Fabulous Fiction Firsts #488 - “I was made and meant to look for you and wait for you and become yours forever.” ~ Robert Browning

I am so pleased to have discovered The Awakening of Miss Prim * by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, a charming and intelligent debut novel that is already a bestseller in Europe.

An ad for the post of a librarian for a private collection brings Prudencia Prim to the remote French village of San Ireneo de Arnois. Intelligence, highly accomplished and self-assured, she accepts the job (we will find out the reasons soon enough) though she finds the situation highly peculiar. Her employer "the man in the wingchair", a book-loving intellectual, is dashing yet "stubborn, domineering, and arrogant" (his own words), always ready with a critique of her cherished Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott. What disturbs Prudencia most is the flock of children that "the man in the wingchair" is determined to home-school with a most unconventional curriculum.

As Prudencia settles into her routine and gets acquainted with the neighbors and the villagers, she finds them capable of charm and eccentricity in equal measure, determined as they are to preserve their singular little community from the modern world outside. Her hope for friendship might indeed open her heart for much more. "Set against a backdrop of steaming cups of tea, freshly baked cakes, and lovely company, The Awakening of Miss Prim is a distinctive and delightfully entertaining tale of literature, philosophy, and the search for happiness."

In a recent interview with the Madrid-based investigative-journalist-turned-author, she disclosed that the Village of San Irenoe de Arnois is an imaginary place, inspired by the European tradition; where small communities were often built near abbeys; where people’s lives have a human scale; and where tradition and culture are regarded as treasures - a welcome respite and curiosity in "a world that’s so fast and so noisy." Sorry, folks. Hope you haven't packed your bags already.

For Pym and Von Arnim readers, this is an author to watch.

* = starred review

My Life in Middlemarch

All avid readers have at least one book that has had a profound impact on their life. For Rebecca Mead that book is Middlemarch. She explores this connection between individual and text in My Life in Middlemarch, a fabulous mixture of biography, memoir, and literary criticism. Mead demonstrates how a novel can speak to an individual on multiple levels and engage with readers. This is not a typical memoir which is author-centric. Instead the focus is more on George Eliot’s biography and how it relates to her work (Middlemarch in particular).

There is a lovely quote near the middle of the book which captures Mead’s view of literature and the overall tone of My Life in Middlemarch, “A book may not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book.”

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #487 - “There are two ways of seeing: with the body and with the soul. The body's sight can sometimes forget, but the soul remembers forever.” ~ Alexandre Dumas

In What is Visible *, debut novelist Kimberly Elkins presents a "wonderfully imaginative and scrupulously researched" fictional memoir of the life and challenges of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf and blind woman to learn language, some fifty years before Helen Keller. Though she was an internationally renowned figure in the mid-19th century, Laura has been all but forgotten by history.

At age 2, Laura lost her sight, hearing, and the ability to taste and smell from scarlet fever. At age 7, she was taken from her family home in Hanover, New Hampshire by Dr. Samuel Howe, founder of the Perkins Institute in Boston, and taught to communicate via hand spelling. Laura soon became celebrated figure attracting hundreds to exhibitions at the Institution, including a visit by Charles Dickens and Dorothea Dix. But Laura suffered greatly when Dr. Howe married and began a family of his own.

"Told in alternating chapters by Laura, Howe, his poet wife Julia, and Laura's beloved teacher Sarah Wight, this is a complex, multilayered portrait of a woman who longed to communicate and to love and be loved. Elkins fully captures her difficult nature and her relentless pursuit of connection."

Blind * * *, a YA debut by Ann Arbor native (Community High) and Alex Award winner (Big Girl Small) Rachel DeWoskin is "one of those rare books that utterly absorbs the reader into the life and experience of another."

When 14 yr. old Emma Sasha Silver loses her eyesight in a freak accident, she must relearn everything from walking across the street to learning to decipher braille. After a year at the Briarly School for the Blind, she is finally able to return home. But just as she is able to start high school and try to recover her friendships and former life, one of her classmates is found dead in an apparent suicide.

"DeWoskin...skillfully balances the pain of loss with the promise of new experiences and discovery.... The life of a formerly sighted teen blossoms in Emma's strong voice as she explores the world, conquers fears, and attempts living everyday life again with her large, bustling, Jewish suburban family. A gracefully written, memorable, and enlightening novel. "

”A vivid, sensory tour of the shifting landscapes of blindness and teen relationships."

* = starred review
* * * = 3 starred reviews

Texts from Jane Eyre

In the hilarious new book Texts from Jane Eyre, and Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Chracters, readers get to see goofy, imagined text conversations involving characters from many well-known books. This fun book is a quick read, and definitely offers some hearty chuckles by placing centuries-old characters in the modern day. I was especially pleased by how well the author, Mallory Ortberg, takes the often-humorous neuroses of these characters and accurately imagines how they would come through via text message. Even the writing style of the book that each character appears in is maintained in the texts. Ortberg initially wrote some “text” series for the website The Toast and you can see those—and get a preview of the book!—here.

Fantasy for Kids: A Snicker of Magic

There’s something magical about Midnight Gulch – or, at least, there used to be. When twelve-year-old Felicity Pickle moves to Midnight Gulch with her little sister Frannie Jo and their wandering-spirit mother, the only magic she is hoping to find is a home. Soon, though, Felicity is caught up in the story of how Midnight Gulch lost its magic and plots a way to break the old curse and bring the magic back.

If you enjoyed recent Newbery-Honor-winners like Savvy or Three Times Lucky, then you should definitely check out A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd. All three feature spunky heroines with unique, lyrical voices and surrounded by lovably quirky communities who support our heroines when they need them.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #486 - “No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue." ~ Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why

Already a bestseller in Europe and its native Sweden, A Man Called Ove * * by Fredrik Backman is just now getting the well-deserved buzz in the U.S.

Meet Ove. He is a less likable version of Major Pettigrew and Harold Fry, a man of staunch principles, strict routines, a short fuse, and has absolutely no use for people.

At 59, Ove has just been made redundant. His wife Sonia has dies four years ago ,"taking with her all the color in a world Ove sees as black-and-white". So Ove decides to take matters into his own hands. Various attempts to "off" himself end in hilarious (and fortunate) mishaps, and timely interference, divine and otherwise. Even strangers conspire to derail his plan, like the man who falls on the train track just as Ove is able to jump.

Each time he makes a fresh attempt to kill himself, Ove finds himself imposed upon - his oldest friend and most feared enemy, Rune is about to be forcibly removed to a nursing home, while Rune's wife Anita is frantic about a plumbing issue (Ove could fix just about anything). The new neighbors - "the foreign pregnant woman" with her young daughters seem to need help all the time. Sundry homeless pets and young men ask to be taken in. And there is the daily inspection of the housing estate for rule-breakers, never mind he has been voted out of office by the Residents' Association long ago.

"Backman does a crafty job revealing the full vein of precious metal beneath Ove’s ribs, glint by glint. Ove’s history trickles out in alternating chapters—a bleak set of circumstances that smacks an honorable, hardworking boy around time and again, proving that, even by early adulthood, he comes by his grumpy nature honestly... What the book takes its time revealing is that this dyed-in-the-wool curmudgeon has a heart of solid gold."

"If there was an award for Most Charming Book of the Year, this first novel by a Swedish blogger-turned-overnight-sensation would win hands down."

Readers might also enjoy Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler; An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg; and The Widower's Tale by Julia Glass.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #485 - “...weddings are giant Rorschach tests onto which everyone around you projects their fears, fantasies, and expectations -- many of which they've been cultivating since the day you were born.” ~ Susan Jane Gilman

Come, indulge with me...

Cancel the Wedding by debut author Carolyn Dingman

On the surface, Olivia has it all: a high-powered career, a loving family, and a handsome fiance. She even seems to be coming to terms with her mother Jane's premature death from cancer. Though Olivia and her elder sister Georgia are mystified with their mother's final wish, it offers Olivia a temporary reprieve from decision about her dream job that she now hates, and her upcoming wedding she is having second thoughts about. With her 14-year-old niece, Logan, riding shotgun, she heads to Tillman, GA, on a summer road trip looking for answers about her mother, and comes to know a great deal more about herself. Readers who sympathize with Oliva's difficult situation would enjoy You Are the Love of My Life by Susan Richards Shreve.

A Wedding in Provence by Ellen Sussman - a feast for the senses, and a moving novel of love, forgiveness, and trust, set among the beaches and vineyards of southern France.

Olivia and Brody have found the perfect spot for their small wedding - an idyllic inn nestled in a valley in the Mediterranean town of Cassis, if only they can count on their families and guests to behave. Impulsive and reckless Nell, Olivia's oldest daughter from her first marriage invites a complete stranger. Olivia's youngest daughter, Carly, generally responsible and pragmatic decides to let her hair down for a change. Jake, Brody's playboy best man, and Fanny, Brody's mother arrive with toxic emotional baggage.

A delicious, compelling, and utterly enchanting novel, that captures the complex and enduring bonds of family, and our boundless faith in love. "Women's fiction fans will enjoy Sussman's knowing exploration of mother/daughter relationships and the bond between sisters. The vivid description of Provence will whisk the reader away to the Mediterranean tout suite." A great readalike for Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead.

The Beekeeper's Ball * by Susan Wiggs is the second in the "Bella Vista Chronicles" after The Apple Orchard (2013). Set in the lush Sonoma Valley wine country, the narrative now centers on Isabel Johansen who is in the process of transforming her childhood home into a destination cooking school, and planning the wedding festivities for her sister Tess (the protagonist in the first title in the Chronicles).

When a intrepid (and very cocky) journalist/biographer Cormac "Mac" O'Neill is mistaken for a beekeeper and is almost killed by Isabel's bees, the relationship between them gets off on a rocky start. But Mac's project of writing her grandfather's biography, including his role in the Danish Resistance during WWII, forces them to work together. As much as Isabel denies it, she's getting more and more attracted to Mac.

"Wiggs' carefully detailed plotlines, one contemporary and one historical, with their candid look at relationships and their long-term effects, are sure to captivate readers." Recipes included.

"What makes this moving narrative so memorable is the fearlessness of families and friends who find strength in each other through the horrors of war and loss." If you enjoyed Jojo Moyes' The Girl You Left Behind, you won't be disappointed.

Here are some of my personal favorites (in no particular order) on the drama that often threatens to undo even the best-laid wedding plans: Beautiful Day by Elin Hilderbrand; A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve; The Wedding Girl by Madeleine Wickham; and Philosophy Made Simple by Robert Hellenga.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #484 -“Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it’s going to kill us.” ~ Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis

In these 14 linked stories (one of which won a 2014 O. Henry Prize), 14 yr.old Rainey Royal lives with her famous jazz musician father in a once-elegant Brownstone in Greenwich Village after her mother ran away to an ashram. Surrounded by her father's groupies and hangers-on, predators disguised as her father's best friend, she is lonely and vulnerable. Thankfully, there is her best friend Tina. As she tries desperately to nurture her own artistic talent and build a substitute family, she rebels in unconventional, sometimes criminal ways.

"Landis' captivating first novel is a ringing tribute to friendship, autonomy, and artistic presence." She "offers a rich, sometimes challenging portrait of young women doing their best to grow in the absence of positive role models."

From National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" honoree (see the video interviews) and Rona Jaffe Award-winner comes an urgent, intensely visceral debut novel about a young waitress whose downward spiral is narrated in electric prose - Love Me Back.

Merritt Tierce follows Marie, a single mother who gives in to brutally self-destructive tendencies with alcohol, drugs, self-cutting and one-night stands, looking for obliteration if not pleasure. The one thing that brings her life focus is her job as a waitress in an upscale Dallas steakhouse which she tackles with an easy smile and strong work ethic. "You keep your standards high and your work strong but these are necessary for success; you keep your dignity separate, somewhere else, attached to different things."

"(A) flawed thing of beauty, as terribly uncomfortable to read as it is often brilliant,...Tierce's first novel is unsentimental and unresolved but ultimately laced with an undercurrent of hope."

If you have never read indie author K.A. Tucker, praised for her "likeable characters, steamy liaisons, and surprising plot twists" (Kirkus Reviews), you might really enjoy Five Ways to Fall.

Purple-haired, sharp-tongued Reese MacKay knows all about making wrong choices; she's made plenty of them in her twenty-odd-years. So when her violent "redecorating" of her two-timing ex-husband's apartment lands her in jail, she decides to accept the only life-line thrown to her and moves to Miami to work for her stepfather, a renowned attorney.

Things are going well. Reese even finds she enjoys legal work and is good at it... until an embarrassing last-fling on a tequila-soaked weekend in Cancun walks into the office, and introduces himself as Ben Morris, the firm's new ace attorney. Now if Reese and Ben are truly smart, they would have stay clear of each other. But that won't make for a good story.

"A fun, flirty, super sexy love story that offers all of the best of opposites attracting".

New Teen Fiction!

Strange and Ever After is the third and final book of the Something Strange and Deadly trilogy, by Susan Dennard. This fun and unique series blends together lots of great elements: fantasy, romance, steampunk, historical fiction…and zombies! In this final installment, main character Eleanor Fitt travels to Egypt to track down and battle the evil necromancer who kidnapped her mother, brother, and friends. The conclusion of this pursuit causes unexpected consequences that will change Eleanor, and the world, forever. Haven’t read the first two books in the trilogy? Start with Something Strange and Deadly and follow with A Darkness Strange and Lovely, before finding out how it all ends in Strange and Ever After.

Touted as a combination of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, Cammie McGovern’s new book Say What You Will is a heartfelt and honest story. Amy, who was born with cerebral palsy, has struggled her whole life to move, communicate and even control her facial expressions. When she finally decides to hire student aides to assist her during her senior year of high school, Matthew, who suffers from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder and crippling fears, is thrust into her life. Despite their physical, psychological and emotional differences, a friendship blossoms between the two. Readers will fly through this book eager to find out if the teens’ unique connection may grow into something more.

The Ring and the Crown, by prolific teen author Melissa de la Cruz, is set in an alternate 19th century world in which the Franco-British empire controls the only source of magic. Told from the perspective of five different characters related to the royal court, the story is a light and fun historical fantasy/romance. In order to protect the empire, Princess Marie-Victoria must enter into a loveless marriage with the heir to the Prussian throne. With the aid of her childhood friend Aelwyn, Marie conspires to escaper her fate… and potentially changes the fate of the entire world while she’s at it!

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #483 - The Ann Arbor Connection

Ann Arbor author Julie Lawson Timmer's debut novel Five Days Left * * is part of the Penguin First Flights program. If you missed her live chat on Sept. 10th, click on this link for an archived edition.

Wife, mother, and top-notch Texas lawyer, Mara Nichols is losing her battle with a rapidly-progressing case of Huntington's disease. She has set a date to end her life to cut short a decline she believes will destroy her family. Now she has five days left in which to prepare herself, tidy her affairs, and say goodbye to her loved ones. While in Royal Oak (MI) middle-school teacher Scott Coffman dreads having to part with his foster son, eight-year-old Curtis. In five days, he will have to relinquish Curtis back to his junkie mother when she is release from prison. Mara and Scoot meet anonymously in an online therapy forum, and through their daily posts, Timmer deftly compares their shared dilemmas of when and how to let go.

"Absorbing, deeply affecting, and ultimately uplifting, it heralds the arrival of an author to watch." Perfect for fans of thoughtful, issue-driven fiction of Carol Rifka Brunt; Jacquelyn Mitchard; and Jodi Picoult.

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street * by Susan Jane Gilman (UM, MFA in Creative Writing, and author of several well-received nonfiction titles) is "an ambitious and lavish immigrant rags-to-riches-to-rags first novel rife with humor and moxie."

At 75, American businesswoman Lillian Dunkle (think Leona Helmsley) is facing federal tax evasion charges, and no one is shedding any tears. This abrasive and ruthless entrepreneur started life as Malka Treynovsky, the youngest of 4 daughters in a poor Russian Jewish immigrant family. Soon after their arrival in New York, she was quickly abandoned and taken in by a kindly Italian ices peddler, and renamed Lillian Maria Dinello. Through grit, wits, and some luck, she, along with her husband Albert Dunkle, built the successful Dunkle's Famous Ice Cream empire.

"Gilman's numerous strengths are showcased, such as character-driven narrative, a ready sense of wit, and a rich historical canvas, in this case based on the unlikely subject of the 20th-century American ice cream industry. "

Readalikes: Belle Cora by Phillip Margulies; My Notorious Life by Kate Manning; and The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani.

* * = 2 starred reviews
* = starred review

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