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.
Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders
Kate Saunders, the author of a number of books for children and adults, introduces Victorian widow Laetitia Rodd in her first mystery. After her clergyman husband’s death, Letty moves to an unfashionable part of Hampstead, London where she rents a townhouse from Mrs. Bentley. Letty’s brother Fred, a barrister, pays her to make discreet inquiries for his clients. Letty is sent to the Calderstone estate, Wishtide, as a governess to the young ladies of the house, although she’s really there to investigate the background of Helen Orme, a widow that young Charles Calderstone is determined to marry. Naturally, there is a murder or two, and hints of scandal. Letty, her brother, and Letty’s inquisitive landlady use their skills and contacts to unravel the mystery and save an innocent man from death. Appealing, well-developed characters, clever plotting, and a variety of settings, from drawing rooms to London inns, a prison, and the kitchen of Letty’s home add to the charm of this debut British cozy. I look forward to enjoying more books featuring Mrs. Rodd.
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
This is a beautiful book, printed on heavy, smooth paper. Scattered through the book are photographs, maps, newspaper articles, and descriptions of objects in a collection. The rest of this historical novel set in Alaska and Vancouver, Washington is in the form of letters and journal entries, mostly by Colonel Allen Forrester and his wife Sophie. In 1885, Allen is leading an expedition up the Wolverine River into the interior of Alaska, to map and make contact with the Alaska natives. Sophie is waiting for his return in army housing, expecting their first child and learning to photograph birds and develop the pictures. A tale of adventure, hard to explain encounters in the wilderness for Allen, and a tale of waiting, hoping, and learning for Sophie. A remarkable second novel by the author of The Snow Child.
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.