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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #770, Feminist Retellings of the Classics

Thu, 03/04/2021 - 10:00am by muffy

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Shortlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction,  A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, (also available in downloadable eBook and audiobook, read by the author) based on the plays by Euripides, is a gorgeous and timely retelling of the Trojan War, from the women, some familiar, others less so, “whose lives, loves, and rivalries were forever altered by this long and tragic war.”

The narrative opens on the night Troy fell, ending 10 years of conflict with the Greeks (Remember that sneaky wooden horse?)  As the city burns, the Trojan women find themselves the spoil of war - among them Hecabe, the once proud queen of Troy, brought low by the loss of her husband and sons; her daughter Cassandra, cursed to foresee the future; the Amazon princess Penthesilea who fought Achilles; and Creusa, who courageously tries to save her family.

We also hear from the Greek camp - Calliope, goddess of epic poetry, who offers a tale not of the men's glory but of the experiences of the women; Penelope, who writes biting letters to Odysseus for his long absence; Clytemnestra, who seeks revenge against Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter; Oenone, Paris' abandoned wife; and Helen, who resents being blamed as the cause of war, and the prophecies she has no power to stop. 

“The telling is nonlinear, but the varied stories flow naturally together, ensuring that readers won't lose their way. Haynes' freshly modern version of an ancient tale is perfect for our times.” (Booklist)

For fans of Madeline Miller. Readers might also want to check out Emily Hauser’s For the Most Beautiful: a Novel of the Women of Troy (2017).  Further reading coming this spring and summer: Euripides’ Trojan Women: A Comic, by Rosanna Bruno, text by Anne Carson (May) ; Daughters of Sparta by Claire Andrews (June); and Women of Troy by Pat Barker (Aug.)

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #769, High Altitude Intrigues

Wed, 02/24/2021 - 10:13pm by muffy

“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” ~ Edmund Hillary

sanatoriumThe Sanatorium * by Sarah Pearse (also available in downloadable eBook and audiobook). Elin Warner, British police detective on extended leave (there is more to that backstory) travels with her boyfriend Willy Riley, to Le Sommet, a 5-star ski resort in the Swiss Alps, at the invitation of her estranged brother Isaac, to celebrate his engagement to their childhood friend Laure Strehl. Arriving in the midst of a snow storm, they soon find themselves totally cut off from the outside world. When Laure, a manager of the resort, disappears overnight, Elin suspects foul play, and her brother as the most likely suspect. Afterall, wasn’t Isaac responsible for the death of their younger brother, Sam? 

As bodies are discovered, including that of Laure’s, it’s clear that a killer is on the loose among the remaining guests and staff. With police unable to reach the resort, Elin assumes the role of investigator, and soon focuses on the sordid history of the resort, once a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients. 

“Pearse not only creates believably fallible characters, she also vividly portrays the frigid landscape of Le Sommet buffeted by blizzards, and a chilling epilogue cries out for a sequel.” (Booklist)

 

shiver_4Shiver (eBook and also available in downloadable audiobook) by Allie Reynolds, is set in the French Alps where 5 friends at a reunion weekend are stranded at Le Rocher, a remote ski resort during a snowstorm.

Curtis, Milla, Brent, Dale, and Heather have not seen each other for over a decade since that winter they spent training for an elite snowboarding competition, and Saskia, the sixth member of their group, vanished and presumed dead. Yet no sooner do Milla and the others arrive for the reunion than they realize something is horribly wrong. The cable cars that delivered them have stopped working, their phones disappear, electrical power is intermittent, food supplies vanish.

“Finding out what’s going on tests the physical and mental endurance of Milla and the rest of the crew. Winter-sports fans are in for a treat here, as are all who enjoy a tale of extremes; the fierce competition between women characters is also a bonus. The answer to who’s pulling the strings here is a little incredible, but overall this debut is an atmospheric winter treat. Recommend it to those who enjoyed recent tales of reunions gone awry, such as Laura DiSilverio’s That Last Weekend (2017) and T. M. Logan’s The Vacation (2020).” (Booklist)

"The sometimes-grisly action has a palpably visual immediacy to it—it comes as no surprise that this debut novel has already been picked up for television.... This suspenseful debut thriller by a former freestyle snowboarder contains both style and substance.“(Kirkus Reviews) 

* = Starred review

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #768

Tue, 02/16/2021 - 2:00pm by muffy

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Super Host by Kate Russo (also available in downloadable eBook and audiobook)

55 year-old Bennett Driscoll, once a Turner Prize-nominated artist fears he is “slowly descending into obscurity”. Eliza, his wife of 20 years divorced him for a hedge fund manager in New York. His gallery dropped him because his works are no longer selling though they’ll have more value retrospectively…when he’s dead. The only bright spot is Mia, his 19 year-old daughter, an art student, who remains loyal to him.  To make ends meet, Bennett resorts to renting out his large home in (West London’s) upscale Chiswick area on AirBed (an Airbnb-like site) while living in his cramp studio in the back garden. 

Though Bennett struggles to find purpose in his day-to-day, he is most concerned with retaining his Super Host status on AirBed, fretting over every less-than-stellar review. That all changes when he comes into contact with three different guests - lonely American Alicia; tortured artist Emma; and cautiously optimistic divorcée Kirstie; as well as bartender and new love interest Claire. These encounters “highlight Bennett's essential problem: figuring out what were the missteps in his life and what he really wants now… A painter herself, Russo (daughter to Richard) makes the act of creating art come alive, while effectively limning her characters in this incisive study of contemporary life.” (Library Journal)

In Russo’s charming and poignant debut…the author writes with warm sympathy and humor. A treat for fans of Nick Hornby and Tom Perrotta.“ (Kirkus Reviews)  Readers might also want to check out the New York Times Review by Sloane Crosley

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #767

Wed, 02/10/2021 - 12:36pm by muffy

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Black Buck * * * (also available in downloadable eBook and audiobook) by Mateo Askaripour, a darkly comic novel, is “25.8% autobiographical”.  (Check out Scott Simon’s interview with the author on NPR) 

The title, derived from an old racial slur, is written as a sales manual, with hints and tips sprinkled throughout, intended to “help(ing) people…(b)lack and brown people that have been others, especially in the workplace. And this could be true for anyone that’s felt otherized, whether that’s due to sexual orientation, gender expression, religion, or race.” (Kirkus Reviews) 

Once the valedictorian of Bronx Science, 22 year-old Darren Vender is a barista at a Midtown Starbucks. Living with his mother in a Bed-Stuy brownstone, and hanging out with his girlfriend, Soraya, he knows his lack of ambition is a disappointment to his mother. An inexplicable impulse to suggest a different drink for a customer changes all that. 

Rhett Daniels, the silver-tongued CEO of Sumwun, NYC’s hottest tech startup, sees potential in Darren, and offers an invitation for Darren to join his elite sales team.  Before grasping the nature of the company (a platform for virtual therapy sessions), Darren recreates himself as (Star)Buck, a ruthless deal-closer, and a super-salesman. 

“While he tries to square his growing discomfort in his new role in this strange, morally dubious workplace with the expectations of his family and friends, tragedy strikes, and Darren secretly begins a rival start-up focusing not only on training people of color to enter the white world of elite sales but also to revolutionize the industry. Askaripour has created a skillfully written, biting, witty, and absurdist novel that sheds light on racism, start-up culture, corporate morality, media bias, gentrification, and many other timely, important themes. Askaripour is an author to watch.”  (Booklist)  

* * * = 3 starred reviews

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #766

Sat, 02/06/2021 - 5:42pm by muffy

bad_muslim_discountThe Bad Muslim Discount * * by Syed Massod (also available in eBook and audiobook) is a well-observed and comic novel about two Muslim families from Pakistan and Iraq finding their way in contemporary America.

As Pakistan grows increasingly conservative and embraces Islamic fundamentalism, the Faris family moved from Karachi to Fremont (CA) looking for a fresh start. While his devout mother and model-Muslim older brother Aamir were quickly adopted by the local Muslim community, 14 year-old Anvar, rebellious and wisecracking was more interested in fitting in, even if it meant being a bad Muslim. In college, his irreverence made him an outcast with fellow Muslim students, including his (very secret) girlfriend Zuha. He transferred out East and eventually got a law degree. 

In alternating chapters, Safwa, a young girl living in war-torn Baghdad with her grief-stricken, conservative father will find a very different and far more dangerous path to America. Anvar and Safwa became neighbors in a SF apartment complex, at the largesse of a landlord who is happy to offer a “good Muslim discount” as long as you don’t mind the rundown, mold-infested units. Though Safwa, now called herself Azza, is engaged to a bully hand-picked by her abusive father, they fell into an easy relationship. When Zuha becomes engaged to Aamir, now a doctor;  and Safwa’s desperate and poorly-conceived plan to gain her freedom attracts the attention of Homeland Security, their lives and that of their families are irrevocably transformed. 

“A born storyteller, Masood has crafted a fast-paced page-turner with plenty of insightful commentary on religion, family, love, and national politics in this debut novel that is expertly written and a joy to read; highly recommended.” (Library Journal)

* *  = 2 starred reviews

 

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #765, January Debut Thrillers

Fri, 01/29/2021 - 10:17pm by muffy

pushThe Push * * by Ashley Audrain

A long chain of toxic mother-daughter dyads… “Feeling unloved by her mother, who left the family when Blythe was 11 and never looked back, Blythe fears having a daughter of her own. When she gives birth to Violet and is unable to bond with her, her fears multiply. While she fiercely loves the son born a few years later, her relationship with Violet remains fraught, and when a tragedy takes place, it cannot recover. Both an absorbing thriller and an intense, profound look at the heartbreaking ways motherhood can go wrong, this is sure to provoke discussion.”  (Booklist)

“This is a sterling addition to the burgeoning canon of bad seed suspense, from an arrestingly original new voice.” (Publishers Weekly) 

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If I Disappear by Eliza Jane Brazier

Sera loves true crime podcasts and when Rachel, her favorite podcast host, goes missing, Sera sets out to investigate and plunges headfirst into the wild back-country of Northern California, following clues hidden in the episodes of Rachel's podcast to an isolated ranch. As Sera digs, she finds that Rachel is not the first woman to vanish from the ranch, and she won't be the last. 

“Blending the true crime compulsion of Michelle McNamara's I'll Be Gone in the Dark with the immersive creepy-craziness of Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects, Brazier creates a heady, pitch-dark cocktail all her own.” (Publishers Weekly)

wife_upstairsThe Wife Upstairs * * is YA author Rachel Hawkins’ first adult title, a Southern-gothic reboot of Jane Eyre, set in Alabama. 

Jane, a recent transplant, walks dogs for the well-heeled residents of Thornfield Estates, people who won’t notice when items go missing here and there. Then she meets Eddie­ Rochester. The rich, brooding, and handsome widower could finally offer Jane the life she yearns for. As they prepare to marry, the death of Eddie's first wife, Bea, and her best friend, Blanche, in a boating accident continues to haunt them.  When the police reopen their probe, an increasingly concerned Jane starts investigating Bea's fate and what part, if any, Eddie played.

“First-person narration by Jane allows for a slow reveal of her past, and occasional perspectives from other characters provide clues to their motivations. An altogether sinister novel that will make readers of Jennifer McMahon, Ruth Ware, and Donna Tartt shudder ” (Booklist) 

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People Like Her by Ellery Lloyd (the husband-and-wife writing team Collette Lyons and Paul Vlitos), it probes the dark side of influencer culture, and explores our desperate need to be seen and the lengths we'll go to be liked by strangers. 

Former fashion editor Emmy Jackson, aka @the_mamabare, Britain's most famous Instamum, claims to offer an unfiltered view of life raising a young family. Followed by millions, only her embittered, washed-up novelist of a husband knows just how creative Emmy can be with the truth. Then one of her followers becomes obsessed and stalks the Jackson family, clearly with malicious intent. 

...(a) well-timed story reminiscent of Gone Girl (2012) and Caroline Kepnes' You (2014)”.  (Booklist) 

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The Woman Outside My Door by Rachel Ryan 

When her seven-year-old son, Cody, tells her about “New Granny” he meets in the park, Georgina reasons that it is entirely understandable that Cody might have invented a "New Granny" to replace his beloved grandmother who recently passed away.  It's only when Cody's imaginary friend starts leaving signs behind--candy wrappers, mysterious phone calls--does Georgina suspect that there could be something more sinister going on, or she is losing her mind. 

“(F)irst-time author Ryan draws the reader into not only Georgina's terrifying journey to save her son, but also her marriage and her sanity… Seasoned mystery lovers will recognize similarities to B. A. Paris' The Breakdown (2017), Mary Kubica's The Other Mrs. (2020), and A. J. Finn's The Woman in the Window (2018).” (Booklist) 

pickard_county_atlasPickard County Atlas by Chris Harding Thornton

Summer, 1978 Nebraska, Pickard County deputy sheriff Harley Jensen has to deal with an unresolved case involving the missing body of a murdered child, and the lingering sadness of his mother’s suicide. 18 year after Dell Jr. went missing and his body was never found, the Reddick family decides to lay a headstone.  Paul, the youngest Reddick, a troublemaker and instigator and Pam Raddicks, married to Rick, is restless, and drawn to Harley’s dark history. Unfolding over six tense days, Pickard County Atlas sets Harley and the Reddicks on a collision course—propelling them toward an incendiary moment that will either redeem or destroy them. 

“Thornton's debut rural noir is grim, with a foreboding atmosphere and a story that does not grow more hopeful. Fans of Laura McHugh's The Wolf Wants In may appreciate this dark book.” (Publishers Weekly)

 * * = 2 starred reviews

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #764

Thu, 01/21/2021 - 10:33am by muffy

detransition_babyDetransition, Baby : A Novel * * (also available in downloadable eBook and audiobook) by Torrey Peters is described by Entertainment Weekly as “a tale of love, loss, and self-discovery as singular as it is universal, and all the sweeter for it.”

Reese, Ames and Katrina find themselves thrown together from an unexpected pregnancy. Trans woman Reese, a 30something Midwestern transplant in NYC, is entangled in an affair with a kinky, dominant, and married man she refers to as “the cowboy”, while desperately wishing for a child. Three years ago, she was in a loving relationship with Amy who has since detransitioned (returning to the gender assigned at birth after living as another gender) to Ames, and is romantically involved with his boss, Katrina.  When Katrina, badly scarred in a divorce finds herself pregnant, she looks to Ames for support and reassurance that she won’t have to raise their child as a single parent. 

While Ames cannot see himself as a father, he relishes being a parent. Knowing how much Reese wants a child, he proposes that the three form an unconventional family. 

“There’s no question that there will be much that’s new here for a lot of readers, but the insider view Peters offers never feels voyeuristic, and the author does a terrific job of communicating cultural specificity while creating universal sympathy... Smart, funny, and bighearted.” (Kirkus Reviews)

Recently, the Rumpus talked with Torrey Peters (MFA, University of Iowa; Masters in Comparative Literature, Dartmouth). She shared that “(t)he title is a pun, but I also think of it as a condition, where the comma is a painful knife’s edge that you walk as a trans woman. I wanted to fall off in one of two directions: to one side, if I could have a baby, be a mother, I think I would have felt a kind of legitimacy. In the other direction, if I could have found out a way to live comfortably in some kind of detransitioned state. These two options are represented by the characters.”

 * * = 2 starred reviews

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #763

Tue, 01/12/2021 - 4:10pm by muffy

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The Liar's Dictionary *  by a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Eley Williams (also available in downloadable eBook and audiobook) is “simultaneously a love story, an office comedy, a sleuth mystery and a slice of gaslit late Victoriana…” (The Guardian)

Mallory, a young intern and the sole employee of the Swansby’s multivolume Encyclopaedic Dictionary is tasked by the current director, 70 year-old David Swansby to identify all the Mountweazel (n. the phenomenon of false entries within dictionaries and works of reference) in preparation for digitization of the second edition. In between, she spends her time memorizing stationary labels in the supply closet while eating her lunch, and fielding phone calls by somebody threatening to blow up the building. 

And mountweazel she finds with the help of her “flatmate” (lover), Pip, lots of them.  They were the work of Peter Winceworth, Victorian lexicographer, who, in 1899 was  toiling away at the letter S for Swansby’s, “in bored anonymity, speaking with an affected lisp and infatuated with the fiancée of his coworker and archnemesis… Buried beneath the torrents of puns and linguistic riffing is a story about two people from different eras connected by the thread of language, free to invent and repurpose words as they please, but who are less adept at navigating that far more indefinable terrain: the human heart.” (Library Journal)

The author combines a Nabokovian love of wordplay with an Ali Smith--like ability to create eccentric characters who will take up permanent residence in the reader's heart. This is a sheer delight for word lovers.”(Publishers Weekly) 

 * = Starred review

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #762, “Deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.” ~ Oscar Wilde

Thu, 12/31/2020 - 1:04pm by muffy

Among the Booklist’s Top 10 Romance Debuts are these 2 delightful historicals. 

mr_malcolms_listMr. Malcolm's List * by Suzanne Allain, a screenwriter whose most memorable trip was to London where her script for Mr. Malcolm’s List: Overture (see trailer) was being filmed.

Spurned debutante Julia Thistlewaite learns through her brother that The Honourable Mr. Jeremy Malcolm, second son of the Earl of Kilbourne finds her lacking the many qualifications on his well-crafted list for a suitable wife. To exact revenge Julia invites her friend Selina Dalton, a vicar's daughter, to London, planning to tailor her to Jeremy's list, attract his attention, and then reject him for failing to meet the qualifications of her own list.   Selina is reluctant to participate in Julia's scheme, especially after meeting the irresistible Mr. Malcolm, who appears to be very different from the arrogant scoundrel of Julia's description.

“By focusing on a few well-developed characters, screenwriter and debut romance writer Allain make it easy for readers to become emotionally engaged in the progress of these friendships and budding romantic relationships. She also provides a cheeky look at the different expectations placed on men versus women during the Regency Era, revealing the limitations society accords individuals in terms of their family connections and personal wealth and education.” (Library Journal) 

“This effervescent love story is a charmer.” (Publishers Weekly)

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To Have and to Hoax * * by Martha Waters (eBook, also available as downloadable audiobook)  In this hilarious debut Regency rom-com, an estranged couple feign accidents and illness in an attempt to gain attention, and maybe just win each other back in the process.

After a whirlwind romance and a year of wedded bliss, Lady Violet Grey and Lord James Audley are reduced to cold detached politeness. When Violet learns James has been thrown from his horse, she rushes to their country estate, only to find him alive and well at a tavern. Wanting to teach her estranged husband a lesson, Violet decides to feign an illness of her own which James quickly sees through, but he decides to play along. “ What follows is a series of riotously funny mishaps, pranks, and misunderstandings as the feuding couple weaponize Regency manners for their own ends. Waters gently lampoons genre tropes without sacrificing genuine feeling. Self-aware and brimming with well-timed epiphanies, this joyful, elegant romp is sure to enchant.” (Publishers Weekly)

Perfect for fans of Jasmine Guillory and Julia Quinn.

BONUS FEATURE:

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A Duke, the Lady, and a Baby *  (also available in downloadable eBook and audiobook) by Vanessa Riley - this multicultural historical Regency romance is the first in the Rogues & Remarkable Women Series, for fans of Beverly Jenkins, Evie Dunmore, and Alyssa Cole.  

Romance burns slow and hot between a rakish war hero and a determined widow in this bewitching Regency series opener. When headstrong West Indian heiress Patience Jordan questioned her English husband Colin’s mysterious suicide, she lost everything: her newborn son, Lionel, her fortune—and her freedom. Hired by Lionel’s unsuspecting new guardian, Busick Strathmore, Duke of Repington, as his nanny, Patience all the while, is hatching a foolhardy plan to claim her trust documents and whisk her son to her homeland as soon as possible. 

“Riley’s well-researched depiction of 1814 England tells a broad story of life in wartime, the lack of women’s rights, mental health, and suicide, while, with all the difficulties they face, Patience and Busick’s love story feels genuine and deep.” (Booklist) 

If you just binged on Shonda Rhimes's Bridgerton, Vulture suggests trying these 10 Romance Novels to Read

* *  = 2 starred reviews

* = Starred review

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #761, Award-Winning Debut Short Story Collections in Celebration of Winter Solstice

Sun, 12/20/2020 - 4:13pm by muffy

how_to_pronounce_knifeHow to Pronounce Knife: Stories * *  by Canadian poet Souvankham Thammavongsa is the winner of the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize.  “In sparse prose braced with disarming humor, Thammavongsa (born in a Laotian refugee camp) offers glimpses into the daily lives of immigrants and refugees in a nameless city, illuminating the desires, disappointments, and triumphs of those who so often go unseen..." (The Paris Review) 

In these 14 stories (among them one short-listed for Commonwealth Short Story Prize and an O.Henry Award winner) we meet watchful children, wounded men, and restless women caught between cultures, languages, and values. 

In the titular story a young school girl is embarrassed when she finds her father unable to pronounce simple English words. In the  2019 O. Henry-prized "Slingshot"   a 70-year-old woman experiences a summer of sexual reawakening with her 32-year-old neighbor. Red, a chicken factory worker longs for  a nose job so she would have a chance at the front office where everyone has “a thin nose that stuck out from her face and pointed upward.” In "Randy Travis," when her mother becomes obsessed with the country singer, a 7 year-old is made to write hundreds of love letters in her name.  

“Cosmopolitan aficionados of pristine short fiction--think Paul Yoon, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Phil Klay--will want to read.” (Library Journal)

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Winner of the 2019 C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize, and hailed by Lauren Groff as “fully committed to the truth no matter how dark or difficult or complicated it may be”, Sleepovers: Stories *, the debut short story collection by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips takes us to a forgotten corner of the rural South, full of cemeteries, soybean fields, fishing holes, and Duck Thru gas stations.

Each story focuses on individuals in the same rural, hardscrabble North Carolina town.  In "Shania," a 7 year-old is awed by her friend named after the country music star. As blood sisters they know little about each other’s family circumstance, and their friendship is cut short after domestic violence erupts in Shania's decrepit house. In  "The Locket"  Shirley, a 60-year-old pool custodian with a painful childhood befriends Krystal, a teenage babysitter with an impressive dive, and offers up her only treasure, with devastating consequences. 

"Phillips demonstrates an impressive ease at depicting transition, trauma, and loss, brilliantly evoking a close-knit world held together by the strength of friendship. This collection stands out in the field of current Southern fiction.” (Publishers Weekly)

In Memoriam

afterpartiesAnthony Veasna So, Author on the Brink of Stardom, Dies at 28. The author of crackling, kinetic and darkly comedic stories that made vivid the lives of first-generation Khmer-Americans.  Death was sudden and unexpected. (The New York Times)  

So’s first book, Afterparties: Stories (eBook), a collection of short stories have been described as a “history-haunted comedy of Cambodian-American manners,” is to be published by Ecco next August, after a fierce bidding war. 

One of the stories in the collection (that first appeared in the literary journal n+1) “Superking Son Scores Again”  is that of “hapless, hopeful and striving teenage skater boys, clad in too-large T-shirts, eager for heroes, even fallen ones like Superking Son.“ In “The Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts” which The New Yorker published in February, Mr. So writes of two sisters, Kayley and Tevy, typical preteen and teenage Cambodian-American children. They are working the night shift one summer with their mother at the family’s restaurant, chafing at the ever-present burden of their parents’ hideous past trauma, flicking it away with black humor.

* * = 2 starred reviews

* = Starred review