Julia’s Gifts

As a single woman, who wasn’t even dating anyone at the time, the young Mrs-Yeoman-Farmer-to-be did something unusual: She bought a wedding dress.

As I said, she wasn’t in a relationship. She and I hadn’t even met. But she was absolutely certain she was going to get married … and that this dress would be perfect. And, besides, it was being displayed on the clearance rack, marked down to a fraction of its original price. How could she pass that up?

She made the purchase, and then had it vacuum packed for long term storage. We met a few years later … I proposed … she unpacked the dress and had it fitted … and it was stunning. After our wedding, she had the dress cleaned and repacked. And that’s where it’s remained, in waiting for our daughter(s) to hopefully use someday.

Imagine if, instead of a wedding dress, a young  woman in MYF’s position were to make or purchase a special Christmas gift for her future husband. And then another special gift, the next Christmas. And again. All without being engaged in courtship with any man — let alone being certain of who that man would someday be.

Sound weird? You bet it does — but also quite touching, and romantic, all at the same time. And that’s the premise of Ellen Gable’s new historical romance novel, Julia’s Gifts. Set around the time of American entry into World War I, Julia is a recent high school graduate living in Philadelphia. For several Christmases in a row, she has been accumulating gifts for her future beloved: hand-knit wool socks, a nice journal / notebook, a Miraculous Medal (because she’s sure he’ll be Catholic), and an engraved pocket watch.

Julia and her best friend decide, almost on impulse, to volunteer as medical assistants with the Red Cross. Soon thereafter, they are crossing the Atlantic on a ship with many other young women. Julia’s instincts told her she should take along the box of gifts-for-her-beloved; naturally, we sense that she will find him somewhere in Europe.

With the recent anniversaries of the Great War, you’ve no doubt seen and heard quite a bit about the causes and the battles. I know I have. But this story gives a very different perspective on what the War wrought: the mangled bodies and broken lives of ordinary soldiers, as seen through the eyes of an ordinary American girl.

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I hadn’t known that these Red Cross volunteers were even a “thing” – they’re probably one of the more overlooked aspects of military history. Yet they were the ones who freed up significant amounts of time for the trained medical personnel, by taking care of the routine prep work (such as removing clothes, giving injections, cleaning the men up, and so forth) that needed to be done before a wounded soldier could receive treatment from — or be operated upon by — a physician. It’s quite a different view of the War than what I’ve seen in the past.

This is of course more a romance novel than a war story per se. As we would expect, Julia does meet her beloved (Major Peter Winslow, an officer in the Canadian army) while she’s serving in France. What I was not expecting, however, is the way Julia’s gifts ultimately make their way to that beloved. The predictable route would’ve been for them to meet, fall in love, and then for Julia to give the gifts. Instead, the process plays out almost in reverse. I enjoyed the plot twists which deliver each gift to Major Winslow, sometimes without Julia even intending to give him a particular gift.

Due to the circumstances of the war, Julia and Major Winslow must spend significant time apart. He is on the battlefield; she is at the field hospital. Although they do spend some time together in face to face conversation, much of their romance ends up unfolding through letters. The hero and heroine thus grow together through a wholesome connection of minds and hearts, saving the connection of bodies for a day when they are able to make a lifetime commitment to each other.

I also appreciated the way the story’s faith component was woven naturally into the story. Major Winslow is a lapsed Catholic whose faith has gone dormant. His brother, who is also deployed in Europe, is much more devout. Over the course of the story, events play out in a way that leads Major Winslow’s faith to reawaken spontaneously — and all of this serves to further deepen his connection with Julia.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I do know the author personally, through the Catholic Writers Guild, and I was provided an advance copy of the book to review. (The novel itself has just been published in the last few days.) Given that I’m not typically a reader of romance novels of any kind, I initially approached the story with some hesitation. But you know what I learned? I need to expand my reading genre horizons! This is a wonderful story, and one I’m pleased to recommend.

More information and reviews can be found on the publisher’s official page, and the book is available in paperback or Kindle format through Amazon. You can even read it for free if you have Kindle Unlimited!

You’ll note that the cover describes this as “Book 1” of a series. I’m not sure how many more there will be, or when they’ll be published, but I’m looking forward to reading them when they are.

Dying for Revenge

I’m a big fan of mystery novels, so was quite pleased to receive an advance reading copy of Dying for Revenge, the first in a planned series of “whodunnits” by Barbara Golder. It’s an excellent, well-paced story and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The deeper I got into it, the more annoyed I became by outside interruptions; I really did not want to put it down.

Golder’s protagonist, Dr. Jane Wallace, is unique in that she’s not a sheriff or a police detective, but rather a regional Medical Examiner. She also holds a law degree. This gives a really fascinating perspective on the story’s murder investigations. Dr. Wallace has a number of tools at her disposal, has an excellent understanding of the law, and of course works with law enforcement, but she does not have direct access to all the tools that the state police or a sheriff’s department might have. When the bodies begin dropping, Dr. Wallace must use a variety of forensic techniques (medical and otherwise) to identify connections between cases — and then must convince skeptical local law enforcement authorities that particular deaths are indeed the work of a single killer.

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I had some good early suspicions as to who the killer was, and the story includes enough clues for the attentive reader to form a good theory. The story also provides good plausible alternative theories. We — along with Dr. Wallace — have to follow all the clues before we can figure out which theory is correct. There are plenty of twists along the way. And remember, because Dr. Wallace is “only” a medical examiner, she can’t arrest a suspect or bring someone in for questioning the way a police officer could. When law enforcement doesn’t agree with her, and doesn’t want to cooperate, she has to pursue the suspect a little differently. The way she accomplishes this is really fun to read.

I’d add that the killer isn’t the only bad guy in the story. The way Dr. Wallace goes after some of these secondary villains — again, sometimes without the direct assistance of law enforcement — is quite satisfying.

However, Dying for Revenge is much more than just a mystery novel. It’s an inspirational story, with a complex protagonist who’s experienced a great deal of personal suffering. The particulars of these sufferings and losses are revealed gradually and naturally over the course of the story; Golder strikes a good balance of piquing the reader’s curiosity about Dr. Wallace’s past, while also satisfying the reader’s curiosity bit by bit. We come to really know and understand her. Even when she lashes out and does something selfish, or says something that we sense she’ll regret later and have to take back, I found myself cheering her on and saying “Darned right!” — because I understood her, and why her reactions were exactly the right ones for her character. As the story unfolds, and the protagonist begins to change and grow, I found myself cheering on those changes as well. The character development seems natural, and fits perfectly with what Dr. Wallace experiences over the course of the novel’s events.

A good novel also takes you to a new place, immerses you in it, and gives you the sense that you’ve truly lived there for a while. Dying for Revenge takes place in and around the resort town of Telluride, Colorado; I’ve never actually visited it, but by the end of the story really felt like I knew my way around. The next time I’m in Colorado, I want to make sure I see it in person.

The way the story itself is told is a bit unusual. We see the action through the eyes of several different viewpoint characters, most of whom narrate events in a third person voice. Dr. Wallace’s character, however, narrates events in a first person voice. I mention this as something for readers to be aware of, because it is so unconventional — and could be confusing if you’re not ready for it. I personally would have preferred that the story’s narration and viewpoint been kept more consistent (i.e. all third person or all / virtually all first person). YMMV, however. Other readers may find the viewpoint mix gives the best of both worlds: the first person narration allows them to identify more deeply with Dr. Wallace, while the third person narration allows them to witness actions Dr. Wallace is not present for.

Again, I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and getting to know Dr. Jane Wallace. My only disappointment is that the next nine installments in the series aren’t available right now.

Dying for Revenge is available in print from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and in Kindle format.

What’s Wrong With Pooh?

For all of you parents who’ve been reading A.A. Milne to your kids, here’s a new take on the books’ characters. This paper was published a few years ago in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, by a group of five developmental pediatricians, but I’ve just now stumbled upon it. Here’s how it begins:

On the surface it is an innocent world: Christopher Robin, living in a beautiful forest surrounded by his loyal animal friends. Generations of readers of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories have enjoyed these seemingly benign tales. However, perspectives change with time, and it is clear to our group of modern neurodevelopmentalists that these are in fact stories of Seriously Troubled Individuals, many of whom meet DSM-IV criteria for significant disorders. We have done an exhaustive review of the works of A.A. Milne and offer our conclusions about the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood in hopes that our observations will help the medical community understand that there is a Dark Underside to this world.

H/T: Baseball Crank.