flappersBy the 1920s, women were on the verge of something huge. Jazz, racy fashions, eyebrow-raising new attitudes about art and sex – all of this pointed to a sleek, modern world, one that could shake off the grimness of the Great War and stride into the future in one deft, stylized gesture. The women who defined this age – Josephine Baker, Tallulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Tamara de Lempicka – would presage the sexual revolution by nearly half a century and would shape the role of women for generations to come. In Flappers, acclaimed biographer Judith Mackrell renders these women with all the color that marked their lives and their era.

Both sensuous and sympathetic, her biography lays bare the private lives of her heroines. These women came from vastly different backgrounds, but all ended up passing through Paris, the mecca of the avant-garde. Before she was the toast of Parisian society, Josephine Baker was a poor black girl from the slums of Saint Louis. Tamara de Lempicka fled the Russian Revolution only to struggle to scrape together a life for herself and her family. A committed painter, her portraits were indicative of the age’s art deco sensibility and sexual daring. The Brits in the group – Nancy Cunard and Diana Cooper –  came from pinkie-raising aristocratic families but soon descended into the salacious delights of the vanguard. Tallulah Bankhead and Zelda Fitzgerald were two Alabama girls driven across the Atlantic by a thirst for adventure and artistic validation.

But beneath the flamboyance and excess of the 1920s lay age-old prejudices about gender, race, and sexuality. These flappers weren’t just dancing and carousing; they were fighting for recognition and dignity in a male-dominated world. They were more than mere lovers or muses to the modernist masters – in their pursuit of fame and intense experience, we see a generation of women taking bold steps toward something burgeoning, undefined, maybe dangerous: a New Woman. (description from publisher)

When I grow up I want to be a Lady Detective just like Miss Fisher—elegant, scrappy and clever (words that also describe my other favorite Lady Detective, Jessica Fletcher!) Phryne Fisher has been dancing around the book world for a while (see my review of the first in that series here: Phryne, Rhymes with Briney), but now we can actually see her shake her beaded tassels in a new gorgeously filmed television series by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, shown in the United States on PBS.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries begins just as Kerry Greenwood’s book series does, with the Honorable Phryne Fisher, played by the seductive Essie Davis, returning to 1920’s Melbourne after being away for a decade or so. While she was away in Europe, Miss Fisher had modeled nude for artists, partied with dancers, worked as WWI nurse, and suddenly came into a title and money. Now that she is returned, Phryne decides that her charm and intellect are perfectly suited to solving murder mysteries around her old hometown. She enlists the help of her gentle butler, her communist chauffeurs/handymen, and her new maid, Dot, who finds herself constantly struggling between good Catholic values and the not-quite-legal-or-virtuous things that Miss Fisher persuades her to do. And of course, the local Detective Inspector Jack Robinson does not find Phryne’s frequent interference in his work amusing (even if he does find her annoyingly companionable.) I loved every episode of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, but what most puts a sparkle in my eye is Phryne’s marvelous wardrobe! The silk kimonos! The slinky wide-legged pants! And the hats oh THE HATS!

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is so charming, fun and sexy while still addressing many historically controversial issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and terrorism—all while giving us a cracking good whodunit. I highly recommend this series to fans of Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, and those who love history and mysteries 😉

The Chaperone is a captivating novel about the woman who chaperoned an irreverent Louise Brooks to New York City in 1922 and the summer that would change them both.

Only a few years before becoming a famous silent-film star and an icon of her generation, a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita, Kansas, to study with the prestigious Denishawn School of Dancing in New York. Much to her annoyance, she is accompanied by a chaperone, who is neither mother nor friend. Cora Carlisle, a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip, has no idea what she’s in for. Young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous black bob with blunt bangs, is known for her arrogance and her lack of respect for convention. For Cora, the city holds the promise of discovery that might answer the question at the core of her being, and even as she does her best to watch over Louise in this strange and bustling place she embarks on a mission of her own. And while what she finds isn’t what she anticipated, she is liberated in a way she could not have imagined. Over the course of Cora’s relationship with Louise, her eyes are opened to the promise of the twentieth century and a new understanding of the possibilities for being fully alive.

Drawing on the rich history of the 1920s,’30s, and beyond–from the orphan trains to Prohibition, flappers, and the onset of the Great Depression to the burgeoning movement for equal rights and new opportunities for women–Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone illustrates how rapidly everything, from fashion and hemlines to values and attitudes, was changing at this time and what a vast difference it all made for Louise Brooks, Cora Carlisle, and others like them. (description from publisher)

I went into reading The Paris Wife by Paula McLain with a blank slate.  I had never read any of Ernest Hemingway’s novels, and I knew only the bare minimum of biographical information about his life.  This book is a fictionalized account of Hemingway’s first wife Hadley.  It details all of the highs and lows of their complicated relationship, from their first meeting in Chicago in 1920 and subsequent whirlwind marriage to their years of living in Paris and the unraveling of their once happy life together.  Their lives seem glamorous on the surface: spending time with the Fitzgeralds and Gertrude Stein, writing in chic Paris cafes, and taking extended vacations to exotic locales around Europe.  But boiling below the surface is a host of problems.  As attentive and accommodating as Hadley tries to be, she simply cannot contend with Ernest’s ambition, neediness, and thirst for the drink.

The story is told through Hadley’s point of view.  She grew up in a very different setting, much more conservative and traditional than the Jazz Age Paris of the 1920s, so we’re learning about this time and place through brand new eyes.  The writing is lovely and McLain is very successful in making the time period come alive.  Plus, the English major in me got giddy every time a different historical figure popped up in the story.  I actually listened to the audio version of The Paris Wife and it was very well done.  Even though anyone who knows even a little bit about Hemingway has an idea of how this story ends, it’s still a compelling and engaging read that I would recommend to fans of historical fiction, novels about love and marriage, and Ernest Hemingway.

If you enjoy P.G. Wodehouse, you will love Simon Brett’s newest mystery, Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King’s Daughter  Blotto is even more clueless than the aristocratic Bertie Wooster.

While Wooster has his butler, Jeeves,  Blotto is also lucky enough to have a  much smarter sidekick.  In this case, the handsome son of the Duke of Tawcaster (pronounced taster) is guided by his sister, Twinks. She is not only smart, but beautiful and loves to use her analytical skills to solve mysteries. In this book, she feels fortunate to have a dead body right in her own home, Tawcaster Towers. Her mother, the Duchess, forces the local constable to spirit away the dead body before her dinner party adjourns for cigars.

Britain’s ruling class is parodied in a cheerfully absurdist writing style, and the time between the two world wars seems refreshingly innocent.

I had long been attracted to the fun and stylish covers of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series, and finally decided to give them a try when the Davenport Public Library’s new Youth Services Librarian, Liza Gilbert, told me they were some of her all-time favorite books. There was just one thing I needed to know before I curled up with the mystery series: how oh how do I pronounce the heroine’s first name?! A quick search online and I learned that “Phryne, rhymes with Briney” which is now stored safely in the corner of my brain right next to “Rowling, rhymes with Bowling.”

Phryne Fisher is the classic 1920’s saucy heroine; she has style, confidence, cleverness and unlimited funds to do with as she pleases, and apparently what she pleases to do is fly planes, outwit lovers, and investigate crimes. In Cocaine Blues, the first in her series, Phryne arrives in Melbourne, Australia to check on the condition of an English aristocrat’s daughter who had been writing worrisome letters home to her parents. Although she assumed her Melbourne visit would mostly involve watching a neglectful husband and testing the girl’s food for poison, Phryne quickly finds herself searching out heavyweight cocaine dealers and criminal abortionists (who are assaulting their patients and depositing them in taxicabs to die).

Despite the gritty, heavy subjects of these investigations, Miss Fisher still manages to wear fabulous gowns, make snarky conversation and have a sexy romp or two. Hurrah! My absolute favorite part about Kerry Greenwood’s writing was the fascinating setting of the growing city of Melbourne, Australia during the 1920’s. Since most of my favorite Twenties novels seem to take place in New York, Chicago or London, it hadn’t even occurred to me that other exciting locales were also having a roaring good time. I highly recommend the Phryne Fisher series to those readers who can’t get enough of bobbed haircuts, silk stockings and smart female characters.