I'm not sure how I managed to pull six books out of September -- it wasn't a great month for reading. Most were pretty light mysteries (one classic), set in Ireland, France, and England. Two other non-mysteries, also set in England, were far meatier and interesting and one is on my favorites of the year list.
"Pursuit in Provence" by Phyllis Gobbell
"Pursuit in Provence" is the first in the Jordan Mayfair series, the third of which I covered in last month's book recap. Because it is the first in a somewhat sequential series, it introduces readers to Jordan, an architect in Savannah; her travel-writer uncle Alex; Paul Broussard, an art dealer who shows up in psat and future books, and less importantly, members of her family.
Alex has invited Jordan to accompany him on a tour to Provence, which he is researching for a travel guide book, with a preliminary stop in Paris. The Paris leg is remarkable for two events: Jordan's luggage is lost on the train to Paris from Belgium and she runs into an old college friend and her husband, who is a Nashville music producer. The couple follow Jordan and Alex to Provence.
Two mysteries converge -- what happened to Jordan's luggage and why is someone so eager for her to get it back? And, in a museum located in Provence, a number of valuable drawings and paintings are missing. Jordan is pulled into the mystery, along with a new friend she meets are their hotel.
I don't know how to tell more of this without scooping the story. It's a good first effort from Gobbel and sets up the characters for future books. It's a lighter, fun mystery -- nothing too complex, but enjoyable.
"The Rose Code" by Kate Quinn
Kate Quinn rarely disappoints and she landed another hit in my book with "The Rose Code," which is set during World War II and England's Bletchley Park, where code breakers worked around the clock trying to break the intercepted messages from the German and Italian forces and pass on the information to the British forces. Already I like it.
The three principal characters here are Osla Kendall, a young woman of society who longs to do something important and not just be a fizzy debutante; Mab Churt, raised in Shoreditch in a poor family and self-improved, hoping to nab a respectable and well-enough-to-do husband; and Beth Finch, a young woman emotionally (and somewhat physically) abused by her mother and ignored by her hapless father who has a knack for crossword puzzles. Today we might consider her on the autism spectrum.
In the opening we first meet Beth, an inmate at an asylum, so desperate to get out and share vital government information that she reaches out, in code, to Osla and Mab. The women betrayed her and have their own issues between each other, but Beth believes they are the only ones who can help her.
The book jumps back and forth between the Bletchley days and the days before the Royal Wedding of Elizabeth and Philip in a race against time, telling the story of the three women and what tore them apart.
Osla and Mab meet on the train en route to Bletchley and learn they are to be billeted in the Finch home, where they discover Beth and her puzzling abilities and soon the three of them are working in various huts at BP, dissecting and translating encrypted messages. They must sign the official secrets act, not to speak of anything that happens within their huts, even to other Bletchley employees.
The story, and it's a good one, isn't only about their work, but also explores their personal lives. Osla is "set up" with a handsome naval officer named Philip, with whom she falls deeply in love. Mab is seeking a good, solid husband who can provide her a good home and one for her sister, Lucy. And Beth? Brilliant Beth just works, beginning to bloom in discovering that there is something that she can do that is truly special, a step above many of the other codebreakers.
It would be unfair of me to tell you how the three fell out or come back together. But this is more than just a book about codebreaking and the experience of working in Bletchley Park. It's also a story of friendship, empowerment, forgiveness, sacrifice and doing the right thing. All I can say is that it is one of my top reads of 2022.
(Please do read the author notes at the end of the book, which outlines differences between fiction and fact, characters inspired by real-life and those created for the story. You will find, among other things, that Osla is based on a woman named Osla Banning who was indeed Prince Philip's wartime girlfriend and that Beth is a composite of two code workers. But it's best not to google Bletchley for you will perhaps recognize some names that appear in the book -- and you don't want to scoop yourself!)
"Call the Midwife" by Jennifer Worth
Those who have watched all the episodes of the PBS series "Call the Midwife" may remember Jenny Lee as a character in the original cast who left after several seasons. She became Jennifer Worth later in life and "Call the Midwife" is a collection of her reminiscences during her time as a midwife in London's East End following World War II.
Some of the characters from the series -- Sister Julienne, Sister Bernadette, Sister Evangelina and Sister Monica Joan, along with handyman Fred, are faithfully described -- along with more than a few incidents of both childbirth and nursing in the impoverished East End. One may learn more about midwifery than they every wanted to know!
But the sisters and the nurses who were midwives also did nursing and in addition to mothers-to-be, we meet characters like Mrs. Jenkins, who mysteriously shows up at every birth in the area and who has many medical problems. You will learn about the workhouses that populated London to provide a not-very-good home for the indigent, separating the mothers from their children.
But there are also delightful moments as we get to know the midwife Chummy and Fred, with his plan to raise pigs.
It's a bit of a heavy book and at times a bit technical. But not too technical. If this is a show or subject that appeals to you, chances are you will find "Call the Midwife" an intriguing read.
"Secrets and Shamrocks" by Phyllis Gobbell
This is the second of the three Jordan Mayfair books by Gobbell I've read this summer and I quite enjoyed it. This time the author takes Savannah architect Mayfair and her uncle, travel writer Alex Carlyle, to Ireland, where he is working on a new travel guide. They are staying at a B&B run by a former student of Alex's and populated by a variety of interesting guests and locals.
Molly Quinn is a young violinist, traveling with her overbearing mother, Doreen; Helen, a Brit, is married to one-time golf pro, Charles who hopes to join up with local Lucas Riordan when he builds his new golf course; Ian Haverty is a schoolmaster in a boy's school who is working on a book of Celtic legends and Mr. Sweeney is a surly guest whom Jordan discovers is a recent widower. Add to it innkeepers Colin and Grace; their son and daughter in Patrick and Enya and their daughter Bridget, along with a few locals, delightful and otherwise and you're set for a lively mystery with many suspects!
The mystery itself (or mysteries -- the death of a local doctor and the stalking of one of the guests) are pretty good but where Gobbell shines is in her descriptions of the various sites and places around the locale of the B&B. It is set in the small town of Thurles (a real place) and as the guests visit different sites, her descriptions of the history and architectural details are well written, descriptive and tell the story of this remarkable region. If you enjoy a contemporary mystery with some history attached, this is a fun one.
"Winter of Discontent" by Jeanne M. Dams
Dorothy Martin, the ex-pat American living in Sherebury, UK, is back with another murderous romp in this sequential cozy mystery series. It is shortly before Christmas and this time, the curator a the town museum is putting together a World War II exhibit when he is found dead in his cellar, clutching a letter and his assistant bludgeoned (but not yet dead) at his desk.
Dorothy and her friend Jane, along with Dorothy's husband Alan, the retired chief constable, believe Bill's death and Walter's assault are connected to the exhibit but are unsure how. So, with Jane's help and Alan's hesitant agreement, Dorothy goes on the hunt to discover which of Bill Fanshawe's old army friends might have had reason to stop the exhibit.
This series is just fun -- nothing too deep, nothing too complicated, nothing too long. They don't need to be read in order to be enjoyed (except possibly the first one, which best introduces Dorothy and Alan) but you won't miss much if you just pick up one and give it a go. I read this over two days -- they're fast.
"The Mysterious Affair a Styles" by Agatha Christie
Much has been written about the somewhat mysterious life of Agatha Christie recently, in both more historic and fictionalized terms. It felt like a good time to return to one of her earlier books and a classic -- the one that introduced her Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot, to readers by revisiting his first case.
A typical country house mystery of the period (between the wars) finds Poirot's friend, Hastings, visiting the Cavendish family estate, Styles. It's matriarch is John and Leonard Cavendish's stepmother, Emily Inglethorpe, and there is no love lost between the brothers, other family or servants and Emily's much younger second husband, Alfred, of whom they expect has married her for what might be a fat inheritance in due course.
When Emily is found poisoned in her bed (with a partially burned will in the fireplace grate) there is no shortage of suspects with Inglethorpe at the top of the list but more than a few other worthy candidates. Hastings calls on his friend Poirot to take a look and of course, in due course, the murderer is revealed.
Christie combines her knowledge of poisons and the country house scene with a clever plot, holding few, if any, clues back from the reader. The smart reader might take note of the things he says and try to figure them out as Poirot does. I just read it for the pure fun. While Poirot isn't my favorite of the author's recurring characters, I admit I liked his style and detail and it's a wonderful introduction.