Review: Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

Maisie Dobbs

My book club this month read Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear. I listened to the audiobook on Hoopla, and–full disclosure–I suck at retaining audible information. I’m very much a visual learner, but I’m so busy that I don’t get to read just for fun anymore unless it’s while I’m shuttling children around town or cooking dinner or going for a jog (walk, really…). Anyway, my point in sharing this is that I don’t focus very well when I listen to audiobooks, but I still loved this story. I couldn’t tell you all the finer points of the plot, but Maisie Dobbs is a kicka** private detective just oozing with coolness.

I loved this book for a few reasons. First, Maisie is a good role model. She’s smart, resourceful, brave, intuitive in her work, and lives with integrity. Second, this book covers a period of time which I’m not as familiar with as others. Maisie goes off to serve as a nurse during World War I. I’ve read many books about WWII, but not as many about WWI, and it was nice to experience this period through a new perspective. Third, it provided a great blend of cozy murder mystery, plot, history, and a touch of love story. The ending was heartbreaking and unexpected, but somehow fit the book and mood perfectly.

The only thing I didn’t like was the transitions to the many flashbacks. I didn’t mind the flashbacks themselves or jumps in the story, but there was no indication that the scene or time had changed, which made it especially hard for me to keep track of things in the audiobook. A note of the year at the beginning of each flashback would have been helpful.

I’ve learned that there is a whole series of Maisie Dobbs adventures and I hope to read some more someday! I definitely recommend this one!

4.5 stars out of 5

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Book review: The House of Baric Part One: Shields Down

Shields Down Digital Front-smallerI have finally finished The House of Baric Part One: Shields Down! This historical fiction novel by Jillian Bald can be found on Book Club Reading List. Now, I say “finally” because I have been diligently working on it for the better part of a month. It is quite long, but very entertaining!

Synopsis

Resi is a girl from Greece whose father arranges her marriage to a Croatian baron’s son to keep the peace after a trading deal goes awry. Betrothed from a young age, Resi is unsure of her future. She doesn’t want to marry a stranger and live far from her family in a foreign land. When she is finally sent for to fulfill the marriage contract, she moves to Croatia with her best friend Ruby to keep her company. Her new husband, Baron Mauro Baric, is not what she expected. The House of Baric: Shields Down explores their first two years of marriage, getting to know each other and discovering they might actually like each other. The reader gets to know a colorful cast of characters and becomes immersed in 17th-century life in Croatia.

Strengths

If you love historical fiction, this book is for you! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Historical fiction is my favorite way to learn history. I cannot get through dry history books; I literally fall asleep every time. But historical fiction? Sign me up! I love learning about the past, what life was like, how things were different from the world I live in today, and historical fiction teaches history by immersing the reader in that period. The House of Baric did a great job at fully depicting its world, 17th-century Croatia, a time and place I have never learned much about. Bravo to Jillian Bald for the sheer amount of research I’m sure she did to accurately write in such a setting.

The writing is very strong, descriptive and sophisticated. It was long, but easy to read.

I very much enjoyed the characters and getting in each of their heads. I loved Resi and thought she was very brave in accepting the terms of her marriage and making the best of it. She is a very intelligent woman with a strong spine who isn’t afraid to stand up for herself or others she thinks are being mistreated.

Weaknesses

The main problem I had with this book is that I didn’t feel like as much was accomplished during the story as should have been, given how long it was. It is definitely a slow-moving, descriptive book, which is fine, but there were events that I kept expecting to get to only to have the plot derailed by something else. For example, we learn early on that Resi has been communicating with her favorite brother, a mercenary who has not gotten along well with Mauro in past years. Her brother will be in the area and wants to come for a visit. Naturally, I expected this highly anticipated event would cover at least a portion of the rest of the book. Instead, unexpected visitors show up at the Baric household, then Mauro’s ship is confiscated by the government, there’s a ball and a camp out on the beach… All entertaining parts of the book, but then Part One ends just as Resi’s brother shows up. I guess that’s meant to be motivation to read the next book in the series, but I’m a little annoyed that I was waiting for the confrontation with the brother for so long and didn’t even get to read it.

Conclusion

This is definitely a book for all historical fiction lovers! I wish I could go on a Mediterranean cruise or something now. Lounge on the beach, gaze into crystal clear waters, and curl up with a good book. Doesn’t that sound amazing? This book put me in that mood! It is a little on the long side and definitely has passages that could be trimmed down, but The House of Baric Part One: Shields Down is a quality, worthwhile read. Be prepared to take your time to savor all it has to offer.

4 out of 5 stars

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Book Review: Four Ways to Pharaoh Khufu

Four ways to pharaoh KhufuJust finished Four Ways to Pharaoh Khufu! This adventure tale is by Alexander Marmer and can be found on Book Club Reading List.

Synopsis

Michael has dreamed of visiting the Egyptian pyramids since he was a child. On his first day in the country touring the Great Pyramid, he meets a dying German engineer who claims to have been poisoned. After giving Michael a business card for his daughter and a small notebook, his last words are “find four ways.” Michael begins an adventure beyond his wildest dreams, attempting to recover a stolen ancient stele, decode the dying man’s final words, and find the final resting place of the great Pharaoh Khufu. He is accompanied by the German’s daughter, Anna, and together they try to unravel the mystery surrounding her father’s death.

Strengths

This was a very well-written (and well-edited) book. That’s not to say I didn’t find a few typos, but obvious care went into the writing and research of this book. There is SO much fascinating history about Egypt and the pyramids included in this story! I learned more than I thought I’d ever know about Egypt in a single read.

The story line was exciting and full of action. I liked the main characters, Michael and Anna, and enjoyed going on the adventure with them.

Weaknesses

The main weakness for me–which may not be seen as a weakness by someone else–was simply the length of this book. Clocking in at 363 pages, I feel like the same story could be told at two-thirds the length. There were times when I simply couldn’t keep up with the complicated theories the characters uncovered about the pyramids. You almost need a larger base of knowledge about Egypt before starting the book to fully appreciate everything. The extent of my knowledge about Egypt comes from middle and high school history classes, so I’d say it’s pretty limited. By having such complicated and intricate sub-plots, the audience can become bored or feel alienated for not understanding.

Conclusion

It’s obvious an incredible amount of time and thought went into researching for this book. The characters go on a great adventure, survive car chases and murder attempts, recover an ancient artifact, and discover long-held secrets. I love the journey Michael goes on–he’s definitely my favorite character. My girly side wished there was a little more romance to the story; it’s totally set up for Michael and Anna to fall in love, but nothing really happens except mention that they steal glances at each other. And I wish the story was condensed a bit, more focused. I think this is a book that fans of crime fiction or books like The DaVinci Code would love. If that sounds like you go check this one out!!

4 out of 5 stars

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Book Review: The Angel of Innisfree

angel of innisfreeI’m not sure how to begin this post. I’m in a sort of reading coma–like a food coma, but experienced after over-indulging on a good book. The Angel of Innisfree, by Patrick F. Rooney, is a seriously fantastic read and can be found on Book Club Reading List.

Synopsis

The story begins in Ireland in 1848 during the Irish Potato Famine. Landlords are ruthlessly evicting their tenants and thousands are dying in the streets. When 16-year-old Elizabeth Reilly nurses Brian O’Rourke back to health after nearly starving to death, the young lovers’ fates become intertwined. After Brian’s family is killed by English soldiers, he and his sister Mary are forced to flee to America on a famine ship and start a new life, but not before promising Elizabeth that he would find her someday. Elizabeth moves to France to study with Chopin and pursue her dream of becoming a concert pianist. Elizabeth and Brian each take incredible journeys that give the reader a glimpse into the rich history of the telegraph, the Underground Railroad, and the American Civil War. Will Brian and Elizabeth find each other in a country ripped apart by war?

Strengths

I’m always excited when I find a really good historical fiction novel. I detest history books but I enjoy learning about the past. Historical fiction, for me, is the best way to learn history because it makes those time periods come alive in ways that text books can never achieve. I don’t know if I can express emphatically enough how much I loved The Angel of Innisfree. There was so much action–far more I would ever expect from this genre!–and the story line was consistently moving along at the perfect rate: slow enough to savor the setting, but quick enough to keep me interested in what was going to happen next.

The main characters were phenomenal; I couldn’t believe the hardships both Brian and Elizabeth endured and overcame so that they could be together. Brian refers to Elizabeth throughout the novel as his angel of Innisfree. My favorite quote of the book came in the very last paragraph:

“I remember him playing his violin on the Viking rock to comfort the dying then, how he rescued Mary, how he helped the Negroes escape on the Underground Railroad, how he helped the wounded soldiers at Antietam, and a hundred other kindnesses over the years, and it occurs to me that he may have been the angel of Innisfree all along.” (Elizabeth, epilogue.)

The writing style is clear and strong, the history is fascinating and informative, the characters are compelling, and the love story is one for the ages.

Weaknesses

In a book this strong it is hard to come up with any weaknesses. It was perhaps a little long, but it really was a story I wanted to savor and take my time with. (Unfortunately, I didn’t have that luxury!)

Conclusion

I am at a loss for why this book only has a few reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. It is as good a book as any I have ever read. Readers, let’s band together and share the word about this good tale! If you haven’t read it yet, go get a copy now. I promise you won’t regret it!

I give The Angel of Innisfree a full 5 stars, wishing I could give it more.

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Book review: Dobyns Chronicles

Dobyns ChroniclesJust finished up the historical fiction novel Dobyns Chronicles, by Shirley McLain, and I feel like I need to speak with a southern cowboy drawl! The writing style just put that accent in my head through the entire story. I found Dobyns Chronicles on Book Club Reading List.

Synopsis

Dobyns Chronicles is the story of Charley Dobyns and his family in the Texas and Oklahoma Territories around 1880-1950. Charley grew up on a ranch and learned early in life the value of hard work. He learned how to take care of the animals and how to store food for the winter. So when the yellow fever took both his parents, 16-year-old Charley was well enough equipped with the skills to take care of his younger brother and sister, aged 10 and 4. We follow Charley as he leads his family through numerous trials. It is a heartwarming story of strength, love, and the lengths to which one will go to take care of family.

Strengths

Charley is certainly the hero of this book. The author, Shirley McLain, has based this book on her great-grandfather’s life and has even included family photos at the end documenting Charley, his siblings, and all of their children. This real-life connection is what drives this story home to me. Charley is the bedrock of the family; he is strong and reliable. I’m sure that if my parents had died when I was a teenager and I was left responsible for my younger siblings, we would have all died. Or, more likely, been split up to live with relatives or left at the mercy of social services. Charley was so determined to keep what was left of his family together.

“Viola, you carry Ma and Pa inside of you. They will always be there with you. If you listen real close, you can even hear them talking to you. One day, you will even see them again.” (Charley, page 51)

I think this quote sums up the essence of this story. Families are forever; not even death can erase those we love from our lives.

In addition to the copious amount of heart and love, this story also has a fair amount of humor, particularly when we’re not expecting it. Charley, his brother David and sister Viola all refer to each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. They don’t often use contractions in their dialogue, which makes the language feel formal.

“‘Gosh Charley, you sure are smart. I hope when I get as old as you are, I am half as smart as you,’ David said.

Viola just agreed with him. Of course, I was eating it up like honey on bread. I just gave them the sage advice it takes time to learn about things. By the time I got through letting them think how all-knowing I was, we were at the main house.” (page 77)

I love the sibling banter that is written throughout the book. Even

Charley Dobyns

when life deals them trials time and again, they keep each other’s spirits up. Also, there are many, many scenes in which the characters are eating good, hearty farm meals. The descriptions of the food made me hungry!!

Weaknesses

I think the biggest weakness was the pace of the story. For all of the exciting things those kids have to deal with, it sure seemed to drag! I think the language style was part of the pacing problem. Stylistically, I see what McLain was trying to do in the dialogue; I definitely had a cowboy drawl in my head as I read the characters; but I think it was overdone to the point where it didn’t feel realistic. For example, there is a scene where they go ice skating with two other children, Thomas and Mila, who fall in the ice. Mila is in the water up to her neck and Thomas is treading water and holding on to her, their teeth are chattering, it’s a dramatic moment. Here’s what Charley says:

“David, run to the house and tell Zack to come and help. Then help Mrs. Selby get warm blankets for the kids. Ask Zack to bring a couple of blankets with him. Run as fast as you can.”

I feel like this isn’t genuine. Anyone in this kind of high-stress situation would be hollering out commands, not slow, polite requests. The kids are freezing! He should be calling out those instructions as he gets to the kids as quick as he can! There should be some exclamation marks!! Right?!? Anyway, maybe that’s just a personal preference.

Conclusion

Overall, I love the heart of this book and the themes of family, hard work, and love. Charley leaves us with these final words, which I think sum up the purpose of life quite nicely:

“This life, with its difficulties, is preparation for the goodness that is to come. I don’t think we would be able to appreciate what the Lord will give us on the other side unless we’ve lived this life with all its trials and tribulations. I know, since I’ve survived, I’m a stronger man. My body may be weaker, but my spirit isn’t.” (pages 247-248)

If you’re in the mood for a good family story and learn a little history, go get yourself a copy of Dobyns Chronicles.

4 stars

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