Jennifer Ryan: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

“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.

After all the super intense books I’ve been reading lately, I was in some pretty desperate need for something light and fluffy. And while war is never exactly fluffy…stories about it can be kept light and romantic. That’s how The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is–some big action written into a lovely easy read that would be welcome alongside a cozy fire or on a sandy beach.

There are some interesting characters in this book, for sure–and as with most WWII novels, some pretty strong women. There’s a few men around, but mostly the ladies run the show and all are incredibly unique. That said, there isn’t much actual diversity in this book, which is disappointing. The only attempt at a diverse character is one homosexual soldier, whose only real role is to further the moral curiosity of one of the leads. I liked that soldier…but he wasn’t in the book enough to really count as more than a diverse prop–not what we are going for, authors.

That’s really the only criticism I can give, and while that is a big one, I did enjoy reading the book. It was a nice, pleasant read. I’m not bouncing off the walls wanting to hand this to everyone, but it was a good way to spend two days. I feel refreshed and ready for something that requires more digging.

NetGalley and Crown Publishing provided an ARC for my unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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Amanda Eyre Ward: The Nearness of You

In this profound and lyrical novel, acclaimed author Amanda Eyre Ward explores the deeper meanings of motherhood—from the first blissful hello to the heart-wrenching prospect of saying goodbye.

Brilliant heart surgeon Suzette Kendall is stunned when Hyland, her husband of fifteen years, admits his yearning for a child. From the beginning they’d decided that having children was not an option, as Suzette feared passing along the genes that landed her mother in a mental institution. But Hyland proposes a different idea: a baby via surrogate.

Suzette agrees, and what follows is a whirlwind of candidate selections, hospital visits, and Suzette’s doubts over whether she’s made the right decision. A young woman named Dorothy Muscarello is chosen as the one who will help make this family complete. For Dorrie, surrogacy (and the money that comes with it) are her opportunity to leave behind a troubled past and create a future for herself—one full of possibility. But this situation also forces all three of them—Dorrie, Suzette, and Hyland—to face a devastating uncertainty that will reverberate in the years to come.

Beautifully shifting between perspectives, The Nearness of You deftly explores the connections we form, the families we create, and the love we hold most dear.

So here’s the deal. I almost didn’t make it past the first chapter. I even tweeted that I was fully prepared for this book to piss me off all the way through.

The premise of this book is that Suzette doesn’t want children. Her mother has a mental illness so bad that she is hospitalized (we never meet her), and Suzette also suffers from “issues.” Those issues are vague, but referred to throughout the book, and she’s deathly afraid of anyone close to her getting sick too. She was very clear on the first date with Hyland that she was not going to have children. They made a decision, she was firm on it, he seemed happy.

But after 15 years of marriage, he suddenly decided that he wanted a baby, and pretty much gaslights her into thinking she wants one too. So they get a surrogate. And then he spends the rest of the book making her feel HORRIBLE for being a successful pediatric surgeon with a busy schedule–even though she has ALWAYS BEEN a successful pediatric surgeon with a busy schedule.

This is my absolute worst nightmare–and my husband knows this–that he will suddenly decide 15 years into our marriage that he wants children. It is the cruelest thing a person could do, in my opinion–worse than cheating–to go against something so fundamental in your marriage foundation.

I know, I’m ranting, but this is all just to say that it soured my opinion of the book from the first chapter–and it only went downhill from there. I did finish it, and had that big nope in the beginning not happened…I don’t know, there were a few other things that made me go ehhhhhhhhh…

The story certainly has hooks, and I could see people liking this. But it has way more problems than good things.

NetGalley and Ballantine Books provided this ARC for an unbiased review. This post does have affiliate links.

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Liane Moriarty: Truly Madly Guilty

Six responsible adults. Three cute kids. One small dog. It’s just a normal weekend. What could possibly go wrong?

Sam and Clementine have a wonderful, albeit, busy life: they have two little girls, Sam has just started a new dream job, and Clementine, a cellist, is busy preparing for the audition of a lifetime. If there’s anything they can count on, it’s each other.

Clementine and Erika are each other’s oldest friends. A single look between them can convey an entire conversation. But theirs is a complicated relationship, so when Erika mentions a last minute invitation to a barbecue with her neighbors, Tiffany and Vid, Clementine and Sam don’t hesitate. Having Tiffany and Vid’s larger than life personalities there will be a welcome respite.

Two months later, it won’t stop raining, and Clementine and Sam can’t stop asking themselves the question: What if we hadn’t gone?

In Truly Madly Guilty, Liane Moriarty takes on the foundations of our lives: marriage, sex, parenthood, and friendship. She shows how guilt can expose the fault lines in the most seemingly strong relationships, how what we don’t say can be more powerful than what we do, and how sometimes it is the most innocent of moments that can do the greatest harm.

I think that I have chosen the most heartbreaking books in the world for this hiatus. Perhaps I just needed to cry it out!

While Moriarty writes in her usual back and forth, backwards suspense novel style, this isn’t so much thriller as it is tragedy. Something terribly sad has happened, but how and why comes later. It’s always building blocks with this author–the way she brings her plots around is magnificent and unique.

She definitely has a pattern to her books, and maybe some day I will get used to them and tire of her stories, but after five of them in quick succession, I have not exhausted them yet. I still want more. She’s different than any other writer in her genre.

Bring the tissues because this will make you sob. Repeatedly.

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#FridayReads: Porch Lights

When Jimmy McMullen, a fireman with the NYFD, is killed in the line of duty, his wife, Jackie, and ten-year-old son, Charlie, are devastated. Charlie idolized his dad, and now the outgoing, curious boy has become quiet and reserved. Trusting in the healing power of family, Jackie decides to return to her childhood home on Sullivans Island.

Crossing the bridge from the mainland, Jackie and Charlie enter a world full of wonder and magic — lush green and chocolate grasslands and dazzling red, orange, and magenta evening skies; the heady pungency of Lowcountry Pluff mud and fresh seafood on the grill; bare toes snuggled in warm sand and palmetto fronds swaying in gentle ocean winds.
Awaiting them is Annie Britt, the family matriarch who has kept the porch lights on to welcome them home. Thrilled to have her family back again, Annie promises to make their visit perfect — even though relations between mother and daughter have never been what you’d call smooth. Over the years, Jackie and Annie, like all mothers and daughters, have been known to have frequent and notorious differences of opinion. But her estranged and wise husband, Buster, and her flamboyant and funny best friend Deb are sure to keep Annie in line. She’s also got Steven Plofker, the flirtatious and devilishly tasty widowed physician next door, to keep her distracted as well.

There are very few books that I read and wonder, “I wonder if that experience would have been better as an audiobook?” But as I read Porch Lights, I almost needed to hear the accents. Maybe if someone read them to me, it wouldn’t seem so weirdly formal as written–the dialogue just seemed absolutely ridiculous.

The plot itself wasn’t so bad. Girl has tragedy, goes home to mama for awhile, finds comfort on a seaside island. The characters were fun and engaging. However, the conversations they had just stuck in my craw. Do people in Charleston low-country REALLY talk like that? I know southern accents are slower, and their manners are old. But, really? I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a 10 year old talk that way.

This is one of those “good for you, not for me” books. Dorothea Benton Frank is a best selling author, and her reviews are fantastic, so I’m in the minority here. I can understand why her books are popular–this would make a great summer beach or pool read. I just couldn’t get past the dialogue.

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Review: Summer House

After years of wandering from whim to whim, thirty-year-old Charlotte Wheelwright seems to have at last found her niche. The free spirit enjoys running an organic gardening business on the island of Nantucket, thanks in large part to her spry grandmother Nona, who donated a portion of land on the family’s seaside compound to get Charlotte started. Though Charlotte’s skill with plants is bringing her success, cultivating something deeper with people–particularly her handsome neighbor Coop–might be more of a challenge.

Nona’s generosity to Charlotte, secretly her favorite grandchild, doesn’t sit well with the rest of the Wheelwright clan, however, as they worry that Charlotte may be positioning herself to inherit the entire estate. With summer upon them, everyone is making their annual pilgrimage to the homestead–some with hopes of thwarting Charlotte’s dreams, others in anticipation of Nona’s latest pronouncements at the annual family meeting, and still others with surprising news of their own. Charlotte’s mother, Helen, a Wheelwright by marriage, brings a heavy heart. She once set aside her own ambitions to fit in with the Wheelwrights, but now she must confront a betrayal that threatens both her sense of place and her sense of self.

As summer progresses, these three women–Charlotte, Nona, and Helen–come to terms with the decisions they have made. Revisiting the lives and loves that have crossed their paths and the possibilities of the roads not taken, they may just discover that what they’ve always sought was right in front of them all along.

Because audiobooks are strictly background noise for me, I stick to books that don’t require a lot of thinking–those books that people consider “beach reads” are perfect for that. Summer House has it right in the name. This book is all about hanging out with your family the way summer is meant to be spent–in a coastal New England mansion that the family is fighting over.

It has all the necessary chick-lit drama:  a love affair, a love triangle–those are two separate romances btw–a wise and rich old grandma with a past and an affinity for scotch, not to mention a guy you want to punch in the friggin throat. Gang’s all here.

Would I bounce up and down and throw this book at you until you read it? Probably not. But it was nice enough to listen to in the afternoons while getting work done. The person reading had a sweet, steady voice too, so it’s a good one to listen to. Solid three dragons.

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#FridayReads: Results May Vary

She never saw it coming. Without even a shiver of suspicion to warn her, Caroline Hammond discovers that her husband is having an affair with a man—a revelation that forces her to question their entire history together, from their early days as high school sweethearts through their ten years as a happily married couple. In her now upside-down world, Caroline begins envisioning her life without the relationship that has defined it: the loneliness of being an “I” instead of a “we”; the rekindled yet tenuous closeness with her younger sister; and the unexpected—and potentially disastrous—attraction she can’t get off her mind. Caroline always thought she knew her own love story, but as her husband’s other secrets emerge, she must decide whether that story’s ending will mean forgiving the man she’s loved for half her life, or facing her future without him.

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When I read Bethany Chase’s debut novel last year, I knew it was going to be a hit. It was funny, heartfelt, and full of sunshine–a combination that is impossible to resist. When Random House hit me up for a blog tour for her new book, Results May Vary…I wont lie…I might have screamed out loud. I was pretty dang excited.

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Whereas Chase’s first book was lighthearted and full of Texas beer and falling in love, Results May Vary dives into the heartbreak of divorce and the messy, devastating wake it leaves behind. As a divorcee myself, I found myself nodding along with every familiar conversation and therapeutic paint splatter.

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Amidst all of the wine drinking and commiserating, there are a few particular things I want to point out about this book before I give my rating:

  1. One of the main topics is bisexuality and the stigma it holds. It was the one thing I struggled with for much of the book, because the Caroline’s husband cheats on her with a man–and so bisexuality was really shown in a negative light throughout much of the story. So much so that I was going to take away a “book dragon” because of it. By the end, that changed, and I was left completely impressed. I don’t want to say too much because, spoilers, but I do want to tell you not to let that ruin the book for you. It is an issue the main character is working through, and not a stigma of the author.
  2. There is a multiracial relationship and it is lovely. Strike that…it’s goddamn freaking sexy.
  3. There are some really interesting conversations about grief after death vs grief after divorce. The way the author handles these is extremely accurate and beautiful. I just really loved the way she dealt with this whole situation.

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I could go on. But mostly I wanted you to know that this isn’t just a gorgeous, moving story, it is also a diverse one. They are going to have to keep moving the fence back, because Bethany Chase just hit another one out of the ballpark (which, by the way, GO REDS! AND THE PATRIOTS SUCK!).

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I was sent an ARC by Random House as part of the Results May Vary Blog Tour. This post does include affiliate links.

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Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies follows three women, each at a crossroads:

Madeline is a force to be reckoned with. She’s funny and biting, passionate, she remembers everything and forgives no one. Her ex-husband and his yogi new wife have moved into her beloved beachside community, and their daughter is in the same kindergarten class as Madeline’s youngest (how is this possible?). And to top it all off, Madeline’s teenage daughter seems to be choosing Madeline’s ex-husband over her. (How. Is. This. Possible?).

Celeste is the kind of beautiful woman who makes the world stop and stare. While she may seem a bit flustered at times, who wouldn’t be, with those rambunctious twin boys? Now that the boys are starting school, Celeste and her husband look set to become the king and queen of the school parent body. But royalty often comes at a price, and Celeste is grappling with how much more she is willing to pay.

New to town, single mom Jane is so young that another mother mistakes her for the nanny. Jane is sad beyond her years and harbors secret doubts about her son. But why? While Madeline and Celeste soon take Jane under their wing, none of them realizes how the arrival of Jane and her inscrutable little boy will affect them all.

Big Little Lies is a brilliant take on ex-husbands and second wives, mothers and daughters, schoolyard scandal, and the dangerous little lies we tell ourselves just to survive.

Liane Moriarty and her deadly good story-telling strikes again. I haven’t seen Women’s Fiction this good since My Sister’s Keeper (really, nothing I’ve read by Jodi Picoult has measured up to that one, although I still have a great many of her books yet to read). Now that I’ve read four in a row, I’ve really seen just how far her reach can go. Every single plot was meticulously mapped from the beginning, and gone over with a fine-toothed comb to match every single detail.

Big Little Lies is now my favorite of the four, perhaps because it has a different mapping than the other three. With the others, we knew what was happening, but the characters didn’t. We were almost omnipresent–watching the characters figure out the details. The stories were far from boring, however, because we still had to pick together the pieces of how everything fit.

In Big Little Lies, however, we know someone has died at school trivia night. We know there has been some huge conflict between the parents, and between the children. We just don’t know who or what yet. The scene is set via Moriarty’s ability to break apart the chapters with both multi-person narration and other writing devices to see outside the box–in this book she uses a journalist’s interview with the parents to get multiple POV.

The story is super thrilling. I mentioned in one of my previous reviews that her books feel like a master laying dominos down, and Big Little Lies is a perfect illustration of that. She waits patiently for us to THINK we know what is about to happen and then *clickclickclick* down they all come.

She also covers a lot of BIG topics in this one. Bullying. Sexual assault and date rape. Domestic violence. PTSD. The sexual trafficking of children. They are wrapped in a women’s fiction/thriller, but Moriarty is making some very clear points here. Don’t let those go unnoticed.

I’ve added everything from her Goodreads page to my TBR, and I’m following her now too. I can’t stand to miss a single thing this woman puts out. It’s bound to be keep me falling off the edge of my seat.

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I received a copy of this book from Berkley Publishing via Twitter Contest.

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First Comes Love

Growing up, Josie and Meredith Garland shared a loving, if sometimes contentious relationship. Josie was impulsive, spirited, and outgoing; Meredith hardworking, thoughtful, and reserved. When tragedy strikes their family, their different responses to the event splinter their delicate bond.
 
Fifteen years later, Josie and Meredith are in their late thirties, following very different paths. Josie, a first grade teacher, is single—and this close to swearing off dating for good. What she wants more than the right guy, however, is to become a mother—a feeling that is heightened when her ex-boyfriend’s daughter ends up in her class. Determined to have the future she’s always wanted, Josie decides to take matters into her own hands.
 
On the outside, Meredith is the model daughter with the perfect life. A successful attorney, she’s married to a wonderful man, and together they’re raising a beautiful four-year-old daughter. Yet lately, Meredith feels dissatisfied and restless, secretly wondering if she chose the life that was expected of her rather than the one she truly desired.
 
As the anniversary of their tragedy looms and painful secrets from the past begin to surface, Josie and Meredith must not only confront the issues that divide them, but also come to terms with their own choices. In their journey toward understanding and forgiveness, both sisters discover they need each other more than they knew . . . and that in the recipe for true happiness, love always comes first.

Emily Giffin is always good for some complicated female friendship and relationship drama. First Comes Love is no exception to that rule. Two sisters face off in their constant sibling rivalry that only worsened after tragedy struck their family. Now that they are older, they are unable to lean on each other when they really need to the most.

While I can’t find much fault with Giffin’s writing per se, I just find her books fairly predictable. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing–sometimes it is nice to sit down to a patterned genre. But it also means that I knew what was going to happen from the very beginning.

I’m having a little bit of a hard time finding words to review this, because I wasn’t excited about it. I feel–mediocre. I know a lot of people will enjoy it–it probably falls in that “beach read” category. I just didn’t find it stimulating.

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NetGalley and Ballantine Books provided this ARC for an unbiased review. Releases June 28.

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The Husband’s Secret

Imagine that your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not just the life you built together, but the lives of others as well. Imagine, then, that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive. . . .
Cecilia Fitzpatrick has achieved it all—she’s an incredibly successful businesswoman, a pillar of her small community, and a devoted wife and mother. Her life is as orderly and spotless as her home. But that letter is about to change everything, and not just for her: Rachel and Tess barely know Cecilia—or each other—but they too are about to feel the earth-shattering repercussions of her husband’s secret.

Liane Moriarty is such a masterful storyteller. She lays down the brickwork for her plot lines so quietly, so meticulously–placing each domino just right.

Meanwhile, she keeps the reader so focused on what the overall picture is going to be that they don’t even notice that she’s placed her last tile and is ready to knock them all over.

Her timing is always on pint and every piece falls exactly where it needs to to hit the next and the next and the next until everything rumbles so fast it comes to a cataclysmic close. Her books are NEVER comfortable, and they make you check your judgments at the door.

What would I do in this situation?

You don’t know.

That’s the point. Neither do the characters. No one knows what they would do until they have to, and the answer is always surprising.

The Husband’s Secret was no exception to this rule. It was every bit as well-written as What Alice Forgot–just as heart-wrenching too, only with different families and different problems. These books are like mysteries, except only to the characters–we know the answers and get to watch as the people in the story figure it out. I was a little bit confused by how the Berlin Wall tied into the story, it did seem to distract from everything else, and I couldn’t find the underlying thread that connected it. Otherwise, I loved it.

One thing that I neglected to mention in my last two reviews is that Moriarty is an Australian author who is starting to build a following in the US. Her books are becoming popular too! I have several friends who are reading these at the same time I am. You should definitely join us–there’s a reason they are circulating so fast!

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I received a copy of this book from Berkley Publishing via Twitter Contest.

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The Hypnotist’s Love Story

Ellen O’Farrell is a professional hypnotherapist who works out of the eccentric beachfront home she inherited from her grandparents. It’s a nice life, except for her tumultuous relationship history. She’s stoic about it, but at this point, Ellen wouldn’t mind a lasting one. When she meets Patrick, she’s optimistic. He’s attractive, single, employed, and best of all, he seems to like her back. Then comes that dreaded moment: He thinks they should have a talk.

Braced for the worst, Ellen is pleasantly surprised. It turns out that Patrick’s ex-girlfriend is stalking him. Ellen thinks, Actually, that’s kind of interesting. She’s dating someone worth stalking. She’s intrigued by the woman’s motives. In fact, she’d even love to meet her.

Ellen doesn’t know it, but she already has.

After reading What Alice Forgot last week, I was all set to read another Liane Moriarty book. And this one is the book everyone seemed to have read when I mentioned the author.

Unfortunately, in comparison to Alice, Ellen’s just did not measure up. Now, the writing was still just as strong–Moriarty has zero trouble there. Her storytelling ability is crazy good. I just didn’t fall quite as love with the characters as I did in the previous book.

Like Alice, this is a multi-perspective narrative. It’s third person when telling Ellen’s point of view, but then switches to first when Saskia–the ex–tells her story. Besides the POV, there’s not a change in format, so you have to pay attention to who your narrator is–and that can be a little confusing if you happen to put the book down and walk away (or answer a phone call).

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell who the villain is. While this is technically “The Hypnotist’s Love Story,” it is also very much Saskia’s. The point of all this is to show how even though you are the main person in your personal narrative, you are only a small piece in someone else’s. They may not even know you exist for more than a moment. Or you could be the bad guy. You’re not always the hero. It’s an interesting concept to think about.

The book starts slowly–dragging almost–to the point where I really didn’t want to keep going. Probably if it hadn’t been a review gift, I would have passed over it. I’m glad I finished, but it isn’t a must read.

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I received a copy of this book from Berkley Publishing via Twitter Contest.

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