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.

Evil in Emerald (Harriet Gordon Mystery, #3)

Evil in EmeraldEvil in Emerald
by A.M. Stuart
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780593335482
Series: Harriet Gordon #3
Publication Date: April 5, 2022
Pages: 347
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley Prime Crime

Craving a change of pace, Harriet Gordon, joins a local musical theatre production but when a fellow cast member is brutally killed, Harriet and Inspector Curran must turn the spotlight on murder in this all-new mystery from the author of Revenge in Rubies.

Between working at her brother’s school and typing up Inspector Robert Curran’s police reports, Harriet Gordon has little time for personal pursuits and she has been enjoying the rehearsals for her role in the Singapore Amateur Dramatic and Musical Society’s latest production – Pirates of Penzance. But Harriet quickly discovers tensions run deep within the theatre company and when the leading man is found murdered, suspicions abound, exposing scandalous behavior as well as some insidious crimes.

Inspector Curran once again turns to Harriet for help with this difficult case, but his own life begins to unravel as a mysterious man turns up on his doorstep claiming to know more about Curran’s painful past than he himself does. And after the one person he has always counted on delivers him some devastating news, the line between his personal and professional life begins to blur. Now, more than ever, Curran needs Harriet’s steadfast assistance, and when another cast member meets a violent end, Curran and Harriet will have to close in on a killer determined to make this case their final curtain call.


In a lot of ways, this series feels like a direct reaction to Little, Brown’s Su Lin series, written by Ovidia Yu: it’s set in British Colonial Singapore (albeit pre WWI as opposed to Yu’s interwar setting); Harriet Gordon, the female lead, though white and British, has a scandalous background and earns a meagre salary by typing reports for the police; Robert Curren is the detective – also with a scandalous past, a shady history, and a very private man with unconventional habits.  The two series are so similar, in fact, that I was prepared to swear that a character in this series – Curran’s love interest – was actually the love interest of the detective in the Su Lin series.  Both series have a Singh on the police force.

There’s a lot of similarities between the two series, but there are also a lot of fundamental differences.  Yu’s Su Lin series feels authentic from the viewpoint of the different Asian citizens of Singapore and Yu’s Singapore feels like the hot, humid, barely tamed jungle it surely was; reading her books is to put yourself in a very exotic setting.  Stuart’s pre-WWI Singapore is undoubtedly authentic too, but it’s definitely from the viewpoint of the colonisers.  Every bit of the story bleeds British, right down to the setting of Evil in Emerald, an amateur production of Pirates of Penzance.  All the primary characters are white (British, Aussie, Kiwi), and Singapore is sanitised.

I was just a touch more than indifferent after reading the first two books, but bought this one last week because I was in the mood for an historical mystery, and I have to say, the author convinced me with this one.  This time around, the characters gelled with me and I was far more interested in them than I was previously.  There’s a more pronounced element of romance in this series and I admit I like the dynamic developing between Gordon and Curran.

The mystery plotting was still average, though Stuart masked what would have felt to me to be a transparent crime by mixing in at least two other crimes involving the mix of the same suspects.  It worked, for the most part.  I wasn’t at all surprised by the murderer, but I wasn’t ever bored with the waiting to find out if I was right or not.

Unfortunately, the author uses this book as a springboard to complications for Curran, and uses the last chapters to setup the direction of the next book. I wouldn’t find this so irritating if I hadn’t bought the book on publication.  As it is, I’m finally interested and now have to wait who-knows-how-long before the next one comes out.

All in all, a developing series with promise if you’re looking for an historical mystery series, and enjoy the British variety – but for an historical mystery series that’s dripping with exotic, authentic Singaporean atmosphere, stick with Ovidia Yu’s Su Lin series.  Me? I like both – double the reading pleasure! I just have to remember who belongs in where.

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 Last Bookshop in London

The Last Bookshop in LondonThe Last Bookshop in London
by Madeline Martin
Rating: ★★½
isbn: 9781867231912
Publication Date: June 2, 2021
Pages: 300
Genre: Fiction, Historical
Publisher: Harlequin

Inspired by the true World War II history of the few bookshops to survive the Blitz, The Last Bookshop in London is a timeless story of wartime loss, love and the enduring power of literature.

August 1939: London is dismal under the weight of impending war with Germany as Hitler’s forces continue to sweep across Europe. Into this uncertain maelstrom steps Grace Bennett, young and ready for a fresh start in the bustling city streets she’s always dreamed of — and miles away from her troubled past in the countryside.

With aspirations of working at a department store, Grace never imagined she’d wind up employed at Primrose Hill, an offbeat bookshop nestled in the heart of the city — after all, she’s never been much of a reader. Overwhelmed with organizing the cluttered store, she doesn’t have time to read the books she sells. But when one is gifted to her, what starts as an obligation becomes a passion that draws her into the incredible world of literature.

As the Blitz rains down bombs on the city night after night, a devastating attack leaves the libraries and shops of London’s literary center in ruins. Miraculously, Grace’s bookshop survives the firestorm. Through blackouts and air raids, Grace continues running the shop, discovering a newfound comfort in the power of words and storytelling that unites her community in ways she never imagined — a force that triumphs over even the darkest nights of war-torn London.


(I read this last year, but somehow missed copying over the review to my blog.)

This is what my brain looks like on sleeping meds, and why it’s never a good idea to book shop under the influence.

To be fair, this looked like it should have been a good book for me.  It’s about a bookshop, it’s an historical WWII setting, and it’s not a romance, though I did pause when I saw that it’s published by Harlequin.  And the story does have its compelling moments; enough of them that I didn’t DNF it.

Unfortunately, the writing is not sophisticated and the whole tone of the book could best be summed up as the print version of a Hallmark Movie.  That’s not me dissing Hallmark Movies – they’re just not my personal jam.  Too emotional, too sweet, too earnest, too …too for my overly analytical preferences.

Full credit, however, for the vivid descriptions of the bombing raids on London.  They were almost, though not quite, visceral.  And I throughly enjoyed most of the bookshop scenes as Grace rehabbed a stuffy, dusty bookshop into a social hub for the neighborhood.

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.

Cotillion

CotillionCotillion
by Georgette Heyer
Rating: ★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1952
Pages: 345
Genre: Fiction, Historical
Publisher: Heinemann

I was in the mood for a light read and while I was perusing my TBR piles, boxes, and shelves, I came across this and remembered that Lillelara had recently read it and enjoyed it.

I definitely enjoyed The Grand Sophy better, but this one got me through without complaint.  I struggled to really feel invested in the story or any of the characters though; it seemed to missing just that little bit of depth – or else my reading slump had dulled my reading sense, rendering everything a bit duller.  Given Heyer’s hit and miss record, either is possible.  Or perhaps a bit of both:  the final scene at Rattray’s rectory perked me right up; in that moment, the characters popped to life for me and I cared about what happened next.

I haven’t read even close to Heyer’s entire backlist, but I’d firmly place this midway on a scale of those I’ve read so far.

Time’s Convert (World of All Souls)

Time's ConvertTime's Convert
by Deborah Harkness
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780399564512
Series: World of All Souls #1
Publication Date: September 18, 2018
Pages: 436
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction, Historical
Publisher: Viking Books

I am an unrepentant fan of A Discovery of Witches and the rest of the All Souls Trilogy, but this one didn’t hit that same sweet spot for me, although in some ways it was better than I’d hoped for.

Set in the same world as the All Souls books, with all the same characters, this book focuses on Matthew’s vampire son, Marcus, and his soon-to-be-mate Phoebe, as she goes through the process of becoming a vampire.  This is the excuse/framework Harkness uses to delve into Marcus’ story, one rich in American Revolution history and personal tragedy.

Told in 3 alternating points of view, Phoebe’s present day (3rd person) narrative of her transformation was the part of the book I liked least.  It involved a lot of vampiric tropes that felt a bit tired, and there was a cat introduced that damn near ended the book.  The cat is not harmed, but I’m not at all satisfied with the role it plays in Phoebe’s new life; it felt like Harkness was purposefully screwing with readers and the unwritten rule of ‘don’t harm pets’.  Either way, I just wasn’t that invested in Phoebe – though I did like Freyja.

The second point of view was Marcus’ flash-backs into his life before and after becoming a vampire.  This was, if not a more enjoyable tale, one that was a hell of a lot more interesting.  Rich in historical backdrops and characters, these sections were vivid and heartbreaking.  The occasional small gaps in story flow were almost invisible, overwhelmed by the rich storytelling.  It also helped that these were the parts that involved Gallowglass, my personal favorite character in the books.

The final point of view was, for me, the best, because it was told in first person present day by Diana and involved almost all the old characters I know and love from the trilogy.  Here are Diana, Matthew, Marcus, Sarah, Ysabeau and the rest, spending the summer in the south of France, listening to Marcus tell his tale while Phoebe is in Paris learning to be a vampire and not properly appreciating her pets.  Diana and Matthew’s kids provide some scope for funny antics, and the overall relaxed plot of this book means it’s easier for Harkness to indulge in scenes involving the kind of family dynamics everyone thinks are hilarious in other people’s families.  I enjoyed the humor woven through these sections almost more than I did any other part of the book.

The story is complete, but there are subtle hints that more books about the other characters may be forthcoming.  Baldwin seems the most obvious choice, though I’m holding out for Gallowglass to get his 15 minutes.  A girl can hope, anyway.

And Only to Deceive (Lady Emily Mystery, #1)

And Only to DeceiveAnd Only to Deceive
by Tasha Alexander
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780060756710
Series: Lady Emily Mystery #1
Publication Date: October 11, 2005
Pages: 310
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: William Morrow

‘A Novel of Suspense.’

No, not really.  Whomever read this book and thought it suspenseful needs to get out more.

It was a very good read though – I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It’s the age-old tale of ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’ with Greek antiquities, art forgery, romance and mystery thrown into the mix.

Emily makes a very good marriage to Viscount Ashton for the sole purpose of getting away from her harpy of a mother: a decision I whole-heartendly endorsed after only one scene involving that nasty shrew.  Mere months after the marriage, her husband dies of a fever while on an African safari, leaving her a very wealthy widow.  When her late husband’s best friend, Colin, pays her a visit, telling her he promised Lord Ashton that Emily would see their villa in Santorini, Greece – a property she owned but didn’t even know about – she decides she ought to learn more about this man she married but knew nothing about.

Thus begins Emily’s adventures.  As she learns more about her husband Philip, she learns she had a very good man in her life for far too short a time – or maybe he wasn’t such a good man?  This is what comes from a lack of communication in a marriage:  Emily is left with contradicting information and evidence – he was either very noble or a massive scoundrel  She must sort it all out since she has fallen obsessively in love with her husband post mortem.  I found this just a touch nauseating – almost to eye-rolling stage.  I understand the regret she’d feel, but not love after the fact.

Along the way, she discovers another passion; this one for knowledge, specifically, ancient Greece.  She dives into her education, much to the consternation and disgust of her mother – which really, is a total perk for both Emily and the reader.

I loved the characterisations – each person is boldly sketched out on the page, clear enough to almost be seen.  The Parisian settings are vivd, even though few words are used.

The plot was well done, although again – NOT suspenseful.  This isn’t the sort of plot the reader figures out before Lady Emily does.  The villain is revealed slowly over the course of the story.  There’s no grand denouement, although there is a critical unveiling, which I thought was handled particularly well (no TSTL moments).

There are 8 more books in this series so far – YAY!  I’m off to order the next few; I definitely enjoyed the story enough to want to know what happens next.

NB:  I particularly enjoyed that the author thought to include a few brief sections at the end: The Story behind The Story, Fact vs. Fiction, Location, Location, Location and a Suggested Reading.  As a complete novice with all things historical, I appreciated knowing what was authentic to the time, and what she took authorial license with.  It’s a nice touch.

Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin, #1)

Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
Format: Paperback
Grave MercyGrave Mercy
by Robin LaFevers
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780547628349
Series: His Fair Assassin #1
Publication Date: April 3, 2012
Pages: 484
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction, Historical
Publisher: Andersen Press

In the fifteenth-century kingdom of Brittany, seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where she learns that the god of Death has blessed her with dangerous gifts, and a violent destiny.


I just ate this story up with a spoon.

I’ll admit this has sat on my TBR pile for awhile as I was a bit shy about starting such a thick YA book.  But once I picked it up I was loathe to put it back down again.  I’m usually a character driven reader; I can put up with a lot if I connect with the characters.  But I can’t say it was the characters that drew me deeply into the book.  I liked them, don’t get me wrong.  Ismae, Gavriel, The Beast, Anne – all of them characters you want to see come out all right.  But here, it was the story, the palace intrigue, the writing, that sucked me in well and good.  I know absolutely nothing about the time period this book takes place in, so I wasn’t burdened with knowing whether or not there’s any realism, or whether any research was done.  I was just along for the ride.

I didn’t give the book 5 stars because in a sea of villains, it was still obvious to me who the ultimate traitor was.  It didn’t in any way hamper my true enjoyment of the book, but it felt like the author could have hidden the clues a bit better.  I suspect I’m also not the books target audience so perhaps I’m being too harsh a judge.

Grave Mercy is YA really only in the sense that the MC is a 17 year-old.  The writing is oblique enough that I still can’t figure out if anyone was getting lucky or not, so I guess someone could argue that makes it more ‘age-appropriate’.  Although that someone wouldn’t be me.

If you enjoy historicals, and a bit of mythology this is a book that might be worth checking into.