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

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

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