Review: Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig

Review: Band of Sisters by Lauren WilligBand of Sisters by Lauren Willig
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War I
Pages: 528
Published by William Morrow on March 2, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A group of young women from Smith College risk their lives in France at the height of World War I in this sweeping novel based on a true story—a skillful blend of Call the Midwife and The Alice Network—from New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig.
A scholarship girl from Brooklyn, Kate Moran thought she found a place among Smith’s Mayflower descendants, only to have her illusions dashed the summer after graduation. When charismatic alumna Betsy Rutherford delivers a rousing speech at the Smith College Club in April of 1917, looking for volunteers to help French civilians decimated by the German war machine, Kate is too busy earning her living to even think of taking up the call. But when her former best friend Emmeline Van Alden reaches out and begs her to take the place of a girl who had to drop out, Kate reluctantly agrees to join the new Smith College Relief Unit.
Four months later, Kate and seventeen other Smithies, including two trailblazing female doctors, set sail for France. The volunteers are armed with money, supplies, and good intentions—all of which immediately go astray. The chateau that was to be their headquarters is a half-burnt ruin. The villagers they meet are in desperate straits: women and children huddling in damp cellars, their crops destroyed and their wells poisoned. 
Despite constant shelling from the Germans, French bureaucracy, and the threat of being ousted by the British army, the Smith volunteers bring welcome aid—and hope—to the region. But can they survive their own differences? As they cope with the hardships and terrors of the war, Kate and her colleagues find themselves navigating old rivalries and new betrayals which threaten the very existence of the Unit.
With the Germans threatening to break through the lines, can the Smith Unit pull together and be truly a band of sisters?  

My Review:

On “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918, the guns of World War I finally went silent after four years of a hellish war that was supposed to have ended all wars. Which unfortunately it did not.

This day is now celebrated as Veterans’ Day in the United States, Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom and many Commonwealth countries and Armistice Day in France, where this story takes place. And where the story that inspired it took place in real life..

This is one of those stories, one of those situations, where it’s a good thing that there is historical evidence to back up its main premise, as the idea seems a bit stranger than fiction. But then, fiction has to at least seem plausible, where history just has to have really happened, plausible or not.

The Smith College Relief Unit really happened. A group of Smith College alumnae organized themselves into a self-contained unit of unprepared, under-equipped and overly naïve aid workers who were not nurses – although two were doctors – to go to recently liberated and bombed out villages in war-torn France, in 1917. While the war was still being fought.

The trenches were practically next-door, to the point where they could feel the ground shake during major troop movements even when they couldn’t see or hear the artillery. Not that they didn’t get bombed.

The SCRU reads a bit like the American version of noblesse oblige combined with too much idealism and not nearly enough preparation. The intention was for the women to provide aid and succor along with bootstrapping for a lot of tiny communities that had lost everything; their homes, their families, their livelihoods and their souls. To set up schools for children who had lived under threat for so long that they had not known anything else. To provide seeds and farm machinery and hope in places that hadn’t seen any of the above through all the long years of the German Occupation.

And help they did, even if not always in the way that they had intended, and not nearly as much as they hoped. Some of them managed to rise above their preconceived notions about themselves, each other and the people they came to serve. Some did not.

But the story of this bunch of well-meaning if not always well-doing women was real. This did happen and they did try in spite of the conditions and the dangers and the odds.

This is their story, even if it is a bit fictionalized. Many of the names have been changed. Some of the incidents have been shifted in time, although in the main they really happened. And the letter and diary entries that head each chapter are entirely real, first person accounts of the biggest and most heartbreaking adventure any of them would ever take.

The real SCRU in 1917

Escape Rating A: Today is Veterans Day in the U.S. My posts on this day fall into one of three categories, either I post about the holiday, I post about World War I, or, like today, I post a review of a book about World War I.

Band of Sisters is a marvelous, surprising, sometimes heartwarming and often heartbreaking book about World War I. If it sounds right up your alley, I also recommend Sisters of the Great War by Suzanne Feldman and the story collection Fall of Poppies, featuring a remarkable selection of stories that are set on Armistice Day, as this holiday is known in Britain and the Commonwealth countries.

Band of Sisters is one of those “fiction is the lie that tells the truth” kind of stories, and that’s what makes it so fascinating. Our perspective on the Smith College Relief Unit is through the eyes and words of the women in the unit, but especially through Emmie Van Alden and her college roommate and best friend, Kate Moran.

Emmie is the daughter of just the type of wealthy family that made up the usual run of Smith alumnae. As awkward and inadequate as her family frequently makes Emmie feel, she still wields her extreme privilege so naturally and so casually that she doesn’t notice how much it shapes and wounds her friend Kate.

Because Kate was a charity case, both for Emmie’s family and at Smith. She’s now middle class, she’s Catholic, and once upon a time her mother worked as a cleaner to make ends barely meet for her daughter and her widowed self. Emmie may not think of Kate as an outsider, but the rest of the group does so at every turn – and that casual malice can be brutal.

The same kind of casual malice and well-aimed social weaponry that stripped the founder of the unit of her position and her cause. A weapon that has Kate in its sights from the moment she becomes the new deputy.

But the group also perseveres in something that would now be called the “hearts and minds” plan. The war is still raging, the U.S. is in but Germany is not yet out, and the SCRU is stationed entirely too close to the front lines, trying their kind hearted but not always well-conceived best to bring milk, medicine and hope to people who have known none of the above for entirely too long.

They are not trained. They are not prepared. Still they do their best. It might not be enough, but it is certainly something. And it makes for an absorbing and marvelous read, particularly apropos for this day.

Review: An Irish Hostage by Charles Todd

Review: An Irish Hostage by Charles ToddAn Irish Hostage (Bess Crawford #12) by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, World War I
Series: Bess Crawford #12
Pages: 336
Published by William Morrow on July 6, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In the uneasy peace following World War I, nurse Bess Crawford runs into trouble and treachery in Ireland—in this twelfth book in the New York Times bestselling mystery series.
The Great War has finally come to an end, but tensions remain high throughout Europe. In Ireland, no one has forgotten the bloody 1916 Easter Rising that fought to end British rule in the country. Bess’s old friend, nurse Eileen Flynn, returns to her isolated Irish village where two factions continue to battle against each other. Eileen’s time with the British army makes her a target for retaliation. Her missing cousin, who was active in the rising and is still being hunted by the British, is her only protection.
Despite concerns about her safety, Bess keeps her promise to her wartime friend and travels to Ireland to be part of Eileen’s wedding party. But on her arrival, Bess discovers that the groom has gone missing. Then a body is fished from the sea. The villagers are hungry to see justice carried out—for wrongdoings new and old—and Eileen’s protection is running out. But clearing her name may mean sacrificing another beloved friend’s neck to the noose instead. Bess must unravel a dark, deceptive plot before someone she loves dies. 

My Review:

“How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?) was a popular World War I song, particularly after the war ended. Just at the point where this 12th book in the Bess Crawford series takes place.

A Duty to the Dead by Charles ToddBecause in June of 1919, Bess Crawford was facing her own version of that question. When we met her in A Duty to the Dead, all the way back in 1916, her war was just beginning, and Bess, a trained nurse in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, was on her way to the forward aid stations to serve her country in her chosen profession, aboard the HMHS Britannic – which nearly sank along with her and her career.

Back on that doomed ship, Bess saved the life – and the injured legs – of one of her fellow nurses, Eileen Flynn. Now that the war is over, Eileen and the soldier she waited for for more than four years are going to be married. At Eileen’s family home in Killeighbeg, on the west coast of Ireland.

Eileen just wants to be married with her family and friends around her, in the place where she grew up and in the church where she was baptized. She wants to set out on her life’s journey by starting in her home.

But Eileen’s soldier took the “King’s Shilling” back in 1914, serving in the Irish Guards. That was before the Easter Rising of 1916 and the brutal British repression of the rebellion. Sentiment has changed quite a bit in Ireland in the following years.

Eileen and her fiancé Michael are both considered traitors by many of the locals for having served in the British Army. Eileen has asked Bess to be her attendant at the wedding and Michael has asked one of his commanding officers, so not only are Eileen and Michael considered traitors but they’ve invited English “spies” to come to Killeighbeg as well.

Although what there is in tiny Killeighbeg to spy on is anyone’s guess.

Emotions and tempers are high – on both sides. When Bess arrives just a few days before the wedding she finds herself in the middle of a powder keg that feels like it’s going to explode at any moment.

The groom is missing and entirely too many of the locals believe that it’s good riddance to bad rubbish – including Eileen’s tyrannical grandmother. Who appears to be the local despot in charge of all things Rebellion – in spite of her own son being a live – and wanted – hero of the Easter Rising.

Bess feels like a hostage in hostile territory, only because she is. But she can’t leave until Eileen’s betrothed is found – one way or another. And that can’t happen until someone figures out who took him and why.

But in the moments in between worrying about her friend’s future, Bess has little to do but consider her own. Because she’s seen her own Paree, she’s had a life where she was independent and responsible for herself, respected for her skills. She can’t quite see herself going back to being a dependent daughter again.

She envies Eileen her possibility of happiness, even as she fears that it may not come to pass. And in the darkness of entirely too many nights of tension and terror, she has to face her own truth no matter how much she wants to turn away.

Escape Rating A-: The story in An Irish Hostage feels close and tight, and that’s probably the way it should be. There are huge issues on the horizon, and in the story, and most of them are too big for Bess to solve. She’s stuck, inside tiny, hostile Killeighbeg, caught in the web of the Flynn household, and trapped entirely too often inside her own head.

I want to say that the house and town read like an attempt at a microcosm of Irish history in that tense period between the Rising and Independence. Some want to continue the bloodshed at all costs, some want to find a peaceful solution, some just want to stir up trouble for its own sake. Some people, like Eileen’s cousin Terrance, want justice for Ireland, meaning independence. Some, like Eileen’s grandmother, want vengeance at any cost. Many refuse to recognize that justice and vengeance are NOT the same thing.

And others, like Eileen and her Michael, just want peace – even if they have to leave their home in order to get any.

(I just had the very wild thought that pretty much all of the above could be applied to the Middle East as well, and that one of the big root causes in both places was the British Empire meddling in places that it arguably had no business meddling. I digress.)

And that leads directly to Bess, who is a symbol of, in some ways, the worst of all possibilities, that now that the Great War is over, the British Army in all of its might is going to come down on Ireland like many, many armed tons of explosive bricks.

While the future of Ireland looms over the entire story, it is much too big a thing for Bess to even think about solving. All she can do is get herself and those she has pledged to help out of the line of fire.

But Bess’ future is a problem that only she can solve. It, too, has been looming on the horizon for the past several books, possibly as far back as A Question of Honor, set in the Summer of 1918, but certainly by A Forgotten Place, set in November 1918 as the Armistice is signed.

Her dilemma feels real – although she has a bit too much time on her hands to mull it over. She knows what she’s expected to do. As a woman, she’s expected to “forget” having been an independent and responsible adult in a war zone for the past four years and go back to being a dependent female until she marries. She also knows that isn’t enough for her but that her choices are few.

At the same time, she is wondering about who she will spend the rest of her life with. Unlike many long-running mystery series, Bess’ love life has never been a feature of the books. She hasn’t fallen in love with anyone. By the end of An Irish Hostage, we know precisely why.

We just don’t know what Bess is going to do about it. And neither does she. Hopefully, that answer is to come in the next book in the series!

Review: A Hanging at Dawn by Charles Todd

Review: A Hanging at Dawn by Charles ToddA Hanging at Dawn by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery
Series: Bess Crawford #11.5
Pages: 176
Published by Witness Impulse on December 15, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Years before the Great War summoned Bess Crawford to serve as a battlefield nurse, the indomitable heroine spent her childhood in India under the watchful eye of her friend and confidant, the young soldier Simon Brandon. The two formed an inseparable bond on the dangerous Northwest Frontier where her father’s Regiment held the Khyber Pass against all intruders. It was Simon who taught Bess to ride and shoot, escorted her to the bazaars and the Maharani’s Palace, and did his best to keep her out of trouble, after the Crawford family took an interest in the tall, angry boy with a mysterious past.
But the Crawfords have long guarded secrets for Simon and he owes them a debt that runs deeper than Bess could ever know. Told through the eyes of Melinda, Richard, Clarissa, and Bess, A Hanging at Dawn pieces together a mystery at the center of Bess’s family that will irrevocably change the course of her future.

My Review:

A Duty to the Dead by Charles ToddFor those of us who are long-time fans of the Bess Crawford series (beginning with A Duty to the Dead), this story serves as an “origin story” for one of the series’ favorite characters, Sergeant-Major Simon Brandon. Through the course of the series, which details Bess Crawford’s service as a battlefield nurse in World War I as well as her outings as an amateur detective both at the front and back home, Brandon has been a familiar if more frequently talked about than seen character.

Brandon has often been the person to get Bess out of trouble that turns out to be too deep for her. Alternatively, he has just as often been the person getting her into that trouble by helping her to ferret out information that she shouldn’t have in pursuit of her unofficial cases.

But Brandon has also been a bit of an enigma throughout the series. From hints that are dropped within the series, while Brandon is older than Bess, it’s clear that he isn’t quite as much older as his rank and time in uniform would indicate. He’s been a part of Bess’ life as well as the life of her parents and her father’s regiment for much longer than he should have been.

This short story dives a bit into those mysteries. We still don’t know exactly who Simon’s people are by the end, but we do know how and why he managed to get into the Army at 14 and serve in India in the years before the Great War, as well as more than a bit about why he’s so attached to the Crawfords.

While this story does go into as much of Brandon’s background as has ever been shared, the heart of this story is a singular incident in India with dramatic repercussions for Brandon, for the Crawfords, and for everything that comes after.

Because that “hanging at dawn” of the title was very nearly Brandon’s. And for once, but certainly not the last time, he was saved from death by Bess Crawford, even though in this particular case she was over 4,000 miles away.

Escape Rating A-: For readers of the series, this story is fascinating and provides more than a bit of much needed background for the character. And we also get to understand why Brandon has been so reticent about the few details that we have had so far.

And I’ll confess that I wonder why anyone who is not already a fan of the series would be reading this story. Not that it’s not good, because it is, but because it’s not enough. It teases and and it torments, and it feels like it’s written with the assumption that most readers will already be familiar with the characters and find this bit of backstory fascinating – as I certainly did.

One of the things that gets more-or-less nailed down is the origin of the relationship between Brandon and the Crawford family, and it does answer a question that has been in the back of my mind from fairly early on. I’ve always wondered about the age difference between Bess and Brandon, because there’s always been a bit of romantic tension about their relationship. The answer seems to be “under a decade” making them well outside squicky territory for any possible romance after the war ends – not that any such ending has ever been hinted at by the author.

But still, one can hope.

In addition to the illumination about just how Brandon came to be part of the Crawfords, there is also a mystery, the mystery that nearly results in that hanging at dawn. I found myself of two minds about the whole thing.

On the one hand, readers of the series already know Simon Brandon as one of the “good guys”. That means we are predisposed to believe that he is innocent of the crime he’s accused of, making the Prince’s – or at least his representative’s – rush to judgment and execution seem immediately dodgy in the extreme – at best – and villainous at worst.

Very much on that other hand, it’s made very clear that the British Raj had subjugated the traditional ruling class in India and taken away nearly all of their traditional rights. And that, as a consequence, there have to have been entirely too many cases where a British soldier would have been whisked away by British authorities in order to avoid justice that was absolutely due for committing crimes against anyone Indian, including members of those same Princely Houses. Not that members of those Princely Houses didn’t also most likely get away with crimes against those they considered their inferiors back when they held all the power. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely and that’s one of the ways it inevitably corrupts.

But as this story goes, we’re meant to be on Simon’s side from the very beginning, therefore there must be something dodgy about the accusation or at least the rush to judgement. But it feels impossible not to acknowledge that the Prince could have been trying to prevent a miscarriage of justice, even though he imposes that desire on the wrong party in this particular instance.

And even though, or perhaps especially because, in this particular case it’s the threat of the power of the Raj that brings justice for Simon, it’s also true that the same threat would have worked just as well if he’d been guilty. The only difference is that if he had been guilty the Crawfords would never have raised the threat in the first place.

So, an interesting case, a moral conundrum, and oodles of background information for a beloved character. A lot to pack in a relatively short story – but excellently done. And just enough to make my anticipation for the next Bess Crawford novel, An Irish Hostage, feel all that much keener.

Review: Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Review: Hench by Natalie Zina WalschotsHench by Natalie Zina Walschots
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, superheroes, urban fantasy
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow on September 22, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Anna does boring things for terrible people because even criminals need office help and she needs a job. Working for a monster lurking beneath the surface of the world isn’t glamorous. But is it really worse than working for an oil conglomerate or an insurance company? In this economy? As a temp, she’s just a cog in the machine. But when she finally gets a promising assignment, everything goes very wrong, and an encounter with the so-called “hero” leaves her badly injured.  And, to her horror, compared to the other bodies strewn about, she’s the lucky one.
So, of course, then she gets laid off.
With no money and no mobility, with only her anger and internet research acumen, she discovers her suffering at the hands of a hero is far from unique. When people start listening to the story that her data tells, she realizes she might not be as powerless as she thinks.
Because the key to everything is data: knowing how to collate it, how to manipulate it, and how to weaponize it. By tallying up the human cost these caped forces of nature wreak upon the world, she discovers that the line between good and evil is mostly marketing.  And with social media and viral videos, she can control that appearance.
It’s not too long before she’s employed once more, this time by one of the worst villains on earth. As she becomes an increasingly valuable lieutenant, she might just save the world.

My Review:

Hench is decadently delicious villainous competence porn.

I loved every page of it. Which doesn’t mean that I wasn’t a bit squicked out at some of Anna’s decisions. But then, so is Anna. She just goes ahead and does them anyway – and generally does them very, very well.

Still, she makes us wonder what she might have been – and we’re supposed to. That’s part, but only part, of her story.

In a way, Anna’s story is the behind-the-scenes of what would happen if the Avengers – and all of the other superhero stories, were real life. Because that entire mess in the first Avengers movie, where Loki and his forces seriously mess up New York City? There would be one hell of a lot of collateral damage.

How much will it cost to clean all that up? Who pays for all of the many hospitalizations and years if not decades of physical and psychological therapy that all the survivors are going to need? Who pays all their bills while they’re incapacitated? We’re meant to think that the villains got their just desserts, but the ordinary people who just happened to be on one of the skyscrapers that got crashed or trashed – what about them?

There have been superhero stories before where society has taken a look at that damage and decided that it just isn’t worth it, like the marvelous After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn. Even The Incredibles, under its golly-gee-whiz-bang, begins in a place where all the supers have been forced to stand down for everyone else’s own good.

In a whole lot of ways, Hench takes that story and backtracks it into a story of supervillain vs superhero vs the tyranny of spreadsheets, and gives us a story about all the “little people” who stand behind a superhero or supervillain. After all, someone has to do the jobs that Gru assigned to his Minions in the Despicable Me series.

I could say that this is a story where one of those minions becomes a supervillain in their own right. Or certainly rises from being merely a hench to an actual kick, meaning a sidekick. Because this isn’t Leviathan’s story. It isn’t Supercollider’s story, either.

It’s the story of Anna, a hench caught in the middle between a supervillain and a superhero, who decides to get her life back by taking down that superhero the only way she can – with spreadsheets.

Escape Rating A++: There are two ways to read this story. One is that it is simply a delightful supervillain vs. superhero story where the villain actually wins. Sorta/kinda. But on the surface this is a romp and it’s easy to ignore the collateral damage of Anna’s actions, or blame them on her opponents – as superhero stories generally do.

And that’s the level I initially read the story at, because I was looking for a world to sink into for a few hours, and Hench certainly provided that escape.

But that’s not all there is to the story.

The first layer underneath is still a lot of fun stuff about the world in which superheroes and villains operate. That while creatures like the Minions make for fun cartoons, in a world of real supers there would be real work that would need to get done.

That’s where Anna and her friends and colleagues come in. They are all henches. Or meat. Henches are functionaries, hanging around to make the supervillain look important, doing the jobs that any large organization needs to get done. Meat are muscle, the people who make the supe look deadly and dangerous. They all effectively sign up to be cannon fodder if an encounter with a supe goes badly.

They are there to do a job, and quite often a job that could be done as easily in a non-supe organization. Which, come to think of it, might have every bit as evil a purpose as the average supervillain. Which is kind of the point.

Anna and her friends are just regular people doing regular jobs who just happen to be doing that job for supervillains. The portrait of their lives, their work and especially their friendships underpins the whole story with a sense of reality.

They’re real folks doing an unreal job.

But dig deeper, and there’s even more about the nature of heroism and villainy, and who decides which is which. That Supercollider believes that superheroes create their own nemeses feels truer than true. He created his own downfall with his own actions, and he was enabled by organizations that have a vested interest in protecting the labeling of heroes vs. villains at any cost.

Because, in the end, it turns out that they create both.

Review: The Killings at Kingfisher Hill by Sophie Hannah

Review: The Killings at Kingfisher Hill by Sophie HannahThe Killings at Kingfisher Hill: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery by Sophie Hannah
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: New Hercule Poirot #4
Pages: 288
Published by William Morrow on September 15, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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“I was thrilled to see Poirot in such very, very good hands.”— Gillian Flynn, New York Times bestselling author of Gone Girl
The world’s most beloved detective, Hercule Poirot—the legendary star of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile—returns in a delectably twisty mystery.
Hercule Poirot is travelling by luxury passenger coach from London to the exclusive Kingfisher Hill estate. Richard Devonport has summoned him to prove that his fiancée, Helen, is innocent of the murder of his brother, Frank. There is one strange condition attached to this request: Poirot must conceal his true reason for being there from the rest of the Devonport family.
On the coach, a distressed woman leaps up, demanding to disembark. She insists that if she stays in her seat, she will be murdered. A seat-swap is arranged, and the rest of the journey passes without incident. But Poirot has a bad feeling about it, and his fears are later confirmed when a body is discovered in the Devonports' home with a note that refers to ‘the seat that you shouldn’t have sat in’.
Could this new murder and the peculiar incident on the coach be clues to solving the mystery of who killed Frank Devonport? And can Poirot find the real murderer in time to save an innocent woman from the gallows?

My Review:

This is the 4th book in the New Hercule Poirot mystery series, and I have to say that the longer this new Poirot series goes on, the more I sympathize with Inspector Edward Catchpool.

Not that there were many sympathetic characters in this particular entry in the series. Not even Poirot. And that’s not a good thing for a story where he is the main character.

Not that a book can’t have a frustrating or unappealing central character, but that’s not who or what Poirot is supposed to be. His quirks – his many, many quirks – are supposed to be familiar and endearing. And they usually are.

I say this as someone whose enduring memories of Poirot are from the portrayal by David Suchet and not from Christie’s original work, of which I’ve read a few but not exhaustively. It’s Suchet’s portrait of the little Belgian detective as a quirky genius that sticks in the mind. Not just for the stories and the settings, which were marvelous, but for the twinkle in the eye that his Poirot seemed to have, particularly when his idiosyncrasies were otherwise at their most annoying.

It’s something I’ve seen in the previous books in this series, and I certainly heard Suchet’s voice uttering many of Poirot’s lines in the earlier books. But this time the illusion fell apart.

The device for these new stories is that Poirot has taken on the role of mentor to a young Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Edward Catchpool. It’s very different from the role he occupied in regards to his original partners in either the books or the TV series, Captain Hastings, Miss Lemon, and Inspector Japp. While none of those mentioned had nearly Poirot’s genius, they all seemed to be his contemporaries in age, giving those relationships some level of equality that the young Catchpool cannot aspire to.

And this is a case where Poirot is at his most mysterious and impenetrable, deriding Catchpool at every turn while withholding the information that the man needs to even begin to figure out what is going on. The scene where Catchpool is freezing in a swimming pool while Poirot insists that he make his report before permitting him to get out of the pool and dry off, meanwhile telling Catchpool how stupid he is to be swimming in the first place seemed a bridge too far for even Poirot’s insensitivity to anything but the processes of his “little grey cells”.

It does not help that in this particular mystery, none of the potential murderers are remotely sympathetic – and most of their motives and actions don’t make nearly enough sense. They’re not quite as terrible as the Thrombey family in Knives Out, but they’re not far off that mark, either.

And the Thrombey family, as hateful as they were, generally had motives that were both clear and comprehendible. Reprehensible, but understandable. That didn’t feel true in this story. It wasn’t just that I didn’t like the suspects, as that the reasons they acted as they did just did not ring true.

The rich may be different than you and me, and the past may be another country where they do things differently, but human beings are just not this different.

Escape Rating C: This may be a “fair play” mystery, where the reader has all of the same clues as the detective, but it felt like neither fair nor play. The only character I felt for, or who felt like a plausible human being, was the much-put-upon Catchpool, who is all too aware of the situation that he has been placed in, caught between his superintendent’s belief in Poirot’s detective genius and Poirot’s need to expound that genius at someone he believes needs his expert guidance. Not that Catchpool doesn’t need seasoning and experience, but all I did in this outing was feel sorry for him.

Obviously, this was not my favorite in this series. I found the others charming and comforting, reading like continuations of the TV series. I enjoyed them enough that I’ll be back for the next in the series in the hopes that it returns to its original form.

Review: Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

Review: Eight Perfect Murders by Peter SwansonEight Perfect Murders (Malcolm Kershaw, #1) by Peter Swanson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Pages: 270
Published by William Morrow on March 3, 2020
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Goodreads

A chilling tale of psychological suspense and an homage to the thriller genre tailor-made for fans: the story of a bookseller who finds himself at the center of an FBI investigation because a very clever killer has started using his list of fiction’s most ingenious murders.
Years ago, bookseller and mystery aficionado Malcolm Kershaw compiled a list of the genre’s most unsolvable murders, those that are almost impossible to crack—which he titled “Eight Perfect Murders”—chosen from among the best of the best including Agatha Christie’s A. B. C. Murders, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Ira Levin’s Death Trap, A. A. Milne's Red House Mystery, Anthony Berkeley Cox's Malice Aforethought, James M. Cain's Double Indemnity, John D. Macdonald's The Drowner, and Donna Tartt's A Secret History.
But no one is more surprised than Mal, now the owner of the Old Devils Bookshop in Boston, when an FBI agent comes knocking on his door one snowy day in February. She’s looking for information about a series of unsolved murders that look eerily similar to the killings on Mal’s old list. And the FBI agent isn’t the only one interested in this bookseller who spends almost every night at home reading. The killer is out there, watching his every move—a diabolical threat who knows way too much about Mal’s personal history, especially the secrets he’s never told anyone, even his recently deceased wife.
To protect himself, Mal begins looking into possible suspects—and sees a killer in everyone around him. But Mal doesn’t count on the investigation leaving a trail of death in its wake. Suddenly, a series of shocking twists leaves more victims dead—and the noose around Mal’s neck grows so tight he might never escape.

My Review:

There are reliable narrators, there are unreliable narrators, and then there’s Malcolm Kershaw, who is such an unreliable narrator that by the end of the story it feels like the only thing he told us at the beginning that is still true at the end is that Nero the store cat is a cat.

After all, even the CAT’S role in the story changes at least twice over the course of the narrative. But at least he’s still the same species. It’s hard to be sure that anything else we thought we knew at the beginning is true at the end.

The story begins, or at least we think it begins, when an FBI agent visits bookseller Malcolm Kershaw at his mystery-specializing bookstore, Old Devils, on a snowy Boston winter’s day.

She’s following a thin lead that’s really more of a hunch. Actually, calling it a hunch may even be dignifying it slightly. She’s grasping at straws in a series of unsolved murders that may not even be a series – as much as she wants it to be.

It’s possible, just barely, that someone is following a template accidentally laid out by Kershaw many years ago in a blog post he called “Eight Perfect Murders”. It was a list of books – well, that’s not a surprise. But it’s a list of books that he thought at the time, rather pretentiously, narrated tales of murders that should have managed to fool the police. In other words, perfect murders where the murder is never even suspected, let alone caught.

Kershaw agrees to help her investigate her hunch. He’s a bit flattered to be contacted by the FBI, and a bit worried that it’s going to bring up his wife’s death five years before. His wife died on another winter’s night, on a remote and snowy road, on her way back from her lover’s house, while drunk or high on cocaine or a bit of both. Her death, and the death of her lover a year or so later, were both suspicious. But Malcolm just-so-happened to be out of town at bookseller conventions at the time of both deaths, so he’s in the clear.

And he’s intrigued by the possibilities of someone using his old list as a template for serial killing. Or so we believe.

As the story unravels, we get a tour through some of the classics of the murder mystery genre as seen through the eyes of an aficionado of that genre. Only to discover, in the end, that we’ve been reading one all along.

Escape Rating B-: There have been a few complaints that the story in Eight Perfect Murders, in addition to being told by the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, spoils the plots of the eight stories that might be what the murderer uses to carry out his or her murder spree. While on the one hand that’s true, very much on the other the most recent book of the bunch was published in 1992 and the others are much older. There has GOT TO BE a limit on spoiler warnings somewhere, and 28 years is definitely past it.

The story is being told from inside Malcolm Kershaw’s head. He’s our narrator, he’s our point of view of the action, and he’s also telling the story from a perspective that ALSO mimics a classic in the genre, but we don’t discover that until the end. So I’m not saying what or which one.

But the thing about unreliable narrators, and it is clear very early on that Kershaw is at least somewhat unreliable about his own past, is that they lie. They lie to everyone around them. And in the very best/worst of cases, meaning the very epitome of unreliability, they lie to themselves. So even though he seems to be relating events as he really sees them, he’s still filtering everything through a lens of the lies he’s told himself and the lies he’s told the world.

It’s only as he gets deeper into the puzzle that we begin to realize that either we never had all the pieces or that the picture we think we’re solving doesn’t match the box. It doesn’t, in the end, even match the picture on the box that Kershaw thought he was working on.

In the end, Eight Perfect Murders as a story feels more like a thought experiment than an actual murder mystery. The problem for me as a reader is that I didn’t find Kershaw all that sympathetic as a character. He starts out bland and boring, and while the things that happen in the story are anything but, he’s still bland and boring at the end.

This is in sharp contrast to another mystery thriller with an unreliable narrator that I read this year, This is How I Lied. Even though she both lied and was lied to, as Kershaw is, I felt for her and felt like I understood where she was coming from and how she got that way. She felt for herself in a way that Kershaw does not. So her story kept me glued to it until the end, while his just made me want to find out whodunnit and what it was they’d actually done so I could close the book.

One final comment. The Goodreads entry leads the reader to believe that this is the first of a series. Admittedly the ending could just be another piece of misdirection on Kershaw’s part. But if it ends the way it seems to, the way that the mystery it’s mimicking does, then a sequel is impossible. Or Kershaw is lying again. He could very well be THAT unreliable.

We’ll see.

Review: A Cruel Deception by Charles Todd

Review: A Cruel Deception by Charles ToddA Cruel Deception (Bess Crawford, #11) by Charles Todd
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War I
Series: Bess Crawford #11
Pages: 305
Published by William Morrow on October 22, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the aftermath of World War I, nurse Bess Crawford attempts to save a troubled former soldier from a mysterious killer.
The Armistice of November 1918 ended the fighting, but the Great War will not be over until a Peace Treaty is drawn up and signed by all parties. Representatives from the Allies are gathering in Paris, and already ominous signs of disagreement have appeared.
Sister Bess Crawford, who has been working with the severely wounded in England in the war’s wake, is asked to carry out a personal mission in Paris for a Matron at the London headquarters of The Queen Alexandra’s.
Bess is facing decisions about her own future, even as she searches for the man she is charged with helping.  When she does locate Lt. Lawrence Minton, she finds a bitter and disturbed officer who has walked away from his duties at the Peace Conference and is well on his way toward an addiction to opiates. When she confronts him with the dangers of using laudanum, he tells her that he doesn’t care if he lives or dies, as long as he can find oblivion. But what has changed him? What is it that haunts him? He can’t confide in Bess—because the truth is so deeply buried in his mind that he can only relive it in nightmares. The officers who had shared a house with him in Paris profess to know nothing—still, Bess is reluctant to trust them even when they offer her their help. But where to begin on her own?
What is driving this man to a despair so profound it can only end with death? The war? Something that happened in Paris? To prevent a tragedy, she must get at the truth as quickly as possible—which means putting herself between Lieutenant Minton and whatever is destroying him. Or is it whoever?
 

My Review:

This is a story about being stuck in limbo, and that’s fitting for its time and place. Because in Paris, in the spring of 1919, there was nothing but limbo. Not for the residents of Paris, not for the delegates to the Peace Conference, and certainly not for Bess Crawford, one of the many nurses in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service who was wondering whether she would be able to stay in the service once the wounded from the (hopefully) late war were finally settled and cared for back home in England.

And whether, or what, that was what she truly wanted.

A Duty to the Dead by Charles ToddWhen we first met Bess, back in November 1916 in A Duty to the Dead, she was a dedicated battlefield nurse in a war that was already two years old and seemed to have no end in sight. Getting through each day and each night, saving who she could and grieving the many she could not was all that the eye could see.

But in March of 1919, when this story takes place, the Armistice has been in effect for over 5 months, but a peace treaty was nowhere in sight. The Allied Powers are in a state of such disagreement that it sometimes seems as if a shooting war will break out across their negotiating table long before they reach the point where they can present anything like a united front to the Central Powers, meaning Germany and her allies.

It’s into the middle of this muddle, slightly muddled herself, that Bess finds herself back in Paris, and just like her “adventure” in The Shattered Tree, poking her nose into places that entirely too many people think it doesn’t belong.

Especially the man that she has come to Paris to find, Lieutenant Lawrence Minton. Lt. Minton’s mother is someone whose requests Bess is unable to refuse. His mother is the current Matron, or head, of the nursing service that Bess would like to remain part of after the war is finally officially over.

Matron is concerned that her son has been reported absent from his duties as one of many military attaches to the peace conference, and when Bess arrives to investigate, she learns that those fears are more than justified. The lieutenant is not just missing, he seems to be rusticating in the French countryside and doing his level best to remain doped to the eyeballs on laudanum every waking minute.

Bess feels caught between a rock and a hard place. If she reports the man’s current state to anyone, including his mother, officialdom will step in and he will be discharged in disgrace. As the lieutenant is an officer in her father’s old regiment, that disgrace will reflect badly on the regiment and could even reach up to the Colonel Sahib, who may no longer be the regiment’s official leader but is still involved with both the regiment and the war effort.

So Bess decides to investigate the matter herself – as she so often does. She knows that something happened to Minton in Paris that seems to have changed him overnight from a dutiful, conscientious officer who wanted to remain in uniform to a lying, cruel opium addict. She is determined to find out just what is driving the man’s search for oblivion at any cost.

That her search sends her straight into the path of someone determined to drive Minton to that oblivion, and to death beyond it, by the quickest road puts Bess in the sights of a murderer with nothing left to lose.

A place that Bess seems to find herself again and again, but this time without her usual allies and with more than the usual number of enemies.

Escape Rating B: As I said at the top, this is a story about being in limbo. There are just too many things that are very much up in the air, and Bess’ investigation into Minton’s circumstances are just one of the many, many things that are hanging.

The problem for the book is that limbo is a frustrating place to be, but not generally an interesting one. Limbo is angsty without a resolution in sight. While Bess’ investigation does eventually lead to resolution and the hope of closure for Minton, most of the other circumstances are out of her control, even at the story’s end.

And it seems as if Minton’s situation is equally unresolved for about 2/3rds of the story. Bess spends a LOT of time trying to figure out what’s wrong with him and then searching for answers that seem to be out of reach, either lost in Minton’s confused mind or eluding her through the streets of war-weary Paris.

As is known from history, the formal state of war between the Allies and the Central Powers did not end until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. A treaty which, again as we know now, led directly to the conditions which brought about World War II. But at the point where this story takes place, the Allies are still wrangling. France wants Germany to pay crippling reparations, a condition which they eventually won. The U.S., under President Woodrow Wilson, has his optimistic vision for the League of Nations, which he also eventually won. Neither side got exactly what they hoped for, but hindsight is always 20/20.

However, as this story takes place, the treaty is in the future. What is known is that all the powers, with the possible exception of the U.S., are much too war-torn and war-weary for the hostilities to continue, no matter what it takes to get everyone to the treaty-table.

Bess herself is in limbo, as the nursing service is drawing down rapidly. Many women are resigning in order to marry the men they either waited for or met during the war. Those that survived. England lost a generation of young men in the war, and many women would be unable to marry after the war because there weren’t nearly enough men left TO marry.

Bess can return to her parents house and be their daughter again. Not that she was ever disowned – far from it. She has, however, the option to be the daughter that she would have been if the war hadn’t intervened. But it did. She’s used to being on her own, making not just her own decisions but decisions of life and death for the men under her care. Going back to being anyone’s protected, obedient and dependent child is not a path she wants to take.

At the same time, in spite of the number of proposals that she has received during the war, she has no desire to see if any of those proposals were real. She may have liked or been fond of the men who made them, but she doesn’t love any of them. She’s not sure if there’s anyone she does love enough to marry. Except possibly her father’s regimental sergeant, Simon Brandon, a man who has been part of her life and her family for many years. But Brandon is absent throughout this story, as far as Bess knows off in Scotland courting someone else. Maybe or maybe not.

So Bess is in a personal limbo for this whole story. Admittedly, she doesn’t angst about it a lot, and when she does, it is mostly about her career and future in general, and not about marriage in particular, to Simon or anyone else. Not that Simon has ever offered. But it never read, at least to me, like romantic pining or that the story was in any way revolving around her love life. Bess is trying to figure out what her future will look like at a time when all futures were very much up in the air. As an intelligent, thoughtful person, worrying about the future in these circumstances is the right thing for her to be doing.

But limbo is just not as interesting as action. Or at least forward motion in some form. Something that I hope to see a lot more of whenever Bess returns in her next adventure.

Review: The Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White

Review: The Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen WhiteThe Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, Karen White
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 408
Published by William Morrow on September 4, 2018
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From the New York Times bestselling authors of The Forgotten Room comes a captivating historical mystery, infused with romance, that links the lives of three women across a century—two deep in the past, one in the present—to the doomed passenger liner, RMS Lusitania.

May 2013Her finances are in dire straits and bestselling author Sarah Blake is struggling to find a big idea for her next book. Desperate, she breaks the one promise she made to her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother and opens an old chest that belonged to her great-grandfather, who died when the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat in 1915. What she discovers there could change history. Sarah embarks on an ambitious journey to England to enlist the help of John Langford, a recently disgraced Member of Parliament whose family archives might contain the only key to the long-ago catastrophe. . . .

April 1915Southern belle Caroline Telfair Hochstetter’s marriage is in crisis. Her formerly attentive industrialist husband, Gilbert, has become remote, pre-occupied with business . . . and something else that she can’t quite put a finger on. She’s hoping a trip to London in Lusitania’s lavish first-class accommodations will help them reconnect—but she can’t ignore the spark she feels for her old friend, Robert Langford, who turns out to be on the same voyage. Feeling restless and longing for a different existence, Caroline is determined to stop being a bystander, and take charge of her own life. . . .

Tessa Fairweather is traveling second-class on the Lusitania, returning home to Devon. Or at least, that’s her story. Tessa has never left the United States and her English accent is a hasty fake. She’s really Tennessee Schaff, the daughter of a roving con man, and she can steal and forge just about anything. But she’s had enough. Her partner has promised that if they can pull off this one last heist aboard the Lusitania, they’ll finally leave the game behind. Tess desperately wants to believe that, but Tess has the uneasy feeling there’s something about this job that isn’t as it seems. . . .

As the Lusitania steams toward its fate, three women work against time to unravel a plot that will change the course of their own lives . . . and history itself.

My Review:

The Glass Ocean is the braided story of three women, separated by time, place, class or all of the above, whose lives are roiled by the wake of the RMS Lusitania, struck by a torpedo from a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915.

As with the previous book by the Team W, The Forgotten Room, the story of The Glass Ocean slips from character to character – from woman to woman – as the reader experiences each perspective and follows the treasure hunt as all three of the stories finally come together.

And the truth sets them all free. Freedom from obscurity in the past, and freedom from heartbreak and loss in the present.

In exploring the truth about her great-grandfather, a steward on the RMS Lusitania, Sarah thinks that she’s going to be writing a spy thriller – if not the biography of a man who wrote spy thrillers. But as we follow her on her treasure hunt through the life and archives of Robert Langford, a passenger on the Lusitania and the author of spy thrillers that Sarah thinks were even better than Ian Fleming’s, we also see those pivotal events on board the Lusitania through the eyes of two women who both loved him.

The story that Sarah thinks she’s looking for is not the one she finds. But that’s the one that she writes. And in the writing of it, she brings the lives and accomplishments of two fascinating women back into the light of day.

And rescues herself along the way.

Escape Rating A-: Today, as this review is posted, is the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. This book is an oddly appropriate read for today, as the sinking of the Lusitania and 9/11 were both human-created disasters that were intended to start a war. And both did, after their different fashions.

If you are interested in reading more about the Lusitania, I highly recommend – as does Team W in the afterword of The Glass Ocean, Dead Wake by Erik Larson. Dead Wake is the best kind of narrative nonfiction, in other words, a true story that reads as compellingly as if it were a novel.

But The Glass Ocean, like Dead Wake, confines itself to events that take place aboard the ocean liner, or that occurred to its survivors in the aftermath. The reader can and does speculate about the surrounding politics, but the story is the story of the doomed ship and what happened after.

While Caroline’s and Tess’ stories are part of that fateful voyage, Sarah’s is the story of the aftermath – nearly 100 years in the aftermath. I found Sarah’s story to be the most compelling – but then she’s the one doing the historical research. I always love the treasure hunt aspect of this kind of story, where the clues are revealed, sometimes slowly and carefully, and sometimes by “Eureka!” – and there are plenty of moments of both kinds in Sarah’s search.

Sarah’s story feels “present”, while Caroline’s and Tess’ stories feel almost as though they are leading the reader to the story behind those clues. And I was guessing right along with Sarah, sometimes, but not always correctly.

Part of what makes this so much fun is the way that in both time periods both end up as just the kind of spy thriller that Robert Langford used to write. Someone betrayed the Lusitania to the Germans. Someone smuggled a critical munitions formula on board the ship. Someone wanted to sell it to the Germans. Someone wanted to secure it for the British.

And over 1,000 people died for it.

But when Sarah unearths those secrets, she finds much more than she ever bargained for. Whether or not she’ll be able to keep what she’s found is a journey that is well-worth taking with her.

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Review: The Oysterville Sewing Circle by Susan Wiggs

Review: The Oysterville Sewing Circle by Susan WiggsThe Oysterville Sewing Circle by Susan Wiggs
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: women's fiction
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow on August 13, 2019
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The #1 New York Times bestselling author brings us her most ambitious and provocative work yet—a searing and timely novel that explores the most volatile issue of our time—domestic violence.

At the break of dawn, Caroline Shelby rolls into Oysterville, Washington, a tiny hamlet at the edge of the raging Pacific.

She’s come home.

Home to a place she thought she’d left forever, home of her heart and memories, but not her future. Ten years ago, Caroline launched a career in the glamorous fashion world of Manhattan. But her success in New York imploded on a wave of scandal and tragedy, forcing her to flee to the only safe place she knows.

And in the backseat of Caroline’s car are two children who were orphaned in a single chilling moment—five-year-old Addie and six-year-old Flick. She’s now their legal guardian—a role she’s not sure she’s ready for.

But the Oysterville she left behind has changed. Her siblings have their own complicated lives and her aging parents are hoping to pass on their thriving seafood restaurant to the next generation. And there’s Will Jensen, a decorated Navy SEAL who’s also returned home after being wounded overseas. Will and Caroline were forever friends as children, with the promise of something more . . . until he fell in love with Sierra, Caroline’s best friend and the most beautiful girl in town. With her modeling jobs drying up, Sierra, too, is on the cusp of reinventing herself.

Caroline returns to her favorite place: the sewing shop owned by Mrs. Lindy Bloom, the woman who inspired her and taught her to sew. There she discovers that even in an idyllic beach town, there are women living with the deepest of secrets. Thus begins the Oysterville Sewing Circle—where women can join forces to support each other through the troubles they keep hidden.

Yet just as Caroline regains her creativity and fighting spirit, and the children begin to heal from their loss, an unexpected challenge tests her courage and her heart. This time, though, Caroline is not going to run away. She’s going to stand and fight for everything—and everyone—she loves.

My Review:

The Oysterville Sewing Circle turned out to be a lovely story with multiple themes – and everything I expected from this author. Particularly after last year’s marvelous Between You and Me.

First of all, this is a story about home – the Robert Frost version of home being the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Because as the story begins, Caroline Shelby is returning to tiny Oysterville because she needs to take refuge. Her life has both fallen apart and moved in a direction that she never expected, and she needs help and a place to heal.

Secondly, this is most definitely a love story – in multiple senses of that phrase. Partly, it’s a lovely second-chance-at-love story. The love of Caroline’s life is also back in Oysterville. They missed their chance back in high school, but chance has come around again – and this time they are both mature enough to grab it and hang on tight.

There’s another kind of love in this story. Caroline has returned to Oysterville with two children in tow, children that she never expected or planned to have. But that she agreed to care for out of love for her best friend, suddenly dead of a drug overdose. Over the course of the story, she comes to love Addie and Flick not just for their mother’s sake, but for their own. And it’s Caroline’s metamorphosis from slightly reluctant and completely overwhelmed guardian to adopted “mom” that gives the story much of its heart.

The soul of this one comes from the darker circumstances that gave birth to both Caroline’s need to flee New York and her guardianship of Addie and Flick after their mother’s sudden death.

Because their mother Angelique was a top-tier fashion model who had been chewed up and spit out by the cutthroat fashion industry. As had her designer friend Caroline, who had seen her award-winning designs stolen by the man she believed was her mentor.

Once the truth finally comes out, Caroline discovers that she got off relatively easy, but that the damage that same man had done to Angelique was more than she could survive. Which leads to the three darker themes of the story.

Angelique was a high-functioning drug addict who hid her addiction well, until it killed her. Whether the man who regularly abused her got her hooked or simply drove her back to drugs when she couldn’t bear the beatings any longer is not known. But his physical abuse of Angelique as well as his deliberate destruction of Caroline’s career shines a bright light into the crawling darkness of the #MeToo movement.

And Caroline’s need to do something, anything, to give women like Angelique a safe place to talk, to be listened to, and to be heard, exposes the hidden-yet-not-hidden secret cesspool of domestic abuse, that it happens everywhere, even in small, seemingly perfect places like Oysterville.

And that both domestic abuse and addiction affect every person around the abuse and the addiction in ways that ripple out like a stone thrown into a pond.

Every town needs an Oysterville Sewing Club – and women like Caroline who stand up to become beacons of hope – and who receive hope themselves.

Escape Rating A: This was one of my airplane books on the way back from Ireland. I had 8 hours to kill, which meant plenty of time to read. The part of the trip I spent in Oysterville with Caroline absolutely flew by – pun definitely intended.

This is a story with a lot going on, taking a surprising dive into areas that don’t seem like the province of women’s fiction – particularly not so many all in the same WOW of a book.

There were a lot of things that I loved about this story. I think that the biggest was that Caroline never has all the answers. She just has questions – and the more she questions the more comes to light.

Caroline’s part of the story both echoes and illuminates the #MeToo movement. In her case, it was never about sex – only about exploitation. She had the ideas, but her supposed mentor had all the power. Her attempt to fight back against his blatant theft destroyed her career and left him even better off than before. And it’s both utterly disgusting and absolutely believable.

What made the story for me was Caroline’s attempt to understand what happened to her friend. Both because she feels guilty that she didn’t see the signs of the addiction, and because she didn’t speak up about the abuse that she suspected was going on. Out of her desire to understand, and admittedly to expiate some of her guilt, she starts the organization that becomes the Oysterville Sewing Society in order to give women in her old/new community a safe place. A place that she also needs.

And out of that comes her own healing, both emotionally and for the career that she thought was dead in the water. That she gets justice for her friend, and a happy ever after for herself and her children, is icing on a very lovely cake.

Bittersweet chocolate is my favorite, after all.

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Review: Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman

Review: Lady in the Lake by Laura LippmanLady in the Lake by Laura Lippman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, mystery, thriller
Pages: 340
Published by William Morrow on July 23, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The revered New York Times bestselling author returns with a novel set in 1960s Baltimore that combines modern psychological insights with elements of classic noir, about a middle-aged housewife turned aspiring reporter who pursues the murder of a forgotten young woman.

In 1966, Baltimore is a city of secrets that everyone seems to know--everyone, that is, except Madeline "Maddie" Schwartz. Last year, she was a happy, even pampered housewife. This year, she's bolted from her marriage of almost twenty years, determined to make good on her youthful ambitions to live a passionate, meaningful life.

Maddie wants to matter, to leave her mark on a swiftly changing world. Drawing on her own secrets, she helps Baltimore police find a murdered girl--assistance that leads to a job at the city's afternoon newspaper, the Star. Working at the newspaper offers Maddie the opportunity to make her name, and she has found just the story to do it: a missing woman whose body was discovered in the fountain of a city park lake.

Cleo Sherwood was a young African-American woman who liked to have a good time. No one seems to know or care why she was killed except Maddie--and the dead woman herself. Maddie's going to find the truth about Cleo's life and death. Cleo's ghost, privy to Maddie's poking and prying, wants to be left alone.

Maddie's investigation brings her into contact with people that used to be on the periphery of her life--a jewelery store clerk, a waitress, a rising star on the Baltimore Orioles, a patrol cop, a hardened female reporter, a lonely man in a movie theater. But for all her ambition and drive, Maddie often fails to see the people right in front of her. Her inability to look beyond her own needs will lead to tragedy and turmoil for all sorts of people--including the man who shares her bed, a black police officer who cares for Maddie more than she knows.

My Review:

The lady in that lake in Baltimore isn’t actually the lady that everybody thinks is under the lake. She also isn’t the central character of this story about the discovery of said lady, or about all the ripples that discovery causes through the lives of all the people involved.

In spite of the title, and in spite of her ghost commenting on events, this story is not about the lady IN the lake, Cleo Sherwood. Rather, the story focuses on the woman who found that lady in the lake, Maddie Schwartz. And that’s exactly the way that Maddie would want it. Because it’s really all about her. It’s always all about her.

It’s so much all about her that she never seems to have a thought for all the people she leaves damaged in her wake. Not even the lady in the lake who catapults her to fame.

Escape Rating B: The pipes for that fountain in that lake must have one heck of a lot of suction going on somewhere. Because I got sucked into this book almost in spite of myself. I kept thinking I’d put it away for the night, but then just one more chapter, just one more person, and then I was done.

I also got just a bit weirded out at one point. Maddie and my mother were born the same year. Wondering if my mom ever had any of the internal thoughts and feelings that Maddie did kind of gave me the heebie-jeebies. Ironically, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my mom had some of the same career thoughts and aspirations – although hopefully not the rest.

(Two things no one likes to think about – their parents having sex and their children having sex. We all know it happens, but that doesn’t mean we want to dwell on it even for a nanosecond.)

The structure of this story is interesting – and more than a bit distancing. Although Maddie is the main point of view character, she’s not the only one. The first time she interacts with someone, the reader is then given that person’s perspective on the encounter in general and Maddie in particular.

Those perspectives are not kind. Usually pretty spot on, but not kind. Maddie is not a likable protagonist. She’s more like the eye of a hurricane. Everyone focuses on her, and that’s what she wants, while she ignores all the trouble that her storm creates. Like that hurricane, Maddie’s story sucks you in and spits you out – but it isn’t a comfortable journey. Interesting, but not comfortable.

At the same time, the story manages to say quite a bit about a lot of things through those various perspectives. Seeing life in the mid-1960s through that variety of perspectives, we hear about still-rampant Antisemitism, the universality of structural racism, the intractable misogyny of work life in general and newspaper journalism in particular. Through all those thoughts and feelings we get a slice of life in the 1960s, and it rings true.

The story kind of sits at the boundary between mystery and thriller. Except for one brief but telling escapade, Maddie herself is never in true danger. No one is stalking her – this isn’t that kind of story. She puts plenty of other people in danger or at least distress – usually inadvertently. She doesn’t believe she’s really doing anything wrong – even when she is. That her single-minded self-centered laser focus puts other people at risk is never her fault.

But the slow unraveling of the two intertwined mysteries that make Maddie’s career are thrilling. Maddie literally does not know what she is doing most of the time – just that she has a driving need to be the center of it all, again and again and again. And she has an instinct about what parts of a story – or which people – are hiding something that she desperately wants to uncover – and just how to uncover it, no matter what it takes. Or who.

So that’s what she does. But the greatest secret of all, the one that really makes her career, turns out to be not what she expected. And it contains a truth that she can never reveal. After everything we’ve learned about Maddie, it feels like it serves her right.

TLC
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