To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear (2018)

The Maisie Dobbs Series, book #14

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World War II has begun and is casting a pall over all of Europe. England’s position of neutrality has come to an end and now tens of thousands of young men (and women) are heading over to fight in yet another war. Maisie, her colleagues and friends, are in shock that they are living through yet another war with Germany. All of their old wounds, and their old fears, are resurfacing as they watch one young person after another enlist to fight…and to face horrors they cannot even imagine.

Maisie Dobbs is still investigating cases for her London PI firm and regularly returning to the country-side to look in on her family; including its newest member, a little orphaned girl named Anna, who Maisie is working to adopt. Work is becoming more difficult as the war rages on. Maisie is still more than able to solve her cases, but movement around the country is increasingly limited and danger more imminent. Now, with German troops marching across France and English soldiers retreating back to boats they hope will take them across the Channel and home, the threat of attack on London is growing. Should Maisie keep asking her staff to come into the office (away from their families) when an air attack could happen at any time? Should she be with her parents and little Anna, not racing around looking for criminals?

Into this unsettled situation, Maisie agrees to help two neighbors search for their missing son. Young Joe Coombes, a boy Maisie has known for years, has taken an apprenticeship for a military contractor and had not been heard from in quite some time. Maisie heads out into the country-side — which is quickly being covered over in air fields, barracks, and training grounds for the military — to find the young boy. Maisie follows Joe’s trail across Hampshire from one military base to another, collecting pieces of information about the young man that grow increasingly troubling.

Joe — young and naive — has been in the company of much older, and gruffer, men who might not be watching out for a 15-year-old boy. He has been complaining to anyone who will listen that he is struggling with debilitating migraines since beginning his work painting military buildings. His employer is a man whose business dealings are focused on the money to be made during war-time and not on the safety or well-being of his employees…if young Joe wants to complain, there are a hundred men who would eagerly take his job, if just to stay off the battle fields.

As Maisie looks into Joe’s disappearance, racing across the countryside and throughout London, she knows time is running out. Her chances of finding Joe alive growing slim. Too much is happening and few are interested in helping find one missing boy. As the rural coast is flooded with soldiers retreating from Germany and even more soldiers being sent to fight in their place, and as the bombings reach the waters of the Channel, Maisie knows soon many, many boys will be missing or dead; not just Joe.

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A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1963)

Inspired by the imminent release of the new A Wrinkle in Time film from Disney, one of my book clubs selected to read this children’s literature classic for our March book selection, followed by a of group viewing the movie. A Wrinkle in Time is a slim volume, book one in a quintet written by Madeleine L’Engle, and took just a few hours to read. The story follows high-schooler Meg Murry who goes on an intergalactic journey to find her missing father and attempts to lessen the power a dark force that is exerting its evil over the universe.

On Earth, Meg is awkward, angry, and quarrelsome; often in trouble in school and lacking close friends. Her social isolation is made worse by her longing for her father, whose work for the US Government has taken him away from his family for several years. One of her only consolations is her deep connection to her five-year-old brother Charles Wallace, whose startling intelligence and empathy are those of a much older boy and who has what at times seems like a supernatural power to read minds.

With the arrival in town of three very unusual women — Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit — Charles Wallace and Meg are launched on a journey into the far reaches of the universe, along with their neighbor, Calvin. Traveling along the fifth dimension, using a series of time travel short cuts or “wrinkles in time,” the children are taken to the outer edges of the universe to save their father from a planet whose residents have succumbed to the Dark Thing.

Using their own unique skills and gifts given to them by the Mrs., the children temporarily defeat the Dark Thing’s accomplish the IT and rescue their father, returning him home to reunite him with their mother and siblings. While this is a book loved by my sons, I find myself a bit underwhelmed by the story which fluctuates between too complex and too simplistic and which seems unsophisticated to today’s reader. I have no doubt, however, that the movie will be outstanding and more than make up for the book’s shortcomings.

 

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (2009)

I cannot think of a book better suited to read in October than The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. Although it does not take place during Halloween, it is the perfect story for reading in the lead up to the holiday: interwoven stories of a witch on trial in Salem in 1692 and a modern-day historian who studies colonial America and the witch trials. These two women’s stories are joined into a haunting tale that is filled with secrets and  magic.

Harvard PhD candidate and colonial historian Connie Goodwin has just completed a grueling semester of schoolwork when her estranged mother asks her to move to Marblehead, Massachusetts to their family’s ancestral home for the summer. Connie has been tasked with clearing out nearly three-hundred years of heirlooms (long neglected) and preparing the house for sale.

Almost immediately Connie feels a deep and unsettling connection to the house, despite the fact that her mother — rebelling against her parents as a young hippie — had never allowed her to visit. As a historian, Connie is thrilled at the antiques, out of print books, and centuries-old contents of the house. “The silent interior felt so timeless, so untouched by the outside world as to seem unreal.” 42

When she is being honest with herself, Connie is simultaneously thrilled and saddened to get a glimpse of the family her mother has worked so hard to shield her from. “Connie became aware of a displaced, intrusive ache in her stomach, a creeping sorrow that she had never seen this hidden realm. Her grandmother had made this garden. But she would never know her. The finality of this realization felt leaden and inescapable.” 39

Soon Connie begins to suspect that the house is affecting her in unusual and highly improbable ways. While staying their, she seems to be highly in touch with the house’s past inhabitants and their secrets; and these “experiences” are unsettling for a woman who deeply prides herself on her practicality and levelheadedness. Her grandmother, who seemed so remote and unknowable upon her arrival at the house, seemed to come into sharper focus each day and with those glimpses, Connie began to feel a connection between them that is still intact.

While exploring the house Connie finds an ancient bible, and in it a key with the name “Deliverance Dane” wrapped around it in parchment. From that moment, Connie’s life begins to change. Deliverance Dane becomes her personal obsession — and possibly her dissertation topic — and the hope of learning more about her sends Connie on a historical scavenger hunt throughout Marblehead, Salem, and Boston; tracing Deliverance’s long-forgotten footsteps.

Sorting through archives and libraries for traces of Deliverance, Connie begins to believe that the woman was hung as a witch during the 1692 Salem Witch Trials and learns that the woman had left a book to her daughter that might be a collection of recipes — but might also be an actual witch’s spell-book. That knowledge propels Connie ever onward, hoping now not just to learn who Deliverance Dane was, but to see if the “physick book” still exists…and just what secrets it contains.

 

 

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen Flynn (2017)

“History consisted of big events and larger-than-life characters, like Jane Austen. The rest of us contributed to history in our little ways, as drops of water make up the ocean: collectively powerful, meaningless alone.” 174

A science-fiction novel about time-travel and a fictional account of a year in the life of Jane Austen: on the surface the two seem incompatible stories but Kathleen Flynn manages to blend the two in The Jane Austen Project and with good results, perhaps best appreciated by true Jane Austen fans.

In the distant future, scientists have created a time-travel machine that is still in its testing stage. Teams of experts are being sent to various eras in the past to attempt small changes so that the effect these actions have on the future can be studied, with the hopes that larger changes (stopping war and preventing the devastating effects of global warming) can be attempted.

Dr. Rachel Katzman and actor and scholar Liam Finucane have been selected to travel back in time to recover an unpublished manuscript by Jane Austen. After years of study and preparation — horse-back riding, clothing making, etiquette classes — the two are finally ready to be sent to Regency London; posing as brother and sister West-Indies plantation owners who have decided they wish to live a “more civilized” life in England. Their mission is to befriend first Henry Austen, Jane’s closest brother, and then Jane herself with the hopes of recovering her unpublished novel The Watson’s and any other works they can procur. They are also under strict orders from the physicists overseeing the project to disrupt the past as little as possible while there.

Although they have studied relentlessly for their roles, they are beset by challenges almost immediately. The intricate behaviors they must adopt to “pass” as wealthy, the elaborate manners they must observe, and the patience required to be introduced to the right people; are all more complex then they seemed while studying. For Rachel, the requirement that, as a woman, she spend her time on only a handful of appropriate pursuits and appear unintelligent and subservient to men are especially heavy burdens.

Slowly, they meet the right people and soon find themselves close friends of the Austen family. However, the continue to make decisions — both large and small — that have the potential to change the course of history…something they will not know until they return to the future.

Months pass and both Liam and Rachel are pulled more and more into their roles and the future — and the consequences of their actions — seems more distant with each passing day. As they get closer to their goal of obtaining the manuscript, they also grow closer and closer to Jane. Rachel, in particular, finds herself star-struck by Jane’s brilliance and heart-broken as the author grows weaker and weaker from the illness that, both time-travelers know, will soon kill her. As a doctor, Rachel has the potential to diagnose and cure the author but to do so would be a direct violation of her mission’s rules.

What will they choose to do before they must return to the future? Save a new friend and change the world in dramatic, possibly catastrophic ways, or watch her — and the chance for new novels — die?

 

 

 

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2017)

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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)

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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.

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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!