Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce
Emmy Lake, with her fiancé Edmund overseas, wants to do her bit for the war effort. Volunteering at a fire brigade station answering phones helps, but she’d really like to be a journalist, maybe even a war correspondent. But instead of landing a job at a London newspaper, Emmy’s hired as a typist for Henrietta Bird, advice columnist for a women’s magazine. Mrs. Bird won’t tolerate any unpleasantness, and most of the letters are to be shredded. Secretly, Emmy sends advice to some of the women, signing her name as Mrs. Bird, which upsets her friend and roommate Bunty. Emmy is worried that Bunty’s boyfriend Bill is taking unnecessary risks as a firefighter, and then gets an unexpected telegram from her fiancé. Emmy wonders who is supporting the women on the home front, who are expected to send cheerful letters to men in uniform, but are struggling themselves. Life in wartime London in 1940 is vividly described, as Emmy is encouraged to find out what she can do best. I raced through this terrific first novel, which made me laugh, cry, and want to cheer on Emmy and Bunty. This Library Reads pick is a good readalike for The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister
Widow Kate Warne becomes the first female Pinkerton agent in 1856 Chicago. Learning to pick locks, do surveillance, shoot a pistol, and to assume many disguises, Kate keeps having to prove herself in a man’s world. Kate helps prevent an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln, and frequently works undercover in Southern cities. I enjoyed reading about Kate’s interactions with the other Pinkerton agents, and with her landlady. This is a very suspenseful, compelling read, based on historical events, with complex, relatable characters. A good readalike for Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits With Gun, but with less family drama, this historical novel should be popular with book discussion groups.
The Woman in the Water by Charles Finch
The latest book featuring Victorian gentleman sleuth Charles Lenox is a prequel, and a good place to start reading this excellent mystery series. Only 23, Charles is out of college and wants to be a detective, but isn’t taken seriously by his friends or Scotland Yard. Charles and his valet Graham keep a file of crime stories they clip from London papers. Reading an announcement bragging about a perfect crime, the pair get to work. A very clever mystery and some fine detecting set up an exciting chase to find a murderer. On the personal front, Charles is hopelessly in love and his father has a health crisis, which somehow doesn’t prevent horseback rides in the country or a quick trip abroad with Charles. Charles, Graham and their London of 1850 are very agreeable company. Recommended for Anglophiles and readers of historical mysteries. A Beautiful Blue Death is the first book in the series.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Readers will be swept up in this Korean family saga set in Busan, Korea and Osaka, Japan from the 1910s through the 1980s. Four generations struggle with supporting their family and keeping their ethnic identity as Koreans. Sunja grows up in a small boardinghouse catering to fishermen in a Korea occupied by Japan. Her father Hoonie dies when she is 13, so Sunja and her mother YanJin work hard. When Sunja gets pregnant, she learns that businessman Hansu is already married. Isak, a young pastor, ill with tuberculosis, is nursed back to health by YanJin in their boardinghouse, and agrees to marry Sunja. They move to Osaka and live with his brother Yoseb and Yoseb’s wife Kyunghee. Times are hard, Isak is imprisoned for a while, and Sunja and Kyunghee help support the family by selling kimchi and candy. Sunja and her sons Noa and Mozasu are occasionally helped by Hansu, alienating Noa when he learns learns the truth. Later the family does well financially, with Mozasu running several pachinko parlors and sending his son Solomon to university in the United States. Faith and family, love, luck, and loss are the themes running through the decades of this moving, character-driven novel.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan
Full of drama and suspense, this novel tells the story of Italian teen Pino Lella and his experiences in northern Italy during World War II. When bombs start to fall on Milan, Pino and his father camp in the hills at night, but soon he is sent to the mountain camp of Father Re, where Pino learns to hike the mountaintop trails, then leads Jewish refugees across the Alps to safety in Switzerland. At 18, he must enlist in the military, and his father thinks he’ll be safer in the German Organisation Todt. Having learned to drive in the mountains with a future racecar driver, Pino becomes the personal driver to Nazi General Leyes. Reporting to his uncle at his store in Milan, Pino is also a spy known only as Observer. Pino soon falls in love with Anna, the maid to Leyes’ mistress Dolly. Leyes confuses Pino, taking food and blankets from the Italians for his troops, but also saving some Jews from being sent to work camps. Beneath the Scarlet Sky is fiction, but is based on the amazing true story of Pino Lella, and is being made into a movie. An epic story full of thrills and heartbreak; suggested for readers of real life adventure stories or World War II fiction.
To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear
In 1940, London psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs and her assistant, Billy Beale, are asked to look for Joe Coombes, a young painter’s apprentice. His parents, Phil and Sally Coombes, own a local pub and are worried they haven’t heard from Joe, who had been complaining of frequent headaches. Maisie and Billy learn that Joe had been applying fire-retardant paint at aerodromes, and wanted to apprentice to a sheep farmer in Hampshire. Billy notices that the Coombes seem to be unusually well off.
Maisie finds a weekly respite at her country home in Kent, visiting with her extended family, including young evacuee Anna, who has the measles. The British Expeditionary Force in France is in retreat, and Maisie’s godson Tim runs off to help with the evacuation at Dunkirk.
I learned that the World War II experiences of the author’s family inspired this story, especially her father’s work as a young painter’s apprentice. This compelling mystery with engaging characters and strong sense of place would be a good place to start reading this series, especially readers who enjoy historical fiction, British mysteries, or strong female protagonists. I especially enjoyed this book because Maisie and her family are happier than in recent books. This book will be published on March 27.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
As a girl, Anna Kerrigan visits Manhattan Beach with her father Eddie, and meets Dexter Styles, who has ties to the Syndicate. The sea calls to the three of them, and to Anna’s sister Lydia. Years later, Eddie is missing, Dexter owns a nightclub, and Anna has a tedious job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Anna competes to be a diver at the Navy Yard, and pursues Dexter for answers about her father. We learn about Eddie’s adventures at sea, and the secrets the characters all have. While there are tender family scenes, the focus is on work, and on coworkers and crewmates. Anna takes risks and craves adventure, wanting to contribute to the war effort, reinventing herself more than once. Plenty of danger and intrigue add to the intensifying pace, leading to a surprisingly satisfying conclusion, with complex, memorable characters. Widely acclaimed, it’s a pleasure to read a book that lives up to high expectations. The first historical novel from award-winning novelist Egan, this is sure to be popular with book discussion groups.