Fabulous Fiction Firsts #519 - “When we are children we seldom think of the future. This innocence leaves us free to enjoy ourselves as few adults can. The day we fret about the future is the day we leave our childhood behind.” ~ Patrick Rothfuss

Man at the Helm * by Nina Stibbe (Love, Nina : a nanny writes home), an impressive first novel, has been compared to P. G. Wodehouse in its pacing; and Gerald Durrell's memoir My Family and Other Animals (1956), about an eccentric family's relocation to the Greek isle of Corfu, and a BBC Masterpiece Theater adaptation.

The narrator, 9-year old Lizzie Vogel has lived a charmed life. But when his homosexual affair is discovered, Lizzie's father packs them off to the tiny village of Flatstone, where life for the Vogels takes a drastic turn. The new neighbors are hostile and disapproving (of divorcees and fatherless children), and Lizzie's theatrical mother slips ever more into drinks, pills, and obsessive playwriting. Lizzie and her all-knowing older sister fear that the infamous Crescent Homes for Children is in their future, unless they could find a new husband for their mother, and a new "man at the helm" for the household. As one unsuitable suitor follows another, chaos ensues. Lizzie confronts the downright craziness of grown-up love and learns that sometimes a family needs to veer catastrophically off-course in order to find true happiness.

"An extraordinarily well-written, deeply satisfying read about an unusual, highly entertaining group of people." "Charming and bittersweet, with a very English flavor, this social comedy is distinguished by Stibbe's light touch and bright eye." Check out the New York Times Review.

Everlasting Lane * by Andrew Lovett is "(a) captivating, absorbing, and suspenseful evocation of the spells of childhood in a timeless coming-of-age tale."

After the death of his father, 9-year old Peter Lambert moves with his mother to the village of Amberley, and a cottage on Everlasting Lane. As the new kid, he is befriended only by the other two outcasts in his class - chubby Tommie and the neighborhood bossy Anna-Marie. Escaping the bullies, they find pleasure and solace in the countryside and soon meet up with local eccentrics who prefer solitude.

At home, Peter is disturbed by the growing awareness that his own aggrieved mother might be falling apart - first by changing her name, and then expressly forbidding him from entering a locked room in the attic.

Written in beautiful prose, "as charming and haunting as the movie Stand By Me... (w)ith nods to such children's classics as Alice in Wonderland, Lovett's first novel, inspired by events from his own childhood, contemplates the often very fine line between imagination and reality."

* = starred review

Can't Wait for our 3/23 Laura Ingalls Wilder Event? Try Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen!

In advance of AADL's upcoming event, Laura Ingalls Wilder & Her Place in the World on Monday, 3/23, here is a review of Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen, a beautiful work of fiction that ties into loving Laura Ingalls Wilder, and shares themes that appear in the Little House books and in Laura's own life

Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen is the story of Lee Lien, a first-generation American daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, who spent her childhood reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series in the backseat as her family crisscrossed the Midwest, running one tacky Asian buffet after another. Lee is now grown and in possession of a English Literature Ph.D, but no job offers. In returning to live with her short-tempered mother and goodnatured grandfather, Lee stumbles upon a family heirloom that may prove a connection to Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Lee’s beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder. As she chases down clues to prove her theory, she struggles with the everyday realities of her own family.

Nguyen draws some striking parallels between her story and that of the real life and fictionalized versions of the Ingalls Wilder characters. There’s the “missing pieces” of the Ingalls’ family’s real life that are not depicted in the books, such as the birth and death of a son and a stint as innkeepers in Iowa, which relates to the unknowable things in Lee’s own family history, such as the impact of her grandfather’s Saigon cafe on a traveling American writer, the circumstances of her father’s death, or the true state of her mother’s relationship with a family friend. The fraught relationship between the real life mother and daughter Laura and Rose is mirrored in Lee’s interactions with her own mother. Even Laura’s “itchy foot” desire to move ever westward appears as Lee follows her investigation from Illinois to the California coast.

This is the story of a young woman who must go back in order to go forward and how you never know what you might find between the covers of a book.It’s an excellent read whether you are a Little House lover or not, but readers of the Little House series will be especially appreciative of hints of Nguyen’s own obvious adoration.

Looking for more Laura Ingalls Wilder? Try this list of titles that includes biographies, writers chasing their own Laura obsessions, or books that just capture that young girl/big frontier feel.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #518 - “Why aren’t midwives the heroines of society that they should be? Why do they have such a low profile? They ought to be lauded to the skies, by everyone.” ~ Jennifer Worth

I have been unashamedly hand-selling The Secrets of Midwives by Sally Hepworth in the past weeks and so far, great reports from everyone who've read it.

Former Australian (Melbourne) Event Planner Sally Hepworth sets her US debut in Providence/Conanicut Island (RI) where three generations of midwives called home. This is a lovely story about family, and at the heart of the matter - "biology was only part of it".

In the 7th month of her pregnancy, Neva Bradley, a third-generation midwife, is still determined to keep the identity of the baby's father hidden from her family and co-workers. Though her mother Grace has a hard time accepting Neva's request for privacy, her grandmother Floss, a retired midwife herself, is handling the news with great understanding, having kept a bombshell-of-a-secret in the front pocket of her handbag for five decades.

As Neva's due date approaches, her decision to raise her child as a single parent turns complicated when her best friend, Patrick Johnson, a McDreamy pediatrician offers to be the baby's father while two other likely candidates (Neva is never quite sure) actually have claims on the title. When a difficult birth threatens Grace's license, and Floss suffers a heart attack, secrets are revealed; and the family rallies to usher in Neva's baby, born during a horrific winter storm.

"This intelligent, well-plotted debut will draw readers in from the very first word and keep them engaged until the end." Readers interested in further exploring the topic of midwifery would delight in Midwives by Christopher Bohjalian; the Hope River series by Patricia Harman; and let's not forget Call the Midwife, a BBC series adaptation of Jennifer Worth's memoir.

Waiting (not so) patiently for A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler?

Anne Tyler's 20th (and rumored to be final) novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, continues her trademark talent for finding beauty and complexity in the mundane details of average family life. The story follows the Whitshaw family, whose long-married, but mismatched parents, Red and Abby, are aging and beginning to struggle with the upkeep on the big house in which they raised their four children. As Abby's memory begins to fail, their grown children circle home to help, to make decisions, and to open old wounds and resentments. Fans of Tyler's previous novels may find some familiar ground here, but all readers will appreciate the Tyler's ability to hone in on universalities in family dynamics.

Here are a few titles to tide you over while you wait or to recommend to your book club after they devour A Spool of Blue Thread:

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy - The 13 Turner children, nearly all of them born and raised in the family's 3 bedroom house on the east side of Detroit, face the realities of their pasts and their futures as they come together to decide the fate of their family home in a disentigrating city.

The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver - The house at Ashaunt Point has long anchored the Porter family through the upheaval of war, personal tragedies, changing fortunes, in this powerful examination of the ties that bind families together.

Someone by Alice McDermott - This gem of a domestic fiction novel follows Brooklyn-born Marie Commeford as she navigates changing social norms and expectations from her pre-Depression birthdate throughout her humble yet fascinating life.

Some Luck by Jane Smiley - This first part of a planned trilogy tells the story of Iowa farming family the Langdons, starting in 1920 and moving through the decades as their family grows and changes against the backdrop of the 20th century.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #517 - "Excuse me, but I absolutely cannot understand how after eating my fill here I could go past a bakery and steal a roll.” ~ Leo Tolstoy

One of The Huffington Post's most anticipated debut of 2015, Hausfrau* * a novel by award-winning poet Jill Alexander Essbaum (faculty, University of California, Riverside) is an exquisite tale of an expatriate American wife living in Switzerland and her sexual and psychic unraveling, "(written) with an elegance, precision, and surehandedness that recalls Marguerite Duras's The Lover and Anita Brookner's (Booker Prize) Hotel du Lac." ~ Janet Fitch

38 year-old Anna Benz, "is a good wife, mostly." Mother of three, married to a Swiss banker, they live in a picture-perfect suburb of Zurich. But Anna is falling apart inside. At the suggestion of her analyst Doktor Messerli, Anna enrolls in German language classes "to become more connected to the world", but continues to slip into a string of extramarital affairs that eventually exact a price far more than she could ever imagine.

Navigating the lines between lust and love, guilt and shame, excuses and reasons, Anna Benz's story reveals how we create ourselves and how we lose ourselves, and the sometimes disastrous choices we make to find ourselves. "Isolated and tormented, Anna shares more than her name with that classic adulteress, Anna Karenina."

Literary fiction readers might want to further explore the subject with Adultery by Paulo Coelho; A Week in October by Elizabeth Subercaseaux; and I am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum.

* * = 2 starred reviews

RIP Terry Pratchett, Fantasy Author


Prolific British fantasy author Terry Pratchett passed away this week, leaving behind a legacy of over 70 novels and legions of fans. He continued to write through his diagnosis with a rare form of Alzheimer's Disease in 2007, completing his final novel last year. In his 35-book Discworld series, Pratchett skewered everything from the postal service to the invention of the steam engine with his trademark wit.

Toward the end of his life, his brain struggled with the tasks of reading and writing, and he began using speech recognition software to compose his novels. In a touching but funny remembrance of Pratchett on NPR, the author admits he had to teach the American-designed software a lot of words, and not all appropriate ones.

He will be remembered for his beloved fantasy books, which were endlessly creative and never without a sense of satire, and his unflagging sense of humor. Rest in peace, Terry Pratchett!

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #516

My Sunshine Away * * by M(ilton) O('Neal) Walsh unfolds in 1989, in the Woodland Hills subdivision, a leafy middle-class Baton Rouge neighborhood, when the unthinkable happened. 15 year-old Lindy Simpson, free spirit, track star, and belle of the block was raped, right there on Old Man Casemore's lawn, and no arrests were made.

Narrating before and after this pivotal summer is one of the 4 suspects - a 14 year-old boy who worships Lindy from his bedroom window across the street. Driven by a misguided desire to solve the crime, he eventually uncovers the truth but at a cost that virtually destroys everyone else in the process.

Baton Rouge native "Walsh (MFA, University of Mississippi and is currently the director of the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans), brilliantly juxtaposes the enchantment of a charmed childhood with the gripping story of a violent crime, unraveling families, and consuming adolescent love."

"At times funny, at times spine-tinglingly suspenseful, and at times just flat-out wise, this novel is also a meditation on memory, how it can destroy or damn us but redeem us as well" ~ Tom Franklin.

"... Not just southern, but American in its vivid Baton Rouge colors and scents, treetops and grasses, My Sunshine Away is the story of how the events of our youth profoundly affects us as adults,... A mystery you cannot wait to solve." ~ Kathryn Stockett

Southern fiction fans might also enjoy Stephen Wetta's debut novel If Jack's in Love * and What Dies in Summer by Tom Wright, another FFF.

* * = 2 starred review
* = Starred review

The 2015 Story Prize

Elizabeth McCracken was presented with the $20,000 Story Prize for her collection, Thunderstruck and Other Stories * * on March 4 in New York City.

The Story Prize is an annual book award honoring the author of an outstanding collection of short fiction with a $20,000 cash award.

Anyone who loves her work (my favorite remains the unforgettable The Giant's House - her debut novel and a National Book Award finalist) will agree that this award is richly deserved.

Thunderstruck is a collection of stories that navigates the fragile space between love and loneliness, including the title story in which a family finds their lives irrevocably changed by their teenage daughter's risky behavior.

Other finalists for the prize are Francesca Marciano for The Other Language * *, and Lorrie Moore for Bark * * * . They each received $5,000.

* * * = 3 starred reviews
* * = 2 starred review

New Adult Fiction: In Some Other World, Maybe

I saw In Some Other World, Maybe, by Shari Goldhagen, reviewed a few months ago and have been eagerly anticipating its arrival at the AADL ever since. And now that I’ve read it, I can vouch for its greatness! The premise of this book is an intriguing one. One night in the early ‘90s different groups of teenagers across the country go to see the same movie. Their motivations for seeing the film are all different (and some don’t even make it through the whole thing), but this early insight that readers gain into the characters’ younger years sets an excellent backdrop for the rest of the book. Over the next two decades, these characters’ lives connect and disconnect, entwined by friendship, love, ambition, fame, and tragedy. Goldhagen chooses to focus on different characters at different points in their lives, so sometimes readers are left wondering what the others are up to. More than once I was surprised and pleased when one character appeared in the plot line of another and the two stories went along together for awhile. It’s this instilment of curiosity in readers that keeps the book moving at an unexpectedly quick pace, and that kept me turning pages later into the night than was good for me.

BookPage calls In Some Other World, Maybe, “a compelling tale that leaves readers pondering what is and, had life taken another direction, what could have been.” Fans of Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings should absolutely give In Some Other World, Maybe a try.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #515 - “A mathematical formula for happiness: Reality divided by expectations. There were two ways to be happy: improve your reality or lower your expectations.” ~ Jodi Picoult

Bonita Avenue * * * by Peter Buwalda - the instant bestseller in its native Netherlands, a triple-award-winning debut optioned for a TV series, is "flat-out extraordinary." See the (New York Times review).

Three uniquely unreliable voices narrate this darkly humorous familial drama: the mentally precarious photographer Aaron Bever; his beautiful girlfriend, Joni; and her stepfather, eminent math genius (Fields Medal) and university rector Siem Sigerius. "They were a family of prevaricators - all of them had secrets and they all had something to hide".

Bonita Avenue, a street in Berkeley, California, where a younger Sigerius and his new family lived briefly while he pursued his mathematics career at the university, is remembered as a truly happy period before the family's troubles start. The reemergence of Wilbert,a convicted murderer and Siem's son from his first marriage, presents a threat to the family. Siem discovers the highly profitable web porn site created by Joni and Aaron, under particularly ignoble circumstances. "Guilt and fear rule the decisions the characters make, sending each further down the darkest of path."

"This tumultuous saga of a family breaking down...is "variously compelling, trashy and horrific."

In The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer, Rachela Karnokovitch, a much-admired rock star in mathematics, is rumored to have solved the million-dollar Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize problem just before her death, and secreted the solution somewhere. Uninvited, her quirky colleagues descend on Madison (WI), and on her grieving family in search of said solution. Her son Sasha, who wants nothing more than a family-only shivah, must referee the intruding geniuses.

"Interspersed with Rachela's recollections of growing up under Russian anti-Semitism, Rojstaczer, a PhD geophysicist, has created a complex and chaotic rainbow of characters that makes his first novel both comedic and compelling."

"An enjoyable debut... a multilayered story of family, genius, and loss."

* * * = 3 starred reviews

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