A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd

A quiet but fully-wrought WWI mystery involving war orphans, family dynamics, and nurse Bess Crawford’s good intentions.

Mother-and-son writing team Charles Todd (the Ian Rutledge series) delivers the third in the Bess Crawford series. Bess, a World War I nurse and sometime amateur sleuth, is trying to make her way home on leave at Christmas when she discovers a battered and crying woman huddled on her London porch in the freezing rain. Of course Bess takes her in, and is persuaded to accompany Lydia back to her husband’s family home. A smattering of domestic violence is just the beginning; the family is haunted by past losses, at odds with one another and thrown further off-kilter by the question of a possibly missing and possibly illegitimate child. Bess’s hesitant commitment to Lydia and her family will follow her to the front lines of the war in France and back again, to the tense, almost haunted family estate where her own life will be endangered before all is resolved.

Todd paints a remarkable, poignant wartime scene of people quietly seething with tragedy and loss, stoically soldiering on, with layers of disinherited and heroic minor characters. Bess is a well-developed character: strong, brave and imperfect, she has involved herself beyond her intentions and proprieties in this story. Two male friends raise the question of a romance in the reader’s mind, but Todd is not ready to answer it yet.

This is a well-constructed and understated historical mystery. Fans of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs mystery series, in particular, will want to read A Bitter Truth immediately.


This review originally ran in the Sept. 2 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear

It’s time for the next Maisie book… and the last, for the time being. This one just came out in late March, giving us readers-along just long enough to obtain, read, and blog about it. Again, this is part of the Maisie Dobbs Read-Along hosted by Book Club Girl.

While enjoyable in the same Maisie Dobbs way – and not least because I’m familiar with her and her world, and familiarity often breeds comfort and contentment – this book failed to really grasp my interest. In fact, I wanted to put it down in favor of other things (not permanently, just… for a bit), but had to finish it for this read-along date today. To have to make myself read a book is not a strong endorsement! What was wrong? Well, I missed James Compton, for one thing. Or, I missed Maisie having any romantic action. I know James was in her life, in theory, but he wasn’t an active player for much of the book. And her discomfort with the postmark issue and the suspicions it caused her just made me impatient. We’ve spent too much time watching Maisie be hesitant and unsure. I am bored. She needs to do something different to keep me entertained in this arena. She needs to become engaged or become a lesbian or swear off men or be promiscuous or something. I am bored.

Billy’s reduced role hurt me, too. I like Billy and his family and the change of tone they impart. I guess this book saw Maisie alone onstage a lot more, and that might have been a little bit too one-note for me. We got Sandra, a little bit, but I don’t find her to be a well-developed character. It’s all well and good for Winspear to take Maisie off into a new environment with new players; but I don’t think she exploited its possibilities to the fullest. For example, I would have been interested to read about students and philosophy and Maisie’s experience as a teacher. As the daughter of a teacher (and a sometimes-teacher myself), it definitely did not ring true for me that she just waltzed into the classroom and casually picked up teaching (at the university level, no less) without missing a beat; we didn’t see her struggle with the new responsibilities at all. It would have been more realistic if she had.

I didn’t hate this book, and I’m sure some of the fellow read-along participants loved it (will be by to check it out in a bit), so, sorry… but A Lesson in Secrets failed to draw me in. This series is ending for me in a sort of vague trailing off, rather than with a bang or an anxiousness for the next installment. That said, I will almost certainly pick it up if and when it comes out, because I’m not THAT upset. But this is a weak finish-for-now, in my book.

Teaser Tuesdays: A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear


Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

* Grab your current read
* Open to a random page
* Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
* BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
* Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Here’s Maisie! She’s following in Maurice’s footsteps, working in intelligence. And the Beales are in for another life change or two that I’m excited about. Here’s your teaser, from page 178:

Maisie turned over the page, then turned it back again. It had been typed with care; not one error, not one misplaced letter typed over.

Sounds like somebody’s pretty clear about what they’re up to, whatever that might be (I’m not that far along yet).

What are YOU reading?

The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear

It’s that time again! Time for the Maisie Dobbs Read-Along!

This week’s book is The Mapping of Love and Death, and of course the title is significant. Our mystery is the questionable wartime death of a young American man who enlisted with the Brits (in WWI) as a cartographer; he was allowed to do this because of his extraordinary skill and training in the field, and because of his father’s British origins. Maisie is struck by the young man’s very likable family, who are attacked in their hotel immediately after meeting with her, and land in the hospital in critical condition.

Maisie tracks the mystery of what turns out to be a murder in the trenches (characteristically, delving into the war-related past to solve a mystery of the present), as well as the question of what happened to the cartographer’s sweetheart. As a bonus, of course, she solves the attack on the parents, too. In what is almost becoming a predictable format, the past – in this case, the father’s familial past in Britain before his emigration – plays an important role. We see some tragedy in this book, but things are ultimately resolved to general satisfaction in terms of the mystery.

Two important things happen in Maisie’s world: Maurice Blanche, her lifetime mentor, friend, and father figure, dies. And she takes on a new beau, far more promising than anyone we’ve met so far, because she has a truly emotional reaction to him rather than being detachedly “fond” as she was of Dr. Dene. The new beau is James Compton, son of her patroness the Lady Rowan, and I suppose I’m (naturally) naive to the difference in their social classes being such a big deal, but I couldn’t help but be a bit impatient with this question. I thought it couldn’t help but be resolved – as it was – by Lady Rowan’s demure acceptance of the inter-class question. She’s always been a nonjudgmental friend to Maisie. I was a bit surprised at her protest, which was unrelated to social class, and now I’m especially impatient to see Maisie declare her intentions and continue to “walk out” with James. The book left us hanging on this point. I suppose I’ll look forward more anxiously than usual to A Lesson in Secrets, the new Maisie book, released just a week or two ago. (It’s en route to the library now and I shall read it first thing.)

So let’s review. Another mystery was solved, satisfactorily but also according to a pattern I’m becoming very comfortable with – if not perhaps a touch bored. Maurice died, which is a very real personal tragedy for Maisie, as well as being one of those silver-lining opportunities for greater personal growth and independence, much as Simon’s death was. Ah yes, I didn’t say that she is now a quite wealthy young woman! Thanks to being the overwhelming heir to Maurice’s fortune. She has a new man, one I find very promising, if she can quit being wishy-washy and say YES Lady Rowan, I adore your son! I suppose it’s hard to think about remaining an independent businesswoman and get married, especially in her time. But James seems so wonderful, surely he’d be supportive?

I have left out any consideration of Billy Beale, generally one of my favorite characters. His family life & drama didn’t play quite such a strong role in this book; but that’s good for them, the reason being, that they had less drama. Billy’s still dreaming of emigrating to Canada, and I have a feeling Maisie’s new-found personal wealth will trickle towards the Beales; but there may also be a new mouth to feed around that household soon! So who knows. I continue to hold Billy and his family close to my heart and look forward to meeting with them again soon.

I believe that sums it up. I enjoyed this Maisie book, as all the others. But there is very much a pattern to the structure that can be comfortably rhythmic and predictable but has thoroughly ceased to make me gasp. For truly suspenseful, edge-of-my-seat mystery novels, I have learned, I must look elsewhere. That’s okay. There are lots of good suspense writers out there. I can’t wait for the new Michael Connelly to arrive! And I recently really enjoyed my first experience with Lisa Gardner; and there’s Elizabeth George… she hasn’t settled into any kind of predictable pattern, yet, to me. Although, come to think of it, her Barbara Havers character frustrates me in the same way Maisie does: I want to shove them or shake them into realizing the teeny tiny steps they could make that would get them so far… it’s taking awfully many books for these women to realize their own worth in certain areas. But don’t get me ranting. :)

Still loving Maisie and still loving the read-along! Check out our fearless leader Book Club Girl for discussion of The Mapping of Love and Death.

Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear

It’s that time again! The sixth Maisie Dobbs book is entitled Among the Mad, and takes place within London (and surrounding environs, of course). Maisie is conscripted formally into the machine that is New Scotland Yard when she’s mentioned by name in a threatening letter aimed at the government. As is usual, this case involves the aftermath of WWI and its veterans, in the context of the depression in England. Also as usual, there is a personal embodiment in Maisie’s own life: Billy Beale’s wife is still struggling to process the death of their young daughter. The general issue is shell-shock, or what we would now call post-traumatic stress. Maisie is touched by the plight of veterans who are still suffering less obvious wounds, like psychological, mental, or emotional ones, and who are unable to find work or meaning in a changing world.

This was, for me, perhaps a lackluster episode in Maisie’s story. It had all the familiar elements: themes of social and economic injustice and the sobering reality of depressed post-war England; Maisie’s search for belonging in between social classes (although she’s more and more integrated into the middle class; more on that in a minute) and with few real friends; the immorality and futility of war, with foreshadowing of the next world war to come. Maisie does continue to grow. She displays a work of art in her home, a tapestry we can assume she made in the weaving class she was attending in the last book. At the end of the book, she buys a camera, which I interpret as both another artistic/creative outlet, and a connection to other humans. She displays photographs as a means of reminding herself of her relationships. She also starts seeing more of Priscilla, and seems to open up more; but I’m bothered by her acting as Psychologist & Investigator (and therapist) in their friendship. It may not be sufficiently different from her day job, if that makes sense. But these are all positive developments. And then there’s the big one, at the end of the book, when she declares (to herself at least) that she has regained her soul. The healing suggested by Simon’s death seems to have begun.

About Maisie’s social standing: did anyone notice that Catherine Jones accused Maisie of not knowing want, and Maisie didn’t correct her? And later, in considering the possibility that a foundling could have become a successful scientist, she concludes that such social/economic climbing would be impossible – “unless, of course, he was something of a chameleon. Like herself.” It sounds to me like Maisie’s made a pretty successful climb, but it’s left her as isolated as ever.

She does see some developments in her romantic life. It seems that Stratton continues to be interested, but frankly, I never saw him as a serious option. I know some of my fellow readers-along liked him as a candidate for love in Maisie’s life, but I felt he was a bit one-dimensional from the start, and a bit patronizing of Maisie as female detective. He’s come a long way in respecting her professionally, I’ll give him that. But still, aside from being a single parent, I don’t think we know anything interesting about him. I liked Dr. Dene, for his sense of humor and personal connection via Maurice; but that didn’t take. It was too early for Maisie. Our new friend MacFarlane, though, is more of a firecracker. He has more personality. I like him as an option for Maisie very much. I like his style, and I like that she fed him dinner in her apartment (!) and they shared really a very intimate evening. I hope to see more of him.

The mystery was engaging, too, and Winspear continues to twist her readers’ heartstrings with the criminal-as-victim and really very sad national situation that breeds situations like this one. It’s very poignant, powerful stuff. Still, I guess it’s beginning to be a bit patterned for my liking. I hope she’ll mix things up a bit in the next installment, The Mapping of Love and Death, which we shall discuss in another two weeks.

We saw less of Maurice in this book – really hardly saw him at all. There is discussion of he, and Maisie’s father Frankie, aging. She has precious few close friends, and I notice she’s not very forthcoming or honest with her father about her life. It really bothered me that she didn’t tell him about her injury at the start of the book. I know she likes to be a tough guy, and independent, but really. A single woman with a father who loves her should let him take care of her when she’s hurt at Christmas! At any rate, I’m glad she’s drawing closer to Priscilla, but hope she continues to expand her little circle, especially with the hinting at Maurice & Frankie’s mortality.

I still adore Billy, and find his family’s situation one of the stronger points of every book, actually. They feel very real to me, and perhaps because we follow them for the whole series (as opposed to the characters in each case, who come and go), they feel like Winspear’s best representation of the national malady. I think I am most anxious for them between books. The Beales, and Maisie’s love life, are my greatest concerns going into the next installment. I do like the mysteries, but I would like to see a little variety in the structure & subject of the next one.

Let’s discuss covers, briefly. For those of you also reading the series: the first image, above, is the standard hardcover design. It matches the rest of the series (at least the copies I’ve picked up), and I like the continuity; it’s recognizable. I like her cloche, too. :) (remember, I got my own in Maisie’s honor!) But this time I accidentally picked a large print edition (that was weird; had to turn pages much faster), whose cover you also see above. Although it’s not visually recognizable as belonging to the series, I think it expresses the subject matter (at least of the mystery part of the book) better. I guess the usual series covers are more about Maisie; the large print cover is more about post-war madness. What do you think?

Despite some gentle criticisms, I still like Maisie and can’t wait to see her through! We have just two books left – the last having been released just last week. I’m so glad I’m involved with this series, and am so glad to have a group of people to share her with. Don’t forget to check in with Book Club Girl, where this book is being discussed. And we’ll meet again in two weeks for The Mapping of Love and Death.

An Incomplete Revenge, by Jacqueline Winspear. and, tattoos

Another very enjoyable Maisie Dobbs book! I am definitely hooked on the series at this point. Immediately after finishing An Incomplete Revenge, I started reading Pardonable Lies – that is, the third book in the series that I skipped over. Good stuff.

In this episode, Maisie ends up following Billy Beale and his family on their “working vacation” out to Kent, to pick hops and enjoy the air away from “the Smoke” (which apparently is London – I’m learning some Britishisms from these books, for sure). James Compton, the son of her original patroness and supporter, has come looking for her help in his business dealings in the small town of Heronsdene. His concern is with the strange events there, including petty crime and a fairly regular occurrence of arson. Since the Beales were already to be in the area, Maisie can use her assistant as usual.

I really liked the way this book opened with another woman’s perspective on Maisie – the weaving instructor, Marta, observes her and makes some guesses about her life. I appreciated an outsider’s view of her, since I think we often get Maisie’s point of view, even in third person.

We quickly learn some new and, I think, important details about Maisie’s personal history and past that I found valuable in understanding her, as well as entertaining in their own right. I’m glad Winspear gave her this new dimension. As I’ve said throughout the series, if Maisie lacks anything, it’s dimensions; perhaps Winspear is wise to mete them out sparingly like this, though, since I’m so interested and on the edge of my seat. Give me more! MORE!

The story itself (avoiding spoilers here) I found heartwrenching. I was surprised at the degree of forgiveness shown in the end – although the offended party does not call it forgiveness (he says, “that is not for me to do”), he does forbear to take (ahem) Complete Revenge. It was a satisfyingly complex and twisting story, with Winspear’s characteristic overarching, large-scale, human-condition themes, and I found the exotic addition of the gypsies to be a point of interest, too.

A few things caught my eye in this book. I really enjoyed the beautiful, sensual description on pages 219-220 of the War Office Repository. The polished dark wood floors, hushed tones, and onionskin papers, along with the emotions of the people doing their research (as imagined by Maisie), and the helpful clerk, “reminded [Maisie] of a library.” (They did me, too.) I’m a librarian, and am always excited to get a mention. :)

Another connection in this book that I REALLY enjoyed was the hop-picking! I’m a big fan of beer – I used to sell it for a living, and I’ve made pretty significant plans over it (like flying overseas), and it’s pretty important in my family – both my parents, and the Husband, and I are all beer people. And the HOPS are my favorite part. I’ve never picked any, but I have munched on fresh-dried ones, and, yum. I even have a tattoo: …because our littlest dog is named Hops, so now I have a tattoo for each dog. Here is Ritchey:

…and the two real-life models.

At any rate. Thanks for bearing with me through the tattoo gallery :) (there’s more where that came from, but I shall spare you). I’ll be commenting, as well, over at Book Club Girl‘s discussion post. Come on over! I’m so glad I’m participating in this read-along; it’s been great fun and I’ve discovered a new series I really enjoy.

Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear

Book 3 of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series by Jacqueline Winspear is called Pardonable Lies. From the author’s website (because I’m lazy, and because this is a fine one) I give you a synopsis:

In the third novel of this unique and masterly crime series, a deathbed plea from his wife leads Sir Cecil Lawton, KC, to seek the aid of Maisie Dobbs, psychologist and investigator. As Maisie soon learns, Agnes Lawton never accepted that her aviator son was killed in the Great War, a torment that led her not only to the edge of madness but also to the doors of those who practice the dark arts and commune with the spirit world. Determined to prove Ralph Lawton either dead or alive, Maisie is plunged into a case that tests her spiritual strength, as well as her regard for her mentor, Maurice Blanche. The mission will bring her to France and reunite her with her old friend Priscilla Evernden, who lost three brothers in the war, one of whom has an intriguing connection to the case.

Set against a finely drawn portrait of life between the World Wars, Pardonable Lies is “a thrilling mystery that will enthrall fans of Jacqueline Winspear’s heroine and likely win her new ones” (Detroit Free Press).

This episode involves the rift between Maisie and her mentor, Maurice. I’m not terribly impressed with Maisie’s decision-making in this book. I think it’s a time of growth and learning for her, though. Out of her rift with Maurice comes a greater independence in her own work (which is rather patronizingly and, I thought, unnecessarily explained to us by Winspear), which she did need. But she also showed a stubbornness in this book that endangers her own health and therefore those things she cares so much about: her business, her cases, Billy’s employment. She needs to confess that she’s human, and be willing to accept help when it’s both offered and needed. I was also frustrated with her treatment of Dr. Dene. I know she has precious little experience “walking out with” a man, and her one love affair ended tragically and she’s hurt. Still, I felt that she treated Dene rather cruelly. Surely someone as intuitive as Maisie could come up with more humane behavior towards a man who rather loves her, who she cares for (if less) in return. But I guess that’s the great irony: psychologists with screwy relationships, mechanics whose cars don’t run. Right?

But, I had a good time with Maisie, again; enjoyed the several cases she solved and the puzzles she unriddled. I thought the case of Avril was interesting, but I especially enjoyed the cases of the two missing soldiers. I think Winspear’s best subject matter may be the war and it’s painful aftermath; perhaps that’s why these were such powerful, moving stories. That, and I love Priscilla and enjoy getting to know her family.

Although I am very, very late, I am heading over to Book Club Girl‘s website to join the discussion about this book, so come on over there with me if you like. On Monday, March 14, I’ll be posting, and we’ll be discussing, An Incomplete Revenge. Next up (in order, and on time!) I’ll be reading-along book 6 of the Maisie series, Among the Mad. Stay tuned!

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