Cozy Mysteries in Maine

The Mainely Needlepoint Mysteries     Lea Wait    (2015-present)

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I’ve recently dipped into this popular American cozy mystery series. In the initial book, Twisted Threads, we learn that the first-person narrator, Angie Curtis, was raised in Maine by her grandmother (“Gram”) after the disappearance of Angie’s mother. When the mother’s body is found after 17 years, 27-year-old Angie heads back to Maine from Arizona, where she’s been working as an assistant to a private detective. Angie’s skills come in handy with the investigation into her mother’s death and other mysteries in the small Maine tourist town of Haven Harbor. After these are solved, Angie agrees to stay on for six months to help Gram run her home-based business, Mainely Needlepoint, which produces high-end custom pillows, chair covers, and wall hangings.

Of course, in subsequent books in the series, other crimes in Haven Harbor bubble to the surface for Angie to tackle. She finds herself pretty happy to be back in Maine with her delightful Gram, the eccentric cast of needle crafters who work for Mainely Needlepoint, and potential romantic partners.

The dialogue in these novels is realistic, and the plots move quickly, resolving in the final few pages, though I did detect signs of haste in the writing. The setting on the coast of Maine comes to life with descriptions of ocean views and luscious seafood. I guessed some of the perpetrators of crimes early on, but I liked learning more about Angie as she weighs whether to stay on in her native Maine or return to the sunny Southwest.

You can read the books in any order, but chronologically works best. The series titles are

Twisted Threads (2015)

Threads of Evidence (2015)

Thread and Gone (2015)

Dangling by a Thread (2016)

Tightening the Threads (2017)

Thread the Halls (2017)

Thread Herrings (2018)

Thread on Arrival (2019)

For other cozy mysteries, see my reviews of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels (also here).

Graham Norton’s Holding is another great cozy, reviewed here.

1947 in the US and the UK: 2 Novels

By chance, I picked up from my library two historical novels set in the same year, 1947. In the immediate aftermath of the devastation of World War II, ordinary people on both sides of the Atlantic are trying to get on with their lives. 

The Stars Are Fire     Anita Shreve     (2017)

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In 1947 coastal Maine, an extreme drought contributed to October wildfires that devastated nine small towns and left 2500 people homeless. Into this historical setting, Anita Shreve places a fictional young wife and mother, Grace Holland. Grace’s husband, Gene, joins a group of volunteers trying to fight the fires. Meanwhile, Grace is left to save herself, her infant, and her toddler by crouching with them for hours in shallow water at the ocean’s edge. As much of an ordeal as this is, Grace’s life after the fire poses even more challenges, since she finds herself without a house or any means of support. Kindly friends in a neighboring town take in Grace and her children, while she finds reserves of courage that she didn’t know she had.

There’s some melodrama in this novel, especially in several farfetched plot coincidences. And I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of full development of the character of Gene Holland. The Holland marriage, as it’s depicted in the months before the fires, is not a happy one, and Gene seems to suffer from depression. Shreve mentions that he served in World War II, so maybe he suffers from PTSD (“battle fatigue” in WWII parlance), but this aspect of his personality isn’t explored, so Gene serves primarily as a foil to Grace.  

On balance, however, the positives in this novel outweighed the negatives for me. A strong female lead character makes bold life choices in the face of terrible circumstances, and she’s surrounded by other distinctive female characters. The post-WWII American household is evoked well, right down to the wringer washers.  

The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding     Jennifer Robson     (2019)

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In 1947 London, the severe rationing of the war years is still in effect, and many Londoners are mourning the loss of loved ones, both on the battlefields and in the Blitz. Then the wonderful, cheering announcement comes: Princess Elizabeth (whom we know now as Queen Elizabeth II) is engaged to marry Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten (now Prince Philip). The fashion house of Norman Hartnell is commissioned to make the princess’s wedding gown, which is to be embellished with elaborate appliques and thousands of tiny jewels. These are the historical facts around which novelist Jennifer Robson imagines the lives of two of the working-class women employed as embroiderers by Hartnell—Englishwoman Ann Hughes and a French immigrant who survived Nazi persecution, Miriam Dassin.  

The tale of Ann and Miriam is enlivened by interspersed chapters from the 2016 life of the granddaughter of Ann Hughes, Heather Mackenzie, who lives in Toronto, Canada. Heather inherits from her grandmother a box of exquisite embroideries and an old photo of Ann and Miriam. Researching images that she finds online, Heather discovers that the fabrics look very much like the 1947 wedding gown of Princess Elizabeth, and she travels to London to get some answers. Why did Ann never speak about her stitching on this famous gown? Why did she emigrate to Canada? Who were Ann’s co-workers? What was it like to live in grim post-war London and yet spend your working days sewing fabulous materials for the British royal family? Heather unravels these mysteries from her present-day information, while readers gradually learn the facts from 1947.  

You do not have to know anything about embroidery (I certainly don’t) to appreciate the artistry being described by Robson. I kept turning back to the cover of the book, with its photo from the 1947 wedding of Elizabeth and Philip, to visualize that gown. And with Robson’s help I could easily picture Ann sitting by the wireless, eating gristly meat scraps, her slippers having been warmed in the oven because there was no coal for a fire on a bitter winter night. There’s romance in The Gown, and there’s exploitation, revenge, friendship, despair, and triumph.    

PS—For another novel set right after World War II, try The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck, reviewed here.  

Novels about Paintings, Part 1

A Piece of the World     Christina Baker Kline     (2017)

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Novels that prominently feature a painting (fictional or real) are not a new idea. In 1891, Oscar Wilde published The Picture of Dorian Gray, a horror story about a portrait that ages while the subject of the portrait remains youthful—but gets nastier. More recently, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring takes a different tack. In her 1999 novel, Chevalier imagines a life story from the actual portrait of an anonymous young woman. In this case, the art work, by the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, is real, hanging in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. The fictional story by Chevalier evokes the period of the painting’s creation beautifully. (See the Vermeer portrait here.)

Christina Baker Kline’s A Piece of the World has an approach similar to that of Chevalier. Baker Kline conjures up a fictional memoir by the subject of Christina’s World, a 1948 painting by the American artist Andrew Wyeth that hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In this case, some facts about the actual subject, Christina Olson, are known. Olson really was descended from one of the judges at the Salem Witch Trials of the late seventeenth century. She was born in 1893 and lived on a farm near Cushing, Maine, suffering all her life from a disability that affected her ability to move her limbs. In 1939, she became friends with Andrew Wyeth, who summered in Maine and frequently painted her, her brother, and scenes from their farm. As Olson grew older, she became more disabled and moved from place to place by crawling. In his painting Christina’s World, Wyeth places Olson on the ground, with her back to the viewer, clawing the soil as she twists to look at her farmhouse, which is up a hill from her. (See the Wyeth painting here.)

Beyond the historical facts, Baker Kline weaves a fictional life, narrated by a fictional Christina Olson but quite believable. (The only parts of the narrative that I found somewhat strained were the dialogues between Wyeth and Olson.) Baker Kline invents a full life for Olson, from her birth until the unveiling of Wyeth’s expressive painting of her. The onus of disability for those in rural areas and without access to current medical treatments is clear. (For another novel about disability, see my review here.)

Christina Olson and her family live a life of austerity, particularly during the Great Depression, without electricity or running water in their house. Their daily existence is like that of a pioneer family in the nineteenth century. Baker Kline describes their chores in detail:  the stoking of the wood burning stove, the lighting of the kerosene lamps, the hand harvesting of the blueberries. These activities, and the grim farmhouse, attracted the eye of Wyeth, who painted a vanishing way of life with its surrounding stark landscapes. It strikes me that A Piece of the World has many characteristics of a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel, albeit set in Maine and written for adults.

As I was reading A Piece of the World, I turned frequently to the reproduction of the painting Christina’s World bound into the back of the book. This tender novel about a woman’s simple life complements Wyeth’s haunting work of art.