Ward Bennett spent the summer of 1938 working on a dude ranch near Reno, Nevada. The Flying Leap catered to wealthy women who spent six weeks living there, then got a no-fuss divorce in Reno. Handsome cowboys Ward and Sam chauffeured the ladies to and from Reno, served meals, took care of the horses, and guided the ladies on trail rides. Max and Margaret hired the men for their good manners and their looks. When Emily drove cross-country to Reno and Nina flew her plane there, the folks at the Flying Leap know they’re in for an eventful summer. Both amusing and dramatic, this character-focused historical novel was inspired by both of the author’s parents, and is an engaging and memorable read.
Elizabeth Zott, a chemist in the 1950s and early 1960s, struggles against rampant sexism with men who think women can’t be intelligent. At the Hastings Institute in southern California, Elizabeth meets another brilliant chemist, Calvin Evans, who also enjoys rowing. When a female coworker spreads gossip that costs Elizabeth her job, Elizabeth turns her kitchen into a chemistry lab while raising her young daughter with the help of neighbor Harriet and a loyal, intelligent dog until she unexpectedly lands a job in daytime television. Walter Pine, a fellow single parent, hires Elizabeth to host Supper at Six, where she combines cooking and chemistry while also affirming women, and becomes a surprise hit. This engaging debut, the top Library Reads pick for April, will appeal to readers who enjoy strong female characters who overcome major obstacles. Readalikes include Park Avenue Summer by Renee Rosen, The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple.
In the early 1900s, Edwin is exiled by his wealthy British family, and is walking in the woods in western Canada when he hears the music of a violin and what turns out to the the noise of an airship terminal. Set partly on the Moon, this intriguing, challenging, and rewarding novel moves through time and space, exploring the importance of art and connection, and playing around with the nature of reality. Best known for Station Eleven (a current television miniseries and an earlier book group selection) and The Glass Hotel, this book includes character from a couple of her novels. We also meet Olive, a novelist from the Moon who is on a book tour on Earth when a pandemic begins in 2203, and Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in 2401 who is sent back in time for an investigation that includes an airship terminal. Mandel beautifully weaves together the different scenes and themes, without quite resolving all the plotlines. Hard to put down and difficult to describe, likely to be very popular when published in early April.
Perfect armchair travel reading for mystery readers; this is the sequel to Death of an Eye, but can be read on its own. Set in Alexandria, Egypt in 47 BC, Cleopatra is a secondary character. Tetisheri, partner in a trading company with her uncle, is occasionally needed to investigate mysteries for the Queen. The city, including the famous Library, docks, and a gymnasium, are vividly described. The city is in a rebuilding phase and there is plenty of traffic, noise, and occasionally, cement. After the body of a missing scribe is found in the Middle Sea, Tetisheri gets involved, and looks for a connection to rare books going missing from the Library. When a messenger boy helps her escape a dangerous situation, Tetisheri invites the boys and his friends to work for her, while wondering how she’ll get reimbursed. This is a witty, humorous, colorful, and exciting mystery. I look forward to another visit with Tetisheri in Alexandria.
Set in 12th century France and England, this stunning, richly detailed novel was inspired by poet Marie de France and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and later Queen of England. At 17, Marie is living at Eleanor’s court, but is considered unmarriageable due to her great height, lack of beauty, and uncertain parentage. She’s well educated and ran her mother’s estate for two years. Eleanor sends Marie off to England to be prioress at a rundown, impoverished abbey, with twenty nuns. After reluctantly settling in, Marie rides her warhorse to evict a family who refuse to pay rent, installing a family who can supply the abbey with much needed food. When poetry sent to Eleanor doesn’t have the desired result, Marie helps improve the abbey and its lands, with sheep, a scriptorium, and even a labyrinth. Visions of Mary often guide her to new and bigger projects. Later, as Abbess, Marie makes enemies but has plans to make her island of women safe, secure, and often pleasurable. Readers will be swept up in the tales of abbey life and the bold ideas Marie introduces. To read more about strong women in religious life in the Middle Ages, try The Joys in My Life by Alys Clare, Hild by Nicola Griffth, or the delightful Sister Frevisse mysteries by Margaret Frazer, including The Bastard’s Tale. Two of many novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine are The Secret Eleanor by Cecelia Holland and Captive Queen by Alison Weir.
In 1942, the Ito family are forced to evacuate from southern California to the Manzanar Internment Camp. In 1943, older daughter Rose is relocated to Chicago. When Aki, 20, and her parents arrive in Chicago in 1944, they learn that Rose has just died. As they grieve for Rose, settle into a tiny apartment, then look for work, Aki is obsessed with learning about Rose’s life in the city. She meets with her former roommates and a friend from California, and reads Rose’s diary. Aki is welcomed by the Japanese American community in Chicago, fortunately finding work at the Newberry Library, and makes a few friends, including Art, who has a welcoming family. But her quest to find the truth behind Rose’s death is dangerous. Life for Japanese Americans in Chicago during World War II is well-researched and richly detailed. Aki is an appealing young sleuth, and I’d enjoy reading more about Aki and her family. Suggested for historical fiction and mystery readers. Readalikes include other mysteries by Hirahara including Grave on Grand Avenue, Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas, Daughter of Moloka’i by Alan Brennert, and When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka.
Kate Rees was raised on an Oregon cattle ranch, and became a crack shot with a rifle. In 1940, she’s testing rifles in a munitions factory in Scotland’s Orkney Islands when she’s recruited for a special mission in Paris, where she studied on scholarship at the Sorbonne. Mourning her husband, Kate agrees, and almost kills Hitler during his three hour tour in Paris. Why she is sent to Paris, after a very brief training that includes tips for quick disguises, and why she fails are just the background for what comes next. Kate wasn’t the only operative parachuting into France that June, and she makes contact with allies, an injured fellow spy, her former tutor at the Sorbonne, and the intriguing Philippe. While Kate is on the run in a beautifully described Paris, Nazi detective Gunter Hoffman is searching for a sniper, and MI6 handler Stepney is scrambling for options to salvage his operations in France. Readalikes include Munich by Robert Harris, Dragonfly by Leila Meacham, Basil’s War by Stephen Hunter, Under Occupation by Alan Furst, and the mid-20th century spy novels by Helen MacInnes. This stunning and suspenseful historical thriller is almost impossible to put down, and great escapist reading.
In the summer of 1954, Emmett Watson is heading home from a stint at a juvenile work farm to a failing Nebraska farm to collect his younger brother Billy and retrace their mother’s earlier journey on the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco. Emmett has a blue Studebaker in the barn, along with some money his father left him. Billy has his Army surplus knapsack, along with some treasures including a book of heroic stories by Professor Abernathe. Their plan is disrupted by Duchess and Woolly, stowaways and escapees from the work farm. Duchess wants to get revenge for some past wrongs, and pay back some other debts, including smuggling strawberry preserves into an orphanage. Nothing goes smoothly for Emmett over the 10 days that follow, as Duchess and Woolly plan to head to New York City and the Adirondacks to retrieve a fortune that should be Woolly’s. Woolly is sweet, irresponsible, and prone to sipping from a medicine bottle. Emmett and Billy end up riding the rails, meet Ulysses, a black veteran longing for his missing wife and child, and have many detours along the way. While this isn’t the mid-century road trip and family reunion readers might be expecting, this is an absorbing and entertaining read with some rather dark moments. A memorable third novel from a master storyteller.
Phyllida Bright, who was a nurse’s aide in the Great War, is the housekeeper for mystery writer Agatha Christie and her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, at their country house in Devon in 1930. When an univited guest is found dead the next morning by Mrs. Bright and another death soon follows, the housekeeper, a fan of the fictional Hercule Poirot, investigates. Phyllida occasionally brings Agatha a cup of tea and an update on the investigation; readers will be happy to know the writer seems much happier than in The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict. While there are rather a lot of staff and guests to easily tell apart, the setting is well-drawn and appealing, and I look forward to the planned sequels. Readalikes include A Devious Death by Alyssa Maxwell and Murder in an English Village by Jessica Ellicott.
The Pulitzer Prize winning author of All The Light We Cannot See has written another masterpiece. Set in an astonishing variety of settings and time periods, with a story within the larger story to keep the reader enchanted. In a modern day public library in Idaho, Zeno, a Korean War veteran, is helping several children produce a play he translated from the Greek. Young seamstress Anna and Omeir and his oxen are caught up in a siege of Constantinople in 1453. In the future, teenager Konstance is living on a spaceship bound for planet Beta Oph2. Doerr excels at storytelling, plot, and characters, although this is not a happy, upbeat story. Somehow, the storylines converge with the theme of the importance of story to inspire, cheer, and remember. Readalike authors include Elsa Hart, David Mitchell, Natasha Pulley, and Neal Stephenson.