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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.

Murder in the Wine Country–plant smuggling mystery

Murder in the Wine Country

by Janet Finsilver

Redwood Cove is an isolated community in northern California. The wealthy Michael Corrigan, owner of Resorts International, is not the stereotypical rich businessman with cutthroat motives and actions. He is boss to Scott, manager of Redwood Cove Community Center, and to Kelly, manager of Redwood Cove Bed and Breakfast. Always looking for ways to help others, especially veterans, Michael is hosting an exclusive event for other wealthy philanthropists with the goal of providing a model of community support that he hopes will inspire them to implement similar programs in their own communities. 

Problems have arisen in the little town with the presence of plant poachers who are digging up a certain plant that is popular in China and smuggling them out of the country. In the midst of this event, wardens warn visiting chefs, who are encouraged to forage for edible plants in the area to showcase in their culinary creations, of potential danger from these smugglers. When there is a death, a robbery, and three missing people, Kelly and the Silver Sentinels, a group of seniors who use their skills to help solve crimes, gather at Kelly’s B&B and get to work.

Other mainstay characters are involved in Janet Finsilver’s Murder in the Wine Country. My favorites are Tommy, a sweet boy with Asperger’s, and his Basset hound Fred. Deputy Stanton enjoys spending time with Tommy working on projects and with Tommy’s mom Helen, a widow who works at the inn. There is certainly potential for romance between them in future books. Scott and Kelly also have romantic inclinations, but the author doesn’t rush the characters into relationships. Another interesting character is Julie, a visiting chef who has a service dog Rex, who is not only a faithful companion, but can warn her of an impending epileptic seizure. He plays an important role in the story.

The plot moves along at a nice pace. Kelly’s investigations are successful to the point of putting her in danger of losing her life. The Silver Sentinels are ready to help at a moment’s notice as are other community members who aren’t even involved. The setting is great, but it’s the people who make Redwood Cove the kind of place you might want to live.

I would like to extend my thanks to Netgalley and to Lyrical Underground (Kensington Press) for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: #6 in the Kelly Jackson Mystery Series, but as the author provides good support for readers who are just beginning the series, I have no hesitation in recommending it as a standalone.

Publication:   April 28, 2020— Lyrical Underground (Kensington Press)

Memorable Lines:

I had my own rescue bag of sorts. Years ago, I had vowed I would always stop to help a loose animal that was in danger, even if it meant missing an important appointment or an airplane flight. This was after watching car after car whiz by a shaking dog stranded on an island of a busy street, no one stopping to help.

Mary handed me a plate with a chocolate brownie studded with chunks of chocolate. Coffee and chocolate, my two favorites. I might recover after all.

For a split second, I considered not saying anything regarding the incident but immediately rejected the thought. He’d asked about the rest of the afternoon. Omitting was a form of lying, and I wouldn’t go there.

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