Fabulous Fiction Firsts #529 - “For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit.” ~ Noam Chomsky

M(iranda) J. Carter's fiction debut - The Strangler Vine * * is longlisted for the 2104 Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) and a finalist for the British Crime Writers' Association John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award.

Calcutta, 1837. Young William Avery was broke, homesick and for months, had waited for a commission in the East India Company's army that might never come through. Then out of the blue, he was assigned a secret mission by the Company's administrator with the promise of a promotion and a return to his beloved home in Devon.

Avery was to join Jeremiah Blake, a former Company agent gone native who turned out to be a genius at languages and disguises. The pair was to search for the missing English poet Xavier Mountstuart who has been sighted at some of the most dangerous places in all of India, overrun by the Thuggees. While wildly popular with the locals as well as audience at home (Avery being an avid fan himself), it was rumored that Mountstuart's next poem would likely lift the lid on Calcutta society, exposing not only the wickedness of the Company Sahibs, their greed and their immodesty, but also that of the princely courts of the "Hindoo and Mussulman" - a personification of the twisted gray trunks called "strangler vines" that squeeze the life out of other trees.

"Meticulously researched and packed with period detail," it will appeal to historical fiction fans who love action, adventure, and intrigue, particularly those of Bernard Cornwell, David Liss, and Iain Pears. Like many, I am waiting impatiently for the promised sequel The Infidel Stain, and to pick up the trail of this unforgettable investigative pair.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Early Warning, sequel to Some Luck, is here!

Early Warning, the second book in Jane Smiley’s trilogy that follows a century in the life of a Midwestern farm family, is now available! The first book in the trilogy, Some Luck, was published in late 2014 and was well-received by critics and readers alike. Beginning in the early 1920s, Some Luck spanned over 30 years, carrying the family into the mid-twentieth century. Early Warning picks up where Some Luck left off, and continues on into the 1980s, following the next generations of the family.

Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer for her book A Thousand Acres, and her talents continue to shine in the Last Hundred Years trilogy. She deftly manages to keep the books going at a quick pace while still detailing intimate moments with various characters, and hitting historically important events in American history. Each chapter covers one year, and it takes awhile to adjust to the necessarily whirlwind pace of the book. With the years slipping past one another at so brisk a speed, Smiley leaves out many events that might be detailed in other books that span less time. But this pace really serves to highlight the events and emotions that Smiley does choose to include, and makes them infinitely more meaningful.

The final installment of the trilogy, The Golden Age, will be published in October 2015. You can read more about the trilogy and Smiley’s thoughts on it in this article.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #528 - “A caregiver is changed by the culture of illness, just as one is changed by the dynamic era in which one lives." ~ Diane Ackerman

Shortlisted for the 2013 Costa First Novel Award, Meeting the English by award-winning Scottish poet Kate Clanchy brings to mind Maggie O'Farrell's Instructions for a Heatwave for the delectabe tragic/comic family drama, played out during one of London's sweltering heatwaves.

Having help nursed his single father through his final illness and worked part-time in an old people's home, 17 year-old Struan Robertson feels equipped to answer an ad for "Literary Giant seeks young man to push bathchair. Ideal 'gap year' opportunity." This brings the Cuik (Scotland) orphan south to London, into the chaotic household of Phillip Prys, playwright/novelist who recently suffered a massive stroke.

Arriving in London in the freakishly hot summer of 1989, smart but naïve Struan finds himself particularly unprepared to deal with the heat, with Phillip's two self-involved teenage children, two wives, and a literary agent who buzz about the house but too busy with their peculiar obsessions to lend a hand in Phillip's care. "As the city bakes, Struan finds himself tangled in a midsummer's dream of mistaken identity, giddying property prices, wild swimming, and overwhelming passions. For everyone, it is to be a life-changing summer."

In this "sharp-eyed satire of 1980s London...Clanchy brings to her portrait of Thatcher-era London an assured beauty of language and acid detail. The effect is that of a brilliant, multicolored fireworks display illuminating the antics of the residents of the London Zoo." Check out the full review in The Guardian, which praised this debut as "richly conceived, original and very entertaining."

For those who enjoyed The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison, and Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #527 - Spotlight on Canadian Debuts

These 3 noteoworthy debuts share more than geography. Two are mysteries/police procedurals; two have strong historical significance; and all are inspired by real persons and/or events.

Asylum by Jeannette De Beauvoir is set in Montreal where Martine LeDuc is the director of PR for the mayor's office. Four women are found brutally murdered and shockingly posed on park benches throughout the city. Fearing a threat to tourism, the Mayor tasked Martine to act as liaison with the police department. She is paired with a young detective, Julian Fletcher. Together they dig deep into the city's and the country's past, only to uncover a link between the four women: all were involved with the decades-old Duplessis orphanage scandal. "A complex and heartbreaking mystery."

"Meticulously researched and resounding with the force of myth" The Thunder of Giants by Toronto playwright Joel Fishbane, "blends fact and fiction in a sweeping narrative that spans nearly a hundred years. Against the backdrop of epic events, two extraordinary women become reluctant celebrities in the hopes of surviving a world too small to contain them."

In 1937, at nearly eight feet tall, Andorra Kelsey, known in Detroit as the Giant of Elsa Street, is looking for a way to escape when a Hollywood movie scout offers her the role of Anna Swan (here is the link to the Canadian Anna Swan digital archive), the celebrated Nova Scotia giantess who toured with P.T. Barnum's "Human Marvels" traveling show.

Told in parallel, while Andorra is seen as a disgrace by an embarrassed family, Anna Swan (born 1846) becomes a famed attraction as she falls in love with Gavin Clarke, a veteran of the Civil War. Both women struggle to prove to the world that they are more than the sum of their measurements. "A genial, appealing celebration of two strong, independent women; recommended for fans of historical fiction." Especially for those who enjoyed The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker.

In The Unquiet Dead * * by Ausma Zehanat Khan, Detective Esa Khatta, head of Canada's new Community Policing Section specialized in handling minority-sensitive cases, is called in to investigate the death of wealthy businessman Christopher Drayton, found at the bottom of a bluff near his home in Lake Ontario. As Esa and his partner Detective Rachel Getty dig into the background of Drayton, it is evident that this upstanding Canadian citizen is in truth, a Bosnian war criminal - Lieutenant Colonel Drazen Krstic, with ties to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 where thousands of Muslim men, women and children were slaughtered. As Khattak and Getty interview imams and neighbors and sort out what justice really means, they are forced to navigate the lingering effects of a horrible conflict and their own broken lives.

"In her spellbinding debut, Ausma Zehanat Khan (a former law professor with a specialty in Balkan war crimes) has written a complex and provocative story of loss, redemption, and the cost of justice..." "Readers of international crime fiction will be most drawn to the story, but anyone looking for an intensely memorable mystery should put this book at the top of their list."

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #526

Lady Montfort's (Clementine Elizabeth Talbot) annual summer ball is the highlight of the season, not just for the household but for the county, and all their London friends. With the millions of details to be seen to, her ladyship relies heavily on her capable and resourceful housekeeper Edith Jackson, a handsome woman in her early thirties. The 1912 ball went off without a hitch. Even the weather was perfect to show off the Montfort's new sunken garden. Tragedy strikes in the early hours of the next morning when the gamekeeper finds a body, hanging in a gibbet that turns out to be that of Teddy Mallory, Lord Montford's dishonorable nephew, just expelled from Christ Church, Oxford.

When it was discovered that a new housemaid and one of their London guests also disappeared during the night, Scotland Yard gets involved. After unwittingly witnessed a violent confrontation between her son Harry, Lord Haversham and Teddy in the early evening, Lady Montfort fears that the official police inquiry is pointing towards her son as a potential suspect. Taking matters into her own hands, the countess enlists the help of Mrs. Jackson, to investigate the case.

In Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman "an enchanting debut, author Tessa Arlen (incorporates) exquisite period detail into her well-mannered mystery, offers readers an engaging peek into the lives of upper and lower classes of early 1900s England combined with a little history interspersed." For those who enjoyed English country house mysteries like Gosford Park and Kate Morton's The House at Riverton.

If the elegant estate on the jacket cover brings to mind another establishment depicted in a long-running Masterpiece Theatre TV series, it's intentional. In fact, Tessa Arlen will participate in a panel discussion entitled Downton Malice: British Historical Period Mysteries at the Malice Domestic convention in Bethesda, Maryland, Sunday, May 3, 2015.

Historical mystery fans interested specifically in the Edwardian era may wish to check out the author's Redoubtable Edwardians blog, choke-full of fabulous information and readalikes.

Red: A Crayon's Story

Favorite children’s author and illustrator Michael Hall has given us another lovely book with Red: A Crayon’s Story. A red crayon struggles to draw the things that he is supposed to: fire trucks, strawberries, ladybugs… everything he draws and colors turns out blue! The other crayons all have tips and advice for him, but nothing works. Kids will quickly see the problem: the crayon has been mislabeled and is actually a blue crayon with a red papering! Readers will cheer Red on as he struggles to find his true calling… and will celebrate with him when he ultimately draws a beautiful BLUE ocean and realizes his talents.

Other books by Michael Hall are My Heart is Like a Zoo, Cat Tale, and Perfect Square.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #525 - “At some point you have to stop running and turn around and face whoever wants you dead. The one thing is finding the courage to do it.” ~ Suzanne Collins

The Fire Sermon * * * by award-winning poet Francesca Haig has been billed as The Hunger Games meets The Road - a richly imagined first novel in a new post-apocalyptic trilogy, and is poised to become the next must-read hit.

Four hundred years after a catastrophic nuclear fire destroyed much of Earth and its civilization, genetic mutation dictates that each human is born with a twin. Of each pair, one (an Alpha) is physically perfect, the other (an Omega) is burdened with some form of deformity. While the Alphas are designated as the ruling class, the Omegas are branded and banished to strictly controlled colonies. For all their superiority, Alphas cannot escape one harsh fact: whenever one twin dies, so does the other.

Cass is a rare Omega, one burdened with psychic foresight. While her twin, Zach, gains power on the Alpha Council, she dares to dream the most dangerous dream of all: equality. For daring to envision a world in which Alphas and Omegas live side-by-side as equals, both the Council and the Resistance have her in their sights.

"Haig's prose is gorgeous and engaging, particularly when she describes the desolate landscape, now peppered with ruins from the Before. Fans of dystopias will appreciate this adventure-filled yet character-focused tale that offers hope and explores (in a refreshingly nuanced way) the moral complexities involved in defeating an oppressive and backward government structure."

A great addition to the recent crop of dystopian novels.

* * * = 3 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #524 "There are cities that get by on their good looks, offer climate and scenery, views of mountains or oceans, rockbound or with palm trees; and there are cities like Detroit that have to work for a living..." ~ Elmore Leonard

Called a "powerful, timely debut" The Turner House * * by Angela Flournoy is especially poignant for readers in Southeast Michigan.

Set in Detroit's East Side, it is the story of an American family spanning five decades, from the Second Great Migration in the 1940s to the present, weathering the series of boom-and-bust associated with the auto industry and the history of the city.

Francis and Viola Turner raised all thirteen of their children in the house on Yarrow Street. Now widowed and ailing, Viola is forced to head to the suburbs and move in with Cha-Cha (Charles), her eldest. The house, once a proud symbol of working-class respectability, now stands among abandoned lots and urban plight, and is worth just a tenth of its mortgage. The Turner children must gather to decide its fate.

Narrating the family saga are Cha-Cha, who feels the full burden of being both father and brother to his 12 siblings; Troy, a former vet and a disillusioned policeman, wants to illegally short sell the house; and Lelah, the youngest daughter whose gambling addiction has cause her her job, her apartment, maybe even her family, finds it necessary to squat in the Yarrow Street house unbeknownst to her siblings.

"The Turner House brings us a colorful, complicated brood full of love and pride, sacrifice and unlikely inheritances. It's a striking examination of the price we pay for our dreams and futures, and the ways in which our families bring us home."

"Flournoy's writing is precise and sharp..., the novel draws readers to the Turner family almost magnetically. A talent to watch."

The author, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a former librarian, grew up on the west coast but spent time throughout her childhood at her grandparents' home on Detroit's East Side. She will be at the Chelsea District Library on Saturday, April 25th as part of the Midwest Literary Walk. Click here for details and other near-by opportunities to meet the author.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #523

Publicity-shy UK debut author (we really don't know much about him) Mason Cross sets his electrifying thriller (and the first in a projected series) The Killing Season * * in the heartland of the USA.

2 weeks before his scheduled execution, convicted mass-murderer Caleb Wardell (nicknamed 'The Chicago Sniper') escaped in an ambush, during a late-night transfer on a rural road. It appeared that someone knew exactly where and when, and Wardell was not even the target.

Within hours, the FBI calls in Carter Blake to assist in a task force to find Wardell before the ensuing public hysteria once the news of the escape leaks out. Blake, a man with a specialized talents in finding those who don't want to be found, teams up with Elaine Banner, the Bureau's rising star who is privately juggling life as a newly-single mother. Racing against the clock and Bureau politics, they must track Wardell down as he cuts a swathe across America, apparently killing at random, just for the thrill of it, and always a step ahead of them.

"Cross keeps the pace breakneck, the suspense high, and the body count higher. Wardell is a terrific villain: intelligent, disciplined, resourceful, and utterly twisted. Banner is a single parent stretched between her daughter and her career. Blake is an enigma, but readers can trust that Cross will fill in his backstory in future novels."

For Jack Reacher and John Rain fans.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #522 "I think all families are creepy in a way." ~ Diane Arbus

"(W)holly absorbing and emotionally rich", contributing editor of Vanity Fair Lili Anolik (Princeton, MFA Boston University) sets her debut Dark Rooms * * in an exclusive New England prep school.

Edgar Allan Poe once observed that "the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic of the world." Nica Baker is beautiful - a 16 year old homecoming queen, popular, secretive and utterly wild. She has been murdered - a single gunshot wound, found not far from home. The police was quick to close the case when another classmate from Chandler Academy (a private feeder school to the Ivies) committed suicide, leaving a note as confession, apparently unrequited love gone wrong. But Grace, Nica's older sister was not convinced.

Deferring her enrollment to Williams, Grace takes a job on campus and obsessively goes about trying to identify the real killer. As she starts to penetrate the myriad lies and secrets in this insular community, the picture that emerges is far from pretty - especially condemnable are the adults they have come to respect and trust. "However, the story line just scratches the surface of this insightful, complex novel, which is all about angst: broken relationships, class and social issues, the human psyche. "

"Compulsively readable, (it) combines the verbal dexterity of Marisha Pessl's Special Topic in Calamity Physics and the haunting atmospherics and hairpin plot twists of Megan Abbott's Dare Me." Readers who enjoyed Reconstructing Amelia and The Starboard Sea might find much to like here too.

* * = 2 starred reviews

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