Blog Tour: The Beauty Chorus, Kate Lord Brown #50BookPledge

Kate Lord Brown’s The Beauty Chorus covers a very important topic, in my opinion: the role of the female pilots, “esp. beautiful thrill-seeking debutantes,” of the Air Transport Auxiliary Unit in World War II. They were rather dismissively labelled “The Beauty Chorus” yet served an important, vital role in transporting planes to war-torn areas.  In one scene, a couple of the female ATA pilots are laughing at a Hollywood image of them as glamourous, when the reality is that they usually end up grimy from doing a lot of physical labour.

Beauty Chorus, then, ostensibly seeks to dispel those myths and show just how heroic the reality of these women are, and in some ways, the book succeeds. The italicized chapters, for example, from the perspective of ATA pilot Amy Johnson, who disappeared during a flight and was presumed dead, are touching and give us a taste of the risks these pilots take and the politics they face. The accounts of sabotage and general discrimination against female pilots also ring true, and help portray an important part of that history. And the final few chapters, where the story becomes a pure adventure-in-a-strange-land account, are enjoyable.

Unfortunately, I found Beauty Chorus so full of stock characters and melodramatic dialogue that it seemed more like the Hollywood movie the characters mocked than the reality they mentioned in passing. The main characters are adventurous debutante Evie, naive teenager Megan and young mother Stella, who left her baby with her in-laws. I found Evie mostly a standard “feisty beauty.” She gets into an altercation almost immediately with fighter pilot Beau who had immediately labelled her a spoiled brat, and as anyone who’s read a Harlequin novel can tell, that means other kinds of sparks are about to fly. In the book’s defence, Beau isn’t the stereotypical handsome brooding Alpha male. He is handsome, but scarred, literally, which adds a welcome sense of vulnerability. He is sharp, but not rude, which is good for his character, but also unfortunately makes Evie seem even pricklier.  There is the standard villanous male, who I almost expect to wear a black hat, smirk and twirl a moustache every time he appears. There is also the stereotypical ditzy, ultra-girly romantic rival, who mocks Evie’s job and clothing as being “too masculine.”

Evie has a doting father and an evil stepmother straight from a soap opera, who is after her father’s money and does everything to undermine Evie. They get into some major cat fights throughout the book, with the stepmother using baby talk on the father then demanding behind the father’s back that Evie hand over her mother’s diamonds. At times, I almost expected one of them to slap the other, though, thankfully, they show a bit more restraint than that.

Megan’s family owns land, which Megan and her brother have used to build an airstrip. With the brother dead and Megan off to war, her evil cousins are circling her father, pressuring him to sell them the land so they can use it to make money. This, on top of the Evie’s evil stepmother storyline, and the only good thing I can say is that the evil cousins don’t appear as often as the evil stepmother does.

Stella probably begins as the most interesting character: she’s a mother who has lost her husband and left her baby behind, and quite understandably suffers from depression until she meets a handsome curate who is a good listener… You can probably guess where that goes. And that’s really the main problem – with so many stereotypes and so many cookie cutter situations, a lot of the book becomes predictable.

Details about the ATA pilots being forced beyond their comfort zone are limited to characters laughing about the glamorization of Hollywood, Evie shrieking over a mouse in their cottage and characters mentioning that they have a heavy schedule for the day. Otherwise, there are scenes with Evie driving them into town to shop for their cottage, the women going to dates, and, of course, Evie shrieking invectives at the evil stepmother.

One scene that really irked me, and I’ll try not to give any spoilers away: a woman is about to have sex when she and her date run into another man. She promptly leaves her date, apologizes to the other man, and they have sex, all in the space of a couple of pages. That in itself is pretty skeevy (poor date!), but it could have worked, especially since Brown has established this woman’s naivete. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough set-up to make me believe in the love between the character and this man. The past few chapters had her gushing about the date, and this other man hadn’t been mentioned at all. So when they suddenly declare deep feelings for each other, I couldn’t believe them. Worse, I felt I could no longer believe any of this character’s emotions in the future, and not in a good way.

There are some moments in the book I loved, mostly because I found they revealed a lot about the character, and in a non-stereotypical way. When Stella (who was still producing milk) was asked to give milk to a starving baby, she balks, and it takes the other woman a while to convince her to make the sacrifice. I thought this was just such a powerful moment, where Stella, against all logic, wants to save her milk only for her baby, even though he is in a completely different country. In another scene, when Evie sees a man beating up a dog with a stick, she takes the stick from the man and beats him up instead. I found that scene hilarious, and thought it really showed Evie’s passion for protecting the helpless.

Finally, I found the last quarter or so of the book, after a certain plot twist, to be a vast improvement. The “bad guy” characters were less prominent, which allowed Evie and the other characters to interact much more naturally, and develop beyond the stereotypes. I only wish this had come earlier, and that the villains, especially, were given more depth.

I wanted to love this book. I think it’s important to tell the stories of groups who may not have gotten as much attention in history about their war efforts, and I appreciated the Author’s Note at the end, which gave me a bit more information on the ATA pilots. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this exciting enough to be a straight-up adventure/romance story nor layered enough to be a penetrating look at the reality behind the glamour.

Lost in Shangri-La, Mitchell Zuckoff #50BookPledge

It began as an afternoon treat – an aerial tour of the hidden valley whimsically called Shangri-La. Stories about Shangri-La include tales of lush vegetation and a Stone Age civilization with people over seven feet tall. No outsider has ever set foot in Shangri-La, and very few have flown over it. The air space was just too treacherous. Yet on May 13, 1945, Colonel Peter Prossen decided to treat his staff to a sightseeing trip on a transport plane over Shangri-La.

Due to a number of factors, the plane crashed, and only three passengers survived — Corporal Margaret Hastings, Lieutenant John McCollom and Sergeant Kenneth Decker. They knew nothing about the terrain,

and have heard only terrifying stories about the natives. Mitchell Zuckoff chronicles their story in Lost in Shangri-La, and tells the tale of how a group of brave Filipino-American soldiers mounted a rescue operation that, by all accounts, offered little chance of survival, much less success.

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, nor do I read a lot of history books, yet I couldn’t put this book down. It’s that thrilling. Zuckoff is an award winning journalist, and I can see why. He writes with journalistic detachment, and creates an exciting, moving narrative because of it. I love that Zuckoff doesn’t editorialize. Opinions expressed in the book are from interviews and personal documents like journals. While readers can generally guess at Zuckoff’s own slant on certain subjects (e.g. a certain comment showed frat boy humour), his language is detached, and he presents a balanced view: “Changes in a valley during the ensuing decades have been dramatic, but whether for better or worse is a matter of debate.” The picture he proceeds to paint is bleak, suggesting that the changes have been in fact for the worse, but Zuckoff uses facts (poverty levels), imagery (native elders now begging for change) and interviews (a quote from a documentary filmmaker) to make his case.

I also love Zuckoff’s attention to detail. Even the people who died in the crash were fully fleshed out because of the details Zuckoff mentions. About John McCollom’s twin Robert, who was on the plane as well, Zuckoff notes that the twins were “known to family and friends as ‘The Inseparables.’” When Robert got married, “both McColloms were in uniform [at the wedding photo]; the only way to tell them apart is by Adele’s winsome smile in Robert’s direction.” Private Eleanor Hanna, who was also on the plane “had a reputation…for singing wherever she went.” Sergeant Helen Kent, who’d lost her husband in a military plane crash, left behind her best friend Sergeant Ruth Coster, who was “swamped with paperwork” and couldn’t join the tour. These details made even these secondary characters real to me, which I appreciated.

Probably the most tense moment in the book was the account of the survivors’ first encounter with the natives. All they’ve heard was that these natives were war-like and cannibalistic. “We haven’t any weapon,” McCollom tells Margaret and Decker. “There is nothing to do but act friendly. Smile as you’ve never smiled before, and pray to God it works.” The survivors smiled and held out Charms hard candies as peace offerings.

Even better, Zuckoff has interviewed some natives who were children when the plane crash occurred, so he’s able to present their perspective on the events as well: “[Yaralok] saw creatures that resembled people, but they didn’t look like any people he’d ever seen. The skin on their faces was light, and they had straight hair. The skin on their bodies was strange. They had feet but no toes. Only later would he learn that coverings called clothing shielded their skin and that shoes encased their toes.” This, I think, was when it really struck me how alien these cultures were to each other. Yaralok and his tribe have never seen fair skin or Western clothing, much less Charms hard candies.

It’s hard to imagine in these days when we have such a global culture and meeting people with different clothing and skin colour is a daily occurrence. But what if we encounter someone who doesn’t meet any of our ideas of humanity? What if I meet a “creature” that looked like a person, but had, say, green skin, was covered in scales and was holding out to me brightly coloured balls of goo? How would I react? By telling the story from both perspectives, Zuckoff recounts cultural misunderstandings and ways in which humans adapt when faced with the unfamiliar.

Zuckoff also gives due credit to the Filipino American soldiers who mounted the rescue mission. From the always cheerful Corporal Camilo “Rammy” Ramirez to the shy, efficient Sergeant Benjamin “Doc” Bulatao, the Filipino Americans were heroes, parachuting into the valley on a potential suicide mission. It was courageous, especially in light of the discrimination Zuckoff shows these soldiers have faced as Filipinos. Part of this discrimination, which frustrated their captain, Earl Walter Jr, is the way the media coverage ignored their contribution. So I’m glad Zuckoff remedies this media oversight in his book. The courage of Walter and his team is balanced by their “Bahala na” (Come what may) attitude, which paints a portrait of the team as cheerful in the face of danger.

Filled with first-hand accounts, journal entries and personal observations, Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La is an exciting book, both hopeful and tragic. No wonder Zuckoff became a finalist for a Pulitzer in investigative reporting.