Fabulous Fiction Firsts #552 - “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” ~ Martin Buber

Winner of the 2012 Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize, Imperium: a fiction of the South Seas * * by Swiss novelist/screenwriter Christian Kracht is "an outrageous, fantastical, uncategorizable novel of obsession, adventure, and coconuts."

In this fictionalized tale about August Engelhardt (1870-1919), a German citizen who founded a sun-worshipping, coconut-eating cult, who purchased a small island in Dutch New Guinea, where he lived as a nudist. Madness eventually took hold and further isolated him from the few people on the island who cared about him. "Comparable to the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, and Daniel Defoe, albeit with a definite philosophical inclination."

Come Away With Me by Karma Brown. A patch of black ice on Christmas Eve will change Tegan Lawson's life in ways she never could have imagined. Almost consumed by grief (of losing her baby) and anger (at her husband Gabe who was driving) until she is reminded of their Jar of Spontaneity, a collection of their dream destinations and experiences, and thus, begins an adventure of a lifetime and a search for forgiveness.

"A warmly compelling love story, with flashbacks that start with the couple's meeting as freshmen at Northwestern eight years earlier, this becomes a wrenching account of dealing with unbearable loss. Have tissues at hand for Brown's deeply moving debut."

Wishful Thinking by Kamy Wicoff is the answer to every single parent's dream. Jennifer Sharpe is barely able to keep her head above water as she juggles a demanding boss and even more demanding children and their schedules... that is until a brilliant physicist secretly installs a miraculous time-travel app on her phone that allows her to be in more than one place at the same time. Jennifer is almost literally, beside herself with glee, and is hopefully hooked... until the inventor threatens to remove the app from her phone for breaking the rules.

"(A) modern-day fairy tale in which one woman learns to overcome the challenges and appreciate the joys of living life in real time."

In The Canterbury Sisters by Kim Wright, Philadelphia wine critic Che Milan is dumped by her longtime lover on the same day that her mother's ashes arrive on her doorstep, with a note reminding Che of a half-forgotten promise to take her mother to Canterbury. So she joins a group of eight women to walk the sixty miles from London to Canterbury Cathedral. In the best Chaucer tradition, the women swap stories as they walk, each vying to see who can best describe true love.

Through her adventures along the trail, Che finds herself opening up to new possibilities in life and discovers that the miracles of Canterbury can take surprising forms.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #545 - "I have heard the mermaids singing each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me ..." ~ T.S. Eliot

"Dazzling...[a] quirky, raucous, and bewitching family saga", high praise by Sara Gruen for Erika Swyler's debut novel Book of Speculation, and rightly so. I simply couldn't put it down.

After his younger sister Enola runs off to read tarot cards for a traveling carnival, cash-strapped librarian Simon Watson lives alone in the decrepit family home that he watches nervously as it slowly crumbles toward the Long Island Sound. An old bound journal arrives at his doorstep one late June, almost at the same time his sister returns, restless and secretive. Fragile and water damaged, the book is a log from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, who reports strange and magical things, including the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Since then, generations of "mermaids" in Simon's family have drowned, always on July 24, including his mother.

As his friend Alice looks on with alarm, Simon becomes increasingly convinced that Enola will be the next victim of the family curse, and the answer must lie in the book.

"Debut author Swyler creates a melancholy world with hints of magic at the edges... Fans of historical novels, especially titles with circus themes or touched with a hint of the supernatural such as Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, Katharine Dunn's Geek Love, or Katharine Howe's The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, won't want to leave this festival."

The Mermaid's Child by Jo Baker - the acclaimed author of Longbourn brings us the magical story of a young girl in search of her mother...who her father believes just might be a mermaid. Malin Reed, always odd and awkward never quite fits in. When her father dies, she takes to the road in search of her mother. Apprenticed to a series of strange and wonderful characters, Malin embarks on a grueling journey that crosses oceans and continents - she even disguises herself as a boy in order to get a position on a slaving ship. Misadventures, rescues (by an eccentric librarian), icebergs and pirates, Malin's journey eventually comes to a fitting end.

This pungent early novel, only now available in the U.S, (is) "beautifully written and hauntingly strange,...a remarkable piece of storytelling, and an utterly unique work of fantasy..."

The Mermaid's Sister by Carrie Anne Noble, set in a mythical Pennsylvania mountain tells the story of three foundlings taken in by Auntie, a village wise woman. When Clara realizes that her sister Maren, is slowly but surely turning into a mermaid, she and best friend O'Neill set out to take Maren to a new home in the sea. Adventure finds them when a traveling show kidnaps them all, and Clara must overcome her inner doubts about who she really is in order to save them all.

"Like all good fairy tales, this one touches on deeper themes of sibling rivalry, jealousy, insecurity, and questions of identity...Noble's treatment of the mermaid theme is fresh and original, and even her minor characters are beautifully depicted."

Like mermaids? You might also enjoy Mermaid : A twist on the classic tale by Carolyn Turgeon, and The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford.

NPR Books' Summer Of Love

The hottest month of the summer is almost upon us and in honor of their Summer of Love theme this year, NPR Books has just released a list of 100 swoon-worthy romances to keep you occupied during August and beyond. Readers and authors alike voted on their favorite romance novels, and then the votes were tallied and divided into categories to produce the final list, which you can check out here!

I love the diversity of the list: it includes historical, paranormal and LBGT romances, classics such as Pride and Prejudice, and entire series. There's even a YA category! Even readers who don't consider themselves readers of romance novels will be able to find something that catches their eye. Look for any of the books that interest you from the list in our catalog!

Judy Blume's final novel for adults: In the Unlikely Event

Beloved author Judy Blume, who is best known for her wonderful books for teens, including such favorites as Are You There God?, It’s Me, Margaret and Deenie, has written her first book for adults in 17 years. Reviewers have called this newest book—titled In the Unlikely Event—a “slice of life”… Blume’s own life, that is. When she was a teenager, in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, three commercial airliners crashed over a period of a few months in the early 1950s, killing over one hundred people. Her father, a dentist, was called to help identify some of the bodies. Blume has said that she had kept most of her memories of these frightening and scarring events to herself over the years, but felt compelled to share them after hearing writer Rachel Kushner talk about stories her mother told of her own life in the 1950s.

The heroine of In the Unlikely Event, Miri, is plucky and lovable, and Blume does a fascinating job describing life in the Fifties, from fashions and foods of the era, to larger belief systems that were prevalent at the time. Blume has created characters that were more directly affected by the plane crashes than she herself was, and uses them to imagine how their lives unfolded in the aftermath. Blume spent five years working on this novel, and it is as lovely as the rest of her works. She claims too, that it will be her final novel for adults: “Of course I said the same thing after Summer Sisters. I meant it then. But I think I mean it more now," she said. "I feel good about that. I feel elated about that. And at 77 I think that’s O.K.”

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #531

A "propulsive" historical set among the world of early 19th c. female pugilists - The Fair Fight * * by first-time author Anna Freeman has been widely compared to The Crimson Petal and the White. It is a "raucous, intoxicating tale of courage, and self-reinvention..."

Ruth Downs was considered too unattractive to serve the clientele of the "the convent", a Bristol brothel where she was born and raised. She was saved from a life of drudgery by a natural scrappiness, witnessed in a cat-fight by George Dryer who became her patron as a professional pugilist.

Scarred by smallpox, manor-born Charlotte Sinclair, trapped in twisted power games with her scoundrel of a brother who married her off to a mean and neglectful husband, was desperate for an escape.

When the two women met, it was Charlotte who presented Ruth with an extraordinary proposition.

Drawn from historical real-life and fictional (see Author's note) "(g)amblers, drinkers, fighters, hookers; the fancy, the rowdy, the rude—Freeman does a wonderful job of spinning this furious yarn, in which the fury of women plays the lead role. Great characters and wild turns of events make this book a knockout."

The New York Times praised that The Fair Fight "breathes, shouts and swears, confident in its form and bold as brass in its execution." A new voice to watch for fans of Sarah Water's.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #529 - “For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit.” ~ Noam Chomsky

M(iranda) J. Carter's fiction debut - The Strangler Vine * * is longlisted for the 2104 Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) and a finalist for the British Crime Writers' Association John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award.

Calcutta, 1837. Young William Avery was broke, homesick and for months, had waited for a commission in the East India Company's army that might never come through. Then out of the blue, he was assigned a secret mission by the Company's administrator with the promise of a promotion and a return to his beloved home in Devon.

Avery was to join Jeremiah Blake, a former Company agent gone native who turned out to be a genius at languages and disguises. The pair was to search for the missing English poet Xavier Mountstuart who has been sighted at some of the most dangerous places in all of India, overrun by the Thuggees. While wildly popular with the locals as well as audience at home (Avery being an avid fan himself), it was rumored that Mountstuart's next poem would likely lift the lid on Calcutta society, exposing not only the wickedness of the Company Sahibs, their greed and their immodesty, but also that of the princely courts of the "Hindoo and Mussulman" - a personification of the twisted gray trunks called "strangler vines" that squeeze the life out of other trees.

"Meticulously researched and packed with period detail," it will appeal to historical fiction fans who love action, adventure, and intrigue, particularly those of Bernard Cornwell, David Liss, and Iain Pears. Like many, I am waiting impatiently for the promised sequel The Infidel Stain, and to pick up the trail of this unforgettable investigative pair.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Early Warning, sequel to Some Luck, is here!

Early Warning, the second book in Jane Smiley’s trilogy that follows a century in the life of a Midwestern farm family, is now available! The first book in the trilogy, Some Luck, was published in late 2014 and was well-received by critics and readers alike. Beginning in the early 1920s, Some Luck spanned over 30 years, carrying the family into the mid-twentieth century. Early Warning picks up where Some Luck left off, and continues on into the 1980s, following the next generations of the family.

Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer for her book A Thousand Acres, and her talents continue to shine in the Last Hundred Years trilogy. She deftly manages to keep the books going at a quick pace while still detailing intimate moments with various characters, and hitting historically important events in American history. Each chapter covers one year, and it takes awhile to adjust to the necessarily whirlwind pace of the book. With the years slipping past one another at so brisk a speed, Smiley leaves out many events that might be detailed in other books that span less time. But this pace really serves to highlight the events and emotions that Smiley does choose to include, and makes them infinitely more meaningful.

The final installment of the trilogy, The Golden Age, will be published in October 2015. You can read more about the trilogy and Smiley’s thoughts on it in this article.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #527 - Spotlight on Canadian Debuts

These 3 noteoworthy debuts share more than geography. Two are mysteries/police procedurals; two have strong historical significance; and all are inspired by real persons and/or events.

Asylum by Jeannette De Beauvoir is set in Montreal where Martine LeDuc is the director of PR for the mayor's office. Four women are found brutally murdered and shockingly posed on park benches throughout the city. Fearing a threat to tourism, the Mayor tasked Martine to act as liaison with the police department. She is paired with a young detective, Julian Fletcher. Together they dig deep into the city's and the country's past, only to uncover a link between the four women: all were involved with the decades-old Duplessis orphanage scandal. "A complex and heartbreaking mystery."

"Meticulously researched and resounding with the force of myth" The Thunder of Giants by Toronto playwright Joel Fishbane, "blends fact and fiction in a sweeping narrative that spans nearly a hundred years. Against the backdrop of epic events, two extraordinary women become reluctant celebrities in the hopes of surviving a world too small to contain them."

In 1937, at nearly eight feet tall, Andorra Kelsey, known in Detroit as the Giant of Elsa Street, is looking for a way to escape when a Hollywood movie scout offers her the role of Anna Swan (here is the link to the Canadian Anna Swan digital archive), the celebrated Nova Scotia giantess who toured with P.T. Barnum's "Human Marvels" traveling show.

Told in parallel, while Andorra is seen as a disgrace by an embarrassed family, Anna Swan (born 1846) becomes a famed attraction as she falls in love with Gavin Clarke, a veteran of the Civil War. Both women struggle to prove to the world that they are more than the sum of their measurements. "A genial, appealing celebration of two strong, independent women; recommended for fans of historical fiction." Especially for those who enjoyed The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker.

In The Unquiet Dead * * by Ausma Zehanat Khan, Detective Esa Khatta, head of Canada's new Community Policing Section specialized in handling minority-sensitive cases, is called in to investigate the death of wealthy businessman Christopher Drayton, found at the bottom of a bluff near his home in Lake Ontario. As Esa and his partner Detective Rachel Getty dig into the background of Drayton, it is evident that this upstanding Canadian citizen is in truth, a Bosnian war criminal - Lieutenant Colonel Drazen Krstic, with ties to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 where thousands of Muslim men, women and children were slaughtered. As Khattak and Getty interview imams and neighbors and sort out what justice really means, they are forced to navigate the lingering effects of a horrible conflict and their own broken lives.

"In her spellbinding debut, Ausma Zehanat Khan (a former law professor with a specialty in Balkan war crimes) has written a complex and provocative story of loss, redemption, and the cost of justice..." "Readers of international crime fiction will be most drawn to the story, but anyone looking for an intensely memorable mystery should put this book at the top of their list."

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #526

Lady Montfort's (Clementine Elizabeth Talbot) annual summer ball is the highlight of the season, not just for the household but for the county, and all their London friends. With the millions of details to be seen to, her ladyship relies heavily on her capable and resourceful housekeeper Edith Jackson, a handsome woman in her early thirties. The 1912 ball went off without a hitch. Even the weather was perfect to show off the Montfort's new sunken garden. Tragedy strikes in the early hours of the next morning when the gamekeeper finds a body, hanging in a gibbet that turns out to be that of Teddy Mallory, Lord Montford's dishonorable nephew, just expelled from Christ Church, Oxford.

When it was discovered that a new housemaid and one of their London guests also disappeared during the night, Scotland Yard gets involved. After unwittingly witnessed a violent confrontation between her son Harry, Lord Haversham and Teddy in the early evening, Lady Montfort fears that the official police inquiry is pointing towards her son as a potential suspect. Taking matters into her own hands, the countess enlists the help of Mrs. Jackson, to investigate the case.

In Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman "an enchanting debut, author Tessa Arlen (incorporates) exquisite period detail into her well-mannered mystery, offers readers an engaging peek into the lives of upper and lower classes of early 1900s England combined with a little history interspersed." For those who enjoyed English country house mysteries like Gosford Park and Kate Morton's The House at Riverton.

If the elegant estate on the jacket cover brings to mind another establishment depicted in a long-running Masterpiece Theatre TV series, it's intentional. In fact, Tessa Arlen will participate in a panel discussion entitled Downton Malice: British Historical Period Mysteries at the Malice Domestic convention in Bethesda, Maryland, Sunday, May 3, 2015.

Historical mystery fans interested specifically in the Edwardian era may wish to check out the author's Redoubtable Edwardians blog, choke-full of fabulous information and readalikes.

Fairy Tales and Journeys Across the Sea

Set in 19th century Norway, West of the Moon tells the story of 13 year old Astri, who has just been sold to a cruel goat farmer by her greedy aunt. Clever and determined, Astri makes a daring escape to reunite with her sister and find a way to America. Remembering the heroes in fairy tales told by her mother gives Astri the strength to persevere in her journey and uncover family secrets.

Margi Preus was inspired to write the novel after reading a mysterious diary passage written by her great-great grandmother, Linka Preus, who immigrated to America in the 19th century. Fascinating images and information about Linka’s world are included in the Author’s Note.

For other retellings of the fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon, try East or Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow. If you’d like to read the Norwegian fairy tales mentioned in the Preus novel, check out East of the Sun and West of the Moon: old tales from the North.

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