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Set amid the glitz and glimmer of showbiz, these historical mysteries expose the corruption and abuse that exists after the shine of spotlights go out. But even more than that, they examine critical periods during which women's roles were shifting as they demanded more freedoms.

As a teenager, Willowjean "Will" Parker literally ran away to join the circus. Stephen Spotswood's Murder Under Her Skin (the sequel to 2020's Fortune Favors the Dead) finds her as an adult in 1946 New York City, working at a detective agency with her mentor, the brilliant Lillian Pentecost. Fresh off an arson investigation, Will gets a telegram that her friend Ruby Donner, the tattooed lady of Hart and Halloway's Travelling Circus, has been murdered and that another performer, Valentin Kalishenko, has been arrested for the crime. Will believes Valentin is innocent, and she and her boss set off for small-town Virginia to meet up with the circus and clear Valentin's name.

Hart and Halloway's Travelling Circus allowed Will to escape her abusive father and safely explore her sexuality as a lesbian. Now that she's returning as an outsider, some of that closeness is gone and, in a melancholy but emotionally realistic twist, Will finds herself trapped between two worlds: She's no longer completely trusted by her former peers, and she's still working to gain the approval of her intrepid boss. 

As they work the case, Will and Lillian find the world in flux around them, which Spotswood ably explores without distracting from the central mystery. In the wake of World War II, U.S. veterans are dealing with displacement and PTSD, women are being shunted into more restrictive roles now that GIs have returned, and movie theaters are filling up while circus arenas are emptying. None of the characters in this mystery quite know how to cope with these seismic cultural changes, setting Murder Under Her Skin apart from more simplistic stories set in the same time period. Despite the cultural angst swirling around them, Will and Lillian focus on finding justice for Ruby, a woman many of their contemporaries don't consider respectable or worthy of their compassion.

Elly Griffiths jumps ahead a few decades (and across the pond) in her snappy new Brighton mystery, The Midnight Hour. It's 1965, and when theatre impresario Bert Billingham is murdered with rat poison, his wife, actress Verity Malone, is a natural suspect. Worried that the police will look no further than her, Verity hires PIs Emma Holmes and Sam Collins to clear her name. Among their suspects is magician-turned-actor Max Mephisto, who is filming a remake of Dracula along with Billingham's son and is rumored to have had a fling with Verity.

Much like Murder Under Her Skin, this mystery focuses on a tightknit group of performers. Many of the actors, directors and costume designers in Billingham's orbit worked together during the war, and everyone seems to have a story illustrating Billingham's nastiness, giving Emma and Sam no shortage of suspects. 

As they navigate the complex showbiz web around Billingham and his family, Emma and Sam team up with 20-year-old rookie police constable Meg Connolly, which allows Griffiths to explore the experiences of three women at very different stages in life. The growing feminist movement has created more opportunities for women like Meg, but her male-dominated workplace still treats female sleuths as novelties. While Meg is just starting out, Emma struggles to balance her career with being a wife and mother, and she is frustrated that her detective work is treated like a hobby rather than a profession. Sam, meanwhile, worries that her own romantic interest in Max Mephisto could be clouding her judgment.

The sixth book in a series, The Midnight Hour is also full of secondary characters who have appeared in previous Brighton mysteries, so readers may want to start at the beginning before taking a stab at this one. But those who are already fans of the Brighton mysteries will be well satisfied with this installment, which tracks the evolution of Emma and Sam's characters and careers without sacrificing one bit of Griffiths' wit and charm.

Beyond being tantalizing whodunits, both Murder Under Her Skin and The Midnight Hour feature dynamic, complicated female characters who unapologetically stand up to and outshine their male contemporaries.

Set amid the glitz and glimmer of showbiz, these historical mysteries examine two critical periods during which women demanded more freedoms.

If you've been feeling down, take heart. Environmental icon Jane Goodall remains hopeful, so surely we readers can, too. Her wisdom, along with four additional books, fills this season with inspiration and empowerment.

★ The Book of Hope

Jane Goodall may well be Earth's ultimate cheerleader. In The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times, she professes steadfast hope for both humanity and our planet that's rooted in "action and engagement," not simply wishful thinking. In straightforward, easy-to-digest prose, she writes that each one of us can make a difference, and that "the cumulative effect of thousands of ethical actions can help to save and improve our world for future generations." 

The book is framed as a series of conversations between Goodall and Douglas Abrams, a truly engaging thinker and writer who took a similar approach in the first title in the Global Icons series, The Book of Joy, in which he facilitated conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Readers will be drawn into The Book of Hope as Abrams arrives at Goodall's home in Tanzania for dinner, bearing a bottle of whiskey. Their subsequent chats span the globe; they talk at the Jane Goodall Institute in the Netherlands, and eventually, because of COVID-19 restrictions, they connect via Zoom as Goodall gives Abrams a virtual tour of her childhood home in Bournemouth, England. 

Their discussions are focused yet wide-ranging as Goodall explains the four main sources of her hope: "the amazing human intellect, the resilience of nature, the power of youth, and the indomitable human spirit." She admits that she briefly lost her way after her husband Derek Bryceson died in 1980, saying, "Grief can make one feel hopeless." Abrams and Goodall's talks deepen after he unexpectedly loses his father to lymphoma and, later, his college roommate to suicide. "We are going through dark times," Goodall says early in the book. For this reason and many more, The Book of Hope is a gem of a gift.

The Lightmaker's Manifesto

If you're yearning to become a true change-maker, then turn to Karen Walrond's extremely helpful The Lightmaker's Manifesto: How to Work for Change Without Losing Your Joy for a profound nudge. Walrond definitely walks the walk, having ditched her career as a lawyer to become an activism coach. As an Afro-Caribbean American immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago, she says, "my work is underpinned by an ongoing desire to fight discrimination and foster interconnectedness through the sharing of stories and images of beauty."

After a colleague tried to pressure Walrond to break the law, she found herself at a crisis point in her career and spent months trying to figure out what to do next. She proceeded in a structured, analytical way—a process that she shares in narrative form, as well as in a "Lightmaker's Manual" section of prompts and exercises to help readers make their own decisions. She confesses early on, "In my not-so-distant past, I had come up with a pretty extensive list of reasons why an activist life wasn't for me." But when she realized that she loved to speak, write and take photos, she searched for a way to put all these talents to work.

She bookends her account by discussing the beginning and end of a trip to Kenya sponsored by the ONE Campaign to fight poverty and preventable disease, describing the joyful rewards of her new career. "We can do this, my friends," she says in her encouraging and authentic way. "There's no end to the light that we can make."

★ The Matter of Black Lives

The Matter of Black Lives: Writing From The New Yorker, co-edited by New Yorker editor David Remnick and staff writer Jelani Cobb, is a standout among recent books about race, notable for its historical perspective and breadth as well as for the excellent writing of its many renowned contributors. The first entry, for example, James Baldwin's 1962 "Letter From a Region in My Mind," marked a turning point for The New Yorker's coverage of racial matters. It is a riveting, astounding essay, describing in a highly personal way Baldwin's meeting with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. In a foreword, Cobb notes, "Baldwin's essay was, for many readers, a jolt, a concussive experience. . . . As an indictment of American bigotry and hypocrisy, tackling themes of violence, sex, history, and religion, the piece continues to resonate more than a half century later." 

The same can be said of so many of these essays. Journalist Calvin Trillin shares a fascinating 1964 account of a white man questioning Martin Luther King Jr.'s Christianity during a flight between Atlanta, Georgia, and Jackson, Mississippi. Some essays are simply pure pleasure, such as Andrea Lee's 1983 piece "Quilts," about her trip to see family in Ahoskie, North Carolina, and her desire to buy a handmade quilt. 

The Matter of Black Lives is a treasure chest of essays guaranteed to provoke, dismay, delight and inspire. 

Chicken Soup for the Soul: I'm Speaking Now

Sometimes it can be equally enlightening to read the words of the not-so-famous, like congressional staffer Jasmine J. Wyatt, who had a stark realization after an oral surgeon informed her that she had fractured her jaw after years of grinding her teeth. Wyatt mused that she had "morphed into a Black wallflower, gritting my teeth to keep from saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time. A silencing of myself over and over, until I thought I had nothing valuable left to say." Thankfully, those days of silencing have lost their power over Wyatt and many others, as evidenced by Chicken Soup for the Soul: I'm Speaking Now: Black Women Share Their Truth in 101 Stories of Love, Courage and Hope, which is filled with short but commanding essays written by a variety of Black women sharing their personal experiences. 

These essays—and a few poems—are grouped into categories such as "Family & Food for the Soul" and "Identity and Roots," and each piece begins with a quotation from a well-known figure, including Michelle Obama, Misty Copeland and Audre Lorde. Some offerings are nuggets of love, such as journalist Rebekah Sager's tribute to her father, who raised her single-handedly, his actions lighting the way for Sager to raise her son "with dignity, vision, empathy and grace." Other pieces feature insightful yet amusing journeys of self-discovery, like Rachel Decoste's account of moving to Dakar, Senegal, and on her first day there, suddenly belting out a song from The Lion King. "I was mad at myself for starting my journey to the Motherland with a Disney soundtrack. . . . How colonized was my mind that this was the first tune that came to my spirit?" 

The many voices featured in I'm Speaking Now rise up like a powerful choir, offering melodies that will stay with you. 

Shedding the Shackles

British textile artist Lynne Stein admits that when she plans vacations, instead of craving beaches or cuisine, she seeks out local craft traditions, hoping to get a firsthand look at Yoruba tribal beadwork or Middle Eastern metalwork. She eventually decided to investigate the narratives surrounding the craftwork of female artists in Indigenous and marginalized communities, and the result is Shedding the Shackles: Women's Empowerment Through Craft, an around-the-world-tour that showcases a variety of talent, traditions and history and provides an enlightening look at the transformative powers of female creativity.

The book begins with short entries focusing on individual artists and specific craft techniques, such as the increasingly popular Boro and Sashiko forms of Japanese stitching. There's a profile of English artist Lauren O'Farrell, who coined the term "yarnstorming," a type of knitted street art that has become wonderfully widespread. Readers also learn about arpilleristas, Chilean women who create three-dimensional appliqued textiles to document their lives as well as to shed light on human rights abuses and violence, especially during the regime of Augusto Pinochet. Vibrant photographs accompany each entry, focusing on both the artists and their exquisite craftsmanship. 

Stein includes longer discussions of female enterprises that are not only art but also a means of survival, such as Monkeybiz South Africa, founded in 2000 to empower underprivileged women as bead artists. Their funky 3D creations quickly became a worldwide hit and have been included in numerous international exhibitions. 

After perusing these pages, readers may adjust their own vacation plans to allow time for learning about and appreciating local art traditions.

Four books guide readers in building a better world, with wisdom from Jane Goodall, activist Karen Walrond and many more.

Spanning 30 years, Mantel Pieces: Royal Bodies and Other Writing From the London Review of Books delivers a wonderful sampling of Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel's nonfiction work, which includes essays, reviews and autobiographical writings. In these erudite yet accessible pieces, Mantel tackles a variety of topics, from Anne Boleyn's sister-in-law and other figures of Tudor history, to pop singer Madonna, to England's current royal family. Mantel's commanding intelligence and inimitable style are on full display throughout. Her examinations of history, female identity and popular culture make this collection an excellent book club pick.

Zadie Smith reflects on an unprecedented time in America in Intimations, a collection of six essays focusing on the year 2020. Despite its brevity, this powerful book gives book clubs plenty to talk about. In sharply observed, compassionate prose, Smith examines politics, the murder of George Floyd and its repercussions, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and life under lockdown. Themes of isolation, social justice, family and the writing process will provide points of connection for all types of readers as Smith draws on personal experience to create essays that are moving and resonant.

In The End of the End of the Earth, Jonathan Franzen explores environmental concerns and reflects on writers past and present. Franzen, who is a passionate birder, visits locales across the globe to indulge his passion, and his travels supply wonderful material for some of the book's central pieces. There are also essays on authors Edith Wharton and William T. Vollmann, which offer new perspectives on both authors. Written with humility, humor and visionary insight, Franzen's wide-ranging collection is certain to generate rewarding dialogue among book club members.

The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations brings together key nonfiction writings by Toni Morrison (1931–2019). Covering four decades, the volume collects more than 40 pieces including Morrison's eulogy for James Baldwin, her Nobel Prize lecture on the importance of language, commencement speeches and works of political analysis and literary criticism. Morrison's impassioned views on race, feminism and American society ensure that this book will stand the test of time. Reading groups will find no shortage of rich discussion material here.

Four beloved authors turn to the essay form in these incisive collections.

New Native Kitchen

Perfect gift for: Your foodie spouse who loves gardening and open-fire grilling

In New Native Kitchen, Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie, previously of the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, celebrates the cuisines of Indigenous cultures while respecting and revering "hyperlocal" regional distinctions in these foodways and traditions. Bitsoie, who came to cooking via cultural anthropology and art history, aims to tell "edible stories that allow people to appreciate the living artifact of food." Here, with the help of James Beard Award-winning author James O. Fraioli, Bitsoie introduces readers to key elements of the Native pantry, such as nopales (cactus paddles), Navajo steam corn, sumac powder and tepary beans, many of which can be ordered online or found at specialty spice shops. From a sumac Navajo leg of lamb with onion sauce, to a Makah crab boil, to Choctaw bison chili, Bitsoie covers the vast North American continent and its islands in this important book.

Wild Sweetness

Perfect gift for: Your boho friend with a shortbread obsession

With full-page photographs of winter branches, gently wilting roses and foggy ponds, Thalia Ho's Wild Sweetness is as much a moody evocation of nature's evanescence as it is a sumptuous celebration of dessert. Grouped by season, the recipes range from comfy American standards like cinnamon buns and gingersnaps to frangipane tart and a fig clove fregolotta. All possess a delicate quality and some flower, spice or other ingredient redolent of the natural world. Cream seems a visual motif, showing up, for example, in a juniper ice cream, a frosted chamomile tea cake, a lemon curd streusel cake and amaretti. But deep, dark chocolate is at play too—in ganache thumbprints, drunken fig brownies and a beetroot mud cake, among others sheer delights.

À Table

Perfect gift for: The hip newlyweds next door with the adorable dog

Is anything sexier than a good French cookbook? Rebekah Peppler's À Table reveals and revels in the charms of long, casual French dinners with friends, and Peppler leads with blithe wit as she shares a modern take on entertaining. (She won me over instantly with the words "Hemingway was a supreme ass" in a recipe for Chambéry cassis, an aperitif.) Women are at the center of Peppler's vision, one in which we dispense with yesteryear's formalities in favor of long, carefree nights of smart conversation, mismatched plates and zero pretension. Ouais, cherie. On to olives with saucisson and roast chicken with prunes! On to daube de boeuf and (vegan!) French onion soup with cognac! You'll love the mellow-but-decadent vibe, even if you feel un petit peu jalouse of Peppler's Parisian coterie.

Black Food

Perfect gift for: Cultural mavens, globetrotters and aesthetes

Chef and Vegetable Kingdom author Bryant Terry assembles a large all-star team for his glorious new Black Food, "a communal shrine to the shared culinary histories of the African diaspora." I love this trend of cookbooks that are so openly ambitious, with essays and poetry, visual art and historical context, all of it standing strong alongside the food. Structured by themes such as motherland; Black women, food and power; and Black, queer, food—each with a corresponding playlist—this vibrant, immersive book pulls from many foodways and regions of the globe, with Black chefs, intellectuals and tastemakers leading the way. We encounter dishes as diverse as Somali lamb stew, Bajan fish cakes, Ghanaian crepe cake, vegan black-eyed pea beignets and, at last, for the perfect finish, Edna Lewis' fresh peach cobbler. Terry also shares a recipe for Pili Pili oil, which adds an herbaceous, spicy kick to anything you drizzle it over.

Tables & Spreads

Perfect gift for: Your sister-in-law who loves to host and is always leveling up

I am not a big entertainer, but I love a good snack-meal. And there's something delightful about artfully arranging a table full of nibbles for guests: curious cheeses, spiced nuts, tangy jams, decadent dips and a handful of rosemary sprigs plucked from the garden. Whether this sounds fun, anxiety-producing or a bit of both, Tables & Spreads is here to help you party. Shelly Westerhausen, master of Instagram-worthy tablescapes, shares themes for every occasion, from dips for dinner, to a savory focaccia party, to a Christmas morning Dutch baby party. Special attention is given to what Westerhausen dubs the "wow factor": decorative and mood-setting details such as color themes, decanters and candles of varying heights, along with floral arrangements. Informational charts abound with practical assists; my favorite may be "Portioning a Spread," right down to tablespoons of dip or pieces of crudites, so you don't over- or under-buy.

This holiday season, whether you're hosting or showing up with a single covered dish, let one of these outstanding cookbooks be your guide.

The Left-Handed Twin

Edgar Award-winning author Thomas Perry returns with The Left-Handed Twin, his ninth novel featuring guide Jane Whitefield, a member of the Wolf clan of the Seneca Nation of Indians. The term guide does not entirely describe Whitefield's job; she serves as a one-woman witness protection program, spiriting people out of life-threatening situations and into new and safer existences. This time out, she assists a young woman who testified against her boyfriend in a murder trial only to see him acquitted and bent on revenge. The first part of the task is fairly straightforward, utilizing the obfuscation skills Jane has honed over the years, but it all starts to go sideways when the ex-boyfriend enlists the help of the Russian mob, a group with an agenda of its own in locating Jane: extracting information from her about past clients who ran afoul of the mob. Suddenly, she finds herself on the run, and the safest places for her are the forests and fields of Maine's Hundred-Mile Wilderness, one of the ancestral Seneca territories where she holds the home-court advantage over lifetime city dwellers. Still, her Russian adversaries are nothing if not determined, and there are at least a couple of times when readers will wonder if this is the book where Jane's story comes to an untimely end.

Bryant & May: London Bridge Is Falling Down

Spoiler alert: London Bridge Is Falling Down marks the final installment of Christopher Fowler's beloved Bryant and May series. With each passing book, the Peculiar Crimes Unit, which solves murders that stump other branches of law enforcement, finds itself more critically threatened with closure. Both protagonists, cranky Arthur Bryant and the urbane and charming John May, are getting rather long in the tooth (in Bryant's case, long in the dentures), and cases don't present quite as frequently as they once did. So in hopes of postponing the inevitable, Bryant goes in search of a case and turns one up: Amelia Hoffman, age 91, whose death does not entirely fall into the catch-all of natural causes. Hoffman had something of a chequered (the English spelling must be used here) past, as it turns out, and before long the case develops into a full-blown conspiracy investigation. The narrative neatly straddles the blurry line separating espionage fiction from straight-up suspense, and adds for good measure a mean streets of London travelogue and more than a little laugh-out-loud but still dry British humor. Lovers of this series need not despair (well, not yet). Next year, we will see Bryant and May's Peculiar London, a companion travelogue of sorts in which fan-favorite characters will hilariously dish on their home city while ambling about its streets, and there will be no dead bodies to be found anywhere.  

So Far and Good

For the better part of 30 years, I have counted myself as a major fan of John Straley's sporadic series featuring Alaska-based PI Cecil Younger. From the outset, 1992's Shamus Award-winning The Woman Who Married a Bear, the books have combined grittiness, social issues and introspection with whimsy and slapstick, as the hapless investigator moves from crisis to crisis, both business and personal. So Far and Good, the latest adventure, finds Cecil serving seven-plus years in prison for homicide, arguably a necessary one. His daughter, Blossom, visits him regularly, and this time she has an interesting tale to tell: Her best friend took a DNA test to surprise her mom with an ancestry-related gift and discovered that she and her "mom" were not in any way related. As it turns out, this friend was abducted as an infant, and the case has remained unsolved for the past 16 years. Should be a happy ending, right? Instead, it serves as the catalyst for a suspicious suicide, a near-homicide and assorted disappearances. And Blossom joins the missing, it will take all of his considerable savvy, not to mention a reversal of his inherent unluckiness, to set his world back in order (more or less) once again. 

★ War Women

The year that John Straley's first Cecil Younger book appeared, 1992, also marked the debut of Martin Limón's excellent series featuring George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, military police partners stationed in Itaewon, Korea, in the 1970s. Several plot lines wind around one another in the pair's latest outing, War Women. First off, there is the disappearance of their best confidential informant, along with some particularly sensitive classified documents about impending military exercises. Then there is the nosy reporter who has acquired explicit, potentially career-ending photos of an Army general and the hasty cover-up attempts that spiral speedily out of control, the suspense building until the final, nerve-shredding shootout. But these events are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. A culture of abuse targeting female service members has permeated every level of the military hierarchy, and there are those who will kill to keep that culture thriving. Bascom and Sueño, while still their customarily smart-aleck selves, are more thoughtful this time around. They're not overcome by the gravity of the situation, but they're certainly affected by it. War Women is the most sobering of the series to date, while still being a book readers will want to devour in one sitting. 

Thomas Perry gives fans the gift of another Jane Whitefield thriller and a beloved series comes to an end in this month's Whodunit column.

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