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Posts Tagged ‘first novels’

Put down the remote. Take a break from streaming Hamilton. Don’t you want to read books where stuff happens? We have you covered.

Boy, does stuff happen in Lake Life (Simon and Schuster, digital galley), the impressive first novel from UCF writing prof David James Poissant, following his story collection The Heaven of Animals. The Starling family’s annual summer vacation at their old North Carolina lake house is shadowed by parents Richard and Lisa’s plans to sell the house and retire from academia to Florida. But before grown sons Michael and Thad can recover from the news, a drowning gives rise to revelations and recriminations that rock the family, which includes Michael’s wife Diane and Thad’s partner Jake. Poissant fluently rotates perspectives among the six main characters, each with at least one secret: Alcoholism, infidelity, unexpected pregnancy, suicide attempts, grief that won’t let go. Emotions run deep before roiling to the surface. There’s heartbreak, humor, suspense. Yes, it slips into melodrama — the deer incident — and Poissant sometimes overwrites, as in the drawn-out ending. But excess can be forgiven in a book this good. I’ll read it again.

“Bananas.” That’s what I like best about Elisabeth, the new mother in J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel Friends and Strangers (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). Whenever Elizabeth catches herself being judgmental, she says “Bananas” before she can blurt out what she really thinks. And Elisabeth is judgy — about the upstate New York College town where she recently moved with her husband; about the members of her new book club, not as cool as her Brooklyn friends; about her nearby in-laws, so different from her own unhappy, withholding parents; about her younger sister, an Instagram star who borrows money; about the women who apply to be part-time nanny to baby Gil. But then Elisabeth meets Sam, a senior scholarship student at the college with babysitting experience who is good with Gil. No doubt Sam is a find. Trouble is, Elisabeth sees her as a friend. Sullivan’s novel is about the complicated relationship between the two women, about good intentions and privilege and boundaries. Elisabeth and Sam share the narrative, and Sam, with her youthful enthusiasms, her hot sleazy London boyfriend, her consideration for others, is a character to care about. As for Elisabeth, “bananas.” I can’t help it. I wanted more Sam and less Elisabeth. Still, I’ll take them both during lockdown.

In Kevin Kwan’s frothy Sex and Vanity (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), lovely Lucie has suitors named George and Cecil, a brother Freddy and a cousin Charlotte. There’s also a room with a view, which is your final clue that Kwan is putting his “Crazy Rich Asians” spin on E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel.  Kwan subs Capri and the Hamptons for Florence and England, the better to satirize the decadent privilege of his 21st-century characters. Chinese-American Lucie sparks with Chinese-Australian George at a lavish destination wedding, but once back home in New York, she becomes engaged to WASP Cecil. Then George reappears. Kwan has fun with fashion, food and footnotes, and takes name-dropping to new levels — the D’Arcys plus Charles and Camilla.  And lest you forget the wonderful Merchant-Ivory film, where Maggie Smith played Charlotte, there’s a passing reference to the Dowager Countess of Grantham.  Tres amusant.

 

Even if Connie Schultz hadn’t used a quote from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as an epigraph to her first novel, The Daughters of Erietown (Random House, purchased hardcover), I would still recognize the influence of Betty Smith’s well-loved book. Smith wrote about working-class life in Depression-era Brooklyn. Schultz’s family saga takes place in a blue-collar town in northeast Ohio in the decades following World War II. In a prologue set in 1974, Samantha “Sam” McGinty sets off for college at Kent State. The car ride with her parents, Brick and Ellie, and younger brother Reilly hints at past trauma in the family and life in Erietown, which Schultz then relates in flashback. Ellie, raised by her grandparents, falls in love with high school sports star Brick, and a hurry-up marriage derails plans for college. Brick becomes a union man at the local power plant; Ellie stays home with the kids. It’s the ’50s and then the ’60s, and Schultz writes movingly of the changing times and the McGintys’ struggle to adjust, not always successfully. The period details and cultural commentary, combined with Schultz’s compassion for her flawed characters, makes for a moving and involving story.

 

I binged more books, but I’m having computer problems. Once I get the technical issues resolved, I’ll post about Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas, The Mountains Wild by Sarah Stewart Taylor, The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths, Home Before Dark by Riley Sager, The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Lives of Edie Pritchard by Larry Watson and Hieroglyphs by Jill McCorkle. I liked them all.

 

 

 

 

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Sorry, I forgot to put out my “Gone Reading” sign at the first of the month, but I’ve been reading so much there hasn’t been time to write. Let’s catch up.

“It’s not what it looks like,” says P.I. Jackson Brodie on the very first page of Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky (Little Brown, digital galley). It never is with Atkinson, the most wily of writers, or with Jackson, my favorite book boyfriend. Returning for his fifth outing after a too-long absence, he’s tracking an errant husband in an English seaside town, sometimes in the company of his 13-year-old son and an aging Labrador, when things get complicated. They always do. This time, it’s a circle of sex traffickers, a murdered wife, a missing hitchhiker, a pair of young coppers working a cold case, assorted villains and innocents. Atkinson uses multiple points of view and quirky characters, zigs when you expect her to zag, and expects readers are smart enough to keep up.

I miss the Sorensons. They’re the Midwestern family at the center of Claire Lombardo’s immersive first novel The Most Fun We’ve Ever Had (Doubleday Knopf, digital galley), which I binged like a favorite Netflix series. So good. David and Marilyn Sorenson live in her childhood Oak Park home, two peas in a pod ever since they fell in love under the ginkgo tree in the backyard in the mid-1970s. This is surprisingly hard on their four grown daughters, who joke about the “magical albatross” of their parents’ love for one another. The bar is set so high, and each tries to measure up — or not — in singular ways. At book’s beginning, the oldest, Wendy, a rich widow, stirs the sisterly stew of rivalries and resentments by introducing a teenage boy into the mix — the child secretly given up for adoption by one of the sisters 16 years ago. Uptight lawyer and stay-at-home mom Violet can’t deal, college professor Liza is coping with an unexpected pregnancy and a depressive boyfriend, and the youngest, Grace, is off in Oregon, supposedly acing law school. The emotionally resonant narrative follows family members over the course of a year with frequent flashbacks to fill in everyone’s past, and Lombardo deftly orchestrates the chorus of perspectives. The book’s maybe a little too long, saggy in spots, and it’s Sorenson-centric — the tumultuous times don’t intrude, although the family is not immune to misfortune and regret. Real life is rich and messy, and The Most Fun We Ever Had feels real. It reminds me of Sue Miller’s classic novel Family Pictures or Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House, and I was sorry to see it end.

I’ve read some other good books, too. Jennifer Weiner’s Mrs. Everything (Atria, digital galley) follows two sisters over 50 years, and Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes (Scribner, digital galley) features neighboring families tied together by the profound connection between two of their children. In Michael Parker’s atmospheric and lyrically written Prairie Fires (Algonquin, digital galley), the bond between two sisters on the Oklahoma frontier is tested when they both fall in love with their schoolteacher. Kristen Arnett’s morbidly funny first novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House Books, digital galley) is set right here in swampy Central Florida, where Jessa-Lynn Morton tries to keep the family taxidermy business going in the wake of her father’s suicide. Arnett examines grief, loss and love with the same skill that Jessa dissects and rebuilds a raccoon. If that’s not your thing, Denise Mina’s thrilling Conviction (Little, Brown, digital galley) stars a woman whose obsession with a true-crime podcast collides with her secret history.

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Wait, wait — hold the pumpkin spice! It’s still summer, and I’ve got the books to prove it. Buzz for Stephen Markley’s first novel Ohio (Simon & Schuster) has been building for months, and it’s more than worth the wait. On a summer night in 2013, four former high school classmates converge on their hometown in northeast Ohio a decade or so after graduation. Having come of age in the post-911 era and the subsequent recession, they confront their shared history, their lost loves, deferred dreams, secrets and regrets. Bill Ashcraft, the substance-abusing rebel idealist, drives from New Orleans with a mysterious package. But before he can deliver it, he’s downing a few drinks and looking to score drugs. Afghanistan vet Dan Eaton has a date with the girl he left behind, while doctoral candidate Stacey Moore faces off with her high school lover’s homophobic mother. Emotionally scarred Tina Ross is finally ready to deal with the jock who abused her in high school. Those years, Markley writes, provide “stories of dread and wonder,” which he artfully interweaves with his realistic portrait of Rust Belt corrosion and disillusionment. It’s a big, ambitious book as Markley gets into the heads and hearts of his characters, writing with a lyric rush that pulls readers along. Ohio reminds me a bit of Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs and Ethan Canin’s early works. Grand storytelling.

Joanna Cannon’s 2017 first novel The Trouble with Ghosts and Sheep was a quirky tale featuring two 10-year-old girls on the trail of a neighborhood mystery during the British heatwave of 1976. Her new book, Three Things About Elsie (Scribner, digital galley) has a similar oddball charm, although its heroine is 84-year-old Florence, who has fallen in her room at the Cherry Tree Home for the elderly. She can’t get up, so while waiting for rescue, she reflects on the events of the last few weeks, which have made her think she might be losing her mind. Her lifelong best friend Elsie has assured her that isn’t the case, but Florence wants to know why small objects in her room have been rearranged. Mostly, though, she wants to find out why the new resident calling himself Gabriel Price is a dead ringer for Ronnie Butler, who drowned in 1953. Flo and Elsie like “to explore pockets of the past. Favourite stories were retold, to make sure they hadn’t been forgotten. Scenes were sandpapered down to make them easier to hold….It’s the great advantage of reminiscing. The past can be exactly how you wanted it to be the first time around.”

From the real to the surreal. Another August novel I liked a lot is Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, digital galley and ARC), which I reviewed for the Minneapolis Star-Tribunehttps://map.tinyurl.com/ycnmvlty. Reading this disquieting novel is like walking out of a dark movie theater into bright sunlight. Part of you is still living in a cinematic dreamscape. The real world is what’s imaginary. Set mostly in Havana, the novel has the premise of a thriller as a woman thinks she sees her husband outside a museum — five weeks after he died in New York. Has her grief conjured a ghost, or is this a case of mistaken identity?

If you’re looking for charm with a bit of grit, Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce (Scribner, digital galley) is just the ticket. In 1940 London, perky, 22-year-old Emmeline Walker dreams of being a Lady War Correspondent. Instead, she gets a job assisting Henrietta Bird, the the old-fashioned advice columnist of an old-fashioned women’s magazine. Mrs. Bird, rigid and overbearing, is of the stiff-upper lip school and doesn’t want to hear complaints about the war, life on the homefront, marriage and sex. Such missives are discarded — until Emme gets holds of them and starts mailing off replies under Mrs. Bird’s forged signature. She’s all good intentions, of course, but there will be consequences for Emme and her best friend Bunty; war doesn’t play favorites. Still, Pearce’s droll humor and Emme’s “carry on” attitude carry the day.

Delia Owens’ first novel Where the Crawdads Sing (Putnam, digital galley) is a somewhat awkward mix of nature writing, coming-of-age fable, murder mystery and courtroom drama. Kya Clark is known as the “Marsh Girl” because she has mostly raised herself in the wilds outside a small North Carolina community. In 1969, when the body of good-looking Chase Andrews is found dead, Kya becomes the prime suspect. Although she has the support of shrimper’s son Tate Walker, who taught her to read before going off to college, Kya must stand trial. The writing about the natural world is lovely and lush, but the characters are not nearly as realized, and implausibilities abound.

 

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Gods and monsters, heroes and mortals. I’ve always loved the stories of the Greeks, from Homer to Edith Hamilton to Mary Renault. Madeline Miller joined the list several years ago with her novel The Song of Achilles, and now casts a spell with Circe (Little Brown, digital galley). You may remember Circe as the sorceress who seduced Odysseus and turned his sailors into pigs, but Miller gives us her own epic story so  she becomes a woman for the ages. The neglected daughter of the god of the sun, Helios, young Circe displays little aptitude at being a nymph among many. But when she turns her rival Scylla into a sea monster, she is banished to an island where she hones her skill as a witch, using herbs to heal and taming wild animals. Zeus, Prometheus, Medea, Odysseus, and the Minotaur all play a part, but Circe is the glittering but sympathetic star. You go, girl!

 

Meg Wolitzer didn’t know about the #MeToo movement when she was writing The Female Persuasion (Riverhead/Penguin, digital galley), but it’s a frat boy’s unwanted sexual advances that motivate shy college freshman Greer Kadetsky to speak up at noted feminist Faith Frank’s guest lecture. That the boy essentially got away with his brutish behavior is what so frustrates Greer, whom Faith singles out after her speech. Several years later, Greer will go to work for Faith and eventually discover the compromises her mentor made along the way, of how time can temper ideals. Intertwined with Greer and Faith’s lives are those of Greer’s boyfriend, whose promising career is derailed by a family tragedy, and of her college roommate, whom she will betray so as to keep Faith’s attention on herself. It’s an absorbing and well-told story, one I liked but didn’t love. I had the same experience with Wolitzer’s The Interestings. Both books are like clothes I admire in a store window, thinking that’s just my style, but then I try them on and they don’t suit somehow. Oh, well. Maybe next time.

Three very different first novels captured my attention. Christine Mangan’s atmospheric Tangerine (HarperCollins, digital galley) owes a lot to Patricia Highsmith and Daphne du Maurier. Fragile Alice Shipley is living quietly in 1956 Tangier with her obtuse husband John McAlister when her former Bennington College roommate Lucy Mason arrives on her doorstep. Intrigue past and present unfold, as Mangan switches between Alice and Lucy as narrators. Whereas Alice is overwhelmed by the crowded heat of Tangier, Lucy embraces its exoticism and suspects John of having married Alice for her money. What happens is pretty predictable, but the finale still chills. In Stray City (Custom House, review copy), Chelsey Johnson charms with her coming-out and coming-of-age tale. Narrator Andrea escapes the tyranny of her straitlaced Nebraska family to be a part of the “Lesbian Mafia” in 1990s Portland. After a bad break-up and a lot to drink, she hooks up with a male friend Ryan and becomes pregnant. The second half of the book is set 10 years later, when Andrea’s daughter Lucia wants to know about her father. Lots of nostalgia here for being young and finding your tribe. Sally Franson’s A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out (Dial Press,  review copy) finds an English lit grad whose star is rising at a trendy boutique ad agency. I reviewed it for the Minneapolis-Star Tribune,  https://tinyurl.com/y79yyd9r

 

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The title of Rachel Khong’s pithy first novel, Goodbye, Vitamin (Henry Holt, digital galley) doesn’t make sense until you read the book, and then it makes perfect sense. So do the neon-colored lemons floating on the cover. They’re as unexpected as this darkly funny story in which a daughter tries to make sense of her life even as her beloved and brilliant father is losing his mind and memories. Ruth, a 30-year-old medical sonographer recently jilted by her fiance, returns home for Christmas, and her frustrated mother asks her to stay for a year and help out with her father. An admired history professor, Howard Young is on a forced leave of absence from teaching because of his dementia, and he knows what’s going on — except when he doesn’t. Then he wanders off, throws plates against the wall, tosses pillows in the neighbor’s pool.  In a chronological series of vignettes, Ruth narrates events, everything from fixing nutritious meals full of cruiciferous vegetables (Howard calls them “crucified”) to joining with Howard’s grad students to convince him he’s still teaching a seminar. Brief excerpts from the journal Howard kept when Ruth was a little girl add smiles and depth. It’s a happy/sad story, heartfelt, semi-sweet. Not your usual summer book, perhaps, but one of my new favorites. “What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers.”

Superheroes play an integral part in Joshilynn Jackson’s eighth novel The Almost Sisters (William Morrow, review copy), which cements Jackson’s rep as a Superwriter. She knows how to pack a plot with quirky characters, realistic emotions and thoughtful observations on the Old South and the New. Here, self-confessed dork and successful graphic artist Leia Birch Briggs has a one-night stand with a costumed Batman at a comic-con and two months later realizes she’s pregnant. Just when she’s getting ready to tell her very Southern family that a bi-racial baby is on the way, her perfect stepsister Rachel’s marriage falls apart in Virginia and her 90-year-old grandmother Birchie reveals to her Alabama small town that she has full-blown dementia. With her teenage niece in tow, Leia heads to Birchville to size up the situation with Birchie and Wattie, her lifelong best friend and daughter of the family’s black housekeeper. It’s not good, and things get worse when old bones turn up in an attic trunk and the law comes calling. Then Batman reappears. Class, privilege, racism, family history, small-town norms: Jackson connects them all with panache. Superbook, and a summer selection of the SheReads online book club.

A summer camp in the Berkshires provides the setting for Mandy Berman’s first novel, Perennials (Random House, digital galley), billed as an evocative coming-of-age tale. Rachel Rivkin and Fiona Larkin bond as campers at Camp Marigold, although Rachel is a city girl who lives with her single mom, and Fiona’s the middle child of a well-off suburban couple. Their friendship flourishes in the freedom of summer, but by the time they return as counselors after their freshman year, secrets have come between them. As to those secrets, Berman chooses to disclose them in flashback chapters told from different perspectives, including Rachel’s mother, Fiona’s younger sister and the middle-aged camp director who still sees himself as a young man. Then there’s an incident at book’s end that undercuts the credibility of the whole. Too bad. Berman is good at depicting the roiling emotions of teenagers and the rituals of summer camp, but the linked short story structure doesn’t work, and Perennials is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

Five years ago, both first novelists Claire McMillan and Francesca Segal channeled Edith Wharton, with McMillan reinventing The House of Mirth in Cleveland, Ohio with her Gilded Age, and Segal transporting the plot of The Age of Innocence to a Jewish community in London via The Innocents. Their second novels find them moving in different directions, although there’s a distinct whiff of Wharton in McMillan’s entertaining The Necklace (Touchstone, library hardcover). In 2009, Portland lawyer Nell Quincy Merrihew arrives at the Quincy family home in Cleveland after her Great Aunt LouLou’s death. She and her cousins are surprised to find that the matriarch has made Nell her executor and also left her a gaudy necklace from India. When the necklace turns out to be a valuable antique that hints at an old family scandal, Nell has to fight for her rights as a true Quincy. In alternating chapters set in the Jazz Age, the Quincy family history unfolds with a doomed love triangle at its heart. The Necklace is fast-paced and fascinating, and I read it in one sitting. Segal’s The Awkward Age (Riverhead, digital galley) may borrow the name of a Henry James novel, but it’s a thoroughly modern drama of a blended London family. Julia and James are blissfully in love despite the resistance of Julia’s 16-year-old daughter Gwen, who can’t stand James nor his snarky 17-year-old son Nathan. Julia’s former in-laws and James’ first wife further complicate the new marriage, but they can’t compete with the storm of emotions unleashed when Gwen and Nathan hook up. Awkward, to say the least, but it makes for a good story.

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thegirlsI’ve been catching up with the second season of Aquarius, the NBC series set in the age of and leading up to the Manson murders in August 1969. “You’re looking at life through a dirty window,” one character says in the third episode, and I know what she’s talking about. Everything and everybody looks murky in the sepia shadows, as if the camera lens was smeared with dust.  This is in sharp contrast to the clarity of Emma Cline’s ambitious first novel The Girls (Random House, digital galley), which covers the same period, although she changes the names  and relocates events from L.A. to the Bay area.

“It was the end of the sixties, or the summer before the end, and that’s what it seemed like, an endless formless summer.” This is Evie Boyd looking back from disappointed middle age to when she was 14, formless and yearning in the way 14-year-old girls are. A child of divorce set to go to boarding school in the fall, she becomes aware of three long-haired girls making their way through a local park. “Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.” She sees them again in a grimy black school bus, dumpster diving for food and shoplifting toilet paper. She is especially drawn to the fierce, feral Suzanne, who shepherds Evie to the rundown ranch where a troubadour called Russell holds sway over a squalid commune. Evie easily succumbs to Russell’s scruffy charisma but her loyalty and love lie with Suzanne.

These scenes from that long-ago summer are interspersed with chapters of present-day Evie, a caregiver whose house-sitting gig is interrupted by the arrival of the homeowner’s druggie son and his teenage girlfriend. The son announces Evie’s past with reverence, but she downplays her role in the famous cult because she didn’t kill anyone. Why not? For that answer the narrative returns to those hot August nights humming with menace, their chilling aftermath.

Cline’s prose is mostly hypnotic as Evie recounts that pivotal time, although the occasional overwritten sentence calls attention to itself and detracts from the fascinating story. Still, watching Aquarius, I’m ready to reread The Girls.

americangirlsIf not for Cline’s buzzed-about novel, I suspect more attention would be paid to Alison Umminger’s smart YA novel American Girls (Flatiron Books, digital books), in which the memories of the Manson murders shadow the present day.

Atlanta teen Anna is a bit of a brat and something of a mean girl at book’s beginning. Feeling left out of her divorced parents’ new families, she uses her stepmother’s credit card to buy a ticket to L.A. to see her half-sister, a striving actress. Delia agrees with Anna that their mother isn’t the best, and works out a deal so that Anna can stay with her for the summer, provided she earns money to pay back her plane fare. Conveniently, Delia’s ex-boyfriend Roger is an indie film director and hires Anna to research Hollywood murders, especially the Manson girls. Anna is surprised to discover parallels between herself and the “regular” girls who became killers, and is disturbed when it appears a stalker has targeted Delia. Hanging out on the set of a popular teen drama scripted by Delia’s current boyfriend, Anna also is exposed to competitive backlot Hollywood, where fame proves fleeting for young starlets. Meanwhile, news from back home has her rethinking her relationships.

Anna sounds like a real 15-year-old — smart but insecure, sarcastic yet vulnerable. Her candid voice reveals the complexities of her life in particular and those of girls in general. Did I mention that American Girls is also a first novel? It sure doesn’t read like one.

 

 

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localgirls“August came to Florida every year, but it felt like the end of the world every time because of how empty the streets and sidewalks became — everyone stayed inside. It got so bad that you started to blame the heat on other things — the palm trees and the beach and the sunsets and the sand — because heat that unpleasant had to be blamed on something. It surely wasn’t benign.”

That’s from Caroline Zancan’s first novel Local Girls (Riverhead, purchased hardcover), in which she not only nails the August hothouse that is Central Florida, but also the restlessness of teenage girls, the intensity of female friendships and our culture’s obsession with celebrity. Maggie, Nina and Lindsay grew up together in a working-class town stranded between Orlando and the beach. At 19, they’ve put high school behind them, and college isn’t on the agenda. After a day working dead-end jobs at the local mall, they head for their favorite dive bar, the Shamrock, where owner Sal turns a blind eye to their underage drinking and their ongoing feud with the country club college girls across the room.

Maggie, who suspects she’s pregnant, tells the story, beginning with the August night the trio spots movie star Sam Decker alone at the Shamrock drinking away what turns out to be the last night of his life. She seamlessly splices scenes of Sam buying drinks for the girls with those from their shared past, back when Lila Tucker was part of their group before her dad struck it rich and moved the family to a classier subdivision. Nina was their leader back then, as she is now. The conversations among Sam and the girls, who test their knowledge gleaned from celebrity magazines against the real thing, provide enough material for a good stand-alone story. But thehgradual revelations of the girls’ backstories — the sleepovers, the meet-ups at abandoned real estate projects, the escalating “prank wars” involving smart prepster pal Max — turn it into something more moving and rewarding. The girls may be local, but Zancan invests them with recognizably universal emotions of loss and longing. Orlando in August — hard to tell the sweat from the tears.

KitchensMy other favorite first novel this summer is J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest (Viking Penguin, digital galley), which is not a cookbook, although it does include a few recipes. But it is the kind of book you devour, or at least I did, even as I wanted to savor every last word.

The novel is about young chef Eva Thorvald, and “about” is the operative word. Each chapter reads like a short story told from the perspective of someone linked to Eva, beginning with her chef father Lars who introduces her to the taste of a Moonglow heirloom tomato as a baby.  Poor Lars. His waitress wife Cindy leaves him and Eva, and then he collapses while lugging the hated lutefisk up the stairs for Christmas dinner.

Eva grows up in Minnesota and Iowa with her aunt and uncle, the kind of smart kid who writes her vocabulary sentences in iambic pentameter to make homework interesting. By age 11, she’s raising hydroponic chile plants in her closet, supplying local restaurants with her exotic peppers and also using them to exact revenge on the classmates who bully her because of her awkward height. Her college cousin Braque takes her in when she runs away, and the two scam chili-eating contestants at local bars. Then there’s the high school guy who falls hard for Eva, introducing her to the wonders of grilled walleye. She’s goes from restaurant intern to sous chef, arousing jealousy in a supper club member who can’t deny that Eva’s succotash is superior.

A later chapter finds Eva as a successful pop-up chef and judge at a gourmet baking contest, where county fair winner Pat Prager and her peanut butter bars are snubbed by foodies. But not by Eva, who compliments her on her bars and looks “at Pat in a strange but warm way, as if Pat were a letter from home with money inside.”

The peanut butter bars reappear in the last chapter, as do other ingredients and people from Eva’s life. It’s a satisfying ending to a delicious tale. Yum.

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lovesickCrimes of the heart. Sins of the flesh. The four novellas collected in James Driggers’ evocative Lovesick (Kensington, review copy) are linked by the fictional  South Carolina town of Morris, located somewhere near Florence, an hour or so north of Myrtle Beach, and firmly in the territory of Southern Gothic. Sure, it’s the land of Faulkner, O’Conner and Crews, as well as a host of younger writers. Driggers is right at home.

“Butcher, the Baker,” set in the 1930s, features a black ex-con whose extraordinary baking talents have society ladies passing off his treats as their own. When war widow Virginia Yeager offers to give him credit for a cake, Butcher proposes they secretly partner to enter the Mystic White Flour baking contest in Atlanta. Wearing a big white hat and armed with Butcher’s recipe for Angel Biscuits, Virginia makes quite an impression on the racist company owner, but another competitor’s threat to expose her leads to blood and betrayal. “The Brambles,” set in the 1950s, puts a dark and unexpected spin on Arsenic and Old Lace as two middle-aged sisters marry for money and murder. “Sandra and the Snake Handlers” focuses on a recent widow whose obsession with a television evangelist has tragic consequences. Then there’s the contemporary tabloid tale, “M.R. Vale,” in which a gay florist confesses how he wound up in motel room with a dead body and a brutish mechanic. Driggers’ small-town South of secret scandals, stained-glass windows and judgmental neighbors proves both familiar and strange.

sewingTupelo Honey Lee, the appealing narrator of Darlyn Finch Kuhn’s first novel Sewing Holes (Twisted Road, review copy), is the first to admit she’s not as sweet as her name. Honey can’t help but say what she thinks, and her forthrightness can get her into trouble. But candor is a gift for a storyteller like Honey as she recounts her eventful coming-of-age in 1970s Jacksonville, where the South of bait shops and home-ec classes is giving way to suburbs and the wider world.

Honey’s heroines are Joan of Arc and Lois Lane as she copes with a troubled and troublesome family. Her chronically ill father and her unhappy mother are often at odds; her older brother becomes a war resister; her good-for-nothing uncle can’t support her young cousins, one of whom shares Honey’s room and her mother’s attention. As Honey’s growing-up years are marked by love and loss, faith and forgiveness, a bookish, burdened girl becomes a thoughtful, compassionate woman. You can picture her telling you these stories over a glass of sweet tea on the porch, stitching one memory to another.

sunshineThe nameless narrator of M.O. Walsh’s lush first novel, My Sunshine Away (Penguin, library hardcover) looks back to the pivotal summer of 1989 when he was a gawky 14-year-old enjoying a free-range childhood of bikes and backyards in sultry Baton Rouge. He secretly spies on neighbor Lindy Simpson, a pretty 15-year-old track star, and casts himself as the hero in her life instead of the dorky pal. Then Lindy is sexually assaulted, and her unknown assailant escapes into  the evening shadows. The narrator is one of several initial suspects and, as weeks go by with no arrest, he becomes determined to solve the crime and win Lindy’s heart. That his efforts go awry and cause pain to those he loves causes an aching regret that follows him into adulthood. A family tragedy also complicates his memories, and the wish to exorcise the ghosts results in a novel with the feel of a memoir.

“I imagine that many children in South Louisiana have stories similar to this one, and when they grow up, they move out into the world and tell them.”

Perhaps, but one doubts that those coming-of-age stories so effectively mix mystery and memory.

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bookxmasI love lists of books because I almost always find new titles to add to my infinite TBR list. My favorite lists are themed — best baseball novels, choice chick-lit, nifty noir tales, etc. Come December and I’m immersed in everyone’s best-of-the-year lists, nodding in agreement when I spot my own favorites and taking note of titles I still want to check out.

Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, which won the National Book  Award for fiction and which an elf named Dean has left under my Christmas tree, will be at the top as soon as I finish Michael Connelly’s The Black Box, a Secret Santa gift. Waiting in the wings is Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which I snapped up during a recent e-book sale. And I’m on the library waiting list for Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.

Friends of this blog probably know my favorites of 2012 because I’ve raved about them in previous posts. A goodly number overlap with others’ lists of best/favorites of the year: Megan Abbott’s cheerleader noir Dare Me, Jess Walters’ non-linear novel Beautiful Ruins, Tana French’s chilly Broken Harbor, and Robin Sloan’s debut, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

Three more first novels proved rewarding: Daniel O’Malley’s supernatural detective thriller The Rook, Douglas Nicholas’ haunting historical Something Red, and Attica Locke’s plantation mystery The Cutting Season. I read e-galleys of all three and purchased copies when the digital versions expired.

I expected good books from favorite authors, and Alice Munro (Dear Life), Richard Ford (Canada), Alan Furst (Mission to Paris) and Barbara Vine (The Child’s Child) all came through. So did Elizabeth Hand with Available Dark, Carol Anshaw with Carry the One, and Dan Fesperman with The Double Game.

“Best,” of course, doesn’t necessarily mean best-selling, but it’s nice when it happens. Congrats to Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and John Green (The Fault in Our Stars).

So, what do you recommend not mentioned here? I’m making a list.

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I know, I know. “Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we’.”  So said Mark Twain.

We beg to differ, although we are quite fond of Twain, who also said, “Never put off until tomorrow what you can put off until the day after tomorrow.”  Still, reviewers, myself included, sometimes have been known to use the editorial or royal we because we get tired of saying “I” or “you” or “the reader.”  “We” sounds more more inclusive and intimate.

Fiction writers know this as well, but the collective plural voice is a tricky thing to pull off, especially over the length of a novel if it’s meant to be more than an attention-getting conceit. Happily, two first-time novelists use “we” to tell their quite different tales in captivating fashion.

Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia, aka Rose, Bean and Cordy, are the daughters of a reknowned Shakespearean scholar and thus the title characters of The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. Despite their names, their ever-ready-with a-quote dad, and that they grew up speaking iambic pentameter, the sisters are not weird, “especially now that ‘weird’  has evolved from its delicious meaning of supernatural strangeness into something depressingly critical and pedestrian.” But they do note that Shakespeare originally meant “wyrd,” as in fate. “And we might argue that we are not fated to do anything, that we have chosen everything in our lives, that there is no such thing as destiny. And we would be lying.”

So not weird at at all. Fate has made them sisters in a certain birth order but not best friends. “See, we love each other. We just don’t happen to like each other very much.”

When their mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, the three grown sisters all decide to help, returning to their parents’ house in an Ohio college town home without telling one another, and each bringing considerable baggage. Rose, a college math professor whose fiance is in England on sabbatical, never really has left home, certain that all will fall apart in her absence. Bean is escaping from her pseudo-glam New York City life, having just been fired. Free-spirited Cordy wanders in, pregnant and without plans or any sure idea of who the baby’s father is. Thus the stage is set for toil and trouble even as the story bubbles somewhat lightly, even merrily along.

The Weird Sisters rises above its sibling novels of domestic drama because Brown has a way with words — her own and Shakespeare’s — and the plural voice works harmoniously as the sisters discover that not all of life’s problems can be solved with a library card. Perhaps there’s some wisdom (and comeuppance) in “to thine ownself be true.” 

Now, let us turn from Shakespeare to Virgil, whose word give Hannah Pittard’s debut its enticing title, The Fates Will Find Their Way.

So many missing girl books — but this one is different. Told collectively by a group of teenage boys, it explores their obsession with a classmate who disappears. The first chapter is a great story in itself; the next chapters speculate and explore the possibilities and probabilities of different scenarios as to Nora Lindell’s fate, while further expanding on strands from the first chapter.

 And what of Nora’s younger sister, Sissy, who also captures the boys’ attention and imagination ? What secrets does she know? One is the fact that she saw her sister late on the Halloween night she disappeared, much later than anyone else.

As the boys grow into men and marry, their inner lives still are defined by the vanished girl and the stories they tell themselves.

“Would she really have provided us of anything our wives haven’t? Perhaps. Yes, perhaps. But that night, after the Prices’ last pool party of the summer, everything felt wonderful; we were whole, complete, content. We had drunk like fish, tanned like hides, and now we were ready to sleep like kings.”

Mmm. To sleep, perchance to dream?  The first-person plural recalls Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, but Pittard’s meditative story floats on its own, memorable and haunting.

Open Books: I received advance readers’ editions from the publishers of both The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown (Amy Einhorn/Putnam) and The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard (Ecco/HarperCollins). My thanks.

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