Fabulous Fiction Firsts #503 - “Letter writing is the only device combining solitude with good company.” ~ George Gordon Byron

For many of us who travel over the break, it is crucial to have the company of a good audio book. Here are some tried-and-true winners that take the form of epistolary novels and will keep you engaged and entertained.

I just returned That Part Was True (2014) by Deborah McKinlay. Charming and delightful, with mouth-watering recipes. Highly recommended.

"Spinsterly" (self-described) 46 year-old Brit. Eve Petworth is long-divorced, privileged and painfully shy. Then uncharacteristically she strikes up a pen pal friendship with successful American novelist Jackson Cooper (think Robert Parker) through their mutual love of food and fine cooking. Over time, they support each other through challenges (hers, a bridezilla daughter and his, writer's block) and personal relationship dramas before Jackson suggests they meet for a culinary rendezvous in Paris.

Attachments (2011) by Rainbow Rowell
Gossiping and sharing their personal secrets on e-mail in spite of their company's online monitoring practices, Beth and Jennifer unwittingly amuse Internet security officer Lincoln, who unexpectedly falls for Beth while reading their correspondence.

Frances and Bernard (2013) by Carlene Bauer (FFF, a Fabulous Fiction Firsts)
It is not love at first sight for Frances and Bernard. She finds him faintly ridiculous while he sees her as aloof. But after that first meeting, Bernard writes Frances a letter which changes everything and soon they are immersed in the kind of fast, deep friendship that can alter the course of lives.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008) by Mary Ann Shaffer (a FFF)
In 1946, writer Juliet Ashton finds inspiration for her next book in her correspondence with a native of Guernsey, who tells her about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book club born as an alibi during German occupation.

Letters from Skye (2013) by Jessica Brockmole (a FFF)
A love story told in letters spans two world wars and follows the correspondence between a poet on the Scottish Isle of Skye and an American volunteer ambulance driver for the French Army, an affair that is discovered years later when the poet disappears.

Safe travels.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #502 - "Faith is about doing. You are how you act, not just how you believe.” ~ Mitch Albom

In A Song for Issy Bradley * debut novelist Carys Bray, "(w)ith courage, warmth, and intelligence...sweetly and subtly breaks your heart", as the Bradleys come to terms with grief, each in his or her own way.

A man of strong faith and even stronger sense of duty, Ian Bradley, math teacher and Mormon bishop in a secular British neighborhood, embraces his calling often at the expense of his family's needs. His wife Claire (a convert upon marriage to Ian) feels overwhelmed and lonely in caring for their large family - Zippy and Al, teenagers who endure and rebel in equal measures; 7 year-old Jacob, sensitive and wise-beyond-his years, is the one who tries to hold the family together when 4-year-old Issy dies of meningitis.

"In this wry, original, generous-spirited debut novel, members of a family come to terms with grief...They wrestle with belief and disillusionment, desire and hopelessness, pervasive sorrow and moments of transcendent joy. The result is riveting, powerful, and quietly devastating." It will appeal to fans of Me Before You; Little Bee; and Tell the Wolves I'm Home.

A much anticipated debut this December is The Bishop's Wife * * * by Teen author Mette Ivie Harrison, her first try at adult fiction, inspired by an actual crime.

Unlike Claire Bradley, Linda, the mother of five grown boys and the wife to Mormon bishop Kurt Wallheim of Draper (UT), embraces the duties and challenges of being the bishop's wife, having been raised a Mormon herself. But Linda is increasingly troubled by the church's patriarchal structure and secrecy, especially when a neighbor, Jared Helm, appears on the Wallheims' doorstep with his 5-year-old daughter, claiming that his wife, Carrie, disappeared in the middle of the night. Carrie's worried parents present quite a different image of the Helm household. The more Linda learns about the curious circumstances at the Helms' residence, the more she suspects Jared is responsible for his wife's disappearance.

When Tobias Torstensen, another member of the church becomes gravely ill, Linda tries to provide support for his wife Anna, who helped raise Tobais' sons after the death of his first wife, a mystery that begins to unfold as Linda finds an unlikely item hidden in their barn. Despite Kurt's entreaties to leave these problems alone, Linda is driven to investigate. The discovery of two bodies produces devastating revelations for the close-knit community, but Linda never thinks of giving up her search for the painful truth. For those who enjoyed Cage of Stars by Jacquelyn Mitchard.

Both Bray and Harrison were raised in strict Mormon households. Their unique perspectives and candor lend authenticity to these debuts.

* = starred review
* * * = 3 starred reviews

Waiting (Not So) Patiently for The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant?

Anita Diamant’s novel The Boston Girl is described as “a moving portrait of one woman’s complicated life in twentieth century America, and a fascinating look at a generation of women finding their places in a changing world.” Diamant is known for developing strong female characters, and Addie Baum is a perfect example, set against the background of an immigrant family and in a rapidly changing society, she combats adversity with intelligence, determination, and a sense of humor.

Below is a list of other titles that might appeal to those awaiting The Boston Girl. Some of these titles feature a historical setting, many explore the immigrant experience, and all of them introduce a resolute female character who face their challenges head on.

- Away by Amy Bloom - A Russian immigrant leaves the life she has built in 1920s New York to trek across the country in the hope of reuniting with her lost daughter.

- Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok - This modern day coming-of-age and coming-to-America story is fueled by determined and brilliant daughter Kimberley’s close relationship with her hard-working mother.

- The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell - Rose is a police typist in Prohibition New York who doesn’t realize her own naivete until she becomes influenced and infatuated with her new colleague, Odalie.

- The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston - This story of an ambitious young woman who follows her dreams to 1920s Paris, only to find the love of her life back in her own small town, is told using text amidst a scrapbook of letters, photos, postcards and other charming, everyday 20th century ephemera.

- Transatlantic by Colum McCann - A beautifully written multi-generational epic unfolds against the backdrop of three transatlantic voyages between Ireland and New York, moving between 1843, 1919, and 1991.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #501 - “Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it." ~ Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love.

2 UK debuts. 2 young women rising out of bleak adolescence to realize the individuals they are meant to be.

British cultural critic Caitlin Moran follows up her 2012 New York Times bestselling memoir How To Be a Woman with a debut novel - How to Build a Girl * * that draws from her own experience, having joined the music weekly Melody Maker at an very young age before becoming a prize-winning columnist at the London Times.

14-year-old Johanna Morrigan, the product of a large dysfunctional council-flat welfare family in the West Midlands, decides to remake herself after an embarrassing appearance on national TV. Almost overnight, the freaky fat girl who is at once "endearing, ­hilarious, pathetic, and wise" becomes the feared music reviewer Dolly Wilde (named after Oscar's niece - "this amazing alcoholic lesbian who was dead scandalous"), drinking regularly, having lots of sex, and writing acidulous reviews of rock bands. But it that enough?

"Moran's coming-of-age debut novel is both poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, a treat for young adults as well as those who remember the era (1990s) and its music."

In Making Marion : where's Robin Hood when you need him? * * by Beth Moran, Marion Miller leaves behind her job as a library assistant, a doctor-fiance and a childhood of neglect and abuse in Ballydown, a hamlet in Northern Ireland for Nottinghamshire, to uncover her father's secret past.

Searching for Sherwood Forest Visitor Center lands her at the Peace and Pigs campsite, an impromptu job offer, and a place to call home. Though hard work and the determination to overcoming her shyness earn her friendship and acceptance, the locals refuse to talk when shown the photograph of her father as a young man, dressed as Robin Hood. Only Reuben, heir to Hatherstone Hall is willing to come to her aid, motivated by a connection to his family history.

"Roaming pigs, food fights, and conspiring chickens add flavor to this delightful debut, which also touches on mother-daughter relationships, family secrets, and finding love, and yourself."

"One of the best inspirational novels of the season", it will appeal to fans of Jane Green, Marian Keyes, and Jill Mansell.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Small Gems (and Fabulous Fiction Firsts #500)

It's that time again. As we approach winter solstice, the days are getting shorter and we are getting into high gear for the holidays, don't despair. Here are some suggestions for SHORT titles that you could curl up with.

46 Brilliant Short Novels You Can Read In A Day, great reads under 200 pages. Mostly.

From GoodRead: Popular Under 200 Pages Books - wonderful time to catch up on some classics and new award winners. The Huffington Post also jumps on the bandwagon with their thoughtful and inspired reading list. Here is a list for nonfiction readers.

My personal find this year?

Our Lady of the Nile (in French) by Scholastique Mukasonga, winner of the 2012 Renaudot Prize and the Ahamadou Kourouma Prize - a moving and nuanced portrait of violence and survival; a debut novel of "rugged beauty and unbearable suspense".

The conflict between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority is expressed through the microcosm of Our Lady of the Nile, a Catholic boarding school for wealthy and influential young ladies in Rwanda. Virginia and Veronica are two Tutsi girls in the lycee because of quotas, and they are keenly aware of the dangers they face as ethnic minority. When Gloriosa, the daughter of a Hutu politician, starts telling lies about being attacked by Tutsis, the retaliatory violence costs Veronica her life and Virginia her education.

Born in Rwanda in 1956, the author experienced from childhood the violence and humiliation of ethnic conflicts. In 1973, she was forced to flee to Burundi and settled in France in 1992. Two year later, she lost 27 members of her family to the genocide of the Tutsi.

Slightly longer but spectacular in every way is Lily King's Euphoria * * *, a thinly-veiled account of the love affair between Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, her third husband while she was married to Reo Fortune as they were conducting anthropological research in the remote territories of New Guinea. (Readers curious as to the accuracy of the storyline might want to check out this article called "Mead's Folly").

"A taut, witty, fiercely intelligent tale of competing egos and desires in a landscape of exotic menace—a love triangle in extremis… The steam the book emits is as much intellectual as erotic…King is brilliant.”

Little wonder that it has been named winner of this year's Kirkus Prize for Fiction and the New England Book Award. New York Times, as well as Time Magazine, and NPR named it one of the 10 Best Fiction of 2014. I promise you that it is well worth the wait.

* * * = 3 starred reviews

Waiting (not so) patiently for The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters?

British author Sarah Waters is beloved for skillfully incorporating suspense, illicit attractions, and even supernatural elements, into her atmospheric historical fiction novels. The Paying Guests takes place in the upper class home of the Wrays, a mother and daughter who have fallen on hard times after WWI and make ends meet by taking in “paying guests.” The addition of a working class couple to the family dynamic initiates a series of changes, not least of which is daughter Frances’ attraction to her new boarder.

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt - Byatt’s historical fiction/family saga explores privileged, artistic families in pre-WWI Britain, and the darkness and social struggles that lie beneath the surface.

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton long-simmering secrets come to light when a filmmaker comes to fact-check details of a 1924 event with a now-elderly maidservant, who recounts the loves, rivalries, and secrets of the family she served.

The Lodger by Louise Treger - Against the background of the British suffragette movement, Dorothy Richardson’s life takes a turn for the unconventional when she begins an affair with a friend’s husband, only to have her attractions shift when a new woman moves into her boarding house.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters - The story follows four Londoners during and after WWII who are recovering their senses, trying to restart their lives, and guarding their secrets now that the blackouts are over and the fighting is done.

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones - Enjoying Downton Abbey-style luxury while teetering on the edge of debt, a Torrington-Jones family gathering at their estate unexpectedly becomes a sanctuary for survivors of a nearby railway accident, but the circumstances become murkier as constructs of class and society fall away.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #499

Having been a fan of Tony Parsons for many years now, I have been waiting with bated breath for The Murder Man * - his first try at crime fiction. And let me tell you, you won't be getting much sleep.

Meet DC Max Wolfe - recent widower (to cancer), single father (daughter Scout, 5), indulgent owner (Stan, holy terror of a puppy), insomniac, caffeine junkie, and a new transfer to London's Homicide and Serious Crime.

Someone has been violently killing members of London society. First, it was Hugo Buck, a pedigreed banker with an appetite for the hired help. Then there was the homeless junkie Adam Jones. Nicknamed "Bob the Butcher" by the press and social media, the killer is strong enough and smart enough to kill with a single knife stroke, and bold enough to kill in public. The victims first appeared to have absolutely nothing in common, except for a decade-old group photograph. Wolfe noticed that at each of the murder scene, someone had painted in blood "#KILLALLPIGS".

The hunt leads Wolfe to Potter's Field, an exclusive private school; a long-buried brutal murder; and right into the killer's path.

"Spectacular - tense but human, fast but authentic..." ~ Lee Child

"A relentless plot, evocative prose, and compelling (and wrenching) portraits of the characters, good and evil, conspire to make this a must-read. And I have two words for hero Max Wolfe: More. Soon." ~ Jeffery Deaver

Enough said.

If you are fascinated with the private (sorry, public school) culture, you might also enjoy The Secret History, Donna Tartt's debut novel (arguably her best, in my humble opinion); and A Murder of Quality, an early George Smiley novel by John Le Carre.

* = starred review

Waiting (not so) patiently for The Rosie Effect

Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Effect will be released on December 30, and fans of Simsion’s hilariously charming first novel The Rosie Project, cannot wait.

In The Rosie Project, genetics professor and master of regimented routines and social missteps, Don Tillman, strikes out in search of a romantic partner, and instead gets entangled in determined grad student/bartender Rosie’s scheme to identify the father she never knew through genetic testing. Hijinks ensue, and the bumpy road of life and love continues straight through The Rosie Effect.

To tide you over while you wait for The Rosie Effect to be released, here are a few titles that share some elements with Simsion’s quirky but lovable stories.

- How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer - alternate reality scientific endeavors and comedy come together in this love story of two scientists who were secretly groomed by their astrologist mothers to be soulmates.

- The Ninth Wife by Amy Stolls - light-hearted love story with quirks galore, about falling for someone who doesn’t exactly add up to your ideal partner.

- Me Before You by Jojo Moyes - British author Moyes brings great humor and humanity to the story of an angry quadriplegic and the big-hearted, well-meaning, accident-prone, insecure woman who becomes his caretaker.

- The Pigeon Pie Mystery by Julia Stuart - Stuart's historical fiction/mystery/romance is populated with a cast of eccentrics including an Indian princess, a cycling-obsessed doctor, and a maid with unusually large feet, centered around Queen Victoria's haunted Hampton Court, where impoverished aristocrats go to live out their last complaint-filled years. The plot is sprawling, the characters are ridiculous, and the conclusion packs a heartfelt wallop.

- Something Missing by Matthew Dicks - Martin, an OCD thief with an eye for order and a penchant for routine, makes his living stealing minor things from his “clients” and will go to great lengths to keep their lives - and his invisible role in them - unchanged.

The New York Times' 100 Notable Books of 2014

The New York Times released its list of 100 Notable Books for 2014, selected by the editors of The New York Times Book Review.

A few of my favorites on this list are:

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson - The complexity of the story told in this debut novel is just awe-inspiring - from the caught-in-the-crosshairs social worker to the twitchy madman in the woods, and the threads that connect them. Henderson's striking portrait of life in rural Montana reminded me of, Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell, a stark look at desperate lives in Appalachia that will stick with the reader the same way Fourth of July Creek does.

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart - Shteyngart manages to make the story of his sickly childhood, traumatic emigration and resettlement, and complicated, painful relationship with his parents not just often humorous, but also somehow, even relatable. I marveled at the author's honesty and strong sense of self to be able to look at himself and his life and give such a thorough and intelligent account of it.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan - I have a weakness for the Booker Prize, their winners and shortlists have led me to many excellent books and introduced me to many excellent authors. This title, the 2014 Booker Prize winner, is epic in its scope, love story, and the trials and tribulations of the main character.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Mac­intyre - It's not easy to tell the story of a life, let alone the life of a spy, let alone a spy who concealed his twisted loyalties decade after decade, promotion after promotion, but Macintyre does an admirable job. Kim Philby is one of the most famous double agents in history and this carefully constructed book lays out as much of the story as we may ever know. If you enjoy a good spy novel, John Le Carre, Alan Furst, Charles Cumming, etc., you can't go wrong with a Ben Macintyre book. I was utterly absorbed by Operation Mincemeat and Double Cross as well.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #498 - "Sometimes, one wants to have the illusion that one is making ones own life, out of ones own resources.” ~ Zadie Smith

Poet and short story writer Greer Macallister's debut novel The Magician's Lie * has been described as Water for Elephants meets The Night Circus.

1905. On a warm summer evening in Waterloo (IA), The Amazing Arden, "the most famed female illusionist in the world" vowed to do the impossible as she "weave (her trademark) web of beautiful illusions to snare them, a glittering trap that drags them willingly with me into the magical, false, spellbinding world". The only deviation from her routine - she would use an axe in her notorious trick of sawing a man in half on stage.

When Arden's husband was found lifeless beneath the stage later that night, young police officer Virgil Holt who was part of the audience happened upon the fleeing illusionist and took her into custody. Over the course of one eerie night, Virgil must decide whether to turn Arden in or set her free... and it will take all he has to see through the smoke and mirrors as Arden recounted a life and a career "more moving and spectacular than any of her stage acts".

"(W)ell-paced, evocative, and adventurous... a top-notch novel."

* = starred review

Syndicate content