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 #200

In Danielle Trussoni's contemporary epic fantasy Angelology**, Sister Evangeline, a 23 year-old nun at the convent of the Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration in upstate New York is drawn into the 1000-year old conflict between the Society of Angelologists and the beautiful, powerful, and cruel, half-human-half-angel Nephilim when she comes across letters between philanthropist Abigail Rockefeller and the late mother superior, referring to "an ancient artifact" - an article the Nephilim are desperate to claim.

The imaginative multilayer plot; the circuitous unfolding of Evangeline's personal connections to the Angelologists; captivating characters real and imagined; scholarly blending of biblical and mythical lore; rich historical references; seductive imagery; treachery, mystery and adventure make for an engrossing and entertaining read.

Film rights to Sony Pictures with Will Smith's Overbrook Entertainment producing. Rumor has it that Trussoni is at work on a sequel. Can't get here soon enough for me. (I won't spoil it for you though).

Comparison to The Da Vinci Code is inevitable but more appropriately would be Katherine Neville's The Eight; and Kate Mosse's Labyrinth.

Coincidentally, Trussoni, a graduate of University of Wisconsin and the Iowa Writers' Workshop now resides in the Languedoc region (France) where Labyrinth is set. Her memoir Falling Through the Earth was named one of the Ten Best Books of 2006 by The New York Times.

** = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #199

On virtually every "must read" list of 2010, Paul Doiron's The Poacher's Son*** is an outstanding debut due out in April (already on order, heavy demand is expected, and more importantly, the holds are quietly building). Early readers (I counted 6) - all agreed that this is indeed, a fabulous fiction first!

At the heart of this provocative action/mystery is a father-son relationship. Mike Bowditch, a rookie game warden is surprised to find a cryptic message on his answering machine from his estranged father Jack, a brutal drunken womanizer, legendary woodsman and game poacher. It turns out Jack is the prime suspect in a double murder involving a cop and a timber executive. As evidence and suspicion mount against Jack, Mike risks his job, his honor, and his future with the woman he loves to try to clear his father's name.

Down East editor-in-chief Doiron takes a provocative look at the ties between fathers and sons, unconditional love, and Maine's changing landscape in his outstanding debut. Fans of C.J. Box's Joe Pickett novels, and Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon novels will appreciate the wilderness setting and the suspense. Social issue-driven mystery fans might ruminate on progress versus tradition, duty versus loyalty, and expectations versus desires. The first in a projected series, readers would be pleased to know that the next adventure with Mike Bowditch is just over the horizon.

*** = Starred reviews in Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #198

Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand*** is an oddity in today's publishing trend and that's a GOOD thing. (No vampires, werewolves or angels, and no lost religious relics).

In picturesque Edgecombe St. Mary, a small village in the English countryside, for generations the Pettigrews pride themselves on services to Queen and country, honor, and decorum, as much as they draw comfort from a proper cup of tea. But at 67, Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired) finds he must redefine what it is to be "proper" and where “duty“ lays.

"Wry, courtly, opinionated" and recently widowed, Ernest finds it hard to fill his days attending to his domestic routines and fighting off the unwanted attention of the well-meaning busybodies. The unexpected friendship with a Pakistani shopkeeper in the village both surprises and delights him – and sets tongues wagging.

Major introduces to readers one of the most endearing characters coming out of British fiction for quite some time. Debut novelist Simonson's sharply observant, hilarious at times, charming comedy of manners (a homage to Austen and Trollope) illuminates and entertains. A well-crafted plotline, complete with references to news headlines, societal and cultural realities adds drama and relevance for the contemporary audience yet rendering it timeless by addressing the universal virtues of love, honor and family. New!!!! (Author interview)

If you think 60something guys make uninspiring protagonists, Helen Simonson just proved you wrong. And Anne Tyler too, in her latest Noah’s Compass*** - a wise, gently humorous, and deeply compassionate novel about a schoolteacher, who has been forced to retire at sixty-one, coming to terms with “what is” and reclaiming what he let slip away. The lesson here.... it's never too late.

*** Starred Reviews

Fabulous Fiction First #197

Cathy Marie Buchanan's debut The Day the Falls Stood Still beautifully evokes life around Niagara Falls in the early 20th century, and the beginnings of hydroelectric power.

Set in the waning days of WWI, as a child of privilege, 17 year-old Bess Heath is not prepared for the disgrace and crumblng family finances when her father loses his job. She tries to hold the family together while her sister slips into depression, and her mother withdraws from society. Against her family's wishes, Bess rejects the courtship of a wealthy young man and finds comfort in the love of Tom Cole, a river man with a mysterious connection to the falls.

Based loosely on the history of Niagara river man William "Red" Hill, the narrative incorporates mock newspaper articles and vintage photographs, detailed depictions of domestic life, local lore, and fascinating natural history.

Historical fiction fans who liked Kathleen Cambor's lyrical and imaginative depiction of the lives that were lived, lost, and irreparably changed by the tragedy of the Johnstown (PA) flood in In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden, will find much to like here.

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 #195

While friendship stories are commonplace in women's fiction, one that depicts 4 slave women set in the mid -1850s is still a rarity.

Wench* traces the friendship between Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu at an Ohio resort where Southern men bring their slave women. Over the course of three summers, these women came together to bare their souls, contemplate their future and support each other through sorrows and occasional joy.

First-time novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez draws on research about the resort that eventually became the first black college Wilberforce University for the setting while she explores the complexities of relationships between these women and their white owners.

"Compelling and unsentimental", "heart-wrenching, intriguing, original and suspenseful, this novel showcases Perkins-Valdez's ability to bring the unfortunate past to life". ~Publishers Weekly. A good readalike for Cane River by Lalita Tademy.

For further reading on women in slavery, we suggest: Ar'n't I a Woman? : Female slaves in the Plantation South by Deborah Gray White and Labor of love, Labor of Sorrow : Black women, work, and the family from slavery to the present by Jacqueline Jones.

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #194

Now that Lee Child's Gone Tomorrow has snatched the top honor in the Adrenaline category of the 2010 Reading List Award, Jack Reacher fans could hardly contain themselves. While they eagerly await the next Reacher scrape, we suggest The Bricklayer.

Pseudonym for a former FBI agent, Noah Boyd's debut (and projected series opener) features Steve Vail, a former agent turned bricklayer who is recruited to solve a brilliant and deadly extortion plot by a mysterious organization called the Rubaco Pentad. One thing is clear: someone who knows a little too much about the inner workings of the Bureau is very clever —and very angry—and will kill and kill again if it means he can disgrace the FBI.

While some reviewers find fault with it being "...highly formulaic", "predictably inclusive finish with a bit of romance", most would admit that it is "pulse-pounding", and "irresistible red meat for connoisseurs of action thrillers". (150,000 first printing)

You know you are going to read it. Might as well be first on the list.

February Books to Film, Part 1 (and a Fabulous Fiction Firsts)

Crazy heartsCrazy hearts

"Overlooked Literary Darling Gets a Second Act" reads the caption on a Publishers Weekly article about an indie film (wide release February 2 but already in Ann Arbor theaters this past weekend) based on the 1987 novel Crazy Heart by a first-time author Thomas Cobb.

Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, a 57 year-old singer, guitarist, songwriter, alcoholic womanizer, and all-around charming reprobate, who attempts to work his way back to the top of the country-and-western charts. Maggie Gyllenhaal, is the journalist determined to find the real man behind the musician.

The novel received glowing praise ("...just might be the finest country-western novel ever written") when it debuted, but did not translate into sales or lasting recognition for Cobb. A second book (2003) and a new novel in 2008 published to little fanfare. HarperPerennial, who is republishing Crazy counts on it being an overdue break-out for the author.

(I have it on good authority that the film is crazy good. Don't miss it!!)

Dear John (opening February 5th), is based on a novel of duty, longing, and heartbreak, by Nicholas Sparks .

A soldier home on leave falls for a conservative college girl. Instead of returning home to her, he re-enlists after the attacks on September 11th, 2001. Time and distance begin to take a toll on the young lovers. Channing Tatum plays the title role, with Amanda Seyfried as Savannah.

Fabulous Fiction First #193

Tamar Myers, author of two ongoing domestic mystery series - one featuring Magdalena Yoder, an Amish-Mennonite sleuth who runs a bed and breakfast, and the other - Den of Antiquity, centers around the adventures of Abigail Timberlake, the proud owner of an antique store, now brings us a stand-alone.

The Witch Doctor's Wife* is set in tiny Belle Vue, a Congolese village in the 1950s where a prim American missionary, her cranky housekeeper, a sleazy executive, a witch doctor and a large uncut diamond all come into play. Before you know it, one of the most delightful characters is charged with murder.

Myers draws from her personal history to bring insight and local color to a specific place in time. Publishers Weekly considers this " a major breakthrough for Myers as she displays storytelling skills not seen in her previous works".

Fans of mysteries by Alexander McCall Smith , Malla Nunn, and Michael Stanley are sure to relish the opportunity to explore another intriguing area of Africa.

* = Starred review

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