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.


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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.

The Evening Road by Laird Hunt

Two women from different sides of the tracks explore rural Indiana on a single night that is both allegory and starkly real.
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The Evening Road by Laird Hunt (Neverhome) meanders the backcountry roads of rural Indiana on a hot and troubled night, exploring human ugliness and the lives of two remarkable women.

Ottie Lee Henshaw is a red-haired beauty, eternally exasperated with her ill-kempt husband, Dale, and pursued by her randy boss, Bud. She finds it easier to let Bud do “a fair amount of arm action and heavy breathing and pawing of my hair” than to fight him off. With a sharp tongue, a good appetite and a mind of her own, Ottie Lee does all right, even if she doesn’t look very respectable to the town gossips. On this summer afternoon in 1920, Bud comes in excited by the prospect of driving to the neighboring town of Marvel to attend the “show”: a promised lynching. Ottie Lee sets off with Bud, Dale and others; with a shifting cast of companions, she’ll spend the rest of a long, sweltering night trying to get to Marvel.

Ottie Lee’s adventures take up the first half of this novel before her counterpart, Calla Destry, appears. Calla is a light-skinned woman from the black side of town who faces her hard, violent world with stark defiance: she is inclined to head straight into Marvel to break the lynching’s intended victims out of jail, while her family and community runs the other way, lest they become victims themselves. It soon becomes clear that Calla’s real aim is to find the man who has promised her a new beginning. But her wanderings parallel Ottie Lee’s, and the two soon become more closely involved than either realizes.

The halves of this story are told in the first-person perspectives of these two women, and both are strong vernacular voices that bring flavor and color to their narratives. Hunt turns a phrase nimbly: a dirty parlor “looked like it had been soaked in water then spread in mayonnaise and left to turn,” and a courting man notes, “You think that’s the wind in the maples, but it’s not the wind. It’s the universe twitching.” This folksy layer of romance and redolence characterizes Ottie Lee and Calla as much as anything else does; their memorable voices and the close, heady setting of these backwoods make The Evening Road darkly compelling. A dreaminess comes and goes as Calla hallucinates in the heat and a friend of Ottie Lee’s talks to angels. The crime at the center of their story is a reality, of course, but remains a pivot point rather than the focus: the point is not the destination, but rather the winding roads that these women take to get there, their decisions and the secrets they keep along the way.

The Evening Road is a sad and raucous story, ugly and beautiful at once, evocatively starring two very different women.


This review originally ran in the December 23, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 jars.

book beginnings on Friday: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. Participants share the first line or two of the book we are currently reading and comment on any first impressions inspired by that first line.

Today I’m beginning a new book for a Maximum Shelf, so you’ll eventually see a long-form review here as well as an author interview. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, a work of historical fiction, begins with an entry from Mrs. Tilling’s journal, Tuesday, 26th March, 1940:
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First funeral of the war, and our little village choir simply couldn’t sing in tune. “Holy, holy, holy” limped out as if we were a crump of warbling sparrows. But it wasn’t because of the war, or the young scoundrel Edmund Winthrop torpedoed in his submarine, or even the Vicar’s abysmal conducting. No, it was because this was the final performance of the Chilbury Choir. Our swan song.

And I believe this sets up the whole story nicely, as I understand it from descriptions. Don’t you love the “crump of warbling sparrows”? It’s got music, itself, as well as a certain feeling of bumbling, which I think is very much the point. “The young scoundrel Edmund Winthrop torpedoed in his submarine” is a little awkward: did Edmund torpedo a young scoundrel, or is he the young scoundrel, torpedoed? After some studying, it’s the latter, but it did make me stumble. I wonder if the English setting and English heritage of the author (who now lives in the U.S.) would read that line a little more clearly. Stick around for more notes on this one in the months to come!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Addlands by Tom Bullough

This richly detailed novel explores borders–between Wales and England, and in a changing world.

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The first of Tom Bullough’s novels to be published in the U.S., Addlands covers 70 years in the life of one Welsh family and the changes in the world around them. The novel’s beauty lies in the common experience embedded in the personal, and Bullough has the rare gift of brevity: this sprawling storyline fits comfortably in about 300 pages.

Addlands opens in 1941. Idris Hamer is struggling to keep his sheep farm running when his young wife, Etty, gives birth to a son, Oliver, who grows into a champion boxer and prodigious bar brawler. Idris is tyrannically religious and mistrustful of change; Etty is a stronger woman than he might prefer. As generation gives way to generation, the Hamers face the challenges of technological and cultural changes (such as the fraught decision to exchange horse for tractor), financial troubles and their town losing people as a younger generation moves away. Family secrets are obliquely revealed, including Idris’s traumas in the trenches of World War I and a feud between brothers.

Bullough’s story and storytelling method are deeply rooted in the Welsh borderlands. His commitment to dialect can be challenging, exchanging a degree of ambiguity for the benefits of flavor and sound, although context clues serve adequately. Bullough pays special attention to natural landscapes, native flora and fauna and agriculture’s mark on the land. This wide-ranging but locally fixed style and plot combine to offer a muscular, evocative experience of a land and people, a novel to get lost in.


This review originally ran in the August 23, 2016 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: 7 times tupped.

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, trans. by David Mckay

This historical novel told in two voices explores war and family with sensitivity and grace.

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Stefan Hertmans’s War & Turpentine is a superlative novel of war, love, family and discovery.

Urbain Martien was a painter and a soldier, devout and devoted to his family. Late in life, he painstakingly handwrote two volumes of memoir: one of a “practically medieval” childhood in the 19th century, and one of serving in World War I. His unnamed grandson waited more than 30 years to open these notebooks. Parts of War & Turpentine are narrated by that grandson, a writer now in midlife, in which he recounts his own memories of Urbain and his war stories, integrating what he learns from the journals. The novel then shifts to the battlefields and to the voice of Urbain himself.

This Flemish family story explores the difficulties of class and culture in early-20th-century Europe. Urbain portrays his father, who labored in poverty as an undersung restorer of church paintings and frescoes, and the mother he adored. His grandson discovers in the memoirs a love found and lost during the war. Urbain’s battle-ravaged world is populated by family, romance and a passion for art–and as the title suggests, by the tension between two halves of a life. This is a story of seeking the truth of one’s ancestors, a past that can never be fully known. “Maybe his silence says more than enough about his life as it was then.”

Hertmans’s writing, and David McKay’s translation from Dutch, is elegant and unadorned, intense and restrained. War & Turpentine is a world to get lost in, referencing a history both broad and personal.


This review originally ran in the August 12, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 scars.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

This grand, sweeping story takes place entirely inside the walls of a luxury hotel in 1920s-1950s Moscow, in lushly evocative writing from the author of Rules of Civility.

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Amor Towles’s first novel, Rules of Civility, won readers’ hearts with its strong sense of time and place, fully realized characters and richly evocative voice. A Gentleman in Moscow repeats the feat with those qualities and more.

In 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov (“recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt”) appears before a Bolshevik tribunal, accused of “succumbing irrevocably to the corruptions of his class.” He responds with quips, and is sentenced to house arrest in the luxury hotel where he has lived for the last four years. “Make no mistake: should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot.”

This stylish and cultured protagonist has already lost his family and their estate. Now two armed guards move him from his suite into a monastic room of one hundred square feet. The bulk of his fine furniture, which will not fit in his new lodgings, becomes the property of the People. Remarkably good-natured, Rostov makes the best of his circumstances. He has all he needs in the Metropol: two restaurants, a barber, a seamstress and impeccably mannered staff who know him well. His worst enemy, perhaps, will be boredom–or a waiter who is particularly committed to the revolutionary cause. To brighten Rostov’s days, a fellow resident, “the young girl with the penchant for yellow,” befriends him. And then the hotel opens for him into a world as broad and rewarding as the one he wishes for his new friend–but ultimately as limiting as well.

The charming, complex Rostov is joined by colorful hotel employees (especially a talented chef and maĆ®tre d’) and visitors, including a lovely actress, a dear friend from his youth and an assortment of Western journalists and businessmen. It is the charm of this expansive, lushly detailed novel that such a rich cast and such diverting and occasionally devastating events can populate the closed space of the Metropol, over a span of 32 years. A Gentleman in Moscow is filled with literary and cultural references–Chekhov, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Humphrey Bogart–and with tastes, smells, humor, love and loyalty. Towles indulges in sentimentality to just the right degree. Readers who enjoy a generous, absorbing story, vibrant characters and immersive time and place will fall in love with this saucy novel. And by the time A Gentleman in Moscow closes in 1954, those readers will be sorry to lose the new friend they’ve found in Rostov.


This review originally ran in the July 29, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 jackets hanging in the closet.

Ithaca: A Novel of Homer’s Odyssey by Patrick Dillon

This retelling of the Odyssey gives Telemachus more voice than ever before.

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Homer’s Odyssey recounts Odysseus’s 10-year journey home from the Trojan War, to where his wife and son await him. His adventures along the way take center stage. Ithaca, Patrick Dillon’s retelling, resets that center to the son. With substantially more insight into Telemachus than readers have had before, this version also offers a more fallible Odysseus, with all the drama and yearning of the original.

Dillon remains true to Homer’s setting, but the novel is told in Telemachus’s voice, and the weighty absence of a father he never met defines his existence. At 16, he worries over his role and responsibilities, and his inability to protect his mother: he has no one to teach him how to fight. These interior workings bring Odysseus’s iconic son to light as a nuanced and fully formed character. When the wise warrior Nestor assigns his daughter to be Telemachus’s traveling companion, the story gets an appealing twist: Polycaste is headstrong and capable, and her friendship has much to offer Telemachus. The gods are less present this time around; Telemachus is openly dubious. Veterans of the Trojan War roam Greece as bandits and vagabonds.

Though only slight details are changed, Ithaca is a vibrant and fresh revival; Telemachus’s struggles are illuminated through the use of his own voice. The well-loved classic is present: Penelope is beautiful, determined, fading; the suitors are shocking; Menelaus and Helen fight bitterly; the aging Nestor tries to guide Telemachus true. Dillon’s achievement is in characterization while retaining the heart and passion of Homer.


This review originally ran in the July 8, 2016 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 arrows.
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