Fabulous Fiction Firsts #201

Zoe Fishman's Balancing Acts is timely, warm-fuzzy, and it strikes the right balance in exploring the themes of friendship and self-empowerment.

Fishman is timely for taking on yoga as a lifestyle as well as a cultural phenomenon among the young urban professionals. Recent New York Times articles discussed yoga being the "must-have" amenity in any self-respecting hotel chains in Rolling Out the Yoga Mat. In When Chocolate And Chakras Collide – yoga for foodies sessions are not just popular in NYC, they are coming to a restaurant near you.

Many attribute yoga's popularity to the harsh economy and the disillusionment of the dot-com generation. (See Hard Times are Jamming the Ashrams). In Balancing Acts when Charlie decides to leave her high-paying job as a Wall Street banker to open her own yoga studio, her biggest worry is finding enough customers to keep her business afloat. At her college's 10-year reunion, she reconnects with Naomi, Sabine, and Bess and signs them up for beginning yoga. Many shared oms and Adho Mukha Svanasanas later, they learn to lean on their friendship and newly found confidence as they deal with heartbreaks, disappointments and make positive changes in their lives.

"Fishman combines humor and brutal honesty as she keeps four story lines going and tracks the growing friendship among the women". A debut not to be missed. (Read an interview with Zoe). Zoe Fishman has strong ties to the Ann Arbor community. We are hoping for an author visit this fall.

Readalikes: A Fortunate Age and Everyone is Beautiful for the female friendship/reunion elements. How to be Single and Smart Girls Like Me for single girl/self-empowerment issues.

Graceling

Kristin Cashore's 2008 book, entitled Graceling, is listed as a honor book of the William C. Morris Young Adult Debut Award, and will be of interest to most teens looking for a fantasy.

The book takes place in a world of seven kingdoms. The main character, Katsa, is a Graceling--that is, a person who is Graced with an extreme ability. All Gracelings have complete heterochromia--two different colored eyes. The Gracelings are either seen as blessed or burdensome, and this provides much of the conflict in the book. It also provides much of the significance in the work, inspiring feelings of tolerance and acceptance of others'--and especially one's own--differences.

This book is probably best suited to teen girls who are independent or tomboys, as that is Katsa's character. There are elements of romance, violence, and sparring humor involved that create for a great storyline. However, the drawbacks may irritate some older readers; there are some instances of poor sentence structure, and the ending may be found wanting.

For those interested, her latest book is Fire, which contains the same seven kingdoms, though entirely different characters. It is not considered a sequel, but a companion.

Overall, it isn't one of the best works in teen fiction, but it is definitely worth a look.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #200

In Danielle Trussoni's contemporary epic fantasy Angelology**, Sister Evangeline, a 23 year-old nun at the convent of the Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration in upstate New York is drawn into the 1000-year old conflict between the Society of Angelologists and the beautiful, powerful, and cruel, half-human-half-angel Nephilim when she comes across letters between philanthropist Abigail Rockefeller and the late mother superior, referring to "an ancient artifact" - an article the Nephilim are desperate to claim.

The imaginative multilayer plot; the circuitous unfolding of Evangeline's personal connections to the Angelologists; captivating characters real and imagined; scholarly blending of biblical and mythical lore; rich historical references; seductive imagery; treachery, mystery and adventure make for an engrossing and entertaining read.

Film rights to Sony Pictures with Will Smith's Overbrook Entertainment producing. Rumor has it that Trussoni is at work on a sequel. Can't get here soon enough for me. (I won't spoil it for you though).

Comparison to The Da Vinci Code is inevitable but more appropriately would be Katherine Neville's The Eight; and Kate Mosse's Labyrinth.

Coincidentally, Trussoni, a graduate of University of Wisconsin and the Iowa Writers' Workshop now resides in the Languedoc region (France) where Labyrinth is set. Her memoir Falling Through the Earth was named one of the Ten Best Books of 2006 by The New York Times.

** = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #198

Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand*** is an oddity in today's publishing trend and that's a GOOD thing. (No vampires, werewolves or angels, and no lost religious relics).

In picturesque Edgecombe St. Mary, a small village in the English countryside, for generations the Pettigrews pride themselves on services to Queen and country, honor, and decorum, as much as they draw comfort from a proper cup of tea. But at 67, Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired) finds he must redefine what it is to be "proper" and where “duty“ lays.

"Wry, courtly, opinionated" and recently widowed, Ernest finds it hard to fill his days attending to his domestic routines and fighting off the unwanted attention of the well-meaning busybodies. The unexpected friendship with a Pakistani shopkeeper in the village both surprises and delights him – and sets tongues wagging.

Major introduces to readers one of the most endearing characters coming out of British fiction for quite some time. Debut novelist Simonson's sharply observant, hilarious at times, charming comedy of manners (a homage to Austen and Trollope) illuminates and entertains. A well-crafted plotline, complete with references to news headlines, societal and cultural realities adds drama and relevance for the contemporary audience yet rendering it timeless by addressing the universal virtues of love, honor and family. New!!!! (Author interview)

If you think 60something guys make uninspiring protagonists, Helen Simonson just proved you wrong. And Anne Tyler too, in her latest Noah’s Compass*** - a wise, gently humorous, and deeply compassionate novel about a schoolteacher, who has been forced to retire at sixty-one, coming to terms with “what is” and reclaiming what he let slip away. The lesson here.... it's never too late.

*** Starred Reviews

Fabulous Fiction First #197

Cathy Marie Buchanan's debut The Day the Falls Stood Still beautifully evokes life around Niagara Falls in the early 20th century, and the beginnings of hydroelectric power.

Set in the waning days of WWI, as a child of privilege, 17 year-old Bess Heath is not prepared for the disgrace and crumblng family finances when her father loses his job. She tries to hold the family together while her sister slips into depression, and her mother withdraws from society. Against her family's wishes, Bess rejects the courtship of a wealthy young man and finds comfort in the love of Tom Cole, a river man with a mysterious connection to the falls.

Based loosely on the history of Niagara river man William "Red" Hill, the narrative incorporates mock newspaper articles and vintage photographs, detailed depictions of domestic life, local lore, and fascinating natural history.

Historical fiction fans who liked Kathleen Cambor's lyrical and imaginative depiction of the lives that were lived, lost, and irreparably changed by the tragedy of the Johnstown (PA) flood in In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden, will find much to like here.

February Books to Film, Part 2

shutter islandshutter island

The very popular The Lightning Thief: Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book One by Rick Riordan is now a feature film (not yet rated).

This wildly popular series for young readers makes the leap to the big screen on February 12. Adapted from the first book in the series, the film is directed by Chris Columbus (who brought the first two Harry Potter books to the screen) and stars Logan Lerman as Percy Jackson.

It's the 21st century, the gods of Mount Olympus and assorted monsters have walked out of the pages of high school student Percy Jackson's Greek mythology texts and into his life. And they're not happy: Zeus's lightning bolt has been stolen, and Percy is the prime suspect. Even more troubling is the sudden disappearance of Percy's mother.

And FINALLY, the twice-delayed, Martin Scorsese-directed Shutter Island is to be released on February 19th (let's hope).

Shutter Island is an army facility turned hospital for the criminally insane. When a beautiful-and certifiably crazy-patient escapes, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner, Chuck Aule, are called in to investigate. Embroiled in uncertainties and mystery, the two soon learn there's much more at stake than simply finding one missing woman.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, and Max von Sydow star in this thriller based on the bestseller by Dennis Lehane.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #195

While friendship stories are commonplace in women's fiction, one that depicts 4 slave women set in the mid -1850s is still a rarity.

Wench* traces the friendship between Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu at an Ohio resort where Southern men bring their slave women. Over the course of three summers, these women came together to bare their souls, contemplate their future and support each other through sorrows and occasional joy.

First-time novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez draws on research about the resort that eventually became the first black college Wilberforce University for the setting while she explores the complexities of relationships between these women and their white owners.

"Compelling and unsentimental", "heart-wrenching, intriguing, original and suspenseful, this novel showcases Perkins-Valdez's ability to bring the unfortunate past to life". ~Publishers Weekly. A good readalike for Cane River by Lalita Tademy.

For further reading on women in slavery, we suggest: Ar'n't I a Woman? : Female slaves in the Plantation South by Deborah Gray White and Labor of love, Labor of Sorrow : Black women, work, and the family from slavery to the present by Jacqueline Jones.

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #194

Now that Lee Child's Gone Tomorrow has snatched the top honor in the Adrenaline category of the 2010 Reading List Award, Jack Reacher fans could hardly contain themselves. While they eagerly await the next Reacher scrape, we suggest The Bricklayer.

Pseudonym for a former FBI agent, Noah Boyd's debut (and projected series opener) features Steve Vail, a former agent turned bricklayer who is recruited to solve a brilliant and deadly extortion plot by a mysterious organization called the Rubaco Pentad. One thing is clear: someone who knows a little too much about the inner workings of the Bureau is very clever —and very angry—and will kill and kill again if it means he can disgrace the FBI.

While some reviewers find fault with it being "...highly formulaic", "predictably inclusive finish with a bit of romance", most would admit that it is "pulse-pounding", and "irresistible red meat for connoisseurs of action thrillers". (150,000 first printing)

You know you are going to read it. Might as well be first on the list.

February Books to Film, Part 1 (and a Fabulous Fiction Firsts)

Crazy heartsCrazy hearts

"Overlooked Literary Darling Gets a Second Act" reads the caption on a Publishers Weekly article about an indie film (wide release February 2 but already in Ann Arbor theaters this past weekend) based on the 1987 novel Crazy Heart by a first-time author Thomas Cobb.

Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, a 57 year-old singer, guitarist, songwriter, alcoholic womanizer, and all-around charming reprobate, who attempts to work his way back to the top of the country-and-western charts. Maggie Gyllenhaal, is the journalist determined to find the real man behind the musician.

The novel received glowing praise ("...just might be the finest country-western novel ever written") when it debuted, but did not translate into sales or lasting recognition for Cobb. A second book (2003) and a new novel in 2008 published to little fanfare. HarperPerennial, who is republishing Crazy counts on it being an overdue break-out for the author.

(I have it on good authority that the film is crazy good. Don't miss it!!)

Dear John (opening February 5th), is based on a novel of duty, longing, and heartbreak, by Nicholas Sparks .

A soldier home on leave falls for a conservative college girl. Instead of returning home to her, he re-enlists after the attacks on September 11th, 2001. Time and distance begin to take a toll on the young lovers. Channing Tatum plays the title role, with Amanda Seyfried as Savannah.

National Book Award Winner: Let the Great World Spin

Sure, I picked up Colum McCann's 2009 novel, Let the Great World Spin, because it won this year's National Book Award for adult fiction, and I was expecting to read high-minded modern literature, rife with esoteric literary allusions and extended metaphor a la Joyce or Pynchon. In short, I thought it might be a book that one starts, gets a flavor for the style, and quietly returns to the library without finishing. But this is not one of those books.

On the crowded streets of New York City, it is 1974; prostitutes line South Bronx corners, graffiti artists tag the subways, and an immigrant monk has a crisis of faith. Above the din, in an upper east side apartment, a group of women convene to mourn the loss of their sons in Vietnam. And up in the sky, between the newly built (though nearly empty) twin towers, a tightrope walker dances above the city's madness. The stories of these characters are interwoven brilliantly by McCann, who gracefully reveals the depths of values and emotions of which humans are capable. Ultimately, the power of this novel is born not in fanciful words, but in the raw truth of its characters.

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