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

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #340 - Accidental Sleuths

Tessa Harris' The Anatomist's Apprentice (in audio) opens in 1780 London with the death of 19 year-old Sir Edward Crick, a dissolute young man mourned only by his sister Lady Lydia Farrell. Dr. Thomas Silkstone, a young anatomist from Philadelphia, known for his forensic skills and unconventional methods, is asked to investigate when Lydia's husband Capt. Michael Farrell comes under suspicion.

(Debut novelist) "Harris has more than a few tricks up her sleeve, and even veteran armchair puzzle solvers are likely to be surprised".

In the aftermath of the Great War and a devastating family tragedy, Laurence Bartram lives a solitary life in a London attic, devoting all his time and effort to the writing of an architectural history of English churches. When Mary Emmett writes to ask him to look into the suspicious death of his friend John while in the care of a remote veterans' hospital, his investigation forces him to face his own demons, and draws him back into the world of the living.

"At once a compelling mystery and an elegant literary debut, British historian Elizabeth Speller blends the psychological depth of Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy with lively storytelling from the golden age of British crime fiction", in the first of a projected series with The Return of Captain John Emmett (2011). Just released is the follow-up, entitled The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton in which Bartram arrives in the village of Easton Deadall and is embroiled in a dangerous case involving a murdered woman who may be linked to the disappearance of a child years earlier.

Both of these debut mysteries/series will appeal to fans of the Inspector Ian Rutledge series (in audio) by Charles Todd (Charles Todd is the joint pseudonym for the mother-and-son writing team of Charles Todd and Caroline Todd, pseudonyms of David Todd Watjen and Caroline L.T. Watjen); the John Madden series by Rennie Airth; the Nell Bray Series by Gillian Linscott; and the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear.

June's Books to Film

Snow White and the Huntsman. In this retelling of the most beloved fairy tales of all times, Snow White by the Brothers Grimm, Snow White (Kristen Stewart) must join forces with the fierce Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), who was recruited by the evil Queen (Charlize Theron) obsessed with being the fairest woman in the land. Meanwhile, a handsome prince (Sam Claflin) falls hopelessly under Snow White's spell.

Bel Ami Guy de Maupassant's classic tale of passion in late18th-century Paris is adapted in a scintillating erotic drama starring Twilight's Robert Pattinson as a destitute young soldier who plots to gain power by seducing the mistresses of the city's most influential men. Christina Ricci, Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Colm Meaney co-star.

In The Woman in the Fifth, adopted from the novel by Douglas Kennedy, American professor and novelist Tom Ricks traveled to Paris to see his young daughter, hoping also to reconnect with his estranged wife. After being robbed, he was forced to work in a seedy hotel as a night watchman, until he met a sophisticated woman named Margit at a literary event. Margit encouraged Tom to write again but he was unsettled by a series of murders taking place around him. Starring Ethan Hawke, and the very busy Kristin Scott Thomas (MPAA Rating: R)

The multifaceted Seth Grahame-Smith - novelist/producer/cinematographer has adopted his own novel for the big screen in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Benjamin Walker plays Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, who discovers vampires planning to take over the United States. He makes it his mission to eliminate them.

Longmire is the new A&E television series based on the popular mystery series by Craig Johnson. Robert Taylor plays Walt Longmire, the charismatic, dedicated and unflappable sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming. Widowed only a year, Longmire is a man in psychic repair, trying to bury his pain behind a brave face and dry wit. Often turning to close friend and confidant Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips) for support, he sets out to rebuild both his personal and professional life, one step at a time.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #335

STOP!!! If you are an adrenaline junkie, go no further. This WWII espionage by Laurent Binet will leave you wanting. But if you are a patient reader of literary fiction and a student of history, then you would find HHhH * * * quite a little gem. (Also available in the original French in our World Language Collection).

HHhH = Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich ("Himmler's brain is called Heydrich" ) - the most dangerous man in Hitler's cabinet, Reinhard Heydrich : "The Blonde Beast", "The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia", "The Butcher of Prague", "The Man with the Iron Heart" - implacable cruel and seemingly indestructible, until two men, a Slovak and a Czech recruited by the British secret service, tried to kill him in broad daylight on a bustling street in Prague, in a most daring assassination plot, codenamed Operation Anthropoid.

In this debut novel, winner of the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, though we know the outcome of this historic event, we willingly agreed to be led, by the seasoned hand of a master storyteller to follow Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis from their dramatic escape of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to England; from their recruitment to their harrowing parachute drop into a war zone, from their stealth attack on Heydrich's car to their own brutal death in the basement of a Prague church. A parallel storyline is the narrator/author's effort to capture this heroic act on paper. A "zealous amateur historian", disarmingly honest with his mistakes, but relentless and dogged with his subject and materials, attempts to lay the whole affair in geopolitical context.

"A seemingly effortlessly blend of historical truth, personal memory, and remarkable imagination... a work at once thrilling and intellectually engrossing", Paris born Laurent Binet, is the author of La Vie professionnelle de Laurent B., a memoir of his experience teaching in secondary schools in Paris. He is a professor of French Literature at the University of Paris III. The fluid translation by Sam Taylor is a superb choice for lovers of historical literary works and WWII fiction, especially The Girl in the Blue Beret.

Watch-alike: Valkyrie, and Army of Crime.

* * * = starred reviews

Youth Historical Novel: "The Lions of Little Rock"

While researching The Lions of Little Rock, author Kristin Levine zeroed in on 1958 when Little Rock, Arkansas, was starting to react to forced integration of the public schools. By setting her novel at that time, she gives it a compelling undertone, as readers witness the governor closing the high schools and citizens forming groups such as the Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC).

This historical novel for youth offers dynamic characters and plot, starring painfully shy twelve-year-old Marlee. Readers will be moved when Marlee bids good-bye to her beloved older sister who is sent away for high school. Left at home, Marlee struggles to make friends, when suddenly an unexpected friendship with a new girl, Liz, boosts her confidence and helps her to understand where she stands in the fight against racism. I found Levine's book informative, warm, and highly entertaining. Reviews have been strongly positive, including this from the New York Times Book Review: ". . . Satisfying, gratifying, touching, weighty — this authentic piece of work has got soul." Levine also wrote The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had, an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #332

The colorful notes taken by Evangeline (Eva) English for A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar *, the working title of a travel guide, make up one of two story lines in this debut novel by Suzanne Joinson.

In 1923, sisters Eva and Lizzie, missionaries in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar are met with suspicion and hostility (no surprise there), but when a humanistic endeavor gone wrong places them under house arrest, their safety is seriously compromised. Eva, however, continues to capture her adventures in this insular and exotic locale at the brink of war on her glorious, green BSA Lady's Roadster.

In present day London, solitary Frieda befriends Tayeb, a displaced Yemeni sleeping outside her door, and discovers an artist with an exquisite talent with birds. When Frieda learns she has inherited the contents of an apartment belonging to a dead woman she has never heard of, they embark on an unexpected journey together.

"Beautifully written, and peopled by a cast of unforgettable characters, the novel interweaves the stories of Frieda and Eva, gradually revealing the links between them and the ways in which they each challenge and negotiate the restrictions of their societies as they make their hard-won way toward home".

For more tales of intrepid women adventurers, try Lulu in Marrakech by Diane Johnson; The Tattoo Artist by Jill Ciment; and The Lost Girls : three friends, four continents, one unconventional detour around the world by Jennifer Baggett.

Suzanne Joinson works in the literature department of the British Council, specializing in the Middle East, North Africa, and China.

* = starred review

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