Posts Tagged ‘World War I’

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September was a good reading month. (I took the latter half of it off from buying books, so I could try to make a dent in the TBR stacks.) Here’s the final roundup:

A Window Opens, Elisabeth Egan
I picked up this novel after reading Lindsey’s glowing review. It follows Alice Pearse, a thirtysomething mother of three and book lover who takes a job at a flashy “new media” company. Alice juggles her kids’ schedules, her father’s healthcare and her husband’s struggles, while harboring serious doubts about her job. Compulsively readable and often witty; flawed but thought-provoking.

Goodbye Stranger, Rebecca Stead
Tabitha, Bridget and Emily have been best friends for years. But seventh grade brings new challenges for them all, and tests their long-standing “no fighting” rule. I loved the girls’ intertwined story; I especially loved Bridge, who isn’t quite sure how to navigate this new world, and her friend Sherm. Wise, moving and true. (I also loved Stead’s When You Reach Me.)

First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, Bee Wilson
The way we learn to eat as young children can have a powerful effect on the rest of our lives. Wilson explores eating patterns through the lens of weaning, baby food, social experiments, family dinner, eating disorders and more. She occasionally gets bogged down in the research, but gleans some fascinating insights. (I also loved her book Consider the Fork.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 1).

Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler, Trudi Kanter
When the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, Viennese hat designer Trudi Kanter (a Jew) and her family had to flee the country. Trudi’s memoir chronicles their roundabout journey to England (with some lovely scenes of prewar Paris and Vienna). A bit disjointed at times, but vividly told. Trudi is a sharp-eyed, resourceful, even cheeky narrator.

A Century of November, W.D. Wetherell
After losing his son, Billy, in World War I, widower Charles Marden travels to France from western Canada to see the place where his son died. A harrowing journey, told in beautiful sentences; a stark, often surreal portrait of the aftermath of trench warfare.

Miss Buncle Married, D.E. Stevenson
Barbara Buncle (now Mrs. Abbott) and her husband move to a new village, and find themselves exasperated and delighted by their new neighbors. I missed the fun of Barbara-as-author, and the beginning was slow, but in the end, this novel was as much fun as the first one.

The Case of the Missing Marquess, Nancy Springer
Who knew Sherlock Holmes had a younger sister? Enola Holmes, left alone when her mother disappears on her 14th birthday, heads to London to try and find her. Along the way, she solves the titular kidnapping case. A fun beginning to a middle-grade series, with cameos by Sherlock and Mycroft. Found at the Mysterious Bookshop in NYC.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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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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Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, Bee Wilson
We tend to think of “kitchen technology” as limited to fancy gadgets. But all kitchen utensils, even the humble fork and wooden spoon, represent years of kitchen history. Wilson’s tour of the evolution of cooking – from open hearths to gas stoves to shiny modern kitchens – is witty, entertaining and well researched. Recommended for foodies.

A Pattern of Lies, Charles Todd
Stranded in Canterbury over a short leave, WWI nurse Bess Crawford finds herself drawn into the mystery of an explosion at a nearby gunpowder mill. As she searches for the key players in the drama, they prove elusive. A solid mystery based on historical events. Full review coming in September as part of a TLC Book Tour (the book comes out Aug. 18).

Malice at the Palace, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana Rannoch (Her Royal Spyness) is asked by the queen to help welcome a Greek princess to London. But when a young woman is found murdered at Kensington Palace, Georgie gets mixed up in yet another mystery. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 4).

A Little Something Different, Sandy Hall
Gabe and Lea are perfect for each other. Everyone sees it: their creative writing professor, the baristas at Starbucks, even the squirrel on the college green. But will they get together? Hall’s debut weaves together 14 (!) different viewpoints (including the squirrel) to tell this sweet love story. Not a lot of character development, but the ride is so much fun.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Amid the pre-Go Set a Watchman buzz, I picked up this classic again. It’s the fourth time I’ve read it and I still get chills when Atticus walks out of the courtroom, and the ending makes me cry. So beautiful and powerful.

We Never Asked for Wings, Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Letty Espinosa has worked three jobs for years, relying on her mother to raise her two children. But when her aging parents move back to Mexico, Letty is left to care for her children alone – with no clue about how to be a parent. A heartbreaking yet hopeful story of a struggling family. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 18).

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee
I have so many thoughts about this book – which Lee wrote before To Kill a Mockingbird but which was never published until now. Both the book’s origin story and its content have sparked lots of debate. I would say: if you’re curious, read it and judge for yourself. (Lee’s narrative voice is still strong here, but I think Mockingbird is the better book.)

Book Scavenger, Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
When Emily, age 12, moves to San Francisco with her family, she finds a mysterious book with a hidden cipher inside that leads to a treasure hunt. But someone else is after the prize, too. A fun middle-grade bookish puzzle for literary geeks.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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(View of Three Lives & Co. in SoHo, NYC)

After the War is Over, Jennifer Robson
As Britain recovers from World War I, nurse Charlotte Brown returns to her relief work in Liverpool. But she’s haunted by thoughts of the man she loves, an aristocrat devastated by his own war experiences. A sweeping, gorgeous novel of class tensions, love and the effects of war. I loved it. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 6).

Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, Rachel Cooke
The stereotype of the 1950s housewife is familiar – and rarely accurate. Cooke profiles ten women whose professional and personal lives upended social mores in postwar Britain. Breezy but well researched (if occasionally too gossipy) and entertaining. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 2).

Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night, James Runcie
The titular priest-cum-detective continues his investigations in 1950s Cambridge, while debating whether and whom to marry. Some intriguing cases offset by some truly dull ones, and I got tired of Sidney’s waffling. I still like the characters, though, and will probably read book 3.

Death with All the Trimmings, Lucy Burdette
I forgot how much I enjoy a cozy mystery once in a while. This one stars Key West food critic Hayley Snow, who has a nose for mysteries and finds herself investigating an arson/murder case. Fun, festive and full of wacky characters. (The author sent me an ARC for review; it’s out Dec. 2.)

The Lonely War: One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran, Nazila Fathi
Fathi, a longtime correspondent for the New York Times, tells the story of post-1979 Iran through the lens of her own experience as a young woman and later as a journalist. A fascinating peek behind the curtain of the Islamic Revolution and its effects on ordinary Iranians. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 9).

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

Clearly I’ve been hammering away at the review books recently! What are you reading?

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cover-somewhere-in-franceBack in November, I read and reviewed Somewhere in France, Jennifer Robson’s debut novel, for Shelf Awareness.

As a fan of historical fiction with an interest in World War I stories, I was captivated by the story of Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford, who longs to make a difference in the world, but is constrained by her place in British society.

When war breaks out in Europe, Lilly defies her parents and joins the ranks of WAAC drivers, eventually getting posted to France where her sweetheart, a Scottish surgeon, is working at a field hospital. Their love story twists and turns along with the war, and Lilly does a lot of growing up out there on the front lines.

Jennifer graciously agreed to do a Q&A for my readers, and with the return of Downton Abbey here in the States, the timing is perfect.

My questions and Jen’s responses are below. Enjoy!

Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for Somewhere in France?

When I was a teenager, my mother gave me a copy of Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s classic memoir of the Great War. At the beginning of the book, Vera isn’t much older than I was then, yet she was thrust into a world of war, death and paralyzing loss when she was still so young.

I remember thinking that I would love to read the story of other women like Vera. They didn’t fight in the front lines, but they made tremendous sacrifices all the same, and their work was absolutely vital to the war effort.

How did you become interested in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the experience of women ambulance drivers?

It began when I was researching the book. I had decided that I didn’t want Lilly to become a nurse—I couldn’t conceive of a believable way for her to acquire the necessary education and training—so I started looking at the other women’s services, and the WAAC, with its wide range of occupations for members, as well as a predominantly working- and middle-class membership, was ideal.

I did find it quite difficult to unearth information on the corps and its members, however, as most official papers relating to the WAAC were destroyed in the Blitz. If anyone out there is looking for a suitable topic for a doctoral thesis on the history of the Great War, a general history of the WAAC is badly needed!

I was particularly fascinated by the ambulance drivers in the WAAC; their work was difficult, dirty and frequently dangerous, often in terrible conditions, and the suffering of their passengers must have been very distressing to witness. I suppose I could have been kinder to Lilly, and let her work as a clerk well behind the lines, but that wouldn’t have been nearly as fun to write about!

Do you have a favorite period detail or incident you’ve come across in your research?

I think it was the original forms that applicants to the WAAC filled out when applying to the corps. Those few that survive are preserved at the National Archives in the UK (here’s an example that can be viewed online).

When I looked at those forms, filled out by each applicant in her own handwriting, I felt the hundred years between us slip away: here were young women, most of whom had never been away from home, and they were volunteering to leave everything and everyone they knew in order to do their duty. I was, and continue to be, deeply humbled by their courage.

What do you find most fascinating about the World War I era?

I think it’s the way it straddles a period that feels distant yet also very familiar. The people who fought and lived through the war were Victorian by birth and by outlook, with attitudes and beliefs that can often appear somewhat foreign to modern sensibilities.

Yet until quite recently Great War veterans were alive and among us and able to share their memories. I had the honor of meeting a number of them over the years, and when I spoke to them the war didn’t seem remote at all—it might as well have happened yesterday.

Have you visited any of the places in England and France depicted in your novel?

I’ve visited all of them, with the exception of Cumberland Hall in the Lake District, as it’s entirely a product of my imagination. While I was a guide at the Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, which is not far from the area of the Western Front depicted in Somewhere in France, I visited some of the battlefields in northern France and Belgium; most moving of all was Beaumont-Hamel, where the Newfoundland Regiment was decimated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

I’ve also visited Paris and London many times over the years and hope to take my children for a visit there soon.

Can you tell us a bit about the follow-up novel you’re working on, about Lilly’s fearless friend Charlotte?

It begins in the spring of 1919, after Charlotte’s return to Liverpool. She resumes her position as an assistant to Eleanor Rathbone, a real-life figure who was a city councillor and one of the best-known suffragists and supporters for the working poor in Britain in that era.

We follow Charlotte as she makes new friends at the boarding house where she lives, works tirelessly to improve the lives of Liverpool’s working poor, and attempts to save an old friend from the demons that are consuming him as a result of his wartime experiences.

Jen has offered to give away a signed copy of Somewhere in France to one of my readers, so leave a comment below for a chance to win! And you can learn more about Jen and Somewhere in France at her website.

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A Star for Mrs. Blake, April Smith
In the early 1930s, the U.S. government sent thousands of Gold Star Mothers, women whose sons were killed in World War I, to France to visit their sons’ graves. Smith’s novel follows five Gold Star Mothers to Paris and Verdun, on what is supposed to be an important journey for them all. I was frustrated by the slow start and a few odd plot points, and I wasn’t sure the trip changed anything for some of the women. But the setting was fascinating – a forgotten piece of history. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 14).

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling
The Triwizard Tournament is on at Hogwarts, and Harry might just be champion – if he survives the competition. Lots of wonderful magic here, and several new, important characters (Mad-Eye Moody, Fleur Delacour, Viktor Krum). The ending is both terrifying and sad, with shadows of what’s to come. But the book isn’t all darkness. It includes one of my favorite funny lines in the whole series: “Just then, Neville caused a slight diversion by turning into a large canary.”

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling
The ending of this book breaks my heart right in half every time. But I love it – I love Dumbledore’s Army, the ongoing development of Harry’s story, the students’ (and teachers’) subversive campaign against that foul Professor Umbridge. We meet Tonks, whom I love, and we see more of Sirius, Lupin and the Weasleys, whom I adore. And the drumbeat starts at the end: Harry is now finally, fully aware of who he is and what he has to do.

Lost Lake, Sarah Addison Allen
I enjoyed Allen’s The Peach Keeper and loved her debut, Garden Spells. Her new novel takes us to a run-down but magical lake resort in Georgia, where Kate spent a wonderful summer when she was 12. Now Kate’s great-aunt Eby is planning to sell the resort, right as Kate (newly widowed) and her daughter, Devin, arrive for a visit. A story of love, loss and new beginnings, with a bit of magical realism (Allen’s signature). To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 21).

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling
The copious “snogging” in this book makes me laugh, but the story grows steadily darker, as Harry learns more about the boy who became Voldemort and the cruel measures he took to protect himself from death. This is also, though he doesn’t know it, Harry’s last year at Hogwarts – just one of the reasons the ending makes me cry. So, so good.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling
After a desperate escape from Privet Drive and a brief respite at The Burrow, Harry, Ron and Hermione are on the run, hunting Horcruxes and trying to avoid capture by Death Eaters. This last book is fast-paced, heartbreaking and powerful, and the last few chapters answer so many questions (and make me weep for all kinds of reasons). A fantastic end to one of my very favorite series.

A Question of Honor, Charles Todd
World War I nurse Bess Crawford investigates another mystery, this one related to a murder case from her childhood in India. The mystery plot was compelling, but Bess’ constant back-and-forth movements from England to France didn’t seem to relate to the story. And she’s unbelievably dense regarding the man who loves her. Not my favorite in the series, but still interesting.

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