Fabulous (Non)Fiction Firsts #838, Honoring Mothers

i_ccannot_controlI Cannot Control Everything Forever : a memoir of motherhood, science, and art by Emily C. Bloom (also available in downloadable eBook and audiobook, read by the author), is an intimate and engaging memoir about navigating motherhood - the joy, the challenges, and lessons learned parenting an exceptional child.

In her late 30s, Emily gave birth to a daughter who is diagnosed with congenital deafness and later at 13 months, Type 1 diabetes. What follows are rounds of doctor’s visits, decisions regarding genetic testing and diagnosis, the latest technologies (cochlear implants), as well as a regimented daily routine. At one point, with a husband on a tenure track at a university-one-does-not-turn-down, she gave up her faculty appointment to care for their daughter. 

In lesser hands, this journey could have come across as bleak but in “trying to find a way out of the loneliness and individualism of 21st century parenthood, Emily finds joy in reaching outwards, towards art and literature-such as the maternal messiness of Louise Bourgeois (from whom Emily borrowed the title for this memoir), or Greek myths about the power of fate-as well as the collective sustenance of friends and community. With lyrical and enchanting prose, I Cannot Control Everything Forever is an inspired meditation on art, science, and motherhood.” (Library Journal) 

"Thoughtful reflections on technology and humanity amid difficult parenting experiences." (Kirkus Reviews)

Winner of the MSA First Book Prize for her academic title The Wireless Past: Anglo-Irish Writers and the BBC, 1931-1968 (2016), Emily's memoir is highly recommended for readers who enjoy nonfiction that reads like fiction. Raised in Ann Arbor, Emily lives in NYC and is a Mellon Public Humanities Fellow at Sarah Lawrence College.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #837

kamogawa

The Kamogawa Food Detectives * by Hisaski Kashiwai, translated by Jesse Kirkwood, the 2020 Harvill Secker Young Translators' Prize winner, (also in downloadable eBook and audiobook).

The first in an eight-book series, originally published in Japan in 2013, it introduces readers to Koishi Kamogawa and her father Nagare. On a quiet backstreet in Kyoto, behind the nondescript facade of an anonymous-looking building, the Kamogawa Diner serves up deliciously extravagant meals. There is no menu, no advertisement except for a cryptic one in an obscure food magazine. But that does not stop customers from seeking them out. Nagare, a retired and widowed Kyoto detective and 30-something Koishi are “food detectives,” offering their investigative services to find recipes so clients could recreate dishes from their treasured memories.   

Among their satisfied clients is one of Nagare’s fellow detectives, who is looking for the"Nabeyaki-Udon” recipe that his late wife created. A successful businessman is looking to recreate the "Mackerel Sushi, offered by a kind neighbor while he was orphaned at an early age. A piano teacher is looking for the beef stew recipe at a restaurant served to her 55 years ago when she rejected a young man’s proposal. A restauranteur's ex-wife is looking for the recipe her husband used to prepare for her now that he is dying.

“Though each of the six stand-alone chapters follows the same formulaic recipe, Kashiwai's unique blend of seasonings is more than enough to transform each into a five-star-worthy dish. Koishi and Nagare strive to re-create not only the precise dishes their clients want, but also to envelop them in a warm memory blanket of nostalgia.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“Off-beat and charming, [with] more complexity of flavor than you might expect.”  (NPR – Fresh Air with Terry Gross)

For fans of Before the Coffee Gets Cold, and those who binged on Midnight Diner:Tokyo Stories

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #836, Celebrating Women with History

excitements

The Excitements * * *  by C. J. Wray (also in downloadable eBook and audiobook

Nonagenarian sisters Josephine and Penny Williamson, Britain's most treasured World War II veterans, are constantly in demand at commemorative events. Always perfectly groomed and mentally engaged, they live independently in their London home cared for by their capable housekeeper Arlene; and devoted grand-nephew Archie who is tasked to provide them with constant “excitement”. The latest being an invitation to Paris to receive the Légion d'honneur for their part in the liberation of France.

While Josephine is circumspect initially about making the trip, Penny is eager. Unbeknownst to the family and perhaps each other, both sisters are hiding secrets, “official” and otherwise. Now armed with newly unearthed information, they intend to revisit old haunts, settle scores, avenge lost friends, and pull off one last, daring heist in the City of Light. 

“Switching between the 1940s and 2022, this book is utterly charming, with its lead characters a feisty mix of Madame Arcati, Miss Marple, Mata Hari, and Danny Ocean. It's gently humorous and full of twists, but it's the liveliness, verve, and charisma of Penny and Josephine, who are determined not to let old age slow them down one bit, that makes this such a satisfying read.” (Booklist) 

For fans of The Rose Code (2021)  and Killers of a Certain Age (2022).

* * * = 3 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #835, Debuts from Down Under

greta_&_valdin

Greta & Valdin * *  by Rebecca K. Reilly, a Maaori novelist from Waitaakere, New Zealand, is a New York Times Editors’ Choice (also in downloadable eBook and audiobook). 

“We’re all strange, romantic emotional people in this family,” proclaims Linsh Vladisavljevic as he watches his two younger children navigate queerness, multiracial identity, and the familial dramas big and small. 

Linsh, an Auckland university professor of Biology is Russian Moldovan while wife, Betty is Māori. Daughter G (Greta), a graduate student in literature, shares an apartment with her brother Valdin - a former astrophysicist with O.C.D. who now hosts a tv travel show. The novel opens when a missed directed package plunges Valdin (who goes by V) into melancholy, pining for ex-boyfriend Xabi who moved to Argentina, while G is smarting from her painfully unrequited crush on a fellow tutor and tentatively reaching out to a charming fellow student. Then work sends V to Buenos Aires where he has to decide whether to reconnect with Xabi and what the future will hold for them.

“The story follows the duo in alternating first-person chapters as they navigate bad dates, bouts of insecurity and even encounters with racism, and as they come closer to understanding themselves and their desires.” (New York Times)

“Reilly herself is of Ngāti Hine and Ngāti Wai descent. In the wrong hands this could all be quirk for quirk’s sake, or a half-baked hybrid of Schitt’s Creek and The Royal Tenenbaums. But Reilly’s humor is so riotously specific, and the many moments of true poignancy so gently infused with that same humor, that the Vladisavljevics seem like no one but themselves….Say hello to your new favorite fictional family.“ (Kirkus Reviews)

green_dot

Green Dot by Sydney writer/critic Madeleine Gray (also in downloadable eBook and audiobook) introduces readers to Hera Stephen, a 24 year-old comments-moderator for an online news outlet where she meets Arthur, a middle-age journalist (and her boss). With 3 arts-degrees, Hera is broke and living in Sydney with her lovely gay father. What started as message-based flirtation (hence the title, referencing the green dot that indicates a user is online) she soon finds herself falling into an all-consuming affair with Arthur though for years, she preferred women to men. Before long, Hera develops an obsession, which only grows stronger as Arthur refuses to leave his wife.

“As the book tracks the increasingly doomed love affair (including through the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic), the only thing keeping the narrative from devolving into something grim and cynical is Hera's dynamic and snarky voice….Her narration is peppered with references to music and pop culture, the things that define your personality in your 20s, when you're still searching, as Hera is, for some kind of identity.” (Kirkus Reviews) 

“Although ironic and flippant, Green Dot avoids nihilism, and is ultimately about the search for meaning through love. It vividly illustrates how someone can lose their perspective, principles and dignity in its name, ignoring overwhelming evidence of the probable conclusion.” (The Guardian)

Readers interested in examining why smart women expect their lovers to leave their wives, despite overwhelming evidence that the contrary is more likely, might be interested in Sally Rooney's Conversations With Friends, Imogen Crimp's A Very Nice Girl, and Laura Warrell's Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm. 

 * * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #834, Celebrating Women’s History Month

city_of_laughter

City of Laughter, * * a debut novel (also in downloadable eBook and audiobook) by a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award winner Temin Fruchter is “a wondrous intergenerational story of queerness and Jewish folklore.” (Publishers Weekly)

Called “brainy and richly textured (The New York Times) the novel opens in 18th century Ropshitz, Poland where a holy jester whose job is to make wedding guests laugh, receives a visitation from a mysterious stranger. In present day New York, 32-year old Shiva Margolin, reeling from the recent death of her father and the breakup with her girlfriend, Dani found among her father’s things, photos of her enigmatic maternal grandmother, Syl, and great-grandmother Mira. But her mother Hannah refuses to talk about them. 

Frustrated with the generational silence, Shiva starts studying the work of Jewish folklorist S. Ansky, and enrolls in a master's program which presents her with an opportunity to visit Warsaw, only hours away from Mira's small town of Ropshitz. She hopes her family's mysteries will make more sense if she walks in their footsteps.

“This novel, like Shiva’s work, is a collection of beautiful scraps—scraps of folktales and memory, hidden family histories, love letters, accounts of strange happenings in the past and present—all tangled together and rewoven into a whole that’s strange, lush, imaginative and pulsing with life…As Shiva becomes more deeply immersed in the lives of her foremothers, those foremothers become more vibrant and detailed, in prose that moves from shimmering and dreamlike to sharply funny to wonderfully contemplative.” (BookPage)

Readers might also enjoy The Thirty Names of Night * * * * by Zeyn Joukhadar (2020), and The Fortunes of Jaded Women by Carolyn Huynh (2022).

* * * * = 4 starred reviews

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #833, She investigates...

murder_by_degreesMurder by Degrees * * * by Ritu Mukerji

Philadelphia, 1875. Dr. Lydia Weston teaches at the Woman's Medical College and attends to working-class patients at the city's Spruce Street Clinic where she first meets Anna Ward.  Hardworking, highly motivated and an eager learner, Anna works as a chambermaid for the wealthy Curtis family but shares Lydia’s love of literature.  During an appointment with Lydia, Anna is visibly troubled by something she won't explain, and abruptly disappears.  Soon her body is dredged out of the Schuylkill River, bloated beyond recognition, she is identified by her diary and clothes neatly folded by the river.

When the police rules Anna’s death as suicide, Lydia is suspicious, especially when her autopsy confirms otherwise. “Mukerji, like Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs, pulls the reader into fascinating and richly detailed forensic autopsies and blesses Weston with the instincts and determination to carry out a murder investigation as effectively as--or even better than--the police.” (Kirkus Reviews) 

“This well-researched, historical-mystery debut by a practicing physician will appeal to readers who enjoy strong female characters and graphic clinical details.” (Booklist)   For fans of Jacqueline Winspear and Charles Todd

dexpectant_detectivesThe Expectant Detectivesby Kat Ailes is the first in a new cozy mystery series, set in the sleepy village of Penton. Finding themselves unexpectedly expecting, Alice and her partner Joe move out of pricy London to embrace country life in the Cotswolds. With the baby coming in 2 weeks, they sign up for a prenatal class. When one of the women goes into labor during class, frenzy ensues until someone notices Mr. Oliver, owner of the herb shop downstairs, keels over dead, and they find themselves all suspects in the murder investigation. 

Together with her band of pregnant sleuths, Alice manages to suss out Mr. Oliver's many secrets, his connection to the hippie commune in the woods and the mysterious death in the village some years ago.  What’s most disturbing for Alice is how Joe has been acting strangely and someone tries to poison her goofy canine companion Helen.

In this The Thursday Murder Club meets Midsomer Murders, “readers of Darci Hannah will enjoy Helen’s spotlight in this series. The humor is akin to Elle Cosimano’s Finlay Donovan series, and the relationship between Joe and Alice is reminiscent of Jules Capshaw’s romantic endeavors in Ellie Alexander’s “Bakeshop Mysteries.(Publishers Weekly) 

* * * = 3 starred reviews

* = Starred review

 

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #832, A little bit witchy, loads of magic, a touch of horror, in these retellings of the classics

scandalous_confessions

The Scandalous Confessions of Lydia Bennet, Witch * Melina Taub’s (also in downloadable eBook and audiobook), adult debut, examines Pride and Prejudice through a new lens, and offers a highly unexpected redemption for the wildest Bennet sister.

This retelling, in the form of a long letter, recounts how Lydia, being the seventh daughter of the seventh daughter discovers her magical powers as a witch (there had been three stillborns before Jane, Lizzy and Mary) and promptly turns the family cat into her human sister Kitty. As the novel opens, Lydia, living with Wickham in Newcastle, under much reduced circumstances, is dependent on her magic to get by. Then unexpectedly, she comes to the aid of the much hexed Georgiana Darcy.

But magic comes at a price here, and for every spell a witch casts she must offer up something in return. In order to spare her and Kitty's lives, she had foolishly made a promise to Lord Wormenheart, a dragon demon, and soon Wormenheart came to collect, sending Lydia on a dangerous adventure to procure the Jewel of Prophecy. 

“Full of spell-casting garden parties, demons, hidden jewels, vibrant dances, backstabbing, and societal slights, this is vividly descriptive, frothy fun.”(Library Journal)

“Taub breathes new life into classic characters in a novel that is carefully researched and surprisingly layered… A delight for both Austen lovers and fans of magical adventure stories.“ (Kirkus Reviews)

after_the_forest

After the Forest,* * *  Australian Kell Woods’ fantasy debut (also in downloadable eBook and audiobook) picks up 20 years after Greta and Hans escaped from the witch in the gingerbread house. 

Back in their homestead in the Village of Lindenfeld, deep in the Black Forest, the siblings are relying on the mysteriously addictive gingerbread Greta bakes for income, and to pay off Han’s gambling debts.  In part because of the deliciousness of her goods (from a recipe she found in an old grimoire, a witch's handbook), rumors grow around town that Greta herself is a witch. And as dark magic is returning to the woods, Greta must learn to embrace her power, come into her own as a witch, and work together with new allies to save herself and her home. 

“Each chapter opens with a clever retelling of part of "Snow-White and Rose-Red," eventually linking that fairy tale with Greta's own neo-Grimm journey toward both emotional and magical maturity as, despite her initial distaste for witchcraft, she comes into her own and learns to wield her nascent powers to help the people she loves. The romantic subplot is similarly well-wrought and fantastical: Greta's lover Matthias, a stranger from the Tyrol, is a prince-charming-in-disguise. All of Woods's characters are drawn with exceptional sensitivity, and Greta's well-crafted struggle to thrive despite early suffering and ongoing societal prejudice resonates. Woods is a powerful new voice in speculative fiction.” (Publishers Weekly) 

“Offer this lyrical, character-rich fantasy to fans of Mary McMyne's The Book of Gothel (2022) and Genevieve Gornichec's The Weaver and the Witch Queen (2023).” (Booklist)

immortal_longingsInspired by Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Immortal Longings * * * *, Chloe Gong’s adult fantasy debut launches her Flesh and False Gods trilogy (also in downloadable eBook and audiobook).

Every year the twin cities of San-Er hold a set of gladiatorial-style games, a fight to the death with the promise of unimaginable riches for the victor. This year, among the 88 contestants is a disguised Princess Calla Tuoleimi of Talin, who disappeared after assassinating her parents five years ago. Her goal -  to finally bring down the brutal monarchy, inequality and poverty by killing her uncle, reclusive King Kasa who will be on hand to greet the winner. But first, she must win the game. 

Enter Anton Makusa, an exiled aristocrat, one of the best jumpers in the kingdom, flitting from body to body at will, who aims to use the winner’s take toward keeping his comatose lover alive. “As the games unfold, Calla and Anton strike an unlikely alliance that blossoms into a love affair--but only one can win, and to become victor, the star-crossed lovers will have to break their bond. Though this outing owes debts to both Shakespeare and The Hunger Games, the intricate magic system feels entirely fresh. Gong keeps the pages flying with pulse-pounding action, tension, and intrigue, creating an adventure that will linger in readers' minds long after the last page.” (Publishers Weekly)

* * * * = 4 starred reviews

* * * = 3 starred reviews

* = Starred review 

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #831

rachel_incidentThe Rachel Incident, * * *  YA author Caroline O’Donoghue’s first adult novel and her US debut (also in downloadable eBook and audiobook) is a “brilliantly funny novel about friends, lovers, Ireland in chaos, and a young woman desperately trying to manage all three.” (USA Today) 

County Cork, Ireland. University student Rachel Murray counts on her hours at O’Conner Books to pay bills, ever since the financial crash has affected her family’s business. There she meets James Devlin, a Christmas temp - effervescent and insistently heterosexual, and soon, the two become roommates and fast friends. When Rachel develops a crush on her married professor Dr. Fred Byrne, James organizes a reading for him at the bookstore so Rachel could seduce him. To both of their surprises, Dr. Byrne has other (closeted) desires. So begins a series of secrets and compromises that intertwine the fates of James, Rachel, Fred, and Fred's glamorous, well-connected, publisher wife, Deenie, who was once Fred’s student. 

“This deliciously complex set of entanglements lays the groundwork for the novel…and brings to mind the gossipy 19th-century novels Dr. Byrne might teach in class. But its true joys lie in the tremendously witty characters and their relationships: The real love story of this novel is not between James and Dr. Byrne, or Rachel and her own paramour, but between Rachel and James, whose codependent glee in each other's company will remind many readers of their own college friendships, especially those between women and queer men. A sensational new entry in the burgeoning millennial-novel genre.” (Kirkus Reviews) 

The Rachel Incident will appeal to fans of Sally Rooney and Michelle Gallen

 * * * = 3 starred reviews

 

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #830, Regency Cozies

benevolent_soceity

The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies * * *  by Alison Goodman (also in downloadable eBook and audiobook), the YA author’s first adult historical mystery, set in Regency London.

At 42, by all society standards, unmarried twins Lady Augusta Colebrook, "Gus," and Julia are well past their prime - yet with a secured income, a fashionable London address and well connected friends, they are far from docile, and in fact, they strain at all the rules society imposes on well-mannered ladies. 

When one of their friends is blackmailed for her indiscretions, they do not hesitate to confront the blackmailer in a secluded park after dark.  Soon, other women are seeking their services. On their way to rescue a young woman poisoned and imprisoned by her brute of a husband, Gus accidentally shots the highwayman holding up their carriage, only to discover he is Lord Evan Belford, charged with murder and exiled to the Colonies twenty years ago. Feeling responsible for his injuries, Gus takes him along on their mission. Before long, they become comrade-in-arms, and the chemistry between them is undeniable. .

“Fans of Georgette Heyer's Regency novels will savor this mystery…Well-developed characters, a touch of romance, and cases involving social issues of the period enhance the experience.”(Library Journal)

“Fierce, funny, and often dark, this is an eye-opening portrait of a colorful yet misogynistic period in English history. “ (Publishers Weekly)

most_agreeable_murderA Most Agreeable Murder * *  by screenwriter Julia Seales (also in downloadable eBook and audiobook).

Set in Swampshire, England, a respectable town located between London and Bath, this Regency murder mystery introduces 25 year-old Beatrice Steele, the eldest of three daughters born to a marriage-scheming mother and a prankster father. While she allows her family to think she is holding up in her turret room dreaming of romance, she is actually reading about solving crimes like her favorite "gentleman detective," Sir Huxley.

When the family is invited to the annual autumn ball at Stabmort Park, home of the Ashbrooks, to welcome eligible (and wealthy) bachelor Edmund Croaksworth, Mrs. Steele hopes that beautiful Louisa will steal his heart and save the family from ruin as Martin Grub, their disgusting cousin, is to eventually inherit the family’s estate. 

“By the end of the evening, secrets will have been revealed, false identities exposed, missing persons found, and murder committed (twice!). The character types are endearingly familiar to anyone who has ever read a Jane Austen novel, and the dialogue crackles with wit, outrage, subtext, and pluck. Beatrice, a true Sherlock Holmes within her restrictive social world, is a delight, and while the characters may be familiar, Seales' over-the-top caricatures succeed in being humorous rather than cliché…The result is a deliciously dark delve into a world that seems genteel on the surface and teems with sex and violence and greed just underneath--not so unlike Austen's but with a morbid, rather than domestic, bent. Irreverent, satirical, and oh so much fun! “ (Kirkus Reviews)

"A delightful cocktail that mixes elements of the Bridgerton series, Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice and Agatha Christie's Miss Marple mysteries . . . The payoff is a wealth of wit, hilarity and suspense." (People)

* * * = 3 starred reviews

* *  = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #829, Secrets of the Golden Age of Hollywood

kitty_karrDid you Hear About Kitty Karr? by Crystal Smith Paul (also in downloadable eBook and audiobook).

When the three St. Johns sisters, Elise, Giovanni, and Noele find themselves heirs to Kitty Karr Tate’s immense fortune, they were as surprised as the rest of Hollywood. The St. Johns, a prominent Bel Air family is Kitty’s neighbor as well as a mentor to Elise who is up for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Apart from planning Kitty’s memorial services, navigating the contentious dynamics between her sisters and their mother,  Elise is tasked with sorting out Kitty’s affairs, and among her journals, what Elise discovers will rock her world and might explain why a successful white actress would bestow her immense inheritance on three Black girls.

The narrative winds back to Kitty's hardships in 1930s North Carolina; and mid-century Hollywood glamor; the harshness of the studio system, with all of its attendant misogyny and racism.

“What is less obvious, by design, are the steps many people took to create new lives for themselves once they reached LA from less hospitable places. Against an origin story of sexual violence and systemic roadblocks, Kitty and her California cohort survive a series of excruciating trials in order to live their dreams. The results of their choices, made in order to succeed and survive in the Hollywood machine, echo for generations throughout Paul's meandering yet page-turning narrative…With a plot worthy of a miniseries, an extensive cast, and a historical sweep, Paul succeeds in entertaining as well as enlightening.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“Readers of Taylor Jenkins Reid and Piper Huguley will be enthralled.” (Booklist)

do_tell

Do Tell (also in downloadable eBook and audiobook) by debut novelist Lindsay Lynch,  is “(g)amorous, tawdry, and human. A rich portrait of the lives of early Hollywood's beautiful puppets and those holding their strings." ~ Emma Straub  

1940s, Los Angeles. Edie O'Dare‘s contract with FWM Studios is about to end and with renewal unlikely, she needs to find a new gig.  While her career in pictures has been undistinguished at best, she is a fixture at all the parties and premiers and has long supplemented her income by passing on salacious dirt to the reigning gossip columnist.

A small kindness to 16-year-old rising starlet Sophie Melrose at a party unexpectedly gives Edie an exclusive to Sophie’s claim of being sexually assaulted by one of the biggest names in the industry, Freddy Clarke. The subsequent tabloid coverage lands Edie her own column at The Los Angeles Times (christened as "Do Tell”), Freddy being charged, and eventually strains her relationships with everyone she once considers a friend. 

“Although the plot lags when Lynch describes clothing, hairstyles, and makeup in too much detail, she doesn't lose sight of a salient theme: Edie's success depends on others' vulnerability. Lynch's characters--clad in designer gowns, inhabiting sumptuous mansions, and drinking champagne at lavish parties--are replaceable cogs in a powerful industry. An intimate look at Hollywood's dark secrets.” (Kirkus Reviews) 

BONUS FEATURE

brightest_star

The Brightest Star by Gail Tsukiyama (also in downloadable eBook and audiobook). This historical novel is based on the life of Anna May Wong - the first and only Asian American woman to gain stardom in the early days of Hollywood.  Born Wong Liu Tsong, to Chinese immigrants who own a laundry, she was taunted and bullied growing up, finding joy only at the local nickelodeons. At 16, she left home to pursue her Hollywood dream. “She longed to play characters who weren't concubines, prostitutes, or evil dragon ladies. As one of the first Chinese American actresses, she often struggled to get movie roles for two reasons: Hollywood protocols and anti-miscegenation laws prevented her from starring as a love interest to a white man, and Asian roles often went to white actors in yellowface. She was determined to take the roles she could get and never give up on acting.” (Library Journal) 

“For greater freedom, Anna travels to Europe, where she befriends Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker. With its rich supporting cast, the novel emphasizes the friendships and family relationships that help Anna thrive, while her many disappointments (like losing a leading role in The Good Earth to a German actress in "yellowface") catch at the heart.” (Booklist)