Spring is always an exciting time of year for readers. Publishers release some of their best books, and this year is certainly no exception. There are two authors who have a long body of outstanding work, and their newest books top the list of the best reads of the season.
March is the month for a new book in the popular Maisie Dobbs series by British author Jacqueline Winspear. Readers first met Maisie Dobbs as World War I had just broken out, and Maisie becomes a nurse on the front lines in France, where she is severely injured.
She returns home to London and studies under her mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche, a private investigator and psychologist. Maisie eventually opens up her own agency, and we meet several of her family, friends and coworkers in each successive book.
In the 14th book of the series, “To Die But Once,” Maisie is back in 1940 London as Britain is getting pulled into World War II. A family who owns the local pub has hired Maisie to find their son, who was last seen working for a company that uses flame-retardant paint on buildings to protect them in case they get bombed by the Germans.
Maisie and her team must discover what happened to the young man. At the same time, Maisie is in the process of finalizing the adoption of young Anna, an orphan from Spain who is currently in the care of Maisie’s father and stepmother. As Maisie is a widow, the powers-that-be are reluctant to allow the adoption.
The young men in the story — the two sons of Maisie’s investigator, Billy, and the two sons of her best friend, Priscilla — are of age to fight in the war. That frightens everyone who lived through the horrors of World War I.
The rescue of the British soldiers at Dunkirk plays out in the story. Priscilla’s son and his best friend take a boat to join the armada of British fishing boats and pleasure boats to help, and they are in danger.
Winspear always does a great deal of research for each of her books, and her father’s story of painting flame retardant to buildings inspired the main story. “To Die But Once” is vintage Maisie Dobbs, and it’s great to see Maisie interacting with Billy and Priscilla after the last few outings took her alone to Germany and Spain. We missed all of her old friends. Fans of historical mysteries and strong female characters will love this one.
Anna Quindlen writes contemporary fiction, and her latest is “Alternate Side.” Nora, her husband, Charlie, and their twin children, Rachel and Oliver, live in a lovely home on a rare dead-end street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Charlie is in finance, but the time has passed when he will become top-tier in his world. Nora is the director of a small museum of jewelry, and the twins are seniors away at college.
The most exciting thing to happen to Charlie is that he has finally been awarded a coveted parking spot in the small outdoor lot on their street. All of the men on the street want a spot there, and those that have one have a certain level of prestige.
One of the neighbors, George, takes it upon himself to be the mayor of the street, dropping off missives at everyone’s home with instructions on everything from parking to what kind of flowers to plant. Nora and most of the other women can’t stand him.
Ricky is the handyman on the street, taking care of everything from a clogged drain to a furnace that needs to be replaced. George and another man frequently yell at Ricky when he parks his van on the street, partially blocking the entrance to the parking lot.
After an incident with Ricky, things spiral out of control. Sides are taken, with neighbor against neighbor, and even husband against wife.
Quindlen’s story is relevant in today’s world. We see how Nora’s interactions with Ricky, her housekeeper, Charity, and Phil, the not-really-homeless guy outside her office, reflect her conflict with the haves versus the have-nots in society. Charlie does not share her concerns, and that causes problems in their marriage.
“Alternate Side” is one of Quindlen’s best novels. Her commentary on marriage, parenting, identity and privilege are thought-provoking and insightful, and you feel that you could run into her characters on any street on the Upper West Side of New York.