The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

9781101906750_p0_v2_s192x300Although Jennifer Ryan’s The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir begins with lovely letters and seemingly benign characters, her story quickly escalates to a baby kidnapping and a testament to the power of women.  With the men of the town off to war, the women of the little town in England form their own women’s choir, their catalyst to independence and determination.

Letters and journal entries move the action, a nod to Britain’s Mass Observation project referenced in Ryan’s Acknowledgments; the social research organization encouraged keeping diaries and journals to document ordinary citizen’s coping with the war.  Members of the choir reveal their thoughts as well as the action of the story through the journal of a precocious twelve year old, Kitty; letters from her older and beautiful sister, Venetia to her friend in London; the menacing letters of Edwina Paltry, the conniving town midwife; the journal of Mrs. Tilling, widow, nurse, town conscience and the short entries of Sylvie, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia hiding a family secret.

The men are heroes and villains – a brutish husband bribing a midwife to switch babies, a handsome dilettante with a mysterious mission, a gruff widowed Colonel with a lot to offer, and assorted swains – some rich, some connected, some just handsome.  Ryan highlights the strength of the women on the home front as each struggles with her own destiny, grows stronger through adversity, and, in the end, lives happily ever after – with the choir as the bonding agent throughout.

With the same charming flavor as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir includes romance, adventure, and mystery with a touch of the horrors of war.

A Piece of the World: Wyeth’s Christina’s World – Explained

9780870708312_p0_v1_s192x300Although Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting of the woman crawling through the field to a house in the distance has long evoked a sense of mystery, Christina Baker Kline attempts to explain the life of Christina Olson in her novel – A Piece of the World.  The woman crawling through the grass in the famous painting “Christina’s World” was Andrew Wyeth’s neighbor in Maine.   In discussing this work, Wyeth explained, “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless…she was limited physically but by no means spiritually.”  The image suggests a story, and Kline fills in the unknown details of Christina’s insular life, and her role as muse to a great artist.

Although Christina suffered from a progressive crippling disease, she refused treatment or leg braces, crawling along the ground to get from place to place, amazingly without self-pity or the pity of most who knew her well.  Kline fills in the background of her childhood and creates an ill-fated romance doomed by her disability and her poverty before meeting Andrew Wyeth in her forties.   Living without electricity or indoor plumbing, and kept from school by her father to work the farm, Christina continued in the dilapidated house that eventually became Wyeth’s studio.

Although Christina Olson is the focus of the story, the painter, Andrew Wyeth comes to life just as convincingly.  Kline connects the painter to his subject by comparing their childhoods  and their outlook, and offers to fill in the blanks of their relationship. Wyeth sees beyond the rundown house and the austere restricted lives of its tenants, Christina and her brother, and produces a portrait of longing and determination not unlike his own.

At times the narrative can be as slow as the lives of the characters, perhaps reflecting the stillness of the Maine landscape, and I found myself skipping over some of the protracted dialogue.   Almost like staring at the painting, reading the novel requires a patient eye to reveal more than what is obvious.

Kline summarized her research in her “Author’s Notes” at the end of the novel, and it would be wise to read both her notes and her Acknowledgments first before the novel.  Her extensive reading on the lives of both the Wyeth family and Christina Olson provides a number of references worth noting, and her short summary adds meaning to how she embellished their lives in her fiction.  Her description of her own young life living with her parents in a thirteenth century Cambridge cottage without central heating and on an abandoned Tennessee farm, connects her to her subject.  But, the best part is the color print of Wyeth’s painting on the last page.   Start from the back of the book and then begin Kline’s story.

Idaho

9780812994049_p0_v4_s192x300   Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho is a shattering and thought-provoking story, centered on a complicated collection of characters, connected by a mother’s murder of her own child.  Reading to discover the motive brings no satisfaction; Ruskovich is more interested in the inner workings of each mind, not just the killer.  Learning of Rustovich’s O’Henry award prompted me to read Idaho, but no surprise ending here.  The story weaves in and out of lives, backtracking, going into the future, dwelling on the present.  At times, the circular pattern is hard to follow as each character is slowly revealed.

The cast of characters meander in and out of the story, with flashbacks to the central focus, the murder of six year old May and her older sister June’s running away from the scene – never to be found. Later in the story, artist’s renderings of June’s appearance as she might be at different ages adds to the strangeness.

Jennie pleads guilty to cutting off May’s head with a hatchet while May sang in the back seat of their truck.  She begs for a death sentence, but is sent away to prison for life.  There she meets Elizabeth, a younger woman who has murdered her boyfriend and the neighbor who witnessed it.  Jennie attends poetry classes and takes notes for Elizabeth, who has been banned from class for her attack against another inmate.

May’s father, Wade, has inherited his family’s penchant for early onset dementia – all males seem to succumb in their fifties.  Ann, a music teacher at the local school, gives Wade piano lessons – his effort to focus his mind to strengthen his oncoming memory loss.  Before too long, Ann offers to marry Wade to care for him as he declines.

Almost as an aside, Elliot, an older boy with one leg from a horrible accident at the school, has the attention of both Ann and June, who has a secret crush. Rustovich connects his life as a tangent to the main action – another lesson in life’s struggles.

Are you keeping up?  Amazingly, Rustovich intertwines the lives of all the characters, although not until the end does her clever weaving become apparent.  The murder may be the focus but it is not the point.  Jennie’s sudden act may have been a moment of anger, but more likely an unthinking inexplainable move of frustration in the moment.  The author never really worries about the horrible act; the murder just makes no sense.

“Whatever brought that hatchet down was not a thought or an intention. No, the hatchet caught on the inertia of a feeling already gone.”

As Ann continues to discover more about the murder before Wade loses all memory, her pursuit of the truth seems to be a race with his decline.  Ultimately, he loses all memory and she is left with only Jennie as her source of information.  In the end, Ann creates a new life for the now elderly Jennie, and when the two wives eventually meet, it is not as dramatic as expected.

Their lives go on, despite the horrors – as does all life.  Maybe that was the point the author wanted to make.  The book is difficult to read, but full of thoughtful diversions leading back to how people cope.

 

 

 

The Widow’s House by Carol Goodman

9780062562623_p0_v2_s192x300   Whether or not you believe in ghosts, Carol Goodman’s Gothic mystery – The Widow’s House – might challenge your peace of mind.  The psychological suspense thriller is set in the Hudson Valley of New York with an unreliable narrator defying a host of chilling affronts.

When Claire and Jess Martin decide to move from their Brooklyn apartment to upstate New York near the farm where Claire grew up, they find the only affordable accommodations are as caretakers to an old crumbling mansion named Riven House belonging to their former college professor, also a writer.  Jess, having published his first book soon after graduating from college, has spent years looking for inspiration for his second, while Claire, an aspiring writer herself, abandoned her dreams to write to work as a copy editor to support them both.  When the money from Jess’s advance finally runs out, the Martins—now in their mid-thirties—are forced to move back upstate.

The house is clearly the Gothic replica of Thornfield Hall from Jane Eyre but soon takes on the characteristics of the Hitchcock setting in Gaslight or Shirley Jackson’s Hill House;  its history includes a series of tragedies and is thought haunted by the locals.  As Claire researches the house’s former occupants for her own novel, she is soon terrorized by their ghosts.

Goodman cleverly inserts doubt about Claire’s mental health, perhaps confirming the reader’s unwillingness to believe in the paranormal phenomenon appearing in the mist. Claire’s sanity is placed in question by revealing her nervous breakdown earlier, and her tendency to edit her own life, remaking it to something better and overlooking her traumas and losses of the past.  As people begin to die at Riven House,  Clare’s grip on reality becomes suspect, and the reader has to decide who to believe.

Like her other Gothic mystery romances, Goodman’s The Widow’s House combines  supernatural possibilities with the reality of human cruelty and misery.  In the end, you aren’t quite sure what the truth is, although Goodman provides a sane possibility. The captivating tale will haunt you and you will love every moment.

I am a fan of Goodman, having read all her novels from The Lake of Dead Languages to River Road.  As a bonus, Goodman offered a list of books that have inspired her in her notes at the end of the book.  You might look for one when you are in the mood for another chilling mystery.

Goodman’s List of Favorite Haunted House Stories:

  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons
  • The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Reviews of Other Carol Goodman Books:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Revisiting Arthur and George

MV5BMjA2OTg4NjQ4Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzE3Mjk5NDE@._V1_UY268_CR4,0,182,268_AL_Julian Barnes’ novel used a famous early twentieth century case of a man sent to prison for mutilating animals as inspiration; the resulting historical novel – Arthur and George – was recently aired as a three-part series on the American Public Broadcasting channel (PBS).  Barnes fictionalized some of the story and PBS gave its own spin, but the historical basis in both was true and still shockingly relevant.

Although Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, his creator Arthur Conan Doyle shared many of his talents.  When George Edalji, the 27-year-old son of the vicar of Great Wyrley, wrote to Holmes asking for help, it was Doyle who took up his case and ultimately proved him innocent.

George’s father, a man of Parsee ancestry, married an Englishwoman, converted to Christianity, and ultimately became the Anglican minister of a small town in Staffordshire and the target of cruel prejudice. When George was 16 years old, the Edaljis began receiving threatening letters in the post, and other Staffordshire clergymen received abusive letters over Edalji’s forged signature. George shared in the family’s troubles, but eventually became a successful solicitor.

Following several incidents of animal mutilation throughout Great Wyrley, the police received anonymous letters accusing George Edalji of the crimes. The local Chief Constable decided – with no evidence – that George had written the mysterious correspondence himself and has now escalated to killing animals.  George Edalji was tried on 20th October, 1903, found guilty, and sentenced to seven years in jail; the verdict effectively destroyed his law career.  Released after three years, Edalji wrote his own version of the incident, which was published in the papers. He posted a clipping of the article to Arthur Conan Doyle, asking for his help to clear his name.

The novel and the televised series follow Doyle as he pursues the case, ultimately proving Georg’e innocence.  The real culprit was never prosecuted, but PBS satisfyingly kills him off, after revealing a surprise connection to George.

I reposted my review of Arthur and George.  Barnes’ version of the story has the notes and wording of the famous Man Booker winner, and the themes of intolerance and bigotry still ring true. In addition, the story is a great mystery thriller.  Have you read the book?

Review: Arthur and George