Musician and former Chicagoan Ella Leya's back in town with her first book | Bleader

Musician and former Chicagoan Ella Leya's back in town with her first book

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When I first wrote about vocalist and songwriter Ella Leya in 2001, she was living in the Chicago area and promoting a new CD of her own music, Queen of Night. That recording was a mix of her many influences: American jazz, blues, and pop; Russian folk and classical music; Turkish and Persian poetry; and the mugam vocal tradition of her homeland, Azerbaijan. She had emigrated from her oil-rich native country a decade earlier, divorced the husband she left behind, remarried, and lost a son to leukemia.

Since then she's moved twice—to California and to London, where she's now based—written and performed more music, raised another son, done some scriptwriting, and, most recently, completed her first novel, The Orphan Sky. Partly (but very loosely) autobiographical, and partly an adaptation of Azerbaijani legend, it's a coming-of-age story set in a country where the dominant force is a grossly corrupt Soviet Communist government, facing off against both a traditionally religious, primarily Islamic society, and the forbidden fruit of Western culture. The first-person protagonist, Leila, is a classical pianist drawn to American music and to a rebellious young painter; the heroine of the legend is a princess who throws herself off an actual landmark, ancient Maiden Tower, to keep her father from marrying her.

Leya has a gift for figurative language, which she uses abundantly. Her story—a romance steeped in classical music, art, and history—is as elaborately woven as an Oriental carpet. She renders an affectionate portrait of Baku, Azerbaijan's capital city on the Caspian Sea, and a cutting one of Soviet bureaucracy in the late 1970s. But her larger subject, frankly drawn, is the ugly sexual politics of a place and time in which any woman on the street is a magnet for abuse, and even a loving father is not to be trusted.

Back in town as part of a book tour, Leya will read from and discuss The Orphan Sky on February 5 at 6 PM at Bookends and Beginnings, 1712 Sherman Avenue, Evanston. She'll also appear on February 10 at 7 PM at Barnes and Noble, Old Orchard, and on February 17 at 7 PM at the Bookstall in Winnetka.

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