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First Fiction Nominees: Three Do-Gooders, Three Jewish Immigrants and a Supposed Lunatic

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The LA Times has nominated five books in each of nine different categories for the 2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. In the weeks leading up to the Festival of Books where the winners will be announced, LAist will take a quick look at each category and will wax poetic on a few favorites (or least favorites) along the way.

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Whiteman by Tony D'Souza - D’Souza delivers a memorable journey of ideals, disillusionment and partial redemption through Jack Diaz, a young, head-full-of-dreams aid worker that signs up for a three year stint in Tégéso, a rural West African village. When his organization loses its funding and pulls out, Jack decides to stay on, quickly realizing that his ability to help these people manage their poverty, their politics and their impending Christian-Muslim war may also fail. In the face of this, Diaz loses himself to shacking up with a string of local women and struggles to find a way to be of any help before he heads back to the states.

Why you might like it: Aid-worker adventure & intrigue.
Why you might not: Aid work is often lacking adventure & intrigue.

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Skinner's Drift by Lisa Fugard – Fugard (Yes! Athol Fugard’s daughter!) has created a vivid tale of Skinner’s Drift, a farm in South Africa. After ten years in America, Eva van Rensburg returns to Johannesburg to visit her father on his deathbed. While at home, she discovers her late mother’s diaries that detail earlier years - the years when Eva was just a girl. Through these diaries, Eva learns of her parents’ early struggle to keep their farm afloat and she learns a terrible secret about her father. With her father near death, Eva must decide if she will confront her father or keep his secret forever.

Why you might like it: Lyrical prose & vivid scenes place you instantly in South Africa.
Why you might not: Whiplash from flashbacks and a sort of disappointing ending.

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Golden Country by Jennifer Gilmore – A many-layered tale about three Jewish immigrants, from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, who make their way to New York. Through terribly sad personal stories to humorous marriage quirks, Gilmore weaves these different stories together to create a believable portrait of the Jewish immigrant experience. She captures the excitement, the hope and the dreams of her characters as well as the hard work, poor luck and disillusionment that they struggle with, overcome, and struggle with yet again.

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Why you might like it: Funny and sad and lovely all at once.
Why you might not: The sad bits.

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White Ghost Girls by Alice Greenway – While their father is off covering the Vietnam War for Time, two American sisters are left to explore Hong Kong with their mother for a summer. Greenway details the intense thoughts and yearnings of teenagers during these brief summer months, and takes a stab at what it means to “cover” a war and how addicting that can become. As the daughters struggle to understand themselves and their father’s growing preference to be “in the field” vs. at home, they must also contend with their mother’s growing wistfulness. As the sisters grow apart – one brash, one bashful – and as the country itself becomes fractured during the war, Greenway offers up a unique & refrehsing perspective on Vietnam.

Why you might like it: Gorgeous writing, lush landscapes, nuanced relationships.
Why you might not: War reporting.

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Mary: A Novel by Janis Cooke Newman – A fictional account of Mary Todd Lincoln – Abraham Lincoln’s widow, who was committed to a lunatic asylum by her son. Through her notes during her time in the asylum (with inmates screaming and keeping her awake, driving her to capture her thoughts on paper) and her descriptions of her life before the madness, Newman offers up a sympathetic view of Mary Todd Lincoln – one that is far more flattering than previous accounts of the notorious Lincoln spouse who was vilified by many.

Why you might like it: An altogether different look at a notorious woman.
Why you might not: Its 650 pages!