Posts Tagged ‘closely observed characters’

The Casual Vacancy

December 5, 2012

casualvacancycoverAuthor: J.K. Rowling

Title: The Casual Vacancy

Publication Date: 2012

Number of Pages: 512

Geographical Setting: English village of Pagford

Time period: Present day

Genre: Black humor; Satirical fiction

Series: N/A

Plot Summary: In the quiet village of Pagford, chaos ensues after the unexpected death of Barry Fairbrother leaves a vacancy on the parish council. The local election that follows exposes secrets, causes intense battles between families and community members, and leads to unexpected revelations that may change their lives forever.

Subject Headings: City council members – Death – Fiction. Local elections – Fiction. Country life – England—Fiction. England – Fiction. Black humor (Literature).

Appeal: Character-centered, detailed setting, bleak, thought-provoking, engrossing, unsettling, strong language, humorous, multiple points of view, closely observed characters, political

Three appeal terms:  Character-centered, bleak, thought-provoking

Three Relevant Fiction Works and Authors

An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge

Readers who are seeking another bleak read with self-absorbed characters might enjoy An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge. This darkly humorous book also takes place in an English village and involves a bickering town council. The book also centers on young actress Stella, who takes on the job of assistant stage manager at a reparatory theatre company in Liverpool and finds romance with the director of the show.

Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis

For another darkly humorous, satirical fiction tale that takes place in England, readers should check out Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis. This satire pokes fun at modern society and culture in this story of thug Lionel Asbo, who looks out for his nephew Desmond Pepperdine. While Desmond just seeks a quiet and simple life without any trouble, his uncle’s criminal lifestyle has always gotten in his way, but Desmond has no idea how much worse it will get once Lionel wins big in the lottery.

Every Day is Mother’s Day by Hilary Mantel

Like The Casual Vacancy, Every Day is Mother’s Day is a character-driven book with a darkly humorous tone. This book focuses on medium Evelyn Axon, her daughter, Muriel, and their social worker, Isabel Field, as they all confront their own problems and dark secrets.

Three Relevant Non-Fiction Works and Authors

J.K. Rowling: A Biography by Sean Smith

Author J.K. Rowling made a huge name for herself with her legendary Harry Potter series, and had fans eagerly awaiting the release of The Casual Vacancy, her first book for adults. These fans might want to check out a biography about Rowling and learn more about the life of their beloved author. J.K. Rowling: A Biography is the full-length story of her life based on research, interviews, and evaluations of her novels by author Sean Smith. Readers will learn about Joanne Rowling before she became the best-selling author she is today, and the experiences that helped lead her to where she is now.

A Treasury of Royal Scandals: The Shocking True Stories of History’s Wickedest, Weirdest, Most Wanton Kings, Queens, Tsars, Popes, and Emperors by Michael Farquhar

Readers who enjoyed the secrets and scandals exposed in fictional work The Casual Vacancy might enjoy reading about actual scandals and true stories of notorious rulers in history. Some of these include Catherine the Great, King George III, and Joanna the Mad.

The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson

In The Casual Vacancy, politics and social classes played a big role in the story. Readers might enjoy this book because it discusses English society during a period of time in 1911 and covers milestones such as the crowning a new king and paralyzing strikes in the British industry. Also, this book is told from many points of view, much like readers get several different character’s perspectives in The Casual Vacancy.

Name: Melissa Apple

Secrets of the Lost Summer

October 3, 2012


Author: Carla Neggers

Title: Secrets of the Lost Summer

Genre: Romantic Suspense

Publication Date: 2012

Number of Pages: 344

Geographical Setting: Swift River Valley- New England

Time Period: Present day and 1938 (historical flashbacks)

Plot Summary: After suffering from a friend’s betrayal that damages her career, Olivia Frost decides it is time to walk away from her life in Boston and start fresh in her hometown. While Olivia is delighted to renovate her historic home in scenic Swift River Valley, she finds herself annoyed by the dilapidated house that neighbors her own. Dylan McCaffrey, California businessman and retired NHL player, is surprised to learn he inherited this crumbling shack from his father. Eager to investigate what brought his adventure-seeking father to New England and why he purchased this rural home before his sudden passing, Dylan heads east and quickly becomes engrossed in both his attractive neighbor and the mystery his father left him in Quabbin Valley. While trying to solve a seventy-year-old puzzle, Dylan and Olivia become fearful that their findings will not only explain Dylan’s unusual inheritance but also reveal a small-town secret that will change the lives of the people of Swift River Valley forever.

Subject Headings: Bed-and-Breakfast, Inheritance and Succession,  Interpersonal Attraction, Jewel Thefts, Men/Women Relations, Secrets, Treasure Hunting, Family Secrets, New England

Appeal: engrossing, gentle, heartwarming, romantic, closely observed characters, multiple points of view, flashbacks, steamy, detailed setting, historical details, straightforward style, conversational language.

Three Appeal Terms: closely observed characters, detailed setting, historical details

Three Fiction Read-Alikes

Juliet by Anne Fortier

Fortier tells the story of Julie Jacobs, a young woman who finds herself pursuing a family treasure upon receiving a surprising inheritance. Set in scenic Italy, readers who enjoyed Neggers’ element of mystery in a detailed setting will appreciate the descriptive landscape and Julie’s suspenseful mission.

Moving Target by Elizabeth Lowell

Lowell’s romantic suspense novel follows Serena Charters as she tries to piece together a mysterious inheritance she received upon her grandmother’s shocking passing. During her quest for information, Serena seeks the help of Erik North, a writer/historian, to whom she is instantly attracted. Fans of Secrets of the Lost Summer will enjoy the mysterious, historical inheritance plot entwined in a love story.

The Treasure by Iris Johansen

Like Neggers, Johansen writes engrossing love stories that appeal to those looking for a suspenseful read. The Treasure takes place in 12th century Europe and follows the story of Selene, a young woman who falls in love with a former assassin who rescued her from slavery. Readers who enjoyed the historical references and fast-paced storyline of Secrets of the Lost Summer will appreciate this read.

Three Nonfiction Read-Alikes

The Herbal Kitchen: Cooking with Fragrance and Flavor by Jerry Traunfeld

Along with her vivid descriptions of New England countryside in Secrets of the Lost Summer, Neggers also describes Olivia’s charming garden and farm-to-table cooking in great detail. Readers are provided with rich descriptions of Olivia’s obsession with freshly grown herbs, an element of this love story that may particularly engage readers with a gardening or cooking interest. For those who share Neggers’ fascination with herb gardens, The Herbal Kitchen cookbook is a strong nonfiction suggestion. Readers may enjoy applying Olivia’s cooking experiences to their own lives.

Quabbin Valley: People and Places by Elizabeth Peirce

This collection of vintage photographs depicts the lives of the people of Quabbin Valley from 1750 to 1938, when the land was purposefully flooded to create a steady water supply for Boston natives. Neggers discusses this historical moment and the affect it had on Quabbin residents in great detail. Readers who seek a visual representation of Neggers prose will enjoy this title.

Quabbin: A History and Explorers Guide by Michael Tougias

In the spirit of Dylan’s father’s love for adventure and treasure-hunting, Quabbin: A History and Explorers Guide makes for great additional reading for those who were taken with Neggers’ description of the New England landscape and its evolution since 1938. This title provides readers with a brief history of the valley as well as tips for those that may want to explore the area themselves.

Annotation by: Elizabeth Hopkins

Shopgirl by Steve Martin

August 8, 2012

Author:  Steve Martin

Title:  Shopgirl

Genre:  Literary Fiction, Bestseller, Audio Book

Publication Date:  2000

Number of Pages:  130 (4 CDs, 4 hours)

Geographical Setting:  Beverly Hills, CA

Time Period:  Contemporary

Series (If applicable):  n/a

Plot Summary:  Mirabelle Buttersfield is a sad, lonely, and clinically depressed twenty-eight-year-old Vermont native who sometime ago moved to California with aspirations of becoming an artist but now works in the glove department at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills.  Withdrawn and almost friendless, Mirabelle’s life consists of “selling things nobody buys anymore,” commuting to and from her apartment, feeding her cats, taking antidepressants, drawing pictures of dead and dying things, visiting art galleries, and occasionally meeting up with Jeremy, an unambitious and inept young man she met in a laundromat who stencils logos onto amplifiers for a living.  Her life begins to change when Mr. Ray Porter, an enormously wealthy, handsome, and debonair gentleman nearly twice Mirabelle’s age, buys her a pair of expensive gloves and asks her out for dinner.  Although Ray Porter is charming, suave, and genuinely cares about Mirabelle, he makes it perfectly clear that he does not intend on maintaining an exclusive relationship with her.  Despite this revelation, Mirabelle continues this dead-end relationship for quite some time until Jeremy, who has undergone a dynamic transformation with the help of self-improvement books, reenters her life.  Shopgirl is a brief and bittersweet meditation on loneliness, relationships between men and women, and the human capacity for change, containing a vivid cast of closely-observed characters that are sympathetic, somewhat offbeat, and occasionally amusing.  The author’s style is witty, thoughtful, and concise, and deftly matches the book’s unique tone, which is at times funny, reflective, melancholic, dramatic, and romantic.  On audio book, Steve Martin’s reading accentuates the novella’s melancholy tone, making Mirabelle’s depression affectingly palpable and deemphasizing the book’s more humorous moments.

Subject Headings:  Beverly Hills, CA – Fiction; Clerks (Retail Trade) – Fiction; Department Stores – Fiction; Young Women – Fiction; Coming-of-Age Story – Fiction.

Appeal:  Closely-observed characters, sympathetic characters, dramatic, character-driven, details of department store retail, amusing, bittersweet, reflective, introspective, romantic, funny, melancholy, descriptive, thoughtful, concise, witty

3 terms that best describe this book:  Melancholy, reflective, bittersweet

Similar Authors and Works (why are they similar?):

            3 Relevant Non-Fiction Works and Authors

1)  Minding the Store by Stanley Marcus

Stanley Marcus, son of Neiman Marcus co-founder Herbert Marcus, provides a lively and surprisingly readable history of Neiman Marcus and examines what makes the department store one of the best and most well-known retailers around.  Suggested to Shopgirl readers who want to learn more about Mirabelle’s employer.

2)  Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: The Classic Guide to Understanding the Opposite Sex by John Gray

One of the most famous and most accessible self-help relationship books that people still read today, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus discusses how men and women are different and offers practical advice on how to transform relationships in clear, easy-to-understand language.  This is one of the books mentioned in Shopgirl that Jeremy read to improve himself.

3)  Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity by Stephanie Barron, Sheri Bernstein, Ilene Susan Fort, Michael Dear, and Howard N. Fox

Published in conjunction with a Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s exhibition that explored the ways in which artistic representations of California affect its identity, this book reproduces 400 pieces and 150 cultural artifacts from the exhibit.  Suggested to readers who, like Mirabelle, are interested in art and California art exhibits.

3 Relevant Fiction Works and Authors

1)   The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is a witty, humorous, and insightful collection of seven interlinked stories about Jane Rosenal, her relationships, and her lifelong search for love.  In the title story, Jane memorizes a number of self-help relationship guides and strictly adheres to their advice only to hilarious and disastrous ends.  This book is suggested to readers looking for something funnier than Shopgirl while still addressing men’s and women’s relationships with touching insightfulness and wit.

2)  The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland

It would appear that the only thing that Roger, a middle-aged divorcee and aspiring novelist, and Bethany, a teen goth, is that they both work at Staples.  However, one day, Bethany discovers Roger’s diary, finds that they share similar thoughts about loneliness and mortality, and suggests that they begin writing to each other.  Through these letters, these two characters forge a unique friendship.  Like Shopgirl, this is a darkly humorous, melancholic, and introspective novel about loneliness, featuring characters with failed aspirations trapped in dead-end retail jobs.

3)  The Girl in the Flammable Skirt: Stories by Aimee Bender

This book is a collection of sixteen imaginative, offbeat, and surreal short stories about sexuality, love, and relationships between men and women.  These stories feature a librarian who sleeps with all men who enter the library as a way to fight off grief, a woman whose lover is “experiencing reverse evolution” and now lives in a glass baking pan, a man who comes home from war without his lips, and numerous other odd characters and scenarios.  This unorthodox suggestion would be most appropriate for Shopgirl readers who want to read another book dealing with human relationships but also want to read something less grounded in reality.

Name:  Zach Musil

The Autobiography of an Execution

April 7, 2010

Author: David R. Dow

Title:  The Autobiography of an Execution

Genre:  Nonfiction

Publication Date:  2010

Number of Pages:  288

Geographical Setting:  Houston, Texas

Time Period:  21st century

Series:  N/A

Plot Summary:  David Dow is a husband, father, university professor, and defender of death row inmates.  In The Autobiography of an Execution, Dow blends tales of his imperfect domestic life with accounts of a deeply flawed Texas penal system.  Since 1989, Dow has fought to get his clients – convicted murderers – stays of execution, if only for a few days or hours.  In Dow’s world, prosecutors hide evidence and police lie, lawyers fall asleep during their clients’ trials and judges go home early on scheduled execution days.  A victory for Dow may mean his client lives only one more day.  The author’s love of the law is his motivator; he does not respect his clients, and he rarely even likes them.

Once the pragmatic lawyer becomes convinced that one of his clients, Henry Quaker, convicted of murdering his wife and two children, is actually innocent, he effectively and dramatically transports the reader into the Texas legal world.  Dow and his colleagues attempt a myriad of legal maneuvers in order to have Quaker spared in the days, hours, and minutes before his scheduled execution.

As the personal toll of Quaker’s case wears on Dow, he struggles to balance his love for his family with his love of the law.  The Autobiography of an Execution is a candid and personal look at the legal and emotional issues enveloping the death penalty.

Subject Headings:

Law teachers –Texas –Houston –Biography.

Capital punishment –Texas.

Biographies & Memoirs –Professional & Academics –Lawyers & Judges.

Crime & Criminals –Penology.

Law –Law Practice.

Appeal: compelling, engrossing, closely observed characters, authentic, episodic, issue-oriented, thought-provoking, contemporary, candid, sobering, foreboding, jargon, smart

3 terms that best describe this book: candid, sobering, absorbing

Similar Authors and Works:


1.  Dead Man Walking by Helen Prejean (a nun’s view of the death penalty; appeals to those interested in personal death penalty perspectives)

2.  Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Torneo (a co-written memoir of a man wrongly accused of rape and the woman who mistakenly identified him; appeals to readers interested in exonerated or wrongly accused criminals)

3.  Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire by Robert Perkinson (a researched history of American penology and retribution, specifically the Texas penal system; appeals to readers interested in how both rehabilitation and retribution are elements of U.S. prisons)


1.  End of the Line: Five Short Novels about the Death Penalty by Victor Hugo, Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, Herman Melville, and Leonid Andreyev; edited by Susan Ives (fictional works of authors with interesting views on the death penalty, might appeal to a reader of interested in the history and context of the death penalty in literature)

2.  The Lincoln Lawyer: A Novel by Michael Connelly (a defense lawyer representing some unsavory characters takes on a possibly innocent client; might appeal to readers looking for a novelized version of Dow’s professional life)

3. Conviction: A Novel by Richard North Patterson (lawyer Teresa Peralta Paget fights to stop the execution of a convicted murderer is sentenced to die; appeals to fiction readers interested in not only courtroom drama, but also the complexities of death penalty laws)

Name: Elizabeth

Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg

March 31, 2010

Title: Home Safe

Author: Elizabeth Berg

Publication Date: 2009

Number of Pages: 258

Genre: Women’s Fiction

Geographical Setting: Chicago Suburb

Time Period: Present Day

Series: N/A

Plot Summary:

Helen Ames is recently widowed and trying to adjust.  She had been fortunate enough to have a stable marriage and a husband who had been a partner in every sense.  She had a fulfilling career as a writer, but recently hasn’t been able to write.  She’s had no inspiration, no desire and no compelling need to push herself to write. She’s been filling her time by interfering in her adult daughter’s life and depending on her for companionship, household repairs and advice until she gets a phone call from her accountant with the shocking news that her husband withdrew all their retirement savings, in cash, before he died.

Appeal Terms: measured, steady, closely observed characters, insightful, introspective, lifelike, realistic and recognizable, character-centered, thought provoking, contemporary, detailed setting, urban, candid, contemplative, earnest, hopeful and humorous, thoughtful, chatty, conversational, engaging, frank, natural.

Three terms that best describe this book: thoughtful, character driven, introspective.

Subject Headings: Widows — Chicago, Illinois, Mother and daughter, Life change events, Family secrets, Self-discovery in women,
Parent and adult child, Family relationships, Household finances, Chicago, Illinois, Psychological fiction, Domestic fiction, Women’s lives and relationships

Relevant Fiction Works and Authors:

Ruby: a novel by Ann Hood traces the journey of a recent widow struggling with grief as she befriends a pregnant teenager.  Their friendship blossoms as they share lessons learned while coping with their individual crises.

Object Lessons by Anna Quindlen explores issues of family and friendships as life’s changes affect an entire family and secrets are unearthed.

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo is a novel sharing the theme of reassessing one’s life from a man’s point of view. While attending a wedding in the town where he vacationed as a child with his parents, Jack Griffin reflects on his relationships with his wife, his daughter and his parents.

Relevant Non-Fiction Works and Authors:
A guide to Oak Park’s Frank Lloyd Wright and Prairie School Historic District published by the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission, Village of Oak Park, 1999 presents beautiful photographs of sections of Oak Park.

The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises by James Scott Bell is reviewed as a must for all beginning writers.

Escaping into the open: the art of writing true by Elizabeth Berg is Berg’s own story of how she grew from a working mother to a published author.  The book offers advice to encourage writers to create stories that come from the heart.


March 17, 2010

Author:  Belinda Bauer

Title:  Blacklands

Genre:  Psychological Suspense

Publication Date:  2010

Number of Pages:  240

Geographical Setting:  Shipcott, Somerset, England

Time Period:  21st century

Series:  N/A

Plot Summary:  Blacklands, Belinda Bauer’s first novel, is the story of a small boy and his desire to heal his broken family by locating the body of his long-murdered boy-uncle Billy.  Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb believes that once he uncovers Billy’s body from nearby Exmoore, his Nan will stop her eighteen-year wait for her son to come home.  Desperate, Steven begins a correspondence with Billy’s likely murderer, convicted child-killer Arnold Avery, and asks for help in finding the body.  Intrigued by his new pen pal, Avery begins to relive his heinous crimes through Steven’s mission.  The game Steven plays with the child killer turns dangerously real as he unwittingly gives Avery’s life a chilling purpose.

Subject Headings:

Boys –England –Fiction.

Missing persons –England –Fiction.

Murder –Investigation –England –Fiction.

Serial murderers –Fiction.

Exmoor (England) –Fiction.

Appeal: compelling, deliberate, engrossing, closely observed characters, multiple points of view, vivid characters, character centered, domestic, contemporary, stark, chilling, foreboding, suspenseful, descriptive

3 terms that best describe this book: chilling, disturbing, psychological

Similar Authors and Works:


1.  Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America by Paula S. Fass (a study focusing on the American public’s reaction to kidnapping; appeals to readers interested in child abduction as well as profiles of real life kidnappers)

2.  How to Make a Serial Killer: The Twisted Development of Innocent Children into the World’s Most Sadistic Murderers by Christopher Berry-Dee and Steven Morris (an investigation of notorious killers and their lives; for those interested in details of psychological profiling)

3.  The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World’s Most Terrifying Murderers by Harold Schechter (a exhaustive compilation of murderers- some dating back to the 15th century- and their offenses; for those truly interested in the details of serial killers, their minds and their crimes)


1.  The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes (a London family suspects their upstairs lodger is a serial murderer; although it the time period is different than Bauer’s, this might appeals to fans of British murder drama)

2.  Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe (an in depth portrayal of an Irish teenager’s path to becoming a murderer; appeals to fans of Bauer’s strong psychological characterization and rich character portraits)

3. Child of God by Cormac McCarthy (a truly chilling and disturbing story of a believable killer; appeals to those enjoying suspenseful and detailed prose describing a killer’s sordid aspects of life)

Name: Elizabeth


June 15, 2009

Author: Zane

Title: Afterburn

Genre: African American Fiction

Publication Date: 2005

Number of Pages: 306 p.

Geographical Setting: Birmingham , Alabama and Washington D.C.

Time Period: present time

Plot Summary: The first in the series, it is a humorous and steamy novel about two people with less than success in the dating world. Written in exchanging points of view, from chapter to chapter, the lives of Yardley Brown and Rayne Waters slowly become intertwined. There are of course plentiful amounts of characters keeping the two apart; including family, friends, and a host of past lovers and love mistakes. Rayne is an investment banker who has an alcoholic mother who can’t seem to keep her life together and constantly relies on Rayne. She hasn’t exactly given Rayne the best relationship advice growing up. Yardley is a chiropractor who has friends that can’t seem to focus on anything but sex and women. Written with a candid tone, plenty goes wrong, but some things even end up going right.

Subject Headings: Romance – fiction, Men-women relationships – fiction, African American fiction, humorous stories – fiction, Dating – fiction, erotic fiction

Appeal: leisurely-paced, engaging, candid, character-centered, racy, strong language, open-ended, contemporary, steamy, closely observed characters, emotionally-charged, unrestrained

Three words that characterize the novel: emotionally charged, character-centered, unrestrained

Similar Authors and Works:

Soul Mates Dissipate by Mary B. Morrison. A dramatic romance with steamy scenes and a tangled relationship. Leads the reader to the second book in the series with an open-ended finish.

Between Lovers by Eric Jerome Dickey. The story of a man coping with his fiancée leaving him at the altar for another woman. When she returns he is unexpectedly caught in a love triangle.

Sweet Justice by Shirley Harrison. A romantic suspense story in which Aislyn St. Claire questions her upcoming engagement due to the groom’s brother’s newly discovered involvement with the murder of her best friend.

Relevant Non Fiction and Authors:

Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore : A History of Love and Violence Among the African American Elite by Eleanor Alexander. An examination of the chaotic and violent relationship between two literary figures in African American society.

Married to Africa: A Love Story by G. Pascal Zachary. The story of a foreign correspondent’s trip to Africa and his love affair with an African zoologist. Tell a story of love through an attraction of opposites and daily lives of Africans and Americans.

As I Am: Young African American Women in a Critical Age by Julian C.R. Okwu. The compliation of thirty six African American women telling their stories of love, prejudice, and triumph.

Name: Marta Siuba