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.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #196

A Southern debut novel sparkling with humor, heart and feminine wisdom, Beth Hoffman's Saving CeeCee Honeycutt* is about a vulnerable young girl who loses one mother and finds solace in the “perfume world of prosperity and Southern eccentricity, a world that seems to be run entirely by women".

12 year-old CeeCee Honeycutt finds it hard to grieve for her mother (a loony former beauty queen) who walks in front of an ice cream truck. Her father offers no comfort. In fact, he promptly packs her off to Savannah to live with Great Aunt Tootie.

In this Steel Magnolias (1989) meets The Secret Life of Bees, Saving CeeCee is "packed full of Southern charm, strong women, wacky humor, and good old-fashioned heart. It is a novel that explores the indomitable strengths of female friendship", and the promise of new beginnings. A feel-good read with wide appeal.

Teens will find it easy to relate to CeeCee's struggle to reclaim a "normal" childhood, anger of abandonment, and her yearning for a place to call home. Recommended. (100,000 first printing)

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #191

Leila Meacham's debut Roses* is getting huge buzz among advance readers and the publishing community and has been favorably compared to works of Barbara Taylor Bradford and Colleen McCullough (The Thorn Birds).

This multi-generational saga is set in a small East Texas town where two founding families - The Tolivers and the Warwicks (descendants of the houses of Lancaster and York of the War of the Roses fame) control its powerful timber and cotton industries.

When Mary Toliver inherits her family's cotton plantation, Somerset, it tears apart her family; and causes her to lose the love of her life, timber magnate Percy Warwick. Now at 85, Mary is determined the family curse will not claim another generation of Tolivers, and set her plans in motion to sell off the plantation.

Spanning much of the 20th century, this old-fashioned saga of secrets and passion, feud and revenge will entertain and appeal to Gothic-romance readers and moviegoers of such "Southern-fried epics" as Gone with the Wind and Giant (based on a novel by Edna Ferber).

* = Starred Review

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

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