Dear Mrs. Bird

dear-mrs-bird-9781501170065_lg   When I heard The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society book was soon to be a movie, it motivated me not only to read the book again but to read Dear Mrs. Bird, a book with a similar vibe. The books have a lot in common – letters, Britain, World War II, romance, and characters I would pick as friends. 

Young women in Emmeline Lake’s time usually tried to keep busy until they were married, and her best friend and flat mate, Bunty, does just that as she works as a secretary in the war office.  But Emmy has hopes of becoming a brilliant journalist and when she answers an ad for The London Evening Chronicle, she expects to be on her way to war correspondent.  To her surprise, the job is no more than typing for the paper’s Dear Abby, a huffy overbearing woman who would rather cut up letters sent to her than respond.  Her advice, when given, is harsh and unforgiving – not at all as sympathetic as her readers’ hopefully expect.

As Emmy begins to surreptitiously answer some of the more earnest enquiries, she gradually moves the advice column into a better place, until she gets caught.  The story includes vignettes of romance and correspondence with a promising beau and Emmy’s erstwhile social life, but Pearce does not shy away from describing the horrors of the bombing in London.  She deftly weaves the characters’ strength into a frivolous plot as they bravely survive everyday in a blitzed city while managing to keep hope and aspirations alive.

If you enjoyed Guernsey and other similar books (The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, 84 Charing Cross, The Summer Before the War), Dear Mrs. Bird will be a pleasure to read.

 

It Happened in Monterey

I miss chatting with bookstore owners who are avid readers. With only one independent bookstore on the island (BookEnds in Kailua) and a perfunctory Barnes and Noble at the mall, the pickings are slim in Hawaii. On a recent trip to the Monterey Peninsula, I found four independent bookstores within a five mile radius, and with booksellers happy to share their favorites. Of course, I could not get out of a store without buying a book or two.  img_4298

At Bookworks in Pacific Grove, I found two books: an older (2012) Donna Leon mystery I had not read, with my favorite sleuth, Commissario Guido Brunetti – “Beastly Things,” and Joanna Trollope’s “Sense and Sensibility” (2013), her modernized version of the Jane Austen classic.

At Old Capitol Books in Monterey, I found myself scanning the stacks of old used books, some rare editions, checking off those I had read. Looking for favorite authors, I found an Amy Bloom book I had not read (at least I don’t remember reading it) – “Lucky Us.”

In Pilgrim’s Way, the charming bookstore connected to a garden in Carmel, I decided on “The Green Thoreau” and Scottish author Beatrice Colin’s “To Capture What We Cannot Keep.”

Chatting with the proprietor led me to another independent bookstore not far away – River House Books. There I found the first of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache books – “Still Life” – recommended by a good friend, and Amy Bloom’s new book – “White Houses.” The bookseller commisserated about “Manhattan Beach” – like me, she had not been able to finish it – but I plan to try again. And her recommendation for the best page-turner she had read recently – “The Dry” – went to the top of my to-read list.

With this stack, Laura Lippman’s “Sunburn” on my iPhone and Navin’s “Only Child” on audible, I am ready for a long flight – unless, of course, the movie selection has an Oscar nominee to distract me.

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.

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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.