The Whole Town’s Talking, by Fannie Flagg
In 1889, Swedish immigrant Lordor Nordstrom founds a small town in Missouri. Nordstrom is a dairy farmer and Elmwood Spring’s first mayor. In this appealing tale, the town ladies encourage Nordstrom to find a Swedish-American mail order bride, and they send her notes along with his letters. Over the decades the town grows and changes, with the progress overseen fondly by the residents of Still Meadows, the cemetery on a hill. Much to their surprise, the folks at Still Meadows can talk freely with each other, and even (silently) enjoy visits from their relatives. Quirky small town charm and plenty of nostalgia make for a quick, pleasant read.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Step back in time, to the grand Metropol Hotel in Moscow. Count Alexander Rostov, 30, is living in a suite, full of family antiques, enjoying mingling with international guests and fine dining every night. Unfortunately, a revolutionary poem he’s authored becomes too popular, and a Bolshevik tribunal in 1922 sentences him to house arrest at the Metropol, for life. Stuck in an attic room, how shall he live? Fortunately, Rostov is wealthy, charming, and resourceful. Young hotel guest Nina has acquired a master key and explores the hotel with Rostov. While he is removed from the outside world, the staff and guests share their experiences with Stalinist Russia and later World War II with him, especially after he becomes the head waiter of the hotel’s restaurant. He can plan seating charts with ease, has perfect manners, and has a fine palate for wine and gourmet food. Daily meetings with the maître d’ and the chef lead to friendship, as well as some excellent bouillabaisse. Beautiful actress Anna Urbanova makes regular visits, and a young girl, Sofia, comes to stay and captures Rostov’s heart. This is a rich, layered novel to savor, with lyrical writing, marvelous characters, and both humorous and poignant moments. This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in the past year, and I enjoyed it even more than his first novel, Rules of Civility.
Dollbaby, by Laura Lane McNeal
An absorbing coming-of-age story set in 1960s New Orleans, this first novel is moving and compelling. Ibby Bell, almost 12, travels to New Orleans to live with her grandmother after her father dies. Ibby learns to wear dresses, eat Southern food, and attends her first church service. Fannie is an eccentric, wealthy woman who likes to bet on sports. Queenie is her longtime cook, Queenie’s daughter Dollbaby takes care of the house, makes dresses for Ibby, and is slightly involved in the Civil Rights movement. Dollbaby’s daughter Birdelia shows Ibby around New Orleans, although they draw stares in segregated New Orleans. Queenie and Dollbaby teach Ibby the rules to living with Fannie: don’t talk about the past, don’t ask about the locked bedrooms, and don’t ask too many questions. The big house has its secrets, which Ibby gradually learns, along with her family history. A strong sense of place and appealing, complex characters add to this book’s considerable appeal.
The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake
An elegantly written first novel about ordinary people struggling to find their new normal after the war in 1947 Tokyo. This book is narrated by several people starting over, all connected by two school girls, Aya Shimamura and Fumi Tanaka. Fumi, whose father used to run a small bookshop, misses her older sister Sumiko, and wants Aya’s help in finding her. Sumiko is a dance hall girl, who has been bringing extra food and money home to the family. Aya is Japanese Canadian. She spent the war in a Canadian internment camp, and as her family is no longer welcome in Vancouver, they’ve returned to Japan. Their teacher Kondo moonlights as a letter writer for young Japanese women trying to stay in contact with their American GI boyfriends. Matt Matsumoto, Japanese American, is working with the American Army of Occupation, where he translates letters sent to General MacArthur. Aya and Fumi get lost one night, and Aya’s father asks Kondo to help find them. The author is a Japanese Canadian librarian, and she was inspired by a book of actual letters sent to General MacArthur by the Japanese people. Appealing characters, a truly unique setting, and a poignant, heartwarming plot made me sorry to finish this book.
The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway
An absorbing first novel, in which Lord Nick Falcott, who is about to die in the battle of Salamanca in Spain in 1812, wakes up in a London hospital in 2003. The Guild have found him, and will spend a year acclimating him to the 21st century, then give him a pension and assign him a country. Time travelers can never return to their home country or time period. However, after enjoying life for several years in New England, Nick is summoned by the Guild, and sent back to his estate in England three years after he was declared dead, in order to help find a Guild enemy who is manipulating time nearby at Castle Dar. In 1815, Julia Percy’s grandfather is dying, and Castle Dar will be inherited by her cousin Eamon. Julia learns that she can freeze time and travels to London to stay with Nick’s sisters and mother. Nick and Julia are attracted to each other, but the Guild has other plans for Nick. Full of adventure, intrigue, romance, and rich in historical detail, the author leaves open the possibility of a sequel. This debut is a good readalike for A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, and the regency romance novels with a military focus by Carla Kelly.
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
The island of St. Thomas in the 19th century makes a vivid setting for a biographical novel about Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro and his parents. Rachel roams around the island with Jestine, the daughter of her family’s cook, Adelle, and only reluctantly agrees to marry Isaac Petit, an older Jewish merchant with three children. She loves his children and their own, but does not love Isaac. After Isaac’s death, his nephew Frederic travels from Paris to run the family business. Rachel and Frederic fall scandalously in love. Camille is one of their children, whose fascination with color and island life distract him from his work at the family’s store. Surprisingly, Rachel coldly discourages his artistic talent, although Camille gets the encouragement he needs from Rachel’s friend Jestine. Several of the characters spend time in Paris, also colorfully drawn. A very strong sense of place, lively dialogue, complex characters, and a touch of magical realism make this book an enchanting read.
The White Mirror by Elsa Hart
Stranded by snow at the Tibetan manor of Dhosa, former imperial librarian Li Du, storyteller Hamza, and the rest of their caravan learn the stories of Dhosa’s family, meet several other visitors, and visit a nearby temple, where Dhamo, an elderly monk, painted religious art. On the bridge leading to the manor, the caravan discovered Dhamo’s body, a possible suicide, with the image of a white mirror painted on his chest. A tax inspector, a spy, another artist, and a young monk are included in the large cast of characters. A clever puzzle, and the beautiful setting, complete with hot springs, a painted cave, and a stunning view of the Himalayas, will reward patient readers in the sequel to Jade Dragon Mountain.