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

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #236

Kathleen Winter's debut novel Annabel, a finalist for Canada's Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General's Award for Fiction and the Rogers Writers' Trust Award is a luminous and deeply affection portrait of growing up with a secret few would understand, which one family is desperate to hide.

In 1968, into the devastating, spare atmosphere of the remote coastal town of Labrador, Canada, an intersex child is born. Three people hold fast to the secret - the baby's parents, and a trusted midwife/friend, Thomasina. While the father makes the difficult decision to raise the child as a boy named Wayne, the mother continues to quietly nurture the boy’s female side. And as Wayne grows into adulthood within the hyper-masculine hunting society of his father, his shadow-self, a girl he thinks of as “Annabel,” is never entirely extinguished and only comes to light after a medical emergency.

"Kathleen Winter has crafted a literary gem about the urge to unveil mysterious truth in a culture that shuns contradiction, and the body’s insistence on coming home. A daringly unusual debut full of unforgettable beauty...".

Since Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (2002), I cannot think of another novel that treats the subject of androgyne with such insight, sensitivity and humanity. Fearless, moving, and absolutely compelling.

Author Birthdays: Hoffmann, Wharton

January 24th marks the birthday of authors E. T. A. Hoffmann and Edith Wharton.

E. T. A. Hoffmann was a German writer of fantasy and horror. His most popular and well-known work is probably The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, which has been translated, reworked, and made into movies and ballets.

Hoffmann wrote many novellas. Among them are "Mademoiselle de Scudery", which is a tale of crime that takes place in 17th-century Paris, and "The Sandman", which is a horror story about the folklore character of the same name. Both can be found in the Penguin Classics collection of Hoffmann's stories.

Edith Wharton was an American writer and Pulitzer Prize winner (for The Age of Innocence). She wrote novels, short stories, poetry, and even some non-fiction travel and descriptive books, and was the friend of fellow author Henry James. Some of her works have been made into movies.

Many of Wharton's works are set in turn-of-the-century New England. Among these are The House of Mirth, which is the story of a woman who is caught up in shallow New York society life, Ethan Frome, which illustrates the unhappy marriage of a rural Massachusetts couple, and The Custom of the Country, which tells the satiric story of a spoiled New York heiress.

Guys Read

Need help finding books for male reluctant readers? Try the Guys Read website! The brainchild of beloved children's writer Jon Scieszka, author of The Stinky Cheese Man And Other Fairly Stupid Tales and the Time Warp Trio series, the website includes a list of books proven to catch the interest of boys. Also part of this innovative literacy program are a series of anthologies edited by Scieszka himself, including Guys Write For Guys Read and Guys Read: Funny Business.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #235

4 years after her memoir Kabul Beauty School : an American woman goes behind the veil made a considerable buzz in the publishing world with this "remarkable tale of an extraordinary community of women who come together and learn the arts of perms, friendship, and freedom", Deborah Rodriguez is trying her hand at fiction with A Cup of Friendship.

Running a Kabul coffee shop that is patronized by ex-pats and locals, thirtysomething-American Sunny reaches out to a growing circle of new friends including a pregnant rape victim, a wealthy woman who would help others, a journalist with a painful secret and a den mother who is engaged in a complicated affair.

"Rodriguez has a deft hand for detail and the accelerated emotion of the expat existence in war-torn Afghanistan", and will certainly appeal to those with an interest in current events in the Middle East.

For an intimate look at the lives and struggles of women in the insular (to Westerners) Islamic world, readers might try Rajaa Alsanea's Girls of Riyadh (also available as audiobook).

For cross-cultural tales and the experiences of Middle Eastern ex-pats in America (which mirror those depicted in Cup), I loved The Rug Merchant by Meg Mullins and Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #234

If you did not read Lisa Genova's debut novel Still Alice, a moving and vivid depiction of an accomplished woman who slowly loses her thoughts and memories to Alzheimer's, only to discover that each day brings a new way of living and loving, then there is one more reason for you to pick up her new novel Left Neglected.

Once again, bringing her expertise in neuroscience (Ph.D. Harvard) Genova introduces Sarah Nickerson who suffers from a little-known neurological syndrome called left neglect that leaves her unable to feel or see anything on her left side, due to injuries sustained in a car accident. As she struggles to recover physically, Sarah also learns to cope with aspects of her life "left neglected" owing to a high-powered job and her busy lifestyle, among them - her relationship with her mother, her young family, and her own happiness.

With a likable character committed to change and growth, a story of hope and strength, and sensitive treatment of a unique medical condition Left Neglected will appeal to Women's Fiction readers.

Readers interested in neuroscience should also try A Beautiful Mind : a biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr., which depicts the "mystery of the human mind, triumph over incredible adversity, and the healing power of love". (See the film adaptation, starring Russell Crowe)

Author Birthdays: Hecht, Sontag, Nabb

January 16th marks the birthday of authors Anthony Hecht, Susan Sontag, and Magdalen Nabb.

Anthony Hecht was an American poet. An award was established in his name the year after his death. He became a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1968 for his work The Hard Hours, as well as the 2004 National Medal of Arts winner, which was given posthumously.

Hecht's other collections include The Darkness and the Light, which uses translations of ancient, medieval, and modern poets, and The Transparent Man, which Library Journal said "delivers elegies, lyrics, and dramatic monologs with equal grace and wit".

Susan Sontag was an American novelist, screenwriter, director, playwright, essayist, and activist. Among her awards are the National Book Award for In America and the National Book Critics Circle Award for On Photography.

Sontag's other works include the dramatic play Alice in Bed, the novel I, Etcetera, a collection of essays called AIDS and Its Metaphors, and the comedic film Zelig.

Magdalen Nabb was an English author of both adult and children's fiction. Her most popular works may be those of the Guarnaccia series, which center around the character Marshal Guarnaccia. The books of the series are set in Tuscany and usually center around crimes.

Nabb's children's books include The Enchanted Horse, whose royalties, as her website says, "go to the Brooke Hospital for Animals"; and the Josie Smith series.

2011 Best in Genre Fiction - American Library Association Reading List Council Awards

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The Reading List annually recognizes the best books in eight genres: adrenaline (including suspense, thriller and adventure), fantasy, historical fiction, horror, mystery, romance, science fiction and women’s fiction. This year’s list includes novels that will please die-hard fans, as well as introduce new readers to the pleasures of genre fiction - and what pleases me most is to see many debut novels among the winners and on the shortlists.

Adrenaline
The Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer

Fantasy
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

Historical Fiction
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

Horror
The Dead Path by Stephen M. Irwin

Mystery
Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

Romance
A Matter of Class by Mary Balogh

Science Fiction
The Dervish House by IIan McDonald

Women’s Fiction
Solomon’s Oak by Jo-Ann Mapson

Author Birthdays: Krantz, Friel, Smith

January 9th marks the birthday of authors Judith Krantz, Brian Friel, and Wilbur A. Smith.

Judith Krantz is an American writer of romance novels. Her first novel, Scruples, was published in 1978. It was made into a TV mini-series in 1980, and then Krantz wrote its sequel, Scruples Two, in 1992.

Krantz also wrote The Mistral's Daughter, which, like Scruples, turned mini-series. In total, seven of her novels were made for TV. Her latest novel, from 1998, is The Jewels of Tessa Kent, was described by Publisher's Weekly as "a romance of motherhood in all its full if tarnished glory".

Brian Friel is an Irish writer, mostly known for his plays. His play Dancing at Lughnasa won the Tony for Best Play in 1992; it tells the story of five sisters living in poverty in Ireland. It was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep in 1998.

Friel also wrote the drama Molly Sweeney, which in two acts tells the story of a woman blind since birth who undergoes surgery to try to restore her sight. The play is told in only monologues, and was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play.

Wilbur A. Smith is a novelist, born in Northern Rhodesia, and now living in London. He has written three series, and many standalone novels, including Elephant Song, which Publisher's Weekly has called "a fast-paced melodrama of greed and political corruption".

Smith's latest work is Assegai, a part of both his Courtney and Ballantyne series; it is set in pre-WWI Kenya, and is his 32nd novel set in Africa. He also has a book coming out next year, Those in Peril, which you can read about on his website.

Author Birthdays: Franklin, Asimov, Michaels

January 2nd marks the birthday of authors John Hope Franklin, Isaac Asimov, and Leonard Michaels.

John Hope Franklin was an American historian who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His best known work is From Slavery to Freedom, which is often regarded as the definitive history of African-Americans, outlines African origins, slavery, and the fight for freedom.

Franklin's other works include Runaway Slaves: Rebels On The Plantation, a book about the resistance and escape of African-American slaves, and an autobiography which Library Journal described as "worth knowing and understanding because at its heart it is a particularly American story about the challenges of being black in this country, about personal triumphs, and about his feeling of urgency regarding the promises America has yet to realize."

Isaac Asimov is best known as a Russian-American science-fiction writer. Among his books, he is probably most widely recognized for his series, especially the Foundation series, which actually includes dozens of stories, one of them being the basis for the film I, Robot.

Asimov's many, many--and I mean many--other works include the two award-winners The Gods Themselves and The Bicentennial Man. There is also Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, which first came out in 1977, named for Asimov because of his huge standing in the science-fiction genre.

Leonard Michaels was an American writer of short stories, novels, and essays, who graduated with his Master's and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. One of his novels, Sylvia, is based upon his first wife, who committed suicide.

Michaels also wrote some autobiographical fiction collected in the book Shuffle. Publishers Weekly discusses it as "Created in fragments of journal entries, short stories and memoir-like confessions, a matrix of past and present formations is slowly brought into focus; thus, a life."

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