Book Review: The Walnut Tree

walnut treeThank you to William Morrow and Edelweiss for advancing a copy of The Walnut Tree. It’s a novella occurring during the Great War and promised a cameo of Bess Crawford from Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford series. It was marketed as a holiday book and became available at the very end of October. Indeed, I was able to enjoy it over the Christmas holidays. And it was also something I enjoyed in one sitting as the weather outside was very frightful, with blowing snow and howling wind all day long. What a delightful way to spend a day curled up under the quilts reading! This was another perfect read for just that type of day too.

Lady Elspeth Douglas, Scottish royalty and daughter of an Earl, is beckoned to her school friend’s house in France just as the war is starting top grow in intensity for the French. She has promised to stay with Madeleine until her first child is born. Madeleine’s husband is being sent to fight along with Madeleine’s brother, Alain Montigny. Handsome and dashing Alain is someone that Elspeth has long had a childhood crush on. Now that Elspeth is matured, Alain is returning the feelings. On the eve before his departure he has stated his intentions to her and will write to her Uncle, her guardian as soon as he is able.

As the war rages ahead, Elspeth feels she must make her way back to her home in Cornwall, but becomes trapped among the fighting and spends her time helping the wounded in any way she is capable. While in Calais, she meets another childhood acquaintance, Captain Peter Gilchrist, who ensures her safety and comfort as much as he possibly can. Feelings begin to rise within Elspeth for Peter and she becomes quite confused as to what she truly feels for Alain and for Peter.

Lady Elspeth, taken by the nursing she helped with decides to go against her station and sign on for nursing school where she become a Nursing Sister. This is done completely in secret from her Uncle Kenneth and she never uses her title in any of the application forms. For once she feels free of her title and that she has accomplished something independently.

While working with the wounded she finds out that Alain has been captured as a prisoner and is severely wounded. Peter is also severely wounded and she fears may die from infection. Can she live in a world without Peter? What of her promise to Alain? Her feelings for Peter are growing stronger and she questions if these are the same kinds of feelings for Alain? Whom will she choose and settle her heart with?

Charles Todd also introduces Bess Crawford, and her landlady Mrs. Hennessey of their Bess Crawford Series. Elspeth rooms with Bess in London and at times works side by side with her. A nice touch to the story. There is also just a tiny hint of mystery as Elspeth questions what appears to be theft of paintings when she happens upon the same man she sat next to on a train and runs in to him a number of times, always carrying a wrapped brown package. This is only a small hint of the story though as it is quickly solved and set aside and only mentioned briefly.  Todd also uses the floating hospitals in the story, as they did in the Bess Crawford Series. That series was the first to bring my attention to that and I enjoyed hearing of it once again in The Walnut Tree.

Alain is still missing and Peter is being released in to Elspeth’s care. A fellow nursing sister has offered Elspeth her mother’s cottage in Sussex as a place of respite and she takes Peter there to rest and recover. There, their love develops and yet, Elspeth still struggles with her feelings for Alain. Outside of the cottage is a beautiful walnut tree and is a source of comfort to both Peter and Elspeth.

Elspeth receives word that she is to return at once to France, as Alain is home and in great despair. She leaves without hesitation or information to Peter and finds Alain in a very depressed state. What will happen for Elspeth? Will she neglect her strong and true feelings for Peter or maintain her earlier promise and remain with Alain? I’ll not tell, you must read and discover for yourself.

This was a wonderful and quick war-time romance to lose yourself in while relaxing by the fire as the howling winds and swirling snow carried on outside. A perfect escape on a blustery,wintery day. 3.5 stars.

The final review, discussion questions & answers for Booktime with Bess: An Unmarked Grave

(Please click on the book’s cover image for a great book trailer for An UnMarked Grave!)

Well, here we are, at the end of the Book Club Girl’s final book in the Bess Crawford series! We read 4 books already? The time went by so quickly. Thank you to Jennifer for organizing this wonderful read-a-long! This was my very first foray in to participating in a read-a-long and I thoroughly enjoyed.

So wrapping up, I must say that in the 4-book series, my very favourite was A Bitter Truth (#3 in the series). An Unmarked Grave started out (for me) with Huge promise. It was gripping and we saw Bess in great peril and adventure this time around! Moreso than she has ever found herself in. However, I found her battle with the Spanish influenza to be quite rushed (she suffered and survived in 2 short chapters I think?)and the murder mystery and final, solved reason for the multiple murders to be…ahem…well…lame. What happened to the ending of this novel? It really fell apart at the end. The twists, the turns, the adventures were so top rate! And then the ending comes along and the reason for the multiple murders is revealed and for me, fell spectacularly flat. I was disappointed. However, like Jennifer says, the suffering and the length of the war is taking its toll and the description of it is well done in this story. And again, Bess really finds herself in some harrowing troubles which were all exciting to read.

Now, on to the discussion questions and my answers to them:

1) In each of the previous books in the series, we saw Simon Brandon take on a increasingly bigger role in investigating crimes with Bess and in this book, the Colonel and Bess’ mother are also actively involved in her search for the killer. What did you make of this?

Simon definitely played a major role in this book, and I really enjoyed his involvement, but also how Todd threw in some trouble for him too. Overall, I really liked the development of Bess’ relationship with her parents and the role they play in helping her solve these mysteries. I think her Mom was more front and centre this time too, which was great fun.

2) Both Bess and Simon fall ill in this novel – Bess from the Spanish Flu epidemic ravaging both France and England and Simon from his wounds. What did you think of each of them in their more vulnerable states and why do you think the authors chose that for them?

Above I noted that I liked how Todd put Simon out of reach and in some trouble for some of this story, it certainly added to the anticipation of what was going to happen to Bess. Also above, I felt the Spanish Flu that Bess came down with to be too rushed, in my opinion. It did add to the great mystery and was a great twist of events for the book so I thought it was great!

3) There were several suspects put forth throughout the course of the novel. How did you feel when the killer, and his motives for killing, was finally revealed?

Ah, see, I revealed so much in the beginning of my review. ☺ When the killer and his motives were revealed in the end I was greatly disappointed. I thought it to be very lame and was so surprised at the limpness of the reason. It made the multiple murders and the attempts to hunt down and silence Bess quite far-fetched!

4) I loved the scene of Bess working alongside the doctor to save Sargeant Mitchell, with her father looking on. As far as we know this is the first time he’s seen his daughter in action as a nurse and what she can do. What did you think of that scene?

I enjoyed the development of the relationship between Bess, her family and Simon very much in this story. I like how everything is progressing with her and look forward to the 5th in the series!

Book Review, Discussion Questions & Answers: A Bitter Truth

Well Bess Craword certainly finds herself embroiled amongst seriously screwed up English families with all their issues and secrets! A Bitter Truth gives us the most tumultuous and secretive yet! And perhaps this is the reason why I enjoyed this one so much more than all of the others? Or perhaps it is because we see so much more of the “pluck” of Bess and learn more of her family history? There is more recognition of her father and everyone’s willingness to assist Bess once they learn of the relation.

At any rate, A Bitter Truth is the Best Bess Yet!

In previous discussion questions posted by BookClubGirl, she asks about new words, phrases, etc. we learned. This time I paid closer attention and did need to look up what “suttee” meant. It was used in the context of Indian women throwing themselves on to their husband’s pyre so as to not live a desolate life alone. And Suttee is the Hindu custom where a wife will burn herself, most likely by throwing herself on to the funeral pyre at her husband’s funeral.

Also, there was a saying used that I also had to look up, as I’ve never heard of it: “running someone to earth”, as Bess said she “ran Lydia to earth, finally, in the room above the hall.” It means to find someone after searching for them.

I also just loved the small mention of Canadian history with Lieutenant Colebourn and his black bear, Winnipeg – aka Winnie the Pooh! ❤ !

Without further ado, on to the discussion questions posted by BookClubGirl:

1.) How did A Bitter Truth stack up for you against Bess’ previous two adventures?

I found A Bitter Truth to be the best so far of the Bess novels! Bess certainly finds herself embroiled in messy family situations doesn’t she? But I loved the Ellis family and all of their issues so much more than ever! This one kept me glued to the pages and interested in the story the whole time.  Although, I did find that Lydia is extremely manipulative and takes advantage of Bess almost immediately upon first meeting her. But, I adored, adored Bess’ flirtation with the tall and handsome Aussie Sgt. Larimore !!! Loved it! And wow – doesn’t he pull some tricks to “help” Bess eh?!

2.) I really enjoyed the mystery in this novel, and confess I was quite confounded as to who the killer was, until the very end. How about you?

Absolutely. This was a fine mystery! And I as well was left completely confounded until the very end too! Lots of twists and page-turners in this one!

3.) The plight of orphans in the war is brought to the forefront in this novel – what do you think of Lydia’s and Bess’ feelings and plans for Sophie?

Well, I’m not sure the plight of the orphans would have come to any of their attention, if not for the search to find this little girl Sophie in one of the French convents. Even Bess herself says that she had never thought of this side of effects of the war before learning of this little girl. I still see Lydia as a selfish and manipulative person that used everyone for her own gain or her own personal needs and desires. But…..I understand that Bess is a product of military protocol and therefore her incessant need to return the girl to France and follow the proper channels was her constant stance. However…..given that so many children were left as orphans and the kindness and care for the children could only be stretched so far, I was sort of siding with the Ellis family here, despite my dislike for their weird & selfish manner (especially Lydia). What harm would it possibly do to keep this beautiful child as their own and provide her with a life of comfort and care and love? They were going to see that the convent was well looked after in terms of money and supplies. ??? I see both sides, but honestly, I leaned towards the Ellis’ viewpoint here.

I do have to say though, the more books I read that take place in WWI, the more of it I learn. And the plight of the orphans is for me the same as it was for Bess – something I never really knew of before. I liked the many mentions of concern for what kind of people these children would grow into in the future. It is a fascinating and heartbreaking subject.

4.) I was struck by the passage in chapter 15, when Todd speaks of the evolution of the war: “The days when men lined up in their dozens to be the first to enlist had long since passed. Now the reality of the trenches had scoured away that bravado, and in its place were these recruits, afraid of shaming themselves in front of their mates but probably wishing themselves anywhere but here.” How did you see the war changing people and events in the novel?

From reading so many other books in the WWI period, I knew that the men came back no longer as heroes or treated with the bravado they once were. It went on for so much longer than anyone anticipated and I’ve only always read how they were shamefully treated upon their return home, etc. I suppose we are guilty of the very same to this day in the here and now as well.

5.) Simon Brandon plays an even greater role in this book than the last, though I don’t think Bess sees his interest as more than professional or familial. What do you think his intentions are? And do you think Bess recognizes them?

Well, to be honest, I think his role was the same, or he made the same number of appearances as in the previous two, in my opinion? I wasn’t overly aware that his intentions were more than familial, actually, I was thinking he had more of a presence or had more concern and had a larger part in Bess’ adventures in An Impartial Witness than here.

On to the next one! If A Bitter Truth was this good, I’m quite anxious for this one! To be released in June: An Unmarked Grave. It even comes with this awesome Book Trailer!!! Bess battles the Spanish Flu epidemic and falls ill to it herself!

(side note: I found out that the Spanish flu was responsible for killing more people post-WWI, than the War itself did. Amazing.)

Discussion Questions & Review: An Impartial Witness

 The second in the Bess Crawford series by Charles Todd, “An Impartial Witness” and the second in the Read-a-Long hosted by BookClubGirl was a much smarter mystery in my opinion, from the first in the series “A Duty to the Dead”. Perhaps it is because we see a more matured or developed Bess or the quality of the mystery was better, but I’m going to say it’s a bit of both.

Bess’ character starts to show some of that pluck that you assume comes with a WWI nurse that becomes un unlikely sleuth, in this second novel. Little tidbits like

I’ll take you to Little Sefton, only because I feel safer with you under my eye. And then you’ll go back to Somerset and stay there. ” (Simon) “I promise.” But I crossed my fingers behind my back, just in case.

“An Impartial Witness” description:  In the early summer of 1917, Bess Crawford is charged with escorting a convoy of severely wounded soldiers from the trenches of France to England. Among them is a young pilot, burned beyond recognition, who carries a photograph of his wife pinned to his tunic. But later, in a crowded railway station, Bess sees the same woman bidding a heart-wrenching farewell to a departing officer, clearly not her husband.

Back on duty in France, Bess is shocked to discover the wife’s photograph in a newspaper accompanying a plea from Scotland Yard for information about her murder, which took place on the very day Bess witnessed that anguished farewell. Granted leave to speak with the authorities, Bess very quickly finds herself entangled in a case of secrets and deadly betrayal in which another life hangs in the balance, and her search for the truth could expose her to far graver dangers than those she faces on the battlefield.

Questions for Discussion

And okay! Even these questions are more challenging this time around, much like solving the mystery Bess finds herself trying to solve! These should have been answered on Monday, but I was away for work and i just couldn’t squeeze away! Sorry!

1) As in A Duty to the Dead, long-seated familial animosities and jealousies play a role in the crimes committed. What did you think of the Garrison and Melton families? How do they compare to Bess’ family, or to the families of soldiers and nurses created by war?

Overall, I felt that each of these families were realistically characterized. W ell, perhaps Victoria Garrison was a bit over the top in her jealous rages and intent on harm to everyone around her, but it only made for some really good reading didn’t it? For certain the Garrison’s were a crazy lot compared to the Melton’s. And again, as was mentioned in the first discussion on A Duty to the Dead, I am appreciating the storyline that is taking place right in the middle of WWI and not post-war. I am learning a great deal about these families and the nurses that were created by this war. Bess does find herself as an “impartial witness” at the train station where we see Marjorie weeping as her soldier leaves for the train back to the front. And Bess doesn’t lay any harsh judgement over Marjorie when she discovers that she is in fact the wife of the soldier she was currently treating. Reading of the emotions and actions surrounding the loss and loneliness of the women left behind was refreshing, if that is the best word to use. I’m most certain many of the men fighting the war were unfaithful to their wives and girlfriends, so the same should be expected of these women worrying at home trying to fill the empty void left by their husbands or boyfriends. Bess herself has made mention of the number of times these soldiers have wished to make a deathbed confession in order to relieve themselves of this burden or shame.

2) Simon Brandon plays a far greater role in this novel than he did in A Duty to the Dead. What do you make of that and do you think his intentions stem from his duty to Bess’ father, or from his affections for Bess herself?

I see this relationship blossoming as we continue to read-a-long with Bess. I’m not very clear as to the real age of Simon, we do know he is junior to her father, but is the age gap more like an Uncle type of relationship? Bess has mentioned Simon is like an older brother she never had in some respects, but I think that as we continue to read, we’ll find perhaps more of a romantic involvement? Perhaps? I often thought of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels where his closest confidante has just shown his love for Gamache’s daughter. I get the distinct impression that as the Bess Crawford series continues to mature, so will this relationship.

Another thing I thought when reading this one is how as Bess finds herself more involved with these murder mysteries, she also finds herself becoming closely involved with the men that are most often at the very heart of the crime. She does continue to remain standoffish in some ways, but perhaps that is to put on a good front for her inquiring family and friends and in order to hide her growing feelings for these men that may actually be the perpetrator of the crime. Turns out her feelings are always right, these men are always on the good side, but she seems to be drawn to the ones that aren’t very credible.

3) Simon strives to curtail the risks that Bess takes throughout the novel. This advice of his struck me particularly: “We have to move on. Put the living first. There are already enough monuments to the dead.” Do you think Bess’s drive to right the wrongs she sees puts her at odds with this advice, to her detriment?

Again, I think this is owing to the development of Bess’ strong character. She is not willing to let things be left alone, and in this case I think she was right to follow her instincts and keep digging to get to the truth. It goes against her nursing practices I think to just walk away and let everything be, or left up to others to figure out. She’s seen that really, there aren’t enough monuments to the dead, so many are left behind with no thought to who they are or what they leave behind.

4) Do you think there is any such thing as an “impartial witness?” Bess admits to adding her own perspective and interpretation to what she sees at the railway station. Later, Mrs. Hennessey is referred to by Bess as an “impartial witness,” presumably because she’s completely in the dark about what’s been happening. But what do you think of the phrase, and what do you think the authors mean us to to think of it?

Bess was an “impartial witness” as in the beginning she was just standing by watching a couple at the train station. She had no idea the identity of the two or their history together or any background information. She was observing the scene with impartiality and stepped forward to the police with only the pieces of information she knew of. I think perhaps the authors wished us to see things that way as well – she was not involved in the families or their history to pass judgement as to whom would be the one with the most motive to kill Marjorie and the others.

5) What did you think of the ending of the novel? Were you expecting a confrontation, or confession, that you didn’t see? And if so, why do you think it was written that way?

Loved the ending of the novel! I think it was very well ended! I was left tossing back and forth as to the real killer was really until almost the very end. Good stuff this time around!

6) Did you learn any new phrases while reading An Impartial Witness? For me it was “Well, it’s shank’s mare, then,” which Sister Benning says to Bess when they have to walk behind the ambulance of wounded soldiers on their way to safer ground. Turns out that “shanks mare” is an Irish phrase referring to having to hoof it on your own two legs.

Thanks for the definition! Now we just have to look at how that saying came to be used in referring to hoofing it on your own two legs!

I am looking forward to reading the next in the series A Bitter Truth and from reading some of the reviews quickly, it looks like it gets even better with Bess!