The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

The Chilbury Ladies' ChoirThe Chilbury Ladies' Choir
by Jennifer Ryan
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780008163716
Publication Date: February 20, 2017
Pages: 453
Genre: Fiction, Historical
Publisher: Borough Press

Kent, 1940. The women of Chilbury village have taken umbrage at the Vicar's closure of the choir now that its male singers are at war. But when spirited music professor Primrose Trent arrives, it prompts the creation of an all-female singing group. Resurrecting themselves as The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, the women use their song and unity to embolden the community as the war tears through their lives. Dependable Mrs Tilling sees the choir as a chance to finally put herself first, and a welcome distraction from thoughts of her son fighting on the front line.

For Kitty Winthrop, the precocious youngest daughter of Chilbury Manor, singing is the only way to outshine her glamorous sister Venetia, who isn't letting the war ruin her plan to make every bachelor in the county fall in love with her. Meanwhile, when midwife Edwina Paltry is presented with a dastardly job which she's convinced will make her rich, she will have to misuse more than the trust of the choir's women to carry out her scheme – and nothing is going to stop her.


This book starts with the About the Author and includes this bit:

Many of the characters’ stories in the book are based on real life, discovered through [the author’s] extensive research and her grandmother’s experiences.

and I have to say, it made the read somehow more enjoyable.  As a book of pure fiction, I think I would still have enjoyed it, but might have felt less satisfied with the characters’ stories; as a work of fiction based on read people and events, the loose ends and un-satisfactory resolutions for some of them felt authentic and more tolerable.

In structure, this is an epistolary novel told from multiple POVs that come from letters and diary entries written in 1940 England, just as the war really begins to hit the home front.  I’d argue it’s not a truly epistolary structure though; while I’m sure some people wrote very detailed letters and diary entires, I can’t imagine very many would go so far as to write long narratives that include setting a scene and transcribing exact dialog.  It works, but those who don’t care for epistolary structures might find this more tolerable.

Told from 6 POVs, which sounds like a lot, but works really well, this is the story of a small village near Dover whose vicar disbands their choir because there are no men left.  The women and children in the choir find strength, comfort and an outlet for their anxiety in their choir performances – a good thing because lots of terrible things happen in the course of 1940, both war related and not.

There’s an obvious love story, a sneaky love story and many non-romantic mini-plots.  The ending of a few are satisfying, the ending of a few others are realistic and left open, and a few – at least 1 – left me thinking there wasn’t enough information given for me to believe in their finality.  Overall though, it was a book that started slow, but efficiently pulled me in until I didn’t care to put it down again.  An enjoyable read.

Behold Here’s Poison

Behold, Here's PoisonBehold, Here's Poison
by Georgette Heyer
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 0434328448
Publication Date: January 1, 1972
Pages: 320
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Heinemann

This is a book I should have enjoyed more than I did.  The dialog between characters is scathing, often hilarious in a ‘I can’t believe he/she said that out loud’ kind of way, and the murder was clever and the karma both just and tragic.  It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, so much as I think I might have been better off choosing something else at that moment, with the result that I was impatient with the reading of it.  It’s a weird place to be when you’re reading thinking this is good and are we done yet? at the same time.

Heyer’s strong point in writing wasn’t her detectives; Hannasyde is flat and Hemingway needs to switch to decaf, but the rest of the cast of characters are all vividly written, and as I said, the dialog scorching.  Mrs. Lupton came on the scene with a speech that had me laughing and wanting to stand and applaud and the rest of the case all have a shot at each other at least once or twice.

The romance, arguably Heyer’s raison d’être, just … failed.  To put those two together with so little development or subtlety makes me wonder if Heyer hated these characters and wanted them so suffer.  I mean, there’s playful verbal sparring, and there’s what these two were doing.  Me? I don’t find anything romantic about being called a little idiot.

The Corinthian

The CorinthianThe Corinthian
by Georgette Heyer
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1950
Pages: 256
Genre: Fiction, Historical
Publisher: Heinemann

An amusing, highly improbable adventure with a tolerable touch of silliness.  Heyer’s romances are always entertaining (unless they’re the badly written ones) because she writes romance with her tongue firmly in her cheek, and this one was truly tongue in cheek.  A nice in-between read that was easily finished in a day.

The Filigree Ball

The Filigree BallThe Filigree Ball
by Anna Katherine Green
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1903
Pages: 418
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Grosset & Dunlap

 

I just finished this book and I have to forgo sleep to get this review down so I don’t forget any details overnight.

5 star read.  My first this year, I think.  Absolutely amazing story from start to finish, but oh man!  The finish!

I’ve been enjoying Anna Katherine Green’s books since first discovering her The Mayor’s Wife; I was entranced by how such an old story could rivet me, the reader, with what would have had to have been the birth of many tropes we get jaded about it today’s mysteries.

I admit to buying this one with some hesitancy though.   I assumed, by the title, that the mystery would involve a grand ball, someone being killed during a waltz, or over dinner, or perhaps just after an illicit assignation in the garden behind the ballroom.

HA!  I could not have been more wrong!  From start to finish, I had a creepy house with a history of death in the library, always by the same mysterious means; a house considered haunted by its history if not its actual ghosts.  Dark, abandoned mid-wedding, when the last body was found, right down to leaving the food on the tables and the cake on the floor where it was dropped during the stampede to escape the house’s curse.  It’s all very gothic.

Then there’s the bride, dead by seemingly her own hand, just a fortnight after her marriage, but surrounded by inconsistencies that make murder a possibility. Her heartbroken husband and her distraught sister, both of whom have shaky alibis and strange reactions to the events as they unfold, making them look more suspicious than bereaved.

Then there’s the narrator, who at times I swear foreshadows the Noir genre, with his quiet investigations on the side, to try to prove his theory that more was going on than met the eye.  His dedication to doing so to save the woman, who is, throughout the book, put upon a pedestal of all that is perfect in woman: beautiful, proud, self-sacrificing, suffering with utmost dignity.   Alas, we were missing just a bottle of whiskey and possibly the use of “Dame” in the narrative and we could have credited AKG with the first noir mystery.

The puzzle pieces come together, disjointedly, as our nameless narrator plod through, putting clues together, ferreting out further information and even chasing one witness to Tampa, Florida.

And the ending, omg the ending was so good.  So well crafted, and such a sucker punch.

The books perfection might have been heightened, in my opinion, by the exclusion of the final chapter, chapter 27.  It’s truly extraneous to the book in all ways except for those readers who want their loose ends tied up in a HEA bow.  I did not mind it, I would not have missed its absence either.

Truly, one of the best mysteries I’ve read in ages, vintage or otherwise.  I’d happily recommend this to anyone who enjoys a good vintage mystery (with the caveat to expect a few offhand and cheerful references to the casual racism that was part of the times in which this book was written.)

 

I read this because I’ve been meaning to for the last few weeks anyway, but also because the new Halloween Bingo 2021 square Vintage Mysteries is one of the re-vamped squares that has lifted its restrictions on what constitutes a qualifying mystery.  As AKG predates the Golden Age, it wouldn’t have necessarily qualified before.  I’ll be using it for Vintage Mysteries but if anyone else is interested, it would also qualify for Gothic, and I think, given the questions concerning all the murders that take place in the book, it would also work for Locked Room

The Toll-Gate

The Toll-GateThe Toll-Gate
by Georgette Heyer
Rating: ★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1954
Pages: 283
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Suspense
Publisher: Heinemann

 

Well, that was a fun, funny, and tedious read.  I was both entertained and exasperated, and not a little impatient, the entire time I read it.  I’m not quite sure how that works; it’s a first for me.

The book starts off at a house party to celebrate the 6th Earl of Saltash’s engagement.  Other than the fact that Captain Staple is at the party, it and all the details and characters involved have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the book and never again come into play.  So the first chapter and half of the second are entirely irrelevant.  It’s only once Captain Staple leaves the house party that the story really begins.

Staple gets a late start, and gets caught in a storm that leaves him lost in the moors, until he finds himself at a toll-gate, late at night, being run by a terrified 10 year old boy.  Looking for a place to shelter, Staple stops, and learns that the boy’s father, the real toll-keeper, was only supposed to be gone an hour but never came back.  The next morning, Staple experiences love at first sight when he lays eyes on a woman, the squire’s daughter, passing through the gate on her way to church.  Needing an excuse to stay, Staple tells the boy he’ll stick around to figure out what happened to his father, intending to woo the squire’s daughter at the same time.

What unfolds is a bit of a rollicking adventure that was almost entirely ruined by Heyer’s heavy use of obscure British slang and vernacular.

“Prigged his tattler, too, but I sold that.  I’m a great one for a pinch o’ merry-go-up, and this little box just happened to take my fancy, and I’ve kept it.  I daresay I’d get a double finnup for it, too,” he added.”

In context, I can ascertain the speaker is referencing a theft, but the entire book is written like this, which is what makes this well-plotted adventure so damn tedious.  By midway through the book, I got the impression that Heyer was purposefully laying it on as thickly as possible, either to prove something to herself, or torture her editors and readers.  Perhaps at the time of publication, readers wouldn’t have struggled with the senseless dialog, but I’d have appreciated a glossary – or perhaps just a great deal less verisimilitude.

Pride and Prejudice: The complete novel, with nineteen letters from the characters’ correspondence, written and folded by hand

Pride and Prejudice: The Complete Novel, with Nineteen Letters from the Characters' Correspondence, Written and Folded by HandPride and Prejudice: The Complete Novel, with Nineteen Letters from the Characters' Correspondence, Written and Folded by Hand
by Jane Austen
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9781452184579
Publication Date: September 1, 2020
Pages: 240
Genre: Literature
Publisher: Chronicle Books

The Complete Novel, with Nineteen Letters from the Characters' Correspondence, Written and Folded by Hand


Fingers crossed, my binging might be at an end; after my last book , I had a sudden desire to re-read Pride and Prejudice and when I went to my shelves to grab a copy (it being amongst the titles I have no willpower to refuse whenever I see one in the shops), I saw this one waiting for me.  Perfect.

Of course, Pride and Prejudice, is a 5-star read for me, once and always, but this edition gets 5 stars for the format.  Since my discovery of Griffin & Sabine, I’ve been a sucker for books with physical bits that are part of the story, and truly, my thoughts when purchasing this went no further than ‘ooh! letters!’.  But upon opening it, I read the introduction by Barbara Heller and realised this isn’t just a novelty, but a tremendous amount of effort went into creating the letters themselves as accurately as possible.  Not just hand-written, but hand-written in replica’s of period letters, each character being assigned a distinctive hand; Heller then found the Society of Scribes of New York, and members wrote each letter with pen and ink, using the imperfections inherit in handwriting to achieve perfection.

The folding, addressing and postage too were all painstakingly researched and replicated, involving advice and instruction from the treasurer of the Midland (GB) Postal History Society.

All efforts to avoid anachronisms were made, and the only variation from true authenticity are the few (2?) pivotal letters where Austen herself only quotes them partially.  Here, as Heller states in the introduction, and in the Appendix, where she has notes on each letter individually, some compromise had to be made.  As it would do no good to only include the part of the letter quoted in the text, Heller consulted various sources, and from the summaries given in the text, attempted to recreate what the original letter might have been.  Here, I think, she only partially succeeds, as there was just no matching the tones exactly, but she made up for this by keeping these ad libs as brief as possible so as not to interfere with the authenticity any more than strictly necessary.

MT made the comment that the book looked unwieldy to read, and I agree that some might find the way the text block is broken up by the glassine envelopes, making the book feel ‘crunchy’ might annoy or turn off some readers, but I frankly loved it.  It made the feel of the book somehow ‘more’, like a scrapbook of an adventurous life, perhaps.

So, a novelty, definitely, but a novelty done with authenticity and every effort at verisimilitude.  Definitely not something that would enhance every title, but the importance of letter-writing to Austen’s works makes it a perfect fit.  This is definitely an edition I’d give to any Austen fan who enjoys something just a little more from their favorite titles.

An Inquiry Into Love and Death

An Inquiry into Love and DeathAn Inquiry into Love and Death
by Simone St. James
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9780451239259
Publication Date: March 5, 2013
Pages: 355
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction, Historical
Publisher: NAL / New American Library

Boy howdy can St. James write a ghost story!  I love this book; I woke up at 6.30 this morning and did nothing until I finished it and then I re-read a few passages just to make it last longer.

In 1920’s England, Oxford student Jillian Leigh’s uncle Toby, a renowned ghost hunter, is killed in a fall off a cliff, and she must drive to the seaside village of Rothewell to pack up his belongings.

Almost immediately, unsettling incidents—a book left in a cold stove, a gate swinging open on its own—escalate into terrifying events that convince Jillian an angry spirit is trying to enter the house. Is it Walking John, the two-hundred-year-old ghost who haunts Blood Moon Bay? Was Toby’s death an accident?

The arrival of handsome Scotland Yard inspector Drew Merriken leaves Jillian with more questions than answers. Even as she suspects someone will do anything to hide the truth, she begins to discover spine-chilling secrets that lie deep within Rothewell… 

If you’re a horror or psychological horror lover, pass this review right on by; this book is a cream puff in comparison to your regular fare, but for the rest of us, this is truly an old-school, spooky ghost story with a mystery and a romance (oh the romance…).  There’s nothing gothic about the story, but I keep thinking of the old gothics anyway, for lack of any better comparison.

I probably should have gone 4.5 stars because Jillian goes through an improbable – neigh, impossible – number of physical calamities to still be standing upright.  Or breathing, really.  But the story was just so good; I was sucked in so thoroughly that I was willing to overlook her superhuman regenerative powers.  Inspector Merriken was incentive enough to spur on a rapid recovery.

Ok, anything else I say beyond this point would just be repetitive gushing.  I loved this book; it gave me exactly the experience I hope for every time I start a new story and I’ll be looking for more of this author’s work.

The Haunting of Maddy Clarie

The Haunting of Maddy ClareThe Haunting of Maddy Clare
by Simone St. James
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9780451235688
Publication Date: March 6, 2012
Pages: 330
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: NAL / New American Library

Wow.

I put this book on my ‘maybe’ list well over a year ago and then promptly overlooked it for ages.  I even gave up and removed it from my lists altogether because I figured if I hadn’t bought it yet, I wasn’t really interested.

A recent review here on BL highly rating it brought it back to my attention at the same time I received a coupon from my favorite online bookseller so I just ordered it.

Jeez am I glad I did.  I loved this book.  This book hit all the right buttons for me: it was scary without being terrifying; it had great sexual tension (I am not going to call it ‘romance’ because there wasn’t any romancing going on, but it was intense); it had a great plot and interesting characters and it was well-written.  The writing style reminded me of authors of the past, particularly Phyllis Whitney.

My only complaint is now I’m suffering from a book hangover – right before I leave for a long weekend at the beach.