Fabulous Fiction Firsts #417

May 11, 2011, 9 days after the Osama bin Laden raid, Sara, a single mother living quietly in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, is thrown under media spotlight when Jason, her Navy SEAL son, has gone missing in action on a top-secret mission.

In Lea Carpenter's Eleven Days *, "a powerful and lean, astonishing first novel", a series of flashbacks and letters from Jason, we learn about a young and care-free Sara's love affair with Jason's father - an older career diplomat who was killed; Sara's dream for the Ivy-bound Jason with a career on the Hill in his father's footstep.

The events of 9/11 changed all that. Jason enlisted.

Through his letters home, we sense a strong, compassionate leader who is wise beyond his years and modest about his abilities., and it is these extraordinary qualities that made him a perfect match for the most dangerous assignments.

"(W)ith equal measures of intellect and heartbreak... Lea Carpenter, a dazzling new talent with the kind of strong and distinctive voice that comes along all too rarely, has given us a thrilling and unforgettable story."

"A powerful first novel and inside look into the making of a Navy SEAL and a portrait of the strength and courage of both mother and son."

"Among the smartest of the batch of recent American war novels".

For a insider's look at the making of a SEAL, try Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown by Eric Blehm.

* = starred review

2013 Sizzling Summer Reads #2 - Feasting on Fiction

Fabri Prize-winner Eli Brown's Cinnamon and Gunpowder opens in 1819 when the renowned chef Owen Wedgwood is kidnapped by ruthless pirate Mad Hannah Mabbot. He will be spared, she tells him, as long as he puts exquisite food in front of her every Sunday without fail. He works miracles in creating culinary masterpieces with the meager supplies on board the Flying Rose, tantalizing her with the likes of tea-smoked eel and brewed pineapple-banana cider as he watches her pushes her crew past exhaustion in her search for the notorious Brass Fox.

"Brown concocts a clever tale in which history, ethics, action, and romance blend harmoniously." "(S)izzling and swashbuckling".

Susan Rebecca White's A Place at the Table is inspired by the stories of chefs Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, in which she tells the story of 3 troubled souls finding their way and making a place for themselves through the magic of the big city and a love of cooking.

Alice Stone, an African American girl growing up in North Carolina, whose upbringing was marked by racism; Bobby Banks, a gay man from Georgia, is ostracized by his conservative family and friends; and Amelia Brighton, whose privileged life is turned upside down by her husband's infidelity and a mysterious family secret. As the novel unfolds, these three are drawn together at a tiny café in New York City.

"With unforgettable characters, rich detail, and seamless narration,... (it) will long remain in the reader's mind and memory, a gentle reminder of the importance of acceptance in all its forms and the myriad connections that surround us."

Whitney Gaskell's Table for Seven is an entertaining tale of a monthly dinner club. It interweaves the lives of two couples - Fran and Will, Jaime and Mark; Audrey, a young widow; Leland, an elderly neighbor, and the extremely attractive, man-about-town bachelor, Coop.

A series of dramatic crises force the dinner club members to confront their own flaws and work on their lives. "Gaskell has mastered the art of putting the fun in dysfunctional."

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #416 - War Bonds

In I'll be Seeing You *, January 1943, Glory Whitehall, a young expectant mother with a toddler pulls a name out of a pail in a 4-H meeting and impulsively writes to the "Garden Witch" - Rita Vincenzo, the sensible wife of a professor in Iowa with a love of gardening. Worlds apart Glory (New England Society) and Rita, (from immigrant families, constantly struggles to make ends meet), they share however, the powerful bond of being at the home front, watching, waiting and worrying about love ones fighting overseas.

Over the course of 2 years, their correspondence brings comfort and encouragement against the tides of loneliness and anxiety as they share their most intimate secrets, hopes and fears, indiscretions and transgression, and recipes. Connected across the country by the lifeline of the written word, each woman finds her life profoundly altered by the other's unwavering support.

Authors Suzanne Hayes (Glory) and Loretta Nyhan (Rita) never met. They found each other on writers' blogs and collaborated seamlessly to give us a deeply moving novel filled with unforgettable characters and grace, a celebration of the strength of friendship.

Michigan native Jessica Brockmole's epistolary novel Letters from Skye * spans across two continents and two world wars to capture the love stories of two generations.

In the remote Isle of Skye, 24 yr.-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, is astonished to receive a fan letter from an American college student, David Graham. They find sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets easy and natural. Friendship blossoms into love as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers on the Western front.

Alternating with letters between Elspeth and David are ones between Margaret and Paul - the RAF pilot she is in love with, and those with her mother, who on the eves of World War II warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn't understand. (Ah! the savvy reader has an inkling!) Then, after a bomb rocks their home, Margaret's mother disappears. With a single letter found among the debris as clue, Margaret sets out to find her mother, and the truth of what happened to her family long ago.

"Sparkling with charm and full of captivating period detail, Letters from Skye is a testament to the power of love to overcome great adversity".

Jessica Brockmole spent several years living in Scotland. The idea for the novel came on a long drive from the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh.

Readalikes: Elizabeth Berg's Dream When You're Feeling Blue and Sarah Blake's The Postmistress, and Kristina McMorris' Letters from Home.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #415 - What Would You Do in a Do-Over?

In award-winning journalist Stephen Kiernan''s gripping and poignant literary thriller - The Curiosity * * deep in the Arctic circle, Dr. Kate Philo and her exploration team is searching for marine creatures embedded in icebergs that they can reanimate, and discovery the body of a man buried deep in the ice. With great care, Kate is able to successfully reanimate their discovery back in a Boston lab.

Alternating with Kate's narrative is that of Jeremiah Rice. As he begins to regain his memories, the team learns that he was a Massachusetts judge and the last thing he remembers is falling overboard into the Arctic Ocean in 1906.

As "Subject One" of his Lazarus Project, greedy Erastus Carthage, who funded the expedition, sees it as a breakthrough in the lucrative field of cryogenics. While the clock is ticking, Jeremiah's new life is slipping away, and religious extremists are staging public protests, Kate must decide how far she is willing to go to protect the man she has come to love.

"(S)mart, heady, and irresistible", Kiernan gets every element right in this breakneck, entertaining, and thought-provoking tale about time, mortality, the ethics of science, and the meaning of life. The film rights were instantly sold."

Readers interested in the fantastic multiple realities would enjoy the latest from Andrew Sean Greer - The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells * , a rapturously romantic story of a woman who finds herself transported to the other lives she might have lived.

After a series of personal tragedies, Greta Wells undergoes electroshock therapy for severe depression, only to finds herself repeatedly sent to 1918, 1941, and back to the present.

Whisked from the gas-lit streets and horse-drawn carriages of the West Village to a martini-fueled lunch at the Oak Room, in these other worlds, Greta is united with love ones and those who would eventually betray her.

"In this spellbinding novel,...each reality has its own losses, its own rewards; each extracts a different price. Which life will she choose as she wrestles with the unpredictability of love and the consequences of even her most carefully considered choices?"

* = starred review
* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #414 - Spectacular Crimes, Foreign Climes

The Abomination * * is Book 1 of Jonathan Holt's Carnivia Trilogy, a propulsive tale of murder, corruption, and international intrigue set in 2 Venices, the modern physical world and its virtual counterpart.

Captain Kat Tapo must unravel a dark conspiracy linking the CIA and the Catholic Church when the Carabinieri fish a woman's body out of the icy water, dressed in the sacred robes of a Catholic priest - a desecration that is known as the Abomination. When another murder victim is discovered, a connection develops between Kat's case and an investigation being conducted by an American army lieutenant, Holly Boland, who is on the trail of classified documents that could reveal CIA involvement in inciting civil war in the Balkans. Throw in a computer wizard who has created a virtual Venice - Carnivia.com, which has become a repository for every sort of secret— - sexual, political, ­religious, —and you have a multistranded conspiracy thriller with plenty of pop.

"(A) beautifully complicated thriller... (a) brilliant blend of fascinating story lines, serious issues, impeccable research, gripping intrigue, and engaging characters, ... eminently satisfying from start to finish." Did someone mention Dan Brown?

The Square of Revenge * * is the English-language debut of Flemish crime writer Pieter Aspe (translated by Brian Doyle), set in the idyllic medieval city of Bruges.

When the wealthy and powerful Ludovic Degroof's jewelry store is broken into, nothing is stolen, but millions in jewels have been dissolved in aqua regia, an acid so strong it could melt gold. The only clue found is a scrap of paper on which a strange square has been drawn. Inspector Pieter Van In and the new DA Hannelore Martens find themselves unraveling a complex web of enigmatic Latin phrase, generations of sordid family secrets, a priceless collection of art.

"This best-selling European series...(with) its fair share of mayhem and intrigue but with little blood spilled, maintains a fast pace, a light touch, and a joy in the telling." For fans of the noir comedy In Bruges (2008), and Georges Simenon's Maigret series.

Professional translator of English-language fiction into Spanish, Antonio Hill's debut thriller The Summer of Dead Toys is already a bestseller in Spain.

A riveting crime thriller set during a sultry Barcelona summer, Inspector Hector Salgado, recently returned from a forced "holiday" is assigned to investigate the accidental death of a college student in one of the ritzier neighborhoods. As Salgado follows a trail that will lead him deep into the underbelly of Barcelona's high society, he comes face to face with dangerous criminals, long-buried secrets, and, of course, his own past.

"Gripping, sophisticated, and wickedly entertaining". "Reminiscent of Ian Rankin's Inspector John Rebus, or Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole series as crime fiction fans explore the gritty side of another European city."

* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #413 - Girls Rule

Actress Dagmara Dominczyk recently shared in a New York Times interview that "Those who know me know I love to write. Those who know me a little bit know I’m an actress. Those who don’t know me know I’m married to Patrick Wilson.”

In her debut novel The Lullaby of Polish Girls * the narrative follows the friendship of three women from their youthful days in Poland at the height of the Solidarity movement, to their complicated, not-quite-successful adult lives.

Anna and her parents lived among the Brooklyn immigrant community as political refugees. At twelve, she is sent back to Kielce to visit her grandmother, and over subsequent summers, develops intense friendships with two local girls - the ”brash and beautiful Justyna and desperately awkward Kamila. Told in alternate voices, it captures the joys and insecurities of coming-of-age, and the more heartbreaking struggles of hardship, marriage, and identity in womanhood.

Partly set in the Polish enclave of Wyandotte, Michigan, the film rights to this cinematic story has been sold. Let's hope they will film on location. Recommended for fans of Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook, and other modern novels of the expatriate experience in America. For a charming tale of growing up in a Polish American household, try Suzanne Strempek Shea's Hoopi Shoopi Donna.

Anne-Marie Casey, a former script editor and producer of prime-time British television drama delights readers on both sides of the Atlantic with her debut novel No One Could Have Guessed the Weather. (Released as An Englishwoman in New York across the pond).

Forced to give up her posh life and move to a tiny Manhattan apartment when her husband loses his job, Lucy unexpectedly falls in love with her new home and forges close friendships with three women who are also struggling with the disparities between the ambitions of their youth and middle age.

Inspired by her time living in Manhattan, "it's spot-on observant, laugh-out-loud funny, yet laced with kindness through and through."

"(S)ubversively charming". "Each chapter feels like a well-composed short story, and the collected whole is fresh and bright with characters that defy expectations. Clever and witty: the best kind of summer book."

A readalike for Meg Waite Clayton's The Wednesday Sisters, and the latest by Elizabeth Berg - Tapestry of Fortunes.

* = Starred review

2013 Sizzling Summer Reads #1 - Something to go with the heat

In National Book Award finalist Ken Kalfus's intellectual comedy Equilateral *, at the turn of the 20th Century, an obsessed British astronomer undertakes an massive project to build the Equilateral, a triangle in the Egyptian desert to signal to the highly evolved beings alive on Mars. But as work progresses, the local workers, a violent outbreak of malaria complicate matters while he himself is ensnared in a triangle of another sort - between his secretary who does not suffer fools, and Binta, a houseservant he covets but can't communicate with.

"Equilateral is written with a subtle, sly humor, but it's also a model of reserve and historical accuracy; it's about many things, including Empire and colonization and exploration; it's about "the other" and who that other might be. We would like to talk to the stars, and yet we can barely talk to each other."

If you enjoyed Overseas, Beatriz Williams's debut, you would not want to miss A Hundred Summers. 1938, Seaview (RI) where the Manhattan Danes and the Brynes have summered for decades, saw a reunion between former best friends Lily Dane and Budgie Greenwald who is now married to Nick, Lily's former fiance, and the charming Graham Pendleton, a celebrated Yankees pitcher recuperating from an injury.

Under the scorching summer sun, fueled with enough gin and gossips, the unexpected truth of Budgie and Nick's marriage bubbled to the surface just as a cataclysmic hurricane barreled unseen up the Atlantic. Lily and Nick must confront an emotional cyclone of their own, which would change their worlds forever.

Winner of a Costa Novel Award, Maggie O'Farrell bring us a beguiling family drama set during the legendary British heatwave of 1976 in Instructions for a Heatwave.

When Gretta Riordan's husband of 40 year went out for the paper on a sultry July morning and never returned, her three grown children converged on the family home for the first time in years. They each harbored secrets they were desperate to hide, even from those who loved them best, until the crisis at hand brought them together with hard-won, life-changing truths.

"Sophisticated, intelligent, and impossible to put down".

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #412

Big Girl Panties * by Stephanie Evanovich is one of the most anticipated debut this summer. Being released this coming week, it won't surprise me to see it hit every bestseller list and as many sand chairs.

In this contemporary take on My Fair Lady meets The Biggest Loser, recently widowed Holly Brennan, 32, is seriously afraid of flying. Logan Montgomery is seriously hoping she won't sit down on the seat next to him on a flight from Toronto where he has just finished a personal training session with one of his superstar athlete clients.

Well, you guessed it. Holly is mortified having to wedge her sweaty obese self into the coach seat next to this gorgeous Adonis while Logan is surprised to find he is actually charmed by Holly's sharp wit after the initial chagrin. In a moment of uncharacteristic generosity, Logan offers to get her back in shape. Before either of them can stop it, the easy intimacy of their training sessions leads to even more steamy workouts away from the gym. But can a man whose whole life depends on looks commit himself to a woman who doesn't fit his ideal? A "chubby- cherub" who will never see a single-digit dress size? Or would the "ugly duckling" have a few wise tricks up her fluffy boa (wink wink) for the "swan"?

A rollicking, sensuous, feel-good romantic comedy that takes on the issues of body image, eating disorder, self-acceptance and actualization.

"Quality writing, memorable characters, hot sex scenes, and an emotionally satisfying story add up to a marvelous gem".

* = starred review

He is Legend

The world-renowned author and screenwriter, Richard Matheson died last week. He is remembered for having written numerous episodes for the legendary TV series, the Twilight Zone, but also for his science fiction novels , many of which were made into movies, such as I am Legend (made into 3 different movies: the Last Man on Earth; the Omega Man; and, most recently, I am Legend with Will Smith); the Shrinking Man (made into the 1957 classic movie, the Incredible Shrinking Man); Bid Time Return (made into the movie filmed at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Somewhere in Time); and Steel (most recently made into the movie, Real Steel). He has a long list of screenwriting credits to his name including the classic Edgar Allan Poe movie adaptations directed by Roger Corman like the Pit and the Pendulum. For me the most memorable piece he ever wrote was an episode of the Twilight Zone called Nightmare at 20,000 Feet with William Shatner as the airplane passenger who sees a monster tearing apart the plane’s wings as they are in flight. This was also remade in Twilight Zone: the Movie. He was creative all his life, having been first published at eight years old and writing through his 80’s. He was 87 when he died.

Teen Stuff: Winger, by Andrew Smith

In one of my favorite books so far this year, author Andrew Smith introduces us to Ryan Dean West in Winger. Ryan Dean is a 14 year old junior at Pine Mountain boarding school, and he was put in the dormitory for troublemakers, which he isn’t really, but there was that one time, so he’s rooming with others who really do cause trouble. He and his fellow Opportunity Hall dorm-mates are on the rugby team, which is a challenge since he’s considered the runt.

Ryan Dean, self proclaimed “loser,” spends the year playing rugby, fending off his teammates and their antics, trying to survive his roommate Chas’s bullying, falling in love with his best friend Annie who two years his senior, and making friends with a fellow teammate who he learns is gay. The book is a sweet look at the teen boy-brain that is Ryan Dean. He shares his experiences with his friendships, school, rugby, girls, and growing up through his funny illustrations that are strewn throughout the novel.

Winger is a funny-turned-dark coming of age story that is laugh-out-lout funny, honest, raw, moving, and then utterly heartbreaking as tragedy strikes. This book would be a good match for fans of John Green’s style of humorous realistic young adult fiction with strong characters. (Grades 9 and up)

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