Review: Messenger of Truth by Jacqueline Winspear

Review: Messenger of Truth by Jacqueline WinspearMessenger of Truth (Maisie Dobbs, #4) by Jacqueline Winspear
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, large print, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, World War I
Series: Maisie Dobbs #4
Pages: 322
Published by Henry Holt on August 22nd 2006
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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London, 1931. On the night before the opening of his new and much-anticipated exhibition at a famed Mayfair gallery, Nicholas Bassington-Hope falls to his death. The police declare the fall an accident, but the dead man's twin sister, Georgina, isn't convinced. When the authorities refuse to conduct further investigations and close the case, Georgina - a journalist and infamous figure in her own right - takes matters into her own hands, seeking out a fellow graduate from Girton College: Maisie Dobbs, psychologist and investigator.

The case soon takes Maisie to the desolate beaches of Dungeness in Kent, as well as the sinister underbelly of the city's art world. And while navigating her way into the heart of the aristocratic yet bohemian Bassington-Hopes, Maisie is deeply troubled by the tragedy of another, quite different family in need.

In Messenger of Truth, Maisie Dobbs again uncovers the dark legacy of the Great War in a society struggling to recollect itself in difficult times. But to solve the mystery of the artist's death, she will have to remain steady as the forces behind his death come out of the shadows to silence her.

Following on the bestselling Pardonable Lies, Jacqueline Winspear delivers another vivid, thrilling, and utterly unique episode in the life of Maisie Dobbs.

My Review:

I was disappointed to learn that there was no “Month of Maisie” this year. The last couple of years the publisher has toured both the upcoming book in the series (this year it’s To Die But Once) as well as the entire series to date. It’s been my prompt disguised as an opportunity to read one of the earlier books and then treat myself to the new one.

I always look forward to this tour, so I decided to do my own “Month of Maisie” this year. Hence today’s review of Messenger of Truth. Eventually I’ll catch up to myself, as I started reading with Leaving Everything Most Loved (book 10 in the series) and have been reading both forward and backward ever since. (I’m planning to review the new book during its “book birthday” week at the end of the month)

Messenger of Truth is set in 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression. As is usually the case for Maisie, she is somewhat at a crossroads. After the events in Pardonable Lies, she has broken with her mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche. She did not find his lies all that pardonable.

She has also moved out of her free lodgings at the London house of her “sponsor”, Lady Rowan Compton and into a purchased flat of her own.

Last but not least, she is discovering that she enjoys her freedom, and needs her work, much too much to give it up for marriage to Andrew Dene, the surgeon who has been courting her for the past couple of stories. Andrew is a perfectly nice and respectable man, but also a traditional one. And Maisie has determined that the traditional life of a wife and mother is not what she wants, or at least not what she wants right now. Or possibly just not what she wants with Andrew Dene.

So a case drops into Maisie’s life, one that will focus her energies not just on her work, but on what she wants to do and where she wants to go from here. It is also a case that will help her turn towards the future and finally step out of the shadows of World War I, even though, in the end, the war is what the case is all about.

Georgina Bassington-Hope hires Maisie to discover the truth about how her twin brother Nicholas died. Or was killed. The police have ruled the death of the promising artist a tragic accident, but something in Georgina believes it was murder. When the police are fed up with listening to her, they refer her to Maisie.

Because Maisie will find out the truth. No matter who it might hurt. Even if the person most destroyed turns out to be her client. Or herself.

And no matter how much danger she puts them both into along the way.

Escape Rating B+: This series as a whole are excellent historical mysteries. If you like the genre and haven’t read them yet, start with the first book, Maisie Dobbs. And if you are a fan of either the Bess Crawford series by Charles Todd or the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series by Laurie R. King, you’ll probably also love Maisie. All three series take place in the same WWI and between the wars period, and all feature heroines who would have a lot in common – and would probably enjoy a cuppa together to compare notes but would probably not become besties. They are all fascinating in similar ways, and they all cover some of the same turf, but are not much like each other.

I digress.

One of Maisie’s singular characteristics is her dogged determination to discover the truth, no matter what the cost. While most of her methods are fairly standard detective work in the sense of searching for clues and following the leads, she is also a practicing psychologist.

Another difference is that Maisie in “sensitive” in a way that might be described as psychic, although Maisie herself would never call it that. But she deliberately sets out to sense the vibrations and aura of a place, and will also deliberately put herself into a meditative trance in order to pick up those vibrations. The less one believes in this, the more off putting one finds it.

Messenger of Truth is a story where she does that rather a lot at the beginning, if only because there aren’t many physical clues to work with. Maisie, as she often does, looks deeply into motive to finally figure out “who done it”.

One of the hallmarks of Maisie’s cases is that there is always much more going on than just the case, and the way that Maisie usually discovers something about herself and her own issues as she resolves the case.

There’s a big, well, not exactly a red herring but certainly a bright pink one in this case. Nicholas and several of his painter friends kept studios on the beach at Romney Marsh, and either witnessed, were involved in, or a bit of both, one of the oldest “occupations’ on the English coast – smuggling.

That particular operation creates ties, and clues, in several directions – the past, the future, and the Customs and Excise. The call back to Dr. Syn and a Disney movie I saw as a child, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, was a trip down memory lane. The look into the future, at the direction Hitler was taking and the desperation of Jews to get their possessions out of the reach of the Nazis was prophetic. The Customs and Excise actually created a bit of comic relief, but also highlighted just how many things the dead artist was stirring up that no one wanted stirred.

In the end, it all circles back to the Great War. As so many things did at that time, and in Maisie’s life.

Maisie herself is always a fascinating character. Her life has made her the ultimate outsider, not part of any of the social classes, but able to operate in all of them. At the same time, this is a case where Maisie herself is working through multiple crossroads, deciding whether she wants a traditional life after all, or to continue down the independent road she has chosen. And just how much of her war it is time to put behind her – even as the next war looms on the horizon.

In the end, it’s not the case, but Maisie that we come to see, and it is her life that we want to read about. The case just provides focus for both her and the reader.

I can’t wait to pick up To Die But Once to see Maisie dealing with her second war, this time from the homefront.

Review: Apollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger

Review: Apollo 8 by Jeffrey KlugerApollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger
Format: audiobook, eARC, hardcover
Source: publisher, publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: nonfiction, science history
Pages: 320
Published by Henry Holt on May 16th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The untold story of the historic voyage to the moon that closed out one of our darkest years with a nearly unimaginable triumph

In August 1968, NASA made a bold decision: in just sixteen weeks, the United States would launch humankind’s first flight to the moon. Only the year before, three astronauts had burned to death in their spacecraft, and since then the Apollo program had suffered one setback after another. Meanwhile, the Russians were winning the space race, the Cold War was getting hotter by the month, and President Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade seemed sure to be broken. But when Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were summoned to a secret meeting and told of the dangerous mission, they instantly signed on.

Written with all the color and verve of the best narrative non-fiction, Apollo 8 takes us from Mission Control to the astronaut’s homes, from the test labs to the launch pad. The race to prepare an untested rocket for an unprecedented journey paves the way for the hair-raising trip to the moon. Then, on Christmas Eve, a nation that has suffered a horrendous year of assassinations and war is heartened by an inspiring message from the trio of astronauts in lunar orbit. And when the mission is over—after the first view of the far side of the moon, the first earth-rise, and the first re-entry through the earth’s atmosphere following a flight to deep space—the impossible dream of walking on the moon suddenly seems within reach.

My Review:

Anyone who has lived in Chicagoland knows that while expressways may be designated official numbers from the DOT, no one ever calls them by those numbers. Highways in Chicagoland have names; the Ryan, the Kennedy, the Ike. And if you travel through Northwest Indiana, the Borman.

The Borman is named for Frank Borman, the native Hoosier who was one of the first three people to see the far side of the moon with his own eyes, up close and personal. Frank Borman was the commander of Apollo 8, the first mission by any country to send humans around the far side of the moon.

They may not have landed there, that honor was bestowed on Apollo 11, but they were the first humans to leave not merely the Earth, but to entirely leave Earth’s gravitational field and become temporary residents of a different celestial body, in orbit around the Earth’s moon.

Apollo 8 is the story of not just that one mission, but of as much as possible of everything that came before it. Frank Borman was not one of the original Gemini astronauts. He just missed inclusion in that celebrated group with the “right stuff”. He was, however, part of the second class of astronauts, merely referred to as the “next eight”.

It’s always the ones who get there first who get all the good names.

So this is the story of not just the crew of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, and of their lives and careers in NASA up to that point, but it is also the story of NASA itself. Now that’s a story of “big science”, where there are many, many people who give significant portions of their lives to work together for what they hope (and in this case they were right) is a cause greater than themselves.

There are heroes here, too. Names we’re familiar with like Gene Krantz and Deke Slayton. (Krantz was the Mission Controller who helped bring Apollo 13 back from the brink.) But there are plenty of both sung and unsung heroes among this early corps of NASA movers, shakers and believers, and the author does a skillful job of weaving the parts that they play into the narrative of this one, singular mission.

It is also the story of America in the 1960s. While this book does not attempt to portray the entirety of that tumultuous decade – nor should it – within its narrow scope it does set the missions of NASA in general and Apollo 8 in particular into their historic context. Not just the story of what was done, but why it was done and how it felt to be a part of or even watch as it was done.

And to show why the space program was so important. What it did, and what it celebrated. And just how much was accomplished and how many people around the world celebrated with it.

Reality Rating A: I have a very soft spot in my heart for anything to do with NASA and the space program. I was a child during the 1960s, and the space program, its successes and its tragic failures, formed part of the backdrop of my earliest years.

We accomplished so much. We went so far, and we showed such promise. And now it seems to be gone. Not just the adventure itself, but the promise of the future it provided and the surprising amount of unity it engendered.

(Readers interested in a bigger picture of exactly what it means that we don’t go into space much anymore should read Leaving Orbit by Margaret Lazarus Dean)

Apollo 8, the book, does a terrific job at showing the importance, the risks and the rewards of Apollo 8, the mission. By focusing on the smaller perspective of the three astronauts, and particularly Borman, it allows the author to paint the broader picture in a way that allows readers to empathize with the people and to grasp the size and scope of NASA’s operation and how it worked – and how it occasionally didn’t with disastrous results.

So while the focus is on Borman, Lovell and Anders, this is also very much a book about “big science”. And like The Interstellar Age by Jim Bell, it does a good job of making that “big science” comprehensible. And makes the reader wish they could have been there.

I found Apollo 8 to be compelling reading, to the point where I began by listening on audio and then switched to print to see what happened faster, even though I already knew what happened. I was absorbed in the details and the perspectives. As glad as I was to have the crew get back safely, theirs was a journey that I never wanted to see end.

But it did. As did our journey with them.

I leave you with this iconic photograph taken from Apollo 8. Earthrise.