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.

It's good to be short

While perusing the blog of a Harper Collins marketing coordinator (read about it on muffy’s post), I saw that she invited readers to create six-word memoirs, inspired by the book It All Changed In An Instant : More Six-Word Memoirs By Writers Famous & Obscure. This got me thinking about how the new kind of mass communication (that is, personal broadcasting) is all about brevity. 140 characters in Twitter and texting, four-word film reviews, six-word memoirs, or 55 fiction, the personal tale is trending to shortness.

The cynic in me might attribute this to what seems to be an increasingly shorter attention span in the human animal, but the English major in me knows there’s more to the (short) story: rigid structure and restraint often help us process and speak about things in a more poignant way. Perhaps one of the most moving examples of this phenomenon is W.S. Merwin’s “Elegy,” which can be found in The Carrier of Ladders or The Second Four Books of Poems. Another amazing example of hard-hitting, extremely short poetry is The Really Short Poems of A.R. Ammons.

Other short things I can suggest? The song “Minimum Wage” on the classic They Might Be Giants album Flood is 46 seconds long and contains two (maybe three) words. Kristin Chenoweth is reportedly 4’11,” and has done quite a bit of fun work in music, television, theater and film. Find her song “Taylor the Latte Boy” on your online vendor of choice or check out Pushing Daisies. The Ann Arbor District Library conducts its own short story contest, and the winning stories are a part of the circulating collection. I haven’t gotten around to watching the Pixar Short Films Collection (v.1), but if the shorts you always get to see at the theater before one of their features are evidence of anything, it’s the beauty of simplicity and diminutiveness.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #192

Blacklands*** is a taut and chillingly brilliant debut by British journalist/screenwriter Belinda Bauer.

Steven Lamb, an under-sized 12 yr. old boy, armed with a shovel, could be seen digging along the wild moors of Shipcott (Somerset), oblivious to the weather. He is digging for treasure - no, not the kind fascinating to boys his age, but for his uncle’s body. 18 years ago, young Billy Peters disappeared and unhinged his family.

Dejected with the lack of results, Steven knows convicted serial killer Arnold Avery could show him where to dig. After all, he buried them. Steven writes and Arnold answers. What begins as a cat-and-mouse mind game between a naive but determined boy and a clever and sadistic pedophile turns deadly when Avery senses an opportunity to relive his crime.

"Bauer displays remarkable talent in pacing, plotting and, most important of all, getting beneath the skin of even her most repellent characters". What was originally conceived as a short story about a boy and his grandmother (from the author's note) is likely to be one of the shining stars in crime fiction this year. Shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger Award.

Readalikes: Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost, and In the Woods by Tana French.

*** = Starred reviews

January Book to Film


Youth in Revolt is based on C.D. Payne's, hilarious, take-no-prisoners novel about a cynical, sex-obsessed teenager's pining love for an intelligent girl he met on vacation at a trailer park.

The movie opens to mixed reviews by the Wall Street Journal and Time.

Girls Interrupted

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by author Joanne Greenberg is a now-classic semi-autobiographical account of a sixteen-year old girl’s struggle with schizophrenia. Following traumatic events that occurred during childhood, Deborah withdraws further into herself, living in a fantasy universe called Yr (pronounced “eer”), and drifts in and out of reality. After a suicide attempt, Deborah’s parents seek treatment for her in an institution.

The story is reminiscent of Susannah Kaysen’s 1993 memoir, Girl, Interrupted. Kaysen was institutionalized in the 1960s after a suicide attempt and diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. However, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden was published many years earlier (1964) under the pseudonym Hannah Green, and of course, deals with a very different kind of mental illness. Still, a major theme in both of the books is that both of the young women feel "safe" being on the "inside", and feel liberated from social stigma and responsibility. But they both eventually realize that unless they take steps toward their recovery - frightening as the "outside" world may be - they will remain hospitalized, and never actually, truly, be free.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #191

Leila Meacham's debut Roses* is getting huge buzz among advance readers and the publishing community and has been favorably compared to works of Barbara Taylor Bradford and Colleen McCullough (The Thorn Birds).

This multi-generational saga is set in a small East Texas town where two founding families - The Tolivers and the Warwicks (descendants of the houses of Lancaster and York of the War of the Roses fame) control its powerful timber and cotton industries.

When Mary Toliver inherits her family's cotton plantation, Somerset, it tears apart her family; and causes her to lose the love of her life, timber magnate Percy Warwick. Now at 85, Mary is determined the family curse will not claim another generation of Tolivers, and set her plans in motion to sell off the plantation.

Spanning much of the 20th century, this old-fashioned saga of secrets and passion, feud and revenge will entertain and appeal to Gothic-romance readers and moviegoers of such "Southern-fried epics" as Gone with the Wind and Giant (based on a novel by Edna Ferber).

* = Starred Review

An Extraordinary Child with a Special Destiny

Percy Jackson and the Olympians is the story of a hyperactive pre-teen boy who discovers that his real father is one of the great Greek gods of mythology. That makes him a demigod, a half-god half-mortal with special powers and a special destiny. He is whisked away to a magically protected camp where he discovers a whole community of demigod kids learning to survive and develop their special talents in a world suddenly full of magic and monsters. Percy soon discovers that a great evil is trying to use him to return to the world, and nobody can be trusted, not even the gods of Olympus.

This series bears many strong thematic resemblances to the Harry Potter series, and its a great fit for any kids or adults who enjoyed Harry Potter and are looking for other things in the same vein. However, Riordan writes from the perspective of young Percy and uses Percy's irreverent (and often sarcastic) voice to ensure things stay light-hearted on his quests of near-constant monster battles and conflicts.

The Lightning Thief, the first book of the series, is being made into a movie which is due to be released later this year. It has the potential to be great, despite its lack of my most favorite character, Nico di Angelo. That kid is awesome. Am I right?

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