Archive for the ‘British fiction’ Tag

Jacqueline Winspear’s “A Lesson in Secrets” Keeps Many


When I discovered that Jacqueline Winspear had a new Maisie Dobbs novel out, I decided I would buy it immediately, and then read it immediately. I got it the same day it came out and finished it by the weekend. “A Lesson in Secrets” finds Maisie as a professor in Cambridge. However, it isn’t Cambridge University, rather a small start up school founded on private donations and dedicated to promoting peace rather than war. Maisie is asked by the police and Secret Service to go undercover at this school in order to find out more about the school’s founder. He is under suspicion for causing dissension among British soldiers, based on a children’s book that he wrote. As usual, Maisie is wholly dedicated to completing her assignment, along with helping Billy Beale, her assistant, and his family find a new home; rescue a bereaved and vengeful widow; and unsuccessfully trying to ignore her love life. And, also per usual, she succeeds at all her endeavors.

Perhaps it is the breadth of problems Miss Dobbs faces that makes the novel lose focus. Or perhaps it is my own bias towards academia that disappointed me when virtually no mention was made of Maisie as a professor of philosophy. Honestly, I didn’t care for it. The writing and story seemed more rushed. Typically, Winspear’s novels have three parts to it: the job, the family/friends, the personal. This one blurred lines, and had tangents that were sent off into the dark. For example, the young widow who’s husband was mysteriously killed. Sure, she saw something of her own past in this woman, but hardly any attention was given to her and the woman’s difficulties were often a complication of the plot, rather than a fully formed subplot. I think it would have been better just to leave it out altogether. Also, the help she gave to Billy and his family was a kind gesture, but just another thing she had to worry about. I don’t mind subplots, I just like them a little more well-done.

When I read that Maisie was going to go undercover as a philosophy professor I was even more excited than I would be about a new Maisie book. I imagined re-learning philosophy from the perspective of this admiral character and author. I thought I would be re-introduced to a philosophy I hadn’t given much thought to prior to reading her perspective. I see now that I put my expectations WAY too high. The only mention of the class was when Maisie was walking out it, into it, thinking about it, late to it, or just simply missing it. Then I thought that however high my expectations, that I deserved a little bit of philosophy and therefore became disappointed rather that disillusioned (that feeling could be represented in the relationship between projectile vomiting and feeling vaguely nauseated).

I don’t wish to say that I actively disliked it, I only say that it wasn’t one of my favorites. This is her eighth book and you can’t have a winner every time. I would say that “An Incomplete Revenge” (#5) was not the best, nor was “Among the Mad” (#6). Though, I do think that “Birds of a Feather” (#2) was her most powerful, and “The Messenger of Truth” (#5) was solid. ‘The Mapping of Love and Death” (#7) was excellent for many reasons that I can’t share without giving things away.

If you are a fan of the series, go ahead and read it. Sometimes you have to stick with authors through the good and the bad.

Booker Prize Winner 2010

I was really looking for a reason to read Tom McCarthy’s C, I know I shouldn’t need a reason, but I thought it would give me a really good reason to. Unfortunately, the Booker judges did not heed my letters, phone calls, and emails, and chose Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. This was really the only one I didn’t want to read. I can’t say that it’s undeserving, because I haven’t read it.

In other news, look for an upcoming writing experiment on comparing Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna to President Obama, socialism, and Tea Party rhetoric. It’s time to get serious here.

Also, in case you haven’t got to it yet, a new issue of Bookslut is up. I always try to take a late night to scoop it all in.

Also, halfway through Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I know I’m a little late to the train on that one. But it’s a long train and makes frequent stops. The paperback isn’t coming out until January of 2011, so I figured I’d try it. It definitely has an interesting subject: black maids in 1950’s Mississippi get together with a white woman to tell stories about how they are mistreated. The big political issue of the book  ist that a young white woman wants to install all white homes with “negro” bathrooms. The voices are varied, maybe a little stereotypical, but not unlikable.  The writing is mediocre, but the story is powerful enough that one overlooks it. Full review is forthcoming.

Also in the middle of Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants (she just won a MacArthur Genius Grant, how wonderful) and Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, published by the beautiful people at Melville House. Check out their blog MobyLives, if you haven’t yet. They always have thoughtful and in-depth opinions about the publishing industry, the business of selling books, and the ever-constant, ever-annoying debate on e-books.

Little Bee and Other Thoughts

Some things I’ve discovered:

a. I subscribe to a lot of book review blogs via googlereader, and the ones that go on and on (rather like some of mine), I kinda skip over most of what they say. Unless it’s a book I’m really interested in reading, I just scroll through. So because of this realization, my posts will be a little shorter, more focused, and less rambling.

b. I like links, so expect to see more links. I look to link, if liking linking move…

c. I’ll be posting more often.

So let’s begin.

First, a piece of Wordsworth’s Prelude found in the marginalia of Virginia Woolf’s letters (via Fernham)

“The matter that detains us now may seem, 
To many, neither dignified enough
Nor arduous, yet will not be scorned by them,
Who, looking inward, have observed the ties
That bind the perishable hours of life
Each to the other, & curious props
By which the World of memory & thought
Exists and is sustained. ”
–Wordsworth, The Prelude, 7:458-65

It would seem that this is something in the way of what Woolf was thinking when she wrote Mrs. Dalloway. It is amazing the way that we look at the hours of our days, how they string together, unending, and sometimes we think we cannot face them.  And it suggests, along with Mrs. Dalloway, that all we have are our undignified moments, thoughts and memories to bind us to the outside. That we cannot always be forthright and meaningful in our actions and thoughts is not only something to accept, but something to embrace.

Also, I know I’m behind the ball on this, but Jose Saramago died last week. I think Blindness was one of THE best books I’ve ever read. So good, in fact, that I didn’t want to read Seeing because I loved the pessimism of the first. The excerpt from the interview at Second Pass really illuminates why. Read it here.

And, finally, Little Bee by Chris Cleave. I read this book in two sittings of about an two hours a piece, because I absolutely loved it. It moved very quickly, the pacing and the plotting, even though it switched perspectives. It is the story of Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee who has escaped to London and arrived at a woman’s door on the day of that woman’s husband’s funeral. The three of them had meet a year or so earlier on a Nigerian beach and something that happened there changed their lives forever. So you gotta know, what happened? Well, you get Bee’s perspective and Sarah’s. And don’t worry, Cleave won’t let you down. In the meantime, or real time, Sarah and her adorable son, who will only answer to Batman, are dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s death. Sarah’s lover shows up and doesn’t take to Bee at all, but Sarah feels it is her duty to help Bee become a legal citizen of the UK.

In addition to the plot, the characters are so wonderful. They are flawed, yet they care. They are complex and thoughtful, they make mistakes. Except for Batman. He only sees “goodies” and “baddies”, though sometimes he isn’t sure which is which. In a grey world, he reminded me of that childlike simplicity of needing to know whether someone was going to help you or hurt you. The effect was sometimes humorous, and sometimes sad.

Other than that, I can’t tell you much about it. There are a lot of surprises and I don’t want to ruin it. You should read it. Go and do it. Now.

Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers

I honestly cannot tell you why it took me so long to get to this book. I saw it over a year ago, in hardcover and for some reason, never bought it, even though I always wanted to. I think I thought it would disappoint me.  I often dislike novels based on real people, not because I think people shouldn’t speculate on the hidden lives of celebrities, but for a very stylistic reason. The authors repeat the characters’ names too often. As in, “Vanessa said to Virginia, ‘Virginia, my name is Vanessa and I am the sister of Virginia, but you already knew that didn’t you, Virginia?’ ‘What, Vanessa?”, asked Virgina. “That my name is Vanessa.’ “, and so on.  It drives me crazy, it’s as if the author needs to draw more attention to the fact that he/she is writing about a famous person.

This book, however, had none of that. It was perfectly balanced.

More than what this book is about, what happens, the chronology of events, etc., is the feelings and thoughts it inspired in me. It made me reconsider many of my previous opinions and thoughts about Woolf and Bell and brought them into focus as people rather that abstract subjects to study.

This book is Vanessa’s life. It is from her perspective and moves almost like a infrequently-written journal, flitting between place and time without any reference to the fact that time has passed or the location has moved. I did wonder, while reading, whether I understood it because I’m fairly familiar with the events of Virginia Woolf’s life. Either way, it was almost ethereal the way it moved and flowed effortlessly. 

It takes us through the beginnings of Vanessa and Virginia’s life, in the Stephen home and makes reference to all the major events in Virginia’s life, but through the eyes of Vanessa’s. So much attention has been given to Woolf (rightfully so), but Vanessa is so often overlooked. I think that we are too keen to use personal tragedy as the precursor to artistic output, especially in writing. Since Vanessa was not a writer, her tragedies are felt more on a personal level, rather than fiction fodder.

The book also investigates, but does not dwell on, Vanessa’s various extra-marital affairs, and the heartbreak it caused her. Sellers also spends a good bit of time on Vanessa’s artistic process and her feelings as she attempts to compete with her sister’s growing popularity. Even as jealousy and competition mount, the two sisters are ever connected and hold each other up almost without fail.

There is a small surprise at the end, which I won’t give away, because I think it is wonderfully done, and it should be appreciated without bias. It suggests how close the two sisters actually were and solidified in my mind that the ones to mourn after a death are the ones left behind.

More buying than reading, really

Lately, I’ve been buying more books than I’ve actually been reading. I have finished a couple of books that were required for work. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant. I’m now on to The Lace Reader for book club and it’s shite.

I’ve purchased, however, a number of books. They include: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie, Howards End by E.M. Forster, Columbine by Dave Cullen, Granta: Work, and First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Zizek. And I haven’t finished any of them. I have only started Columbine and have almost finished the Granta: Work magazine.

I could talk about Cutting for Stone though. It was pretty good. Actually it was quite epic, a bildungsroman. It has, at its center, Marion and Shiva Stone, who are the twin children of a doctor and a nun. Both of their parents worked at the Mission hospital  (called Missing, because of the difficulty in pronouncing Mission) in Ethiopia, but do not figure into their lives. Their adoptive parents, Hema and Ghosh raise them in the hospital and they both wish to become doctors. Marion goes to America and gets his degree and Shiva stays and becomes a gynecologist in Ethiopia and pioneers a cure for a fatal vaginal disease. This is just one of the threads of this wonderfully told story.

Marion, during his childhood and adolescence, falls in love with Genet, the illegitimate daughter of a lower class Ethiopian woman and an unknown man. He wishes to wait for his marriage to her before having sex. She does not share his feelings. She betrays him and things are never the same.

Marion and Shiva also share an ineffable connection. They were connected at the head at birth, before their father attempted to sever their connection, not caring if they died in the process. Later, Hema comes to their rescue as infants and they are delivered safely. Verghese explores this connection mainly from Marion’s point-of-view and with his authority, we are to assume that Shiva is/thinks/acts exactly as Marion describes him.

There is also a historical element to the story. It is set in Ethiopia in the 1950’s when there were many military coups attempting to overthrow the government and rule for the people. The problem with that is that the “people” are varied and diverse, and many of them died during this coup. The terror and violence come to Missing Hospital in the form of Genet, who has taken up with a revolutionary group and hijacked a plane. Under torture, accomplices of Genet implicate Marion and he must leave the country.

All the threads are wrapped up, though not in particularly satisfying ways. Verghese seems a little rushed at the end. Where he took pages and pages to describe moments in the beginning of the book, he skips over years in paragraphs. I suppose his page count was getting a little high. Still, it is a wonderfully written book with a story that you don’t often hear, a perspective you don’t often see. His writing is deliberate, focused, slow, and expansive.  I really enjoyed it overall.

Since I have been so neglectful, I shall also tell you about Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts. I had the pleasure of meeting this wonderful woman last week, her enthusiasm about Renaissance history took over the room. She talked for over an hour, but I don’t think anyone noticed.

Sacred Hearts takes place in a convent in Renaissance Italy before the Counter Reformation and the edicts passed by the Council of Trent, but only just before. Those in power are starting to feel the shift and are doing all they can to keep the convent from sticking out. What makes that difficult for this particular convent is the arrival of Serafina, a rebellious young girl who was put into the convent against her will and who will stop at nothing to escape. She is put into the care of Zuana, the dispensary mistress, with the hopes that she will be distracted by learning something that will benefit the rest of the convent. Serafina is young and does not appreciate it and begins to plot her escape…with the help of her musician lover outside the walls. I will not tell you what happens, but I will switch over and tell you more about what’s happening around Serafina.

There is a very interesting part about a nonagenarian nun, Magdalena, who, in her younger days, was declared a living saint. She had stigmata and confessed to having visions of Christ.  The problem with this was that Magdalena was a common woman and could be viewed as having a personal relationship with god that did not require the church. At this time, the church had influence in all affairs, within and without the church. Everyone needed guidance on the way to god, if this woman was having ecstasies without the church, she could be dangerous and declared a heretic. Magdalena was then confined to a cell to wait out her years. Everything is relatively quiet until Serafina arrives.

Through many plot twists, Serafina becomes the project of the novice mistress Umiliana, who pushes Serafina’s fasting past a healthy point and believes that Serafina will become another Magdalena and solidify Umiliana as a powerful member of the convent and perhaps oust Madonna Chiara (the current abbess). But Chiara is too smart for this, and with the help of Zuana, their comeback takes Umiliana down.

I enjoyed this novel because it had the intrigue and suspense of a good mystery, with a lot of history and strong female characters. I never thought of the fact that women within a convent had more opportunity to educate themselves and learn a trade that women outside, who were confined to being wives and mothers.

There you go, two very different books and I enjoyed both of them.

A Quick Update on What I’m Reading

No time for a full post today. I just wanted to give you a taste for what reviews are upcoming.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. It’s a monster of a book, but it’s for book club, so you can guarantee I’ll finish it. I’m loving it, I really don’t want it to end. Perhaps that’s why it’s taking so long.

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks. I just began this morning, around 7 am. Now, that may just be too early for all the characters Faulks has running about. Or that feeling of the overabundance of characters may continue even in later hours reading.

Columbine by Dave Cullen. This book is compelling, interesting, well-researched, and a little  horrific. I’ve only finished the first part. The first part takes the position of a bystander, albeit  from many different locations, but one who doesn’t have any inside information. I feel like that is about to change.

The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell. I was an evangelist for The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, a great read and book club book. And the US cover is to die for. I’m already loving her writing and have figured out that the contemporary character has postpartum depression (not giving anything away). Like in Vanishing Act, she has two stories of women intertwined and separated by about 40 years. I do prefer the young woman in the 50’s rather than the contemporary woman. Alexandra is far more feisty and interesting. Though I fear she won’t be given her due.

*Also, I’ve posted some more links to various book blogs I’ve discovered when I wasn’t motivated to write. So please give them a look. I’ve enjoyed them a lot.

It all started with Glover’s Mistake by Nick Laird (Zadie Smith’s husband) a few months ago. While it is about many things, it is mostly about three people’s messed up lives and all the mistakes they make, continuously. I realized at the end, well really at the beginning, that I didn’t like any of the characters.  James Glover was a naive little opportunist who dates and is engaged to a complete narcissist artist, Ruth Marks. They are introduced by a passive-aggressive awkward computer nerd who posts negative reviews of movies, books, and people on his little blog, David Pinner. The fact that he introduced them is the major conflict of the story, he wishes he hadn’t because he’s in love with this ridiculous woman. Glover and Pinner are flatmates, and Pinner fashions himself as a self-created art critic/public intellectual that lords over Glover’s kind nature that seeps into his slowness to make the reader almost pity him, almost. Soon enough, Glover makes a mistake and Pinner is faced with the choice of keeping the confidences of his friend or making an anonymous phone call to Ruth to tell her of the mistake. Which do you think he chooses?

There is nothing, not one thing, that is redeeming about any of these characters. You are not supposed to love them, forgive them, pity them, sympathize with them; they are abhorrent creatures. And I found that I liked them. Not just liked, but loved their bad decisions, the error of the assurance, the misplaced confidence that comes with a truly selfish act.

Then I read Mavis Gallant’s The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories. Gallant’s book has been receiving a lot of reviews lately (here in the Guardian, here at NPR by bookslut.com’s Jessa Crispin) and so I tried it out. Plus, I couldn’t resist the lovely New York Review of Books cover. It is more difficult to discuss short story collection, because one is either reductive and discusses all of them, or too specific and ignores the complexity of the collection. But for space, and because I want to get where I’m really going, I’ll sum up. I didn’t dislike the character in Gallant’s stories, but I didn’t like them either. They mostly made bad decisions that led to uncomfortable or undesired situations. The characters were kind of floating around life, not sure where they were going, but pretty damn sure they weren’t supposed to be where they were. Her stories did not inspire me, or give me good feelings about the world. It actually reinforced my view that no body really knows what the hell they are doing, that everyone is just floating.

So let’s recap: decisions, particularly bad decisions, are very interesting, especially when you experience a character’s bad decisions with them. You are almost a part of their decision, a silent aide, a passive bystander, and forced to take their perspective.

All these thoughts and feelings reached the boiling point in Ian McEwan’s soon-to-be-released novel Solar. The reader is introduced to Michael Beard three times: 2000, 2005, and 2009. I say “introduced” because it is almost like meeting a new person each time; he certainly wishes to reivent his life each moment. Don’t let that last statement mislead you into thinking that  he is some kind of positive-thinking spiritual nut. Oh no, Michael Beard is one of the most self-centered and flawed characters I’ve ever read. He is a Nobel Prize winning scientist for the Einstein-Beard Conflation (which is never really given in detail, only that he improved upon Einstein’s Theory of Relativity), and that was the last bit of science he did, almost 20 years ago. He’s overweight, has had 5 wives and his current wife is happily and openly having an affair. And that’s only in 2000. In 2005 he’s still done nothing in science, and feels he’s falling behind in the new theories, but hides under the laurels of his Conflation. In 2005 he upsets a varying degree of scientists and liberal arts professors by, mindlessly and unintentionally, declaring that there are biological differences in men and women and that they should be developed in light of those sexual differences. Eventually, the press and media start on insults of “eugenicist” and “neo-Nazi”. In 2009, there is a lawsuit being brought against him that threatens his solar energy project.

I don’t want to give anything away, because McEwan always has some surprises and these are significantly larger than the turns in his other novels. But moving with my theme, I will say that I didn’t like Beard. He made decisions that were wrong, selfish, and was punished for them. He had no self-control yet desired it. Never comfortable, always striving, falling short, and rationalizing the shortcoming. But I loved it, despite Beard’s selfishness.

I’m not really sure if my preference for these types of books reflect some kind of inner turmoil, or if it is a larger movement on the part of civilization on an unending quest to find well-written literature about something positive, and failing.  I’m going to go with both, for now.

P.S. I don’t wish to get in the habit of reviewing things that haven’t been released, but I can’t promise it won’t happen again.

Are you ready for my review of “Wolf Hall”? More importantly, am I?

A few weeks ago, I finished Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall. First I’ll give you my impressions leading up to reading it. Then, I’ll tell you how I felt after reading it. And last, I’ll give me review. It’s like eating the bun of a cheeseburger before you eat the meat.

I had been waiting for weeks, checking the release date, making sure they hadn’t moved it up, reading all the excerpts and reviews I could from UK websites, etc. I even listened to her speak about the book at the LRB bookshop along with Sarah Dunant. I don’t even know why I was so excited about this book. It’s not even a time period I particularly care for, the Tudors are overdone, out of the oven and into the bin, really. But it was promised to be a different treatment, a {brace yourself} revisionist history of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More. Probably the desire for something I couldn’t have put me over the edge, more than anything else. So I bought it, hardcover, no freebies this time.

After finishing the book, I have continued to think about it. It’s brilliant subtlety, it’s overt play with perspective, pronouns and language. It is always the curse of a good book. You have to find something that’s really good, but completely different, or else you’ll meld them together in your mind. But you find that nothing is quite that good, so you read something pretty bad to lower your standards, so you can be impressed when you read another great one. So I’ve been slowly meandering through the New York Review of Books and Maisie Dobbs (see my previous post). Not that either of these are bad, they are different and entertaining or informative, while Wolf Hall was brilliant.

Hilary Mantel had quite a task in front of her. Just about everyone of adult reading age knows the story of Henry VIII, six wives, no male heirs, schism with the Roman Catholic Church, the founding of the Anglican religion, etc. But really, instead of rehashing all that, she makes her focus Thomas Cromwell. From my very small bit of memory about Cromwell, I always remembered him as Henry’s watchdog, without much sense, good at being told what to do, and split up the church and helped a misogynist to find a woman of male child-bearing capabilities.

But this Cromwell is a family man, loyal first to Cardinal Wolsley (even after Wolsley loses favor with the king), and then right at Henry’s side. He has travelled extensively into Europe and trained in many professions, and though continuously reminded of his low birth, he is always trusted and feared by those above and below him. He is a businessman and a lawyer, he loves his family, those he loses and those who remain. He is a human, smart and wily, but sad and concerned.

Wolf Hall is more than just a character study of Thomas Cromwell, however. It touches and shares some of the more humanistic aspects of Henry, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More.  The reason Henry wants to be divorced from Katherine of Aragon is because he is in love with Anne Boleyn. They act like young lovers in public and they both get flustered around one another. Anne, however, is not portrayed as this passive little sparrow, who was swept up by the king and then left after she was unable to bear a male child. For Mantel, Boleyn and her family engineered all of this, set it up, played the cards right, and luckily, the king fell in love with her.

Mantel does not quibble about character flaws, she is upfront about who people are, no postmodern ambiguity here. Throughout the book, one comes to hate Thomas More.  He attempted to institute an English Inquisition, and personally tortures heretics throughout the book. His downfall comes when he refuses to sign the Act of Supremacy, which states the Henry VIII is the supreme head of the Church of England. He hates Cromwell and is jealous of his skillful maneuvering.  I suppose More has always been admired for his ideals, his staunch adherence to church dogma, and was willing to give his life for his beliefs. But in Wolf Hall he is damned.

So there’s the characters, what’s the story you ask? Well, it’s history as you know it. We are skipped from Cromwell’s childhood to a point in life where he has already become a trusted advisor of Cardinal Wolsley’s. Wolsley loses favor, lots of others vie for position, Henry has fallen in love, the Pope refuses divorce, Cromwell gets it for him, etc., etc.

Really, for me, the part of the novel that makes it all worth it is the last paragraph or so.  Just to set it up, Cromwell is setting up the king’s itinerary.

“From Bronham-we are now in early September-toward Winchester. Then Bishop’s Waltham, Alton, Alton to Farnham. He plots it out, across country. The object is to get the king back to Windsor for early October. He has his sketch map across the page, England in a drizzle of ink; his calendar, quickly jotted, running down it. ‘I seem to have four, five days in hand. Ah well. Who says I never get a holiday?’ Before ‘Bronham’, he makes a dot in the margin, and draws a long arrow across the page. ‘Now here, before we go to Winchester, we have time to spare, and what I think is, Rafe, we shall visit the Seymours.’ He writes it down. Early September. Five days. Wolf Hall.”

All that. 500+ pages. And the name of the book that foreshadows what we already know is to come. Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour. Brilliant. Mantel shows us that the actions of humans are sometimes planned out and sometimes not. That history is human actions, decisions, choices made and unmade. And that people are more than abstract terms of monarcy, government, religion, love, greed, and naviete. You should read it. Really.

The Brilliance of Maisie Dobbs

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is by far one of the best series I have ever read. I don’t usually have a lot of time or energy for series, unless they are something like Harry Potter or the Dark Tower series, which really have more to do with a fast-paced compelling plot immersed in a fantasy world that I have to pull myself out of, almost physically. But detective mysteries that span six or seven books, no thanks. I’m sure I would get bored of the character’s inner musings and how they solve the case, just in the nick of time, to save someone’s life, or reputation, or something.

Maisie Dobbs, while having some of these distasteful qualities, is something quite more. Let me explain. She is, of course, British and living in London (Fitzroy, to be exact) during the inter-war period. She is a psychologist investigator with a twinge of Eastern philosophy in her practice. As a young woman, the daughter of a working-class father and a mother who died young, she is sent to be a servant in Lady Compton’s home (who later becomes her good friend and benefactor). Before the war, she is at Girton (Cambridge) and falls in love. As with many people before WWI, when it began, all life that resembled anything recognizable is wiped away instantly. She becomes a nurse in France through the end of the war. When she returns, she finishes her education. She then becomes apprenticed to Maurice Blanche, a private investigator whose business she soon takes over.

If it is not already apparent, a single woman working as a psychologist investigator is a very unlikely situation in this period, but an intensely desirable one (for the modern reader). She is pretty, but not too aware of it, she is intelligent, practical, methodical, and in control of her emotions and aware of her feelings. Her character is one that inspires imitation, awe, and respect.

To move beyond her character and to the plots of the books is to really look into the confusion and sadness that many felt after the war. The betrayal and loss runs deep and creates all sorts of consequential actions and feelings, not always manifested in depression, but sometimes anger, violence, and pride. The plot of a Maisie Dobbs novel usually has 3 components. One is the case that Maisie is to solve. It has, so far, had something to do with the war: an unexplained death or disappearance that has its roots in the war. Two, a personal obstacle that Maisie must overcome, also related to her time as a nurse in France. And three, a problem with a close friend or colleague, also some issue with the war. Although formulaic, the three components are  interesting and move the plot along quite quickly. And, since the components are thematically related, the reader finds no trouble bouncing back and forth between them. Usually, the friend/colleague sub-plot is given less treatment but the denouement is quite emotional, for Maisie and her friend/colleague. The main case speaks to a larger question of the conduct of the war, what the big players were doing: the military, the government, private but quite rich individuals with a lot of influence. Maisie’s personal journey is the most emotional and has the biggest pay off, because at the end of the novel, you know more about this enigmatic Maisie Dobbs.

I highly recommend them, and while they provide a little something to think about,  they are ultimately light reading, a compelling few hundred pages before going to bed or to take your mind off something more difficult.

They are (because I like to list things):

Maisie Dobbs, Birds of a Feather, Pardonable Lies, Messenger of Truth, Incomplete Revenge, and Among the Mad.