#BookReview A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline Winspear @AllisonandBusby

A Sunlit WeaponAbout the Book

October 1942. Jo Hardy, an Air Transport Auxilliary ferry pilot, is delivering a Spitfire to Biggin Hill Aerodrome, when she has the terrifying experience of coming under fire from the ground. In a bid to find out who was trying to take down her aircraft, she returns on foot to the area, and discovers an African American soldier bound and gagged in an old barn. A few days later another ferry pilot crashes and is killed in the same area of Kent.

Although the death has been attributed to ‘pilot error’ Jo believes there is a connection between all three events – and she wants desperately to help the soldier, who is now in the custody of American military police. Jo is advised to take her suspicions to Maisie Dobbs.

As the psychologist-investigator delves into the case, she discovers the attempt to take down ferry pilots and the plight of the black American soldier are inextricably linked with the visit to Britain by the First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt. Maisie must work with speed to uncover the depth of connection, to save the life of the President’s wife and a soldier caught in the crosshairs of those who would see them both dead.

Format: Hardback (320 pages)         Publisher: Allison & Busby
Publication date: 22nd March 2022 Genre: Historical Fiction, Crime, Mystery

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My Review

A Sunlit Weapon is the seventeenth book in Jacqueline Winspear’s historical crime series featuring psychologist/private investigator Maisie Dobbs. I only discovered the series with the publication of The American Agent (book fifteen) but reading that, and the book that followed it, The Consequences of Fear, was enough to make me a firm fan.

For those new to the series, I believe A Sunlit Weapon can easily be enjoyed as a standalone. And,  although there are references to events in previous books, I don’t think that would preclude going back to read earlier books in the series (as I hope to do one day) in order to learn more about Maisie’s past. However, at this point we find her married to former US Department of Justice agent, Mark Scott, and dividing her time between her London office and the family home in Kent where she lives with her adopted daughter, Anna, her father and stepmother.

Fans of the series will be familiar with Maisie’s methodical approach to investigating the cases that come her way, often recalling the advice of her former mentor, Maurice Blanche, and carefully constructing her elaborate case maps. She possesses a keen eye for detail, has perfected the art of getting information through seemingly casual conversations, is not averse to telling a few white lies to elicit facts and is no stranger to intrepid exploration. Her background as a psychologist gives her an instinct for whether someone is telling the truth and often points her in the direction of a motive that might not be obvious to others.

Her current case sees Maisie searching for a connection between a series of rather disparate events. As she delves further, the picture becomes increasingly complex with new avenues of enquiry opening up all the time. Whenever faced with an obstacle, what motivates Maisie is a sense of responsibility towards her client and her innate sense of justice.

The war is a constant backdrop to events in which few families have been left unaffected whether that’s because of loved ones injured or killed, forced relocation or just the sheer mental strain of not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Will today be the day that dreaded telephone call or telegram arrives? As Maisie observes, ‘We’re all told we can take it, but I’m not sure we can’, wondering if in fact people have become used to death, used to absorbing the shock of loss.

One particularly interesting element of the book for me was the focus on women’s contribution to the war effort, whether as Air Transport Auxilliary ferry pilots or members of the Land Army.  As Maisie discovers not everyone approves of women taking up these roles, believing that it is not ‘women’s work’. Prejudice of another kind also runs through the book, some very close to home for Maisie, and other more institutional in nature.

As you’d expect, Maisie – with the help of her trusty assistant Billy and some string-pulling by her husband – is eventually able to put together the pieces of what turns out to be a very complicated picture. What she discovers is a chain of events which is the product of ‘manipulated minds’. Throw in some dramatic scenes, a portion of woolton pie and lashings of tea and you have another very entertaining addition to the series.

I received an advance review copy courtesy of Allison & Busby via NetGalley.

In three words: Entertaining, clever, fast-moving

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Jacqueline WinspearAbout the Author

Jacqueline Winspear is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Consequences of Fear, The American Agent and To Die But Once, as well as thirteen other bestselling Maisie Dobbs novels and The Care and Management of Lies, a Dayton Literary Peace Prize finalist. Jacqueline has also published two nonfiction books, What Would Maisie Do?, and a memoir, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing. Originally from the United States, she divides her time between California and the Pacific Northwest.

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#BookReview The Marsh House by Zoë Somerville @HoZ_Books

The Marsh HouseAbout the Book

December, 1962. Desperate to salvage something from a disastrous year, Malorie rents a remote house on the Norfolk coast for Christmas. But once there, the strained silence between her and her daughter, Franny, feels louder than ever. Digging for decorations in the attic, she comes across the notebooks of the teenaged Rosemary, who lived in the house years before. Though she knows she needs to focus on the present, Malorie finds herself inexorably drawn into the past…

July, 1930. Rosemary lives in the Marsh House with her austere father, surrounded by unspoken truths and rumours. So when the glamorous Lafferty family move to the village, she succumbs easily to their charm. Dazzled by the beautiful Hilda and her dashing brother, Franklin, Rosemary fails to see the danger that lurks beneath their bright façades…

As Malorie reads on, the boundaries between past and present begin to blur, in this haunting novel about family, obligation and deeply buried secrets.

Format: eARC (352 pages)             Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: 3rd March 2022 Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery

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My Review

Initially the most obvious connection between the two women – Malorie and Rosemary – is the Marsh House of the title, a remote house close to marshland on the North Norfolk coast. By the time Malorie, along with her daughter Franny, arrives there it has become rather rundown and has all the features of an old, neglected building. ‘The house was quiet. Not silent, it was never completely silent: there was a constant undercurrent of creaks and whispers and rustles, as if it were being tossed about on the sea.’

The book features that oft-used narrative device: the secret journal. Although I recognise that discovery of a journal adds an air of mystery, I’m never quite sure about the choice of this over an additional first person narrative, finding it difficult to get past the artificiality of it. However I appreciate this is a reservation others may not share.

Writing from an unspecified place of confinement, Rosemary’s testimony unfolds bit by bit, gradually revealing the events that resulted in her finding herself in that situation. It’s a story of a vulnerable, naive young woman who, lacking the influence of a mother, finds herself taken advantage of in the most despicable way. It also explores the desire by some members of society to conceal things for the sake of appearances, the view of illegitimacy as a sign of moral turpitude or even a disease inherited from a degenerate mother. (Incidentally, I was puzzled by Rosemary’s lack of curiosity and inaction as regards her mother’s situation.)

Malorie becomes obsessed with Rosemary’s story, seeking to find out more about the events described and what happened to Rosemary. It also provides a form of distraction from her more immediate worries. The inhabitants of the village seen strangely unwilling to talk about Rosemary and the past history of Marsh House but eventually Malorie finds the answers she is looking for. She discovers a closer connection than she might have imagined. Although I’m not sure it will come as complete surprise to many readers, the circumstances may well do.

A standout feature of the book is the description of the local landscape, especially the bleak and deserted marshland around Marsh House which give an underlying eerie quality to the story. Being set in winter, with heavy snow blocking the roads and preventing any means of escape, adds to the feeling of claustrophobia.  Additional otherworldy elements contribute to the sense of unease: the deserted (or is it) cottage across the road, the telephone that rings but which only Malorie hears, the shadowy figure she believes she glimpses – ‘the dark shadow she kept seeing… as if there was something out there that was malign, that wanted to hurt them’. I was particularly struck by mention of a sampler hanging on the wall of one of the bedrooms depicting former inhabitants of the house which made me think of the M. R. James’ ghost story ‘The Mezzotint’. But are these things the product of Malorie’s mental turmoil caused by the breakdown of her marriage, her overuse of medication, her feverish imagination or something supernatural? The occasional sections by a third narrator perhaps give a clue.

The Marsh House is described by the publisher’s as ‘part ghost story, part novel of suspense’ and it certainly delivers both those elements. It’s full of atmosphere and an absorbing read.

I received a review copy courtesy of Head of Zeus via NetGalley.

In three words: Atmospheric, intriguing, mysterious

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Zoe SomervilleAbout the Author

Zoë is a writer and English teacher. Her debut novel, The Night of the Flood, was published in September 2020 by Head of Zeus. It is inspired by her home county, Norfolk and the devastating flood of the 1950s. Her second novel, The Marsh House is set in the same austere seascape of the Norfolk coast and is about mothers, daughters and ghosts.

Zoë has worked as an English teacher all over the world. This has included teaching English in Hagi, Japan, the Loire Atlantique, France and the Basque Country; several years in comprehensive schools in South London, Bath and Bristol; four years for the Hospital Education Rehabilitation Service in Somerset; and an international school in Washington, D.C. After completing a creative writing MA at Bath Spa University in 2016, she now combines writing and tutoring, and is settled in Bath with her family. (Bio: Author website)

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