I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows
This book is set in Oklahoma, during the Dust Bowl. It should be depressing to read, but somehow isn’t, although some readers may feel differently. Annie and Samuel Bell migrated from Kansas to a homestead in the Oklahoma panhandle when they married. They have two children, Birdie, 15, and sweet Fred, 8, who is mute and carries a slate and chalk to communicate. Annie wants Birdie to move to a big city when she finishes school, but Birdie is restless and quite interested in farmer’s son Cy. Annie mourns lost baby Eleanor, and Samuel wonders if his recurrent dreams of abundant rain mean that he should build a boat, maybe even an ark. Other intriguing characters are the pastor, who tries to encourage the town, and mayor Jack Lily, a former Chicago journalist, who’s attracted to Birdie. Fred struggles with asthma as the dust storms arrive, and a few neighboring farmers suddenly move away. The setting reminds me of The Personal History of Rachel Dupree by Ann Weisgarber, but this book has beautiful, almost lyrical writing, with quirky, richly drawn characters, and a tone that’s more melancholy and moving then bleak. In the end, Annie and Samuel love and support each other, even as they deal with hardship and loss. A memorable historical novel.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
Small town Texas in 1870 comes to life as Captain Jefferson Kidd, in his early seventies, travels around the state, charging a dime each to read to a crowd for an hour. Whenever he’s in a city, he buys newspapers and journals from all over, and highlights articles to inform and entertain his listeners, while trying to stay away from controversial topics right after the Civil War. I found this part of the book charming and interesting, and then Kidd is asked to take a 10-year-old girl 400 miles south to her family in San Antonio, for $50. Johanna was taken by the Kiowa at age 6, and she remembers little of her past. Kidd and Johanna learn to communicate a little, and she enjoys life on the road in a wagon. They have numerous adventures, including being shot at by a cowboy and his gang, but realize it will all end when the Captain leaves Johanna with her aunt and uncle. I would enjoy hearing the Captain read to a crowd, and I’d definitely enjoy learning what comes next for Johanna, trying to find her place in an alien world. Moving, adventurous, and unique; this book is not to be missed by any reader of historical fiction. This book will be published on October 4.
The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende
Elderly Alma Belasco is a woman of mystery, and grandson Seth asks her part-time secretary Irina to help him discover Alma’s secrets. As a girl, Alma is sent by her parents from Poland in 1939 to her aunt and uncle in San Francisco, while her parents remain behind. The Belasco family mansion in San Francisco is only sketchily described, except for the gardens. Alma is befriended by her cousin Nathaniel, whom she later marries, and by Ichimei, the Japanese gardener’s son. In the present, Nathaniel has died and Alma is living at Lark House for seniors, having shed all of her social responsibilities. Lark House and its quirky occupants are lovingly described, along with their activities. I would have liked more scenes with Ichimei, who was sent to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah, with his family. Some of his letters to Alma are included.
Irina, a young immigrant from Eastern Europe, has her own secrets, which don’t seem to fit with the rest of the story. Some chapters of textile artist Alma’s colorful life are rushed, and the author tells rather than shows what happened, as if filling in an outline of events. Other passages are beautifully written, leaving me uncertain how to rate this book. In the end I wanted to know more about Alma, the enigmatic Ichimei, and the residents and staff of Lark House.
Arabella of Mars by David Levine
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this fun adventure and science fiction novel, set in London in the early 18th century, on Mars, and in the breathable skies between. Arabella Ashby and her brother Michael, raised by a Martian nanny, enjoy life on their Martian koresh wood plantation, but their mother takes Arabella to London so that she can become a proper young lady. Soon, Arabella needs to get back to Mars to save Michael from a threat on his life. She signs on to the sailing ship Diana as a cabin boy, and her skills in working with clockwork automata are helpful. The Diana, built of lightweight koresh wood with silk parachutes for landing, has a mechanical navigator to help chart a course around the Horn, a zone of turbulent weather. Arabella, in disguise as Arthur, enjoys the journey despite the hardships, including an attack by a French privateer and a mutiny against Captain Singh. More adventures await on Mars, and Arabella will need Captain Singh’s help to save the day. Naomi Novik and Mary Robinette Kowal are good readalikes with Regency era fantasy, but not quite the same tone, perhaps because they aren’t science fiction/adventure novels. I need to find more books as well-written and fun as this one, read some of the author’s short stories, and wait for a sequel to Arabella of Mars.
Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard
A welcome new book from the author of Destiny of the Republic. Ambitious young aristocrat Winston Churchill, 24, was an journalist covering the 2nd Boer War in South Africa. He would risk anything to get to the action, gave military advice as a civilian, and defended an armored train after an ambush. As a prisoner of war, he wrote letters demanding his release and helped plan a daring escape. Bright, brave, outspoken and reckless, he became a heroic figure, just as he’d hoped. I learned more about the Boer Wars than I wanted to, but Churchill and military history fans will find this to be a fascinating, thrilling, and often past-paced read.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
Four Londoners and an African-American boy face World War II in very different ways, as they try to figure out what it means to be brave in wartime. Wealthy Mary, 18, wants to be a spy, but is assigned to be a teacher, where she meets young Zachary. Later, Mary drives an ambulance with her friend Hilda, who trains as a nurse. A double date with school administrator Tom and art conservator turned army officer Alistair has unexpected consequences. Air raids are danced away to loud music, and entertainers, like Zachary’s father, work all night. Alistair is shipped to Malta, like the author’s grandfather was, and endures a siege. Letters from home are the only thing that can distract him from the war, but some letters go astray. Hilda and Mary’s friendship is strained, and Tom has trouble relating to Alistair. Absorbing and alternately witty and sad, I kept turning the pages in hopes that the memorable characters would make it through to the peace they deserve.