“The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” by Jennifer Ryan

The Chilbury Ladies' ChoirIn her afterword to The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, Jennifer Ryan writes that she was inspired by her grandmother, who used to tell her “thrilling and often racy” stories about her experiences on the home front during World War II. “Women of all ages faced tragedy and hardship, but they also had opportunities for work and new personal freedoms with fathers, husbands, and sons away at the front… Plus, there was the heady notion that each day might be your last, so you need to make the most of it.”

Ryan captures the spirit of the times beautifully in her debut novel, which takes place during the eventful spring and summer of 1940 in a small town in southeastern England, not far from Dover. The story is told through letters and journal entries written by several of the women and girls in town, including middle-aged widow Mrs. Tilling, whose only child, David, is going off to war; 13-year-old Kitty Winthrop and her older sister Venetia, daughters of the powerful and wealthy Brigadier; and crafty midwife Miss Paltry, who is preoccupied with a get-rich-quick scheme. They are all members of the local Women’s Choir, formed after the men who used to lift their voices in song left Chilbury to fight for their country.

Some male newcomers do arrive in town, such as the mysterious artist Mr. Slater, with whom Venetia quickly becomes infatuated, and a colonel doing war work in the area, who is billeted to stay with Mrs. Tilling, much to her dismay.

By the end of the book, I really felt that I had a sense of what it must have felt like to live during that challenging time period, and how the simplest things, like a group of women gathering to sing together, can provide solace and fellowship during crisis: “Music takes us out of ourselves, away from our worries and tragedies, helps us look into a different world, a bigger picture. All those cadences and beautiful chord changes, every one of them makes you feel a different splendor of life.”

“Careful What You Wish For” by Hallie Ephron

Careful What You Wish ForMarie Kondo’s decluttering method, highlighted by the now-famous question declutterers are supposed to ask themselves as they handle each of their possessions—”Does it spark joy?”—has become such a part of the culture that it’s not surprising that Kondo-mania has now inspired a mystery novel. “Emily Harlow wasn’t convinced that her sock drawer sparked joy” is the first line of Hallie Ephron’s Careful What You Wish For. When a clever video made by Emily documenting her sock-sorting process goes viral, she decides to cash in by quitting her teaching job and becoming a professional organizer.

However, swapping a class of third graders for an assortment of messy adults proves dangerous for Emily when she gets caught up in a murder investigation. A body is found in a self-storage unit belonging to one of her clients, and the police seem to think that she may have been involved in the crime.

Ironically, Emily’s own husband, Frank, a lawyer, is a clutterbug himself; he can’t resist a yard sale or an auction, filling up the basement of their home with his finds. One of Emily’s new clients, Mrs. Murphy, is a recent widow who needs help parting with her husband’s possessions, some of which appear to have been acquired by extralegal means. Another client, Quinn Newell, is a wealthy woman whose controlling spouse wants her to get rid of all of the furniture and possessions she owned before they were married. During their first meeting, Quinn quips that she wishes she could chuck her husband out with the rest of her cast-offs. As the book’s title says, careful what you wish for…

Ephron is the author of several best-selling novels, along with a well-regarded how-to book for wannabe mystery writers; she is a consummate pro who knows how to build suspense and keep readers wondering what will happen next. With Careful What You Wish For, she’s come up with a winning concept and executed it as tidily as a Kondo’d closet.

“The Vacation” (a.k.a. “The Holiday”) by T.M. Logan

The Vacation by T.M. LoganWho was she? Which one of my friends had betrayed me?

Kate and her three best friends from college, Jennifer, Rowan and Izzy, used to reunite every year for a weekend away, until babies and husbands and work commitments interfered. Now that they’re all turning 40, they decide to go all-out with a week in the south of France, with families in tow. For Kate, that means her husband Sean, 16-year-old daughter Lucy, and 9-year-old son Daniel. Rowan has arranged for them all to share a magnificent vineyard estate. Sounds like paradise, right?

However, Sean has been acting odd lately, and when Kate snoops through the text messages on his phone, she finds evidence that he’s having an affair—with one of her three friends! Now, instead of having a relaxing holiday, Kate (who works as a crime analyst with the Metropolitan Police) must try to figure out which of her pals is the guilty party. Plus, Lucy, as well as Jennifer’s two sons, Ethan and Jake, are going through some major teenage drama; they may be hundreds of miles away from their London homes, but thanks to social media, there’s really no getting away from it all. And then there’s the perilous cliff on the property, which looms over the proceedings like Chekhov’s gun.

The HolidayThis is one of those novels where everyone is hiding secrets, and the mutual mistrust between the vacationers leads to huge problems that could be, at least to some extent, cleared up if people were only honest with each other. (Of course, when one person is finally about to reveal a shocking truth, they are interrupted by a disaster just as they’re about to say something that could clear up most of the misconceptions.) More than once, I thought of the old adage, “Never assume—it makes an ass out of u and me.” However, Logan is an ace at building suspense, and the conclusion genuinely surprised me. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as his previous book, 2018’s Lies, but this summer thriller (already a bestseller in the U.K. under the title The Holiday; it will be published in the U.S. later this year) would still provide a few pleasurable hours of poolside reading.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Publishing Group for the review copy via NetGalley.

“Bringing Down the Duke” by Evie Dunmore and “Would Like To Meet” by Rachel Winters

Bringing Down the DukeI’m always up for a historical novel featuring strong female characters—there were a lot of amazing women who fought hard against extraordinary odds to bring us the rights we enjoy today. The blurb on the front cover of Evie Dunmore’s Bringing Down the Duke calls it a “celebration of the power of love and the passionate fight for women’s rights.” Sounds promising!

The year is 1879. Annabelle Archer is in her midtwenties, stuck working as a maid for her vicar cousin, when she learns that Oxford University has opened a women’s college. Attending Oxford seems like an impossible dream for an impoverished young woman, but a surprising benefactor appears: the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, which will pay Annabelle’s way as long as she promises to work for the cause.

Lady Lucie Tedbury and her fellow suffragists are lobbying Parliament to overturn the Married Women’s Property Act, which forced female property owners to surrender everything to their husbands when they wed. Instructed to identify “men of influence,” Annabelle boldly hands a pamphlet to the cold, fearsome Duke of Montgomery, one of the most powerful men in England. Lucie admires Annabelle’s bravery but informs her that the Duke is a lost cause.

Naturally, Annabelle and the Duke wind up encountering each other again. Sparks fly! But the only possible relationship she could have with a man of such high status is that of his secret mistress, which is hardly an acceptable fate for an ambitious young woman. Annabelle has also developed close friendships with several of her fellow suffragists, and doesn’t want to risk losing them.

Bringing Down the Duke does contain quite a few romance-novel tropes, but it also passes the Bechdel test, and the relationships between the female characters are an integral part of the book. I could probably have done with 10% more of the suffragist plot and 10% less romantic angst, but it’s basically a quick and pleasant read.

Would Like To MeetMeanwhile, in present-day England, Evie Summers is working as an assistant to the owner of an agency representing film and TV writers. Her boss basically expects her to be on call constantly, taking advantage of the fact that Evie is hoping to be promoted to agent someday. However, the agency is currently in trouble, because its biggest client, young Oscar-winning screenwriting phenom Ezra Chester, has writers’ block. Ezra signed a contract to pen a rom-com for a film company, but he’s missed deadline after deadline.

When her boss informs her that unless Ezra can deliver his script, the agency will go under, Evie decides to help. She’ll arrange a series of meet-cutes for herself, and write them up for Ezra in an attempt to provide inspiration and prove that romantic comedies aren’t as contrived and unrealistic as he believes they are.

Of course, the rom-com meet-cutes that Evie is attempting to recreate are exceedingly contrived and unrealistic. And it seems deeply unlikely that even a screenwriter with an Academy Award to his credit would be rolling in dough and dating a famous actress (I was reminded of the ancient joke about the Hollywood starlet who was so brainless that she slept with the screenwriter). This is a rather silly book that requires you to just go with it (hey, that was a rom-com!); it reminded me a lot of Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic books in that regard. Hideously embarrassing things are constantly happening to the heroine as she stumbles toward her inevitable happy ending, so be forewarned if you’re allergic to cringe comedy.

“The Silent Patient” by Alex Michaelides

The Silent PatientThe Silent Patient is one of those thrillers that has a great big twist. Is it a clever twist? Yes. Did I figure it out ahead of the reveal? No way. However, it comes at the very end of the novel, which itself is… not dull, exactly, but a very slow burn.

Alicia Berenson was a gifted painter who killed her husband, a well-known fashion photographer, by shooting him in the face. What made her commit such a violent and shocking crime? No one knows, because after the murder, Alicia stopped speaking. Tucked away in a secure psychiatric facility, Alicia has become an object of fascination to psychotherapist Theo Faber, who followed her case in the press and manages to join staff at her unit. He desperately wants to figure out if he can reach her and determine the reason for her silence.

I’d really be curious to read an actual psychologist’s review of this book, because Theo doesn’t seem to be very good at what he does—ethically speaking, his actions often leave a lot to be desired. For instance, he keeps dropping in on people who knew Alicia, such as her late husband’s brother and her socially-maladjusted cousin, in order to pump them for information. And he doesn’t seem to be a terribly good employee, since he cares about exactly one patient in the psychiatric unit. At a staff meeting, Theo looks around the room at his co-workers: “I knew what they were thinking—I was letting it get personal, and letting my feelings show; but I didn’t care.”

Meanwhile, adding an extra layer of drama, Theo discovers some email messages that indicate that his wife is cheating on him. “You don’t need to be a psychotherapist to suspect that Kathy had left her laptop open because—unconsciously, at least—she wanted me to find out about her infidelity,” he muses. But he can’t make up his mind whether he should confront her, or ignore it and simply hope she eventually chooses to end her extramarital relationship.

The Silent Patient is an easy read, but it’s the sort of book I had no problem putting down once I’d read a few chapters; I didn’t find it to be the kind of thriller that kept me breathlessly turning the pages. Whether you’ll want to give it a try depends on how willing you are to spend your time reading a two-star book with a four-star ending.