The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan
This is not the cozy tale of home front life in an English village that I expected, but instead a grittier, more memorable story of life in southeast England in 1940. Told in letters and diaries, we experience the points of view of several women and one girl in Chilbury. 13-year-old Kitty Winthrop befriends a young Czech evacuee and uncovers disturbing secrets, while her 18-year-old sister Venetia falls hard for a visiting artist. Widowed Mrs. Tilling, who has sent her only son off to war, resents giving his room to Colonel Mallard. Also featured is a conniving midwife who values money over morals. Newcomer Miss Prim starts a ladies only choir, over the objections of traditionalist Mrs. B, and the women gradually learn the power of music to entertain, comfort, and inspire. I would have liked to learn more about Miss Prim and about the backstories of other characters, but found this to be an absorbing, enjoyable pageturner. Readers learn how far a father will go to have an heir, what happens to the survivors when a house is bombed, and how the women of Chilbury struggle to adapt to their new roles during a time of constant change. Readalikes include The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and though it’s set decades earlier, The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson. A first novel by an editor of non-fiction books, the author was inspired by her grandmother’s stories of life in WWII, and by the many memoirs of life in WWII England that she read, especially those of evacuees.
On March 21 at 10 a.m., the Tuesday Morning Book Group will discuss the historical novel Dollbaby, by Laura Lane McNeal. Ibby Bell travels to New Orleans to stay with her eccentric grandmother, and grows up during the 1960s. Here is my earlier review.
The Tuesday Evening Book Group will meet at 7 p.m. on March 28 to discuss The Empire of Deception, by Dean Jobb. This is the true story of a brilliant con man, Leo Koretz, whose wealthy lifestyle, lavish parties, and generosity beguile his family, friends, and acquaintances into giving him millions of dollars to invest, much of it in non-existent oil wells in Bayano, Panama. Eventually his Ponzi scheme falls apart after investors visit Panama, but by then Leo is in disguise, still living extravagantly, in Nova Scotia.
The Crime Readers will meet at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 15 to discuss Broken Harbor, by Tana French, a Dublin murder squad mystery. Crime Readers are co-sponsored by the Indian Prairie Public Library. Optional dinner is at 6 p.m.
Copies of the books are available at the Adult & Teen Services Reference Desk.
Dollbaby, by Laura Lane McNeal
An absorbing coming-of-age story set in 1960s New Orleans, this first novel is moving and compelling. Ibby Bell, almost 12, travels to New Orleans to live with her grandmother after her father dies. Ibby learns to wear dresses, eat Southern food, and attends her first church service. Fannie is an eccentric, wealthy woman who likes to bet on sports. Queenie is her longtime cook, Queenie’s daughter Dollbaby takes care of the house, makes dresses for Ibby, and is slightly involved in the Civil Rights movement. Dollbaby’s daughter Birdelia shows Ibby around New Orleans, although they draw stares in segregated New Orleans. Queenie and Dollbaby teach Ibby the rules to living with Fannie: don’t talk about the past, don’t ask about the locked bedrooms, and don’t ask too many questions. The big house has its secrets, which Ibby gradually learns, along with her family history. A strong sense of place and appealing, complex characters add to this book’s considerable appeal.
The Cold Eye by Laura Anne Gilman
A fantasy novel set in an alternate version of the American West, this sequel to Silver on the Road lives up to the promise of the first book. Teen Isobel and her mentor Gabriel, along with two horses and a mule, are traveling through the Territory, as Isobel learns the land, the people, and her new role as Left Hand for the Master of the Territory. Alone temporarily, Isobel comes upon a field of slaughtered bison, and promises to remember them. Small animals and birds are strangely absent, and it’s as if the land is poisoned. Gabriel can sense water, but neither can sense the main road for a while, and then the earthquakes begin. Something is very wrong, and it’s Isobel’s charge to investigate. They find a Marshall who’s arrested two scouts from east of the Mississippi, probably sent by President Jefferson. They are accused of encouraging a group of magicians to work together to trap a spirit. Isobel and Gabriel, with the remaining magicians, join the Marshall in a journey to a small, warded town for a trial. Although Isobel seems more mature than most 16-year-olds, it’s fascinating seeing the Territory through her eyes. The writing is compelling, the characters fully realized, and I kept turning the pages to find out what happens next, while dreading what they might encounter. Clearly, Isobel and Gabriel are living in an unsettled and unpredictable time, and there are likely several more adventures ahead for them. Here’s my review of Silver on the Road, which I suggest reading first.
Updraft by Fran Wilde
Kirit Densira lives in a remarkable world, high above the clouds, in towers made of living, growing bone. She is ready for her wing test, and hopes to be her mother’s apprentice. Ezarit is a trader who soars between towers. Kirit’s curiosity puts her in danger, and causes heavy penalties for her and her wing brother Nat. Kirit’s harsh singing voice may be surprisingly useful, and the Singers of the Spire want her to join them, but it’s hard to know who to trust. Full of adventure and intrigue, soaring heights and monsters in a suspenseful and compelling fantasy. I really enjoyed Kirit’s story, and look forward to reading about Nat in Cloudbound. I think fans of Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy, which begins with Dragonsong, would enjoy Updraft, which won the Andre Norton award.
Not Fade Away: A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found by Rebecca Alexander
In this inspiring memoir, Rebecca Alexander tells her story of life lived to the fullest while simultaneously losing most of her vision and hearing. Rebecca has a vary rare form of Usher’s Syndrome, which was diagnosed when she was a college student. A recent cochlear implant seems to have given her back much of her hearing, but at 37, she has only a narrow field of vision and no idea how long it will last. Nevertheless, she travels, teaches spin classes, dates, plays with her dog, walks around New York City, and works as a psychotherapist. Sarcastic and funny, Rebecca describes her life, with all its calamities and joys, and how she seeks to find her own unique identity, ask for help when needed, be a visible face for people with often invisible disabilities, and enjoy experiences even if they scare her. Since this book was published in 2014, she has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with her sister and stepmother. A remarkable life, well-told. For more about Rebecca, visit her website.
Silver on the Road, by Laura Anne Gilman
Isobel is turning 16 and has to decide if she wants to work for the boss or leave the Territory, a reimagined American West full of magic. She has grown up in a saloon, where the Devil lets you gamble at the tables, but is willing to make a bargain if desired. And the Devil always keeps his word and honors his bargains. Isobel decides to stay, but instead is sent out on the road on horseback with mentor Gabriel to learn the Territory and to become the Devil’s Left Hand, a job that doesn’t come with a manual. Isobel and Gabriel encounter talking animals, a traveling magician, shamans, terrifying supernatural winds, and small towns completely empty of people. Young as she is, Isobel needs to take responsibility and find out what is going on in the Territory. A sequel, The Cold Eye, is being published in January, and I’m intrigued to find out what Isobel will encounter next.