Fabulous Fiction Firsts #569

The Drifter * by Nicholas Petrie (a Hopwood Awards winner while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan) introduces to Jack Reacher fans a new cult hero.

Lt. Peter Ash, a highly decorated former Marine (Iraq and Afghanistan), suffers debilitating claustrophobia, a form of PTSD that drives him outdoors, living rough for over a year. Only the death of his former sergeant/best friend Jimmy Johnson could force him to return to the dilapidated Milwaukee neighborhood.

While making repairs on the crumbling porch on the Johnson's house, Peter finds more than he bargained for: the largest, ugliest, meanest dog and a Samsonite suitcase stuffed with cash and explosives. As Peter begins to track down the owner of the suitcase, he finds himself at the center of a conspiracy plot that is far larger, more sinister and deadlier than he could have imagined.

"A powerful, empathetic, and entertaining tale about the plight many combat veterans face when they come home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Top-notch storytelling."

“A tangled tale of intrigue, action, and adventure with a battle-scarred hero who definitely rises to the challenge. The clever plot is firmly conceived and crisp writing makes this a terrific story." ~ Steve Berry.

* = starred review

President Obama and the First Lady share their favorite books of 2015

In a recent interview with People magazine, President Obama and First Lady Michelle shared their favorite books of 2015. The President chose Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, as his favorite book of the year. Spanning twenty-four years, the acclaimed novel is a fascinating portrait of a marriage, told first from the husband’s perspective and, in the second half, from the wife’s perspective. With elements of Greek Tragedy, Fates and Furies throws fitting themes at the reader; betrayal, passion, forgiveness, and vengeance all interweave themselves throughout the story of Lotto and Mathilde’s relationship, from their courtship, into the glamorous early years of their marriage, through their journey into middle age. Groff’s brilliant idea to paint one picture for readers in the first half of the novel, and then upend it in the second half by switching narrators is a deafening reminder that there are two sides to every story. The book is a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award.

First Lady Michelle Obama also chose a portrait of a marriage for her favorite book of the year: Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir The Light of the World, which details the sudden death of her husband and her ensuing feelings, reactions and experiences. Some of her emotions surprise her: she feels an intense gratitude for the years that she and her husband were able to share together and a renewed devotion to her two young sons. She details her quest for meaning, understanding and acceptance of the tragedy that has befallen her in beautiful prose, seamlessly switching from her typical medium of poetry. “This beautifully written book is for anyone who has loved and lost,” reads the jacket. “It’s about being strong when you want to collapse, about being grateful when someone has been stolen from you—it’s discovering the truth in your life’s journey: the good, the bad and the ugly.”

The Obamas also shared their favorite TV shows and songs from 2015. The First Lady’s favorite song of the year was “Uptown Funk.”

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #568

The Improbability of Love * * * is film director and documentarian Hannah Rothschild's debut novel, spinning "a dazzling tale--both irreverent and entertaining--of a many-layered, devious world where, in the end, love triumphs."

The novel opens on a blistering July day when all of London (and the world) turn out at the auction of THE painting - "the first time that a painting has been marketed with a world tour, a biography, an app, its own website, a motion picture and a documentary film", a painting rescued from a junk shop only 6 months before, after languishing behind a rubber plant for 50 years. 300-years ago, an unheralded Antoine Watteau created an homage to his unrequited love, entitled The Improbability of Love. Along the way, it passed through the hands of emperors, popes, and kings before finding its way to Nazi Germany.

Annie McDee, recovering from a long-term relationship, relocates to London and works as a chef for owners of Winkleman Fine Art. On impulse she buys a lovely little painting as a gift for a new and unsuitable boyfriend, and innocently sets off an art-world and geopolitical cataclysm.

"An opulently detailed, suspensefully plotted, shrewdly witty novel of decadence, crimes ordinary and genocidal... the book is at its best when delving into the lives of the many people affected by the Watteau."

"Rothschild packs the narrative with vivid details, especially about art and food (she is a Trustee of the Tate, and in 2015 became the first woman to chair the National Gallery, London). For readers who particularly enjoy the blend of art, mystery and intrigue, as in Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch; Nicole Kruass' The History of Love ; and B.A. Shapiro's The Art Forger.

* * * = 3 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #567

The Boys * * is the first of Toni Sala's books to ever be published in English. The recipient of the 2005 National Literature Prize awarded by the Catalan government, Sala also received the Premis de la Crítica (The Critics Prize for Fiction Catalan) for The Boys in 2014.

In the sleepy Catalonian village of Vidreres, at the foothills of the Pyrenees, two teenage boys, sons of a powerful landowner, were killed in a horrible accident. Overnight, the grief changed the lives of everyone in town, including our four narrators: Iona, a teenage girl who narrowly escapes the same fate by refusing a ride, now she is left to wrestle with survivor's guilt; Ernest, the local banker heads out to the crash site and seeks solace by visiting a hooker; brutish trucker Miqui, no stranger to mayhems, is quietly touched by the deaths; and Nil, an unhinged artist is in pursuit of Iona.

"Long recognized among Catalonia's leading authors, Toni Sala is at his dark, mischievous best, delivering a sinister, fast-moving tale laced with labyrinthine meditations... From Internet hookups and face transplants to tense standoffs, sexual fantasies, and the loss of the ones we hold most dear, Sala offers us a frighteningly contemporary vision of how alone we are in an age of unparalleled connectivity."

Will appeal to fans of Javier Marias, Horacio Castellanos Moya; Michael Ondaatje; and Michel Houellebecq.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #566

The Girl with Ghost Eyes * by M.H. Boroson is "a brilliant tale of magic, monsters, and kung fu in the San Francisco Chinatown of 1898."

Young widow Xian Li-lin is a Maoshan priestess, following in the footstep of her renowned exorcist father. While guarding the temple on her own, a trusted friend of her deceased husband lures her into a trap set for her in the spirit world. It is Li-Lin's special ability to see spirits and travel to their realm, an ability known as having yin or "ghost" eyes that brings great shame to their family, but it might be the only gift she could count on to save her father against the mysterious one-armed man who wants her father dead.

To aid her are her martial arts and a peachwood sword, her burning paper talismans, and a wisecracking spirit in the form of a human eyeball tucked away in her pocket as she navigate the dangerous alleys and backrooms of Chinatown.

"With a rich and inventive historical setting, nonstop martial arts action, authentic Chinese magic, and bizarre monsters from Asian folklore, The Girl with Ghost Eyes is also the poignant story of a young woman searching to find her place beside the long shadow of a demanding father and the stigma of widowhood. In a Chinatown caught between tradition and modernity, one woman may be the key to holding everything together."

Readers might also enjoy Vermilion: the adventures of Lou Merriwether, psychopomp by Molly Tanzer; Under Heaven by Guy Gavriell Kay; and Snake Agent by Liz Williams.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #565 - Spotlight on Debut Mysteries

Winner of the 2013 Colorado Gold Contest for unpublished writers and a runner-up in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, The Secret Life of Anna Blanc * by Jennifer Kincheloe.

1907 Los Angeles. Heiress to a banking fortune Anna Blanc bristles under her domineering father and watchful chaperon. Using an alias, she takes a job as a police matron with the LAPD. An eager reader of crime novels, she could match wits with Sherlock Holmes. So when the city is plagued by a string of brothel murders, which the cops are unwilling to investigate, she takes on the investigation herself.

For fans of Rhys Bowen's Molly Murphy; Kerry Greenwood's Miss Phryne Fisher; and Ashley Weaver's Amory Ames series.

The White Shepherd by Annie Dalton. In this first of the Oxford Dogwalkers' series (and YA author Dalton's first adult thriller), a fragile young woman becomes an unlikely sleuth.

Anna Hopkins is walking Bonnie, her white German Shepherd, through Oxford's picturesque Port Meadow when they stumble upon the battered body of her friend, Naomi, a researcher. Before the police arrives, two women, Tansy and Isadora, appear on the scene and the women team up to support each other and take matters into their own hands when the Police concludes that Naomi was the latest victim of the Oxford Ripper.

Anna's distrust of the Police stems from a childhood trauma when she found her entire family brutally slaughtered, and the killer was never found. One of the first responder on the scene then is now the lead investigator of Naomi's murder.

"An inventive plot, charismatic characters, and even some black humor combine to make this a good choice for suspense junkies... its canine element will delight Susan Conant and Laurien Berenson fans."

* = starred review

Summerlong: a book for any season

I had an unusual experience when I first picked up the new novel Summerlong, by Dean Bakopoulos. When I picked it up and read the inscription, it was dedicated to someone I knew years ago when I attended a tiny college in the middle of Iowa. What! I quickly flipped to the back jacket to read about the author and found out that he is the writer-in-residence at Grinnell College—the little school I went to! The book itself is actually set in Grinnell, during one of Iowa’s classic sweltering summers, and I enjoyed reading about all the places that I remembered from my time there. Even those who haven’t been to Grinnell—which, realistically, is almost everyone else—will enjoy this unique setting for the story. The tensions between the characters and the buildup to climactic scenes are enhanced by the essentially expressionless setting of the story. The heat, the flatness and the lack of activity in Grinnell seem to make the tumult in the characters’ lives all the more dramatic.

The story focuses on four different residents of the town whose lives are intertwined in ways both known and unknown by the quartet. Claire and Don Lowry are a married couple whose marriage and financial status are both on the rocks. The enigmatic “ABC” has moved back to Grinnell to mourn the loss of the love of her life, and finds herself one night stoned in a hammock with the sleeping Don Lowry curled next to her, having just met him a few hours before. Enter, Charlie, who has also recently returned to Grinnell, on the pretense of cleaning out his family home and caring for his ailing father, but really to escape the “artist’s” life he had tried and failed to create for himself in Seattle. On the same night that Don is asleep in the hammock, Claire finds herself skinny-dipping in Charlie’s father’s pool. As the summer progresses, these four characters’ fates become increasingly intertwined, with some delicious twists along the way. Despite the title, Summerlong is a book for any season… and a particularly good read to remind yourself of the heat of summer as the cold winter months creep in.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #564

Gold Fame Citrus * * *, the debut novel by UM Assistant Professor Claire Vaye Watkins is truly worth the wait. (No doubt, my eager anticipation is due in part, to the New York Times book review by Emily St. John Mandel).

Set in the near future, when extreme drought and water shortage laid waste to much of the western states, Los Angeles is not longer the land of gold, fame and citrus. With mass exodus to lusher regions, only a few hardy souls remain. Luz, a 25-year old former model and her boyfriend Ray, whose survival skills are keeping them alive, are holed up in the abandoned mansion of a Hollywood starlet. But when they take in a very strange little girl, they realize that it's time to seek a safer place.

Danger lurks as they head east - sinkholes, patrolling authorities, bandits and the brutal sun. Seeking refuge in a rumored desert commune, Luz comes under the sway of the charismatic leader of an outpost in the desert, threatening the bond of their make-shift family.

"Immensely moving, profoundly disquieting, and mind-blowingly original, Watkins’s novel explores the myths we believe about others and tell about ourselves, the double-edged power of our most cherished relationships, and the shape of hope in a precarious future that may be our own."

Readers might want to check out Claire Vaye Watkins’s multiple-awards winning story collection, Battleborn, among them, the National Book Foundation “5 Under 35”, and the Story Prize.

This debut novel would likely remind readers of Swamplandia! by Karen Russell; Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel; and The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

* * * = 3 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #563

Early reviewers have called (Dublin-born and London-based) Gavin McCrea's Mrs. Engels * * *, "(r)ichly imagined. . . beautifully realized", and "the best kind of historical fiction." Here is a link to Helen Dunmore's review in The Guardian.

"No one understands men better than the women they don't marry..." observed Lizzie Burns, while very little is actually known about Lizzie herself. History remembers her as the illiterate Irishwoman and mill worker who was the longtime lover of Friedrich Engels, but in McCrea's first novel, the unsung Lizzie is finally given a voice - "earthy, affectionate, and street-smart but also sly, unabashedly mercenary, and sometimes-scheming", and utterly unforgettable.

The novel opens in 1870 with Lizzie and Friedrich moving from Manchester to London, to be closer to Karl Marx and his family, coauthor of the The Communist Manifesto. Newly installed in a grand townhouse, we watch as Lizzie learns to run a household (with servants), navigate the complex landscapes of Victorian society, and the peculiarities of the Marxes, treating readers to a backstage look at the domestic lives of the most public 19th-century revolutionaries and their families.

In her more private moments, Lizzie is haunted by her first love, burdened by a sense of duty to right past mistakes, and torn between a desire for independence and practical financial security.

"But the heart of the novel is the beautifully realized romance between Lizzie and Friedrich: a mismatch of values and temperaments, yet also a tender and complex bond."

For readers who enjoy stories of strong women like Nora Webster, Frances Wray in Sarah Waters' The Paying Guests; and those who often lived in the shadow of their significant others - The Paris Wife, The Aviators Wife and Z: a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.

* * * = 3 starred reviews

The final installment in Jane Smiley's Last Hundred Years trilogy is here!

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley has gifted readers with numerous stories of the American heartland over the years. Her most recent endeavor has been the Last Hundred Years trilogy: three volumes following the same family over the course of a century. Beginning with Some Luck and continuing with Early Warning, the series concludes with the recently published Golden Age.

The deftness with which Smiley has managed to tell the stories of the family members is truly amazing. Some Luck begins in 1920 and each chapter represents one year, continuing through 1952. Early Warning picks up in 1953 and continues through the late 1980s, while Golden Age will carry us through 2019. The cast of characters is ever-expanding, but Smiley manages to keep the story coherent and detailed through all of the novels. One would think that it would be difficult to develop characters when the story is moving so quickly and the cast is so large, but Smiley shares the exact right amount of emotions and events so that readers feel truly immersed in the story and in the lives of the family members. The trilogy is more than just the story of a family, however. It's really a portrait of America over the course of the past century: the successes, the failures, the memorable events, the changing landscape, the cultural revolution, the technological invasion. Smiley uses her characters to comment on historical events and to offer unique perspectives and representations.

I'm still on the waitlist for Golden Age, but can't wait to see how the series concludes, and to read Smiley's interpretation of the past few decades, which contain events that I will personally remember. If you haven't read any of this trilogy yet, get started with Some Luck--and get on the hold list for Golden Age!

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