Fabulous Fiction Firsts #367

In late 18th century Sweden, the Octavo is a form of fortune-telling (cartomancy) with playing cards that reveals the 8 persons when identified, could influence favorably, a significant event in one's life.

In Karen Engelmann's debut novel The Stockholm Octavo * * * Emil Larsson, a low-level bureaucrat is under pressure to marry. His sight is set on Carlotta Vingstrom, a voluptuous woman of means and connection. Mrs. Sparrow who runs a gaming establishment uses the Octavo to weave a special fortune for Emil, charging him with finding the eight people in his life who can make or break his future - a search that becomes dangerous when his ambitions become enmeshed in a larger scenario involving a plot against King Gustav himself. As 8 characters emerges, they each have their own story to tell, from Fredrik Lind, the gregarious calligrapher, to the Nordéns, refugees from France. In the midst of the intrigue is the folding fan owned by a lady known simply as the Uzanne.

"Mysterious, suspenseful, and, at times, action-packed, ...Engelmann has crafted a magnificent story set against the vibrant society of Sweden's zenith, with a cast of colorful characters balanced at a crux of history."

Literary entertainment at its best, and "a stylish work by an author of real promise". For fans of Andrew Miller, especially Pure (2012); and David Liss.

* * * = starred reviews

2013 Rainbow Project Nominations

All the nominations are in for the 2013 Rainbow Book List! Each year the Rainbow Books project of the American Library Association selects a list of top-notch books for young people (0-18 years) that contain honest depictions of LGBTQ people and themes. For a complete list of AADL’s holdings, click here. These are a few of my favorites so far.

Batwoman, Volume 1: Hydrology – Kate Kane tracks down a spectral child abductor. Little does she know, she is being tracked herself, by a government agent intent on unmasking Batwoman.

The Song of Achilles – Patroclus falls in love with his friend Achilles and follows him to war. Madeline Miller explores the relationships between several key players of Homer’s Iliad.

Tell The Wolves I’m Home – June’s uncle Finn is her best friend, but he is cruelly taken from her by AIDS. Carol Rifka Brunt deftly examines the simmering tensions and deep love present in any family, especially one dealing with tragedy.

DramaRaina Telgemeier’s graphic novel follows the hijinks of Callie and the theater department as they muddle through puberty, love, and line memorization.

The Rainbow Book List will be finalized in January, so stay tuned to see which books make the cut!

Fabulouos Fiction Firsts #364

Michael Ennis's The Malice of Fortune * is a historical thriller on a vibrant canvas and an epic scale - a must for Bravo's The Borgias fans.

Holding her young son hostage, Pope Alexander VI dispatches former courtesan, Damiata, to the remote fortress city of Imola to learn the truth behind the murder of Juan, his most beloved illegitimate son. Once there Damiata becomes a pawn in the political machinations between the charismatic Duke Valentino and the condottieri, a powerful and brutal cabal of mercenary warlords which Damiata suspects. As the murders multiply, she enlists the help of an obscure Florentine diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli, and an eccentric military engineer, Leonardo da Vinci to decipher the killer's taunting riddles.

Ennis, museum curator, former faculty (University of Texas) and an expert on Renaissance history and art, bases this well-researched novel on actual events in the final weeks of the year 1502, as witnessed and faithfully documented in Machiavelli's The Prince, while deliberately burying the truth between its lines.

"This is a dense narrative, permeated by the sights, sounds and smells of Renaissance Italy, and one that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose, with which it is sure to be compared".

"Fans of superior historical mystery writers such as Steven Saylor (The Gordianus series set in ancient Rome) and Laura Joh Rowland (mysteries set in Edo Japan) will be enthralled".

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #361

Known as the Babe Ruth of Bank Robbers, Willie Sutton, one of the most notorious criminals in American history is also a folk hero to some. He stole over $2 millions, often in costumes (thus dubbed "the actor"), engineered dramatic prison breaks and was serving virtually a life sentence when he received a surprise pardon on Christmas Eve in 1969.

In his debut novel, Sutton *, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter J. R. Moehringer relays, in electrifying prose, the highs and lows of Sutton's dramatic life, from the thrill of the heist and his great, doomed love affair to the brutal interrogations by cops and the hell of years spent in solitary confinement, all the while probing the psyche of an enigmatic man who had a genius for thievery and an even greater capacity for self-delusion.

"A captivating and absorbing read", that will appeal to true crime fans who enjoyed Catch Me if You Can : the amazing true story of the youngest and most daring con man in the history of fun and profit! by Frank W. Abagnale, Jr. (as a feature film).

For biographical fiction of other famous crime figures, try Bill Brooks' Bonnie and Clyde : a love story and And All the Saints by Michael Walsh, based on the life of Owen "Owney" Madden, the most influential mobster of the 20th century.

* = starred review

Hilary Mantel wins her SECOND Man Booker Prize

Last night in England, British author Hilary Mantel broke several literary records when she captured the 2012 Man Booker Prize for her novel, Bring Up the Bodies, the second entry in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell.

She was the first woman to win the Booker twice. In 2009, she got the nod for the trilogy's first book, Wolf Hall; no other Booker author has won for a sequel. And neither of the other two double-Booker winner -- Peter Carey and J.M. Coetzee -- took home the top honors in such a short amount of time.

In Wolf Hall, Cromwell counsels King Henry VIII on the latter's seven year quest to marry Anne Boleyn. In Bring Up the Bodies, Henry now has buyer's remorse and again, Cromwell steps in to give the Kiing what he wants.

Sir Peter Stothard, chair of the judging panel had this to say about Ms. Mantel's historic accomplishment: "This is a unique accolade. This is something that no other woman has done before. This is an extraordinary book in its own right.It’s about novels, not novelists. It’s about texts, not reputations.This prize was set up for books that will be around for decades to come. They are texts that will live on because each time you read them it’s a different text".

Ms. Mantel's accomplishments are all the more remarkable for the personal struggles she has fought all her life. Plagued by health ailments from a young age which were misdiagnosed and which frequently drained her energy. She wrote of these challenges in her 2003 memoir, Giving Up the Ghost.

The Man Book Prize is given to an author from the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, or Ireland. The winner goes home with a purse of £50,000, instant international recognition and skyrocketing sales.

Ms. Mantel, who is 60, is already hard at work on the conclusion of her massive, compulsively readable trilogy.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #357

Brooklyn bookseller and author of a short-story collection (Other People We Married, 2011) Emma Straub gives us an enchanting story of a Midwestern girl who escapes a family tragedy and is remade as a movie star during Hollywood's golden age in Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures * *, her debut novel.

At 17, Elsa Emerson, born to an amateur theatrical family in Door County, Wisconsin hops gamely on the bus that carries her and her young actor husband to Hollywood after a family tragedy. Two quick successive babies and a dissolving marriage later, she is discovered by one of the most powerful studio executives in Hollywood, who refashions her as a serious, exotic brunette and renames her Laura Lamont. Along with all the glamor and extravagance of stardom, Laura finds herself trying to balance career, family, friendship, personal happiness, while remaining true to herself.

"Straub offers a charming tale spanning 50 years. Her strength is an ability to foster originality by turning her back on the stereotyped assumptions of the lives of movie stars whose backstories feed the magic."

"Written in a removed prose, Straub brings Elsa to life with the detached analysis of an actor examining a character, exemplifying Elsa's own remote relationship to her identity. Through marriages, births, deaths, and career upheavals, Elsa and Laura coexist, sometimes uneasily—until Elsa learns to reconcile her two selves. An engaging epic of a life that captures the bittersweetness of growing up, leaving home, and finding it again."

For novels about the entertainment industry and lives and loves of the glitterati, you might enjoy Third Girl From the Left by Martha Southgate (2005); Tilly Bagshawe's Adored (2005); Glen David Gold's Sunnyside (2009) about Charlie Chaplin; and The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty (2012).

* *= Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #352

Called "majestic," "compelling," and "mesmerizing," debut novelist Amanda Coplin's The Orchardist * * fully lives up to the hype.

Set in early-20th-century Washington State, it follows a makeshift family through two tragic decades. William Talmadge toils alone in his orchard at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains when two starving, heavily pregnant teenage girls, Jane and Della, turn up on his land, and into his care. Their pursuer is an opium addict, and the ensuring violence leaves only Della and Jane's baby, Angelene, to be nurtured by Talmadge and his close friend Caroline Middey, an herbalist. Tragedy strikes again when Angelene is 13, setting in motion a disastrous chain of events that engulfs Talmadge and everyone he cares for.

"Coplin refuses to sentimentalize. Instead, she demonstrates that courage and compassion can transform unremarkable lives and redeem damaged souls. In the end, three graves side by side, yet this eloquent, moving novel concludes on a note of affirmation."

"A breathtaking work from a genuinely accomplished writer."

"Coplin's depictions of uniquely Western personalities and a stark, gorgeously realized landscape" bring to mind Kent Haruf's Plainsong, and The Outlander by Gil Adamson.

Readers might also try the Winner of the 2010 Governor General's Award (and a US debut) , Juliet in August (originally published as Cool Water) by Dianne Warren, set in a tiny Canadian town in Saskatchewan, a blink-and-you-miss-it dusty oasis on the edge of the Little Snake sand hills.

For more on The Orchardist, read NPR's review and interview with the author.

* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #351

With a lot of the men off fighting at the various fronts, 1943 Berlin is virtually a City of Women * *.

Beautiful Sigrid Schröder stoically copes with a tedious job, a hostile mother-in-law, rationed food, air raids, the constant fear of denouncement and that (Gestapo) knock on the door. Sigrid is sustained by her secrets - afternoons spent at the cinema and the stolen hours with a Jewish lover. Though cautious and street-smart, Sigrid is unwittingly drawn into dangerous activities by a young neighbor's appeal for help. When her husband returns wounded and embittered from the Russian Front, things quickly become treacherous.

"World War II Germany may be familiar ground, but David R. Gillham's (debut) novel—vividly cinematic yet subtle and full of moral ambiguity, not to mention riveting characters—is as impossible to put down as it is to forget."

"This is an exemplary model of historical fiction generously laced with romance, suspense, and exciting plot twists. Readers who enjoy the grim side of historical fiction or who prefer romance infused with eroticism will find this novel appealing."

For fans of Alan Furst whose loosely connected Night Soldiers novels, set just prior to and during the Second World War, are superb historical espionage thrillers, "in the tradition of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene".

Readers might be reminded of Julie Orringer's romantic WWII saga The Invisible Bridge , and Julia Franck's The Blindness of the Heart, a touching depiction of the horrors of war on a human scale.

* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #347

Janus Rock, named after the two-faced mythological god is a tiny strip of an island 100 miles off the coast of western Australia. For the lighthouse keeper and his family, supplies and contact with the outside world arrive every three months, and shore leaves years apart. For Tom Sherbourne, a WWI war hero who survived unspeakable horrors, The Light Between Oceans * * * means much-longed for solitude and purpose, a steady and predictable daily rhythm, meaningful work, and maybe finally peace.

Then one day, a boat washes up on Janus Rock with a dead man and a baby who is very much alive. For Isabel, his young, high-spirited and loving wife, it is clearly God's gift to them after two miscarriages and a stillbirth. Against Tom's better judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. This decision sets off a chain of events that would devastate not only their little family on Janus Rock, but a whole town.

Debut novelist M. L. Stedman sweeps us into a story about extraordinarily compelling characters caught in the dilemma of doing the right thing versus doing what feels right. We watch in agony as they navigate blind the slim divide between life and death, duty and desire, truth and responsibility, justice and mercy, sacrifice and redemption.

" (E)xquisite and unforgettable, a deeply moving novel."

"A polished, cleverly constructed and very precisely calculated first novel".

Readalike : Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Bird Artist by Howard Norman, and Jeanette Winterson's Lighthousekeeping.

* * * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #341 "A sister is a gift to the heart..."

3 debut novels - from the wilds of British Columbia to the idyllic Swedish countryside, from WWII Paris to contemporary Williamsburg, Brooklyn, - the stories of sisters.

In Frances Greenslade's Shelter *, living almost off-the-grid with their hippie parents in the Pacific mountains, Maggie and Jenny experience their first blow when their father is killed in a logging accidents. Then their mother disappears, leaving them with almost strangers. It is up to them to build the shelter, both physical and emotional— to sustain themselves as they move into adulthood.

"Heartbreaking and lushly imagined,Shelter celebrates the love between two sisters and the complicated bonds of family. It is an exquisitely written ode to sisters, mothers, daughters, and to a woman's responsibility to herself and those she loves."

I am Forbidden * brings to life four generations of one Satmar family. 1944 Transylvania, little Mila was rescued from certain death and raised with Atara, the daughter of Zalman Stern, a leader in the Satmar community. As the two girls mature, Mila's faith intensifies, while her beloved Atara discovers a world of books and learning that she cannot ignore, and continues to question fundamentalist doctrine. The different choices the two sisters make force them apart until a dangerous secret threatens to banish them from the only community they've ever known.

"A beautifully crafted, emotionally gripping story of what happens when unwavering love, unyielding law, and centuries of tradition collide". Anouk Markovits was raised in France in a Satmar home, breaking from the fold when she was nineteen to avoid an arranged marriage. She went on to receive a Bachelor of Science from Columbia University, a Master of Architecture from Harvard, and a PhD in Romance Studies from Cornell. I Am Forbidden is her English-language debut.

Drowned *, set in the idyllic countryside during a short-lived Swedish summer, Marina, a burnt-out college student visits her older sister Stella who is living with Gabriel, a famous writer as charismatic as he is violent. As Marian gradually comes under Gabriel's spell, she also senses unease in Stella and the many secrets she keeps. With recurrent references to Ophelia, savvy readers could already anticipate the plot that mixes "hothouse sensuality with ice-cold fear". A compelling psychological thriller not to be missed.

Debut novelist Therese Bohman is a magazine editor and a columnist writing about literature, art, culture, and fashion. She lives in Sweden. Translator Marlaine Delargy serves on the editorial board of the Swedish Book Review. She lives in England.

* = starred review

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