Fabulous Fiction Firsts #184

Recently picked by Booklist as one of the ten top first novels of the year, Carolina De Robertis's debut novel The Invisible Mountain* is a "deeply intimate exploration of the search for love and authenticity, power and redemption, in the lives of three women, and a penetrating portrait of a small, tenacious nation, Uruguay, shaken in the gales of the twentieth century."

This gripping and lyrical story, at once expansive and lush with detail, begins with Pajarita, a healer with a mysterious second birth, her daughter Eva , a poet who suffered sexual assault as a child, and granddaughter Salome who as a revolutionary endures arrest, torture and imprisonment.

" De Robertis is a skilled storyteller in relating the stories of these stalwart women, but it is her use of language from the precision of poetry to the sensuality of sex that makes this literary debut so exceptional".

Readers of historical fiction from a strong female perspective would also find interesting The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allenda; and the 2004 National Book Award winner The News from Paraguay* by Lily Tuck.

* = Starred Reviews

The struggles of women

Kate Walbert, 2004 National Book Award nominee for Our Kind has written a new book, A Short History of Women which describes the changes in womens' status through the lives of her characters. Beginning with Dorothy Townsend, an English suffragist who died because of her self-imposed hunger strike, Walbert moves back and forth through time, describing her descendents' lives. Her daughter, Evelyn, comes to America and becomes a prominent chemist. In the new millenium, her niece, another Dorothy, continues the tradition of protest by being arrested while photographing an off-limits military base. And her daughters react to a bland, bourgeois existence with anxiety. A chronicler of the progress of women, Walbert leaves us with questions and admiration for her literary skills.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #183

If you were moved by her memoir The Glass Castle*, you would find Jeannette Walls's debut novel Half Broke Horses* no less "authentic, irresistible, and triumphant".

While The Glass Castle is the tale of a child of a scholarly, alcoholic father and an eccentric artist mother; her nomadic, hardscrabble upbringing, heartbreaking betrayals before finding the resources and will to leave home; Half Broke Horses is the story of Ms. Walls's grandmother - Lily Casey Smith.

This first-person fictional biography of a "horse-breaking, moonshine-selling, ranch-running, airplane-flying, pistol-packing, school-teaching, indomitable pioneer" begins with a young Lily, tough and wise beyond her years, saving her siblings during one of west Texas' flash floods.

Family photographs, archival materials and research lend an air of oral history to the narrative. Reflecting on the experiences of her grandmother and mother, Walls says, “It’s a bit of an anachronism, but there’s a lot to be said for the tough pioneer spirit and the untamed wilderness. I think it’s important that we don’t forget our roots. And our own half-brokeness."

For novels of other indomitable women, try The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss and The Diary of Mattie Spenser by Sandra Dallas.

* = Starred reviews (See the New York Times review)

(Audio) Fabulous Fiction Firsts #174

Reminiscent of Mary McCarthy's The Group (1963), Joanna Smith Rakoff's debut novel A Fortunate Age* chronicles the lives of a group of New York twentysomethings Oberlin grads. whose ambitions and friendships threaten to unravel as they chase their dreams, shed their youth, and build their lives during the heady and turbulent dot-com era and sobering post-9/11 landscape.

Narrated by Christina Moore, Fortunate is “a wonderful, funny, and spot-on portrait of a new generation”.

For fan of The Big Chill (1998), who might also enjoy Marge Piercy’s Braided Lives (about grads. from that certain university in Ann Arbor, Michigan); Alice Adams’ Superior Women (Radcliffe); and Martha Moody’s Best Friends (Oberlin).

* = Starred Review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #172

Bich Minh Nguyen's memoir Stealing Buddha's Dinner was named one of the 2008 Michigan Notable Books and the Chicago Tribune Best Book of 2007. It received the 2008 Kiriyama Prize and the PEN/Jerard Award. It has been selected by the Michigan Humanities Council as the current The Great Michigan Read.

In Nguyen's fiction debut Short Girls, narrators (in alternate chapters) Van and Linny Leong, estranged sisters who have chosen divergent paths since their latch-key days, returned home to celebrate their father’s U.S. citizenship and his reality TV debut to demo the Leong Arm - an invention for short people.

With keen insight, humor and compassion, the author examines what it means to be short – from stature, identity, expectations, ambition, to the distance between us. Beautifully written and expertly told, this is ultimately a universal tale about sisterhood; the cultural and family history that binds us; and the rights to set the standard by which we are measured.

Readers of women's fiction on the theme of sibling relationships might also enjoy The Almost Archer Sisters by Lisa Gabriele, or Julia Alvarez's wonderful portrayal of the immigrant experience in How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. For pure entertainment value - there is nothing more delightful than Jennifer Weiner's In Her Shoes.

* = Starred Reviews.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #171

What promises to be a rather formulaic chick lit., mildly entertaining summer escapist read turned out to be a compulsive page-turner - twisty, sexy and magical.

In debut novelist Margot Berwin's Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire, recently divorced Lila Nova impulsively purchased a bird of paradise from the hunky plant guy at a Manhattan green market to spruce up her depressingly lifeless apartment. Soon she was hooked - on David, as well as the lore and lure of tropical plants.

A chance discovery of a rare plant at an odd Laundromat and its enigmatic proprietor Armand took Lila deep into the Yucatan jungle, in search of extreme adventure and the nine mythical plants of desire. Little did Lila know what await her amidst unspeakable beauty and magic, would be treachery and heartbreak, but ultimately, also self-knowledge and redemption.

Hothouse Flower is fresh, fun, and wonderfully captivating - everything you would want for a lazy summer’s eve.

For fans of Sarah Addison Allen's Garden Spells and Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate . Plant enthusiasts and eco travelers would do well to also check out Susan Orlean’s award-winning The Orchid Thief.

* = Starred Review

Summer's Fabulous Books to Film

Cheri2Cheri2

Set in Belle Époque Paris, Chéri is the story of the love affair between the beautiful courtesan Léa and Chéri, the son of her old colleague and rival. When a marriage is secretly arranged for Cheri to another rich courtesan, they found out, too late, how much they meant to each other.

The sumptuous period drama with blinding star voltage (Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathy Bates) is based on a short novel by Colette, pen name for the flamboyant French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. (Limited release - a chick pick)

The Hollywood adaptation of My Sister’s Keeper is based on popular novelist Jodi Picoult's 2004 bestseller.

Sisters Kate and Anna share a bond closer than most sisters. Throughout their young lives, the sisters endure various medical procedures and hospital stays. Kate has Leukemia, and Anna was conceived to save her sister's life. Anna, now 11 seeks medical emancipation, hires her own lawyer, and initiates a court case that would divide the family. (3 hankies)

Public Enemies is adapted from Bryan Burrough's Public Enemies : America's greatest crime wave and the birth of the FBI, 1933-34 - the true story of legendary Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger, the charismatic bank robber whose lightning raids made him the number one target of J. Edgar Hoover's fledgling FBI and its top agent, Melvin Purvis. Starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, and Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard, one would not be surprised to find this the action/thriller of the summer.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #167

In Repeat After Me*, (Ann Arbor native) Rachel DeWoskin, author of the laugh-out-loud funny and poignant Foreign Babes in Beijing: behind the scenes of a new China impresses readers and critics alike with her debut novel of modern China and one American girl's struggle to find herself there.

This complex love story of cultural intersection begins with Aysha Silvermintz and recent immigrant Chen Da Ge, a sporadic and moody student assigned to her ESL class. Under the pretense of helping him gain citizenship, they marry.

The story picks up 13 years later with Aysha living in Beijing with her daughter, immersing them both in the daily life of their adopted home, and struggling to make sense of the mystery that was Chen. "A tender story of manic love and loss, this is a heartbreaking and uplifting novel with memorably off-kilter leads".

"DeWoskin demonstrates a smart, sophisticated literary agility", .... (her) firsthand knowledge of China, its language, and its traditions, as well as life in New York City, and her characters live and breathe". * = Starred reviews.

Click here to watch Rachel DeWoskin on her experiences living in China, a presentation at the Ann Arbor District Library.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #166

Former Publishers Weekly editor Emily Chenoweth's luminous debut Hello Goodbye* is perhaps one of my favorites this season. It is "deeply moving and yet unsentimental... beautifully crafted, intimate and sweet, funny and intelligent".

During one week in August, the Hansen family returns to vacation at a historic resort in the White Mountains. Helen, who is at her last stage of a terminal illness is there to say goodbye to a lifetime of friends, while husband Elliott relishes a respite from his caretaking duties. College-aged Abby has yet to come to terms with grief and loss as she teeters at the bright cusp of adulthood.

Hello is lyrical and poetic. It manages to be heartbreaking and life-affirming at the same time. It will resonate with you long after the last page is turned. A worthy contender for the tearjerker award.

* = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #157

In Aussie Toni Jordan's Addition, there is no getting around the fact that Grace Lisa Vandenburg is neurotic - lovable but definitely neurotic! - counting the bristles on the toothbrush and the poppy seeds on her cake (daily) neurotic. Her obsession with counting renders her unemployable and very much a loner except for Nikola Tesla, the turn-of-the-twentieth-century inventor whose portrait sits on her bedside table and who rescues her in her dreams.

Seamus Joseph O'Reilly, an Irish transplant is intrigued by Grace who steals his banana at the check-out line. A shared table at Grace's morning coffee run soon blossoms into romance, and Grace begins to want a normal life with this passionate and darling man. The path to recovery as well as true love is never smooth - but on the way, Grace learns a few valuable lessons and we are treated to a "sweet, agreeable romantic comedy".

This superb debut marks Jordan (interview) as a writer to watch.Discussion questions are available for an upbeat book group choice.

For a novel on the topic of obsessive-compulsive disorder, try teen novelist Terry Spencer Hesser's Kissing Doorknobs. For another humorous take on the subject, try Steve Martin's The Pleasure of My Company.

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