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Posts Tagged ‘World War I’

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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dorothy sayers lord peter wimsey mysteries books

As my periodic reading roundups show, I am on a serious Dorothy Sayers kick this fall.

I blame my friend Hannah.

Back in August, Hannah suggested Sayers’ Gaudy Night for our occasional book club’s September meeting. I had read and loved Gaudy Night during my first stint in Oxford in 2004 (it’s set there), so I happily agreed.

I was a bit worried I wouldn’t love the book as much the second time around, but Sayers’ intricately plotted mystery, multiple literary allusions, witty asides, and musings on the love story of two complex people were even more appealing than before. I sighed happily when detective fiction writer Harriet Vane and gentleman sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey got their happy ending – and this time, I had a much deeper appreciation of what it took to make their relationship work. (I am perhaps a little wiser than I was as a college sophomore.)

After Gaudy Night, I reread Busman’s Honeymoon, the story of Harriet and Peter’s honeymoon, which (of course) involves a murder mystery, and also contains several moving scenes of two independent people trying to adjust to marriage. Then I reread Strong Poison, in which we meet Harriet as she is on trial for poisoning her lover (she didn’t do it). Lord Peter helps get Harriet acquitted and promptly falls in love with her.

I’ve always loved Harriet: she is whip-smart, witty, independent and kind. She longs for someone to love, but she wants true love and a partnership of equals – a tall order both in 1930s England and today. I found her to be much as I remembered her, but I appreciated Lord Peter and his wry sense of humor much more this time around. So instead of completing my reread of the Harriet oeuvre right away (sadly, she appears in only four Sayers novels), I went back to the beginning of Lord Peter’s adventures, picking up Whose Body?.

Lord Peter is a World War I veteran, the second son of a duke, which means he has money, but no real responsibilities. He is tall, blond and languid, with swept-back hair, impeccably tailored clothes, and a monocle. He’s also thoughtful, curious, droll, honorable, and adept at hiding his keen intelligence under a buffoonish exterior. He and his manservant, Bunter, fought in World War I together, which bonded them for life. (Peter occasionally has flashbacks of his most traumatic war experiences.)

Peter’s hobby – indeed his vocation – is solving mysteries, often in tandem with Scotland Yard, and Sayers invents all kinds of entertaining cases for him to investigate.

I’ve worked my way through most of the series this fall, reading Lord Peter’s solo adventures for the first time, and finally rereading Have His Carcase (the other mystery featuring Harriet) when I came to it in the series’ sequence. I’ve got The Nine Tailors waiting on my bedside table, and I’ll probably pick up Sayers’ short stories featuring Lord Peter (there are lots).

I’m also curious about the continuation of Harriet and Peter’s story, picked up by Jill Paton Walsh at the request of Sayers’ estate. I’m usually skeptical of fanfiction-esque projects like that, but I love Harriet and Peter and I wish Sayers had written more books featuring them together.

I love Sayers’ mysteries because I love a good story, and the ingredients are all here. Engaging characters – Lord Peter, Bunter, Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard, Peter’s elderly undercover assistant Miss Climpson, his scatterbrained mother, and especially Harriet, who is still my favorite. Lots of action (though the endless train timetables in The Five Red Herrings were not my favorite plot device). Fascinating settings – Sayers sends her hero all over the UK, from a Scottish village to a country estate to a London advertising agency to my beloved Oxford.  And most of the stories don’t wrap up right after the murderer is found, but wind down more slowly to satisfying resolutions.

Along the way, in every book, we get dozens of literary quotes and quips, lots of Lord Peter’s witty asides, colorful descriptions of local people, and a vivid portrait of life in Britain between the wars. So much fun.

Have you read any of Sayers’ novels featuring Lord Peter, and/or Harriet? (Or Jill Paton Walsh’s novels?) What did you think?

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More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen, Laurie Colwin
I loved Colwin’s Home Cooking, and rereading an essay of hers (the titular one in Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant) prompted me to pick up her second collection of food essays. She muses on cooking for kids, catering on the cheap, and the difficulties of finding good bread, with a few recipes sprinkled throughout. Light and fun.

Anne of Windy Poplars, L.M. Montgomery
“Only the true fans can quote Anne lines from Windy Poplars,” Serenity told me once. This fourth book in the series is definitely underrated. I love it – from Anne’s short-lived feud with the Pringles to her musings on pens and silences, to the way she charms “the widows,” Katherine Brooke, Rebecca Dew and the rest of Summerside. Perfect for blustery autumn days (how I envy Anne her tower room!).

Something Borrowed, Emily Giffin
I’m usually a snob about chick lit, but my sister loves Emily Giffin and convinced me to give her a try. Giffin’s debut is both fluffy and compelling, though it made me feel a bit icky because it is about several people who cheat on each other ALL the time. I did like the narrator, Rachel (the consummate good girl), and appreciated Giffin’s musings on the complexities of female friendship. Good weekend reading.

Something Blue, Emily Giffin
After her best friend Rachel (see above) steals her fiance, Darcy Rhone finds herself alone, pregnant (by a different man – again with the cheating!) and at her wits’ end. She moves to London to stay with an old friend, and gradually realizes she needs to make some changes in her life. I didn’t believe Darcy could change, but she does so admirably (though a bit quickly). Fluffy and fun.

Somewhere in France, Jennifer Robson
Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford wants to make a difference in the world, but she’s constrained by her place in British society. But when World War I breaks out, she learns to drive, 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. A compelling war tale (with some gory medical details) and a moving love story, though the ending was quite abrupt. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 31).

Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy L. Sayers
Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover at a London advertising agency to investigate the death of a copywriter. He uncovers a nest of blackmail, drug-smuggling, jealousy and other fun leisure pursuits. An entertaining mystery, with lots of witty advertising wordplay. (Though I couldn’t believe nobody guessed Lord Peter’s true identity.) So much fun.

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Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone, ed. Jenni Ferrari-Adler
I loved this collection of essays on solo dining and cooking, featuring writers ranging from Laurie Colwin to Ann Patchett to several folks I’d never heard of. Some folks cook gourmet meals for themselves; some folks cobble together leftovers; some folks make the same comfort food over and over. (I made Amanda Hesser’s “single cuisine” eggs recently.) Essay collections can be uneven, but every single piece here is delicious.

The Girl You Left Behind, Jojo Moyes
I loved Moyes’ previous novel, Me Before You, and also loved this story. Edouard Lefevre, a French artist, paints a portrait of his wife, Sophie, before leaving to fight in World War I. Sophie and her sister are forced to cook for the occupying German forces, whose Kommandant is fascinated by the painting. Decades later, the painting hangs in widow Liv Halston’s ultramodern London home, a gift from her husband. When the artist’s family brings a lawsuit, claiming the painting was stolen, Liv delves into Sophie’s history to prove it wasn’t. Page-turning, heart-tugging and rich with historical detail.

Have His Carcase, Dorothy Sayers
Harriet Vane, recovering from a murder trial (detailed in Strong Poison), escapes to a quiet coastal town, where she promptly finds a dead body abandoned on a rock. The body is soon washed away by the tide, but Harriet mounts an investigation. Lord Peter Wimsey, who never can keep his long nose out of a mystery, arrives shortly and the pair of them pursue the case up and down the coast. Engaging and fun, full of red herrings and witty exchanges between Harriet and Lord Peter.

Jim Henson: The Biography, Brian Jay Jones
It is difficult to overstate my love for the Muppets. I grew up on Sesame Street, and I love the Muppet movies and The Muppet Show – the whole Muppet world. I especially adore Kermit the Frog, who was in many ways Jim Henson’s alter ego. This brand-new biography of Henson – packed with quotes from Frank Oz, Henson’s wife and children, and many others who knew him well – was utterly fascinating. The last chapter, which detailed Jim’s memorial service, made me weep. Thoroughly researched and so much fun.

Heirs and Graces, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana Rannoch (Her Royal Spyness) is invited to a stately home in Kent to help groom the duke’s new Australian heir for high society. But the duke soon ends up dead, stabbed by the heir’s hunting knife – and complicated family politics give several people motive for murder. The plot of this one fell rather flat, and I missed Georgie’s Cockney grandfather, who only made a cameo. Not my favorite of the series, though still fun.

Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy, Lacy Crawford
I picked up this novel after reading Lindsey’s glowing review. Anne works as an independent college admissions counselor, assisting wealthy high schoolers and their parents with applications and essays. But while she helps her students 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. Crawford’s writing is sharp, insightful and compassionate, and her characters come alive through their essays. Thought-provoking and wonderful.

Wonder, R.J. Palacio
August “Auggie” Pullman was born with a severe facial deformity, so he’s always been homeschooled. But now he’s starting fifth grade at Beecher Prep, and all he wants is to be treated like a normal kid. Narrated alternately by Auggie, his older sister Via and their friends, Wonder traces Auggie’s journey through the school year, from science projects and English class to the social politics of the lunchroom. Heartbreaking, funny and ultimately hopeful.

Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell
I loved Rowell’s Attachments, and loved this book too. Cath Avery is a shy, confused college freshman, overwhelmed by the new world she finds herself in. She retreats into what she’s always loved: writing fanfiction about Simon Snow (a Harry Potter-esque magician). Her twin sister, Wren, is pulling away from her; her surly roommate’s ex-boyfriend is awfully cute; and she’s worried about her dad, left all alone in Omaha. A sweet, funny coming-of-age story and a fun look into the world of fanfiction.

Rose Under Fire, Elizabeth Wein
I loved Wein’s Code Name Verity – this novel is a companion to it. Rose Justice, American transport pilot and aspiring poet, gets captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbruck, where she and a tough, ragtag group of women work together to subvert the SS guards and stay alive. Heartbreaking (and told in horrifying detail), the story extends from the camps to the Nuremberg trials after the war. Sobering and yet stubbornly hopeful.

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Apr 2013 010

A Dangerous Fiction, Barbara Rogan
Literary agent Jo Donovan, widow of a famous author, is living her dream life in New York City. But when an overeager client begins stalking Jo and a dozen of her clients fall prey to a hacking scam, her carefully constructed life begins to crumble. When a friend and client is murdered, Jo finally goes to the police – and encounters an old love, Tommy Cullen. Fast-paced, witty and sharp, full of deftly drawn characters, this fun literary mystery provides a fascinating glimpse into the NYC publishing world. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 25).

Letters from Skye, Jessica Brockmole
When Elspeth Dunn, a young Scottish poet, receives a fan letter from a college student in Illinois, she never expects it to change her life. But though her correspondence with David Graham provides a bright spot in the shadow of World War I, it has disastrous consequences for her family. Years later, as the German bombs fall on Edinburgh, Elspeth disappears, leaving her daughter with a yellowed letter and few clues to her mother’s, and her own, history. Beautifully told in warm, witty letters, in the tradition of Guernsey and other epistolary novels. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 9).

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, Alexander McCall Smith
Changes are afoot in Scotland Street: marriage (and an adventurous honeymoon) for Matthew, cub scouts for six-year-old Bertie, an unexpected basket of puppies (courtesy of his dog, Cyril) for Angus Lordie. But the humorous everyday interactions, and the gentle absurdities arising therefrom, remain. So much fun.

A Beautiful Blue Death, Charles Finch
When a young housemaid turns up dead, Charles Lenox, Victorian London gentleman and amateur detective, is called upon to help solve the mystery. I enjoyed watching Lenox spar with Scotland Yard, track suspects and clues through London, and despair of ever getting properly made boots. A fun introduction to Lenox and his circle of friends (including his brother Edmund and neighbor, Lady Jane). Not particularly suspenseful, but an interesting mystery.

Red Bird, Mary Oliver
I love Oliver’s work, though this wasn’t my favorite volume of her poetry – some of it felt preachy, some a bit vague. Some lovely lines, though, and I like the poems about her dog, Percy. And I love the poem “I don’t want to live a small life” (which is why I checked out this book in the first place).

Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Maria Semple
Bernadette Fox, brilliant architect and slightly unhinged wife and mother, disappears from her Seattle home (a crumbling former girls’ school) without a trace. It’s up to her Microsoft tech-genius husband and her smart, savvy teenage daughter, Bee, to piece together the series of events that led Bernadette off the deep end. Told in letters, emails, texts and other documents, this novel is at once wildly funny, sharply satirical and genuinely warmhearted. I loved it. Recommended by Shelley.

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The Passing Bells, Phillip Rock
Book Club Girl is hosting another readalong – this time of a Downton-esque family saga set in England during World War I. I loved the story of the Grevilles, their staff and friends, and their American journalist cousin Martin (who looks just like Matthew Crawley in my head). The war, as you can guess, brings about dramatic changes for everyone. Some of the battle scenes got a bit gruesome (and I longed for a map to plot the action), but this was a well-written story, with characters I liked.

The Recycled Citizen, Charlotte MacLeod
Sarah Kelling and her husband Max get pulled into another family crisis: investigating the death of an elderly man connected to a charity project run by Sarah’s cousin, while helping plan an auction to benefit that same project. A little slow, but enjoyable, and I liked tracing the action around downtown Boston, where I work. Light and fun.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
I picked this up for Jessica’s Classics Catch-Up Challenge (I’d never read it). I found the framing story and narrator(s) interesting, perhaps because I knew less about them than about Catherine and Heathcliff. I alternately pitied, disliked and grew frustrated with most of the characters (though I do like Nelly Dean, for her honesty). Creepy, atmospheric, maddening, horrifying. (I prefer Jasper Fforde’s scenes of these characters in anger management sessions, in The Well of Lost Plots.)

Pirate King, Laurie R. King
Mary Russell goes undercover as a producer’s assistant, on the set of a silent film about a film crew making a movie of The Pirates of Penzance. (Confused yet?) Russell’s job keeping the actors in line is complicated, but she’s also there to investigate a mystery (joined halfway through by Holmes). Is the film company a cover for less savory activities? And are the Lisboan actors hired to play pirates engaging in a bit of real piracy on the side? Lighter than most Holmes/Russell mysteries, but cleverly plotted and well told. Great fun for fans of musicals and adventure on the high seas.

The Mark of Athena, Rick Riordan
I love Riordan’s books about Greek and Roman demigods struggling to defeat evil (and navigate the perils of the teenage years). This third book in the Heroes of Olympus series, narrated by four demigods, was a page-turner. I love Annabeth, wise and witty daughter of Athena, and Leo, hyperactive but a whiz with machines. Lots of references to Greek and Roman mythology (Riordan delights in playing up the differences), lots of confrontations with angry deities, lots of romantic trouble. Lots of fun. (Book 4 comes out in the fall.)

Circles of Time, Phillip Rock
This sequel to The Passing Bells (above) begins in 1921, in a Europe devastated by war. The Grevilles and their staff, family and friends are still reeling from the chaos of 1914-18, so this book is rather grim. But there are glimmers of hope, particularly for Charles, recovering from shell shock, and his widowed sister Alexandra. Martin, the American journalist, travels extensively and gets to see many facets of postwar Europe, including some troubling developments in Germany. He is wise and thoughtful and probably my favorite character. Looking forward to the final installment, A Future Arrived.

The Black Russian, Vladimir Alexandrov
Born in Mississippi to former slaves, Frederick Bruce Thomas ended up traveling the world – and becoming a successful hotel worker, waiter, valet and restaurant entrepreneur. This biography traces his travels, from Chicago to New York to London to Moscow, and eventually to Constantinople. He was an unusual figure for his time, as the author’s numerous sources attest, though I wish we’d had more of Frederick in his own words. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 5).

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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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porter square books bookstore interior

The bulging shelves at Porter Square Books

Over the Gate, Miss Read
Villages like Fairacre have their own rich lore, and Miss Read tells a dozen tales here, most of them told to her by other villagers. (Who knew Fairacre had its own ghost?) Lighthearted, often funny, sometimes mysterious, these stories provide another way to spend a few hours in Fairacre. (I am now collecting these books for my own shelf, keeping an eye out for them every time I visit a used bookstore.)

The House at Tyneford, Natasha Solomons
Elise Landau, daughter of bourgeois Viennese Jews, comes to England in 1938 as a housemaid at Tyneford, an isolated great house on the Dorset coast. She expects to hate England – and at first she does, missing her family and her cosseted Vienna life. Slowly, though, she makes friends and comes to love the wild, windswept landscape, even as war encroaches. Solomons’ writing is wonderfully atmospheric; her characters are sometimes stereotypical, but the best ones (like Elise) break the molds of their social classes. And there’s a dazzling love story at the heart of it all. Fabulous. (Recommended by Jaclyn, who loved it too.)

The Joys of Love, Madeleine L’Engle
I stumbled upon this at the Brattle – I had no idea it existed, let alone that it was only published a few years ago. (I loved the introduction by L’Engle’s granddaughter, Lena Roy, also a writer.) Both the plot (life in a summer stock theatre in the 1940s) and the protagonist – tall, gawky, naive, erudite Elizabeth – mirror L’Engle’s own experience. The supporting characters (especially kindhearted Jane and sweet Ben) are a lot of fun, and there are some bittersweet moments of wisdom and truth and lots of quoting from Shakespeare and Chekhov. Typical L’Engle, in other words – probably best appreciated by those of us who love her already.

An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor
I liked Taylor’s first memoir (see yesterday’s post), but I loved this one. She writes about various “practices” – physical labor, Sabbath, prayer, simply looking another person in the eye – that can help ground us in the world we live in, and thereby give us a glimpse of the eternal in daily life. I might be writing a whole separate post about this book. So many gorgeous sentences, nuggets of wisdom, honest admissions, practical advice. I got this from the library, but I’ll be buying a copy. Love.

An Unmarked Grave, Charles Todd
Bess Crawford is at it again: taking on a mystery she didn’t ask for, but that just won’t let her rest. Her investigation is complicated by the Spanish flu, lots of travel back and forth between England and France, a Yankee soldier who keeps turning up like a bad penny (at least he’s endearing), and a vicious killer who’s on her tail. I like Bess and her family more and more, though this plot contained some pretty wild coincidences. To review for the Shelf (out June 5).

Three Times Lucky, Sheila Turnage
I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway and loved the story of Mo LoBeau, who washed up – literally – in Tupelo Landing, NC, as a baby. There’s a hilarious cast of small-town characters, a mystery that goes deeper than you’d think, and some truly wonderful writing. I kept cracking up and reading bits aloud to my husband. Mo is a sassy, smart, sharp-eyed narrator and she takes readers for such a fun ride. (Out May 10.)

Village Christmas, Miss Read
Two spinster sisters in Fairacre peer anxiously at the new family across the road, not sure whether to accept them, until the mother goes into labor on Christmas Day. A sweet tale of Christmas joy in a village I love. (Link is to a 3-in-1 edition of Miss Read’s Christmas tales that includes this story.)

You Know When the Men Are Gone, Siobhan Fallon
Siobhan, a military wife, writes with sensitivity and grace about army wives at Fort Hood, in central Texas, waiting for their husbands to return from deployment. So much heartbreak in these pages, but also so much courage. I do wish the stories had delved deeper, continued past their end points so I could know what happened after – there are always so many questions hanging around the lives of military families.

(Bonus: I heard Siobhan read at Porter Square Books this week, and she was so lovely and gracious and well-spoken. And – she admitted when she found out I was a Texan – my home state captivated her in a way she totally didn’t expect.)

Run With Me, Jennifer Luitwieler
Jen is a Twitter friend of mine, and she sent me the e-version of her book for review. It’s about running, but it’s also about faith, family, a mischievous dog, and coming to grips with the baggage you’ve dragged around for years. Jen is hilarious and so real, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading her story. (And have added her to the long list of online friends I’d love to meet in real life.)

Whew! April was a busy reading month, and I have several stacks awaiting my attention in May. What are you reading now?

(NB: This post contains IndieBound affiliate links.)

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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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