Maisie Dobbs

“As Lady Rowan had said, ‘So, my dear, what will you call yourself? I mean, we all know what you do, but what will be your trade name? You can hardly state the obvious. “Finds missing persons, dead or alive, even when it’s themselves they are looking for” really doesn’t cut the mustard.’”

Maisie Dobbs has been on my radar for a long time, perhaps since the second book in the series was published. Since the third I’ve been picking them up when they become Barnes and Noble bargain books, and a little while ago I was fortunate enough to win a copy of the latest, The Mapping of Love and Death, from Danielle at A Work in Progress. This was the impetus I needed to finally track down the first book of the series at the library.

image from

The series is set in London ten years after the first World War, when Maisie has just set up shop on her own and is asked by a man to investigate the daily activities of his wife. In the process Maisie stumbles upon a scenario with more than meets the eye. Curiosity compels her to dig deeper, and leads to refuge for disfigured veterans known as “The Retreat.” Is it simply a compound where men learn to cope with their wounds, or do its closed gates hold something a little more sinister?
As the quote above suggests, despite Maisie’s acute powers of observation her main approach is based on understanding the emotional and psychological nuances of those involved in the investigation. She is extremely perceptive of their needs based on body language and past experiences. She treats everyone with an empathy both natural and calculated, giving her the information she needs while providing catharsis for the sharer.
In various ways Maisie Dobbs reminded me of other reads. Like The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, the mystery almost seems secondary to character and life experiences. Jacqueline Winspear is clearly setting up a series with the amount of backstory provided. A large section of the book is a flashback, and the process of Maisie training specifically for this job was sometimes reminiscent of Mary Russell in the first of Laurie King’s books. In addition, much time is devoted to Maisie’s service in the war itself. To be honest, WWI is probably the major war for which I know least about life on and off the battlefield. I found myself drawing heavily on my recollection of Atonement for its stark depiction of combat conditions.
Overall, the book is a keen look at the ways in which the war will affect a generation forever, like a ghost of the past that never completely disappears. If the mystery itself was less than satisfying, Ms. Winspear has created a cast of sympathetic characters whom I look forward to meeting again in the next book.

Published in: on May 27, 2010 at 10:39 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Crystal Tree

“‘They’re bound to be single peonies,’ she announced happily. ‘You can tell from the slender stalks that they are. The double ones are twice that size.’

‘I’ll swear they are!’ he said, though he didn’t know a peony shoot from asparagus.”

I really should stock up on more 1930s romances for when I’m in the mood, but I’m glad I reread The Crystal Tree by Louise Platt Hauck because I liked it much more this time around. I think I was in high school when I read it before. My biggest complaint is still the name of the main character.

When Quail Ashby sees the darling little house with a garden and white picket fence, she falls instantly in love with this replica of the childhood home she had to sell. Since she is unable to afford to rent alone, her new neighbor Mike suggests she advertise in the paper for housemates. Along came Len Worthing, with a farm girl past and opera star future; Whitey, a chaperon with zany health food ideas; and Mike’s friends Kent and Phil. Life at Hilarity House, as they dubbed it, went smoothly until Quail was forced to introduce pretty, invalid Mabel to the household, resulting in a series of trials and triangles.

There’s really not much I can say except that I find this type of happily-ever after book so refreshing, and even more so when there’s a whole flock of characters who get their lives neatly sorted out by the last page. And the descriptions of their glorious garden are enough to make me grab a watering can myself. My favorite part, however, is the glimpse into the past that the narrative offers, in passages such as this one:

“Quail removed her office dress, inspected the cuffs and decided reluctantly that they would not do for tomorrow, found fresh ones and began basting them in while she explained to Whitey that Dr. Barstow would attend to Mabel regularly.”

A far cry from today where ironing and dry cleaning are often enough to give pause.

Published in: on May 21, 2010 at 2:30 pm  Comments (2)  
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Nancy Drew Clue Crew

I’ve been so busy with grading lately that rather than invest time in longer books I’ve been sneaking in really short ones, namely the stack of Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew books that I picked up at the spring library sale. I know that if I pick up an actual novel I’ll get sucked in and neglect either work or sleep (not that this is from experience…)

image from Simon and Schuster

So far I’ve read a mix of volumes and noticed a few things in common: the crimes are trifles on a large scale but very serious to those involved. I guess it’s a precursor to Nancy’s taking on the zucchini case! Because of this catching the culprit is basically a slap on the wrist and accepted apology, but it works because usually Nancy is only investigating to clear someone else’s name.The series is also predictable in its continuity elements, which is always important to younger readers. For example, the rule about staying within five blocks from home is mentioned in most volumes, as are their standard sleuthing procedures like computer files and evidence drawer. The same classmates are mentioned in various books, not just Deirdre and Ned.

The plots, on the other hand, vary somewhat. Valentine’s Day Secret is the prerequisite Bess/George fight, while The Zoo Crew had me marveling at the stupidity of certain adults. (SPOILER) Really, it took an eight-year-old to realize that chimps trained to open doors are probably responsible for stealing other animals’ toys at night? It also felt like a take-off of the plot from The Circus Scare. Fashion Disaster and Wedding Day Disaster both feature French pedigree poseurs, though in completely different contexts. My personal favorite was Lights, Camera…Cats, about a missing animal star, even though the author seemed to think that words like “superawesome” and “superfamous” don’t need spaces (a little piece of me died).

I would never buy these new, but they’re fun little mysteries in the vein of Nate the Great or Cam Jansen, and kids will like them. I wonder what the new Hardy Boys series for younger readers will be like?

Published in: on May 15, 2010 at 8:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Emma Volumes 5 and 6

The events in the series are building with intensity and drama. In words the story could probably be told as a novella, and yet with the art there is a double sense of everything and nothing happening, drawing a single scene out over ten pages. As a series it’s hard to review without giving anything away, but I’ll try to keep to facts mentioned in the summaries.

image from Amazon

In Volume 5, Emma returns to Haworth glowing from her visit to London. After the happiness there, however, it may prove hard to go back to being content. Meanwhile, William discovers a passion for letter-writing as an antidote to his troubled emotions. We also get some of the backstory to the relationship of William’s parents, which explains why some characters behave the way they do. Overall this volume is very sweet, showing us more of the romance between the characters and paving the way for future events.

image from Amazon

In Emma: Volume 6, William must finally confront the reality of his engagement to Eleanor, and what this means for his relationship with Emma. Emma, on the other hand, becomes more confident in her love. Soon circumstances arrive, however, that may prevent her from ever seeing William again. The pace begins to pick up suddenly here. This volume gets somewhat melodramatic, and it’s hard to ever feel happy with the outcome when love triangles are involved because someone always gets hurt. Kaori Mori has William’s siblings reading a romance called The Prisoner of Zenda, which is apparently a real book, and I kind of want to get my hands on it.

What can I say? I adore this manga and can’t wait to read volume 7, even if the sixth book was a little unsatisfying.

Published in: on May 10, 2010 at 3:30 pm  Comments (2)  
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Thursday Throwback: The Family Tree

“‘When you look at their pictures,’ she said slowly, her eyes on Katy Anne with the parasol, ‘they don’t seem dead. If only we could get to their time they’d be alive. It’s only time that’s wrong. They’re only dead now, for us. They’re not dead then.'”

I often use the term “love” generously with books to mean “look on with fondness,” but The Family Tree by Margaret Storey is definitely on my list of top twenty books from my childhood. I can’t tell you how many times I read and reread it, but it’s been several years and when I wanted a comfort read this suddenly sprang to mind.

Image from Goodreads

Kate, an orphan, has spent much of her young life sharing a bedroom with cousins up until her aunt becomes pregnant again. Then she is shipped off to the country home of her father’s cousin. Cousin Lawrence is a distant old man, unused to children, and gives Kate free reign to explore the house and grounds. She discovers an attic full of belongings from her grandmother and her siblings, with whom Cousin Lawrence grew up, and becomes fascinated with piecing together their story. Her attention is focused on the youngest, Katy Anne, with whom she feels a particular affinity, despite the sometimes painful memories that the past conjures for others. Kate also befriends a boy she meets on the property, who turns out to have an interest in the family’s past as well.

I could clearly recall the premise and the ending, but while rereading every single event became all at once familiar again. Everything I loved about it before is still true–finding a sense of belonging by learning about the past while cultivating relationships in the present. It sounds a bit odd, but I’d describe the book as a cross between The Secret Garden and Tom’s Midnight Garden, even if there’s not that much of a garden in this story.

The genealogy aspect plays a large role in my love of the book. I think family history is fascinating because the stories have the finite nature of fiction but concern real people, who lived through the events we always read about, and their blood runs in our veins. When you know their daily routines, their likes and dislikes, listen to their music, hold their possessions, they seem so much closer. My mom’s father died before I was born, but from hearing stories and reading his letters and seeing newspaper articles about him, I still feel like I know him.

I was curious afterward to know what else Margaret Storey wrote. It’s hard to find information, because there is another author with the same name. Apparently, however, she also wrote a series featuring a witch that was a big inspiration for Neil Gaiman.

Published in: on May 6, 2010 at 10:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Primrose Ring

My usual method of browsing in a library or bookstore is to wander down the aisles until a title or binding catches my fancy. That’s a little bit harder to do online. On a whim, I tried searching for vintage authors I knew from children’s works, and found success.

Ruth Sawyer won the Newbery Medal in 1937 for Roller Skates, a delightful story about a ten-year-old girl in the 1890’s. I can vividly recall reading it at my grandparents’ old row home as a child. On Google Books I found The Primrose Ring, a sweet little fairy tale. I think it’s meant for adults, but I can’t quite tell from the foreword or ads. It did, however, turn out to be a timely read.

Margaret MacLean is the cheerful nurse of Ward C at Saint Margaret’s Free Hospital for Children, and as a product of the hospital herself she has a great store of love and care for the her patients, referred to as “the incurables.” On the way to work the morning of May Eve (April 30), she buys a great bunch of primroses from a flower seller, hoping they can offset the gloom that Trustee Day brings. Once a month, the wealthy but aloof trustees of the hospital pay a visit to remind themselves of the good they are doing. On this visit, however, they decide that Ward C is a hopeless cause and the incurables should be dispersed–and their nurse relieved of her duties for speaking tartly in their defense.

Margaret MacLean survived her childhood through fairy stories, and has all her young charges believing in them, too. One in particular tells about making a primrose ring on May Eve and being transported to the land of the fairies. Whether or not it actually happens, the night just might contain magic enough to keep the ward together.

The story itself is sweet, and decidedly Irish. Margaret and a few other characters speak in a bit of a brogue. The primrose legend also seems to be an Irish one, though most sources I can find online reference the flower as a protection from fairy pranks on May Eve, when the veil between worlds is supposedly thinner.

This is a story that I can’t quite see being written today, but it does work it’s own magic and would be a good choice if you need a short read at the beginning of May. It was also apparently made into a silent film in 1917.

Published in: on May 6, 2010 at 9:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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