Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Maisie Dobbs: Jacqueline Winspear

   For those of you who live in Ohio, we have a wonderful lending tool called the “Ohio Digital Library.”  It’s linked to your local library, and if you have an active account, you can rent digital media through their app.  It is wonderful, and although they don’t have every book in the library in electronic format, it’s still a great resource for those of us who need to always be reading, but who are too lazy  busy to go to a physical library.
        The Ohio Digital Media app will recommend books to you based on your checkout history, and its algorithms are slightly more accurate than Netflix’s selection process, but slightly less accurate than that of Amazon.  I have a long history of reading period mystery novels or novels featuring strong female leads, so this book popped up. I didn’t expect much, haven been given some pretty sketchy selections recently, but I was about to start my commute to work and I was pretty tired of screwing around with the app in my driveway and figured I’d give it a go.  For the record, the “screw it, I’m done with this” approach to decision making is also how I’ve selected a number of haircuts and delightful winter work ensembles.  I recommend it for its emotional freedom, but not so much if you don’t want to look like a hobo prostitute.  
        Anyway, the audiobook started out with a pretty standard exposition.  A young woman, pretty, with fancy eyes, is starting up her own detective agency after the first world war.  Our main character, Maisie Dobbs, sounds like your typical Mary Sue character trope for much of the first part of the novel.  She’s got deeply blue eyes.  She was a fabulous nurse who saved many men’s lives.  She has above average intelligence and worked her way up from the most humble surroundings.  She even has flashes of psychic power, something she learned from her brilliant mentor.  She’s like the Mozart of Space and Time!  No – wait – that’s Wesley Crusher.  My bad!
        One problem I sometimes have with audiobooks is that I’m incredibly easily distracted and my mind tends to wander.  Add a subtle change from present tense to flashback, and if I’m trying to navigate around an 18 wheeler while driving into the sunset on a Friday afternoon, I will not be paying attention to the intricacies of the plot.  It’s not the author’s fault that I was completely confused at the flashback into Maisie’s backstory, where we learn of her sad beginnings, her work in service, her intellectual talents and her decision to become a nurse.
        Suddenly what started out as a folksy English historical detective story – my favorite! – turned into a book about the absolute horrors of World War I.  There’s even an attempt to shoehorn a love story in here, something that the reader/listener could tell was going to be ill-fated in the first chapter.  I allowed myself a few mental eyerolls at this, because I’d much rather read or hear about poisoning and fake alibis than hands meeting and lingering across the injured legs of an English soldier, blown partly to bits on a French battlefield.  I mean gross, right?  Sorry, I mean how romantic, for those of you who need some kind of hearts aflame subplot to maintain your interest.        
        I was not expecting the turns this story took.  Reading about the loss of friends and family during the war and the conditions for medical staff on the battlefield was not my intention.  I was hoping for a murder mystery wrapped in fun costumes and descriptions of delicious food, but what I got was a mystery surrounding the treatment of physically disabled and disfigured veterans during a time when plastic surgery and bionic limbs just weren’t an option.  And that love story?  My God.  It was ill-fated all right, but not in the way I expected.  It was gut wrenching.  Very well done, Jacqueline Winspear.  I forgive you for your previous mushiness.
        I often turn to books as an escape from reality.  I have an active imagination, and at times my personal and professional lives can become very stressful.  I usually avoid books about the horrors of war.  When I downloaded this story I did not expect to find myself sobbing in rush hour traffic.  But I did.  And it was OK.  For me, anyway, not for the terrified kids in the van next to me, watching me blow my nose into Dunkin Donuts napkins with both hands, leaving no hands on my steering wheel.
        I really enjoyed this story.  I may have enjoyed it more as an actual book because of the flashback confusion I suffered.  Also, there was a fair amount of singing required of the actress, and while she did a great job with her character voices, listening to long songs in character voice is pretty tedious.  I’m the person who skips the songs in books, so I can at least blame the author for this one.
        When I downloaded this book it had been given a low star rating on the app, and I’m surprised by that.  I suppose it’s OK to classify this story as a detective story, even though it just barely contains a mystery, and it’s really not that much of a mystery as it’s wrapped up in the reading instead of at the conclusion.  It might have fit better into the historical fiction category.  Either way, I’m glad I listened to it, and recommend it if you’re looking for a story that’s a little tragic.  
        This book is the first in a series of novels about Maisie Dobbs, and I’m going to give the next couple a try.  I’m still not sure how I feel about Ms. Dobbs herself, but if she becomes a little less of a Mary Sue and the plots stay twisty, you may be seeing more of her on this blog in the upcoming months.  

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