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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #777

Fri, 05/07/2021 - 12:41pm by muffy

who_is_maud_dixonVoted one of the most addictive books of 2021 (Kirkus Reviews) , Who is Maud Dixon? * * * (also available in downloadable eBook and audiobook), Alexandra Andrews’s devilishly plotted debut” (Publishers’ Weekly) is a stylish psychological thriller - twisty, cinematic and compulsively readable, already optioned for film.

Florence Darrow, an aspiring writer, is fired from her low-level publishing job. Having turned her back on her single mother and the hardscrabble Florida upbringing, she is too glad to accept a job as a live-in assistant to the enigmatic and publicity-shy novelist known as Maud Dixon. Helen Wilcox - the real Maud Dixon, whose debut rocketed to the top of the chart, turns out to be only a few years older than Florence. Though secretive and prickly at times, Helen seems to trust Florence, and turns over management of her personal and professional accounts. Then rather out of the blue, proposes a research trip to Morocco where her next novel is set.

Things become complicated when Florence wakes up in a hospital after a car accident. Being addressed as Madame Wilcox, and there is no sign of Helen (dead or alive), leaves Florence to wonder if she could get the publishing career (after all, SHE has been typing up Helen's drafts) and the life she wants ($3 million in the bank and the glorious house in the Catskills) by simply becoming Maud Dixon. 

“At every diabolical twist and turn, Andrews' impish sense of humor peeks around the corner to jack up the fun….Terrific characters, vivid settings, and a deliciously dastardly, cunningly constructed plot.” (Kirkus Reviews) 

Inevitably, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, comes to mind. It will also appeal to fans of  Liv Constantine’s The Last Mrs. Parrish and Emily Gray Tedrowe’s The Talented Miss Farwell.

* * *  = 3 starred reviews

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #776, “We all like chicken.” ~ Malcolm X

Thu, 04/29/2021 - 5:46pm by muffy

brood

Brood * (also available in downloadable eBook and audiobook) by Jackie Polzin (Brown, Iowa Writers' Workshop) is “a wonderfully written first novel, full of nuance and humor and strangeness, whose unnamed narrator lives in the Camden neighborhood of Minneapolis and is married to an economist,” wrote Elizabeth McCracker in her New York Times Book Review,  “Brood” is a perfectly titled book, a word that can be thing or an action, can refer to people or single chickens or multiple chickens or children. The reader turns the title over and over, to see all the meanings it accrues.”

The novel opens with the chickens - Gam Gam, Miss Hennepin County, Gloria and Darkness — nesting in a repurposed dollhouse coop in the backyard of our unnamed narrator, who heroically tries to keep her small brood alive despite the seemingly endless challenges. Now with Percy, the narrator’s economist husband, up for professorship at a prestigious university on the West Coast, she needs to find them a home.  As Percy is preoccupied with their future, our narrator turns her gaze on their past - her job cleaning houses; her friend Helen, a real estate agent and new mother; her recent miscarriage - likely their last hope of a family; and how the chickens have become "an endless source of entertainment and worry.”

“Calling to mind the cerebral works of Olivia Laing and Jenny Offill, Polzin’s story has a quiet intensity that churns throughout. It’s in the tension she builds within her narrator’s isolated world, navigating the paradox of domestic intimacy, the comfort and terror it sows, and the unexpected shapes motherhood can take. There are no heart-quickening plot twists or climactic endings here, and that’s the beauty of Polzin’s writing. It doesn’t need either to move you. In Polzin's deft hands, the mundane is an endless source of wonder. A moving meditation on loss, solitude, and the hope that can rise from both.” (Kirkus Reviews) 

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Now, a change of pace…

The Chicken Sisters * (eBook and also available in downloadable audiobook) by K. J. Dell’Antonia where two chicken shacks and a food war will throw three generations of the citizens of Merinac, Kansas into chaos.  Oh, did I forget to mention that $100,000 is at stake? 

For a century, Chicken Mimi’s and Chicken Frannie’s both claim to serve the best fried chicken in the state. Founded by the namesake sisters, the legendary feud continues to pit the Moores against the Pogociellos. 35 year-old widowed Amanda Moore grew up working for her mom at Mimi’s before scandalously marrying Frank Pogociello and now manages the front-of-house at Frannie’s. Hoping to bring new business to their small town, Amanda applies to Food Wars, the reality TV restaurant competition that promises $100,000 to the winner… as long as she could bring Mimi’s (and her estranged mother Barbara and the dishy new cook, Andy) on board. 

What Amanda could not predict is the arrival of Mae, her older sister - a Marie Kondo–eqsue professional organizer with a television show called Sparkling, and a secret agenda. 

“Dell’Antonia writes convincingly and sympathetically about complicated family relationships, giving Mae and Amanda each relatable flaws. The Food Wars scenes are a fun peek behind the curtain of the reality TV world, and the small-town warmth of Merinac is comfortingly quirky.  A charming and satisfying story about family bonds that will make meat eaters everywhere crave fried chicken.” (Kirkus Reviews) 

 * = Starred review

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #775, Talk Radio

Thu, 04/15/2021 - 3:12pm by muffy

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In this Modern Love meets This American Life, The Ex Talk * * * (also available in downloadable eBook and audiobook) is YA author Rachel Lynn Solomon’s “exceptional adult debut” (Publishers Weekly), “a sizzling rivals-to-lovers rom-com.” (Booklist) 

29 years-old Shay Goldstein, a producer at Pacific Public Radio in Seattle for 10 years, loves her job but lately, she seems to be at loggerheads with their new hire, Dominic Yun. With a freshly minted master’s degree from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism (which he never fails to mention in all conversations), Dominic immediately impresses the bosses with a big scoop on a City Hall scandal. With ratings down and the station struggling, in order to save their jobs, Shay pitches a concept - a weekly talk show where exes give relationship advice, live. Their boss decides Shay and Dominic are the perfect co-hosts, given how much they already despise each other, never mind they have never dated.  

“As the show skyrockets in popularity, the fake exes become real friends, but a growing attraction might spell disaster. Shay and Dominic are brought to life with multilayered backstories...Witty dialogue meets steamy slow-burn tension while fun romance tropes (fake dating! there’s only one bed!) take a refreshing turn by making Dominic the less sexually experienced, and more emotionally open, of the two. A vibrant supporting cast of family, friends, and co-workers helps round out the plot. Delightfully romantic and emotionally uplifting.”  (Kirkus Reviews)

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Honey Girl * (also in eBook and audiobook) by Morgan Rogers is “especially notable for its celebration of friendship, especially in queer communities, and for exploring the many ways relationships can be meaningful and intimate beyond romance... A strong romantic fiction debut that will appeal to readers looking for a story of true love via self-discovery.” (Kirkus Reviews)

28 year-old Grace Porter heads to Las Vegas with her girlfriends and roommates to celebrate her PhD in astronomy. After a night of revelry, she awakes to an empty bed, a ring on her finger, a business card and a key on her pillow. Back in Portland, Oregon, her finds it hard to explain to her ex-military father how being a mixed-race lesbian, she doesn't seem to "be the right fit" for most companies in her field, made abundantly clear in her failed job interview set up by her mentor. 

Feeling listless, Grace flees to New York to track down her Vegas wife Yuki Yamamoto, a late night radio talk show host. Even though they develop a deep connection, depression claims Grace and once again, she leaves, this time to a Florida orange grove to reconnect with her mostly absent mother.

“With a cast of diverse and underrepresented characters, Rogers’s debut is a beautiful story of learning to love in so many ways: untraditionally, through deep hurt, through mental illness, and through struggles with which readers can relate. Highly recommended.” (Library Journal)

* * * = 3 starred reviews

* = Starred review

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #774, Choosing Kindness

Fri, 04/02/2021 - 4:57pm by muffy

kindest_lieIn The Kindest Lie *  by Nancy Johnson, “(g)enerational secrets, class divides, motherhood, and American life on the edge of political and economic change are all examined...” (Booklist)

As the Obamas are about to take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Chicago’s Black communities are experiencing a new sense of optimism. Xavier, a mid-level manager is eager to start a family but his wife Ruth, an Ivy-league educated engineer is reluctant. Lately she has been crippled by guilt over what happened the summer before leaving for Yale on a scholarship. Abandoned by a mother addicted to drugs, she and her brother Eli were raised by kind and god-fearing grandparents who sacrificed everything to help her realize her potential. Unable to face Xavier with the truth, Ruth returns to the Indiana factory town she once called home, now plagued by unemployment, racism, and despair.

To move forward, Ruth knows she must first make peace with the past, most immediate is to track down the baby she abandoned.  But everywhere she turns, she encounters tightly held secrets and lies. Then she unexpectedly befriends Midnight, a young white boy who is also adrift and looking for connection. 

 “The Kindest Lie is a tale of how lies and omissions can shape and warp us. It is a story about reconciliation, set against a backdrop of racism and resentments. But more than anything, it is a meditation on family and forgiveness.” (Los Angeles Times)

Nancy Johnson, a native of Chicago’s South Side, is an Emmy-nominated, award-winning television journalist. A graduate of Northwestern University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she calls Chicago home. The Kindest Lie is her debut novel. 

* = Starred review

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #773, Jane Austen Inspired

Thu, 03/25/2021 - 10:45am by muffy

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Ladies of the House : A Novel * (also available in downloadable eBook and audiobook) by Lauren Edmondson is a contemporary retelling of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility

When Sen. Gregory Richardson is found dead in the arms of his young mistress, it falls to Daisy Richardson to keep her family together. Forced to take a leave as chief of staff for a progressive senator from Maryland, Daisy must convince her mother Cricket to sell the family home in Georgetown they can no longer afford, nevermind that it has been in the family for generations. Then news breaks that the Senator has been under investigation for financial misconduct.  Whatever resources they manage to salvage would now be garnered as restitution. 

Wallis, Daisy’s younger sister seems determined to move on but falls hopelessly for the most inconvenient person - the son of the late Senator’s arch rival, and one with political ambitions of his own. The only bright spot for Daisy is her life-long friendship with journalist Atlas Braidy-Lowes, just returned from his London assignment and newly engaged. His next project - to write an exposé on the one subject Daisy is desperate to avoid: her father. 

“As Atlas uncovers the widening scope of the senator's crimes, the novel finds Austen's themes alive and well in contemporary society, where women must choose between nice or powerful men and are left without options if a man behaves badly while they try to balance their hearts, careers, and reputations in search of happiness. This retelling is a witty success.” (Publishers Weekly)

A great choice for book groups (a reader's guide is provided).” (Booklist)

all_stirred_upAll Stirred Up is inspired by Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Brianne Moore “brings foodies and rom-com lovers together in this tasty delight of a debut.“ (Booklist) 

When bad management forces the family to close all of their restaurants, Susan Napier returns to  Edinburgh, intent to save Elliot’s, her grandfather’s beloved flagship. She is not amused when she realizes Chris Baker, her grandfather’s former protége AND her ex-boyfriend, is also back in town to open his own restaurant down the street. 

A celebrity chef and the judge of a popular TV cooking competition, Chris is wary and still deeply hurt by their rocky breakup, but the competitive food scene and staffing snafus force them to re-engage. When they are tricked into competing against one another in a cooking showdown during the city's food festival, all bets are off.

“This chaste love story, peppered with just the right amount of family drama, foodie descriptions, and rom-com hijinks, is a treat.” (Publishers Weekly)

 

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Written in the Stars * *  by  Alexandria Bellefleur (also available in downloadable eBook and audiobook), is “(a)n enchanting debut romance featuring Pride and Prejudice character archetypes, banter, and sexual tension shaken together to create a perfectly delicious contemporary romance.“(Library Journal)

In this charming queer rom-com debut, a free-spirited social media astrologer agrees to fake a relationship with an uptight actuary.  After a disastrous blind date, Darcy Lowell is desperate to stop her well-meaning brother from playing matchmaker ever again. So she fibs and says her latest blind date was a success. Elle Jones, an astrologer, dreams of finding her soulmate. But she knows it is most assuredly not Darcy. 

When Darcy begs Elle to play along, they agree to help each other navigate the difficult holiday dinners with families. The last thing they expect is to develop real feelings during a fake relationship.

* * = 2 starred reviews

* = Starred review

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #772

Thu, 03/18/2021 - 10:00pm by muffy

lost_apothecaryThe Lost Apothecary (also available in downloadable eBook and audiobook) by Sarah Penner, one of the most anticipated debuts of 2021, will appeal to fans of parallel historical/contemporary narratives about women's lives. 

After discovering her husband James’ infidelity, American Caroline Parcewell travels to London alone, for what was supposed to be a much-anticipated anniversary trip. On the banks of the Thames, she joins a mudlarking tour and finds an old apothecary vial that appeals to the historian in her. With the help of a librarian at the British Museum, she unearths links to the unsolved “apothecary murders” more than two centuries ago, and to Nella Clavinger.

A second generation apothecary and once a respected healer, Nella’s shop was hidden down a dark London alley, dispensing well-disguised poisons to women to use on men who wronged them in various ways.  On a cold February evening in 1791, Nella found her newest customer to be the precocious 12-year old servant girl Eliza Fanning. A friendship developed between the two that would eventually prove devastating, and would threaten to expose the many women whose names were recorded in her register.  And as Caroline’s life collides with Nella’s and Eliza’s in a stunning twist of fate, we will find that history often repeats itself.

“Penner finds clever parallels between Nella and Caroline, and avoids the pitfall of one storyline outshining the other—all three women have compelling tales, and while Nella’s business may not be on the up-and-up, her motives are understandable. Readers who enjoy Katherine Howe and Susanna Kearsley will be drawn to this promising, fast-paced debut.” (Booklist) 

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #771

Thu, 03/11/2021 - 9:58pm by muffy

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Big Girl, Small Town * * *  (also available in downloadable eBook and audiobook) by Michelle Gallen (Trinity College Dublin) is shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. A finalist for two other major awards, it’s a “darkly hilarious novel about small-town life . . . Wildly entertaining.”(The Guardian)

Aghybogey is a small fictional town in Northern Ireland still haunted by The Troubles, where every family has been changed by the lingering divide between Protestants and Catholics. This is where we meet up with our heroine, 27 year-old Majella O’Neill, as captivating as she is unique. 

Since her father Gerard’s disappearance after Uncle Bobby was killed in an IRA incident, Majella is the sole supporter of her alcoholic, lay-about, drama-queen of a mother. Her predictable routine is punctuated by her daily walk to the evening shift at the A Salt and Battered chip shop, binging on DVDs of Dallas (she used to watch with her Dad), and her nightly solitary after-hours fish and chips dinner, packing on weight that renders her socially invisible. 

Being on the autism spectrum Majella “keeps a running list in her head of top 10 things she likes and dislikes. The dislikes list actually runs to a full 97 items, with subcategories, but she sometimes thinks it could be distilled to one item: other people.”  Now with the murder of her granny Maggie, her family is once again in the public eye, and the subject of local gossip and speculations. 

“Majella is a compelling character caught in a fascinating slice of time, and her journey is exquisitely rendered. With echoes of Gail Honeyman's Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine crossed with the 1990s-set British sitcom Derry Girls, this debut is recommended for fans of Ottessa Moshfegh, Emma Donoghue, and Sally Rooney (Library Journal)

* * * = 3 starred reviews

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #770, Feminist Retellings of the Classics

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

thousand_ships

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