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a pattern of lies cover charles toddEarlier this summer, thanks to TLC Book Tours, I had the pleasure of catching up on the fictional adventures of World War I nurse and amateur sleuth Bess Crawford.

I reviewed An Unwilling Accomplice, the sixth book featuring Bess, in July, and today it’s my turn to review book #7, A Pattern of Lies.

Stranded in Canterbury over a short leave in 1918, Bess runs into an old friend: Mark Ashton, a soldier she nursed in France earlier in the war. As a guest at the Ashtons’ family home, Bess finds herself drawn into the drama surrounding an explosion at a nearby gunpowder mill run by Mark’s father, Philip. The explosion occurred two years before, but in light of supposedly damning new evidence, Philip Ashton is arrested while Bess is staying with the family.

Mark asks Bess to help clear his father’s name by searching for a Sergeant Rollins, one of the only eyewitnesses to the explosion. As Bess heads back to France and crisscrosses the English Channel on subsequent assignments, she searches for Rollins and other key players in the drama, but they prove elusive. Meanwhile, the Ashton family faces social isolation and vandalism – and someone may want to silence both Rollins and Bess.

As I’ve said before, I love Bess as a character – she’s keen-eyed, practical and perspicacious, not to mention always willing to help anyone (friend or foe) who needs her nursing skills. She’s no saint, though – she can be blunt and prickly, which makes her more human. I liked the setting, too – Todd has a gift for bringing out the distinctive characteristics of many different parts of England. (As an Anglophile, I appreciate the series’ varied settings: there is so much more to England than just London.)

I also enjoyed Bess’ return to her nursing work on the front lines in this book, especially after An Unwilling Accomplice focused mostly on a remote cluster of villages in Shropshire. A Pattern of Lies takes place in the autumn of 1918, and everyone Bess meets – fellow nurses, soldiers, family members – is hoping the war is almost over. I particularly relished a glimpse of Sergeant Lassiter, the cheeky Australian who has popped up in previous books.

If you’re looking for a solid historical mystery series, I recommend Bess’ adventures. (I wonder where Todd will take the series after the Armistice is signed.)

This post is part of the TLC Book Tour for A Pattern of Lies. I received a free advance copy of this book for review; all opinions are, of course, my own.

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An-Unwilling-Accomplice-cover-199x300Since I discovered the Bess Crawford mystery series by Charles Todd a few years ago, I’ve enjoyed following Bess’s adventures as a nurse and amateur detective during World War I. Bess is a young Englishwoman of good family (her father, known as the Colonel Sahib, is a respected career military officer). She trains as a nurse when war breaks out in Europe, and the books follow her travels around France and England, caring for wounded men and investigating murders.

In the series’ sixth book, An Unwilling Accomplice, Bess is asked to escort a wounded soldier to a ceremony at the Palace, where he will receive a medal for gallantry. She’s surprised the soldier asked for her by name when she doesn’t remember him, but the ceremony goes off without incident. The next morning, however, Sergeant Wilkins has disappeared.

To her dismay, Bess is accused of negligence, but the mystery deepens when the sergeant is accused of murder. To clear her own name, Bess embarks on a journey to find him, driving around a lonely part of England with her longtime friend Simon Brandon.

I love a good mystery, particularly one with multiple threads, and this plot – which includes murder, escape, more than one case of mistaken identity, several wounded soldiers and a mysteriously competent village doctor – definitely delivered. The setting – a trio of isolated villages near Shrewsbury, England – was new to me, though I’ve read hundreds of books set in the UK. (I admit I wish there had been a map, to keep up with Bess’ and Simon’s endless driving.)

The plot twists kept coming, though I did guess at a couple of them before the end. Bess is, as ever, thoughtful and stubborn, and endlessly willing to use her training to help people, even those suspected of wrongdoing. I love Simon, who is enigmatic but kind and honorable; he’s often a minor character, but he plays a major role in this book. (I’m hoping for a little romance between him and Bess one day.)

As a fan of the series, I was glad to see Bess again, and I also enjoyed the appearances by other familiar characters: Bess’ parents, her London landlady Mrs. Hennessy, her flatmate Diana, and especially Simon. The book’s resolution involved a slice of World War I history that I didn’t know about, and most of the plot threads were satisfyingly tied up. If you’re looking for an engaging historical mystery, I recommend this one (and Bess’ previous adventures).

This post is part of the TLC Book Tour for An Unwilling Accomplice. I received a free copy of this book for review; all opinions are, of course, my own.

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Early Decision

early decision cover lacy crawfordI read Lacy Crawford’s debut novel, Early Decision, soon after it came out last year. Well, first I read Lindsey’s glowing review. Then I picked up the book and was so glad I did.

Early Decision tells the story of Anne, a young woman working as an independent college admissions counselor in Chicago. Anne once had dreams of a literary career, but now she assists wealthy high school students (and their nervous, hovering parents) with the long process of applying to college and writing their essays.

On Saturdays, Anne volunteers with a group of lower-income students at a public high school, whose dreams (in most cases) are vastly different but no less ambitious. Yet while she helps her students (including a brilliant Guatemalan girl from that public high school) find their voices and take charge of their own lives, she’s stuck in a holding pattern, afraid to pursue a different career or find real love.

I have worked in academia for my entire career: first at my alma mater in West Texas, then at a liberal-arts-cum-performing-arts school in Boston, and now at Harvard. I agonized over my own college application essays more than a decade ago, and like Anne, I earned a graduate degree in English and then wondered what on earth to do with my life.

So I saw myself on so many pages of this novel – both in Anne and in her bright but hesitant students. They are radiant with potential, excited but terrified, firmly convinced that where they go to college will have a profound effect on the rest of their lives. (They’re not wrong about this, but as Crawford notes, where you go to college is not the same as who you are.)

Crawford’s writing is sharp, clear and insightful, peppered with literary allusions and keen insights about the current state of higher education (and the panic surrounding elite colleges) in the U.S. Her characters come alive through their essay drafts and emails, as well as through their conversations with Anne. And while Anne herself is frustratingly self-effacing at the beginning of the novel, she grows into herself by the book’s end, gaining the confidence to grasp – for the first time in years – a life she really wants.

Witty, heartbreaking and keenly observed, Early Decision is both a compelling story and a lovely meditation on learning to build a worthwhile life. (Also: Lacy and I are now Twitter friends, and she is lovely.)

This post is part of the TLC Book Tour for Early Decision. I received a complimentary copy of the book, but was not otherwise compensated for this review.

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leaving everything most loved maisie dobbs

Maisie Dobbs is one of my favorite fictional detectives. I love her deep compassion and sensitivity, her probing mind and brave spirit, and her struggle to define herself as an independent woman in 1920s and 1930s London.

Trained as a nurse and wounded (physically and mentally) by World War I, Maisie sets up her own business as a psychologist and investigator, some years after the war. Her tenth adventure, Leaving Everything Most Loved (out tomorrow), finds her investigating the murders of two Indian women in London, and weighing some big personal questions.

An Indian man approaches Maisie about the murder of his sister, Usha Pramal, who came to Britain as a governess and later lived in a hostel with other Indian women, taking cleaning jobs to make ends meet. By all accounts, Usha was a well-educated woman and a radiant spirit, touching everyone she knew with her kindness. Who would kill such a glowing soul, and why?

As Maisie seeks to unravel the threads of Usha’s life, another young woman from the hostel is killed. Meanwhile, Maisie worries that the strain of her last case is still affecting her longtime assistant, Billy Beale, and finds herself (still) wondering whether she can commit to marrying James, the man she loves.

Winspear writes sensitively of Maisie’s inner struggles, with nods to previous cases and Maisie’s personal history, from scullery maid to college student, war nurse to private investigator. Longtime readers of the series will appreciate a subplot or two involving familiar characters, while new readers will warm to Maisie and her thoughtful, incisive method of detecting.

This book had an Indian flavor, partly because of the murder victims and partly due to Maisie’s growing interest in the country. I loved the references to saris and spices, and Maisie’s first attempt at cooking curry. (There are Indian restaurants all over England now, but this certainly wasn’t the case in 1933.)

Well written, fascinating and layered (like all Winspear’s books), Leaving Everything Most Loved provides both a satisfying mystery and an intriguing new adventure for its heroine.

I’m participating in TLC Book Tours’ Month of Maisie Blog Tour. I received a free copy of this book for review; opinions, of course, are my own. I’ll also be reviewing the book for Shelf Awareness.

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an unmarked grave charles toddThanks (again) to Book Club Girl’s recommendation, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the Bess Crawford mystery series by mother-and-son team Charles and Caroline Todd (writing as Charles Todd). I’m pleased to be part of the TLC Book Tour for the latest in the series, An Unmarked Grave.

These books bear a few resemblances to the Maisie Dobbs series, which I also love: they share a World War I-era setting, a main character who is both battlefield nurse and sleuth, and a rich blend of history and mystery. However, Maisie’s investigative career begins in 1920s London, with her World War I experiences in flashbacks, while Bess encounters mysteries during the war, usually by accident – and sometimes even during her work as a nurse on the front lines.

An Unmarked Grave, the fourth Bess novel, is set in 1918, as the Spanish flu epidemic sweeps through the trenches. As Bess struggles to care for both the wounded and the sick, she learns of a murdered man’s body concealed among the victims waiting for burial. But before she can report the incident, she gets the flu, and by the time she recovers, the body is gone and the man who informed her is also dead.

Bess is stubborn, with a strong sense of justice – so despite her own illness, she refuses to let the incident go. She returns to England, working in a convalescent clinic while using her father’s military connections and her own contacts to glean information about the two victims and their killer. Before long, she realizes the killer is still on the loose – and that she is his next target.

While Bess pokes her nose into family secrets in every book, this was the first time I felt she was in real danger of being murdered. She is sometimes brave to the point of foolishness (walking the dark, narrow streets of occupied French cities alone, at night, is never a good idea), but I do admire her spunk. And while her vast network of connections sometimes makes the plot twists seem too convenient, I’m sure the British military was a small world back then.

I’m looking forward to the next Bess novel (whenever it comes out). If you’ve read any of Bess’ stories, what did you think of them?

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Like most people, I love a good story. From books to movies to my dad’s well-worn family tales (most of which I’ve heard dozens of times by now), from songs to poetry to blog posts, I spend a lot of my days steeped in story. I am constantly adding to the narrative of my own story (isn’t that what blogging is for?), trying to make sense of my life so far, trying to figure out how and why I got to where I am.

Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal seeks to explain why, and how, humans are wired for story. He takes readers on a quick tour of various disciplines – psychology, neuroscience, sociology, even medicine – as they relate to story, and examines various storytelling media, from novels to films to role-playing games. (He does seem to prefer fiction to nonfiction, though he’s rather dismissive of religious stories since he’s an atheist. And he tends to lionize the novel as the “highest” form of storytelling. I would have liked to see more emphasis on oral storytelling and live theatre, since those are ancient and powerful forms of story-making.)

Gottschall uses plenty of examples to make his point: sometimes he makes up his own stories, sometimes he pulls from history or current events. I appreciate the tidiness of using stories to make points in a book about story, but many of his examples seemed designed to shock rather than inform. I’m not a fan of shock value for its own sake, so his deliberate attempts to elicit strong reactions put me off a bit.

Gottschall has two young daughters, and I loved the scenes featuring their imaginative play. (He says, in the acknowledgments, that “playing with my girls has taught me as much about story as I’ve ever learned in books.”) He shares anecdotes of other children’s play as well, further making the point that story is intrinsic to humankind. From the time we can listen, we listen to stories, and from a young age, we begin acting out stories, making them up, telling them to other people and ourselves. We identify strongly with fictional characters; we look to stories to help us make sense of our families, our cultures, our nations, our religious beliefs. I got a bit tired of hearing his main point over and over, but I agree: story is vital to our identity as humans.

Though Gottschall’s points are sometimes a bit obvious, this book is a fascinating exploration of story and its importance to the human race.

This post is part of the TLC Book Tour on The Storytelling Animal. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. You can view the book trailer or visit Gottschall’s website to learn more.

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Maisie Dobbs, Jacqueline WinspearLast winter, I joined a read-along of the Maisie Dobbs series at Book Club Girl’s fabulous blog. I’d somehow missed hearing about Maisie before, but as soon as I picked up the first novel in the series, which traces her adventures as a psychologist and investigator in post-World War I London, I was hooked.

I’ve now followed Maisie through eight books, a career change (from World War I battlefield nurse to private investigator), several romantic relationships, and various locations in England and France (though the series centers on London and Kent). And I’m so pleased to be reviewing Elegy for Eddie, the ninth installment in the series, as part of TLC Book Tours’ March is Maisie Month.

Elegy for Eddie opens in 1933, in the uncertain period between the wars, when many Londoners still carry scars, physical and emotional, from the Great War of 1914-18. (I love these books partly because they have broadened and deepened my understanding of World War I. Stories of this era seem to be everywhere right now, thanks to Downton Abbey and various books, but before discovering Maisie I hadn’t read much about this war.)

Maisie is, by now, a well-established private investigator, but she has never arrived at the office to find five costermongers (fruit and vegetable sellers) waiting for her, asking her to take on a case. However, that’s exactly what happens in the first scene, and it turns out that Eddie Pettit, a gentle, slightly “slow” man whom Maisie knew as a child, has been killed. The men who come to Maisie’s office, former colleagues of her father, believe he was murdered, and they ask Maisie to investigate.

This case is more personal for Maisie than most, since she knows the victim and must return to the streets of Lambeth, where she grew up, to ask questions about his death. She traces Eddie’s connections – and the information he might have been hiding – to a powerful press baron, several politicians, and a writer who happens to be married to her best friend.

The paradox of Eddie’s humble origins and his brush with power dovetails nicely with the increasing tension in Maisie’s personal life. She began her career as a maid and has worked her way up to a comfortable middle-class existence, but is dating James Compton, son of the house where she once worked in service. Their different origins, and ways of looking at the world, are putting a strain on the relationship, and Maisie struggles with some difficult personal questions as she works to solve the mystery of Eddie’s death.

I love the whole Maisie series – they are, for me, a perfect blend of history and mystery, with a spunky yet thoughtful heroine and a lively cast of supporting characters (I particularly like Billy, Maisie’s assistant). I went to the Harvard Book Store last spring to see Jacqueline Winspear read from A Lesson in Secrets, and I’m planning to go next week to hear her read from Elegy for Eddie.

Have you read the Maisie books? What do you think of them?

NB: This post contains IndieBound affiliate links.

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