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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Trapeze

With a thrilling tale of espionage in France in World War II, Simon Mawer creates a young James Bond – this time a beautiful bilingual twenty year-old woman in Trapeze.

Marian Sutro, daughter of an Englishman and a French mother, is recruited into spy training by the British – a venture that seems exciting and glamorous to the young woman looking for something to do.  Her facility for language, guns, and intricate coding give her unlikely advantages in her new world of secrets and patriotism.

Mawer includes trademark descriptions of Paris and the surrounding countryside, as well as a few French sayings worth keeping:

“…the back of beyond…”

“…to live happily, live hidden…”

The tale includes heart stopping risks, a mad chase through the streets of Paris, a little romance, and informational tidbits about the Underground network and the creation of the atom bomb.  Like his novel The Glass Room, Trapeze manages to incorporate history into a suspenseful adventure.

Related Review:   The Glass Room

22 Britannia Road

A six year separation for newlyweds is an eternity.  The terrors of war may be too much to overcome.  Amanda Hodgkinson’s 22 Britannia Road is the new English address for Polish war survivors Janusz, the returned soldier, and Silvana, the wife who spent the years trying to survive by hiding in the forest with a young son.

As they try to renew their life together in a new country, the memories and horrors of their years apart intrude.  Janusz keeps secret letters from Hélène, his French lover, and Silvana has her own secret that she fears to reveal.  Aurek, their son, slowly becomes the most resilient promise for the family’s survival as he changes from the feral “foundling from the forest” into a civilized life reunited with his father – complete with a treehouse in the backyard, an English garden, and a school friend.  But he too is haunted by “…the things he has seen…he doesn’t want to think about them…”

Hodgkinson bases the story at the English address, but slowly weaves in the missing six years for both Janusz and Silvana, telling enough of their wartime trauma to justify their anxieties, but leaving some unsaid so that you want to keep reading to discover the atrocities you suspect.  When Janusz tells his story, his soldier’s life is cast as a contrast to Silvana’s strength through her constant terror.

“…the day Janusz left her in Warsaw was the day one life ended and another began…

Neither is the person they were when Janusz married the pregnant Silvana, and you will keep reading to see if any part of that relationship is salvageable.  Janusz works hard to become foreman at the factory, and hopes to have another child.  Silvana, numb from her years trying to survive, does her best to bake currant buns and create a family life for her son, until she discovers Hélènes letters.

Tony, a resourceful Italian widower who owns a pet store and dabbles in the black market – his young son Peter is Aurek’s friend –  silently woos Silvana, eventually leading her to confide in him, and then reveal her awful secret to Janusz.

At this point, the story stops being compelling and becomes melodramatic.  Hodgkinson draws out the denouement so much that the eventual expected ending seems overdue. Despite the overcooked finale, 22 Britannia Road can hold its place with similar recent war stories –  The Postmistress and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.   Hodgkinson reveals the harsh realities of survivors who cannot go home again, yet somehow manage to create a life where they will never be entirely comfortable – even if they replace the English garden with Polish birch trees.

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