Book Review: Leaving Everything Most Loved (Maisie Dobbs #10) by Jacqueline Winspear

lovedThere was a time when I would count down the days to the release of the new Maisie Dobbs novel. I waited a month to read Leaving Everything Most Loved (★★★). I partly blame my local Barnes and Noble; I searched for the book for three weeks before I found it. I also blame myself for reading reviews on Goodreads and being spoiled.

The book opens with Maisie visiting Dame Constance, a nun introduced in a previous book, for her advice on Maisie’s personal problems: should she accept James Compton’s proposal or travel the world (India specifically) in Maurice’s footsteps? It wasn’t an auspicious beginning. Maisie sounded, dare I say?, illogical and immature, as if she merely went for Dame Constance to give Maisie her stamp of approval to do what she wants. Which, it turns out, is exactly what Dame Constance does.

Fate helps Maisie out by presenting her with the case of a murdered Indian woman. I’m not even going to bother going into the mystery. Maisie, Sandra and Billy go around investigating but don’t solve anything. Maisie is told the whole story by a character at the end of the book. Frankly, it was all a little lazy and not very interesting. Winspear had the opportunity to delve into the racism of the time, but that aspect is barely skimmed, almost justified. Maybe the better word is excused. It does all circle back to the Great War, unfortunately. I hoped after that particular crutch was skipped over in Elegy for Eddie we would not return. The connections with the war are becoming more and more tenuous. In fact, Winspear should take a couple of her characters’ advice: pull your socks up and move on.

Maybe, just maybe, she is. The end of the book finds Maisie on a ship bound for India to follow in her mentor’s footsteps. She has closed her business, her father is married, Billy and Sandra have new jobs and James is off to Canada, still patiently waiting for Maisie to answer his marriage proposal. Finally, though, he had the balls to give her a drop dead date: on March 31, 1934, Maise has to answer yes or no, in person or through telegraph. Please God, let the next book start after March 31, 1934. I don’t think I can stomach another book, or two, or three, of her waffling about what to do. For a woman who is supposed to be wise and brilliant at reading people, can she not see her inability to answer James IS the answer? Although Winspear spends more time with James and Maisie together in this book I still do not buy their relationship. He comes across as an idiot or a fool for letting Maisie string him along. She comes across as unemotional and indecisive in her inability to answer. More to the point, I feel no sexual tension between the two and there is zero passion. I always feel I am reading about inappropriately close siblings. Is this because Maisie is closed off emotionally? Is this lack of passion intentional on Winspear’s part? Is she trying to show us James is not the love of her life, not the other half of her split soul, despite Maisie saying she loves him? Or, is this emotional distance Winspear’s writing style? *shrugs* I honestly don’t know. It could be a combination of all three. Whatever the answer, I still, after three books, have zero investment in what should be the central relationship.

It is incredibly brave of Winspear to hit the reset button, but has she really? Will Winspear follow Maisie on her journey to India and beyond, or will she skip forward in time, with Maisie back in England reestablishing her life? The nature of the modern mystery series is dependability, the reader revisiting the familiar, which makes me lean toward the latter. Six months or a year will have passed and Maisie will return, wiser but the same (though probably a bit more meditative and zen, which could be insufferable; it will be a fine line for Winspear to tread, IMO), she will be pulled back into investigating as will Billy and Sandra. If that happens, then this was all clever fake out. The status quo will be reestablished and fans of series mysteries will be happy.

What would be bolder is for Winspear to jump far into the future, say four years. Maisie will be 40, she will have turned James down, it will be 1937 and war will be on the horizon. The England she returns to will be drastically different from the one she left. It’s a tantalizing idea and would be an audacious move. Which is why there is little likelihood of it happening.

Other Thoughts:

  •  I initially gave Leaving Everything Most Loved four stars for the reset button and for the possibilities of what comes next. But, I shouldn’t rate this book on what will or will not happen in the next book (and I’m sure there will be another). The mystery was dull and Maisie was borderline insufferable with her indecision.
  • The ship to India or back would be the perfect setting for an Agatha Christie type book, which I wished for in my Lesson in Secrets review. Still waiting. Still hoping. Though let it happen after March 31, 1934. Please.
  • From reading a few interviews of Winspear’s, I suspect she intends to keep Maisie single as long as possible, to tell the story of all the women who didn’t have the opportunity to marry after WWI with the loss of so many men.
  • However, Maisie did mention an Indian myth about two souls being separated and searching the world for each other. Interesting she didn’t think of James at any time during that story. Could that myth influence her decision to marry James? It would be a nice bit of continuity, if so.
  • Winspear wants to show a modern woman, a trail blazer, but more and more, Maisie looks and acts dated. Her dialogue sounds is formal and forced, as is Winspear’s POV voice. Maybe India will help Maisie relax a bit and move completely into the 30s. She sounds stuffy and Edwardian and, as time marches forward, she will seem more and more out-of-place.
  • In this interview, Winspear says quite a lot will be revealed in the next book, to be published in 2015. Winspear is working on a book outside the series, not a mystery, set during the Great War. I’m curious to read something else by her, to see if Maisie’s formality is of the character or the writer.

Book Review – Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear

I purposely did not read my review of Winspear’s previous Maisie Dobbs novel, A Lesson in Secrets, because I didn’t want the disappointment I felt in that book to cloud my judgement of Elegy for Eddie. I have invested a lot of time into this series and want nothing more than for my love affair with Maisie and her world to continue for a long, long time. After A Lesson in Secrets, I had serious doubts. Thankfully, Winspear addressed my biggest complaint in Elegy for Eddie (★★★★), focusing almost exclusively on Maisie’s development as a character.

The mystery Maisie is tasked with solving involves a man from her childhood in Lambeth, Eddie Pettit, a simple-minded man (who might be considered autistic in the 21st century) who has a way with horses. It takes her back to her humble Lambeth roots and throws her newfound life as a rich woman in an affair with a Viscount into sharp relief. Maisie is uncomfortable with the legacy Maurice left her, as well as uncomfortable with the position she holds as James’ lover. To all appearances, she has everything she should ever want but realizes that this life, especially that part with James, suffocates her. As a result, her relationship, the one that Winspear has failed to develop, goes from off the page bliss in the previous two books to on the page tension in this one.

The reviews on Amazon have been positive, with the one recurring caveat that Maisie spends an inordinate amount of time navel gazing. In comparison to previous books where inner thoughts about her personal life were restricted to a few sentences sprinkled throughout the book, the amount of introspection in the novel is shocking. It is, however, long overdue. All the self-reflection and conflict with Billy and his wife and James moves her forward as a character in a way that hasn’t happened since she had her breakdown in book three.

What does this mean for the Maisie? She and James have settled into a relationship that is basically a placeholder for each until they find the person they fall in love with. To paraphrase a comment Maisie made to Priscilla regarding their affair, she and James have shown each other they can love again. Maisie was confronted, by a few different instances, the most notable being the attack on Billy and the repercussions, by the fact that, in the guise of helping, she tries too hard to order everyone elses’ life. Her aid truly comes from an empathetic, caring heart, but the inheritance from Maurice has enabled her to go overboard (buying a house for the Beales; paying for Sandra’s college) and has put her friends in the position to never be able to repay her. Finally, her insistence on walking a “narrow path” and trying to account for every eventuality before it happens, as well as her lack of experience in the wider world made her realize her life is lacking in spontaneity, fun and travel.  Hopefully, all of this introspection will allow Maisie to spread her wings a bit more.

Ironic that I have not addressed the central mystery in the mystery novel. In the end, it is less about the simple horse whisperer from Maisie’s past, but instead is about one man’s plan, through his media empire, to increase patriotism and remind the British people all they have to lose if it comes to war with Hitler. The man, Otterburn, is in cahoots with Winston Churchill, who at this point in British history was a political outcast, spending his time writing essays about I don’t now what, and if Winspear is to be believed, preparing the British people, mentally, for the war some were sure was on the horizon. James Compton is even involved in Ottoburn’s long-term plan. It seems far-fetched at first glance, but upon reflection, I admire the way that Winspear was able to weave characters we’ve been familiar with for a while (James, Priscilla’s husband) into the long road to war storyline.

As far as I’m concerned, The Mapping of Love and Death is an anomaly in the series, though I admit that it might improve on a re-read, especially with the knowledge of where Maisie is going. I feel that, with Elegy for Eddie, Winspear has finally committed to looking forward instead of back, with Maisie as well as with the world she lives in.

Other Thoughts:

  • This is the first mystery that has nothing to do with the Great War.
  • Maisie only mentions her work as a nurse once in the book. And Billy’s communication skills from the war play no part at all. Progress!
  • One of my favorite books is Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher. It’s always entertaining to count the number of times people have tea. I found myself doing the same thing in Elegy for Eddie. Seriously, what is it with the Brits and drinking tea?
  • I do hope that Maisie moves forward with the times, soon, and has Sandra and Billy start calling her by her Christian name.
  • If Maisie does go abroad, I predict she goes to Germany. I hope we go with her.
  • I’m still holding out hope for the drawing-room mystery I suggested in last year’s review.
  • Well, I read the book in a day and now I have to wait another year for the next book. That makes me a sad panda.

Five Things I’m Looking Forward to This Week

  1. The publication of Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear (Tuesday) – My disappointment with Maisie Dobbs’ previous outing has tempered my expectations for this, Winspear’s 9th book in the series. I still love the character and the setting but I expect more from the mystery, which is what I’m going to try to focus on this time around since I highly doubt any of my character development concerns will be addressed. This is the only mystery series I have stayed with consistently and I wonder if my reservations about series such as this (character stasis) is coming to light. It would be a shame if so.
  2. The Mentalist 4.19: “Pink Champagne on Ice” – we’re getting into the home stretch for season four and I honestly have no idea where they are going with Patrick Jane. From the description, this is a stand-alone so we probably won’t get any forward motion on Red John. But, we might get some Jane backstory.
  3. Great Expectations – Friday, I post my review of Volume 3; Sunday, I watch part one of the PBS mini-series starring Gillian Anderson.
  4. Bully – I’m taking my boys to see this movie whether they like it or not.
  5. Sunday Night TV – Really, television executives? The Good Wife, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Masterpiece Theater (Great Expectations)…I really don’t know if my DVR can handle it all. Thank God that pesky part-time job is out of the way so I can devote 4-5 hours to staring at a screen Sunday night.

What are you looking forward to this week?

Book Review – Silent on the Moor by Deanna Raybourn

Cover of "Silent On The Moor (A Lady Juli...

Cover via Amazon

I am, with a couple of exceptions*, not a fan of the publishing phenomenon that has overtaken the industry – the long-term mystery series.  Generally, what I have found in these series is the characters do not evolve, or they evolve at a snail’s pace, the books are littered with the same descriptions of the characters, setting and their personalities and the mysteries are all so similar you have difficulty determining exactly which mystery went with which book. This is especially problematic with series that have similar sounding names. With these long form series there is always a central romance that is dragged out for so long and for such convoluted reasons that I get frustrated by the knowledge that people just don’t act that way in the real world.

So, let’s give it up for Deanna Raybourn, an author with the cojones to marry her two main characters, Brisbane and Julia, off in Silent on the Moor (★★★★), the third book of her Lady Julia Grey mystery series.**

Raybourn obviously realized that what is bringing people to the series, along with Raybourn’s incredible wit and voice, is the relationship between Brisbane and Julia. Raybourn’s mysteries are good, but they suffer from the same shortcoming so many mystery series do – there are just not enough suspects. Any regular mystery reader can figure out the solution fairly quickly. This shortcoming is tempered, somewhat, by the deft way Raybourn weaves the mystery around a popular hobby at the time, in this case Egyptology. That Brisbane just happens to be able to read heiroglyphics and is a minor expert in Egyptology is explained well enough, but Brisbane’s tendency to be good at everything pushes him every so slightly into unbelievability territory.

Now that these two are married, their interaction should change from what had become a bit tiresome – him being secretive, enigmatic and pushing her away; her standing up to him with pluck and courage, vowing to leave, but never quite making it. Hopefully, they will become equal partners and the dynamic will not just shift to him being secretive and enigmatic to “keep her safe.”

I have loved this series from the opening line of the first book. Raybourn’s characters are all so full of life and wit that the quibbles I have with the series are easily overlooked. I always feel a better after I read one of her books and I can’t say that about many.

*Exceptions include the Tony Hill series by Val McDermid (I stopped reading those because they are so gritty and disturbing that I needed a break. I will return to them one day), the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear (though I was very disappointed in the last book), and the William Monk series by Anne Perry (one of the best historical mystery series out there with one of the best developed love story I’ve ever read).

**Of course, looking at the book cover (I read the books on Kindle and rarely see the cover), seeing this is published by Harlequlin and knowing that these books are much more about the relationship than the mystery, this series could easily be slotted as a romance.

NaNoWriMo – One step forward, two steps back

Image from mysynonym.com

For almost four years, I have been meeting my cousin, Mark Hoover, every Tuesday and Thursday to write. We write most days, sometimes stopping down to lament about kids, life, politics, etc., but the majority of the time we focus on writing and supporting each other in our ongoing endeavor to make $**t up. I suspect that he helps me more than I help him, but he is nice enough to tell me that my advice to him is valuable. His advice to me, and his unwavering belief in my abilities even when I believe I can barely string a group of coherent words together, are what has kept me writing for so long with so little success.

Today, we met for the first time since I started NaNo. A question I had for him about my lead character’s name (which is changing early in the novel because she is on the run! Oh, the drama!) turned into a great discussion about what I should do, how I should handle it. The result? I’m almost convinced to scrap everything I worked on yesterday (1500 words!) and change the perspective from third person to first person. His arguments for me doing it are solid and, when I look at it from a what’s best for the story/character I know that first person is the way to go. But, it will require completely reworking what I’ve written so far. (For the record, I’m not officially competing in NaNo because one requirement of the challenge is that it be an original novel. Completing an unfinished work doesn’t count and that is what I was doing.)  That would be scrapping or reworking 36,000 words worth of prose. That is difficult for me to do for obvious reasons.

Now, for the not so obvious reasons: I’m notorious for going into something like this, editing, reworking, etc, getting discouraged and quitting. Frankly, I don’t want to fail like that again. Maybe this time will be the time that I get over that particular writing hurdle.  Maybe writing in first person is my natural voice, what I should have been doing from the beginning and the words will flow so easily that I will finish the entire novel before Christmas, send it to publishers in January and get it accepted in February. Ooooorrrrrrr, maybe I’ll do what I always do and work really hard for a while, then my interest peters out as it gets more difficult or I get closer to success. I really am my own worst enemy. Are there such things as a writer’s psychologist? Cuz I think I need one. Maybe that’s what Mark is.

During our discussion, Mark said that I have to constantly put obstacles in my heroine’s way. One step forward and two back. Thinking on some of my favorite books, that is exactly what happens: Elizabeth Bennet, Margaret Hale, Harry Potter, Maisie Dobbs, Percy Jackson, Victor Frankenstein, Jane Eyre. What keeps me reading is wondering how they will react to adversity. Going through trials and tribulations with them makes the ending, whether it be happy or tragic, satisfying. I hope that my journey writing this novel, the inevitable one step forward two back in my writing process, will make my denouement satisfying as well.

I’m rooting for a happy ending.

Book Review – A Lesson in Secrets: A Maisie Dobbs Mystery by Jacqueline Winspear

I’m not sure how or when I first discovered the Maise Dobbs series. I think I happened upon the first book, Maisie Dobbs, at the library. Intrigued by the setting – England between the wars – I picked it up and immediately liked the character. It was an interesting mystery novel in that a large portion of it was a flashback to the character’s past. I can’t even remember her first case, truth be told. It was Maisie and her personal story that kept me interested. Since then, I have waited anxiously for the release of each book. Fans of the series are blessed that Winspear seems consistently capable of publishing a book per year. Each year, I read the book immediately and am always a bit let down at the end because I know that there is another year to wait for the next chapter in Maisie’s story.

Maisie’s story…that is what keeps me coming back. While I enjoy the mysteries and am especially pleased that each mystery reveals a bit of British history as it relates to World War I – most often events in the War that show the Crown and people in power in a less than favorable light – I do feel this aspect of the era is tapped out. At this point in the series it is fall 1932, 14 years since the Armistice, and that people are still holding on to the grudges and ills of the past seems more of storytelling crutch than a necessity. Maisie says, at least once a book, that she was a nurse in the war. Her friend, Priscilla, always gets teary eyed and worried when looking at her three sons, named after her three brothers lost in the war. Maisie’s loyal sidekick’s, Billy Beale, skills running communication wire during the war always comes in handy in some way. I understand, on one level, the need to give some historical character details for those new to the series, but there comes a point in real life where constant reference to “back in the day” becomes annoying. Unfortunately, that time has come for the Maisie Dobbs series.

Maybe Winspear has realized this. In A Lesson in Secrets, Maisie goes undercover for the Secret Police (a job she has fallen into because of her late mentor’s spy past and her body of work as a respected private inquiry agent) to a small college in Cambridge. The goal of this college, St Francis, is to foster peace by bringing in students from across the world together in the hopes that they will return to their homeland and become advocates for peaceful solutions to the world’s problems. Of course, the British government thinks something shady is going on. It is Maisie’s job to find out just what. While she is there as a lecturer in Philosophy, the college’s founder is murdered. The story, from that point, has it’s feet in two different eras – the war of the past, which relates to the college founder’s murder, and the war of the future as Maisie uncovers what is a universal truth, no matter the era – young people are especially gullible to bombastic political rhetoric. In this case, during this time, the rhetoric is fascism.

Because the Maisie Dobbs series is so character driven, each mystery has somehow enabled Maisie to grow, to let go bit by bit the scars that World War I left on her (as a nurse in the war, natch).  As I said earlier, it is the character that keeps me coming back to these books. Watching her grow, while learning a bit about hidden British history, has been a treat. However, the mystery in A Lesson in Secrets seems to be there because that’s the formula Winspear has created. It doesn’t, in any way, move Maisie as a character forward. In fact, an aspect of it (mutiny and desertion on the front lines) was covered fully, and much more deftly, in a previous book. In short, it is the least engaging portion of the novel. Which is a major problem because Maisie spends most of her time trying to solve that murder instead of focusing on her secret agent job of uncovering the nefarious doings of easily manipulated young people.

Though I’m sure the British would like to wipe this stain from their history, it is a fact that many, many British were sympathetic to Hitler’s ideas when he first came on the scene. The Prince of Wales, the future King Edward, was a supporter of Hitler. If he had not abdicated the throne for the American divorcee Mrs. Wallis Simpson, we would have a very different world today. Hitler and his brand of fascism was not seen as a threat to the Crown, some thought of it as a solution to their problems. The Crown was more worried with the Red Menace in Russia and were willing to hand wave the less palatable aspects of Hitler’ ideology. So, when Maisie goes to her Secret Service boss and tells him that there is evidence of fascism at St. Francis and not communism, he dismisses her concerns.

I’m sure it is very difficult for a 21st century author to write about that time – the rise of fascism – with the ignorance required to make it believable. The problem is we know their future. We know that England will change its tune when Hitler marches across Europe. We know that Hitler will kill millions of Jews in concentration camps. We know that those children in 1932 will be going off to war in 1939. It is difficult to write believable ignorant characters when such knowledge is almost part of our DNA.  For a few books now, Maisie and her mentor, Maurice, have dropped little hints of concerns about people like Oswald Mosely and “what’s happening in Europe.” Their opinions, about almost everything, seem a bit too on the nose.

Which brings me to a concern I have harbored for Maisie for a few books now. She is turning into a Mary Sue. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a definition:

A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in literary criticism and particularly in  fan fiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader.

In fan fiction, Mary Sues are usually author inserts – a character that is a thinly veiled avatar for the writer. While I don’t think that is the case with Maisie and Winspear, I do think that Maisie suffers from “idealized and hackneyed mannerisms and is lacking in noteworthy flaws.” Maisie always solves the case, knows the right thing to say and when, gets people to open up to her with little to no effort, investigates rings around the police, helps out her friends when they’re in need, is always compassionate to those that deserve it and holds negative opinions about no one in particular, except maybe men that avoided serving in the war, the government for not doing all they can for veterans and now has a wary eye on fascists. But, those people deserve to be disliked, don’t they? Her biggest flaw, as far as I can tell, is that she is emotionally closed off and is slow to open herself up to other people. She hides behind an overly professional, proper demeanor. She did make some progress in this book, however. She called men that she has known and worked with for years by their Christian names instead of their tongue twisting titles.  It’s only taken seven books.

I’m sure it sounds as if I didn’t like the book and I have grown tired of the character of Maisie. On the contrary, I did like the book (but didn’t love it) and I like Maisie immensely. But, I think it’s time for Winspear to deviate from her formula. When her mysteries stop directly affecting Maisie, they can no longer hold the book up. I spent the majority of A Lesson in Secrets skimming the mystery for more information about Maisie’s personal life. That is a major problem for a mystery novel, especially when the tidbits about her personal life are fleeting and rather shallow. But, more on that later.

I would like to see Winspear deviate completely for a book and maybe do an homage to Agatha Christie with a murder at a grand estate. Now that Maisie is in a relationship with a Viscount, it would be easy to put her in that situation. Make it even more interesting by setting it at her friend, Priscilla’s, house in France and have a Hercule Poirot type character that Maisie is competing with to solve the manor murder. Better still – have Maisie lose out on the unacknowledged competition and not solve the murder first.

Maisie Dobbs is the only mystery series that I follow because I’ve always believed that long, drawn-out series sacrifice character growth for the formula. The story should serve the character, not the character serving the story.  I had never felt that about Maisie, until this book. I felt a germ of dissatisfaction with the last book, The Mapping of Love and Death, with the sudden romance between Maisie and a thinly drawn character that has, however, been around from the beginning, James Compton. He spent the majority (read: all) of the first six books in Canada, with a one line mention here and there. He appears in book seven and, after a few chance encounters with Maisie, they start dating. In A Lesson in Secrets, they’re involved in a full on affair. But, Winspear spends too little time on the relationship and it feels shallow and rushed as a result. Compton as a character and the relationship as a sub-plot are so underdeveloped that it is difficult to feel or even understand Maisie’s happiness. This book would have been a perfect opportunity for Winspear to develop Maisie’s personal life. Instead, she has Compton in Canada for 3/4 of the book and Maisie worried, for a few paragraphs sprinkled over a couple hundred pages, if James is really in Canada or in London without telling her. Honestly, why would we care one way or the other? Winspear hasn’t taken the time to show the two together. We think Maisie is happy because she should be happy, not because we’ve been shown her happiness in any detail.

I will confess that part of my dissatisfaction with Maisie and Compton stems from the fact that there is another character that has been around for quite a while, has been more fully developed (but, honestly, only slightly) and seems much more suited to Maisie. Winspear has dropped enough hints about the two throughout the series that I believe Richard Stratton is the man Maisie will eventually fall in love with. But, here’s the thing: I don’t think I have the patience to wait.  It has taken Winspear eight books to cover three years of Maisie’s life. At that rate, and with Winspear publishing a book a year, it will take 16 years to get to Germany invading Poland, and 17 or 18 to the Battle of Britain. If Compton breaks her heart, or (my prediction) she dumps him because he will want her to quit her career and dedicate her life fully to being the wife of a Viscount and future Lord , it might take Maisie three or four years to get the courage to even go out on a date. That is 8-10 publishing years, right there. Then there’s the fact that, at the end of A Lesson in Secrets, Stratton resigns from Scotland Yard as a detective and is off to Essex as a math/physics teacher in a boarding school. Seriously? Really? I’m sorry. I’m just not that patient.

I can hear my detractors now: “If you’re just in it for the relationship then you don’t truly appreciate the series. It is a mystery first and foremost.” To that I disagree.  Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot novels were first and foremost mystery series. There is no character development in her investigators at all, and very little background given. Maisie Dobbs is primarily a character study. Maisie, in fact, stands in for all of England and the changes in society that were wrought by the Great War – the entrance of women into the workforce in professional capacity (Maisie as a successful woman in a man’s profession), the breakdown of the class system (Maisie having a relationship with a man that is well above her in class) and the loosening of rigid Victorian/Edwardian morals (as evidenced by the sexual nature of her affair with Compton. I do give Winspear full credit for giving Maisie a sex life and not making her a spinster, another reality of post-war Britain.). But, this has all been a long time coming. As a faithful reader and one that recommends these books to others, I have a right to be somewhat dissatisfied with the snail’s pace of character growth that Winspear has created.

Am I looking forward to the next book? Yes. Will I buy it and read it immediately on release? Most likely. Do I have high hopes that Winspear will deviate from her formula? Yes. Do I think she will? No. I respect that Maisie is Winspear’s character and she has the right to do with her as she likes. I also have the right to stop reading if I lose interest and, unfortunately, I’m perilously close.

A Lesson in Secrets: A Maisie Dobbs Novel by Jacqueline Winspear (★★☆☆☆)

12 Days of Boredom: Day 11 – Books

Cover of "The Grand Sophy"

Cover of The Grand Sophy

Chalk up another benefit to having a Kindle: the ability to keep a list of what books I’ve read in the previous year with no effort on my part! Now, if only all books were available on a Kindle. Alas, they aren’t which means I’m going to have to search my mind for the physical books I read this year so my list is complete.

This isn’t a list of best books published this year. I think I’ve read one, maybe two, books that were published this year. This isn’t even going to be a top ten list. Narrowing down my favorite books is a Sophie’s choice. Instead, I’ll make up categories!

Author I Should Have Discovered Years Ago
Georgette Heyer

I’m pretty sure I found Heyer through the Austenprose blog, or possibly from the twitter feed of the Editrix of Austen Blog. However it came about, Heyer’s books made winter 2010 a complete joy. They also illustrated how easy it was to run up a credit card bill through the search and buy feature on the Kindle, but that’s another post.

Heyer’s books are set in Regency England and all follow a pretty general plot. There is a plucky heroine who is usually a poor relation or wealthy with financial difficulties. There is a handsome hero that dresses well and is an expert horseman and is grumpy for one reason or another, probably because poor relations are always asking for money. Or possibly he’s engaged to a girl that isn’t really right for him and he’s too dense to notice. Until he meets the plucky heroine. There’s a cad to muddy the waters and possibly a young kid to give a bit of comic relief. You know how it’s all going to turn out when you start reading on page one but the fun of it all is the journey, not the destination.

Heyer stories are filled with historical details which, depending on who you ask, was either her greatest asset as a writer or her biggest weakness. Personally, I love the historical detail though after reading many of her books in succession, it gets a bit repetitive. Her characters are more modern than the times they live in, a result of being written in the 20th century instead of the time of the novels’ plots. This historical detail, along with the modern sensibilities, make reading Heyer a good primer for a reader that would like to read Austen but has struggled with her writing style.

The absolute best part of discovering a prolific author like Heyer is the sheer number of novels you have to choose from.  Besides Regency romances (Heyer is considered the creator of historical romances, btw), Heyer also wrote thrillers, mysteries and historical novels about Waterloo and William the Conqueror.  My top Heyer recommendations: The Grand Sophy, Faro’s Daughter, Frederica, The Reluctant Widow, Talisman Ring.

Yes, I Can Read Popular Fiction and Enjoy It
The Millenium Series by Steig Larsson (★★★☆☆)

Sometimes I feel like I’m out on a little pop culture island of my own. I have zero interest in the housewives, football wives, bachelors or bachelorettes or biggest losers. I refuse to read Twilight no matter how many of my 40-year-old friends gush about how wonderful it is. I like sci-fi shows and westerns; historical fiction and classics. Most of the time, I could care less that I’m not a part of the maddening crowd. Sometimes, though, I get pulled into the vortex of the media frenzy and I have to see what all the fuss was about. This year, I was pulled into the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo vortex.

I must have enjoyed it; I remember reading them one right after the other. Long term, though, not much of an impression has stayed with me besides the idea that the main character was an alter-ego of the author. Everyone else grew and developed; he stayed the same. He was, in my opinion, the least interesting character of the series. Luckily, the Lisabeth Salander character’s greatness makes up for the dullness of Mikael Blomqvist. Would I recommend the series?  Yes, but with tempering the expectations of greatness. It’s an entertaining, but forgettable, read.

Goal That I’ve Set for Myself and Will Probably Never Finish
1001 Books to Read Before You Die

This is all Lindsey’s fault. She had to pull out this damn book at book club last summer. I love ridiculously hard goals that I will never realistically achieve so there is a built-in excuse to fail challenges. In fact, that could be the subtitle for my life story.

I have made some progress. I created a blog page dedicated to the challenge. I’ve read The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, A Room with a View by EM Forster, Eugenie Grande by Balzac, Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte and, just this week, three Edgar Allan Poe stories! There are quite a few on the list that I want to read. All is not lost. I’m going to keep plugging along.

Favorite Books of the Year
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (★★★★★)
I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and not having an emotional reaction to the story. I don’t want to spoil any part of this book so I will just say that you won’t regret reading this book.

The Mapping of Love and Death (Maisie Dobbs, Book 7)
by Jacqueline Winspear (★★★★☆)

I’m not typically a fan of series. I find the stories to be a bit samey and the characters develop at a glacial pace, if at all. Jacqueline Winspear Maisie Dobbs series is the exception. Each mystery is unique and Maisie grows with each installment. As interesting from a historical perspective as the mysteries are, what has kept me reading the series is the character of Maisie Dobbs and her growth as a character.

The series is set in England between the wars, but not just before World War II which seems to be the fertile ground of so much pre-war historical fiction. Winspear starts her series in 1929 and has progressed a little more than two years in seven books. Usually, that glacial pace would annoy me but I want to experience as much of the decade before World War II with Maisie as I can.

The Mapping of Love and Death saw Maisie losing someone very close to, and starting a relationship with an unlikely character and ends with the opportunity for great change in her professional life. The next installment comes out in March. I can hardly wait!

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton (★★★★☆)Review

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins (★★★★☆) Review. One note I didn’t make in my review: The first two books are much stronger than the final book, Mockingjay. Katniss spends more time in the infirmary and feeling sorry for herself than she does taking action. But, the ending redeems the loss of focus of the majority of the book.

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus (★★★★)
It’s the 1870′s and the height of the Indian Wars in the west. The Cheyenne chief makes a bold trade proposal to President Grant – 1000 white women to the Indians for 1000 horses. The Cheyenne is a matriarchal society – children are considered part of their mother’s tribe – so logically to the Cheyenne the children of these unions would be welcomed into US society and enable the People to assimilate easily. Initially outraged, the government changes their mind and starts recruiting women out of prisons, insane asylums and desperate volunteers.

The story is fictional but inspired by an actual trade proposal by the Cheyenne in the 1850′s. Fergus paints a vivid picture of Indian life on the plains and how different their society was from ours.

Classics
This might be the first year in six or seven that I didn’t re-read Pride and Prejudice. I did re-read Emma, though. Excellent book but no P&P.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy (★★★★★)
Just a fun, quick read.

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte (★★★★☆)
It takes a while for this to get going but when it does it’s worth it. Not as dark and brooding as her sisters’ Charlotte and Emily.

A Room with a View by EM Forster (★★★☆☆)
Eh. Watch the movie.

Eugenie Grandet by Balzac (★★☆☆☆)
This one was a real struggle. Great characterizations, though.

Note to self for next year: Do a better job of tracking what I read and write more reviews!