Fabulous Fiction Firsts #243

Michael David Lukas's debut novel The Oracle of Stamboul beautifully evokes life in 19th-century Turkey.

Raised by a doting father after her mother's death at childbirth, Eleonora Cohen is recognized as a prodigy (aka The Oracle) at an early age. Unable to endure her stepmother's iron-fisted discipline, Eleonora stows away on the ship that bears her father to Stamboul (modern day Istanbul) on business. When tragedy strikes, Eleonora's extraordinary genius comes to the attention of Sultan Abdul Amid II who is impressed with her shrewd political evaluations, and seeks her advice that might have changed the course of history.

"The exotic sights and sounds of nineteenth-century Turkey spring vividly to life, ... In addition to conducting a delightfully quirky magical mystery tour via an appealingly quirky heroine, Lukas also paints a bold portrait of an empire precariously poised on the chasm between an old and a new world."

Readers intrigued with historic Istanbul might enjoy Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red (audio), translated from the Turkish by Erdağ Göknar. Set in In sixteenth-century Istanbul, a furor erupts when the sultan hires a group of artists to illuminate a great book. An intellectual mystery that will appeal to fans of Umberto Eco, Iain Pears, and Arturo Perez-Reverte.

Also check out The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin, first in a mystery series, and the Edgar Award Winner for a First Novel. In 1836, Europe is modernizing and the Ottoman Empire must follow suit. But just before the sultan announces sweeping changes, a wave of murders threatens the fragile balance of power in his court.

Katie Hickman's The Aviary Gate is a "lush, ancient tale of treacherous secrets, forbidden love, and murder in an Ottoman palace where a British sea captain’s daughter is held captive in the sultan’s harem in 16th-century Constantinople.

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #242

Benjamin Hale's "mischievous debut" The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore * is a love story between the world's first speaking chimpanzee and a primatologist. Just bear with me here, alright?

Born and raised in captivity (no less, at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, famous for its primate house), Bruno is unlike any chimpanzee in the world - precocious, self-conscious and very gifted, and he speaks. Primatologist Dr. Lydia Littlemore takes him into her home to oversee his education and nurture his passion for painting but has a rough time with his more primal urges and outbursts which ultimately cost her her job, and send the unlikely pair on the road.

"Like its protagonist, this novel is big, loud, abrasive, witty, perverse, earnest and amazingly accomplished.... it goes beyond satire by showing us not what it means, but what it feels like to be human -- to love and lose, learn, aspire, grasp, and, in the end, to fail."

Caution!!!!!! Exuberantly detailed sex between species might offend some readers. Proceed at your own risk.

Benjamin Hale is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he received a Provost's Fellowship to complete this novel, which also went on to win a Michener-Copernicus Award.

Readers who enjoyed Sara Gruen's Ape House and Laurence Gonzales' Lucy (blog) will find this a delight.

* = Starred review

Author Birthdays: Ford, Banks, Ellis

February 16th marks the birthday of authors Richard Ford, Iain Banks, and Warren Ellis.

Richard Ford is an American writer. He won the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner Award for the sequel Independence Day, which is the second in a trilogy of books featuring the character Frank Bascombe, also seen in The Sportswriter and The Lay of the Land.

Ford's first novel was A Piece of My Heart, a "story of two godless pilgrims" which turns violent. His first collection of short stories, Rock Springs, is described by Booklist as having "characters so put upon by life that resorting to desperate acts even murder is totally within the realm of possibility".

Iain Banks is a Scottish author. If you see a book written by Iain M. Banks, that's also him, but specifically in the sci-fi genre. He was named one of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945" by the New York Times.

Banks's newest novel is one of those M. sci-fi ones, called Surface Detail. Part of the "Culture novels", it continues the line of stories of the Culture, an interstellar society that is both socialist and utopian. If you're not interested in sci-fi, his 2009 Transition, a historical fiction novel (perhaps erroneously published under the name Iain M. Banks), might be more your style.

Warren Ellis is an English writer of mostly graphic novels, though his Crooked Little Vein is a mystery (non-graphic) novel. One of his works, Red, you may recognize, since it was recently made into a film starring Bruce Willis.

Among Ellis's other many graphic novels is the series Fell, which is extremely interesting in its layout. Ellis created the graphic novel so that it would be cheap to buy--$1.99, actually--by using more panels per page to create less pages.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #241

If you let a snarky remark like "Readable, upmarket, non-mold-breaking escapism" to keep you away from Eleanor Brown's,The Weird Sisters then it really is a shame.

I am thick in the middle of it and can't put it down but I can't wait until I'm done to blog it either. So here it is, the blurb from the publisher...

"The Andreas family is one of readers. Their father, a renowned Shakespeare professor who speaks almost entirely in verse, has named his three daughters after famous Shakespearean women. When the sisters return to their childhood home, ostensibly to care for their ailing mother, but really to lick their wounds and bury their secrets, they are horrified to find the others there. See, we love each other. We just don't happen to like each other very much. But the sisters soon discover that everything they've been running from-one another, their small hometown, and themselves-might offer more than they ever expected."

So far, I have to agree with one of the reviewers, "There are no false steps in this debut novel: the humor, lyricism, and realism characterizing... will appeal to fans of good modern fiction as well as stories of family and of the Midwest." Oh, BTW, Weird is set in Buckeye territory but we won't hold that against it.

Listen to the NPR review and author interview. And don't be surprised with the buzz around this book big time in the weeks to come.

In the meantime while you are waiting for your copy, read Short Girls - homegrown and Maize-and-Blue all the way.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #240

Mr. Chartwell : a novel * is a tragicomic fantasy set in July 1964 when an elderly and retired Winston Churchill summoned Esther Hammerhans, a library clerk at the House of Parliament, to Chartwell, his home in Kent to act as his temporary secretary. Tagging along is Mr. Chartwell, aka Black Pat, "a colossal hound, odoriferous, walking, talking physical mess of an animal, who inexplicably exudes a most charming, seductive manner".

It is not a secret that Churchill struggled with depression - his bête noire as he called it, the "black dog" that accompanied him throughout his life. When widowed Esther decides to rent a room in her London flat to Mr. Chartwell, she has no idea what she's allowing into her solitary life.

One reviewer pleads that we: "Please, willingly suspend disbelief and allow debut author Rebecca Hunt's vivid imagination to take you on this exuberant funhouse ride through a week in the lives of Esther, Winston, two matchmakers, the easygoing love interest, and the buttoned-up library director at the House of Commons".

"Rococo both in its imagination and phrasing", it cleverly combines historical detail, a marvelously subtle sense of humor,and a quirky assortment of characters.

A witty, intelligent curiosity of a novel, longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.

* = Starred reviews

Author Birthdays: Bernhard, Coetzee, Walker

February 9th marks the birthday of authors Thomas Bernhard, J. M. Coetzee, and Alice Walker.

Thomas Bernhard was an Austrian writer of novels and plays. While we have many of his works in English, according to the man himself, they can't be the same as his original, German novels. Bernhard believed that "translation is impossible".

Among Bernhard's books are Wittgenstein's Nephew, which has been called "a vehicle for Bernhard's captivating prose, his bitter pessimism and anger and his clever, if sarcastic wit"; The Voice Imitator, a collection of 104 short stories; and The Loser, a story of three piano virtuosos, written in first-person monologues.

J. M. Coetzee is a South African-American-Australian writer, and winner of the Booker Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature, among other awards. His novels Life & Times of Michael K and Disgrace are among the books that have won.

Coetzee, a vegetarian, writes about subject like animal cruelty and welfare, in novels like Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello. He has also written a few "fictionalized" autobiographies, including Youth, which focuses on the few years he spent in London after fleeing South Africa.

Alice Walker is an American writer of novels and poetry, and is widely known for her work The Color Purple, which won the Pulitzer Prize and has been made into a film and Broadway musical. She was also the first African-American woman to win the National Book Award, also for The Color Purple.

Walker has also written Possessing The Secret Of Joy, which Booklist says depicts female circumcision "as mutilation of not only the body but the psyche", the multi-historical fiction novel The Temple Of My Familiar, and perhaps the poetry collection with one of the greatest titles I've ever seen, Hard Times Require Furious Dancing.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #239

Sara J. Henry's Learning to Swim : a novel (coming out this month) is the first in a projected mystery series.

Freelance writer Troy Chance rescues a child tossed off the back of a passing ferry onto frigid Lake Champlain. Gradually teasing out his story, made difficult by the fact that he only speaks French, Troy comes to understand that the boy, Paul had been kidnapped, held for months. When Troy tracks down Paul's father, successful businessman Philippe Dumond and returns Paul to Ottawa, she soon senses that Paul might still be in danger and in fact, is at the center of a bizarre and violent plot.

"A compelling plot, a pervading sense of foreboding, well-constructed characters..., Henry proves herself to be a smooth and compelling storyteller. And her lead is highly appealing: an athletic, fiercely independent young woman".

A readalike for crime-fiction authors Chevy Stevens, Norman Green and Gillian Flynn whose feisty female protagonists are also capable of making delightfully acerbic observations.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #238

Deborah Harkness, a professor of history at the University of Southern California, a Fullbright, Guggenheim, and National Humanities Center scholar/author (The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution) surprised everyone in her circle, including herself when she secretly started writing A Discovery of Witches,* a novel about a centuries-old vampire, a spellbound witch, and the mysterious manuscript that draws them together.

While researching in the stacks of Oxford's Bodleian Library, young Yale scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery but her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and soon a horde of demons, witches, and vampires descends upon the library and she is the only one who can break its spell. Once "neckbiter"-good-kisser, and renowned geneticist Matthew Clairmont enters the scene, well, you can guess what comes next in this literary and sophisticated "bodice-ripper".

Called by reviewers as "one of the better fantasy debuts" in recent memory, it will appeal to fans of Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation series, as well as fantastic romances such as Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. There are also the faint whispers about Harry Potter and the Twilight saga. Well, I'll let you be the judge.

* = Starred review

Author Birthdays: Grey, Oe, Morrison

January 31st marks the birthday of authors Zane Grey, Kenzaburo Oe, and Grant Morrison.

Zane Grey was an American author who wrote primarily westerns; his most famous was probably Riders of the Purple Sage. Many of his books were turned into movies, including Fighting Caravans (starring Gary Cooper) and The Thundering Herd (with Harry Carey).

Grey's westerns also include Betty Zane, which was inspired by his great-great-grandmother of the same name and was his first novel, and The Great Trek: A Frontier Story, which was inspired by Grey's deep-sea fishing trip to Australia in 1935.

Kenzaburo Oe is a Japanese writer and Noble Prize winner. His first novel was Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, which Booklist called a "bleaker and more pessimistic" Lord of the Flies.

Oe's books are almost all influential. A Personal Matter is a semi-autobiographical story that touches on the subject of his son's brain hernia; also semi-autobiographical is The Changeling, which includes a fictionalization of the suicide of Oe's brother-in-law.

Grant Morrison is a Scottish comic writer and adult graphic novelist. He has done quite a few issues of Batman and Robin graphic novels, as well as many other superhero works with DC Comics.

Morrison's other works include the graphic novel series WE3, which is about three household pets turned deadly cyborgs, and Sebastian O, the steampunk story of an alternate Victorian London and the assassin Sebastian.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts # 237

Readers familiar with "Ava Wrestles the Alligators", the opening story in Karen Russell's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006) will be pleased to find Ava front and center in Swamplandia!* * *, - her "spectacularly crafted" first novel due to hit the market next week.

Swamplandia! is a shabby tourist attraction deep in the Florida Everglades, owned by the Bigtree clan of alligator wrestlers. When Hilola, their star performer, dies, Swamplandia! and all its quirky inhabitants are unmoored.

Some take off for parts unknown, one falls in love with an ancient ghost. To set things right, 13 year-old Ava embarks on an odyssey to the Underworld that is at once spellbinding and terrifying.

"Ravishing, elegiac, funny, and brilliantly inquisitive, Russell's archetypal swamp saga tells a mystical yet rooted tale of three innocents who come of age through trials of water, fire, and air."

"Quirky, outlandish fiction", a phantasmagorical tale of teens left on their own. "To say it's offbeat is to seriously underestimate its weirdness." ~Kirkus Reviews

Selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists, and the New Yorker's 20 under 40, Karen Russell is an irrepressible new voice in contemporary fiction. You don't want to miss this.

* * * = Starred reviews

Syndicate content