Review: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

Review: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer RyanThe Chilbury Ladies' Choir by Jennifer Ryan
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by Crown Publishing Group on February 14th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

"Just because the men have gone to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely when we need it most!"
As England enters World War II's dark early days, spirited music professor Primrose Trent, recently arrived to the village of Chilbury, emboldens the women of the town to defy the Vicar's stuffy edict to shutter the church's choir in the absence of men and instead 'carry on singing'. Resurrecting themselves as "The Chilbury Ladies' Choir", the women of this small village soon use their joint song to lift up themselves, and the community, as the war tears through their lives.
Told through letters and journals, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir moves seamlessly from budding romances to village intrigues to heartbreaking matters of life and death. As we come to know the struggles of the charismatic members of this unforgettable outfit -- a timid widow worried over her son at the front; the town beauty drawn to a rakish artist; her younger sister nursing an impossible crush and dabbling in politics she doesn't understand; a young Jewish refugee hiding secrets about her family, and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past -- we come to see how the strength each finds in the choir's collective voice reverberates in her individual life.
In turns funny, charming and heart-wrenching, this lovingly executed ensemble novel will charm and inspire, illuminating the true spirit of the women on the home front, in a village of indomitable spirit, at the dawn of a most terrible conflict.

My Review:

The Chilbury Ladies Choir is the lovely and immersive story of a small coastal village in England during the early years of World War II. The story is told entirely through the letters and diaries of the members of the choir as they navigate the changes that have arrived in their little town in the wake of war.

The first change is the one that gives the choir both its name and its purpose. Chilbury is a small town. All the young men and even middle-aged men are gone. Only the very old and the very young are left. The local vicar, on that side of very old, comes to the traditional conclusion that without any men, without any tenors, baritones and basses, the church choir will have to disband for the duration.

The new music teacher disagrees. There is no reason why the women can’t make a choir of their own, with music altered to fit their soaring soprano and alto voices. And so it begins.

The ladies of the choir, at first hesitant to do something so completely nontraditional, discover that their voices have not been stilled. If anything, their voices have been amplified and expanded by the war, as they are left to take up all the tasks that are still required by village life, jobs that used to be filled by men.

As tradition falls by the wayside, so do many of the social restrictions that governed daily life, and more important for women before the war, the rigors of strict respectability. Things that were simply “not done” are now done all the time, whether that’s work at the nearby government installations or take up with a dodgy artist who claims to be too infirm to enlist.

Their world has been turned on its head, yet they soldier (and sing) on, even as they receive black-bordered telegraphs from the front and as bombs fall on their tiny town.

We view the early years of the war and the remaining denizens of the village through their eyes. Young Kitty Winthrop’s diary, and her older sister Venetia’s letters to a friend in London speak of the mundane and the tragic. We see their still simmering sibling rivalry, we experience almost-fourteen-year-old Kitty’s stops and starts at growing up. We experience the tragedy of Venetia’s love affair through her letters, and observe her through Kitty’s eyes as she changes from a self-absorbed vamp-wannabe to a grown woman who finally matures.

Through the letters of the local midwife and the diary of the local nurse, we see a great swindle unfold. And we see crime finally turned into triumph.

We see all the woman grow and change and expand into their new roles, into this frightening new world. And in the midst of so many tragedies, we see them rise along with their voices.

Escape Rating A: I think that a lot of readers are doing to compare The Chilbury Ladies Choir to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and from the looks of things there certainly are similarities. Enough so that I feel the need to get a copy of Guernsey, which I haven’t read. Yet.

One big difference is that Guernsey takes place after the war, so the characters are reflecting on what happened rather than experiencing it fresh. Chilbury is contemporaneous, we read the letters and diaries as they are being written. We find ourselves in the middle of these characters lives, watching them change and grow. We learn about Kitty and Venetia’s family life by what they write, not by an omniscient narrator telling us that their father the local squire is a bully and a brute who abuses them and their mother. They write about what they feel as it happens, and we watch them try to avoid and justify and self-efface and cower in an attempt to survive. We feel their confusion and triumph as he finally gets put in his place.

We see half the women in the village experience some variation of his bullying and brutality, and cheer when someone finds a way to stand up to him and make it stick.

This is kind of a gentle story, in spite of the war. Some of the women experience tragedy, but because of the epistolary nature of the story, the blood and guts are not described, not even when the village is bombed. But the emotional tsunami in the aftermath is experienced again and again.

In a way, not a lot happens. And yet so much does. The story, much like the choir, works together so well that it is a joy to experience these women’s lives with them, even though we don’t know how it ends. And we don’t need to. The war eventually ended, but these women’s lives, and the lives they touched, went on. While it would be marvelous to see each one’s happy-ever-after (or at least get some resolution if they don’t get one) it doesn’t feel necessary for the story to conclude.

One final note: there is another author named Jennifer Ryan. The other Jennifer Ryan writes contemporary romance and romantic suspense. And was the source of one of my most sarcastic, and most liked, reviews on Goodreads, The Right Bride. The two Jennifer Ryans are definitely not the same.

If you love stories about the homefront during World War II, or women’s fiction, or just want to read a lovely story, I can’t recommend The Chilbury Ladies Choir highly enough.

This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt VonnegutSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: classics, Fiction, science fiction, World War II
Pages: 215
Published by Dial Press Trade Paperback on January 12th 1999
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Kurt Vonnegut's absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut's) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.
Don't let the ease of reading fool you - Vonnegut's isn't a conventional, or simple, novel. He writes, "There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters."
Slaughterhouse-Five is not only Vonnegut's most powerful book, it is also as important as any written since 1945. Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author's experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority. Slaughterhouse-Five boasts the same imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd found in Vonnegut's other works, but the book's basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy - and humor.

My Review:

1969 cover of Slaughterhouse Five
1969 cover of Slaughterhouse Five

Although I’m sure I knew it before, i was still surprised to see that Slaughterhouse Five was nominated for the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel in 1970. Slaughterhouse Five isn’t what we now think of SF. There are no spaceships (well, maybe one spaceship) and a debatable amount of faster than light or other than light travel. Instead, Slaughterhouse Five represents science fiction as the literature of ideas, and in that area, as in so many others it is a classic.

The winner of the 1970 Hugo was The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. Slaughterhouse Five was in excellent company.

The climax of Slaughterhouse Five is the bombing of Dresden at the end of World War II. The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, was a witness to that bombing, an American POW on the ground, or nearly under it, as the bombing took place. As one of the few survivors, he participated in the horrific clean up afterwards.

Billy Pilgrim is, to a greater or lesser extent, telling the author’s story at this point. In real life, Kurt Vonnegut was a POW held in Dresden during this incident, when allied forces reduced this once beautiful city to a rubble strewn landscape as barren and deadly as the moon.

This story is told by the unnamed narrator from a perspective at the end of Billy Pilgrim’s life. And because it is told at the end, the reader is never quite sure whether Billy really was unstuck in time, or whether he is just remembering the important bits of his life out of sequential order. And it doesn’t really matter.

Neither does the question of whether or not Billy really was kidnapped by the alien Tralfamadorians, who introduced to him the concept, or philosophy if you will, that every moment is forever, and that only remembering the good bits is the best way to manage existence.

What is certain is the Billy has post-traumatic stress disorder after his experience in Dresden. And who wouldn’t? Dresden comes last in the story, because it is the focus of everything. It is a moment of man’s absolute inhumanity to man, and Billy still can’t process it. So he keeps returning to it over and over, and every event that led to it, in an attempt to tell his truth.

Escape Rating B: I am glad I read Slaughterhouse Five. I had never read any of Vonnegut’s work before, but now I have a tiny glimpse into what made his work both so beloved, and so controversial at the same time. This review is being posted as a part of Banned Books Week, because Slaughterhouse Five is one of the most frequently challenged or banned books of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The bombing of Dresden was hidden from the American public for years after the war. It has been debated whether Dresden truly was a legitimate military target, or whether the entire purpose of the reduction of this formerly beautiful city to rubble was just to reduce what remained of German morale at the beginning of 1945. The bombing of Dresden caused as much of a loss of life as either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, minus the nuclear fallout. War is always hell.

Billy Pilgrim is a non-heroic hero. He is not brave in any way. He doesn’t serve with special distinction. But he survives, and manages the best he can, which in the end isn’t very well. He believes he’s done the best he can, coping with the uncope-able.

Having read the book, I’ll admit that I don’t understand the continuous attempts to ban it, particularly the most recent ones. There is profanity in this book. Many of Billy’s memories take place either among soldiers during wartime, or among POWs. I’d be more surprised if they didn’t cuss. There’s a little sex, and a lot of violence. Again, most humans manage to have a little sex, and talk about it a little more, over the course of a lifetime. And the terrible violence is part of an equally terrible war. The bombing of Dresden was nothing but violence. I will never understand the unwillingness of people to admit that what happened did in fact happen. Or those who believe that if we stop talking about the terrible past or the awful present, that it will somehow remove the worst events from history. A problem that has a great deal of resonance today.

It’s ironic that a story about the way that people in specific and humanity in general keep repeating the same mistakes over and over keeps getting banned and challenged, over and over. As that unnamed narrator says every time someone dies in the book, “And so it goes.”

Review: The Race for Paris by Meg Waite Clayton

Review: The Race for Paris by Meg Waite ClaytonFormat: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 336
Published by HarperCollins on August 11, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Normandy, 1944. To cover the fighting in France, Jane, a reporter for the Nashville Banner, and Liv, an Associated Press photographer, have already had to endure enormous danger and frustrating obstacles—including strict military regulations limiting what women correspondents can do. Even so, Liv wants more.

Encouraged by her husband, the editor of a New York newspaper, she’s determined to be the first photographer to reach Paris with the Allies, and capture its freedom from the Nazis.

However, her Commanding Officer has other ideas about the role of women in the press corps. To fulfill her ambitions, Liv must go AWOL. She persuades Jane to join her, and the two women find a guardian angel in Fletcher, a British military photographer who reluctantly agrees to escort them. As they race for Paris across the perilous French countryside, Liv, Jane, and Fletcher forge an indelible emotional bond that will transform them and reverberate long after the war is over.

Based on daring, real-life female reporters on the front lines of history like Margaret Bourke-White, Lee Miller, and Martha Gellhorn—and with cameos by other famous faces of the time—The Race for Paris is an absorbing, atmospheric saga full of drama, adventure, and passion. Combining riveting storytelling with expert literary craftsmanship and thorough research, Meg Waite Clayton crafts a compelling, resonant read.

no job for a womanThe background of the the story in The Race for Paris is based on the reports of real-life female war correspondents who fought to cover World War II from the front lines, just like their male colleagues. These were women who were told they couldn’t go near the front, because “we don’t have any female latrines and don’t plan to dig any” in spite of the fact that their male counterparts were generally housed in confiscated chateaus with running water and no need for any latrines.

And there were always plenty of available jeeps with drivers to take the guys to the front whenever they asked, but no matter how many spare jeeps were available where the women were segregated, there were never any for them.

While this may sound petty, the facts were that the Army didn’t want women covering the war, and put every roadblock possible in their path. Pioneering reporters and photojournalists like Ruth Cowan, Martha Gellhorn, Dickey Chapelle and Margaret Bourke-White covered it anyway, often going AWOL from their restricted stations in order to cover the war the way it needed to be covered.

The story in The Race for Paris is a kind of amalgamated and fictionalized version of the escapades of those early female war correspondents, as it follows a young newspaper woman, a celebrated photojournalist, and the fully accredited military photographer who provides them with cover and transportation and makes their exploits possible.

This story actually begins in 1994, as journalist Jane Tracy attends a museum exhibit dedicated to her book of the war photography of her friend and companion on that now long ago quest, Liv Hadley. It was Liv’s photographs that told the story, which Jane narrates in her memories as she views the exhibit.

Liv and Jane, at Liv’s insistence, go AWOL from their posting by hitchhiking a lift from a friendly ambulance driver on his way back to the Front to pick up more wounded. He’ll take them out, but once there, the women are on their own.

In the summer of 1944, every reporter in France wants to be the first to reach Paris to cover the liberation of the long suffering City of Light, under Nazi occupation since 1940. The reporter with the first byline from “Free” Paris will make their career. Everyone wants to be first, and the competition is fierce.

At the same time, the camaraderie is abundant. They are all in this together, at least until that last sprint for the finish. Liv and Jane find military photographer Fletcher Roebuck in the same hunt that they are on, but with a difference. Fletcher is photographing German defenses, and is a British officer rather than a civilian correspondent. He can, and does, commandeer transport and supplies. And he is an old friend of both Liv and her husband, newspaper editor Charles Hadley.

Fletcher can’t resist either Liv or her obsession with being the first photojournalist in Paris. At the same time, he can’t bear the thought of Liv and Jane on their own, hopping from company to company in a mad attempt to reach Paris and stay one step ahead of the MPs who are chasing them and return them to the U.S., in handcuffs if necessary.

So Fletcher falls in with the female journalists’ need to cover the war, no matter what the cost is to themselves. And even though they can’t file their stories out of the very real fear that the MPs will track them down by following their transmissions, they still write and photograph the campaign to take Paris from the ground where the soldiers fight, and not from the sanitized and censored press corps camps.

But Paris is not enough.

Escape Rating B: While Jane is telling the story, it is really Liv’s story that she tells. This seems appropriate, because Liv was the photographer, and Jane was the journalist. Liv was the pictures, and it’s an exhibit of her pictures that frames the story, but Jane was always the words.

So Jane finds herself as an observer in the events. She watches as Liv’s candle burns so bright it burns out, and she watches Liv’s feelings about her marriage and fear that while she is in Europe traveling in horrible conditions and sometimes under both enemy and friendly fire, her husband is back in New York with multiple mistresses. And at the same time dealing with his underhanded attempts to get her back home via the MPs, and her own fear that if she isn’t out there taking new pictures and scaling new career heights, she won’t be interesting enough to keep him.

And at the same time, Jane is observing the very mixed-up feelings of their little trio, as Fletcher falls in love with Liv, and Jane falls for Fletcher. The three of them are an emotional train wreck as they trek across Europe with any unit that will have them and not turn them over to the MPs.

Their journey is often harrowing, but frequently lightened by camaraderie with the troops. They write (and film) stories of both hope and brutality, and come away utterly changed. And they live in fear, fear that they will be shot or shelled, and an even greater fear that they will be captured before they finish their self-appointed mission.

Sometimes the story breaks down into a series of incidents, but it feels as if that mirrors both their journey and the feelings of the troops that they covered. The old army motto of “hurry up and wait” is in full force. They hurry to their next destination, and then wait endlessly for something to happen. And everyone was waiting for the liberation of Paris.

At the end, I was left with some mixed feelings. Their journey to cover the war felt very much like the way it must have been. I would have liked more stories about what they covered and how they felt about it. The framing story, while it turns out to have been not just necessary but carried an emotional punch, also led to what felt like a bit too much emphasis on the triangle between Liv, Fletcher and Jane. I wanted more war stories and less romantic emotional angst. There was enough other angst to go around.

But I came away thinking about the conditions under which the female correspondents were forced to work. The men got everything handed to them, and the women were hemmed in and cordoned off and held back at every turn. Then they were arrested when they questioned their treatment. This wasn’t about their safety, they only wanted to work under the same conditions as the male correspondents. If it was safe enough for one civilian, it should have been safe enough for another. Notwithstanding the combat deaths of the 54 war correspondents killed in action in WWII. Only 500 correspondents were accredited, so that’s a pretty big slice of what was supposed to be a non-combatant position.

The way that Liv’s husband treated her rankled. On the one hand, he encouraged her to cover the war. On the other hand, he started rumors and badgered the MPs to restrict her movements and eventually try to arrest her when she broke out. If he had been the one out covering the war instead, while she would have worried just as much, she wouldn’t have encouraged him on one hand and tried to take it all away with the other. Her treatment embodied the whole era – she did every bit as good as job as any of the men, but was constantly told that she wasn’t supposed to be there at all. But they all were, and their contributions kicked open the doors for women war correspondents in (unfortunately) future wars.