Home Movie

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Joey Taylor’s childhood went awry somewhere. Now that she’s alone, fourteen years old, her father dead, her mother gone adventuring, she sees the opportunity to bring herself up right. But just as she’s getting started, Joey meets David Giffard, an eccentric loner whose mysterious habits draw her into his own strange and solitary life. Giffard gives her piano lessons and then begins to show her bits and pieces of a film that seems to hold a lesson, too, if she could just make sense of it. When at last she to learn the secret of this odd home movie, Joey sets off for Los Angeles to find the actor whose role in the film is somehow crucial to Giffard’s story–and, now, to her own.

Along the way her path crosses those of a male stripper who wants no trouble, a dancer who wants to disappear, a philosophical truck driver who wants to settle down, and finally the hapless actor who bitterly wants out of the movie of Giffard’s life. Joey’s search involves them all in a story where certain knowledge surprises, recognition looks strange, and the only way to come home is to keep moving.
“Ellen Akins’s Home Movie is a brilliant first novel, subtle, wise, and highly theatrical. Just off-stage : melodrama as intense and bizarre as anything in the best of the Hollywood weepies. Onstage: cool authorial maneuvers, stunning visuals, high rhetoric, virtuoso performances, and, beneath all its disguises, the nearest thing to a genuine novel of ideas seen in a very long time. Here, clearly, is an important new writer.”
—Robert Coove

“Home Movie has the richness and tortured complexity of the youthful sensibility at its best.”Terrence Rafferty, The New Yorker

“[A] vividly written, authoritative first novel.”
—Devon Jersild, New York Times Book Review

“An ambitious first novel . . . Ellen Akins is a young writer with talent and promise, one who is attempting something different (and something more) than so many of her enervated peers.”
—Francine Prose, Washington Post Book World

“A challenging, unorthodox novel of intellect.”
—Richard Panek, Chicago Tribune

“Demanding but rewarding . . . . The narrative, with its theme of betrayal, spins out like life itself . . . . Thick with ideas and probing characterizations, the novel achieves a compelling power with its unrelenting attention to detail.  An impressive debut.”
Publishers Weekly

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Beauty Skinner is, as she herself admits, a woman to whom small men have never been indifferent, that most unfortunate of females, a “big girl.” Beauty is fated to be the subject of unbelieving stares, to stop conversations, and to realize with every lumbering step that towering ungainliness is the inescapable fact of her life.

But in Ellen Akins’s fierce comedy Little Woman, escape is precisely what Beauty manages. After almost accidentally killing her twin sons (the product of a peculiar marriage into which she has stumbled), Beauty decides to head for greener pastures alone. Her cunning plan: to set up a rural shelter where needy women can be rehabilitated, a shelter that is designed to fail quickly, leaving Beauty a cozy retreat of her own. Her willing tool: the guileless philanthropist-heiress Clara Bow Cole, who is all too pleased to apply her wealth to this altruistic adventure. A plot of land and a house are secured, a group of down-and-out women is solicited, and Clara Bow and Beauty depart for the wilds of Wisconsin to await their charges.

What arrives, however, are hardly the wretched souls that Beauty has anticipated. Molly, Kathy, Gigi, Lynn, Cathy, Elizabeth, Cora, Joan, Barbie, and Mary Belinda are, in fact, a ferocious and intractable crew. Thieves, drunkards, and runaways, they greet their new life with a raunchy stubbornness that leaves Beauty nonplussed as she becomes determined to make her bogus venture work. She insists that her diffident charges eke an existence out of the wilderness, a task that turns their colony into something like Robinson Crusoe’s island in a bad year, and its occupants a distaff counterpart of Lord of the Flies.

While its heroines’ battles to survive nature–and one another–have hilarious (and ultimately tragic) consequences, Little Woman takes an unsparing look at the struggle to form families and communities, and how people’s need for control renders any sort of bond between them suspicious.

“Exquisitely written . . . a strange, macabre, sometimes touching tale with a recurring–and familiar–theme about the need for family and community.”
—Susan Dundon, New York Times Book Review

“A book that defies labeling but is nevertheless hard to put down . . . never less than thoroughly engrossing.”
—Susan Dooley, Self

“Ellen Akins’s tough, sassy, sardonic account of a female utopia turns upside down sentimental narratives and reveals the darker side of comic versions of women’s collectives.”
—Wendy Martin, Chicago Tribune

“Delightfully inventive . . . pleasurable, and by the end poignant, reading. The dialog is crisp and witty, the characters fascinating, the twists of plot surprising and fulfilling . . . Akins is a talented young writer with a startling, original voice.”
—Ronald J. Rindo, Milwaukee Journal

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“Akins is clearly interested in archetypal relationships: mother-daughter, father-daughter, father-son. The title of these impressive stories is apt. Like a knife, the author’s fictional world is cold, sharp, and deadly. . . Drifters, murderers, molesters, and other simply working-class people populate these tales which, because the props are so few, appear to take place out of time, like a play by Samuel Beckett.  But more like the plays of Harold Pinter, the atmosphere is menacing.”
—Sara Mosle, New York Newsday

“Ellen Akins’s world is like a knife: dangerous yet also deceptively ordinary. . . . Although her subtle prose can be gorgeous, the thought processes that it documents occasionally take challenging twists. Ms. Akins is a writer who demands real concentration, but the effort is well worth it. You won’t find many epiphanies in this unadorned fiction–Ms. Akins is too much of a realist for that–but you will find gemlike interior moments that accumulate to create a complex and uncomfortable world.”
—Cheri Fein, New York Times Book Review

“Once you’ve read Ellen Akins’s novella, ‘Arriving in the Dark,’ you will never forget it.”
—Mary Ann Grossman, St. Paul Pioneer Press

“Ten powerful stories about people who are often caught up in circumstances out of control or not of their own making, and about a world of difficult choices, choices often forced upon them with unexpected endings.”

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“[A]n admirably graceful and tightly plotted novel of ideas.”
Publishers Weekly

“For a novel about superficiality, Ellen Akins’s Public Life is startlingly—seductively–deep.Public Life is intense, idea-dense, and infused with a sense of tragic urgency. Once you’ve experienced the making of a president, Akins-style, you’ll never watch a presidential campaign–or a president–quite the same way again.”
—Chicago Sun-Times

For Ann Matter–once a daringly original filmmaker, now an improbably successful director of commercials–the invitation was extraordinary. Governor Henry Anderson needed a media adviser in his campaign for the presidency; would she accept the job? Though she has had little experience, or interest, in politics, the challenge proves irresistible–to take an unpolished but charismatic politician and remake him, marketing him to the American people as the incarnation of their most cherished ideals.

Ellen Akins’s third novel, Public Life, is an exploration of how images have come to rule our lives, from the highest levels of government to the edgy accommodations of sexual politics. Akins’s world is one saturated with print and pictures, where power is a function of how skillfully one manipulates the media. It is a world in which Ann Matter moves all too confidently, only dimly aware of its seductions. Under her guidance, Anderson is victorious in his presidential bid, and Ann is rewarded with a position on his personal staff, responsible now for preserving the image she so brilliantly created.

That image proves so compelling that Ann herself is won over by it, unwittingly setting illusion and reality on a collision course. As Ann’s own precarious equilibrium is undermined by the persistent incursions of her past, Anderson’s presidency is propelled into a series of scandals thta expose the hollowness at its core.

In Public Life Ellen Akins has written one of the most searching and original political novels in years, a book as remarkable in its relevance as in its imaginative power.

“The entrancing compulsions of presidential politics hook a young filmmaker with a powerful talent for short commercial films.  She undertakes the task of massaging the public image of an attractive candidate, all the while believing that at his core he is worth the effort to elect him.  Tragically for herself and others, the reality is not strong enough to sustain the illusion.  Akins, an award-winning author of three novels . . . here makes a genre that is normally high on action and low on character development achingly introspective.  She has a wonderful ear, and her dialogs are vividly genuine.  Akins challenges the reader with a narrative style that is elliptical and complex–a style that owes more to the love of words and expression than to satisfying mass market appetites.”
Library Journal

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A rich novel of family rivalries, corporate maneuvers, and sexual intrigue–set in a small Wisconsin beer town.

In the background: a small, family-run brewery, Gutenbier, whose backward business practices have been miraculously transformed into an asset by the new vogue for microbreweries and designer beverages.

At the center: two women whose world is the brewery: Melissa Johnson, is the heiress to Gutenbier, and Alice Reinhart works there. On her father’s death, Melissa inherits the chairmanship everyone expected to go to her brother and finds herself resented by both workers and management. Alice, returning from New York and a bad marriage, takes up her job in the brewery only to discover that an indiscretion she committed at seventeen has surfaced and has made her the object of a series of seemingly innocent pranks that slowly reveal a darker intent. As these two women fight the forces arrayed against them and the novel moves toward its climax, the business, the politics–the life–of a small town are compellingly portrayed.

“Akins’ work has been called ‘a kind of extended meditation on the dialectic of stripping and covering up. . .’ That is an apt description of her latest offering. . . . One wouldn’t want to have missed the journey of this novel that, with all its contradictions and complexities, reflects a burgeoning talent well on its way to full power.”
—Cooke, Fort Worth Star Telegram

“If ‘Hometown Brew’ were a beer, it would be dark, dense and malty–the kind to sip and savor the complex flavors. Bottled, not canned. And definitely not light. Ellen Akins has written an ambitious novel, about many things–the duality of sibling love and rivalry, corporate power games and sexual politics. In examining the ways that people use each other, the author also offers a redemptive vision of humanity. . . Tense and taut, ‘Hometown Brew’ never loses momentum. From the outset, the reader senses something sinister about Frank, as Alice and Melissa are sucked into a disastrous course of events. It’s nerve-wracking–like watching a Hitchcock film, knowing who the bad guy is. There are surprising plot turns along the way, as well as astute observations about the implications of using sex to sell everything from cars to beer to hamburgers.”
—Colleen Kelly Warren, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Family politics rage in Ellen Akins’s novel ‘Hometown Brew’ . . . But class and sexual politics also surface when Frank becomes involved with Alice Reinhart, a blue-collar striver with a shady past who has taken a job at the brewery. Add company politics to the mix after Alice’s male co-workers start to harass her. These swirling waters are parted when the plot, suddenly bearing straight ahead, drives to a climactic rape at the plant — which gives a paradoxical boost to Gutenbier’s sales. In the wake of the violence, Akins slows down again to reflect on its causes, and on the ways in which men and women remain unknowable to each other.”
—Julie Gray, New York Times

“This surprising novel doesn’t announce itself as feminist in theme and purpose. But slowly and subtly it becomes clear that is what Akins has in mind. Set in a beer-brewing town in Wisconsin where men are men and women are supposed to be women, the novel focuses on two women and the unpleasant discoveries they are forced to. . . . Both plots move forward following a slow and sinister plan that is not evident until it is fully hatched. Once hatched, it is horrible. “Hometown Brew” leaves an unusually powerful aftertaste.”
—Barbara Fisher, Boston Globe

“Akins’ prose can be stirring, analytic and precise . . . [She] has keen insight that it often unfurled in gorgeous sentences.”
—Michele Wucker, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“‘Hometown Brew’ is not merely a meditation on one family’s struggle for survival and simplicity in an increasingly complicated and calculating world. Akins, as displayed in her five previous novels, is a writer concerned with ambitious ideas and the larger themes of life. In ‘Hometown Brew’ the setting may be small and the stakes, well, beer, but the true story lies not in surface concerns but in the dark themes–family loyalty versus survival, notions of sexual harassment, big business versus mom-and-pop America, the fine line between duty and love–bubbling just beneath.”
—Liesel Litzenburger, Detroit Free Press