Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2017)

magpie murders

After reading several “must- read summer books” lists that included this murder mystery by Anthony Horowitz, I picked up a copy at the library excited to read. Horowitz’s YA books are a staple in my house and I had liked his Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk. However, this book was a vague disappointment and felt throughout that the author was making only a partial effort to tell a story that was engaging.

The premise of the book was quite clever. The first half of the book is a 1950’s cozy mystery — the full text of Magpie Murders, the final book of a fictional mystery series featuring PI Atticus Pund is included, minus its final “whodunit” chapter — once the Atticus Pund mystery has ended, a second modern story begins.

In the second half, we return to present-day London where Susan Ryeland is reading the Atticus Pund book along with us. Our new protagonist is the book editor to a wildly popular author of the Pund books, named Alan Conway. Susan is shocked to find the final chapter of the Magpie Murders is missing, but even more shocked when she learns that Alan Conway has died.

So begins the second mystery story in the book: Susan must work to determine whether or not the author had finished the book; if so, where is the missing chapter? As she delves deeper, it becomes clear that Conway’s death is very suspicious and soon a whole cast of characters emerge who may have wanted the author dead… possibly because the Magpie Murders exposes details of a real murder.

The author did a great job in part one of the book, creating a wonderful character in Atticus Pund and a great Agatha Christie-esque mystery with Magpie Murders. However, part two falls flat with the slightly unlikable Susan Ryeland and a new mystery that should be compelling but simply is not. While the overall effect is passable, it would have been a much stronger book with a more energetic second half.

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve (2017)

the stars are fire

In this somber novel, Anita Shreve paints a picture of one woman’s life of limitations and unmet needs that result from outdated and, at times, punishing social mores forced upon women in late 1940’s Maine. Our main character Grace is a women in her early twenties from a small fishing town on the coast of Maine, who — at the start of the novel — is a mother of two young children and the wife of a man named Gene. While Grace does all she is expected to for her husband, both in the home, for the family, and in the bedroom, her husband remains a cold and controlling man. Gene limits Grace’s activities, controls all of the family finances, and offers her nothing in the way of emotional connection.

This Grace realizes, is what a wife’s life is like, and she accepts — with some jealousy — that she will not have the passion or love some other young women seem to find with their husbands. She tries not to pine for a life with another purpose either; Gene would forbid her to work or spend much time outside of the house in any manner, and does not much care for Grace to read or listen to music. Grace tries not to panic at the thought of decades locked in this cold marriage, tries not to long for something more meaningful.

Then, wildfires race across Maine on hot and drought-plagued summer and everything changes. Gene leaves to fight the fires and Grace is left to make decisions about keeping her young family safe. When the fire consumes their town, Graces level-headed reactions save the lives of her and her neighbors. But they escape only with their lives, and absolutely nothing else. The house and its contents burned, all of the families papers gone, and Grace learns that her husband has never revealed even one hint as to their banking, insurance, or other information to her. Furthermore, as a woman her word is doubted by bankers and businessmen, and without proof of her marriage to Gene nor the fact that she is the mother to his children, their is nothing she can do to retrieve those funds.

After weeks pass with no sign that Gene survived, and sick of living like refugees, Grace takes her life into her own hands. What follows is not a easy path for her and her children, but one it which Grace is free to make decisions for herself and plot her own future, without having to consider her husband and his rules. Soon she is working, driving, and building a happy life for her family; something that seemed unachievable just a few months before she was widowed. What’s more, Grace is suddenly open to the idea that she might find the love and passion she so desperately longed for, now that her life is her own.

Shreve’s writing style is restrained and very solemn, and the characters in the story always feel on the edge of desperation; leaving the novel to feel rather heavy and intense. However, the struggles faced and the daunting circumstances are overcome, giving readers some sense of hope as the book concludes.

In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear (2017)

Note: Other books in this series, and stand alone books by Winspear, can be found using the tag “Winspear” on the right hand side of this site’s main page. This post may contain spoilers for earlier books in this series.

in this grave hour

In This Grave Hour, the thirteenth installment of the fantastic Maisie Dobbs Series, opens on a somber note on September 3, 1939 at the very moment that the British government declared war on Germany and entered World War II. On that same morning, Maisie Dobbs — a “psychologist and investigator” in London — is assigned a new case: find a murderer who is targeting Belgian men who came to England as refugees during the first World War.

After years of personal turmoil, including losing her husband and baby, and working as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War, the summer of 1939 finds Maisie Dobbs returned to London and Kent: her city-based investigative business thriving and her weekend life in the country with her father and in-laws stable and contented. However, the declaration of war changes everything immediately: children removed from their city homes and relocated to the live with strangers country; London bracing for bombings; and everywhere young men enlisting, terrifying their parents who still keenly remember their loses in WWI.

Against that back-drop, Maisie follows the trail of a handful of WWI Belgian refugees who came to England as orphaned boys and stayed to build a life after Armistice, men who are now turning up dead, executed one-by-one. Together with her two assistants, the local police, a Secret Service agent, and a Belgian diplomat; Maisie begins to uncover the connection between the then boys, now men, and their murderer and the reasons for these apparently long-delayed executions.

Told in Winspear’s signature style — calm, methodical, precise, and rich with historical details — In This Grave Hour is yet another mesmerizing investigation unfolds and more hints about the future in store for Maisie Dobbs are revealed. Wonderful!

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (2012)

the girl you left behind

I spent a lovely rainy day re-reading the wonderful book The Girl You Left Behind, for an upcoming book club meeting. I am a fan of Jojo Moyes books (you can click on the “Jojo Moyes” tag on the right-side of this page for a list of all of her books that I have reviewed) and always enjoy her novels, some I have read several times, since she always tells a compelling story that has a happy ending…and sometimes you need a happy ending.

The Girl You Left Behind is two stories intertwined into one novel — the first story is a historical fiction tale about a French woman living through the German occupation of her small town in rural France during WWI; the second story about a young widow struggling to hang on to her memories of her late husband, while simultaneously trying to move her life forward.  The two tales are connected by the most unlikely of reasons…that they both have been the owners of the same painting, only one hundred years apart.

The books opening chapters find our first heroine, Sophie Lefevre, cold, starving, exhausted, and fearful. She, her sister, brother, niece and nephew has been imprisoned in their small town, living under the cruel and terrifying rule of the occupying German army. With her husband and her brother-in-law off fighting in the trenches, Sophie and her sister Helene are trying their best to keep their family safe and healthy despite the horrific conditions the Germans have imposed on their village. Sophie is a pillar of her community, constantly risking her life with acts of resistance against her German oppressors: sharing food, passing news, hiding family heirlooms, saving lives of allied soldiers, and more…all acts that could get her and her family killed or interned in a work camp.

When a new German Kommandant — a cultured man — comes to town, he becomes taken with Sophie, fascinated with both her fiery protection of her townspeople, but also with her pre-war life as the wife of a famous artist, Edouard Lefevre. In fact, it is a portrait of Sophie painted by her husband, one of her few remaining possessions not requisitioned by the army, that seems to most captivate the Kommandant.

His fascination with Sophie leads the Kommandant to create more and more ways for their paths to cross. While this makes Sophie family a target of rumors and anger; it also means that for the first time in years there is extra food for the children, firewood in the winter, and more protection from the unruly soldiers in town. Sophie and the Kommandant enter a delicate truce, his affection makes her life easier, and her presence brings him comfort. Sophie leads her family down a dangerous road, where their safety becomes more precarious than ever.

Fast-forward to London, circa 2012, where the portrait of Sophie, titled The Girl You Left Behind, hangs on the wall of Liv Halston’s home. The painting is a beloved souvenir from Liv’s honeymoon with her husband David, who died just four years after their wedding.  Liv is struggling to move past her grief and — one night — takes a risk on a man, Paul. The two begin a love affair that is stopped in his tracks when Paul, an recovery agent for art stolen by Nazis — sees The Girl You Left Behind and recognizes it as stolen.

Soon Paul and Liv are on opposite sides of a legal battle for the painting, Paul argues it must be returned to Sophie Lefevre’s ancestors and Liv arguing it was purchased in a legitimate sale and is rightfully hers. Soon both of them are delving deep into Sophie’s story to find out what happened to her and The Girl You Left Behind. The more she learns about the woman in the painting, the more Liv becomes determined that she must hold on to the painting, both as a reminder of David and to protect the legacy of a brave woman who lost everything in the act of trying to save her family.

The book is an excellent, if emotional, journey into the realities women face during wartime, and the risks that women sometimes must take to protect the people and things they love.

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman (2012)

CAVEAT: If you have suffered from a miscarriage, stillbirth, or the death of a child, I would strongly suggest that you not read this book. While well-written and deeply insightful, the descriptions of these issues is very frank, detailed, and emotionally fraught.

Janus Rock Austrailia

Janus Rock Lighthouse, Western Austrailia

NOTE: This post may have some spoilers, and although I have tried my best to limit my plot details that are revealed early on in the novel or on the book jacket, if you prefer to be completely surprised, you might not want to read on.

After serving in the trenches of Europe during World War I, surrounded by bloodshed and misery for years, Tom returns home to Australia hoping to live a quiet life far from the muddy battlefields and memories of the men he watched die. He takes a position as a lighthouse keeper and finds the simple life a great source of contentment. When he is offered a position at one of Australia’s most remote and dangerous islands, he accepts without hesitation. On Janus Rock, Tom finds that the space, solitude, and connection to the the rhythms of nature quiet his mind and bring him peace.

When he returns to the mainland for a break, he meets and falls for Isabel. Isabel is young, gorgeous, and vivacious and Tom feels like he has come back to life when he is with her. The two marry within the year and Isabel comes to live on Janus Rock. Just as Tom did before her, Isabel falls in love with the island and the freedom it offers the newlyweds.

Isabel’s dreams of becoming a mother look like they have come true when she gets pregnant, but a terrible miscarriage claims that baby early on. A second pregnancy ends the same. Terrified, Isabel finds she is pregnant a third time and she and Tom slowly, slowly begin to trust that their dreams of family will finally come true. Each day the couple grows more and more excited to welcome their baby.

Isabel’s heartaches have just begun. The third baby is born stillborn and Isabel’s  succumbs to a dangerous depression. Isabel’s anguish and Tom’s helplessness over her heartache are so acute, Tom is ready to radio the shore for a boat to take Isabel home to her parents. He is preempted by the arrival of a boat, washed ashore after a storm containing a dead man and an infant baby girl. Although it seems inevitable to readers, Tom is shocked when Isabel tells him the baby was sent to her by God and she intends to keep the baby and raise her as her own.

The author’s portrayal of Tom and Isabel’s love is tender, deeply romantic, and almost magical; and the excitement they feel about becoming parents rings so true that readers cannot help but swept up in the story.  And so, it follows that the gut-wrenching pain they feel at the loss of all three babies is also rings absolutely true for readers, especially their stillborn son.

What follows is a beautifully written story of how Tom and Isabel move through the next five years of their lives. The author chronicles the lies they tell themselves and the world, the secrets they keep, and the rift is causes in their marriage; but also, the intense joy and happiness as their “daughter” Lucy becomes the center of their lives and heals Isabel.

As the years pass, Isabel is convinced of their secret will go undiscovered forever. Tom, however, feels the pressure of their lies and soon things begin to unravel. Told from Isabel and Tom’s point of view for the early chapters; as the story widens we begin to hear from Isabel’s parents, Lucy’s birth mother, and other members of the community and soon we see that Isabel’s and Tom’s decision ripples outward and impacts so, so many lives.

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline (2017)

“The most important qualities a human can possess are an iron will and a persevering spirit.” 22

Oh, my! How to describe this gorgeous, epic, masterpiece of historical fiction? It is a daunting task. Christina Baker Kline has unearthed a treasure-trove of research on Christina Olson — a disabled woman who lived during the first-half of the twentieth century almost elusively on her family’s farm in rural Maine, and who became the unlikely subject of many paintings by Andrew Wyeth — into a fictional heroine whose “iron will, persevering spirit,” and New England grit enrich and enliven the pages of A Piece of the World.

Expertly blending fact and fiction, Baker Kline tells the story of Christina and Andrew Wyeth, but also the far reaching tale of Christina’s ancestors and the small town of Cushing, Maine where her family built the farm that would be the center, for better or for worse, of Christina’s world. Rather than telling the story of Andrew Wyeth’s famous paintings, specifically Christina’s World, by writing a book about Wyeth’s life: Baker Kline tells us the story of Christina Olson — a woman whose struggles, heartaches, and determination history would never have known if not for the painting — a woman whose life stories were compelling enough to serve as the inspiration for one of Wyeth’s masterpieces, even if they were overlooked by her peers.

christinas world wyeth

Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth

The book begins in 1896, with four-year old Christina suffering from a terrible illness that causes her arms and legs to lose forever some of their function. At first, Christina’s strong-willed parents and grandmother refuse to let this ruin her life: she is still encouraged to play with her brothers, explore the fields of their farm and the beaches it borders. For both Christina’s well-being and because life on a farm depends on everyone, the family still requires the young girl care for the animals, prepare meals, mend clothes, care for her brothers, and a long list of other chores. Despite the extra time it takes her, and the injuries she endures in the process; Christina does what is asked of her without question.

As Christina’s story unfolds, she shares with readers the stories of her ancestors — witch-hunters in Salem, world-traveling seamen, grim-faced and determined farmers — whose ghosts (and, more tangibly, their souvenirs) live with the family in the farmhouse. The stories of these predecessors are kept alive through the stories her Mamey tells, “Her favorite things are timeworn. Each one of them with its own story to tell.” 32

As she grows, it becomes clear that Christina is very bright. She excels at school work and in her farm and fishing chores. She falls in love with school and hopes her intellect will allow her a life beyond the borders of the farm. Her father has his own ideas: she will leave school at twelve and dedicate herself to serving her family. There will be no more school, no career. Her hands are needed to feed and clothe the growing family; and more importantly, she is told, her disability makes it impossible that she can do what others can.

As she grows, we come to love Christina’s bright mind and rich imagination. Her lush descriptions and poetic voice bring vividly to life to her corner of Maine and the bounty it offers throughout the seasons. Even though her worsening paralysis means her life is very physical demanding and, at times, humiliating; Christina feels honored to have such a gorgeous setting for her childhood.

As she becomes a young woman, Christina’s loneliness increases. Her brothers leave home for adventures denied to her (because of her gender and disability), the other young women around her marry and have children, and her only prize is even more work to make the farm run. When a summer romance in her twenties begins to look promising, Christina falls in love and for the first time she glimpses a hope that her life can be something more. “‘It is terrible to find the love of your life Christina,’ Mamey says. ‘You know too well what you’re missing when it gone.'” (18)

When she is cruelly discarded for a wealthy, able-bodied, better-educated woman; Christina retreats almost completely within in herself; her dreams shelved, her heart-hardened, her body growing more and more defiant. Life unfolds — wars happen, people marry, babies are born — for everyone else, but Christina’s life remains the same. The house, the farm, and the ocean it borders solidify as her domain. “I will be alone in the house on the hill, with nothing to look forward to but the slow change of seasons, my own aging and infirmity, the house turning to dust.” (183) Out of desperation, she bullies her brother Al into staying with her, without whom she could not live alone, and he becomes her only companion.

When a young girl from town brings a young painter to her door in 1939 — a door to a house now in complete disrepair due to Christina’s disability and Al’s indifference — Christina meets Andrew Wyeth. In his paintings, the farm comes back to life, its former beauty restored, and its surroundings once again magical. Their prison is suddenly partially restored to the lush playground of their youth.

“I read once that the act of observing changes the nature of what is observed. This is certainly true for Al and me. We are more attuned to the beauty of this old house, with its familiar corners, when Andy is here. More appreciative of the view down the yellow fields to the water, constant yet ever changing, the black crows on the barn roof, the hawk circling overhead. A grain bag, a dented pail, a rope hanging from a rafter: the ordinary objects and implements are transformed by Andy’s brush into something timeless and otherworldly.” 94

Andrew’s presence also breaths life back into Christina’s inner world. His intense interest in the stories and souvenirs of her ancestors bring the ghosts back to life. Her once vivid imagination is given another chance to soar. Andrew wants to know about Christina’s view of the world, her thoughts about books, poetry, nature, and her encyclopedic knowledge of the farm, beach, animals, house…knowledge that is foreign to a wealthy, urban man and growing faint as the country moves toward the 1950.

Baker Kline’s gorgeous prose brings to life an unlikely heroine in Christina. A woman who was denied so much, asked to shoulder unimaginably heavy burdens, humiliated and pitied throughout her life, but never-the-less was a woman of heart, substance, intellect, and a fierce determination that allowed her to preserve something for herself, even when the world wanted to take it from her.

The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry (2016)

passion-of-dolssa-cover

For those readers who might be tempted to skip this book because of its subject, setting, or designation as Young Adult…I implore you, do not. This book tackles an immensely complicated and dark subject with beauty, heart, and a clarity of voice that make it accessible — but never easy — for readers to love. Set in the mid-to-late 1200’s in the waning years of the Inquisition in the southwestern corner of France, The Passion of Dolssa tells a tale of a region and a people terrorized by the cruel and deadly Catholic church; a church concerned more for its totalitarian power than its parishioners religious faith.

“We must flee the treacherous heresy that entwined itself around our way of life — the false beliefs that slithered through the grasses of our fair Provensa, with false teachers leading people away from the true faith and toward unholy rituals and vows. Lucifer’s enticements were no less beguiling today that those he planted in the Garden.” 28

The Church’s campaign to root out and destroy any dissenting religious opinions, be they Christian or otherwise, has left young Dolssa de Stigata’s homeland — Tolosa — a landscape of ruins, and its people living in constant fear of being judged as worshiping outside the strict boundaries of the Catholic Church. Local clergy are constantly searching for men and women who they believe are living or worshiping outside the Church’s strict confines; those who deviate are labeled heretics. They and their families face cruel punishments, often death by torture, if they are found lacking in faithful rigor. Anything at all can arouse suspicion — and more often than not nothing at all other vengeful priest or terrified neighbor — and the line between acts of Christianity charity and heresy are nearly impossible to identify. Once accused, there is almost nothing stopping the Inquisitors from finding fault and issuing punishment in the name of God.

Enter Dolssa, a young noblewoman who believes that Jesus talks directly to her, whispering sermons about kindness, charity, and love to her; sermons that she feels to compelled to share with her family and neighbors. The words the Dolssa hears “her beloved” Jesus tell her contain messages that Jesus is there for everyone, he loves all without limits, and he can be prayed to by anyone in need and be heard. As word of her gospel spread, the local Bishop and his Inquisitors become enraged. Not only is she a woman who is claiming to talk to Jesus, but she is spreading the message that all Christians can talk directly to him, with no need to go through the Church’s established hierarchy.

Predictably, Dolssa is brought before her local Inquisitor and — when she refuses to stop her preaching or to stop worshiping Jesus without the Church as an intermediary — she is sentenced to death. This is not the end of Dolssa’s story however, but the beginning. It seems that a life filled with miracles awaits her, despite the intentions of the Church.

When she escapes from her funeral pyre to safety, she goes on the run from the Inquisitors, the Knights of the Church, and a powerful — and enraged — bishop who vows to make her an example by finding and publicly executing her.

Enter our second heroine, Botille, a poor peasant woman living in the seaside village of Bajas. Here in her small village, the reach of the Inquisition seems to be fading, largely because all there are too poor to pillage. This distance from the power of the Church, and the fact that the village is overseen by a kindly (if sinful) priest, some of the old ways still exist. Fortune-tellers, healers, and wise elders are still counseled in times of illness or disaster, although everyone is aware that it is risky to do these things as they are clearly at odds with the rules of the Catholic Church.

“Where we see neighbors being neighborly, the inquisitors see heresy spreading. We see a lad bow to an uncle; they see a sympathy forming that will damn the lad to hell when he’s grown. ‘Little foxes’ they call the heretics, ‘spoiling the vineyard of the Lord.’ What they don’t understand, they destroy. And they believe they please our blessed Savior by doing so.” 147

When Botille comes across Dolssa, weak and hunted by the Church’s enforcers, she must decide whether coming to her aid — an act she sees as a simple Christian charity — could be seen as an act of heresy. The fates have already set a course for Dolssa and Botille, it seems, and soon a series of miracles — miracles which the Church would call the work of the Devil — link the two women irrevocably together and bring very great danger to the village of Bajas.

Spell-binding and filled with historical details that were completely unknown to me, the combination of the two make the book as fascinating as it is haunting.