Tag Archives: World War II

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.

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:

Squirrels to the Nuts – Cluny Brown on Margery Sharp Day

clunybrown-1My journey to author Margery Sharp – whose birthday it is today – was complicated.  After reading about her on a fellow reader’s website (Beyond Eden Rock), I tried to find her books but only one consistently appeared in the library and from online booksellers – The Rescuers, known to modern audiences through the Disney animated movie. Her other books were out of print or relegated to rare book collections.

Suddenly, Early Bird Books offered one of her books online for $2.99.  Then, a late night movie on Starz – She’s Funny That Way with Jennifer Aniston – cited the storyline (“squirrels to the nuts”) as being stolen from an old Charles Boyer movie titled Cluny Brown, based on the 1944 book of the same title by Sharp.  Margery Sharp, the forgotten prolific writer,  was making a comeback. Today she would be 111 years old.

Cluny Brown is a charming novel about a young woman in Britain in the late 1930’s who is sent off to be a housemaid at a country estate “to find her place.”  With the same upstairs/downstairs formula as Downton Abbey, the film story used the theme of Margery Sharp’s character in its plot – but I could not find the quote “squirrels to the nuts” in her book.

“Nobody can tell you where your place is…Wherever you’re happy, that’s your place, And happiness is a matter of purely personal adjustment to your environment.  You’re the sole judge. In Hyde Park for instance. Some people like to feed nuts to the squirrels.  But if it makes you happy to feed squirrels to the nuts, who am I to say nuts to the squirrels?”  Charles Boyer in director Ernst Lubitsch’s rendition of Cluny Brown

In the book, Cluny Brown scandalizes her uncle when she goes to tea at the Ritz by herself – just for the experience. She tries to stay in bed for a whole day, eating oranges because it’s good for her energy.   She defies convention and asks so many questions, and her uncle is fearful of her future.  unknownSo he sends her off to the country to be a housemaid to a clueless old wealthy couple.

Although her uncle had hoped learning how to clean and serve would sober her, Cluny, of course, brings her zest and curiosity with her – and changes the lives of everyone around her, including a few gentlemen who are not prepared for her influence – one in particular.  Of course, the ending is happily ever after – but with a surprising twist.

unknown-1I spent an afternoon eating oranges and happily immersed in Cluny’s outlook on life; now I am a fan, and have found another of her charming books available through iBooks to read.  I wonder if I have enough oranges.

 

A Whole Life

61zD-lZzJUL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_  Reading like a meditation on life, Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life chronicles the journey of Andreas Eggers, from the time he is delivered as a four year old orphan to the small mountain farm until his death at seventy-nine.  Although his life is ordinary, Eggers daily approach to enduring, one day at a time, is inspirational and heroic.  Translated from German, A Whole Life is a short book of less than one hundred sixty pages, yet Andreas Eggers’ quiet life resounds with a calm philosophy.

Andreas lives his whole life in the Austrian Alps,  a quiet man of very few words. When he falls in love with Marie, he lights her name at dusk across the mountain with bags of paraffin to ask her to marry him. After she dies in an avalanche, pregnant with their first child,  a heart-broken Andreas leaves his valley and later joins the German Army to fight in WWII.  After many years as a prisoner in Russia, he returns to find that his remote village has been modernized.

As he reinvents himself, from cable car laborer to soldier to mountain tour guide, Andreas finds an appreciation for his simple and solitary life.  Although other people’s actions may confuse him, Andreas remains true to himself – always the calm, thoughtful, introspective man – with a limp from a childhood beating.

“You can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him…but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment.  That’s the way it is…”

Through ordinary moments in the life of a man who ” thought slowly and walked slowly; yet every thought, every word and every step left a mark precisely where…such marks were supposed to be,”  Seethaler demonstrates how each life matters, and how – sometimes without realizing – we influence and are influenced by the examples of ourselves and others.

Although A Whole Life was published in 2014, I eagerly awaited the translation into English and its availability last month.  Pre-ordering the book to my iPhone, I let it rest there – until I was not in the mood to read anything.  The ideas of this short contemplative story seem to have jogged my reading inertia.  The character of Andreas Eggers is memorable and soothing in his simplicity.  We all do what we do to get through the days – some better, some worse, but mostly ordinary.

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.