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
Fri, 11/01/2019 - 6:33pm by muffy
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.
* * = 2 starred reviews
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)
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.
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
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)
YA 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
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)
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
Mon, 08/05/2019 - 1:59pm by muffy
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
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 Williams’ A 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)
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)
Thu, 06/20/2019 - 3:08pm by muffy
Tasmanian librarian Minnie Darke’s (Gemini) debut Star-Crossed has reviewers raving. Booklist called it “(u)tterly charming”; Library Journal thought it “(f)unny and enticing" where one woman's decision to tinker with the horoscopes of the man of her dreams has far-reaching consequences.
When Justine Carmichael (Sagittarius) ran into Nick Jordan (Aquarius) at Sydney’s Alexandria Park Market, he was dressed as a fish. A struggling actor, Nick takes on odd jobs. Childhood best friends who have been apart for 13 years, 1 month, and 3 weeks, since their (memorable) joint family vacation when they were 14, Justine is surprised to find Nick an astrological devotee, allowing his decision-making, romantic and professional, guided solely by the horoscopes in his favorite magazine - the Alexandria Park Star where Justine works as a staff writer. As Justine tweaks the monthly Aquarius column to prompt Nick into realizing they’re meant for each other, she unknowingly sets off a chain of events with life-changing decisions for Aquarius everywhere.
""Winning . . . Unpretentious, well-drawn characters and the fresh twist on the childhood sweethearts reunited setup make this perfect for fans of romantic comedies." (Publishers Weekly)
When an altercation and a ruined £75,000 cake at a royal wedding threaten an international scandal and the re-election bid of the first female president of the United States, First Son Alex Claremont-Diaz is quickly dispatched to mend U.S./British relations by staging publicity photo-ops with his archnemesis, Henry, Prince of Wales. What started as a fake friendship grows deeper, and more dangerous, than either could have imagined. The pair (with the help of families and loyal staff) manages to meet at Wimbledon, a Texas ranch, and at a West Hollywood karaoke bar until a hacked White House server forces them to make an impossible decision.
“Although Alex and Henry’s relationship is the heart of the story, their friends and family members are all rich, well-drawn characters, and their respective worlds feel both realistic and larger-than-life. A clever, romantic, sexy love story.” (Kirkus Reviews)
* * = 2 starred reviews
Sat, 05/25/2019 - 6:43pm by muffy
Picked as one of 9 Books Not to Judge by Their Covers, There's a Word for That * is the first book for adults by YA author Sloane Tanen. “The novel's title refers to German words that express concepts that take a whole sentence to convey in English, like Verschlimmbessern (to make matters worse in the process of trying to improve them) and Schnapsidee (a plan so stupid, it must have come from a drunken mind), and others make up the five sections of the book.” (Kirkus Reviews)
Retired film producer Marty Kessler, addicted to opioids, man-handled by his latest girlfriend Gail, is running through his life savings at an alarming rate while still supporting his daughters Janine and Amanda and her twins, Hailey and Jaycee. 41 year-old Janine, a former child star is struggling to make a life for herself. Recently divorced Amanda, a high school drama teacher worries about her girls’ future.
On the other side of the pond, celebrated novelist Bunny Small is self-medicating for a severe writer’s block and estrangement from her only son Henry. Unbeknownst to the family, Marty and Bunny were once married. Their reunion at Directions, a ritzy Malibu rehab center, will bring these two wildly flawed families together, for better or for worse.
“With equal parts humor and empathy, Tanen's first novel for adults employs multiple narrators and a skillfully drawn cross-generational family to examine how relatives impact one another… For readers who miss The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg (2012) and the Lamberts from Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections (2001).” (Booklist)
* = Starred review
It is 1968, Tom Hope, a cash-strapped sheep farmer is hired to do some carpentry work for Hannah Babel, a recent immigrant and Holocaust survivor, determined to open the first bookstore in town. Trudy, Tom’s unstable wife, left him again but this time taking with her Peter, her son that Tom has raised as his own, to join a Jesus camp. Sophisticated, colorful, charismatic and haunted, Hannah lost her entire family at Auschwitz, including her young son and vowed never to love another child again. Despite the vast age difference, attraction between Tom and Hannah is mutual and they soon marry. But when a horrific act of violence sends Peter back to Tom, Hannah has a difficult decision to make.
“The openness of the Australian countryside is an apt setting for a complex exploration of grief, faith, and restoration, and in poignant, meditative, and stirring prose Hillman tells a heartrending and heartwarming tale of love and sacrifice.” (Booklist)