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.
How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
Tom Hazard only travels through time in his memories, but they are vivid and go back to Elizabethan England. A member of the Albatross Society, Tom ages very, very slowly. As he has to move and reinvent his life every eight years to keep his condition a secret, he isn’t supposed to fall in love. Back in London as a history teacher, Tom has only to look out the window to see places from his own history, where his true love Rose was a fruit seller, and where he played the lute at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. French teacher Camille thinks Tom looks familiar and may tempt him into a relationship, but Hendrich, the head of the society, sends Tom on a quick trip to Australia to recruit surfer Omai, who Tom first met while sailing the Pacific with Captain Cook. Enthralling yet bittersweet, full of history and adventure, a sure bet for readers of historical fiction or time travel. This novel is a February Library Reads pick.
Munich by Robert Harris
A gripping spy thriller about the Munich conference in September 1938 that averted war for a while. After taking over Austria, Germany wanted Sudetenland, an ethnically German section of Czechoslovakia. British Prime Minister Chamberlain flew to Munich with some of his staff and advisers to meet with Hitler, Mussolini, and French Prime Minister Daladier. Apparently, the British and French military weren’t yet ready for war, and Chamberlain was trying to prevent or at least delay England’s entry into war. Over the course of four very tense days, two junior staffers who met at Oxford try to exchange secret documents that could affect the conference’s outcome. Hugh Legat, one of Chamberlain’s secretaries, is the only German speaker of the British delegation, but is mostly stuck at the delegation’s hotel. Hugh is at the beginning of his career, and money is tight. By disobeying orders, he risks his career. In Berlin, his former classmate Paul van Hartmann is caught up in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, but his main role is to get to Munich with Hitler’s entourage, and transfer the documents to Chamberlain via Legat. Hartmann is under suspicion from the very beginning, and his life is in jeopardy. It’s fascinating to get glimpses of Hitler and Chamberlain, with their very different motivations and personalities, through the eyes of Legat and Hartmann. Hard to put down, although not as outstanding as his earlier novels Pompeii and Conclave.