Fabulous Fiction Firsts #424 - The Secrets They Keep

Just released this week is Burial Rites * * *, Australian novelist Hannah Kent's debut, based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman executed in Iceland on January 12, 1830, for the murder of 2 men.

District Commissioner Jon Jonsson was informed that Agnes Magnúsdóttir, while waiting execution, would be sent to live on his isolated farm. Arriving filthy, bruised, and bleeding, the family was at first horrified of this convicted murderer, but soon Agnes was put to work. The visits by a young priest, mysteriously chosen by Agnes to be her spiritual guardian, further complicated the tense arrangement. "Over many chilly months, with Agnes working alongside the farmer's wife and daughters in their fields and close living quarters, her version of events emerges. As her story unfolds, her hosts' fear and loathing turn to empathy and understanding."

Kent's debut novel is her "love letter to Iceland, and rarely has a country's starkness and extreme weather been rendered so exquisitely. The harshness of the landscape and the lifestyle of nineteenth-century Iceland, with its dank turf houses and meager food supply, is as finely detailed as the heartbreak and tragedy of Agnes' life."

"In the company of works by Hilary Mantel, Susan Vreeland, and Rose Tremain, this compulsively readable novel entertains while illuminating a significant but little-known true story."

"A magical exercise in artful literary fiction."

Readers might also enjoy the unsettling coming-of-age story, the latest from John Searles Help for the Haunted * * - an unforgettable story of a most unusual family, their deep secrets, and harrowing tragedy.

On a snowy February night, after receiving a late-night call, 14 yr-old Sylvia Mason and her parents head out to an old church on the outskirts of town. Leaving Sylvia left alone in the car, they disappear one after another through a red door. As her parents' singular occupation being demonologists, Sylvia is not alarmed until the sound of gunshots wakes her. Now, nearly a year later, she is ostracized by her peers, bullied by Rose -her spiteful, rebellious older sister, and being the sole witness on the fateful night - she holds the fate of the murder suspect in her unsure hands.

As the story weaves back and forth through the years leading up to that night and the months following, the ever-inquisitive Sylvie searches for answers and uncovers secrets that have haunted her family for years.

"(A) truly creepy, smart psychological thriller" that manages to capture " the vivid eeriness of Stephen King's works and the quirky tenderness of John Irving's novels."

"A somber, well-paced journey, wrapped in a mystery".

* * * = 3 starred reviews
* * = 2 starred reviews

Man Booker 2013 Shortlist has been announced

The Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary prizes for more than 40 years, has released its shortlist for 2013.

The six authors on the shortlist are notably diverse. Per the requirements of the Man Book Prize, they are all citizens of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. They range in age from 28 (Eleanor Catton to 67 (Jim Crace. Catton, who splits her time between Canada and New Zealand, has written the longest book (The Luminaries -- on order -- is 540 pages). Veteran Irish author, Colm Toibin has produced the shortest -- The Testament of Mary is just 81 pages.

The Luminaries is a mystery set in New Zealand during that country's 1866 Gold Rush.

Toibin's short powerful novel imagines Mary's struggles with faith and grief in her later years, after Jesus' death.

Other contenders are NoViolet Bulawayo whose debut novel, We Need New Names, tracks the life of a 10 year old girl from Zimbabwe who moves in with her aunt in America, swapping abject poverty for shocking excess.

Jim Grace is enjoying his second appearance on the Man Booker shortlist with Harvest, a tale of the unraveling of pastoral calm in a British medieval farming community whose residents battle strangers, witchcraft and each other. His first foray into Man Booker Shortlist territory was in 1998 for Quarantine (1997).

For the complete list of shortlist contenders, check here.

The winner, who will receive the £50,000 prize, will be announced on October 15th.

The Physician

Set in the Middle Ages, The Physician by Noah Gordon, is a sweeping tale of young Rob Cole’s obsession with becoming a doctor. Not a sawbones, or barber-surgeon, nor one of the self-satisfied doctors who are members of the elite English guilds, whose motivation is mainly money and prestige. Rob’s yearning is to learn healing and understand how it happens, how the body works and why.

Orphaned in London and ‘given’ to a barber-surgeon as an apprentice-helper, he learns quite a bit about doctoring, but it only serves to deepen his desire for more knowledge. He discovers inadvertently that the way to achieve his goal is to study in Persia with the noted doctor Ibn Sina, known to the west as, Avicenna. There are obvious and monumental obstacles to making this happen, not the least of which is the fact that Rob is a Christian and is therefore forbidden to study with Muslims, this fact held by both Christian and Muslim law. How he disguises himself as a Jew and makes the long journey to achieve his heart’s desire is a riveting story.

The 11th century is considered to be the peak of the Islamic Golden Age of culture and learning. A flowering of accomplishment in mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, poetry, architecture, science and medicine was happening in the east, when England and western Europe were barely out of the Dark Ages. Avicenna was the most famous scholar and doctor of that era, perhaps of any era. He taught medicine in a university hospital, a concept which did not reach back to England until centuries later. He drew on the classic teachings of Galen and Hippocrates, which had been lost to the west. His students studied philosophy, science, history, language, Islamic teachings and celestial phenomenon. He taught them to question and seek new thresholds of learning, to push beyond the barriers of superstition and religious dogma.

Written in 1986, The Physician never much caught on in this country. It was, however, a huge bestseller in Europe, particularly Spain and Germany. Re-released recently it is making a come-back and it completely deserves to be discovered again. One reason that is bound to happen is the movie, based on the book, which will be released later this year. Starring Ben Kingsley as Avicenna you can watch the trailer here. If you prefer to read books before you watch the spin-off films, get started now.

2013 Sizzling Summer Reads #2 - Feasting on Fiction

Fabri Prize-winner Eli Brown's Cinnamon and Gunpowder opens in 1819 when the renowned chef Owen Wedgwood is kidnapped by ruthless pirate Mad Hannah Mabbot. He will be spared, she tells him, as long as he puts exquisite food in front of her every Sunday without fail. He works miracles in creating culinary masterpieces with the meager supplies on board the Flying Rose, tantalizing her with the likes of tea-smoked eel and brewed pineapple-banana cider as he watches her pushes her crew past exhaustion in her search for the notorious Brass Fox.

"Brown concocts a clever tale in which history, ethics, action, and romance blend harmoniously." "(S)izzling and swashbuckling".

Susan Rebecca White's A Place at the Table is inspired by the stories of chefs Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, in which she tells the story of 3 troubled souls finding their way and making a place for themselves through the magic of the big city and a love of cooking.

Alice Stone, an African American girl growing up in North Carolina, whose upbringing was marked by racism; Bobby Banks, a gay man from Georgia, is ostracized by his conservative family and friends; and Amelia Brighton, whose privileged life is turned upside down by her husband's infidelity and a mysterious family secret. As the novel unfolds, these three are drawn together at a tiny café in New York City.

"With unforgettable characters, rich detail, and seamless narration,... (it) will long remain in the reader's mind and memory, a gentle reminder of the importance of acceptance in all its forms and the myriad connections that surround us."

Whitney Gaskell's Table for Seven is an entertaining tale of a monthly dinner club. It interweaves the lives of two couples - Fran and Will, Jaime and Mark; Audrey, a young widow; Leland, an elderly neighbor, and the extremely attractive, man-about-town bachelor, Coop.

A series of dramatic crises force the dinner club members to confront their own flaws and work on their lives. "Gaskell has mastered the art of putting the fun in dysfunctional."

Author Iain Pears and the Art History Mysteries

Iain Pears is a superlative, British author, whose fiction and mysteries are well worth your time. He has a doctorate in art history from Oxford, has lived in France, Italy and the U.S., and all of his books reveal his cosmopolitan, erudite background and his astounding grasp of history, art and language.

I started with his stand-alone novels, of which there are four, and was hooked from the first. One of these, The Portrait, which is a quirky, stream-of-consciousness, almost-plot-less, monologue about an artist’s relationship with a devastatingly severe critic is unusual and hard to read, but rewardingly saturated with Pears’ extensive knowledge of art and art history. The other three – An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Dream of Scipio and Stone’s Fall – are incomparable historical novels. Intricately plotted, steeped in the history of many different eras, with characters which walk off the page they are so real, at least one of them belongs on one of those “100 Best Novels of All Time” lists which Time and Entertainment Weekly have recently published. In fact, if I could do my own version of such a list, all three of these novels would appear on it.

Then, to my surprise and delight, I discovered that Pears’ first venture into fiction writing was a 7-book mystery series known as the Art History Mysteries. Set mostly in Italy, with sleuth Flavia di Stefano from the Art Fraud Squad and her unwitting partner-sleuth, art historian and dealer, Jonathan Argyll, these strike me as Pears-lite. Shorter and snappier than his other novels, with wry humor and regular romps around Europe, they all feature the theft and/or forgery of great art work and the subsequent murders which inevitably result from such shenanigans (as mystery readers know, murder happens). Though you could read them in any order, if you are compulsive like me, you should start with the first, The Raphael Affair.

Though reading these mysteries cannot compare with actually going to Rome, Florence and Venice – walking spell-bound through their great buildings, museums and plazas; viewing the paintings, sculpture and fountains; sipping wine and eating in little bistros and cafés – it comes as close I am likely to get in the near future. Pears gets the ambience just right, presents you with painless art history lessons and a peek at the politics, economics and dangers of the art world, and creates seven whacking-good stories to boot.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #416 - War Bonds

In I'll be Seeing You *, January 1943, Glory Whitehall, a young expectant mother with a toddler pulls a name out of a pail in a 4-H meeting and impulsively writes to the "Garden Witch" - Rita Vincenzo, the sensible wife of a professor in Iowa with a love of gardening. Worlds apart Glory (New England Society) and Rita, (from immigrant families, constantly struggles to make ends meet), they share however, the powerful bond of being at the home front, watching, waiting and worrying about love ones fighting overseas.

Over the course of 2 years, their correspondence brings comfort and encouragement against the tides of loneliness and anxiety as they share their most intimate secrets, hopes and fears, indiscretions and transgression, and recipes. Connected across the country by the lifeline of the written word, each woman finds her life profoundly altered by the other's unwavering support.

Authors Suzanne Hayes (Glory) and Loretta Nyhan (Rita) never met. They found each other on writers' blogs and collaborated seamlessly to give us a deeply moving novel filled with unforgettable characters and grace, a celebration of the strength of friendship.

Michigan native Jessica Brockmole's epistolary novel Letters from Skye * spans across two continents and two world wars to capture the love stories of two generations.

In the remote Isle of Skye, 24 yr.-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, is astonished to receive a fan letter from an American college student, David Graham. They find sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets easy and natural. Friendship blossoms into love as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers on the Western front.

Alternating with letters between Elspeth and David are ones between Margaret and Paul - the RAF pilot she is in love with, and those with her mother, who on the eves of World War II warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn't understand. (Ah! the savvy reader has an inkling!) Then, after a bomb rocks their home, Margaret's mother disappears. With a single letter found among the debris as clue, Margaret sets out to find her mother, and the truth of what happened to her family long ago.

"Sparkling with charm and full of captivating period detail, Letters from Skye is a testament to the power of love to overcome great adversity".

Jessica Brockmole spent several years living in Scotland. The idea for the novel came on a long drive from the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh.

Readalikes: Elizabeth Berg's Dream When You're Feeling Blue and Sarah Blake's The Postmistress, and Kristina McMorris' Letters from Home.

* = starred review

The Man Booker Prize 2013 longlist has been announced

The Man Booker Prize (formerly Booker Prize), one of the major literary prizes has announced its longlist of novels for 2013.

Among the longlist nominees is NoViolet Bulawayo, one of three first-time novelists. We Need New Names, set in Ms. Bulawayo's home country of Zimbabwe, follows 10-year-old Darling and her friends who make a game of scrambling for food in a desolate shantytown. When given the opportunity to move to Detroit to live with her aunt, Darling struggles to adapt to the shocking differences between her new life and her old.

Pulitzer Prize winner (for The Namesake, 2003), Jhumpa Lahiri, has been nominated for The Lowland. Her tale also involves a protagonist who comes to America. The Mitra brothers are inseparable until Subhash, the elder, leaves Calcutta and moves to America to attend college. His brother, Udayan, stays in India and becomes ever more immersed in the violent Communist uprising of the late 1960s.

In Ruth Ozeki's nominated title, A Tale for the Time Being, the migration works in reverse. Sixteen-year-old Nao was happy enough in her California life before her father moved the family back to Tokyo. Unable to endure the relentless bullying anymore, Nao plans to commit suicide. First, she wants to record the life of her centenarian grandmother. Her writing ends up in a lunchbox which washes ashore in Canada and is discovered by a writer named Ruth.

For a complete list of the longlist nominees, check out this link.

Then watch for these dates: The shortlist will be announced on September 19th. The winners will be names on October 15th.

2013 Sizzling Summer Reads #1 - Something to go with the heat

In National Book Award finalist Ken Kalfus's intellectual comedy Equilateral *, at the turn of the 20th Century, an obsessed British astronomer undertakes an massive project to build the Equilateral, a triangle in the Egyptian desert to signal to the highly evolved beings alive on Mars. But as work progresses, the local workers, a violent outbreak of malaria complicate matters while he himself is ensnared in a triangle of another sort - between his secretary who does not suffer fools, and Binta, a houseservant he covets but can't communicate with.

"Equilateral is written with a subtle, sly humor, but it's also a model of reserve and historical accuracy; it's about many things, including Empire and colonization and exploration; it's about "the other" and who that other might be. We would like to talk to the stars, and yet we can barely talk to each other."

If you enjoyed Overseas, Beatriz Williams's debut, you would not want to miss A Hundred Summers. 1938, Seaview (RI) where the Manhattan Danes and the Brynes have summered for decades, saw a reunion between former best friends Lily Dane and Budgie Greenwald who is now married to Nick, Lily's former fiance, and the charming Graham Pendleton, a celebrated Yankees pitcher recuperating from an injury.

Under the scorching summer sun, fueled with enough gin and gossips, the unexpected truth of Budgie and Nick's marriage bubbled to the surface just as a cataclysmic hurricane barreled unseen up the Atlantic. Lily and Nick must confront an emotional cyclone of their own, which would change their worlds forever.

Winner of a Costa Novel Award, Maggie O'Farrell bring us a beguiling family drama set during the legendary British heatwave of 1976 in Instructions for a Heatwave.

When Gretta Riordan's husband of 40 year went out for the paper on a sultry July morning and never returned, her three grown children converged on the family home for the first time in years. They each harbored secrets they were desperate to hide, even from those who loved them best, until the crisis at hand brought them together with hard-won, life-changing truths.

"Sophisticated, intelligent, and impossible to put down".

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #408

10 years in the making, Hawk Quest * by Robert Lyndon is an epic adventure set in the aftermath of the Norman conquest.

In 1072, the world is at war, hunger and disease are widespread. Sir Walter is held captive by Süleyman, the emir of Anatolia (now Turkey). The ransom: four pure-white gyrfalcons. In medieval England, the price of a gyrfalcon is roughly equivalent to half of the yearly income of a knight, and a monarch's expense to send a ship to Norway to buy a falcon could have bought 250 cows, or 1200 sheep, or paid for 50 peasant workers for a year.

Vallon, a Frankish soldier of fortune with reasons of his own, accepts the seemingly impossible task of capturing four gyrfalcons. The journey takes his motley crew from England to Iceland, Greenland (home of the gyrfalcons), and on to Russia and Anatolia, pitting them against Arctic seas, Viking warlords and other formidable challenges.

"...first-novelist Lyndon never loses control of his material, mixing fascinating descriptions of the inhospitable landscape with full-bodied portrayals of the principal characters (including a bit of romance), all the while ratcheting the tension and sense of danger to ever-higher levels".

"...utterly engrossing", teeming with historically accurate details of medieval warfare and falconry, from an author who is himself a lifelong falconer, a climber and traveler to exotic places. For fans of Bernard Cornwell's Agincourt, Robyn Young's Brethren, and Conn Iggulden's Conqueror Series.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #407

"Take a dollop of Alfred Hitchcock, a dollop of Patricia Highsmith, throw in some Great Gatsby flourishes, and the result is Suzanne Rinde's debut - The Other Typist, a pitch-black comedy about a police stenographer accused of murder in 1920s Manhattan.... A deliciously addictive, cinematically influenced page-turner, both comic and provocative." Now, who could resist that?

1924 Manhattan. Rose Baker, the recorder of confessions and transgressions of all sorts, is a typist in a Lower East Side precinct of the Police Department, and considers herself to be an astute judge of character. Raised by nun and seemingly destined for the solitary life of a boardinghouse, she comes under the spell of glamorous Odalie Lazare, the new girl in the typing pool who represents the epitome of the new era of relaxed mores and life on the fast lane. Soon Rose is drawn into the sparkling underworld of speakeasies, bootleggers, and elegant house parties.

It is at one such house parties that a young man turns up dead after approaching Odalie, and Rose no longer could ignore the mystery that is her friend.

"With hints toward The Great Gatsby, Rindell's novel aspires to re-create Prohibition-era New York City, both its opulence and its squalid underbelly. She captures it quite well, while at the same time spinning a delicate and suspenseful narrative about false friendship, obsession, and life for single women in New York during Prohibition."

A notable addition to the pantheon of unreliable narrators, joining the likes of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Equally sensational and tantalizing, and set in the same era is Ron Hansen's A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, based on a true story of the affair between Ruth Brown Snyder and undergarment salesman Judd Gray, whose plot to kill Ruth's husband triggers an explosive police investigation.

* = starred review

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