Fabulous Fiction Firsts #413 - Girls Rule

Actress Dagmara Dominczyk recently shared in a New York Times interview that "Those who know me know I love to write. Those who know me a little bit know I’m an actress. Those who don’t know me know I’m married to Patrick Wilson.”

In her debut novel The Lullaby of Polish Girls * the narrative follows the friendship of three women from their youthful days in Poland at the height of the Solidarity movement, to their complicated, not-quite-successful adult lives.

Anna and her parents lived among the Brooklyn immigrant community as political refugees. At twelve, she is sent back to Kielce to visit her grandmother, and over subsequent summers, develops intense friendships with two local girls - the ”brash and beautiful Justyna and desperately awkward Kamila. Told in alternate voices, it captures the joys and insecurities of coming-of-age, and the more heartbreaking struggles of hardship, marriage, and identity in womanhood.

Partly set in the Polish enclave of Wyandotte, Michigan, the film rights to this cinematic story has been sold. Let's hope they will film on location. Recommended for fans of Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook, and other modern novels of the expatriate experience in America. For a charming tale of growing up in a Polish American household, try Suzanne Strempek Shea's Hoopi Shoopi Donna.

Anne-Marie Casey, a former script editor and producer of prime-time British television drama delights readers on both sides of the Atlantic with her debut novel No One Could Have Guessed the Weather. (Released as An Englishwoman in New York across the pond).

Forced to give up her posh life and move to a tiny Manhattan apartment when her husband loses his job, Lucy unexpectedly falls in love with her new home and forges close friendships with three women who are also struggling with the disparities between the ambitions of their youth and middle age.

Inspired by her time living in Manhattan, "it's spot-on observant, laugh-out-loud funny, yet laced with kindness through and through."

"(S)ubversively charming". "Each chapter feels like a well-composed short story, and the collected whole is fresh and bright with characters that defy expectations. Clever and witty: the best kind of summer book."

A readalike for Meg Waite Clayton's The Wednesday Sisters, and the latest by Elizabeth Berg - Tapestry of Fortunes.

* = Starred review

2013 Sizzling Summer Reads #1 - Something to go with the heat

In National Book Award finalist Ken Kalfus's intellectual comedy Equilateral *, at the turn of the 20th Century, an obsessed British astronomer undertakes an massive project to build the Equilateral, a triangle in the Egyptian desert to signal to the highly evolved beings alive on Mars. But as work progresses, the local workers, a violent outbreak of malaria complicate matters while he himself is ensnared in a triangle of another sort - between his secretary who does not suffer fools, and Binta, a houseservant he covets but can't communicate with.

"Equilateral is written with a subtle, sly humor, but it's also a model of reserve and historical accuracy; it's about many things, including Empire and colonization and exploration; it's about "the other" and who that other might be. We would like to talk to the stars, and yet we can barely talk to each other."

If you enjoyed Overseas, Beatriz Williams's debut, you would not want to miss A Hundred Summers. 1938, Seaview (RI) where the Manhattan Danes and the Brynes have summered for decades, saw a reunion between former best friends Lily Dane and Budgie Greenwald who is now married to Nick, Lily's former fiance, and the charming Graham Pendleton, a celebrated Yankees pitcher recuperating from an injury.

Under the scorching summer sun, fueled with enough gin and gossips, the unexpected truth of Budgie and Nick's marriage bubbled to the surface just as a cataclysmic hurricane barreled unseen up the Atlantic. Lily and Nick must confront an emotional cyclone of their own, which would change their worlds forever.

Winner of a Costa Novel Award, Maggie O'Farrell bring us a beguiling family drama set during the legendary British heatwave of 1976 in Instructions for a Heatwave.

When Gretta Riordan's husband of 40 year went out for the paper on a sultry July morning and never returned, her three grown children converged on the family home for the first time in years. They each harbored secrets they were desperate to hide, even from those who loved them best, until the crisis at hand brought them together with hard-won, life-changing truths.

"Sophisticated, intelligent, and impossible to put down".

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #411

Estranged from her bohemian Brooklyn family and fired for an impropriety at work, Claudia Silver is officially in over her head. When her younger half-sister lands on her doorstep urgently in need of help, twenty-something Claudia desperately wants to offer the rescue that she herself has longed for.

Set in 1990s' New York City, Claudia Silver to the Rescue * " is the fierce yet tender chronicle of the many humiliations and occasional triumphs of a young woman determined to wrest her identity from the spectacular wreckage of her mistake. Uncomfortably hilarious, quintessentially human, Claudia is an unforgettable heroine who shoots for the stars and hits the ceiling."

This debut by television screenwriter Kathy Ebel (Cold Case; Law & Order), is a "smart and savvy chick lit with plenty of snark".

"Ebel exploits her experience as a screenwriter and poet in this lively debut novel. Claudia's dry wit and discerning eye turn what could be a rather mopey coming-of-age tale into a hilarious roller coaster of a ride. Quirks and vexations for each supporting character enrich every scene. Claudia sees quite clearly the price of her own actions, and her goal is survival. Well, with a little fun along the way. Family may be unstable and downright unbalanced, but in this witty, assured, surprising novel, family still has to accept you--mistakes and all."

Readalikes:
How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly by Connie May Fowler; Here I Go Again by Jen Lancaster; and The Smart One by Jennifer Close

* = starred review

(Celebrity) Fabulous Fiction Firsts #409

Lauren Graham (BA, Barnard and MFA, SMU) is better known for her roles on the hit TV series The Gilmore Girls and Parenthood. Her debut novel Someday, Someday, Maybe is a witty, charming, and hilariously relatable chronicle about a struggling young actress trying to get ahead and keep it together in New York City.

Franny Banks is coming up against the three-year deadline she set for herself when she came to New York, dreaming of Broadway. Other than some bit parts and commercials, waiting tables at a comedy club is all she has to show for. With a dwindling bank account and pressure from her father to move home, everything is riding on the upcoming showcase for her acting class, where she'll finally have a chance to perform for people who could actually hire her. That is if she won't be distracted by James Franklin, a notorious flirt and the most successful actor in her class.

Someday, Someday, Maybe is "a story about hopes and dreams, being young in a city, and wanting something deeply, madly, desperately. It's about finding love, finding yourself, and perhaps most difficult of all in New York City, finding an acting job".

In Montaro Caine, Sidney Poitier's debut, a baby is born with a coin in her hand. An orphan crafts a mysterious wooden object. Montaro Caine, the CEO of Fitzer Corporation finds himself under extraordinary pressure at work and at home. And on a remote hilltop on a Caribbean island, a medicine man seems to understand the meaning of all these events and to hold the key to the future.

When a man and woman appear at his office with a coin of unknown provenance, composed of a metal unknown on Earth. Montaro immediately recognizes it as the companion of a coin he analyzed as a graduate student working in a lab at MIT. Drawing attention from scientists, collectors, financiers, and thieves while Montaro himself hopes that the discovery of the coin will save his company.

"Sidney Poitier (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner) takes us on a wild and unexpected adventure from New York to Europe to the Caribbean and beyond, and offers a heartfelt message about the potential each of us has within ourselves, and about being open to the possibility that there are mysteries in the universe. An enthralling journey into the magic of existence, Montaro Caine is a radiant debut from an American legend".

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #405

Named a most anticipated book for Summer 2013 by The Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls* * * * by Anton DiSclafani is a lush, sexy, evocative debut novel of family secrets and girls-school rituals, set in the 1930s, and it does not disappoint (and easily one of the best books I've read this year).

15 year-old Thea Atwell is sent to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, an exclusive equestrienne boarding school for Southern debutantes, high in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The part that she played in the event that shattered her family and her privileged world is never clear though her guilt is palpable. Having been home schooled on the family's Florida citrus plantation, navigating the school's complex social order based on wealth, beauty and friendships is both exhilarating and challenging. Beautiful, observant, and a good rider, Thea soon finds a new sense of power which eventually proves her undoing.

The narrative weaves provocatively between home and school, past and present as the author gradually unfurls the shocking story behind Thea's expulsion from her family and the irreparable damages done. But it is too late for the reader to abandon Thea, for we are so engaged with this young woman who "wanted too much, wanted badly and inappropriately. And back then all that want was a dangerous thing".

"Part scandalous love story, part heartbreaking family drama, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is an immersive, transporting page-turner - a vivid, propulsive novel about sex, love, family, money, class, home, and horses, all set against the ominous threat of the Depression, and the major debut of an important new writer."

"An unusually accomplished and nuanced coming-of-age drama".

Fearless and willful, Thea will bring to mind Briony Tallis in Atonement by Ian McEwan. An Emory grad (MFA Washington University in St. Louis where she now teaches), and a seasoned rider, Anton DiSclafani grew up in Northern Florida. Yonahlossee will appeal to fans of Curtis Sittenfeld and Lauren Groff.

* * * * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #394 - The Reconstructionists

One of the most common causes of accidental death in America (right behind motor vehicle crashes) is falls (almost 15,000/year). There is grief but sometimes searching for the why and the how are all the more consuming for those left behind.

In Kimberly McCreight's debut Reconstructing Amelia (earning a "Grade A" from Entertainment Weekly), suspended for cheating at Grace Hall, a prestigious private school in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Kate Baron's daughter Amelia has apparently leapt from the roof by the time Kate arrives to pick her up. Then Kate gets an anonymous text message saying, "Amelia didn't jump".

A single mother juggling a demanding legal career, Kate is rocked with guilt and refuses to reconcile the out-of-character accusations leveled at the over-achieving, well-behaved Amelia. She searches through Amelia's e-mails, texts, and Facebook updates, piecing together the last troubled days of her daughter's life.

"This stunning...page-turner brilliantly explores the secret world of teenagers, their clandestine first loves, hidden friendships, and the dangerous cruelty that can spill over into acts of terrible betrayal". A great YA crossover, and readalike for Mathilda Savitch by Victor Lodato.

This one, I liked a lot - Swimming at Night by Lucy Clarke.

"People go traveling for two reasons: because they are searching for something, or they are running from something". Katie's world is shattered by the news that her headstrong and bohemian younger sister, Mia, has been found dead at the bottom of a cliff in Bali, apparently a suicide, while on an impromptu around-the-world trip. With only the entries in Mia's travel journal as her guide, Katie leaves her sheltered life in London to retrace the last few months of her sister's life, and to uncover the mystery surrounding her death.

"Weaving together the exotic settings and suspenseful twists, Swimming at Night is a fast-paced, accomplished, and gripping debut novel of secrets, loss, and forgiveness".

"A great read for fans of smart contemporary women's fiction as well as thriller and mystery readers". Comparisons are inevitable with Rosamund Lupton's Sister.

Living Life with the Gift of Do-Overs

What if there were second chances? Or third chances? How many tries would it take for you to get your life right? Kate Atkinson, author of Case Histories, weaves a tale of life and death in Life After Life that pulls the reader into the story of a woman who possesses an extraordinary gift: multiple chances at a single life.

It’s a snowy night in England in 1910. Ursula Todd is born. Ursula Todd dies before drawing her first breath. On the same snowy night in 1910 England, Ursula Todd is born again, and this time lives to tell the tale. Her life will follow this cycle of reincarnation throughout her childhood, adolescence and adulthood, taking her through countless catastrophic deaths, wars, family tragedies, and world-altering events. Each one of her deaths brings about a new lease on life, and a chance for Ursula to avoid the paths that lead to her untimely demises.

Atkinson weaves a lovely tale of life, death, rebirth and strength. It's a tale that takes readers on a journey with Ursula, a woman who experiences the turbulent times of the 20th century with wit, charm and compassion.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #388

In Aria Beth Sloss's Autobiography of Us, the ending is never in doubt, being spelled out right in the first sentence. And it draws you in, hook, line, and sinker - into a story of friendship, loss and love, between two women.

In the patrician neighborhood of Pasadena, California during the 1960s, Rebecca Madden and her beautiful, reckless friend Alex dream of lives beyond their mothers' narrow expectations. Since that day when Alex Carrington first walked into the classroom and picked quiet Rebecca as her friend, they have been everything to each other - that is until one sweltering evening the summer before their last year of college, when a single act of betrayal changed everything. Decades later, Rebecca's haunting meditation on the past reveals the truth about that night, the years that followed, and the friendship that shaped her.

"Autobiography of Us is an achingly beautiful portrait of a decades-long bond. A rare and powerful glimpse into the lives of two women caught between repression and revolution, it casts new light on the sacrifices, struggles, victories and defeats of a generation".

Aria Beth Sloss is a graduate of Yale University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She is a recipient of fellowships from the Iowa Arts Foundation. This is her debut novel.

Readers might also enjoy the forthcoming by Meg Wolitzer - The Interestings (2013), "a dazzling, panoramic novel about what becomes of early talent, and the roles that art, money, and even envy can play in close friendships".

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #386

Just about this time each year, with the first hint of spring, I've found myself humming April in Paris, and thoughts tend to drift to the City of Light. Now debut novelist Hilary Reyl will take us there, through the painterly eyes of a young American artist, in Lessons in French.

1989, a time of social and political upheaval. Her fluent French got new Yale grad Kate hired by famous American photojournalist Lydia Schell as her assistant. Kate is thrilled with the chance to pursue her dreams as a painter, but also to return to France where, as a child she was sent to live with cousins while her father was dying.

Immediately she is dazzled by the Schell's fashionable Sixth Arrondissement home, frequented by their famous friends, and falls into the orbit of a band of independently wealthy young men with royal lineage. Impressionable and wanting badly to fit in, Kate deliberately engages in a forbidden romance, becoming deeply enmeshed in the drama of this volatile household, and the ever-more questionable requests they make of her. In the meantime, Kate struggles with her own art.

"In compelling and sympathetic prose, Hilary Reyl perfectly captures this portrait of a precocious, ambitious young woman struggling to define herself in a vibrant world that spirals out of her control. Lessons in French is at once a love letter to Paris and the story of a young woman finding herself, her moral compass, and, finally, her true family".

French literature scholar (Ph.D. NYU) Reyl's first novel is rich and magnetic. Will appeal to readers who enjoy novels of Americans in Paris and other coming-of-age stories.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #385

Professional cellist Edward Kelsey Moore, whose short story "Grandma and the Elusive Fifth Crucifix" was selected as an audience favorite on NPR's Stories on Stage series just published his first novel. He lives in Chicago (website).

I sincerely hope you are not expecting The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat * being Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross, - the sensation from Detroit's Brewster-Douglass public housing project that helped put Motown Records on the map in the 1960s. But seriously, you won't be too disappointed once you've met Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean.

Dubbed "The Supremes" since their high school days, these Plainsview (IN) mavens have weathered life's storms together arm-in-arm. Dutiful, proud, and talented Clarice must struggle to keep up appearances as she deals with her husband's infidelities. Beautiful, fragile Barbara Jean must try to live with a youthful mistake that continues to haunt her. Fearless Odette engages in the most terrifying battle of her life while entertaining visitations from her (dead) pot-smoking mother and an inebriated Eleanor Roosevelt. For four decades, what sustain these strong, funny women through marriages, children, happiness, and disappointments, is their Sunday table at Earl's Diner, the first black-own business in this racially divided town, where they can count on good food, gossip, occasional tears, uproarious banter and each other.

"With wit and love, style and sublime talent, Edward Kelsey Moore brings together four intertwined love stories, three devoted allies, and two sprightly earthbound spirits in a big-hearted debut novel that embraces the lives of people you will never forget."

Poised to give Waiting to Exhale, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Steel Magnolias a run for their money. Readers might also enjoy works by Pearl Cleage, and April Sinclair, or other novels on women's friendship.

* = starred review

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