Fabulous Fiction Firsts #176

Utah Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Gerald Elias capitalizes on his musical background in his "witty and acerbic" debut Devil's Trill*. The title is borrowed from Giuseppe Tartini's famous Violin Sonata in G minor, known in musical circles as the Devil's Trill Sonata, for being extremely difficult and technically demanding.

The Grimsley Competition, held once every 13 years, open to child prodigies 13 and under, culminates at New York's Carnegie Hall with cash, concert appearances, and most coveted of all - for the winner the use of the world's only 3/4 sized Stradivarius, known simply as the Piccolino.

When this prized instrument is stolen, Daniel Jacobus, a former Grimsley contestant, now a blind, bitter recluse who cobbles together a livelihood by teaching, is accused of the theft. Suspicion mounts when the winner's teacher is murdered, who happens to be one of Daniel's old enemies.

This thoroughly engaging mystery, packed with violin and concert lore brings to mind the fabulous film The Red Violin . Fans of mystery with a musical theme should also consider The Rainaldi Quartet by Paul Adam; Voice of the Violin by Andrea Camilleri; and Canone Inverso by Paolo Maurensig. And along the way, enjoy some cinematic armchair traveling...

* = Starred Review

60 Years of Honoring Great American Books

NBANBA

For the first time in its history, the National Book Award for Fiction is open to public vote. To participate, cast your vote for your favorite National Book Award recipient from 1950 to 2008.

Why fiction? You might wonder. Well, for one thing, 74 of the 77 fiction winners are in-print and available, the highest percentage of any category. Here is a complete list of the winners.

Dreaming New Orleans

AudubonAudubon

This week being the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I thought it would be timely to express my love for the city of New Orleans. After vacationing in The Big Easy, I found that my stay ended all too quickly. But until the day when I can become a permanent resident, I keep myself placated by reading all about the city and its rich history. However, there is also an abundance of fictional tales that keep New Orleans as a setting. Sure, one can always read anything by Anne Rice, but how about Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer or John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces? If you’re in the mood for a film, A Streetcar Named Desire or even Easy Rider might be good bets, too.

For some mystery stories that take place not exclusively in New Orleans but in southern Louisiana, you could check out the powerhouse writer James Lee Burke’s thriller series of Dave Robicheaux novels as well as the wildly popular Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris for some vampiric intrigue.

Don't forget to stop by the Downtown Library this Friday at 7:00 PM for a showing of Trouble the Water - the Academy Award nominated documentary about Hurricane Katrina. Information can be found here.

I’ll see you on the porch with beignets and café au lait.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #175

In Zoë Klein's debut novel Drawing in the Dust*, 39 year-old American archeologist Page Brookstone is asked to risk her professional reputation and personal safety when a young Arab couple begs her to excavate beneath their home in Anatot, Israel, claiming that it is haunted by the spirits of two lovers.

When Page discovers the bones of the deeply troubled prophet Jeremiah entwined with that of a mysterious women name Anatiya, she must race against the clock to translate Antalya’s diary found nearby, before enraged religious and secular forces come into play.

Parallel the ancient love story is the contemporary one of Page and Mortichai - an engaged, half-Irish Orthodox Jew, that "raises a Jewish Da Vinci Code to an emotionally rich story of personal and historical discovery".

Zoe Klein, a rabbi, lives and works in Los Angeles. She has written for Harper's Bazaar and Glamour magazines, and appeared as a commentator on the History Channel program Digging for the Turth .

* = starred reviews

August Book to Film, Part 2 (A Fabulous Fiction First)

(Already in theaters - Sorry, I am allowed a vacation, right?) The Time Traveler's Wife is based on Audrey Niffenegger’s phenomenal debut novel. (My goodness, 223 holds!)

A literary sensation and perpetual bestseller since its publication in 2003, Time is a “soaring love story” of Clare (an artist) and Henry - a rather dashing librarian at the famous Newberry Library in Chicago, who is one of the first people diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder. Periodically his genetic clock resets and he finds himself misplaced in time, disappearing spontaneously for experiences alternately harrowing and amusing.

Segments of the novel is set in South Haven, Michigan - Niffenegger’s (interview) birthplace and Chicago, where she now lives.

August also brings us her much anticipated new novel in 6 years - Her Fearful Symmetry - a most captivating story about two sets of twins, a rather determined ghost, and some very interesting happenings around London's Highgate Cemetery, where the novel is largely set. You could expect nothing less than the fabulous storytelling that made The Time Traveler's Wife a must-read. Another all-nighter, seriously. I am sure I won't have to remind you to GET ON THAT WAITING LIST NOW.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #173

Debut novelist Naseem Rakha is an award-winning journalist whose stories have been heard on NPR’s All Things Considered.

"The murder of a child dredges up the most painful emotions. There is no justice in it, no justification, and no way to find solace. Remorse and vengeance become inseparable from the souls of the people left behind. Yet, somehow there are inspirational stories of those who have come to forgiveness....I found this baffling situation as a reporter covering an execution for public radio and then later in interviews with the parents of murder victims". (From author's website).

The Crying Tree is that story, told through the lives of two main characters: Irene Stanley, the mother of slain 15-year-old Steven Joseph Stanley, and Tab Mason, the stoic and determined superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary who is preparing to execute the boy’s murderer.

Powerful and touching, it’s "a story of love and redemption, the unbreakable bonds of family, and the transformative power of forgiveness". For novels on grief and forgiveness, we also recommend Undiscovered Country by Lin Enger and Looking for Normal by teen novelist Betty Monthei.

Icelander by Dustin Long

IcelanderIcelander

The main character in Icelander is known only as Our Heroine. Set in an alternate universe, this postmodern tale starts out with Shirley MacGuffin found murdered the day before the town’s annual celebration of Our Heroine’s mother, the famous sleuth, Emily Bean. Our Heroine has no interest in following in her mother’s footsteps and running around town solving cases, but she gets wrapped up in “the facts” and is thrown into a wild predicament which takes her places she never imagined.

Told from multiple points of view, Icelander is an intense, confusing, absurd, wacky, and magical adventure, akin to The crying of Lot 49, with Nabokovian influences, only laced with Norse mythology. The book is a treat, if you’re up for falling into a rabbit hole. A friend gave me this McSweeney’s book as a gift, and it ended up being quite a delightful surprise. You’ll find yourself either loving or hating this book.

If you still have questions after reading the book, I recommend the following Q&A with the author, and also this author interview.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #172

Bich Minh Nguyen's memoir Stealing Buddha's Dinner was named one of the 2008 Michigan Notable Books and the Chicago Tribune Best Book of 2007. It received the 2008 Kiriyama Prize and the PEN/Jerard Award. It has been selected by the Michigan Humanities Council as the current The Great Michigan Read.

In Nguyen's fiction debut Short Girls, narrators (in alternate chapters) Van and Linny Leong, estranged sisters who have chosen divergent paths since their latch-key days, returned home to celebrate their father’s U.S. citizenship and his reality TV debut to demo the Leong Arm - an invention for short people.

With keen insight, humor and compassion, the author examines what it means to be short – from stature, identity, expectations, ambition, to the distance between us. Beautifully written and expertly told, this is ultimately a universal tale about sisterhood; the cultural and family history that binds us; and the rights to set the standard by which we are measured.

Readers of women's fiction on the theme of sibling relationships might also enjoy The Almost Archer Sisters by Lisa Gabriele, or Julia Alvarez's wonderful portrayal of the immigrant experience in How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. For pure entertainment value - there is nothing more delightful than Jennifer Weiner's In Her Shoes.

* = Starred Reviews.

Wintergirls

“Why don’t you have one of the muffins? I bought oranges yesterday, or you could have toast or frozen waffles.”

Because I can’t let myself want them because I don’t need a muffin (410), I don’t want an orange (75) or toast (87), and waffles (180) make me gag.

Those familiar with young adult author Laurie Halse Anderson know that her novels center around hard-hitting subject matter that is often a little controversial. Her 2001 novel Speak dealt with a teenage girl that eventually becomes mute after a severe trauma and social isolation. In Anderson's newest novel, Wintergirls, high school senior Lia deals with the death of her once best friend Cassie, her feelings of guilt surrounding the death, a dysfunctional home life, and her struggle with anorexia and self-mutilation. The book, written in the voice of Lia, delves deep into her thoughts and feelings which are often quite different from what she chooses to express vocally or what she tells herself to feel (or eat). She is haunted day and night by Cassie, and is swiftly losing her grip on reality. The question is, can Lia recover?

According to author Anderson, she had received many letters from her young readers that were struggling with eating disorders which had prompted her idea for Wintergirls. Highly recommended.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #171

What promises to be a rather formulaic chick lit., mildly entertaining summer escapist read turned out to be a compulsive page-turner - twisty, sexy and magical.

In debut novelist Margot Berwin's Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire, recently divorced Lila Nova impulsively purchased a bird of paradise from the hunky plant guy at a Manhattan green market to spruce up her depressingly lifeless apartment. Soon she was hooked - on David, as well as the lore and lure of tropical plants.

A chance discovery of a rare plant at an odd Laundromat and its enigmatic proprietor Armand took Lila deep into the Yucatan jungle, in search of extreme adventure and the nine mythical plants of desire. Little did Lila know what await her amidst unspeakable beauty and magic, would be treachery and heartbreak, but ultimately, also self-knowledge and redemption.

Hothouse Flower is fresh, fun, and wonderfully captivating - everything you would want for a lazy summer’s eve.

For fans of Sarah Addison Allen's Garden Spells and Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate . Plant enthusiasts and eco travelers would do well to also check out Susan Orlean’s award-winning The Orchid Thief.

* = Starred Review

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