The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh
Lord Peter Wimsey, his wife Harriet, and the faithful Bunter return to Oxford in 1952. This is the fourth mystery featuring the trio that Jill Paton Walsh has written or finished writing, continuing the books written by Dorothy L. Sayers. Peter has unfortunately inherited the title of Duke of Denver, and discovers that it includes the office of Visitor of St. Severin’s, a fictional college in Oxford, and is called upon to referee a dispute. St. Severin’s is far from peaceful; the head of the college is missing, and there have been recent deaths (presumably accidental) and other incidents. Oddly the deaths and two accidents echo Peter’s detective cases and Harriet’s mystery novels. The college’s finances are shaky, and there is an ongoing debate about selling a rare manuscript with connections to King Alfred in order to buy land near Oxford that could be developed.
Oxford itself is a character in the book, full of memories for Peter and Harriet, and instantly recognizable to 21st century visitors. While the atmosphere at St. Severin’s is increasingly unpleasant, reading this mystery was a real pleasure.
The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett
Romance, mystery, history, Victorian art, and rare books combine to make for an engaging read. The setting moves from the 1980s and 1990s in North Carolina and England to the Victorian era and Elizabethan England. In 1995, rare book dealer Peter Byerly has retreated from North Carolina to an English cottage after the death of his wife Amanda. Finally visiting a bookstore, he is stunned to find a Victorian watercolor portrait tucked into a book about Shakespearean forgeries. The portrait looks just like his wife, who studied Victorian art. When Amanda’s books don’t identify the artist, he is referred to an art society meeting in London, where he meets book editor Liz Sutcliffe. The mystery of the portrait and its artist are somehow connected to an Elizabethan novel Pandosto by Robert Greene, the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. A copy of Pandosto with margin notes by Shakespeare and a list of people who owned the book could be proof that Shakespeare really wrote his plays; or it could be a forgery. The search puts Peter and Liz in jeopardy, while alternating chapters describe Peter and Amanda’s college years and the people who owned the copy of Pandosto. Peter’s joy in learning about rare books and his love for Amanda add depth to the story.
The Secret Lives of Codebreakers by Sinclair McKay
During World War II in England, every citizen was expected to do their part in the war effort. Imagine that your job was so secret that you couldn’t tell your family or friends anything about it, or why you weren’t in the armed forces. Then imagine keeping that secret for 30 years. That’s exactly what the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, 50 miles northwest of London, did. Mathematicians, linguists, historians, young aristocrats, engineers, and Wrens were all summoned to Bletchley Park, asked to sign the Official Secrets Act, and worked to break the enigma code the Nazis used in the war for their communications. It was extremely difficult to break one code, and it kept changing. Electronic machines, the Bombe and the Colossus, were developed to help with this work. Assigned rooms in private homes, working different shifts in cold huts in spartan conditions on the grounds of a stately home, eating food that was less than wonderful, several thousand workers, including some Americans, did amazing work. They probably shortened the war by two years, and kept supply convoys from being attacked at sea. The workers, mostly young, also used their creativity and energy to start a number of clubs, from sports to drama, and a number of romances led to marriage. Now a museum, visit Bletchley Park’s website for more information. For a similar book set in Tennessee, read Girls of Atomic City.
Longbourn by Jo Baker
Two hundred years after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Jo Baker ably retells Jane Austen’s story from the point of view of the servants. Sarah, the housemaid, is the main narrator. She was orphaned as a young girl, and has worked at Longbourn for years, along with Mr. and Mrs. Hill, the butler and cook/housekeeper. Sarah is fond of Mrs. Hill, even though she often scolds Sarah and Polly, the younger maid. When Mr. Bennett hires a footman/groom, James Smith, Sarah is at first suspicious of James, but later falls in love with him. Elizabeth, Jane and the younger Bennett girls come to life, but again from the servants’ points of view. Five young ladies in the house certainly make for a lot of laundry, sewing, and cleaning. Sarah wonders what they can possibly have to complain about, and doesn’t think much of their suitors, especially Wickham, who flirts with young Polly. When Mr. Bingley moves to the area, his handsome footman, Ptolemy Bingley, has Sarah dreaming of life in London. When James Smith suddenly leaves Longbourn, he describes his childhood and experiences in the Napoleonic Wars, while Mrs. Bennett and Sarah try to find him. This was one of the best books I read in 2013, and I recommend it to Anglophiles, historical fiction and Regency romance readers.
Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole
Recuperating from an injury, University of Illinois college student David Graham enjoys reading the poetry of Elspeth Dunn, and writes her a fan letter. This begins a correspondence of several years before and during World War I. Elspeth is married to sullen Iain, her brother Finlay’s best friend, and lives on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Afraid to leave the island, Elspeth leads a somewhat narrow life. She writes poetry, roams around the island, and worries about her husband and brother in World War I, and then about David when he volunteers as an ambulance driver in France. A parallel story is set in Edinburgh and London in 1940, where Elspeth’s daughter Margaret tries to learn about her past after her mother disappears after an air raid, and also worries about her boyfriend Paul, in the war. Told through letters, this double love story reminds me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows, although it’s not quite as memorable. A quick read, with humor, romance, and drama, recommended for fans of historical fiction or family sagas.
The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
Is the universe out to get Alex Woods? Read this book and you could see why Alex wonders about it. At 11, he is struck in the head by a meteorite falling through the roof of his house. When he regains consciousness, he discovers that the blow has led to epileptic seizures, and he stays home for months recovering. He studies on his own, but mainly about the brain and astronomy. When he goes to a new school, there is no hope of fitting in. Of course, his hair won’t grow over the scar. And then there’s the issue of his mother being a witch, running a small occult gift shop, and reading Tarot cards.
So, Alex is bullied. When he runs away from bullies, he gets in trouble and has to make reparations for what they did. This results in spending Saturday mornings with Mr. Peterson, who writes letters for Amnesty International and introduces Alex to the books of Kurt Vonnegut. Later Alex confronts the same bullies and gets in even bigger trouble. He attracts unusual friends, mostly adults. He starts a book club to read Vonnegut. And then, he has to make a choice whether to help Mr. Peterson even though his mother would never allow it. This results in Alex getting stopped at 17 trying to re-enter England with lots of money, a significant amount of marijuana, and while having a partial seizure. It doesn’t look good for Alex. But ultimately, he finds that he has free will, and finds his own path in life. Here’s more about Alex and the author.
Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal
After the volcano on Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted in 1815, the ash spread around the globe, blocking sunlight. England really didn’t have a summer in 1816, although the reason for the cold weather wasn’t widely known. During our pleasantly warm (and occasionally really hot) summer, I enjoy books set in cooler times and places. This is a fantasy novel, but may appeal to readers who are Anglophiles or enjoy witty Regency romances. Jane and her husband, Sir David Vincent, receive a commission to work their magic as glamourists in London, and create a glamural scene in Stratton House. They work with light and color, creating wondrous illusions that are all the rage in London. Jane’s younger sister, Melody, has also come to London, where Jane hopes she will find a suitable husband. There is considerable unrest in London; the prospect of crop failure due to the cold temperatures have caused increased unemployment and persecution of coldmongers, who magically help with refrigeration, but could not be responsible for the weather. The Vincents are surprised to encounter David’s estranged noble family, especially his powerful father. This is the third book about the Vincents, following the award-winning Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass. The Chicago author also narrates audiobooks and is a professional puppeteer.
I look forward to her next book with keen interest. More about the volcanic explosion and its effect on the weather can be found in William Klingaman’s new book, The Year Without Summer : 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History.
The Great Pearl Heist by Molly Caldwell Crosby
A pleasing blend of history and true crime without violence, set in 1913 London. An amazing necklace of matched natural pearls is acquired by jeweler Max Mayer. More valuable than the Hope Diamond, and insured by Lloyds of London, the necklace is closely guarded. Word of the necklace reaches Joseph Grizzard, head of a gang of jewel thieves from London’s East End. With a network of jewelers, jewelry buyers, and informants, Grizzard discovers that the necklace might be shipped by mail from Paris for viewing by prospective buyers. When the necklace is stolen, possibly in France, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Alfred Ward has one main suspect: Joseph Grizzard. No one besides Grizzard could have planned the successful heist. But how could he catch the “uncatchable” Grizzard? And how could Grizzard fence the pearls, as they couldn’t be recut like diamonds? Meanwhile, an agent of Lloyds of London is trying to recover the pearls, and his informants are nervous and undependable. I won’t say more except that a reader might end up rooting for the very civilized and clever Grizzard gang. I would have preferred less background on the characters and more about pearl diving and the necklace itself, but overall this was a fascinating read.
Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes
Lou Clark lives at home in a small English town with her parents, grandfather, sister, and young nephew. She likes her job at a local café, but drifts aimlessly when it closes. Her steady boyfriend Patrick spends his free time training for triathlons. When she is offered a job as companion to Will Traynor, confined to a wheelchair since a recent accident, she reluctantly accepts. Will is unhappy and bitter, but no-nonsense Lou refuses to pity him and plans adventures that might give him a reason to enjoy life again. Will, meanwhile, tries to get Lou to be more adventurous, and plan for her future. A bit of a tearjerker, this bittersweet novel is memorable, unpredictable, controversial, and occasionally funny.
A Spoonful of Sugar: A Nanny’s Story by Brenda Ashford
Does the title have you picturing Julie Andrews, the singing nanny in The Sound of Music? Try listening to the audiobook; the narrator sounds like her. Brenda Ashford, age 92, looks back at her happy childhood, her very long career as a British nanny, and her training at the famed Norland Institute, whose motto is “love never faileth” and which banned spanking. Brenda learned to love babies when her little brother David was born. Not as quick at book learning as her sister Kathleen, who became a midwife, Brenda was thrilled to be admitted to the Norland Institute in 1939. From learning nursery management, cooking, laundry, storytelling, sewing, and working in a hospital’s children’s ward, the teen received a thorough education. Then war disrupted life, with the students taking care of children evacuated from London’s East End and living on a country estate. All of her evaluations are included, along with tidbits of nanny’s wisdom, a daily schedule at each job, and several recipes for “puddings”. Her first several families are described, with the focus on the day and night nurseries and the children. Her heart is broken along the way, she learns to manage an early daycare, called a war nursery, and to care for and cuddle many, many babies. Her work schedule sounds exhausting, with very little time off. Her relief when electric irons become available is evident. Eventually she finds a family to belong to, and later even cares for their grandbabies when she’s 80! A charming read for Anglophiles.