She was the quintessential southern belle who married a reckless young writer, took New York by storm and became the embodiment of the Roaring Twenties’ flapper. In Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler envisions the dramatic, heartfelt life of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, working through the entanglement of images, rumors and speculations which have been tied to this intriguing woman since her introduction into New York’s and Europe’s artisan circles over 90 years ago. What emerges is a portrait of a young woman full of life, an Alabama transplant with quick wit and plenty of sass.
Through the modern-day lens Fowler applies to her writing, Zelda’s challenges, including her battle with mental illness and her supposed unhealthy obsession with ballet, are reexamined. Fowler also highlights what is often overlooked — Zelda herself was an accomplished writer, even penning a review of her husband F. Scott’s second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, but much of her writing was overshadowed or published jointly with his name, so as to make it more acceptable with editors of the time.
Zelda and F. Scott have remained intriguing, due in large part to their fast rise to fame, nomadic existence and self-destructive downfall. Readers will appreciate this insightful reconstruction of their lives during the heyday of the 1920s. Fans of Fitzgerald’s novels will also see bits of the couple’s lives and conversation which were later incorporated into his stories. Z is the latest in a string of historical fiction about wives of famous men, including The Aviator’s Wife and The Paris Wife, and this lively tale would make an excellent travel companion or book club pick.
Three friends find an abandoned sofa at their bus stop one day that not only changes their lives, but saves the lives of everyone they know. In fact, the title What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World by Henry Clark pretty much gives away the plot. Middle school students River, Freak and Fiona live in Hellsboro, Pennsylvania, a fictitious town full of secrets and problems. Hellsboro, so named because of its bleak, Hell-like landscape, has a ‘coal seam fire’ that has been burning under the town for years. When the trio discovers the old sofa, they begin to find unusual items hidden in its cushions, including a very rare and valuable crayon. On a hunch, these tech savvy kids put the crayon on an online auction and are amazed when a bidding war starts. However, crayon collectors aren’t the only ones interested in their findings. Can the three friends outwit a devious billionaire out to control the universe, an eccentric old inventor, an axe-wielding ghost and some bizarre flash mobs in time to save the world?
Clark’s debut novel is full of interesting and quirky characters, dialogue and situations similar to those found in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter or Edward Eager’s Half Magic series. While the friends try to save the world from impending doom, they also deal with issues that many young teens can relate to including peer pressure, not fitting in, dysfunctional family life and discovering who their real friends are. The story is told from River’s point of view, but all three of the main characters have unique voices and are well-drawn. While coal-seam fires are a real issue in parts of Pennsylvania, let's hope that none of them hide the secrets that River, Fiona and Freak uncover.
Hilary T. Smith’s debut teen novel Wild Awake is a powerful story exploring loss, mental illness and family. Kiri Byrd, the 17-year-old narrator of the novel, is spending a few weeks home alone while her parents are on a cruise, when she receives a phone call from a stranger named Doug. Doug claims to have the rest of her beloved dead sister Sukey’s belongings, and tells Kiri she can come pick them up from Sukey’s old apartment. Sukey died when Kiri was 12, in what her parents told her was a car accident. Kiri is suspicious of Doug’s motives, but meets him because she misses her sister.
When she arrives at the address, she’s dismayed to find that her sister had been living in a rundown apartment in a dangerous area of town, not with the other up-and-coming artists that Sukey had described. As she discovers that Sukey’s life wasn’t at all what she had imagined, she finds that her sister didn’t die the way her parents told her. This revelation turns Kiri’s life upside down. As she struggles to accept this news, she spirals out of control—she drinks, takes drugs, stays up all night practicing for a piano recital, and makes rash, dangerous decisions—making her friends and family scared for her. Her only bright spot during the ordeal is Skunk, a boy she meets near Sukey’s apartment who becomes increasingly important in her life.
Wild Awake takes readers along on Kiri’s search for the truth amidst the grief she still feels from losing her sister and discovering the secrets her family has kept from her. Smith has written a moving novel that older teens and even adults will enjoy.
Anguish over the loss of a child is life altering and permanent. Just suppose, years later, a stranger tells you that your child may still be alive. That unimaginable scenario greets Geniver (Gen) Loxley in Sophie McKenzie’s tightly wound new thriller Close My Eyes, where the still grieving mother's encounter with an unexpected visitor leads to an unthinkable possibility.
After eight long years, life is standing still for the childless Gen. Despite a comfortable, albeit boring, life with her ambitious and devoted husband Art, the former writer and part-time teacher can't seem to move past the death of her stillborn daughter, Beth. When Gen's husband suggests they keep trying for another child his sullen wife resists. Then one day out of the blue, a woman appears at their door with an incredible accusation: the Loxley baby was born alive and healthy. For the fragile Gen, it is about as cruel a joke as possible. Her emotional unraveling worries her husband and her best friend, both of whom dismiss outright the stranger's claims. When one coincidence too many does not add up, Gen plummets into a wave of confusion and doubt. What really did happen in the operating room years earlier? It is true; she never saw her dead daughter. As she sets out to revisit the past she discovers an equally devastating reality may await her.
The London-born McKenzie, whose previous works included children and teen novels published in the United Kingdom, has crafted a roller coaster plot with flawed characters and a disturbing narrative. Fans of last summer's mega-hit Gone Girl will be hooked by another enticing and twisty psychological thriller that visits a dark place with unsettling consequences. It is not likely to disappoint.
Love learning new things while also reading a page-turning historical thriller? Check out David Morrell’s Murder as a Fine Art. Set in Victorian England, Morrell’s “hero” is the essayist Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an Opium Eater.
A heinous crime is committed in 1854, England. The gruesome methods of the crime are lifted directly from a De Quincey essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” As it happens, De Quincey and his daughter Emily were in England at the time of the murder. He suddenly becomes a prime suspect. With the help of a couple of Scotland Yard detectives, it will be up to De Quincey and Emily to prove his innocence and find the killer.
De Quincey is a fascinating historical figure. He wrote about the inner psyche decades before Sigmund Freud and was surrounded by artistic friends such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Murder as a Fine Art is one part novel and one part history lesson. Scotland Yard was still relatively new, and investigative techniques were still rather primitive. Morrell gives his readers a real sense of Victorian England, with its straight-laced exterior hiding a dark underbelly of vice.
For additional historical thrillers set in the Victorian era, check out The Alienist by Caleb Carr and Alex Grecian’s The Yard. For an excellent nonfiction treatment of crime in the Victorian era, see Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective.
Colin Firth will always be treasured by legions of devoted fans that cherish his portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the BBC miniseries production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. For those who can’t get enough of the fabulous Firth, he is prominently featured in two charming books.
Three women are hoping for a meeting with the man behind Mr. Darcy in Finding Colin Firth by Mia March. The quaint tourist town of Boothbay Harbor, Maine is abuzz with the rumor that Colin Firth is coming to film. Three female residents are each determined to meet the man. Gemma lost her job and left her husband, but becomes convinced that an interview with Colin Firth will put her life back on track. Twenty-two year old Bea just learned that she was adopted as a baby and travels to Maine to spy on her biological mother. That woman, Veronica, is a waitress and local legend known for her healing pies. As their stories unfold in alternating chapters, readers will enjoy the quest for Colin and the dramatic life changes experienced by each of these delightful women.
In Austenland by Shannon Hale, Jane Hayes is single, with a dead end job, and a past littered with hapless boyfriends. Part of the problem is her secret obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by the inimitable Colin Firth. When she is bequeathed at trip to Pembrook Park, a fantasy camp for Austen fans, she jumps at the chance to spend three weeks as a Regency lady. She enjoys the garb and manners, as well as flirtations with both a gentleman and the gardener. Will she finally find a Mr. Darcy of her very own? Readers will be thrilled to know that Jane’s story will soon be on the big screen starring Keri Russell, and that Pembrook Park is the setting for Hale’s follow-up, Midnight in Austenland, featuring another fun and feisty fan of Austen.
In a time when it seems there are as many writers as readers, author Jincy Willett invites us to take a walk on the writing side. In Amy Falls Down, Willett explores the world of writing from the perspective of an author who, disgusted by the glut in the market and the deteriorating quality of published works, has quietly and contentedly donned a cloak of anonymity. Once regarded as a promising author, Amy Gallup now studiously avoids the publishing world, preferring to teach others the writing craft rather than join the in the fray.
Having never sought fame or popularity, whether for the content of her books or for the glorification of her own ego, the self-deprecating Amy adamantly refuses to write for salability over quality. Consequently, it has been over 30 years since the publication of her last novel, and Amy has been all but forgotten. However, in the wake of a freak encounter with a Norfolk Pine, a bird bath and a basset hound, all that carefully constructed anonymity will vanish and Amy will find herself forced to reassess her own abilities and forgotten ambition.
Amy Falls Down is a uniquely pensive novel, mirroring the often melancholy mood of its heroine. Apart from her notable encounter with a mischievous bird bath, this is a tale driven not so much by plot as by Amy’s own introspection and reflection on the events that have brought her to once again pursue her work and — by extension — her own understanding of identity. Amy’s unpretentious perspective combines with a wry, almost cynical, sense of humor and an appealing vulnerability to render this a story worth reading. Readers already familiar with Willett’s previous works may remember Amy from The Writing Class; however, the stories are independent and need not be read in order.
In Revenge Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger, we catch up with Andy Sachs, the ill-used assistant to Runway editor Miranda Priestly in the previous novel, The Devil Wears Prada. Ten years have passed, and Andy, after years of therapy, has started a rather successful magazine. In an unusual turn of events, she became reacquainted with Emily Charlton, the first assistant to Miranda and Andy’s sworn nemesis. The two women were able to put past differences aside and become fast friends. Andy is now working as a writer for a wedding blog. Emily thinks they can turn this idea into magazine gold. It doesn’t hurt that they're able to drop Miranda’s name to help them gain access to celebrities who then would let them photograph their elaborate and sophisticated weddings. Thus, The Plunge is born. In order to gain capital for the start-up costs, Emily arranges some meetings with potential investors. Andy meets charming Max Harrison, the son of a media mogul, at one of these meetings and sparks fly. Soon, Andy is out looking for a wedding dress of her own and preparing to walk down the aisle. Max’s mother makes it perfectly clear to Andy that she is not Harrison material, putting a damper on the proceedings. But Andy had faced a much bigger devil in the form of Miranda Priestly. She never realized that Miranda would play a part in her destiny.
Those who liked the first novel will enjoy catching up with Andy in the sequel, and with some of the characters from the first novel who pop up in surprise cameos. The audio version of the novel is read by Smash star Megan Hilty, and her delightful reading adds to the enjoyment of this novel.
Between 1854 and 1929, over 200,000 orphaned or abandoned children were transported from Eastern cities to the Midwest on what came to be known as “Orphan Trains.” The hope was that these children would find loving families to adopt them. Although this was the reality for some, for others it led to a life of mistreatment and servitude. In Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, Vivian Daly was one such child. Born into poverty, the majority of her family was killed in an apartment fire in the late 1920s, and she was put on a train bound for Minnesota. There, she passed through several unhappy homes before the kindness of a teacher led her to better prospects.
In present day, Molly Ayer is a foster child who has bounced from one family to another. She’s not happy with her current living situation but figures it has to be better than the juvenile detention center where she’s in danger of heading unless she finds a way to do 50 hours of community service. Her only option appears to be helping a now 91-year-old Vivian clean her attic. When their two worlds collide, Molly and Vivian find common threads in their pasts and subsequently help each other move forward into the next phase of their lives.
The inner strength and survival instincts of the two main characters, whose stories are both heartbreaking and hopeful, make for an engrossing story. Quietly suspenseful, readers especially will be hoping for a good outcome for all of the train riders who made the fateful journey with young Vivian. Kline explores both the seeming randomness of situations and circumstance, and the fateful ways lives can intersect to resolve past and present problems. Despite the weighty subject, this impressive work of historical fiction will make a good summer read. It’s also ready for adoption by a book club, containing discussion questions, an author interview and information about orphan train riders.
On July 20, the Romance Writers of America (RWA) closed their annual conference with a gala event where they honored several writers for their outstanding work. Local author Mary Jo Putney received the 2013 RWA Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award. This award, which was renamed to honor Roberts in 2008, is presented to authors who have made a significant contribution to the romance genre. Putney has published over 29 novels. She is a nine-time RITA finalist and won the award twice. Her books are often bestsellers and are well-known by romance readers. Although she has also written contemporary and fantasy novels, Putney is best known for her exceptional Regency romances like her most recent novel Sometimes a Rogue. She now joins a distinguished group of RWA Lifetime Achievement Award winners that includes Kathleen Woodiwiss, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Sharon Sala, and Debbie Macomber.
At the same event, RWA also presented this year’s RITA awards for distinction in romance fiction. Simone St. James took the Best First Book RITA for her novel The Haunting of Maddy Clare, which Between the Covers blogger Lori shared last year. Eloisa James, who is a favorite among historical romance readers, broke her long streak of RITA losses when her novella Seduced by a Pirate won the Romance Novella category. Sarah MacLean’s A Rogue by Any Other Name, the first in her Rules of Scoundrels quartet, won for Best Historical. The full list of winners is available here. Congratulations to all of the winners!