Shelf Control #258: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: The Alice Network
Author: Kate Quinn
Published: 2017
Length: 503 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.

1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, code name Alice, the “queen of spies”, who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth…no matter where it leads.

How and when I got it:

I bought a paperback about two years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I think I’m the only person who hasn’t read The Alice Network! I know it’s been incredibly popular with book groups and book bloggers. I’m a fan of historical fiction, and of course there are so many excellent novels set against the backdrop of the World Wars. I love seeing strong female characters taking on unusual roles, and the synopsis makes this story of a women’s spy ring sound thrilling.

I’ve been seeing a lot of buzz for Kate Quinn’s upcoming new release, The Rose Code, and feel like I should read The Alice Network (finally!) before trying to score a copy of her new book.

What do you think? Have you read The Alice Network? And if not, would you want to?

Please share your thoughts!


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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: Dear Miss Kopp by Amy Stewart

Title: Dear Miss Kopp (Kopp Sisters, #6)
Author: Amy Stewart
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: January 12, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher and author
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The indomitable Kopp sisters are tested at home and abroad in this warm and witty tale of wartime courage and camaraderie.

The U.S. has finally entered World War I and Constance is chasing down suspected German saboteurs and spies for the Bureau of Investigation while Fleurette is traveling across the country entertaining troops with song and dance. Meanwhile, at an undisclosed location in France, Norma is overseeing her thwarted pigeon project for the Army Signal Corps. When Aggie, a nurse at the American field hospital, is accused of stealing essential medical supplies, the intrepid Norma is on the case to find the true culprit.

The far-flung sisters—separated for the first time in their lives—correspond with news of their days. The world has irrevocably changed—will the sisters be content to return to the New Jersey farm when the war is over?

Told through letters, Dear Miss Kopp weaves the stories of real life women into a rich fiction brimming with the historical detail and humor that are hallmarks of the series, proving once again that “any novel that features the Kopp Sisters is going to be a riotous, unforgettable adventure” (Bustle).

The Kopp Sisters are back! In Dear Miss Kopp, we follow the sisters into war, as each of the characters has her own mission to follow, each serving the country in her own way during the years of World War I.

The sixth book in the series, Dear Miss Kopp is the first to be told exclusively through letters, which makes sense: Constance, Norma, and Fleurette find themselves on very separate paths, far from one another geographically, and they must rely on their letters to keep in touch and to continue to support each other as they always have, even from a distance.

Constance has started her work with the Bureau of Investigation (the early FBI), one of the only women serving as an agent. She uses her unique talents to chase down and apprehend saboteurs, and her adventures in this book illustrate the threats faced domestically during the war years.

Norma is in the thick of things in France, where she applies her prickly, stubborn ways to making sure her messenger pigeons are able to serve the US armed forces. Norma being Norma, she manages to rub just about everyone the wrong way, but is ultimately instrumental in solving a spy mystery in the small French village where she’s stationed.

And lovely youngest sister Fleurette is on the go, touring the country with a vaudeville act, entertaining soldiers at army bases all across the US. Fleurette too has her share of challenges, and she always adds a bit of levity to any situation.

As always, a Kopp Sisters book is an utter delight. I love seeing the sisters’ dynamics, and also getting to see them each in action, deploying their varied talents and fighting for the chance to make a difference in a man’s world. At this point in the series, I feel that we readers know the characters so well, and it’s a treat to see them in these new settings, standing up for what they believe in and making unique contributions to the war effort.

Through the sisters’ adventures in Dear Miss Kopp, we also get an inside look as aspects of World War I that don’t necessarily get a lot of attention, including the support efforts abroad, away from the front lines, the devastating war injuries suffered by the soldiers, and the intense work at home to combat sabotage aimed at impeding the war efforts.

As a whole, the Kopp Sisters books are wonderful, and I loved this new installment. Can’t wait for more!

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The series so far:
Girl Waits With Gun
Lady Cop Makes Trouble
Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions
Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit
Kopp Sisters on the March

Shelf Control #142: The Foreshadowing by Marcus Sedgwick

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Foreshadowing
Author: Marcus Sedgwick
Published: 2005
Length: 304 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

It is 1915 and the First World War has only just begun.

17 year old Sasha is a well-to-do, sheltered-English girl. Just as her brother Thomas longs to be a doctor, she wants to nurse, yet girls of her class don’t do that kind of work. But as the war begins and the hospitals fill with young soldiers, she gets a chance to help. But working in the hospital confirms what Sasha has suspected–she can see when someone is going to die. Her premonitions show her the brutal horrors on the battlefields of the Somme, and the faces of the soldiers who will die. And one of them is her brother Thomas.

Pretending to be a real nurse, Sasha goes behind the front lines searching for Thomas, risking her own life as she races to find him, and somehow prevent his death.

How and when I got it:

I bought this book several years ago from an online resale site.

Why I want to read it:

After reading Midwinterblood, I just had to read more by this author. I’ve read a few of his books now, and to be honest, I haven’t loved any nearly as  much as I loved Midwinterblood — but I keep trying! The synopsis of The Foreshadowing definitely caught my attention. World War I books are always harrowing, and I like the sound of the supernatural element combined with the war story.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Take A Peek Book Review: As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

From the acclaimed author of Secrets of a Charmed Life and A Bridge Across the Ocean comes a new novel set in Philadelphia during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which tells the story of a family reborn through loss and love.

In 1918, Philadelphia was a city teeming with promise. Even as its young men went off to fight in the Great War, there were opportunities for a fresh start on its cobblestone streets. Into this bustling town, came Pauline Bright and her husband, filled with hope that they could now give their three daughters–Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa–a chance at a better life.

But just months after they arrive, the Spanish Flu reaches the shores of America. As the pandemic claims more than twelve thousand victims in their adopted city, they find their lives left with a world that looks nothing like the one they knew. But even as they lose loved ones, they take in a baby orphaned by the disease who becomes their single source of hope. Amidst the tragedy and challenges, they learn what they cannot live without–and what they are willing to do about it.

As Bright as Heaven is the compelling story of a mother and her daughters who find themselves in a harsh world, not of their making, which will either crush their resolve to survive or purify it.

My Thoughts:

When we hear about the flu pandemic of 1918, we can be blown away by the number — as many as 50 million people died, many more than the number who died on the battlefields of World War I. In As Bright As Heaven, this unfathomable global catastrophe is made personal as we see the flu and its devastating impact through the experiences of one family. The Bright family, having already suffered the loss of an infant to a heart condition some months earlier, relocates to Philadelphia from the countryside so that the father can start a new career as partner and heir to his uncle’s funeral home business. For the mother Pauline and her three daughters, it’s a chance at a new life in a new city, moving away from the location of their recent heartbreak and starting over.

Between living in the family quarters of the funeral home, the continuing war in Europe, and then the onslaught of the flu, the family can’t escape death. Through the eyes of Pauline and each of the girls, we see the darkness of the time period as loss piles upon loss, with no rhyme or reason for who lives and who dies.

The story of the Spanish Flu pandemic is tragic and fascinating, but I found the individual characters and their perspectives less compelling than I would have hoped. Perhaps having so many narrators — not just Pauline, but also the three daughters, one of whom is only nine years old — dilutes the immediacy. The book gets off to a slow start, although the pace picks up quite a bit from about 40% onward, once the flu begins to spread and the family’s life begins to change. The subplot about the orphaned baby adds some suspense, but it’s fairly simple to see where that storyline is going.

I liked the characters well enough, and overall thought this was a fine read about an interesting time period. I can’t really put my finger on why the book as a whole just didn’t particularly grab me.

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The details:

Title: As Bright As Heaven
Author: Susan Meissner
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Shelf Control #96: Ghost Talkers

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Ghost Talkers
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Published: 2016
Length: 304 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Ginger Stuyvesant, an American heiress living in London during World War I, is engaged to Captain Benjamin Harford, an intelligence officer. Ginger is a medium for the Spirit Corps, a special Spiritualist force.

Each soldier heading for the front is conditioned to report to the mediums of the Spirit Corps when they die so the Corps can pass instant information about troop movements to military intelligence.

Ginger and her fellow mediums contribute a great deal to the war efforts, so long as they pass the information through appropriate channels. While Ben is away at the front, Ginger discovers the presence of a traitor. Without the presence of her fiance to validate her findings, the top brass thinks she’s just imagining things. Even worse, it is clear that the Spirit Corps is now being directly targeted by the German war effort. Left to her own devices, Ginger has to find out how the Germans are targeting the Spirit Corps and stop them. This is a difficult and dangerous task for a woman of that era, but this time both the spirit and the flesh are willing…

How and when I got it:

I was dying to read this book as soon as I heard of it, so I preordered and got it right when it was released in August 2016.

Why I want to read it:

I can’t believe this book has been sitting on my nightstand for a year now! I’m ridiculous. I still really want to read it — I love the idea of mediums working in military intelligence! It sounds really awesome, and I’m picking this as my Shelf Control book to try to shame myself. Really, I have to stop buying books and then not reading them, especially when they appeal to me so much! Too many books, too little time… I need to be better at prioritizing my reading in 2018!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Month of Maisie Readalong: Birds of A Feather by Jacqueline Winspear

birds-of-a-feather

Welcome to the Month of Maisie Readalong Blog Tour, celebrating the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. I’m delighted to be participating in this blog tour, which features each book in the Maisie Dobbs series, leading up to the newest release, In This Grave Hour (release date March 14th – book #13 in the series).

For my stop along the blog tour, I’m focusing on the 2nd book in the series, Birds of a Feather.

Note: See the bottom of this post for the schedule of the rest of the tour. The Month of Maisie Readalong is sponsored by TLC Book Tours.

Synopsis:

An eventful year has passed for Maisie Dobbs. Since starting a one-woman private investigation agency in 1929 London, she now has a professional office in Fitzroy Square and an assistant, the happy-go-lucky Billy Beale. She has proven herself as a psychologist and investigator, and has even won over Detective Inspector Stratton of Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad—an admirable achievement for a woman who worked her way from servant to scholar to sleuth, and who also served as a battlefield nurse in the Great War.

It’s now the early Spring of 1930. Stratton is investigating a murder case in Coulsden, while Maisie has been summoned to Dulwich to find a runaway heiress. The woman is the daughter of Joseph Waite, a wealthy self-made man who has lavished her with privilege but kept her in a gilded cage. His domineering ways have driven her off before, and now she’s bolted again.

My thoughts:

I read the first Maisie Dobbs novel two years ago (review), and was instantly intrigued by the fascinating main character. Maisie is a strong, independent, but damaged woman. A nurse who lost her beloved to his incurable war injury, Maise returns from the battefields of the Great War a changed woman. With the patronage of the wealthy woman who once employed her as a housemaid and the tutelage of a respected professor and psychologist, Maisie develops her intuitive skills and applies them to the pursuit of investigations. Maisie dedicates herself not just to solving cases, but to understanding the deeper issues leading to the individuals’ pain and suffering, and works to help her clients achieve not just closure, but also healing.

In Birds of a Feather, set in 1930, the war may be long over, but its lasting devastation is not. As Maisie investigates a missing-persons case, she unearths the terrible damage wrought by guilt and blame. While the people involved all bear some burden of wrong-doing and bad decisions, it’s clear that the war itself is the villain here, leaving lasting wounds and ripping huge holes into families, villages, and communities.

Maisie herself is a wonderful lead character. She’s not a typical woman of her time. Maisie clearly considers herself a committed loner, as she still makes weekly visits to the man she loved, even though he can’t recognize or remember her, and she mourns the life she never got to have with him. But as we see in Birds of a Feather, Maisie finally starts to open herself to the thought of what the rest of her life might look like. Meanwhile, she’s doing very well professionally, incorporating her unique blend of mindfulness and physical empathy into her investigative approach.

I enjoyed Birds of a Feather, although I was a bit less caught up in the story than I was in the first book. Maisie Dobbs has all the details of Maisie’s sad backstory, and as such, really lets us into her life and mind. The 2nd book is much more focused on the case than on Maisie herself, and I missed the focus on the personal.

That said, the case itself ends up being entwined with a murder case under investigation by Scotland Yard, and Maisie is at her best when she’s in hot pursuit of the truth, even after being cautioned to stay out of the way by her police contacts. As the case becomes more complicated, it’s fascinating to see Maisie’s determination and resourcefulness in tracking down the pieces that connect and putting together a solution that only she could find, with her holistic approach to sleuthing.

I highly recommend the Maisie Dobbs series for readers who love historical fiction, great detective stories, or both!

Links:

Goodreads:

Purchase links:

Amazon  **  Barnes & Noble

About the Author:

jacqueline-winspearJacqueline Winspear is the author of the New York Times bestselling Maisie Dobbs series, which includes In This Grave Hour, Journey to Munich, A Dangerous Place, Leaving Everything Most Loved, Elegy for Eddie, and eight other novels. Her standalone novel, The Care and Management of Lies, was also a New York Times bestseller and a Dayton Literary Peace Prize finalist. Originally from the United Kingdom, she now lives in California.

Find out more about Jacqueline at her website, www.jacquelinewinspear.com, and find her on Facebook.

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The details:

Title: Birds of a Feather
Author: Jacqueline Winspear
Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: 2005
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Mystery
Source: Review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours

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Don’t forget to check out the rest of the Maisie tour!

Monday, February 20th: Life By Kristen – Maisie Dobbs
Tuesday, February 21st: Bookshelf Fantasies – Birds of a Feather
Wednesday, February 22nd: Reading Reality – Pardonable Lies
Thursday, February 23rd: A Bookish Way of Life – Messenger of Truth
Monday, February 27th: Back Porchervations – An Incomplete Revenge
Tuesday, February 28th: Mel’s Shelves – Among the Mad
Wednesday, March 1st: History from a Woman’s PerspectiveThe Mapping of Love and Death
Thursday, March 2nd: Book by Book – A Lesson in Secrets
Monday, March 6th: Bookish Realm Reviews – Elegy for Eddie
Tuesday, March 7th: My Military Savings – Leaving Everything Most Loved
Tuesday, March 7th: Barbara Khan on Goodreads – Leaving Everything Most Loved
Wednesday, March 8th: Lit and Life – A Dangerous Place
Thursday, March 9th: #redhead.with.book – Journey to Munich
Tuesday, March 14th: Reading Reality – In This Grave Hour
Wednesday, March 15th: M. Denise Costello – In This Grave Hour
Thursday, March 16th: Mel’s Shelves – In This Grave Hour
Friday, March 17th: A Bookish Way of Life – In This Grave Hour
Monday, March 20th: Helen’s Book Blog – In This Grave Hour
Tuesday, March 21st: Book by Book – In This Grave Hour
Wednesday, March 22nd: Jathan & Heather – In This Grave Hour
Thursday, March 23rd: #redhead.with.book – In This Grave Hour
Friday, March 24th: Diary of a Stay at Home Mom – In This Grave Hour
Monday, March 27th: History from a Woman’s Perspective – In This Grave Hour
Tuesday, March 28th: What Will She Read Next – In This Grave Hour
Wednesday, March 29th: Bookish Realm Reviews – In This Grave Hour

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Take A Peek Book Review: At the Edge of Summer

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

At the Edge of Summer

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Luc Crépet is accustomed to his mother’s bringing wounded creatures to their idyllic château in the French countryside, where healing comes naturally amid the lush wildflowers and crumbling stone walls. Yet his maman’s newest project is the most surprising: a fifteen-year-old Scottish girl grieving over her parents’ fate. A curious child with an artistic soul, Clare Ross finds solace in her connection to Luc, and she in turn inspires him in ways he never thought possible. Then, just as suddenly as Clare arrives, she is gone, whisked away by her grandfather to the farthest reaches of the globe. Devastated by her departure, Luc begins to write letters to Clare—and, even as she moves from Portugal to Africa and beyond, the memory of the summer they shared keeps her grounded.

Years later, in the wake of World War I, Clare, now an artist, returns to France to help create facial prostheses for wounded soldiers. One of the wary veterans who comes to the studio seems familiar, and as his mask takes shape beneath her fingers, she recognizes Luc. But is this soldier, made bitter by battle and betrayal, the same boy who once wrote her wistful letters from Paris? After war and so many years apart, can Clare and Luc recapture how they felt at the edge of that long-ago summer?

Bringing to life two unforgettable characters and the rich historical period they inhabit, Jessica Brockmole shows how love and forgiveness can redeem us.

 

My Thoughts:

The synopsis pretty much covers it all. At the Edge of Summer is a book about two people who meet one summer, a 15-year-old orphaned girl and a 19-year-old college student. They form a strong bond and help each other discover crucial aspects of themselves, then spend years apart, separated first by geography and then by war.

The story should have been much more moving than I found it. I simply didn’t connect with the characters in the first section of the book, during their early summer together, so I never really invested in their connection or their relationship. Clare’s artistic aspirations didn’t resonate with me, and I couldn’t envision her as a real person.

Luc is much more sympathetic, and the portions of the story about his wartime experiences are quite sad to read. Still, something about this book just left me cold.

I was interested to see the depiction of the real-life studio in Paris that specialized in masks for men disfigured during the war. I’ve encountered versions of this story before, most recently in a short story in the Fall of Poppies collection (to which Jessica Brockmole contributed a terrific story, by the way). The studio really existed, and its real-life founder, Anna Coleman Ladd, is included in this novel as well.

Stories of the First World War and the horrific experiences of the soldiers, on the battlefields, in the trenches, and upon their return to society, are always moving and startling to read about. Somehow, though, At the Edge of Summer failed to fully engage my emotions. I consider it a decent novel, but wouldn’t go farther than saying that it was a fine read and I don’t regret the time spent on it.

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The details:

Title: At The Edge of Summer
Author: Jessica Brockmole
Publisher: Ballantine
Publication date: May 17, 2016
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Take A Peek Book Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

In 1918, the world seems on the verge of apocalypse. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, and the government ships young men to the front lines of a brutal war, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort, but she herself has never believed in ghosts. During her bleakest moment, however, she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love—a boy who died in battle—returns in spirit form. But what does he want from her?

Featuring haunting archival early-twentieth-century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a past that is eerily like our own time.

 

My Thoughts:

Bravo to Cat Winters for creating a chilling yet realistic world in her debut novel! In the Shadow of Blackbirds is set in a time of absolute horror in the United States, as the awful combination of a brutal war and a deadly flu pandemic makes death feel like a constant presence. The author does a masterful job of creating the feel of the time period, with paranoia and terror rampant in the cities and streets, and with no safe place to hide.

Surely, though, I must have stolen into the future and landed in an H. G. Wells-style world — a horrific, fantastical society in which people’s faces contained only eyes, millions of healthy young adults and children dropped dead from the flu, boys got transported out of the country to be blown to bits, and the government arrested citizens for speaking the wrong words. Such a place couldn’t be real. And it couldn’t be the United States of America, “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

But it was.

I was on a train in my own country, in a year the devil designed.

1918.

Mary Shelley is a smart, courageous young woman who sees her whole world turned upside down as her father is imprisoned for treason after daring to speak out against war. As she flees Portland to take shelter with her aunt in San Diego, she seeks word of the boy she loves, only to be told that he’s died a hero’s death in the war. But as Stephen visits her in her dreams and then in waking moments, she realizes that her skepticism about spiritualism may be challenged by a voice trying to reach her from the other side.

This book conveys so much without ever feeling like a history lesson. Through Mary Shelley’s experiences, we see the impact of the war on the homefront, the sickeningly high death toll of the influenza epidemic and the futility of the home remedies used to ward off disease (garlic-flavored chewing gum, bathing in onion water — ugh), the horrible condition of the injured, maimed soldiers home from the battlefields, and the desperation of the bereaved that makes them easy prey for charlatans claiming to be able to channel their dead loved ones.

The plot is tautly woven and fast-paced, but never at the expense of character development. We learn so much about Mary Shelley’s character and her relationship with Stephen through their letters sprinkled throughout the book, as well as by seeing Mary Shelley’s determination to figure out the secrets surrounding Stephen’s messages and help him find peace.

I highly recommend In the Shadow of Blackbirds for anyone who enjoys historical fiction — as well as for anyone who enjoys a good, suspenseful tale, grounded in reality but with a hint of the supernatural. Cat Winters is an extremely talented author, and I can’t wait to read more of her work!

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The details:

Title: In the Shadow of Blackbirds
Author: Cat Winters
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication date: April 2, 2013
Length: 387 pages
Genre: Young adult/historical fiction
Source: Library

Audiobook Review: Maisie Dobbs

Maisie DobbsWhen we first meet Maisie Dobbs, it is 1929, and she is opening up her London office for the very first time. Maisie, a young woman of about 30, is going into business as a private investigator, thanks to the tutelage of her mentor, Maurice Blanche, and the sponsorship of her patroness, Lady Rowan.

Maisie is an extremely intelligent woman, reserved by nature, strikingly attractive — and it’s immediately apparent that this is a person who has been hurt deeply in her lifetime. That doesn’t stop Maisie, though. She is more than ready when her first client walks through her door, hiring her to investigate his wife’s long afternoons away from home and to determine if she’s being unfaithful.

What Maisie discovers is not infidelity, but yet another lost soul still bearing the wounds of the Great War that ended ten years earlier. As Maisie pursues the trail of clues, her memories of her own wartime experiences come flooding back, demanding to be faced after all this time.

Maisie Dobbs is constructed around a mystery — who is the man whose grave the client’s wife cries over, and why does his gravestone list only his first name? The solution to this case leads Maisie back into the world of wounded soldiers and the terrible sacrifices and pain suffered by those who made it back home.

At the heart of the book lies Maisie’s own story. As her investigation begins to relate to the war, the center third of the book shifts scene and time and takes us back to Maisie’s teen years, when she works as a housemaid in Lady Rowan’s home. Maisie’s eagerness to learn leads her to an education sponsored by Lady Rowan, eventually entering college at Cambridge before the harsh reality of war causes her to change path.

Maisie abandons her college studies and enrolls in nursing school, ultimately training as a battlefield nurse and getting sent to a field hospital on the frontlines in France. I won’t go into too much detail, other than to say that Maisie’s experiences there lead to a tragic loss that has haunted her ever since. And in investigating the case of the soldier’s grave, Maisie is finally forced into confronting her sad, painful history.

I picked up this book not knowing what to expect. I had heard of the Maisie Dobbs series, and thought this first book would be a more or less straightforward detective story. What really impressed me about Maisie Dobbs is how deep and layered the story is. While Maisie is indeed an investigator, the setting and the time period are gateways into an examination of the horrors and tragedies of the terrible losses suffered during World War I — and the ongoing pain and suffering experienced by those who came home to face a lifetime of disfigurement and isolation.

Through Maisie’s thoughts, we come to feel the terrible depth of the tragedy as experienced on a very personal level, and yet there’s also hope. While Maisie carries emotional wounds that will always be with her, she’s also creating a new life in a new era, using her brains and her inner strength to face life on her own terms.

The audiobook narrator, Rita Barrington, does a lovely job of capturing Maisie’s inner dialogue, as well as voicing the people in her life. She does an excellent older, aristocratic voice for Lady Rowan, and a cheeky, working class voice for Maisie’s assistant Billy. Even while narrating conversations between multiple characters, it wasn’t hard to follow or to figure out who was talking at any given time. I liked the clarity and sweetness of Maisie’s voice, and the gentleness with which she speaks to all, especially to wounded soldiers and others in need of her care.

According to Goodreads, there are 11 Maisie Dobbs novels currently in print, with a 12th scheduled for release in 2016. I don’t really know where the series will go from here: Will it be a more traditional mystery series, with a new case forming the focal point of each book? Will Maisie’s connections to the war continue to inform the storylines? I suppose I could read the synopses of the next few books in the series, but really, I’d rather just wait and find out for myself.

I’m quite sure that I’ll continue with this series, which has such a well-written start in this first book. The emotional depths of this novel make it an affecting and throught-provoking read. There’s something about WWI fiction that is utterly compelling and tragic, and I found myself very much enthralled by the character of Maisie Dobbs and her fascinating life. Hearing the voices of Maisie and the other characters, as portrayed in the audiobook, made the experience even richer, and I look forward to listening to the 2nd book as soon as possible.

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The details:

Title: Maisie Dobbs
Author: Jacqueline Winspear
Narrator: Rita Barrington
Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: January 1, 2003
Audiobook length: 10 hours, 1 minute
Printed book length: 309 pages
Genre: Historical fiction; crime/mystery series
Source: Audible

Book Review: The Girl You Left Behind

Book Review: The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

The Girl You Left BehindQuick: When you think of looted art and reparations, what do you think of? Nazi Germany? So do most of the bystanders in this novel, which mixes a modern courtroom drama and love story with a devastating glimpse back at a wartime tragedy, with a missing (perhaps stolen) painting serving as the focal point. The twist in The Girl You Left Behind is that the painting in question went missing during the German occupation of northern France during the first World War — but that doesn’t stop popular opinion from tarnishing the main character’s reputation by accusing her of exploiting Nazi theft for her own personal gain. To say it’s complicated is putting it mildly.

In The Girl You Left Behind, we follow two timelines. In 1916, we meet Sophie Lefevre, devoted wife of up-and-coming artist Edouard, who is serving on the front lines with the French forces battling the invading German army. Sophie has been left behind in her home village, helping her sister manage the family inn and struggling to survive with ever-dwindling rations and a hostile German battalion occupying the town. Beautiful young Sophie catches the eye of the German Kommandant, and he is mesmerized as well by Edouard’s portrait of Sophie, which hangs in a back hallway of the inn. Ultimately, Sophie is forced into a decision that pits her own life and honor against the survival of her family and her husband.

Meanwhile, in modern day London, young widow Liv Halston lives alone in a beautiful glass house built by her late husband David, a remarkable and renowned architect who died suddenly four years previously. On their honeymoon, David had bought a beautiful portrait of an enigmatic young woman as a gift for Liv, and this portrait is literally the only spot of color in Liv’s bleak world. Liv meets handsome, gallant Paul and finally feels a spark of life returning — but Paul is an ex-cop now specializing in tracking and returning works of art stolen during wartime. When he is hired by the Lefevre family to find their missing painting and realizes it’s in Liv’s possession, legal drama threatens their blossoming love — as well as David’s legacy and Liv’s reputation.

The Girl You Left Behind tells both parts of the story quite effectively. The first several chapters are devoted to Sophie, and it was somewhat wrenching to have to leave her once the narrative switched to the modern era. Likewise, Liv’s story is affecting and engrossing, and I soon wanted to know much more about this lonely woman and the husband she’d lost. Sophie and Liv are both strong women dealt a series of painful blows in horrible circumstances, and in both streams of the story we see how their personal strength informs their decisions and actions.

The moral dilemma posed is an interesting one. It would appear that the Lefevre descendants are seeking the painting for its monetary value alone, whereas Liv truly loves the painting and feels a connection and fondness for Sophie herself, despite knowing nothing about her story until the legal case gets underway. So who is right in this situation? Are the artist’s descendants entitled to the painting based on their assertion that it was stolen during wartime? Or, barring convincing evidence, is Liv entitled to keep this artwork that she cherishes, even knowing that it may have made its way to her through questionable circumstances?

The story is compelling and well thought-out, and the alternating timelines prolong the suspense and the mystery. We know that something terrible happened to Sophie; we know that the painting disappeared; but the how and why of these occurences is not revealed until close to the end of the book. Author Jojo Moyes gives just enough detail to keep us guessing (although I’ll admit that I’d made an assumption about a key revelation that turned out to be correct), and both pieces of the story wrap up in a way that feels both right and satisfying.

My only quibble with this book is that I wanted to know a bit more about the relatives who started the legal proceedings. They’re referred to as descendants of the Lefevre family, but the exact relationship to the artist isn’t revealed, and we never actually meet them other than seeing them on the other side of the courtroom. I would have liked to have seen their role in the story fleshed out. While it’s implied that they’re only in it for the money (and I suppose their motivation is immaterial if the painting is in fact rightfully theirs), it would have helped me view their side of the proceedings more sympathetically if I’d gotten to know them in any way.

That issue aside, I found The Girl You Left Behind to be quite moving and well thought out. It reveals a piece of history that doesn’t get much attention, while hammering home a universal truth about the horror of war and the irreparable damage done to so many lives. In the contemporary pieces of the story, The Girl You Left Behind is also emotionally involving and very interesting as well — as a legal drama, as a love story, and as a portrait of a woman who has to figure out how to live again.

I’ve been hearing a lot about Jojo Moyes this year, especially since the publication of her highly praised novel Me Before You. The Girl You Left  Behind is the first book I’ve read by this author, but it certainly won’t be the last. Jojo Moyes is a skilled storyteller with a great eye for capturing the small details that make a character feel real, and I look forward to exploring more of her work.

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The details:

Title: The Girl You Left Behind
Author: Jojo Moyes
Publisher: Penguin Group/Viking
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Historical/contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin/Viking via NetGalley