Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon

Full disclosure: Katie Fallon is my faculty advisor this semester, meaning we’ll be working closely together. I read this book just before meeting her.


Mid-April in our southern mountains is a gentle time; blooming forsythia lights up yards like bursts of yellow fireworks, magnolia trees sport gaudy white and pink blossoms, and median strips swell with lilacs and tulips.

cerulean-bluesCerulean Blues is a book about the cerulean warbler, a migratory songbird in danger but not listed as endangered (yet); it is also a book about the author’s becoming a fan and ally of the little bird, a year in her life.

It is organized by seasons: spring, summer and fall. In spring, Fallon discovers the bird and its possibilities for her, and the danger it’s in. This just happens to be as well the spring of 2007, and she is teaching at Virginia Tech when a school shooting takes place there that kills 33. The trauma of these events will shadow everything that follows for her. But she continues on through summer, when she travels to visit the cerulean in its northern habitats near her own Appalachian home, and fall, when she goes further afield to its migratory home in Colombia.

While Fallon is reflective and personal throughout, and the reader gets to know her husband and their rescue dog Mr. Bones as well as the narrator’s own insecurities and grief, this is very much a book about a bird species and its plight. While also showcasing some lovely language (see quotation above), she teaches us a great deal about cerulean warblers and the research (and personalities) that have taught her about them. It’s ultimately a work of science reporting by a non-scientist, as well as a memoir. I found her emotions and minor human flaws easily accessible, and the bird facts equally so. I felt that I got to know her by reading this–which turns out to be particularly applicable to my own studies, but will be rewarding for any reader. The Katie Fallon of these pages is an easy-to-like, easy-to-read instructor, and I think the cerulean warbler will gain more than a few more allies in its readers. (Quick hint: be sure to buy shade-grown and/or bird-friendly coffee!) Nice to meet you, Katie.


Rating: 7 colored bands.

Keep your eyes out for Katie’s next work of nonfiction, available in March of this year. I am especially looking forward to this one, titled Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird. Vultures are among my favorite birds, as they were Ed Abbey’s.

Take Me to Paris, Johnny by John Foster

This beautifully written memoir of a lover’s life and death will impress readers with its lyricism and emotion.

take-me-to-paris-johnny

Originally published in Australia in 1993, John Foster’s Take Me to Paris, Johnny recounts the life of his lover Juan C├ęspedes, who died of AIDS in 1987. This Text Classics edition–the first in the United States–includes an introduction by critic Peter Craven and an afterword by Foster’s close friend John Rickard. While these supplementary materials provide context and develop Foster’s character, the original work gleams abundantly without their help.

Juan was a Cuban refugee studying dance in New York City when he met Foster, an Australian history professor, in 1981. A one-night stand became a summer-long affair and then a long-term, long-distance relationship, to Foster’s surprise. As the couple wrangled with the Australian immigration authorities to gain Juan’s permanent residence there, his illness became undeniably serious. He died in a hospital in Melbourne with Foster by his side.

This sensitive, perceptive memoir keeps Juan at its center, outlining his boyhood and escape to the United States before focusing on the love affair and Juan’s death; the final event receives due gravity without defining his life or the book. In a mere 200 pages, Take Me to Paris, Johnny achieves a full emotional range, sketches Juan’s rare and changeable personality and imbues a tragedy with poetry. Foster’s writing is exquisite: thoughtful, lyrical and with an eye for detail. While this is undeniably a sad story, Foster resists wallowing, choosing instead to celebrate Juan and even to laugh at their troubles. Take Me to Paris, Johnny is incisive, wry, loving and deeply lovable.


This review originally ran in the January 10, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 red gladiolas.

The Stand by Stephen King (audio)

the-standStephen King’s long, juicy novels often leave me a little tongue-tied when it comes time to write a review. There is so much to say. The Stand is a long one: this updated version (with King’s “Preface in Two Parts” and some 400 pages of added text left out of the original publication) runs around 1200 pages. Or, as iTunes informed me, 1.9 days of audiobook. Briefly I will say it was all worth it.

It is 1990, and a “superflu” has just wiped out the overwhelming majority of human life on the planet. This superflu was a biological weapon worked up by the United States military that, oops, wandered out of the lab. There are some weeks of totally creepy information control by the military & government, as they try and keep citizens from suspecting the reality that life as we know it is gone. Eventually we are left with a handful of people who stumble around an empty world and find each other. Put very simply, the good and virtuous people dream of a good woman–sort of a wise crone, feminine divine figure–and of a frightening dark man. The remaining people with basically good natures gather around Mother Abigail, and the remaining people with evil impulses gather around the bad man, who we recognize from other King novels by the name Randall Flagg. What follows is part good-vs-evil battle for the control of a near-empty world; but the far more compelling part is a story of human beings and their personalities, and personal struggles with the good and evil within all of us. Plus the practical difficulties of a high Colorado winter without piped-in heat.

This overly simple description doesn’t do it justice, of course. While there is an overarching good-vs-evil plot, that makes the story sound too pat and frankly boring: I wouldn’t read that. These characters are the masterpiece, as is so often true with King. The individuals and their nuances, and the challenges of the day-to-day, are creative, realistic, whimsical, hilarious, riddled with pathos and endlessly interesting. This is why I read Stephen King. Beyond that, this story makes for an intriguing sociological study (and he goes ahead and gives us a surviving sociology professor to help us along). Reading (listening to) this in 2016-17 calls to mind an obvious parallel to my favorite TV show, The Walking Dead. Both, for me, are studies in what the end of the world might look like for a few remaining survivors. Spoiler alert: we humans are the greatest threat, before and after.

I loved this reading by Grover Gardner; he did all the characters justice, which is no small feat. I loved the accents, especially on the character sometimes called “East Texas.”

For the serious King fan, there are the usual Easter eggs and references across novels. I’m not sure I qualify as a superfan yet–I’m only a small way into this man’s prodigious stack of published works–but I saw enough to tickle me.

What can I say? I’m adding nothing new to the world’s wisdom on Stephen King; I can only add my voice to a chorus: this man does some of the best world-building since Tolkien but is firmly rooted in our messy world, too. There are enough unexpected metaphors to please a poet, enough gimlet-eyed reality to please a realist, and enough fun to please the most loyal of genre readers. I can’t get enough.


Rating: 8 chocolate Payday bars.

in her honor: retirement of Marilyn Dahl

I needed to add this bonus post today to recognize the retirement of my editor at Shelf Awareness. Marilyn hired me as a reviewer in March of 2011, and she has been a pleasure to work with for these five years and eleven months, without a moment’s exception. I am of course a little devastated to lose her as a boss; but she deserves this, and she leaves some more than competent folks behind to take care of us. (In the last few years, Associate Editor Dave Wheeler has become a fine friend as well as a fine editor.) I’ve learned so much from Marilyn about how to read, how to write, how to read what I’ve written, how to play well with others, how to be a graceful human being. It’s been an honor.

I want to point you to Marilyn’s Reflections on Reading and Retirement column of Jan. 31, and as well to her Reading With… questionnaire. The good news is you will still see the occasional review with her byline on it. Maybe one mystery per month.

Love you, Marilyn. Thanks for everything.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Jennifer Ryan

Following last week’s review of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, here’s Jennifer Ryan: Original and Authentic.


Jennifer Ryan lives in the Washington, D.C., area with her husband and two children. She is originally from Kent and then London, and has worked as a nonfiction book editor. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir (Crown) is her first novel.

photo credit: Nina Subin

photo credit: Nina Subin


How did you choose to use the epistolary form?

The letter form is one of my favorites. I really enjoy the way the voice exposes the inner feelings and personality of the character. The way she interacts with the off-stage recipient adds an extra tension–is some kind of pretense going on? It leaves some lovely space for an unreliable character to come through–someone who isn’t telling the recipient (or the reader) the truth, and will inevitably be uncovered by the end.

Is there one of these women you especially identify with?

Mrs. Tilling, the middle-aged widow whose only son goes to war. She was the first one I wanted to write about. Writing gives you the opportunity to dig into a situation or subject, put yourself in the middle of it as a character and experience what it must have been like. As a mother, I wanted to know how it felt to have your only child go to war, especially with the gruesomeness of the First World War fresh in your mind, all the young men mown down by bullets in the Somme. You’ve spent 18 years bringing up your son, caring for him, cooking for him, loving him, and this day–when he walks down the road with his kit bag over his shoulder–may be the last time you ever see him.

The differences in their voices is subtle, but distinct.

This was a wonderful part of writing Chilbury. Kitty steps away from traditional narrative style in her journal, jumping around from subject to subject by use of headings, and using her wonderful lists to cover subjects such as “People’s Colors,” and “What Happens to People When They Die.” Miss Paltry uses a lot of metaphors, and I had a hysterical time creating ones such as, “the day was as cold as a slap round the face with a fresh-caught cod.” She was a delight to create, and I always looked forward to writing her entries. Mrs. Tilling always longed to be writer and has a more literary style, which allowed me to be more expressive and use more sophisticated language and grammar. They are also defined by their accents. Mrs. Tilling has more of a middle-class vernacular, whereas Venetia and Kitty are more upper class, and Miss Paltry is more lower class.

Why this time period?

About 15 years ago I read about the London children being evacuated to the English countryside, and a new obsession was born. Since then, I’ve read personal accounts, memoirs, biographies, reference books and novels about the Second World War. When I was considering writing a novel, I’d been editing a book on the war in Afghanistan, and through that I recognized how cultural values change in a time of warfare. The population shifts and for a time things become more fluid, rules less rigid. Authority is challenged and the suppressed–in this case the women–have a chance to widen their horizons.

On a more personal note, when I was growing up, we had two grandmothers: one was Shakespeare Granny, who ruthlessly analyzed all the tragedies, and the other was Party Granny, who was full of hilarious and often scandalous stories about the war. I always had a burning ambition to write about her stories, especially the ones about her choir, which she swears got her through the war. Unlike the Chilbury ladies, though, Party Granny’s choir was reportedly dreadful, and there were plenty of stories about how they lost competitions and sang so out-of-tune that when they visited a choir member in hospital, the nurses took them to perform for every ward to “give everyone a good laugh.” They hammed it up, of course, “to jolly everyone along.”

How did your experience as an editor of nonfiction inform this work?

Narrative nonfiction works similarly to fiction. I created a structure whereby the main story arc of the choir contained and ran alongside the five story arcs of the main characters. Structure is the cornerstone of any good, well-functioning nonfiction, and I think the same is true of fiction.

The work of sentences is also crucial, and although they tend to move to a different end in nonfiction, a good understanding of sentence potential and variability is key to producing a fluid work. But because the characters themselves were writing the entries, I had to step back from writing complex sentences and grammar for all but Mrs. Tilling, who professes to yearning to be a writer.

Editing nonfiction has also given me the opportunity to dive in deep with other topics. A few years before I began writing Chilbury, I edited a book by a renowned cellist on how music affects our emotions, and some of the core ideas were used in the book. Having also sung in choirs, I wanted to bring that feeling of togetherness that they create, the magic of allegiance in song. It’s not an easy task to describe music in words, but I wanted to make sure it felt real to the readers, as if it was being performed in front of them.

How big a role did research play? How closely does this story mirror fact?

Research played a massive role. The day-to-day life of women during these times was incredibly hard. There were few labour-saving devices such as laundry machines and dryers, let alone central heating. All meals had to be made from scratch. The rationing and shortages made cooking even more time consuming. My grandmother had a dozen or so wartime recipes, like Lord Woolton Pie (a vegetable form of shepherd’s pie made specially for Lord Woolton by the head chef of the Savoy Hotel), mock banana (which was made from mashed parsnip mixed with sugar) and Pink Gin (my grandmother’s favorite cocktail, which was a lethal mix of straight gin with a splash of Angostura bitters.)

One of my favorite research tasks for Chilbury was interviewing people alive during the era. In an eye-opening way, most of the elderly women I interviewed remembered the war as one of the best times of their lives, recalling the new freedom and the work and responsibility, the feeling that you had to live for the day. One lady in her 90s decided that she simply had to demonstrate how to do that dance, “Knees Up, Mother Brown,” and I begged her not to as she struggled to her feet, clasped my arm, and began kicking her legs up one by one. Gripping hold of her as best I could, I had to laugh along with her. She couldn’t have been more delighted to relive the memories.

I was careful to make sure that everything that happens in the novel could actually have happened. Some of the plot threads came directly from my grandmother’s stories of the war, and one of the characters, Venetia, is based on her friend Letty, who was very beautiful and always playing the boys off each other.

The story of Silvie, the 10-year-old Jewish refugee from Prague, came from research about Sir Nicholas Winton, who set up a program to transport Jewish children from Prague to the U.K. in the wake of the war. In total he rescued 669 children, most of whom lost their parents in the Holocaust. They were taken in by British families, many of them remaining with those new families after the war. There are many horrific and sad accounts of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938, and I tried to keep Silvie’s experiences true to the brutal reality of the situation.

It was important to me that the book was both an original work and authentic to the era. It certainly was an incredible time to live and write about, and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to plunge into this fascinating era and try my best to re-create some of the most exciting and frightening years of the war in Kent.


This interview originally ran on January 10, 2017 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on January 10, 2017.


chilbury-ladies-choir

Jennifer Ryan’s first novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, takes on a wide range of the human experience through the lives and voices of the women of the village of Chilbury, in the south of England, at the beginning of World War II.

The immersion in small-town life opens with Mrs. Tilling’s journal entry of Tuesday, 26th March, 1940. Mrs. Tilling is a timid, good-hearted, churchgoing lady, a widow whose only son is about to be sent to France to fight. The occasion of this journal entry is the funeral for young Commander Edmund Winthrop. This funeral is to be the last appearance of the village choir, as, according to the Vicar, “all our male voices have gone to war.”

In addition to Mrs. Tilling, the reader is introduced to a cast of characters in turn, each of whom speak in the form of letters and diary entries. Miss Edwina Paltry is the town’s sly midwife, who in letters to her sister reveals herself to be secretly pursuing a fortune by any means: “I’ve been offered the most unscrupulous deal you’ll ever believe!” Kitty Winthrop is the 13-year-old sister to the lost Commander. Between her violently abusive father and distracted, pregnant mother, Kitty is left to her own devices to worry about boys, war and her hoped-for career as a professional singer, all of which she records in her diary. Her older sister Venetia, at 18, is a wildly boy-crazy beauty, and in letters to her friend Angela in London, recounts her difficulties in seducing the handsome new artist in town, Mr. Slater.

In these personal documents we learn that a new music teacher has arrived from London. “Her name is Miss Primrose Trent, but she told us to call her Prim, which is funny as she’s not prim at all but frightfully unkempt.” The lovably misnamed Prim doesn’t see why a choir needs male voices, and promptly calls practices again. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir meets some resistance, some grumblings about tradition, but as the war proceeds, the women learn to lean on one another. Eventually the choir becomes a central institution in the town, providing material as well as moral support, and a theatre for personal growth.

After Mrs. Tilling’s son leaves to fight, she takes in a boarder, Colonel Mallard, who is working from a nearby base. Living with a stranger is a great challenge for her, but one of several she rises to as war comes to England. Venetia wins Mr. Slater, but experiences a life-changing accident. Kitty takes a position of leadership in the choir and suffers a massive disappointment. Miss Paltry’s plans go awry, and the town sees several new births, but also tragedy. The Germans bomb the English shore. The novel concludes in September, but these are an eventful few months.

Occasional other voices join in to complete the picture, including the rare diary entry from Silvie, a 10-year-old Czech Jewish refugee billeted with the chaotic Winthrop household, and a few letters from Colonel Mallard to his sister. But it is the perspectives of Mrs. Tilling, Venetia, Kitty and Edwina Paltry that define the novel’s path. Encompassed in these experiences is all of life: love, hope, despair, loss, petty disagreements and great sacrifices. The Chilbury ladies learn to expand their horizons and their abilities, build new relationships and stand up for themselves.

The various first-person voices vary subtly, but distinctly. Mrs. Tilling has a deep commitment to propriety and loyalty; Miss Paltry is unafraid to crow over her rivals; Venetia’s boy troubles are apt to take over her world. Kitty’s 13-year-old diary is perfectly wrought: she peppers it with lists (“why everyone’s getting married in a hurry”; “things I know for sure”), and persistently subscribes to patent fantasies, but also soberly reports the news of her larger world. On her list titled “what will happen if we get taken over by the Nazis,” this obstinate teen notes, “they’ll imprison or shoot anyone who doesn’t do what they say.”

The epistolary form works nicely to establish intimacy, giving the reader a behind-the-scenes perspective and a feeling of being deeply engaged with Chilbury. The overlapping points of view offer the opportunity to make up one’s own mind who to believe, and to piece together a fuller picture of events when the characters try to keep secrets. Poignancy is abundant, with Silvie fully aware of her precarious status, and Mrs. Tilling desperately worrying over the life of her son. There are moments of humor, too: life cannot help but go on, even as the Germans fly overhead.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir offers a world of emotions, experiences and characters in a tiny village, over a few months in 1940. Anxious Mrs. Tilling, devious Miss Paltry and the ever-evolving sisters Venetia and Kitty represent a wealth of possible reactions to an event bigger than themselves. In their variously sweet, mischievous, aggrieved and hopeful letters and journals, these ladies bring home the impact of world war. And in a village deprived of its men, they show that women can pull together and do anything that needs doing. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is an inspirational, sometimes sad, tale, and Jennifer Ryan puts it together with style.


Rating: 6 envelopes.

Come back next week for my interview with Jennifer Ryan.

Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life by Haider Warraich

This interdisciplinary study of death and how we can improve–not avoid–it is highly readable and timely.

modern-death

In Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life, Haider Warraich explores how human death has evolved over the course of history and offers recommendations for its future. A medical doctor, Warraich supplements his research with anecdotes from his personal experience, and draws on literature, theology, statistics and legal theory as well as the hard sciences. The resulting expert opinion is heartfelt, convincing and well informed.

Warraich begins with the mechanics of how cells die and the opportunities for analogy they offer: cells choose to die to promote the good of the organism; not dying on time is as bad as dying too soon. He recounts the medical advances that have increased human life spans astronomically in the last two centuries. Chiefly, people now die far less frequently from infection and simple injuries, instead living long enough to die of cancer and heart disease. Because of both medical and cultural shifts, more people die in hospitals or nursing homes than at home.

This is the story of how medicine learned to save and expand lives–especially through procedures like cardiopulmonary resuscitation–and then how medicine learned not to resuscitate. Warraich shows what modern death looks like, how it works, its achievements and shortcomings–and then investigates what a good death could look like, and how we can do better. Science has lengthened lives so successfully, delayed death so thoroughly, that our new problem often is not staying alive, but letting go.

In what comes to feel like the real heart of Modern Death, Warraich then studies the nuances of euthanasia, assisted suicides and the withdrawal of life support systems, and their legal histories in the United States and worldwide. He finds that these three categories of death are far less distinct than generally believed. Finally, he advocates strongly for patients’ control over their own ends of life and exhorts his readers–patients and physicians alike–to discuss death openly.

These conclusions form the book’s central purpose. Along the way, Warraich explores different cultures’ and religions’ approaches to death. He also discusses the philosophical and legal difficulties in defining death and life. Warraich’s chief goal is a better end-of-life experience for everyone.

If Modern Death occasionally uses a few more words than necessary, the inclusion of Warraich’s anecdotal experiences enliven what could have been a dry academic text. For readers interested in its thesis–that death is an important part of life, and medicine and society could do a better job of delivering this experience–it is a sincere and thorough examination of an often overlooked subject. Well served by Warraich’s professional expertise and earnest emphasis, this is an indispensable entry into the conversation about death.


This review originally ran in the January 6, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cells.
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