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

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #405

Named a most anticipated book for Summer 2013 by The Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls* * * * by Anton DiSclafani is a lush, sexy, evocative debut novel of family secrets and girls-school rituals, set in the 1930s, and it does not disappoint (and easily one of the best books I've read this year).

15 year-old Thea Atwell is sent to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, an exclusive equestrienne boarding school for Southern debutantes, high in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The part that she played in the event that shattered her family and her privileged world is never clear though her guilt is palpable. Having been home schooled on the family's Florida citrus plantation, navigating the school's complex social order based on wealth, beauty and friendships is both exhilarating and challenging. Beautiful, observant, and a good rider, Thea soon finds a new sense of power which eventually proves her undoing.

The narrative weaves provocatively between home and school, past and present as the author gradually unfurls the shocking story behind Thea's expulsion from her family and the irreparable damages done. But it is too late for the reader to abandon Thea, for we are so engaged with this young woman who "wanted too much, wanted badly and inappropriately. And back then all that want was a dangerous thing".

"Part scandalous love story, part heartbreaking family drama, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is an immersive, transporting page-turner - a vivid, propulsive novel about sex, love, family, money, class, home, and horses, all set against the ominous threat of the Depression, and the major debut of an important new writer."

"An unusually accomplished and nuanced coming-of-age drama".

Fearless and willful, Thea will bring to mind Briony Tallis in Atonement by Ian McEwan. An Emory grad (MFA Washington University in St. Louis where she now teaches), and a seasoned rider, Anton DiSclafani grew up in Northern Florida. Yonahlossee will appeal to fans of Curtis Sittenfeld and Lauren Groff.

* * * * = starred reviews

An Old-Fashioned Audiobook for Kids

Fans of audiobooks like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess or Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase may want to check out The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson, narrated by Patricia Conelly.

Abandoned by her mother as a baby, Annika grows up as a “kitchen child” in the home of three eccentric professors, and even though she loves her guardians – the professors’ cook Ellie and housemaid Sigrid – she cannot help dreaming of her long-lost mother. When an elegant mother finally does arrive and sweeps her away to a crumbling German castle, Annika’s dream-come-true is plagued by homesickness for her warm Viennese kitchen and troubling hints that all is not right with her newfound family.

Ibbotson herself grew up in early 20th-century Vienna, and her descriptions of life in the city – the aging emperor, performances of the Lipizzaner stallions, rides on the giant ferris wheel – make the world of the story truly come to life. If you love stories of the vivid past, love old-fashioned tales of kind heroines and dastardly villains, then give this audiobook a listen.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #402

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope *, Rhonda Riley's debut novel is set at the end of WWII when Evelyn Roe is sent to manage the family farm in rural North Carolina, where she finds and rescues what appears to be a badly burned soldier buried in the heavy red-clay during a driving rainstorm. The stranger heals rather remarkably fast and morphs into an Evelyn lookalike whom she names Addie. The two fall in love. When a chance encounter with a grifter offers an opportunity to avoid small town scrutiny, Addie transforms into Adam. Together, they raise 5 daughters who shares in their father's supernatural gifts.

When tragedy strikes, Adam's extraordinary character is revealed and the family must flee. "Intensely moving and unforgettable, The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope captures the beauty of the natural world, and explores the power of abiding love and otherness in all its guises. It illuminates the magic in ordinary life and makes us believe in the extraordinary."

"First-time novelist Riley's exquisite language draws the reader into this improbable, beautifully rendered, somewhat biblical love story with a wildly imaginative premise that is irresistible, tender, and provocative. " ~ —Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI (Library Journal).

Highly recommended for fans of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Time Traveler's Wife, and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.

* = starred review

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