TBR Challenge: Lost & Found by Liv Rancourt

lost and found

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A dancer who cannot dance and a doctor who cannot heal find in each other the strength to love.

History books will call it The Great War, but for Benjamin Holm, that is a misnomer. The war is a disaster, a calamity, and it leaves Benjamin profoundly wounded, his mind and memory shattered. A year after Armistice, still struggling to regain his mental faculties, he returns to Paris in search of his closest friend, Elias.

Benjamin meets Louis Donadieu, a striking and mysterious dance master. Though Louis is a difficult man to know, he offers to help Benjamin. Together they search the cabarets, salons, and art exhibits in the newly revitalized city on the brink of les années folles (the Crazy Years). Almost despite himself, Benjamin breaches Louis’s defenses, and the two men discover an unexpected passion.

As his memory slowly returns, Benjamin will need every ounce of courage he possesses to recover Elias’s story. He and Louis will need even more than that to lay claim to the love – and the future – they deserve.

Rating: B

Set in Paris shortly after the end of World War One, Lost & Found is the story of a traumatised young American doctor who returns to Paris to search for his best friend, who has been missing since before war ended. It’s the compelling story of one man’s search for so much more than an absent friend and expertly intertwines that search with a slow-burn, antagonists-to-lovers romance. The setting of post-war Paris is so perfectly captured that the city feels like a character in its own right, and the pervasive sense of melancholy adds poignancy without being overwhelming.

Benjamin Holm, a Harvard-educated doctor, and his childhood friend Elias Simmons joined up to fight before the US entered the war and travelled to the front together. But as far as Ben can recall, he returned home alone after the Armistice, and now, a year later, he’s back in Paris intent on finding Elias, whom he hasn’t seen since… he can’t quite recall. He’s easily confiused and his memory is impaired; he knows there are things he can’t remember and is frustrated by that, but the one thing he’s clear on is that he needs to find Elias. He has nothing to go on really, just a vague recollection that they’d agreed to meet up there after the war; knowing that Elias liked to paint, Ben decides to ask around the artistic community and to scour the city until he finds him. To that end, he wanders the streets, showing a battered photo of his friend to all and sundry in the hope someone will have seen him.

Ben is renting a small apartment in Montmartre from Madame Beatrice, a genial lady who takes more than a passing interest in her tenants and who suggests that another of them, Louis Donadieu – Ben’s downstairs neighbour – might be able to help in Ben’s search. Ben is surprised – whenever he’s encountered the handsome and enigmatic Donadieu he’s been prickly and rather abrupt – but sure enough, the next morning, he approaches Ben over breakfast and offers his help. Mme. Beatrice clearly has excellent powers of persuasion.

As the two men spend time together walking around the city, sharing meals and just talking. they begin to know and understand each other, learning about their losses and fears. Ben is glad to have Louis with him, to have the assistance of someone who knows the city so well, but there’s also something else there, an attraction that’s clear to the reader in the way Ben admires Louis’ grace and dark good looks, but which Ben ruthlessly squashes. It’s just as clear that the attraction is mutual, and that Louis is more than a little bit jealous of the loyaty and affection Ben feels for his missing friend. But Ben’s memories continue to prove elusive, and it emerges that some of those gaps are very specific; whenever he tries to recall the last time he saw Elias, how they parted, even how the war ended – nothing.  And the more he tries to remember about his relationship with Elias, the more it eludes him. It’s confusing and frustrating – and terrifying.

Ben’s amnesia and PTSD are extremely well conveyed, and there’s a very real sense that the single-mindedness of his search for Elias is his sub-conscious’ way of preventing himself from thinking about things he doesn’t want to dwell on.  Clearly,  there was something more between Ben and Elias than friendship, but that Ben has closed his mind to that possibility – which is perhaps not all that surprising given the time period – although the author shows, in subtle ways, that Ben is more aware of his sexual orientation than he admits even to himself. She does a terrific job when it comes to showing Ben’s sense of unease, the disconectedness he feels from his past and his uncertainty about his future. His frustration at not being able to remember, and later, his horror when bits of memory begin to bleed through, are palpable, and the truth of what actually happened is both terrible and heartbreaking.

Louis comes across as arrogant to start with and he’s very blunt in a way that’s actually good for Ben, because he doesn’t coddle him or hold back from making Ben think about things he doesn’t want to think about. He’s prickly but sweet and vulnerable, too, having suffered his share of loss, albeit in different ways. He had been a rising star in the ballet world until he contracted polio – which almost killed him and ended what could have been a glittering career. Even though we never get into his head – Ben’s is the sole PoV – we’re able to feel his grief and sadness at the loss, and can see that his aloofness and insistence that “men like us seldom take things seriously” are a form of self-protection, walls behind which to hide the true extent of his feelings to Ben.

Their slow-burn romance is nicely done; a tentative friendship underpinned with unacknowledged – on Ben’s part at least – attraction that evolves into more. The constant presence of Elias in the background doesn’t impinge on it or turn it into a love triangle (thankfully!); it serves as a catalyst – for Ben and Louis to spend time together and for Ben to start to rediscover his sexuality – and adds tension to the story in a way that feels natural and convincing.

While I had a few small niggles – I’m sorry, but I can never read the word “organ” without laughing (I even wrote a blog a few years back about awful euphemisms in romance novels) – I only had one major issue with the book, which is the sometimes stilted, overly formal manner Ben has of expressing himself. That sort of formaility is in keeping with the time period, it’s true, but Ben even thinks formally when he’s in his own head, and when that happened I found it difficult to feel a connection with him; he talks/thinks about himself in a way that feels as though he’s talking or thinking about someone else. This put him at something of a remove, which, for a first person protagonist we’re supposed to sympathise with, made for an odd choice.

That’s my only real reservation, however. Lost & Found is heartfelt and bittersweet, a lovely and ultimately uplifting story of love, healing and acceptance.

The Woman at the Front by Lecia Cornwall

the woman at the front

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When Eleanor Atherton graduates from medical school near the top of her class in 1917, she dreams of going overseas to help the wounded, but her ambition is thwarted at every turn. Eleanor’s parents insist she must give up medicine, marry a respectable man, and assume her proper place. While women might serve as ambulance drivers or nurses at the front, they cannot be physicians—that work is too dangerous and frightening.

Nevertheless, Eleanor is determined to make more of a contribution than sitting at home knitting for the troops. When an unexpected twist of fate sends Eleanor to the battlefields of France as the private doctor of a British peer, she seizes the opportunity for what it is—the chance to finally prove herself.

But there’s a war on, and a casualty clearing station close to the front lines is an unforgiving place. Facing skeptical commanders who question her skills, scores of wounded men needing care, underhanded efforts by her family to bring her back home, and a blossoming romance, Eleanor must decide if she’s brave enough to break the rules, face her darkest fears, and take the chance to win the career—and the love—she’s always wanted.

Rating: B

I associate Lecia Cornwall’s name with historical romances, although I confess I haven’t read any of her work in that genre.  The blurb for her latest book, The Woman at the Front, caught my eye because of its First World War setting; I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Northern France (pre-Covid) researching family history so it’s a period I’m particularly interested in – and the premise of a young female doctor wanting to make a useful contribution to the war effort but being thwarted at every turn promised an interesting read.

Eleanor Atherton, the daughter of a Yorkshire doctor, has always longed to follow in her father’s footsteps.  In 1917, she graduated from medical school in Edinburgh near the top of her class (and thus ahead of almost 130 of her male colleagues) and has been looking forward to using her hard-earned skills in a meaningful way – but she’s derided and looked down upon for her choices at every turn.  Even her father doesn’t support her ambitions and has relegated her to menial tasks, such as doing paperwork or cleaning his surgery, while her mother constantly bemoans the fact that Eleanor will never be able to find a husband because no man wants a wife with an advanced education who refuses to stick to her ‘proper’ place in the order of things.

But Eleanor – who worked harder than anyone else so she’d be taken seriously, who put up with the constant bullying of the male students – refuses to be diverted from her chosen path.  When we meet her, it’s January of 1918 and she’s in a meeting with Sir William Foxleigh at the War Office, asking to be allowed to offer her services to the army hospitals in France.   Unfortunately, Sir William’s response is just the same as she’s received from just about every other man when informed she’s a doctor – distaste, disbelief and an instruction to “go home, sit down, and take up something more useful, such as knitting.”  With the war raging into its fourth year, she knows doctors are desperately needed and tries to make her case, but Foxleigh dismisses her and suggests that she should instead find a position at one of the hospitals in England that care for women and children – or if she’s set on going to France, that she should become a nurse or a member of the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) as those are “much more ladylike pursuits.” Furious and frustrated, Eleanor responds:

“I am not a nurse, Sir William, or a volunteer.  I am a doctor.”

Back at home a couple of weeks later, however, an unexpected opportunity presents itself when the Countess of Kirkswell informs Eleanor that her son Louis – a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps and now the heir to the earldom following his older brother’s recent death – has been injured and is currently being treated at a Casualty Clearing Station near Arras – and then asks Eleanor to travel to France to act as Louis’ doctor and to bring him home.

Even though she knows her parents will disapprove, Eleanor jumps at the chance to do something useful, and is soon on her way to France.  Even amidst the destruction and carnage all around, and the obvious need for people with her skills and medical training, she is still viewed with disdain and suspicion by most of the medical staff – even the nurses – and instructed that she is to attend no patients other than Louis on threat of being sent back to England.  Eleanor tries to stick to this rule, but it’s hard for her to just stand by when there are people who need the help she can give – and with ever increasing numbers of wounded flooding into the CCS, it’s not long before she decides that some rules need to be broken and grabs the opportunity to finally prove herself, in spite of the inflexibility of the commanding officer and the matron.  And she does it in spectacular fashion, working as quickly, skilfully and indefatigably as any of the other doctors.

The author does an absolutely incredible job with the setting in this book.  The sights and smells, the mud, the despair, the exhaustion, the everyday heroics of ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances (the bravery of the stretcher-bearers who have to venture onto the battlefields in order to retrieve the wounded while still under fire, for instance), the knowledge that no matter how many men are treated, there will be more tomorrow and the next day and the next… it’s all superbly captured and conveyed on the page and I was thoroughly immersed in the time and place.

The book is less successful as a romance, however.  Ms. Cornwall sets up a number of potential love interests for Eleanor – Louis Chastaine (the countess’ son), Scottish stretcher-bearer Fraser MacLeod and doctor, David Blair – but although it’s fairly obvious who she’s going to end up with, the romance is pretty insta-love-y.  I get that the circumstances (“there’s a war on”) don’t allow for a lot of on-page togetherness (and it makes perfect sense that way),  so while  The Woman at the Front does include a romance and an HEA, those are very much secondary to Eleanor’s struggle to make her way in the hostile, male-dominated environment of medicine in a world being torn apart by war, so I’d class the book as historical fiction with romantic elements, rather than as an historical romance.

On the negative side, the pacing is uneven and the story drags in places, and I found it hard to believe in the intense dislike displayed towards Eleanor by her family.  It turns out that her father only allowed her to go to medical school as a way of shaming her twin brother Edward, who had no interest in medicine.  Atherton expected Eleanor to fail and that failure would teach her some humility – and when she didn’t, he thought her medical training would mean she’d make a suitable doctor’s wife.  As for her brother, well he’s a self-centred prick, but I still didn’t see why he so disliked her.

And finally, a word of warning. The way Eleanor is treated by so many around her, the prejudice she encounters, the way she’s dismissed, belittled, talked-down-to – even by other women – is rage-inducing.  I have no doubt the attitudes presented are realistic, but I had to actually put the book down a time or two in order to calm down!

Despite that, however – and if you’re okay with the romance taking a back seat on occasion – The Woman at the Front is a fascinating read and one I’m recommending to anyone looking for a story featuring an engaging protagonist and a well-researched, well-realised setting.

The Last Kiss by Sally Malcolm

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A tender and triumphant story of forbidden love in the aftermath of war

When Captain Ashleigh Arthur Dalton went to war in 1914, he never expected to fall in love. Yet over three long years at the front, his dashing batman, Private West, became his reason for fighting—and his reason for living.

But Ash’s war ends in catastrophe. Gravely wounded, he’s evacuated home to his family’s country house in Highcliffe. Bereft of West, angry and alone, Ash struggles to re-join the genteel world he no longer understands.

For Harry West, an ostler from London’s East End, it was love at first sight when he met kind and complex Captain Dalton. Harry doubts their friendship can survive in the class-bound world back home, but he knows he’ll never forget his captain.

When the guns finally fall silent, Harry finds himself adrift in London. Unemployed and desperate, he swallows his pride and travels to Highcliffe in search of work and the man he loves. Under the nose of Ash’s overbearing father, the men’s intense wartime friendship deepens into a passionate, forbidden love affair.

But breaching the barriers of class and sexuality is dangerous and enemies lurk in Highcliffe’s rose-scented shadows.

After giving their all for their country, Harry and Ash face a terrible choice—defy family, society and the law to love as their hearts demand, or say goodbye forever…

Rating: B+

Sally Malcolm’s latest novel is something of a departure for anyone familiar with her excellent New Milton series. The Last Kiss is an historical romance set in England immediately after World War One, and it features two characters for whom the class divide is as insurmountable an obstacle to their love for each other as is their sexuality.  Ms. Malcolm is one of my favourite writers; her ability to delve deep into the thoughts and emotions of her characters is something that always impresses me, and here, she combines that with a sharply observed, unvarnished look at the problems faced by the men who were lucky enough to return from a war that forever changed them – to a world in which they no longer fit.

Captain Ashleigh Dalton and his batman Private Harry West met in 1914, and became close friends in spite of their difference in rank and backgrounds. Ash is the son of a baronet and worked in a bank and Harry was an ostler in Bethnal Green, but war is a great leveller; they’ve lived side-by-side and have been through hell together, and as time has worn on, their friendship – and deep mutual affection – is just about the only thing that has made life bearable for both of them.  The story begins in the early hours of a morning in October 1917 when Ash and his men are waiting for the final command to go over the top.  Ms. Malcom brilliantly evokes the overall feelings of trepidation and despair felt in the trenches and also does a fantastic job of showing readers the strength of the bond that exists between Ash and Harry – not with words, because they can’t possibly say any of the things they feel, but rather through the actions that communicate their obvious care for one another. When Ash is severely wounded, Harry’s world almost comes to a stop, and fearing the man he loves is dead, his first thought is to invite a German bullet to end it all. But seeing the men look to him for guidance and reassurance, he can’t do it.  Clinging to hope, Harry somehow finds the courage to carry on, and one month later, receives the news that Ash is alive, and is being sent home to England.

The fact that Ash lost part of one leg and is suffering from “nerve damage” (which we’d call PTSD today) are not the only things that have made it impossible for him to pick up the reins of his old life.  He misses Harry desperately, and he’s full of anger and frustration at the way that those around him – most notably his parents and others of their generation – seem to want to brush the war under the carpet and go on as though nothing has changed, and he can’t bear it.

“What was it for, if everything goes on the same?”

To make things worse, his parents make it clear that they expect him to get married and settle down as soon as possible and have perfect girl in mind, Miss Olive Allen, the daughter of friends.  Ash likes Olive – she’s a straightforward, no-nonsense young woman who currently works as a VAD nurse and whose outlook is very much aligned with his – but his heart belongs to someone else and Ash has no intention of getting married to anyone.

Back in London after the Armistice, Harry, like all the other soldiers returning to England, finds himself out of step with the world he’s come home to – and also out of work.  He’s living with his widowed sister and two young nieces and is very conscious that Kitty’s meagre resources are stretched thin – so when she suggests he apply to his former captain for work, Harry forces himself to swallow his pride and travels to Highcliffe House in Hampshire to see if there might be any work for him in the stables.

Ash is astonished and overjoyed to see Harry again, so much so that he greets him as the friend he is, much to his father’s outrage.  There’s a social distance to be maintained between master and servant and Ash and Harry can never again be what they were to each other before.  Ash isn’t in a position to openly defy his father’s edict that he keep away from Harry, but he’s determined to spend time with him, and thanks to Olive’s idea that Ash should take up riding again, they do manage a few afternoons together. During those stolen hours, three years of longing and wondering and a knowledge, now, of the transience of life, propel both men towards admitting the truth of their feelings for one another – but it’s bittersweet, the knowledge that they love and are loved in return overshadowed by the knowledge that this is likely all they’re ever going to be able to have.

Sally Malcolm is a master of the angsty romance, conveying heightened emotion in a way that feels right for the mood of the story and is never overdone.   The feelings Ash and Harry have for each other are so strongly portrayed that they leap off the page; tenderness, longing, connection and most of all, their unspoken love, are palpable, all skilfully created within the first few pages of the novel and sustained throughout their forbidden love affair.  A real sense of foreboding seeps through the second half of the book as disaster inevitably looms closer; and when it strikes it’s a punch to the gut.

The historical setting is very well realised. The author clearly has considerable knowledge of the period and the story is very firmly grounded in the attitudes and prejudices of the time.  Those prejudices extend beyond sexuality and class, however, as illustrated through the character of Olive, a young woman who, Ash realises, was liberated by the war, freed from stifling social conventions in order to do something useful.  She wants to train to be a doctor, but her parents won’t hear of it, and now the war is over, she’s expected to forget her taste of freedom and return to her pre-war self, a situation experienced by countless young women at the time.

The Last Kiss is an absorbing read that will transport readers to the horrors of the battlefield and the beauty of the idyllic English countryside.  Those who like their historical romance to contain more than a nod towards actual history will enjoy the setting and appreciate the author’s keen eye for detail and social observation.  This is a ‘quiet’ book and the overall tone is perhaps a little sombre, but the central love affair is compelling and heartfelt, and the HEA is well-deserved.

The Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig & Karen White (audiobook) – Narrated by Brittany Pressley, Vanessa Johansson & Saskia Maarleveld

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

May 2013

Her finances are in dire straits, and best-selling author Sarah Blake is struggling to find a big idea for her next book. Desperate, she breaks the one promise she made to her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother and opens an old chest that belonged to her great-grandfather, who died when the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat in 1915. What she discovers there could change history.

Sarah embarks on an ambitious journey to England to enlist the help of John Langford, a recently disgraced member of parliament whose family archives might contain the only key to the long-ago catastrophe….

April 1915

Southern belle Caroline Telfair Hochstetter’s marriage is in crisis. Her formerly attentive industrialist husband, Gilbert, has become remote, preoccupied with business…and something else on which she can’t quite put a finger. She’s hoping a trip to London in Lusitania’s lavish first-class accommodations will help them reconnect – but she can’t ignore the spark she feels for her old friend, Robert Langford, who turns out to be on the same voyage. Feeling restless and longing for a different existence, Caroline is determined to stop being a bystander and take charge of her own life….

Tessa Fairweather is traveling second-class on the Lusitania, returning home to Devon. Or at least, that’s her story. Tessa has never left the US, and her English accent is a hasty fake. She’s really Tennessee Schaff, the daughter of a roving con man, and she can steal and forge just about anything. But she’s had enough. Her partner has promised that if they can pull off this one last heist aboard the Lusitania, they’ll finally leave the game behind. Tess desperately wants to believe that, but Tess has the uneasy feeling there’s something about this job that isn’t as it seems….

As the Lusitania steams toward its fate, three women work against time to unravel a plot that will change the course of their own lives…and history itself.

Rating: Narration – B+ : Content – B

Three authors, three main characters, three narrators; The Glass Ocean is a dual timeline story from the pens of the 3Ws – Williams, Willig and White – that weaves together interconnecting stories featuring three very different woman in two different time-periods almost a century apart. I have no idea which author penned which character – and apparently it’s a very closely guarded secret – but the narration is clearly assigned, with Vanessa Johansson reading the chapters told by Sarah Blake, and Brittany Pressley and Saska Maarleveld reading those from the points of view of Caroline Hochstetter and Tess Schaff respectively.

Five years earlier, Sarah Blake wrote a very successful book about the mid-nineteenth century Irish Potato Famine. For a year she was feted, interviewed, sought after for book signings and events… but when inspiration for a follow-up book failed to arrive, she more or less fell off the radar, and now, even her agent hardly ever calls her. She’s struggling – both creatively and financially – and in desperation, turns to an old family heirloom, breaking her promise to her Alzheimer-stricken mother and opening the chest that belonged to her great-grandfather, who died when the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat in 1915. What she finds there leads her to travel to England to request access to the archives of the Langford family in the hope that the documents contained within it will help her to find answers to the questions raised by her great-grandfather’s papers. The problem is that getting permission to view the Langford family’s documents is going to be difficult. John Langford MP has recently become unwillingly entangled in a scandal involving his ex-wife and is lying low in an attempt to dodge the paparazzi stalking him, so Sarah is going to have to approach him carefully – and probably using subterfuge – if she’s to stand any chance of getting him to agree to her request.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Last Christmas in Paris: A Novel of World War 1 by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb (Audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham, Billie Fulford-Brown, Morag Sims, Gary Furlong, Derek Perkins, Greg Wagland, Antony Ferguson, Jane Copland and Mary Jane Wells

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

August 1914. England is at war. As Evie Elliott watches her brother, Will, and his best friend, Thomas Harding, depart for the front, she believes – as everyone does – that it will be over by Christmas, when the trio plan to celebrate the holiday among the romantic cafés of Paris.

But as history tells us, it all happened so differently….

Evie and Thomas experience a very different war. Frustrated by life as a privileged young lady, Evie longs to play a greater part in the conflict – but how? – and as Thomas struggles with the unimaginable realities of war, he also faces personal battles back home, where War Office regulations on press reporting cause trouble at his father’s newspaper business. Through their letters Evie and Thomas share their greatest hopes and fears – and grow ever fonder from afar. Can love flourish amid the horror of the First World War, or will fate intervene?

Christmas 1968. With failing health, Thomas returns to Paris – a cherished packet of letters in hand – determined to lay to rest the ghosts of his past. But one final letter is waiting for him…

Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – B+

Last Christmas in Paris is a beautifully written, superbly narrated epistolary novel which centres around the correspondence exchanged between three friends during the years of the First World War. I suspect the degree to which any listener will enjoy the story will depend on whether one enjoys novels that consist entirely of letters; personally, I’m a big fan of that literary device, so that, added to the fact that I have a particular interest in the history of the period, plus the list of excellent narrators attached to the project pretty much ensured my enjoyment of this audiobook. And enjoy it I did, although ‘enjoy’ seems rather a feeble word to describe how I feel about it now that I’ve finished listening to it. I was so caught up in this story of friendship, emancipation, love, loss, tragedy, hope, despair… a real gamut of emotions, that I couldn’t bear to set it aside; I listened to it in only two or three sittings and, when I finished it, felt that strange sense of emptiness that always seems to descend when I’ve finished reading or listening to something really good – that feeling of “what do I do now?”

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.