Fabulous Fiction Firsts #206 : Let's meet the girls

Inspired by a real event, Heide Durrow's first novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky * won the 2008 Bellwether Prize for best fiction manuscript addressing issues of social justice.

As this measured and sorrowful tale unfolds, the girl – Rachel has come to live with her grandmother in a mostly black community of Portland, Oregon. Light-skinned and blue-eyed (thanks to her Danish mother), Rachel is the only survivor of a family tragedy – her mother having thrown her children off a roof, jumped to her death. We watch as Rachel, smart, disciplined, and self-possessed, endures her grief and confronts her identity as a biracial woman in a world that wants to see her as either black or white.

Meanwhile in Chicago, young Jamie, a witness to the rooftop incident, re-lives the horrific event in his mind constantly while enduring even worse fate in the hands of his prostitute mother.

As the child of an African American father and a Danish mother, Durrow brings piercing authenticity to this provocative "family saga of the toxicity of racism and the forging of the self”. It succeeds as both a modern coming-of-age tale and relevant social commentary. (Check out the author's amazing family album) .

In Ali Shaw’s charming debut The Girl with Glass Feet, young Ida Maclaird returns to remote St. Hauda’s Land because she is strangely, and slowly turning to glass. There she meets Midas Crook, a lonely islander who prefers to see the world through his camera lens. As Ida and Midas search for the mysterious scientist who might hold the cure to Ida's affliction, they stumble onto mysteries from the past that further bind them together.

Inventive and richly visual, a fable of young lovers on a quest, Girl combines magic realism and the conventions of a romance. Enchanting, melancholic yet whimsical. Totally captivating. Shortlisted for the 2009 Costa First Novel Award and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.

Ali Shaw is a graduated of Lancaster University and has since worked as a bookseller and at Oxford’s Bodleian Library.

* = Starred review

April is National Poetry Month

"National Poetry Month is a month-long, national celebration of poetry established by the Academy of American Poets. The concept is to widen the attention of individuals and the media—to the art of poetry, to living poets, to our complex poetic heritage, and to poetry books and journals of wide aesthetic range and concern." - Poets.org

Started in 1996, National Poetry Month is celebrated with posters, events, and inspiration for poets.

Poets.org offers a listing of ways to celebrate, including reading a book of poetry, attending a poetry reading, Googling a poem, and even adding a verse to your e-mail signature.

Here at AADL, we can certainly help with at least the first of these! For starters, you could try some older poets, such as Lord Byron, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, and T.S. Eliot.

For the younger crowd, I would recommend Shel Silverstein, Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl and perhaps even Dr. Seuss.

For a more contemporary piece, you might try the National Book Award Winner for Poetry in 2009, Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy by Keith Waldrop. We also have the 2008 winner, Fire To Fire: New And Selected Poems by Mark Doty.

As for me, I think I'll celebrate, in closing, with a short poem that I happen to love:

"Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay."
-Robert Frost, "Nothing Gold Can Stay"

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #205

Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault** is a novel that probes “the moral and emotional minefield of heroic Samaritan acts”. When forty-something divorced Clara Purdy plows into the Gage family car; she could not have imagined its impact (pun not intended).

Thankfully, no one is seriously hurt but Lorraine Gage’s medical attention reveals advanced cancer, and the rest of the homeless Gages (minus Clayton who takes off for parts unknown) are invited into the guilt-ridden Clara’s empty house and quiet circumscribed world.

Domestic chaos mixes with joy as Clara cares for the three young children and learns to tolerate cantankerous Grandma. Unexpected support from neighbors and relatives rally around her and Clara even finds the strength to begin, at least tentatively, a new relationship.

Good marks Canadian writer Endicott’s U.S. debut and is the 2009 winner of a Commonwealth Writers Prize. Reviewers considered her a talent to watch and praised her “deft and winsome touch” in handling provocative issues. For readers of Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Berg and Anita Shreve. “An enchanting and poignant novel”.

** = Starred reviews

Get out your hammocks

It may be a bit rainy this week, but last week's weather reminded me that summer is near at hand, and accordingly I started thinking about what books I want to read out in the backyard under the warm sunshine. As a kid, I loved to read books about magic during summer vacation. One of my favorite authors was Edward Eager, whose Magic series can still make me feel like magic may just be waiting for me around the next corner I turn. I was also a fan of Susan Cooper, whose book, The Dark is Rising, inspired the movie The Seeker. Cooper's books are full of British folklore as well as magic of her own imagining. I read Joan Aiken's The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase over and over in elementary school and I just recently discovered that it is the first in a wonderful series of books set in alternative history, in which wolves rule England's wilderness and the King of England is constantly threatened by revolutionary plots.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #204

This spring, a pair of debut novelists from the Midwest offer fictional biographies of two beloved 19th century literary figures, and breathe romance into their lonely lives.

In The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, Kelly O'Connor McNees draws on biographical information to imagine a young Louisa at Walpole N.H. in the summer of 1855, where she finds that her growing affection (which she tried to deny) for charming (and wealthy) Joseph Singer is eagerly returned. Their romance is cut short by the announcement of Joseph’s engagement to an heiress. Family tragedies, disappointment and a desire for independence take Louisa back to Boston where eventually her literary career blossoms.

Kelly O’Connor McNees is born and raised in Michigan. She now calls Chicago home. A most apropos quote from her website beautifully evokes her heroine's lament:

“Don't laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragical romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns.”
~ Louisa May Alcott (Little Women)

Romancing Miss Brontë by Juliet Gael captures the emotional life of Charlotte Bronte during the last decade of her life, and shortly after the publication of Jane Eyre. Remaining lonely in spite of her literary celebrity, Charlotte Bronte endures unrequited love, first for her French professor and later for her publisher, while caring for her aging father. When his brash curate, Arthur Bell Nichols, reveals his long-time secret love for her, Charlotte must decide between a marriage lacking the passion displayed in her novels or a single life.

“Gael makes a valiant attempt to blend fact with fiction as she transports readers to 19th-century England”, capturing the passions, hopes, dreams, and sorrows of literature’s most famous sisters. The author was raised in the Midwest. She has lived abroad for more than fifteen years, primarily in Paris, where she worked as a screenwriter. She now makes her home in Florence, Italy.

For further reading, may we suggest:

Louisa May Alcott : the woman behind Little Women by journalist Harriet Reisen - an account of the life of LMA in context of her works, all of which are to some extent autobiographical. (Reisen also wrote the script for the PBS documentary on Alcott).

Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler, - a beautifully imagined tale of the Bronte sisters and the writing of Jane Eyre.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #203

"Even as the Vietnam War recedes into the past, the despair, confusion, and mythology it generated retains a grip on our culture" writes the Library Journal reviewer. This spring publishing season, two big, bold and marvelous debut novels about the war deserve a spot on everyone's reading list and they couldn't be more different or more compelling.

Chronologically, Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn : a novel of the Vietnam War** comes first. The narrative unfolds on the front line in 1969 Vietnam as Waino Mella, a young lieutenant leads his squad to take out an enemy gun nest. New orders send the squad on jungle missions murderous for the deprivation, incessant monsoons, treacherous terrain, endless ambushes and the deadly exposure to Agent Orange.

This "realistic, in-the-trenches look at war", by a decorated veteran (30 years in the making) is dense and vivid - especially the excellent battle scenes. But what is memorable are the characters - their personal struggles and divisions. magnified by their environment while trying to stay true to their purpose. A grand addition to the genre.

Debut novelist Tatjana Soli's The Lotus Eaters** captures the wrenching chaos of war as an American combat photographer finds herself torn between the love of two men.

In 1975, as the North Vietnamese army advances on to Saigon, Helen Adams must take leave of a war she is addicted to and a devastated country she has come to love. In a drama of devotion and betrayal, Helen is caught between her lover Linh, a Vietnamese who must grapple with his own conflicted loyalties, and Sam, her fiercest competitor and true friend. " A stunning novel of passion, duty and ambition among the ruins of war".

** = Starred reviews

Ponyo - "The Little Mermaid" Reincarnated

Ponyo, a children's animated film released in theaters in 2009, is a great, fresh take on the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale "The Little Mermaid."

In Ponyo, "a young boy named Sosuke rescues a goldfish named Ponyo, and they embark on a fantastic journey of friendship before Ponyo's father forces her to return to the sea. Ponyo's desire to be human upsets the balance of nature and only Ponyo's mother, a beautiful sea goddess, can restore nature's balance and make Ponyo's dreams come true."

With a famous English voice cast, including stars such as Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Cloris Leachman, and Lily Tomlin, Ponyo is entertaining and intriguing, though it may be a little slow or long for younger children.

There is also a bit of an environmental theme in the movie, influencing the audience to help keep the oceans clean.

Oddly enough, there are diverse other reworkings of "The Little Mermaid." These include a teen fiction novel, Midnight Pearls, in Debbie Viguié's Once Upon a Time series; an adult fantasy novel entitled The Mermaid's Madness by Jim C. Hines; and of course, the most well-known, the Disney film adaptation of the story.

March Books to Film (and Fabulous Fiction Firsts #202)

The latest adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is based on the perennial classic by Lewis Carroll.
This time, 17 year old Alice returns to the whimsical world she first encountered as a young girl, reuniting with her childhood friends, and embarking on a fantastical journey to find her true destiny and end the Red Queen’s reign of terror.

For a intimate perspective of the real Alice, try debut novelist Melanie Benjamin’s fictional biography in Alice I Have Been, as Alice Liddell looks back on a remarkable life, from a pampered childhood in Oxford to difficult years as a widowed mother, and how she became immortalized through a problematic relationship with the author.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is based on the first of Stieg Larsson's international bestselling Millennium trilogy, in which a disgraced journalist and a troubled young female computer hacker investigate the mysterious disappearance of an industrialist’s niece.

Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared from a family gathering on the island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger clan. Her body was never found, yet her beloved uncle is convinced it was murder and that the killer is a member of his own tightly knit but dysfunctional family.

The Ghost Writer is based on The Ghost by Robert Harris. It stars Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan with Roman Polanski directing.

When a successful British ghost writer agrees to complete the memoirs of former British Prime Minister, his agent assures him it's the opportunity of a lifetime. But the project seems doomed from the start. Before long he begins to uncover clues suggesting a dark secret linking the PM to the CIA. (See The New York Times review).

The novel The Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran is adapted for the motion picture starring Matt Damon as Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, a rogue U.S. Army officer assigned to hunt down Saddam’s WMD, who must wade through faulty intelligence and high level Washington cover-ups before war escalates in an unstable region.

The Last Song is based on the bestselling novelist Nicholas Sparks’s latest novel.

This tearjerker is set in a small Southern beach town where an estranged father gets a chance to spend the summer with his reluctant teenaged daughter. He tries to reconnect with her through the only thing they have in common --- music, in a story of family, friendship, secrets and salvation, along with first loves and second chances.

Forest Whitaker and Jude Law star in Repo Men, a sc-fi thriller adapted from a novel by Eric Garcia (originally published as The Repossession Mambo).

Human lives have been extended and improved through highly sophisticated and expensive mechanical organs created by a company called The Union. But if you don't pay your bill, The Union sends its highly skilled repo men to take back its property. Remy is one of the best organ repo men in the business, until he too, find himself fitted with the company's top-of-the-line heart-replacement...as well as a hefty debt.

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.


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.

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