Dying in the Wool: A Kate Shackleton Mystery by Frances Brody

We meet amateur sleuth and former World War I nurse, Kate Shackleton a few years after the conclusion of the war in her small village of Bridgestead, England in the first book of the Kate Shackleton Mystery series, Dying in the Wool  by Frances Brody.  Kate is still reeling from her husband being declared missing in the war but, at the same time,  continues to hold out hope that he is alive.  As a nurse in the war, Kate has picked up the skills of a sleuth in helping a few fellow nurses find missing loved ones.  She has gained quite the reputation as a novice detective and based on her reputation one fellow nurse, Tabitha Braithwaite, calls on Kate for a mystery of her own.

Tabitha is engaged to be married within weeks and her wish before she walks down the aisle is to find her father, Joshua Braithwaite, who mysteriously disappeared and no trace of him was ever found.  Was Mr. Braithwaite, the owner and operator of a textile mill, a victim of someone with a grudge, did he stage his own disappearance or is the truth something more sinister?  Kate has little time to dig to the bottom of the mystery before Tabitha’s wedding day.  She meets a cast of characters in the village, including many mill workers who may have a grudge against the powerful mill owner and are potential suspects.  Kate, along with Sykes, a former detective who she hires as an employee, get closer and closer to finding the truth with potential murderous results.  Told in alternative chapters merging past and present, Dying in the Wool  gives the reader a glimpse into British society and culture in the early 1920s within a cozy mystery.

One of the most unique aspects of this mystery is the detail that Brody adds to the novel regarding the British textile mill industry immediately following WWI.  It is clear she has done her research, giving the reader a sense of the intricacies of how this industry was run.  Readers of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series may want to consider starting this series (the eleventh book in the series came out in November).  I’m already nearly done the second book, A Medal for Murder, and am looking forward to the third!

The Poppy Wife by Caroline Scott

Edie believes her husband Francis died in 1918 in a horrific battle near the end of World War I when he is declared “missing, presumed killed”. But in 1921 she receives a photo of Francis in the mail with no letter or return address and she begins to wonder if he made it out alive and is waiting for her. She contacts Francis’s brother Harry, and asks him to help her, to either find Francis or find his grave.

Harry, who was with Francis when he was wounded, does not believe Francis is still alive, but he is in love with Edie and will do what he can to help. Harry has been working as a photographer, taking pictures of graves and battle-sites for grieving families back in England and he understands just how chaotic and devastated the French and Belgium countryside is – entire villages have completely disappeared, while others struggle to rebuild, fields are littered with shells and mortar and bones and whole forests are nothing but burned and broken stumps.

Returning to the places that Harry and Francis (and Will, their younger brother who was killed early in the war) fought is difficult for Harry as he is flooded with memories of what they had been, what they went through and what happened to them. It is obvious that Harry is suffering from what we now call PTSD but that he is coping and that Francis also suffered and was broken by the war. In addition, Harry is burdened with the fact that he has been in love with Edie for years and, while nothing happened between Harry and Edie, Francis cannot forgive him.

Edie and Harry, traveling both together and separately, meet a wide range of people suffering in the aftermath of the war – widows and families searching for lost soldiers (many that died were never identified or found) trying to find closure with a grave or memorial, veterans haunted by what they had witnessed, ordinary people struggling to survive.

The Poppy Wife paints an unapologetic portrait of “the Great War” and it’s devastating and long-reaching affects. The chapters move between the three brothers during the war and Harry and Edie’s search for Francis in 1921. Scott’s writing is calm and collected, almost poetic, but the horror and senselessness of what happened on those foreign fields is never far from the surface. And it is nearly impossible to put down as the tension and mystery builds. Highly recommended.

If you are interested in learning more about this time period, I highly recommend Vera Brittan’s Testament of Youth (which is not fiction but actually happened to her) which has been made into a mini-series, to watch A Very Long Engagement starring Audrey Tautou, and Peter Jackson’s brilliant documentary They Shall Not Grow Old in which footage from the war has been remastered, bringing the time vividly to life.

Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly

Two women from very different worlds form an unbreakable friendship, a friendship that will give them strength during the worst circumstances, even when they are far apart. Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly brings their story vividly to life.

Eliza Ferriday, American and Sofya Streshnayva, a Russian related to the ruling Romanovs, become fast friends when they meet in Paris. Both women are wealthy and lead priviledged lives, but are also kind and compassionate. In 1914 Eliza travels to Russia to visit Sofya, but war breaks out in Europe and Eliza must cut her visit short and return to America. Sofya and her family flee to their country estate outside of St Petersburg, hoping to ride out the war undisturbed. Russia, however, is in turmoil as revolutionaries take up arms against the Tsar and anyone associated with him. The Reds take over the Streshnayva estate, imprisoning the occupants and looting the lavish furnishings.

Sofya manages to escape their captors, but is forced to leave her young son behind in the care of a trusted servant. Now on her own, she must find new depths within herself to survive, learning to gather food in the forest, evade capture from both the Revolutionaries and the invading German army and defend herself as she makes her way across the war ravaged countryside to Paris.

Meanwhile, back in America, Eliza is frantic with worry for her friend, especially as stories from Russian emigres begin to filter in – the violence, the bloodshed and the huge loss of life. Eliza channels her worries into helping the “White Russians” who have escaped the revolution by creating an American relief organization to help them with finding jobs, housing and other aid.

By depicting World War I from within Russia, Lost Roses delivers a new facet of the time period with the addition of the chaos and cruelty that accompanied the Russian Revolution. The huge gap between the very rich, who flaunted their wealth, and majority of people who were desperately poor, is astonishing as is the way the privileged seemed to be blind to the growing danger. As shown here, the Revolution appears out-of-control with vicious in-fighting and random violence leading to little or no improvement for the working class. Lost Roses is the kind of book that is hard to put down and even harder to forget.

Lost Roses is a prequel to the bestselling Lilac Girls, which takes place during and after World War II. Caroline Ferriday, who is a main character in Lilac Girls, is shown as a young woman in Lost Roses. Author Martha Hall Kelly has announced that she is working on another prequel which will be set during the Civil War and will follow Eliza Ferriday’s grandmother.

 

Online Reading Challenge – January Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Readers!

How did your reading/listening/movie watching go in January? As I mentioned earlier in the month, I outdid myself and read two medicine-related books! And they were both great!

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira. Opening just as the Civil War begins, this book is about a young midwife who yearns to be a surgeon. However, it is nearly impossible for a woman to be admitted to medical school or even to intern with a doctor and Mary has been turned down repeatedly. However, the outbreak of the war creates possibilities and Mary leaves her comfortable home in Albany and travels to Washington alone in an effort to help the wounded. Women as nurses (let alone doctors) are viewed with suspicion and considered unnecessary since, at this exuberant beginning, everyone believes the war will be over in three months. Mary ends up volunteering at an understaffed, poorly supplied, decaying hospital acting more as a cleaning person than a nurse. Gradually the doctor (there is only one doctor for the dozens of wounded) trusts Mary and allows her to assist him, her training as a midwife making her comfortable with blood and suffering. It is training that she will need when the wounded begin pouring in with horrific injuries, many requiring amputation and many that they are helpless to cure.

The Civil War lasted much longer than three months, of course and the reluctance to accept women as nurses was quickly abandoned. Woefully unprepared for the human cost, doctors and nurses struggle to care for patients under brutal conditions. Mary’s story as she navigates harsh realities is fascinating and her courage and strength are inspiring.

The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason is set during World War I and takes place on the Eastern Front of the war, far removed from the trenches of France but no less horrific. Raised in comfort in opulent Vienna, Lucius has not even completed his medical training when the war breaks out. He volunteers as a surgeon and is sent to a remote outpost in the Carpathian Mountains where a church has been requisitioned as a hospital. Supplies are nearly nonexsistent, the weather is brutal and the only medical personnel is a nurse, some orderlies and Lucius himself who has never actually performed an operation.

Margarete, the nurse, subtly assists Lucius when he must perform amputations almost immediately. Over time they become a team, working to heal their patients and keep them safe. Safe because not only do they have to grapple with injury, disease, shell shock and weather, they must watch out for recruiters who comb the hospitals looking for “deserters” to return to the front. So desperate are they for men, the Army will force anyone back into the war no matter their injury, so long as they can walk.

Relatively safe from the immediate fighting, this changes when the Austrian army suddenly retreats. Caught in the chaos, Lucius and Margarete are separated and lost to each other. Lucius finishes his war in the relative safety of Vienna and then goes in search of Margarete.

I really enjoyed both of these books – they are hard to put down. The wartime action is gripping and both Mary’s and Lucius’ personal stories add another layer – each spends some time at home during their wars and the contrast between battle and home is shocking. The grim realities of war are difficult to read about, but the sad fact is, war has always created many opportunities for the advancement of medicine whether through the discovery of new drugs or new techniques. Reading about some of that and how medical staff coped is fascinating. Both are highly recommended.

Now it’s your turn – what did you read this month?

Online Reading Challenge – August Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Fans-of-Reading!

How was your August? Did you find something wonderful to read that was set during the Edwardian Era? Or maybe you watched a movie – tell us about you read or watched!

I started the month planning to read The Alienist by Caleb Carr, a book that has been popular for several years and now has a television series based on it on TNT. I tried to read it, I really did. But. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m a strong believer that, if a book isn’t working for me, I abandon it. I know some people will stick with a book to the bitter end, disliking it the whole time, but there are too many titles on my “to read” list. So I dropped The Alienist and instead picked up The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. Much better.

The Summer Before the War starts in June 1914 and is set in the idyllic English countryside. Beatrice Nash, whose father has recently died, has come to Rye to be a Latin teacher. She soon becomes involved the lives of the people around her, learning about their secrets and dreams. When war is declared in late July, there is a burst of patriotic fervor and excitement with men and boys joining up to “advance their careers” and proclaiming that they’ll “be home by Christmas”. The reality of the war soon begins to creep into their lives, both on a national and personal level, and the old ways of thinking are slowly torn away.

I very much enjoyed this book. It wasn’t necessarily ground-breaking, but it is much more than a simple, quaint story. It was interesting to read about the very constricted lives women were allowed and how Beatrice had to fight for her job even though she was far more qualified than her (male) competition. I was also fascinated by how the strict codes of society dictated everyday life, such as who could dine with who, and how merely talking to someone considered disreputable could ruin your own standing. The war eats into these rules as death and pain impact everyone no matter your place.

Beatrice is a wonderful main character – witty, smart and confident in her abilities but struggling to make her way on her own in a world that scorns spinsters. She finds compassion from unexpected sources and strength from within to face a time when everything changed.

Now it’s your turn. What did you read this month and how did you like it?

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land by P. S. Duffy

cartographerFrom a village in Nova Scotia to the trenches of France The Cartographer of No Man’s Land leaps across the Atlantic, between a father at war and a son coming of age at home without him.

When his beloved brother-in-law goes missing at the front in 1916, Angus defies his pacifist upbringing to join the war and find him. Assured a position as a cartographer in London, he is instead sent directly into the visceral shock of battle. Meanwhile, at home, his son Simon Peter must navigate escalating hostility in a fishing village torn by grief.

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land offers a soulful portrayal of World War I and the lives that were forever changed by it, both on the battlefield and at home. (description from publisher)

Wounded by Emily Mayhew

woundedThe number of soldiers wounded in World War I is, in itself, devastating: over 21 million military wounded, and nearly 10 million killed. On the battlefield, the injuries were shocking, unlike anything those in the medical field had ever witnessed. The bullets hit fast and hard, went deep and took bits of dirty uniform and airborne soil particles in with them. Soldier after soldier came in with the most dreaded kinds of casualty: awful, deep, ragged wounds to their heads, faces and abdomens. And yet the medical personnel faced with these unimaginable injuries adapted with amazing aptitude, thinking and reacting on their feet to save millions of lives.

In Wounded, Emily Mayhew tells the history of the Western Front from a new perspective: the medical network that arose seemingly overnight to help sick and injured soldiers. These men and women pulled injured troops from the hellscape of trench, shell crater, and no man’s land, transported them to the rear, and treated them for everything from foot rot to poison gas, venereal disease to traumatic amputation from exploding shells.

Drawing on hundreds of letters and diary entries, Mayhew allows readers to peer over the shoulder of the stretcher bearer who jumped into a trench and tried unsuccessfully to get a tightly packed line of soldiers out of the way, only to find that they were all dead. She takes us into dugouts where rescue teams awoke to dirt thrown on their faces by scores of terrified moles, digging frantically to escape the earth-shaking shellfire. Mayhew moves her account along the route followed by wounded men, from stretcher to aid station, from jolting ambulance to crowded operating tent, from railway station to the ship home, exploring actual cases of casualties who recorded their experiences. Both comprehensive and intimate, this groundbreaking book captures an often neglected aspect of the soldier’s world and a transformative moment in military and medical history. (description from publisher)

A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd

Charles Todd’s A Duty to the Dead (the first mystery in the Bess Crawford series) has far too much life and vigor for the god-awful cover design it’s been dealt. It’s really a hideous cover: the image, the colors, the fonts, they’re all drab and uninteresting. But if you can look past them, this is an engaging mystery novel with a heroine anyone would love.

Bess Crawford is a gentleman’s daughter and an Army nurse in the Great War (if you’re thinking of Lady Sybil Crawley right now, you’re not alone!). She’s injured when the hospital ship Britannic is sunk, and during her convalescent leave, she visits the family of Arthur Graham, a wounded soldier she befriended, to deliver the deathbed message he begged her to pass on to his brother. What she finds in the Graham hometown of Owlhurst is a web of secrets and lies that the all-too-British neighbors have happily swept under the rug while they keep calm and carry on.

Bess is in-demand in Owlhurst for her nursing skills, and before long she is pressed into duty caring for a shell-shocked soldier and a possible lunatic. The effect of witnessed horrors and repressed violent memories on the mind is a big part of this novel, which is as much psychiatric as it is suspenseful. In a time when mental health was imperfectly understood, Bess’s intuitively modern understanding of the way our brains work is a mark in her favor.

While you’re waiting (and waiting… and waiting … ) for Downton Abbey to come to US shores next January, this novel can help fill the gap. Its shared setting, dealings with the same issues (the affect of the war on families back home), and the similarities between Sybil and Bess will keep you in the mindset of Downton while you wait for season 3.

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

I really wanted to read this book, but I kept putting it back on the shelf.  At nearly 1000 pages (985 to be exact) I knew I could read three books in the same time it would take me to finish just this one.  I shouldn’t have waited.  Turns out, it really was a pretty quick read — but that’s because I hardly ever put it down!

Fall of Giants isn’t Ken Follett’s first historical fiction book, nor will it be his last.  Readers will no doubt remember his Pillars of the Earth, which was an Oprah Book Club choice, plus its sequel, World Without End. And of course, this title is just the first in a planned Century trilogy.   But let’s get to the book.  It covers five families — Welsh, Russian, German, American and English.  Some are wealthy aristocrats, like the Fitzhuberts, and others, like Billy Williams and his sister Ethel, are on the opposite end of the socio-economic scale.  Rounding out this mix are the orphaned Peshkov brothers in Russia, an American lawyer working in the White House, and, oh yes, a German spy.  So you see, there’s a little something for everyone –political intrigue, scintillating sex and romance, and some action-packed battle scenes.  Plus the multiple story lines (arranged chronologically) keeps you turning those pages.

What’s most intriguing is how the lives of all these diverse characters somehow logically interconnect.  Though I’m certainly no expert on the World War I era (the book spans the years 1911 to 1924) I was familiar enough to recognize that Follett had meticulously researched this tome, and his inclusion of real historical figures, such as Winston Churchill, seems to enhance it’s believability.  Believe me, even if you think you don’t, you really do have time to read this book.

The Gendarme by Mark Mustian

Emmett Conn is now a fully-Americanized 92-year-old man living in Georgia in The Gendarme.  But his story fades back in forth in time, to when he was still Ahmet Khan, a 17 year old Turk charged with deporting a large group of Armenians from Turkey to Syria at the start of World War I.  Emmett has recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor; it is unclear whether the tumor of the medications used to treat it are causing him to have vivid, sometimes terrifying dreams.  Or perhaps these dreams are the truthful but shocking memories of a past he has long forgotten?

A central figure in Emmett’s dreams is the beautiful Araxie, one of the Armenian refugees who first captivates him by her unique appearance, but with whom he later becomes obsessed.  He is determined to protect her — indeeed the odds are stacked against her.  The conditions in the refugee camps are abysmal; food and water are scarce and many die from dysentery.  Of the original 2000 deportees, possibly only fifty are expected to make it alive to Aleppo.

It is an alarming fact of history that these forced death treks occurred.  But more alarming is that so few people know about it, and I include myself in that group.  Initially, I felt guilty about my ignorance, but these feelings were somewhat assuaged when the author (Mark Mustian, who is of Armenian descent) stated that he himself had not heard of the atrocity until well into his thirties.  Indeed, even the World Book Encyclopedia barely mentions it.  I quote: “The campaign reached a peak during World War I.  By 1918 about 1,800,000 Armenians had been murdered and thousands more had fled to other countries.”

This was a fascinating book with a little something for everyone — adventure, danger, romance, much of it in an exotic setting.  Even the secondary characters, such as Emmett’s daughter, Violet, were multi-dimensional.  Still, I think the best part of the book was how the author almost subliminally imparts a deeper message of peace and forgiveness, about how love can transcend race, religion and politics.