Fabulous Fiction Firsts #514 - "I want to trespass boundaries, erase all identifications, anything which fixes one permanently into one mold, one place, without hope of change.” ~ Anaïs Nin

Debut novelist Angelina Mirabella's The Sweetheart refers to Leonie Putzkammer, a 17 year-old with little prospect, living and caring for her widowed father in a Philadelphia row house and waiting tables at a diner. When an impulsive feat of athleticism on Bandstand comes to the attention of Salvatore Constantini, the legendary wrestling promoter, she is offered a chance to recast her future.

At Joe Pospisila's School for Lady Grappling, Leonie is put through a grueling regiment of physical training in and out of the ring; and coaching in dramatics (wrestling is after all, entertainment). To build a fan base, Leonie recreates herself as Gorgeous Gwen Davies, being tall, blonde, curvaceous does not hurt. Before long, she becomes known as "The Sweetheart of the ring" and has a genuine shot at the championship.

But the loneliness of the road, the injuries, the burden of finance eventually put a strain on her relationship with her out-of-work father, her tag-team partner/friend Screaming Mimi Hollander, and even on her budding romance with Sam (Spider) McGee, a men's champion wrestler. At a critical time in her debut season, Leonie finds she has a difficult decision to make.

"An engrossing portrait of the little-known (1950s) world of women's wrestling with questions about the nature of stardom and showing love..." "Angelina Mirabella's surprising, affecting, and morally complex novel describes how a single decision can ripple through the lives of everyone around us."

Recommended for those who enjoyed League of Their Own, a motion picture about the All American Girl’s Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) in the 1940s, based on a true story, and The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg - the story about five women who worked in a Phillips 66 gas station during the WWII years.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #513 -“When one was reinventing oneself, anywhere could be home.” ~ Manju Kapur

A debut novel - Searching for Grace Kelly * by Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Callahan, is "a wonderful champagne bubble of a book - glamorous, aspirational, and relatable! The fifties never seem so fun! Wicked, naughty and clever." ~ Melissa de la Cruz

In the 1950s, there is no address more glamorous than New York's Barbizon Hotel for Women where the likes of Grace Kelly, Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, Edna Ferber, and Sylvia Plath have called home. For Laura Dixon, former debutant, and a patrician beauty from Smith, arrives to work as a guest editor at Mademoiselle on the annual August college issue. In short order, she catches the eye of the most eligible bachelor in all of NY, and befriends a bartender of great intellect. Her wildly romantic, slightly thrumpy, take-charge roommate Dolly Hickey is a Katie Gibbs girl, counting on secretarial school and a job in publishing to spare her from the drudgery shared by the women in her working-class family upstate. Above all, she longs for her own prince-charming.

Vivian Windsor, a brash, redheaded British bombshell dreams of a singing career, while working as a cigarette girl at the famous Stork Club in the meantime, waiting for her big break, taking pleasures where she can, and breaking all the rules (Barbizon and otherwise) along the way.

Together, the three young women embark on a journey of self-discovery that will take them from the penthouse salons of Park Avenue to the Beat scene of Greenwich Village to Atlantic City's Steel Pier -- and into the arms of men who will alter their lives forever.

"Callahan's debut novel truly captures glamorous New York City from young women's perspective in the 1950s." "(He) suavely combines literary finesse and pulp fiction to create a fast-moving, heart-wrenching tale of romance and tragedy."

For those who remembered fondly The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe (adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film); The Group by Mary McCarthy; and Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.

If you like your settings strictly contemporary, try Brooklyn Girls by Gemma Burgess and Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #512 -“The best love is the kind that awakens the soul and makes us reach for more, that plants a fire in our hearts and brings peace to our minds." ~ Nicholas Sparks

Sonali Dev won the 2015 Reading List Awards for Romance with A Bollywood Affair, her first novel.

The first thing you will notice is that this romance is set in the unlikely locale of Ypsilanti, Michigan. Then this "charming contemporary Indian fairytale…(v)ibrant and exuberantly romantic" (NPR) will take over and never let go.

Mili Rathod, bound by marriage since she was four years old to a man she has not seen in 20 years, has nevertheless dutifully cared for his family in their village. Preparing herself to be the perfect Indian wife, she attends college (for sparklingly witty and intelligent conversations) while she waits for her husband Virat to come and claim her. In the meantime, she accepts the one-year scholarship in America, unaware that Virat, now married to Rima, plans to annul the marriage before the arrival of their first child.

Tasked with tracking down Mili to sign the annulment papers is Virat's playboy brother Samir, a big-time Bollywood director/filmmaker. Arriving on the Eastern Michigan University campus in a bright yellow convertible, their first meet is anything but "cute" - it is downright disastrous. Mistaken identity, conditioned expectations, personal history and family loyalty complicate matters as they fight their mutual attraction.

"Dev's heartfelt debut novel is rich in scenes and images illuminating Indian culture, leaving readers with a greater understanding and appreciation of Indian traditions while beautifully capturing the struggle between familial duty and self-discovery."

Check out these readalikes/watchalikes selected for this title by the Reading List Council:

Bride and Prejudice (2004)
The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger (2012)
The Malhotra Bride by Sundari Venkatraman (2009), in kindle format

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #511 - “Nothing looks so like innocence as an indiscretion.” ~ Oscar Wilde

A Small Indiscretion, a debut novel by O. Henry Award-winner Jan Ellison is a gripping and ultimately redemptive novel of love and its dangers, marriage and its secrets, youth and its treacherous mistakes, earning praises from fellow writers with: "engrossing, believable, gracefully written family drama that reveals our past's bare-knuckle grip on our present" (Emma Donoghue); and "... Absorbing, chilling, and moving..." (Robin Black).

The novel opens with a nineteen-year old Annie Black arriving in London and landing a temporary secretarial job working for structural engineer Malcolm Church. While Malcolm is besotted with her, it is Malcolm's wife's much younger lover, a charismatic photographer named Patrick that Annie falls for. During the Christmas holidays, the foursome travel to Paris where a small indiscretion will eventually come back years later to destroy two families an ocean apart.

Moving back and forth across time between that distant winter in Paris and Annie's life two decades later as a lighting designer in San Francisco with a picture-perfect family, the author teases out interlocking facet's of Annie's story that will pull the reader forward, until a photograph arrives in Annie's mailbox, igniting an old longing and setting off a chain of events that rock the foundations of her marriage and endanger her business as well as her family.

"Part romance novel, part coming-of-age story, and part family drama, this somber book about a perpetually flawed woman is a challenging and thought-provoking read." For readers of Amy Bloom, Meg Wolitzer, and Lorrie Moore.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #510 - She waited for the train to pass. Then she said, "I sometimes think that people’s hearts are like deep wells. Nobody knows what’s at the bottom..." ~ Haruki Murakami

Just adding my 2¢ to the well-deserved buzz on The Girl on the Train * * * by Paula Hawkins, a debut psychological thriller that will make you take a harder look at people you think you know.

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning to London. As it flashes past suburban homes and stops at a signal, she watches the goings-on in the enviable lives of a prosperous young couple, just a few doors down from where she used to live. And then she saw something shocking. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in the unfolding nightmare. Film rights optioned to DreamWorks.

It's funny that this morning's New York Times interview with the author should mention that "Hawkins joins the ranks of a new generation of female suspense novelists — writers like Megan Abbott, Tana French, Harriet Lane and Gillian Flynn — who are redefining contemporary crime fiction with character-driven narratives that defy genre conventions. Their novels dig into social issues, feature complex women who aren’t purely victims or vixens, and create suspense with subtle psychological developments and shifts in relationships...", as I was just about to blog Harriet Lane's latest - Her * *.

When Nina Bremner recognizes Emma Nash on a London street, it sends a shockwave through her well-ordered life. She craftily engineers an incident with a lost wallet to strike up a conversation and a friendship with the unsuspecting Emma, who is overwhelmed with motherhood with a toddler and late pregnancy. Desperate for adult company, Emma is swept away by Nina's generosity and compassion. What draws Nina to Emma is murkier.

"With chilling precision, Lane narrates the re-entwining of these two women's lives through domestic details. Afternoon teas, disastrous shopping trips, cluttered homes and even well-populated playgrounds begin to seep with danger. And the net inexorably tightens. A domestic thriller of the first order."

Flying somewhat under the media radar is yet another British psychological thriller - A Pleasure and a Calling * * by Phil Hogan, his first major US release.

William Heming is your well-mannered neighborhood real-estate agent in a small English town. But unbeknownst to his clients, Heming keeps the keys to every property he has ever listed, and snoops on all the occupants at will, and often brazenly makes himself at home. This secret "pleasure" turns sinister when a rude dog walker offends Heming, who takes it upon himself to serve justice, thus setting off a dramatic and deadly chain of events.

"Hogan's Mr. Heming is a monumentally diabolical character, the fact that he narrates the story further ups both the stakes and the tension. Readers won't soon forget this first-rate, white-knuckle suspense novel."

* * * = 3 starred reviews
* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #509 - “You can't fly if your wings are holding the baggage of yesterday...” ~ Steve Maraboli

The weather outside is frightful. All the more reason to curl up with Dictatorship of the Dress * * by ex-librarian Jessica Topper.

It looks like everyone loves a bride-to-be. Former Marvel Comics illustrator Laney Hudson, recipient of unexpected kindness and first-class upgrade is not about to tell anyone that the 10-lb. pearl & lace confection inside the blue-and-silver-satin garment bag does not belong to her. She has been asked to deliver it to Hawaii for her mother's fairytale nuptial and to prove, once and for all that she is capable of doing something right.

At a Chicago layover, a massive snowstorm cancels all flights out, stranding Laney and her first class seatmate "tech-boy" (on account of his endless parade of gadgets) whom, the airline crew has mistaken to be her groom. This is when Laney's little white lie turns into a hot mess.

En route to his Vegas bachelor party, the last thing software designer Noah Ridgewood needs is some dress-obsessed, shoeless (due to a little mishap at LaGuardia) bridezilla landing in his first-class row. But being stuck in the honeymoon suite of a Chicago hotel with Laney overnight turns out to be more than either one of them bargains and could hope for.

In this riveting and pitch-perfect contemporary, first in the Much "I Do" About Nothing series, "Topper develops Laney and Noah as individuals through their recollections of significant events in their lives; Laney's struggles with the baggage of her past and Noah's battles to make the right decisions in his are chronicled with an honesty and charm that is heartwarming and spellbinding. Topper's tale of loss and love is a winner."

Readalikes:
The Man You'll Marry by Debbie Macomber, and The Dream Dress by Janice Thompson, in her Wedding by Design series. Readers might also want to check out in our collection, her Wedding by Bella series.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #508

January brings a number of terrific debut novels. The one I am most excited to share is Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm (MFA, Helen Zell Writers Program at the University of Michigan). Follow her on Facebook, and plan to attend her signing @ Literati, 7pm on January 27.

She calls herself Julie now, from California. For the past 2 years, Grace restores bric-a-brac, repairs antiques and jewelry in a Paris chop shop, and lives alone in a shabby room. Regularly, she checks the Garland (TN) newspaper online for news of a case involving robbery of The Wynne House, a local heritage estate and museum, and the two young men caught for the crime, a heist that Grace meticulously engineered. Now, Grace's past and carefully constructed lies are about to catch up with her half way around the world, as the two men are being paroled.

In a series of flashbacks, from small-town USA to the Manhattan art scene, and the backstreets of Europe, we follow the "unbecoming-of-age" of a young woman with a special gift for restoration and for reinventing herself with equal deftness.

"Mesmerizing, nail-biting, atmospheric, and sensual... Unbecoming is an intricately plotted and psychologically nuanced heist novel that turns on suspense and slippery identity."

"Scherm mixes a character study with a caper novel full of double-crosses, lies, and betrayals... She is at her best when describing precious objects: a Dutch master's still life, a James Mont cigar box with hidden compartment, an ornate centerpiece with fanciful fruit and figurines, and silver spoons ignored by their owners but appreciated by the professional hired to evaluate them."

Readers looking for an elegantly well-played cat-and-mouse game should delight in Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (1954); The Thomas Crown Affair (1968, and the 1999 remake); and White Collar, the just concluded (sadly) tv series.

Fans of Gillian Flynn who appreciate "(a) bleak tone, deeply flawed protagonist, and dysfunctional relationships" wouldn't want to miss this one. And let's not forget Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels as read-alikes.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #507 -“In the end these things matter most: How well did you love? How fully did you live? How deeply did you let go?” ~ Gautama Buddha

Before I Go * by Colleen Oakley, given the premise, could have been a sentimental tearjerker but instead, yes, it is heart-wrenching of course, but surprisingly upbeat and life-affirming.

27 year old grad. student Daisy Richmond beat cancer once but on her third "Cancerversary", the cancer is back - Stage IV, aggressive and inoperable. She knows she won't be around for husband Jack's graduation from vet school - something they have worked, sacrificed and delayed their life-plans (kids and vacations) for. What terrifies Daisy most is not dying, but leaving brilliant, domestically-challenged, absent-minded Jack on his own. So instead of planning some "make-a-wish" grown-up getaway for her last days, she is going to find Jack a wife with the time she has left.

With the help of her best friend Kayleigh, Daisy systematically scouts out dog parks (must love dogs) coffee shops and online dating sites looking for the perfect match for Jack. But when it looks like she is way too successful in her quest, Daisy has a change of heart.

Debut novelist Oakley "expertly tugs at the heartstrings with well-rounded characters and a liberal dose of gallows humor."

For readers who enjoyed Hello Goodbye by Emily Chenoweth (a FFF); P.S. I love you by Cecelia Ahern that has been adapted into film; Hannah's List by Debbie Macomber; and Promises to Keep by Jane Green - novels that deal with difficult issues of illnesses and grief, holding on and letting go of the ones we love.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #506

Wildalone * by Krassi Zourkova opens with an enchanting tale of a monk's erotic encounter with samodivias (or wildalones), and thus sets the scene for this "darkly imaginative debut novel full of myth, magic, romance, and mystery. "

Thea(dora) Slavin, a Bulgarian piano prodigy arrives on the Princeton campus and is immediately thrown into the maelstrom of freshman activities. Beyond the requisite college-life adjustments, she is juggling a demanding schedule of classes, practice and performance, as well as struggling to adapt to unfamiliar American ways.

Privately, Thea is harboring a secret ambition - to find out what happened to her sister Elza who died violently 15 years ago as a Princeton freshman and her body went missing mysterious before the family had a chance to claim it. Thea grew up in the family's oppressive silence concerning Elza's death and is determined to find out what happened.

Her first clue comes from an unlikely source - her Art History professor who leads and baits her to a Greek vase in the Museum, depicting the Dionysian Mysteries. Then there is her shadowy "stalker", a devilishly handsome and exceedingly enigmatic young man who fades in and out of her consciousness. Before long, she finds herself romantically entangled with not only Jake Estlin, but also with his older brother Rhys, gradually being drawn into a sensual mythic underworld as irresistible as it is dangerous - one that might yield the answers to Elza's fate, as well as the terrifying truth about her own family.

(Bulgarian native) "Zourkova (Princeton, Art History and Harvard Law) pulls off a balancing act that few debut authors manage: a clever, dark (paranormal) romance steeped in mystery, with a bittersweet thread of melancholy and keen sense of place."

"Mesmerizing and addictive,... a bewitching blend of Twilight, The Secret History, Jane Eyre, and A Discovery of Witches." The ending strongly hints at a sequel. Let's hope we won't have to wait long.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #505 - "It's a lot easier to be lost than found. It's the reason we're always searching and rarely discovered--so many locks not enough keys.” ~ Sarah Dessen

Lost & Found * by Brooke Davis, a Penguin First Flight author, is "an irresistible debut novel about the wisdom of the very young, the mischief of the very old, and the magic that happens when no one else is looking."

7 yr. old Millie Bird was left at the Ginormous Women's Undies Department of the local store by her distraught mother shortly after her father's death. 87 yr. old Karl, the touch-typist made a daring escape from a care facility and has been secretly camping out in the Men's dressing rooms at night. They bonded over their Lists of Dead Things, muffins, and creative use of the store merchandise until they were caught. It was the police station for Karl but he managed to free Millie who made her way home, only to find the house empty.

Across the street, 82 yr. old Agatha Pantha has not left her house in 7 years, since the day she buried her husband, nor had she spoken to a live person if you don't count shouting at passersby. But when she saw the curly-haired little girl roaming alone in that house, she marched right over to take matters in hand.

Brought together by determination, luck, and a kindly bus driver, the three embarked on a road trip across Western Australia to find Millie's mother. Along the way, they discovered that being "old" could be a state of mind; that the young could be wise; and happiness could catch you unawares, if you gave it a chance.

Already a runaway bestseller at home, Lost & Found was originally written as the author's PhD thesis on grief at Curtin University in Western Australia. It was inspired by her mother's sudden death while Brooke was traveling abroad.

If you've enjoyed meeting our Millie here, then you would be charmed by the young protagonists in Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman and 2 a.m. at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino, and their stories.

* = starred review

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