Monday, May 29, 2023

Good Night, Irene by Luis Alberto Urrea

Good Night, Irene by Luis Alberto Urrea introduces the little-known World War II Red Cross Clubmobile corps and the volunteer “Donut Dollies,” women who made and served coffee and donuts to GIs in England and Europe. While working to bolster morale among the troops, these women served alongside the soldiers under the most difficult and harrowing circumstances. Good Night, Irene, an exceptional novel, focuses primarily on two volunteers: Irene, a privileged but unhappy New Yorker, and Dorothy, an Indiana farm girl who's lost both the farm and her family. 

The novel begins when Irene leaves New York and an abusive fiancé for training in Washington, D. C. 

November 1943

Dear Mother, 

I have so much to tell you, but so much I can't say. I am sorry that I won't be home for the holidays and it might be a while before I see you again. As soon as I am free to explain, I believe you will be proud of me. I have joined the Red Cross and am going to do my part.

I had to make a change. I will explain more when I can.

Love, Irene

After stateside training, the volunteers arrive in England and Urrea captures their lives and intertwines their character development with descriptions of the countryside and the sad beauty of a Luftwaffe attack as the women’s train rolls into London’s Euston Station. “Flickering orange flames in the distance launched dense smoke columns into the sky. The glow of fires showed through the ruins of buildings. Churches that had already been reduced to shells by the Blitz were now transformed into enormous candles.” 

Irene and Dorothy begin to see the value of their role in the war as they watch men await their fellow pilots return from battle and they share in their anguish when someone is feared lost. Irene pens another letter home despite her mother not having written back.

“London, December 21, 1943

Dear Mother, 

If you were wondering what I'm doing here. . . 

He hit me.

Merry Christmas, Mother.

Good night, Irene”

Soon the women and their Clubmobile, a mobile unit with two large coffee urns, a record player, and a donut-making machine, cross the English Channel and serve alongside General Patton’s 3rd Army from the beaches of Normandy through France and Germany facing bombings, attacks, and eventually the horrors of Buchenwald. Dorothy, a tall, no-nonsense woman, and Irene, an artsy city girl, become close as they share living among soldiers, working beyond what seems physically possible, and suffering PTSD from all they've endured. Urrea imbues Irene, Dorothy, and many of the soldiers and others they meet with realistically endearing senses of humor that make the most difficult of their experiences bearable. He also uses engaging word pictures to portray the land they traverse so that the reader can see that these aren't just battle locales, they're actual places where people live and love. 

The story of these women is important to Urrea. His mother was a Clubmobile volunteer who had nightmares every night he can remember. Urrea and his wife Cindy, a former reporter who helped research the novel, found Urrea’s mother’s Clubmobile partner living only two hours from them and the woman shared remarkable insights and letters that helped Urrea tell the story with facts, compassion, and infinite care. 

Love abounds in this novel—love infused with the sadness of war alongside the joy found in the bonds of friendships made while serving together. Luis Alberto Urrea has given the world award-winning novels, poetry, and nonfiction, but Good Night, Irene may be his best with its poetic rendering of a forgotten piece of history and a powerful ending that fits perfectly.

Summing it Up: Good Night, Irene is a novel that reveals the truth about World War II in Europe and depicts it more vividly than nonfiction ever could. In Good Night, Irene, we feel what Irene and Dorothy felt, we laugh with them, we watch them grow stronger, and we ache when they suffer and are near the breaking point from living through such trauma. Good Night, Irene is the best book I’ve read this year and I’ve read more than fifty and several of them have been outstanding. If you loved Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale and Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, you will find yourself equally immersed in Good Night, Irene. 

Footnote: Read this article for a beautiful picture of Urrea and for more in-depth information about his mother: 

Chicago area readers: The book launch event will be tonight, May 30 at 7 p.m. at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, IL. If you haven’t heard Luis speak, you’re in for a treat. Ticket information hereHe’ll also be at bookstores across the country in the coming weeks. 

Rating: 5 Stars 

Publication Date: May 30, 2023

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Author Website: 

Interview with the Author: 

What Others are Saying:


Kirkus Reviews: 


Publishers Weekly: 

“Urrea’s touch is sure, his exuberance carries you through . . . He is a generous writer, not just in his approach to his craft but in the broader sense of what he feels necessary to capture about life itself.” —Financial Times

Good Night, Irene is a beautiful, heartfelt novel that celebrates the intense power and durability of female friendship while shining a light on one of the fascinating lost women’s stories of World War II. Inspired by his own family history—and his mother’s heroism as a Red Cross volunteer during the war—Luis Urrea has created an indelible portrait of women’s courage under extreme adversity. Powerful, uplifting, and deeply personal, Good night, Irene is a story of survival, camaraderie, and courage on the front line.”

—Kristin Hannah, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Nightingale and The Four Winds

“Every once in a while the universe opens its heart and pulls out a book like this novel, gifting it to the cosmos. In Good Night, Irene, a new element has been created, and the literary world is reborn in the image of Luis Alberto Urrea. His voice comes alive on every page of this magnificent novel.”

—Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of The Many Daughters of Afong Moy and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

The Museum of Ordinary People by Mike Gayle

The Museum of Ordinary People by Mike Gayle is a feel-good, meringue-with-ice-cream-strawberries-and-hot-fudge dessert of a novel. I loved Gayle’s All the Lonely People and his latest shares the same sensitivity. Jess is overwhelmed with grief after her Trinidadian mother’s recent death. After cleaning out her mother's home, Jess has kept several momentos and has given many of her mother’s other possessions to charity shops. Jess shares an apartment with her white boyfriend Guy, a minimalist, who enjoys his carefully curated modern apartment.  The apartment isn't large and Jess understands that there isn't room for the set of encyclopedias her mother gave her when she was eleven so she tries to donate them, but no charity shops will accept them and she can't bear to think of throwing them away. 

Jess’s friend Luce learns of an odd space called the Museum of Ordinary People housed in a warehouse that takes such items so Jess visits the warehouse and meets Alex who has just inherited the warehouse and accompanying business. He's planning to sell it,  but when Jess proposes a collaboration, a dream is born. 

Later, two major secrets are revealed. They almost feel unexpected, yet they make sense and add to the fairytale quality of the book. 

My favorite part of this novel is the following quote which has had me thinking for days:

The older you get the more home becomes about people rather than place. The older you get the more roots are about where you want to be rather than where you come from.” Jess needs to find out where she wants to be, but first she must deal with where she comes from. 

Summing it Up: if you're looking for a diversion and a charmer, The Museum of Ordinary People is just what you want. It sweetly shows how tied we are to possessions that evoke memories of those we've lost and how we can find ways to retain those recollections. It's a great beach read. 

Rating: 4 Stars

Publication Date: May 30, 2023 (U. S.)

Categories: Dessert, Fiction, Sweet Bean Paste

Author Website: 

What Others are Saying:

Kirkus Reviews: 

“Moving and heartwarming, this is a story about love and loss and holding onto the memories that make us who we are. Fans of character-driven relationship fiction by Clare Pooley, Rachel Joyce, and Freya Sampson will want to pick this one up.” —Booklist

Monday, May 15, 2023

Town and Gown by Jan English Leary

Is it possible to live in a small town while keeping a big secret? If it is, how will holding that secret change you and others who don’t know of its possible impact on them? Town and Gown by Jan English Leary probes the consequences of a big secret in the alternating stories of two young women who grew up in a small, rural college town in Pennsylvania. The novel begins when Wanda and Callie, the main characters, are in high school and Leary, who was a teacher in Chicago for many years, captures school life and the highs and lows of being a teen beautifully.

Wanda is from a farm family and is therefore not deemed popular or smart enough for college and success beyond her current status. She’s highly intelligent, though, and wants to go to college and become a nurse, but she follows the expected path and marries her aimless high school boyfriend David. After losing his job, David joins the Army without telling Wanda and he’s killed in Iraq. Upon learning of his death, in her grief, Wanda foolishly sleeps with Whit, the annoying, genius son of a local college professor. When she learns she’s pregnant, Wanda allows everyone to believe that the baby is her husband’s. 

Meanwhile, Callie, a professor’s daughter, second in her class, and girlfriend of the star athlete, is accepted at a fine school, but her parents won’t let her go. She starts classes at home and begins clandestinely sleeping with her French professor, a man ten years her senior. They run away together to Martinique and then to New York City where he hits her so she escapes and builds a new life in Chicago.

Back in Pennsylvania, Macky, Wanda’s son, is brilliant and like his biological father, doesn’t fit in well with other kids. His teacher doesn’t believe that he can read and he’s blamed when others bully him. “He just feels things more than most kids do.” Wanda begins teaching him at home and takes him with her when she cleans houses. She cleans for Callie’s mother and one day finds her confused and ill and calls Callie who she believes is a privileged snob. After Callie arrives and settles in she’s with Wanda and Macky when Macky has a seemingly uncontrollable tantrum. Callie knows what Macky needs when she sees his distress and she holds him tightly until he calms. 

Callie asks Wanda, “He’s really sensitive, right?”


“Sounds, smells?”

“Uh huh.”

Finally having someone recognize Macky for who he is, Wanda, in her vulnerability, tells Callie her secret. After that Wanda realizes she has to decide whether to tell Macky’s grandparents of his true parentage. “Who knew the right thing to do, . . . How does someone untangle a big knotted mess?” 

Wanda and Callie see that they need each other and their friendship grows. Wanda helps Callie find a local person to care for her mother. Callie supports Wanda as she decides whether to share her secret.

The characters, even the most minor ones, in this page-turner, are unique, well-developed, and intriguing. The focus is on Callie and Wanda, but the male characters and the mothers all feel like real people you’d meet where you live.

Summing it Up: If you’re looking for a character-driven, propulsive novel that explores the importance of being true to self while also examining the dangers of keeping secrets, Town and Gown is just the book for you. This engaging novel that’s packed with great mother and mother-figure characters as well as realistic men belongs in every hammock this coming Memorial Day weekend. It also has a hope-filled ending that readers will appreciate. You can’t go wrong with Town and Gown. This is an original paperback and is also available as an ebook for $4.99.

Note to Chicago area readers: Leary, who lives in Chicago, captures the city well. I loved seeing Flossmoor, the suburb less than a mile from where I live, mentioned as Callie’s roommate’s hometown. If you live in the area, the book’s launch will be at Women and Children First on Tuesday, May 30 at 7 p.m. CDT where Leary will be in conversation with author Lynn Sloan.

Rating: 4 Stars 

Publication Date: May 15, 2023

Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club

What Others are Saying:

Kirkus Reviews: 

Jan English ‍Leary’s ‍latest ‍novel ‍sweeps ‍the ‍reader ‍into ‍the ‍lives ‍of ‍two ‍women ‍from ‍the ‍same ‍small ‍town ‍as ‍they ‍launch ‍into ‍adulthood. ‍Wanda, ‍a ‍farm ‍girl, ‍marries ‍her ‍high ‍school ‍boyfriend, ‍works ‍at ‍the ‍local ‍bakery, ‍and ‍hopes ‍to ‍someday ‍start ‍a ‍family. ‍Callie, ‍the ‍daughter ‍of ‍a ‍college ‍professor, ‍dreams ‍of ‍bigger ‍adventures ‍far ‍from ‍her ‍overprotective ‍parents ‍and ‍the ‍college ‍town ‍mentality. ‍With ‍writing ‍deeply-rooted ‍in ‍place ‍and ‍character, ‍Leary ‍masterfully ‍immerses ‍us ‍in ‍the ‍lives ‍of ‍these ‍two ‍women ‍as ‍they ‍set ‍out ‍on ‍separate ‍journeys, ‍only ‍to ‍discover ‍the ‍many ‍ways ‍their ‍paths ‍intersect. ‍‍Town ‍and ‍Gown ‍is ‍a ‍moving ‍portrayal ‍of ‍resiliency ‍and ‍second ‍chances, ‍reminding ‍us ‍that ‍while ‍we ‍can't ‍always ‍choose ‍our ‍circumstances, ‍there's ‍power ‍to ‍be ‍found ‍in ‍how ‍we ‍respond.”

‍— ‍Marcie ‍Roman, ‍author ‍of Journey to the Parallels‍‍

‍“I ‍admire ‍the ‍no-frills, ‍and ‍no-waste, ‍prose ‍Jan ‍English ‍Leary ‍deploys ‍in ‍her ‍novel ‍‍Town ‍and ‍Gown‍ ‍to ‍narrate ‍the ‍lives ‍of ‍two ‍women ‍growing ‍up–one ‍from ‍the ‍farm ‍and ‍one ‍from ‍the ‍hill–in ‍a ‍college ‍village ‍in ‍the ‍northeast. ‍Despite ‍dread ‍events ‍and ‍bleak ‍prospects ‍that ‍might ‍give ‍Greek ‍drama ‍a ‍run ‍for ‍its ‍money, ‍there ‍is ‍a ‍kind ‍of ‍admirable ‍resilience ‍here, ‍too. ‍Lacking ‍a ‍scintilla ‍of ‍nostalgia, ‍this ‍fast ‍paced ‍and ‍gripping ‍novel ‍does ‍not ‍pine ‍for ‍lost ‍glory ‍days, ‍but ‍instead ‍offers ‍a ‍bracing ‍account ‍of ‍today’s ‍small-town ‍America ‍with ‍a ‍subtle ‍but ‍potent ‍feminist ‍slant.”

‍— ‍Charles ‍Lamar ‍Phillips, ‍author ‍of Estranged and Dead South‍‍

‍“‍This ‍lively, ‍entertaining ‍novel ‍features ‍both ‍deeply ‍felt ‍characters ‍and ‍an ‍engaging ‍plot. ‍It ‍immerses ‍us ‍in ‍the ‍struggles ‍of ‍two ‍young ‍women—one ‍a ‍farmer's ‍daughter, ‍the ‍other ‍a ‍professor's ‍child—as ‍they ‍seek ‍to ‍establish ‍themselves ‍in ‍the ‍world. ‍Through ‍their ‍stories, ‍we ‍see ‍how ‍simple ‍categories, ‍such ‍as ‍the ‍divide ‍between ‍the ‍intellectual ‍and ‍the ‍agrarian, ‍can ‍be ‍limiting, ‍and ‍we ‍come ‍to ‍question ‍easy ‍binaries ‍concerning ‍social ‍status ‍and ‍destiny. ‍The ‍novel ‍also ‍explores ‍the ‍assumptions ‍we ‍make ‍about ‍each ‍other ‍and ‍the ‍kinds ‍of ‍compromises–some ‍big, ‍some ‍small–we ‍all ‍must ‍learn ‍to ‍live ‍with ‍as ‍the ‍inevitable ‍result ‍of ‍creating ‍a ‍life. ‍‍Town ‍and ‍Gown‍ ‍is ‍an ‍empathetic ‍and ‍insightful ‍page ‍turner ‍of ‍a ‍novel, ‍one ‍that ‍I ‍won't ‍soon ‍forget.”

‍—Beth ‍Castrodale, ‍author ‍of In This Ground and I Mean You No Harm