The Reading List 2016

At the ALA Midwinter in Boston, a committee of 8 librarians announced this past year's best of the best in genre fiction - the Reading List. The winner in each of the 8 categories are:

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter
Three sisters are driven apart in the aftermath of one’s disappearance. When a violent crime occurs new fears arise and relationships shift again. Long term effects of family grief are exploited by the compulsions of a psychopath. Brutal and disturbing, this is ultimately a story of love and empowerment.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik
In this enchanted old-world fable, villagers threatened by a blighted magical wood allow the resident wizard to take one daughter into servitude for ten years. When he chooses klutzy Agnieszka, she faces an unexpected future and confronts the dangers of a wider political world and the roots of magical corruption.

Historical Fiction
Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans
Raised by his eccentric ex-suffragette godmother to be a free-thinker, young Noel is thrown into chaos when the London Blitz forces him into the home of a scam artist loyal only to her layabout son. Thrust together, the two oddballs are forced to find a way through the wartime landscape.

The Fifth House of the Heart by Ben Tripp
Flamboyant antiques dealer Asmodeus “Sax” Saxon-Tang made his fortune by accidentally killing a vampire with a horde of treasure. To protect the only person he loves, his niece, he’s forced to return to old Europe to assemble an eccentric team of vampire hunters in this gory, witty caper.

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney
Cold cases cast a twenty-five year shadow of grief and guilt on the lives of two survivors of traumatic teenage crimes. New leads and new cases bring them back to Oklahoma City as past and present intersect in this poignant and compelling story of lives forever changed by random violence.

Taking the Heat by Victoria Dahl
Sassy relationship advice columnist Veronica overcomes her commitment anxiety and gains confidence with the help of mountain-climbing librarian Gabe. Steamy romance evolves into a strong relationship as they scale a mountain of family conflicts and share secrets against a majestic Jackson Hole backdrop.

Science Fiction
Golden Son by Pierce Brown
Insurgent Darrow inveigled his way into high Gold society in 2014’s Red Rising. In this dramatic, high octane follow-up, conflicting loyalties and his own ambitions lure Darrow into an untenable web of deceptions. Bolstered by new alliances, Darrow battles to overthrow corrupt lunar leadership and bring freedom to Mars.

Women’s Fiction
Re Jane by Patricia Park
Anxious to escape the strict upbringing of her uncle’s Flushing grocery, Korean-American Jane accepts an au pair position in the pretentious household of two Brooklyn academics and their adopted Chinese daughter. Park has created a bright comic story of falling in love, finding strength, and living on one’s own terms.

Check out the complete list for a shortlist of honor titles in each category.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #574 "So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof, a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood..." ~ Virginia Woolf

Noah's Wife by Lindsay Rebecca Stark draws upon the motifs of the biblical flood story to explore the true meaning of community.

When Noah met his wife on a rain-battered whale-watching ship, the attraction was electric and mutual. The torrential downpour on their wedding day failed to spoil the happy occasion. Now Noah, a charismatic and energetic young minister has been called to a gray and wet little town in the hills where it has been raining for as long as anyone could remember, where everything - including the church is rotting in the rain.

Driven by her desire to help her minister husband revive the congregation, Noah's wife, who "has a talent for bringing out the best in people", is thwarted by the resistance of her eccentric new neighbors, and by Noah's crisis of faith.

As the river water rises, flooding the once-renowned zoo, the animals are evacuated - sending the penguins to the freezer at the local diner, the cheetah to the organist, the red fox to Noah's wife, and the peacocks (nursing a broken wing) to the general store. But the worse is still to come. And it will take everyone working together to keep their world afloat.

"Variously romantic, symbolic, philosophical, feminist, and fanciful, this is an atmospheric tale that meanders to a sweetly rousing conclusion. Forget the ark, forget the patriarch. It's the women who tend to triumph in this modern take on an Old Testament parable."

For character-driven novels about small-town life, readers might try The Next Queen of Heaven by Gregory Maguire; The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman; and The Mitford series by Jan Karon.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #559

Make Your Home Among Strangers * * is the debut novel by award-winner (Iowa Short Fiction Prize) Jennine Capó Crucet, a Miami native who served as a counselor/mentor to first-generation college kids at a nonprofit called One Voice, an experience that greatly informs her writing.

Set in both Miami and New York around the time the Elian Gonzalez immigration ordeal was unfolding, Cuban American Lizet Ramirez is the first in her family to attend college (made possible by a full-ride to a prestigious New England one), and the first to leave her blue-collared neighborhood of Little Cuba, a decision that might have precipitated the breakup of her family.

Academically and socially, Lize struggles on campus, and is looking forward to an unannounced Thanksgiving visit home - the same day that young Ariel Hernandez arrives in Miami and becomes the center of a public battle between anti-Castro Cubans and the U.S. Government, a conflict in which Lizet's mother, newly divorced and unmoored, becomes deeply involved.

"Told largely in flashback by an older and wiser Lizet, this coming-of-age story achieves a wry and wistful tone. Debut novelist Crucet depicts with insight and subtlety the culture shock, confusion, guilt, and humiliations of the first-generation college student surrounded by privilege."

"But above all, in Lizet's story, we have a thrilling, deeply fulfilling journey of a young woman stepping into her own power."

For further reading: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez; The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez; and the much anticipated second novel We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, author of the 2012 Reading List award winner The Language of Flowers.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #554

Coming in at the #1 spot of September LibraryReads List is The Art of Crash Landing, a debut novel by Melissa DeCarlo.

"Irresponsible. Undependable. Erratic." - that how 30 year-old free-lance photographer Mattie Wallace describes herself. Broke and knocked up, with all her worldly possessions crammed into six giant trash bags, and nowhere to go, she drives the 800 miles to claim a bequest left to her by a grandmother she has never met, knowing full-well that this might be one last chance to turn things around.

When she arrives at the tiny town of Gandy, Oklahoma, her grandmother's estate turns out to be meager at best but she does have the key to her mother's childhood home. The kindness of strangers, most of whom knew her mother gives Mattie the opportunity to uncover the mystery that turns a happy, talented teenager into the broken alcoholic mother that she knows. Uncovering what started her mother's downward spiral might be the only way to stop her own.

"Hilarious, gripping, and unexpectedly wise,... first-novelist DeCarlo deftly weaves in flashbacks about Mattie's childhood and creates a cast of wonderfully full-blooded, fallible characters,... Best of all is Mattie herself, who has cultivated a measure of humanity in addition to impressive survival skills and whose briskly told story is instantly involving."

For readers who enjoyed The Time of My Life by Cecelia Ahern; Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch; and Contents May Have Shifted by Pam Houston.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #548 - “I don't believe an accident of birth makes people sisters or brothers. It makes them siblings, gives them mutuality of parentage. Sisterhood and brotherhood is a condition people have to work at.” ~ Maya Angelou

The Lake Season "sparkles with wry wit, sweet romance, and long-kept family secrets", is the first adult fiction by YA author Hannah Roberts McKinnon.

Iris Standish arrives at her childhood lakeside home in the midst of the whirlwind of activities in preparation for her sister Leah's wedding, just when her own marriage to a high-power lawyer is coming apart. As Iris work through how her carefully-constructed life spins out of control while helping Leah with the preparations for her wedding, both learn more about themselves and each other than they ever thought possible.

"McKinnon’s voice is sharp and evocative…Making use of a gorgeous setting and serious themes, this novel rises above a flock of fluffier beach reads."

The Second Sister by Marie Bostwick, is her first stand-alone (from her Cobbled Court Quilts series) in many years.

Political campaigner Lucy Toomey’s hard work is about to pay off now that her candidtae is entering the White House. But when her estranged older sister, Alice, unexpectedly dies, Lucy is drawn back to Nilson’s Bay, her small, close-knit, Wisconsin hometown. To meet the terms of Alice’s eccentric will, Lucy must take up residence in her sister’s cottage, and over time, begins to see the town, and Alice’s life, anew.

"Bostwick depicts the mental and emotional struggle Lucy undertakes as she grieves a sister she never truly knew and weighs small-town life against the bustle of Washington, D.C."

Whiskey & Charlie by Annabel Smith is (a) "sharp perceptive (debut) novel about family and forgiveness."

Like most identical twins, (William) Whiskey and Charlie were thick as thieves as children though they were polar opposites. By the time they reach adulthood, they are estranged. Charlie is repulsed by Whiskey's flashy ad-executive lifestyle and his impulsive marriage to the lovely Rosa. But when a freak accident puts Whiskey in a coma, Charlie is forced to face the fact he may never speak to his brother again.

"Whiskey and Charlie is a wise, clever exploration of making mistakes and facing up to them, of sibling rivalry, the damage it can do, and the ways family can make us whole."

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #543 - "Freedom Is just frosting On somebody else's Cake -- And so must be Till we Learn how to Bake.” ~ Langston Hughes

The Art of Baking Blind, a debut novel by Sarah Vaughan (Oxford, a former news reporter for The Guardian) is a MUST for fans of PBS' Great British Baking Show.

Five amateur bakers are competing to become the New Mrs. Eaden, Mrs. Eaden being Kathleen, the recently deceased wife of the upscale supermarket chain's founder and the author of the 1966 classic, The Art of Baking. The winner not only will take away £50,000 but a baking career is almost a sure thing.

Housewives Vicki, Jenny, and Karen; single dad Mike; and single mom Claire will face off at the Eaden country estate through rounds of cakes, biscuits, breads, pies and pastries, pudding, and "celebratory tea" while dealing with personal challenges and difficult family dynamics. As unlikely alliances are forged and secrets rise to the surface, they will learn, as did Mrs. Eaden before them, that while perfection is possible in the kitchen, it's very much harder in life.

"Delectable 'food porn', as one character puts it."

The Cake Therapist by award-winning cookbook author Judith Fertig brings to mind Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

Claire "Neely" O'Neil, a pastry chef of extraordinary talent has a unique gift. She can "taste" feelings - cinnamon makes you remember; plum is pleased with itself; orange is a wake-up call. She can also customize her creations to help her clients, whether to celebrate love, overcome fear, or mourn a devastating loss.

When she returns home to Millcreek Valley (OH) after a series of personal and business set-backs in the big city, opening her own bakery seems the perfect move, especially now that the town has become a thriving bridal district. Neely's talents for helping people through her pastry palette have always been useful, but a recurring flavor of alarming intensity signals a long-ago story involving a unique piece of jewelry begs to be told. Getting to the end of this story may be just what she needs to help herself.

"Fertig crafts a culinary tale that has as much substance as sweetness and is as pleasingly layered as Neely's signature rainbow cake. "

For readers who enjoyed The Love Goddess' Cooking School by Melissa Senate; The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister; When in Doubt Add Butter by Elizabeth Harbison; and The Glass Kitchen by Linda Francis Lee.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #540 - “Sensual pleasure passes and vanishes, but the friendship between us, the mutual confidence, the delight of the heart, the enchantment of the soul, these things do not perish and can never be destroyed.” ~ Voltaire

The Enchanted April (1922), a women's fiction classic by Elizabeth Von Arnim is transported a century forward and across oceans by children's author/publisher Brenda Bowen into Enchanted August, her debut novel for adults, and an invitation to get away from it all, if only for little while.

Hopewell Cottage
Little Lost Island, Maine.
Old, pretty cottage to rent on a small island.
Springwater, blueberries, sea glass.

When Lottie Wilkes and Rose Arbuthnot spotted this notice at their children's preschool bulletin board on a dreary spring morning, it seemed like a godsend, and a much needed break from relentless child-rearing demands and husband-troubles. To cover the steep rent, they invited two strangers - Caroline Dester, an indie actress in need of anonymity to nurse a very public humiliation; and elderly Beverly Fisher, who is not at all what they were expecting. If its not a perfect quartet, they were determined to make it work. That is, until the late-August blue moon, when real life and its complications made their way to this idyllic island.

"Bowen has conjured up a delightful and inviting island summer complete with all the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Maine to create a feast for the senses." "A thoroughly pleasant summer read as breezy as the island itself."

Also suggested are: The Girls of August by Anne Rivers Siddons; Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan; Summer Rental by Mary Kay Andrews; and the latest from Jane Green - Summer Secrets.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #538 -“Are you ready to stop colluding with a culture that makes so many of us feel physically inadequate? Say goodbye to your inner critic, and take this pledge to be kinder to yourself and others." ~ Oprah Winfrey

Dietland * *, Sarai Walker's debut - is "part Fight Club, part feminist manifesto, an offbeat and genre-bending novel that aims high, and delivers."

Alicia "Plum" Kettle, tipping the scale at 300 lbs. is counting the days when she will become her true, thin self... "she won't be alone all the time... she'll dress in pretty clothes, she'll travel, she'll have a job that she likes", instead of being the closeted advice columnist for a glamor teen magazine, working out of the corner café. After every diet plan imaginable has failed her, Plum is contemplating bariatric surgery. While used to humiliated stares and taunts, she is uneasy when she finds herself being stalked by a odd-looking young woman who leaves her strange little "gifts" that ultimately leads her to a secret society of women responsible for a series of gruesome kidnappings and killings worldwide.

"Hilarious, surreal, and bracingly original, Walker's ambitious debut avoids moralistic traps to achieve something rarer: a genuinely subversive novel that's also serious fun." If I have failed to convince you that this is one debut not to be missed, here is what two of my favorite authors have to say...

"Dietland is a book I have been waiting for someone to write all my life, and it hit me hard right where I live, right where so many of us have wasted too much time living. It's courageous, compassionate, intelligent, pissed off and much more fun than it has any right to be." ~ Pam Houston

"Sarai Walker is an immensely talented writer and her debut novel, Dietland—filled with wit, wisdom and wonder—is a pleasure." ~ Jill McCorkle

For readers who enjoyed The Middlesteins; Where'd You Go, Bernadette; and The Next Best Thing. Ideal for book groups seeking something more socially aware and gender-conscious in their women's fiction.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #532 - “It's the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” ~ Paulo Coelho

Hugo & Rose * by Bridget Foley would be the Calgon for any beleaguered housewife - the ultimate escape. For Rose though, it is a bit more complicated.

For thirty years, since a traumatic accident in childhood, Rose has the same dream every night - stranded on a deserted island with a brave boy named Hugo, having incredible adventures. These exciting dreams overshadow her waking life - that of being a suburban mother of three, married to an overworked and often absent surgeon.

When Rose stumbles across Hugo in real life, both her real and dream worlds are changed forever. This chance encounter begins a cascade of questions, lies, and a dangerous obsession that threatens to topple everything she knows.

"Debut-novelist Foley, a screenwriter, brings a cinematic sensibility to both fantastical descriptions of the dream island and depictions of the mundane real world... (this) imaginative and insightful novel will hold readers spellbound as it builds to a stunning conclusion." Would appeal to fans of Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon.

The Bookseller * by Cynthia Swanson has been called "a stunner of a debut novel, astonishingly tight and fast paced."

Denver, 1962. Cat-loving spinsterly Kitty Miller, part-owner of the floundering Sisters Bookstore leads a simple if solitary life. That is, until she starts waking up in 1963 as Katharyn Andersson, wife of architect Lars, mother of triplets, in a sleek, suburban life filled with maids and nannies, Cadillacs and cocktail parties.

As Kitty investigates her parallel worlds, she starts to doubt the choices she's made in her daytime life but she also discovers that her dream life is not as perfect as it appears. "Dexterously traversing past and present, fact and fiction, Swanson's clever first novel ingeniously explores the inventive ways the human spirit copes with trauma."

"The 1960s tone is elegant and even, and Kitty/Katharyn's journey is intriguing, redolent with issues of family, independence, friendship, and free will. This will especially resonate with fans of the movie Sliding Doors and works by Anna Quindlen and Anita Shreve."

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #527 - Spotlight on Canadian Debuts

These 3 noteoworthy debuts share more than geography. Two are mysteries/police procedurals; two have strong historical significance; and all are inspired by real persons and/or events.

Asylum by Jeannette De Beauvoir is set in Montreal where Martine LeDuc is the director of PR for the mayor's office. Four women are found brutally murdered and shockingly posed on park benches throughout the city. Fearing a threat to tourism, the Mayor tasked Martine to act as liaison with the police department. She is paired with a young detective, Julian Fletcher. Together they dig deep into the city's and the country's past, only to uncover a link between the four women: all were involved with the decades-old Duplessis orphanage scandal. "A complex and heartbreaking mystery."

"Meticulously researched and resounding with the force of myth" The Thunder of Giants by Toronto playwright Joel Fishbane, "blends fact and fiction in a sweeping narrative that spans nearly a hundred years. Against the backdrop of epic events, two extraordinary women become reluctant celebrities in the hopes of surviving a world too small to contain them."

In 1937, at nearly eight feet tall, Andorra Kelsey, known in Detroit as the Giant of Elsa Street, is looking for a way to escape when a Hollywood movie scout offers her the role of Anna Swan (here is the link to the Canadian Anna Swan digital archive), the celebrated Nova Scotia giantess who toured with P.T. Barnum's "Human Marvels" traveling show.

Told in parallel, while Andorra is seen as a disgrace by an embarrassed family, Anna Swan (born 1846) becomes a famed attraction as she falls in love with Gavin Clarke, a veteran of the Civil War. Both women struggle to prove to the world that they are more than the sum of their measurements. "A genial, appealing celebration of two strong, independent women; recommended for fans of historical fiction." Especially for those who enjoyed The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker.

In The Unquiet Dead * * by Ausma Zehanat Khan, Detective Esa Khatta, head of Canada's new Community Policing Section specialized in handling minority-sensitive cases, is called in to investigate the death of wealthy businessman Christopher Drayton, found at the bottom of a bluff near his home in Lake Ontario. As Esa and his partner Detective Rachel Getty dig into the background of Drayton, it is evident that this upstanding Canadian citizen is in truth, a Bosnian war criminal - Lieutenant Colonel Drazen Krstic, with ties to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 where thousands of Muslim men, women and children were slaughtered. As Khattak and Getty interview imams and neighbors and sort out what justice really means, they are forced to navigate the lingering effects of a horrible conflict and their own broken lives.

"In her spellbinding debut, Ausma Zehanat Khan (a former law professor with a specialty in Balkan war crimes) has written a complex and provocative story of loss, redemption, and the cost of justice..." "Readers of international crime fiction will be most drawn to the story, but anyone looking for an intensely memorable mystery should put this book at the top of their list."

* * = 2 starred reviews

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