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.

teaser when I feel like it: Eggshells by Caitriona Lally

I guess now that I’m on a Wednesday schedule, I’ll give up on my Tuesday teaser and book beginnings on Friday posts. I’ll post whatever teaser I want, whenever I want. How freeing.

I’m reading Eggshells for a Shelf review. It’s a charmingly odd thing so far. I picked out some lines I particularly appreciated to share with you today.
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He unscrews the cap from the [cola] bottle, pours some on the ground in a brown hissing puddle and balances the open bottle on a wall. Then he takes a brown paper bag containing a rectangular glass bottle from inside his jacket, pours the clear liquid from the glass bottle into the cola bottle, and puts it back inside his jacket. When he takes a sup from the cola bottle, he smiles like he has solved the whole world.

I like this observation because it seems to hint that our narrator does not necessarily understand the implications of what she’s seeing, although the reader does. (She has also just finished sending “a good pinch” of her great-aunt’s ashes to a number of the deceased’s unsuspecting acquaintances, which is a pretty weird thing to do.) I feel warmly towards this whimsy.

Stick around for a review to come.

book beginnings on Friday: The Signal Flame by Andrew Kriv├ík

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.

A new novel for the weekend.

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A fire in the great stone fireplace was as constant in the house as the lengthening days when Easter was early and spring was late. But on the morning after his grandfather died, Bo Konar took the logs and the log rack in the living room out to the barn, swept the bricks clean of ash, and dusted the andirons so that they looked like thin faceless centaurs of black.

These are good, if not simple, opening sentences. I lingered over the first one, its concept of the constancy of lengthening days when… there’s a lot to take in there. The second is much simpler, concrete and physical: logs, log rack, barn, bricks, ash, andirons–and then that fine simile, the faceless centaurs of black, which seem so appropriate to the grief we are witnessing. In just these two sentences, I felt like I was in the hands of a skilled writer with a story I would care about. So far, this is so.

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

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

This tremendous novel about what can be torn apart in an instant, and rebuilt over lifetimes, displays writing as scintillating as its plot.

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Idaho, the first novel by O. Henry Award winner Emily Ruskovich, is a gorgeously designed immersion into the best and worst of life. In rural Idaho, a jumbled family rearranges itself painfully, trying to live on after a great loss. In 2004, Ann Mitchell surveys the Idaho farmstead she shares with Wade, her husband of eight years. Her recollections introduce the reader to their marriage–troubled by the diminishing strength of Wade’s memory and a terrible tragedy at the beginning of their relationship. She plays the piano; he makes finely crafted knives by hand. They tiptoe around the past.

In 2008, a woman studies her new cellmate at the Sage Hill Women’s Correctional Center. Jenny Mitchell doesn’t talk much. Neither of them has much future, with one distant chance at parole between them. Tentatively, they explore friendship, but Jenny doesn’t talk about her marriage to Wade, or her daughters. Then, Idaho flashes back to the 1980s and ’90s, when Wade was still married to Jenny and both of their daughters were still alive.

As decades are revealed, Wade’s family lives through happy, tragic and minute experiences. In layers of disjointed chronology and varied perspectives, the reader slowly picks apart the story: Wade’s love for one woman and then another; his luckless family history; the moment in time, the loss of control, that redirected these lives and more.

Ruskovich’s prose is exquisite. Music halts “like an animal at a gate, a child at a word it doesn’t know.” Her expressions of love, in its clean and messy incarnations, are singular, and she handles Wade’s mental decline and a child’s piano lesson with equal care and clarity. “On a sunny fall day, she lay next to him on the ground, and as he dozed she felt his old life, his memories, radiate off his skin. She felt everything leave him but her. She shed her own life, too, to match him. They lay there together like a point in time.” That point in time is what Ruskovich does best: sharp, clear moments alongside emotional enormities so great they can only be felt, not explained. This care, detail and realism applies to the novel’s background as well as to its stars. For example, a side plot involving an artist who paints meticulous age-progressions of missing children offers poignancy and attention to detail, and is worthy of its own novel.

With lovely language and piercing pathos, Idaho focuses on the power of love and the possibilities of forgiveness and memory. This debut novel deals blows as large as life.


This review originally ran in the November 18, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 gloves.

book beginnings on Friday: Human Acts by Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

Earlier this year, I reviewed Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, an odd and engrossing novel. And now I’m holding her next English-language release, Human Acts. Deborah Smith again translates from the Korean (and this time there’s a brief introduction by Smith, as well). Obviously I’m pleased.

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It begins:

“Looks like rain,” you mutter to yourself.

What’ll we do if it really chucks it down?

You open your eyes so that only a slender chink of light seeps in, and peer at the gingko trees in front of the Provincial Office. As though there, between those branches, the wind is about to take on visible form.

Lovely language and picture-painting words. I’m intrigued by the second-person perspective, and wonder if it will last. I’m often a little skeptical of this literary trick, as it’s perhaps getting a little overused, but I trust Kang.

Come back to see what I thought of the whole; this book publishes in mid-January.


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

The Bind by William Goldsmith

This graphic novel celebrates sibling rivalry and the art of bookbinding in a sepia-toned historic London.

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The illustrations and imagination of William Goldsmith (Vignettes of Ystov) adorn a story of bookbinding and family history with The Bind.

This graphic novel opens in 1912, as the ghost of Garrison Egret tours his family business, Egret Bindings, now run by his sons, Victor and Guy. Garrison is frustrated by the way they’ve “tarted it up,” and by the way Guy overworks himself without taking enough credit while Victor takes too much credit without doing the work. Their latest project will showcase the Egrets’ finest talents, and test both their skills and their relationship; it is a poetry collection called A Moonless Land, jewel-encrusted, hand-tooled with leather inlays and gold leaf. Victor, the high-maintenance artist, pulls out all the stops while business-minded Guy worries about the bottom line. Will “the most expensive book in existence” prove to be too much for the most prestigious bookbinding firm in London?

Goldsmith’s illustrations in black and gray, rust and rose, are understated and beautifully evocative. Characterization is accomplished through detail, like a carnation in Victor’s lapel, and the finer points of Egret Binding’s products. In large format on heavy stock, with bonus foldout panels, The Bind is as impressive a physical object as the Egrets’ great creation–minus the rubies and topazes. This carefully presented ode to the craft of bookbinding is also a story of family dynamics and the dilemma of faithfulness to artistry in a modernizing world: a special treat for booklovers, and a lovely work of art.


This review originally ran in the November 15, 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 counterfeits.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Evening Road by Laird Hunt

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

The Evening Road is a meandering novel set on the country roads of Indiana on a terrible night. One of its several strengths is in the two strong voices it’s told in, and the turns of phrase it employs.

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For example, in describing the details that don’t seem like they’d matter, but do:

There is a curve to a piece of fried catfish that satisfies the eye. Leads you off to the rocks and reeds of the river where it once swam. I was about to set in to cutting at the center of that curve when a nickering voice nosed the air just behind me.

Doesn’t that make you hungry? And I like what we learn about the incoming voice with the use of that verb, nickering.

This one is coming in February; keep your eyes open.


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

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