Review: A Duty to the Dead

A duty to the dead is a sacred matter.

The Bess Crawford series has been something that I’ve wished to read for quite some time now. Also, after reading the Maisie Dobbs series, finding another WWI nurse turned sleuth was an appealing thought. I first learned of the Maisie Dobbs series from following the Book Club Girl’s site where she did a read-along. Now, to stem our grief over the loss of weekly episodes of Downton Abbey, Book Club Girl decided to schedule another read-a-long, this time with Bess Crawford. Delightful!

In, A Duty to the Dead, Bess makes a promise to dying soldier Lieutenant Arthur Graham to deliver a cryptic message to his brother, Jonathon. Bess is wounded which delays the delivery and the longer it takes to deliver the message the more it starts to take on darker meanings. After meeting the Graham family she quickly discovers that fulfilling Arthur’s promise comes with much apprehension and danger and results in uncovering clues about a murder 14 years prior. Unable to leave without first solving this mystery, Bess’ will and her previous thoughts of the dashing Arthur will be greatly tested.

In the beginning I fear I compared too much to my beloved Maisie, trying to find flaws in Bess, if you would say. I didn’t think Bess had as much “pluck” as Maise, but as I continued to read, the the mystery & intrigue Bess becomes midst among intensifies and I was drawn right in. But still, Bess’ character is not as well developed, you don’t get a strong sense of her personality and background really, especially as this is our first introduction to Bess. I’m hoping that she grows as the series continues. But, don’t get me wrong, Bess wasn’t about to walk away from uncovering the deep family secrets the Grahams were keeping! The other personalities weren’t going to stand in the way of her perseverance.

For another take, here is what BookFan had to say about A Duty to the Dead here.

Here are the questions – and my answers – for the discussion taking place on Book Club Girl’s site. Some of the questions I’ve answered above…I did not know the questions that would be asked for the following discussion, but my answers below perhaps provide more detail.

Questions for Discussion:

1) Was this the first book that you read by Charles Todd, or, the first book set in this time period? I first encountered WWI-era-England with Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, and then, of course with the tv sensation Downton Abbey. If you have read more in this time period, what other books do you recommend?

Yes, this was my first Charles Todd. I did have it marked as to read for quite some time, but then held off when I heard there would be a read-a-long done like what was done for the Maisie Dobbs series. Book Club Girl was who introduced me to Maisie, and of course I was hooked on Downton Abbey! Lately there has been a whole slew of book lists to “cure your Downton withdrawl” and I have quite a few marked down. The House of Tyneford comes quickly to mind, and I heard that The Haunting of Maddy Clare is like Maisie Dobbs, ghosthunter. So I’m anxious to crack that one open! And I’m very anxious to get to Broken Music as well.

2) What was your first impression of Bess Crawford? Were you surprised by the independence she enjoyed as a woman in this time, and that her parents afforded her so much freedom? Did your opinion of Bess change throughout the novel?

As I mentioned above, I think I was trying to compare her to Maisie too much at first. I felt Maisie was a better developed character, her background seemed more fleshed out. But yes, she did seem to enjoy a great deal of independence for the time period. She was often unescorted and perhaps it is owing to her more privileged upbringing. But again, I didn’t think this was as fleshed out as much as it could have been. And yes, my opinion did definitely improve and change of Bess as I read further. Her determination to get to the bottom of the mystery was great.

3) Bess has an interesting back story, growing up as she did in India. How did the authors use that part of her life to help define her character, and that of her parents and their relationship?

I really didn’t think this was detailed enough to really get a firm grasp of her growing up in India. I felt it was really only noted in passing a few times, in my opinion. I didn’t think there was a lot of attention paid to the character development of her father and mother.

4) Did you know that large ocean liners, such as the Brittanic, which was a sister ship to both the Titanic and the Olympic, were called into service as hospital ships during the war? Brittanic was indeed sunk as well, just as the Todds write it in the book. Did you know that so many of the men who died on the hospital ships were buried at sea? Of course it makes sense, but I hadn’t realized the number and that those men’s families were left with no grave at home to visit, as Bess reflects, “In the sea there were no markers for the dead. No place in the deep to mourn, no place to leave flowers.”

No, I did not know that and it was very interesting to find that out. What an incredible experience it must have been working on those large ships tending to the men. I honestly had NO IDEA this occurred! I’ve only pictured or seen the hospitals on ground, when I envision the nurses and doctors tending to the wounded and dying men.  I honestly have never seen images of hospital ships. And how sad and very frustrating it would have been for those families not able to have a body to bury and mourn over properly. It would seem as though it wasn’t really real, they really weren’t dead. How very sad and heartbreaking for their families.

4) What did you think of Arthur’s message? Do you think it was fair of him to ask Bess to deliver it? Why do you think she was so committed to not only delivering it, but to making sure it was followed by the Graham family?

Arthur could have spilled a few more beans to Bess! If he honestly cared for her in the way it read that he did, or how their relationship was blossoming, you would think he would have divulged more information. However, it would seem that Bess fell in love with him, and he is characterized as a man that was very popular with the ladies, and I assumed that it was more one-sided on Bess’ part. However, when Bess examines their relationship, she really didn’t know much about Arthur and you see it as more of a one-sided relationship – Bess fell harder for him. I think her determination to ensuring its delivery is due in part to her love for him, but also because it just smacked of mystery and I think this is where Bess’ character comes to life. She simply needs to get to the bottom of this, but also I think to convince herself that she was a special part of Arthur’s life. This wasn’t something she would have done for anyone else and that is stated often in the book, she wrote plenty of letters home, but because she was in love with Arthur – she specifically went to meet his family.

5) What did you think of Mrs. Graham and her sons? I was struck by how much Bess was at their mercy and whim while staying in their house. Do you think they abused her kind nature in asking her to care for Peregrine?

Well Mrs. Graham was certainly a self-absorbed, selfish person! Although, she did what she did to protect her shameful secret from being exposed. However, her treatment of Peregrine was horrid, and well, what each of her boys had to continue to live with and hide all those years was terrible. Shameful to trade one boy’s life for another!Absolutely they did abuse Bess in asking her to care for Peregrine – by locking her in a room ensuring that no one else would be allowed to see Peregrine for fear that he would expose their secret was a terrible mistreatment! Overall, the whole treatment of Bess by the Graham’s was contemptible. From the moment Bess walked in the front door their treatment of her was bizarre. No wonder she wished to stay and uncover the dirty little secrets! Their behaviour just smacked of “we’re hiding things here!”

6) Did you guess who the real killer was before he was revealed? I confess I went back and forth a few times, wondering.

I do confess to going back and forth about it a few times as well. I did figure it was one of the brothers though, and then I thought hmmm, maybe the mother? But I believe I kept it narrowed down to the brothers?

Now it is on to the second book in the series, An Impartial Witness. Discussion of this book will take place on April 30th.

Review: Moab Is My Washpot

This is the bittersweet first autobiography of English comedian Stephen Fry. The man has led quite the life that this is only part one!!! It covers only his first 20 years but how full these years were!

I am fully aware that my grievances are minor. The story of a sensitive young weed struggling to grow up in the robust thicket of an English public school is not likely to arouse sympathy in the breasts of every reader. It was a subject done to death in the early part of this century in novels, memoirs and autobiographies. I am a cliché and I know it. I was not kidnapped by slave traders, forced to shine shoes at the age of three in Rio or sent up chimneys by a sadistic sweep. I grew up neither in circumstances of abject poverty, nor in surroundings of fantastic wealth. I was not abused, neglected or exploited. Middle class at a middle-class school in middle England, well nourished, well taught and well cared for, I have nothing of which to complain and my story, such that it is, is as much one of good fortune as of anything else. But, it IS my story and worth no more or no less than yours or anyone else’s. It is, in my reading at least, a kind of pathetic love story.

There are LOTS of rich and rambling passages such as this as he so eloquently tells the story of his life growing up in a manor house in the English countryside before being shipped off to boarding school at the ripe old age of 7.

Advanced in his studies at a young age, Stephen finds himself spending more time playing the social game, attempting to get out of playing sports and “thieving” than he does concentrating on his schoolwork that by the age of 18 he finds himself in a heap load of trouble with no education to fall back on. His humbling climb from the humiliation of getting kicked out of more than one school, going to jail for credit card fraud and a suicide attempt to successfully completing the entrance exam at Cambridge makes you want to stand up and cheer for the hilarious anti-hero that he is! 3 stars.

Looking forward to reading The Fry Chronicles someday soon– part 2 of his life as he becomes famous for both his writing and comedy. I think I will doing audio for this one tho– his writing is brilliant but his diction is flawless!

Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife

Until this book, I am sorry (and a little embarrassed) to admit that I had no idea who Jan and Antonina Zabinski were.  That is no longer the case.  There were many heroes during WWII; many of whom were unsung.  Thanks to the prolific work of author Diane Ackerman, however, the Zabinskis’ story has been told in a very touching and readable non-fiction account.

Jan and Antonina Zabinski were Christian zookeepers horrified by Nazi racism, who capitalized on the Nazis’ obsession with rare animals in order to save over 300 doomed people.  Their story has fallen between the seams of history, as radically compassionate acts sometimes do.

The story begins with the heyday of the Warsaw Zoo in Poland, which was lovingly overseen by the Zabinskis.  Jan, a no-nonsense Zoologist, was a scientist to his core, and a man who could not abide racial intolerance.  His wife Antonina was an intelligent and soft-spoken woman, who had an uncanny knack for understanding animals and their connection to their human keepers.  She is the book’s focal point, and it was her remarkable understanding of creatures large and small that helped guide her through the atrocities of the Nazi occupation of Poland.

When the Nazis burst in on Poland, and pillaged almost everything in their path, it was astonishing that the Warsaw Zoo was left standing.  Oddly, Nazi fascination with exotic animals was to the benefit of the Zabinskis, as they were permitted to remain at the Zoo, and tend the animals that survived initial bombings.  Led by the efforts of Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck, the Germans soon removed the more precious species from the Zabinskis’ care, and relocated them to German Zoos.  The remaining animals were shot with cold-blooded malice by a riotous German Officer ‘hunting party,’ who thought it would be great entertainment to kill the caged animals.

Every time I read new accounts of Nazi behavior, I’m more horrified than the last.  The word inhuman would be a compliment.

Sorry – back to the review.

Warsaw, as the Zabinskis knew it, had transformed from a city of rich history, to a Ghetto of prisoners.

Once cleared of its creatures, Jan decided to reinvent the Zoo, and turn it into a pig farm.  With the ‘goal’ of providing fresh meat for the Nazi troops, the Zoo was allowed to run in this manner for a while.  Under the guise of a pig farmer who needed to collect edible scraps for the pigs, Jan started visiting the Warsaw Ghetto.  These trips provided an opportunity for Jan to smuggle food in for Ghetto inhabitants, and slowly, steadily, smuggle prisoners out.

When the pig farm was shut down by the Germans, the Zoo reinvented itself again as a fur farm.  Providing the Germans with rich fox pelts became the new reason to officially exist, and it provided continued opportunities to hide weapons, Underground documents, and more Ghetto escapees.  Both Jan and Antonina (and their young son) had many tense encounters with the Gestapo, and they always talked their way out of life threatening situations.  I started to think that they were charmed.

The Zoo became a safe haven.  People hid in closets, tunnels, animal enclosures, and even in plain sight.  Antonina took care of all of them, while Jan worked tirelessly as a bold member of the Polish Underground.  The book’s focus on Antonina offered a true glimpse of humanity during a time when such a thing was scarce.  She was remarkable.  From her piano playing which warned people to hide, to her affection for every person saved, Antonina welcomed the purpose in her life with open arms.

The Zabinskis saved over 300 people.  

Diane Ackerman provides a history lesson unlike any other that I have encountered.  She skillfully juxtaposes her descriptions of animals with her account of daily human life in occupied Warsaw.  Her devotion to the people of the story leaves the reader with a feeling of personal connection.  You’ll feel like you knew them.  You’ll feel like you knew Antonina.

This reader wishes she had.  3.5 stars.

Canlit Review: This Cake is for the Party

Finalist for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize  

Longlisted for the 2010 Frank O’Connor Award

Synopsis from Thomas Allen Publishers: Sarah Selecky’s first book takes dead aim at a young generation of men and women who often set out with the best of intentions, only to have plans thwarted or hopes betrayed.

And I think that nails it just right. Every individual in these stories was so real. So today and so now. We know these people, either you know someone like them or we see a little of ourselves in them. There is a sadness though to every person in these stories. Each character is dealing with some kind of loneliness, loss, betrayal and it just all felt so very real, (I think I said that already?).  As if Selecky is sending a message to tell us that, oh I just don’t know how to put it into words….she is not laughing at us, not really poking fun or judging, but maybe just showing that the little things we obsess about in life are superfluous.

People are so afraid. They hoard their things. Don’t they know that it’s all going to be gone one day anyway? None of this is going to last. (pg. 216, One Thousand Wax Buddhas)

As in my earlier foray into short stories, the first one just ended for me and it wasn’t so great, I felt it came abruptly to an end and I didn’t “get it”. But then as I continued along, I found myself completely engrossed. As in all short stories, my hang up is that they come to an end too soon, and for some I was hoping for more.

My favourites? Well, for starters, my very favourite of the 10 was, “Paul Farenbacher’s Yard Sale.” That story was wonderfully fabulous and that ending brought me to tears. That was a great little story! A sweet tale about the elderly neighbour that has passed on and his family is having a yard sale of all his belongings. His widow is moving in with another man, the son is not at all coming to terms with the loss of his father and that they are cheaply selling his possessions off. But the real heart-wrencher is Meredith. Meredith lives next door and developed a strong bond with the loving father-figure Mr. Farenbacher. That ending! Oh, so sad! So perfect and so real!

The last story in the selection, One Thousand Wax Buddhas, was beautiful and heart breaking as well. Again, something about these older men that care so much for their wives. Including one that has some mental issues, or a “beautiful mind”, but that doesn’t matter, she is beautiful down to her toes and he only wants to take care of her. It touched my heart, and was a very enjoyable read.

Then I would have to say it was “Go-Manchura“. I really felt sorry for Lilian! She is sucked in to believing in the products she’s selling for one of those pyramid schemes and she invites two couples, her “friends” to her parent’s northern cottage to give a demonstration and start building her wealth, that the product’s marketing portfolio touts will happen. Poor Lilian, used for a get-a-way for one couple and then the other couple doesn’t bother showing. Nina and Brook’s rudely and boldly tell her they are definitely not there to buy in to this crap. You just so deeply feel Lilian’s loneliness and sadness and how used she is by two worthless, so-called friends.

So, overall, each of these stories dissects relationships and all of their complexities, beauty and pain. A great collection of stories!

For a second opinion, read Steph’s review from Bella’s Bookshelves here. (it’s a good one!!) And a review from the Canadian Book Review here.

Sarah Selecky has her own website, you can check it out here.

And just for a touch of whimsy, all thanks to Pinterest, you get to look upon little book cakes, meant for a great party: