A Fi50 reminder and a Top Book of 2017 pick!

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Fiction in 50 NEW BUTTON

It’s nearly Fiction in 50 time for March and this month our prompt is…

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If you’d like to join in (and we would love to have you!) just create a piece of fiction or poetry in fewer than 51 words, post it and then link your post in the comments of Monday’s Fi50 post.  If you would like more information, just click here.


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Today’s Top Book of 2017 pick is a wartime beauty that is also a celebration of the strength of womankind in adversity.  We received a copy of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan from HarperCollins Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Summer, 1940. In the Kentish village of Chilbury some are unimpressed at the vicar’s decision to close the church choir, since all the men have gone off to fight. But a new arrival prompts the creation of an all-female singing group and, as the women come together in song, they find the strength and initiative to confront their own dramatic affairs.

Filled with intrigue, humour and touching warmth, and set against the devastating backdrop of WWII, this is a wonderfully spirited and big-hearted novel told through the voices of four marvellous and marvellously different females, who will win you over as much with their mischief as with their charm.

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For the first few chapters of this epistolary, diary-entry novel I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but by the time I’d finished I felt that this book seemed to me for all the world to be a grown-up version of Goodnight Mr Tom.  Since that story is one of my favourites, it stands to reason that I would jolly well enjoy The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir too.

The book switches between the perspectives of a number of the ladies, young and old, of Chilbury.  There’s Kitty Winthrop, thirteen (nearly fourteen) year old sister of the wild beauty Venetia, and dead war hero Edmund, daughter of the brutish Brigadier and rising songbird, whose perspective we are privy to through entries in her journal.  There’s Venetia herself, older sister of Kitty and focused entirely (for the most part) on snagging a handsome, mysterious lover while leading on all the other lads in the village.  We see her side of the story through letters to her friend Angela.  Then there’s the shady Edwina Paltry, midwife of the village and not one to shy away from morally dubious dealings provided there’s something in it for her.  Finally, we have Mrs Tilling, a widow, whose son David is about to leave for the front lines in France and through whose diary we witness the major changes of Chilbury throughout the year of 1940.  We also get to see a few glimpses from Sylvie, a young child evacuee from Czechoslovakia who is living with the Winthrops until her parents can escape or it is safe for her to return, as well as Edith, the Winthrop’s maid.

At its heart, this is a book about personal growth, set against a backdrop of the ever-encroaching threat of invasion and loss, that highlights the strength of women under adversity.  Although each follows a different path throughout the story, the four main ladies whose stories we engage with all become very different people by the end.  It is this growth that reminded me so strongly of Goodnight Mr Tom: while the war and its effects play a large role in the book and in some instances create a shocking and frightening atmosphere, the plot is chiefly about decisions and their ripple effects and ways in which the women of the story choose to stand up in defiance of their situation or roll with the punches.

Funnily enough, the Choir plays a significantly smaller part in the overall story than I expected, but the sections that deal with the ladies coming together – be it for a local competition or to provide respite for a weary community – were always uplifting and provided a lightening of the atmosphere and enough humour to take the edge off some of the darker happenings going on in the plot.  My favourite character, apart from the enthusiastic, indefatigably positive Prim, the choir mistress, had to be Mrs Tilling.  As the only trustworthy adult narrator, I came to trust her judgement (except, of course, in regards to her opinion of the Colonel, her billet) and adored the way in which she grows into herself again as a confident, strong woman and a leader for the village.

This isn’t a light-hearted romp from beginning to end; nor is it a slow examination of the effects of war.  Rather, it is a snapshot of a village at the beginning of World War II, struggling to cope with change already happening and the inevitable change that is just over the horizon.  Hefty as it is at four hundred plus pages, this is one that you would do best to savour over time.  Get to know the ladies of Chilbury at your leisure and you certainly won’t regret that you took the time to visit.

As well as a Top Book of 2017 pick, I am also submitting The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir for the Epistolary Reading Challenge, the Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge and the Popsugar Reading Challenge.  You can check out my progress toward all those challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

Oddly Unmoved: A Review of Unseemly Science…

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Today I have another submission for my personal Oddity Odyssey Reading Challenge. I received this book from the publisher, Angry Robot, via Netgalley after pondering whether or not I should request it. You see, today’s book is the second in a series and I haven’t read the opening book. I speak of Unseemly Science: The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire #2 by Rod Duncan. I um-ed and ah-ed a bit over whether I should attempt a sequel without having read its predecessor, but decided in the end that the blurb looked intriguing enough to override my worries.

I am submitting this book into the Challenge under the categories of Odd Setting, given that the book features a strange version of the United Kingdom (I think – my mild confusion over this will become apparent) which is split into a monarchy and a republic. I’m also submitting under the Odd Character category because the main character is a lady who is also her own brother.

Let’s crack on into the unknown then, shall we? Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

In the divided land of England, Elizabeth Barnabus has been living a double life – as both herself and as her brother, the private detective. Witnessing the hanging of Alice Carter, the false duchess, Elizabeth resolves to throw the Bullet Catcher’s Handbook into the fire, and forget her past. If only it were that easy! There is a new charitable organisation in town, run by some highly respectable women. But something doesn’t feel right to Elizabeth. Perhaps it is time for her fictional brother to come out of retirement for one last case…? Her unstoppable curiosity leads her to a dark world of body-snatching, unseemly experimentation, politics and scandal. Never was it harder for a woman in a man’s world…

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Intriguing blurb, no?  I concur.

So what’s the Bullet Catcher’s Handbook? No idea.  Why was Alice Carter hanged? Couldn’t tell you.  What’s haunting about Elizabeth Barnabus’ past? Not an inkling.

It turns out that in this particular series, all the world building happens in the first book and if you haven’t read it, you will be mired in slight confusion for at least the first third of the story.  This is fair enough, I suspect.  If you go into a second book with an obviously obtuse blurb, as I chose to, you probably shouldn’t expect to be coddled by the author with all the information you missed by not bothering to read the first book.  And while it was obvious that the world of this story had been built while I wasn’t paying attention, the actual thrust of the story was perfectly simple to follow, albeit without the nuances that knowing Elizabeth’s past would have added.  Suffice to say, she’s an ex-monarchy-dweller on the run from a powerful Duke to whom she was sold.

It turns out that she also moonlights as some kind of detective, and sometimes impersonates her fictitious brother.  This is where we dip into the part of the story that drew me in – the mystery of the charitable organisation and the body-snatching and unseemly experimentation promised in the blurb.  It takes literally half the book to get to the real meat of any investigatory business, as the first half is devoted to Elizabeth’s attempts to escape from the Republican officials’ new law to repatriate monarchists to their place of birth.  Once we get to the investigation part, the action explodes and the pace of the plot quadruples as we charge toward a twisty, dangerous ending.

Surprisingly (for me, anyway…maybe not for you), the action and autopsies of the second half of the book didn’t make up for the slow start and extended running and hiding of the first half.  I really enjoyed the ladies’ foray into the territory of the ice farmers and Julia’s code-breaking attempts were a bit of fun riddle-solving, but otherwise I felt this to be a reasonably slow burn, with an ending that didn’t quite provide the thrill I was looking for.  Plus, of course, there was the general sense that I was missing something important pretty much the whole way through.

To my surprise, at the end of the book I discovered a glossary of sorts that spelled out all the nuances of the Gas-Lit Empire and much of the stuff I had missed.  As I came upon this after having ploughed through the whole book, I decided that I couldn’t be bothered filling myself in on the vital information that would probably have made the reading experience a bit more enriching.  I feel I have discharged my duty by having told you about it though, so if you wish to attempt this book without having read the first one, you’ll know to start with this elusive glossary first.

Discounting the fact that I didn’t have a full working knowledge of the world in which the story is set (given that this was entirely of my own choosing), I would have to say that overall this was an interesting diversion into an original imagining of England.  While the pace was slower than I expected, there was enough mystery and intrigue to keep me turning the pages.  If you’re a fan of alternative history, steampunk and strong female protagonists with mad evasion skills, then this will probably tickle your fancy, although I would strongly recommend starting with book one and saving yourself some brainache.

Progress toward Oddity Odyssey Reading Challenge Goal: 9/16

Until next time,

Bruce

Read it if….: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

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Greetings fleshlings! This is a “read-it-if….” I’ve been wanting to post for a while, but has been shoved aside for more recent reads.  But no longer!  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce became an instant favourite and must-own tome as soon as I read it….although admittedly, I don’t actually own it yet.  I’m hoping a Christmas miracle might occur in a few day’s time and the secret wish of a silent, sentient gargoyle to own such a tome might be granted.

I must admit I am a sucker for a quaint, charming story set in the English (or Welsh, or Scottish) countryside so I was pre-disposed to like this one, but the tale of OAP Harold Fry (that’s Old Age Pensioner for those in the know) and his spontaneous quest to walk miles and miles to deliver a letter to a dying woman and rekindle a deep and significant friendship imprinted itself on my stony heart just a few pages in.  I am not ashamed to admit that, had I tear-ducts, I would have shed a drop of water or two at the events in this tale.

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Read it if:

* you are a sucker for quaint, charming tales of the English countryside

* you enjoy (and understand) dry British wit

* you have ever felt an inexplicable urge to spontaneously set out on a personal Quest-with-a-capital-Q, despite having done no planning, being woefully underprepared in the footwear department, and having neglected to inform your spouse or significant other where on earth you’ve got to

* you have ever felt an inexplicable urge to join in somebody else’s Quest-with-a-capital-Q, despite etc etc

* you need a bit of encouragement…or just some good, old-fashioned courage….to do what’s important

A month or so ago I came across this fantastic news story about Britain’s “Naked Rambler” .  It reminded me of Harold Fry and his adventures (although I can’t recall any specific mention of nude hiking in the book!) simply due to the persistence of old nudey no-pants to keep walking despite numerous prison sentences…

But I digress…..truly, I loved this book and highly recommend it.

Until next time,

Bruce

Read it if…..: The gargoyle’s reviews for the time-poor…or goldfish-sized attention spans.

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It has slowly dawned on me as I delve more deeply into the blog-o-sphere, that there is more interesting content out there than could ever be read by one individual.  It has also come to my attention that many people, including myself, are time poor.  “But Bruce,” I hear you think, “you are a bookshelf gargoyle, unable to leave your shelf.  Surely you have all the time in the world to accomplish your goals.”  Yes, well, you’ld like to think that, wouldn’t you?  But it seems that, for gargoyles as for fleshlings, time marches on.

To this end, I would like to assist Mad Martha in her attempt to provide you with succint recommendations of unmissable reads.  She really has cornered the extreme end of the market with her reviews in 17 syllables, but for those of you who prefer a slightly longer, but still fairly time-managed review (say, longer than a sneeze, but shorter than a drawn-out coughing fit), I would like to begin some reviews titled “Read it if…”

This will hopefully allow me to share many of the books I have enjoyed and recommend, without burdening you, the reader, with too much information.  After all, let’s face it, you all have other blogs to look at now, don’t you?  It’s alright. I understand.  You can’t be expected to hang around with a stony old brute like me longer than you have to…..no, don’t apologise, I’m used to it.

So I present to you my first “Read it if…review”: Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn

Read it if…..

* you’ve dreamed of running off and leaving your problems behind while dressed inappropriately for the weather

* you are fond of horses or cheese

* you are, or know of, a horse with a fondness for cheese

* you have ever had an interesting conversation with complete strangers on a train (or other means of public transportation)

* you are partial to relatable characters who, despite harbouring strong suspicions that you may be a street-dweller, would happily offer you tea, a bacon sandwich and a chat in a polite, British fashion if you turned up unexpectedly in the small hours of the morning

* you enjoy delightful and witty tales that don’t require too much effort on the part of the reader and won’t generate the kind of angst that comes from consecutively reading three or more dystopian YA fiction titles featuring zombie plagues, nuclear holocausts or other forms of creeping death

Really, this is a great little read if you’re looking for something light and comfortable.  Go on, give it a burl.

Until next time,

Bruce