The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan is a fascinating glimpse into the homefront of World War II England. Set in a village in Kent, this focuses on the women who maintain their communities, families, and the war effort after their sons and husbands have joined the military services. I didn’t realize how real the fear was that the Nazis were going to arrive on English soil – people near the coast really began to feel that an invasion was imminent. I also didn’t comprehend the extent of the damage  outside of London  during the Battle of Britain. We’re so used to seeing the rubble of London, that we forget the impact on the countryside.

Several women of Chilbury describe their fears and the strength they gather from each other and from singing together; we read their first-hand accounts through letters and diary entries. At first, they seem to be stock English characters, but they begin to show their complexity as the war and tragedy change them.  Venetia Winthrop was particularly interesting, I thought. At the start of the novel and the war, she’s vain, selfish, and revels in her power over men. As she suffers pain and loss, she becomes more a more generous sister and friend. Not only are the accounts from the point of view of women, but we see them become stronger and more independent. They find their voices both musically (the power of music is movingly conveyed by Ryan), and in their ability to stand up for themselves and for other women.

Not everyone is admirable; there are men and women behaving badly, sometimes criminally, but, overall, there is a sense of hope, and satisfaction is watching a community and country support each other.

The Queens of England

People! Have you been watching the new series about Queen Victoria on PBS? Mark your calendar immediately – this is one of those must-see, highly addictive historical series that Masterpiece Theater is famous for (i.e. Downton Abby)

Opening just as the 18-year-old finds out her uncle has died and she is now the Queen of England, Victoria stars Jenna Coleman and airs on Sunday nights. As we have come to expect from Masterpiece Theater, the costumes and jewels are lavish and the sets are breathtaking (Filmed mostly in Yorkshire with various manors and castles standing in for Buckingham and Kensington Palaces and Westminster, you’d be hard put to tell the difference on screen) Coleman does an admirable job with this massive role, playing the young Queen who, in the early episodes, struggles to find her way. Sheltered and controlled by her mother and her mother’s partner (who had planned to rule thru Victoria), Victoria breaks with them quickly and forges ahead on her own. Nowadays, when we think of Queen Victoria, we tend to think of the old woman, heavy and dressed entirely in black with a dour expression. We often forget that she was once a young girl who loved to dance, who fell in love, who ruled the largest Empire in the world. In Victoria we catch a glimpse of that young girl, her naivete, her mistakes, her growth and her courage. It is fascinating to watch.

Victoria is currently showing on PBS. You can catch the first couple of episodes (there are 8 all together) online on pbs.org or you can request the DVD from the library. I recommend that you do!

While you wait for the next episode (or to fill your life-of-the-royals needs), here are some further recommendations.

Young Victoria starring Emily Blunt. Covering almost the same time period of Victoria’s life as the PBS show, this is another beautiful, superbly acted look at the young Queen, focusing on the romance between Victoria and Albert (which will begin in episode 3 of Victoria)

Mrs. Brown starring Judy Dench takes a look at the elderly Queen, still deeply in mourning for her beloved Albert, who meets and forms a deep friendship with the Scotsman who looks after her horses. Was there more than friendship?

For a great book about her life, try Victoria the Queen by Julia Baird or Becoming Queen Victoria by Kate Williams. For a closer look at their famous romance, check out We Two: Victoria and Albert by Gillian Gill or A Magnificent Obsession by Helen Rappaport.

If you’d rather go a little more modern, there’s a terrific series, The Crown, now running on Netflix about Elizabeth II – it just won Golden Globes for Best Performance by an Actress (Claire Foy who plays Elizabeth) and Best Television Drama. Each season will cover about a decade of Elizabeth’s life, with the first season starting just before she married Phillip and ending shortly after Winston Churchill (superbly played by John Lithgow) retires as Prime Minister. It’s promised to come out on DVD eventually, but no release date has been announced so either queue it up on your Netflix account, or find a friend that already subscribes!

 

 

 

 

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

the girl on the trainThe Girl on the Train is a messy intrigue of a book. If you’ve read Gone Girl, this book covers the same bases: suspense/psychological/mystery fiction, murder victims, witnesses, married people, and missing persons. This book is fast-paced and, at least for me, it was difficult to pin down who the killer actually was.

The Girl on the Train is the story of Rachel Watson’s life post-divorce. Every day she takes the same commuter train to London to work and passes the same houses and scenery. As one is apt to do on long train rides, Rachel creates stories about the people, places, and things that she sees along the way. One particular couple catches her eye on every trip. Rachel soon finds herself looking out for this married couple every time she speeds by, hoping to catch more of a glimpse into their daily lives. She gives them names, invents background stories for them, and even gives them careers. Everything is seemingly perfect until one day when she sees something out of the ordinary happen at the married couple’s home and soon after, the woman goes missing.

Rachel is forced to confront whether she should go to the police, contact the missing woman’s husband, or just lay low. Rachel is having a rough time dealing with her past, with her ex-husband, Tom, and his new wife, Anna. Her life is spiraling out of control and the peace that she found while watching the married couple has been shattered, leaving her in the lurch and without a solid place in the world. This novel shifts between three different narratives: Rachel, Anna, and the missing woman. Each narrative is packed full of action. Readers will be left wondering what happened and wondering about each characters’ motives.

The Girl on the Train will also be released as a movie on October 7th!


This book is also available in a wide variety of other formats.

 

Little Beach Street Bakery

Little Beach Street Bakery Written by Jenny Colgan, Little Beach Street Bakery, is surprisingly enjoyable. The  writing style and character development are better than you expect based on cover art and blurb, even though there’s  a bit of a formula feel.

Though Polly’s life has veered wildly off course, there isn’t really  sense of dread.  There’s a comforting feeling that it’s  probably going to work out for her, even as things go from bad to worse. The theme of reinvention is always enticing; readers get to imagine what would happen if they lost everything, but got to start over in a new place, with new people and a new job.

Set in Cornwall, England, Polly and her boyfriend opened a graphic design company not long before  computer programs allowed users to do their own design and printing. Their business failure exposed the cracks in the couple’s relationship and they eventually broke up, leaving Polly without a home or a job.

After a dispiriting apartment search, she ends up in a town that is cut off from the rest of England at high tide, living in a dirty and dilapidated building. The upsides are the ocean views, companionship of a local fisherman and a mysterious American, as well as an adopted baby puffin. The downsides are the lack of jobs, and a cranky landlady who, as the local baker,  is threatened by Polly’s skill in bread making.

Adding to the richness of the novel are secondary characters such as Reuben, an obnoxious philanthropist, Kerensa, Polly’s best friend, through whose eyes Polly is able to appreciate the advantages of her new life, and, of course, Neil, the puffin. The fishing village setting and the evolving friendships and romances make for a lovely break from the stresses of fast-paced, mainland life.

The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

royal weRebecca, a bit frazzled and jetlagged from her transatlantic flight, arrives in Oxford for a year of study abroad. Struggling with her suitcases, she accepts the help of a handsome young man who shows her to her room. She jokes with him a bit (including some off-color but good-natured remarks about the Royal Family), then collapses on her bed after he leaves, exhausted, only to be startled when her new neighbor crashes into her room, asking if she’d met “him” yet? “Him” is Nicholas, Prince of Wales and future king of England and also, on occasion, helpful porter.

After this somewhat mortifying introduction, Rebecca (known as Bex), settles into having a prince as a classmate and becomes a member of the tight-knit circle surrounding the prince after proving her ability to be descrete. Bex and Nick become friends, bonding over bad television shows and junk food, gradually becoming confidents and finally, in love. A rocky romance begins, ends and then begins again, this time when they are both more mature and clear-eyed. But can the Prince marry his beloved, or will one more obstacle stop them at the alter?

Witty and fast-paced, The Royal We is a tons of fun. I admit I was skeptical at first but early on the heroine mentions that her hometown is Muscatine, Iowa. That peaked my interest, especially since I grew up in Muscatine myself. (No blunders or missteps in describing Muscatine or Iowa, although 95% of the book does take place in England!) The excellent writing kept me reading and the ups and downs of their adventures kept me entertained. Obiviously loosely based on the lives of Prince William and Princess Kate, it’s interesting to get a (supposed) peek behind the walls of The Firm (as the Royals call their institution). Conversations and actions of the circle of royal friends are made-up of course, but feel realistic and plausible. More interesting is the push and pull of Bex and Nick’s relationship – the conflict between duty and love, of doing what is expected of you vs what you want to do. What seems like a unique and special relationship in fact must struggle through many of the same issues that ordinary people must work through.

Recommended for a quick, fun read that is at turns funny and touching.

Broadchurch

BroadchurchKellyBroadchurch

It is rare that a novel based on a successful television program amounts to anything more than a slap-dash rehash designed to turn a profit, but in the case of Erin Kelly’s Broadchurch: A Novel the story is as finely fashioned with words as the 2013 British crime drama is with moving images. Both explore the ramifications of an eleven-year-old boy’s shocking murder on the life of a coastal tourist town in Southwest England as two detectives gradually uncover a complex network of closely-held secrets.

At the center of the story is the relationship between the two investigators assigned to the case. Detective Ellie Miller, an integral part of the Broadchurch community, struggles with the need to delve into her friends and neighbors’ affairs while suffering the loss of young Danny alongside them. She is at odds with DI Alec Hardy, unexpectedly brought in to fill the leadership position on the police force that Ellie had been promised. Alec takes a cold and cynical attitude in conducting the investigation and is skeptical of Ellie’s ability to remain objective. He bristles and becomes more defensive under the watchful eye of the press: both local and London-based journalists are suspicious of his handling of an earlier child murder case. With each question the detectives raise, each encounter they have with a Broadchurch resident, further suspicions mount. In a cascading effect, relationships begin to falter, irretrievable words are spoken, and yet more harm is unleashed.

Kelly relates the story through the eyes of other main characters as well, including bereaved mother Beth Latimer and opportunistic reporter Karen White. She takes full advantage of the novel form to explore the principal players’ internal lives: their memories, their questions about the case as more information is gathered, their reflections on their own behaviors and interactions with others in the community, and their concerns for the future once the truth is finally revealed. She deftly weaves these musings into the action and closely examines the consequences of the investigation on each character without sacrificing suspense.

In addition to Chris Chibnall’s superb writing, the award-winning television series Broadchurch (BAFTA Best Drama Series) features Olivia Colman (BAFTA Best Actress) and David Tennant’s nuanced performances, Olafur Arnalds’ evocative music, and cinematographer Matt Gray’s gently charged contemplation of the Dorset landscape.

Read Broadchurch: A Novel and watch Broadchurch the series, in no matter what order. The experience of one enriches that of the other.

 

Broadchurch

broadchurchWhen the body of eleven-year-old Danny Latimer is found on the beach in Broadchurch, Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) and her newly-appointed boss, Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant) are called to investigate. As suspicions mount and the mystery deepens, a national spotlight descends upon Broadchurch, threatening to pull the town, it’s residents and their secrets apart. (description from publisher)

Originally aired on BBC America this past spring, Broadchurch became an almost immediate cult favorite. Highlighted by exceptional acting (from entire cast but especially Tennant and Colman), suspenseful writing and realistic, gritty settings, the series kept fans on the edge of their seat from beginning to end. More than a simple murder mystery, Broadchurch examines the ties that bind us and sometimes break us – family, community, friends. Where does loyalty to one destroy our loyalty to another?

Broadchurch was so well received that an American version (also starring David Tennant) airs on FOX beginning October 2nd under the title Gracepoint. A second season of Broadchurch (with the original cast) has begun filming and will air on BBC America next year.

Servants by Lucy Lethbridge

servantsFrom the immense staff running a lavish Edwardian estate and the lonely maid-of-all-work cooking in a cramped middle-class house to the poor child doing chores in a slightly less poor household, servants were essential to the British way of life. They were hired not only for their skills but also to demonstrate the social standing of their employers even as they were required to tread softly and blend into the background. More than simply the laboring class serving the upper crust as popular culture would have us believe, they were a diverse group that shaped and witnessed major changes in the modern home, family, and social order.

Spanning over a hundred years, Lucy Lethbridge in this “best type of history” brings to life through letters and diaries the voices of countless men and women who have been largely ignored by the historical record. She also interviews former and current servants for their recollections of this waning profession. At the fore are the experiences of young girls who slept in damp corners of basements, kitchen maids who were required to stir eggs until the yolks were perfectly centered, and cleaners who had to scrub floors on their hands and knees despite the wide availability of vacuum cleaners. We also meet a lord who solved his inability to open a window by throwing a brick through it and Winston Churchill’s butler who did not think Churchill would know how to dress on his own.

A compassionate and discerning exploration of the complex relationship between the server, the served, and the world they lived in, Servants opens a window onto British society from the Edwardian period to the present. (description by publisher)

Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life by Marta McDowell

beatrix potterThere aren’t many books more beloved than The Tale of Peter Rabbit and even fewer authors as iconic as Beatrix Potter. More than 150 million copies of her books have sold worldwide and interest in her work and life remains high. And her characters – Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle Duck, and all the rest – exist in a charmed world filled with flowers and gardens.

Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life is the first book to explore the origins of Beatrix Potter’s love of gardening and plants and show how this passion came to be reflected in her work. The book begins with a gardener’s biography, highlighting the key moments and places throughout her life that helped define her, including her home Hill Top Farm in England’s Lake District. Next, the reader follows Beatrix Potter through a year, with a season-by-season overview of what is blooming that bring her gardens alive. The book culminates in a traveler’s guide, with information on how and where to visit Potter’s gardens today. Richly illustrated and filled with quotations from her books, letters, and journals, it is essential reading for all who know and cherish Beatrix Potter’s classic tales. (description from publisher)

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

cuckoo's callingBack when Deathly Hallows was hot off the presses, I remember reading an interview with J.K. Rowling; when asked what she would write next, she answered: mysteries for adults. I’ve been looking forward to The Cuckoo’s Calling ever since. After her first post-Potter foray into literary fiction, Jo is back in the realm of genre, and I think it’s where she belongs. Her imagination is so fierce and wild and her observations about the real world are so raw and true that the juxtaposition of them is magical. We all saw it in Harry Potter, I missed it in The Casual Vacancy, and now it’s back in The Cuckoo’s Calling. This is a phenomenal book: thrilling and elegant and a little cheeky. The characters are vibrant, true, and endlessly entertaining. Even the dead model at the heart of the mystery, Lula “Cuckoo” Landry, has a personality, and a life, beyond her infamous lifestyle and her undignified death; the living characters, private detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant Robin, are even better.

Cormoran lost his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, and back home in the UK, he’s facing a life that’s deteriorating rapidly as his debts mount, his relationships waver, and his stream of clients dries up. When Robin appears, the product of an expensive contract with the temp agency that he tried to cancel, Strike is vexed: how can he hide from this clever, intrepid young woman that he’s sleeping on a cot in his office? But Robin and Strike are a great team, as they both tentatively realize: Strike is a gifted detective whose shadowed past has removed him from the military police for complex, unclear reasons, and Robin is a whip-smart HR rep with a natural talent for investigation.

As Robert Galbraith, Rowling wastes no words. This is a long book, but not an overlong one. There are a lot of characters, a lot of red herrings, and a lot of plot developments, but they layer on top of each other seamlessly and the payoff is extremely satisfying. The scenes are so descriptive, you’re absolutely there – I was completely drawn into this book. The best part about it was how genuine and true it all was: when Robin and Cormoran use their cell phones and the internet to track down clues, it doesn’t feel forced or fake, it’s completely natural. The same thing happened in The Casual Vacancy: whenever technology is used, it’s employed seamlessly, artfully, expertly into the plot. I propose that this comes from treating it with the same rules you’d use to write about magic wands. It was painful to set The Cuckoo’s Calling down and heartbreaking to reach the end: if Rowling wants to write any more about Cormoran Strike, I’ll be gleefully pre-ordering every new Galbraith title.

Relevant Fun Fact: the common European cuckoo reproduces by parasitic brooding, where they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and the other birds raise the baby cuckoos – leaving the adults free to flit off and do whatever birds do.