Leo Page is, in the simplest terms, a spy. He’s sent to a sleepy English village that could come right out of Agatha Christie’s novels, where he meets a young doctor with PTSD who (coincidentally, even though I half-expected this to become relevant) knows a little about who he is and what he does because he patched him up under secretive conditions during World War II. The story is both about solving the mystery, and also about unravelling who Leo wants to be.
I felt that James (the doctor) is rather less developed than Leo; we see his PTSD and his eagerness to love and be loved, yes, but we don’t really see him finding any peace with the PTSD or settling into himself as he could be. There’s plenty of room for that in sequels, though! What we do see is Leo’s development as he slowly becomes sure that, actually, he’s done with being a spy and directly or indirectly dealing death. It takes him time to realise that and time to decide that a life with James is worth a try.
In terms of the romance between the two, there’s a happy-for-now at the end of the book, but it’s something I could see being shaken by future books — they’re not secure in one another yet.
The mystery… eh, I was less interested in that, I’ll admit. It’s weird reading a book with such modern sensibilities and then also reading an Agatha Christie mystery, really. On that level, this fell down a bit for me, not helped by the fact that (as was traditional for Golden Age crime fiction) the victims were both unlikeable. The character of Wendy causes a certain amount of mystification, and I found her a little too much; a little too clever, a little too omnipresent, a little too obvious.
That’s really a small quibble, though it doesn’t sound it: I was here for James and Leo. Their sexual connection doesn’t boil off the page, but there are several lovely moments of intimacy which I rather prefer.
After It Takes Two To Tumble, this book follows the fortunes of one of Ben’s brothers, Hartley. As a teenager, he slept with a much older man, his godfather, to help provide for his brothers — school fees, rank, etc. On that man’s death, he inherited his house and a good deal of money, but now the whispers have gone out about why exactly he was the beneficiary… and, of course, he’s socially ruined. Into his life comes Sam Fox, publican and former boxer, who is kind and careful and handsome, and whom Hartley wants despite all the damage done by the exploitative sex he had as a teen.
On the one hand, it’s a delight how slowly and carefully the sex is explored in this book, how well Sam takes care of Hartley. At the same time, it’s harrowing; Hartley’s fears and self-disgust and inability to let himself find happiness are all over everything, making it a rather more serious book (at least to my mind). It’s not that it lacks sweetness, because it certainly doesn’t, but there’s a certain amount of bitter to it as well that — despite grief and worry — weren’t present in the previous book. There’s no on-screen rape or graphic discussion of it, but it colours everything; those who may find this triggering may want to avoid this.
It does have a lovely found family, much as the previous book does, and Hartley opens out into a lovely character as he loses some of his snootiness and challenges some of his own assumptions. Sam is lovely from start to finish — human, and not always able to be perfectly patient and perfectly understanding, but he strives to be better all the time. There are some fun side characters as well, particularly Sadie and Kate.
Overall, I enjoyed it a lot and it broke through a funk during which I wasn’t reading much at all. It’s a little darker in tone, but it does have a happy ending, and I ended up enjoying it a lot.
Looking around for something cute and easy to read with Lisa (Wife Book Club!), this was my first pick because it was described as “like Sound of Music, but with fewer children and less singing”, and that sounded entertaining. And so it is: Ben is the vicar, and people in the village ask him to deal with the unruly kids of a sea-captain. The kids’ mother has died, and the captain is away on his ship, and the kids are running wild. Ben rather likes kids, and doing things for everyone in the village, so he ends up agreeing.
Said sea-captain, Phillip, comes home and is… less than pleased. However, once he gets out of the mindset of expecting everything to run like a ship — partly at Ben’s prompting — he loosens up and becomes rather more fun, and of course, he develops an attraction to Ben. Ben is engaged to a convalescent girl, Alice, with whom he grew up, and throughout the book he struggles with what’s right, realising that he’s falling in love Phillip and what he feels for his childhood friend is nothing like it. Don’t worry, though: the story avoids demonising Alice, and her sweetness and strength are still important for Ben even when they put an end to their engagement.
There’s also a plotline involving dyslexia: Phillip and one of his children are both dyslexic, and the ways that holds them both back are explored carefully. Jamie’s a wizard with numbers, but traditional learning just won’t work for him. There’s no magical breakthrough moment or anything trite and insulting like that: instead, they plan to play to Jamie’s strengths with the right sort of tutor, and… Well, I won’t say more; that would be a spoiler!
It’s all really sweet, and Ben’s adorable. Phillip is a bit meh for me (which is to say, his determination to be an ass at first annoys me), but Ben carries it.