The Gown by Jennifer Robson
Residents of postwar London are still dealing with rationing and a slow recovery. Ann Hughes, an embroiderer for designer Norman Hartnell, is thrilled to be chosen to work on Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown, along with French immigrant Miriam. Decades later in Toronto, Heather seeks to learn more about her grandmother’s past. This is a sure winner with wide appeal, especially for Anglophiles and royal watchers, with appealing characters and a compelling plot. I could not put this book down, and really enjoyed reading about life in 1947 London, and how Miriam and Ann dealt with their challenges.
For lighter reading, I enjoy cozy and historical mysteries, often as audiobooks. Here are some recent reads you may enjoy:
The Christmas Cake Murder, by Joanne Fluke is a prequel to the popular cozy Cookie Jar mystery series set in small town Minnesota. This is a good place to begin the long-running series, before Hannah opens her bakery and acquires a cat and two boyfriends. It’s great fun reading about how Hannah and her family get started as amateur sleuths. Recipes are also included.
Toucan Keep a Secret, by Donna Andrews. Meg Langslow is locking up Trinity Episcopal Church one night while her pastor is on maternity leave and hears a disturbance behind the building. Meg’s large extended family in Caerphilly, Virginia all help solve crimes in this very funny series that’s up to 23 books and counting.
The Darling Dahlias and the Poinsettia Puzzle by Susan Wittig Albert. This historical series is set during the Depression in Alabama, with the members of the local garden club working together to solve crimes. In this book, there are hints of corruption out at the local prison camp, and little Cupcake, Violet’s adopted daughter, might be taken away. Liz Lacey, part-time legal secretary and secret novelist, has a possible beau or two. I think it’s fine to start with any book in this series.
Mrs. Jeffries and the Three Wise Women, by Emily Brightwell is a recent book in another series that doesn’t need to be read in order. The servants and neighbors of Scotland Yard’s Inspector Witherspoon investigate behind the scenes and give their information to housekeeper Mrs. Jeffries and Constable Barnes. The group has solved many mysteries, but their latest case is six weeks old and may interfere with plans for the Christmas holiday.
The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis
Clara Darden is a new art instructor at the Grand Central School of Art in late 1920s New York City, hoping to illustrate covers for Vogue magazine. Clara doesn’t get the same respect as male artists, and the Depression makes it increasingly harder for artists to make a living. In 1974 Virginia Clay, recently divorced mother of college-age daughter Ruby, gets a job at the information booth at the rundown terminal. Virginia discovers the abandoned art school, and a painting similar to one featured in an art auction catalog. While the painting may be valuable, the real masterpiece here is the Grand Central Terminal, which is about to lose its landmark status. Art, architecture, and the lives of the two women connect in a very satisfying way. Readalikes include Georgia by Dawn Tripp and The Art Forger by Barbara Shapiro. This appealing historical novel is sure to be popular with book groups.
City of Ink by Elsa Hart
I read this book while preparing for a book discussion of Jade Dragon Mountain, the first of three historical mysteries featuring exiled librarian Li Du and storyteller Hamza. The second book is The White Mirror. All three stories are set in early 18th century China, with very different settings. With City of Ink, Li Du is working as a secretary in Beijing for Chief Inspector Sun. The city is abuzz with preparations for the imperial examinations, which Li Du passed many years ago. Thousands of students who have passed two earlier levels of exams are trying to study, pick out the best ink and brushes, and preparing for several very intense days of exams which only a few hundred will pass. Li Du and Inspector Sun investigate a double murder at a tile factory, but a quick and tidy solution is preferred by the magistrate rather than an in-depth inquiry. In this gated city, Li Du and Hamza get caught outside their neighborhood after curfew, and have to find lodging for the night. Returning to Water Moon Temple, Li Du discovers that his room has been searched. Tension eases when Li Du travels outside the city to teach calligraphy to the grandchildren of his late mentor Shu, whose name he is still trying to clear. Lady Chen of Jade Dragon Mountain is now living in Beijing, and may have useful information for Hamza and Li Du. If you enjoy intricately plotted mysteries (or historical fiction) with vividly detailed settings, I think you’ll really enjoy this outstanding mystery series.
Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy
As a third generation fan of Anne Shirley, beginning with my Canadian grandmother, it was a real pleasure to read her Aunt Marilla’s story about growing up on Prince Edward Island in the 1830s and 1840s. Fans of Green Gables will enjoy spending more time in Avonlea, getting to know Matthew, Marilla’s brother, as a young farmer, and learning some Canadian history, including the role of the Underground Railroad in eastern Canada. Marilla meets her aunt Izzy, a dressmaker, makes friends with John Blythe and Rachel, and visits an orphanage. Knowing that Marilla never married made it a little sad to read about her one romance, and you never learn why Anne has to wait for her puffed sleeves, but overall a very enjoyable gentle read.
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
Finally, a book set in dual time periods where each story is well worth reading. Both are centered around a house in need of repairs in Vineland, New Jersey. Thatcher Greenwood is a science teacher with a young, materialistic wife and an eccentric neighbor who corresponds with Darwin. Willa and her gorgeous but impractical husband are struggling financially, while simultaneously caring for an elderly parent who swears in Greek and a new grandson. Willa looks for grant money to repair their historic house and learns about the town’s remarkable history. Somewhat preachy ecologically and bittersweet in tone, this is a pageturner in both time periods.
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.