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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #718

Tue, 11/26/2019 - 7:49pm by muffy

on_swift_horsesBefore you dive into On Swift Horses * by Shannon Pufahl (Stanford, Stegner Fellow), you might be interested in listening to  NPR's Scott Simon talks with the author about her debut novel - inspired by her grandmother’s story. 

In 1956, newly-wed Muriel and Lee left her Kansas hometown for San Diego, hoping for a better life and a little bungalow all of their own. Lee’s brother Julius, was supposed to join them but disappeared without a word.  Eavesdropping on her customers at the Heyday Lounge frequented by retired jockeys and bookies, Muriel began slipping off to the racetrack and trying her luck with the horses. Wildly successful, she secretly used her winning to allow Lee to fulfill his dream of a house in the suburbs. 

When Julius, a habitual gambler finally showed up, with a mustang in tow, Muriel was secretly pleased while Lee was guarded, until Julius’s secretive and reckless past caught up with him, bringing discord into their lives, and forcing Muriel to look deep into her heart.

Narrated by Muriel and Julius in turn, “...Pufahl's sharp, gritty details of 1950s San Diego and Las Vegas effectively draw the reader into her protagonists' struggles to bring meaning to their lives, however different their experiences.” (Library Journal)

Pufahl's prose is lush and slow with the romance of emotion and the postwar frontier. Her dialogue is sparse and pointed, every word deliberately spoken. On Swift Horses is a queer Western for an utterly contemporary audience.” (Booklist)

 * = Starred review

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #717, “Women’s voices always rise two octaves when they talk to cleaning women or cats.” ~ Lucia Berlin

Sat, 11/16/2019 - 7:12pm by muffy


In Vacuum in the Dark * *  by Jen Beagin, Mona is twenty-six and cleans houses for a living in Taos, New Mexico. Though this is a standalone second novel, you might want to start with Pretend I’m Dead, in order to get the full backstory.  Named “A Best Book of the Year” by O, The Oprah Magazine, and shortlisted for Kirkus Review’s First Novel Prize, the 2017 Whiting Award winner Jen Beagin (a former cleaning lady herself) sets her debut in Lowell, MA where the 24 year-old Mona, alone and emotionally adrift, is trying to move forward in life. 

While handing out clean needles to drug addicts, she met and fell for Mr. Disgusting, a charismatic artist turned drug addict who proceeded to break her heart in unimaginable ways. To start afresh, she moved to Taos. There, she shares an adobe house with a new-age couple “Yoko and Yoko”; and gets hopelessly tangled up with a client’s husband. As her business picks up, Mona finds it increasing hard to keep a professional distance from her clients (snooping in their belongings and taking photographs). Then there is the Hungarian artist couple with serious substance-abuse and boundary issues who asks Mona to pose for them;  and a single father who may be hiding a disturbing secret.



Through it all, Mona is saved from her self-destructive tendencies by the voice of NPR's Terry Gross, a wise, imaginary best friend as she searches for meaning and belonging. 

Beagin is a wonderfully funny writer who also happens to tackle serious subjects, which few authors are able to pull off successfully…(She) never treats these subjects lightly, but she doesn't shy away from employing very dark humor; the result is a comic novel that's a joy to read but never frivolous or superficial.” (NPR)

For fans of Sunshine Cleaning.  Readers might also enjoy A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin. A 2015 finalist for the Kirkus Prize, these 43 stories “capture the lives of hard-living women from Denver to Peru to the Bay Area to the Texas borderlands.” 

* * = 2 starred reviews

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #716

Fri, 11/01/2019 - 6:33pm by muffy


London potter Elizabeth Macneal’s (Oxford U.) The Doll Factory * *  won the 2018 Caledonia Novel Award, and is a New York Times Editor’s Choice. 

Against the backdrop of the construction of the Crystal Palace for The Great Exhibition; and the contentious selection process of the Royal Academy exhibitions, Macneal creates a thrilling psychological thriller about art and obsession that the New York Times Book Review called “(a) lush, evocative Gothic.”

Iris Whittle toils long hours at a factory painting faces on porcelain dolls but secretly harbors the ambition to be an artist. When she is approached by Louis Frost, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to pose for his painting, she agrees, against the wishes of her family, especially her twin sister Rose, on the condition that Louis would teach her how to paint. As Iris grows into her artistic talent and mutual affection with Louis, she is unaware of the attention of Silas Reed, a curiosity collector and taxidermist, who schemes to make Iris his prized specimen.

The only person who is convinced that Iris is in danger is a young street urchin that Iris befriends,  but he might not be a match for the evil that lurks in the seamier side of Victorian London. 

For further reading on this 19th century art movement, try The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites by Elizabeth Prettejohn and Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists. You might also enjoy the television series Desperate Romantics that dramatizes the Brotherhood’s quest for artistic immortality which takes them into some of the lewdest, darkest, and funniest corners of 1851 London. 

For information on the Crystal Palace, a marvel of its time, try Crystal Palace : Joseph Paxton and Charles Fox;  and the catalogue of one of the first World's Fairs.

* *  = 2 starred reviews

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #715, “With my friends, the sad truth is that our best “best friend” days are behind us…” ~ Mindy Kaling

Sat, 10/12/2019 - 4:26pm by muffy


The Other's Gold by Hopwood Award winner  Elizabeth Ames (Staudt), (MFA, UM) follows Lainey, Ji Sun, Alice, and Margaret, from their freshman year at Quincy-Hawthorn College to adulthood.  Theater-major Lainey, a mixed-race adoptee, devotes herself to political activism and short-lived romances. Alice, a star athlete and pre-med student is secretive and reserve. Immensely wealthy, Korean-born Ji Sun is painfully aware of her otherness; and Margaret, with her questionable academic credentials, is marked by her extraordinary beauty. Gravitating to their beloved window seat, the foursome quickly become inseparable. 

This four-part novel - the Accident, the Accusation, the Kiss, and the Bite is devoted to the terrible mistake each makes that galvanizes their friendship, and ultimately tests their loyalties and strength of character.

“This literary work (by debut author Ames) illustrates the strength it takes to maintain closeness despite moral and ethical setbacks. Dealing with issues of guilt, pain, and the realistic, ruthless hardships of life, The Other's Gold shows that friends will stay by your side, if you let them fully in.” (Booklist)


tell_me_everythingTell Me Everything * * *  by Cambria Brockman is a twist on the campus novel. 

Hawthorne College, Edelton, Maine.  Malin, Ruby, John, Max, Gemma, and Khaled have been friends since freshman year and inseparable as housemates - Gemma, an insecure theater major from London; John, a tall, handsome, and wealthy New Englander; Max, John’s cousin and a shy pre-med major; Khaled, a wise-cracking prince from Abu Dhabi; and Ruby, a beautiful art history major, and Malin, our narrator - an expert at hiding a troubling past. But by the time Senior Day is over, one of them is dead.

“(Debut author) Brockman perfectly captures the insecurities that plague young adults, as well as the intense relationships that form in the crucible that is college. Deliberate pacing complements the sinuous structure, with anxiety and dread mounting as the story lines coalesce. Not every reveal feels earned, but the shocking central twist and devastating conclusion amply compensate. Fans of Patricia Highsmith and Donna Tartt should take notice.” (Publishers Weekly) 

“A truly chilling thriller with a twist so quiet, you never hear it coming.” (Kirkus Reviews)

* * * = 3 starred reviews

May I also suggest Richard Russo’s latest Chances Are…Four decades after their graduation from Minerva College,  Lincoln, a commercial real estate broker, Teddy, a tiny-press publisher, and Mickey, a musician beyond his rockin' age, convene on Martha's Vineyard. But each man harbors secrets, and regrets for the part he played in the mystery that still haunts them since Memorial Day, 1971. 


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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #714

Tue, 10/01/2019 - 1:51pm by muffy


The Secrets We Kept * * *  by debut novelist Lara Prescott is set at the height of the Cold War, based on the true story of the CIA plot of infiltrate the hearts and minds of Soviet Russia, not with propaganda, but with the greatest love story of the 20th century. 

Narrated by 3 women between 1949 and 1961, they were instrumental in bringing Doctor Zhivago to the West, when for a decade, celebrated poet Boris Pasternak could not find a publisher for his novel in Soviet Russia, banned "due to its critiques of the October Revolution and its so-called subversive nature".

In Moscow, Olga Vsevolodovna, Pasternak’s mistress and muse, and inspiration for Zhivago’s heroine, Lara endured three years at a Gulag for refusing to denounce Pasternak or the novel.   In Washington D. C., American-born Irina Drozdova, a typist at the Agency (CIA) found herself recruited for “fieldwork”, and under the tutelage of glamorous Sally Forrester, a former OSS agent, quickly learned the trade craft of being a “carrier” - make drops, and invisibly ferry classified documents. Her ultimate mission - disguised as a nun, she was to place copies of Dr. Zhivago, printed in the original Russian into the hands of Soviet citizens visiting the 1958 World's Fair.

“Through lucid images and vibrant storytelling, Prescott creates an edgy postfeminist vision of the Cold War, encompassing Sputnik to glasnost, typing pool to gulag, for a smart, lively page-turner. This debut shines as spy story, publication thriller, and historical romance with a twist.” (Publishers Weekly) 

* * * = 3 starred reviews

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #713, “I blame Hollywood for skewing perspectives. Life is just a big romantic comedy to them, and if you meet cute, happily ever-after is a foregone conclusion.” ~ Jonathan Tropper

Mon, 08/19/2019 - 9:14am by muffy


In The Friend Zone * *  by Abby Jimenez, Josh Copland literally ran into Kristen Peterson with his truck. Spilled coffee and a borrowed shirt later, Kristen realized Josh is the new firefighter in her station, and best man to her maid of honor at their best friends’ wedding.  Funny, sexy, handy, and totally gets her, sarcasm and snarkiness notwithstanding, Kirsten is determined to keep Josh firmly in the friend zone, especially now that her boyfriend Tyler is returning home from a 2-year deployment, and moving in with her. Besides, Josh’s plan for a big family is a nonstarter for Kristen. All reasoning aside, the attraction between them is undeniable. 

“Jimenez manages to fulfill all expectations for a romantic comedy while refusing to sacrifice nuance. Biting wit and laugh-out-loud moments take priority, but the novel remains subtle in its sentimentality and sneaks up on the reader with unanticipated depth.“ (Publishers Weekly)



waiting_for_tom_hanksYA author Kerry Winfrey’s first title for adults Waiting for Tom Hanks is set in Columbus, Ohio where rom-com obsessed Annie Cassidy dreams of being the next Nora Ephron while freelance writing internet content (diaper rash, hemorrhoids), and binge watching Sleepless in Seattle. 29 and still living in her childhood home with her Uncle Don, who moved in to take care of her when her mother died, Annie is waiting for her own Tom Hanks

When a high-profile director starts filming a rom-com in her neighborhood, Don manages to get her a job on the set. Annie’s first encounter with the lead actor Drew Danforth - a cocky Hollywood bad-boy, involves a cup of spilled coffee and snarky exchanges - definitely not the meet-cute she has been dreaming of, yet Annie finds herself drawn to him. “The chemistry between Annie and Drew is irresistible, and the plot's many moving pieces add complexity.” (Publishers Weekly). 

“Winfrey's sweet, hilarious novel is full of klutzy and charming characters, heartwarming moments, and laugh-out-loud one-liners. This quick read is sure to delight readers looking for an escape of everyday life, especially fans of Mary Ann Marlow and Helena Hunting (including Meet Cute, 2019).” (Booklist)

* * = 2 starred reviews

* = Starred review


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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #712

Sat, 08/10/2019 - 3:05pm by muffy


The New York Times book reviewer Ivy Pochoda called Disappearing Earth * * * *  by Fulbright fellow Julia Phillips “(a) superb debut—brilliant. Daring, nearly flawless.”  “(A)n unusual, cleverly constructed thriller, and also a deep dive into the culture of Russia’s remote Kamchatka peninsula." (Kirkus Reviews)

On an August afternoon, sisters Sofia (8), and Alyona(11) vanished from a public beach in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. A witness described seeing them with a man in a shiny black car, but in the ensuing weeks, the police investigation turned up nothing. The case paralleled the disappearance of an 18 year-old Native girl 3 years ago, officially ruled as a runaway. Over the course of the next year, we met the women connected by the 2 incidents - a reindeer herder’s daughter at university in the capital; a policeman’s wife; the journalist/mother of the missing sisters; a Native woman whose teenage daughter also disappeared.

“In fresh and unpredictable scenes depicting broken friendships and failed marriages, strained family gatherings, and rehearsals of a Native dance troupe, Phillips’ spellbinding prose is saturated with sensuous nuance and emotional intensity, as she subtly traces the shadows of Russia’s past and illuminates today’s daunting complexities of gender and identity, expectations and longing.” (Booklist) 


van_apfelThe Van Apfel Girls Are Gone * by Felicity McLean

In the long, hot summer of 1992, the Van Apfel sisters -- Ruth, Hannah, and the beautiful Cordelia, mysteriously disappeared from their home in the Sydney suburb. Though Ruth was eventually found dead, the disappearance of Hannah and Cordelia was never solved. Eleven year-old Tikka Malloy and her older sister, Laura, have been haunted ever since by the loss of their friends. 

Twenty years later, Tikka, now living in Baltimore, returns home to see Laura, recently diagnosed with cancer, and is immediately drawn back into the mystery.  “Through conversations with Laura, neighbors, and her parents, Tikka stumbles upon painful feelings of guilt, hidden secrets and scandals, and memories better left forgotten ... (that) lies hidden behind the cheerful facade of suburbia. This debut, part coming-of-age story and part crime thriller, is both forceful and unnerving.“ (Publishers Weekly)

* * * * = 4 starred reviews

* = Starred review




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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #711

Mon, 08/05/2019 - 1:59pm by muffy


For fans of The Rosie Project and The Kiss Quotient comes Ellie and the Harpmaker * * , Hazel Prior’s charming debut, set in England’s West Country.

Ellie Jacobs happened upon the Harp Barn on one of her walks on the moors, and met the exceedingly handsome harpmaker Dan Hollis. Happy in his solitude, making exquisite Celtic harps from local materials, Dan impulsively gifted Ellie, whom he referred to as the Exmoor housewife with a cherrywood harp (to match her cherry-colored socks) after learning that playing the harp was on Ellie’s bucket list. 

When Ellie’s domineering husband Clive insisted that Ellie return the harp, Dan offered to keep it at the barn, and introduced Ellie to Rhoda, a concert harpist for lessons. As Ellie made daily visits to her harp in secret, she found herself increasingly drawn to Dan - with all his “peculiarities and eccentricities, his self-sufficiency, his otherworldliness”. When the insanely jealous Clive discovered Ellie’s betrayal, it looked like their precariously balanced relationship might not survive. 

Told in the alternating voices of its two protagonists,  “Prior's debut probes the inner workings of two very different minds. Empathetic to its core, it's a delightfully heart-warming glimpse inside a lushly imagined world. Tender, free-spirited, and guaranteed to tug at readers' heartstrings.” (Booklist)

* * = 2 starred reviews

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #710, "The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live." ~ Auguste Rodin

Mon, 07/08/2019 - 4:29pm by muffy


If you enjoyed J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine (2011), Beatriz WilliamsA Hundred Summers (2013), and last year’s blockbuster The High Season, you would not want to miss out on Montauk by Nicola Harrison, when one is transported to a Long Island resort in 1938. 

Bea(trice) Bordeaux was to spend the summer among Manhattan socialites at Montauk Manor while her banker husband Harry, would join her on the weekends. Amidst all the leisure activities and charity benefits, she was tasked to further Harry’s investment interest by cozying up to the high society wives. A Vassar grad from humble upbringing, she felt much more at ease with the solitary hikes around Montauk, once a fishing village, and befriending the townsfolk who catered to the every need of the resort guests. She was especially drawn to Elizabeth, the laundress and Thomas, the lighthouse keeper - a wounded war hero and a poet, gentle and enigmatic, an inviting contrast to her cold and brutish husband.

“Full of substance and delightful characters with intriguing and intricate lives, Harrison's first novel will be a strong pick for fans of historical fiction featuring strong female leads...” (Library Journal)



The Unbreakables, by Lisa Barr (her first in a contemporary setting) is a “well-crafted novel about heartbreak, passion, and reclaiming one's life.” (Booklist)

For 42 year-old Sophie Bloom, the humiliation was complete - finding out her surgeon husband Gabe made the top of the list on Ashley Madison, a hacked on-line dating site for married people, at her birthday dinner AND, her best friends were aware of Gabe's dalliances but kept the information from her.  A tearful call from her 19 year-old daughter Ava studying in Paris, sent Sophie across the Atlantic, hoping the distance would also give her perspective.

At loose ends after packing Ava off, Sophie heads out to the artist enclave of Saint-Paul-de-Vence. There, for the first time in a long time, Sophie rediscovers her zest for life and for art (she was once a promising sculptor) in spectacularly satisfying and libertine fashion. 

“This exquisitely wrought novel will appeal to readers who believe in the redemption of new beginnings, and in the necessity of facing the past while making a deliberate effort to move forward.” (Publishers Weekly) 

Would appeal to fans of Bridget Asher's The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted (2011). 


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Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 10:13am by howarde

Book cover of Furious HoursAmong Harper Lee's abandoned works is a manuscript called The Reverend, a true crime story surrounded by facts so strange you couldn’t make them up.

Over the course of several years in 1970s rural Alabama, Reverend Willie Maxwell murdered five family members on whom he had taken out multiple life insurance policies. In the end, only two of the deaths could be declared homicides and Maxwell could not be tried for the second because he was murdered at the funeral of his last victim. How Maxwell killed his victims and what he did with the insurance money are still mysteries. The twist, however, is that Tom Radney, the lawyer who defended Maxwell in a criminal trial and a host of insurance claim disputes, went on to also successfully defend Maxwell’s murderer.

When Harper Lee heard about the Maxwell case, she traveled from New York to Alabama to gather as much evidence about it as possible. Having helped Truman Capote conduct interviews and prepare materials for In Cold Blood, Lee was the perfect person to write about this bizarre case, which took place only 150 miles from where she grew up. However, her years of work on the book disappeared, leaving a trail of clues as puzzling as Reverend Maxwell’s.