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When We Were Young and Brave–kindness in the midst of despair

When We Were Young and Brave

by Hazel Gaynor

During our current tumultuous times, When We Were Young and Brave was somewhat of a difficult read for me, but I’m glad it is now a part of my personal reading journey. Hazel Gaynor’s latest book relates a fictional version of the events following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor as they play out for the students and teachers at the China Inland Mission School in Chefoo, China. With Japan’s invasion of China, the Japanese seize and occupy the school, later interning the residents in the much larger prison camp known as the Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center where sanitation facilities are disgusting and meals are meager, nutritionally inadequate for growing children, and almost inedible. Despite the harsh conditions, the teachers protect the children as best they can while rallying them with insistence on routines, cleanliness, and a hearty “chin up” attitude. Of particular note is the role of their Girl Guide troop and standards that help the students in maintaining a positive outlook.

The last sections of the book, “Liberation” and “Remembrance,” are remarkable in the beauty of the skillful writing that describes the impact of the American liberation on the camp residents. They gain relief from the fears that haunted them daily, but endure the substitution of new anxieties and questions for the future. Where will they go and what will they do? Is anyone waiting for them at home?

The story is told by alternating narrators. Elspeth is a competent, well-organized, and kind teacher who has a special motherly feeling for Nancy, the daughter of missionaries in China. Their relationship is always teacher and student, but as months of internment become years, Elspeth takes on increasingly more of the commitment for safe care that she made to Nancy’s mother as they departed by boat to sail to the school, both as first-timers. We view their ordeals from both Elspeth’s and Nancy’s points of view.

There are a lot of themes in the book including resilience, relationships, releasing the past, and looking to the future. Symbolism is also important in the kingfisher that becomes the emblem of the new Girl Guide patrol and the sunflower which holds a special meaning for teacher and students. 

The characters emerge as three dimensional figures as they are well developed. Realism comes into play with descriptions of the harsh conditions; no one’s story is fairytale like or even positive. The setting is well-executed with vivid word pictures. As the Chinese workers slosh through the camp, the odor of the filth of “honey-pot” buckets they pull from the latrines makes an unforgettable olfactory experience. There are also more pleasant descriptions of the beauty outside the camp, but glimpses are rare for those interned. The last two sections make the book a winner for me, but the first sections are also well written and essential to the success of this historical novel.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Historical Fiction

Notes: There is a very informative section at the end of the book that describes the author’s research and thought processes and some historical background. The author has also included a brief history of the Girl Guides as that organization plays an important role in the girls’ lives. Other additions are a list of books and websites for further reading, including original source documents found at weihsien-paintings.org, and some questions for discussion.

Publication: October 6, 2020—Harper Collins

Memorable Lines:

When she was cross, Miss Kent spoke in a way that reminded me of brittle twigs snapping underfoot on autumn walks. I felt my cheeks go red. Without giving me a ticking-off, she’d done exactly that.

I knew the smile she gave us that morning was the sort of “we must be brave” smile adults use when they’re trying to pretend something awful isn’t happening.

But, as I’d come to realize about life during a war, nothing stayed the same for long. Just when you thought you’d adjusted and adapted and found a way to cope, the situation changed.

Seeing Red–who’s in the freezer?

Seeing Red

by Dana Dratch

Seeing RedLiving right across the street from a four story Victorian turned into a B&B and run by a handsome, blue-eyed British gent could be a real plus for Alex who is currently single and a freelance writer. In Seeing Red by Dana Dratch, there are an abundance of interesting characters, lots of twists and turns, and an adorable pup named Lucy. Alex ends up with a full house of temporarily upended friends as she tries to discover the identity of a baby as well as several frozen bodies. Throw in some art fraud and a vengeful health inspector and you have an engaging plot with lots of twists and turns. I enjoyed the book but was a little let down at the end as things just got tidied up a little too quickly and easily with few apparent consequences. I do want to read the next in the series to follow the characters and look for improvement in the resolution of the next plot line in Red Hot.

I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Kensington Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: #2 in the Red Herring Mystery Series, but could be read as a standalone

Publication:  May 28, 2019—Kensington

Memorable Lines:

“She’s been looking at that poor innkeeper the way a hungry freshman looks at a vending machine.”

Baba, our dads mother, was ninety pounds of Russian dynamite. Not quite five feet tall and who knows how old, she was a strike force of one. Literally. She’d recently saved me from a psycho killer armed with nothing but common sense and a cast-iron frying pan.

“Mom can’t stay here,” Nick said, quietly. “Not with Baba here. Those two are like garlic and chocolate. You can have one or the other, but never both.”

Conan Doyle for the Defence–real life detection

Conan Doyle for the Defence

by Margalit Fox

Conan Doyle for the DefenceAs a lover of mysteries, I enjoyed reading Conan Doyle for the Defense. Be forewarned, however, that this book is not light reading. It is the recounting of Arthur Conan Doyle’s application of Holmesian deductive skills to the real case of Oscar Slater, wrongfully found guilty of the murder of an elderly lady.

In the process of relating the details of the case, the author Margalit Fox puts the events in context. She discusses the Victorian era and the development of crime fiction, including, of course, the Sherlock Holmes mystery series. She also addresses the life and character of Arthur Conan Doyle as well as Scottish politics, police, and the penal system. Fox presents an in-depth discussion of the different types of reasoning that might be used in trying to solve crimes.

If you are looking for a beach read, Conan Doyle for the Defence is not it. If you are interested in learning more about true crime detection, and how its principles apply to fiction, then this is the right book for you.

I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Profile Books/Serpent’s Tail for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: History, True Crime

Notes:  Includes a complete list of references, footnotes, and bibliography to support the information contained in the book.

Publication:   June 28, 2018—Profile Books/Serpent’s Tail

Memorable Lines:

First joining the case in 1912, he turned his formidable powers to the effort to free him, dissecting the conduct of police and prosecution with Holmesian acumen. But despite his influence and energy, Conan Doyle discovered, he wrote, that “I was up against a ring of political lawyers who could not give away the police without also giving away themselves.”

Holmes quickly became a global sensation, not only for his investigative prowess, unimpeachable morals and ultrarational cast of mind, but also for his exquisite embodiment of an age of Victorian gentility, and Victorian certainties, that was already imperiled.

Detection, at bottom, is a diagnostic enterprise, and the late 19th century was where the shared diagnostic concerns of medicine, criminalistics and literary detection first truly converged in public life.

False Pride–follow the money

False Pride

by Veronica Heley

False PrideDo you like mysteries with very complicated plots? If so, then you’ll want to read Veronica Heley’s  False Pride. Bad things happen faster than the police can keep up with them, and Bea Abbot, owner of the Abbot Agency, an employment service, finds herself in the middle of events surrounding the mysterious and secretive Rycroft family. Is this a power play or could the motive be greed or maybe revenge? Is one person behind all the crimes? Bea is forced to unite forces with her ex-husband Piers as he too is unintentionally pulled into a slew of deadly happenings.

While Bea is trying to survive threats, violence, and home invasions, she also has to deal from afar with the willfulness of her precocious ward Bernice. Romance is in the air for some of the characters, but these personal affairs take a back seat to a series of crimes so involved that the main characters unite to create a timeline to try to piece together the information they have acquired in order to discover who is behind these robberies and deaths.

I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Severn House for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: #12 in the Bea Abbot Agency Mystery Series, but works well as a standalone

Publication:   April 1, 2018—Severn House

Memorable Lines:

Magda reacted to difficult situations like cardboard in a downpour.

Piers managed to lever off the damaged hinges. They came away with a screech of tortured wood. It was a big, heavy door. The early Victorians had built to last. She wasn’t so sure that she would.

Bea reflected that there was no use getting at Piers for flirting. He didn’t mean it. It was something in the water. Charisma. Call it what you like. He didn’t do it on purpose.

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