Fabulous Fiction Firsts #425 - "A good neighbor is a very desireable thing" ~ T. Jefferson

Don't pass up Amy Grace Loyd's debut novel The Affairs of Others, a quiet but intense look at the tangled lives in a Brooklyn neighborhood apartment building.

Owner of the building, a young widow still grieving from her husband's death, Celia Cassill picks her tenants for their ability to respect each other's privacy and more importantly, her solitude. Everything changes with the arrival of a summer sublet - Hope, a dazzling woman on the run from a bad marriage. As Hope slips into depression, the carefully constructed walls of Celia's world are tested and the sanctity of her building is shattered. When one of the tenants disappears, all the residents are forced to abandon their separate spaces for a far more intimate one, leading to a surprising conclusion and the promise of genuine joy.

"The Affairs of Othe is a story about the irrepressibility of life and desire, no matter the sorrows or obstacles." "Dark and sensual, with just a touch of suspense, this first novel offers a heartwrenchingly honest story about grief while still allowing for a glimmer of hope."

An executive editor at Byliner Inc. and a former fiction and literary editor at Playboy magazine, Amy is a recipient of both MacDowell and Yaddo fellowships.

A fabulously fun readalike would be Elinor Lipman's The View from Penthouse B where two middle-aged sisters become unexpected roommates in a Manhattan apartment as they recover from widowhood, divorce, and Bernie Madoff. In their reduced circumstances, they resort to take in a boarder - a handsome, gay cupcake-baker who coaches them back into the dating world.

Audio listeners might also give the heartwarming The Wildwater Walking Club a try. Author Clair Cook presents the tale of three women neighbors who share struggles with unfaithful men, rebellious children, and parental expectations while taking long walks near their homes on Wildwater Way (Seattle), a friendship marked by a road trip, a lavender festival, and a clothesline controversy.

Thinking about good neighbors brings to mind the denizens at 28 Barbary Lane, as chronicled by Armistead Maupin in his Tales of the City (1978) where Mary Ann Singleton, newly relocated to San Francisco, soon finds her life entwined with those of her varied neighbors and myriad colorful characters. This title and others to follow in the series were adapted into movies.

Amazon Teen Bestsellers: The Mortal Instruments

Slots 5 through 9 on the current list of Amazon teen bestsellers are books from the The Mortal Instruments series. Not a bad showing for author Cassandra Clare. The popularity of her series may be fueled by the August release of the film The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. The book City of Bones, which sounds exotic and exciting, is described on Amazon: "When fifteen-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder—much less a murder committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and brandishing bizarre weapons. Then the body disappears into thin air. It’s hard to call the police when the murderers are invisible to everyone else and when there is nothing—not even a smear of blood—to show that a boy has died . . ."

Rollout of the 2013 National Book Awards' longlists has begun -- first up, Young People's Literature

The 2013 longlists from the National Book Awards began this morning with the release of ten candidates for the Young People's Literature category.

Kathi Appelt has been nominated for The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. a fanciful tale of two raccoon brothers, who serve as an early warning system for a yeti living in the swamp and a 12 year old boy, who has to help his mother raise a lot of money to keep from being evicted. All parties join forces to hold at bay a developer determined to take over the swamp.

Kate DiCamillo was been tapped for Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures. Illustrated by K.C. Campbell, Flora rescues Ulysses, a squirrel sucked into a powerful vacuum cleaner. Once revived, Ulysses dazzles with his ability to type fantastic poetry.

Meg Rosoff was chosen for Picture Me Gone. Mila, 12, is a mind reader. Her father needs all the help he can get to find his friend, missing in America, so he and Mila leave Londonf or upstate New York, where Mila realizes that all is not as it seems, starting with her father.

For the complete list of longlist titles, look here.

The longlists will continue to roll out this week. Poetry will be announced tomorrow; nonfiction on Wednesday, the 18th, and the fiction longlist titles will be revealed on Thursday, the 19th.

Mark your calendars for Wednesday, October 16th, when the shortlist titles are announced. Then on Wednesday, November 20th, we will learn the winners.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #424 - The Secrets They Keep

Just released this week is Burial Rites * * *, Australian novelist Hannah Kent's debut, based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman executed in Iceland on January 12, 1830, for the murder of 2 men.

District Commissioner Jon Jonsson was informed that Agnes Magnúsdóttir, while waiting execution, would be sent to live on his isolated farm. Arriving filthy, bruised, and bleeding, the family was at first horrified of this convicted murderer, but soon Agnes was put to work. The visits by a young priest, mysteriously chosen by Agnes to be her spiritual guardian, further complicated the tense arrangement. "Over many chilly months, with Agnes working alongside the farmer's wife and daughters in their fields and close living quarters, her version of events emerges. As her story unfolds, her hosts' fear and loathing turn to empathy and understanding."

Kent's debut novel is her "love letter to Iceland, and rarely has a country's starkness and extreme weather been rendered so exquisitely. The harshness of the landscape and the lifestyle of nineteenth-century Iceland, with its dank turf houses and meager food supply, is as finely detailed as the heartbreak and tragedy of Agnes' life."

"In the company of works by Hilary Mantel, Susan Vreeland, and Rose Tremain, this compulsively readable novel entertains while illuminating a significant but little-known true story."

"A magical exercise in artful literary fiction."

Readers might also enjoy the unsettling coming-of-age story, the latest from John Searles Help for the Haunted * * - an unforgettable story of a most unusual family, their deep secrets, and harrowing tragedy.

On a snowy February night, after receiving a late-night call, 14 yr-old Sylvia Mason and her parents head out to an old church on the outskirts of town. Leaving Sylvia left alone in the car, they disappear one after another through a red door. As her parents' singular occupation being demonologists, Sylvia is not alarmed until the sound of gunshots wakes her. Now, nearly a year later, she is ostracized by her peers, bullied by Rose -her spiteful, rebellious older sister, and being the sole witness on the fateful night - she holds the fate of the murder suspect in her unsure hands.

As the story weaves back and forth through the years leading up to that night and the months following, the ever-inquisitive Sylvie searches for answers and uncovers secrets that have haunted her family for years.

"(A) truly creepy, smart psychological thriller" that manages to capture " the vivid eeriness of Stephen King's works and the quirky tenderness of John Irving's novels."

"A somber, well-paced journey, wrapped in a mystery".

* * * = 3 starred reviews
* * = 2 starred reviews

Man Booker 2013 Shortlist has been announced

The Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary prizes for more than 40 years, has released its shortlist for 2013.

The six authors on the shortlist are notably diverse. Per the requirements of the Man Book Prize, they are all citizens of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. They range in age from 28 (Eleanor Catton to 67 (Jim Crace. Catton, who splits her time between Canada and New Zealand, has written the longest book (The Luminaries -- on order -- is 540 pages). Veteran Irish author, Colm Toibin has produced the shortest -- The Testament of Mary is just 81 pages.

The Luminaries is a mystery set in New Zealand during that country's 1866 Gold Rush.

Toibin's short powerful novel imagines Mary's struggles with faith and grief in her later years, after Jesus' death.

Other contenders are NoViolet Bulawayo whose debut novel, We Need New Names, tracks the life of a 10 year old girl from Zimbabwe who moves in with her aunt in America, swapping abject poverty for shocking excess.

Jim Grace is enjoying his second appearance on the Man Booker shortlist with Harvest, a tale of the unraveling of pastoral calm in a British medieval farming community whose residents battle strangers, witchcraft and each other. His first foray into Man Booker Shortlist territory was in 1998 for Quarantine (1997).

For the complete list of shortlist contenders, check here.

The winner, who will receive the £50,000 prize, will be announced on October 15th.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #423 - Paris, any which way you can, but be very afraid

In Sarah Bruni's engaging debut The Night Gwen Stacy Died *, 17-year-old Sheila Gower has plans. She is moving to Paris. Misunderstood at home by her working-class family and a loner at school, she works at a small-town (Iowa) gas station where she conscientiously practices her conversational French aloud. She is attracted to the oddball cab-driver named Peter Parker, who stops in for cigarettes, and is intrigued when Peter begins to regard her as the fictional character's (Spider-Man) first girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. One night, Peter shows up with a gun...

In this "unusual and inventive love story,.. two lost souls hold the key to each other's salvation". "(F)iercely smart and delectably unpredictable...A genuine page-turner." ~ Kathryn Davis.

"Rough with dark psychology, rich with introspection and emotion, this beautifully written book will appeal to fans of Spider-Man comics as well as coming-of-age fiction."

Winner of the prestigious 2013 Crime Writers Association International Dagger Award, Pierre Lemaître's Alex * * (the first in a trilogy and his first novel to be translated into English) which the judges praised as having "(a)n original and absorbing ability to leash incredulity..., is (a) police procedural, a thriller against time, a race between hunted and hunter, and a whydunnit, written from multiple points of view..."

30-year-old Alex Prévost spots a man who clearly has been following her. That night, Alex is grabbed on a Paris street and thrown into a white van. She is savagely beaten, suspended from the ceiling of an abandoned warehouse in a tiny wooden cage filled with rats (an updated version of torture favored at the time of Louis XVI).

Meanwhile, apart from a shaky eyewitness report of the abduction, Police Commandant Camille Verhoeven has nothing to go on: no suspect, no leads, and no family or friends anxious to find a missing loved one. He knows from bitter experience (in a heartbreaking backstory) the urgency of finding the missing woman but as he uncovers the details, Camille is forced to acknowledge that the person he seeks is no ordinary victim, thus setting the investigation off in an equally disturbing direction.

Expect plenty more twists and surprises that will keep you at the edge of your seat and the pages turning. And if you have a strong stomach and nerves of steel, may I also suggest Maegan Beaumont's Carved in Darkness* ? Another FFF, and first in a projected series, set in SF, that boasts "pulse-pounding terror, graphic violence and a loathsome killer". Be very very afraid...

* = starred review
* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #422 - Spotlight on Ann Arbor Authors (with news flash!)

Words failed me in describing Matt Bell's In the House Upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods *. It disturbs my dreams and shows up at unguarded moments. I now see why Keith Taylor recommended it as a "must-read" this summer. (Listen to the podcast and check out the feature in Publishers Weekly).

By turn called "charmingly bizarre and disturbing ", "spare, devastating", "dark, intriguingly odd fable", it tells how a newly-wed couple relocates to a remote and desolate homestead along a lake - to live simply off the land and water, to build a house and raise a family. With each failed pregnancy, they grow more distant - the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world and resent the wife whose beautiful voice could sing physical objects into existence and altering nature's course. As grief divides them, they must also separately grapple with the bear who rules their woods and the squid who dwells in their lake. A story that is "as beautiful as it is ruinous,... A tragedy of fantastic proportions".

"Bell finds whimsy in despair and reality in the absurd in this absorbingly virtuosic near fairy tale about marital struggle and personal reclamation. The result is a novel of catastrophic beauty and staggering originality. "

Formerly of Ann Arbor (a senior editor at Dzanc Books), currently an assistant professor in the English department at Northern Michigan University, Bell will be one of the speakers at this year's Kerrytown BookFest on Sunday, September 8th.

Signing at the BookFest will be local author Shirley G. Coleman, for her debut novel Mersoon Rising which the Michigan Chronicle review called a "sociopolitical space opera", that chronicles the lives and loves of the Jymirr race during an epic battle for the fate of a planet and an entire solar system.

Check out the feature story in the September 4th issue of the Ann Arbor Journal on Ms. Coleman, and Mersoon being the first title published by Plenary's Wild Seed Press imprint, which honors the late Octavia Butler, and is dedicated to publishing black American authors.

Click here for the BookFest event schedule.

* = starred review

Mysterious and Magical Tale from Neil Gaiman

The highly-accomplished writer Neil Gaiman has again thrilled audiences with his newest novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Originally intended as a short story, the work quickly became a full-fledged novel fueled by Gaiman's creation of the Hempstock family. The story begins with a seven-year-old boy who, through grim circumstances, befriends a slightly older girl from down the street. Lettie Hempstock brings the boy hope in a time when everything seems to be changing for the worse. With Lettie, he even has an escape from his new, creepily omniscient, babysitter--or so the youngster thinks.

"The Ocean at the End of the Lane" is a winding tale of magic, mystery, fear, and friendship, where psychological monsters lurk around every corner. The magic in the story is otherworldly but not far-fetched; it embraces the idea that children have a sense of perception that is lacking in adults. Abrupt entrances of spectral beings and conscious shadows seem completely natural in the world that Gaiman has created.

Neil Gaiman has written several award-winning books, including the Sandman series, Coraline, American Gods, and The Graveyard Book.

Introducing a Charming New Youth Heroine

Anna Branford has created a wonderful heroine in seven-year-old Violet Mackerel. This clever little girl is quieter than another popular youth protagonist, Junie B. Jones, but every bit as fun and engaging.

As Violet Mackerel's Brilliant Plot begins, we learn that "Violet Mackerel is quite a small girl, but she has a theory . . . Her theory is that when you are having a very important and brilliant idea, what generally happens is that you find something small and special on the ground." Who can resist this out-of-the-box thinker?

Violet's skills are challenged on a weekly trip to the market with her mother, sister, and brother, where her mother displays knitted wares. Violet is strongly drawn to a blue china bird figurine that she would love to own but doesn't have money to buy. The story that unfolds is gentle, thoughtful, and entirely entertaining.

Branford wrote this book for children in grades 1-3. A good choice for independent readers, It also would work well read aloud. To learn more, check out the author's website.

Performance Network: My Name is Asher Lev

Performance Network in Ann Arbor is showing My Name is Asher Lev through September 8. The play is by Aaron Posner, adapted from the 1972 novel by Chaim Potok. The story is about a boy growing up in the 1950s in a tight Hasidic community. After he discovers he has strong artistic talent, the boy creates "The Brooklyn Crucifictions," and fears he will bring shame on his family and community. Ticket information is here. Performance Network is located at 120 E. Huron St. in downtown Ann Arbor.

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