Review: Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister + Giveaway

Review: Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister + GiveawayGirl in Disguise by Greer Macallister
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 308
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

For the first female Pinkerton detective, respect is hard to come by. Danger, however, is not.
In the tumultuous years of the Civil War, the streets of Chicago offer a woman mostly danger and ruin-unless that woman is Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton detective and a desperate widow with a knack for manipulation.
Descending into undercover operations, Kate is able to infiltrate the seedy side of the city in ways her fellow detectives can't. She's a seductress, an exotic foreign medium, or a rich train passenger, all depending on the day and the robber, thief, or murderer she's been assigned to nab.
Inspired by the real story of Kate Warne, this spirited novel follows the detective's rise during one of the nation's greatest times of crisis, bringing to life a fiercely independent woman whose forgotten triumphs helped sway the fate of the country.

My Review:

The subject of this fictionalized biography would be downright offended at its title. By the time this book begins in the mid-1850s, Kate is a woman whose illusions seem to have been stripped away long ago. She’s also a widow.

“Girl” doesn’t fit her at all, and she wouldn’t want it to. What she wants, at least as she is portrayed in this book, is to be treated as an equal. The equal of any man in the Pinkerton Agency. And it’s a hard-knock fight every single step of the way.

Kate Warne was a real person. Admittedly, a real person about whom not very much at all is known. Which makes her a great character on which to hang a work of historical fiction. Particularly since what is known about Kate Warne is the stuff of fiction to begin with.

Kate was the first female Pinkerton agent. Hired in 1856, she was one of the first, if not the first, female detectives in the world. No one expected her to succeed. No one even expected her to apply. There was no such thing as female detectives or female police officers when Kate Warne answered Allan Pinkerton’s “Help Wanted” advertisement for new agents.

But as she says, “Someone has to be first.”

Her life, what little we know of it, is the stuff of legends. Most of the information about her real career was kept in the Pinkerton office in Chicago. And most of it was wiped out in the Great Chicago Fire. (Mrs. O’Leary’s cow has a LOT to answer for)

One of the things that is known, and that made her fame, was her part in spiriting then-President-Elect Abraham Lincoln through a risky Baltimore night ride on his way to his inauguration – and his subsequent date with history. Without Warne, the history of the U.S. as we know it might have been far different.

But this book is a fictionalized version of her life, stitching together what little is known about her, with considerably more that it known about the Pinkerton’s in general and their work during the Civil War in particular, and making a fascinating story out of it, without descending into rank sensationalism or outright melodrama, at least until the very end.

Kate Warne lived a brief but fascinating life. I wish history had left us more details of her adventures. But if they were even half as hair-raising as this story, her candle must have burned very bright indeed.

Escape Rating B: I left myself plenty of time to read this one, because while I was very interested in the subject, I was a bit unsure about the author. As much as so many people loved The Magician’s Lie, when I gave it a try I couldn’t get into it at all. But Girl in Disguise grabbed me from the first page.

I think that had to do with Kate’s voice. The book is written in first-person singular, so throughout the story we are always in Kate’s head. It’s a fascinating place to be. While the circumstances of Kate’s life are particular to her time and place, so many of her thoughts seem universal to working women.

She wants to be considered as a professional, on an equal basis to the men in the agency. She never trades on her feminine wiles, and has nothing but professional relationships with all of the male Pinkerton’s, particularly including Allan Pinkerton himself. As portrayed in the book, the relationship between them was strictly professional from beginning to end. He mentored her and trusted her in a way that would have raised no eyebrows if she had been a man, but because she was a woman she constantly battled rumors that they were having an affair – rumors that persist to the present day in spite of a complete lack of evidence either then or now. It was simply assumed that a woman could not possibly be hired or trusted on her own merits.

Until the end, Kate is in love with her job, and as so many of us do, sacrifices most of her life to the pursuit of her work. But Kate isn’t the only one. As one of the male agents comments, none of them have personal lives, with the exception of Pinkerton himself. They are on the road too much, and they must keep way too many secrets. No spouse, male or female, is willing to tolerate that kind of treatment for very long.

What made Kate so relatable, at least for this reader, is just how dispassionate she is about her own life. She’s not given to flights of either hyperbole or fancy, at least in the privacy of her own head. This is who she is, this is what she does, this is what it costs her. She’s a heroine, but she never sees herself that way. She’s a woman doing a job that challenges her in ways that she can’t find anyplace else, and that she absolutely loves. She’s doing what she was born to.

There is historic evidence that Kate was part of the team that kept Lincoln alive on his way to his inauguration. Many of the other cases in the book where she is involved are based on real Pinkerton cases, even if Kate’s specific involvement is not known, and a few have been combined for dramatic license.

I really enjoyed the perspective of Kate the professional woman, both her triumphs and her many and frequent qualms about whether the ends justified the means. She has a lot to live with, and sometimes, quite reasonably so, she has second, third and fourth thoughts.

As a reader, I wish that her dispassion had not failed her in the last quarter of the book. I very much enjoyed reading about Kate in love with her work, and the details of that work as the Civil War heated up. I was less enthralled when Kate fell in love with a fellow agent. At that point the melodrama swept in.

But all in all, Girl in Disguise is a fascinating portrait of an unsung heroine – Kate Warne, the first female “private eye”.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Greer and Sourcebooks are giving away 3 copies of both The Magician’s Lie AND Girl in Disguise to lucky participants in this tour.
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Review: Finding Our Forever by Brenda Novak + Giveaway

Review: Finding Our Forever by Brenda Novak + GiveawayFinding Our Forever (Silver Springs, #1) by Brenda Novak
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Silver Springs #1
Pages: 224
Published by Harlequin Special Edition on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Brenda Novak welcomes readers to the town of Silver Springs, where surprises wait around every corner!
The search for her birth mother brought Cora Kelly to the New Horizons Boys Ranch. Getting a job there was easy enough, but confiding in Aiyana, the ranch's owner, that she's really her daughter? Cora's not sure she can do that, not unless she's confident the news will be welcomed. And once she gets to know Elijah Turner, Aiyana's adopted son and ranch manager, that decision becomes even more difficult.
Although Elijah can't deny his deep attraction to Cora, he's always struggled with trust. Anyone with his past would, and there's something about the ranch's newest employee that isn't exactly as it seems. But if the feelings she awakes in his guarded heart are any indication, she might be just what he's long been waiting for.

My Review:

Welcome to tiny Silver Springs California, only two hours from the bright lights and big city of Los Angeles in miles, but light years away in everything that counts.

Everyone believes that Cora Kelly has come to Silver Springs to teach art at New Horizons Boys Ranch. And she certainly has. But that’s not the real reason she desperately wanted the job there, two hours from her family and friends back in LA. And two hours away from the job she could have had, teaching full-time at the school where she’d been subbing for the past six years. A job she had originally been looking forward to. Very much.

But New Horizons has one thing that LA can’t begin to match. Cora’s birth mother is the woman who has poured her own life into New Horizons. And Cora, after years of searching, wants to see who her birth mother really is, and especially find out why she gave her up all those years ago. Because it seems like the woman who has poured her heart and soul into helping, saving and sometimes even adopting boys from extremely difficult and/or troubled backgrounds and circumstances does not seem remotely like the kind of woman who would give up her own child.

Cora’s had a terrific life. Her adoptive parents love her dearly, and never loved her less than their biological son. She hasn’t lacked for anything – except the answers that most of us take for granted. And that lack of answers has driven her to Silver Springs, to take a year out of her life to teach at New Horizons, in the hopes of finally getting at least some of those answers.

But she isn’t sure, when, if, or whether she will reveal who she really is. She’s unsure whether or not she’d be welcome. But concealing that truth, living that very big lie, becomes an even dicier proposition than Kelly had planned on when she can’t resist the attractions of Elijah Turner, her boss, the ranch manager, and her mother’s eldest adopted son.

And in spite of Eli’s scarred past and taciturn present, he can’t seem to resist Cora, either. But the more deeply they become involved, not just romantically but also in each other’s lives, the more difficult it becomes for Cora to risk her heart and her happiness to reveal a truth that could shatter everything.

Or bring her everything her heart desires.

Escape Rating B+:The romance in Finding Our Forever is a relationship that often gets relegated to “taboo” erotica, but there’s no feeling of that kind of dirty secret here. If Cora and Eli had been raised together, it might feel different, but they weren’t so it doesn’t. They meet as adults, and are attracted to each other as adults. While Cora is aware that Eli is technically her adopted brother, they share no blood or genes to make any relationship actually be taboo.

But it does make things considerably more complicated, and they are plenty complicated to begin with. The angst in this story does not feel either manufactured or false. Cora has a secret, and she has very valid reasons both for keeping that secret and wanting to reveal it. She’s extremely conflicted about it, and so she should be. At the same time, Eli in particular has equally valid concerns about trust. The deeper they get into a relationship that neither of them expected, the more worried Cora becomes that Eli will feel betrayed by Cora’s hidden identity.

On top of that, when her secret comes out, she could be out of a job, as well as brokenhearted AND forced to go back to her adoptive parents to face a cloud of “I told you so’s” They were not in favor of Cora’s quest for her birth mother, feeling as if Cora’s search was an indictment of their love and their parenting, which it isn’t. But again, their conflicted feelings on this matter are also understandable.

The only person whose feelings don’t ring true in this entire mess is Cora’s ex-boyfriend, who shows up early in her school year in an attempt to either manipulate her back to him or otherwise horn in on her life. He’s a jerk rather than a threat, but his appearance and Cora’s reaction to it were the one emotional point in the story that just didn’t quite hit the mark.

But Cora’s story certainly does. She gets her answers, and they are nothing like she expected. And she doesn’t get everything that she wanted. But she gets enough for readers to feel more than satisfied that she got her happy ending. And it happens in a way that feels right for the story and the characters.

I really enjoyed my visit to Silver Springs, and I’m looking forward to more. It looks like the series is going to follow the romantic adventures of Eli’s brothers, and I can’t wait to see what happens next, in No One But You.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Brenda and Harlequin are giving away a $25 gift card to one lucky entrant on this tour.

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Review: Forever a Hero by Linda Lael Miller + Giveaway

Review: Forever a Hero by Linda Lael Miller + GiveawayForever a Hero: A Western Romance Novel by Linda Lael Miller
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Carsons of Mustang Creek #3
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

For the youngest Carson brother, findingand fixingtrouble seems to be all in a day's work
Mace Carson doesn't consider himself a hero. Back in college, he came upon a woman in trouble and intervenedbut he was just one irate Wyoming cowboy with his boots planted firmly on the side of right. Now a successful vintner, Mace is shocked to be reunited with the woman he saved. But it turns out she's in Wyoming on businessa corporate executive representing the company that wants to buy his winery. Only, he's not selling.
Kelly Wright has never forgotten that horrible night ten years ago when Mace came to her rescue, has never forgotten him. The surprising success of a winery in the middle of ranch country has brought her to Mustang Creek, and she's secretly thrilled to discover Mace at the helm. Reluctant to mix business with pleasure, Kelly vows to keep things professional, until her attacker is released from prison and comes for vengeanceagainst both of them.
"

My Review:

Forever a Hero is the third, but it looks like not quite final, book in the Carsons of Mustang Creek series. The series has followed the lives and romantic adventures of the Carson brothers, beginning with Slater, who was Once a Rancher but is now a documentary filmmaker. Second up was Drake, who is Always a Cowboy, and had a difficult time finding a wife until his mother secretly fixed him up.

This is youngest brother Mace’s story. So far, the love of Mace’s life has been the Mountain View Winery. It’s his brainchild and his contribution both to the ranch and to the community. It’s his personal vision, and he has a genius for blending new wines.

But there’s a conglomerate out there who wants to change all that, and they’ve sent their best agent, Kelly Wright, to negotiate a distribution and management deal for GGI with Mountain View Winery. Her promotion to vice-president, with all the stock options and other fabulous perks, is riding on her successful completion of the deal.

On her way to Mustang Creek, her car goes hydroplaning and nearly off the road into a canyon. She’s rescued from certain death by Mace Carson. But Mace has always been Kelly’s hero. Once upon a time, ten years ago when they were both in college at UCLA, Mace rescued Kelly from an attacker. Mace testified at Lance Vreeman’s trial, and he was sent to jail for a long and much deserved sentence.

Ms. Wright may have come to Mustang Creek to negotiate with his winery, but Kelly is there to see Mace again, even if she hasn’t completely admitted that to herself. Back then was not the time for them to even think about a relationship, but now is much, much different.

The chemistry they had all those years ago is still very much there. And suddenly, so is Lance Vreeman.

Escape Rating B+: This series, and The Brides of Bliss County series that it spun off from (and the Parable, Montana series that IT spun off of), has been lovely all the way.

Each book features a hero who is a good man, but who is alone for reasons that seem right – not because he needs to be reformed or grow up. And they all come from a marvelously functional family – albeit one that gets bigger with each book!

The heroines in their turn are smart, independent and also alone for reasons that make sense. In Kelly’s case, it’s because she has spent her 20s having a career instead of a life. Whether a woman can do both is an open question, but Kelly hasn’t even tried. Her trip to Mustang Creek provides her with the time, and changes at her work give her the motivation and the opportunity, to take a step back and decide what she really wants out of life.

There’s also no misunderstandammit in this story, or the series. While both Mace and Kelly are initially reluctant to pursue a relationship, it’s for reasons that, again, make sense. Their shared history is a bit traumatic, and Kelly is there to attempt to negotiate a deal that Mace has no intention of taking. It is difficult not to get the personal and the professional mixed together, or worry that they are too mixed together.

And they have the same problem that Drake and Luce (in Always a Cowboy) also had. Mace’s life is tied to his Winery, the ranch, and his family. He can’t leave Mustang Creek, and he doesn’t want to. Kelly’s life is in LA, and a long-term relationship with Mace means a lot more change for her than it does for him.

The way they negotiate this issue is one of the strengths of the book. It’s about compromise, and two adults working out a way to be together, that makes allowances for what both of them want and need and doesn’t make one feel like they are giving up something truly important to them. I liked the way they figured things out. A lot.

Remember what I said yesterday about stalkers? This is another book that looks like it might go into stalker territory, but again, marvelously doesn’t. Lance Vreeman does get out of jail, and does come back, with, as the saying goes, a vengeance. And while he terrifies pretty much everyone, he’s not after Kelly so much as he is after Mace. And everyone acts like a sensible adult, as they did in Once a Rancher. Kelly does not act stupidly, and she doesn’t need to be rescued. She and Mace work together, along with Mace’s brothers and friends, to keep everyone safe.

In the end, Lance gets the best serving of just desserts that I have ever seen. And possibly the funniest, courtesy of a stubborn, ornery and very protective bull. It’s a perfect ending to the book.

But not to the series, we have one last trip to Mustang Creek to look forward to. There’s still A Snow Country Christmas coming just in time for the holidays.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away a copy of Forever a Hero to one lucky commenter on this tour:

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Review: Hard Justice by Lori Foster + Giveaway

Review: Hard Justice by Lori Foster + GiveawayHard Justice (Body Armor, #2) by Lori Foster
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: romantic suspense
Series: Body Armor #2
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Playing it safe has never felt so dangerous
Justice Wallington knows how to harness his strength and intimidating sizeskills he put to good use first in the MMA cage and now as a bodyguard at the Body Armor agency. But no opponent has ever left him feeling as off balance as his new client, heiress Fallon Wade. Far from a spoiled princess, she's sweet and intriguingly innocent. It's a risk-free assignment, until he's required to fake a relationship with her in order to blend in.
Sheltered from the world after a family tragedy, Fallon longs to experience lifegoing to bars, dancing, talking to strangers. Not easy with a huge, lethal-looking bodyguard shadowing her every move. Justice seems like her polar opposite, but pretending to be a couple stirs undeniable heat. And when danger strikes again, it's not just her safety in jeopardy, but a passion that's real, raw and absolutely against the rules"

My Review:

This one was just plain fun. I read it in a single day. I stayed up until 2 am to finish. Admittedly, not on a “school night”. But still. One day. Because I couldn’t put it down.

And it proved that all of my fears about the series, after my read of Under Pressure, were totally and completely unfounded.

Like Under Pressure, Hard Justice is also a variation on the classic theme of The Bodyguard, where the guard and his protectee fall head over heels for each other. But this is one where we really do see them both fall, not just succumb to the intensity of being on the run together, because they aren’t. On the run, that is. They definitely fall for each other.

There is a bit of a mystery in this story, but it isn’t any of the expected ones. At first, Justice Wallingham can’t figure out who or what Fallon Wade needs to be protected from. Her uptight parents, particularly her father, seem to be adamant that Fallon needs to be protected from pretty much everything and everyone in the universe.

Fallon, on the other hand, is a surprisingly down-to-earth 24-year-old who just wants a chance to finally experience the things that people her age normally do, or have done. The reason for all that overprotectiveness isn’t obvious, except for the continuing reappearances of Fallon’s douchebag ex, Marcus, a guy who can’t seem to take “no” for an answer.

And can’t seem to overlook the scars that Fallon hides under her all-covering clothes. Marcus is just sure that their shared backgrounds make them perfect for each other, and that any man would be put off by her scars. He’s sure that he’ll get used to them in time, if he makes an effort. Of course he’s wrong on all counts.

Justice, on the other hand, wants to flatten the guy from the word go. Because Fallon’s scars, and her survival of the trauma that caused them, make her even more precious, and more beautiful, in his eyes. Which he’s having an increasingly difficult time keeping on the lookout for possible threats, because he’s too busy just watching Fallon.

Until it starts looking like someone is really out to get her. Or him. Or possibly both.

Escape Rating A-: It may be a case of the right book at the right time, but I just plain loved this one. Sometimes books are like that.

Part of the charm of this series, and the Ultimate series that it spun off from, is the rowdy bunch of fighters, and their wives, who make up the close-knit group who live, work, and train in or near Cannon’s gym in small-town Ohio. It’s always great to see the gang again, and find out how everyone is doing. They are great people and always wonderfully accepting of anyone new.

But the success of this particular book rests on the characters of Justice and Fallon, and their developing relationship. And they are absolutely adorable together.

One of the things I liked best about Hard Justice is the way that it set the woman in danger trope on its head. There’s an unfortunate tendency in romantic suspense, and it applied to both Under Pressure and several of the titles in the Ultimate series, that the way to put a woman in jeopardy and in need of protection is to give her a creepy sexual predator stalker, whether the asshat is her ex or just someone who is fixated on her. I am really, really tired of that trope, because it always ends up robbing the woman of her agency.

Hard Justice was fun because it doesn’t go there. Even better, it makes you think it’s going there, and then it actually doesn’t. Marcus does turn out to be a bit of a douche, but not that big of a douche. Instead, the real villains were revealed as a bit of a surprise, and the motives for threatening Fallon were not sexual. For this reader, the story worked much better this way.

I can’t wait for the next book in this series, which looks like it’s going to be Close Contact, coming in November.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Lori and Harlequin are giving away a $50 Gift Card to one lucky entrant on this tour!
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Review: In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear

Review: In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline WinspearIn This Grave Hour (Maisie Dobbs, #13) by Jacqueline Winspear
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Maisie Dobbs #13
Pages: 352
Published by Harper on March 14th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

As Britain becomes engulfed in a second World War, the indomitable Maisie Dobbs is plunged into a treacherous battle of her own when she stumbles on the deaths of refugees who may have been more than ordinary people seeking sanctuary on English soil, in this enthralling chapter in Jacqueline Winspear’s enormously popular New York Times bestselling series
Critics have long sung the praises of Jacqueline Winspear and her bestselling Maisie Dobbs series. In the thirteenth installment, Maisie—“one of the great fictional heroines, equal parts haunted and haunting.” (Parade)—is back with more mystery, adventure, and psychological insight.
When readers last saw Maisie Dobbs, it was 1938 and the world was on the brink of war. Maisie herself was on a dangerous mission inside Nazi Germany, where she encountered an old enemy and the Führer himself. In This Grave Hour, a year has passed and Maisie is back home in England—yet neither she nor her nation is safe. Britain has just declared war on Germany and is mobilizing for the devastating battle ahead. But when she stumbles on the deaths of a group of refugees, Maisie suspects the enemy may be closer than anyone knows.
Old fans will be delighted at Maisie’s return and new readers will be hooked by this thrilling installment in Jacqueline Winspear’s “thoughtful, probing series” (Oprah.com).

My Review:

Welcome to the Sitzkrieg, or as it was better known in Britain, the Phoney War.

As this 13th book in the Maisie Dobbs series opens in the fall of 1939, Britain declares war on Nazi Germany after its invasion of Poland. Then nothing happens. And nothing continues to happen for eight months, until Germany invades France and the Low Countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands) in May of 1940.

But during the period of this book, nothing much happens on the war front. Everyone knows it will come, and many people, including Maisie herself, have known that war was coming for quite some time, but for the moment, there is a pause. Not a peace by any stretch of the imagination. More like a vast inhaling of breath before the six year sigh of loss after loss.

And a murder. A whole series of murders. Deaths that owe their origin, not to the stresses of the upcoming war, but to the unresolved issues of what people are suddenly forced to call “the previous war” – the Great War, the War that unfortunately did not End All Wars, what history came to call World War I.

Murder, unfortunately for the world but fortunately for Maisie, never takes a vacation.

As the story opens, Maisie is dragged away from the war announcement to meet an old colleague. Dr. Francesca Thomas, in her guise as a member of the Secret Service, prepared Maisie for her undercover task in Journey to Munich. Now Dr. Thomas wants to hire Maisie to investigate the murder of a Belgian refugee from the previous war who has been murdered on the eve of this one.

Dr. Thomas is herself a Belgian national, and is now attached to that embassy. The murder of her fellow countryman is a crime that she wants to redress, before it happens again. She is aware of just how good Maisie is at her job, but she still keeps secrets. It is her nature. And almost her undoing.

While Maisie tracks down the patterns of life and causes of death of the late Frederick Addens, more former Belgian refugees turn up dead. By the same method, and most likely by the same hand. But whose? And more important to Maisie, why?

As Maisie begins to close the net around a suspect she also finds herself deep into a problem much closer to home.

Many children were evacuated from London to the countryside at the opening of the war. One such young girl is now boarded with Maisie’s family. But this little girl is a bit different. Not just because her coloring is noticeably darker than English peaches and cream, but because the little girl refuses to speak, and seems to have no documentation whatsoever.

And Maisie can no more resist solving that little puzzle than she can let a murderer go free. No matter the cost to herself.

Escape Rating B+: As World War II begins, this series reminds me more and more of Foyle’s War. (That there are no books for Foyle’s War continues to be a great source of disappointment!) Like Christopher Foyle, Maisie solves her cases with her brains rather than her fists. Also like Foyle, she is solving murders on the homefront, a task that many people think of as less important than the war. But as it so often turns out, those murders are often not divorced from the war, and in some cases are hidden by it until the investigator steps in.

As much as I love this series, this particular entry didn’t grab me by the throat and hang on quite the way that some of the other books have. I still enjoyed it, but it has the feeling of a pause before the storm, much as Britain itself was in during the Phoney War. Pauses, by their nature, just aren’t as dramatic as crises. And so it proves with this book.

There are, as there often are, two mysteries in front of Maisie. They don’t dovetail as well as they sometimes do. The murder of Frederick Addens, and the ones that follow, are one case, and while important, it feels like merely a case. The little girl’s missing identity is the part of the story that strikes Maisie’s heart, and it is the one that felt most important, even if the string of murders was obviously deadlier and had larger implications, or should have.

And that’s part of what fell just a bit flat for me. The serial murders of Belgian refugees and the people who assisted them felt like it was building up to something bigger. The resolution actually turned out to be small and rather close to home. Also frustrating as regards that particular case, both for Maisie and the reader, is just how much and how obvious it was that Dr. Thomas was, if not telling actual lies, certainly lying by omission every time she spoke. And yet she never seriously emerges as a possible candidate to be the murderer.

On that other hand, the case of the little girl was heartbreaking, particularly for Maisie. She sees herself in the child, as well as the child she lost when her husband was killed. Her heart is engaged with someone who will eventually have to go home. Perhaps. That piece of the story has yet to be resolved.

And I’m very much looking forward to Maisie’s further adventures, to discover just how she resolves it. Or doesn’t. I expect to find out next year during the 2018 Month of Maisie Readalong!

TLC
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Review: The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

Review: The Orphan’s Tale by Pam JenoffThe Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on February 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A powerful novel of friendship set in a traveling circus during World War II, The Orphan's Tale introduces two extraordinary women and their harrowing stories of sacrifice and survival .
Sixteen-year-old Noa has been cast out in disgrace after becoming pregnant by a Nazi soldier and being forced to give up her baby. She lives above a small rail station, which she cleans in order to earn her keep… When Noa discovers a boxcar containing dozens of Jewish infants bound for a concentration camp, she is reminded of the child that was taken from her. And in a moment that will change the course of her life, she snatches one of the babies and flees into the snowy night.
Noa finds refuge with a German circus, but she must learn the flying trapeze act so she can blend in undetected, spurning the resentment of the lead aerialist, Astrid. At first rivals, Noa and Astrid soon forge a powerful bond. But as the facade that protects them proves increasingly tenuous, Noa and Astrid must decide whether their friendship is enough to save one another—or if the secrets that burn between them will destroy everything.

My Review:

In The Orphan’s Tale, as the season (and the book) winds down to its conclusion, one of the characters prophetically says with a sneer, “Next year? The circus is dying.” In this story of two women who find shelter and redemption in one of the few circuses allowed to limp across Europe under the Nazis, the irony is that they all think of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey as their well-funded and well-attended competition across the Atlantic. Now in 2017, their circus is dying too.

But the story in The Orphan’s Tale brings together the unsung history of the circuses across Europe under the Nazi regime with a moving tale of sacrifice, friendship and survival about two women who find themselves thrown together in death-defying circumstances. Not just their beautiful but deadly act on the “flying trapeze”, but also their hiding in plain sight from the Nazis.

Astrid is a Jew. Her family used to be the owners of one of the most successful traveling circuses in Europe. But that was before the Nazis took everything, including their lives. Astrid is the last survivor, hiding amongst the performers of a rival circus, doing the only thing that makes her feel alive – flying.

Noa is also rescued by the circus. As a young Dutchwoman who looks like the Aryan ideal, she should have been safe. But her parents threw her out when her brief fling with a Nazi soldier resulted in pregnancy. The “home” for unwed mothers took her baby. She is alone, bereft, and eking out a bare living cleaning the train station, when the Nazis leave a boxcar of infants unattended at the station. Most of the babies have died of exposure, but a despairing Noa finds one little one still alive. A boy, and all too obviously Jewish, telling her everything she needs to know about the dead babies in the boxcar. She rescues him, and runs, seeing in this child his resemblance to her own missing baby.

But to hide in the circus, Noa must have a part of the performance. And the circus needs another aerialist. Against Astrid’s wishes and recommendation, she is stuck with training the tyro to perform, and has barely six weeks to cram a lifetime of training into the very reluctant flyer.

They are not friends. At first they are reluctant teacher and equally reluctant student. At times they are rivals. But the nature of their act means that above all, they must learn to trust each other. Or they will die. Or their secrets will be revealed, and they will die. And the circus will die with them, their fellow performers imprisoned or executed as collaborators.

But as Noa becomes part of the circus, she comes to love the world in which she has found herself. And, against all odds, she has come to see Astrid as the big sister she never had. And just as Astrid has cared for both Noa and the little boy she named Theo, sometimes in spite of herself, so Noa comes to take care of Astrid as her world, and the circus it encompasses, fall apart.

In the end, all they have is each other. And it’s just barely enough.

Escape Rating A-: The Orphan’s Tale is a story within a story. At the very beginning, it is the modern day, as an old woman takes great pains to visit a museum which has put her old circus wagon on display. The story itself is her recounting of her life in that wagon, Astrid and Noa and Theo, and the world of the circus under the Nazis.

We return at the end to that same elderly lady, and discover how it all turned out. In this case, it’s a marvelous way to tell the important bits, while leaving out the more mundane aspects of her post-war survival. When we find out what happened, we understand everything about the lady, the circus, and the world she left behind.

In the author’s postscript, we learn just how much of the story is based on pieces of fact, and it is well-worth reading. As the book proceeds, so much of the background feels true that it is almost a relief to learn that a great deal of it was true. Astrid and Noa did not exist, but the circus at this time was as portrayed. And unfortunately, the boxcar of dead babies is also based on historical fact.

But the story here is the story of women’s friendships, in spite of opposition or enmity, and how those friendships can flourish under the harshest of circumstances. Astrid and Noa do not always like each other, and they begin with very little in common. At the same time, they are both hiding such similar secrets that they must begin to trust each other. The story here is the flowering of that trust.

It is also the story of the circus, both the mundane and back-breaking work of putting it all together, and the uplifting effect of bringing a small taste of not just normality, but of a bit of escape, to people who have otherwise been beaten down into the deepest rut of bare survival. Although the circumstances of time and place are very different, this part of the story has the same feel as Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The circus goes on, even in this depth of adversity, because survival is insufficient.

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Review: The Enemies of Versailles by Sally Christie + Giveaway

Review: The Enemies of Versailles by Sally Christie + GiveawayThe Enemies of Versailles (The Mistresses of Versailles Trilogy #3) by Sally Christie
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Series: Mistresses of Versailles #3
Pages: 416
Published by Atria Books on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the final installment of Sally Christie’s “tantalizing” (New York Daily News) Mistresses of Versailles trilogy, Jeanne Becu, a woman of astounding beauty but humble birth, works her way from the grimy back streets of Paris to the palace of Versailles, where the aging King Louis XV has become a jaded and bitter old philanderer. Jeanne bursts into his life and, as the Comtesse du Barry, quickly becomes his official mistress.
“That beastly bourgeois Pompadour was one thing; a common prostitute quite another kettle of fish.”
After decades suffering the King's endless stream of Royal Favorites, the princesses of the Court have reached a breaking point. Horrified that he would bring the lowborn Comtesse du Barry into the hallowed halls of Versailles, Louis XV’s daughters, led by the indomitable Madame Adelaide, vow eternal enmity and enlist the young dauphiness Marie Antoinette in their fight against the new mistress. But as tensions rise and the French Revolution draws closer, a prostitute in the palace soon becomes the least of the nobility’s concerns.
Told in Christie’s witty and engaging style, the final book in The Mistresses of Versailles trilogy will delight and entrance fans as it once again brings to life the sumptuous and cruel world of eighteenth century Versailles, and France as it approaches inevitable revolution.

My Review:

The Enemies of Versailles, and the entire series of the Mistresses of Versailles, beginning with The Sisters of Versailles and continuing with The Rivals of Versailles, is a fascinating blend of historical fiction and herstorical fiction, telling the story of the reign of Louis XV of France through the eyes of the women who shared his bed and/or his heart.

So instead of viewing this history through the lives of its movers and shakers, usually male, we see the king from the perspective of his mistresses and, in the case of this final book in the series, from the point of view of his oldest daughter, the unmarried and extremely upright (also uptight in modern terms) Adelaide.

It’s not a pretty picture, and it isn’t intended to be, particularly at this point late in the king’s life. It is to Louis XV that the famous phrase is attributed, “apres moi, le deluge”. And while he may not have known precisely what horrors the deluge of the French Revolution was destined to unleash, it is clear from this account that he was well aware that whatever followed him was going to be less rich, less glorious, less regal, and pretty much just less of everything.

It turned out he was right. From the perspective of the monarchy and the aristocracy, the Revolution indeed brought much less of everything, except blood. There was plenty of that. An outcome that Louis himself does not live to see, although the principal narrators of this story, his daughter Adelaide and his last mistress, the Duchesse du Barry, witness the revolution in all its horror.

In this book, and the trilogy as a whole, Louis appears as a self-indulgent and even indolent ruler, willing to let his advisors run the country while he dallies with his mistresses and escapes from the pomp and ceremony of court life as much as possible. And, of course, his advisors are more than happy to take the burdens of monarchy off of his hands, the better to further their own ambitions.

At the center of this book, and of the final years of Louis’ life, we see a man caught between two opposing forces. On the one side, his daughter Adelaide, ruthlessly virtuous, desiring above all else to save her father’s eternal soul by persuading him to give up his licentious ways. On his other side, the courtesan Jeanne Becu, Duchesse du Barry, encouraging the king to while away his hours in her company, giving her as many beautiful presents as possible and ignoring the world outside her boudoir.

Adelaide never stands a chance. Louis always prefers his mistress’ charms, whoever that mistress might be. But as we watch the court squabble over who should have precedence, and how best to capture the attention of the aging king, we know that we are watching the equivalent of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or fiddling while Paris, substituting for Rome in the famous saying, burns.

Escape Rating B: This is a series about which I have had mixed feelings from the very beginning, and I leave the series with lots of them. But most of those mixed feelings are about the history portrayed, rather than the portrayal itself. In other words, this series made me think. Among other thoughts, making me glad that I am reading about this period rather than living in it.

The world portrayed in the series is fascinating, enthralling, rich, decadent and strange. There are two sayings that seem to apply equally: “The past is another country, they do things differently there” and, to paraphrase just a bit, “the rich are very, very different from you and me”.

One of the things that strikes me is the appalling waste. Not just the wretched excesses of the court, but also the waste of the brains and talent of the women in this series, and this era. As much as I would not want to have spent five minutes in her company, I found Adelaide and to a lesser extent her sisters, to be utterly pitiable. They all had brains, and probably talents of one sort or another. And absolutely no outlets for any of that except through moral rectitude to the point of priggishness, extreme protection of their privileges and status, and endless backbiting and jostling for position in a court and an era that simply saw them as less than nothing.

Then of course, there’s the wretched excess of the court itself. That so much time and effort was expended, and so much wealth wasted, on ceremony that was extended and elaborated somewhere past the nth degree fascinates and disgusts at the same time.

The Revolution was a bloodbath of epic proportions, and yet it is all too easy to see it looming on the horizon, at least from our viewpoint, and wonder why no one at the time seriously saw it coming. But the same is true, to a much less bloody extent, in the run up to the American Revolution. Hindsight, as always, is 20/20.

About the books and the series. Looking back, there is one thing about each of the books that made the first parts a bit difficult to get over. In each book, the story of the mistress or mistresses begins with their childhood. And while the child certainly makes the woman, that period of each of their lives just wasn’t as compelling, or even as interesting, as what happens to each of them as they find themselves, or are thrust in the case of duBarry, into the king’s orbit. One reason I found Adelaide sympathetic in this particular book was that by the time this story begins, she is an adult, even if her understanding is somewhat lacking in particulars because of her very peculiar sheltered life.

In some ways, both Adelaide and du Barry remain infantilized by their circumstances until the Revolution robs everyone of any possible pretensions. They had to either grow up or die. That one did and one did not provides a last and final contrast in the remarkable circumstances of their lives.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away a copy of The Enemies of Versailles to one lucky US or Canadian commenter.

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Review: In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen + Giveaway

Review: In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen + GiveawayIn Farleigh Field: A Novel of World War II by Rhys Bowen
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 396
Published by Lake Union Publishing on March 1st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

World War II comes to Farleigh Place, the ancestral home of Lord Westerham and his five daughters, when a soldier with a failed parachute falls to his death on the estate. After his uniform and possessions raise suspicions, MI5 operative and family friend Ben Cresswell is covertly tasked with determining if the man is a German spy. The assignment also offers Ben the chance to be near Lord Westerham’s middle daughter, Pamela, whom he furtively loves. But Pamela has her own secret: she has taken a job at Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking facility.
As Ben follows a trail of spies and traitors, which may include another member of Pamela’s family, he discovers that some within the realm have an appalling, history-altering agenda. Can he, with Pamela’s help, stop them before England falls?
Inspired by the events and people of World War II, writer Rhys Bowen crafts a sweeping and riveting saga of class, family, love, and betrayal.

My Review:

I picked this up because people always rave about Rhys Bowen, but she’s in the middle of a whole bunch of series and I like to start at beginnings if I can. In Farleigh Field is a standalone, which made it a good time to try this author.

However, for those who are expecting something a bit light and frothy, like the Her Royal Spyness series, this one is neither light nor frothy. Nor should it be. This is a World War II story that deals with serious issues on the home front. It begins with the crash landing of a German spy in the middle of an aristocrat’s estate, and ends with the realization that none of us really know the people we think we do.

This one is all about the less glorious parts of modern warfare; code breaking, spying, official secrets, official lies and ultimately betrayal, both on a personal and on a political level. And it revolves around questions about the ends and what means they justify. And by whom.

The story begins as a simple mystery, but there were no simple mysteries during WWII. A uniformed parachutist crashes at Farleigh, wearing the uniform of the West Kents who are stationed in the mansion. But nothing is as it seems, starting with that dead parachutist. He may be in uniform, but the details of that uniform aren’t quite right. And no one is missing from the regiment. He has nothing on him except a parachute that refused to open, fake ID tags and a landscape photo with numbers on the back.

MI5 doesn’t really care who the man was, their interest is in who the man was supposed to contact within walking distance of Farleigh, and they have just the man for the job. Ben Cresswell, ineligible for the draft due to a tin knee, is the son of the local vicar at Farleigh. He knows everyone, and everyone knows him. In spite of his junior status and relative inexperience, he’s the perfect agent to investigate his old neighborhood.

And of course, no one knows he’s MI5. That includes the daughter of Farleigh, Pamela Westerham. Pamma has no idea that Ben is MI5, just as she has no idea that he’s been in love with her for all of their lives. But while Ben is very aware that Pamma has been in love with Jeremy Prescott, son of the local squire, all of her life, he is very much unaware that Pamma is one of the junior code breakers at Bletchley Park.

Her superiors are every bit as interested in the mystery of the dead parachutist as Ben’s are. And it will take both of them, and a lot of luck, to finally discover the truth. A truth that is much, much worse than they imagined. And every bit as deadly.

Escape Rating B+: I’ll admit that based on the author’s reputation, I was expecting something a bit lighter. There are points in this story that are very dark. This is appropriate for the period and the circumstances, but still a bit of a downer.

Albeit a fascinating one.

The story takes place during the very early years of the war, particularly around the time of the Battle of Britain. At that point in 1940, Britain stood alone against the seemingly unstoppable might of Nazi Germany. The United States was pursuing a policy of non-involvement and Lend-Lease was still on the drawing board. There was a feeling in Britain, and it was probably justified, that unless the U.S. came to their aid that it was just a matter of time until Britain fell to the Nazis. That some, particularly among the upper classes, wanted to capitulate in order to save what they could (admittedly including their own skins) was historic fact. That one of those upper-class potential collaborators was the former king, the Duke of Windsor, was well-known at the time, which is why he was packed off to the Bahamas and both out of harm’s way and out where he couldn’t cause any harm.

Churchill planned to fight to the last man, (woman and child) but there were plenty of people who believed it would come to that, sooner rather than later, if the U.S. didn’t provide support, and quickly.

One of the things that makes this story so interesting is just how insidious the fifth-column activities really were. Although we laugh now at some of the antics of the home guard and the air raid wardens, the difficulties were real at the time. And one of those difficulties was the one that Ben and Pamma face – that they simply can’t imagine that someone they know well could possibly betray their country. They assume that it must be an outsider, when it so seldom is.

Insiders always know where the weak points are and just how to exploit them. But Ben’s prejudices of both class and familiarity lead him on many a wild goose chase until the perpetrator is finally exposed.

There’s also a small element of melodrama in this story, and I’m not sure whether it helped or hurt. The resolution of the love triangle between Ben, Jeremy and Pamma plays into the ultimate solution to the puzzle. However, that triangle is Ben loves Pamma, Pamma loves Jeremy and Jeremy really only loves himself. Some of Pamma’s angst about Jeremy’s behavior made me want to shake some sense into her. I rather badly wanted Jeremy to be guilty of something – he was an absolute bounder.

All in all, In Farleigh Field is a story about people rising to the occasion, keeping the side up, and solving the mystery, no matter how much it hurts. Anyone who enjoys spy stories or stories of World War II on the homefront (or who loved Foyle’s War) will enjoy In Farleigh Field.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I am giving away a copy of In Farleigh Field to one lucky US commenter!

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Review: Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear

Review: Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline WinspearPardonable Lies (Maisie Dobbs, #3) by Jacqueline Winspear
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Maisie Dobbs #3
Pages: 342
Published by Picador on June 27th 2006
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

London 1930, psychologist investigator Maisie Dobbs must prove Sir Cedric's aviator son Ralph Lawton died when shot down in 1917. In former battlefields of France, she re-unites with Priscilla Evernden, one of whose three brothers lost in the War is somehow connected. The case tests Maisie's spiritual strength and her regard for mentor Maurice Blanche.

My Review:

As part of the lead in to March’s Month of Maisie Readalong I get to dip into the earlier tales of Maisie’s adventures in preparation for reading her newest story, In This Grave Hour, in the middle of Maisie month.

Pardonable Lies was Maisie’s third outing, and even though it is set in 1930, the clouds of World War II are already looming over the horizon. And even though the meat of her case here concerns the Great War now over a decade in the past, it is the oncoming storm that adds the element of danger to her current affairs.

This is also a story about secrets and lies. Not just the kind of military secrets that dog Maisie through this investigation, but also the secrets that we keep in the belief that they protect others, and the lies that we tell ourselves, in the hope that we can prevent more pain.

It is also a story about growing up. Because part of growing up is seeing our elders, our parents and teachers and mentors, as fallible human beings just like ourselves. We reach that point where we see them less as above us and more as our equals. And often, as in Maisie’s case in Pardonable Lies, we come to that point when we discover that our trust in them has been betrayed.

As is frequently the case with Maisie, she is actually working on more than one case during this story. Two of those cases have definite similarities, as they are both missing persons cases leftover from the late war. And Maisie makes the third case tie into one of the other two. There are no coincidences in Maisie’s worldview. When things seem coincidental, as in the two missing persons cases, she views it as the cosmos telling her that she has unresolved issues that will be illuminated in the investigations.

And so it goes. Two families want her to find the final resting place of their lost soldier boys. Actually, flyer boys, as both young men were in the fledgling RAF. A respected barrister made his wife a deathbed promise that he would determine, once and for all, whether their lost son truly died in his plane crash or whether he survived, as his mother always believed.

Maisie’s friend Phyllis Evernden wants Maisie to find out how and where her brother Patrick died. She knows that he’s dead, but now that her own sons are growing up and starting to resemble her lost brothers, she feels the need for closure. She remembers that her parents were notified of his death, but nothing about the circumstances. And now she needs to know.

The cases both lead Maisie back to France. She served as a battlefield nurse, and left too many friends and loved ones behind. She’s worked hard to put it all behind her, but mostly she has just been running as fast as she can to evade the grief and the memories. She knows that returning to the scene of her own devastation is going to bring up things she would rather stayed buried.

Much as both of these cases will resurrect things that other people would prefer she left buried. Especially her now elderly mentor, Maurice Blanche, who returns with Maisie to France with his own hidden agenda.

And someone is trying to kill her. But due to which case? What rock has she turned over that someone will kill to leave unturned?

Escape Rating A: I always look forward to March and Maisie Month. It gives me a terrific excuse to dive into the archives of this series as well as look forward at the latest book. As always, the early book is a treat, as I get to discover where some of the later events took root.

In this particular case, that root is Maisie’s reluctant involvement with the British Secret Service in Journey to Munich. In Pardonable Lies, two of her cases have delved into national secrets that would be better left buried, and the Secret Service as well as her mentor try to divert her attention and make her take the easy way out.

The problem is that the secrets aren’t really buried. They aren’t even dead yet. The spies see the war coming and are all too aware that they will have to mobilize as many of their assets from the last war as are still available (i.e. alive). Maisie’s investigation jeopardizes past, present and future secrets.

The title of this story is very apropos. Maisie normally tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to her clients. In these cases she is caught on the horns of a terrible dilemma. Because of official secrets, she cannot tell her friend Phyllis the whole, entire truth about her brother.

In the case of her other client, the barrister, Maisie discovers the truth that he fears, and that he does not want to hear at any cost. And it is a truth that hurts much less than the lie he wants to believe.

And Maisie herself discovers that the many pardonable lies that her mentor has told her over the years of her apprenticeship may not be pardonable after all. The revelations that arise during this case make Maisie re-think both their past and their future association.

Only one case gets Maisie’s usual whole truth; the case of a young prostitute accused of murdering her pimp. The rush to justice on the part of the police, and their willingness to ignore any and all mitigating or contradictory evidence in order to punish this young woman makes readers see both how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go as a society. Only Maisie, is willing to believe that this woman might be innocent. And only Maisie is willing to delve into the truth to see that justice is actually done.

But in the process of these investigations, we finally see Maisie lay her own ghosts to their deserved rest. It’s an important part of the development of her character, and it is time for her to move on.

As do we. The latest book in the Maisie Dobbs series is In This Grave Hour. I am very much looking forward to reading and reviewing it next month.

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Review: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

Review: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer RyanThe Chilbury Ladies' Choir by Jennifer Ryan
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by Crown Publishing Group on February 14th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"Just because the men have gone to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely when we need it most!"
As England enters World War II's dark early days, spirited music professor Primrose Trent, recently arrived to the village of Chilbury, emboldens the women of the town to defy the Vicar's stuffy edict to shutter the church's choir in the absence of men and instead 'carry on singing'. Resurrecting themselves as "The Chilbury Ladies' Choir", the women of this small village soon use their joint song to lift up themselves, and the community, as the war tears through their lives.
Told through letters and journals, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir moves seamlessly from budding romances to village intrigues to heartbreaking matters of life and death. As we come to know the struggles of the charismatic members of this unforgettable outfit -- a timid widow worried over her son at the front; the town beauty drawn to a rakish artist; her younger sister nursing an impossible crush and dabbling in politics she doesn't understand; a young Jewish refugee hiding secrets about her family, and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past -- we come to see how the strength each finds in the choir's collective voice reverberates in her individual life.
In turns funny, charming and heart-wrenching, this lovingly executed ensemble novel will charm and inspire, illuminating the true spirit of the women on the home front, in a village of indomitable spirit, at the dawn of a most terrible conflict.

My Review:

The Chilbury Ladies Choir is the lovely and immersive story of a small coastal village in England during the early years of World War II. The story is told entirely through the letters and diaries of the members of the choir as they navigate the changes that have arrived in their little town in the wake of war.

The first change is the one that gives the choir both its name and its purpose. Chilbury is a small town. All the young men and even middle-aged men are gone. Only the very old and the very young are left. The local vicar, on that side of very old, comes to the traditional conclusion that without any men, without any tenors, baritones and basses, the church choir will have to disband for the duration.

The new music teacher disagrees. There is no reason why the women can’t make a choir of their own, with music altered to fit their soaring soprano and alto voices. And so it begins.

The ladies of the choir, at first hesitant to do something so completely nontraditional, discover that their voices have not been stilled. If anything, their voices have been amplified and expanded by the war, as they are left to take up all the tasks that are still required by village life, jobs that used to be filled by men.

As tradition falls by the wayside, so do many of the social restrictions that governed daily life, and more important for women before the war, the rigors of strict respectability. Things that were simply “not done” are now done all the time, whether that’s work at the nearby government installations or take up with a dodgy artist who claims to be too infirm to enlist.

Their world has been turned on its head, yet they soldier (and sing) on, even as they receive black-bordered telegraphs from the front and as bombs fall on their tiny town.

We view the early years of the war and the remaining denizens of the village through their eyes. Young Kitty Winthrop’s diary, and her older sister Venetia’s letters to a friend in London speak of the mundane and the tragic. We see their still simmering sibling rivalry, we experience almost-fourteen-year-old Kitty’s stops and starts at growing up. We experience the tragedy of Venetia’s love affair through her letters, and observe her through Kitty’s eyes as she changes from a self-absorbed vamp-wannabe to a grown woman who finally matures.

Through the letters of the local midwife and the diary of the local nurse, we see a great swindle unfold. And we see crime finally turned into triumph.

We see all the woman grow and change and expand into their new roles, into this frightening new world. And in the midst of so many tragedies, we see them rise along with their voices.

Escape Rating A: I think that a lot of readers are doing to compare The Chilbury Ladies Choir to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and from the looks of things there certainly are similarities. Enough so that I feel the need to get a copy of Guernsey, which I haven’t read. Yet.

One big difference is that Guernsey takes place after the war, so the characters are reflecting on what happened rather than experiencing it fresh. Chilbury is contemporaneous, we read the letters and diaries as they are being written. We find ourselves in the middle of these characters lives, watching them change and grow. We learn about Kitty and Venetia’s family life by what they write, not by an omniscient narrator telling us that their father the local squire is a bully and a brute who abuses them and their mother. They write about what they feel as it happens, and we watch them try to avoid and justify and self-efface and cower in an attempt to survive. We feel their confusion and triumph as he finally gets put in his place.

We see half the women in the village experience some variation of his bullying and brutality, and cheer when someone finds a way to stand up to him and make it stick.

This is kind of a gentle story, in spite of the war. Some of the women experience tragedy, but because of the epistolary nature of the story, the blood and guts are not described, not even when the village is bombed. But the emotional tsunami in the aftermath is experienced again and again.

In a way, not a lot happens. And yet so much does. The story, much like the choir, works together so well that it is a joy to experience these women’s lives with them, even though we don’t know how it ends. And we don’t need to. The war eventually ended, but these women’s lives, and the lives they touched, went on. While it would be marvelous to see each one’s happy-ever-after (or at least get some resolution if they don’t get one) it doesn’t feel necessary for the story to conclude.

One final note: there is another author named Jennifer Ryan. The other Jennifer Ryan writes contemporary romance and romantic suspense. And was the source of one of my most sarcastic, and most liked, reviews on Goodreads, The Right Bride. The two Jennifer Ryans are definitely not the same.

If you love stories about the homefront during World War II, or women’s fiction, or just want to read a lovely story, I can’t recommend The Chilbury Ladies Choir highly enough.

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