Review: Just Murdered by Katherine Kovacic

 

Title: Just Murdered {Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries #1}

Author: Katherine Kovacic

Published: 10th January, Poisoned Pen Press

Status: Read January courtesy Poisoned Pen Press/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

A screen to book adaption by Katherine Kovacic of the first episode of the Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries television series (written by Deb Cox and created by Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger), which itself was inspired by Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, the TV series, which is based on the Phryne Fisher mystery books by Kerry Greenwood, Just Murdered is a delightful murder mystery set during the 1960’s in Victoria Australia introducing Ms Peregrine Fisher, the niece of Miss Phryne Fisher.

“She had never been one to play by the rules—at least, not unless they suited her.”

When Peregrine Fisher discovers an oft forwarded letter addressed to her late mother that requests a meeting with regards to an inheritance, her first instinct is to dismiss it as a joke, but at a loose end, having been fired that same day from her position in a hairdressing salon, Peregrine decides to accept the invitation. Upon her rather dramatic arrival at The Adventuresses’ Club of the Antipodes, Peregrine is informed that her mother’s estranged half sister, Phryne Fisher, is missing in Papua New Guinea, presumed dead, and Peregrine is her heir.

“I’ve tried hard all my life to be someone or belong somewhere…”

The murder of a young model at Blair’s Emporium, for which one of the Adventuresses is under suspicion, is just the opportunity Peregrine needs to prove herself to The Adventuresses’ Club of the Antipodes. She has big shoes to fill but it’s soon evident that though Peregrine may lack the sophistication of her aunt, she is just as bold, clever and resourceful. A genuine delight, I love her sassy attitude. Much like her aunt Peregrine refuses to be told who she is and what she is capable of, especially by men.

“Now I just have to convince Birdie and the rest of the Adventuresses that I can do my aunt’s old job. I mean, it’s not really that hard, is it?”

I enjoyed the well plotted mystery for which there several suspects. Another murder increases the stakes, especially for Peregrine, who then goes undercover to expose to the truth, despite being forcefully warned off by Chief Inspector Sparrow and Detective James Steed of Central Police.

The writing is a great reflection of the television episode, and I thought Kovacic translated the characters and events well to the page. She captures the entertaining balance of humour and tension that is the appeal of this series. The settings are well rendered, and the sense of time and place are distinct.

I expect fans of the original Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries will enjoy this spin off as I have. You can stream Seasons 1 and 2 of Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries on Acorn TV in several countries, but I would welcome continuing print instalments of this series.

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Review: Bournville by Jonathan Coe

 

Title: Bournville

Author: Jonathan Coe

Published: 3rd November 2022, Viking

Status: Read November 2022 courtesy PenguinUK/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

“Past, present and future: that was what she heard….Everything changes, and everything stays the same.”

 

I’m sure my request for Bournville by Jonathan Coe was inspired by the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. Promising a portrait of Britain as experienced by a middle class family over a period of seventy five years, I felt a tug of nostalgia tied to the end of an era.

After a prologue set in 2020, Coe begins with VE Day in 1945 where the residents of Bournville, a Birmingham village built around the Cadbury chocolate factory, simply known as the Works, are celebrating the end of the war. It’s here that eleven year old Mary lives with her parents Sam and Doll, and over the next seven decades, coinciding with seven memorable events in British history, Coe revisits Mary and her growing family.

The unique structure works well to reflect the national and individual experience of the changes in culture, attitudes, politics, technology and economics. I enjoyed the sojourn through each ‘occasion’ which includes the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, the World Cup Final between England v. West Germany in 1966, the investiture of Prince Charles in 1969, his wedding to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, and then the Princess’s tragic death in 1997, ending with 2020, which marks the 75th Anniversary of VE Day, and the start of the CoVid pandemic, but it is the journey of the characters that illustrate their meaning. Coe charts the family’s joys and griefs, triumphs and regrets, gains and losses, creating a history of their own as time marches on.

Written with tenderness, humour, and insight, Bournville evokes life’s ordinary and extraordinary moments. Enjoy with a block of Cadburys chocolate.

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Review: The Sun Walks Down by Fiona McFarlane

Title: The Sun Walks Down

Author: Fiona McFarlane

Published: 5th October 2022, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read October 2022 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

“This is bloody country for those who aren’t prepared—the weak, the nervous. The true pioneers, true children of the bush, are always masters of themselves.”

After a dust storm passes over the tiny South Australian town of Fairly, six year old Denny Wallace, who was last seen collecting kindling in a dry creek bed behind the family homestead, cannot be found. While Denny’s mother and sisters fret, Denny’s father, Matthew, returns from a long day of sowing turnips in the field, to then set out in to the desert with his hired hand, Billy Rough, to search for his only son. When they fail to find him by first light, word spreads quickly across the region, and the community begins to rally.

Set in 1883, The Sun Walks Down unfolds over a week in September. As each long day passes, McFarlane dips in and out of the lives of those touched, some only peripherally, by Denny’s disappearance exposing anxieties and ambitions, rivalries and friendships, superstitions and secrets, accomplishments and failures. Meanwhile Denny, a sensitive child, wanders across the Flinders Ranges, lost and afraid of the blood red Sun.

Objectively I recognise and appreciate the elements of this story from the evocative imagery, to its thoughtful exploration of themes such as colonisation and dispossession. The characters are portrayed with an unexpected richness given the large cast, and their relationships to one another, and the land, acknowledges the distinctiveness of culture, experience and purpose.

Yet I was unmoved by it all, even the possibilities of poor Denny’s fate. I can’t articulate why I didn’t connect emotionally to the story, because nothing is lacking per se, it just didn’t resonate with me.

Despite my own experience, I do feel The Sun Walks Down has a lot to recommend it so if it appeals, don’t hesitate to pick it up.

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Review: The Manhattan Girls by Gill Paul

 

Title: The Manhattan Girls: A Novel of Dorothy Parker and her Friends

Author: Gill Paul

Published: 16th August 2022, William Morrow Books

Status: Read August 2022 courtesy William Morrow/Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

 

“Four things I am wiser to know: idleness, sorrow, a friend and a foe.” -Dorothy Parker

The Manhattan Girls by Gill Paul is based on four well known women of 1920’s New York City; Dorothy Parker, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, a poet and writer known for her sharp wit; Jane Grant, reporter and cofounder of the The New Yorker magazine; broadway actress Winifred Lenihan; and novelist Peggy Leech; and tells the story of the friendship that sustained them during a particular period of their lives.

When the men of the Algonquin Round Table decide to form a Saturday night poker club, Jane Grant suggests some of the women instead meet for Bridge, inviting Dottie, Peggy and Winnie to join her. The game, hosted round robin style, quickly becomes a lifeline for the four women as they exchange confidences, hopes, failures and hardships, and provide each other with encouragement and support when it’s needed.

From what I’m able to tell, Paul draws heavily on public records and other factual sources that inform the characters personality’s and events in the novel. While the line between fact and fiction is blurred, Gill’s portrayal of these women, and their relationships, feels genuine.

Though this is very much a character driven novel as the friends face challenges in their personal and professional lives, Gill touches on several serious issues that affect the women, including sexism, self-harm, domestic violence, sexual assault, abortion, gambling, and alcoholism.

Gill ably conveys the spirit of the Roaring Twenties in New York City, capturing the hedonism among the ‘arts’ crowd, epitomised by the notorious members of the Algonquin Round Table, and the changes in society brought about by the end of WWI, the introduction of Prohibition, and the increasing opportunities for women.

Well-written, I enjoyed The Manhattan Girls as a story that explores friendship, loyalty and ambition, and as a glimpse into the private lives of four women whose influence on the arts lingers a century later.

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Review: Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby

 

Title: Godmersham Park

Author: Gill Hornby

Published: 23rd June 2022, Century UK

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy Penguin UK/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

The premise of Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby appealed to me in part because of the main character’s connection with Jane Austen. Though little detail is known about their relationship, Anne Sharp and Jane first met during the period that Anne was engaged as a governess at Godmersham Park for Fanny Austen Knight, Jane’s niece, and remained close friends until Jane’s death.

Anne Sharp is 31 years old when she arrives at Godmersham Park, the Kent country estate of Edward and Elizabeth Austen, employed to educate their 12 year old daughter Fanny, the eldest of eight children. Though she has no experience in the position of governess, having until recently been raised in comfort, she is determined to do her best, and serve the Austen family well.

Hornby seamlessly blends history with imagination to tell the story of Anne’s time at Godmersham Park. The people Anne meets, close family and friends of the Austen’s, are real figures, whom the author lists at the beginning of the novel. Many of the events that take place in the story were drawn from Fanny’s preserved childhood diaries or correspondence between family members. The estate itself, said to be the inspiration for Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park, still stands today and is depicted on the 2017 Bank of England £10 note.

A refined and intelligent woman, educating Fanny poses no real difficulties for Anne but finding her place within the household proves to be more of a challenge. Anne is often lonely, and though she becomes friendly with regular houseguests Hariott Bridges, the younger sister of Elizabeth, Henry Austen, Edward’s younger brother with whom Anne forms an unwise attachment, and later Jane Austen herself, there is a distance dictated by her position. A sympathetic character given her circumstances and ill-health, I liked Anne well enough, but I didn’t really grow fond of her.

The story moves at a sedate pace as life unfolds at Godmersham Park. It’s a reasonably busy household with so many children, visiting houseguests, and family events, but not a particularly active one, and I felt the story lacked energy. While there are occasional instances of open conflict, most of the drama centres on Anne’s inner emotional turmoil, which I sometimes found overwrought.

Godmersham Park is a pleasant enough novel but I felt the story sacrificed dynamism for historical accuracy. It’s probably best suited for fans interested in its connections to Jane.

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Review: Madwoman by Louise Treger

 

Title: Madwoman

Author: Louise Treger

Published: 9th June 2022, Bloomsbury Publishing UK

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Bloomsbury/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

“‘Welcome to Blackwell’s island,’ one of them said. he cleared his throat and spat. ‘once you get in here, you’ll never get out.’”

I fairly leapt at the chance to read Louise Treger’s fictionalised narrative of Elizabeth Cochran who wrote under the pseudonym of Nellie Bly, having always been fascinated by her remarkable story.

Credited as being the world’s first female investigative journalist, in 1887, Nellie had her self committed to the insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York City in order to expose the alleged abuses occurring there.

Treger begins her story in 1870 when Elizabeth is a child living a comfortable life in rural Pennsylvania. The daughter of a judge, ‘Pink’ as she was nicknamed by her family, was encouraged to be curious and learn about a range of subjects, including those generally thought to be unsuitable for women at the time. Inspired by her father  Pink plans to eschew marriage and pursue a career in law, but his untimely death when she is fourteen curtails her ambition.

Sux years later, working in service to help support her family, an editorial in the Pittsburgh Dispatch revives her aspirations, and she convinces the paper to publish a series of articles, adopting the nom de plume, Nellie Bly. The articles are popular but attract controversy from advertisers, and when she is relegated to writing about the arts, Nellie decides to move to New York.

The New York newspapers are uninterested in Nellie’s previous success, women journalists are not welcome on Park Row. Nellie however refuses to accept no for an answer and somewhat recklessly promises Colonel Cockerill, managing editor of The World, an insider’s story on life inside the notorious insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

Though I’m quite familiar with Nellie’s stint on Blackwell’s Island, much of Nellie’s past was unknown to me, so I appreciated learning more about her family life and what led her to her career in journalism during a period when women were actively dissuaded from higher education and white collar work. Nellie’s tenacity was admirable, all the more so for the obstacles she faced.

Blackwell’s Island Asylum was a vile institution. While the asylum housed women with genuine mental illnesses, it also served as a convenient way for men to rid themselves of problematic wives, sisters, and mothers.  Once declared insane it was nearly impossible to be declared cured and released. Patients were ill-fed, regularly subjected to torture by the untrained staff, and received very little, if any therapeutic care. Treger ably exposes the cruel treatment and the bleak lives led by the inmates, and the challenges facing Nellie.

Unfortunately, though I find Nellie’s story fascinating and Treger’s details appear accurate, I felt the narrative of Madwoman was simplistic and flat, failing to evoke atmosphere or strong emotion. The third person viewpoint removes the reader from events, I wanted to walk with Nellie, not observing her as a reporter might.

Nellie Bly was a remarkable woman, smart, brave and resourceful, her exposé of Blackwell’s Island Asylum led to important reforms, though the institution was closed seven years later. Madwoman is an avenue to learn more about Nellie Bly and her accomplishments, but lacks Nellie’s passionate spirit.

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Review: Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

 

Title: Bloomsbury Girls (The Jane Austen Society #2)

Author: Natalie Jenner

Published: 17th May 2022, Allison & Busby UK

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Alison & Busby/Netgalley 

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My Thoughts:

Set in a multi-level, century old London bookstore, the charming Bloomsbury Girls features three women, new employee Evelyn Stone (who appeared in The Jane Austen Society), saleswoman Vivien Lowry, and secretary Grace Perkins.

For Evie, a former servant girl and one of the first women to earn a degree from Cambridge, securing a position at Bloomsbury Books is a necessary first step in supporting herself, the second is finding an obscure but valuable title she is sure is languishing somewhere among the stock.

Vivien, still mourning the death of her fiancé in the war, is tired of the manager’s fifty-one rules which dictate how the store is run. and keeps her perpetually subservient to her male colleague, Alec McDonough. An aspiring author, she wants to modernise the store’s rather stale fiction department stock and host regular literary events.

Grace, a mother of two trapped in an unhappy marriage, is supportive of Vivien’s ideas for change, especially as she knows Bloomsbury Books is struggling financially, and she relies on her position to support her family.

There is a strong theme of feminine empowerment through the novel as these three women fight to realise their hopes and ambitions. Chafing at numerous experiences of discrimination and unjust restrictions placed on them simply for being female, they are determined to change things. Vivien is the boldest of the three, sharp and impassioned she openly objects to society’s misogyny. Evie feels just as strongly about being treated unfairly as Vivien, but her rebellion is quieter and more calculated. Grace’s priorities are quite different to those of her single colleagues, but her action to reclaim her agency is arguably the bravest, given the conventions of the time. Each women experiences character growth as the story unfolds and I found all three to be appealing

Despite its strong feminist aspect, romance also has a place in the novel. Evie forms an attachment to Ash Ramaswamy, who manages the store’s science and naturalism floor, which is both awkward and sweet. The relationship that develops between Grace and Bloomsbury Books owner, Jeremy Baskin (the 11th Earl Baskin), is unconventional given the circumstances but also lovely, while Vivien and Alec’s love/hate relationship is quite entertaining.

Jenner touches on other forms of discrimination with incidents relating to class, race, and homosexuality. Ash, for example, is regularly the target of racism which has also affected his career, and the store manager feels the need to hide his long term relationship with the third floor rare book buyer. The author also notes the changing in English society in the wake of WWII.

With Jenner’s descriptive writing, I could easily envision the old-fashioned elegance of Bloomsbury Books. I liked that the chapter headings were drawn from Mr Dutton’s fifty-one store rules. The pace of the novel is quite sedate but the resolution is very satisfying.

I found Bloomsbury Girls to be an engaging historical read, and the cameo’s from noted literary figures such as Daphne Du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Peggy Guggenheim, and Noel Coward, are a delightful bonus for booklovers.

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Review: The Surgeon’s Daughter by Audrey Blake

 

Title: The Surgeons Daughter

Author: Audrey Blake

Published: 10th May 2022, Sourcebooks Landmark

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Sourcebooks/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

The sequel to The Girl in His Shadow, The Surgeon’s Daughter by Audrey Blake (a nom de plume used by the writing team of Regina Sirius and Jaima Fixsen) follows Eleanora Beady’s move to Italy to study medicine at the University of Bologna, having been refused the opportunity in England.

As the only woman in the class, Nora has few allies among her classmates and professors, but is determined to prove herself in an accelerated program and return to England with her medical license so that she can practice alongside her guardian, Dr Horace Croft, and her paramour, Dr Daniel Gibson. Nora is excited when she finds a mentor in Dr. Magdalena Morenco, whose study of caesarean birth procedures dovetails neatly with Nora’s interest in anaesthesia, though her goal is nearly thwarted by a jealous professor.

Though Nora ultimately returns to London triumphant, she discovers Croft and Gibson are under pressure due to the actions of a vindictive colleague, ill-health, and financial stress. With the viability of their Great Queen Street clinic in question, when Nora is asked by a heavily pregnant Lady Woodbine to perform a caesarean, she is all too aware that failure to save both mother and baby could end not only her own fledgling career, and the careers of those she loves, but also the future of women in medicine.

The Surgeon’s Daughter is a reminder of how primitive surgical treatment was in the mid 19th century, with the survival of patients often due more to good luck than good management. Drawing on medical case studies from the era, Blake offers vivid descriptions of injuries and illnesses, and the often barbaric processes used to treat them. It was difficult to read about children suffocating from Diphtheria, and as someone who gave birth via an emergency caesarean section, the thought of enduring the surgery, and recovery, without anaesthetic and pain management is horrifying, and the only alternatives then available to save mother or child (rarely both), no less so.

Naturally, Blake explores the barriers women faced in pursuit of higher learning in a period when their role in society was very narrowly defined by marriage, and motherhood. Only a handful of European institutions would accept women who wanted to study medicine, and even then they were rarely welcome. Nora’s experience of exclusion, sexism and misogyny was common (and barely improved for a century), and England’s first female doctors all gained their licence to practice from overseas institutions, as they were refused entry in England.

I wanted to understand more about Nora’s student experience though, other than just being a target of misogyny, and perhaps see some character change, or growth. I thought the pace of Nora’s narrative was uneven, and some crucial elements, particularly the period where she was under the tutelage of Moreno, felt underdeveloped. Though I was engaged by the action and tension in Croft and Gibson’s chapters, I also felt that it pulled too much focus from Nora’s story.

As a well researched piece of historical fiction, I found The Surgeon’s Daughter to be interesting and enjoyable.

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Review: A Stone’s Throw Away by Karly Lane

 

Title: A Stone’s Throw Away

Author: Karly Lane

Published: 1st May 2022, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read May 2022 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

A Stone’s Throw Away is the latest engaging novel from Australian bestseller Karly Lane.

Still reeling from a vicious assault after breaking the story of a corrupt politician, investigative journalist Phillipa ‘Pip’ Davenport, has retreated to her uncle’s property, Rosehaven, in rural Victoria to write a book about the high profile case. Despite her best intentions, Pip finds it difficult to settle to the task, and in the spirit of procrastination, decides to hire someone to remove the detritus at the bottom of her uncle’s dam, exposed by the ongoing drought. To her shock, and that of the small community of Midgiburra, the skeleton of a young woman is discovered in the rusted remains of an old car, and Pip finds herself caught up in the decades old mystery, even as her own past threatens to catch up with her.

Offering intrigue and romance, this contemporary set novel also touches on Australian history.

There are two elements of suspense in A Stone’s Throw Away, one of which centres around Pip and her safety. Though her assault was likely at the behest of the politician Pip exposed who is now jailed, her attacker was never identified, and concern remains that she is still a target. Pip simply wants to put the incident behind her but, struggling with PTSD, she can’t always suppress episodes of anxiety.

Pip’s wariness also affects her interactions with the two romantic possibilities introduced, local police officer, Erik, and city detective Chris. Though she chooses to drop her guard with one of the men, she soon finds herself wondering if she’s made a deadly mistake.

The other thread of mystery involves the former owner of Rosehaven, 98-year-old Bert Bigsby, a WWII veteran incapacitated and confined to a nursing home after a major stroke, and the fate of his wife, Molly, who disappeared seventy years ago. Despite her reluctance to get involved in the cold case, Pip uncovers the heartbreaking story of deception and betrayal that has haunted Bert, and exposes the truth behind the accusations levied against him by the town.

It’s through Bert’s character that Lane highlights a facet of Australia’s involvement in WWII, adding another layer of interest to the novel. Bert, like many young men, volunteered to serve in the Australian Armed Forces, though he and Molly were essentially newlyweds. Letters from Bert to Molly provide some insight into the experiences of those soldiers who served in Papua New Guinea, particularly those who were captured in the Australian Territory peacetime capital, Rabaul, when it fell to the Japanese.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, though I did feel the touch of supernatural that linked Pip and Molly was an unnecessary addition. With its appealing characters, well crafted setting, and layered storyline, A Stone’s Throw Away is an entertaining read.

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Review: The Nurses’ War by Victoria Purman

 

Title: The Nurses’ War

Author: Victoria Purman

Published: April 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Set in the first Australian Auxiliary Hospital established in Britain for the recuperation and rehabilitation for Australian soldiers during WWI, The Nurses’ War by Victoria Purman is an emotional story of service and sacrifice, based on true events.

In 1915, Nurse Cora Barker arrives from South Australia to staff a sixty-bed Australian convalescent hospital at Harefield Park, a country estate offered by Australian heiress and her husband for military use, on the outskirts of London. At age thirty-one Cora is an experienced nurse, eager to serve her country and provide care for the men injured in battle, but nothing has prepared her for the challenges of wartime nursing.

Within days of its opening on June 1st, the hospital was forced to expand its services for soldiers evacuated from the battlefields of Gallipoli, France and Serbia. By mid month the grounds of Harefield Park were home to more than a dozen hastily erected wards to accommodate 360 patients, barely a year later it housed over thousand, while thousands more had passed through its doors, having been discharged from duty due to injury or disease, or recovered and sent back to rejoin the fighting. With sensitivity and compassion, Purman details the daily operation of the hospital as Cora and her fellow nursing staff spend long shifts caring for men, many with gruesome physical injuries and fragile mental health, while contending with their own exhaustion, home sickness, and emotional distress. The determination of the nurses to do everything they can for ‘their boys’ is inspiring, and I loved learning about the ordinary, and extraordinary, work and achievements of the Number 1 AAH and its staff, thanks to Purman’s meticulous research. Three of my four great grandfathers served in the Australian forces during WWI and may well have passed through the hospital. (I’d be interested to know if a patient list exists, I couldn’t find one with a cursory search.)

It’s easy to feel for Cora as the war that was expected to be ‘over by Christmas’ drags on. Though she has support from her fellow nurses, Leonora, Gertie and Fiona, no one could truly be prepared for what was to come, and Purman explores how the Cora was changed by her experiences. It’s a subtle process as Cora gains a clearer understanding of the human costs of war, and lets go of some of the social strictures she was raised with. I really liked Cora’s unexpected relationship with surgeon Captain William Kent, and the support they were able to offer each other.

Introducing the perspective of Jessie Chester allows Purman to explore the effects of the war on the civilians of Britain. A young local seamstress, Jessie is a sweet character who lives with her widowed mother and palsied brother. I thought the development of her character was very well done, as the establishment of the Harefield Hospital brings an unexpected opportunity for romance, and a change of career.

I did feel the pacing was a little off, a casualty in part of the nearly five year timeline I think, and I felt there was some instances of repetition, however these are very minor quibbles that didn’t detract from my satisfaction with the story overall.

I found The Nurses’ War to be a moving, thoughtful and absorbing tribute to the women who served with courage and compassion.

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