Bess Crawford is a battlefield nurse during World War I. When a torpedo sinks her hospital ship, she breaks her arm and gets sent back to Great Britain to heal. Her near-death experience gives urgency to a promise she made to a dying soldier: to convey personally a message to his brother. While staying with his family she gets sucked into a mystery that has deadly consequences. Bess is plucky and smart. She has a sturdy ethical code inherited from her father and gracious manners taught by her mother. The books are clean and convey well a bygone period and the real horrors of the "war to end all wars."
Spark's novel is loosely based on the book of Esther but set in Wisconsin in 2005. Instead of a king, a divorced school superintendent falls in love and cohabits with a much younger woman, Ellen, who was raised by her older cousin Mose, a high-school teacher. A new principal, Mr. Hyman, has it out for Mose, who attributes the principal's antagonism to anti-Semitism. Current events and school politics provide a modern gloss on an old story about irrational hatred for the Jews and the courage needed to stand up to persecution. The Bible hints at Esther's predicament as she becomes part of Ahasuerus' harem; this modern day retelling is much more sexually and verbally explicit.
Jody Linder grew up believing that a violent ranch hand murdered her father and most likely her mother (she disappeared the same night). His guilt and her family's rectitude are things she counts on to be true. Those emotional pillars are threatened when the governor commutes the ranch hand's sentence and he returns to their rural Kansas town. The book has a long flashback in the middle chapters that describes events leading up to the murders. Pickard includes several explicit sex scenes, which you can skip, but the language is raw throughout. It's too bad because Pickard writes about memorably flinty characters who struggle with issues of pride, judgment, forgiveness, and evil.
In this 15th Judge Deborah Knott mystery, the series is starting to show its age. Maron used to focus her attention on the small town of Dobbs in Colleton County, N.C., where the judge sorts out family disputes and misdemeanors that sometimes involved members of her huge extended family. Maron combined a real feel for small town North Carolina politics and religion with mysteries that grew out of her knowledge of human nature and that particular corner of the state. But this novel takes place at a judges' conference at the shore. Deborah seems too dippy to be a judge and Maron seems more interested in dropping shop names and describing menu items than her plot.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson (Random House, 2010) is in many ways a delightful comedy of manners with no bad language or overt sexuality. It features two old school Brits, one a retired major who was born in a military family stationed in Lahore, and the other, Mrs. Ali, a widowed shopkeeper born in Britain to Pakistani parents. They are throwbacks, drawn together by their love for literature and British values in the face of commercial and religious forces that are changing the country they both love.
Predictably, the romance blossoms and then wilts under community pressure. The local vicar says the breakup is for the best. He gives a half-hearted defense of Christian doctrine, but readers aren't meant to take him seriously because he also says he'd never preach anything too controversial if it might hurt the collection plate. Since the book is a comedy, it ends happily-at least for those who believe religious objections to mixed marriage are silly. Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali overcome that small-minded bigotry and find true love.