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.
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.
The Tilted World by Tom Franklin & Beth Ann Fennelly
After months of heavy rains, the residents of Hobnob Landing, Mississippi are increasingly uneasy as the river keeps rising in the spring of 1927. Federal revenuers Ham Johnson and Ted Ingersoll are sent to the town by Herbert Hoover to investigate two missing agents, and to search for moonshiners. Friends and WWI veterans, the unbribable pair come across a botched robbery at a country store which left a baby orphaned. An orphan himself, Ingersoll wants to find the baby boy a good home, and is referred to Dixie Clay Holliver, a young woman still mourning her own baby. She takes Willy gladly, but Ingersoll doesn’t know that she’s married to Jesse Holliver, distributor of Black Lightning, bootleg whiskey.
Ingersoll and Johnson pose as engineers, patrolling the sandbagged levee as the Mississippi River levels keeps rising. Charming, lying Jesse has his own plans, and might have been the last one to see the missing federal agents. The pacing and suspense keep increasing as some levees upstream fail. History, suspense, and a little romance bring a new look at the Great Flood of 1927. A surprisingly enjoyable read full of colorful characters.
Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe, by Dawn Tripp
I enjoyed this compelling novel about artist Georgia O’Keeffe almost as much as I’ve enjoyed looking at her art. Georgia and her older husband, photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz, exchanged so many letters that the author had plenty of source material to work with, along with biographies, Georgia’s memoirs, exhibition catalogs, critiques and much more. Fortunately, the author doesn’t let her research get in the way of telling a character-driven, moving, and engaging story about Georgia’s long and adventurous life. The various settings, New York City, the Stieglitz lake house in the Adirondacks, and New Mexico, are detailed and appealing. Georgia and her art change over time, as does her tempestuous relationship with Stieglitz. Recommended for fans of biographical fiction, and especially for readers of Susan Vreeland, Nancy Horan, and Paula McLain.
The Ship of Brides by Jojo Moyes
Imagine a ship full of 650 war brides, on board for the six week journey from Sydney, Australia to Plymouth, England. It’s 1946, and the ship is the Victoria, an old aircraft carrier, not the cruise ship the brides expected. The young women are on their way to new lives and families in England, with husbands they met in Australia during the war. Four brides sharing a cabin are featured. Lively teenager Jean, social climber Avice, pregnant farm girl Margaret, who has smuggled her dog on board, and secretive nurse Frances gradually reveal their stories of their lives during the war. Marine Nichol, who guards their cabin at night, and Captain Highfield, on his last navy voyage along with the Victoria, also have their secrets. The women are, by turns, full of anxiety, hope, and excitement. Friendships are formed, but rumors and gossip, from the crew as well as the women, have lasting effects. There’s even a sweet love story. Most of the characters are appealing and I was eager to learn their stories. Not all of the women have happy stories to tell, and some even get the dreaded telegram from England: not wanted, don’t come. I would have liked less drama, but Moyes is a compelling writer and excellent storyteller. This was a part of Australian history I hadn’t heard about, and she made the adventurous voyage, complete with a Miss Victoria contest, come to life.