Tag Archives: World War I

Review: The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson

22nd January 2013

Via Goodreads

*I received this book from the publisher Soho Press in exchange for an honest review.

When her father dies, Sari Arany stays motionless, “soaking in the impossibility that she could still be living while her father was dead” and stays there until she feels his presence gone. As she says, “It was all right for her to leave him then.” An outcast in her rural Hungarian village, Sari is the daughter of a táltos, a Wise Man, and with her odd personality and direct stare, is feared as a witch.

Before his death, though, Sari’s father extracted a promise from Sari’s cousin Ferenc, that he will marry her when she is of age. Until then, she lives with Judit, the midwife, furthering the village’s suspicions. When World War I breaks out, the men leave, and the women are left to fend for themselves, and life for Suri changes. Though still different, she has friends for the first time when the hardships of war bring the women in the community together. They receive little news from the men, and for some, life is better without their drunken, abusive husbands.

When a prisoner of war camp full of Italian men moves into Ferenc’s family home, the women, excited and nervous, line up for work and to catch a glimpse of men after such a long time without a male presence. As the rules become more lax, the women enjoy the men, many even having affairs and falling in love.

Once the war is over, this idyllic (though hedonistic) scene is shattered. Ferenc returns sullen and abusive, as do many of the war-shocked men. Fearful and angry, Sari plans to take the life of Ferenc, only realizing her mistake when other women line up at the door, begging Sari and Judit to help them with their own husbands.

Based on a true story, The Angel Makers is the almost unbelievable story of the women of Nagyrév, who poisoned over 40 people between 1914 and 1929 (though the rumored number is much higher: 300). Gregson sets the crimes up well, giving the women a taste of freedom and love so irresistible that they cannot return to the ways of life before the war. The abuse is shocking and intense so that the reader completely understands when Sari administers the first dose of poison to Ferenc. However, as woman after woman asks, begs, or bargains for help, the reader questions not only their choices but Sari’s as well.

Though I wished for an end as lyrical as the rest of The Angel Makers and a bit more depth in the female cast of characters, Gregson’s debut novel is an artful, compassionate, and darkly humorous look at the angel makers of Nagyrév.

Add this to your shelf on Goodreads.

A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd

31st May 2012

*I won a copy of this book from Book Club Girl. Thanks!

Synopsis from the author’s website:

When battlefield nurse Bess Crawford returns from France for a well-earned Christmas leave, she finds a bruised and shivering woman huddled in the doorway of her London residence. The woman has nowhere to turn, and, propelled by a firm sense of duty, Bess takes her in. Once inside Bess’s flat the woman reveals that a quarrel with her husband erupted into violence, yet she wants to go home—if Bess will come with her to Sussex. Realizing that the woman is suffering from a concussion, Bess gives up a few precious days of leave to travel with her. But she soon discovers that this is a good deed with unforeseeable consequences.

What Bess finds at Vixen Hill is a house of mourning. The woman’s family has gathered for a memorial service for the elder son who has died of war wounds. Her husband, home on compassionate leave, is tense, tormented by jealousy and his own guilty conscience. Then, when a troubled house guest is found dead, Bess herself becomes a prime suspect in the case. This murder will lead her to a dangerous quest in war-torn France, an unexpected ally, and a startling revelation that puts her in jeopardy before a vicious killer can be exposed.

Ah, Bess. You’re so kind and generous. You see, people impose quite a lot on Bess, and because she’s a woman of duty, a duty instilled by her Army father, Bess does what she feels is right. She helps regardless of whether or not the individuals deserve to be helped, and I admire her for that because the family in this novel tested my patience. The family inhabits the house, but they aren’t the liveliest bunch. Yes, there is a war on, and yes, the family has lost one of their own, but they’re also harboring family secrets. A long-dead daughter’s portrait stares down at them, and Lydia (the woman Bess finds on her doorstep) cannot discuss children with her husband without the memory of her husband’s sister bearing down on them. It’s an oppressive atmosphere, and that oppression increases when one of the house party is found dead.

Bess comes under suspicion and will have to prove herself at every turn, and honestly, that’s what I loved about this book. Bess is at the front for much of it, nursing and passing messages between aid stations in her quest for the truth. The toll the war is taking is ever present and is mirrored in the family as well as Bess’s own frustration and fear.

Simon Brandon, her father’s right-hand man and family friend, is back, but another man is vying for Bess’s attention, and I really enjoyed seeing bits of a fun and free Bess, one who knows her duty but still manages to appreciate the playful spirit of others.

If you haven’t picked up this series yet, what are you waiting for? It’s got a strong female lead; it’s set during World War I. It’s part mystery and part historical fiction. Buy it for your Nook now, and you’ll be ready for the newest book An Unmarked Grave, set to hit bookshelves on June 25!

Psst! Check out the updated review of Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon to see if you were one of two winners!


A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd

The Cove by Ron Rash

17th April 2012

*I received this book from the publisher Ecco for the TLC Book Tours.

Coincidence and ignorance, Miss Calicut said, but there had been times in the last year, especially after her father died, that Laurel felt she herself might be a ghost. Did a ghost even know it was a ghost? Days would pass and Laurel wouldn’t see a single living soul. Wasn’t that what a ghost was, a thing cut off from the living?

In World War I-era Appalachian North Carolina, superstitions and ignorance still rule. Laurel Shelton was born with a birthmark that locals in Mars Hill believe marks her as a witch, a suspicion reinforced as tragedy after tragedy strikes the cove where the Sheltons live. Forced to leave school by fearful parents of other schoolchildren, she cares for her ailing father while her brother goes off to World War I, and Laurel is lonely, lonelier still when her father dies, leaving her alone in the cove, where she sometimes doesn’t speak to anyone else for weeks.

Hank returns, wounded but alive, and brother and sister work hard to build up their land when a young mute man changes everything.

As she washes clothes in the stream one warm afternoon, Laurel hears a sweet song, the song of brightly-colored parakeets that once populated the cove. But the song isn’t from those birds, long gone after farmers began killing them. Instead, a man is playing a silver flute, tucked in the trees, hidden away. When she sees the man again, he is covered in yellow jacket stings, near death, and in taking him in, Laurel allows herself to hope for a bit of happiness, a happiness that will be shortlived, as the man has secrets darker and deeper than the cove.

This is a book of interiors, meaning much of what we know or learn is based on the characters’ interior thoughts, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a “show, don’t tell” kind of girl, but Ron Rash knows what he’s doing. Laurel has lived largely in her head, isolated and lonely, so it feels natural that Laurel’s thoughts are the place to which she would turn to narrate her story. Laurel is strong, but she is also heartbreaking. When Walter is preparing to leave, he kisses her briefly, and she tells herself, “Let it be enough. There’s been times you’d not believe you could have even this much.”

Because Laurel is truly an outcast. People cross the street if she is walking on the sidewalk. She is told not to touch the fabric in the dressmaker’s shop, and The Cove highlights outcasts: Chauncey Feith is a much-maligned army recruiter whose wealthy dad is the only reason he isn’t knee deep in trench mud. Slidell lives between the Shelton place and town, symbolic of his daddy’s unpopular stance as a “Lincolnite” and his own position as outcast all these many years later. Then there’s Walter, a man with talent but unable to show or use it because of his past.

Much of the novel is exposition, and it does drag the novel down a bit, particularly as some of these characters aren’t all that well developed. Walter and Slidell, for example, are given cursory scenes in which their pasts are brought forward while Chauncey Feith, the stereotypical coward and army dilettante, has several chapters in which to develop his dastardly character, except as a stereotype, he doesn’t change. It seemed an odd choice to lend him so much of the narrative. Additionally, while much of the novel is slow, detailing Laurel’s everyday activities and the digging of a well, the action at the end is rushed and confusing.

But Ron Rash is a beautiful writer, one that exposes the best and worst of human nature without preaching. Laurel’s happiness is infectious, but it is also apparent that the cove, or at least, those who allow the superstitions of the cove to govern them, cannot leave Laurel be.

The Cove is a novel of hope and dread, ignorance and truth, prejudice and acceptance, evocative of place and time.

 Read other reviews on the book tour here.




A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd

27th March 2012

*I bought this book on my Nook Color.

Bess Crawford is a nursing sister during World War I. Having been raised in a military family in India, Bess is not the typical Englishwoman. She is self assured and independent. Her father is highly respected in the forces but never had a son; thus, Bess has her parents’ full support (and worry) when she decides to join up. And rightly so. Bess is injured when the Britannic is attacked, and her bravery is immediately apparent as she helps to save others while herself dealing with a badly-broken arm.

While home recuperating, Bess is haunted by the dying wish of Arthur Graham. He wanted her to personally deliver a message to his family. Bess knows she should go, but it’s an emotional journey as Bess cared more than she should have about Arthur. So when she finds that Mrs. Graham and Arthur’s two brothers indifferent to his deathbed utterances, Bess finds she cannot simply leave, and the longer she stays, the more deeply she embroils herself in the family’s dark past and the Grahams’ willingness to keep those secrets buried.

I joined Jennifer from Book Club Girl in her Bess Crawford Readalong because I am so caught up in World War I. As you saw in last week’s post about Maisie Dobbs, it’s a time period that changed the world in many ways, so I couldn’t wait to get started with the story of Bess Crawford.

Also, I cannot help but discuss Maisie when I discuss Bess. I like them for two completely different reasons. Maisie must work hard for her position, and she has dealt with quite a lot in her young life. Though Bess comes from a much different background, the war equalizes. Bess is afforded no special treatment as the daughter of a high-ranking officer, and she doesn’t expect it. Neither is she a professional detective. Instead, it is the sense of duty instilled in Bess that causes her to poke and prod in order to find out the truth.

And prod she must. The Grahams have a secret they are intent on taking to their respective graves, and that secret has made them an unpleasant lot. Mrs. Graham buries her head in the sand and won’t really discuss the situation with Bess, but she poses leading questions, trying to ascertain if Bess knows anything about the family. There’s a mysterious brother, Peregrine, who is in a nearby asylum and who, during Bess’s stay, takes ill. The family seems, again, indifferent. The two remaining brothers, Timothy and Jonathan, are brusque to the point of rudeness, and when Bess is called on to help the local doctor whose patient has a bad case of shell shock, they make horrible comments insinuating the man needs to “deal with it” and get back to normal.

What’s so great about Bess? Bess is so easy to relate to. She isn’t a professional, and because of that, she isn’t always 100% sure of herself in terms of digging. She is certainly confident in herself and her abilities, but she also admits when she’s stumped/unsettled/needs help. She feels bound by duty, which is easy to understand in a family whose code is honor.

Why does she stay with the Grahams? By all rights, the Grahams are pretty miserable people to be around. They keep Bess around when they need her, and when she’s no longer useful, they give her the boot. As I mentioned, she stays because it’s her duty, but I think she also had strong feelings for Arthur. The more she’s around her family, the more she realizes she really didn’t know him at all, and it helps her to heal a bit.

Why should anyone start this series? Well, I’ll go ahead and admit that I quickly read every Bess Crawford book once I finished this one. I couldn’t stop, and the further into the series, the more you see the face of the Great War and how it affected everyone involved. Several of the books follow Bess to the front, and the writing is very evocative. Plus, the idea of “leave” is so interesting. Mostly when you think of war, you think of soldiers down in the trenches from start to finish. “Leave” seems an odd part of war, though I can certainly see why it was necessary. And in the latest Bess Crawford, I think there might be romance brewing down the line, which is something that the Maisie series gives out only sparingly.

One last thing to note: I’ve read on goodreads that many people are turned off the Maisie Dobbs series because of the sort of “otherworldliness” of Maisie’s training from Maurice, and it can be a bit much to take in – her intuition is much more literal than most mean the term, and her odd quirks seem to turn some readers off. I will say that Bess is much more accessible because she is amateur and also because her methods are more straightforward. So. If you aren’t a Maisie fan, it does not mean you won’t like Bess. Quite the opposite, really.

Any takers? Or have you read any Charles Todd before? Should I try the Ian Rutledge series?

Buy this book from Indiebound or for your Nook.

Series Obsession: Mad for Maisie

22nd March 2012

You guys know I have a tendency to gush about my favorite series, right? I mean, I wouldn’t leave you alone about Miss Silver and only haven’t blogged about her because my habit was getting pricey. Then there’s the Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series that I devoured. Then I discovered Bess Crawford, the series by Charles Todd (which I will tell you about next week), and I read all the books in that series in a weekend. So yeah. I love a good series.

I first discovered Maisie Dobbs in Target many moons ago. Now I know some people swear by the book selection at their Target, but I was never all that impressed with ours. Plus, if I’m going to buy a book, I’m going straight to Barnes & Noble, our only bookstore in this area. However, Target is one of those places I go when I need a pick-me-up. It’s so cheery. And what better way to put a bounce in your step than to buy a new book? That was probably 7 or 8 years ago, and I read Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear. The novel stuck with me because of Maisie.

Can I gush?

Maisie Dobbs is a grown-up Nancy Drew, except she’s not privileged like Nancy, though she does run around in a spiffy little MG, and honey, I loved me some Nancy Drew. We’re talking lights-out-read-under-the covers-in-the-dark kind of love. I’d pretend I was asleep when my mom came in and reminded me (knowing I was awake) that I would ruin my eyes reading in the dark. I loved Nancy because she was afraid of a lot, but she did what she had to do anyway.

That’s Maisie. Except instead of being scared of noises made by peacocks, Maisie’s dodging shrapnel. Let me explain…

Maisie goes to work as a domestic for Lady Rowan when she’s young because her mother has died, and her father isn’t bringing in all that much money. Maisie is devastated to leave her father, but she knows a job is necessary, and the Comptons have quite a library. Used to early hours, Maisie begins getting up very early to read in the library until the Comptons come in very early and catch her, tucked away with a book. Lady Rowan, spying the intellect in the young girl, puts her through school where Maisie excels until she joins up as a nursing sister during World War I. After these experiences, which leave her scarred both mentally and physically, Maisie returns to school and trains with Dr. Maurice Blanche, an eccentric man who mentors Maisie in psychology and the human spirit.

Can we also talk about my obsession with World War I?

There is something undeniably interesting about this time period, and I didn’t need the Downton Abbey craze to tell me that. In part, I think it’s because the role of women changed so much during and after this war that it left an indelible mark on society. Maisie is a perfect example of that: she starts her own business as “psychologist and investigator” – with a male assistant, Billy. Her cases inevitably lead both her and Billy back into their wartime experiences in an England still catching its breath after the atrocities of war. It’s an incredibly unique perspective.

Anyway, Jacqueline Winspear will be in Houston at Murder by the Book next Wednesday, and I so wish I could go. It starts at 6:30 p.m., the same time I tutor two men for the TOEFL test. If you’re anywhere near there, make sure you head over. The newest book Elegy for Eddie comes out next week as well, and I may have to suck in and spend full price for the hardback. Or, maybe it will be a bit less for the ebook. We. Shall. See.

In the meantime, if you have a Nook and want to read the first book in the series Maisie Dobbs, definitely let me know. We’ll do the whole share thing, and you can borrow it! This series doesn’t have to be read in order, but there is a definite character progression. If you want more info on each individual book, TLC Book Tours is having Maisie March, and there are tons of blogs participating with reviews for all the books. Check it out here at the TLC Books website.

Buy the books from Indiebound or for your Nook.