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Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

The Chilbury Ladies Choir by Jennifer Ryan

RyanChilburyI am frequently asked to suggest a book that’s “light but good,” and here is my latest recommendation: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. Written by a first-time author, the novel is a good, escapist read.

The story is set in the small English town of Chilbury, over a few months in 1940. As the men have left to fight in World War II, the church’s Vicar declares that the church choir must be abandoned – lacking male voices, it can’t exist. The ladies of the town, who had taken on many of the absent men’s responsibilities, respectfully disagree. “Just because the men have gone off to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely when we need it most!” they ask. The Vicar reluctantly agrees to let them try, although he is quite sure that a ladies’ chorus would be lacking. 

Organized by Professor Primrose Trent, of London, the women in town band together to “carry on singing.” The all-female choir becomes a new family. Working together, they create beautiful music for christenings, funerals, and other events. They even win a choral competition. They share their joys and losses, finding the music and companionship important parts of their lives.

The author tells the tale through a series of journal entries and also letters shared among five main characters. It’s a very effective device for story-telling (the book does remind me of the very popular The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society!). The story, inspired by the author’s grandmother, contains elements of romance and domestic issues, as well as themes of drama and intrigue, espionage and trickery, life and death. A young refugee girl from Czechoslovakia adds an especially humanizing element to the war story.

World War II  War  Nancy Picks  Historical Fiction  Epistolary  British History  British Fiction

04/14/17
 

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline

KlinePieceI really enjoyed this novel, as I did Kline’s last book, the wildly popular Orphan Train. As she did with Orphan Train, the author pays meticulous attention to historic detail, and she writes in an engaging writing style that makes her new book hard to put down.

The book focuses on the famous Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina’s World, one of the best known works of the 20th century and part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The inspiration for the painting was Christina Olson, who was born in 1893. She was Wyeth’s neighbor, and she was his muse. In fact, he claimed an upstairs room in her family’s farmhouse to do sketches for the painting, completing most of the final work there. In the painting, Christina’s face is turned away, inviting the viewer to wonder who she was.

Olson grew up on her family’s farm in the remote coastal town of Cushing, Maine. It was a bleak existence; the land had been in the family since 1743, and adjoining acreage had been sold off over the years as family fortunes dwindled. At the age of 3, Christina developed a high fever that left her legs damaged. A brilliant student, she was asked to continue her education so that she could take over as the school’s head teacher, but her father refused to let her. He forced his daughter to stay on the farm and do arduous farm chores despite her physical limitations. As a young woman, Christina was courted by a college man who ultimately broke her heart. But she fought her way through life, refusing to be a victim of her circumstances.

Nancy Picks  Historical Fiction  Artwork  Art

04/12/17
 

Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

VasquezReputationsJuan Gabriel Vasquez is an award-winning Colombian writer, whose 2013 book, Las Reputaciones, was translated into English last year. Whereas his other books have focused on how public life affects private, Reputations is centered on how the private--with its traumas, fears, and shortcomings-- affects aspects the public personae.

The main character is Javier Mallarino, a 65-year-old political cartoonist of great renown. We meet him as he is about to be honored for his 40 years of journalistic excellence. Like many public heroes, fame has come at a price. Well into his marriage with the love of his life, an anonymous threat shatters the harmony that was once theirs. For the first time Magdalena had asked him the question that he, silently, asked himself every day: ‘Was it worth it? Were the fear and the risk and the antagonism and the threat worth it?’ (P. 69)

The novel that unfolds switches from present to past and crystallizes around one defining moment. It happens at a party Mallarino throws in his new home in the mountains. He and Magdalena have recently separated and it is the first time his 7-year-old daughter Beatriz, visits. She invites a friend, Samanta Leal, to the party.

That night, an uninvited guest—a politician Mallarino has satirized in a cartoon-- is discovered upstairs, and there is an implication that he molested Samanta. Twenty-eight years later, Samanta comes to Mallarino and asks him to revisit the incident. She wants to know what happened to her—what caused her family to move away, allowing her to create another identity. Mallarino begins to question the certainty of his assumption and the allusion he published in a cartoon that cost the politician everything.

Sara Picks  Politics  Literary Fiction  Contemporary

04/10/17
 

The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler

ButlerHeartsNickolas Butler, author of the very popular Shotgun Lovesongs, sets this tale at Camp Chippewa, a Boy Scout camp in northern Wisconsin.

Nelson, the bugler, is the first boy we meet. He is a small, studious nerd, working hard to attain the rank of Eagle Scout. He is also the object of teasing and ridicule by the other boys. Each morning he arises in his single tent, polishes his bugle, shines his shoes, sharpens the crease in his uniform, and sounds “Reveille”, awakening a camp full of Scouts. Despite the Scout Oath to remain physically strong and mentally awake, often many of the boys are hung over, as is Nelson’s own father who serves as one of the camp’s chaperones. Scoutmaster Wilbur, who runs Chippewa, befriends Nelson, and acts as father figure in place of Nelson’s own ineffective dad. An older, popular boy named Jonathan is Nelson’s only friend at camp, and sticks up for him when he’s taunted by crueler boys. Jonathan and Nelson remain life-long friends in this epic story that spans three generations from the years 1962 to 2022.

After Nelson’s father dies, the boy is sent to military school, then West Point. Ultimately he serves in the elite forces in Vietnam, where he sees horrible things. When he returns home, he finds it hard to find and hold down a job. Eventually he becomes became the Scout Master and Camp Director at Camp Chippewa, and enjoys the solace of living in the remote wilderness year round. However, Scouting and the camp both have changed by this point. There is no longer a bugler to play “Reveille”, so the song is prerecorded. Boys seem glued to their electronic devices, texting each other across the tent. Such traditional badges as orienteering, radio, and stamp collecting are obsolete. But it is still a place where Scouting values are promoted, and it is where Jonathan’s grandson Thomas goes to camp one summer.

The author excels at storytelling, and imbues his writing with North Woods atmosphere and charm. Butler conveys so much emotion on each page; once I started The Hearts of Men, I couldn’t put it down. I recommend this book to both men and women, but perhaps not to young Scouts. There are very mature themes in this novel. I enjoyed The Hearts of Men so much, and I can’t wait to read it again when I prepare it for book discussion.

Nancy Picks  Literary Fiction  Historical Fiction  Contemporary  Coming of Age  Boy Scouts of America  American History

04/07/17
 

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