Fabulous Fiction Firsts #522 "I think all families are creepy in a way." ~ Diane Arbus

"(W)holly absorbing and emotionally rich", contributing editor of Vanity Fair Lili Anolik (Princeton, MFA Boston University) sets her debut Dark Rooms * * in an exclusive New England prep school.

Edgar Allan Poe once observed that "the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic of the world." Nica Baker is beautiful - a 16 year old homecoming queen, popular, secretive and utterly wild. She has been murdered - a single gunshot wound, found not far from home. The police was quick to close the case when another classmate from Chandler Academy (a private feeder school to the Ivies) committed suicide, leaving a note as confession, apparently unrequited love gone wrong. But Grace, Nica's older sister was not convinced.

Deferring her enrollment to Williams, Grace takes a job on campus and obsessively goes about trying to identify the real killer. As she starts to penetrate the myriad lies and secrets in this insular community, the picture that emerges is far from pretty - especially condemnable are the adults they have come to respect and trust. "However, the story line just scratches the surface of this insightful, complex novel, which is all about angst: broken relationships, class and social issues, the human psyche. "

"Compulsively readable, (it) combines the verbal dexterity of Marisha Pessl's Special Topic in Calamity Physics and the haunting atmospherics and hairpin plot twists of Megan Abbott's Dare Me." Readers who enjoyed Reconstructing Amelia and The Starboard Sea might find much to like here too.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #521 "Grief is a curious thing, when it happens unexpectedly. It is a Band-aid being ripped away, taking the top layer off a family. And the underbelly of a household is never pretty, ours no exception." ~ Jodi Picoult

Staten Island native Eddie Joyce (Harvard, Georgetown Law) sets his debut Small Mercies in familiar territory.

Ten years after their youngest son Bobby, a firefighter perished during 9/11, the Amendolas, an Italian-Irish American family is trying to come to terms with their loss. Mother Gail, a recently retired-schoolteacher starts her day by checking on Bobby's room as if she might find him there. Father Michael, a former firefighter himself is watchful and devoted but suffers quietly from guilt and missed opportunities. Older brother Peter, ambitious and brash, escapes to Manhattan and is living the good life of a corporate attorney. Franky, the middle child forever the misfit, still cannot hold a job or his liquor. Tina, Bobby's widow, is finally ready to look towards the future.

As the family gathers together for Bobby Jr.'s birthday party, they must each find a way to accept a new man in Tina's life while reconciling their feelings for their lost loved one. "Presented through multiple points of view, Small Mercies explores the conflicts and deep attachments that exist within families. Heart-wrenching and profoundly relatable, Joyce's debut is a love letter to Staten Island and a deeply affecting portrait of an American family."

For other well-observed portraits of the American family, we suggest Alice McDermott's After This; Stewart O'Nan's Wish Your Were Here; Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins; and Richard Russo's Empire Falls.

George R.R. Martin Releases New "Winds of Winter" Chapter

George R.R. Martin has released a new chapter from The Winds of Winter, his long-awaited sixth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. There is still no official release date for The Winds of Winter, so stay tuned. In the meantime, fans can enjoy this latest glimpse of what is to come of our friends in Westeros. And to further tide over anxious fans there's A World of Ice and Fire, a comprehensive history of the world Martin has created, from the Andals and the First Men to Robert's Rebellion and beyond.

The new chapter is from the point of view of Sansa Stark, who is now... well, I won't say. Read the books, or watch the show! The speculation is that because the Game of Thrones TV show characters' story lines are veering further away from their counterparts in the books, Martin wanted to get his interpretation of Sansa out there ahead of HBO's Game of Thrones season 5 premiere on April 12. I prefer to think that he's just a benevolent creator who knew his fans needed a crumb before the feast. But maybe "benevolent" isn't quite the right word. Is "beneviolent" a word?

And remember, maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but The Winds of Winter is coming!

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #520

Plague Land * * by S.D. Sykes. Dispatched to a monastery at the age of seven, now at seventeen Oswald de Lacy assumes the title Lord of Somershill Manor when his father and two older brothers too, succumb to the Plague that has decimated the countryside. Left at home are his overbearing mother and his dangerous and unmarried sister Clemence.

In quick succession, local villagers Alison Starvecrow and her sister are found murdered, which the ambitious village priest blames on a band of demonic dog-headed man. It is now Oswald's responsibility to solve the crimes. But every step Oswald takes seems to lead him deeper into a dark maze of political intrigue, family secrets and violent strife.

"Sykes adds an intricate and intriguing debut (the first of a planned series) to the ever-widening pool of medieval-era mysteries. Thrilling plot twists and layered characters abound in this rich tale of murder and mystery in 14th-century Kent."

Readers might enjoy watching the Brother Cadfael series, based on mysteries by Ellis Peters; and Hugh De Singleton series by Melvin R. Starr.

Sadly, this brings to mind The Siege Winter, a stand-alone by the late Ariana Franklin (and completed upon her death by her daughter Samantha Norman), whose award-winning series based on the character of Adelia Aguilar, a medieval woman forensic pathologist will be fondly remembered by historical mystery fans.

* * = 2 starred reviews

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!

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