Posts Tagged ‘Maisie Dobbs’

When Book Club Girl announced her read-along of the Maisie Dobbs series back in December, I was intrigued. Usually I’ve at least heard of popular series even if I haven’t read them, but somehow Maisie and her creator, Jacqueline Winspear, had escaped my notice. I found the first book in the series at the Brattle, took it as a sign and bought it – and well, I was hooked. You might say I’m “mad for Maisie.”

I’ve spent a good part of this winter following Maisie’s adventures around 1920s/1930s London, with frequent trips to Kent and occasional ventures to France and other locales. She’s a psychologist and private investigator, and she is smart, strong, independent and determined – one of a generation of women who survived the Great War and then built their own lives in new and unexpected ways.

The books are full of fascinating period detail, from clothes to accents to social mores, and the supporting cast of characters is rich and compelling. (I especially love Billy Beale, Maisie’s cheerful Cockney assistant; Frankie Dobbs, her steadfast, loving father; and Priscilla, her socialite college chum who has her own demons to fight.) As much historical fiction as mystery, these books are filling an important gap for me; I hadn’t read much fiction about World War I and its aftermath until lately. (Except Rilla of Ingleside, which has done more for my understanding of the Great War than any other book, fiction or nonfiction.)

Jacqueline Winspear came recently to the Harvard Book Store to read from the latest Maisie adventure, A Lesson in Secrets. I talked my sweet husband into coming straight from work on a Friday night to hear an author whose books he hasn’t read, and bless him, he agreed, and even enjoyed himself. As for me? I was in heaven.

Like any author worth her salt, Ms. Winspear didn’t give away the plot of her new book – fortunately for me, since I hadn’t yet read it. Instead, she talked about a few of the threads weaving through the whole series, including the legacy of the Great War in England, the shifting social mores of the time, a bit of family history (her grandparents bore scars, physical and otherwise, from the war), and her own interest in secrets and mysteries. And then, in her clear, pleasant English accent, she read us a brief passage from A Lesson in Secrets. I was spellbound. I wish I could have written down every word.

I did speak with her briefly afterward, feeling tongue-tied (as I always do when I meet authors I admire), but managing to tell her I love her work, and mention my time in Oxford, as she signed a couple of books for me and one for a friend. And I didn’t tell her this, but it’s true: next time she’s on a Maisie tour, I hope she comes back this way.

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On the T, tucked up in bed, curled up on the couch, at my desk while I eat lunch…I read everywhere. Here’s what has occupied my book-time this month:

The Chocolate Cupid Killings, Joanna Carl
The Chocoholic mysteries are like cheap milk chocolate – sweet but a little bland (though the chocolate shop in the series sells gourmet treats). I like Lee, the main character, and it’s interesting to see how the plots turn out. Not on a level with Maisie Dobbs or Dorothy Sayers, but entertaining.

The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown
I’d been hearing the buzz about this book  – and Dawn’s review at She Is Too Fond of Books convinced me to pick it up. And oh my, I loved it. The three sisters, all named after Shakespearean heroines, are such complex, fascinating characters, and the first-person-plural voice is true wizardry. I savored every page of the wonderful writing and the rich story. Especially recommended if you’re a fan of the Bard.

Hattie Big Sky, Kirby Larson
Erin and Jet both recommended this book after my lament about the lack of World War I stories for young adults (and American readers in general). Sixteen-year-old Hattie Inez Brooks heads to Montana to “prove up” on her uncle’s homestead claim – and what adventures she has, and what hardworking, compassionate people she meets. The ending is bittersweet, but the story is wonderful. I lent this to a friend who’s moving to Montana this summer.

The Mapping of Love and Death, Jacqueline Winspear
The best Maisie Dobbs novel yet – and I’m a big fan of the whole series. Maisie continues to uncover important truths about World War I’s effect on individual families and England as a whole. She also falls in love again – with the last man I’d have expected! – but it’s a good match. And the supporting cast of characters is, as always, well drawn.

Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table, Ruth Reichl
Shauna rightly compared Ruth to Anne Lamott – they do have the same sense of humor. My favorite parts of this book dealt with the hilarious (if disgusting) concoctions Ruth’s mother made when she was little. The book got less interesting as she moved out to Berkeley – more chronicling and less reflection. Still enjoyable, though.

The Moon By Night, Madeleine L’Engle
Book #2 in the Austin series, which I can’t believe I missed as a child. I still identify with gawky, uncertain, thoughtful Vicky, though – especially as a stranger in a strange land. A compelling story sprinkled with L’Engle’s signature gems of truth.

Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life, Kim Severson
I found this on the remainder table at the Booksmith, and read it in less than a week. Severson paints fascinating portraits of some famous cooks – and her mother – who helped form how she feels about food, and ultimately about life. Since I believe food is love, this book rang true from beginning to end. “Making food for the people you get up with and go to sleep with is the best thing ever,” she says. I agree.

The Blessings of the Animals, Katrina Kittle
A compelling, funny, heartbreaking story of a woman putting herself back together after a divorce – with help from friends, her teenage daughter, and a cast of ragged, sweet animals (Muriel the Houdini goat is my favorite). I could have done without some of the profanity, but I did enjoy this story.

Jacob Have I Loved, Katherine Paterson
A young adult classic I somehow missed – and mostly enjoyed. I sympathized with Louise, the narrator, at first, but I started to wonder why she didn’t just snap out of her bitterness and do something. (She finally did build her own life, though.)

Cold Tangerines, Shauna Niequist
I won this book in a giveaway from Zondervan, and enjoyed it – though I did like Bittersweet (her more recent book) better. Thoughtful, honest essays on celebration, family, coming to terms with your body and your place in the world, faith and doubt, and the little things worth savoring.

The Young Unicorns, Madeleine L’Engle
I turn, often, to young adult lit and/or Madeleine for comfort – though this book offered precious little of that. A much darker story than the previous two, with questions about freedom and power at its center. But the part that made me cry had to do with a lonely, hardened boy finding, at last, a real family.

Sarah’s Key, Tatiana de Rosnay
Two fonts, two narrators, two time periods – two families linked by a dark secret, which Julia Jarmond, American daughter-in-law to a French family, cannot let rest. I wondered at her tenacity, especially as her marriage was falling apart. A compelling story, well written. And heartbreaking.

Blessed are the Cheesemakers, Sarah-Kate Lynch
Recommended by Jet. A light, amusing story of cheesemaking and love in Ireland. Lots of coincidences make this tale a bit unbelievable at times, but it’s definitely entertaining.

The American Heiress, Daisy Goodwin
I received an ARC of this book from the publisher, and enjoyed the tale of an American socialite who marries an inscrutable English lord. (Coincidentally, her name is Cora, like the American mother in Downton Abbey.) The story was entertaining and full of fun period detail, though I saw the plot twists coming long before Cora did, and the ending felt rather unsatisfying.

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
After seeing a quote from this classic on Sarah’s site, I pulled it off the shelf to read again for the first time in years. What a gorgeous story of rebirth and awakening – and as I walked around Boston Common at lunchtime, I found myself willing the trees to bud, just as Mary and Dickon and Colin urge the crocuses and other green things to grow.

(These monthly book roundups are getting unwieldy in their length. Perhaps I should start splitting them into twice-monthly posts? Opinions?)

What have you been reading lately? I’m always curious.

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I’ve read more than my share of mysteries this winter.

Part of this is due to the read-along of the Maisie Dobbs series, hosted by Book Club Girl, which convinced me to try out the series. I love reading about Maisie’s cases and her journey in post-World War I London – the books just keep getting better. But I’ve also picked up a few other mysteries at the library, and watched an episode or two of Castle, alongside our current obsession with Friday Night Lights.

I have a low threshold for gore, creepiness and violence in general, in movies or in books, so I don’t do crime shows like Law & Order or CSI. I don’t usually read or watch anything you’d consider a “thriller.” (This disappoints my husband; lots of my movie choices are too tame for him.) And I’m too much of a literary snob to read “cozy” mysteries often – though I did go through a Tea Shop Mysteries phase – because most of them aren’t that well-written.

However. Aside from my enjoyment of Maisie’s story – which is rich with history and fascinating characters, as well as mystery – I’ve relished a good mystery novel this winter. And I think it’s because of what happens, without fail, at the end of every mystery: the criminal is caught, the loose ends are tied up, and everything makes sense.

This is the kicker for me. I’ve been plagued, this winter, by disconnected clues, bits of life and periods of waiting that haven’t really connected to one another or made much sense. I’ve struggled to survive a harsh winter in this northern climate, to adjust to a new job and make new friends, to deal with bouts of homesickness, to tend my home and spend time with my husband, and read and knit and balance the checkbook. Very little of it has added up the way I expected it would. So I’ve been reaching for mysteries, following Maisie and other detectives through their sleuthing processes, because I know that by the end of the book, we’ll have some answers.

Of course, one of my favorite things about Maisie is that her story keeps going – it’s not all neatly tied up at the end of each book. Neither she nor her clients are ever quite the same after finishing up a case; they all go forward a little different. So it is, I suppose, with this difficult winter, this transition period into a new job. I’m not quite the same person who came to Boston in August, and I don’t have everything neatly tied up, nor do I expect to. But like Maisie or any other sleuth worth her salt, I’ll keep moving forward. As spring approaches, thank heaven, there’s a lot to look forward to.

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When I was a kid, I read a lot of stories set during World War II. I read the Molly books, part of the American Girls series, which began in 1944 and traced Molly’s life through the last year of the war. I remember the Victory Garden her mother grew, the homemade Halloween hula-girl costumes (worn with sweaters because the night was chilly), the patriotic Christmas tree, the English girl , Emily, who came to stay with Molly’s family.

A little later, I read Number the Stars (which still makes me cry), The Diary of Anne Frank and others. World War II loomed large in my perception of American and world history – maybe because the U.S. entered it earlier and was involved for longer than it was in World War I.

I also read lots of stories set during the Civil War, the Great Depression, the “pioneer days” (a la Laura Ingalls Wilder and Janette Oke), and set in more modern times, like Nancy Drew, The Baby-Sitters Club and others. But for some reason, I don’t remember many stories set during or after World War I.

Until lately. My reading and viewing material this winter has included several stories set at the turn of the 20th century, during the First World War or amid its aftermath – Rilla of Ingleside, Downton Abbey, Maisie Dobbs. Somehow I’d missed an important piece of my literary education – the war known as the Great War before it was the “first” one, which came after years of belief – almost laughable to me now – that there would never be another war. Even the earlier books in the Anne of Green Gables series echo this sentiment; Anne says, “It seems so strange to read over the stories of those old wars…things that can never happen again.” (And Gertrude Oliver, in Rilla of Ingleside, sees the other side of the coin. About a Wordworth poem, she remarks, “Its classic calm and repose and the beauty of the lines seem to belong to another planet, and to have as little to do with the present world-welter as the evening star.”)

We in the 21st century have plunged from a century marked by world wars into one marked by many smaller wars, with a multitude of voices disagreeing about our country’s proper role in each one. The news of one war doesn’t envelop everyone’s lives, the way it did during both World War I and World War II. And it’s certainly not as though we don’t expect conflict. It’s all around us – in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places – most recently Tunisia and then Egypt.

I’m often astonished at the naivete of the characters in World War I-era stories – do they really think the war will be over by Christmas? Don’t they see that this conflict will change their lives forever? But then, I have the benefit of hindsight, as does Maisie Dobbs, who solves tricky cases in 1920s and 1930s London. And while she knows better than I do what a mark the Great War left on everyone, I am grateful to have these stories, which chronicle the lives of ordinary people facing a conflict that brought change they never imagined. I admire their bravery, their unflinching devotion to duty, family and country, in the face of a nightmare which came up with the suddenness of a summer squall. I grieve for their losses as I turn the pages, and I am always reminded of Jem Blythe’s words near the end of Rilla of Ingleside:

We’re in a new world, and we’ve got to make it a better one than the old. That isn’t done yet, though some folks seem to think it ought to be. The job isn’t finished – it isn’t really begun. It will be the task of years. […] It isn’t enough to drive out the old spirit – we’ve got to bring in the new.

Wise and challenging words from a lieutenant of the Great War, who along with his family and comrades truly embodies bravery. I’m inspired and humbled – by his story and by these others – every single time.

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I love Book Club Girl’s delightful blog – partly because she blogs about books, and partly because she is one of very few people I know who loves Betsy-Tacy as much as I do. And partly because she is a dear, sweet person in real life (we met at the Boston Book Fest in October). Anyway, she is hosting a read-along of the Maisie Dobbs books, a series of mysteries set in England in the late 1920s. I love read-alongs, and I love stories set in England, and when I found the first book in the series at Brattle for $5.95, I took it as a sign. (I’ll probably have to get the others from the library, but that’s all right.)

So, I’ll be reading at least the first Maisie book, and very likely the whole series. Anyone else want to join in? You’re most welcome!

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