Fabulous Fiction Firsts #143

Looking for your Dream House* ? Beware of that small clapboard house on Macon Street, not far from the campus of the University of Michigan (fictitious, of course).

Pushcart Prize winner Valerie Laken's first novel is one stunning cautionary tale. Hoping to rekindle their troubled marriage while renovating a historic house in Ann Arbor, Kate and Stuart Kinzler learn that the house had been the scene of a devastating murder some 20 years earlier while the Prices, a working-class black family, lived there.

When Stuart walks out in the middle of Kate's ambitious remodeling, Kate forms new relationships with two men who have ties to the murder and the house.

"Laken is masterful at character construction as she explores issues of race and class and conveys the wreckage of individual lives and the emotions evoked by a house that is the source of joy and dreams as well as the site of tragedy." You might be interested in Mary Beth Lewis' article in the February issue of the Ann Arbor Observer on Laken's own Ann Arbor "dream house" experience.

On the theme of historic renovation, readers would find much delight in Katie Fforde's charming and witty Restoring Grace, or John Smolens' moody, suspenseful mystery, set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula - Fire Point.

* = Starred Review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #142

Janice Y.K. Lee's debut novel The Piano Teacher* opens in 1952, when naive and newly married (to a minor colonial administrator) Claire Pendleton is hired by the wealthy Chen family as a piano instructor. Seduced by the lavish lifestyle of Hong Kong's expatriate community, she begins an affair with the Chen's English chauffer, Will Truesdale who is deeply marked by a tragic past during the Japanese Occupation.

Shifting back and forth between Clair's story in 1952 and Will's war-torn Hong Kong 10 years prior, the narrative is a lush examination of East-West relations and a rich and intimate look at what happens to people under extraordinary circumstances.

Readers interested in this time period might also want to check out the intensely political, thrillingly erotic, Ailing Zhang's (Eileen Chang) Lust, Caution, a novel on which a hauntingly moving and seductive Ang Lee film is based.

Others interested in the expat. experience might enjoy Oswald Wynd's The Ginger Tree (1977).

* = Starred Reviews

'Rabbit' is dead: John Updike, age 76, succumbs to lung cancer

The Associated Press reports that John Updike, the American novelist, poet and critic, died today, according to a statement released by his publisher. He was the author of more than 60 books, for decades a frequent contributor to the New Yorker, and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Testimony by Anita Shreve

A scandal at Avery Academy, a prestigious New England boarding school, is the basis of the novel, Testimony. Anita Shreve, also the author of the Pilot’s Wife, tells the story of three teenage boys, a 14 year-old girl and a videotape.

In her latest novel, Shreve skillfully illustrates how the actions of a few can impact many. Each chapter is told by a different character, but mainly by Mike, the headmaster of Avery Academy, and those involved with the tape. As the story unfolds, Shreve gives the details as to why the tape was made, but all is not what it seems.

Testimony is a well-written, intriguing novel.

Audio Fabulous Fiction First #141

BBC Audiobooks production of Catherine O'Flynn's "heartbreaking, hilarious, immensely rewarding" debut novel What Was Lost* is not to be missed.

Nominated for the Man Booker Prize, the story begins with 10 year-old Kate Meaney, amateur sleuth/loner, except for the unlikely Adrian, adult son of a local shopkeeper, and Teresa, a girl who sets new standards for naughtiness. Then, one day, Kate disappears.

20 years later, two employees of the Green Oak Shopping Center where Kate doggedly set up surveillance of her bank robber "suspect" begin seeing Kate's ghost on the security camera. All at once, the many lives that were affected by her disappearance converge and collide.

As clever and engaging as Kate Atkinson's Case Histories (2004), and the latest in the Jackson Brodie series, When Will There be Good News? (2008), guaranteeing you many hours of deligthful listening.

*= Starred Review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #140

P.J. Brooke is the pen name of the husband & wife writing team of Philip O'Brien and Jane Brooke. Both active in the Scottish government, they live part of the year in the old Moorish district, the Albayzin in Granada, where Blood Wedding* is set.

First in the Sub Inspector Max Romero series, the story begins with the death of lovely Leila, a Muslim postgraduate student, found near Max's own family estate, and the prime suspect's link to a shadowy terrorist group. The mystery surrounding the death of poet Federico Garcia Lorca during the Spanish Civil War adds depth and complexity to the plot.

Compelling characters, exotic and atmospheric setting, and the smooth weaving of historical and cultural details make this a strong addition to the Euro-crime genre.

Highly recommended as a readalike for Carlos Ruiz Zafón's (author's website) The Shadow of the Wind (2004), set in Barcelona, and the Inspector Alvarez series set in Mallorca.

* = Starred Review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #139

Debut novelist Tiffany Baker's The Little Giant of Aberdeen County* is a MUST!!! on your new year reading list. (I was lucky enough to score a publisher's preview copy).

With the feel of a "New England Gothic folklore", Little Giant is the story of Truly Plaice of rural Aberdeen (New York) - a giantess from birth, orphaned at 12 and sister to beautiful Serena Jane, and an unconventional heroine with a hugh heart to match her size. Haunting the margins of Truly's story is that of Tabitha Dyerson, a rumored witch whose secrets might hold great promise for Truly.

Little Giant has "all the earmarks of a hit — infectious and lovable narrator, a dash of magic, an impressive sweep and a heartrending but not treacly family drama." This brilliant debut is a great readalike for Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House : a romance (1996).

* = Starred Reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #138

Noted historians and university professors of American History Jane Kamensky (Brandeis) and Jill Lepore (Harvard) met as graduate students at Yale and have been friends for 20 years. Blindspot: by a Gentleman in Exile and a Lady in Disguise is their first novel.

Set in 1760s Boston, originally conceived by the two authors as "a playful spoof of two genres: the picaresque, with its rogue hero exposing the hypocrisy around him, and the sentimental epistolary narrative—in this instance, a series of letters from a young 'fallen' woman to a friend," it was meant as a gift to their mentor at Yale, John Demos.

The result (accomplished mostly through email) - is an astonishingly, wildly entertaining, clever, surprising, funny, sexy, historical romance with a strong sense of time and place.

* = Starred Reviews

Traction Man is Here!

Traction Man is a "generic action figure with dazzle-painted battle pants!" It even says so on the box in which he's packaged. He also happens to be the best friend of one young boy who guides his hero through an imaginative series of perilous journeys and daring escapes. That is, until the boy's well-meaning grandmother knits a green yarn jumpsuit for Traction Man, thus sapping the moveable man of his mighty action powers. Can Traction Man and his intrepid sidekick Scrubbing Brush ever regain their status as avengers of nefarious house scum? Check out Mini Grey's picture book Traction Man is Here! and the sequel, Traction Man Meets Turbodog, to find out.

Nobel prize winning playwright Harold Pinter dies

Harold PinterHarold Pinter

Playwright, poet, essayist, actor, political activist, and Nobel prize in literature winner (2005), Harold Pinter passed away on Dec 25, 2008 at age 78 after struggling with esophageal cancer. Before passing he wrote a poem about his diagnosis,

I need to see my tumor dead
A tumor which forgets to die
But plans to murder me instead.

But I remember how to die
Though all my witnesses are dead.
But I remember what they said
Of tumors which would render them
As blind and dumb as they had been
Before the birth of that disease
Which brought the tumor into play.
The black cells will dry up and die
Or sing with joy and have their way.

They breed so quietly night and day,
You never know, they never say.

For further information about the prolific Pinter click here.

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