Iona Iverson, 57, is a larger than life magazine advice columnist. A former It girl who covered major social events, Iona has had an amazing life, but needs to modernize her column to keep her job. Regularly commuting to London on the train, she enjoys observing the other commuters, but never, ever talks to anyone except her French bulldog Lulu. One day there’s a (nonviolent) crisis on train car #3, and the travelers finally meet and connect. I enjoyed learning their nicknames for each other, especially teen Martha thinking of Iona as magic handbag lady. While Iona tends to steal the scenes she’s in, everyone except David and Jake gets their turn to narrate the story. Sanjay the anxious nurse, impossibly pretty Emmie, and trader Piers in his expensive suits all need Iona’s advice at some point, including Martha, who ends up getting coaching for a theatre audition from Iona and math tutoring from Piers.
Happily, the commuter train to London isn’t the only setting in this contemporary novel, letting readers glimpse homes, workplaces, Martha’s school, and the maze at Hampton Court Palace. I listened to the audiobook narrated expertly by Clare Corbett while commuting in my car; I’d love to see someone reading this on the train. While I liked the author’s first book, The Authenticity Project, I didn’t find it memorable or outstanding. This heartwarming and uplifting story about the riders on the train is one of my favorite reads so far this year. Readalikes include The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg, The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, and Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore.
Laurie has always admired her Great Aunt Dot, a world traveler who lived to be 93. Her home in Calcasset, Maine, was a quiet refuge for Laurie as she was a middle child with four brothers. In Calcasset to sort through Dot’s belongings, Laurie is having a mid-life crisis as she turns 40. Her best friend June is happily married with three kids, but Laurie has always enjoyed living alone. She has just canceled her upcoming wedding, but is still looking forward to returning to Seattle, where her house and garden are designed just how she likes it. Laurie’s former boyfriend Nick is now the director of the Calcasset Library, and sparks fly when they spend time together, but Nick has never wanted to leave small town Maine.
A very enjoyable part of this book is the adventure of a carved and painted wood duck Aunt Dot kept in a cedar chest. Is it valuable? Apparently not, or has Laurie been scammed by a con man? Nick helps with research and Laurie’s brother Ryan, an actor, helps in the quest to get the duck back. Laurie finally is able to decide what she really wants in this engaging read.
Set in the same town as Holmes’ debut, Evvie Drake Starts Over, this is not a sequel. Readalikes include novels by Jennifer Crusie, Mary Kay Andrews, Abbi Waxman, and Beth O’Leary.
Ruthie Midona, 25, works in a retirement community and rarely leaves the grounds. She lives on the property and rarely leaves, except to shop at a local thrift store. When two wealthy 90-year-olds need a new personal assistant, Ruthie runs their errands until the community’s new owner suggests his son Teddy, who’s trying to save money for a tattoo parlor. Teddy is staying in the adjoining villa, and is clearly fascinated by Ruthie, when not busy with the hilarious requests made by the Parloni sisters. Temp Melanie is creating a dating profile for Ruthie, who hasn’t dated in years, and helps organize the residents’ holiday party. Opposites definitely attract for Ruthie and Teddy in this sweet and funny romantic comedy. An April LibraryReads pick, this is a funny and heartwarming story about how friends can become your found family. Readalikes include I Owe You One by Sophie Kinsella and Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert.
Grace Porter celebrates earning her Ph.D. in astronomy with a short vacation in Las Vegas with friends Agnes and Ximena. She wakes up the last morning with a hangover, a wedding ring, and a picture of Yuki Yamamoto, who hosts a late night radio show in New York City. Back in Portland, Grace tries to live up to the expectations of her father, Colonel Porter. Biracial and queer, Grace is struggling to land an astronomy job, which she somehow thought would be easy. Grace is used to working hard and living up to her father’s expectations. Her response is to flee, visiting Yuki and her roommates in NYC, then her mother at the family orange grove in Florida. Essentially ghosting her friends for long stretches, they are still there when she needs them. I would have liked more about Grace’s astronomy studies; with perhaps a cool field trip to an observatory in Hawaii or Chile. But Grace’s story is much more about an identity crisis, her relationships with her friends, Yuki, and her parents, and learning to accept her own imperfections and uncertainties. Grace and Yuki are memorable characters, and this is an appealing and compelling read.
This is the most unusual book I’ve read this year, and one of the most memorable. Lillian Breaker, 28, works at two grocery stores and smokes pot in her indifferent mother’s attic. She has some college credits, but is definitely an underachiever. In her teens, Lillian won a scholarship to a nearby boarding school, and became friends with wealthy, beautiful Madison. Then Madison screwed up and let Lillian take the blame; they’ve kept in touch with letters ever since (this book is set about 20 years ago). Now Madison is offering Lillian a summer job as a nanny to her stepkids in Tennessee, but of course, there’s a catch.
Bessie and Roland, 10, have recently lost their mother and have been spoiled by their grandparents. Not surprising, as when the twins get upset, they often burst into flame. They’re completely unharmed, but their clothes and anything around them are toast. Lillian has no experience with kids, but is willing to try and the trio spend time in the pool, and eat lots of junk food. Then Lillian teaches Bessie and Roland to play basketball, arranges a visit to the local library, and they practice some calming techniques. The children’s father is a politician who’s being considered for a cabinet post; flaming children would not help his chances. Whimsical, touching, funny, and full of heart, this is a beautifully written novel about a misfit who finds her tribe and will go to great lengths to protect them.
Violet, fresh from Louisiana, rents a room in Audrey Duvall’s inherited Hollywood bungalow. The women are secretaries at Selznick Studios during the filming of Gone with the Wind in 1938. Audrey’s friend Bert works in the wardrobe department, and there’s a subplot about one of Scarlett’s hats. Audrey and Violet both have sad secrets in their past. Violet likes her job, and is not ambitious, but Audrey is determined to make it big as an actress. There’s a sort of love triangle, and eventually a secret baby, not unlike Adriana Trigiani’s All the Stars in the Heavens, but this is by far the better book. I could have done with fewer secrets as Audrey and Violet mature, but this is an enjoyable and well-researched look behind the scenes of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
This first novel about coming of age during the Cold War was inspired by the true story of Samantha Smith, age 10, who wrote a letter to Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov in 1982 and became the United States’ youngest goodwill ambassador. In Holt’s story, Sarah Zuckerman is the daughter of a peace activist and writes a letter to Andropov, as does her best friend and neighbor Jennifer Jones. Only Jenny’s letter is answered and she is invited to travel to the Soviet Union with her parents. Jenny becomes a celebrity and her friendship with Sarah deteriorates. In 1995, Sarah has finished college and decides to travel to Moscow to find out what really happened to Jenny. Sarah’s life is all about dealing with loss and searching for truth in an ambiguous world. The author’s experiences working in Moscow give authenticity to the scenes of expatriate life.