The Chilbury Ladies Choir: A Novel, by Jennifer Ryan — A Review

The Chilbury Ladies Choir x 200Set in an English country village at the onset of WWII, The Chilbury Ladies Choir is told through letters and journal and diary entries by four female characters who are faced with keeping the home fires burning while their menfolk are off fighting Nazis. The first-person format intrigued me, and the subject sounded promising. However, it was the anticipation of escaping into the lives of “three or four families in a country village” that really hooked me. If English-born author Jennifer Ryan could dish out endearing and foibled characters I was in for a great read.

Ominously, the novel begins with the funeral of Commander Edmund Winthrop, the first casualty of the war from this tight-knit community. The reality of his death hits the remaining residents hard, coupled with the fact that the vicar decided to close the church choir due to the lack of male voices. The ladies rebel. They are done with being told what to do by the few men remaining. Disobeying the vicar, they form the Chilbury Ladies Choir led by Miss Primrose Trent, a music tutor from the local university.

“First, they whisk our men away to fight, then they force us women into work, then they ration food, and now they’re closing our choir. By the time the Nazis get here there’ll be nothing left except a bunch of drab women ready to surrender.” Mrs. Brampton-Boyd (3)

The demise of Edmund sets off a chain of events that will ripple throughout the course of the novel. As the sole male heir to Chilbury Manor, he was set to inherit the family pile. His overbearing father, a retired brigadier prone to bursts of outrage and indignation, is determined to keep the property in the family. To ensure that his pregnant wife delivers a male heir, he engages the services of the dodgy local midwife Miss Edwina Paltry to orchestrate a baby-swapping scheme.

Another key character sharing the narrative is Mrs. Margaret Tilling, a timid middle-aged widow whose only child is preparing to leave for the front lines in France. And then there’s the Winthrop sisters: Venetia and Kitty. At eighteen and thirteen-years-old respectively, they have a lot on their plate and even more to write about to their best friend in London and in their diary. Their not-so-beloved bother has just been killed—blown up in a submarine in the North Sea; their pushing middle-age mother is miraculously pregnant; all the illegible men are away at war; there are food and clothing rationing, which means there is no sugar or new frocks to be had; and their tyrant of a father—well, he is just fuming about everything.

“Music takes us out of ourselves, away from our worries and tragedies, helps us look into a different world, a bigger picture. All those cadences and beautiful chord changes, every one of them makes you feel a different splendor of life. Prim Trent (104)

Through the letters and diaries, we engage with the characters as they share the everyday events and challenges of their lives. Each of the four ladies has their own set of problems yet they are intertwined with each other. Ryan has chosen a range of ages and social strata of the characters varying the perspective of voices as the main narrators of her drama. In addition to the humorous events surrounding Miss Paltry’s hyperbolic baby-swapping scheme, Venetia, the local “accomplished flirt,” who had multiple men pursuing her before they departed for the war, is involved with the one young man left in the village, an rakish artist who appears to be involved in the black market and other activities of national security; Mrs. Tilling, on the other hand, is required to house a gentleman working at a local war defense think tank; while Kitty suffers teen romance angst and dreams of becoming a professional singer. The one constant in their lives during a time of uncertainty is the choir. When they sing together all their troubles melt away and they feel joy again.

Thwarting my concerns, Ryan succeeds in conveying the immediacy of each character’s impressions and emotions through her clever use of melodrama. This is a high-energy novel. There is always something new to prompt us to turn the page! I also found that the strength of this novel lies in her skill at building unique characterizations—people whose personalities we can identify with through personal experience or from the pages of fiction. While the outcome of Mrs. Paltry’s machinations is predictable, (and in turn thoroughly amusing for this reader), I was delighted by the character arc of Mrs. Tilling who represents how subjugated women were before the war, and of the shallow, vain Venetia, whose value shifts were the biggest surprise.

“Perhaps there is something good that has come from this war: everything has been turned around, all the unfairness made grimly plain. It has given us everyday women a voice—dared us to stand up for ourselves, and to stand up for others.” Mrs. Tilling (168-169)

I listened to the audio recording while I read this book, an engaging feature on my Kindle that brought the story vividly to life by an excellent ensemble of five narrators. I do not often mention artwork or book design in my reviews; however, the cover is so stunning it earned my sincere admiration. In addition, I was delighted to find a hand-drawn map of Chilbury village on the endpapers which I studied intently. (I adore maps in books).

In turns comical, tragic, and joyous, The Chilbury Ladies Choir soars like a crescendo of a classic English hymn, rousing our emotions, lifting our spirits, and transporting us onto a different plain—I recommend it highly. I am looking forward to reading Ryan’s next novel, The Spies of Shilling Lane, which was released in June 2019.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Chilbury Ladies Choir: A Novel, by Jennifer Ryan
Crown Publishing Group (2017)
Hardcover, trade paperback, eBook, and audiobook (432) pages
ISBN: 978-1101906774

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | Indiebound | Goodreads

Disclosure of Material Connection: We purchased a copy of the eBook and the audiobook for our own enjoyment. We only review products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Cover image courtesy of Crown (Penguin Random House) © 2017; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2019, Austenprose.com

 

The Work of Art, by Mimi Matthews—A Review

The Work of Art Matthews 2019 x 200From the desk of Katie Patchell

Recently, I discovered the joy that comes from not reading the description on the back of a book prior to opening page one. When I was asked to review The Work of Art, I heard “Regency” and “Laurel Ann recommends” and I was all for it. After downloading this novel, I opened my Kindle edition to a story as beautiful, atmospheric, and arresting as its haunting cover—one that captured me from the very first line…

“Captain Arthur Heywood had never seen such an ill-mannered assortment of canines in his life.”

…to the very last line, with its soul-satisfying conclusion.

When Phyllida Satterthwaite’s grandfather dies, she is plucked from her freedom in the Devonshire countryside and sent to Town to the constrained, shallow world that her vile aunt and uncle and odious cousins bask in. She lives for the few nature-filled walks she can take, with her dogs as her only companions. When she meets the solemn but kind Captain Heywood, Philly discovers that she’s not the only one yearning to be free from London society’s iron rules.

Captain Arthur Heywood, ex-Corinthian and ex-soldier, is facing his own bleak future. His life is ruled by the terms set by his injuries. His memories of the Napoleonic Wars and what gave him his scars haunt his dreams, as do the visions of the carefree life he’s lost. When Arthur meets Philly by chance he finds someone who quietly treats him with the same intuitive kindness she treats her dogs—which he quickly finds is a compliment of the highest sort. Continue reading

A Modest Independence: Parish Orphans of Devon Book 2, by Mimi Matthews – A Review

A Modest Independence Matthews 2019 x 200The second book in the Parish Orphans of Devon series is a historical romance road trip novel with an intriguing premise; can two unlikely companions travel together from London to India under false pretense to join forces to find a lost friend?

In A Modest Independence, author Mimi Matthews’ explores an improbable romance of an impertinent, strong-willed woman and an equally independent bachelor who are thrown together under eyebrow-raising circumstances. There are so many impediments to their success, on several levels, that I was compelled to discover if they could overcome all the obstacles that the author had placed in their path.

Starting in Victorian-era London, England we meet spirited heroine Jenny Holloway who has recently come into a small fortune. Determined to remain independent and never marry, she wishes to travel to India to find the Earl of Castleton, the missing brother of the woman who gave her a modest independence. Her attorney Tom Finchley, who holds her purse strings, is concerned for her safety and hesitant to release her funds so she can travel. Raised in a Devon orphanage, he is a self-made man who now has a very prosperous London practice. We were introduced to this couple as supporting characters in the first book in the series, The Matrimonial Advertisement. Tom harbors feelings for Jenny and decides to travel with her to protect her, help her find the missing brother, and explore the possibility of a romance. Continue reading

That Churchill Woman: A Novel, by Stephanie Barron – A Review

that churchill woman barron 2019 x 200Between 1870 and 1914, there were at least a hundred marriages of American heiresses to British peers. Fueled by microeconomics—supply and demand—American industrial tycoons bought position, prestige and coronets by bartering their daughter’s dowries to cash-strapped aristocrats. One transatlantic trade was Brooklynn born Jeanette “Jennie” Jerome. In 1874 she became one of the first “dollar princesses” when she married Lord Randolph Churchill, the third son of the Duke of Marlborough. Her wildly rich father reputedly paid a dowry equaling 4.3 million dollars in current currency. What a way to start a life-long marriage—and what delectable fodder for this new biographical fiction of Jennie’s life, That Churchill Woman, by Stephanie Barron.

Lady Randolph Churchill is one of those larger-than-life women from history whom we look upon with shock and awe. Most people will know her as the scandalous American mother of Winston Churchill, the famous politician and prime minister of Great Britain, however there is so much more to know about this intelligent, fiercely independent woman. Born in 1854 into wealth, privilege and the excess that it generates, she was raised in New York City, Newport, Rhode Island and Paris. Her childhood was colored by her parents Leonard Jerome and Clarissa “Clara” nee Hall’s Victorian marriage. He was a notorious womanizer. She turned the other cheek and befriended his long-time mistress Fanny Ronalds. When the affair finally ended the two women banded together, left their respective husbands, and sailed for Paris with their children.

Another significant event in her early life was the death of her younger sister Camille when she was nine. Devastated by the loss, her father consoled his young daughter with sage advice: “The only way to fight death, Jennie, is to live. You’ve got to do it for two people now—yourself and Camille. Take every chance you get. Do everything she didn’t get to do. Live two lives in the space of one. I’ll back you to the hilt.” Continue reading

Unmarriageable: A Novel, by Soniah Kamal – A Review

unmarriageable kamal 2019 x 200It is a truth universally acknowledged that readers and writers are obsessed with Pride and Prejudice. Since Sybil G. Brinton’s 1913 Old Friends and New Fancies, the first original Jane Austen-inspired novel, there have been thousands of prequels, sequels, and variations penned by those who wish to never let the characters quietly rest in literary heaven. Next up for our praise or censure is Unmarriageable, a retelling set in Pakistan in 2000 by Soniah Kamal. Never one to suffer Austen renovators gladly, I was prepared to be underwhelmed.

Over the years I have read and reviewed many P&P inspired books containing a variety of themes including: zombie bedlam, religious conversion, S&M and slash fiction. There have also been some retellings that I really enjoyed, yet I yearned for the full story retold in a fresh and reverent light. It’s the Holy Grail of Austen fandom. Could moving the story to Pakistan at the turn of the twenty-first century be the opportunity to explore southern Asian culture infused with Jane Austen’s story of reproof and redemption? If so, it would be catnip to Janeites!

Unmarriageable’s premise and opening chapters were immediately promising. Kamal had converted Austen’s characters into clever doppelgangers of her Regency equivalents: the Bennet family became the Binats with sisters Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia becoming Jenazba, Alysba, Marizba, Qittyara, and Lady respectively. After being introduced to the Bennet family, whose financial and social position had fallen subsequent to a scandal that destroyed their fortune, the anticipation of meeting Mr. Darcy, now transformed into Mr. Darsee (snort), was quenched by the modern interpretation exhibiting all of the noble mien of the original—rich, proud, and dishy. ZING! Continue reading

Queen Victoria: Twenty-Four Days That Changed Her Life, by Lucy Worsley – A Review

queen victoria 24 days x 200

Just in time for the premiere on 13 January 2019 of the third season of Victoria on Masterpiece Classic on PBS, Queen Victoria: Twenty-Four Days That Changed Her Life is a new biography of one of the United Kingdom’s (and the world’s) most famous queens. Arriving like a gift on a royal red velvet cushion, fans of the TV series and British history will devour and adore this book.

In her usually upbeat and engaging style, Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, television presenter, and one-woman British history hurricane, Lucy Worsley’s biography of Queen Victoria is a selective and sympathetic view of the life of the most powerful woman of her generation. Structured as twenty-four significant dates in her life, it is a personal look at her family history, social context, and her inner thoughts and impressions. Drawing upon a variety of sources, including her own personal diaries and of those around her, Worsley also adds quotes and references from the Queen’s major biographers and historians of the Victorian era.

Some readers may assume that the most significant dates in the Queen’s long life such as her coronation, marriage or the death of her beloved husband Albert would be the most interesting dates of her life. However, I found the quieter moments even more moving, insightful and tragic. For example, on the 20th of June 1837 not only did she learn that her uncle William IV had died, making her Queen, she met privately for the first time with her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne who would become a close advisor, stalwart advocate and dear friend to the young Queen. Starved for male companionship after the death of her father in her infancy and a childhood dominated by a weak mother and her circle of cronies, Melbourne would become the antidote to her lonely and isolated life helping her to transition to monarch and rule her country. Continue reading

A Holiday by Gaslight: A Victorian Christmas Novella, by Mimi Matthews – A Review

Holiday by Gaslight Matthews 2018 x 200What better way to get yourself into the holiday spirit than with a Victorian themed Christmas romance. Set in the Dickensian London of the 1860’s, and in Mr. Darcy territory of Derbyshire, A Holiday by Gaslight, by Mimi Matthews offers everything that a Victorian-era Christmas love story should. A snowy Palladian country manor house to set the idyllic scene: holiday traditions of bringing family and friends together to celebrate by decking the halls, sleigh rides, and yule logs—all culminating in a Christmas ball. Mix in a dutiful daughter of a baronet whose ill-founded assumptions of her suitor result in her rejection of their courtship, and you have a second chance love story reminiscent of North and South (1855). Like Elizabeth Gaskell’s classic tale of social division and misconception, the hero and heroine of this novella have both pride and prejudice.

Pressed by her family’s sinking finances into courting a prosperous cotton merchant below her social standing, Sophie Appersett and Edward “Ned” Sharpe’s relationship was doomed from the start. She does not want to marry, and he, after being raised in an austere household does not know how to woo a lady, relying on a stuffy etiquette manual for advice. No matter how much it would please her father to marry him, she thinks him too taciturn and dull and does not suit her expectations of a future husband. He, on the other hand, overlooks her family’s grasping need for her to marry money and only sees her fine character. When she calls it off, he seems unmoved at the loss. She is relieved. Her father is furious.

Placing her doubts and her pride in her pocket, Sophie ventures out to his Fleet Street business attempting to offer an olive branch of reconciliation. Would he, his family, and his business partner attend the Appersett Christmas holidays at the family estate in Derbyshire? She reasons that they could be honest with each other and give the courtship a second chance. Ned is doubtful, and his judgmental mother even more so – yet how could they pass up the opportunity of ten days in the country at the home of a baronet? Continue reading