Fabulous Fiction Firsts #407

"Take a dollop of Alfred Hitchcock, a dollop of Patricia Highsmith, throw in some Great Gatsby flourishes, and the result is Suzanne Rinde's debut - The Other Typist, a pitch-black comedy about a police stenographer accused of murder in 1920s Manhattan.... A deliciously addictive, cinematically influenced page-turner, both comic and provocative." Now, who could resist that?

1924 Manhattan. Rose Baker, the recorder of confessions and transgressions of all sorts, is a typist in a Lower East Side precinct of the Police Department, and considers herself to be an astute judge of character. Raised by nun and seemingly destined for the solitary life of a boardinghouse, she comes under the spell of glamorous Odalie Lazare, the new girl in the typing pool who represents the epitome of the new era of relaxed mores and life on the fast lane. Soon Rose is drawn into the sparkling underworld of speakeasies, bootleggers, and elegant house parties.

It is at one such house parties that a young man turns up dead after approaching Odalie, and Rose no longer could ignore the mystery that is her friend.

"With hints toward The Great Gatsby, Rindell's novel aspires to re-create Prohibition-era New York City, both its opulence and its squalid underbelly. She captures it quite well, while at the same time spinning a delicate and suspenseful narrative about false friendship, obsession, and life for single women in New York during Prohibition."

A notable addition to the pantheon of unreliable narrators, joining the likes of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Equally sensational and tantalizing, and set in the same era is Ron Hansen's A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, based on a true story of the affair between Ruth Brown Snyder and undergarment salesman Judd Gray, whose plot to kill Ruth's husband triggers an explosive police investigation.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #406 - The Revisionist

Having spent 10 years in Muncy, Pennsylvania's death row for women, Noa P. Singleton is resigned to the approaching "X" day - her execution for the first-degree double-murder of Sarah Dixon and her unborn child. She will be the first to acknowledge her guilt which also explains why she slept through the trial and blew off any attempt for appeals on her behalf. What she does not expect is a visit from Marlene Dixon, the high-powered Philadelphia attorney who is also the heartbroken mother of Noa's victim. It appears that Marlene has a change to heart about the death penalty and offers to help Noa petition for clemency.

Elizabeth L. Silver's (JD, Temple University) debut The Execution of Noa P. Singleton * is a "darkly witty, acerbic jigsaw puzzle about legal versus moral culpability". Neither Noa nor Marlene would win any popularity contest. Noa is a smart (she turned down Princeton), complicated and manipulative underachiever, while Marlene is a dominating, judgmental bully with a personal agenda. Long before that fateful day, Noa and Marlene are already inextricably linked through their families and circumstances, and ultimately both play a hand in the tragic outcome.

"This devastating read stands less as a polemic against the death penalty than as a heartbreaking brief for the preciousness of life". Entertainment Weekly gave it an "A-".

Read-alike: Defending Jacob by William Landay, and The Dinner by Herman Koch.

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #405

Named a most anticipated book for Summer 2013 by The Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls* * * * by Anton DiSclafani is a lush, sexy, evocative debut novel of family secrets and girls-school rituals, set in the 1930s, and it does not disappoint (and easily one of the best books I've read this year).

15 year-old Thea Atwell is sent to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, an exclusive equestrienne boarding school for Southern debutantes, high in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The part that she played in the event that shattered her family and her privileged world is never clear though her guilt is palpable. Having been home schooled on the family's Florida citrus plantation, navigating the school's complex social order based on wealth, beauty and friendships is both exhilarating and challenging. Beautiful, observant, and a good rider, Thea soon finds a new sense of power which eventually proves her undoing.

The narrative weaves provocatively between home and school, past and present as the author gradually unfurls the shocking story behind Thea's expulsion from her family and the irreparable damages done. But it is too late for the reader to abandon Thea, for we are so engaged with this young woman who "wanted too much, wanted badly and inappropriately. And back then all that want was a dangerous thing".

"Part scandalous love story, part heartbreaking family drama, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is an immersive, transporting page-turner - a vivid, propulsive novel about sex, love, family, money, class, home, and horses, all set against the ominous threat of the Depression, and the major debut of an important new writer."

"An unusually accomplished and nuanced coming-of-age drama".

Fearless and willful, Thea will bring to mind Briony Tallis in Atonement by Ian McEwan. An Emory grad (MFA Washington University in St. Louis where she now teaches), and a seasoned rider, Anton DiSclafani grew up in Northern Florida. Yonahlossee will appeal to fans of Curtis Sittenfeld and Lauren Groff.

* * * * = starred reviews

An Old-Fashioned Audiobook for Kids

Fans of audiobooks like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess or Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase may want to check out The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson, narrated by Patricia Conelly.

Abandoned by her mother as a baby, Annika grows up as a “kitchen child” in the home of three eccentric professors, and even though she loves her guardians – the professors’ cook Ellie and housemaid Sigrid – she cannot help dreaming of her long-lost mother. When an elegant mother finally does arrive and sweeps her away to a crumbling German castle, Annika’s dream-come-true is plagued by homesickness for her warm Viennese kitchen and troubling hints that all is not right with her newfound family.

Ibbotson herself grew up in early 20th-century Vienna, and her descriptions of life in the city – the aging emperor, performances of the Lipizzaner stallions, rides on the giant ferris wheel – make the world of the story truly come to life. If you love stories of the vivid past, love old-fashioned tales of kind heroines and dastardly villains, then give this audiobook a listen.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #404

Peggy Blair, a Canadian attorney-turn-novelist opens what we anticipate to be a superb series with The Beggar's Opera *, winner of the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize Readers' Choice award.

On Christmas morning Inspector Ricardo Ramirez, head of the Havana Major Crimes Unit was called when fishermen found the body of a young boy last seen begging on the Malecon, and the sore subject of a heated argument between visiting Canadian policeman Mike Ellis and his estranged wife. With his wallet in the pocket of the dead boy, Ellis became the prime suspect. But Ramirez only have 72 hours to prove his case while dealing with a form of dementia, when the ghosts of the victims of his unsolved cases haunt his every step.

"The Beggar's Opera exposes the bureaucracy, corruption, and beauty of Hemingway's Havana".

The Caretaker * * by A.X. Ahmad opens Christmas week on Martha's Vineyard. With most of the summer folks gone, Ranjit Singh, a landscaper is lucky to get work as caretaker for Senator Neal's home, and saves him from crawling back to Boston to work as a grocery clerk. A broken furnace forces him to move his family into the Senator's house until 2 armed men break in, searching for something hidden among the Senator's antiqued doll collection. Forced to flee, Ranjit is pursued and hunted by unknown forces, and becomes drawn into the Senator's shadowy world. As the past and present collide, Ranjit must finally confront the hidden event that destroyed his Army career and forced him to leave India.

"Tightly plotted, action-packed, smart and surprisingly moving, The Caretaker takes us from the desperate world of migrant workers to the elite African-American community of Martha's Vineyard, and a secret high-altitude war between India and Pakistan".

"Beyond the masterfully crafted, high-adrenaline story, readers will be fascinated by Ranjit's strong Sikh faith, rarely seen in American fiction".

"Top-notch effort in the first of a promising trilogy".

* = starred review
* * = starred reviews

It All Turns on Affection

Hawards EndHawards End

When Wendell Berry gave the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Lecture (read it here, listen to it here) in 2012, the title of his lecture was, “It All Turns on Affection”. He explained that he borrowed the title from a passage in the book Howards End, by E. M. Forster, and that the novel, published in England in 1910, has been an inspiration to him. It elaborates all the themes of Berry’s own work over the years. Being a devoted fan of Berry’s work, I knew I had to read Howards End.

Having loved the movie, I had thought of reading it before, but I had a completely irrational fear that an Edwardian novel, and a novel by Forster, would be difficult or boring or chauvinistic, or all three. I could not have been more wrong. It is delightful, enlightened, complex but entirely approachable.

Forster examines England and human relationships through the themes of class; industrial versus land-based economics; the growth of London versus the decline of attachment to rural traditions and family; the new propensity for mobility and displacement of home; and the invasion of technology and materialism into everything, particularly the new practice of happy motoring all around the countryside of England. The Wilcox’s obsession with their houses and “motors”, their business acumen and upper-crust snobbishness, is in stark contrast to the Schlegel sisters’ liberalism, artistic sensibilities, and philanthropy. Still, even they admit that enough money is a necessity to make life tolerable, as it is not for the impoverished and immobile Basts. The interplay between these three positions in society weave throughout the story.

Rising above all the mundane obsessions, standing with quiet dignity, is Howards End, a very old house and farm, bequeathed by the owner, who loves it above all else, to its spiritual, if not familial, heir, who is thwarted from the inheritance, but by a long series of chance (or not) encounters finds her destiny merging with that of the house by the end. I have read that the story is full of allegory, that Howards End represents England itself and who will inherit it. That is as it may be. I just know the story is beautiful, the characters true, the language breath-taking, the denouement satisfying, and, yes, it is a match for Berry’s themes of care and affection for one’s place. The land, well-cared for and loved, is our true home and inheritance.

Father Andrew Greeley, bestselling novelist and Catholic scholar, has died

Father Andrew Greeley, devoted and devout Chicago Catholic priest, author of forward-thinking (read: controversial) scholarly articles on the future and relevancy of the Catholic Church, and bestselling author of mysteries and stand-alone romances that were so steamy, they earned him the label,of a clerical Harold Robbins, has died.

Father Greeley was ahead of his time on a number of social issues that still make headlines today. He believed in the ordination of women. For decades he urged the Catholic Church to relax its stand on birth control and divorce. He never stopped pushing the Church to stop defending and hiding priests guilty of child sex abuse. He did, however, never waver in his support of the Church's opposition to abortion.

It was his bestselling novels and the popular Father Blackie Ryan mystery series (i.e., The Bishop in the West Wing (2002) and The Bishop in the Old Neighborhood (2005) that really put him at odds with the Catholic Church, so much so that Cardinal Bernardin (Chicago) rejected Father Greeley's million dollar pledge from his book royalties.

In 2008, Father Greeley published the last Blackie Ryan mystery -- The Archbishop in Andalusia. That same year his clothing got caught in a taxi's closed door. The resulting head injury ending his writing and speaking career.

Father Greeley, who was 85, died in Chicago at home.

Jack Vance, science fiction writer, has died

Jack Vance, one of the most underappreciated masters of science fiction and fantasy and mystery, died Sunday at his Oakland, CA home.

The award-winning author (he won an Edgar, a Nebula, and a couple of Hugos, among others) got his start writing short fantasy stories for pulp magazines in the 1940s while serving in the merchant marine during WWII. In 1950, he published the first of his Dying Earth stories, which have since been collected in Tales of the Dying Earth (2000).

Vance had a unique, beautiful writing style that was described by fellow science fiction writer, Norman Spinrad as a "...baroque tapestry..." Vance was not much of a Gadget Guy. He found gadgets boring and said that his forte was telling "...a history of the human future."

Two of his closest chums, Frank Herbert and Poul Anderson built a houseboat together which they used on the Sacramento Delta.

Vance was 96 when he died on Sunday.

Author Mia Couto wins the 2013 Camoes Prize for Literature

Mia Couto, born in Mozambique of Portuguese parents, has won the Camoes Prize for Literature for 2013. The Camoes, one of the prestigious international literary awards, is given to writers of the Portuguese language.

Couto, who pens novels, short stories, poetry, attended medical school (he is a professor of ecology), was a key player in Mozambique's struggle to achieve independence which it did on July 25, 1975, in part due to Couto's articles in the newspaper A Tribuna.

His first poems were published at age 14 in a Mozambique newspaper. His first novel Terra Sonnambula was published in 1992; 16 years later it was translated into English (Sleepwalking Land. In 2000, he wrote O Ultimo Voo do Flamingo, which was translated into English, The Last Flight of the Flamingo in 2004.

Couto was the first African writer to receive, in 1998, the Brazilian Academy of Letters.

Couto, who is 57, has a home in Maputo, Mozambique's capital, but spends the majority of his time in the coastline forests pursuing his multiple interests in the legends, myths, and ecological offerings that he loves.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #403

One of the most anticipated book of 2013 is The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards * by Kristopher Jansma. It has been compared to Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists and Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning (2011) A Visit from the Goon Squad with its "elegantly constructed exploration of the stories we tell to find out who we really are".

Can a leopard ever really change his spots? Can a person ever change? These are the timeless questions that Kristopher Jansma asks in this enchanting debut novel about three great friends--two men and one woman--their triumphs and failures in life and love and their globe-spanning adventures : from the jazz clubs of Manhattan to the villages of Sri Lanka, these three remarkably engaging characters grow up and grow old, fall in and out of love, write novels and wed wealthy European aristocrats.

"(I)nventive and witty".

"(I)t will delight readers with its near perfect alchemy of emotional depth and warmth, formal playfulness, and sophisticated but always accessible exploration of what it means to grow up".

"A smart, searching debut about art and identity.".

* = starred review

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