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Thursday, May 15, 2014

What I'm Reading: Soon to Be Famous Illinois Author Project Finalists

Followers of the blog know that I have been involved with the Soon to be Famous Illinois Author project.  If you are new or need more info, click here for all of my past posts on STBF and here for their official page.

In this post, I have my reviews of the three finalists with the winner first. Please note, I will post the book descriptions for plot in these reviews so that I can focus on “why” a patron would enjoy these novels.  But I would like to say before I begin, all 3 titles will find a wide audience in your public libraries.

Our winner of STBF was fittingly, a librarian.  Joanne Zienty for her literary fiction novel, The Things We Save.  From the book jacket:
A broken 45 rpm record held together with adhesive tape, a fading stack of Polaroids, a cobalt blue perfume bottle, and a braid of human hair … these are just some of the things Claire Sokol keeps stashed in an old Marshall Field’s gift box. But how did they get there and what do they signify? If these relics could talk, what stories would they tell? The tale of a child torn between the bitter sermons of a troubled, troublesome mother and the honeyed praise of the beautiful, sophisticated woman who just might be her fairy godmother? Of an innocent girl and boy lost in a dark, forbidding forest of adult lies and deceit? Of a young woman fighting to save a beloved father from his worst enemy – himself? Of a young man's death, a tragedy from which to flee or a mystery to finally solve? The Things We Save tells the story of the ways, both subtle and brutal, that a family falls apart and the intimate struggle to put what remains back together. It asks provocative questions about the nature of love, the corrosive effects of envy and guilt, and the limits of forgiveness. The Things We Save is for anyone who has ever slammed out a door with the vow to never return, only to find his or her way back home again.
Appeal:  This is a well paced literary fiction title.  The opening grabbed me right away and drew me into the story.  I cared about Claire, I wanted to know why these things were in her box, I wondered why her relationship with her family was so fractured. I wanted to read on to find out more.

I loved the idea of centering a story around WHY those items were in her “forever box” [That’s what my kids and I call it]. We all have those things we save, but it is the story behind WHY we save them that tells the story of who we were and are.  Anyone who has one of these boxes would enjoy this story for that reason alone.

Now I should say that Claire is a very damaged and angry woman with serious family issues.  However, the story never delves into melodrama.  The novel is the story of Claire’s belated coming of age.  Her father’s illness brings her back into the family fold and forces her to confront why she has become estranged from everyone.  She does come to terms with it all through the course of the story, but in a realistic way that made for a good read.

The sense of place is strong here.  The south side of Chicago comes alive.  The lake, the factories, specific streets and parks are well developed.  The place feels alive and is integral to the story.  It is like a secondary character.

The pacing is methodical with a steady build overall, but in the literary fiction genre, I would up that to compellingly paced.  In other words, for genre fiction, it moves a bit more leisurely, but for literary fiction, it is brisk. Zienty’s pacing is helped by her deft use of the flashback to keep the story moving.

The Things We Save would be an excellent choice for Chicago area book discussion groups.

Three Words That Describe This Book: coming of age, family secrets, strong sense of place

Readalikes: The focus on the family relationships in a literary style, with a bit of mystery thrown in reminded me a lot of The Round House by Louise Erdrich.  In both stories the coming of age of the narrator is the key, but unravelling the complex familial relationships keeps the story moving.  Both also have a very well developed sense of place [for Erdrich it is the North Dakota Ojibwe Reservation] that is integral to the plot.

In terms of an overall author readalike, the way Zienty wrote reminded me greatly of Stewart O’Nan. I have written more about O’Nan and his appeal here.

Next up is Change of Address by Rick Polad.  This is the first in Polad’s Spencer Manning PI Mystery series.  The second one is already out and the third is coming soon.

From the book jacket:
Spencer Manning decides not to follow in his Dad's police footsteps and instead gets a PI license. Tracking down an unknown father involves him in murder and drugs as his first case leads him to a Chicago racetrack and the mayor's house.
Appeal: Polad has written a compelling mystery.  It is a well plotted, hard boiled, PI story which pays homage to the subgenre’s history while still forging new territory for itself.  Spencer knows how a PI should be but he has to reconcile what the job is like in reality.

This mystery has the perfect mix of humor and seriousness.  Spencer is a great character who is a PI novice resulting in some humorous blundering but combined with his family’s deep roots in the Chicago PD and their personal tragedy adds the gravitas you need when dealing with a murder investigation.

The character development is also strong in this debut. Spencer alone will bring readers back for the next book. But as regular readers of mystery series know, it is often the secondary characters that keep readers coming back.  Here Polad comes through again.  The police chief and Spencer’s diner owning friend/first client, and his various friends are all excellent.

The mystery itself is very Chicago-centric and will appeal to people who enjoy that setting.  The places as well as the politics of Chicago and the 1990s setting will draw readers in.  And I have to say, even though I thought I figured out the “whodunit” here early on, I was only partially right.  The twists and turns of the plot as well as the eventual reveal of what was truly going on was clever, interesting, and satisfying.  There are plenty of well established mystery authors for whom I could not give this praise.

Three Words That Describe This Book: hard boiled, fast paced, great secondary characters

Readalike: As I mentioned above, Polad pays homage to the PI mystery’s history.  There is probably not a coincidence that Spencer Manning’s name is reminiscent of the last Robert Parker’s Spenser for Hire. Fans of Parker’s Spenser stories will LOVE Polad.

Parker’s Spenser is in the hard boiled style of the originator of the subgenre, Raymond Chandler, who is also a good readalike option here too.

Finally, if you want more wry, hard boiled PIs AND with a Chicago setting, I would try The Michael Kelly mysteries by Michael Harvey.

And our third finalist was Warming Up by Mary Hutchings Reed.
Approaching forty, unemployed but well-off, talented but unknown, functional but depressed, former musical actress Cecilia Morrison reluctantly seeks therapy. Although she once won leading roles, Cecilia now can't bring herself to audition for parts. In the end it's not therapy, but a runaway teenager who changes her life when he cons her out of sixty bucks. Whether at the apex of one's success or just starting out, Warming Up speaks to anyone who's ever wondered, "What's it all about?" or who finds themselves doing something they never thought they'd do.
 Appeal: Warming Up is firmly entrenched in the genre of women’s lives and relationships and will greatly appeal to fans of Jodi Picoult.

The story is mostly from Cecilia’s point of view, but there are small portions of the story written in italics from another character’s perspective.  As the book opens, we have that alternate and purposely obscured pov which made the novel a bit of a slower start; however, over time, those sections pay off and add to the story. They add depth and complexity to the story that is worth the slower start.

In fact, the pacing overall is compelling once you get going, building as you turn the pages. There is a subplot with a crime fiction angle that emerges and increases the pacing while also adding complexity and interest to the story. Readers will keep the pages turning to see how this key subplot pans out.

This is a coming of age story with a heartwarming tone.  Again, the Chicago setting is strong and the secondary characters are interesting. I began to be attached to Cecilia’s best friend/vocal coach and her psychologist in particular.  I also liked how her friends challenged Cecilia to get over her personal problems and finally “grow up.”  I find many heroines in this genre of Women’s Lives to be a bit too whiny, but when Cecilia got too “poor me” there were people to tell her to stop being stupid.
here is also a subplot with a crime fiction angle that emerges and increases the pacing and adds complexity and interest to the story.

Basically, there is much here for many readers, especially fans of women’s fiction.

Three Words That Describe This Book: coming of age, singers, heartwarming

Readalikes: As I mentioned above, Reed’s novel reminded me of the hugely popular novels of Jodi Picoult.  Fans of Elizabeth Berg, Sue Miller, and Anita Shreve would also like Warming Up.  All of these writers include more mature women in their novels and explore the issues in women’s lives in a more literary fashion.

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