I have joined the “Maisie Dobbs” fanclub. Yes, that simple, hard-working and wildly intelligent girl sleuth of the 1920’s has captured my heart. Author Jacqueline Winspear has created a unique tale–a combination mystery, history, romance and psychological study of human nature. The story begins when Maisie, just having hung out her shingle as a private investigator, is hired by a client to find out where his wife is sneaking off to. This launches her into an investigation much broader than a straying spouse, and something much more sinister. She soon uncovers a “Retreat,” ostensibly set up as a refuge for soldiers who were hideously scarred during The Great War, but when some inmates start disappearing, it launches Maisie into an investigation that forces her to revisit the horrors she personally experienced and face up to her past. The interesting thing about the structure of the book is that it flies in the face of all “good story writing” advice. Just as we as readers are getting sucked into the mystery, the author digresses and fills the whole middle of the book with the story of Maisie–how she came to be an educated Cambridge gal from her humble beginnings as a house maid. We return to the mystery at the end of the book, and the background story is such a satisfying tale that we forgive the interruption. The novel is full of rich characters, from her inscrutable mentor, Maurice Blanche, to her working-class side kick, Billy Beale–some of which are a bit “over the top.” But we forgive and love them for it. Just so, Maisie herself is sometimes just too good, smart, and pretty to be true, but somehow Winspear makes it work. I’m delighted to see that this is just the first in a series of Maisie adventures. She’s just the cure for a long, dreary winter. (One minor note: I was dismayed to see how poorly my copy of the book was edited. Some helpful previous reader penciled in a lot of corrections. A shame!)
Monthly Archives: February 2014
On Valentine’s Day I finished reading Anne Fortier’s novel “Juliet,” a story about a descendent of the real Juliet of Siena going back to Italy to find a long-lost treasure and break the famous curse–“a plague on both your houses”- for good measure. The book was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “a Da Vinci Code for the smart modern woman.” I would describe it more like a Dan Brown plot on steroids, mixed with a Sophie Kinsella-like silly romantic story with an even sillier main character, and a dash of Philippa Gregory historical fiction. The author does a great job describing the scenes and setting of Italy: the ancient buildings, the food, and people. Her strongest sections of the novel were the ones set in the 1340’s, telling the re-imagined tale of the original Romeo and Juliet. Also, she shows her knowledge of the influence the story had on Shakespeare, how the story morphed and eventually travelled to England. The weak part of the novel is, in my opinion, all of the main characters in the modern setting. Juliet (or Giulietta in the Italian) is a twenty-five year old ingenue, still crippled by the relationship with her bad-girl twin sister and easily duped by everyone around her. She is a nincompoop of the first order. Her sister, the exact opposite, is a cartoon-like bad girl. The main love interest, the modern-day Romeo, is a brooding lout who hardly inspires much more than the desire to give him a good slap. The dialogue between the two lovers is painful, stagnant, and downright dull. What kept me reading to the end despite all this was the resolution of the mystery–the finding of the treasure. Reader beware. To get to this point you have to endure ridiculous plot twists, numerous improbable secret identities, easy solution of codes, clues that fall from the sky….well, you get the idea. It would have been a much stronger work if Fortier had stuck to the original story set in Italy and the hunt for the tomb and treasure and totally left out the romance.
Jody Casella, first time author of “Thin Space,” has written an engaging YA novel that easily crosses the lines into mainstream. It is the story of a a teenaged twin who is consumed with guilt over the death of his brother. We are not told the circumstances of the car accident which took the life of one twin, and left the other alive, but severely injured. The story takes up with his recovery, and his all-consuming quest to find a “thin place,” a legendary spot where the boundaries between this world and the next are so thin, that a person can pass through. He is determined to find this place and make things right with his brother. Despite the paranormal premise of the novel, it is for the most part firmly grounded in reality. The author masterfully portrays the strained relationship between the teen and his grieving parents, struggling to find some normality in the situation. The author also is adept at creating teenagers who ring true, who, for the most part, act and speak like high schoolers. Despite the fact that the author is female, for the most part I did not read lines spoken from the teenaged boy and think, hmmm, that sounds more like a mature woman speaking. To her credit, Jody Casella has captured the angst and alienation of all teens, and especially one who has suffered an unbearable loss. A highly recommended read.