Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Summer Before the War: A Novel by Helen Simonson

The Summer Before the War: A Novel.  Helen Simonson. Random House Publishing Group. March 2016. 496 pp.  ISBN#: 9780812993103.

Rye, East Sussex, is a lovely, quiet English town in 1914.  Beatrice Nash arrives to teach Latin at a small local school.  That wouldn’t shock anyone in contemporary times but it was highly unusual for a woman to teach, especially Latin. But Beatrice is being sponsored by a locally highbrow lady, Agatha Kent, a leader of the community who is of course always vying with other women for authority in all community affairs. 

Beatrice is desperate for this job as her academic father died, leaving her with no money.  But Beatrice’s got grit and peddles around on her bicycle, loving the country air and believing she can make a difference in the lives of the poor children she will be instructing.  It’s a huge charity move but her presence could make all the difference in the world for one or two lads with intelligence.  The rest of the community, however, doesn’t see past their own ego-inflated goodness in sponsoring this school.

The reader is just starting to get to know the people of Rye well.  Their beliefs are quite stringent, against anything that smacks of modernity like feminism, homosexuality, pregnancy of unwed mothers, and moving out of one’s class.  One of two brothers, Dan and Hugh, is increasingly attracted to Beatrice.  The one brother Hugh is submerged in his future career of medicine, and the other brother Dan is a poet who wonders what his future holds. Such a blasé attitude to life is about to undergo a shocking shift as World War I looms in the near horizon.

The remainder of the novel concerns how these village residents with petty concerns are brought up short by the war and quickly are stripped of their pride to do their part for the war.  There are more shocks to come, a little romance, and tenderness within each connection to grip the reader until the very last page.

The Summer Before the War… is lovely historical fiction which this reviewer highly recommends.

Rain Dogs: A Detective Sean Duffy Novel by Adrian McKinty

Rain Dogs: A Detective Sean Duffy Novel. Adrian McKinty. Seventh Street Books/Prometheus Books. March 2016. 315 pp.  ISBN#: 9781633881303.

Sean Duffy has nothing going right these days.  He’s just been dumped by his girlfriend, Beth, who is ten years younger than he is.  He’s just been assigned to the protective unit for a Muhammed Ali visit to Ireland. 

The story takes place in Carrickfergus which is close to Belfast.  It’s the time of the Irish Troubles when the IRA is dropping bombs left and right as a protest method to gain Irish independence.  It’s a bit of a far stretch to imagine how these bombs could be an asset in their goal but for now it is what it is.  So for now Detectives like Duffy check under their cars for bombs every time they set out to travel somewhere.  Ali during his tour actually turns around and confronts protestors, winning them over with his charm and panache.

But the day isn’t done before there are two problems, one minor and one major.  A Finnish delegation has come to the area to check it out as a potential site for a large new business and of course the town officials want and English government want everything to proceed ultra-smoothly.  However, one of the Finnish delegation member’s wallet is declared missing and a young woman is found dead from a possible suicide in Carrickfergus Castle. The first is a joke; the second turns out to be a complex mystery.  Why did this young journalist kill herself?  Why did the night guard not know she was still in the Castle after closing hours? 

The plot becomes quite complex when it turns out that the Finnish delegation was not as innocent as it appeared to the public.  Add to that another policeman is killed from a bomb under the car and of course everyone assumes it’s just another IRA plot, nothing new.  It turns out that’s not so either.

Duffy for a long time keeps receiving false leads but if it’s one thing Duffy has a reputation for, it’s persistence, relentless.

Rain Dogs… has many other twists and turns that keep the reader flipping the pages and rapidly reading.  This is my first Sean Duffy mystery, and I am looking forward to read the other novels in which he is the sleuth solving crimes in tumultuous Ireland!  Very nicely done, Adrian McKinty and recommended reading for all who love a good mystery!