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IMG_0033Earlier this year I gave some thought to pulling together a short reading list centred around WWI and its aftermath, but didn’t do anything about it other than mention it in passing. But a visit to the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation at the Tower of London earlier this month, followed by a visit to Dryburgh Abbey while on holiday (relevant because as well as being the burial-place of Sir Walter Scott it also hosts the grave of Earl Haig) brought this back into focus, and as November is the month in which we commemorate the Armistice it seemed fitting that I concentrate my reading then.

So I’ve pulled together a very short list, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, about the war as it is happening and its impact afterwards. I would like to read them all in the month but we shall see how I get on.

  • The Flowers of the Forest by Trevor Royle – Scotland and the First World War (actually bought in the Historic Scotland shop at Dryburgh)
  • Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith – published in 1930 it presents the war through the eyes of a young woman who is an ambulance driver at the French front
  • The End of the Age of Innocence by Alan Price – the story of Edith Wharton’s efforts on behalf of Belgian and French refugees
  • Patrimony by Jane Thynne – “what is the truth about Valentine Siddons, acclaimed poet and World War One hero?”
  • Wake by Anna Hope – a novel about three women awaiting the arrival of the Unknown Soldier

I thought long and hard about whether I should re-read Testament of Youth, a book that had a huge effect on me when I first read it as a teenager, but I may save that for a proper Vera Brittain project at a future date.

2020671363What year are we in? 1933

What’s Maisie’s case?

In Leaving Everything Most Loved, Maisie is called in by Scotland Yard when the brother of a young Indian woman (who has been shot in London), appalled at the lack of progress being made but the police, wants to know why she was killed. For various reasons this becomes connected with an unfinished case and Usha’s death is not the first.

What did I learn that I didn’t know before?

Lots of interesting stuff about the Indian community in London between the wars, mixed marriages and so on, stuff I had never really thought about before and saw as a post-WWII issue (and shame on me for that).

What’s happening in Maisie’s personal life?

Big changes to her family, her business and her love life.

Did I enjoy it?

Really good story, one of the few times in the books where we see Maisie really speak her mind when previously she would have been more circumspect and I cheered when she did it (well, inward cheering anyway). The plight of women brought over from India as servants when they lost their positions for whatever reason was very sad. This is very much a game-changer in the series and I could see it being a finale, but understand the author plans to start a new series with Maisie still at the centre sometime in 2015. So hurrah for that.

I really enjoyed immersing myself in Maisie’s world through reading in such quick succession books that would normally have been available a year apart.

elegy for eddieWhat year are we in? 1933

What’s Maisie’s case?

In Elegy for Eddie Maisie is approached by a group of men from her childhood who want her to look into the death of Eddie, a gentle but educationally challenged man with a real talent for working with horses, who has been killed in an apparent accident at a local paper factory. But he wasn’t himself in the weeks up to his death and his friends are convinced there is more to his death than appears.

What did I learn that I didn’t know before?

This is less about the impact of the war than most of the other novels in the series so not much knew to learn, but there is quite a bit about the inter-war period and politics and the shadow of coming war.

What’s happening in Maisie’s personal life?

She is still getting used to her change in circumstances, but worries about her love life are lurking in the background.

Did I enjoy it?

I came to enjoy this once the story really got going, but was worried at first because it smacked a little of those episodes of crime stories on TV where the murder of the week directly involves one or more members of the resident cast in a way that I almost always find entirely implausible. But here it makes sense that the men would seek out someone they knew and trusted to look into things and it does develop into something rather more interesting. I also like the fact that matters don’t work out entirely to Maisie’s satisfaction, which also seems realistic. A transitional novel for reasons that will become clear if and when you read it.

6553732What year are we in? 1932

What’s Maisie’s case?

In A Lesson in Secrets, Maisie goes undercover in an independent college in Cambridge on behalf of Special Branch and the Secret Service to observe the goings-on of students and staff in the light of potential un-British activities (though I’m not sure such a thing actually exists). It’s all about the politics. there is of course a death and there is also much about identity and passing off.

What did I learn that I didn’t know before?

I didn’t know how badly some conscientious observers were treated when they ended up in prison rather than driving ambulances or working on the land. Horrible.

What’s happening in Maisie’s personal life?

She is getting used to her change in circumstances, and love continues to develop. Oh and it’s clear she is really good at teaching (and enjoys it).

Did I enjoy it?

I think this is my favourite of the four I read in a row, simply because I’m an absolute sucker for tales set in college or university and the whole administration of it all. I worked out quite early on what the reason behind the murder was but dithered backwards and forwards on the who dunnit part. And this is the first of the books where the rise of the Nazis has an impact.

6553733I’ve talked about my binge-reading of the Maisie Dobbs mysteries here so won’t go into the details again, but I will say that I have read and enjoyed all of the novels in the series (and we are now on volume 10 and a little gap in the story) and they are just lovely books to read. I love Maisie as a character and one of the most enjoyable things is the development of her story over time informed by the cases she’s investigating, all harking back to her experiences in WWI. So when you read this and next three mini-reviews please keep this in mind as I want to avoid repeating myself. 🙂

And Lee Child is a massive fan apparently, so there you go.

What year are we in? 1932

What’s Maisie’s case?

In The Mapping of Love and Death, the remains of an American of English heritage who joined the British Army as a cartographer have been found and there are questions about how he actually died. Maisie is asked by his parents to look into the matter, and in particular to find the young English nurse with whom he fell in love.

What did I learn that I didn’t know before?

All the stuff about the work of cartographers in WWI was fascinating, and I also learned a little bit about the early days of documentary film-making.

What’s happening in Maisie’s personal life?

A key figure  is coming to the end of his life, but love is on the horizon.

Did I enjoy it?

Absolutely, the story of the young soldier far from home and finding love and how the consequences of that all spilled over into the present was very affecting, and I was glad the ending didn’t tie everything up into a neat bow.

First thing to say is that I pre-ordered Hell Train on Amazon on the basis of the cover and title alone, and when I later read the synopsis of the novel I knew that my instincts were right. This is wonderful, gory stuff.

I am a huge fan of Christopher Fowler, who in recent years has focussed mostly (but not entirely) on his remarkable Bryant & May series of detective novels, but I first came across him as a horror writer via the (sadly now out of print, I think) Darkest Day which I read on holiday in Istanbul; something about its style worked really well in the early evenings against the sound of the call to prayer. Since then I’ve read as much of his stuff as I can get my hands on and a number of his books have been reviewed here.

I’m not going to go into the plot of Hell Train other than to say that it is about a group of passengers who find themselves on a sinister train, the Arkangel, somewhere in Eastern Europe around the time of World War One, and have to deal with some rather unpleasant situations before they reach their unknown destination. The story is book-ended by the tale of Shane Carter, an American who finds himself tasked with writing a script for Hammer Studios.

Oh, I so wish this was a real movie.

I grew up watching Hammer films on TV; I was a particular fan of the various Draculas (I’m sure that’s what triggered a lifelong interest in vampires), loving both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. I’m ashamed to say that I don’t think I’ve ever been able to watch the The Curse of Frankenstein since my first attempt ended in abject failure when I stayed up late as a teenager on my own to watch it on BBC 2 and couldn’t bear the Monster’s face when Lee pulls the covering from his face. Although it’s entirely possible I imagined the whole thing….

So this was definitely my cup of tea, especially as it is reminiscent of one the greats from the 1970s, Horror Express. They really don’t make them like that any more.

But what of the novel? Well, quite simply I really loved this; a good framing device, an exciting story, some proper nastiness, excellent villains and characters you can really root for (I am looking at you, Isabella). I am sure there are absolutely loads of references and in-jokes that I didn’t get which will add to the enjoyment of a genuine film buff, but my verdict is great fun all round.

The Winter Ghosts was my first experience of Kate Mosse, though I have both Labyrinth and Sepulchre somewhere in the stacks but just haven’t got round to them yet. I may have been slightly put off by comments from friends that her writing style wasn’t great and although I don’t usually pay attention to that sort of thing (our tastes are all different after all, and sometimes a story transcends the style in which it was written) it possibly prevented these floating to the top of the TBR pile.

However, I was looking for something reasonably short and suitably wintery to lug around in the old handbag to read on the commute, and this seemed to fit the bill.

So the story is that Freddie Watson is on holiday in the French Pyrenees in winter. Even though its 1928, he is still mourning the loss of his older brother in World War I; he’s emotionally paralysed by his grief, compounded by the fact that his brother’s body was never found so for a long time he didn’t accept that he was dead, and so ended up in a psychiatric hospital. But here he is, after the death of parents who don’t seem to have loved him as much as their dead son, trying to achieve some semblance of normality.

But he hears voices in the mountains, and on a lonely road in the middle of a snowstorm he crashes his car and has to take refuge in a small village where at a feast to mark St Etienne he meets a young, beautiful but sad woman and unburdens himself of his grief and escapes with her when strange events begin to unfold. And of course in the morning he finds himself in his room with no sign that he had been anywhere the night before, and no-one knows who the girl was. A mystery to be unravelled – will he solve it and bring peace to the village and himself?

Of course he will.

I actually rather enjoyed this. It had a nice atmosphere, the story was nicely book-ended and it does have a basis in historical events in the area. It was a nice melancholy read for a dark night; I read it over two sittings and might have enjoyed it more if I had been able to read it all in one, as the atmosphere builds nicely and can get lost if you take a break. It’s not ground-breaking and the central mystery about the girl isn’t in some respects a mystery at all, but the tension where it exists is all about Freddie – will he get to the bottom of things and will it help him?

So on the basis of this I’m going to give her other works a go this year (though having looked at some of the reviews on Amazon I may have to manage my expectations…)

Update: this is part of the TBR challenge – the book has been on my stacks since November 2010.

So, having read the first Dandy Gilver mystery (as reviewed here) and fallen in love with it, it seemed the natural thing to do to read the second as a way of getting myself a little further out of my current reading slump.

The Burry Man’s Day finds Dandy in Queensferry where an old schoolfriend and her American husband have come into their inheritance (a rather nice castle-type dwelling with attendant estate). With this inheritance has come some obligations around the annual fair – judging various competitions, awarding prizes and so on – and Dandy and her other friend Daisy are there to assist.

One of the highlights of the fair is the Burry Man – a sort of Green Man type character wearing a costume completely covered in burrs (hence the name) who progresses through the town collecting pennies and/or shots of Scotch to bring good luck to the town. Unfortunately said Burry Man drops dead at the end of the day and the big question is, of course, was it murder?

Step forward Dandy, who calls in her “Watson” from the first book, Alec, to assist.

I enjoyed this very much. There was sufficient uncertainty about whether there had been foul play to keep it going, and I liked the fact that Dandy did try to remind everyone that, though there may be a mystery about some of the actions of key players, that didn’t necessarily mean that murder had taken place. I thought the solution was plausible, but my only quibble is with the very end, which I did think was a bit far-fetched. But to be fair it didn’t spoil the remainder and did show (if it needed to be repeated) that the effects of the First World War were deep and far-reaching.

Still fond of Dandy, so much so that I’ve bought the three other books in the series so far, and will enjoy working my way through them over the summer.

AmongtheMadJacquelineWin53129_fSo Among the Mad is the fifth in the increasingly excellent Maisie Dobbs series, and finds our heroine in London on Christmas Eve 1931, where she and her faithful right-hand man witness what we would call now a suicide bomber blow himself up in a busy street.

Although she doesn’t know the man involved, Maisie is soon drawn into the case when she is named in a letter which follows the bombing and it becomes clear that some sort of campaign is afoot. Maisie finds herself trying to apply her unique methods of working while assigned to Scotland Yard, and with all of the cases she has been involved in before now, the shadow of the First World War is never too far away.

I really like Maisie as a character and was pleased to see that this story matched up to the previous volumes. The psychological impact of the war on all of those involved in whatever capacity comes across very strongly in the novel, and it’s worth remembering that returning soldiers were not always treated as well as they deserved given what they had suffered, as much because the rest of the population wanted to move on, and of course the Depression also had an effect. The author manages to get this detail into the story without being too heavy handed and I thought it worked very well.

It’s also nice to see Maisie’s own personal story develop, not just in relation to her family and friends but with the people who have become her colleagues in investigating this case, whether she has chosen them or not.

A good solid read for a warm and humid summer.

An Incomplete Revenge is the fifth Maisie Dobbs mystery, and maintains the high quality of the series. It is 1931 and Maisie is asked by the son of her former employers to investigate the circumstances around a series of petty thefts and fires in a Kent village where he is intending to buy a brick works. With the help of her assistant who is in the area hop-picking with his family she uncovers the circumstances surrounding a Zeppelin raid in 1916 which has cast a shadow over the community.

I really enjoyed this, as I always do with the Maisie Dobbs stories as I find her such a sympathetic figure. I could see where the story was generally heading, but not the detail around it; this is the second crime novel in recent weeks where that has happened (perhaps I’m reading too many of them) but I don’t mind that really, as long as the novel is well-written and I have an interest in the characters.

I found descriptions of the travelling people (or Romany or gypsies) fascinating, and what we learn about Maisie through her interaction with them really develops her as a character; it is interesting to see how little has changed really in terms of the suspicion and prejudice these people come across wherever they go.

If you haven’t read any of these novels before I wouldn’t start with this one as there is an arc story in the background which reaches a partial conclusion here; they are so lightly written (in a good way) with a lot of compassion and humanity that I would recommend reading the the whole series from the start.

Bride of the Book God

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Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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March 2023