Dear Mrs. Bird – AJ Pearce

3.5-4 stars 

mrsbirdDear Mrs. Bird is a sweet, charming story; almost saccharine, but nevertheless lovely with a satisfying plot. 

Recommended for readers who liked Letters from Sky by Jessica Brockmole, or As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner, or The Memory of Us by Camille de Maio. It’s also reminiscent of shows like “Call the Midwife” and “Land Girls”.  

 In London during WWII, Emmeline is a young woman longing for a career in journalism, and she unwittingly takes a job as a typist for a brash woman, Mrs. Bird, who writes an advice column for a ladies’ magazine. Em takes it upon herself to respond to the “inappropriate” letters that Mrs. Bird refuses to answer, getting more and more daring and ultimately sneaking them into the magazine.  

Em’s self-appointed career as an advice columnist is only part of the story. This book raises some deeper issues regarding women’s often overlooked trials during the war. Losing spouses either to combat or desertion, rationing, and the constant bombings throughout the city led to some unprecedented struggles with grief, guilt, and fear. The women left behind at home were told to “buck up” and put on a brave face for the men returning from the fight. They weren’t allowed to feel the pain of their fears and sacrifices. Dear Mrs. Bird addresses this issue with finesse around an enchanting story.  

Many thanks to Netgalley and Scribner for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review.  

Adrift – Brian Murphy

adriftI highly recommend Adrift to anyone who enjoys survival tales. I’ve read many books in this genre and this one is a stand-out.

Murphy spends part of the book reviewing the major news stories of the mid-nineteenth century, including the history and economy of packet and luxury ships. This approach gave the book a well-rounded background with some substance. He also includes anecdotes, some relevant biographical information, and an overview of the situation of immigrants in Ireland. It may have seemed tangential, but the stories were relevant to the ship, the John Rutledge, and afforded the reader a clearer picture of what the passengers were facing, both at home and abroad. Murphy describes the appalling conditions aboard the John Rutledge for the immigrant passengers in steerage – the sea-sickness, the overpowering smells, the turbulent seas, the terror.

The actual ordeal of the sinking of the John Rutledge and subsequent fight for life for those who made it to lifeboats was riveting. There was only one survivor from the shipwreck, and the book follows the story of his lifeboat, in which there were originally 13 aboard, including some children. The gripping horrors that these castaways endured is heart-wrenching.

Overall, Adrift presents a fascinating perspective on the shipping industry of the 1850s and the danger aboard these ships as they navigated the icy Atlantic. Highly recommended.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Perseus Books / DeCapo Press for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

Lying in Wait – Liz Nugent

lyinginwaitLiz Nugent does it again with Lying in Wait! If you were stunned by Unraveling Oliver, this will be right in your wheelhouse. Lying in Wait is a thrill ride right from the opening sentence. This is not a simple “who’s the killer?” mystery. Nugent deftly reveals the murderer on the first page. The whodunit and the whydunit are not the core of the story — it’s the family collapse and desperate murder cover-up that make this book so enthralling.

I don’t want to delve too much into the story for fear of giving something away, but it begins with Lydia, an agoraphobic, mentally-unstable housewife of a crumbling estate, and her obsession with her only child, Laurence. Lydia has a shady past that she’d rather not come to light, and more recently has been involved in a murder that she wants kept under wraps, no matter the cost. Laurence pieces together the truth about his mother, and events spiral out of control.

As in Unraveling Oliver, Nugent doles out the story from multiple points-of-view, which rounds out the perspective and gives it some depth. Numerous twists and interwoven relationships will spin you around, and no detail is irrelevant. The ending is satisfying with enough mystery to keep you speculating about what really happened.

Definitely pick this one up! Once you do, you won’t want to put it down.

Many thanks to Simon & Schuster | Scout Press/Gallery Books and Netgalley for the opportunity to read and review this book.

Melmoth – Sarah Perry

melmothThis book is just what I hoped for with Sarah Perry’s new novel: chilling and wonderfully Gothic.

Melmoth the Witness has been roaming the earth for 2,000 years, seeking others to commiserate with her in their crimes of betrayal and cowardice. Melmoth is always in the shadows, her black shroud dripping on the cobblestones, her bloody feet leaving streaks on the floor. The imagery is eerie and those who see her suffer from their guilt. Melmoth is interspersed with a series of vignettes of the Witness’s encounters throughout history, each story coming together in a powerful denouement.

The story follows Helen Franklin, a lonely translator in Prague, who falls prey to the lure of the Melmoth legend after her friend Karel disappears. Helen investigates Karel’s Melmoth documents and realizes her connection to the legend is far stronger than she realized. This novel capitalizes on the fears of the guilty, their foreboding anxiety of being discovered, and the realization that there is no way out.

This is a solid follow-up to Perry’s The Essex Serpent. I look forward to reading her next one!

Many thanks to Custom House (HarperCollins) and Edelweiss for the advance copy in exchange for my review.

The Vanishing – Sophia Tobin

vanishingSet in the dreary Yorkshire moors . . . Annaleigh, a foundling raised by a portrait painter, runs from a doomed romantic entanglement to be a servant at White Windows to a brother and sister, Marcus and Hester Twentyman.

Two other mysterious servants warn her not to develop any kind of friendship with the Twentymans, no matter how warm or inviting they seem. Annaleigh soon discovers that Marcus is volatile and tempestuous, often running into the foggy moor at night to be alone. Hester is timid and paranoid, and suffers from crippling headaches.

The beginning of the story is compelling and has all the elements required for a juicy gothic thriller. The darkness and isolation of the moors enhance the creepiness and claustrophobia of White Windows. There is no escape from the house, nowhere to run. The atmosphere is chilling with a constant presence of foreboding.

The second half of the book, however, becomes more unbelievable, and the characters are inconsistent. Their motivations are ambiguous and their reactions are often incongruous with their earlier temperaments. The story is still interesting enough keep the pages turning, but it requires a strong desire to suspend disbelief in order to accept the plot developments. The plot twists left me with a lot of questions, and the inexplicable actions of the characters were distracting.

I always enjoy a spooky tale, and The Vanishing did not disappoint, but other reviewers’ comparisons to Jane Eyre and Fingersmith are too generous. Despite its flaws, if you seek out Gothic mysteries, as I do, The Vanishing is for you.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Simon and Schuster for the advance copy.

Extinctions – Josephine Wilson

extinctionsThe first few pages of Extinctions reminded me of A Man Called Ove — a cantankerous old man, Frederick Lothian, former concrete engineer, living in a retirement “village,” too grumpy to tolerate his neighbors, shunning his daughter and son. His complaints about the life in the village are amusing and I thought the story would continue in the same vein as Ove, but the similarities ended quickly and the book took on a more serious tone.

A widowed neighbor in the village, Jan, insinuates herself into Frederick’s life. Her life story that she reveals to Frederick  is full of regrets and failings, which causes him to reconsider his own choices and behavior. He finds himself reluctantly revealing his past to Jan, and over the course of a couple of days, reinvents himself and changes his path.

This book won the Miles Franklin award in 2017, and there are discussions about the recent history of Australian Aborigines (of which my knowledge is sadly lacking). The book is interspersed with photos of architecture and engineering marvels that I found enhanced the story. 

It’s the story of Frederick Lothian, but also of the life of his late wife, Martha, who had a vibrant life that he never knew about, and his daughter Caroline and son Callum, who faced battles he never understood or acknowledged. Extinctions revolves around the struggle to be a good parent, when to cling and when to let go, and the unwitting impact that the personal struggles of parents have on their children. The theme of extinctions —the metaphorical deaths of career, adoption, and marriage —runs throughout.
An insightful book with strong character development. 

I vacillated between a 3 and 4 star rating for this one, but it is worth reading.

 Many thanks to Edelweiss and Tin House Books (W W Norton) for this advance copy.  

 

The Wildlands – Abbi Geni

thewildlandsFour orphans living in a trailer in Oklahoma are just trying to scrape by after a tornado destroyed their home and family. Tucker, the only brother, runs off, and Darlene, the eldest, takes on the responsibility of caring for her two younger sisters, forgoing her dream of going to college. They manage to eke out a living until one day when Tucker returns. He’s been on a rampage with an extreme animal rights group, and now he wants to take his activism to the next level. He kidnaps his youngest sister, Cora, and goes on a spree to save animals and avenge their mistreatment. Darlene is left behind with her sister Jane, torn in different directions to keep her family afloat and rescue Cora.

The Wildlands addresses some relevant issues: the media’s responsibility in reporting tragedy, filial duty, and responsible vs extreme activism. This story kept me on my toes, wondering what Tucker would do next and how 9-year-old Cora would cope with her predicament of remaining devoted to her brother while his actions and behavior become increasingly dangerous.

Many thanks to Edelweiss and Counterpoint Press for the advance copy in exchange for my review.