If you enjoyed the movie, “Sliding Doors,” you’re going to love the new novel from Jo Walton. MY REAL CHILDREN  (Tor Books) centers around Pat/Tricia Cowan as she navigates two alternate lives in the 20th century. In one she marries a self-absorbed bully named Mark and has four children. In the other she meets the love of her life, Bee, and together they have a glorious life with three children. World events are fiddled with as one life runs tandem with global violence and environmental disasters. Walton takes the concept of the “butterfly effect” and spins it into an absorbing tale.

Walton is one of my favorite authors because she combines literary chops with a wild imagination. Her stories aren’t fantasy but have a touch of that element. I stumbled upon her several years ago when I devoured her “Small Change” trilogy.

Strongly Recommended for Readers who enjoyed:

The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer
After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh
Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross
Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier

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Under the Bennet Family’s Stairs

A neighbor of mine has a lone bumper stick on her car. It reads, “I’d Rather Be at Pemberley.”

Legions of Jane Austen fans agree. In Jo Baker’s new novel these fans will get a glimpse of Mr. Darcy’s famous estate but the spotlight is on his wife’s family home.Unknown

LONGBOURN is an engrossing glimpse into the downstairs world of the Bennet household and the people who populate it. Baker has taken Austen’s classic PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and pushed Elizabeth and her family into the background. In their place we meet a group of overworked servants with dreams and dramas of their own.

There’s stalwart Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, and her unassuming husband, “Hill.” Their respective workloads are somewhat lessened with help from two young housemaids: Sarah, an orphan with dreams of London, and young Polly, barely into her teens. Their days are spent emptying chamber pots, keeping fires lit, and catering to the family’s various needs and wants.

Upstairs the five Bennet sisters and their parents are benevolent tyrants. Mrs. Bennet dithers and changes her mind at every turn; her husband retreats to his library rather than deal with daily dramas; and the girls impose on the servants in a myriad of simple but time consuming ways. Even their generosity is misguided as Sarah learns when she inherits one of the girls’ dresses.

“It had been made for Mary, and was meant for pastry-soft arms, for needlework, for the pianoforte. It did not allow for the flex and shift of proper muscle and Sarah only                 wore it now because her other dress, a mousy linsey-woolsey, had been sponged and       dabbed and was patchy wet, and hanging on the line to air the piggy stink out of it.”

Into this backbreaking world of almost constant toil comes a stranger. James Smith is a mysterious young man who takes on a variety of roles around the household. His arrival lessens the amount of work for the rest of the staff while his standoffish manner annoys a smitten Sarah. She’s determined to find out more about him until the arrival of a handsome, exotic footman from Pemberley who talks of a future in London.

Baker cleverly inserts the narrative line of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE into the background of LONGBOURN, using it as both a plotting device for her story and a means by which to flesh out Austen’s characters. The author wides the lens when she focuses on the Bennet family, their friends and their suitors but never takes liberties that detract from the original or overshadow her tale. For instance, she fleshes out Lydia Bennet’s vapidness (“A dearth of men? Was England running out of men?”) and the loathsome Mr. Wickham. (“Anyone can see that little doxy’s getting a good going-over…”)

Happily, the meat of Baker’s winning story deals with the characters below the stairs. What is James Smith’s connection to Longbourn? Will plucky Sarah find true love and will naive Polly fall prey to a lewd soldier? As the fortunes of the Bennet family hang in the balance, so do the lives of their faithful, captivating servants.

It’s enough to make a reader forget they ever heard of Pemberley.

Highly recommended especially for readers who enjoyed:
Novels by Austen and the Bronte sisters, naturally.
Lady’s Maid by Margaret Forster
The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

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Looking Back at September

September brought cooler weather and early rain; a visit from my sweet (yes, really!) mother-in-law; and the completion of ten books.

Topping my list of reads was a graphic novel, first in a planned trilogy; a remarkable Unknowndebut set in Iceland; and a short story collection by a writer who never fails to astonish me.

As a kid I wasn’t much of a comic book reader. As an adult I’ve come to appreciate inventive graphic novels for their ability to convey story and movement within a confined space. MARCH: BOOK ONE (Top Shelf Productions) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell is a perfect example.

Georgia Congressman John Lewis describes his childhood in rural Alabama and his determination to not only better himself but fight racial injustice. His story is straight-forward and powerful. The illustrations are vivid enough to give you the illusion of sitting next to Lewis at a Woolworth’s lunch counter over fifty years ago.  MARCH can be read in an afternoon but it will stay with you much longer. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

Highly recommended especially for readers who enjoyed:
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds
Rick Geary’s “Treasury of Murder” series including the upcoming Madison Square Tragedy: The Murder of Stanford White (December, 2013)

If I had five bucks for every time a highly touted debut disappointed me I’d be able to fulfill my dream of living in a remodeled library. So I was nervous about picking up BURIAL RITES (Little, Brown) by Hannah Kent.

imagesI shouldn’t have been. Kent’s story of a young woman accused of a terrible murder in early 19th century Iceland is engrossing and well-written. Condemned to die, Agnes Magnusdottir is temporarily housed with a farmer and his family. The story of Agnes’s life and what really happened the night of the crime is unveiled over the course of the novel. Kent’s attention to plot and characters will suck you in. Her prose, especially her descriptions of life in this harsh country, will amaze you.

Recommended especially for readers who enjoyed:
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
The Madness of a Seduced Woman by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer
The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

Andrea Barrett, how do you do it? How do you immerse this science-phobic reader in stories of genetics, biology and x-ray technology to the point where I’m frustrated when I come to the end?Unknown

Barrett’s latest collection of short stories, ARCHANGEL, (W.W. Norton) contains five selections that showcase complex characters thrust into engrossing scientific experiences. The best two, “The Investigators,” and the title story feature Constantine Boyd. We first meet him as an inquisitive, sensitive boy sent to summer with his inventive uncle. A decade later he’s a disillusioned young soldier in Russia at the end of World War I.

Highly recommended especially for readers who enjoyed:
Barrett’s other short story collections including my favorite, Servants of the Map
The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories by Ethan Rutherford
Brief Encounters with Che Guevara (Stories) by Ben Fountain

My other September reads were:
Seven for a Secret by Lyndsay Faye
Stay Up With Me: Stories by Tom Barbash
The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally
Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.
Asunder by Chloe Aridjis
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Fools by Joan Silber

What was the best book you read in September?

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Which TBR (To Be Read) Pile?

Every year I get excited about the National Book Awards short list and vow to read all the nominees before the ceremony. This year the challenge is doubly hard thanks to a long list that adds up to ten books.

So far I’ve read four of the nominees:  Tenth of December by George Saunders; The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver; Someone by Alice McDermott; and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra.

Three of the National Book Awards nominees.

Three of the National Book Awards nominees.

As of this writing I’m halfway through The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. I have my doubts about tackling Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon so that leaves four to go before the short list is announced on October 16.

To complicate matters I keep gazing over at a pile of October releases. Can I dip into Fools by Joan Silber when The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert is beckoning? Or toss myself into The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner and refrain from taking peeks at The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane?

Should I ditch nominee Tom Drury’s Pacific for Sunland, the debut by Don Waters that Robert Boswell and Ben Fountain are raving about? Can I ignore The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri to indulge in Havisham by Ronald Frame?

What’s a girl to do? What would you advise?

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Book Club Recommendations

It’s that time of year again. Time for book clubs to cast around for new titles. Here are over twenty suggestions I hope will provide mesmerizing reads and great discussions. All are available in paperback.

For Contemporary Fiction Devotees:

The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel. Take one disgraced NYC journalist and banish him to his hometown of Sebastian, Florida. Throw in a new job as a broker for foreclosed homes and the possibility that he fathered a child with his high school girlfriend. Smart writing, great characters.

Carry the One by Carol Anshaw. A young girl’s death after a wedding has repercussions over the following decades for the bride, her siblings and a host of friends and lovers. The story is fueled by questions of how far we “carry” guilt and why some people cope better than others.

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg. Edie Middlestein has always lived to eat. Now her husband of over thirty years has left and her children are obsessed with their mother’s morbid obesity. At what point should familial concerns trump individual rights and desires?

For Short Story Lovers:

Dear Life by Alice Munro. Supposedly the last book we’ll see from the High Priestess of Short Stories. Let the wailing begin but only after you’ve devoured and discussed these fourteen stories.

The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham. Each of these clever stories contains the phrase “the news from Spain.” A sharp first collection.

Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber. Another impressive debut collection. Several of these stories focus on mothers and daughters and the myriad of issues that bind and divide them.

Regional Fiction Stand-Outs:

The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin. An astounding, lyrical first novel set in rural Washington State at the the turn of the 20th century. One of my favorite books from 2012 featuring one of my favorite characters, William Talmadge. He reminded me of Matthew Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables.

A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash. In this terrific debut family loyalty is pitted against personal happiness. A young boy in a small North Carolina town is caught between protecting his disabled brother and his community’s fascination with a charismatic preacher.

The Cove by Ron Rash. Few authors meld place and story like Rash. His latest novel is set in a remote Appalachian valley at the height of WWI. A mysterious stranger stumbles into the quiet lives of a shunned woman and her brother, bringing both love and danger with him.

(Here’s yet another opportunity for me to plug one of my all-time favorite books. Serena, Rash’s 2008 novel, is an epic story of lust, greed and revenge. It’s also a great book club selection especially since the movie version is due out later this year.)

Guys and Gals Clubs:

Fobbit by David Abrams. This debut will appeal to both sexes thanks to clever writing and a pitch-perfect narrator. It’s set in a Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Iraq where desk jockeys work behind the scenes of the war. Think “The Office” meets “M*A*S*H.”

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers. The main character is middle-aged Alan Clay who has one shot at avoiding bankruptcy and foreclosure: convince a wealthy Saudi Arabian king to purchase an expensive IT program. His biggest challenge is getting a face-to-face with the potential buyer.

The O’Briens by Peter Behrens. Canadian author Behrens is a critics darling who doesn’t get the readership he deserves. His second novel (after his excellent debut, The Law of Dreams) sweeps through six decades in the life of Joe O’Brien and his family beginning around the turn of the 20th century. This book features fine writing and vivid characters. It may remind some readers of The Son by Philipp Meyer.

Boomer Clubs:

An Available Man by Hilma Wolitzer. After the death of his wife, sixty-two-year old Edward Schuyler figures he’ll live out his days alone. But when his stepchildren pop his profile into the New York Review of Books personals, he quickly becomes a hot commodity. This book is witty and engaging with just a touch of the bittersweet.

The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman. In 1920 Edward Mason visits an elderly relative on her gorgeous Maryland estate, Mason’s Retreat. His single goal, inheritance, changes after he hears the engrossing story of the Retreat and the lives of those who lived and died there.

Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment. Retirees Alex and Ruth are having a tough 48-hours. They’re attempting to sell their apartment of 45 years and their beloved elderly dachshund has fallen ill.  Tender and nimble, this is a book I wish I could have discussed with others.

Mystery Lovers:

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney. Private detective Ray Lovell has been hired by a Gypsy family to locate their estranged daughter/sister. He’s half Romany himself so why are his new employees so hostile towards him? Superb writing with a neat plot twist.

Defending Jacob by William Landay. How far would you go to protect your teenage son from a murder charge, especially when you suspect him of being a sociopath?

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye. First in a well-researched series set in mid-19th century Manhattan featuring Timothy Wilde, a founding detective in New York City’s police force.

Non-Fiction Gems:

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. Part tribute/memoir, part homage to bibliomania. Don’t let the title frighten you away.

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw. We’ve read books about his wife, his children and his grandchildren. Here’s the definitive biography of the man at the head of the table.

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson and Veronica Chambers. Even if you’re not a foodie, you’ll be swept away by Samuelsson’s journey from orphan to culinary hotshot.

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The best historical fiction informs as it entertains. Case in point: MY NOTORIOUS LIFE, (Scribner) the new novel from Kate Manning. Here is an engaging book that will satisfy escapist and contemplative fiction readers alike.

By the time she’s twelve-years-old Axie Muldoon has suffered crippling loss and extreme poverty in the New York City of 1860. Her widowed mother can barely eek out a living and her beloved younger sister and brother have been whisked away to new families in the Midwest. Resilient, stubborn Axie dreams of reuniting her family and living in comfortable circumstances.

After another family tragedy Axie winds up working in the household of the “female physician,” Dr. Evans and his wife. She makes her way from maid to apprentice, learning the art of midwifery and the secrets of contraception. Eventually smart, plain-spoken Axie Muldoon becomes the fabulously wealthy and controversial Madame DeBeausacq, midwife to the rich and the impoverished.

Axie is privy to the despair and physical torment many of her patients face along with the hypocrisy that paints them as “sinners” in a male-dominated society. At the height of her success she’s targeted by the legendary Anthony Comstock and his powerful Society for Suppression of Vice. Suddenly everything Axie and her supportive husband have achieved is threatened along with her dream of bringing her family back together.

Manning based her story on a real-life female physician from the 1800s. Her characters, particularly her leading lady, are well-written and compelling. What raises this novel above other historical fiction is a lively melding of plot, research and a spotlight on women’s issues.

Absorbing and thought-provoking, MY NOTORIOUS LIFE is certain to appeal to historical fiction lovers who appreciate a dose of realism with their entertainment.

Recommended especially for readers who enjoyed:

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye
The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

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When Maria Semple’s second novel came out last year, I knew I had to nab a copy. First, it’s set in Seattle which is 140 miles to my north. Secondly, early reviews described it as a hilarious send-up of that city and the people who live there.

WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE (Back Bay Books) didn’t disappoint, at least not for the first two-thirds of the book. (My attention began to wander once the penguins showed up.) Semple’s book is a roaring success especially now that it’s in paperback. It’s quirky, amusing and features eccentric characters that every PacNorthWesterner is familiar with.

For readers who loved the book and hunger for a similar one, I suggest seeking out one or more of the following novels:

Starting with a book whose title is hard to resist: THE REVENGE OF THE RADIOACTIVE LADY by Elizabeth Stuckey-French. (Anchor Books) For fifty years Marylou Ahearn has been plotting to kill Dr. Wilson Spriggs, the man who gave her a radioactive cocktail in the early 1950s. When she learns he’s living with his daughter and her family in Florida, the seventy-seven-year-old Marylou moves into the neighborhood.

Killing Spriggs, now suffering from dementia, should be a cake walk but Stuckey-French throws in several dark and droll complications. Plus getting to know Marylou is a delight all its own.

Like Maria Semple, Geoffrey Becker is adept at taking off-kilter characters and placing them in unfamiliar circumstances. In HOT SPRINGS (Tin House Books) he introduces the reader to Bernice, a singular young woman determined to get back the daughter she gave up for adoption. With the help of her new boyfriend, Landis, Bernice snatches five-year-old Emily from her conservative Christian adoptive parents, Tessa and David.

As Bernice frets about her abilities as a mother, Tessa heads out on a wild journey of her own to rescue the child. Becker manages to spin an absorbing often humorous story that questions love, loyalty and what constitutes a family.

Mothers and daughters also take center stage in ALICE FANTASTIC. (Akashic Books) Thirty-something Alice Hunter lives in Queens, New York and earns a good income playing the horses. She loves her little dog, Cindy, but isn’t as keen on her besotted boyfriend, Clayton. In fact Clayton, nicknamed “The Big Oaf,” is becoming a bit of a nuisance.

So Alice asks one of her racetrack buddies to “convince” Clayton to leave her, envisioning nothing more than verbal intimidation. When things go wrong Alice seeks help from her half-sister, Eloise, and the duo’s beloved, unorthodox mother. Estep’s book celebrates family bonds and the odd twists that love often takes.

While WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE skewered Seattle, Seth Greenland’s third novel takes aim at Palm Springs. In THE ANGRY BUDDHIST two very different candidates vie for a congressional seat. Randall Duke is the incumbent who won’t let anyone, not even a family member, stand in the way of his reelection. His sexy opponent, Mary Swain, has a healthy war chest but isn’t the most astute politico.

In many ways it’s the secondary characters that make this an enjoyable romp. There’s Jimmy Duke, the candidate’s law enforcement brother who studies Buddhism to deal with anger management issues; an anonymous bloggers who mysteriously manages to find dirt on both candidates; and my favorite, Hard Marvin, a cocky police chief with a roving eye and a pampered Rottweiler.

If that’s not enough to grab your interest, here’s what Larry David blurbed for the front cover of Greenland’s book: “It’s satirical, it’s political, it’s sexual. All the things I love dearly. Finally, something to come home to.”

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