Review: All Lessons Learned by Charlie Cochrane

He’s at the end of his rope…until fate casts a lifeline.

Cambridge Fellows Mysteries, Book 8

The Great War is over. Freed from a prisoner of war camp and back at St. Bride’s College, Orlando Coppersmith is discovering what those years have cost. All he holds dear—including his beloved Jonty Stewart, lost in combat.

A commission to investigate a young officer’s disappearance gives Orlando new direction…temporarily. The deceptively simple case becomes a maze of conflicting stories—is Daniel McNeil a deserter, or a hero?—taking Orlando into the world of the shell-shocked and broken. And his sense of Jonty’s absence becomes painfully acute. Especially when a brief spark of attraction for a Cambridge historian, instead of offering comfort, triggers overwhelming guilt.

As he hovers on the brink of despair, a chance encounter on the French seafront at Cabourg brings new hope and unexpected joy. But the crushing aftereffects of war could destroy his second chance, leaving him more lost and alone than ever…

Review by Erastes

I was expecting to have my heart put through the wringer with this book, and I wasn’t wrong. Charlie Cochrane warns, without too many spoilers that it’s a “three hanky read” and she’s not wrong. So if you aren’t a fan of angst, then stay away! There are hints in the blurb about the outcome, so don’t despair.

It is a brave thing that Cochrane does to build up characters and relationships over seven books only to tear it all down in the eighth–but it’s entirely right to do so because of the setting and the events that happened from 1914-1919. The book is set after the end of the Great War–the other great lie, that it was the “War to End All War”–and it’s all the shattered Britain can hang onto, because that’s the only thing that helps them make sense of what seems four years of senseless slaughter. To make things worse, many people who escaped being killed on the battlefield, including wives, husbands and children were wiped out in the influenza epidemic of 1919, further reducing an already battered population.

So we know from the outset—and from the blurb, that loved ones have been lost, although it’s more than the blurb hints at, so steel yourself for sadness.

Orlando’s reaction is entirely right. The Orlando from books 1 to about 3 would probably have retreated entirely within his mind and never come out again, but Jonty’s influence remains strong with him, and he’s able to cope on a day-to-day level  as long as he doesn’t allow himself to think too deeply—and that’s something a gentleman wouldn’t let himself do in public.  His initial interview with his—and Jonty’s—old friend Matthew Ainslie is perfectly pitched. What they can talk about and what they can’t, the feeling of unbearable, but gentlemanly repression. The way Ainslie has kept obituaries from the paper “in case you wanted to see them” and the way that Orlando takes them without reading them in public. This skill of writing shows a writer who completely understands, not only her characters, but the mindset of middleclass and upperclass England of 1919.

I’d definitely say to prospective readers of the series–don’t start with this one. That probably sounds unnecessary to say, but some readers will start at the end or in the middle of a series, but to get the full flavour out of this, you will need to get some of the backstory under your belt, because the impact won’t be anything like as powerful otherwise, and you’ll need to know who’s who–it might leave you feeling a little confused otherwise.

Here’s one part which had me sobbing like a baby:

Their eventual parting had been so painful, preceded as it was by snatched nights of shared passion and tender longeurs—giving and receiving each other’s bodies, lying in one another’s arms without speaking, reacquainting themselves with every inch of each other, lest they be parted. Lest they might then forget. The last meeting, on a crowded railway station, had been almost wordless, from both necessity of discretion and aching in their hearts. They had shaken hands, exchanged notes and gone off into the smoky night. And each note had been almost identical.

I love you. Do not forget me. Love again if I don’t return.

I think we all know (without spoiling, because Cochrane has advertised widely for her readers to “Just TRUST her”) that the story must end well, and we also know that Cochrane wouldn’t do that to her readers—it would probably be romance suicide to do it, but even so the pathos of this story hits hard. The bequest to honey-buzzards will resonate with readers only who have read the earlier books, and the tender way Jonty  is discussed and remembered will make even the hardest hearted of us well up with emotion.

I’ve already spoken about the characterisation being pitch-perfect, and you never need to worry about Cochrane’s historical detail. She makes me laugh, actually, as from time to time something jars with me and I gleefully trot to the etymology dictionary only to discover that she’s spot on—one example was “foxhole”—i had thought this was a later term, but no, I should have known better, it was coined in WW1. The thing with a book like this is that you actually forget that you are reading something written in the 21st century. It’s so immersive, you just lose yourself within it, whether you are strolling along the seafront of Caborg or having a pint in the Holloway Road.

There was a little too much cosy chat too for me which lost my concentration at times, but I know that this will be the main draw for lovers of previous books.

I also felt that Orlando’s “sleuthing” was a little too easy in spots—coincidence plays a part and he only has to say something out loud for one of the porters to say “oh I know where you can find that out, guv’nor.” And he not only finds the man he needs in a neighbouring college but the details of one man in all of the war. Coincidence plays a large part in the remaining plot, and I’d complain more strongly about that had Cochrane not made this a feature in the previous books. I can live with it in a cozy novella, it’s almost part of the genre.

I wouldn’t say that this is the strongest in the series because it’s not as strong on sleuthing as the others—and I would have liked a little more mystery to balance the Jonty—Orlando plotline, but it breaks the mould in good ways. The whole arching story—whether or not this book will be the last Cambridge Fellows book or not—is compelling and sweet, although nicely toned in light and shade. This last book shows us that Cochrane is more than capable of stepping well outside the cosy mystery and dealing with the most disturbing of subjects, war, shellshock, duty and death—and of doing it every bit as well as writers such as Pat Barker or Susan Field. Bring hankies with you when you read it, but read it. It will touch you in many good ways.

Title is an ebook only at the moment but will be moving to paperback in a few months.

Buy at Samhain Amazon UK Kindle Amazon USA Kindle

4 Responses

  1. This is one of my favorite series. I’m *so* looking forward to reading this.

  2. I used at least three hankies. *blots eyes*

  3. I have to confess, I dashed out and bought this the minute it was released – but have yet to pluck up the courage to dive in! :)

  4. Thanks for the great review, Erastes. You’ll catch me out on an anachronistic word one day, I’m sure.

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