Fabulous Fiction Firsts #235

4 years after her memoir Kabul Beauty School : an American woman goes behind the veil made a considerable buzz in the publishing world with this "remarkable tale of an extraordinary community of women who come together and learn the arts of perms, friendship, and freedom", Deborah Rodriguez is trying her hand at fiction with A Cup of Friendship.

Running a Kabul coffee shop that is patronized by ex-pats and locals, thirtysomething-American Sunny reaches out to a growing circle of new friends including a pregnant rape victim, a wealthy woman who would help others, a journalist with a painful secret and a den mother who is engaged in a complicated affair.

"Rodriguez has a deft hand for detail and the accelerated emotion of the expat existence in war-torn Afghanistan", and will certainly appeal to those with an interest in current events in the Middle East.

For an intimate look at the lives and struggles of women in the insular (to Westerners) Islamic world, readers might try Rajaa Alsanea's Girls of Riyadh (also available as audiobook).

For cross-cultural tales and the experiences of Middle Eastern ex-pats in America (which mirror those depicted in Cup), I loved The Rug Merchant by Meg Mullins and Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #234

If you did not read Lisa Genova's debut novel Still Alice, a moving and vivid depiction of an accomplished woman who slowly loses her thoughts and memories to Alzheimer's, only to discover that each day brings a new way of living and loving, then there is one more reason for you to pick up her new novel Left Neglected.

Once again, bringing her expertise in neuroscience (Ph.D. Harvard) Genova introduces Sarah Nickerson who suffers from a little-known neurological syndrome called left neglect that leaves her unable to feel or see anything on her left side, due to injuries sustained in a car accident. As she struggles to recover physically, Sarah also learns to cope with aspects of her life "left neglected" owing to a high-powered job and her busy lifestyle, among them - her relationship with her mother, her young family, and her own happiness.

With a likable character committed to change and growth, a story of hope and strength, and sensitive treatment of a unique medical condition Left Neglected will appeal to Women's Fiction readers.

Readers interested in neuroscience should also try A Beautiful Mind : a biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr., which depicts the "mystery of the human mind, triumph over incredible adversity, and the healing power of love". (See the film adaptation, starring Russell Crowe)

2011 Best in Genre Fiction - American Library Association Reading List Council Awards

ala reading listala reading list

The Reading List annually recognizes the best books in eight genres: adrenaline (including suspense, thriller and adventure), fantasy, historical fiction, horror, mystery, romance, science fiction and women’s fiction. This year’s list includes novels that will please die-hard fans, as well as introduce new readers to the pleasures of genre fiction - and what pleases me most is to see many debut novels among the winners and on the shortlists.

Adrenaline
The Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer

Fantasy
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

Historical Fiction
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

Horror
The Dead Path by Stephen M. Irwin

Mystery
Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

Romance
A Matter of Class by Mary Balogh

Science Fiction
The Dervish House by IIan McDonald

Women’s Fiction
Solomon’s Oak by Jo-Ann Mapson

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #230

Published posthumously, Beverly Jensen's debut The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay * comes highly recommended by someone I trust and I was not disappointed.

In 1916, Idella and Avis Hillock live on the edge of a chilly bluff in New Brunswick, a hardscrabble world of potato farms and lobster traps, rough men, hard work, and baffling beauty. From "Gone," the heartbreaking story of their mother's medical crisis in childbirth, to the darkly comic "Wake," which follows the grown siblings' catastrophic efforts to escort their father, "Wild Bill" Hillock's body to his funeral, the stories of Idella and Avis offer a compelling and wry vision of two remarkable women. The vivid cast includes Idella's philandering husband Edward, her bewilderingly difficult mother-in-law- and Avis, whose serial romantic disasters never quell her irrepressible spirit. Jensen's work evokes a time gone by and reads like an instant American classic.

Beverly Jensen earned an MFA in drama from Southern Methodist University. After her death in 2003, her story "Wake" was published in the New England Review, included in The Best American Short Stories of 2007, and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Sisters brings to mind Richard B. Wright's Clara Callan another moving tale of two sisters. It won the 2001 Governor General's Award and the The Scotiabank Giller Prize - two of the most prestigious Canadian literary awards.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #212

What makes a reader "perfect"?

The answer might lie somewhere in Perfect Reader*, the "sparkling, shrewd, and at times hilarious" debut by Maggie Pouncey.

Twentysomething Flora Dempsey is stunned to find herself named literary executor of her late father - a critic, an eminent scholar and college president in a small New England town. Beside the house, the family dog, Flora finds she has also inherited a manuscript of her father's erotic poems inspired by a girlfriend Flora didn't know he had, a girlfriend who wants to see them published!

In a year of grieving, Flora revisits her childhood memories of her parents' divorce, losing a best friend following a terrible accident while debating whether to publish her father's manuscript.

"Pouncey has skillfully created a portrait of small-town academia, where the relationships between reader and text are just as elusive and complex as the relationships between father and daughter, husband and wife, or between two lovers".

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #210: Fresh Asian-American Voices

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok is an inspiring debut , drawn from personal experience about a young immigrant from Hong Kong, who is caught between the pressure to succeed in America, duty to her family, and her own personal desires.

An exceptional student and yet shy and proud, Kimberly Chang and her mother are tricked into back-breaking factory work and living in squalor. In simple, searing, richly detailed prose, Kwok captures the anguish of the struggle, the universal immigrant lament of not fitting in, misunderstanding and cultural disconnect that is wrenching and hilarious at times. Girl is a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love. A good book group choice with reading group guide. Don't miss the author's interesting bio..

Sonya Chung's exquisite debut Long for This World** is a multi-layered story of two brothers, distanced by time and differences. When American surgeon Han Hyun-ku unexpectedly arrives at his younger brother's home in a remote island in South Korean, he leaves behind a floundering marriage and a troubled son. His daughter, Jane, a renowned photojournalist searches for him and they are quickly absorbed into the Korean Han's household where surface tranquility masks dark and volatile undercurrents.

"Moving between landscapes and a variety of perspectives, Chung's ambitious debut explores the intricacies and aggravations of family, culture, and identity." With reading group guide as well.

Sonya Chung is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination, the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, and the Bronx Council on the Arts Writers’ Fellowship & Residency. In fall 2010, Sonya will join the full-time faculty of the Creative Writing Program at Columbia University.

Readalikes: Typical American by Gish Jen for the Asian-American immigrant experience; and The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak for the secrets families keep; and how one "can't go home again".

** = Starred reviews

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

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.

African-American Woman's Book Club

Are you a female fan of Black Literature? With more than 30 chapters in 12 states, The Go On Girl! Book Club claims to be the largest African-American woman's book club in the country. Their website has a great list of reading resources as well as information on how to start your own local GOG chapter.

Interested in catching up with their reading selections? 2010's winter/spring books are as follows:
January 2010 - Wife of the Gods, Kwei Quartey (Mystery)
February 2010 - Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell (Nonfiction)
March 2010 - Black Water Rising, Attica Locke (Fiction)
April 2010 - Sag Harbor: A Novel, Colson Whitehead (Fiction)

GOGGOG

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.

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