homosexuality and his life as a British spy as the bait for a fast-paced mystery detective story.

When a former Gestapo officer, Harold Heinz Hebel, tries to blackmail Maugham with a salacious photo of him in a compromising position, Maugham enlists Bernie’s help. Hebel is also trying to blackmail Bernie, threatening to reveal his identity.  Kerr obligingly fades back to pre-war Berlin in the late nineteen thirties, as Bernie explains his former relationship with Hebel and their shady relationship with the Nazis who were trying to abscond with yet another priceless treasure.  The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustoff, “one of the greatest maritime disasters in history,” becomes a key motivator in the plot – Bernie’s pregnant lover died with over nine thousand others when it sank.

Despite the Mickey Spillane style of writing, I found myself trapped in the story – a mix of Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie, with philosophical notes of Kant and historical references to the Stasi and Gestapo.  The plot twists keep the story exciting and the flashbacks offer historical perspective, with Maugham’s history as a British spy in charge of a team of secret agents playing a key role.  Overall, as mysteries go, it was a fun read, and the ending provides one last surprise – confirmed later in the author’s note as possibly scarier in reality than the fiction.

9781412811729_custom-5f064d218dc602df51d59d4b81f735be7e966631-s300-c85  And the best part – Kerr’s characterization of Maugham awakened my yearning to read a good Maugham story again – maybe Ashenden, Maugham’s fictional adventures of a writer turned spy, based on his own experiences.  I’ve ordered it from the library.

 

 

The Nightingale

9781466850606_p0_v3_s192x300Although Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale has hovered on the New York Times top ten for a while, I resisted reading this story of German-occupied France during World War II.  Maybe I wasn’t ready for the angst of another Tatiana de Rosnay like tale of two sisters who join the Resistance, one wholeheartedly, the other reluctantly.  Other Hannah books have always engulfed me in tears – Homefront, Night Road, Winter Garden – and maybe I wasn’t in the mood for horror and angst.  But when an old friend urged me to read the book, so we could talk about it – I did – and all my expectations were met.

Hannah’s descriptions of torture and cruelty are difficult to fathom, but a reminder of how horribly Jewish prisoners were treated.  The complicity of the Vichy government is a major character, along with the two sisters – Isobelle and Vienn who each fights in her own way to obstruct the takeover of France, and protect her family.

The historical novel is based on a conglomeration of stories, but two real heroines stand out as the inspiration for the two main characters. Andrée de Jongh, a 19 year old Belgian, like Isobelle as the nightingale spy for the Resistance, was inspired by  World War I heroine Edith Cavell.  De Jongh established the Comet Escape Line, a secret network of people who risked their lives to help Allied servicemen escape over the Pyrenees to Spain.  In The Nightingale, young and beautiful Isobelle leads downed pilots over the mountains to safety in San Sebastian.

Her sister, Viann, hides Jewish children in a Catholic orphanage until they can be reunited with their families after the war – close to the real story of Irena Sendler, who smuggled children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and hid them in orphanages or convents. Sendler made lists of the children’s names and family connections and hid them in jars in her garden – just as Vienn did in The Nightingale – so that someday she could find the children and tell them who they were.

Hannah tempers the misery with some romance and adventure, and the story is compelling.  Once started, I found it hard to stop, but the novel left me bereft, despite the somewhat happy ending.

Reviews of Other Hannah books:

A Map of Betrayal

9780307911605_p0_v1_s260x420Ha Jin examines the struggle of a Chinese spy torn between his homeland and his new American life in A Map of Betrayal. I found Ha Jin when I read his stunning portrayal of Chinese life in Waiting; he has the ability to transport the reader to China with his detailed descriptions and his emotional observations. In A Map of Betrayal Ha Jin creates a stirring inner conflict with the story of Gary Shang, the most important Chinese spy who infiltrated the CIA.

Lillian Shang, an American professor, discovers her father’s diaries detailing his secret past, separated from a wife and children in China, before he established his cover in the United States and married her American mother. Working for China, Shang constantly looked for a way to satisfy his yearning to return home, yet his ties through his new family and connections created a conflict of emotions and loyalties. Lillian returns to China to find his family, as Ha Jin slowly unravels a past full of history and intrigue.

Prominent names – Kennedy, Nixon, Kissinger, Chiang Kai-Shek, Mao – float through the narrative as the author connects the politics of the times to Gary Shang’s journey from lowly translator to astute analyst and secret arbiter for both countries. Ha Jin attributes a number of détente agreements, including renewed relations between China and the United States, to Shang’s secret efforts.

Although the detailed descriptions can be overwhelming at times, reading through them gives the reader the history to create an effective backdrop for Shang’s life. When the plot turns to reveal another generation of spies, Ha Jin follows the current attitudes between countries. The ending offers a clear perspective and poses the question: Is the man betraying the country or the country betraying the man?

A Map of Betrayal takes careful reading to catch all the nuances, but a worthwhile book to contemplate and possibly discuss.

Related Review:  Waiting