Book Review of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

Quiet country village. Rolling hills. Grazing sheep in pastures. Singing choir and church bells resounding out of the parish church.

Sound familiar? It’s the setting for many of the British stories that we love. Except this time, the story takes place during World War II, when most of the men in the community have left for battle, leaving the women at home to fend for themselvthe-chilbury-ladies-choir-jacket-252x380es.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan is a fast-paced story about a group of women who sing together, but it is more than that: the women are individuals who suffer, worry, and triumph through their separate experiences. One of the things that I find the most interesting about this book is this idea of the converse narrative. Most history book stories about WWII revolve around male narratives: men training, men fighting, men dying, men returning home. But a lot of the time (at least in the history I studied as a child), the female narrative is glossed over or left out entirely. Not so, in this book. Although it is a fictional narrative, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir reconstructs a female history of the war, covering the stories of many women of different ages, personalities, and social statuses. Put together, the book shines a light on the complexity of women’s lives during war time in the U.K. Jennifer Ryan does a good job of crafting a unique voice for each character, making it easy to follow along.

 

As a story of many stories, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is made of the narrations of many women through the form of letters and diaries. This not only makes the text easy to read, but also allows each woman to speak in her own voice.And voice is important in this story. 1940s Chilbury seems to be a culture in which women are supposed to be silent, or at least quiet, but these women sing to show their power and togetherness.

So here’s the gist (I will try to avoid too many spoilers):

The Setup

World War II. England. Most of the men (at least the young ones) are gone to the Continent to fight the advancing German army. Meanwhile, in the small village of Chilbury, the vicar wants to close down the community choir because there aren’t enough male voices to keep it going. Through the instigation of a female music teacher, the women of the village step outside the norm to create an all-female choir.

The Ladies

Mrs. Tilling is a widow who lives alone now that her son David has gone to France. Being alone makes her ruminate on the danger her son faces. She’s quiet, known as a “do-gooder,” and can be a little curious about other people’s lives. As a nurse, she helps out when the army retreats from Dunkirk, gaining a close-up encounter with the fatalities of war. When she has to take in a seemingly cranky colonel under billeting, her internal world starts to come undone.

Edwina Paltry is something of an outsider. She claims to be a midwife and seeks to boost her clientele (and pocketbook) in the village. Edwina gives us a look at the hierarchical social class of the village, as she represents someone without property. Wanting to retake her childhood home where she dreams of living with her sister, she is willing to do whatever it takes to save up enough money to return. I won’t reveal too much, but let’s just say that it has something to do with baby-swapping.

Kitty Winthrop is thirteen years old but sees herself as much older than she is. She serves as an observing lens to the rest of the community because she’s a bit ignored. However, Kitty’s view of the world is a little skewed as she imagines things to be more than they are in reality: for example, a “proposal” by a handsome young man. At first, I was a little confused by Kitty’s section as the descriptions seemed extravagant and overdone, but once I realized her voice as a dramatic teen, it made sense, reminding me of my own diary at that age.

Venetia Winthrop is Kitty’s older sister at eighteen years old. She is rather a flirt, and likes the attention of the young men of the village (most of whom have now joined the army or air force). With all the young men gone, Venetia turns her attention to Mr. Alastair Slater, a mysterious artist who doesn’t reveal too much about his past. Venetia finds a satisfying independence in spending time with him, but if her father knew what she was up to, he might think it was a bit too much time.

Silvie is a little Jewish girl who has come to live with the Winthrops after escaping the Nazis in Czechoslovakia. As an evacuee, she left behind her family and all her belongings. She’s very quiet both in life, and in the narrative, but her character adds to the depth of female experience in Great Britain at the time.

Other characters include Prim, the inspiring choir leader; Elsie, the maid who knows too much; and Mrs. B who has the negativity of a Debbie Downer and the forceful stubbornness of Mrs. Rachel Lynde.

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The White Cliffs of Dover, near where the soldiers returned – Photo Credit: Ad Meskins / Wikimedia Commons

At times, because of its simply styled language and dialogue-driven plot, this book reads like a British miniseries, which was appealing to me, lover of the BBC. I’ve heard the television rights have been picked up by Carnival TV, so here’s to hoping it does get made.

I read this at a fitting time, I think, since I’ve been watching Land Girls,  a TV show about women working for the British Women’s Land Army to produce food during WWII, and I just re-watched Atonement, one of my favorites, a film that connects the war to themes of family, love, and the power of words. So altogether, WWII has been on my mind, especially the non-battle stories of people who remained at home and fought metaphorical battles of their own.

Reading stories of hope and cooperation in the midst of danger and uncertainty is uplifting in times such as ours. As Mrs. Tilling writes in her journal: “Then we were in our own little worlds, with our own problems, and then suddenly they seemed to dissolve, and we realized that it’s us here now, living through this, supporting each other.”

Order your copy of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir (released on February 14, 2017) here.Thank you to The Crown Publishing Group and Penguin Random House for providing this book for review.

 

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Missing Downton Abbey

Dear Downton Abbey,

I miss you. This is the first winter in six years that you are not waiting on the other side of Christmas to cheer up my dreary post-sunshine days. I will have to  find another justification for my blanket-wrapped, Biscoff binge-eating evenings (but between us, you are still my favorite). There are and will be other British television series to watch, but I will always remember you. I miss Anna and her patience, Carson and his dignity, Sybil and her daring, the Dowager Countess and her tartness. (sometimes, I even miss you, Thomas.) They say all good things must come to an end, but I don’t see why. Maybe someday, I will be able to visit Highclere Castle in Berkshire to see what you all are up to. Tea time, probably.

Cheers,

Rose

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Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey) image credit: Richard Munckton

For those of you also interested in visiting the locations from Downton Abbey, this is an amazing interactive map produced by Wayfair.co.uk :

I like clicking on each location to see the photo of what it looks like “out of costume.” As you can see, the show was filmed all over England and even Scotland, from Basildon Park to Byfleet Manor to Inveraray Castle. I don’t know about you, but I am already mentally planning a Downton themed vacation….

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Memoir Review of My History by Antonia Fraser and BOOK GIVEAWAY

London-born and Oxford-bred, Lady Antonia Fraser, queen of biography, remembers her own life in My History: A Memoir of Growing Up. With anecdotes that speak to Fraser’s love of, and later career in, biographical history, this winding journey of memory will appeal to lovers of Fraser’s work as well as Anglophiles who want to explore life in England during the 1930s and 1940s. The book follows Fraser’s memories from early childhood through her beginnings in publishing.

My History: A Memoir of Growing Up by Antonia Fraser

A magical remembering of the bells ringing in Oxford start us out in the first chapter. Not yet three years old, Fraser witnesses King George V and Queen Mary on their Silver Jubilee, standing in a tower in Oxford. Throughout her childhood she speaks of castles and ancestral haunts. With such beginnings and surroundings, who can be surprised by Fraser’s later obsession with the history of the British?

Much of the first section of the book talks about Fraser’s parents, both of whom were very passionate politically and professionally. Coming from a privileged British family, Fraser was given a front row seat to her country’s workings as both her parents were involved in the government. She tells of canvassing door-to-door in her parents behalf and working on her mother’s campaign. This was a time Fraser remembers fondly.

Lady Margaret Hall Oxford “LMH Quad” by Sarah from UK

Those who are well-read in Fraser’s work will likely not be surprised by her interest in strong, fascinating women in history, such as Marie Antoinette and Mary, Queen of Scots. This attraction to the female anecdotes of history can be seen starting in Fraser’s childhood. Reading the works of Henrietta Marshall from the young age of four, Fraser quickly gained an interest in the aged past, and especially the noted women of history. As she read about Mary, Queen of Scots, Fraser put herself in the place of the fated Queen; this speaks to her intuitive ability to connect the past with modern readers.

Perhaps another reason Fraser portrays strong female characters is because of her mother as well as her own upbringing. Watching her mother run for government and speak with passion about her beliefs perhaps inspired the daughter in her own independence and personal passion. Fraser recounts the years she spent at a school once known as a strictly boys’ school and how she felt somewhat special about being in the small number of girls present. These experiences no doubt helped build Fraser’s own character as she later made a name for herself in publishing.

Through vivid details and charming narratives, Fraser brings her own life to the realm of biography. She peruses her past with a historian’s analysis combined with a grandmother’s reminiscence. It’s as if Fraser is taking a step aside from her lifetime career of literary work to make meaning of her experience and bring it all full circle.

Those familiar with the biographies of Antonia Fraser will find her childhood background enlightening, connecting pieces of her own past to her future fascination with history. But even those for whom My History is their first book by Fraser will enjoy her personal stories, her tales of living through World War II, school at Oxford, and her growing up surrounded by British politicians. For Anglophiles, My History provides a look at an England changing from pre-war to post-war; it gives the reader glances at the streets of Oxford as well as the publishing realm during the mid-century.

My History: A Memoir of Growing Up will be published in the U.S. October 13, 2015, but you can you pre-order your copy here.

Don’t forget to enter the book giveaway below! Doubleday has provided me with 2 copies of this wonderful book for my readers, so comment away and spread the word! Just follow the link and use your email to sign in. Then leave a comment or follow me on Twitter to enter the giveaway. Be sure to submit your entry THROUGH the Rafflecopter link below. Please let me know if this is not working for you and we will work it out :)

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Other works by Antonia Fraser:

Marie Antoinette: The Journey

Wives of Henry VIII

Mary Queen of Scots

The Weaker Vessel

The Gunpowder Plot
Thank you to Nan A. Talese/Doubleday for providing a galley for review.  

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Why British Expats Miss the Homeland

This summer, British Airlines posted this humorous video:

I’m not entirely sure if this an advertisement, or just a barely veiled complaint against typical British wetness. In any case, British Airways wanted to hear from British expats what they loved the most about the homeland. Apparently, there are over 750,000 expats from the U.K. living in the States alone (why they would ever leave the most magical place on earth in the first place is beyond me). And these Brits miss certain things about Britain. I miss them too, even though I’ve never been there. Here’s the original Facebook post where you can read all 3800 comments for yourself, but here are some of my favorite comments on the best things in the U.K.:

“British architecture, pubs, fish and chips, countryside and of course family and friends. oh and decent funny cards depicting British humour!”

“Yorkshire pud. Whitby kippers. Later evening dusky skies.and being called daft.”

“Fish and chips, wagon wheels, flake, crisps, biscuits, British TV/ humour….. Hearing the accent everyday….”

“The history, the beautiful countryside, the pubs, the pretty little villages, the seaside, fish and chips, the British sense of humour, M&S, I could go on and on.”

“British pubs in the summer. Afternoon walks to the pub, long nights chatting outside the pub, larger and lime in the pub, listening to British humour about people in the pub, (coz we can take a joke well), the barmaids, and barmen…and of course the crisps…the prawn cocktail, monster munch, Walkers Crisps!! Did I mention the pub?”

“Springtime in England when everything is fresh and green.”

“Walks in the woods, actually walking everywhere, real cheddar cheese, good bread, cadburys drinking chocolate, seasons, waitrose and M&S, Sunday roast, fizzy cider, malt vinegar on my fish and chips instead of ketchup, penny sweet shops, a perfect summer day in the park with a flake 99.”

“Everything!”

This last commenter really says it all – everything about the U.K. makes me want to go there! British Airways you have me thinking it’s time for some travelling… Check out ba.com if you feel the same. They have some good deals by booking straight through the airlines. Here’s a word from British Airways: “As always, customers can take advantage of BA’s hold fare and reserve their flight on ba.com for up to 72 hours with a deposit of just $10, giving travelers time and flexibility to book without losing the original price. Additionally, Flight+hotel and flight+car packages booked on ba.com are eligible for deposit payment, allowing travelers to take advantage of early deals and budget for their trips – especially while the dollar is strong.” If you do fly across the pond, let me know about your experience! It will tide me over till I can make it one day.

If you would like to know my favorite things about the United Kingdom check out:

Top 15 Reasons Why Americans Love England

and, because the list is neverending:

Ten More Reasons Why Americans Love England

British Flag

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Here’s a Toast to Queen Elizabeth!

Not only is Queen Elizabeth the longest-lived monarch in Great Britain, but as of last week, she is now the longest reigning monarch. At the age of 89, Elizabeth has aged well and still serves as the head of the Royal Family with a grandmotherly smile. Sixty-two years of holding the throne with grace and dignity certainly deserve a toast of honor. So here’s to Her Majesty, the epitome of British splendor!

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Elizabeth at age 3

Queen Elizabeth coronation

Elizabeth on her Coronation Day June 2, 1953

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A sunshiney photo of Queen Elizabeth II in 2007

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Why Great Britain Is Great Infographic

There’s a reason why it’s called GREAT Britain: in my opinion, it should be called Fantastic Britain, but maybe I’m getting carried away. If you don’t believe me when I say there are millions of reasons to love the UK, then check out this awesome infographic from the CityBase Apartments blog. This lists only twenty reasons, but they’re some of the best! You can check out the original post here. Let me know in the comment section why YOU love Great Britain!

20 Reasons Why Great Britain Is Great

20 Reasons Why Great Britain Is Great

Original post on CityBase Apartments

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Review of “London Road: Linked Stories” by Tessa McGovern

As the end of summer simmers down and autumn approaches, you may be looking forward to some quiet afternoon reading. Just the thing for a relaxing bookfest on the sofa, London Road: Linked Stories by Tessa Smith McGovern is a group of short short stories taking place in my favorite of all places: England.

london road cover

London Road: Linked Stories by Tessa Smith McGovern

The scene opens on an unusually hot morning outside, of all places, Chorley Prison. We meet Janice Bailey, recent inmate, as she sets off on a journey to London to restart her life. All she has to go on are a few pounds and a friend’s recommendation to a halfway house in the city. Having been in prison for manslaughter in self-defense, she doubts that anyone will ever take her in or give her a shot.

This lovely group of stories is essentially about second chances. Janice has a second chance to live again, with new friends, a new job, and new purpose. With each story, we meet a new character, someone linked with the rest. All the characters have come together in the city to find a new way of life, pulling the past’s baggage along with them. We meet Mandy, known for petty theft, on probation in a literary reading group. We meet Isobel, who’s on antipsychotic drugs and has a difficult relationship with her mother. We meet women who are obsessive, afraid, lonely. What do they have in common? They all come to this boarding house in London where life throws them one more chance to stay alive and keep going.

With the montage-feeling of Love Actually. London Road is written to lift your spirits and show you the hope that follows tragedy. Each character has been through life’s worst, but by the end, they find resolution and something to help them along. I suppose this is what the title could refer to: the journey each character takes from bad to good, from hopeless to purposeful.
Because of this forward-looking perspective, I recommend this book to anyone looking for an easy, uplifting read. Each story is quite short, and the entire book could be read in an afternoon.While at times I would have like a more in-depth look at the characters’ lives, it’s good to remember that these stories are purposed as flash fiction. McGovern manages to combine good storytelling and conciseness in London Road. I especially recommend this book to my fellow Anglophiles as the book also includes references to the Queen, afternoon tea, and pubs. What’s not to like?

You can find the e-book for free or $0.99 (depending on your Amazon membership) here!

Thanks to BookTrib for providing me with London Road to review.

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