St. Martin's Press is chuckling over Jane Austen in Boca (Nov.), in which first-time author Paula Marantz Cohen gives the plot of Pride and Prejudice quite a tweak by transplanting the story to a contemporary community of retirees in Boca Raton, Fla. "The author is a professor [at Drexel University in Philadelphia] who has studied and written about 19th-century literature," says executive editor Hope Dellon. And although Cohen lives in Moorestown, N.J., her mother-in-law lives in Boca. "The parallels are completely in place," says Dellon. "The Elizabeth Bennet character is a retired librarian from the University of Chicago with a rather sharp tongue. The Darcy figure is a professor emeritus from the University of Florida who gives a seminar on Jane Austen for the retirees." It should be boisterous in Boca.
Monteith's Mountains (Oct.) by Skip Brooks begins "in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and it really is Gatlinburg. You can trace the characters' steps in town," says Judith Geary, senior editor at High Country Publishers of Boone, N.C. Describing the house as "a small publishing company focusing on fiction and memoir," Geary says that Brooks, who grew up in Baltimore, moved to Gatlinburg in 1970 and now lives in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The Appalachian Mountains, where Walker Tom Monteith confronts his personal demons, are "the real meat of the book," she adds. "This is a suspense thriller set in 1900, and the plot hangs on a serial killer, which makes it as real as today."
"Winter Run transcends its regionality, yet it's very much of a time and place, specifically rural Virginia in the 1940s," says Ina Stern, Algonquin Books' associate publisher. The November novel by Robert Ashcom stars young Charlie, who moves from the city to a farm at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He's "an in-your-face boy who asks a lot of questions," says Stern. His father is away a good deal of the time, and his mother is aloof, so his mentors are the elderly black farmhands and the farm's animals, who are portrayed through Charlie's idealistic eyes. Not all is sunny, however. The boy also witnesses first-hand the effects of the Jim Crow laws then in force.
Small Change: The Secret Life of Penny Burford by J. Belinda Yandell gives "small" a big meaning. In this September release from Cumberland House, Penny amasses a tidy sum as she gathers nickels and dimes from her husband's spare coins. The Savannah, Ga., native (who now lives in Nashville) sets her first novel in rural Georgia, where Penny's husband discovers a check for $1,500 drafted from Penny's bank account. He then wonders what other secrets she has kept from him. "She discovered life outside her own household," says Julie Jayne, Cumberland House COO, "and in the end, the book is not about how much money you have, but what you do with it. It's true southern fiction with southern food and southern dialects and a sleepy southern town feel.
In Richard Yancey's A Burning in Homeland (Simon & Schuster, Feb.), the time is the end of the Great Depression, and the place is Homeland, Fla., where love, murder and revenge enflame the plot. An uneducated orange grove worker relies on his imagination when he draws a nude of the owner's daughter, but his deed sets off a string of dramatic events that send him to prison, where his hands are brutally destroyed when he is attacked by a fellow prisoner. Vengeance is on his mind when he is released from prison and returns to Homeland.
New Atlantic Independent Bookseller's Association
"Salingeresque" is how Norton describes the nine tales in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W (Sept.) by Gabriel Brownstein, many of them ringing turns on classic stories and myths. The various existences of people living in a single building in Manhattan figure in five tales as young David Birnbaum regards their daily comings and goings. The protagonist of the title story is certainly going interestingly, as he echoes the figure in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," who is born old and ages in reverse.
The situation in The Boy in the Box (Jan., Bridge Works) by Lee J. Nelson is likewise curious—in this case, because of its Kafkaesque ambiance. "A young man named Smith comes to New York to get a job," says editorial director Barbara Phillips, "an innocent coming to the big city. He stays in his sister's apartment in Queens, where the janitor tells him that somewhere a boy is being held in a box. Thinking that some kind of crime is going on, Smith, in the manner of Kafka, tries to tell the police, who dismiss him. He keeps investigating, and he's rebuffed by everyone in New York." The novel, Phillips adds, is "written like a mystery, but it's a very literary novel that looks at the question of whether there is a cosmic control over our lives or if we have free will." Nelson lives in New York and teaches English at the City University of New York.
The descendant of a coal-mining family, William G. Williams now lives in Camp Hill, Pa., although he hails from Scranton. Recently the scene of an accident that threatened the lives of nine miners, Pennsylvania has long been a primary source of America's coal, and Williams re-creates what it was like in the late 1800s in The Coal King's Slaves (Nov.). Published by Burd Street Press, a division of White Mane Publishing, the novel "is about the agony of the miners who are working for nothing," says marketing v-p Harold Collier. "But what else are you going to do when you live in one of those towns?" The plot concerns a father trapped in a mine, and there is only one way to rescue him: "His hands are chopped off to get him out," says Collier.
Jasmine March's ambition is to become a gastrofeminist, and that pretty much sums up the imaginative twist of How to Cook a Tart (Oct., Bloomsbury) by Nina Killham. Jasmine is a cookbook author in Washington, D.C., whose béchamel curdles when her drama coach husband takes up with an always-dieting student. "It takes place in the world of foodies," says editor Colin Dickerman. "It's about food and weight and self-esteem, and none of it is heavy." Jasmine and her philandering husband live in Georgetown, and although its name is altered, most readers will recognize the newspaper that is key to the plot. Now living in London, Killham was born in D.C., where her father was in the foreign service, and she wrote about food and style for the Washington Post for five years.
Vermont is the home state of Isabel Lindsey and her cousin Laurence, two wealthy young people whose lives are fragmented by the approach of the Civil War in Wilderness Run (St. Martin's, Sept.) by Maria Hummel. When the two attempt to rescue a runaway slave, their well-intentioned deed exposes schisms within their families. Laurence soon joins the Second Vermont regiment to fight against the Confederates, while Isabel remains in her family's mansion overlooking Lake Champlain, where she falls in love with her French-Canadian tutor. Eventually, all three find themselves enmeshed in the bloody 1864 clash that became known as the Battle of the Wilderness.
An hour from Boston lies the town of Towne, the scene for The Hills at Home (Pantheon, Feb.) by Nancy Clark, who lives in West Wilton, N.H. "Towne is a totally fictional small town," says senior editor Deb Garrison. "The name is a joke—Towne is so much the prototypical town that it's a generic reference." The Hill clan belongs to a "preppy world of landed gentry," adds Garrison, where "the social distinction is between who's truly old town and who's nouveau." But the Hills' world is changing. and when the stock market crashes in 1989, matriarch Aunt Lily is rich in land, but not in wealth. "This is in part a comedy of manners, yet there's a lot of depth, too," says Garrison.
Pantheon has another New England novel in Father of the Man (Nov.) by Robert Mooney. In Binghamton, N.Y., where Mooney lived for many years before moving to Chestertown, Md., a WWII veteran and bus driver still lives with the hope that his son, missing in action in Vietnam for 12 years, will be found. Finally, in a desperate attempt to bring this about in 1982, he takes seven passengers hostage and swears that he will release them only when the federal government agrees to help locate his son.
The witchcraft trials of Salem, Mass. are given a fresh perspective in Susannah Morrow (Warner, Oct.) by Megan Chance. The story focuses on 15-year-old Charity Fowler, her widowed father and her Aunt Susannah, who has moved from London to Salem. "The book looks very deeply into the sexual repression of the time and the outlets that it took," says publisher Jamie Raab. "The woman who comes to Salem is more sophisticated than the others living there." As a result, Susannah comes under attack from the pious, judgmental community. "The story is historically accurate," adds Raab, "but it doesn't take a political point of view like Arthur Miller's The Crucible. We're calling it sophisticated historical fiction, and it is very solidly based on the author's considerable amount of research."
Great Lakes/Upper Midwest
Hilda Gurley-Highgate is an attorney in Detroit who grew up in North Carolina, and her first novel, Sapphire's Grave (Dec.), brings to mind the breadth of Cane River, reports Doubleday. In it, a woman is forced onto a slave ship in Sierra Leone in 1749, and she gives rise to generations of black women in America. "I was trying to address a stereotype that has been applied to all black women," explains Gurley-Highgate, "belligerent, hands on her hips, always denigrating her man—and I thought that to the extent that there are, and have been historically, women like this, they deserved an explanation. I wanted to say that they were not born with nasty dispositions. Somebody did something to them, or something happened to them that produced that temperament."
James Joyce's Ulysses takes place in its entirety on June 16, 1904. Judith Kitchen's The House on Eccles Road (Sept., Graywolf Press) transpires in its entirety on June 16, 1999, and the similarities don't end with that date. Kitchen's novel is set in Dublin, Ohio (a suburb of Columbus), and her lead characters are Molly Bluhm and her husband, Leo. "Yes, this was inspired by Ulysses, only it's much shorter [200 pages], which is a good thing," says executive editor Anne Czarniecki. "It's told from Molly's point of view and ends with a soliloquy by Leo and recounts a day in the life of this ordinary couple, a day in their life that changes everything for them." One needn't be a student of the Joyce work to enjoy Kitchen's, says Czarniecki. "It's very accessible. You really are in Molly's head as her life situation comes out in quiet ways."
Bayo Ojikutu is a 30-year-old native of Chicago, although he has also lived in Nigeria. His debut book, 47th Street Black (Jan., Three Rivers), is described as a gangster epic about two friends on diverging paths, one caught up in Chicago's mafia, the other fighting to pull himself free. It is the early '60s when JC and Mookie stumble across a dead body on the street. Soon they are mob members with, inevitably, murder on their minds. Years later, when JC gets out of jail, he is both educated and filled with resentment, while Mookie is king of the entire South Side.
Chicago is also where Cash Rivers works in On the Line (Oct., Banbury Publishing) by Denise I. O'Neal. An African-American firefighter, Cash seeks to overcome internal conflicts aggravated by the quota system at work a quarter-century ago. "Things were working because black men were getting into the fire department and onto the police force," says Banbury president Sande Donahue, "but Cash decides to accomplish more by running for president of the local firefighters' union." As might be expected, not all goes smoothly, and Cash is abducted, beaten and held captive. However, his misfortunes also have a positive result, in that Chicago as a city pulls together to find him and solve the crime.
Mountains and Plains
"The Fruit of Stone is set in Wyoming, and it's about a journey," says Julie Grau, co-editorial director of Riverhead Books. "A rancher whose wife has left him goes off with his best friend in search of her. It's not a thriller. It's an adventure, and it's a rueful love story about missed chances." Mark Spragg, whose memoir, Where Rivers Change Directions, won the 2000 Mountains and Plains Bookseller Award, writes here about friendship and loyalty, says Grau, as the men undertake an odyssey through the American West. "The novel is heartfelt in a masculine, stoic, cowboy kind of way," she adds.
Stephen C. Joseph places Summer of Fifty-Seven: Coming of Age in Wyoming's Shining Mountains (Nov.) in the Grand Tetons, reports Sunstone Press's president James Clois Smith Jr. "It's based on the author's life, and I liked it because we do look for site-specific fiction, especially in first fiction. This young man has a summer to work outdoors, helping to build trails in the National Park, and while doing so, he has a mild sunstroke. During this, he has a vision of two prospectors who turn out to have been real men." This is something he long remembers, and, in the tradition of tales about young men, there are also elements of romance and conflict. Joseph is a retired physician now living in Santa Fe, N.Mex.
Cristina Sumners resides in nearby Taos, N.Mex., although her first fiction is set in New Jersey, where a police chief is secretly smitten with the female reverend of a local Episcopal Church. Crooked Heart: A Divine Mystery (Oct., Bantam hardcover) thus introduces this unusual crime-solving twosome, who attempt to unravel the case of a missing affluent housewife. The uplifting aspects of this suspense yarn are likened by the publisher to the works of Jan Karon and Maeve Binchy.
Albuquerque, N.Mex., is where Anne Raeff is co-owner of an Asian furniture store called Two Serious Ladies. New Jersey, New York and Europe are where the events in Clara Mondeshein's Melancholia (MacAdam/Cage, Sept.) play out. "There are two narrators," says editor Anika Streitfeld, "both beginning in the mid-1900s. One is a 16-year-old girl, and the other is her 86-year-old grandmother, who grew up in Vienna and lived through the Holocaust. Clara is the generation in between the two." The catastrophe that was the Holocaust is central to all the characters in the book.
Running as far away from the Columbus projects as she can, Juanita Lewis winds up in the wilds of Montana. Actually, it's in the appealingly named (fictional) town of Paper Moon. Dancing on the Edge of the Roof (Nov.) by Sheila Williams is a Ballantine/One World trade paperback which, according to senior editor Shanna Sommers, focuses on "a 40ish African-American woman who needs to make a new life for herself, and she likes the idea of Montana's new frontier. She's actually not sure she's going to stay, but when she sees the kind of food being served up in a diner, she asks if she can cook her own meal." Characterizing the book's tone, Summers says, "The author is like an African-American Fannie Flagg."
Bozeman, Mont., is the present hometown of Anthony A. Goodman, an adjunct professor of medicine at Montana State University. A visit to the Greek island of Rhodes inspired him to write The Shadow of God: A Novel of War and Faith, which Sourcebooks Landmark will release in October. Associate publicist Megan Casper notes that while in Rhodes, Goodman "became fascinated by the conflict that engulfed the three great monotheisms of the era." The time is 1522, and the war is between 25-year-old Suleiman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman empire, and 58-year-old Philippe de L'Isle Adam, grand master of the Knights of Rhodes. The novel "evokes a seismic clash of cultures," says Casper.
Faith is the fundamental element as well in The Fisherman by Larry Huntsperger. A resident of Soldotna, Alaska, for the past 25 years, Huntsperger is the pastor of Peninsula Bible Fellowship, and for his first novel, he turned to a retelling of the life of Jesus Christ. Spokesperson Karen Van Valkenburg of Baker Book House, which is publishing the book in February, explains, "Beginning with Jesus's first introduction of himself to the nation of Israel, by literally entering into the mind of the Apostle Peter, the book immerses the reader in a first-person pilgrimage through the life and the events that have captivated the human race for nearly 2,000 years."
L.A. provides the underbelly setting for Moist by screenwriter Mark Haskell Smith. The October book from the St. Martin's L.A. Weekly imprint, features Bob, a slacker whose job at the L.A. morgue leads to an encounter with a severed arm, which in turn points the way inside the perilous embrace of the Mexican mafia. Before long, Bob metamorphoses into the macho Roberto, who brandishes both a tattoo and a gun. Bob's girlfriend, meanwhile, has been making her living by improving the lot of local citizenry with her expertise as a masturbation coach. Smith, who lives in L.A., includes among his produced works an episode of Star Trek: Voyager and the Brazilian film A Partilha.
California of long ago fired the imagination of Garth Murphy, whose The Indian Lover is due next month from Simon & Schuster. "It's a story that has never been told in fiction as far as I know," says editor-in-chief Michael Korda. "There's a lovely 19th-century Melvillian quality about a hero, who goes to California on a whaling ship. It's also a Paradise Lost story about the period in which Mexico lost control of California and it passed to the Americans, and the consequences to the Indians who were betrayed by everyone." In addition to its tragedy, says Korda, the book has a very powerful love story. "People who like Larry McMurtry's western books," he adds, "will really enjoy this one."