Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

Songs of Willow Frost William Eng has spent the last five years of his life in the care of the nuns at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage. It’s 1934 and living conditions at the orphanage are very poor, particularly for William who is Chinese-American and considered inferior to most of the other children. But William is not at all sure that he is actually an orphan – although he has never known his father, the last time he saw his mother she was being carried out of their apartment by a doctor, promising that she’d be coming back soon.

On William’s twelfth birthday he and the other boys are taken to see a film as a special treat and William becomes convinced that one of the actresses he sees on the screen, Willow Frost, is his mother. With the help of his best friend, a blind girl called Charlotte, he sets out to find Willow Frost in the hope that she can answer the question that has been troubling him for five years – what can lead a mother to abandon her child?

Having loved Jamie Ford’s previous novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, I was looking forward to reading this one. If anything, this book was even more ‘bitter and sweet’ than the first! At times it was so sad that I wasn’t sure if I could bear to continue reading, but even while my heart was breaking for William and his mother it was obvious that they loved each other and that gave me a glimmer of hope. I wanted them to find the happiness they deserved and that was what kept me turning the pages.

Although we begin in 1934 with William in search of Willow Frost, at least half of the novel is actually set several years earlier in 1921 and follows the story of the young Willow – or Liu Song as she was originally known. It was the 1921 section of the story that I found particularly upsetting to read; being Chinese, a woman and unmarried, life is not easy for Liu Song and it seems that every bad thing that could possibly happen to her does happen. While her stepfather, Uncle Leo, is the villain of the book, I was equally furious with the attitude of a social worker who supposedly had William’s best interests at heart but was clearly only concerned with punishing his mother for what she claimed was immoral behaviour.

Despite the overwhelming sadness, I enjoyed Songs of Willow Frost. There are some great descriptions of Seattle in the 1920s and 1930s and we are given some fascinating insights into the city’s Chinese community and the lives of people struggling to survive during the Depression. I didn’t find this book quite as satisfying as Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and there were one or two aspects of the plot that didn’t resolve the way I would have liked them to but overall I thought this was a wonderfully poignant and moving story.

Thanks to Lovereading for the review copy

Three nurses, a ghost and a computer genius

The Nightingale Girls by Donna Douglas / For One More Tomorrow by Elizabeth Bailey / Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel

Happy New Year! With a backlog of books read near the end of 2012 still to write about, I am starting 2013 with reviews of not just one book but three. Apologies in advance for the length of this post…I thought these were going to be mini-reviews but they turned out to be longer than I expected!

The Nightingale Girls The Nightingale Girls by Donna Douglas

The Nightingale Girls is set in the 1930s and follows the stories of three student nurses at one of London’s top teaching hospitals, the Nightingale.

Life is not easy for Dora Doyle, who comes from a poor, working class family from the East End of London. Dora sometimes feels out of place among the other, richer girls at the Nightingale and is struggling to find money to buy the books she needs, but she is determined to succeed, partly because she’s passionate about nursing but also because she’s desperate to get away from her abusive stepfather. The aristocratic Lady Amelia Benedict, known as Millie, is from a very different social background to Dora, with whom she shares a room. Millie wants to build a life for herself away from her luxurious home and glamorous friends, but as she is constantly finding herself in trouble and has already failed her preliminary training exams once, it’s going to be difficult to prove that she’s serious about her nursing. The third girl we meet is Helen Tremayne, a second year student. Her domineering mother is on the hospital’s board of trustees and her brother is a doctor, so expectations are high. Helen works hard, but has trouble making friends, especially as the other girls don’t trust her because of her mother.

At first it seems that Dora, Helen and Millie have nothing in common but as they get to know each other during their long, hard days at the Nightingale, a bond begins to form between the three of them. I didn’t feel I got to know Helen as well as the other two but I loved both Dora and Millie. Dora was completely inspirational and a perfect example of someone managing to fulfil her dreams through sheer determination and hard work. And the rebellious but warm-hearted Millie was so endearing. Through her story we see that money and possessions are not everything and that true happiness can come through doing something that we love. There are some great secondary characters too, including the spiteful and snobby but bitterly unhappy Lucy Lane, and the Doyles’ neighbour, Nick, who is desperately trying to make enough money to take his little brother to America. Dora’s grandmother, Nanna Winnie, was another favourite.

It was so interesting to see what was involved in being a trainee nurse in the 1930s. The book shows us the hardships of nursing, but there are also lots of moments of fun and humour, including one hilarious scene involving false teeth. As a historical novel, the setting of 1930s London is wonderful, whether we’re reading about the streets in the East End where the Doyle family live or an afternoon eating cakes and drinking tea at Lyons’ Corner House! The Nightingale Girls is the first in a series of novels about the Nightingale Hospital and I will look forward to reading the others.

Thanks to Random House for sending me a review copy of The Nightingale Girls

For One More Tomorrow For One More Tomorrow by Elizabeth Bailey

For One More Tomorrow, currently available as an ebook, tells the story of Sadie Grey, who is directing a production of Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. Growing frustrated and disillusioned with some of the actors in the play and their inability to inject real passion into their roles, Sadie is stunned when she meets the ghost of Macbeth himself. Soon Mac, as Sadie calls him, seems to be invading her thoughts and taking over her life, and as her relationship with the ghost develops there are some surprises in store for both Sadie and the reader!

At first Sadie wonders whether Macbeth’s ghost has been produced from her own imagination – he looks and sounds exactly as she had pictured him in her mind, even wearing tartan like the characters in Sadie’s play despite the fact that she knows the real Macbeth would not have done so. And yet it seems that Mac does have an existence of his own outside of her imagination, and some sections of the story are seen from his point of view, as he roams the streets alone or watches rehearsals from the shadows at the side of the stage. Through his own thoughts and his conversations with Sadie, we see that he is not very pleased at the way the story of his life has been distorted by Shakespeare; he’s angry and hurt that his reputation has been damaged and history has been altered in the name of entertainment.

I haven’t read all of Shakespeare’s plays but I have read Macbeth more than once and it’s probably the play I’m most familiar with. I could sympathise with Sadie, who clearly has a real understanding and love of the play; she knows how she wants the actors and actresses to play their roles and it annoys her when they do not portray their characters as she wants to see them portrayed…especially Curtis, the man who is playing Macbeth. I did enjoy the parts of the book that deal with the rehearsals for the play and the problems Sadie encounters as director, but my favourite scenes were those in which Sadie is interacting with the ghost. For One More Tomorrow was an unusual and imaginative story and I’m sure the next time I read Macbeth I’ll remember Mac and how he felt about Shakespeare’s words.

Thanks to the author for sending me a review copy of this book

Goodbye for Now Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel

Sam Elling is a computer software engineer who works for an online dating company based in Seattle. Sam has created a new computer algorithm to help people find their perfect partner, but it proves to be too successful as people are meeting their soulmates too quickly and don’t need to use the dating agency anymore. As a result he loses his job but it’s not long before he comes up with another invention.

When Sam’s girlfriend Meredith loses her beloved grandmother, Livvie, she tells him she wishes she could speak to Livvie one more time. Wanting to help in any way he can, Sam creates a computer program based on the online presence Livvie has left behind, including emails, texts and videos. Meredith is shocked but overjoyed to discover that she can now continue to chat to Livvie and exchange emails just as she used to when her grandmother was alive. Soon Sam and Meredith decide to give other bereaved people the same opportunity to communicate with loved ones who are no longer with them, but they are not prepared for the number of moral issues they will have to face.

Different people have different ways of dealing with grief and what works for one person will not necessarily work for everyone. I can’t imagine ever wanting to use this type of technology myself and I tend to agree with the characters in the story who found the whole idea creepy and disturbing. However, I still thought it was fascinating to read about. There’s nothing paranormal involved and the software Sam invents sounds completely believable from a scientific point of view.

With death and grief forming such a big part of this book I had expected something very sad and emotional, but the story was actually not as moving as I had thought it might be. That could be because the main characters – Sam, Meredith, her cousin Dashiell and their clients – are all so ‘nice’ that I had difficulty believing in them as real people and didn’t manage to fully connect with them. What I did love about this novel was the number of thought-provoking questions it raises by showing us how the world reacts to Sam’s controversial new technology and telling the stories of the people who decide to use it.

Is chatting to a computer generated image of a friend or relative who has died really a good idea or is it better to let the grieving process take its natural course? Can social media actually be isolating rather than social? Are there things that our loved ones may have said or done online that we would be better off not knowing about? What about privacy? Nobody seemed to have any problems with allowing Sam to access their family member’s emails, blog, internet browsing history or Facebook and Twitter accounts, but I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that. Goodbye for Now may not have been a perfect novel but has left me musing on all of these questions and more.

Thanks to Headline for the review copy of Goodbye for Now

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

One day in 1986 Henry Lee stands outside Seattle’s Panama Hotel. The building is being renovated and has been opened up for the first time in over forty years. As Henry watches, a number of items are carried up to the street. These things belonged to the Japanese American families who were ‘evacuated’ from their homes during the second world war. They had stored their possessions in the hotel basement but never came back to reclaim them. This is an important historical discovery, but for Henry it also has personal significance as it brings back memories of one particular Japanese family and a girl called Keiko…

Henry and Keiko are both just twelve years old when they become friends in 1942. He is the only Chinese boy and she the only Japanese girl in an all-white school. Unfortunately Henry’s father disapproves of their relationship – China and Japan have been involved in conflict for years and he considers all Japanese people to be the enemy. And with Pearl Harbor still fresh in people’s minds, Japan is America’s enemy too. Henry’s parents make him wear an “I am Chinese” button when he goes out in case anyone mistakes him for a Japanese boy. When the US government decide to round up thousands of Japanese people and send them to internment camps (allegedly to stop them from spying) Henry and Keiko find themselves separated.

The story of Henry and Keiko’s love and the fate of America’s Japanese population is just one part of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet; the book also looks at the difficult relationship between Henry and his father, racial tensions in the 1940s, the Seattle jazz scene and the importance of music in our lives. The novel is heartbreaking in places and heartwarming in others (the ‘bitter and sweet’ of the title), yet it never became too sentimental for me. It’s a lovely, tender, moving story from beginning to end, but at the same time it’s a story that helps to educate the reader about an aspect of World War II that rarely seems to be given any attention today. I feel ashamed that I knew nothing about the way Japanese American people were treated during the war and I’m pleased that this gap in my knowledge has now been rectified somewhat.

So many of the books I’ve read recently have dual timeframes. In this book the narrative is split between 1942 and 1986, but for once I found both periods equally compelling to read about. As for the characters, the good ones are very good and the bad ones are very bad, yet they still feel like real, believable people rather than two-dimensional stereotypes. I really loved both Henry and Keiko. They were characters I genuinely cared about and I felt emotionally invested in their story, rather than just being a passive observer. And someone else who deserves a mention is Sheldon, a black saxophone player who becomes a friend of Henry’s, the type of friend I think we would all like to have!

As you might have guessed by now, I really loved this book – and I think it might even be one of my favourite books of the year so far. I had added it to my wish list as soon as it started appearing on so many American book blogs a couple of years ago and now that I’ve finally had a chance to read it for myself I’m so glad it was as good as I’d hoped it would be!