Deborah Donovan

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Bestselling writer Fannie Flagg returns to a fan-favorite locale, Elmwood Springs, Missouri, in her latest saga steeped in small-town life. Peopled with a memorable cast of characters, Flagg’s chatty historical novel spans nearly 150 years in the life, growth and eventual decline of this small farming community in southern Missouri. 

It all begins with Lordor Nordstrom, a young Swedish immigrant. In the early 1880s, Lordor finds a large tract of land in Missouri that is perfect for his long dreamed-of dairy farm. He places an ad in Swedish-American newspapers, hoping to attract other farmers from his homeland, and soon the small community begins to thrive. Lordor also donates a piece of land for the local cemetery, Still Meadows—a peaceful plot with a magnificent view of the town below.

By 1889, Lordor realizes it’s time to start a family, so he advertises for a mail-order bride. Katrina Olsen, who left Sweden five years earlier and is eager to escape her job working as a housemaid in Chicago, answers his ad, and they become a successful team, working hard to expand their dairy and raising two devoted children.

Chapter by chapter, Flagg introduces a growing number of characters: friends and neighbors of the Nordstroms and their children, their siblings, wives and ex-wives, husbands and ex-husbands. There’s 18-year-old Lucille Beemer, who comes from Philadelphia in 1901 to teach the growing school population; Gustav Tildholme, who has a lifelong crush on Lucille, but never gets a chance to tell her; Elner Shimfissle, who sings to her chickens to make them lay bigger eggs; Ander Swensen, who learns the dairy business from Lordor; the Nordstroms’ daughter Ingrid, who becomes the first female to attend Iowa’s famed School of Veterinary Medicine—and many more. 

One by one these characters make their way up to Still Meadows. There, though deceased, they are still able to communicate with one another and learn about how the world is changing, as each newcomer delivers the latest news, from airplane travel, to World War II, the atomic bomb and the advent of television. 

The Whole Town’s Talking joins previous Elmwood Springs novels, which include Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven and Standing in the Rainbow. Though it’s sometimes hard to keep track of the many characters, Flagg’s humor shines through as she chronicles their successes, disappointments and even a mysterious murder or two. Flagg was nominated for an Academy Award for the screen adaptation of her novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, and her latest has a cinematic quality as well. The interwoven lives of these completely engaging characters twist and turn in unexpected ways, making this chronicle of a close-knit community a pleasure to read.

 

This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Bestselling writer Fannie Flagg returns to a fan-favorite locale, Elmwood Springs, Missouri, in her latest saga steeped in small-town life. Peopled with a memorable cast of characters, Flagg’s chatty historical novel spans nearly 150 years in the life, growth and eventual decline of this small farming community in southern Missouri.
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Charles Baxter’s gift for the short story is manifested in Gryphon, a compilation of stories selected from four earlier collections, joined by seven previously uncollected works. In each of these 23 stories, Baxter offers the reader a brief but brilliantly illuminated glimpse into the world of one of his unique characters—quirky souls with whom the reader can somehow empathize.

After his brother’s death, a young single man becomes his nephew Gregory’s guardian, and is “terrified by every minute of his entire future earthly life”—overwhelmed by the unexpected responsibility suddenly thrust upon him. In his efforts to become a parent, he begins to create nightly imaginary horoscopes for Gregory, always with a positive outlook, to help his nephew navigate the sorrowful days following his parents’ deaths.

In “Horace and Margaret’s Fifty-Second,” Margaret visits her husband in the nursing home, recalling how he gradually lost his mind and memory, lately confusing the names of his beloved trees with the names of his children.

The title story features a delightful substitute teacher, Miss Ferenczi—a free spirit with a purple purse and a checkerboard lunchbox who mesmerizes her class with a tale about the gryphon in a cage she saw on her trip to Egypt. She ends the day by telling the students’ fortunes with a pack of Tarot cards—an act leading to her abrupt dismissal.

In one of the haunting newer stories, “The Old Murderer,” a recovering alcoholic, estranged from his wife and children, finds hope in what he learns about love and commitment from the murderer who moves in next door after his release from prison.

Baxter’s stories don’t have predictably happy conclusions. He simply leaves us with a lingering sense of having just met someone totally unlike ourselves, but a kindred spirit nevertheless.

Charles Baxter’s gift for the short story is manifested in Gryphon, a compilation of stories selected from four earlier collections, joined by seven previously uncollected works. In each of these 23 stories, Baxter offers the reader a brief but brilliantly illuminated glimpse into the world of one of his unique characters—quirky souls with whom the […]
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In his fifth novel, The Whiskey Rebels, David Liss delves once again into the financial intrigues of an earlier century and the effects they had on his cast of characters, both fictional and real, in post – Revolutionary War America.

In Philadelphia in early 1792 we meet Capt. Ethan Saunders, whose military career ended in disgrace in the weeks before Yorktown. Documents found in his belongings and those of his older friend Fleet indicated they were British spies, and both were branded as traitors. Fleet was later somewhat mysteriously killed; Saunders' life—including his relationship with Fleet's daughter, Cynthia – was ruined by those totally false allegations. Now Cynthia is asking for Saunders' help: her husband, Jacob Pearson, is missing. All she knows is that his disappearance is somehow related to Alexander Hamilton's new Bank of the United States. As Saunders investigates, he discovers that Pearson's disappearance is merely the tip of the iceberg in a plot that threatens Hamilton's bank and extends to the Pennsylvania frontier, where Duer, an associate of Hamilton, is selling land under false pretenses. Saunders also learns that Pearson is the man who betrayed him and Cynthia's father . . . and the plot begins to take nearly unfathomable twists and turns.

Meanwhile, in the woods of western Pennsylvania, the settlers of Duer's "wondrous fertile" land, which turned out to be "wild forest" have made the best of things and begun making a superior brand of whiskey. Their profits are steadily increasing. When they hear of the new whiskey tax being pushed by Hamilton, the "architect of American corruption"; and Duer, his principal agent, a scheme is hatched to "restore the goals of the Revolution"—a scheme which quickly becomes a full-blown rebellion.

Liss deftly ties together these two elaborate plots, displaying his familiarity with 18th-century financial history, and offers a fascinating look at the factions vying for power in the early years of this country's existence.

Deborah Donovan writes from La Veta, Colorado.

In his fifth novel, The Whiskey Rebels, David Liss delves once again into the financial intrigues of an earlier century and the effects they had on his cast of characters, both fictional and real, in post – Revolutionary War America. In Philadelphia in early 1792 we meet Capt. Ethan Saunders, whose military career ended in […]
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Ava Homa, a writer and activist born and raised in Iran’s Kurdistan province, has embraced the adage to “write what you know” in her stark and elucidating debut novel, Daughters of Smoke and Fire. The broad scope of her story encompasses 50 years of Kurdish history—and the ways Iran has attempted to eradicate that history. In much the same way Native American children were treated by the U.S. government beginning in the late 19th century, Kurdish children are alienated from their roots as early as first grade, when “overnight,” Homa writes, “we were robbed of our language, our heritage.”

Homa centers her novel on a young Kurdish woman named Leila Saman and her family. As a boy, Leila’s father saw his six uncles massacred by Iraqi soldiers, and in the years that followed he was imprisoned and tortured for his leftist activities. Leila and her brother, Chia, grow up vaguely aware of their father’s horrific past, though he never opens up about it. In their 20s, the siblings move to Tehran, where Chia attends the university and Leila works in a bookstore, saving her meager earnings so she can eventually follow her long-held dream of making films “to tell our stories.”

Through the courageous character of Leila, Homa paints a picture of many Kurdish women who have struggled against persecution and the misogyny embedded in religious extremism. When Chia is drawn more and more into the political scene, his activism attracts the attention of the Iranian authorities. He is jailed, and Leila is not allowed to visit her beloved brother for over a year. Frustrated by her inability to help Chia, Leila begins publishing his activist writings online, putting herself in danger as well. Her exodus from her birthplace mirrors that of the author, who now splits her time between Toronto and the Bay Area.

Homa’s remarkable novel serves as a potent and illuminating window into the persecution of the Kurds, which has existed for decades and continues unabated today.

Through the courageous character of Leila, Homa paints a picture of many Kurdish women who have struggled against persecution and the misogyny embedded in religious extremism.
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Stephanie Wrobel’s compulsively readable debut, Darling Rose Gold, explores Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSP), a psychological disorder in which a child’s caregiver, often the mother, seeks to gain attention from the medical community for made-up symptoms of the child in her care.

Earlier novels about this rare phenomenon focus on the modes of abuse the mother employs to gain attention, like starvation or putting ipecac in her child’s food to induce vomiting. Wrobel instead begins her eerie tale when Patty Watts is about to be released from prison after serving five years for aggravated child abuse. The reader learns the details of what Patty did to her daughter, Rose Gold, only in flashback chapters: “By the time I was ten,” Rose Gold remembers, “I’d had ear and feeding tubes, tooth decay, and a shaved head. I needed a wheelchair. . . . I’d had cancer scares, brain damage scares, tuberculosis scares.” Despite finally realizing that her own mother was the cause of all her suffering, Rose Gold still has ambivalent feelings about her mother’s sentencing and imprisonment: “Some days I was thrilled. Some days I felt like a vital organ was missing.”

The rippling effects of Rose Gold’s horrific childhood build up over the five years she’s on her own, until she’s 23 and the need for revenge begins to take hold. After Patty is released, their small town’s inhabitants are amazed to hear that Rose Gold has taken her mother into her own home—and even lets her care for her newborn son.

Wrobel explores this bizarre mother-daughter relationship in chapters that alternate between each woman’s point of view, both past and present. Each woman displays Jekyll and Hyde-style personalities, and the reader is kept guessing about which one will emerge the stronger. 

This creepy psychological thriller is sure to be enjoyed by those who devoured Gone Girl, Girl on the Train and domestic thrillers from authors like Megan Abbott and JP Delaney.

Stephanie Wrobel’s compulsively readable debut, Darling Rose Gold, explores Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSP), a psychological disorder in which a child’s caregiver, often the mother, seeks to gain attention from the medical community for made-up symptoms of the child in her care.

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The effervescent debut novel by tech writer Kevin Nguyen tackles a wide variety of contemporary issues, running the gamut from the havoc wreaked by unregulated technology to the ethics of music piracy, from the permanence of digital communication to the inherent racism found on dating sites. 

Nguyen adroitly dissects these provocative topics through the stories of two New York City-based millennials who work at Nimbus, a tech startup, in 2009. Margo is black, a brilliant engineer perched at the top of Nimbus’ pay scale. Lucas is Asian American and a low-paid customer service rep. Initially they bond because of a shared interest in obscure music CDs from the 1970s and ’80s, which they illegally upload to an online community “dedicated to the distribution of pirated materials.” At Nimbus, they bond further over the racist corporate culture, felt especially by Margo. Eventually she quits and convinces Lucas to follow her, promising him that she can find them new jobs at another startup called Phantom, a digital messaging site in which all messages are deleted after they’ve been read. But Margo also comes up with a plan to spite Nimbus: On their way out the door, they will steal Nimbus’ email list. Only the next day do they realize they’ve mistakenly stolen the whole user database—names, profile photos and millions of passwords. It’s a mistake that reverberates throughout the rest of the novel.

As the plot evolves, Nguyen continues to inject the storyline with new twists: Margo’s accidental death that Lucas suspects may not have been an accident; his discovery of online messages between Margo and a budding sci-fi author whom he meets and briefly dates; and his efforts to keep his job at Phantom as the company struggles with privacy and censorship issues.

Readers seeking a more linear plot may feel unstable as New Waves bounces between these many storylines, but readers deeply immersed in our increasingly tech-savvy environment will delight in Nguyen’s piercing take on race and gender issues in the workplace, and the ethical debates swirling around social media sites. It’s all delivered with Nguyen’s personal brand of penetrating, acerbic humor.

The effervescent debut novel by tech writer Kevin Nguyen tackles a wide variety of contemporary issues, running the gamut from the havoc wreaked by unregulated technology to the ethics of music piracy, from the permanence of digital communication to the inherent racism found on dating sites. 

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If readers believe that witch trials in the late 1600s only occurred in the U.S., Kiran Millwood Hargrave will enlighten them with this harrowing story based on well-documented records. Hargrave, the author of several award-winning children’s novels, shifts to adult fiction with The Mercies, a vivid and immersive depiction of a remote village on Norway’s northeast coast in the early 1600s—and how it was dramatically transformed, first by a violent storm, then by religious extremism.

On Christmas Eve, 1617, a swift, devastating storm strikes the harbor at Vardo, sinking 10 fishing boats and drowning 40 men—the town’s entire male population. Maren Magnusdatter, age 20, sees the storm from the shore and loses, like so many others, her father, brother and husband-to-be. Over the next several months, she and all the women of Vardo realize they will starve if they don’t join together and resume the strenuous fishing once carried out by their town’s men. 

Hargrave skillfully portrays how lines of allegiance are drawn as a handful of women emerge as potential leaders. Some, known for their ardent church attendance, are backed by the local pastor. Others gradually gain their independence by ignoring some of the church’s edicts. Maren is tied to this latter group, mostly because her dead brother’s wife is from a Sami family, a group labeled as heretics and shunned by other townsfolk.

Hargrave’s novel quickly morphs from a portrait of the harsh life in a remote, early 17th-century village to a tale of religious persecution against a growing core of independent women. When a new commissioner arrives—recruited from Scotland, where he has already participated in witch trials—women previously passive in their beliefs quickly stand up as accusers, with dramatic results. Caught in the middle are Maren and the commissioner’s young wife, Ursa, who becomes Maren’s friend and ally.

The Mercies is an exceptional work of historical fiction with a dramatic setting and perceptive insight into the rippling effects of extremism, as seen through the eyes of a carefully crafted cast of characters.

If readers believe that witch trials in the late 1600s only occurred in the U.S., Kiran Millwood Hargrave will enlighten them with this harrowing story based on well-documented records.

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Elizabeth Strout, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge (2008), says she thought she was done with Olive—until her beloved character “just appeared” to her again. And how grateful Strout’s readers will be that she did.

In 13 interlocking stories set in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine, Olive travels through old age in her own inimitable style. She’s called an “old bag” by more than a few townsfolk, but she is loved by those who have, over the years, come to appreciate her honesty and complete lack of pretense.

In one story, Olive shares her fear of dying with Cindy, who cared for Olive’s late husband, Henry, and who may be dying of cancer herself. Olive reminds her that Cindy’s husband and sons, as well as Olive, will be “just a few steps behind” her if she does die. 

A few years after Henry’s death, Olive befriends widower Jack Kennison. Each has a child who doesn’t really like them, and both are lonely. They marry—to the dismay of Olive’s son, Christopher—and go on to enjoy eight years together.

Olive lives through some health scares, first totaling her car after confusing the accelerator with the brake, then suffering a heart attack in her hairdresser’s driveway. When Olive is assigned round-the-clock nurse’s aides—the story “Heart” poignantly portrays Olive’s growing dread of being alone—two of the aides are especially kind to her. One is the daughter of a Somali refugee, the other is a Trump supporter, and Olive surprises herself by befriending them both.

Strout possesses an uncanny ability to focus on ordinary moments in her characters’ lives, bringing them to life with compassion and humor. Her characters could be our own friends or family, and readers can easily relate to their stories of love, damaged relationships, aging, loss and loneliness. Each phase of Olive’s life touches on a memory, real or imagined.

Olive, Again is a remarkable collection on its own but will be especially enjoyed by those who loved Olive Kitteridge. It’s a book to immerse oneself in and to share. 

Elizabeth Strout possesses an uncanny ability to focus on ordinary moments in her characters’ lives, bringing them to life with compassion and humor.
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Ana Canción is only 15 when her parents convince her to marry Juan Ruiz, a man twice her age whom she barely knows, and move with him from their home in the Dominican Republic to New York City. They hope she will be able to get a job and that she and Juan will eventually save enough to send for the rest of Ana’s family to join them.

Ana’s story, inspired by author Angie Cruz’s own mother’s experiences, is undoubtedly a familiar one. When Ana arrives in the Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC in 1965, she quickly realizes the brutal reality of her new life. Juan is a strict disciplinarian and physically abuses Ana for breaking his many rules. She’s rarely allowed out of the sixth-floor apartment they share with Juan’s younger brother, César, so she spends her days cleaning, cooking and washing their work clothes by hand.

Ana’s dreary life greatly improves when Juan returns to the politically tumultuous Dominican Republic to ensure that the Ruiz family’s assets remain safe. With her newfound freedom, Ana begins taking English lessons at a neighborhood church, goes dancing with fun-loving César and even sees a movie at Radio City Music Hall. With César’s help, she sells her homemade Dominican delicacies outside his workplace three days a week. She saves every penny, with the ultimate goal of escape, until unexpected family developments threaten to squelch her dream.

In her third novel, Dominicana, Cruz writes with warmth, empathy and remarkable perception about the immigrant experience. Engaging and illuminating, Dominicana will appeal to readers who’ve enjoyed novels by Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez.

Ana Canción is only 15 when her parents convince her to marry Juan Ruiz, a man twice her age whom she barely knows, and move with him from their home in the Dominican Republic to New York City. They hope she will be able to get a job and that she and Juan will eventually […]
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What comes to mind when you hear the word Appalachia? Whatever it is, it probably won’t be the same after you read this engrossing, sometimes shocking and often witty debut novel from Madeline Ffitch, who is part of the direct-action collective Appalachia Resist.

Helen has little knowledge of the foothills of Appalachian Ohio when she moves there from Seattle with her boyfriend, seeking cheap land to park their camper and relocate his landscaping business. But he soon leaves to work in the oil fields up north, and Helen is left to cope with the approaching winter alone. She earns a little doing tree work with Rudy, an alcoholic loner escaping civilization who’s living in a lean-to on abandoned coal company land. He introduces Helen to Lily and Karen, a couple living on the Women’s Land Trust, where no males are allowed.

Lily is expecting their first child, and when she gives birth to Perley, a boy, they are forced to move. Helen offers to let them live on her 20 acres, and while Lily cares for Perley, Helen and Karen build a “house” for the four of them, “basically livable,” though the porch leaks, the front door lets in daylight top and bottom, their toilet is a bucket, and multiple black snakes soon take up residence.

In alternating chapters, Lily, Karen, Helen and Rudy share what life is like for them in this downtrodden corner of Appalachia—a hill town with a hardware store, a school, an IGA grocery store, a diner and 30 bars. They survive, barely making it through each winter by eating acorns they’ve gathered in the fall, even the ones full of grubs, for “a burst of protein.”

But the outside world encroaches on their nontraditional, isolated life when, at age, 7, Perley asks to go to school. Though Karen objects, calling school “regimental brainwashing,” the two mothers relent, and Perley gets his first taste of television, electricity and a real friend his age. Their situation disintegrates when social services find Perley’s living conditions unacceptable, place him in foster care and mandate that Lily and Karen come up with a “reunification plan” within 90 days. The remainder of Ffitch’s remarkable novel portrays the ways in which they try to meet that goal, bringing all their skills and wiles to bear to allow their son to come home.

Ffitch’s survival saga of strong, independent women will appeal to readers of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina and the realistic novels by Manette Ansay, especially Vinegar Hill.

What comes to mind when you hear the word Appalachia? Whatever it is, it probably won’t be the same after you read this engrossing, sometimes shocking and often witty debut novel from Madeline Ffitch.

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Two complex women inhabit Anna Pitoniak’s second psychologically astute novel, Necessary People—recent college graduates who’ve become the closest of friends, though they’re opposites in so many ways.

Stella Bradley comes from a wealthy New York family, has two doting parents and a home on Long Island Sound featuring a carriage house, a pear orchard, a swimming pool and a dock stretching out into the water. Not much of a student, she enrolls at a small New England college because, in her own words, she’s “rich, and lazy.” Violet Trapp was raised by abusive parents in a “mildewed apartment with roaches” in Tallahassee. She’s an outstanding student who turns down a full scholarship to Duke against her counselor’s advice. Instead, she picks a school based solely on a five-minute conversation with Stella during orientation.

Violet spends holidays and summers with the Bradleys, and after graduation, she and Stella share an apartment in New York City, mostly funded by Stella’s parents. Violet follows her love of journalism to an internship at a new TV channel, King Cable News. She quickly rises through the ranks, becoming an assistant and then assistant producer. She loves the challenge and relishes the sense of accomplishment she experiences as her work is recognized by those above her on the network ladder.

Stella, however, is floundering—spending her parents’ money “like it was water,” her days “a chick-lit fantasy come alive,” in Violet’s own words. When Stella’s brother tells Violet that Stella is actually jealous of her, Violet doesn’t believe it at first. But then Stella uses one of her mother’s lofty connections to land a job at King News, and her beauty and outgoing personality catapult her to an anchor job, overshadowing Violet’s hard-earned accomplishments.

Their longtime friendship gives way to ambition, each one feeling threatened by the other’s success. Pitoniak perceptively traces the fracture of Violet and Stella’s sisterlike bond, leading to a denouement the reader will not anticipate. The author’s insightful glimpse into the competitive world of television news, as well as her spot-on portraits of these two ambitious women, come together in an emotional, gripping novel sure to become a popular summer read.

Two complex women inhabit Anna Pitoniak’s second psychologically astute novel, Necessary People—recent college graduates who’ve become the closest of friends, though they’re opposites in so many ways.

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